Diagrammatic: Beyond Inscription?

2 December 2016 - 3 December 2016

Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge

Registration for the conference is now closed. 

Please note that the conference's keynote will be a public event and is open to non-registrants free of charge.  


Lukas Engelmann (University of Cambridge)

Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge)

Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge)



Diagrams inhabit a liminal space between representation and prescription, words and images, ideas and things. From key moments of scientific and intellectual innovation (Darwin’s tree-diagram, Levi-Strauss’s diagram of the raw and the cooked, Lacan’s L-scheme, Waddington’s epigenetic landscape image and Francis Crick’s DNA double helix sketch) to everyday uses in all spheres of social, political, economic and cultural life, the diagram seeks resemblance to the empirical yet aspires to generalization. Conversely, employed across the disciplines as a thinking tool, the diagram hence holds the promise of transforming abstract issues into graspable images and translating the unseen into intelligible and actionable form. Both convincing and misleading and always positioned at the threshold of vision and the unseen, diagrams operate as abstractive and constitutive components of empirical realities. 

This conference aims to explore the interdisciplinary, shared traits of diagrammatic thinking so as to go beyond the notion of simplification, of “drawing information together”, which forms the usual analytical ground for understanding syntactic visualizations in the sciences and humanities. Rather than seeing diagrams as systems of linkages, the aim of the conference is to explore the dialectic of inscription and erasure as an inherent and generative trait of diagrammatic practices.

Questions to be raised in the conference revolve around the following themes: How does the visual and logical indeterminacy of diagrams, their resistance to being fully perceived as images or understood as logical arguments, define their operation as ways of reasoning? And to what extent does diagrammatic reasoning extend beyond the realm of diagrams as visual/textual objects? By bringing together ethnographic, historical and philosophical perspectives on the diagram, in its applications across the disciplines, this conference aims to explore its role at the pivot of modern transformations and aporias between abstraction and form.

For more information about this conference when it becomes available, sign up to the conference mailing list.



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).


Administrative assistance: conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Day 1: Friday 2 December

14.00 - 14.15


14.15 - 14.30

Welcome & Introduction

14.30 - 16.00

Panel 1: Science Diagrams

Discussant: Sietske Fransen (University of Cambridge)


Nick Hopwood (University of Cambridge)

Haeckel’s “So-Called Diagrams or Schematic Figures”

Rebecca Whiteley (University College London)

Diagrams in Early Modern Midwifery: Problems in the Construction and Communication of New Kinds of Body Knowledge

Lukas Engelmann (University of Cambridge)

Diagrams in Epidemic Modeling

16.00 - 16.30

Coffee Break

16.30 - 18.00


Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union / Yale University)

How to Do Things with Diagrams

Day 2: Saturday 3 December​

9.00 - 10.30

Panel 2: Anthropology and Diagrams

Discussant: James D. Faubion (Rice University)


Nurit Bird-David (University of Haifa)

Diagrammatics in Anthropology: How Kinship Diagrams and Maps Conceal Hunter-Gatherers’ Experiential Worlds

Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge)

Travelling Epigenetic Landscape Diagrams: Visualising Complexity in Diverse Disciplines

Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge)

Zoonosis as a Diagram: An Anthropological Approach

10.30 - 11.00

Coffee Break

11.00 - 13.00

Panel 3: Diagrams and Design

Discussant: Michael Vine (University of Cambridge)


Ro Spankie (University of Westminster)

Revisiting Sigmund Freud’s Diagrams of the Mind

Philip Steadman (University College London)

Abstraction and Schematisation in the Repeated Copying of Designs

Christoph Lueder (Kingston University London)

Gestures and Diagrams, Corporeality and Choreography

Alan Blackwell (University of Cambridge)

The Diagrammatic Imagination of Computer Graphics

13.00 - 14.00


14.00 - 15.00

Final Discussion

Nurit Bird-David (University of Haifa)

