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The Original Manifesto for Information Visualization and Pictorial Statistics: ISOTYPE Creator Otto Neurath’s Pioneering 1930 Visual Language

“Words divide, pictures unite!”

The Original Manifesto for Information Visualization and Pictorial Statistics: ISOTYPE Creator Otto Neurath’s Pioneering 1930 Visual Language

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her lyrical love letter to moss — a poetic reminder that the history of science, which is the history of the human effort to fully see reality and describe what we see, rests upon foundations of linguistic description, from Galileo’s historic discovery and naming of Jupiter’s moons to Linnaean taxonomy and the classification system that gave the clouds their names to Werner’s pioneering nomenclature of color that inspired Darwin.

But what if shedding the words is a step in learning to see better, to apprehend more clearly?

Nearly a century before infographics and data visualization became the cultural ubiquity they are today, the pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher of science, social reformer, and curator Otto Neurath (December 10, 1882–December 22, 1945), together with his not-yet-wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the visionary pictogram language that furnished the vocabulary of modern infographics.

“How Long Do Animals Live?” from The Transformer — the first English-language history of ISOTYPE.

Several years earlier, Neurath had co-founded the Vienna Circle — the materialist parish of paradox that shaped the intellectual life of the twentieth century by introducing the philosophical movement known as logical positivism. While the Circle grew preoccupied with debating, almost to the point of rupture, the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his pictorial theory of language — “A proposition states something only insofar as it is a picture,” Wittgenstein proclaimed — Neurath set out to bypass language altogether and devise a system of communication based entirely on icons. But, invariably and rather ironically, he fell back on language, writing a series of slogans — words at their most pointed — to convey the urgency and necessity of this new visual language:

Words divide, pictures unite!

Whatever can be shown by a picture must not be told in words.

Remembering simplified pictures is better than forgetting exact numbers.

Whoever leaves the most out is the best teacher.

ISOTYPE chart by Otto Neurath from America and Britain, a now-rare book of visual statistics published a year after WWII, which ended weeks before Neurath’s death.
ISOTYPE chart by Otto Neurath from America and Britain

Anticipating Oxford economist Kate Raworth devised her visionary “donut economics” model of a more sustainable, equitable, and universally beneficial global economy by a century, Neurath insisted:

A pictorial survey of the world economy is not just a scholarly representation of important facts; it is also the first step toward a planned world economy.

ISOTYPE chart by Otto Neurath from America and Britain

Still, his words about the inferiority of words stand today as the founding ethos of a new golden age of conveying information, at the apogee of which we are now living. Neurath, who figures prominently into Karl Sigmund’s excellent biography of the Vienna Circle, Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science (public library), composed what remains the original manifesto for data visualization and the visual communication of information. In 1930, he wrote:

Contemporary people receive a great deal of their information and their general education through pictures, illustrations, slides, and films… Up till now, the method of pictorial representation has been underdeveloped. Our aim is to create pictures that can be understood without words, if possible… We have to create symbols that can be “read” by all of us, just as we all can read letters, and just as experts can read musical notes. This requires the creation of a set of “hieroglyphs,” which can be used internationally.

These “hieroglyphs” became the pictograms we know today — building blocks of the visual statistics by which so much information is now communicated, and to the art-science of which entire volumes are devoted.

Complement this thoroughly marginal fragment of the altogether fascinating Exact Thinking in Demented Times with W.E.B. Du Bois’s little-known, arresting modernist data visualizations of social statistics about black life, predating Neurath by three decades, and Neurath’s polymathic German contemporary Fritz Kahn’s pioneering visual metaphors for understanding the human body, then immerse yourself in the intellectually enchanting world of the Vienna Circle as reanimated by a true literary artist in A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

BP

Illustrators Celebrate the Joy of Books: 11 Art Prints from “A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader”

Bibliophilic delight from Sophie Blackall, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, and other beloved artists, benefiting public libraries.

