[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure pt. 1

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Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure

The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

1. The Future of [Comics] is Already Past

One of greatest sins in quoting an eminently quotable line from a work of literary fiction—aside from those that solicit the ire of a particularly litigious literary estate—lies in rendering it, because of your preferred re-contextualization, near meaningless. You assume the line to have a certain gnomic quality, that its wisdom is obvious not only prima facie but absent any grounding, any precise narrative locale from which it emerged and to which, according to another literary logic, it cannot return.  This sin is mine as well.  I too leave epigraphs looming enticingly over chapters that may or may not explain them, even this one: “[t]he past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Alone, the two sentences carry the whole weight of an uneasy feeling that historiography is not what it presumes to be, a record of what was, be it faithful or not, of an ill-at-ease which insists that every was must be reconjugated to an is or, at least, a might very well be, a lingering suspicion which cannot be confirmed according to any established empirical standard but which similarly cannot be denied.  Or, perhaps it says something far more comforting, that the past is always with us, that we cannot, in fact, be dislocated from where we come, no matter how desperately we try to reinvent the world in order to forget it, that the were that we are reminds us how to be without feeling the extreme freedom, and with it the extreme anxiety, of always making things up as you go along, as if your entire life had to be a carefully crafted fiction.

Of course, in context, as we say, the epigraph to this chapter could mean something far more mundane.  In Act 1 Scene 3 of Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, “the past” functions syntactically much more like a pronoun, standing in not for a grand trepidation over what was but for a person, a woman, who desperately tries to assert that her former self, her past rather than the past, is dead.  Temple says to Gavin Stevens, the lawyer who has arrived at her home in order to convince her to help save her wrongly convicted “domestic” Nancy Mannigoe, that “Temple Drake is dead” (92) to which Stevens replies with the now famous phrase above.  Temple, after the events of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, has tried to reinvent herself in her marriage to Gowan Stevens, Gavin’s nephew, according to Requiem at least, so as to deny her own personal trauma, something which Gavin needs to draw back into the present in order to save his client, the aforementioned Nancy.  It is the specters of her unconscious—and thus her conscience—that he requires in order to bring the drama of Nancy’s already concluded trial to a more just end.

This tension between conscious and unconscious works itself out between Temple and Gavin, between the immediate events of Nancy’s trial and aftermath and the history of Yoknapatawpha County that punctuates them, between the form of dramatic dialogue in which Temple’s present plays out and of the long prose passages interpolated into them.  Perhaps interpolation is not the right word, since it would beg the further question with regard to the novel whether its present is interpolated into its past or vice versa.[1]  If Gavin’s retort is taken to heart, perhaps the ultimate point is that present and past—even future, perhaps—are fundamentally coeval.  The very room in which Temple and Gavin have their conversation, according to Faulkner’s stage direction, exemplifies this past-in-the-present-ness: “[t]he atmosphere of the room is smart, modern, up-to-date, yet the room itself has the air of another time—the high ceiling, the cornices, some of the furniture; it has the air of being in an old house, an ante-bellum house descended at last to a spinster survivor who has modernised is.” (53)  This room in a house in a town echoes the courthouse at the center of that town, the same courthouse in which Nancy is convicted, a courthouse added to and remodeled over the years in accordance with the fashion of the day and the only building to survive the burning of the town’s business district in 1863, during the United States Civil War.  The intimations of Temple’s traumatic past are yet to come when diegetically we learn of these historical events, yet a number of Faulkner’s descriptions of the building are pregnant with connotations for her past-in-present.  “It didn’t escape: it simply survived” and “it took nine years to build; they needed twenty-five to restore it” (46) stand out especially as the kind of momentary historiographic witticisms that, as you progress in the narrative, become horrific in retrospect, for the human mind cannot be similarly and simply rebuilt.  Where the metaphor by way of analogy breaks down is precisely where the greatest point of interest emerges.

This metaphorical articulation between a building’s and a woman’s past might strike some as sexist, like using the feminine personal pronoun “she” to personify mere things such as naval vessels and nation states, but it alludes, if only accidentally, to the territorial and in some cases architectural understanding of the human psyche in psychoanalysis.  In Freud and Jung especially, though the first would often call the usefulness of the analogy into doubt even as he made use of it, the human psychic past—of the individual in Freud and of the collective in Jung—possesses a certain affinity with infrastructure.  Both remain largely invisible to human awareness in their ordinary, day to day function, but whenever and wherever they break down, both the human unconscious and the built environment become catastrophically apparent.  They even make useful metaphors for each other.  While in the earliest works of psychoanalytic research, the metaphor flowed only from infrastructure to psyche, it is equally apt, to my mind, to think in the other direction, using the terms of psychoanalysis to understand, say, the return of the repressed in a collapsed bridge, whose catastrophic failure brings to light the use of inferior materials or shoddy construction methods so as to save time or money.  In both cases, human environments and human minds, the ends of analysis are meant not for the showy expression of one’s interpretive virtuosity but for more therapeutic ends: construction or maintenance, in the case of infrastructure, and psychotherapy in the case of the mind.  Momentary traumas of the past, because of their repression, erupt into the future-now-present and the work of analysis intends to make certain that such eruptions, more or less inevitable, do not cause all basic function to break down.

