[Comics] as Reading – Intermissive 2 – Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening and Christophe Chabouté’s Tout Seul

PREVIOUS: Chapter 2 – [Manga]

I like to admit when I’m wrong, especially when a particular approach I have taken reveals itself to be fundamentally misguided.  Of course, these are the moments when, psychologically, it’s hardest to simply be wrong, and any number of beautiful rationalizations drift into your awareness so as to justify why you do things the way you do and to alleviate the intense anxiety and embarrassment of being publicly exposed, even if only to yourself, as imperfect.  Being wrong about a matter of fact, a simple datum, is easy to overcome, because quite often these misperceptions do little to alter your worldview.  But when the facts remain the same, as the world comes crumbling down around you–this is quite difficult to bear.

I say this, because Sousanis’s Unflattening, of which I will be critical below, changed my mind.  More precisely, it caused me to rethink an overarching claim I make in the chapter to follow on [comics] studies discourse.  I will keep it there struck through, so that you can see next week what context it appeared in, but here it is in uncanceled form:

I reiterate this point I have already made [about {comics’} embeddedness in print media] , because [comics] studies, like any academically minded critical domain, for the most part understands itself as aloof from its object of analysis and, more importantly, aloof from any construction of a historical or socio-cultural or ideological context within which one is to understand that object.

Now, you may be wondering why it is that Sousanis’ text changed my mind and not, say, any of McCloud’s work.  After all, isn’t Understanding Comics the quintessential example of [comics] theory that itself is a [comic]?  Why wasn’t I convinced way back when as an undergraduate at Mizzou?  The sentence which follows the quote above, and which will remain as is, will help elucidate what I mean by aloof from “construction… of context.”

In other words, none of the now numerous historiographic treatments of [comics], as far as I can tell, has presented itself nor is understood as publishing the very [comics] it observes, re-presents, and aligns with regard to a particular historical outlook.  The assumption underlying ordinary [comics] historiography and analysis is that a particular [comic] strip comes from an early 20th century American newspaper and not a reprint anthology from 50+ years after the fact, even though this anthology is what the essay at hand draws upon for its own reproduction.

Despite superficial similarities, i.e. [comics] theory that is a [comic], I would argue that Unflattening and Understanding Comics are, in fact, fundamentally different creatures.  McCloud’s text suffers because it is precisely what it says it is, almost to a fault.  He begins with a particular presumption of what [comics] are and, because he’s drawing it, can simply reproduce unproblematically the very thing his text claims to be.  This point is analogous to the criticism I made of Neil Cohn’s more linguistically oriented studies, particularly as it relates to the seemingly fundamental differences between Anglo-American and Japanese [comics].  There, something, or rather a very narrow range of somethings, was presumed to be manga and a series of statistical transformations were performed to demonstrate that what was presumed was, in fact, the case.  McCloud never uses his [comics]-as-theory to upset or interrogate his assumptions.  Even in Reinventing Comics, so much is taken for granted that it is hard to know where to begin to deconstruct it (though I will try do just this in chapter 4).

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening p. 10

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening p. 10

Sousanis’ Unflattening is simultaneously pre- and de-scriptive like Reinventing, but where McCloud’s work is marked by incessant cheerleading for [comic] possibilities, Sousanis’ own valorizations appear squarely within the context of a critical re-examination of [comics] form, one which, even as it laments the limitations of conventional forms, uses them to good effect.  The first encounter with a [comic] representation of [comics] in Unflattening presents them in a distinctly negative light (above): “this all takes place in boxes, / within boxes… / not only space, but time and experience too, have been put in boxes.” (10)  Yet, Sousanis uses what he appears to decry quite effectively, the effect of revealing by concealing that framing devices provide.

ibid. p. 16

ibid. p. 16

The movement down the page from an “open” field (nonetheless framed by the page) to narrower and narrower rectangles (boxes within boxes) both demonstrates the point Sousanis seeks to make about contrained fields of view but also leaves open another possible reading, from the bottom up, of making apparent what we presume to be there when our visual perspective has been arbitrarily circumscribed.  Even as his text laments flatness–or, perhaps, the odd effects of representation in 2 of 3 (or more) dimensions, it seems also occasionally to revel in visual effects that can be realized only by trying to cram un-flat objects into a flat visual field, say, in the manner of M.C. Escher.

ibid. p. 66

ibid. p. 66

I should be clear, then, that what I object to in Unflattening is not what it does with the “limitations” it has saddled itself with but rather what it says about what it’s doing, two modes which, thankfully unlike McCloud, do not quite match, and therefore leave Sousanis’ work critically open in a way that McCloud’s is not.

