[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure pt. 3

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 pt. 2

2. Another Ideology of Form

The prevailing notion of the unconscious, as something ultimately unknowable or decipherable only in some shadowy form from an amalgam of symptomatic expressions, has long been wedded to aesthetic considerations.  From Freud himself, in The Interpretation of Dreams (though the unconscious was also a thing in his and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria) how one interprets dreams is fundamentally tied to how one renders meaning from a literary text.  In fact Interpretation is so thoroughly larded with readings of canonical works of European literature, that is quite difficult to ascertain where dream interpretation might stop and literary interpretation begin.  Perhaps that is the point, at least in those early works of Freud’s oeuvre.  In Jung’s “collective unconscious” as well we see the force of aesthetics, since, according to Jung, the existence of certain common tropes in the stories of a variety of presumably disparate cultures is symptomatic of what he considered to be a shared consciousness.  Rosalind Krauss, following Walter Benjamin, sees in modern and contemporary art an “optical unconscious,” and Fredric Jameson’s arguably most famous, or at least most widely read work, takes as its premise that all symbolic acts—and therefore narrative—have a “political unconscious,” reflecting socio-historical forces that are necessary to contextualize literary works and reveal in them a cultural baggage which may not be apparent and which the text in question may go out of its way expressly to deny.  This at the time novel mode of Marxian interpretation Jameson proposes lay in “its diagnostic revelation of terms or nodal points implicit in the ideological system which have, however, remained unrealized in the surface of the text, which have failed to become manifest in the logic of the narrative, and which we can therefore read as what the text represses” (The Political Unconscious, 48).

When earlier in this chapter I related considerations of the unconscious as history to questions of infrastructure by way of Faulkner’s Reqieum for a Nun, I had in mind to sidestep this easy affinity between uses of the “unconscious” toward the ends of aesthetic criticism, while nevertheless leaving myself open to use precisely this critical tradition where apt.  The reason for this is that when it comes to the history of web design, computer programming, and technological progress in general in this, our presumably digital world, the legacy jargon of cultural critique, even though it has lost none of its interpretive power in the intervening years, tends not to get a fair hearing among futurethinkers, who, by the adoption of an alienating insularity, render themselves no different from the academic types (even pseudo-academic types such as your dear author) who quite often dismiss perfectly valid criticisms by means of a thick wall of terminology accessible only to the already initiated.  Piercing the veil of Silicon Valley discourse may feel like a futile endeavor, larded as it is with buzzwords that seem, the moment anyone attempts to cogitate them, to disappear into a bay where ideas are mutilated the instant their words (e.g. “sharing” or “disruption”) are rebranded in hopes of duping the purveyors of capital into believing their newest algorithmic concierge service will change the world—which is to say, maybe make money someday… perhaps.

The notion that code, or more precisely the whole digital, networked infrastructure, might have an unconscious, a dark, subtle hold over that motivates almost imperceptibly, is likely anathema to the vaguely libertarian or objectivist worldview that presumes its primary mode of expression to be, according to an all-too-common formalist logic, content neutral.  Yet the men—and let’s be honest, we’re speaking nowadays of a profoundly macho if not always precisely male culture—or rather not all the men who developed the supposed medium of futurethink, computer software and hardware (though I will focus far more on the first), thought this way.  But before we come to our accidental antagonists in this reverse history of a digital textual infrastructure, namely Donald Knuth and Edsger Dijkstra, it is worth considering in some particular details what the Web was in its earliest, simplest, and therefore, I would argue, most primal iterations.

Anyone familiar with the early history of HTML would admit that it was, well, clunky, in no small part because as a markup language it lacked many of the powerful functions that HTML5 today provides, and subsequent versions will likely add many more.  As time passed, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3), the primary overseer of what HTML is as a language for webpages, added various features and deprecated others—”deprecated” being the operative word, not “removed,” since to remove already established functionality would break existing webpages through no fault of their creators, so the more reasonable approach was to insist that those functions no longer be used going forward in favor of some newer development.  However, what this means is that legacy functions continue to persist in a more or less repressed state: it would be taboo to do so, or considered “bad design,” but it is entirely possible still to create something like the site for Warner Bros.’ 1996 film Space Jam, infamous in the history of the Internet for remaining “as is” ever since it first went online.  It continues to load for the most part “as intended,” because while habits of web design moved in completely different directions and adopted the widespread use of functions the Space Jam website could not have even contemplated, since they did not exist at the time, everything that site relies upon remains latent in the markup language itself.  So it persists, the symptom of another time, another ethos of page layout that contemporary designers would just as soon forget, even if they can never obliterate it.

The Mosaic 1.0 web browser on a Mac running System 7.1

In addition to this “return of the repressed”—or should we say its uncanny eternity?—as with [comics], the history of the Web is one in which words and images (and later other, even “newer” embedded media) have come together in a number of different ways.  Prior to the introduction of Mosaic in January of 1993, images were loaded in separate windows from the display text.  Though it also served as an interface for other Internet protocols such as FTP and gopher, Mosaic’s role in the history of the World Wide Web as we now know it lay in its popularizing the Web beyond the cloisters of Stanford, the University of Illinois, or CERN and, more importantly for present purposes, how it displayed images in line with text in a single window.  Mosaic was not the first graphic interface for the Web—that distinction goes to Tim Berners-Lee’s WorldWideWeb (not to be confused with the more familiar WWW of present day) released in 1991—but I would argue that this inline-ing of words with images is one of the most important nodes, as Jameson would say, in unpacking how [comics] have developed on the Web.  Contrary to McCloud’s assertions with regard to canvases infinite and finite, the underlying design framework with which the earliest adopters of HTML had to work was not powerful at all, and, in fact, was a far cry from the programming languages available to coders of applications, since a markup language is, technically, a set of mere annotations to a document, even in computer science terms, though those annotations have become far more elaborate over time and dependent upon programming languages such as JavaScript to flesh out the possibilities of what one might see on any given webpage.