Diagramatics in Anthropology: How Kinship Diagrams and Maps Conceal Hunter-Gatherers’ Experiential Worlds


Hunting-gathering people live in tiny communities (the average band size is 28.4 men, women and children, entire societies average a few hundred to a few thousands). Barely registering numerically against the billions who now make up the world’s population, they have had unrivaled influence on modern social thought and imagination. And scale-blindingly comparing them with Western societies continues to generate influential anthropological agendas, for example, in studying gender, environmental perceptions and ontologies. Ironically, so few have mattered so much when the ontological and sociological effect of their fewness has scarcely been taken into cultural and comparative account. In this paper, I explore how standards in ethnographic description and analysis have systematically concealed the scalar context and scalability of the lifeways and worlds of hunter-gatherer (and other tinyscale) societies, with special focus on diagrammatic practices and on the dialectic of inscription and erasure. I explore the production and effect of standard diagrams in the ethnographic genre, especially kinship diagrams and locational maps. I also show how these diagrammatic standards open analytical gates to all kinds of Trojan-horse scalar slippages that obscure foragers’ own scales of practice imaginations, and distort understanding of their experiences and lifeways.


Alan Blackwell (University of Cambridge)

The Diagrammatic Imagination of Computer Graphics

Many pioneers of computational logic, including Frege, Boole, Euler and Peirce, advocated diagrammatic notation as a mechanical aid to reasoning. However, the historical contingency of teleprinter hardware and standards being so widely available in the mid 20th century resulted in early computer scientists adopting typewriter text as the sole basis for mathematical and information processing notation. User interface pioneers of the 1960s and 70s struggled against the commercial tide of text-based computing, to create diagrammatic "graphical" user interfaces, leading eventually to the Apple Macintosh "desktop" of the 1980s, Microsoft Windows, and more recently the touch-and-camera interaction of contemporary smartphones. The design logic that has driven this shift from text to diagram has seldom been informed by humanistic theories of language and representation, but is nevertheless associated with a body of theory that is open to inspection and critique, derived from cognitive science, educational theory and philosophy of mind. This paper will summarise these historical developments, present the underlying bodies of theory and critical traditions, and review the implications for digital humanities, that arise from theories of diagrammatic representation that become reified in the computer devices and software that humanities scholars are obliged to use.


Lukas Engelmann (University of Cambridge)

Diagrams in Epidemic Modelling

Modelling has become conditional to an epidemiology of the digital age. The prognosis of epidemic developments, the calculation of an outbreak’s impact as well as the reconstruction of epidemics of the past rely today often on sophisticated practices of data modelling. These models inscribe assumptions about the nature of epidemics that structure and reorganize our way of seeing and knowing infectious diseases in past and present. Digital Epidemiology promises real time analysis of epidemic threats, turning behaviour on social media and in search engines into data beyond theory, and crucially, beyond the traditional clinical or laboratory diagnosis. But formalized methods to epidemics are not a new phenomenon of the digital age. Rather, my paper will argue, the new algorithmic approach to thinking epidemics allows us to revisit the history of epidemiology as a history of the ongoing quantification, systematization and formalization of the epidemic event. Diagrams are found at the heart of the modern history of epidemiology. They have been used to characterize specific spatio-temporal characteristics of epidemics, to draw out models of aetiology and ecology as well as to conceptualize vectors with a scope ranging from microscopic pathogenic pathways to global transmission routes. My paper will deliver a brief survey of the function of diagram and diagrammatic practices in epidemiological analysis of the long 20th century to sketch out a preliminary genealogy of epidemiological data and its algorithmic organization.


