32. Hannah Miodrag’s Comics and Language

Normally, dear reader, in this blog I prefer to stick to a somewhat narrowly circumscribed manga purview, but because what I have to say today relates quite well to what I had to say last time about Neil Cohn’s visual language research, I thought it might be worth straying into my larger, comparative comics studies interests.

I mentioned Miodrag’s Comics and Language last time as a recent monograph that potentially addressed many of the same problems I saw in Cohn’s work, and, though he does come in for a not terribly favorable review, I am happy to say that hers and my criticisms do not really overlap.  Moreover, I find many of the assumptions about language (and a theoretical relationship between language and images) that underpin her argument highly suspect and not terribly well thought out.  There was an Amazon review of her book that took it to task for amounting to little more than someone’s dissertation only slightly revised for publication.  Now, I have no idea if this is the case, and the reviewer’s comments spoke more to how it failed as a text of general interest to comics readers, but I have to admit that as I went through the various stages of her argument, it had the whiff of not terribly sophisticated “grad student” thinking about it.  I have to say that if this were a dissertation, and I were sitting on the committee, in lieu of suggested revisions, I would hand back a reading list (some of which will appear below) and expect the thing to be reworked from the ground up.  It is likely that at this point I would suddenly find myself no longer on said committee.

At issue again and again in Miodrag’s book is a recurring non-distinction between language and image in the work of comics scholars and how, as she sees it, their failure to attend to a more nuanced and precise understanding of the theoretical texts they use re: language and images has the unfortunate effect of undermining the very things they try to argue.  This problem is then overlaid on top of an imperative to get our collective theoretical/critical ducks in order so that comics studies might find itself a proper, solid place in the academy.  As I care very little about the academia question, I have only one minor point to make.  Miodrag claims that “[t]he diversity of approaches to comics (variously treated as cultural, educational, literary, political, geographical, or socio-cultural artifacts) means that robust, constructive theory must address itself to an established set of issues and questions it seeks to further and enrich, or risk instituting an enthusiastic but under-informed celebration of comics as the standard critical practice.” (p. 7)  It is not at all clear to me how the lack of the one would likely lead into the institution of the other, especially given how celebratory approaches to the “magic” or what have you of comics predate academicky criticism by many decades and have persisted largely heedless of what comics scholars have to say.  I happen to find the diversity of approaches to be rather invigorating and the risk to be the institutionalization of the very established questions Miodrag valorizes.

What bugs me about Miodrag’s text is a rampant failure of critical imagination, and when I say that it has the whiff of a certain grad student thinking, I mean it reads as a far more developed and detailed version of a paper one might be given at the end of a grad seminar on, say, comics and language.  It is a lamentable commonplace of academic writing that so much of it picks a few texts, picks some theory, and then reads those texts in terms of that theory in a manner that occasionally says something revealing about the texts but almost never anything interesting about the theory.  Theory, all too often, and this is a major fault of Miodrag’s text, is taken as simply given, and the texts upon which one inflicts theory are only rarely used to reflect upon that critical framework and its potential faults.  If Miodrag presented her argument as an alternative reading and application of certain theoretical texts, I might not have sat down to write this, but because the argument is presented as a necessary corrective of comics scholarship in toto, I feel the need to point out the many ways in which Miodrag’s argument is as theoretically and conceptually unsound as those she takes to task.

Categorical Perception

The major fault in Miodrag’s argument, interestingly, lies at almost the dead center of the book itself.  Near the very end of a chapter addressing comics’ hybridity in terms of language/image correspondence, she comes back to a familiar theoretical voice in this book.  “W. J. T. Mitchell notes that all texts ‘incorporate visuality quite literally the moment they are written or printed in visible form’ and suggests therefore that ‘the medium of writing deconstructs the possibility of a pure image or a pure text” (Mitchell 2009:118).  While the former notion is indisputable, the latter only tells part of the story about how language and images are received and processed (and it is far from clear how language’s graphic form deconstructs the possibility of a pure image).”

