Skip to main content

Knowledge and its Visualization

Strategies of Visualization and their Epistemic Dynamics

Cornelius Borck

Research in the biosciences and medical practice rely today heavily on technologies of visualization. Images can make visible what is invisible in the interiors of the body (the ultrasound image of an unborn child or the X-ray image of pneumonia). Images bring the excessively small or large to measures of recognizability. (microscope and telescope). Images can also make visible phenomena beyond the human senses (e.g. electrical activity of the human heart in an ECG) or abstract scientific constructs (e.g. activation patterns in the brain during mental processes).

Scientific visualizations are not only determined by what is to be shown on them and thus should be proven, but also by technical requirements of the methods employed. Specific technologies must be available and the technical media used format the results according to the technical specification. Often long trajectories of the development and implementation have sedimented in the imaging technologies used today resulting in specific modes of representation and habits of seeing. In this way the history of technology and the cultural contexts shape the uses of visualization procedures as, conversely, new visualization techniques impact on culture and society; one thinks, for example, of the circulation of photographic images in the present.

This makes visualization methods an important research topic at the interface of the history of science, historical epistemology and cultural studies. The book Brainwaves: A Cultural History of Electroencephalography explores the following questions based on the development of the EEG: What methodological, technical and epistemic prerequisites are incorporated into certain forms of visualization and what effects do specific visualization processes have on the knowledge gained and its dissemination?

Visualizations serve not only research, but also teaching and the dissemination of scientific knowledge. A spectacular historical example provides Fritz Kahn, a physician and medical journalist with his innovative illustrations of the construction and function of the human body for the mass audience of the Weimar Germany and which have recently become quite popular again. His images show basic anatomical-physiological knowledge in the form of sophisticated montage images that blend the human body with machines and technical structures. At first glance, they seem to visualize anonymous machine medicine. But this reading conflicts with Kahn’s humanistic attitudes, who offered sexual counseling alongside his practice in Berlin and was forced to emigrate in the US due to its Jewish ancestry: Kahn visualized the utopia of a technological explainability of biological nature.

The montage images that the Berlin Dadaists used specifically for political agitation at the same time in the Weimar Republic prove to be similarly sophisticated. Here, too, the first impression is slightly deceptive. For these images are not exhausted in the seemingly unambiguously depicted critique of technology; rather, Raoul Hausmann, for example, worked on projects of a technological overcoming of the limits of the human senses, that envisioned a fusion of vision and hearing and thus pioneered human enhancement. Hannah Höch, by contrast, his short-lived partner in those turbulent Berlin years, perfected photomontage for questioning gender and ethnic stereotypes of her times; a queer artist avant la lettre.



Borck, C. (2020) Mensch als Industriepalast. In: Martina Heßler und Kevin Liggieri (Hg.): Technikanthropologie. Handbuch für Wissenschaft und Studium, Stuttgart: Metzler, S. 285-288.

Borck C (2019). Anthropologie im Medium der Technik. Zu Fritz Kahns Visualisierungen des menschlichen Körpers. In: Philipp Stoellger (Hg.): Figurationen des Menschen: Studien zur Medienanthropologie. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, S. 419-439.

Borck C (2018) Brainwaves: A Cultural History of Electroencephalography; transl. by Ann M. Hentschel, London: Routledge, 333 Seiten.

Borck C (2018) Visualisierung ohne Widerstandsaviso. Zur Deutungsmacht selektiver Darstellungsverfahren in den Biowissenschaften. In: Philipp Stoellger, Martina Krumlehn (Hg.): Bildmacht / Machtbild. Deutungsmacht des Bildes: Wie Bilder glauben machen, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, S. 323-342.

Borck C (2018) Review of Michael Sappol. Body Modern: Fritz Kahn, Scientific Illustration, and the Homuncular Subject. Isis 109(2): 428-429.

