Pedagogically, the promise of diagrams is that they might give us an at-a-glance grasp of the complexities of society, that through the graphical gestalts and relations they show we will see the workings of power, the flows of capital, the bonds of obligation and reciprocity, the fields, zones, boundaries, vectors of meaning, identity and value. Perhaps the most influential diagrams of the workings of society (influential in that they have the most far-reaching impact on people’s lives, even if they only scene by a small, but massively powerful technical elite) are those of the economists, predominantly in the form of graphs, but also in the form of circular flow diagrams. As Steve Keen shows, within their neat equilibriums, a whole ideology is veiled in the innocent simplicity of graphical form. But if the diagrams of the economists are intended only for the use of technical elites, other diagrams have tried to make society more transparent to citizens. Perhaps the most utopian of these was founded in 1920s Vienna by Otto Neurath, a scientist, social democrat and logical positivist philosopher.
What would an Isotype project look like today, when times have changed in the manner they have: the project of social democracy has been twisted out of shape in its retooling for the age of globalisation, the aggregate Fordist New Men (of Neurath’s diagrams) has been replaced by an expressive, de-centred and multicultural individual, and logical positivism has been replaced in the academy by the ecstasies and vicissitudes of post-structuralism.
Maybe it was such a diagrammatic project that Fredric Jameson intuited in his (strangely muted) call at the opening of the Postmodern era for a ‘cognitive mapping’ of ‘late’ capitalism. As postmodern space and relation morphed, a new form of spatial knowledge was required. It might seem that his call is being answered, in part at least, by the massive growth in contemporary network mapping and infographics that have become a staple of newspapers and coffee table books, in their attempts to render accessible the increasing complexities of a fluid and networked world.
Arguably the possibilities of diagramming society for a general audience are not fully explored by these forms. For example, networks have a tendency to promote a micro-foundational sense of the social, and infographics have a tendency to deal with specific issues rather than looking at what the social might be as a whole. Each example is an artefact created within the ‘untotalisablity’ of globalisation, but not an attempt at indicating its ‘untotalisable totality’ (to use Jameson’s phrase). Can we translate the complexity of global relations and the societies that reside within its swell, into graphics? Can we make conceptual gestalts that trace the structures of the macro to the milieus and subjectivities of the micro? What imaginative and heuristic efficacy might they have for the contemporary world?
The possibility of contemporary social diagrams is suggested more fully in the work not of graphic designers and graphical research methodologies, but of theorists who sketch out conceptual frameworks whose clarity is itself diagrammatic. One of the most explicit (if not the most clear) of the theorists to use the notion of the diagram to talk of social form is Deleuze in writing on Foucault. A ‘diagrammatic imagination’ functions in some sociological and philosophical thought, where the mode of explanation is itself diagrammatic, while the diagram as such may be left undrawn. Can these diagrammatic conceptualisations be rendered into actual diagrams? Perhaps. But there is a possibility that their strength lies in their intangibility, where the invocation of the diagram suggests a certain type of structure (of thought or of society), but only to a point, beyond which the multiply combinatory possibility of our imaginations outstrip the limits of the graphical.
One graphical strategy might be to seek to subvert Isoptype. To let particularity intervene within aggregate archetypes, to allow the other to appear, to allow Dionysus into Isotype’s hopeful Epicurianism. But this within itself may play only to a nostalgic sense of the stable identities that nation state and social democrat still cling to. It might have been a strategy in the 1980s and 90s when the sense of the ‘post’ was everywhere. Now that we live more fully in the new age of flux, we might need to find another diagrammatic form entirely to indicate the state of living in liquid modernity.