Representing complexity: data visualization & Fredric Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping

On: October 6, 2011
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About Daniel de Zeeuw
In 2011 I graduated from the Rietveld Academy, direction "Interaction Design and Unstable Media." I also did a BA in Philosophy. For the last couple of years, my research has focussed on the phenomenon of conspiracy theories on the Net, the way stories spread, communities form, and how come the Internet seems to be such a 'fertile nexus' for their explication and circulation. Conspiracy theories represent both the continuation of the radical ideal of the Internet as a forum for public discussion and democratic participation, as well as the inherent mythical and ideological character of this ideal, its 'dark side'. It takes conspiracy theories as an example for possible artistic and activist strategies on the Net. My thesis can be freely downloaded: Something is Out there! Networked encounters of the nth kind, or: the art of conspiracy


“There is nothing the beautiful world finds as intolerable as explanations. I, too, find it terrible when somebody begins to explain, for when worst comes to worst I understand everything myself.” (Hegel, 1808)

In this post I want to try and point towards a possible alternative to the research methods of ‘data visualization,’ increasingly conceived as being the (only?) most adequate method when it comes to representing and grasping both complexity and multiplicity in networks of any kind, as well as describe the underlying conditions under which ‘mapping’ or ‘representation’ is felt as somehow needed across different disciplines. The term ‘representation’ has here the advantage of having two interrelated senses: representation as an aesthetic and as a political figure.

When it comes to these complex and multiple relations, can we envision a method that does justice to the aforementioned complexity, but does not predominantly proceed by (1) a process of abstraction, i.e. the elimination of aspects for the sake of clarity and certainty, and (2) an emphasis on the techno-formal constitution of networks, from which the ‘social aspect’ is secondarily derived. In other words, is there a method that is able to reach a concrete exposition of complex systems? Is there a way in which we can think the element as somehow expressing or pointing towards, the totality of relations, a higher level description of its position? One of the presuppositions of data science is indeed that the elements are ontologically and epistemologically prior and thus primary to such high level descriptions. The elements constitute a totality, but this totality is often conceived as merely a ‘regulative concept,’ a necessary illusion (not for nothing, they are called ‘descriptions’). We can however also think of the totality as inherent to and precondition of, the individual elements.

This is not simply a plea for what is normally understood as ‘qualitative research’ or: a critique of positivist methods of abstraction. It needs to be determined in how far a certain different kind of abstraction (from the object as object) can be a multiplier instead of a subtractor: an abstraction that is not the opposite of the concrete, but its material spectre, the concrete being of its ‘relationality.’ It is a question then, whether for example one Youtube video can say more than a thousand topographies. Formal topographies versus substantial ensembles.

Cognitive Mapping

Fredric Jameson employs the term ‘cognitive mapping’ to describe all those practices that attempt to generate or re-appropriate a functional/meaningful relation between the individual element and the system in which it is embedded. He relies heavily on the methodological work of György Lukács, who placed the concept of ‘totality’ at the center of his philosophy:

“It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science, but the point of view of totality.” (Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, preface)

Lukács’s critique of ‘bourgeois thought’ can be easily extended to the rising data visualization sciences. Cognitive mapping is (similar to) the essential activity of ideology, in the Althusserian sense, as expressing “the Imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence.” (Jameson, 1991: 415). It is important to note that in this quote, Althusser does not think of ideology in a normative fashion, nor does he conceptualize ideology as a ‘super-structural’ system of ideas: “an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material.” The Internet subsequently is such an apparatus. Once again, ideology here is not used to distinguish practices of manipulation from ‘neutral’ practices: we are always ‘in’ ideology in so far as we engage in relating to our conditions of existence, ourselves, or other people.

Jameson traces the practice of, and need for, cognitive mapping back to the historical moment when a gap was first produced and experienced between the ‘existential data’ and empirical position of the individual observer and the unlived and abstract socio-economic or geographical system in which it is embedded (Jameson: 1991, 51). This moment largely coincides with the invention of technical mediators for colonial sea trade, whose function it is to coordinate the individual’s existential data and the geographic totality (for example: the compass and the sextet). These instruments both produce the proximity as well as the alienation between the element and the system, because they continually refer to a ‘absent cause’. Althusser calls this process ‘interpellation.’ Interpellation is a fundamental function of networks in general. In the last centuries, there has evolved:

“a growing contradiction between lived experience and structure, or between a phenomenological description of the life of an individual and a more properly structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience.” (Jameson, 1991: 409)

In ‘postmodernity’, even the last bastions of the representable (the state, the union, the social group) are under attack by the abstract numerical flows of capital. The central problematic of mapping is the result of a situation in which:

“we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience.” (Jameson, 1991: 410)

Thus both scientific practices of data-visualization and the often ‘artistic’ or ‘journalistic’ focus on the individual perspectives both short-circuit this contradiction, by retreating into either the model, or the individual content, respectively. Jameson specifically warns for a formalist or structuralist interpretation of the concept of cognitive mapping:

“cognitive mapping cannot (at least in our time) involve anything so easy as a map; indeed, once you knew what “cognitive mapping” was driving at, you were to dismiss all figures of maps and mapping from your mind and try to imagine something else.” (Jameson: 1991, 409)

Although he refers to cyberpunk literature and postmodern cinema mostly, Jameson’s way of thinking provides a powerful explanation for the prevailing techno-fetishism that can perhaps be extended to contemporary practices of data-visualization as well. Technology ”seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself” (Jameson, 1991: 36).