“[I]t is far from clear how language’s graphic form deconstructs the possibility of a pure image,” precisely because Miodrag’s critical frame refuses to see any potential usefulness in the very language/image nondistinction she consistently attacks.  Some insight into how this nondistinction might work can be found in the “Rethinking Textuality” chapter of Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality.  He recounts there how “[Johanna] Drucker and I undertook a simple experiment with an OCR [Optical Character Recognition] scanner.  The point of the experiment was to use computer hardware to demonstrate what our thought experiments kept suggesting to us: that the rationale of a textualized document is an ordered ambivalence and that this ambivalence can be seen functioning at the document’s fundamental graphic levels.” (p. 137)  McGann goes on to list a number of salient ramifications that result from this basic conclusion, but the most important for our purposes here is that “text documents, while coded bibliographically and semantically, are all marked graphically.” (p. 138)  This point was made most clear to McGann and Drucker when they submitted the same page of an 1870 issue of The Athenaeum to several passes from the scanner always with the same settings.  Not one of the outputs matched, even though everything but the particular instance of scanning was held constant.  They realized that the mere act of seeing certain printed marks as letterforms is an act of interpretation, one that corresponds nicely, I feel, to what I had to say about Heidegger’s use of the word Auslegung.  This means the distinction between words and images that Miodrag asserts as simply there in her introduction arises from a basic but fundamental act of interpretation.

Any number of comic artists over the years have used an elaborate, highly stylized, and often remarkably pictographic kind of lettering that draws attention to the visual character or written/printed/drawn text.  The later volumes of Dave Sim’s Cerebus achieve a near apotheosis of the word/image nondistinction.  Consider, by way of example the following page from Rick’s Story.

Dave Sim, Rick's Story, p. 196

Dave Sim, Rick’s Story, p. 196

If Sim is still too much of a persona-non-grata in the comics world, consider this example from Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, pp. 132-133

Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, pp. 132-133

Bechdel’s text is replete with line art/hand drawn (and printed) examples of a variety of texts: hand-written journals, computer monitors, letters, newspapers, print books, alarm clocks, labels, pamphlets, calendars, magazines, doodles, etc.  Miodrag’s resistance to even humoring the nondistinction argument renders her argument surprisingly deaf to the very texts that, to my mind, blow her argument apart.

Part of this stems from the arbitrariness of pitting words and images against/with each other as the only salient elements on the plane of the page.  Natsume Fusanosuke, for instance, in his own formalist approach to comics, identifies three components–image (e), word (kotoba), and frame/panel (koma)–which closely mirror Groensteen’s insistence on framing and articulation as necessary pieces in the comics structure puzzle.  Takeuchi Osamu, in Manga hyōgen-gaku nyūmon (Introduction to the Study of Manga Expression/Presentation) identifies six formal elements that together distinguish comics from other media, though in his own illustrative example, he points to no less than eight: panel/frame (koma), border lines (wakusen), dialogue (serifu), speech balloons (fukidashi), sound effects (gion), signs (kigō, things like motion lines and so forth), figures/characters (jinbutsu), and narrative text (katari no kotoba).

Takeuchi Osamu

Takeuchi Osamu, Manga hyōgen-gaku nyūmon, p. 11

Interestingly, though Takeuchi makes distinctions between types of language (dialogue vs. narration vs. sfx) and puts those distinctions on the same conceptual level as visual elements, there is one kind of writing, evident in his own example, that he omits from this conceptual field: writing integrated into the “images” themselves, shown here with the text bonchiyaki (a brand of senbei crackers) on the shop sign in the first panel.  Because writing in a widely literate society is part of the visual landscape of our world (traffic signs, menus, billboards, etc.), occasionally depicting that world will mean rendering writing as part of the line art marks the are used to constitute the image of a t-shirt or a refrigerator or a book or what have you.  Furthermore, Miodrag fails to take into consideration those iconic elements (what Takeuchi refers to as kigō) in comics with semantic content sometimes derivative but largely divorced from “what they depict” in a manner eerily analogous to the arbitrary speech sounds/chicken scratch we regularly attach to high-minded concepts.  It is also worth noting that comic artists themselves are perfectly aware of this iconicity of some visual forms.

