Beautiful Theology: 4/8/07 - 4/15/07 .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Beautiful Theology

Signifying truth in more than words alone

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Understanding Comics ch. 9

OK, again with the disagreement — McCloud’s wistful picture of individuals in radical isolation, whose incapacity to communicate without mediation generates “nearly all human problems,” gets off on the wrong foot. Mediation isn’t an undesirable artefact of our inability perfectly to share thoughts; mediation, with its attendant phenomena of ambiguity, predictable misprision, finitude, and so on, is just how we communicate (James K. A. Smith has an excellent theological book about this premise, The Fall of Interpretation). Or in the words of John Hollander:

The Widener Burying-Ground

In spite of all the learned have said,
We hear the voices of the dead.
Not scholiasts who like Burke and Hare
Turn dead leaves in the living air,
Unlock the Essay and exhume
Philosophy from its dry tomb,
Nor wise embalmers of the text
In humble buckram or perplexed,
Carved, interlaced half-calf, who come
To show how gold they are, and dumb –
We strike from silent lines a fire.
Troped sea-shell, loud Aeolian liar,
Nymph-haunted cave and mountain-peak
Choir with voices that we seek
As, scholars of one candle-end,
We hear the hush of dusk descend.
We unfired vessels of the day,
Built of a soft, unechoing clay,
Grow obdurate of ear at night
When images of voice are bright:
The dreamingale, the waterlark,
Within the present, silent dark
Echo the burden (on these stairs
Mistranslated) the singer bears –
He who packs, with a glowing faith,
In that portmanteau, fame and death.
Our marginalia all insist
– Beating the page as with a fist
Against a silent headstone – that
The dead whom we are shouting at,
Though silent to us now, have spoken
Through us, their stony stillness broken
By our outcry (we are the dead
Resounding voices in our stead
Until they strike in us, once more,
Whispers of their receding shore,
And Reason's self must bend the ear
To echoes and allusions here.

So McCloud’s “gauntlet” of obstacles that a pure “message” traverses on its way to a receiver’s mind involves a whole litany of tangles. All the aspects of the gauntlet form inevitable parts of a message, not extrinsic deflections of meaning. Without the gauntlet, no communication.

So rather than accepting McCloud’s schema of message and media, we can take this section as a reminder of how very complex are the webs of signification, and how many dimensions of mediation we need to attend to. Thus, when McCloud says “The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which that percentage [of successful transmission of conceptual content from mind to mind] can be increased, the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey,”* we can reread him to be saying, “The more you want to control someone’s uptake of your communication, the more attention you need to pay to the fullest range of dimensions of your communication.”

His closing series of panels, evocative of the vast power of comics for stimulating imagination and enriching communication (and alluding yet again to Magritte, p. 207 lower right), aptly suggests my interest in the many dimensions of expressive, interpretive practice that extend beyond word-for-word substitution. And, as McCloud assures us, “the truth will shine through.”

* Here’s an interesting “beautiful” point: HTML mark-up permits various ways of signalling the browser to compose a page (and these in turn are complicated by divergences among different browsers, alas). I try to adhere to semantic mark-up conventions when I write HTML, so I distinguish the use of italics for emphasis (a <em> tag) from the use of italics for a foreign language (a generic <i> tag), and so on. When quoting from Understanding Comics, then, what interpretive decision should I make about rendering McCloud’s lettering effects? Often he makes emphatic phrases heavier, obliqued, and larger than surrounding copy; should I thus increase the letter size when I mark up my quoted text? Can I reliably distinguish “emphasis” in his copy from other possible rationales for changing type styles? What about in Hollander’s (typeset) poem above — do I accurately interpret his decision to set one phrase in italics when I mark it with <em> tags, or should I adopt the more neutral (less semantically-precise) <i> tag? And can we make different interpretive decisions about McCloud’s second book, in which he used computer-controlled type to simulate hand-lettering, thus already complying with a roman-italic-bold distinction of type styles?

Understanding Comics ch. 8

One might think that a chapter on “color” in comics would promise less for a seminar on Beautiful Theology than the more semiotically-specific chapters. but no! (Or perhaps you already didn’t assume color was irrelevant.)

Let’ start by agreeing not to tax McCloud for soft-pedalling the extent to which “technology” is already implicated in comcis style even apart from the application of color (lower right, p. 187), as though cheirographic, xylographic, lithographic, engraved, intaglio, screen-printing, and other technologies of monochrome reproduction haven’t affected comics style along with commercial interests.

