The question can be raised as to whether a technical language (in this case graphical language) that relies upon visual illusions, analogy, and iconography to create an appearance of reality can be properly thought of as anything other than caricature. Second, we can consider the proposition that human ecosystem graphic models are in their reality, more often than not (if only by implication), satirical depictions of public life, socio-political-economic institutions, cultural belief systems, and the condition of the planet. First we might have to acknowledge that much of this may be expressed unintentionally (done unawares), but
- our representations cannot help but present an exaggeration of parts, since they fall short of omniscient, though they strive to be wholistic;
- the subject matter of ‘advanced’ human ecosystems (referred to as civilization) is in itself fantastic in nature, i.e., characterized by farcical e that:xtremes, preposterous failures, and inherent incongruities, whereby the latter we mean discordant, paradoxical, irrationally absurd, if not always incoherent, in manner and manifestation;
- given the man-made terrors and high physical energy released, any attempt to be mindful of the above results in irony, and even partially accurate depictions of The System may expose abuse, folly and vice.
The unanswered question is whether we are necessarily engaged in more than irony. To what degree are we being sarcastic, denouncing or holding up The System to ridicule, when we use a graphic language such as the transformed Odum iconography (Box SK) to even partially depict the way things really work?
Box SK. Semiotic Signs Used in the Iconography of the Human Ecosystems Kuchka. [Kuchka nd, unpublished.]
Having traveled this far we might inquire a little into the history of graphic satire and the interpretive design principles that underlie it. Viewing the reproductions in Kunzle (1973) we would see elements of satire in the serious depictions of authoritative belief systems and formal social institutions depicted in European graphics as early as the 15th Century. The concrete imagery and high-flown metaphors of satire are apparently present, for example, in some of the popular late medieval Christian mystical imagery, as seen in 15th Century broadsheets depicting the expressions of allegorical amorous love between Jesus and the Maiden nominally representing the Christian soul. Figure CS is part of one of these depictions. The satire seems implicit, but not far below the surface, placed in the context of the broadsheet cartoons of the time explicitly satirizing romantic love and the erotic power of women. Kunzle (1973:222) notes the anti-female sentiment in the cartoon is “part of the lingering medieval tradition of misogyny,” amplified in the 16th and 17th Centuries by opposition, particularly in Germany, to the Protestant Reformation.
Figure CS. Christ and the Christian Soul. Four panels from Of The Innermost Soul, How God Chastises Her and Makes Her Suited To Him. German, ca.1500. Kunzle 1973, Figure 1-16, text notes pp. 20-21 and pp. 433-434. First Panel: How Christ pulls the Soul out of bed by the hair. Second Panel: How Christ stands in the rain and knocks on her door. Third Panel: How Christ sets her on fire with a burning taper. Fourth Panel: How they lie in bed together….and attain eternal rest.
Without detailed historical notes one can do little more than surmise whether an authoritative graphic was in part satirical at the time of its creation. We can be easily misled by intuition, as the passage of time can create satire. Take, for instance, the authoritative line or message in Figure MOS, the Mobil Oil Special. From the point-of-view of a mere half century later the imagery appears to reveal a lack of common sense, or worse, to foretell disastrous consequences from the petroleum industry’s lack of environmental protection standards. Combined with the largest line of caption the visual image is even more laughable, but the apparent sarcasm is unintended, as the fine print makes clear.
Figure MOS. The Mobil Oil Special. This poor quality web-site reproduction is for an American advertisement, created in the 1950s. It originally appeared in Life Magazine, 13 February 1956, p. 142.
Today our sense of humor is conditioned by the broader context of global hindsight. We are possessed of the wily cynicism of post-modernity and a permanent loss of innocence. Looking back at an earlier time period’s graphics, it is easy for us to see satire where none was consciously intended. This is apparent satire in retrospect. The principles of graphic-satire have in fact changed significantly during the last 500 years in the western European tradition. Kunzle (1973) has observed an important watershed midway in this period that subsequently characterizes modern graphic satire. It is a new episteme that underlies the free person’s world view, and determines his or her valuation of modern protest art and reformation: that of societal causation. This episteme defines the English golden age of graphic satire, the 18th Century, and sees the beginning of turning away from religious ideological issues toward “personal scandals and corruptions of public men suspected of commercial exploitation of the people.” Moreover,
English eighteenth-century broadsheet art reflects a great ideological change in which men were no longer prepared to accept evils such as war as an essential part of a God-given universe but searched to eliminate them by discovering their roots in social conditions and in the attitudes resulting from these conditions. In earlier centuries the broadsheet was preoccupied with the surface manifestations of evil; the eighteenth century examines the psychological motivations for it, and the popular prints become critical of human nature itself. (Kunzle 1973:154.)