Illustrators Celebrate the Joy of Books: 11 Art Prints from “A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader”

After eight years of labor, it has been astonishing and heartening to witness the enthusiasm with which A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — our anthology of illustrated letters to children about why we read from 121 of the most inspiring humans of our time — has been welcomed into the world. To honor that enthusiasm, eleven artists from the book have kindly granted us permission to turn their illustrations into art prints, with all proceeds — like those from the book itself — benefitting the New York public library system. I like to think of them as the diverse contemporary counterpart of Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage posters celebrating books, libraries, and the love of reading, which were a mighty inspiration for our project.

Viva books — please enjoy:

Art by Ofra Amit for a letter by Mara Faye Lethem from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Olivier Tallec for a letter by Diane Ackerman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Shaun Tan for a letter by Tom De Blasis from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Cindy Derby for a letter by Rose Styron from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Lia Halloran for a letter by Marina Abramović from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Catarina Sobral for a letter by Andrew Solomon from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Daniel Salmieri for a letter by David Byrne from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.
Cover art by Ping Zhu for A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Get the print.

See more of this monumental labor of love, including a glimpse of the other 111 illustrations, here. You can claim your copy of this timeless, seasonless book from Enchanted Lion now, or pre-order it from Powell’s, Amazon, or an independent bookstore of your choice.

BP

Cosmic Threads: A Solar System Quilt from 1876

A serenade to the universe in wool and silk.

In October of 1883, a paper in the nation’s capital reported under the heading “Current Gossip” that “an Iowa woman has spent seven years embroidering the solar system on a quilt” — a news item originally printed in Iowa and syndicated widely in newspapers across the country that autumn and winter. The New York Times reprinted the report as it appeared in the Iowa paper, dismissively qualifying it as a “somewhat comical statement.”

Ellen Harding Baker’s Solar System quilt, completed in 1876 (Smithsonian)

The woman in question, Ellen Harding Baker (June 8, 1847–March 30, 1886), was not a person to be dismissed with a patronizing chuckle. Baker taught science in rural Iowa, in an era when most institutions of higher education were still closed to women, all the whilst raising her five surviving children. She used her Solar System quilt to illustrate her astronomy lectures. To ensure the accuracy of her embroidered depiction, Baker traveled to the Chicago Observatory to view sunspots and a comet — most likely the Great Comet of 1882, which had become a national attraction — through the professional telescope there.

Ellen Harding Baker (Smithsonian)

Baker was born in the year Maria Mitchell — the figure who sparked the initial inspiration for my book Figuring — made the landmark comet discovery that earned her worldwide acclaim and established her as America’s first professional female astronomer. When Baker began working on her Solar System quilt, she was the same age Mitchell was when she discovered her comet — twenty-nine.

Quilt detail

The quilt, crafted long before we knew the universe contained galaxies other than our own, depicts an enormous radiant sun orbited by the planets known prior to Pluto’s discovery in 1930, as a comet — one of those mysterious and enchanting celestial bodies, extolled in poems and foreboded in Medieval paintings — blazes in one corner. The quilt is made of wool, lined with a cotton-and-wool fabric, and embroidered in silk and wool.

Quilt detail

The convergence of the threaded arts and astronomy was not entirely uncommon in Baker’s day. Mitchell herself, while condemning the needle as “the chain of woman” and resenting the tyranny of “stitch, stitch, stitch” as society’s means of keeping women confined to the domestic sphere, believed that the needle could be reclaimed as an instrument of the mind. “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer,” she wrote in her diary.

Quilt detail

Nearly a century after Baker made her quilt, the pioneering astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin — who revolutionized our understanding of the universe by discovering its chemical composition and became the first woman to chair a Harvard department, having ended up at the esteemed university thanks to a fellowship established there by the Maria Mitchell Association — would pick up where Baker left off, crafting a stunning yarn-on-canvas needlepoint depiction of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. In the year of Payne’s death, the artist Judy Chicago would also bring needlepoint and astronomy together in her iconic project The Dinner Party, which features a hand-embroidered runner celebrating Caroline Herschel — the world’s first woman astronomer and the subject of Adrienne Rich’s stunning tribute.

