On Diagrams as Surfaces of Encounter


Diagrams are machines of simplification. They supply a clear order to a complex reality. In this way, they provide access to that reality; they mediate between it and something else. For example, in the Auckland Plan, figure 12.1 is a diagram entitled ‘The Shaping Influence of Infrastructure’. In the form of a triangle divided into four stacked sections, it organises various infrastructures in order of their increasing impact on the ‘pattern of development’ (which I translate as the urban form). At the apex, in the smallest segment, next to the label ‘locally defining infrastructure’ are listed pools, libraries, local roads/streets, and local cultural facilities. In the adjacent section are defence, justice and courts, police, schools, waste; then public open space, regionally-significant cultural institutions and events facilities, hospitals; and in the largest segment, at the base, in a larger typeface are electricity, fuel, water supply, stormwater, wastewater, telecommunications, ports/airports, transport (highways, regional arterials, rail). The diagram provides the basis for prioritisation of projects and funding. But clearly the reality is more complex. The four segments of the diagram are presently as crisply separate, when in fact the boundaries are more likely to be fuzzy. Which is more “locally defining”: schools or local roads and streets? How come roads appear at the smallest and largest ends of the triangle in the form of streets and arterials, but not in the intervening space? What does the line indicate exactly—why is there are threshold that groups these various infrastructures?

Harman describes the way nothing ever encounters anything else fully. We are quite comfortable with the idea that when I encounter my neighbour I don’t encounter him completely—there are all kinds of things hidden from me, or that I’m unable to unlock in my encounter. We’re used to the more general proposition that whenever I encounter anything or anyone, my encounter is only partial: I see in part, know in part. Harman extends this with the observation that all encounters between any two things are partial like this. Even when fire burns cotton, it doesn’t have a holistic encounter with it. The colour or historical significance of the cotton is irrelevant to its combustion, for example. A diagram, therefore, is the filtered surface of an encounter. It’s simply impossible for me to encounter the infrastructures of the city as a whole, unmediated. The diagram becomes a surface of mediation. Through this small graphic, I am enabled to have an encounter with the entire infrastructural workings of the city. It is, of course, a drastically minimal encounter.

To the extent that all encounters are mediated and partial, all encounters are diagrammatic to some degree. Diagrams are not just specific graphic entities, but the machines of simplification that make encounter possible.


2 thoughts on “On Diagrams as Surfaces of Encounter

  1. I really like this idea of all encounters as diagrammatic. I think it’s worth emphasizing that not only do diagrams simplify or filter but may also actively construct new relations between objects. In this way the diagram functions as a speculative medium itself. I think this fits well with Bogost’s “Carpentry” in Alien Phenomenology although I imagine it to look something like the diagrams in Cyclonopedia or perhaps Perry Kulper’s art.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Andrew — you’re right, it’s definitely worth drawing attention to the constructive aspect of diagrams. I haven’t read ‘Alien Phenomenology’ yet, but it’s sitting on my Kindle waiting! I’m interested in how Bogost uses the term ‘carpentry’. I’d use a different term from ‘construction’, myself, because it connotes in my mind the assumption that some things are constructed and others aren’t. I like the term ‘composition’. Everything is composed somehow, and we’re quite happy with talking of the mineral composition of rocks as well as the composition of a drawing.

    You’re making me think about the speculative use of diagrams, though—I’d been thinking of them as basically descriptive.


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