McCloud’s observations relative to different ways color can affect communication (190-191) do indeed pertain to theologically-interested communication. We need only think of the examples of rubricated printing, color-coded ceremonial (the calendar & vestments), clerical attire (what’s traditional, what’s appropriate, and so on), and stained-glass windows to hit the most obvious ways that color enters into our communications. Imagine, though, that a theologian or congregation took seriously the relation of color to discourse; what might change? How might one anticipate various audiences to respond?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Understanding Comics ch. 7

OK, granted that I don’t have a big investment in “what counts as ‘art,’ ” I appreciate McCloud’s account of art as what the formalists would call “overcoded” communication (or behavior) — expression beyond what is required for transmitting information (“THPLPLP!!” p. 165). My reservations about investing heavily in this definition derive from the extent to which it presupposes a degree of clarity about what constitutes “necessary” information, and about the priority of explicit linguistic data over other modes of communication — but as a heuristic device for exploring some dimensions and purposes of expression, it’ll do fine. Note, though, that when McCloud parses the “evolutionary” “instinctual” roles of art (boy, do glib invocations of evolution and instinct set my teeth on edge — it’s a mark of how much I respect McCloud that I skip past that junk with only a snarky aside), he omits mention of “transmitting information,” “teaching,̶¡; or other such pedestrian communicative actions. I take that omission seriously; it occludes many vital elements of my work and identity as a teacher and preacher.

But McCloud, I think, recoups that lost ground when on p. 168 he allows that “in almost everything we do there is at least an element of art.” If we concentrate on the “how” or expression, we don’t need to ground our accounts of communication in restrictive functional typologies or evolutionary psychology; they’re red herrings. (And McCloud loses traction when he proposes that “some activities have more art in them than others,” his emphasis; the whole survival/not spectrum distracts from more important ideas.) For the purposes about which I care, we can say that certain gestures evoke a greater intensity of attention — and among those who devote heightened attention to that gesture, it partakes of art. But that’s still beside the point.

The claim that creative expression always follows a six-step path, though worth attention for helping clarify certain aspects of expression, oversimplifies and generalizes so painfully that I will skip over it without further comment. OK, not without further comment, but with only the comment that these somewhat-distinguishable elements of expression don’t exhaust the constituent elements of expression (where, for instance, is “attention to audience” here — to name only one missing element?) nor are they sequential or quite separable from one another. These pages make some helpfully points, but they do so despite the rhetoric; it’s a significant weak spot.

Understanding Comics ch. 6

Delightful as the preceding chapters have been, you who know me can understand that the topic of ”Showing and Telling” entails particular joys for me. Look at the bottom right-hand frame on p. 139 — “It’s considered normal in this society for children to combine words and pictures [the continuity with Magritte would have been perfect if McCloud had said ‘images’], so long as they grow out of it.” Without splitting hairs over the specifics here, let’s take the point that contemporary U.S. culture conveys the forceful message that adults derive their most serious information (and entertainment) without pictures; we tend to steer children away from picture books to “chapter books,” and ultimately to books with no illustrations at all.

Note on p. 144 — McCloud ignores, at this point, the familiar motif of the medieval illustration with a text-ribbon that serves variously as a caption or a depiction of spoken words.

I don’t find McCloud’s description of the literary condition of modernity (on p. 147) very convincing; I suspect that this may have to do with what I take to be his very careless use of “meaning,” but it may also involve my relative ignorance about art history, and my somewhat greater acquaintance with twentieth-century literature. That being said, I agree that he’s onto something with the re-emergence of attention to the interaction of glyphs and images, typography and representation, in the early twentieth century.

McCloud’s point (this must have roots in McLuhan, mustn’t it?) that “each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors” pertains emphatically to contemporary explorations of unfamiliar modes of communication. To take just one familiar example, note the way that “courseware” tends to facilitate online equivalents for familiar educational interactions.

Note that on p. 152, McCloud doesn’t suggest that comics be used for instruction or reference, even though the “instruction manual” has provided one of the most persistent, widespread venues for comics.

Back to Chapters 4 and 5
On to Chapter 7

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Understanding Comics ch. 4 & 5

You may have more to say about the representation of time in comics than I do. I take McCloud’s point, and I would point yet again to ways that the comics sensibility informs church cokmmunication (stained glass windows, stations of the cross, etc.) — but his argument in chapter 4 doesn’t jump-start my inclination to monologize.