This is the world of capital gains, big business, the Enlightenment, and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. With exceptions, in subsequent centuries we see a progressive watering down of the rich complexity of graphic detail common in 18th Century and early 19th Century satirical cartoons. The prescription now is to keep it simple and direct (e.g., Shikes 1969). And, above all, to make it entertaining, i.e., comic.
Figure OUS. Aggregated Energy Model of the Economy of the United States (with sectors arranged in order of increasing energy quality from left to right). (a) The entire model. (b) The entity icons and text only (blue marks the icons that explicitly represent aspects of ‘information’). (c) The flow icons only. [Original figure (a) from Odum (1983).]
Turning our critical gaze toward the academy, what might we learn about the character of academic or scientific/technical graphics if we apply the concepts of caricature and satire to their analyses? Examining Figure OUS, we are perhaps reluctant to call this graphic model a caricature because of its authoritative atmosphere. It is loaded with authority. Overly earnest? Preposterously so, when presented with a straight face? Ludicrous, if not comic? Slow down a bit, our post modern cynicism may be leading the witness. Energy is an important currency to a high-tech culture such as our own, at one level it may seem natural to represent broad-scale energy flows as similar to a wiring diagram. Electricity driven human ecosystems are well represented by wiring circuitry. Moreover, almost all of our day-to-day activity is restricted to limited pathways of movement. What could seem more natural? Figure OUS shows where and how (many) energy flows are required for a minimal depiction of the United States eco-system, where ‘eco’ uses economy to tell the story. It does not tell us why, either with regard to history, nor with regard to the depicted moment. The caricature is inorganic. The wiring diagram as a visual device is a modern machine metaphor. In this case it is used in an exaggeration of exclusivity to increase our awareness of how (but not why) the US eco(nomic) sytem works the way it does. Relax, energy is the currency. See the ways in which that is revealing. If we critically view Figure OUS at another level we could say that it is a burlesque or mockery of nature to force her diversity of features into the mold of a few entity icons, e.g., weather system and deserts are simply energy “producers,” and lakes and mountains are simple energy “storage” compartments. But creating laughably absurd visualizations is not necessarily silly. There is thought-provoking value in this scientific cartoon, even if it does some conceptual violence to both natural and human ecosystems. Is Odum’s energy caricature of the US economy also satire? Literary critical interpretation distinguishes formal from informal satire. (Notes from C. Baldick, 2008, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.) In direct satire the writer explicitly address the reader, commenting on the vice and folly of individuals, institutions, or society. These failings are formally exposed to ridicule and scorn. Indirect satire presents the actions in question without direct comment, and lets us draw our own conclusions. If the text is not marked as satire, the reader participates even more creatively by their subjective interpretation of possible hidden meaning or subtext. Figure OUS is not marked as satire. But it can be read in both the objective (distanced) mode, and in the subjective (personal, emotional) mode. The engaged body-mind does both. The talking head does neither. The engaged free thinker is alert to the possible irony of any authoritative statement. Are there likely contradictory outcomes in the high energy human ecosystem depicted in Figure OUS, as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things (OED)? If there are, they are not readily apparent in the authoritative style of Odum’s caricature. An alternative subjective reading of Figure OUS is that it depicts the most glorious accomplishment of western civilization at the end of the 2nd Millennium CE. This interpretation highlights the problem of applying traditional literary exegesis to a conceptual visualization of the mundane world. We may strain to see the allegory, beyond that of the circuit diagram, and fall short of the anagogical, notwithstanding the refrain ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t mind.’ In summary, it is worth considering the following propositions. One, the scientist’s conceptual models are caricatures with an authoritative line, and can be, properly speaking, referred to as cartoons. Two, authoritative models of the nature of civilization are indirect satire when, depending upon the eye of the reader, they (unintentionally) expose folly, abuses of power, and vice. Our view of them as indirect or unintended satire depends on our re-contextualizing them, aided by hindsight. The job of direct graphic satire is explicit, to awaken our motivation to action in the moment. Direct graphic satire is obvious. It employs sarcasm, scorn, or ridicule. The interpretation that what we are seeing is indirect satire, outside of the comic book world, is tenuous. Caricature is not necessarily satire.