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COMPOSING(MEDIA) = COMPOSING(EMBODIMENT)bodies, technologies, writing, the teaching of writing
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDRAWN TOGETHER Possibilities for Bodies in Words and Pictures
Anne Frances Wysocki
A few years back, in an interview published in JAC, Stuart Hall suggested one reason production has always mattered to writing studies: Hall ties production to identity. He says that "there is no final, finished identity position or self" to be reflected in one's writing; instead, as he describes the process of producing a written text, he says that
while it's true that you may have a very clear notion of what the argument is and that you may be constructing that argument very carefully, very deliberately, your identity is also in part becoming through the writing. (qtd. in Drew 173)
For Hall, that is, "We therefore occupy our identities very retrospectively: having produced them, we then know who we are" (qtd. in Drew 173). It is not that we find our selves in our work because there was a unified self that preceded the work and that only needed being made present somehow in the work; it is rather that what the work is—its status as a shaped object in front of us—makes visible to us "what we are." "I think only then," continues Hall, "do we make an investment [in the produced position], saying, 'Yes, I like that position, I am that sort of person, I'm willing to occupy that position" (qtd. in Drew 173). One could also just as easily say, "No, I do not like that position ... how can I rework it?"—but in either case the position has had to be constructed—produced—before it can be so judged.
That is, we see ourselves in what we produce. We can look at what we produce to ask, "Is that who I (at least in part) am? Is that who I want to be? Is that a position through which I want to be seen?"
In this chapter, I want to consider (altogether too quickly to be anything more than suggestive, given the space here) what kinds of identities and bodies can be constructed when one can use not only words but also pictures—as in comic books and graphic novels—in composing.
In composing the selves-to-be-considered that Hall describes, we can only work with available cultural categories for shaping texts if we wish to be understood by others, as the New London Group describes when they argue that any composition must begin in "available designs" (the existing social systems of conventions, grammars, and genres upon which all text composers rely) or as Kaja Silverman describes when she writes, drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytic structures, that "all subjects, male or female, rely for their identity upon the repertoire of culturally available images" surrounding them at any time (295). The argument I build here about words and pictures as available designs or culturally available images depends on understanding words and pictures not as having essential, formal functions but as having histories. And because of the particular histories words and pictures have had relative to each other, and because of how then comics and graphic novels have come to have a particular cultural place at this moment, certain kinds of visible identities—and questionings of identities, and understandings of bodies—are possible, for now.
The available designs of words and pictures, that is, come with attached discourses. How one articulates words and pictures, then, can play with—or against—those discourses.
* * *
In The Gutenberg Galaxy, published in 1962, Marshall McLuhan argues that the serious and repeated look of printed book pages homogenize (some) people. In the book there are men who build nations together because they see similarities in themselves as they learned to see book pages; in the book there is abstraction, but nothing of bodies; there is science and philosophy, but nothing of the quotidian; there are men and words, and men and words only. It is in McLuhan's earlier The Mechanical Bride, first published in 1951, that there appear women, children, class distinctions, cars, nylons, Mennen Skin Bracer, pictures, advertising, and "sex, gunplay, fast action" (14); in this second book, McLuhan claims that
A huge passivity has settled on industrial society. For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their living by waiting on machines, listening much of the day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods. Society begins to take on the character of the kept woman whose role is expected to be submission and luxurious passivity. (21)
Whether or not one agrees with McLuhan's claims (which align with the media theorists discussed in the introduction) that mass media encourage passive receptivity, McLuhan articulates words, when they are alone, to thought and men; pictures align with no thought and women.
These particular dichotomous articulations were not new with McLuhan, of course. The dichotomies were presaged even by the Pythagoreans and their list, quoted by Aristotle, of the ten pairs of opposites the Pythagoreans believed shaped all existence—
limit and the absence of limit
odd and even
one and many
right and left
male and female
rest and motion
straight and curved
light and dark
good and bad
square and oblong
(John Robinson 119)
In Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, W.J.T. Mitchell discusses the shifting tensions among conceptions of word and image in the writings of G.E. Lessing, Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, Nelson Goodman, and Rudolf Arnheim. For one example, Mitchell offers a table that shows the "oppositions that regulate Lessing's discourse" (110):
Arbitrary (man-made) signs Natural Signs
Infinite range Narrow Sphere
And Mitchell characterizes Lessing's position toward these oppositions:
Paintings, like women, are ideally silent, beautiful creatures designed for the gratification of the eye, in contrast to the sublime eloquence proper to the manly art of poetry. Paintings are confined to the narrow sphere of external display of their bodies and of the space which they ornament, while poems are free to range over an infinite realm of potential action and expression, the domain of time, discourse, and history. (110)
Or, as Mitchell writes in a later work, under such tradition the "image is the medium of the subhuman, the savage, the 'dumb' animal, the child, the woman, the masses" (Picture Theory 24).
