[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 5 – Introduction, or [Comics] as Guide to Textual Subjectivity pt. 1

[Editorial Note – Today’s post apparently coincides with the third anniversary of the existence of this blog.  Hurray?  Anyway, I have to apologize for the interval between when I finished posting chapter 4 and now, but I was just not satisfied with what I had originally written, and so proffer this much longer and hopefully more coherent first part of chapter 5, the conclusion, in hopes the gods of getting shit done on time won’t smite me.]

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web

V. Introduction – [Comics] as Guide to Textual Subjectivity

One might as well argue that since allegorical and romantic narrative forms were familiar and standard in the Middle Ages, they were the realism of the day.

W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory

1. Hyōgen and Representation

As more and more Japanese criticism on [manga] finds its way into English, either in strict translation or, as here, in paraphrastic transmutation, a minor controversy has arisen as to how one ought to translate—and so how one ought to think—the crucial term hyōgen and, more to the point, manga hyōgen.  Initially, this term was rendered, almost reflexively and certainly without much elaboration or forethought, as “representation.”  However, more recently, some, such as Jaqueline Berndt, have argued rather convincingly, that hyōgen ought to be rendered as “expression” rather than “representation,” and so manga hyōgen would be understood not as “[comic] representation” but rather as “[comic] expression.”  At first glance, the distinction between the two might seem to be splitting the very finest of hairs, nevertheless it points to another way of thinking [comic] textuality—and, I hope, textuality in toto—to which the many digressions and deconstructions of the previous chapters serve as a necessary if occasionally overwrought preface.

To that end, I began from a conclusion, from what seemed to be long settled matters from which a discipline called “[comics] studies” might continue its march of intellectual progress—over a cliff, if need be.  Not that I begrudge the academically motivated their professional certitude, but as I tried to work through these matters on my own, it became readily apparent that there might be good reason to become unsettled again.  So, I chose, after a fashion, to work backwards, rather haphazardly, sometimes genealogically, sometimes symptomatically, but mostly with an eye toward those things which, in retrospect, settled matters did not explain very well, in an effort to puzzle out why that might be.

Now that we have arrived at our ultimate point of departure, permit me the indulgence of drawing up a new list of themes, so as to revise what I drew up in chapter 1 and reconfigure their purview in light of the concerns dug up in my deconstructions and digressions.

1) Articulations – understood more broadly as anything from relations between minute elements on the page (c.f. the “bill” in Hogan’s Alley discussed in chapter 3) to broad structural effects like those discussed in chapter 4

2) Hermeneutics as primary disposition and aftereffect – interpretation here is not just an activity performed on upon a more or less settled text but also what settles it in the first place

3) Textual infrastructure – whether as unconscious or as design methodology, a far from content neutral ground which delimits texts and projects an ideology through them

4) [Comics] as readings – readings both in the sense of “close reading” and reading on a gauge or some other monitoring apparatus; readings both of presumed “content” (e.g. as with parody) or of “form” (e.g. in the appropriation of other media)

These points perhaps deserve more elaboration than a list normally merits.

Articulations.  While describing what he means by “iconic solidarity,” the fundamental principle of his System of Comics, Groensteen claims, “[n]ow that the book [album] is, in Europe, the preponderant vehicle for comics, it follows that the page is the technical unit, market and aesthetic reference.” (20)  This identification of a particular part of a [comic] text in a particular format as [comics’] most basic unit and identifying all comics, more or less, with that format as a conceptual mode (c.f. bookthink) has the unfortunate effect of overlooking how formats constrain and re-inscribe those very elements which may initially appear to be proper or, at least, more proper to one particular vehicle.  In chapter 1, I characterized this oversight in terms of a [comic] being both some object, be it material or—as [webcomics] have again brought to the fore—ephemeral, as well of the discourse that surrounds it, in which it has come to be embedded.  The case of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona in chapter 4 shows that this theoretical concern is simultaneously a practical one as well, for reader as well as artist as well as anyone involved in [comics’] production, reproduction, and reception.  For any given page of the book Nimona published in 2015 is also but one element of the webpage on which it appeared prior to printing.  There, the “page” is functionally equivalent to the header or to the comments section below it.  The book “page” becomes image solely as a function of how its formatting has changed and how this enforced contextualization imposes upon the page-as-image an alternative mode of reading.  Likewise, any incidental mode of reading, for instance my reading of the figure ツ as the Japanese katakana for tsu as opposed to its use online as a coy smiley face, can render the very same object a plurality even without shifts in larger, structural forces.

