Below is an edited transcript of a talk I gave at the first DRUGG (Diagram Research, Use and Generation Group) gathering at University College London on July 14th and 15th 2012.

Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan, RKO Publicity Shot (1939)


Diagrams play a fundamental role in the art of teaching, helping people do and understand things in ways that differ from and complement other teaching methods. Diagrams can be defined as visualisations of non-apparent systems, concepts, relationships, processes and ideas. They help students to recognise and understand parallels and structural correlations between things in the world; their constitutive natures; their internal structures; relationships; the systems of which they form a part; the processes they are involved with; their own physicality and subjectivity; the coming-into-being of all of these through time and space; and theoretical explanations for these becomings.

As visual and drawn objects with a pedagogical function, one might expect diagrams and diagramming to be established institutional objects and practices in art and design education. This is however rarely the case. Although diagrams and diagramming are often used in lectures, as tutorial aids and in student notebooks, they are seldom addressed in art education on their own terms. Having taught art theory and academic writing to art and design students for many years now, I have found them increasingly useful as teaching tools, particularly for helping students see and understand relationships between philosophical concepts, art theory, art making, thinking and writing.

Later I will try to construct a practical, systematic schematisation of diagrams. But for now I will simply include ‘diagrams’, ‘analogies’, ‘allegories’, ‘maps’, ‘plans’ ‘models’, ‘schema’, ‘pictograms’ and ‘technical illustrations’ in the category of things we might conveniently describe as diagrammatic. Generally they all combine, in an ostensibly unitary form, words, pictures, lines, figures, shapes, numerals, forms, axis, grids and tables. The diagrammatic in this sense is can be characterised by the following attributes: (1) graphic visualisation, (2) an economy of graphic means that minimise extraneous information (3) a high-level of representational and conceptual abstraction, (4) the representation of non-apparent systems and relations and (5) a generally didactic purpose. Later we will see that some of the key philosophers concerned with the diagrammatic depart significantly from this signifying, purposive and didactic schematisation.

Selection from Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1929)

In Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1977) Giorgio Agamben explains how the art historian Abbey Warburg identified a schizophrenic attitude towards knowledge in Western culture, its pursuit being divided between ‘inspired-ecstatic’ and ‘rational-conscious’ modes. All too often art today is associated with the former, and science with the latter. Diagrams and diagramming seem to have fallen foul of this dichotomy too.

The recent development of a research culture in the arts has required traditional Fine Art practices to be re-configured as research processes. This has had some interesting, productive and, at times, retrograde consequences. In the worst cases art has failed to meet the political and epistemological challenges raised by new institutional demands and fallen back into traditionalist mystifications of its essentially elusive nature; the cult of the practitioner-connoisseur; and peer esteem evaluations of its worth, rather than addressing the methodological and epistemological differences and similarities between artistic and scientific ways of knowing and doing or critically interrogating the broader political and economic trends behind this shift towards artist-as-researcher.

Diagrams and diagramming may offer us a tool-box to meet this challenge head-on as it were, rather than evading it. As didactic image-objects and processes, operating between and across the fields of visual, performing and plastic arts; design; engineering; academic writing and research; literature; drawing; philosophy; and both the hard and soft sciences, diagrams and diagramming seem to be significantly under-thought and under-analyzed tools for trans-disciplinary practice and research, especially in the context of an academic culture seeking shared languages, understandings and solidarity with colleagues in different discursive fields and departments. I hope that through DRUGG we will be able to explore this generally untapped potential of diagrams and diagramming more systematically, in greater depth and with a broader scope.

Adelheid Mers The Artist as a Ceiling Fan (2006)

Adelheid Mers’ work The Artist as a Ceiling Fan represents the situation of contemporary artist as meta-practitioner operating across a range of practices that extend beyond the scope of traditional fine arts. Paraphrasing the art theorist Thierry De Duve in Kant After Duchamp (1998), the contemporary situation in which an artist can work in any medium, engage different social networks and take meaning from any discourse coincides with one where artists (with a capital A) can “Do Whatever”. What they might do as an Artist ranges from the specific techniques, skills and objects of traditional fine arts practices to anything “whatever”, so long as the person doing whatever identifies themselves in advance as an ‘Artist’. In this sense the self-constitution of the artist precedes the essence of the whatever that is done, and the art of the work is located not in the nature of the doing, or the quality of the product, but in the assumed identity of the do-er. Meanwhile a person highly skilled in a craft not traditionally recognised within the traditions of Fine Art (baking, football, gardening, teaching, surgery etc.) is not an artist in the Fine Art sense.