Chapter 5 hits some of my favorite topics again, though. “Don’t all lines carry with them an expressive potential?” The “expression” isn’t encoded in any particular shape or shading; “expression” involves the ways that particular designs draw on conventions, and gamble that observers will respond according to those conventions. I emphasize “express,” “infer”(for reception), and conventions, because these (it seems to me) successfully do most of the work that more typical terms in interpretive discourse such as “intention,” “meaning,” and “understanding” fail to do. That is, if I stick to describing what an artist does as “expressing,” and what a hearer/viewer/taster as “inferring,” and the grounds for predictive expression as the conventions that develop for mutually-satisfactory communicative interaction, I don’t need an account of “real meaning.” McCloud’s treatment of lines seems concordant with the semiotics I’m pushing here. (The cultural relativity of these conventions comes to the fore in the bottom right frame on p. 131; I never really grasped the Japanese blood-from-nose convention for “lust.”)

(I tend to suspect that McCloud over-reads the tenor of the lines in the various styles of p. 126, though.)

On p. 134, McCloud calls attention to the specifics of how words are presented in comics for the first time, and he leaves the topic fairly quickly; the graphical quality of glyphic communication, though, pertains more widely (and more specifically to an interest in ecclesiastical communication) than this cursory notice allows.

Back to Chapter 3
On to Chapter 6

Understanding Comics chap. 3

In chapters 1 and 2, McCloud has made his case that the hybrid verbal/graphical form of comics should be treated as a medium of communication with as much claim to “artistic” standing as any purely verbal or graphical mode (and yes, I’m keeping in mind that he and Magritte have just renedered the distinction between “verbal” and “graphical” porous — I’m using the terms for convenience; maybe “glyphic” and . . . what? I suppose “non-glyphic” would be requisite).

In chapter 3, McCloud illustrates the very powerful point that comics (and here his requirement that comics include more than one frame kicks in) communicates as much by what it omits as by what it displays. Moreover — and this really impresses me — he illustrates that comics uses the gutter, the un-shown, to communicate in a variety of different ways. That’s just very cool; the syntax of comics permits silence, the invisible, to signify any of several ways.

I’m hesitant to go all the way with McCloud’s speculation that the “goal-oriented” Western culture accounts for the predominance of certain types of transition in Western comics, whereas the more “meditative” Eastern culture accountsd for the aspect-to-aspect transitions in Japanese comics. There’s a superficial rightness to the observation, but we spent enough time in Gospel Mission attending to hybridity and the internal contestation of cultures to swallow so vast an aggregation of culture and expression. Yes, the styles of traditional art in China and Japan differ from traditional styles of art in Europe — but the comics McCloud examines all arrive in the post-WWII cultural mash-up; I’d try to avoid the gross aggregating that McCloud proposes here.

A couple of thoughts on the last few pages of the chapter: First, I would want to remind us (and McCloud) that although what he says about gutters and gap-filling apply with particular obviousness to comics, his earlier points about words and images imply that we deal with gutters and gap-filling even in glyphic and non-glyphic epxression (and indeed, the topic of “gap-filling” occupies a great deal of attention in literary-critical circles). Second, McCloud’s points in these pages all concern the power of evocation, of the way an expresser can [try to] elicit recollections and anticipations from an inferring audience. As McCloud points out, the effect of an evoked sound, or scent, or feeling, can impress a reader (listener, etc.) all the more forcefully by its remaining implicit. (The implicit is not, after all, bound by the contraints of particularity; if you and I appreciate different sorts of breakfast smells, we will each imagine different things to suit us; whereas if the implicit is made specific, “she smelled Alice’s coffee perking and the chili with which she always smeared her toast,” we stand to be distracted by particulars that don’t match our own memories and imagination.)

Page 93 is worth quoting in extenso in our context (though I won’t reproduce the accompanying images; what difference does that make?):
Here in this studio, I’ve tried to control that process and use it to make my case. But I can only point the way. I can’t take you anywhere you don’t want to go.
All I can do is make assumptions about you and hope that they’re correct --
-- just as we all assume, every day, that there’s more to life than meets the eye.
All I ask of you is a little faith--
--and a world of imagination.

Back to Chapter 2
On to Chapters 4 and 5