Baker’s quilt is available as an art print, with all proceeds benefiting the Maria Mitchell Association.

Thanks, Andrea

BP

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

“We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.”

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

Few things in life are more seductive than the artificial sweetness of being capital-R Right — of “winning the narrative,” as my friend Amanda likes to say. This delicious doom and glory of being Right — which is, of course, a matter of feeling rather than being it — tends to involve framing our emotional triggers as moral motives, then thundering them upon those we cast in the role of the Wrong, who may do the same in turn.

How, amid this ping-pong of righteousness grenades, do we maintain not only a clear-minded and pure-hearted relationship with reality, but also forgiveness and respect for others, which presuppose self-forgiveness and self-respect — the key to unlatching the essential capacity for joy that makes life worth living?

That is what the wise and wonderful Anne Lamott considers with uncommon self-awareness and generosity of insight throughout Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library) — the small, enormously soul-salving book that gave us Lamott on love, despair, and our capacity for change.

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

To let go of the tightly held convictions that keep us small, separate, and severed from the richness of life is to let the ego — the gallows on which our beliefs and identity hang — dissolve into an awareness of shared being, or what the poet Diane Ackerman called “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Half a century after Bertrand Russell asserted that the key to growing old contentedly is to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Lamott writes:

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

From this recognition of the shared flow of existence — the wellspring of what the poet Lucille Clifton called “the bond of live things everywhere” — arises a calm universal compassion, which becomes the mightiest antidote to self-righteousness. Lamott writes:

Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy. Even (or especially) people who seem to have it more or less together are more like the rest of us than you would believe. I try not to compare my insides to their outsides, because this makes me much worse than I already am, and if I get to know them, they turn out to have plenty of irritability and shadow of their own. Besides, those few people who aren’t a mess are probably good for about twenty minutes of dinner conversation.

This is good news, that almost everyone is petty, narcissistic, secretly insecure, and in it for themselves, because a few of the funny ones may actually long to be friends with you and me. They can be real with us, the greatest relief.

As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.

Illustration by Japanese artist Komako Sakai for a special edition of The Velveteen Rabbit

Only by coming to terms with our own brokenness, Lamott suggests, can we build from the pieces a temple of joy — a state of being that is almost countercultural today, one which Lamott defines as “a slightly giddy appreciation, an inquisitive stirring, as when you see the first crocuses, the earliest struggling, stunted emergence of color in late winter, cream or gold against the tans and browns.” With an eye to the miracle of joy in a world so imperfect and strewn with suffering, she writes:

This is how most of us are — stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.

How did we all get so screwed up? Putting aside our damaged parents, poverty, abuse, addiction, disease, and other unpleasantries, life just damages people. There is no way around this. Not all the glitter and concealer in the world can cover it up. We may have been raised in the illusion that if we played our cards right, life would work out. But it didn’t, it doesn’t.

[…]

Even with the Internet, deciphering the genetic code, and great advances in immunotherapy, life is frequently confusing at best, and guaranteed to be hard and weird and sad at times… We witness and try to alleviate others’ suffering, but sometimes it just outdoes itself and we are left gasping, groaning. And running through it all there is the jangle, both the machines outside and the chattering treeful of monkeys inside us.

Lamott reflects on the improbable relationship between brokenness and joy:

The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.

How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.

Art by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

More than a century after Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant, underappreciated sister — observed from her deathbed that “[this] is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Lamott adds:

We see this toward the end of many people’s lives, when everything in their wasted bodies fights to stay alive, for a few more kisses or bites of ice cream, one more hour with you. Life is still flowing through them: life is them.

[…]

That’s magic, or the human spirit, or hope — whatever you want to call it — to captivate, to share contented time.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly splendid Almost Everything: Notes on Hope with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the pillar of art, then revisit Lamott on friendship, finding meaning in a mad world, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her magnificent manifesto for handling haters.

BP

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