Berke Breathed, Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989, p. 92

Berke[ley] Breathed, Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989, p. 92

The lightbulb over Milo’s head in the second panel is illustrative of just how complicated the language/image overlap can become.  The lit bulb represents understanding by way of connections between it and light, light as illumination, and illumination as tied to sight, sight as tied to in-sight.  Or, you could simply point to any of a number of representations throughout the Western literary and artistic traditions of light as reason or intellect or revelation or whatever.  And it’s not like there is a complete lack of any theoretical basis for the relationship between how we read language and how we read images.  Off the top of my head, I recall a lecture by Margaret Livingstone, when I was still at the University of Michigan, expressly using a linguistic concept, the categorical perception of a range of speech sounds as specific phonemes, to explain how/why it is we tend to see pictures (be they photos or caricatures) of recognizable figures (be they persons or common objects) in iconic/conceptual terms rather than as assemblages of varying shades and colors.  Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is based in the notion that you have to untrain yourself from seeing the world in this conceptual/iconic manner so to be better able to depict it “realistically” in the media of your choosing, so it’s not as if this was even a recent insight.

Or, if you don’t like the encroachment of science in the humanities, there’s always Lacan, for what he meant by claiming that the unconscious is structured like a language is not that the unconscious is a language with minimal units and syntax and so forth but that language is symptomatic of how we think and understand the world.  How we interpret images could be understood as equally symptomatic and thus usefully analogous to language, even if not identical with it.  I’m not trying to suggest that there is no use in maintaining the language/image distinction–Miodrag’s own readings of comic texts often attest to the utility–but that it is not, as she seems to suggest, more correct.  Moreover, those who make use of a language/image distinction are not simply misreading the “relevant theory,” but may simply be reliant upon strains of semiotics Miodrag omits from relevance.

A Revised Bibliography

“In bringing to light the shortcomings of these defensively motivated critical standpoints, the aim has not been by any means to cast aside all aspects of the current formal model, but rather to amend it.  Careful application of the relevant semiotic theory destabilizes the accepted wisdom regarding the negligible differences between words and images, and challenges the overextension of a generalized linguistic model to a diverse range of visual signifying practices.” (Comics and Language p. 246)

Given how hard Miodrag rides Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole, it strikes me as odd that she should omit a number of theorists of language who challenge, revise, or whose work can be used to undermine the very concepts upon which she so relies (e.g. Peirce, Austin, Benveniste, Kristeva, Derrida, etc.).  Derrida is probably the most glaring omission and the one I will focus on here, as the critique of Saussure’s theory of the sign in Of Grammatology speaks to the heart of what concerns me most in Miodrag’s emendation of the comics studies discourse.  Now, I realize that our dear, departed Jacques has over the past decade or so fallen down many pegs in the Anglo-American academy, but this is no excuse to simply ignore him.  There are two observations Derrida makes in that text that are most relevant to my critique here.  1) Writing is not simply a recoding of speech.  It is useful to think of writing and speech as fundamentally different rather than simply elide them, as Miodrag does, under the rubric of “language.”  2) Understanding language in terms of signifier and signified (or sign and referent) is unnecessarily limiting.  Derrida abolishes the necessity of the referent (and the hypothesized world in which it is situated) and proposes thinking of language as a chain of signifiers, i.e. signs pointing to other signs pointing to other signs ad nauseam.

I was quite taken aback to see a rather naive faith in language-as-reference underpinning Miodrag’s distinction between language and image: “The relationship between signifier and signified is purely conventional, based on knowledge.  Visual signs are (certainly more often) motivated, with some logical relationship existing between a sign’s form and its significance.  Pictures look like the thing they represent, and though there are codes regulating the relationship between signifier and signified, it is not always necessary to have prior knowledge of a particular sign in order to work out what it represents in the way that it is with arbitrary words, whose signifier-signified association must simply be learnt.” (ibid. p. 9)

There are several things to unpack here, so I’ll take the last point first.  It is entirely possible to make out the sense of a word without any prior experience of it or learning it by rote somehow.  For example, “I swung a !@#$% at his head, and where it struck him there remained a long, purple bruise.”  Without any prior knowledge, you could likely determine that !@#$% is a noun (because it’s preceded by an article) and also some sort of long, blunt weapon or object being used as a weapon.  Everyday, we encounter our own native languages with imperfect knowledge of the variety of ways they have been used and possibly can be used; not perfect but sufficient sense can made of any gaps in our knowledge by deciphering the way in which what we do know points to a limited range of possibilities for those gaps.  Further experience with those sign-gaps may show that our initial guess was right or in need of further revision.  A similar thing can be said of comics.  When I first started reading manga, no one handed me a diagram showing the conventions of how panel sequences ought to be read in Japanese; I figured it out as I went along, based on the assumption that the panels/images on the page ought to adhere to a certain chronological or conceptual order.  This would seem to confirm what Derrida (largely repeating Heidegger) says, that signs point to other signs.  In fact, it seems to me that a certain cycle of assumption and revision that we are always undergoing is only made possible if this is true.

