Thursday, August 24, 2006

Confections (s)ugare

Update: This post is a partial review of Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative.

cover: Edward Tufte Visual ExplanationsEdward R. Tufte describes a confection as a group of visual elements assembled to describe or enhance a written argument in his 1997 bookVisual Explanations. A confection, he argues, is distinct from both collages, which are intended to convey messages not associated with written arguments, and diagrams, which convey messages but whose elements lack the disparate nature of a confection. A straightforward photograph is, according to Tufte, not a confection; but two photographic images superimposed upon one another to create a fantastical mélange that cannot be photographed would be a confection. In this sense, a confection is an arrangement of disparate elements so as to make an argument. (One example is the title page of Hobbes’s Leviathan, pictured below.) It is this arrangement, the confection’s fantastical placement—either in space or in time—of otherwise unrelated visual elements, that makes them theoretically interesting.

title page of hobbes's leviathan
Let me explain why. Accepting the above definition, I ask: what does it mean to say that a confection makes—either implicitly or explicitly—an argument? That is, is the argument made by the confection independent of its fantastical arrangement, or is the argument dependent on this arrangement?

I’m thinking two things: 1) since the characteristic of confections that makes them so—the arrangement of disparate elements to make an argument—is true of all graphical arguments, be they diagrams, graphs, straight photographs, and drawings, does it not also follow that all graphical output is confectionary in some degree? And doesn’t this realization of the fantastical in all graphics lead to certain conclusions about their trustworthiness and veracity? More on this after: 2) Isn’t the very construction of a causal argument confectionary in its selection and arrangement of elements that are not adjacent in space and time?

This, I think is a key point, for what makes a graphic a confection makes it an argument. Realizing this fact—that what argues is confectionary—provides a graphical explanation that undermines claims of objectivity or absolutism on the parts of even the most clever conclusions.

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