Verbal/Graphical

I picked up Alexander Roob’s Alchemy & Mysticism. It’s largely a collection of plates from various periods in history illustrating alchemical and mystical theories. What’s striking about the book — and this isn’t a judgment of its quality — is that the textual explanations pale against the effect of the graphics. It makes me think about the ways that we organize information.

In the middle ages, paper was expensive, books were expensive, and (although this is secondary, I think) literacy wasn’t widespread. The graphical representation of information, therefore, was common, from stained glass depicting saints’ lives, to alchemical texts illustrating complex procedures with allegorical drawings. We now find this a remarkably inefficient way to organize information, but it’s exactly the opposite — it’s incredibly efficient. Reading it, however, requires different sets of codes.

For example, we have to recognize that up is often far, and down is often close — processes frequently move up the page, rather than down as we might expect. Our preference for left over right is irrelevant, largely. The center is still privileged. Smallness indicates minor information, not distance in space. Largeness indicates important information, not closeness in space.

The codes all changed with the invention of text. Engraving images and text together was a bit of a chore (Blake’s dead brother taught him a method from beyond the grave, for example — that tells you something of how difficult a task it was). So there’s a stronger reliance on text than image, and the codes change. Coincidentally, we also develop the new graphical codes — the “realistic” codes of forced perspective and so on.

Now, we have a third revolution on our hands — image and text interacting in a completely free environment. We have yet to invent or codify our codes for interpreting information in this new medium.

Also, these graphic representations have a different effect on consciousness. The information doesn’t arrive linearly, as with text, nor in binary pairs, as with language. It arrives in threes, fours, groups, clusters, and — while there’s a tendency for the eye to move along certain lines — slightly differently for each person.

I sometimes wonder if a graphical representation of the principles of magic is not only preferable, but necessary.

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One Response to “Verbal/Graphical”

  1. There used to be books of emblems and heraldry and other images similar to the alchemical ones, and I believed that they were designed to cross linguistic barriers as well as make information available to the illiterate. I first heard of them when I was doing research on the US dollar design for an article on a symbolist blog, and it was like a big DUHHH to me. Of course, they would have been quite valuable and the property of the hoi-folloi, but I should imagine that most universities, religious institutions, etc. had them. I can imagine a magician trying to make one up to describe the processes – but hey – look at the astrological ceilings and floors in Europe (and early America) – they are made up of images from books of this type! After hearing of these old books, the images of water-wheels and clocks made sense – they weren’t artists renditions made for vanity, they were instruction manuals! By the 18th century, anyone with a printing press, or engaged in any academic (or possibly legal or scientific) work would have had a book like that, because a picture’s worth a thousand words.

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