Perspective is Itself a Perspective

When you ask the question of what vision becomes (both as sensory faculty and metaphor for understanding) moving from one dimensional set to another (2D to 3D [to 4D etc.] or from words-or-images to words-and-images [perhaps words-as-images]), one big presumption, the primacy of vision and its diminishing of other conceptual faculties, remains intact.  This presumption really ought to be challenged, because it speaks directly to how inextricably grounded comics are to a visual textuality (which both displayed words and images [according to a certain useful if false dichotomy], be it on page or on screen, have in common) over and above other modes of sensual experience, which is to say an alternative empiricism.

ibid. p. 131

ibid. p. 131

The sphere and square of Abbott’s Flatland, which Sousanis makes recourse to throughout Unflattening‘s second chapter, rehearse a certain profoundly imperialist mode of understanding, that the rational ideal comes from without, presumably unaffected by or unconcerned with the more parochial matters that would attain to reasoning from within–and at every level: the sphere is more enlightened than the square, who is more enlightened than the line, and all of whom are more enlightened than the single point, which is depicted as a monarch unto itself.  An entertaining allegory, if nothing else, except this is not how volumetric dimensions actually work or relate to one another.  Flatland is, first and foremost, bad geometry, for no dimension dwells in one dwells in two dwell in three dwell in four ad infinitum.  A two dimensional plane could be the surface of a cube (or sphere), just as a one dimensional line could be one of the cube’s several vertices or the plane’s edge, if it has one.  The art of lines, of drawing, dwells on a page in a book in space-time in… you’ll pardon me if I lack a certain proficiency of jargon to progress past that point, but I hope you can see where this goes.  The challenge is to see the dimensions that we are, even if that means acquiescing to certain conceptual restrictions, to find a liberated understanding from within them rather than from without.

flatland_71

Abbott’s diagram of Sphere in Lineland from Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions p. 71

H.G. Wells’ “The Country of the Blind” provides a much needed anti-imperialist counterpoint to mere visionary understanding.  A mountaineer named Nuñez finds himself among an isolated group of people in Ecuador who have fled Spanish rule and who have all developed a hereditary blindness.  Like any good colonizer, he presumes his sight will provide such a clear advantage over these people that he will soon be pronounced their king.  However, the people of the valley have structured their society in such a way that not only does vision provide no material advantage but is an active hindrance.  The people all work at night when it is much cooler and when Nuñez proves to be a complete oaf, because of his difficulty of seeing, they begin to treat him like a menial, a slave to his own idiosyncrasies.  Moreover, the complete valorization of his sight has meant such insufficient development of his other senses that he is barely able to function in accordance with the values the people of the valley hold.  When he falls in love with his master’s daughter, the elders demand that he remove his eyes, and, though initially Nuñez is willing to do so, the story ends when he tries to flee the valley.

Unflattening p. 46

Unflattening p. 46

Wells’ story both is and is not a meditation on parochial understanding, because it demonstrates how all modes of reckoning, both Nuñez’s and the people’s, are afforded by conceptual restraints, not as scaffolding, an ideologically indifferent “means” or form (as both language and [comics] form are typically characterized) to which any content might be supplied, but as a domain which places certain demands upon those who would work meaning within it and to which the very same must acquiesce (or refuse to acquiesce) to varying degrees.  The liberated understanding is not one which frees itself from those constraints but rather recognizes them for what they are and responds accordingly.  It sees not a blank slate of absolute possibility but a totality of inter-relations that afford not only an infinity of permutations but also a grounding from which to begin and from which to continue to an end.

The ontology here is, admittedly, rudimentary, but it points to a fundamental difference of presumptions: mine own, that how we are (re: being) and understanding how we are (re: knowing) are not divisible concerns, even if they can be treated as such by means of rigorous abstractions, versus others’ presumption that there is nothing at all untoward in making this distinction from the get-go.  The previous chapter on [manga] was an initial attempt within a limited framework to see the constraints as they are and trace a rough set of genealogies rather than hypothesize them and test those hypotheses against a set of comic exemplars.

All Alone [With Everyone Else]

Unflattening, despite its interesting provocations, is still dependent upon two things I’ve never been fond of: narratives of intellectual progress and the notion that language (or any sign system, for that matter) is a trap.

ibid. p. 52

ibid. p. 52

In Christophe Chabouté’s Tout Seul (All Alone), the language trap, the conventional mode of understanding, the limitation… becomes a means to be tinkered with rather than lamented in the hopes that some day we will be liberated from it.  It tells the story of a man living atop a lighthouse, whose sole means of amusement is a game played in his imagination, depicted, we have to presume, on the play of the page.