Hermeneutics.  My first point of departure in chapter 1, my daughter’s well-considered request for me to read a hinged, compact mirror to her, will find its grander, more academically invested bookend in the discussion to follow in the next section, where, with reference to the respective [comic] texts of Alison Bechdel and Mizuki Shigeru, I will consider how it is one reads a hand-drawn (and mechanically reproduced) image as “photographic” or, at least, somehow more photographic than the images that surround and are juxtaposed with it.  While not an entirely separate concern from the articulations listed above, the question of hermeneutics as a mode of establishing what and how a text is at all points to a similar concern from a different angle.  Where with articulations, one might conceivably address structural effects and inter-relations in purely objective terms, the emphasis here is on the necessary role of life experience in learning—no, continuing to relearn what [comics] are as they develop over time and to read those developments back onto historical iterations of the “form.”  Texts too, then, have this experience through time, a type of, for those who might get queasy treating things as having “lives,” subjectivation, in Foucault’s sense of that word.

Textual infrastructure.  Prior to latching onto the tidier concept of infrastructure and then reformulating it in terms of how the concept of the unconscious functions in aesthetic appreciation, I articulated this as “acquiescence and resistance to the participation of other texts and persons in normalizing the discourse of a particular cultural artifact.”  Though elaborated in the context of [webcomics] and HTML, as well as transpositions between being online and in print, textual infrastructure here is more than just a creature of formatting but also, as the references to Marx, Althusser, and Dijkstra’s “separation of concerns” were meant to show, an ethical and political concern.  McCloud and Tycho’s argument over what form the future of [comics] was then likely to take is also an argument over political economy, how an artist establishes herself and her work through the “primitive accumulation” of a community of readers who might in turn provide the means for the artist to continue to produce work that this fomented community is likely to read/consume.  However, lest we escape with our critical hides unscathed, textual infrastructure is also academic and institutional in nature.  Certain [comic] texts become valorized as a result of their fitting conveniently into established critical modes (literary 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 right.

[Comics] as readings.  Because the title of this present work, [Comics] as Reading, has heretofore only been explained by recourse to indirection and allusion, it is worthwhile now to tease out the several ways in which I think even the phrase might be read.  “Readings” can be taken in at least two ways.  First, [comics] are readings insofar as they function as an index or register of something else.  Like the reading of the temperature on a thermometer, they act as an empirical data or givens of some other phenomenon, not of the ambient air temperature but perhaps, as with an editorial cartoon, of the undisclosed truth of a politician’s public policy prescriptions as revealed in his physiognomy.  This [comic] “datum” reads the ambient environment and in turn may be read as one might the Bible or 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], Unflattening, and so constitute the second “way.”  Moreover, I have endeavored to show throughout the present work and its many arguments how [comics] might read both “form” and “content,” if we must presume such a distinction—in fact the reading of both indicates the nonsense that lies in making such a distinction, even if it is occasionally useful to do so.  The reading of content requires little explanation, I hope, but as can be seen in Rakuten’s appropriation of the sugoroku game board in his [manga], this reading leads not only to a novel way of seeing that form but also, through the appropriation of the conventions by which one reads those other media forms, to a novel mode of reading [comics] as such, in that primary hermeneutic sense.

