[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies pt. 3

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 pt. 2

An article on page 35 with the headline, “CHANGE FOR THE BETTER” discusses recent changes on Wall Street (in light of what later came to be referred to as the Panic of 1896) in which “Weak and Wildly Speculative Firms [are] Rapidly Becoming Weeded Out for the General Good.”  It continues, further down the column:

The banks will not, and could not if they would, extend such liberal accommodations as are necessary to prevent weak people from going under.  The banks had to face a crisis some weeks ago.  They had all their machinery at work to issue Clearing House certificates, but a resort to this method would have aggravated the situation, and they preferred to avoid it if possible.  Hence, powerful banking interests got together and began to import gold, paying a commission to secure the yellow metal.  Fortunately for them, they did not have to resort to artificial means very long, for the money trouble in a sense worked out its own cure.

What is under discussion is the banks’ and individual borrowers’ insolvency, but the language used is, like the “gold cure” being advertised in Hogan’s Alley, medicinal.  People are “weak,” one presumes, from “the borrowing habit,” and, unfortunately, there is insufficient “cure” (i.e. gold) to go around so as to save both the banks and borrowers (sound familiar?).  Two columns to the right is an advertisement from F. D. Morgan, “BANKER AND BULLION BROKER,” warning of what might happen to gold prices should Bryan be elected so as to induce the reader to buy gold now.  An article on the previous page (34)[1] notes the recent arrival of “two racing steamers” each filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold coins.  On yet another page (33), we can see an advertisement claiming that “FILLING THE BALLOT-BOX is the duty of the voters.  To fill it intelligently it is best to get at the facts.  The best way to get the facts is to buy a WORLD ALMANAC.”  At the very top of the list of what The World’s own almanac contains: “[g]old and silver in circulation.”

couverture-naissance-BD1One might easily regard the bill in Outcault’s [comic] as “complimentary” in the way Smolderen regards picture stories in the ILN or Graphic, simply one of many modes of addressing a concern, i.e. gold, that is simply “in the air,” on people’s minds and of concern to society in general.  This way of thinking, grounded as it is in bookthink, reifies a distinction between content and form that is necessary if one is to see the vehicle outside of the potential complicating claims placed upon it by iteration in its most proximal context, a print periodical (sing.).  Yet, one might just as easily tease out the theoretical implications of those very complicating claims and note how the [comic] might be seen not as a discrete text, one of many addressing a similar topic to others, but as a component within a system or, more precisely, a heterogeneous text, the September 20, 1896 edition of The World, in which there is a tantalizing but not necessary relationship between components within it that invite one to put them together but in no way demand it.  How Outcault’s [comic] is understood as a text and how it is re-contextualized within Smolderen’s work as well as my own is both symptomatic of and dependent upon particular scholarly prejudices, how we understand [comics] to be at all.  This is why it is disingenuous for anyone, including yours truly, to claim she is not going to define what a [comic] is, for the very mode of address betrays, little by little, that a categorical distinction is in play.

While the identification of a genealogical tradition from Hogarth or Töpffer or whomever may represent a real coup for the scholar/historiographer, it means surprisingly little for a more “ignorant” reader who only has the textual artifact itself (in addition to her own “limited” knowledge) to go on, be that the elusive [comic] book or some [comic] text encountered within the limited framing of a print medium, and by “print medium” I mean equally what so far I have referred to as a print periodical (sing.) such as The World and a scholarly monograph such as Smolderen’s text, which purports to observe and analyze [comics] from a certain remove. To be clear, I am making a non-distinction between how Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley [comic] from 1896 is [re]produced in the Sunday [comic] weekly of September 20 and in Smolderen’s Naissances, and I would advise you, dear reader, against regarding Smolderen’s presentation as a de- rather than a re-contextualization, for the force of his argument demonstrates why it is well worth thinking of Outcault’s work as being in line with a satirical or, as Smolderen says, carnivalistic tradition that precedes him.

Nevertheless, we must also resist, because such a presentation caters to scholarly prejudices, the notion that Smolderen’s re-presentation of Outcault’s [comic] is “more valid” due solely to his recourse to a straightforward historiographic mode, be it well done or not.  My purpose here, then, is to flatten the relationship between these two types of contextualization (and the ways in which they constrain interpretation) so as to bring to light another way of thinking origination, one which often has a difficult time getting a fair hearing, because it could be understood as anathema to the mode of causal (or, at least, implicating) descent that is so near and dear to the practice of historiography.

This way of thinking origination is already well-founded in semiotics (Kristeva and Barthes in particular) and typically goes by the name, Kristeva’s invention, of intertextualité.  I prefer the French term here in order to distinguish what she means by that term, a nigh ubiquitous tissue of incidental codes, from a more common, diffuse understanding of intertextuality in the Anglophone intellectual sphere as a system of reference or allusion between texts.  The latter might well be understood in terms of the former, but Kristeva’s intertextualité is far broader in scope and the “intertextual” relationship much fuzzier (and dependent upon a reader’s/observer’s understanding of an entire culture).  Kristeva’s semiotics have far more in common with a Heideggerean conception of die Welt (the world) and in-der-Welt-sein (being-in-the-world), though she herself never identifies this influence, than with any classical concept of allusion within literary studies.  Just as Heidegger considers the world a “totality of inter-relations” of what our understanding might identify after the fact as things within the world, so for Kristeva the “intertext” of all text—and I hasten to remind you, dear reader, that in this semiotic domain, “text” could just as easily refer to a table lamp as to the Magna Charta—a totality of inter-related codes, codes which, as far as anyone who has to make sense of them is concerned, are always already there or, as Heidegger would put it, already disclosed.  If I weren’t already occupied with other, only tangentially related concerns, it might be worthwhile to show how an entire French philosophical Zeitgeist simply substitutes texte for Welt, but I must digress.