And here, finally for now, is not another list but a description of a solitary reader set off against a group of television watchers, as Robert Romanyshyn turns a psychologist's perspective to how the word and picture opposition shows itself in our actions and attentions (while adding new terms to either side of the above dichotomizing lists). Romanyshyn's work, from 1992, echoes McLuhan:
Distraction, triviality, and passivity are the judgments ... of a book consciousness watching television. They are the diagnosed symptoms of the serious reader who has distanced herself or himself from the vulgar. The headless nuclear family watching television is the nightmare of the bodyless reader, the terrible image of what we become when we lose the book. We need to remember, however, the kinship between the two, the connection between that kind of thinking which, in splitting off the serious from the vulgar, the mind from flesh, reason from emotion, first creates a mindless body and its needs for distraction, and then produced the means to do it. (348)
My quick travel through Western takes on word and picture, male and female, mind and body, reason and emotion, is quick, but establishes, I hope, that conceptually, these terms have been treated as connected essentials with ethical weight: word and picture are not simply conceived as neutrally different available choices for communication; they are conceived as discrete and unitary kinds of objects that articulate to highly valued categories that have been and are used to define what and who we might be and do in our lives with others. The reach of the articulations encourage us to judge others in relation to how well those others fit to one side or the other of these lists. If one chooses only words for composing a self, then and for example, it is not that there is something inherent in words that makes one look smart or male; it is that a cultural history supports one in so believing, seeing, and making sense of one's body.
* * *
In response to his considerations of how others have conceived word and image, Mitchell argues that any tension or difference we see between words and images is a "struggle that carries the fundamental contradictions of our culture into the heart of theoretical discourse itself. The point, then, is not to heal the split between words and images, but to see what interests and powers it serves" (Iconology 44). Precisely because one of their defining characteristics is that they hold words and pictures together on a page (on this defining characteristic, see, for example, McCloud; Hatfield; Varnum and Gibbons), comics offer a site for exploring how the historical and particularly valued articulations of word and picture move beyond the conceptual and into questions of interests and powers. Several snapshots from the history of comics can show, then, how these media are not inherently less serious than print-only texts but how their mediating potentials can be shaped by political and social decisions.
* * *
"The marijuana of the nursery, the bane of the bassinet, the horror of the house, the curse of the kids, and a threat to the future" is how John Mason Brown, a drama critic for The Saturday Review of Literature, described comics in a 1948 radio debate called "What's Wrong with Comics?" The name of the debate (which was sponsored by the ABC radio show America's Town Meetings of the Air) suggests that the direction of the debate was shaped beforehand: those speaking against comics could be on the attack from the start but those speaking in favor had to be on the defensive, needing to prove nothing was wrong with comics. In addition to calling them the "marijuana of the nursery," Brown also called comics "the lowest, most despicable, and harmful form of trash," because they made reading "too easy" (Nyberg 44).
This debate was not an isolated event, but rather part of an on-going concern in the 1940s and 1950s in the US—and around the world—over the effects comics were having on youth and, implicitly, on adult readers. (See both Lent's "Comic Debates," and the edited collection for which that article served as an introduction, for a sense of just how international the debate over comics was in the 1940s and 1950s.) I want to consider such criticisms of comics against the backdrop of the word-picture articulations I outlined previously, to argue that when comics are criticized for not being serious enough, for not teaching serious reading and writing abilities, or for not teaching serious thinking, it is not because the pictures have somehow won out over the words; it is instead because their critics fear comics are too serious. Comics have come under attack, I argue, not because they necessarily cause people to think poorly or live as though they are bodies only but because their appeal to large audiences can potentially make them a threat to the existing social order if their content is not controlled. Because arguments to decide means of social control rarely claim social control as their explicit end, however, the arguments about comics instead get focused on their formal aspects, on their uses of words and pictures together: comics are argued to be demeaning and infantilizing and then are made to be so, their words and pictures simplified and reduced from what they could otherwise be.