Nick Hopwood (University of Cambridge)

Haeckel’s “So-Called Diagrams or Schematic Figures”

‘Diagram’ is often deployed as a broad analytical category; this talk contributes, by contrast, to a history of this keyword and some related terms in use. Focusing on the most debated ‘schematic figures’ in biology, it will explore their status and participants’ employment of the word ‘diagram’. The figures in question are drawings of embryos by the German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel which show humans and other vertebrates beginning almost identical, then diverging towards their adult forms. Soon after their publication in 1868, a colleague alleged fraud, and Haeckel’s many enemies have repeated the charge ever since. His embryos nevertheless became a textbook staple until, in 1997, a biologist accused him again, and creationist advocates of ‘intelligent design’ forced these ‘icons of evolution’ out. To explain how the most controversial pictures in the history of science became some of the most widely seen—and more generally how pictures succeed and fail, gain acceptance and spark controversy—my recent book Haeckel’s Embryos (Chicago, 2015) stresses the power of circulation and copying, interpretation and debate. The talk will review that argument and discuss in particular the politics of schematic drawing and the term ‘diagram’ (Diagramm), which Haeckel introduced into the debate in 1891.


Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge)

Travelling Epigenetic Landscape Diagrams: Visualising Complexity in Diverse Disciplines


The epigenetic landscape diagram (ELD) was the geneticist C. H. Waddington’s attempt to make understandable his theory of the course of differentiation from a pluripotent stem cell to a mature unipotent cell. The process was represented as a ball rolling down a landscape into one among several valleys.  As distinct from bifurcation diagrams that indicate how genes determine developmental paths, the ‘landscape’ was a way of visualising a three-dimensional topology, picturing the complex dynamic pulls of factors underlying the ‘shape’ of channels and buffers as well as suggesting the environmental factors with which genes interact.  This paper will first investigate the representational character of the ELD – is it a description, visual metaphor, symbolic representation, tool for modelling, or, in later versions, a means enabling the scientist to visualise the unknown for the first time?  It will then discuss the widespread application of ‘landscape approaches’, using either Waddington’s original ELD or modified images, to diverse phenomena in biology and also in other disciplines (topology, developmental psychology, STS studies and others). The paper will focus on applications in anthropology, and will argue that EL diagrams have been agentive in new bio-social research fields, being ways of introducing a conceptual framework for as yet hardly understood complex phenomena.


Christoph Lueder (Kingston University London)

Gestures and Diagrams, Corporeality and Choreography

Their etymological roots, dia (through) and gramma (writing) define diagrams as transparent devices through which a truth is revealed and explained. The authority of diagrams as conveyors of abstraction and scientific truth intersects with their use by architects and urbanists seeking to discover meaning through corporeal and material practices. Such diagrammatic practices evolved during the 20th century, linking diagrams to gestures and traces of the hand and body, movement to perception, abstracted to embodied knowledge. At the beginning of the century, Alexander Klein devised an elaborate “graphical method” intended as a scientific tool to evaluate economies of corporeal movement and visual attention. Le Corbusier developed a highly articulate methodology that integrated speech and gesture with diagrams drawn during lectures; like Klein, he linked truth to diagrams. In the 1960s Donald Appleyard diagrammed the movement and perception of a motorised human subject, shifting aims from economy to enjoyment, from truth to experience. Finally, Peter Zumthor’s charcoal diagrams turn Le Corbusier’s performative praxis toward an augmented emphasis on the concrete. The diagrammatic gestures of Le Corbusier and Zumthor, the choreographic diagrams of Klein and Appleyard stimulate productive intersections between diagrammatic practices and corporeality.


Christos Lynteris (University of Cambridge)

Zoonosis as a Diagram: An Anthropological Approach

Zoonosis is the scientific term used in the life sciences to refer to animal diseases that are transmissible to humans. This paper approaches zoonosis through the examination of the prevalent visual device employed in its representation in the life sciences: the zoonotic cycles diagram. Examining its transformation in the case of bubonic plague and its contemporary uses with regards to Ebola, I explore how this diagrammatic form configures the co-existence of humans and animals as ontologically incommensurable yet biopolitically actionable. More than just an umbrella term for animal-derived human infection, could zoonosis be understood today as the paradigmatic grounds of mastering and unsettling human-animal relations? Can in this respect be argued that zoonosis functions today as a "general diagram" of human-animal relations?