I proceed from this digression on the unconscious and infrastructure (and history) to make clear that while in this chapter I will quite often have course to speak in a historiographic way, I have no intention of presenting what might be read as a systematic history of webcomics.  In fact, I would assert that such histories, beginning as they often do in the 1990s or, occasionally, a bit earlier with the development of the military-academic complex (i.e. ARPANET) that would evolve into what we now know as the Internet, actually begin much too late in the game for a more compelling genealogical understanding of how comics have evolved—or, perhaps, more provocatively, pointedly not evolved—and from too obvious correspondences (e.g. ARPA- to Inter-) that actually hinder rather than promote a better, more nuanced understanding.  Second, I intend to treat only a small set of what fall under the rubric of “digital [comics],” so-called [webcomics], in an effort to demonstrate both why this rubric is too overly broad and how a widespread prophesying about the future of [comics] “in a digital world” obscures far more than it illuminates.  Third, if bookthink was the great Other of the previous chapter on [comics] studies discourse, then futurethink, born from a pervasive tendency to prognosticate on what all texts, not just [comics], will become (or, in the more fervent examples, are becoming), as the old grounds for print textuality presumably crumble beneath us, as well as futurethink’s hand-wringing over why things have yet to change as spectacularly as the previous generation of futurethinkers predicted stand as the Other to my own argument, namely that something of print persists as infrastructure to/in the Web.

This is not to claim that textuality in a “digital world” in no way differs from what was but rather that the conjugation from was to is (or to may yet be) is an imperfect one, that the “digital” neither supplanted the analog/material nor should it be meaningfully understood as isolated therefrom.  It is precisely the failure to think the potentialities of the past in the present that renders futurethink so remarkably incapable of comprehending or accepting what actually happens in the wake of its prophecies.

Much depends on what comics do next—and here there is cause for concern.  Even as the two largest comic book companies have been fully absorbed by two of the largest multinational entertainment conglomerates, we see newspaper comics reaching what appears to be a final chapter, with the rapid decline of print newspapers and an unclear place for the conventional comic strip on the Internet, where very few have succeeded in making comics profitable.  Declining sales in serial comic books suggest that here too a chapter in the history of the form might be coming to an end, and the turn to book form—the trade comic or the graphic novel—must contend with the decline of print sales because of electronic books and digital distribution. (Garner, Projections, p. 191)

Gardner presents what is not only a recurring concern for how [comics] might respond to the gyre of late capitalism but also an all-too-common mode of framing that concern, of material and digital as fundamental antagonists in the great historical tragedy of media succession.  The antagonism, such as it is, reflects more an erosion or recalibration of a mix of media than a complete conquest.  Print, despite the myths, did not entirely supplant manuscript—human beings have, miraculously, retained the ability to apply writing instruments to bits of paper—the cinema did not destroy the theater, video on demand did not destroy television, and so forth.  To be sure, the emergence of “new” media (in the sense of “newer” media not the contemporary category of “new media”) alter the landscape in which the “old” were formerly dominant, but framing the inter-relation of newer and older media entirely in antagonistic terms misses the profound force of influence the old imposes upon the new as its conceptual infrastructure or unconscious.

[M]edia are themselves denizens of the past.  Even the newest new media today come from somewhere, whether that somewhere gets described broadly as a matter of supervening social necessity, or narrowly in reference to some proverbial drawing board and a round or two of beta testing.  But media are also historical because they are functionally integral to a sense of pastness.  Not only do people regularly learn about the past by means of media representations—books, films, and so on—using media also involves implicit encounters with the past that produced the representations in question. (Gitelman, Always Already New, p. 5 [emphasis mine])

The new does not merely, as McLuhan would have it, represent what precedes it, in the manner of a skeuomorph, a dead metaphor like the trash can or recycling bin on a desktop display that insinuates the material world without functioning in any way like it, but rather the new draws its media past into the present, often quite problematically and almost invisibly, and thereby draws upon it.  The most common locution nowadays is to speak of media texts as on the Web, as if it were a mere anywhere upon which a mere anything might be projected but which is in no way dependent upon that anywhere, but I will prefer to speak of [comics] and so-called [webcomics] in particular as in the web [sic] of complex textual inter-relations drawn from and not merely depicting a print milieu whose own observable articulations in what I have so far called a print periodical (sing.) signaled quite clearly [comics’] will be as already are.

NEXT: Chapter 4 pt. 2

[1] Moreover, the format and style of Faulkner’s long prose sections closely resembles the long “stage direction” passages interspersed throughout Requiem’s dramatic dialogue.


  1. […] earlier in this chapter I related considerations of the unconscious as history to questions of infrastructure by way of […]

  2. […] point of annoyance, because readings like Chute’s so actively conceal this larger structure or textual unconscious by trying to make what you see before you or hold in your hands almost purely a function of […]

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