Borck C (2012) The Human Body Re-Built: Körpermontagen im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert/The Human Body Re-Built: Body Montages in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, in Christiane zu Salm (Hg.): Manifesto Collage. Über den Begriff der Collage 21. Jahrhundert/Defining Collage in the Twenty-First Century, Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg, S. 187-197

Borck C (2011) Ikonen des Geistes und Voodoo mit Wissenschaft. In: Philipp Stoellger, Thomas Klie (Hgg.): Präsenz im Entzug: Ambivalenzen des Bildes, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, S. 447-474.

Borck C (2009) Humanist und technischer Aufklärer. In: Uta von Debschitz und Thilo von Debschitz (Hg.): Fritz Kahn – Man Machine / Maschine Mensch, Wien: Springer 2009, S. 10-21.

Borck C (2009) Bild der Wissenschaft: Neuere Sammelbände zum Thema Visualisierung und Öffentlichkeit (Essayreview). NTM 17: 317-327.

Borck C (2008) Recording the Brain at Work: The Visible, the Readable, and the Invisible in Electroencephalography. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 17: 367-379.

Borck C (2008) Der industrialisierte Mensch. Fritz Kahns Visualisierungen des Körpers als Interferenzzonen von Medizin, Technik und Kultur. WerkstattGeschichte 47: 7-22.

Borck C (2008) Rezension von Luc Pauwels (Ed.): Visual Cultures of Science: Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication. Isis 99(2): 383-384.

Borck C (2007) Communicating the Modern Body: Fritz Kahn’s Popular Images of Human Physiology as an Industrialized World. Canadian Journal of Communication 32(4): 495-520.

Borck C (2005) Writing brains: tracing the psyche with the graphical method. History of Psychology 8: 79-94.

Borck C (2005) Hirnströme. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Elektroenzephalographie. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag.

Borck C (2005) Sound Work and Visionary Prosthetics: Artistic Experiments in Raoul Hausmann. Papers of Surrealism 4. publications/papers/journal4/index.htm.

Borck C (2003) Vermessene Ströme. Zur Geschichte elektrophysiologischer Aufschreibesysteme am Beispiel von Elektrokardiographie und Elektroenzephalographie. In: Ewald Konecny, Volker Roelcke und Burkhard Weiss (Hg.): Medizintechnik im 20. Jahrhundert: Historische Entwicklungen und Perspektiven. Berlin: VDE-Verlag, S. 29-58.

Borck C (2002) Urbane Gehirne. Zum Bildüberschuß medientechnischer Hirnwelten der 1920er Jahre. Archiv für Mediengeschichte 2: 261-272.

Borck C (2002) Das Gehirn im Zeitbild. Populäre Neurophysiologie in der Weimarer Republik. In: David Gugerli und Barbara Orland (Hg.): Ganz normale Bilder: Historische Beiträge zur visuellen Herstellung von Selbstverständlichkeit. Zürich: Chronos, S. 195-225.

Borck C (2001) Die Unhintergehbarkeit des Bildschirms. Beobachtungen zur Rolle von Bildtechniken in den präsentierten Wissenschaften. In: Bettina Heintz und Jörg Huber (Hg.): Mit dem Auge Denken. Repräsentationsformen in Wissenschaft und Kunst, Zürich: Edition Voldemeer, S. 383-394.

Borck C (1998) Visualizing nerve cells and psychic mechanisms: the rhetoric of Freud’s illustrations. In: Giselher Guttmann und Inge Scholz-Strasser (Hg.): Freud and the Neurosciences. From Brain Research to the Unconscious. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, S. 75-86.

Borck C (1997) Herzstrom. Zur Dechriffrierung der elektrischen Sprache des menschlichen Herzens und ihrer Übersetzung in klinischer Praxis. In: Volker Hess (Hg.): Die Normierung von Gesundheit. Messende Verfahren in der Medizin als kulturelle Praktik um 1900. Husum: Matthiesen Verlag, S. 65-85.