Between the poles of whatever and tradition, teaching, writing and curating constitute the stock-in-trade of many arts practitioners today. These practices can be seen and approached as arts on their own terms, each with their own relatively autonomous histories, forms and techniques, that differ in significant ways from the traditional fine arts and their progeny. But the art of these ‘secondary’ practices tends to be located not in the doer, but the doing, as was once the case with fine arts too. From this perspective, the idea of art-as-metapractice occurs where art with a capital A, constituted by the contemporary, institutional construction of the traditional, self-styled Fine artist, making unique objects for exhibition, encounters those ‘other’ arts, defined more in terms of their techniques and outcomes. These are also the practices that make the definitive form and capitalization of ‘the Artist’ thinkable historically and theoretically, write-able and teachable.

This encounter, which is often woefully reduced to an assumed rigid difference between ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’, raises important questions about art’s ontology: is it any thing made or done by a person who identifies as an Artist, or is it something derived specifically from the specific making and doing processes themselves? Does it reside principally in the qualities of the object made, or in the talents or identity of the maker?

Joseph Beuys One Hundred Days of the Free University, documenta 6, Kassel, 24 June – 1 October, 1977, Photo: Richard Demarco

Art as Metapractice

The situation in which an artist can imagine themselves as something like a ceiling fan came about, in part, as a consequence of developments within post-conceptual arts practices from the 1960’s onwards. Yet despite being fundamental to modernist art, the story of the philosophical unfolding of this situation is not one necessarily told in contemporary art schools, where art history and theory are often taught, if they are taught at all, separately from studio practice. There, the cultivation and consolidation of the Artist tends to take precedence over philosophical and historical understandings of the present and the social dynamics of subject formation. All too often the latter are siloed as ‘Theory’ while the former is distinguished as ‘Practice’, a distinction which tends to perpetuate a false separation of spheres and encourages students to divide their creative work between what they perceive to be real art (i.e. works made for exhibition) and understandings of how such works comes into being socially and historically. Despite all the contemporary rhetoric about ‘the integration of theory and practice’ and ‘challenging conventional ideas about what art is’, Fine Art continues to be taught in art schools as something uniquely different to all the other arts, none of which offer the same ontological promise.

Vavara Stepanova, Designs for Sports Clothing (1923)
Wyndham Lewis, cover design for The Apes of God (1930)

For the purpose of exploring the idea of art-as-metapractice it is useful to resuscitate an earlier conception of art as a general quality or potential of a wider range of practices than those taught under the auspices of contemporary Fine Art. It is a notion of art familiar to avant-garde movements and schools in the early 20th century, for whom art was understood in a more general and extended sense than it is today. In this earlier phase, fine artists often practiced across the arts and recognized a shared philosophy and wider mission with colleagues working in other fields, including the ‘sciences’. Importantly the idea of art was not isolated to painting and sculpture but was a potential in all modes of making and doing, an ideal towards which any human practice might be orientated. It was a conception owing much to modern European philosophy, in which art with a capital A was understood not only as a way of doing specific things, but also as a way of knowing and being. In The Man without Content (1970) Giorgio Agamben, responding to a passage from Nietzsche’s Gay Science, wrote:

‘The word ‘art’ here designates something incomparably broader than what we usually understand by this term, and it’s proper meaning will remain unattainable so long as we obstinately remain on the plane of aesthetics’.

Illustration from A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans  by Jacob von Uexküll and Georg Kriszat (1934)

My personal journey into diagrams began at secondary school where they served as a creative link between art and science classes. Skills learned in the former could be put to use in the latter, and vice-versa, diagrams forming a visual-practical bridge between things written, calculated, represented and drawn. This bridging quality echoes the etymology of the word diagram, which is derived from the Latin diagramma, and the Greek diagrapha, meaning ‘to mark out by lines’. The prefix dia means ‘across’ or ‘through’, while the suffixes grapha and gramma mean ‘drawing’ and ‘writing’. Thus, in its archaic, simple, and root-sense, the word diagram correlates with the modern English ‘sketch’ or ‘schema’: a visual figure drawn in lines, that represents relationships across and between things.

