Johanna Drucker

Johanna Drucker is the inaugural Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She has published and lectured widely on topics related to digital humanities and aesthetics, visual forms of knowledge production, book history and future designs, graphic design, historiography of the alphabet and writing, and contemporary art. Her most recent titles include the jointly authored Digital_Humanities (MIT, 2012) with Anne Burdick, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp (just released in Italian translation, 2014); Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide (Pearson Prentice Hall) with Emily McVarish, and SpecLab: Projects in Digital Aesthetics and Speculative Computing (Chicago, 2009). A collection of her essays, What Is? was published by Cuneiform Press in 2013 and Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production appeared as one of the three first volumes in the new series that Harvard University Press launched in their new MetaLab series on the impact of digital humanities and design. In addition to her academic work, Drucker has produced artist’s books and projects that are the subject of a retrospective, Druckworks: 40 years of books and projects, that began at Columbia College in Chicago and has been travelling. Her artist’s books are represented in museum and library collections throughout the United States and Europe.

Title of Talk: Seeing/Knowing: Introduction to the Conference Ideas and Participants

Teaser: Our knowledge of the physiology and psychology of vision has changed dramatically in the last decades. But has our understanding of visual forms of knowledge progressed as well? The mathematician, René Thom, once asserted that knowledge could only be represented in two systems, textual and numerical, deliberately excluding visual expressions. Nonetheless, scholars, artists, designers, and researchers in many fields and disciplines not only investigate the processes of vision as a complex phenomenon, they are also actively engaged in developing critical insight into visual forms of knowledge production. This conference is concerned with all aspects of this field—with understanding connections between visual perception and cognition, with modelling visual experience, with using visual and graphical means to produce knowledge, and with exploring the connections between aesthetic dimensions of culture and knowledge.

Like all fields of human inquiry, visual epistemology has a history. Models of visual experience inherited from antiquity, with their mechanistic analysis of light rays, the retina, and an image passed to the brain, have been succeeded by theories of cognition and constructivist experience. The recognition of complex physiological processes of integration across the cerebral cortex has shifted us from a sense-by-sense notion of perception. The realization that vision has a history as well as individual psychic, psychological, cultural, and social groundings makes us aware that the very organization of experience as “the world” in “view” is structured, not given, created in a process of acculturation and adaptation, not simple stimulus-perception. The long standing critiques of the “innocent eye” have expanded into nuanced engagements with systems of knowledge exchange in which visual acuity is produced as well as agential in its cultural role.

Similarly, in the last decades, theories of visual representation have built on formalist, semiotic, structuralist roots whose universalist foundations were challenged by cultural and historical perspectives. We see what we know and we know we see, but knowledge production uses visuality as a primary form, not only a representational or secondary mode. The fields of graphic design and computer interface take up challenges from anthropology and insights from cultural studies to address the assumptions on which we think visual communication works. The organization of knowledge in visual interface design implements many of the theoretical and critical concerns that we come to know through the study of visual epistemology. An emerging field of knowledge creation and production, visual epistemology is based on the assertion that visuality is a primary mode of knowledge—not the representation of things known in other fields, but a way of generating new insight through research and creative investigation. This conference asks how Seeing and Knowing--vision, knowledge, representation and cognition--inform each other.

Here it seems we have a clear instance of figurative language impinging on political, cultural, and institutional processes, rather than just vice versa, as is more commonly construed. But how are we to assess implications of imagistic thinking as being intrinsic to broader cultural processes? How did bridal imagery produce and propagate cultural meaning? In what ways were concepts and representations of mystical marriage mapped onto other ideas, and how did those mappings result in new conceptions and representations? And more broadly still: How can visual thinking have social and political impact?

Johanna Drucker