Because [comics] are textual and not human subjects, we come to know these readings by way of yet another interpretive remove, that of representation.  Moreover, just like texts, and especially the texts examined in the several arguments of the present work, representation has its own infrastructures and its own ideologies.  So, while there may be only a hair’s width difference between the translations of hyōgen as “representation” and as “expression” above, because they emanate from cultures that, for many centuries, had no meaningful interaction, those terms carry with them the weight of their own metaphysical baggage.  The problem of representation in the “West,” whatever that is, is at least as old as Plato and likely older, if you believe what some say about the relationship between Greek philosophy and the worldviews of other ancient Mediterranean cultures.  And representation, or mimēsis rather, is for Plato not just a point of philosophical investigation but a genuine aesthetic, ethical, and therefore political problem to be resolved.  The entirety of bk. 10 of the Republic, with its diatribe against poets, justifies their expulsion from the ideal state on the grounds that artistic representations draw one away from the ideal forms of Beauty or Table that the artistic artifact only ever imperfectly mimes.  Throughout the European philosophical tradition, as it reads and re-reads itself ad nauseam, there is a recurrent suspicion of appearances, of surfaces, of what you see before you in your immediate ken, and the project of philosophical discourse, in line with this suspicion, is to see what lies beyond or, more darkly, behind the manifest.  Even where the nodes of surface and beyond have changed dramatically—Plato’s forms are not at all the same as Kant’s noumena—the mechanics of how conscious thoughts relate to unconscious desires, or how visible phenomena correspond to mental pre-conceptions, or how poorly tangible objects recollect their Idea—the how of representation has changed surprisingly little.  Representation, Vorstellung, mimēsis… call it what you will, though they differ in the particulars, the fundamental suspicion of “what you see” remains.

However, the very same tradition that could never quite give up on radical metaphysical doubt also never gave up trying to recuperate appearances from their many critiques, from Aristotle’s implied response to Plato in the Poetics to the larger project of phenomenology as a means to understand being in terms of knowing/consciousness to Rorty’s attempt to get over analytical philosophy in The Mirror of Nature to Butler’s attempt to valorize appearances and the performance thereof as fundamental to any understanding of identity.  All of which is to say that the “Western Tradition” is an elaborate contradiction spanning several millennia.  No, that’s unfair—this latter arbitrary category responds to the suspicion of “what you see” as “what it is” with an emphasis on “what it does.”  In Aristotle’s case, mimēsis, the imitation of some god or hero in now-ancient-then-current tragedy, has less to do with whether the actors accurately represented the pure essence of the figure seen on stage, Plato’s concern, and far more to do with the affective reactions of the people spectating, the emotional katharsis or purging that results from the heightened experience of fear and pity that tragedy stages.  In this light, gross exaggerations or “inaccuracies” may not only be of little concern but a welcome addition to the effect-in-affect of the work of art, an emotional Gesamtkunstwerk not a “representative” one.  So too for Butler, for whom the codes appropriate to various identities are presumed and performed not natural reflections of some essential being.  In both cases, Aristotle and Butler, “what you see” points not toward some ideal but to the expectations of one’s auditors, and in so doing this deixis (“pointing”), as linguists would say, demonstrates itself to be hermeneutic in nature—playing to the expectation one’s auditor will understand what is meant by a particular expression—not referential.

So, when one speaks of representation in the intellectual tradition of West, it is important to bear in mind which tradition one has in mind, even whether both of the hackneyed categories named above are in play.  This is no less true in the case of hyōgen, a word whose first recorded usage in a dictionary of philosophical terms from 1881, well into the period when the Japanese were coming to grips with the massive and sudden influx of “Western” (read: European and American) ideas and trying to synthesize them with a number of pre-existing thought systems.  I say “systems,” because while then as now white people too often succumb to the temptation to characterize the Japanese as homogenous in thought and behavior, even a cursory survey of Japanese history reveals purviews derived from Confucianism, various Buddhisms, and a presumed ancient shamanism exemplified by a wide variety of local ritual practices and superstitions.  When hyōgen became current, many Japans and many Wests had already converged to produce a fundamentally mixed cultural output that, like the sugoroku game boards in chapter 2, can be read according to a number of potentially contradictory worldviews.  This contradiction is not to be lamented but is the clearest sign of the potent expressiveness of these texts.


