22 Aug 2016

Groensteen (2.4) The System of Comics, ‘To the Research of the Gutter’, summary

by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please excuse my distracting typos.]

Summary of
Thierry Groensteen
The System of Comics
Chapter 2:
Restrained Arthrology: The Sequence
To the Research of the Gutter

Brief summary:
The gutter is not an absence that the reader needs to fill-in by imagining what transpires temporally speaking or intervenes spatially speaking between comics panels. The gap of the gutter (or of the single line functioning like a gutter) is something absolute and self-sufficient in its emptiness. However, it serves as a flexible joint which may make logical narrative coherence connections with any of the other panels. And as the reader proceeds through the comics work and further considers what is being portrayed, those connections are continually under revision and modification.

[Groensteen begins by quoting from an article by Claude-Françoise Brunon on the comics gutter, it seems, which makes the point that “the essence of the story frequently passes ‘outside of the image ... between images’”. Groensteen then quotes from Benoît Peeters where the intericonic gutter contains at least as much meaning as in the images themselves. Groensteen also references McCloud’s chapter 3 on closure in Understanding Comics.]
“It requires less to make one see than to say, less to describe than to tell,” remarked Claude-Françoise Brunon.12 And to highlight, following others, the essence of the story frequently passes “outside of the image . . . between images.” Certain authors even strive to produce work in a way so that the reader’s look, “deprived by principle episodes,” will be “carried out from one absence to the next,” even if “the text compensates for what the image refused to expose” on a frequent basis.
To conclude that meaning is produced by the intericonic gutter (the “entr’image”) at least as much as is produced by the images themselves, there is but one step, one that some people have been tempted to cross. Thus Benoît Peeters: “The true magic of comics operates between the images, the tension that binds them. . . . In Hergé these are memorable ‘gutters’ that we must analyze, these intervals between two panels lavished with accuracy and audacity.”13
(Groensteen 112)
[Endnotes 12–13 from p. 175 (quoting, except for curly brackets):
12 {Claude-Françoise Brunon.} “L’entr’images,” Europe, no. 720: La bande dessinée, Paris, Messidor, April 1989, pp. 37–46.
13 {Benoît Peeters.} Case, planche, récit, op. cit., p. 27. Scott McCloud also makes the ellipse (closure) a founding concept in his theory of comics, distinguishing six “types of linkage” between two panels. Cf. Understanding Comics (Kitchen Sink Press, 1993), chap. 3.
Groensteen then notes that a gutter as an empty space does not always appear. There could simply be a single line separating panels, as for example with Bretécher and Töpffer [see section 1.7.2]. For, “the semantic relations between the images is the same” regardless of whether there is an empty space or a line (Groensteen 112). Thus, we should not suppose there is some kind of a void between images when none are shown. [The idea seems to be that there is the semantic function of the break between images, and it does not matter whether or not it is constituted by a gap, visible or invisible, or not. It will have the same semantic function either way.] Hence “the gutter in and of itself (that is to say, an empty space) does not merit fetishization” (112).
Groensteen then addresses an objection. One might argue that the gutter is to be understood metaphorically as that between images which demands the reader fill-in unshown story content, and thus in that sense is a gap even if unseen.
Maybe, you will say to me, but the term “gutter” (blanc) lends itself metaphorically. We use it to designate “that-which-is-not-represented-but-which-the-reader-cannot-help-but-to-infer.” It is therefore a virtual, and take note that this virtual is not abandoned to the fantasy of each reader: it is a forced virtual, an | identifiable absence. The gutter is simply the symbolic site of this absence. More than a zone on the paper, it is the interior screen on which every reader projects the missing image (or images).
(Groensteen 112-113. Note: this is not Groensteen’s position)
[Groensteen then construes this missing narrative material in terms of Benoît Peeters’ notion of ghost panels (cases fantôme). In the footnotes he does not cite a source, but refers to an example Peeters gives. I cannot at the moment figure out Peeters’ argument and reasoning for it. If I had to guess, I would suppose that Peeters shows some panels (maybe two consecutive ones) and demonstrates that for the procession to work, the reader must in their imagination formulate a third additional panel intervening between them. Groensteen counter-argues that this only applies in very limited cases, and it cannot be said to express the functioning of the gutter in general. So in other words, perhaps, when the viewer sees for example the movement of an object that is shown in one relative location in a first frame and a more distant location in a second frame, we do not, Groensteen seems to be saying, imagine other panels in between the two showing the intermediary positions. Since I do not know what the argument really is here, I should not comment. But I think there is an interpretation, a phenomenological sort rather than a semiotic one, that is missing here. I do not think that the closure function requires that we explicitly imagine all the intermediary events or actions in between panels. I think they can be implicitly realized. In other words, in the case of motion for example, we can have the sense (not just the interpretation, but the perceptual sense) that the object has moved, even without imagining all the phases of that movement. Or in the case of events or characters’ actions, we can have the impression of those activities in their effects, as sort of compressed phenomenal impressional data. (I discussed this notion of phenomenal compression in bracketed commentary for the summary of chapter 3 of McCloud’s Understanding Comics.) So in other words, when we go from one panel to the next, packed into the next one are all the implicit phenomenal variations that are given indirectly by means of the noticeable differences between the two. At any rate, Groensteen makes a second point in this paragraph, and I may not summarize this one properly either. He says that these examples of ghost panels never involve only two panels. I am not sure if he means there are always at least three visible panels required for an additional invisible ghost panel, or if he means that there are two visible ones plus the additional ghost as the third. His point is that the threshold of narrative significance is the syntagmatic triad he described in section 2.3.]