After leaving leaving school I trained as a graphic designer and illustrator, practices which share much with the diagrammatic as defined above. Diagrams have for me have both an aesthetic and pedagogical character. While they ostensibly signify knowledge and learning in a general they can be enjoyed for their composition, economy of means, elegance and line etc. (that is, as artworks in themselves) regardless of what we know about the discourses they pertain to. As such they simultaneously evoke the pleasure of learning through drawing and making and the promise of higher learning or understanding. Because of this dual character I suggest that a defining property of both diagrams and diagramming, and their specific value for arts education, is didacticism in its positive, traditional sense: a philosophy that emphasises instructional and informative qualities in literature, art and design.

Assorted autodidactic diagrams from the author’s notebooks

Diagram as Thinking Machine

It was not until I began to study art history and theory at MA level that diagrams became thinking tools in their own right. I’m not sure if this would have happened hadn’t spent all my time cramming my mind with aesthetics, critical theory, psychoanalysis, structuralism and Marxism. But in any case, it was at this time that I began to become an active diagrammer, as diagramming became a personal way of trying to understand the theories I was reading.

Structural Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser before a blackboard at the École Normal Superérieure, 1973

Looking back on that time I can see that the thought of the structural Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser played a significant role in my developing interest in diagrams and the diagrammatic. His notion of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA’s) helped me understand how one’s family, education, religion, the media and workplace played a concerted and combined role in creating certain kinds of subject, fitted to the expectation and needs of a system over which they had only an illusory sense of agency or control. Building on Althusser’s use of the term apparatus to describe the functional, subject-producing components of institutionalized social systems, I began to think of diagrams as sub-components (or micro-mechanisms) of ideological thinking machines. For now, however, the image of Althusser at his blackboard has a more prosaic function, illustrating that there are different kinds of diagram; in this case allegorical/metaphorical kinds (i.e. ‘the transcendental snail’) and more formal-logical kinds on the right

Illustration from The Power of Ideology and the Ideology of Power, Goran Therborn (1980)

Althusser’s concepts of ideological and repressive state apparatuses suggest an imaginary plan of the complex system of interconnected institutions which produce humans as specific kinds of subjects – like Artists – through the coercive and formative action of institutionalized ideology and, if necessary, violence. In this sense we can see how Althusser’s philosophy offers us a conception of a systemic diagram designed to produce compliant subjects for the reproduction of capitalist relations of production.

The term imaginary is used here not to suggest that this plan is fictional but that what it represents cannot be seen as a whole, only as a schematic visualization (i.e. as an abstract image). I will use the term plan then, to describe images like Therbourn’s that attempt to represent, in schematic form, relations between system-components that exist concretely in the physical world. Plans, like maps, share what General Semantics refers to as a similarity of structure with the territories they represent. As we will see, this is not the case for all diagrams. But a general characteristic of diagrams, however defined, is that they enable us to see things beyond surfaces. In this sense diagrams tend to be diagnostic in its root sense: ‘knowing through’ or ‘knowing across’.

Sigmund Freud ‘The Mental Apparatus’ from New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933

As well as mapping and schematizing the extrinsic system of apparatuses designed to produce compliant political and social subjects, the fields of critical theory and structural Marxism integrated into their discourses a range of internal psychic-systemic schemata, often based on those modelled by psychoanalysis. As a masters student in Art History and Theory in the 1980’s, diagrams like these fascinated me, not least because they claimed to represent psychical components determined by, and determining, the play of instinct, sexuality, gender, desire and repression, that were probably, in some way, guiding my research. But unlike Althusser’s concepts of ideological state apparatuses, whose concrete forms and structures I knew from direct experience, these psychical schemas of mind seemed more outlandish, exotic and fantastical. They were also much more fun to use as imaginary devices for exploring, and navigating, the inner paths and memorial zones of one’s personal psycho-biography.

