5. Affordances in the construction of meaning: heuristics of thematic graphics for CSCL

Neil H. Schwartz


In the Da Vinci Code, Jacques Sauniere is found dead in the Louvre. The Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, is summoned to make sense of the body. It is a puzzle. You see, Mr. Sauniere is strewn on the floor in the shape of a Vitruvian Man – a pentacle, a five pointed star, a pentagram saturated deep in meaning from the past. Da Vinci himself drew the original sketch of the Vitruvian Man a long time ago; the Vitruvian man has meaning. Seduced by his knowledge of signs, and of course, the inviting eyes of the demure Sophie Neveu, Langdon begins an odyssey of meaning making – a summoning of knowledge of mind. And, yet, what is this knowledge of mind? What is this five-pointed star; this pentagram? What does it mean? Langdon’s knowledge is swiftly searched.

Meaning in this case has two agendas. What is the meaning of the star? And, what is the meaning of the star carved across Jacques Sauniere’s chest?

The pentagram, Langdon knows, has come to represent dark or black magic in the eyes of many Christians – the head of Baphonet, a symbol of Satan. And, yet, he also knows that the origin of the pentagram was not always so dark. It was actually a talisman, or sacred geometrical sign, which could be traced back to ancient Greece, and before that, to ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BC, where it simply meant “heavenly body” or “star”. For Egyptians, Langdon knows, the pentagram within the circle also represented the duat – or underworld, if you will – of Egyptian mythical symbology. In the tradition of Christianity, the pentagram was used to represent the five wounds of Christ. But, for the Pythagoreans, Langdon was also aware, the five points of the star stood for the five classical elements of divinity – fire, earth, air, water, and idea – perfection for the Pythagoreans. Perfection because, within its lines, the pentagram also hid the GOLDEN RATIO; 1.618. The ratio between cheekbones, mouth, lips, nose, eyes, and jaw line of the most beautiful face, the proportion of waist to hips in the most attractive female to the gaze of a gentleman’s eyes, the pitch of the spiral of DNA, the Fibonacci sequence, the angle of growth from one leaf stem to the next on a tree, … the list goes on…. Perfection is divine. In short, the pentagram also meant perfection.

This is a lot of knowledge and Langdon holds all of this knowledge in mind.

But, even with layer upon layer of knowing, Langdon still does not know what this pentagram means carved in the flesh of Jacques Saunier’s chest. Sophie Neveu neither knows. But, she is the granddaughter of Saunier, and she has knowledge of him.

And, so begins the transaction of minds – two minds constructing knowledge together: knowledge of context, history, symbols and signs.

This is what this paper is about: how we make meaning together, and how visualizations guide, restrain, permit and constrict this process.

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