However, as any [comics] scholar knows, the mere juxtaposition of words and images (if we assume those to be wholly distinct categories, which I do not) is a rather paltry precondition for calling something a [comic], though some remain perfectly comfortable calling [comics] certain texts from long before that term was in common currency, so too with the Web, the addition of another feature to HTML spurred the development of layout design in ways that closely mirrored graphic design for print texts, even though the functionality was never originally intended for that purpose.  According to Barry Pearson, Pei Wei’s ViolaWWW browser supported style sheets, tables, and nest-able elements as early as 1991, but tables were not implemented until HTML 3.0, in May of 1996.  David Raggett, in RFC (Request For Comments) #1942, says

The HTML table model has evolved from studies of existing SGML tables models, the treatment of tables in common word processing packages, and looking at a wide range of tabular layout in magazines, books and other paper-based documents. The model was chosen to allow simple tables to be expressed simply with extra complexity only when needed. This makes it practical to create the markup for HTML tables with everyday text editors and reduces the learning curve for getting started. This feature has been very important to the success of HTML to date.

Curiously, the current documentation on the W3 page for HTML tables claims “[t]he HTML table model allows authors to arrange data—text, preformatted text, images, links, forms, form fields, other tables, etc.—into rows and columns of cells.”  While these two statements concerning tables may, to the untrained eye, appear to say more or less the same thing, the latter statement alludes to the manner in which tables came to be used in the late 1990s as a means for creating a total page layout.  In this, designers were adapting, if crudely, an understanding of the modular layout typically used to design pages in print periodicals to a function in HTML that had been intended primarily for the display of tabular data.  The table grew to encompass the whole page, and designers would use the precise control over spacing and arrangement in columns or rows that the markup language otherwise in no way afforded to break up the plane of the display into discrete areas.

Here we see another reason why McCloud’s “infinite canvas” actually makes less sense, for the Web in particular, than the “mere [comic] strips” he takes to task for being uncreative holdovers.  HTML as used, with the cells of tables becoming a primary means of framing disparate elements, was focused on dividing up the existing display space into discrete blocks, even where hypertext documents extended beyond the vertical width of the page, and not to hypothesize a great beyond from the frame onto which one’s monitor was a mobile window.  Here the language of the unconscious, with regard to what is there or can be pointed to despite “obvious appearances,” is particularly helpful for seeing how [webcomics] developed in genealogical terms, because the textual infrastructure that HTML provides was, first, not terribly amenable to the kind of design McCloud seeks to valorize for “digital [comics]” but also was historically used (read: forced to conform) in ways he simply does not recognize, I would argue, as a result of his fundamental orientation toward a future that could be anything and away from a past/present whose observable phenomena clearly contradict his claims.  Now, of course, HTML was not and is not now the only means by which “digital [comics]” were and are made available for reading, but it has been and continues to be one of the primary means by which they are disseminated, so ignoring it as a form of textual infrastructure with its own conceptual baggage does no one any good.

I would argue, then, in parallel to my argument in Chapter 2, that the unconscious of web design is the print periodical (sing.), what with its non-necessary but nevertheless enticing relationships between textual/visual elements in close proximity to one another.  McCloud’s reading of the underlying framework for digital texts, which largely extrapolates from and makes a metaphor of hardware (while also ignoring the software platforms these texts have to run on) is simply dead wrong.  It actually makes perfect sense that the first [webcomics] to emerge would be so clearly modeled on and derivative from newspaper strips, because their respective textual infrastructures have clear affinities with one another.  The [webcomic]-as-strip is just as amenable to the modular layout of webpages as to the modular layout of a print periodical (sing.), a fact which seems to echo Tycho’s earlier criticism that creating a [comic] digitally that cannot be printed in some form is simply not practical.

NEXT: Chapter 4 pt. 4


  1. Thank you for the meaty analysis. I would add a weird footnote, an impression even, about the murky origins of HTML. Everyone says CERN, but before that, I dimly remember fighting with the original pagemaker on a cranky piece of Apple iron with floppies, trying to get the tags correct so that the page would print decently layed out. Those tags later re-appeared, almost in their entirety in the first web pages. I blame Aldus corporation, but it would further illuminate your inquiries if web markup language evolved from one of the first attempts at practical, consumer home typography and layout.
    Cheers and regards /M

    1. You’re right in noting that HTML is just another form of document markup, and it uses common terminology and methods from desktop publishing. That’s stated rather explicitly in several RFCs. If you read parts 4 and 5, now up, the direction I wanted to go was less to the early history of desktop publishing, which anyone can see, and more toward the ethos underlying how typography moved from a strictly material (cast type and hot metal) to a mixed material/digital framework. This is why I focused on Knuth, since he provides a clearer path to go even further back, all the way to the nineteenth century, and illuminate how the underlying ideology of what he does in creating TEX reflects a history of computer science in which it tries to integrate “new” and “old” media rather than have one supplant the other.

      I realize in hindsight that the sort of reverse genealogy I’m working with buries the lede a bit, but that’s how an unconscious works, it motivates precisely because its primary (i.e. older) and so remains invisible in a discourse that is oriented toward what will come rather than what has been.

      I strongly suggest reading the critique of Dijkstra (pt. 4) and the discussion of Knuth/Morris. That’s where the gems are, as far as I’m concerned.

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