Drucker’s Difficult Graphesis


I especially enjoyed the design-centered readings and the internet preservation readings this week. Jill Lepore persuasively argued why preserving the internet matters and WSINYE and Norman gave a good introduction to some of the nuts and bolts behind why good design matters.

I had problems with Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis. We read Drucker’s 2011 article of the same name in Clio 1 which laid out her argument concerning the uses of “hard” data in the humanities. Classmates agreed and disagreed with parts of her argument, but it seems to be a useful corrective to digital humanists. Yes, we can take all the newly available data and manipulate it, but we also need to think deeply about what is underlying this.

I was expecting the book version to explain this thesis more fully and provide new examples of “graphesis” or humanistic data. But this portion was tacked onto the end and hardly any more extended than the article’s examples. The heavy post-modernist theoretical language doesn’t make it any easier to wade through and it probably deserves another read to absorb everything she is trying to unpack.


Page from Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, referenced in Drucker’s Graphesis.


While Drucker doesn’t give new answers to what data should look like for the humanities, she does give a fantastic history of how humans have evolved in their ability to represent knowledge graphically. The very early and especially mid 19th century representations of knowledge were powerful in their similarity and difference to modern examples. One of her examples, Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament can be found at the Internet Archive and has some fascinating designs (being published in 1856 means it’s in the public domain). I don’t know how digital history should be reinvented, but there is nothing essential or static about how we’ve represented knowledge. That alone makes a powerful argument for Graphesis.

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