Having no similarity of structure between diagrammatic schematization and concrete territory, Freud’s 1933 diagram of the ‘Mental Apparatus’ constitutes neither a map nor a plan in the sense described above, rather it represents a hypothetical model that came into being as a consequence of the theory of psychical agencies it was designed to illustrate. As the critical theorist Theodor Adorno might have put it, the theory and its object were born together. That this is generally the case with theoretical models should alert us to be cognizant of the historical and discursive contingency of their coming into being and the purposes they serve.

Theoretical models then, in the form of diagrams, help us think theoretically. They are also contingent to the theoretical propositions they help us to think. Considering diagrams as the visual micro-mechanisms of ideological, theoretical or philosophical apparatuses helps us understand them as the abstract, functional components of generalised thinking processes. From the perspective of Felix Guattari’s schitzoanalytic thought, Freud’s imaginary psychic topography constitutes a theoretical meta-model, operating at the level of social institutions, as well as that of the individual human subjects produced by them. Institutions can be imagined as having super-egos and libidos too. A sketchy schematization of Guattari’s machinic unconscious, mapped onto Althusser’s state apparatus plan, might look something like this:

There is something profoundly recursive in the inter-penetration of the two models, particularly at the stage between the ‘new born infants’ and ‘families’. But it is important to emphasise here that Guattari would oppose any suggestion that such philosophical or ideological schemas (theoretical models) are universal, absolute, fixed or definitive

Peter Blegvad from The Book of Leviathan (2000)

The strategic dismantling and disfiguring of the fixed and over-determined nature of structuralist schematics is a characteristic strategy of schizoanalytic pragmatics, for which all models are only ever meta-models, subject to change, adaptation and alteration depending on the concrete purposes to which they are put and the contexts in which they operate. Diagrams therefore help us to think about, and change, the systems of which they are the cognitive components.

A selection of diagrams used in the teachings of Jacques Lacan

The structuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously developed a series of schema’s, graphs and mathemes throughout his career to illustrate and illuminate his theories about the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real; the relationship between different kinds of signifying regimes; their role in the psychological development of subjects; and the proto-political dynamics of inter-personal relationships, making him something of an art theoretical diagrammer’s diagrammer. It is likely therefore, that Lacanian schematizations will be significant objects for debates within DRUGG.

The diagrammatic processes that grew out of my trying to understand post-structuralist critical theory and its relevance for the production and meaning of art, led to a personal inner-mapping of psycho-biographical processes that generated a number of art-works in the late 80’s and early 90’s, hovering somewhere between poetry, psychoanalysis and visual literature, some of which I published in a journal/fanzine called Insects.

John Cussans Viewpoles 1 published in Insects 3 (cassette edition) 1988

The control referred to in this ‘Map of Control’ is derived from the work of William S. Burrough’s who developed a unique notion of control as an alien, parasitic, word-image virus, which mentally imprisons its hosts (“humans, as you call them”) in carceral “reality studios”. The map shown here represents an inter-textual network of literal and philosophical links mapped on the memorial, psychic terrain of a municipal park in my home-town of York, upon which the network of associations about control had become involuntarily fixed in my mind as I dove deeper into Theory. I introduce this image not simply to illustrate my early attempts to combine theoretical diagramming with art-making and art-writing, but because Burroughs was a life-long practitioner of General Semantics, the didactic and diagrammatically-informed, teaching and thinking method, created by the mathematician Alfred Korzybski, that I will be discussing in part two.

The practice of General Semantics directly influenced Burroughs understanding of control as a science-fictional, meta-media and counter-cultural counter-point to Althusser’s notion of Ideological State Apparatuses. Unlike Althusser, who offers little by way of tactically out-manoeuvring the machinations of ideology and state-capitalist power, Burroughs’ writing contains pragmatic ‘how to’ guides for dismantling the controlling effects of their machines and their hold on human subjects.

The device on the right, sometimes called ‘the Structural Differential’, sometimes ‘the Anthropometer’, is a four-dimensional, diagrammatic teaching device that Korzybski invented in 1923 in order to tangibly demonstrate to his colleagues at The New School of Social Research his thesis that humans do things differently to animals. In the second part of this presentation I will discuss the value of this diagram for art and design education, particularly for helping students distinguish between different levels of logical abstraction that human communication traverses; the importance of being precise about what level we are operating on; and the value, for clear thinking and communication, of precise definitions of the terms we are using to label and identify things – things like diagrams.


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