There is, as Jonathan Culler notes, within this stream of semiotic thinking a marked aversion to the construction of genealogical origins within theories of language.

[I]t is part of the structure of discursive conventions to be cut off from origins.  Doubtless, the signs and grammatical rules of English have origins in some sense, but a pursuit of their origins would never yield an event that could truly count as an origin.  The first recorded use of a form or grammatical construction is not an origin, because what originates in this event is not yet a constituent of the code; it becomes an element of the system or code in a process that excludes origination… This is, of course, a paradoxical situation, and one function of the notion of intertextuality is to allude to the paradoxical nature of discursive systems.  Discursive conventions can only originate in discourse; everything in la langue, as Saussure says, must have first been in parole.  But parole is made possible by la langue, and if one attempts to identify any utterance or text as a moment of origin one finds that they depend upon prior codes.  A codification, one might say, can only originate or be originated if it is already encoded in a prior code; more simply, it is the nature of codes to be always already in existence, to have lost origins. (Pursuit of Signs, pp. 102-3)

Though everything said so far is amenable to what I have said with regard to thinking [comics] in terms of textual encounters (i.e. experiences of texts), this is where Kristeva (and Culler) and I part ways.  For what her semiotics all too often overlooks are the ways readers or, at any rate, the ones who do the interpreting (i.e. derive significance) are complicit in the re-production and, perhaps more importantly, the manipulation or transgression of the very codes she understands to be merely there.

The desire for origins is not unlike the common, [comic] trope of the superhero origin story, wherein some cataclysmic event provides a clear point of demarcation and justification for one’s secret identity as well as a constituent framework for understanding who this character is as hero.  Similarly, a clear demarcation for [comics] gives one a sense not only of what/when they are (i.e. a consistent identity despite numerous non-identical iterations) but how they are to be understood.  However, if the superhero origin is to be instructive rather than just indicative, it is worth bearing in mind that these origin stories can be and quite often are revised to suit the needs of the day, which in superhero [comics] leads to any number of continuity issues and in the discourse of [comic] studies to a pervasive if not always intense anxiety about whether our collective object of analysis is even there or, at best, truly held in common.  The mythographer’s treatment of the question of origin or, as I would say, origination, then, reveals far more than the historiographer’s consistent recourse to lines of descent, Smolderen’s “trajectory,” for while the basic sense of lineages and genealogy is present in mythic origins, they quite often cannot be easily reduced to that sense.

For instance, Virgil, in book 12 (line 166) of the Aeneid, appends to his hero, Aeneas, the mythic founder of the Roman people, the epithet Romanae stirpis origo, “the origin of the Roman trunk,” that is, less literally, the base of the genealogical tree that lays out the various lines of descent of the Roman people.  The epithet alone does nothing to contradict a classical [sic] notion of origin, but where it appears in the poet’s epic, as two armies array themselves for the battle that concludes the poem, and how Aeneas functions within Virgil’s telling as an anticipation of the founding of the Roman state, says far more about origin than a mere “first” or “starting point” might imply.  First, Aeneas’ founding in the poem is only ever metaphorical, implied by the final act of plunging his sword into Turnus’ chest: ferrum adverso sub pectore condit, “he planted the iron [i.e. sword] in the chest of his adversary.”  His founding, then, hinges upon the multivocality of the verb condit, “he planted,” which in another context might easily mean, “he founded;” both senses seem to be in play.  Second, the entirety of the poem is concerned not with the actual creation of the precursor to the Roman state but with all the events that led up to and contributed to it.  The origin story, then, is a function of all those things that precede the origo itself, for Aeneas comes from another place, the fallen city of Troy, and comes to a land, already inhabited, whose populace must be subdued and assimilated, if his destiny is to be realized; thus the battle in book 12.

The origin story, according to mythographic rather than historiographic thinking, comes not ex nihilo but as an attempt to embed oneself in an already established domain (e.g. an academic discipline or a world of vigilante justice) by appropriating, say, a pre-existing discourse and, by demonstrating one’s mastery of it, establishing oneself as an authority within that discourse.  Origination, then, as Aeneas might make clear to us, is at once foundation and colonization, initiation by means of the aggressive appropriation of a pre-existing domain.  So, by thinking origination in mythographic terms, we shift ever so slightly from questions of texts and authors, from whom the scholar might readily sequester herself, to questions of texts and authorities, from which category the scholar is not so easily dislodged.  Moreover, by thinking [comic] studies discourse in mythographic terms, we can see the practical, socio-political dimension to what might otherwise be understood as purely or for the most part theoretical.

NEXT: Chapter 3 pt. 4

[1] The page itself has “31” printed in the upper left, though it comes after 33 and before 35.



  1. […] orienting signs in terms of how they are understood, as acoustic images, it is quite easy to see, as Culler does in an earlier quote, the paradoxical relationship between langue and parole, between language as organizing principle […]

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