“[T]hat which belongs to the system is defined in relation to what lies outside it.  The very incorrectness of certain linguistic utterances (‘potment’) plays a part in drawing the frontier between these misconstructions and correct language (‘potted’).  Herriman shows the border between sayable and unsayable can be crossed: the word ‘potment’ does not exist according to the dictionary, and ‘pottage’ here takes on a very different meaning, but though both are recognizably linguistically incorrect, they can be said and can be invested with significance.  The relationship between the elements inside and outside of language, which here draw the same morpheme [i.e. “pot”] into correct and incorrect constructions, enables the non- or extralinguistic phrase to signify nonetheless.  However, its significance incorporates misarticulation.” (ibid. p. 22)

The comment about not existing according to the dictionary shows just how backward the thinking is here.  Lexicons are not machines that generate the possible units of a language but rather texts that describe the constituent units of a language as used, which is why they are subject to constant revision.  “Potment” is a neologism, to be sure, but if it were to enter into common usage, even among a certain subset of society, it would become just another word like apple or sizzurp.  Moreover, the fact that “potment” can be broken down into recognizable morphological units with a perfectly conventional relationship to each other, shows that it isn’t extralinguistic at all.  Herriman has flouted convention, not the rules of the English language, and by obeying those rules has created something novel (and funny) in precisely the manner language always could.  It is the connections that Herriman teases out to pots/potting/flowers that point toward the “potting” in “pottage” and open up a narrow conceptual field that makes sense of “potment,” and I say “narrow,” because he is also seemingly not drawing any connection to “pot” as used with reference to the culinary arts or marijuana.

This sense by association works as well with images as the language Miodrag would sequester from them.  I am reminded of recent experiences I’ve had perusing Twitter or playing games online.  On occasion, I would see people append the katakana for tsu ツ to a tweet or to a statement in chat.  For the longest time, I had no idea what this meant, for the people doing it were clearly not Japanese speakers.  In fact, being a Japanese speaker was what was getting in the way of my seeing that the character ツ was being used as a smirking smiley face.  For those who knew no Japanese, their only experience of the mark was in terms of cheeky statements made online, and thus they read it as pictographic, whereas my only experience of it up to that point was as a letterform.

Dave Sim, Latter Days, p. 183

Dave Sim, Latter Days, p. 183

In this example, we have a “pure” image, Cerebus about to yell at his followers after stealing one of their shirts.  The joke, as with Herriman’s above, lies in the repurposing of something conventionally understood: Charlie Brown’s shirt.  The dramatic irony lies in the fact that while Cerebus sees the black zigzag as rows of sharp teeth, the shirt is, in fact, that of a neurotic child.  Jokes are never funny when you explain them, but by drawing this visual connection to one of the most iconic characters in all comics’ history, Sim invites us to read what follows as, perhaps, neurotic and infantile.  Without this connection–if you’ve never heard of Peanuts or seen a Charlie Brown cartoon–the gag makes no sense at all, though I suppose a comic reader knowing nothing about Charlie Brown is as likely as a speaker of the English language not knowing what a pot is.

This is simply a sample of what bugs me about Comics and Language, but since this post has already run veeeeeeeery long, I will conclude by noting that Miodrag’s formalist approach suffers from the same problem nearly all formalist approaches suffer from, an unnecessarily limited purview.  This narrowing can be seen as limited presentation of the relevant critical literature, a limited conceptualization and ready acceptance of what is not omitted (both of which I have tried to show here), but it can also be the institution of an asocial, culturally odorless wonderland where units of meaning can be considered absent the messy residue of race, gender, class, and what have you.  All too often, formal analyses (as with Cohn in my previous post) carry with them a number of cultural assumptions that get swept under the rug by simply refusing to address them.

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

One comment

  1. […] an alternative mode of reading.  Likewise, any incidental mode of reading, for instance my reading of the figure ツ as the Japanese katakana for tsu as opposed to its use online as a coy …, can render the very same object a plurality even without shifts in larger, structural […]

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