The figure that according to Jameson best captures the reconciliation of the contradiction is not that of mimetic mapping but that of ‘allegory.’ In the allegory, not only the technical platform but all the intersections of strata – of social conflict, desire, alienation and so on – enter the model and turn it inside out, force it to outgrow its own narrow framework. Where as in data visualization all traces of conflict are erased, in the vicissitudes of the concrete user-generated content the ‘political unconscious’ reappears center stage.

Jameson applies the concept of allegory exclusively to literature and cinema. It would be interesting to re-imagine possible appropriate allegorical or trans-allegorical figures in the context of the Internet (see also). With the rise of the Internet, a special realm of being has taken on enormous proportions. Between the mass-medial hermeneutic machine and the sub-medial is now another world-historical playing field: below the thresholds of newspapers and television stations, but broadly distributed and encoded through visual formats nonetheless. To tap into, inhabit and record the events that take place in these phantasmagorical universes; to realize the immediated everyday that networked media facilitate and produce, as they proliferate through and nest themselves in the different life worlds; to particularize and show the precise intersections at which the abstract and globally organized commodity and communication networks somehow enter our dreams and phantasms.

A Poetics of Reality in the Network Society?

I return to the notion of a concrete exposition of complex systems, a response to the aporia of representation (between element and totality) mentioned above. It contrasts a semi-fictional (narrative) and interventionist approach with a quantitative infosthetics. In Data Undermining: the work of networked art in the age of imperceptibility, Munster proposes an ethico-aesthetic approach to data aesthetics. She contrast this approach with that of formalist data visualization:

“Is it enough to simply reveal, for example, IP, browser data and so forth and then re-map this information? Part of the problem is the aesthetic of network cartography itself, which visually derives from the very operations of data mining. This aesthetic — its driving force — is what needs undoing” (Munster, online)

In an interesting article, Varnelis discusses several artistic projects that employ methods of data visualization, such as Bureau d’EtudesThe World Government (2003) or Josh On’s They Rule (2004). However, she comments: “such projects can be hampered by reducing network power to mere relationships. Agency and intentionality may remain unclear while the work remains an object of fascination.”

Infosthetics often creates a sterile and fatalistic illusion of unity that eradicates all traces of conflict that are necessarily generated in human-machine interaction, their ‘material effects’, the endless anomalies that occur in and between the cognitive maps of millions of people. Merely drawing a colored graph of IP connections won’t do the trick. As networks are composed of acts and agents (human and non-human), a cognitive mapping cannot remain contemplative. We must dare to leave the comfortable cartographic gaze prevalent in today’s ‘data visualizations,’ and enter headlong into the concrete involvements of today’s mediatized social body, what Russian Productivist Sergei Tretyakow called a ‘factography’: “a framework for human experience that is cognitively coherent yet experientially concrete and sensuous. An art of theorizing the unique specimen, of mediating fact and law.”

He conceptualized this interventionist research method through the notion of ‘operativity.’ More about it here. The similarities with Jameson’s proposal are clear, but makes the practical and ‘active’ aspects of cognitive mapping more explicit. The goal is to “correlate the abstract knowledge of global realities with the imaginary figures that orient our daily experience.” (Brian Holmes, online)

Bureau d’Etudes - The World Government

two projects by, that ‘map’ relations in networks through (allegorical?) figurations and collections of user-generated content:


  • Buchloh, B. H. (1984). From Faktura to Factography . October , 82-119
  • Deseriis. (n.d.). No End In Sight Networked Art as a Participatory Form of Storytelling. Retrieved 05 09, 2011, from Networked Book:
  • Holmes, B. (2009, February 27). Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies. Retrieved April 26, 2011, from Continental Drift:
  • Holmes, B. (n.d.). Network Maps / Energy Diagrams. Retrieved 05 09, 2011, from Continental Drift:
  • Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Verso.
  • Jameson, F. (1995). The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Lukács, G. (1971). History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxists Dialectics. The Merlin Press
  • Munster. (n.d.). Data Undermining The Work of Networked Art in an Age of Imperceptibility. Retrieved 05 09, 2011, from Networked Book:
  • Varnelis. (n.d.). The Immediated Now Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality. Retrieved 05 09, 2011, from Networked Book:

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