I certainly do not believe that the comics reader has to mentally construct “ghost panels” (cases fantôme; the expression is from Peeters), except maybe in extremely rare examples identified by theorists to prove a point. These examples are a little too well-selected to permit the construction of general conclusions. By looking at it closely, we cannot help but be struck by an apparent paradox: these famous examples never relate to segments composed of only two panels — a necessary amplitude but sufficient to the exhibition of a gutter. A third panel is almost always implicated,14 and this confirms that it is indeed at the minimum a compound syntagm, or even a much longer sequence, that is at the major level of significance, the threshold where one can elaborate pertinent logical inferences.
(Groensteen 113)
[Endnote 14 on p. 175 (quoting):
14. Thus, in the famous example chosen by Peeters in Tintin in Tibet, that of Captain Haddock’s fall in the New Delhi airport, it is remarkable that Hergé interpolates a third panel representing Tintin (which is not directly concerned with the gag) at the location where there would most likely be a “ghost panel,” and that within this supplementary image the link between the two other panels of the syntagm would have been much less happy.]
[Groensteen’s next point is very interesting, but I am not sure it is clearly formulated in my mind yet. Groensteen seems to be expressing two important related ideas here. The first is that the gutter is not something that is filled in. It is a gap that never ceases to be such. It is an void whose emptiness is its own value and status of being, rather than a receptacle into which story content gets filled. Thus “an intermediate state between the two panels does not exist”. The second idea is that each successive panel at least at first nullifies all that come before them. Then, presumably, it can be placed in relation to them in sequence or whatever. I have the vague sense that he is saying that there is an ultimate value or authority placed on whatever panel is the present one being read. And that authority is stripped away and given to the next panel when we turn toward it.]
We would be mistaken to want to reduce the “silences” between two consecutive panels by assimilating the ellipse to a virtual image. On the contrary, this silence often speaks volumes. It has nothing to introduce, no gap to suture. It is in this sense that Henri Van Lier spoke of the “null blank” (blanc nul) in which the multiframe floats like a falling leaf. This blank, “the annulment of all continuity,”15 is the opposite of the “relay-gutter” (un blanc-relais). It is the Mallarmean blank of Coup de dés, the void of the music of Webern and that of quantum physics. Reading a comic, I am here, then I am there, and this jump from one panel to the next (an optical and mental leap) is the equivalent of an electron that changes orbit. In other words, an intermediate state between the two panels does not exist. The comics image is not a form that, subjected to a continual metamorphosis, would be modified by investing successive frames (between which it would be permissible to reconstitute the missing moments). It is necessary, in contrast, that the gutter (provisionally) cancels the already read panel in order to allow the next panel to exist in its own right, in terms of a complete and compact form.
[Endnote 15 on p.175 (quoting, except for curly brackets): {Henri Van Lier.} “La bande dessinée, une cosmogonie dure,” op. cit. {in Bande dessinée, récit et modernité, ed. Thierry Groensteen (Colloque de Cerisy, Paris: Futuropolis-CNBDI, 1988)}, p. 8.]
[I may not be able to summarize the next paragraph properly. The sentence I do not know how to interpret is “Following this logical fallacy, all panels inevitably intervene apropos”. I did not understand what the logical fallacy is supposed to be. Is it logically fallacious to hypothesize a coherent narrative? Or is the logically fallacy the one of inferring that we fill the gaps? The paragraph minus that term I think can be summarized in the following way. The links between panels are not ones where there is a filling in of their gaps. Nonetheless, each one is placed into some meaningful relation with the others. He calls this ‘iconic solidarity’. What might also be suggested here is that every panel is linked to every other panel, in a more or less prominent or obvious way.]
Panels belonging to the same sequence are assuredly in debt to each other. On the semantic plane, this iconic solidarity, in which we have recognized the very foundation of the comics system, is programmed by the author at the breakdown stage, and, at the time of reception, postulated by the reader in the form of hypothesizing a coherent narrative. Following this logical fallacy, all panels inevitably intervene apropos. For the comics reader, the fact of presupposing that there is a meaning necessarily leads him to search for the way that the panel that he “reads” is linked to the others, and how it re-reads in light of others.
Comics, on account of the sequential panel format, are structured with “discontinuous enunciation” and “intermittent monstration”. [Perhaps enunciation and monstration refer to the “saying” and “showing” functions we have examined. What is important here of course is the strobe-like pattern in the way the material is given, that is, by discrete units with insufficient connections between them to make it a continuous structure or perhaps even to make it a continuous experience. Groensteen characterizes the gutter as being the place where logical conversions happen. Those conversions seem to be variations in the explanatory relations between the panels that change as new information is added. We saw how that works in the Alack Sinner example he gave in the prior section 2.3. My overall impression is that for Groensteen, the gutter is not to be seen as a “gap” but rather as a flexible “joint.” For, it is a connection that can vary, but it is not a hole that is filled in with additional material.]