tout_seul_95

Christophe Chabouté, Tout Seul p. 95

ibid. p. 96

ibid. p. 96

ibid. p. 97

ibid. p. 97

ibid. p. 98

ibid. p. 98

As above in Unflattening, this brief sequence plays upon a revelation of what has been occluded with the borders of the panel.  However, here, according to conventional reading patterns, we get the sequence in reverse, the occlusion to the occluded, but the revelation also demonstrates our own presumptions about what is not on the page yet dwells within our imaginations.  What might be read in occlusion as horse and knight is revealed to be centaur, not, strictly speaking, the correct reading of the series that precedes it but another, a reading which reveals the perfectly reasonable presumption of horse and knight to be akin to it, a flight of fancy.  The movement from occlusion to occluded is also a structural form near and dear to the [comic] milieu: a gag.  It has a setup, rearing legs at the bottom of 95; a development in the form of a two page spread of disjointed members; and a punchline in the form of a complete picture of the centaur.

The structure of the whole book is, as well, a gag, but a very serious one, moving itself from limited to fuller depictions of just what is going on inside the lighthouse.  In the first instance of the keeper’s game of fancy, the BOOM outside might be read as the sound of lightning in a storm.  Reasonable enough, but “in fact” this BOOM is the sound of a large, worn dictionary landing on the keeper’s table, where he points to a random word on the page and begins the sequence of imaginative occlusions.

ibid. p. 117

ibid. p. 117

ibid. p. 119

ibid. p. 119

The “study of the physiology and pathology of the foot” begins simply enough with human feet but goes on to include the base of a lamp and the “foot” of a chair leg, all pied in French, and so the natural openness of language becomes not a bind but a way into novel conceptualizations, ones which are cut off not by the means, the language, but by convention.  Tout Seul sees the means as it is, not as a bind but as a domain of free play, in which conventional understanding can be harnessed for good effect.  Ironically, the keeper is capable of subverting convention precisely because he is bound to the lighthouse, limited to its physical restraints, and so prevented from experiencing the very wide world that might expose him to the conventions he never realizes he’s undermining.  Yet, this isolation is also the source of a profound loneliness that manifests, after his contact with the sailors who regularly bring him supplies, well… this too is part of the total gag.

ibid. p. 335

ibid. p. 335

One night, the keeper’s finger lands on the word “prison,” and the analogue to his own circumstances is not lost, it seems, on either himself or us as readers.  He prepares himself a length of rope.

ibid. p. 351

ibid. p. 351

The keeper has set his fish free in the ocean and likewise hurled his dictionary into the brine.  Any number of maudlin romances have prepared us for what comes next.

ibid. p. 362

ibid. p. 362

But it never arrives.  The keeper has used the rope to secure his remaining belongings in an old suitcase, so that he can leave the lighthouse behind, one presumes, indefinitely.  The final page is also the final punchline of the final gag.  The keeper’s story fails to conform to one conventional pattern, depression resulting in suicide, but succeeds in conforming to another, the [comic] inversion of a joke, which has the happy consequence of saving him–or at least not permitting him to die–by removing him from the story into the world… we have to presume.

Perhaps it’s just a function of my Heideggerean predilections, but sometimes uncovering what came before is a means to discovering a primordial potential, one that was always there but papered over by the ever shifting currents of intellectual progress.  Sometimes, effort is expended just as efficaciously stripping away the wallpaper rather than painting a new design over the top of it, to comprehend how a seemingly moribund [comic] form like the gag might be productively renewed, not by growing ever distant from it but growing within it and with it.  This is why Tsurumi, I would argue, turns to doodles as a primordial [comic] form, because it is one that provides an outlet for creative energies that are basic to human being and not overly esoteric.

Which brings me to my favorite single page in Sousanis’ Unflattening, the kind of thing most texts never bother to reveal the existence of and yet which so many of them depend upon for their very creation: the preliminary sketch.

Unflattening p. 194

Unflattening p. 194

So many conceptual modes, at once chaotic and structured, appealing and foreboding, discrete yet overlapping one another in a remarkably flat plane.  I might argue that Sousanis comes to unsatisfactory conclusions, but at least he seems to be asking the right questions.

NEXT: Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies

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4 comments

  1. […] PREVIOUS: Intermissive 2 – Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening and Christophe Chabouté’s… […]

  2. […] the comics front, Nicholas Theisen, comics scholar at University of Iowa, published an incredibly in-depth reading of Unflattening on his blog. He came quite specifically from the perspective of comics studies, and took it in directions I […]

  3. […] the [comic] text on the verso of a bubblegum wrapper.  This sort of reading [comics] do as well, as made evident in extremis by Nick Sousanis’s recent critical work in [comics] form[at], Unflatte…, and so constitute the second “way.”  Moreover, I have endeavored to show throughout the […]

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