Bow before the master

Semester teaching winding down, administrative duties ramping up, overdue research projects beckoning. The normal rhythms of academic life, in other words.

I’m working on an ever-expanding post on military historical visualizations (maps, mostly), but in the meantime I’ll post what is, to my eye, the most impressive historical visualization I’ve seen.

Joxe, "La crise cubaine" from Bertin, Semiology of Graphics, 264.

Image from Joxe, “La crise cubaine” reproduced in Bertin, Semiology of Graphics, 264.

Why do I like this so much? I can’t really comment on the actual content, not being an expert in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the design is gorgeous. The diagram does so many things well:

  • It deals with data that historians experience all the time: non-quantitative (or perhaps ordinal at best), impressionistic data. Information that is, as I’ve discussed previously, difficult to visualize.
  • It gives the viewer a sense of the options available to historical actors, the paths not taken. Historians love them some contingency.
  • It suggests the possibility of more than one choice being taken at the same time, of multiple choices being made, and how their effects could potentially contradict each other.
  • It helps tell a narrative, a story of how specific decisions were made to increase or decrease the likelihood of outright war, and maybe both at the same time.
  • And despite the non-quantitative aspects of the data, the diagram still seeks to categorize the information in a systematic fashion, using visual variables. It shows what we mean when we talk about “escalation”.
  • Besides, it uses icons. And you know how much I love icons.

I also find the diagram interesting because it leads to as many questions as answers, making explicit what much textual discussion keeps implicit. The graphic encourages the reader to wonder how the author assigned the level of danger (y-value) of each choice, to wonder how each side sought to reconcile their multiple actions (e.g. how the Soviets both de-escalated and at the same time made broader threats), to consider the extent to which these decision were actually sequential and not concurrent, to wonder where exactly the y-axis reaches a 100% chance of war, and so on. Making such visualizations also forces us, as authors, to explicitly think about these same issues. That’s a good thing.

Why else do I like it? Because I was allured to the general format of multiple spectra awhile ago, though I didn’t implement it nearly as effectively, nor with as much data density, as Joxe:

How Literally Should One Interpret the Bible?

How Literally Should One Interpret the Bible?

What’s even more impressive about the Cuban missile crisis diagram is that it was created in the 1960s, in a French journal for the mathematical study of political and strategic problems.

So seriously, what has happened to historical visualizations since the 1970s? Why have we regressed to such an extent that most history books barely include a base map of the geography under discussion? (And yet we can peer into the psyche of historical figures by looking at their portraits??) Are our visualization skills that rusty? Are our graphic software skills that rusty? Are Anglophone works that divorced from the French tradition of Braudel et al? At least some semi-recent French works are still trying:

Louis XIV's Court cabals (Le Roy Ladurie, Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV, 131)

Louis XIV’s Court cabals (Le Roy Ladurie, Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV, 131)

Visualize, man.

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