Sunday, 18 April 2010

Cartographies of Time reviewed

Cartographies of Time 
Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton

ISBN 9781568987637
8.5 x 10.5 inches (21.6 x 26.7 cm), Hardcover, 272 pages 
268 color illustrations ; 40 b/w illustrations 

[see the book on the publisher’s site]

Cartographies of Time is a milestone book. It makes a cogent claim for the importance of chronography as a neglected aspect of past historiography and as an important cultural form for the present. The most significant recent work in this area is that of the authors themselves, such as Rosenberg’s 2007 article on Joseph Priestley’s ‘graphic invention of modern time’, and Grafton’s two-volume study of Joseph Scaliger of 1983 and 1993, so it is ideal that these two should have come together to create this new book.

As the authors point out, there is a tendency to regard chronology as primitive or incomplete history writing, yet it is the scaffolding on which history as we now understand it relies. As late as the 18th century, the word ‘history’ had connotations of narrative and story to which chronology was seen to give rigour: it brought (various authors argued) meaning, vividness, memorability, an evidential basis, and a unifying framework. Locke argued that chronology’s ability to give history form made it both more memorable and more productive of moral lessons.

Feeney notes in his Caesar’s Calendar of 2007 the near-impossibility of recovering in imagination the character of events before we had a standardised numerical grid for history, and emphasises the recency of its invention. Rosenberg and Grafton’s main theme is similarly the way in which the line, visible or implied as a metaphor for time, is a product of only the last 250 years. They document a series of key influences on chronology and chronography: the explosion of conflicting sources faced by Renaissance scholars, the realisation that astronomical records might be used as a historical clock to correct dates corrupted or lost, the eschatological motive (many chronologies and chronographics mapped the past in order to predict the future), and the distressing difficulties experienced by Christian chronologers as evidence accumulated – in the form of reliable records from other cultures and the growth of deep time through geological investigation – that the Bible could no longer be treated as history.

Profoundly knowledgeable in historiography, the authors write sensitively about the visual, and effortlessly connect the two. For them the graphical is not a childish substitute for the sophistication of words but an essential counterpart. An admirable feature of the book is the synergy of the text and illustrations. The figures are printed close to the relevant text, the captions are informative, and in the text the authors draw out with verve the features they want the reader to notice.

The work of Joseph Priestley, preacher, scientist and radical, is pivotal. The authors give a good account of the ‘crucial transition in the history of chronographic representation’ offered by his Chart of Biography 1765 and New Chart of History 1769. While many of the charts in the book are rich in graphical conceits such as trees, rivers, streams, chains and wheels of time, Priestley’s are wonderfully minimal and egalitarian with their spread of two thousand undifferentiated named lifelines, an arithmetical presentation appropriate to Priestley’s scientific and Dissenting philosophy. Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg gets rather less generous treatment than Priestley, despite his 16.5 metre chart of history having preceded Priestley in using for the first time, as the authors acknowledge, a truly arithmetic scale for time. It is true that Barbeu-Dubourg is a rather simple soul compared with Priestley: his argument for his own pioneering timeline is full of the sort of claims about effortless learning that would be made again about multimedia in the 1980s.

Perhaps the account of Priestley’s achievement could have emphasised another of his vital innovations: the visual representation of uncertainty [see Representing Uncertainty].

The nineteenth century brings chronographical games, mostly intended to be educational. Though occasionally ingenious, these represent in some ways a nadir of chronography, essentially childish and not a tool for investigation or serious thought. Nevertheless, it is nice to learn that a chronographic game was explicitly designed by Mark Twain to be winnable by any player knowing a lot of ‘minor events’ as well as the player who knows the dates of monarchs and battles.

The closing chapters of the book are somewhat cursory, touching on public monumental timelines and timelines as art, including Maciunas’ chart of time and space-based art for Fluxus, John Cage’s graphical scores, and Shapolsky et al’s Manhattan Real Estate Holdings cancelled from the Guggenheim’s schedule for being too political. Some exclusions from the book are a little surprising: Marey’s chronophotography is in, but the comic strip and the film storyboard are out; the exhibition timelines of Charles and Ray Eames, the richest of which mounted physical historic objects onto extended graphical representations of time, do not appear. It is a shame that the work of Michael Twyman in the history of chronographics is not acknowledged, nor Stephen Jay Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle with its important discussion of the conflicting metaphors of the line and the circle as models of time; and one might have expected more on the groundwork for visualising number as line laid down by Descartes and the crucial proposal by Newton that time is a measure which can be treated as analogous to space. But these are quibbles about a book whose historical depth is its finest feature. Even in the middle of discussing modern grand timelines in museums and public spaces, the authors remind us of Augustus’s carved fasti consulares of the first century BCE; a silly timeline on a folding ruler is juxtaposed with Dürer, Sarah Fanelli’s Tate Artist Timeline with Piranesi.

Credit is also due to Jan Haux, the designer. Though some of the illustrations are smaller than they need to be, this is a beautiful book perhaps inspired by the classic publications of Edward Tufte. As a record of achievement during centuries of chronographic invention it should make most modern designers ashamed, and lays the foundation for the future study of chronographics.

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