[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 3 – Discipline, Langue, and Play in the Discourse of [Comic] Studies pt. 4

PREVIOUS: Chapter 3 pt. 3

2. Categorical Perceptions

I regularly begin by reading conclusions.  Despite the pretenses of this very book, I quite often prefer to know precisely what it is I am (or was) meant to get out of a particular text, be it scholarly or otherwise.

It would be outrageous to suggest that all practitioner criticism is error-prone and that it can never hold its own beside academically ratified scholarship.  But it is the duty of academics to acknowledge conceptual problems when they do arise, and not to deferentially recite poor theory out of a fear that such acknowledgements entail participating in the kind of snobbery that has for so long kept comics out of the academy altogether.  This occasional reluctance to take on the recognized practices of scholarly discourse at the risk of colluding in its perceived exclusivity and elitism represents a rather ironic distortion of the defensiveness about the academy’s traditional lack of respect for the form.  Instead of commanding that respect through theoretically sound study that takes itself precisely as seriously as it asks to be taken, [!] there has sometimes been an unwillingness to essentially “gentrify” a field that has hitherto been very much open and democratic.  But it is this attitude that has yielded the exceedingly patchy field we now have, so democratic and inclusive it risks failing to discern between good and bad criticism. (Miodrag, Comics and Language, p. 251)

711tdoZoNEL._SL1360_Even as a reformed snob, I would likely be lumped into the category of academic, so it is incumbent upon me to take up the task of academic scholarship, as Miodrag above identifies it, to acknowledge conceptual problems when they arise, in particular Miodrag’s own.  For, while her argument concerning the relationship between the eclecticism of [comic] studies discourse and a diffuse anxiety among [comics] scholars concerning the field’s socio-political status is apt, she and I come to drastically different conclusions about how this discipline, such as it is, might function going forward.  Let us, then, go back to the introduction:

[T]his book expressly challenges the specific use that is routinely made of linguistic and literary theory, seeking an adjusted critical framework that is better attuned to the specificities of the visual and verbal modes.  The aim is to minimize the defensiveness that can so often be found underpinning the dominant approach to comics’ formal structure… In doing this, the revised framework does not aspire to “rehabilitate” comics beside the supposedly hallowed benchmark of other semiotic modes or art forms, but instead aims at incorporating the more consistent and established critical standards of adjacent scholarly disciplines. (ibid., p. 11)

While Miodrag’s intent may not to be to rehabilitate [comics], there appears to be a strong desire to rehabilitate [comic] studies.

This difficulty needs to be addressed as comics criticism becomes ever more widely recognized within academia, if the field is to shake off any last vestiges of that denigrated status with which so many critics have been concerned. (ibid., p. 13)

Ironically, by trying to sidestep the anxieties attendant to [comics] scholarship, Miodrag cannot help but wallow in them.

This is, by no means, a novel concern.  In a 1998 talk at the University of Copenhagen, Thierry Groensteen questioned why it is that [comics] are still in search of legitimization.  It becomes clear in Groensteen’s talk (and later essay) that the question of legitimization, which [comics], like any cultural artifact, have no real use for, is implicated in scholarly concerns.

The fact that the birth of comics is still a subject of discussion and disagreement shows just how retarded the study of the 9th art is.  As a cultural phenomenon and art form, comics (until the 1960s) were surrounded by a quite deafening silence.  They simply were not regarded as such; there was a complete absence of critical, archivistic and academic attention.  After the Essai de Physiognonomie in 1845, in which Töpffer proposes the foundations for a theory of comics, a hundred and ten years passed before another book in French appeared on the subject – Le Petit Monde de Pif le chien by Barthélémy Amengual, in 1955.  In this long interval books on cinema and photography were published by the dozen! (“Why are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” in Comics & Culture p. 31)

The legitimacy of the academy (i.e. [comics] as an acceptable object of analysis) and legitimacy in the academy (i.e. departments and institutes devoted to establishing [comic] studies in perpetuity) appear to be the great desideratum and have been for some time.  I would argue, though, that what is sought after in these calls to discipline (and publish) is not, in fact, just legitimacy or, more blandly, acceptance of [comics] and their scholarship as something worthwhile (for this is, by now, a fait accompli) but the power and authority to legitimize in one’s own right.

It is rather surprising… that the aesthetics of comic art should be systematically condemned as a whole, as if the were a single entity!  From the point of view of morality, magazines were frequently labeled either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, whereas no distinctions were made on the artistic level between the different authors.  Among the American comics that were most popular in France were works such as Flash Gordon, Terry and the Pirates, Popeye, Bringing up Father, Tarzan, and Dick Tracy, whose artists – who are all very different from one another – are now placed among the most respected masters of the 9th art.  Blinded, no doubt by the urgency of their mission, the censors of the period did not differentiate between these masters and the more obscure drudges who worked for the same sort of magazines. (ibid., p. 33)

The desire, then, is not merely to carve out a stable domain for [comics] scholarship—that already exists—or for one’s colleagues to tolerate one’s object of study, which always has far more to do with the prejudices of the colleagues than the status of the object, but for a superseding authority to make aesthetic judgments, to differentiate between the masters and the drudges, without being a priori subject to the limited understanding of those who do regard [comics] as an inferior object of critical inquiry.  Neither Miodrag nor Groensteen quite admit that the question of legitimacy is not to be legitimate, which is of specious importance, but to legitimize.

The recourse to a “superior” understanding of langue or language or linguistics or semiotics or whatever, when seen in this light, is to poach on the legitimizing power that theories of language have in their many domains: linguistics, sociology, literature, psychology, communication studies, etc.  As such, the power to legitimize is not merely to make judgments about the object of analysis (i.e. about how [comics] function as a language or not) but about the discipline of [comic] studies as well (i.e. about how well or appropriately language theories are used in the analysis of [comics]).  Though the argument for discipline takes many forms—the scholar scold is but one of them—they do all have in common a desire to secure one’s own status as a potential legitimizer.  I say this, because, while my own treatment of Miodrag’s work is clearly in the model of the scholar scold, I am profoundly suspicious of the desire for discipline and its attendant powers to judge in such a manner as to supersede the judgments of those for whom discipline is neither a desire nor a likelihood.  I can already hear the objection (my own) that to poach on the discourse of “I know theory better than you” renders one complicit in the very behavior being observed and objected to, but I would note that my own colonization of the language of rigor and discipline aims at demonstrating the ridiculousness and not the seriousness of the academic enterprise, that the impulse to scold can be a democratic and not an autocratic one.  I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide whether I have succeeded in this aim.

The model of critical success Miodrag sets for herself, “to demonstrate via close analysis of both texts and source theory the precise differences between the visual and verbal modes,” fails both in its close readings and its theoretical speculations, because it takes this visual/verbal distinction largely for granted and avoids considering any perfectly sound conceptual reasons for the very non-distinction she denigrates as merely defensive.  In fact, the two failures are bound up with one another.  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). (Comics and Language, p. 103)

“[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 have said about Heidegger’s sense of interpretation as Auslegung, for it shows how a sign must be interpreted as sign and not part of the undifferentiated noise of the universe toward which we comport ourselves with gross indifference.  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.

NEXT: Chapter 3 pt. 5


  1. […] studies and the so-called graphic novel, for instance), and it seems the goal of some critics, as noted in chapter 3, is not merely to feel legitimate in their work but to acquire the power to legitimize in their own […]

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