In that dictionary from 1881, Tetsugaku jii, hyōgen is used to translate “presentation,” presumably in a lay linguistic sense, and is far removed from, say, Vorstellung, which the very same dictionary translates as “idea,” keeping it well in line with a Platonic tradition in which the mechanics of representation point toward something thoroughly abstracted from what is at hand.  The more contemporary sense of hyōgen as expression is reinforced in no small part by its use in hyōgen shūgi, the art historical phenomenon of expressionism, be it German or abstract or what have you.  This association with expressionism indicates, presumably, a different mechanics of “pointing,” one which, while not entirely giving up empirical correspondence, whether “what it looks like” is, in absolute truth, “what it is,” nevertheless tries to depict something more than the “what it is” or, rather, to expand the “what it is” to include “how it is,” how it presents itself, how it expresses.  In this sense, hyōgen points not merely to some absent god against which we might judge what is in our immediate ken, in purely objective terms, but also points to itself, how “what we see” realizes “what we understand it to be.”  Hyōgen/expression, like caricature, draws attention to that which we might otherwise take for granted, reveals it to be other to itself, perhaps, a play on familiarity and difference that never quite resolves.

Paul Klee, Zwei Männer, einander in höherer Stellung vermutend, begegnen sich; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Paul Klee’s Invention no. 6 from 1903, titled Zwei Männer, einander in höherer Stellung vermutend, begegnen sich (Two Men Meet, Each Presuming the Other to be of Higher Status), we see two naked men who, from their faces and beards, we might assume to be the German Emperor Wilhelm and Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, bowing and scraping to one another.  Because they are naked, because the emperors have no clothes, they are unable to discern one another’s true rank, and so try to outdo one another in groveling, lest they underdo it and thereby offend.  Klee’s [comic] sensibility, even though we might not likely describe this particular etching, given its cultural and historical situation, as a [comic], reduces Wilhelm and Franz Joseph, here represented, to the status of “anyone at all” and so therein draws equal attention to the expressiveness of the gesture each body mirrors in the other.  I infer this from the relative ambiguity of the generic word Stellung—read above as “status” though more like “position”—which might indicate the baggage attendant to social rank and its observance but also the simple fact of a “pose.”  Note, for instance, how the figures are not quite groveling, their faces pointed not toward the ground but toward each other so as to observe how the body opposite has oriented itself.  One might read this image, as it commonly is, as two important individuals, stripped of their outward signs of supremacy, carefully observing the gestures of his counterpart so as to discern who he might be in the world.  One might also read this image, though, as two figures, grossly exaggerated, observing one another so as to maintain a certain symmetry or correspondence, in which the gesture itself of bending the back and sweeping up the arm to the chest is emphasized far more than who these “two men” might be.  In other words, this latter reading, pointing as it does to the expressionism with which Klee would be associated, draws attention to how rather than what the figures are.

Kaisers Wilhelm and Franz Joseph, then, are both recognizably themselves and other to themselves.  The figures’ two faces are meant to point to particular historical-but-then-current personages but also to a condition, be it public nudity or unknown social status, which those persons, I assume, never themselves experienced.  In fact, the depiction of these two men in this way, according to a hackneyed, Platonic reading, might be wholly inappropriate, yet their reduction to this state expresses far more than they might appropriately on their own.  Furthermore, by adopting such an inappropriate mode of “representation,” the image reveals its potential as an expression in its own right, a point of emanation from the text to our own selves as spectators rather than to some distant other, wherein we stand idly by as the game of sign and referent plays out despite us.  How it depicts these figures meets with how we read them, and in that correspondence it might very well play to our expectations, but it also becomes susceptible to an understanding that its creator may never have anticipated.

To that end, it is important, dear reader, that you try and recognize how this notion I have broached and will continue, one hopes, to develop at a later date—of alter-textuality, of other-to-self, and, ultimately, of textual subjectivity—cannot and ought not be reduced to one ideology supplanting another, “expression” replacing “representation,” for instance.  What I am asking is that you reconfigure your sense of either/or from the presumption of mutual exclusivity to a both/and not, where what the logician might regard as an unsustainable contradiction might, instead, be read as modes of understanding that speak both to and against each other, both for and not for one another.