Ro Spankie (University of Westminster)

Revisiting Sigmund Freud’s Diagrams of the Mind

An architect by background, my research centres on the role of the drawing in the design process, in particular in relation to the creation of interior space. The word interior comes from the Latin interior meaning inner, or inter meaning within and one of its original uses was to describe that which is ‘belonging to or existing in the mind or soul; mental or spiritual, as distinguished from that which is bodily’. While attempting to define what distinguishes an interior from the architecture that contains it I came across a set of diagrams by Sigmund Freud drawn at the point that his investigations shifted from the physical anatomy of the brain to the abstract functional workings of the mind. Could this shift from descriptive anatomy, to brain function and the hypothetical structures of psychoanalysis give insight into the relationship between the body/architecture and the mind/interior?


Philip Steadman (University College London)

Abstraction and Schematisation in the Repeated Copying of Designs

In the late 19th century, in the wake of the publication of The Origin of Species, the archaeologist Augustus Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers and the anthropologist Alfred Haddon applied Darwinian theory loosely to the ‘evolution’ of decorative designs. Their argument was that motifs on coins, pots or weapons underwent slow processes of change through successive copying, with slight ‘variations’ introduced at each step. What was at some stage a naturalistic depiction could be transformed gradually into an apparently abstract schema (or vice-versa). Haddon and Pitt-Rivers found many real examples of such processes among anthropological material. They also made experiments to test this evolutionary explanation, in which they asked one person to copy a drawing, a second person to copy the copy without reference to the original, and so on. In the 1930s the psychologist Frederic Bartlett made similar experiments in connection with his studies of visual memory, reported in his book Remembering. The Surrealists had a game called ‘Dessin Successif’, intended to stimulate the automatic production of strange images – a kind of graphical equivalent of ‘Chinese Whispers’. I have made a number of copying experiments along these lines myself. It is my tentative proposal in this paper that the results can throw light on the nature of diagrams and how they have evolved (in a non-Darwinian sense) in various fields. If a naturalistic drawing is taken as the starting point, it undergoes a characteristic process of change as the copying goes forward. It does not simply deteriorate. Instead it typically becomes more abstract and more schematic, but without great loss of detail or information. Parts of the image become separated out, the whole design is flattened, and perspective occlusion is removed. The same drawing if set off a second time - and barring casual accidents - takes a similar trajectory. These kinds of processes can be observed in the ways that certain specialised modern types of diagram like circuit diagrams or tube maps can be seen to have evolved historically.

The paper will be illustrated with many examples. Members of the audience will be invited to take part in an experiment themselves.


Rebecca Whiteley (University College London)

Diagrams in Early Modern Midwifery: Problems in the Construction and Communication of New Kinds of Body Knowledge

In the decades before 1700, Western European countries saw enormous cultural, social and medical shifts in how midwifery was practiced and understood. Medically trained men began to practice midwifery, transforming it into a publically discussed, medical profession partly through the publication of illustrated instructional manuals. These midwife authors aimed to communicate innovations both in how the body was pictured, and how it could be practiced upon. While the images these authors produced have typically been dismissed as inaccurate anatomies, this paper will argue that they are, instead, radical and experimental diagrams. Not poorly observed, but rather intentionally abstracted and adapted to communicate kinds of body knowledge and processes of practice that had never before been visually depicted. This paper will focus on the problems faced by these authors, and the artists they employed, in their attempts to create a visual language that could embody and communicate their new kind of practice, and yet remain legible to their audience. In this paper I will discuss the representational and technical innovations of these diagrams (successful or not), as well as the wider cultural implications of these images on midwifery at a time when its cultural and medical status was being widely redefined.