A dip into the history of comics will thus help make clear how the potential mediations of comics—of words and pictures—are not fixed.
Although some writers find the origins of comics in cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan illustrated books, or old European tapestries that show sequences of illustrations with words explaining what is in the illustrations (McCloud; Nielsen and Wichmann; Jerry Robinson), some pages that look like what we now call comics appeared in illustrated educational magazines of the first half of the nineteenth century. These magazines, such as Penny Magazine and Penny Cyclopedia produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Really Useful Knowledge, were published for the working classes. As Adrian Johns, a researcher into book history, argues, the society
was founded out of a long-standing fear that even books innocuous enough in restricted settings could take on dangerous, even seditious, meanings in the hands of a mass proletarian audience. So [the Society] resolved to swamp the country with cheap periodicals containing "nothing to excite the passions." (630)
Worried, that is, that working-class people who read the same books as the upper classes would get ideas about what their lives should be, the society provided to the lower classes magazines with simplified information (which relied more heavily on illustrations than on words) about (for example) natural history and mathematics; by 1832, the magazines had one million readers. As for the story magazines—called "penny dreadfuls" because of, as Roger Sabin describes, "their lurid subject matter" about wild boys, criminals, and murderers—these too were "designed for a working class audience" and "were read primarily by young men" (Comics 14). Sabin writes that they were at one time in the nineteenth century
feared to be so politically subversive that a censorship campaign was initiated to ban them. Officially, the reason for the clampdown was given to be their violent nature: in fact, anti-establishment story lines were considered much more of a threat. (Comics 14)
Similarly, Kress and van Leeuwen understand processes of cultural—class—differentiation in the nineteenth century to have included differentiation between the value of word and picture; they connect this differentiation to the entrenchment of capital at a particular time and to the development of more visual texts explicitly for mass consumption:
This development beyond the densely printed page began in the late nineteenth century mass press, in a context in which the ruling class, itself strongly committed to the densely printed page, attempted to maintain its hegemony by taking control of the popular culture, commercializing it, and so turning the media of the people into the media for the people. Their own comparable media—"high" literature and the humanities generally—became even more firmly grounded on the single semiotic of writing. Layout was not encouraged here, because it undermined the power of the densely printed page as, literally, the realization of the most literary and literate semiotic. The genres of the densely printed page, then, manifest the cultural capital ("high" cultural forms) controlled by the intellectual and artistic wing of the middle class, to use Bourdieu's terms. (185; emphases in original)
Kress and van Leeuwen thus argue that pages attentive to layout and variety are aimed at "'the masses,' or children" (186), so that pages of words only can be used by others—the "ruling class," "the middle class" that is aspiring "upwards"—to show their particular and happy social positions and their maturity. From the first mass reproduction of printed texts, then, the formal content of pages—their proportion and arrangements of words and pictures—became visual markers of class differentiation and, as Johns and Sabin argue, their formal content was shaped to be less stimulating or complex than it could have been; so shaped, their purpose became educating particular bodies toward passivity.
In Britain the first mass-market comic to use a recurring character, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, told of a man who liked to drink, who avoided both work and the rent collector, and who therefore, according to Roger Sabin in his history of comics in Britain and the US, "articulated a side of working-class life rarely touched upon in other publications" (Adult Comics 17–18). This comics magazine was inexpensive, and became "the largest-selling penny-paper in the world"—in part because, Sabin argues,
as an expression of the new working-class culture, it was ultimately quite conservative. There was no suggestion of class struggle, and the depiction of the rich was comic rather than hostile, with no reference to the source of their income. (18)
Ally Sloper, Sabin writes, was the "'little man' who 'knows his place'" (19). Because it allowed working-class people to see hard aspects of their lives but in a way that didn't threaten the social order, Sabin argues that this comic was allowed to continue from 1884 until 1923—and its popularity gave rise to many competitors and to the printing of comics in newspapers as well as to comics for children.
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