Trees, networks and visualizing thought

How do we imagine thought, i.e., make thought image?

It’s a question ICI wrestles with often (playfully, seriously). How do we visualize the abstract, corporealize a mental process — and what do we lose and gain in the process?

Below we’ve collected a mass of images — part of our circuitous research for the Everything But the Monkey Head project — all of which were seen as a possible answer to this question at one point or another. These images are networks and trees of life made by scientists in the last half millennium, maps for understanding the connections between natural objects. It would be easy to say that we started with a simplistic concept of how things are connected and graduated to a more complex one, but like most things, the truth is messier than that. There are no straight lines in science, merely paradigms that upend one another as we zag blindly through history, bumping up against new ways of understanding.

We often conceive of visualizations of knowledge as a binary between the now familiar image of the tree popularized by Darwin (hierarchical, branching but linear, finite) and the newer concept of the rhizome (a map of interconnection based on multiplicity, with no beginning or end). However, these images resist this neat narrative.The rhizome as a way to conceptualize thought may have been conceived of and named in opposition to the tree, but the visual tool of an interconnected network has been around much longer. Below you can see that across time scientists came up with near-infinite ways to envision relationships in nature, from tidy trees to sprawling webs to egg shapes, diamonds, interlocking circles and the peculiar “quinarian” movement, which latched onto the number 5 as the key to organizing nature. Networks in their many forms have been around as organizing images longer than the tree has, and it seems as if the network will persist as we look towards the rhizome as a more robust and interesting way of conceptualizing things — a map without a center, not a chain with a source; a interconnected web that “does not consist of units, but of dimensions and directions,” as Inna Semetsky puts it in Deleuze, Education, and Becoming.

Despite this, I’d argue modern culture tend to feel safest in the boughs of a tree, comforted by its rootedness and its reach towards perfection. It presupposes we come from somewhere known and we are going somewhere legible, a straight line from the primitive to the enlightened, an arrow moving through history towards a target. Meanwhile the rhizome resists our society’s propulsive narrative, upends the process of how we normally make meaning over time and forces us to question our cultural foundations. What is so frightening to us about a map of knowledge that does not require an explicit center, that cannot be traced from old to new, bad to good, crude to developed? What does that fear say about how our culture builds its identity through image and idea?

At the ICI we prefer messy questions to straightforward answers. The way we map knowledge determines (and is determined by) what we believe has meaning; a frame always necessarily excludes, though some frames open up pathways more ripe with potential than others. Humanity’s endless quest to wrestle thought into the confines of an image will always say more about us than it does about that which we attempt to understand.

— Hanna Bahedry


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