from Rakuten Puck vol. 3 no. 5, p. 21

from Rakuten Puck vol. 3 no. 5, p. 21

And to that end, it is worth revisiting hyōgen in order to chip away at its super special Japanese-ness, which, one might claim, cannot possibly be expressed in English, as a result of the ineffable loss that attains to any and all translation—in order to show how, contra Berndt, hyōgen can, in fact, mean representation in something like the sense noted above.  Consider Yumeno Kyūsaku’s rather peculiar literary essay, Hana no hyōgen (Expressions of the Nose), in which the author considers what significations might be found in various kinds of nose.  Though the essay addresses the phenomenon of physiognomy, how physiological traits correspond to personality and disposition—rather than a more metaphysically dire consideration of how the manifest corresponds to the ideal—in both cases the mechanics of representation do not fundamentally differ.  A particular nose points to a particular type of individual, just as, according to one linguistic theory, a particular word (or acoustic image) points to a particular concept.  However, as Rakuten’s [manga] above demonstrates, physiognomy, particularly as it regards caricature, is a [comic] trope as well.  The use of prominent physiological characteristics to identify the individual types those traits presumably represent can also be used to express types which have no material referent, for example, the use of a large, hooked nose to indicate the ugly stereotype of the miserly Jew or a large, curly moustache to indicate a cartoon villain, a motif that is by now far more conventional than “real.”

While two of the three characterizations of the broached notion listed above have been treated here to some extent, it remains to be seen how the both/and not of hyōgen and representation leads us to something we might reasonably call textual subjectivity.  What is more, I can imagine many of my dear readers might grow rather queasy at the suggestion of a text as subject, lacking, as they seem to, a mind or precise way of being in which thoughts and experiences might be said to emerge.  I am not possessed of this queasiness, and certainly I believe that texts have a way of knowing, if not a mind, and a mode of being that has off and on become the subject of the present work.  Perhaps what sets one most ill at ease is what textual subjectivity might suggest about human subjectivity, that we are, in a sense, read into being both by ourselves and by others.  It is this very reconfiguration of subjectivity Foucault has in mind in his reading of Seneca from the lectures collected as The Hermeneutics of the Subject (333).

What Seneca is constantly indicating is a method of the subjectivation of true discourse when he says, with regard to learning, the language of philosophers, reading, writing, and the notes you make, etcetera, that what is involved is making the things you know your own (“facere suum”), making the discourse you hear, the discourse you recognize as being true or which the philosophical tradition has passed on to you as true, your own.  Making the truth your own, becoming the subject of enunciation of true discourse…

…is a model of subjectivity that works for texts even without accepting any of the wild notions I am all too ready to believe.  A text, as a discursive thing itself, can quite easily become the enunciation of discourse.  What Foucault describes here, though in reference to Seneca, is not unlike what Heidegger in his later work calls “enowning,” though a more ordinary translation might render Ereignis there as “event.”  Even so, the “event” of experience “en-owns” (er-eignen) insofar as it becomes proper to oneself, like an interpolated passage in a book.  However, since here we are addressing textual and not strictly human concerns with being, the metaphor becomes the reality, and this matter of interpolation, be it literal (like a quotation) or figurative (by paraphrase or implication) or infrastructural (as one might regard con-text in general), becomes the precise mechanism whereby texts could be said to have experience and status as subjects of enunciation.

I chose [comics] as the locus for breaking down and then building back to this point not because I have, almost accidentally, found myself now to be a “[comics] scholar”—in fact, I tried something very like this argument many years ago with lyric poetry, and, though clear in my mind, it never quite grasped others’ imaginations.  [Comics] are a far better point of entry to what is, ultimately, a more general concern, because 1) they have historically had a marked disregard for decorum and convention, so the way has always been open to poach upon and appropriate other textual modes, and because 2) [comics] are forcefully visual, and so it is easier to see precisely how this appropriation works and, by drawing attention to themselves as well as some distant object of reference, light the way to the double play of hyōgen and representation.  In the following section, I will endeavor to show this double play in the autobiographical work of Alison Bechdel and in the historiographic work of Mizuki Shigeru, which, despite the “history” label, is also concerned with a textual reconstruction of the self.

NEXT: Chapter 5 pt. 2 (even longer!)


  1. […] are only there insofar as you are primed and willing to see them. This was also the case with Klee’s Zwei Männer above, where a plentitude of ways of understanding his two nude figures might help one see a plentitude […]

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