Comics exist only as a satisfying narrative form under the condition that, despite the discontinuous enunciation and the intermittent monstration, the resultant story forms an uninterrupted and intelligible totality. The “gutter” between the two panels is therefore not the seat of a virtual image; it is the site of a semantic articulation, a logical conversion, that of a series of utterables (the panels) in a statement that is unique and coherent (the story). The Alack Sinner page taught us that this conversion is sometimes passed in stages. The first statement, issued from a dialogue between two or three juxtaposed panels — and naturally, forged under the control of the preceding ones — may be nothing but a provisory one that must undergo, under a stroke of unforeseeable retroactive determination, a correction in moving toward the adoption of a new, more inclusive statement.
[Groensteen now continues with this notion of the flexibility of the interpretation, and he elaborates it using quotation from Wolfgang Iser. At this point I think we should be careful. Iser has been used for explaining the filling-in of the gutter. For example, Hannah Miodrag writes in her Comics and Language: “This ‘filling in,’ especially as described by McCloud, is no more than the comics version of the ‘intentional sentences correlatives’ [sic] that Wolfgang Iser describes in prose fiction, which ‘disclose subtle connections’ between the ‘component parts’ of the text that together create ‘the world of the work’ (Iser 1980: 52)” (Miodrag 66). We should distinguish two sorts of “filling-in”. One is the sort that Groensteen is against with regard to what happens in the gutter, namely, filling in what transpired (or is located spatially) between what is shown in successive panels, by explicitly imagining it. The other sort, which Groensteen thinks is really how the gutter functions, is perhaps not even a filling-in, but rather a forming of logical narrative connections between parts, whether successive or not. So to make the difference clear, let me return to an example I used for section 2 of Iser’s “The Reading Process”. We are concerned especially with panels 2-4.
Were one to use the first type of filling-in, they would imagine the brush falling on the peeper’s head, even though it is not shown. Groensteen does not think that readers actually go through such a task. Rather, they would do the second sort of filling-in, which is really not a filling in but rather the creation of logical ties between panels. So Groensteen might say that upon seeing the peeper on the ground unconscious, fallen beneath the broken brush in the woman’s hand, we simply make a narrative connection between this and the panel just two prior to this one, and we note conceptually in our minds that the woman hit the man with the brush, all without picturing it in our minds. Groensteen’s point in this next paragraph seems to be that these logical narrative relations are according to Iser something that is flexible, on account of the horizonal structure of temporal consciousness. There is always an openness for new connections and for old connections to be retroactively revised. (For more discussion on the ideas from these quoted passages from Iser’s The Act of Reading, see the summary of section 5.2.1 of this book by Iser.)
Clearly, this progressive construction of meaning is not exclusive to comics. Rather, as Wolfgang Iser has notably demonstrated, it is analogous to the process that structures the reading of a literary text. The “wandering viewpoint” constitutes, he says, “the basic hermeneutic structure of reading.” In a sequence of sentences, new correlations frequently “lead not so much to the fulfillment of expectations as to their continual modification. . . . Each individual sentence correlate prefigures a particular horizon, but this is immediately transformed into the background for the next correlate and must therefore necessarily be modified. Since each sentence correlate aims at things to come, the prefigured horizon will offer a view which — however concrete it may be — must contain indeterminacies, and so arouse expectations as to the manner in which these are to be resolved.”16
(Groensteen 114)
[Endnote 16 from p.175 (quoting, except for curley brackets):

16. {Wolfgang Iser,} The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, trans. from German by David Henry Wilson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 111.]

[As I am not familiar with the concept of something being “polysyntactic,” I will not be able to summarize the last part of this section properly. So I will simply quote it for now.]
The comics image, whose meaning often remains open when it is presented as isolated (and without verbal anchorage), finds its truth in the sequence. Inversely, the gutter, insignificant in itself, is invested with an arthrologic function that can only be deciphered in light of the singular images that it separates and unites. Therefore, the intericonic gutter can be qualified as “polysyntactic,” following what Anne-Marie Christin has said about “pictorial emptiness” (that which separates the figures in the interior of an image, in the space of the picture). Anne- Marie Christin suggests that the function of narrative is that which pictorial emptiness assumes with the greatest difficulty:
[T]he clear and immediate designation of the roles of the represented figures does not raise the space that mutually isolates them from each other but the codes that are individually charged, codes of dress, gestural codes especially, as shown in genre paintings, for example those of Greuze. If the emptiness is necessary to constitute a storia between the painted figures, as preconceived by Alberti, it is because it is foremost a mark of intelligibility, the clue to a co-presence.17 |
The intericonic gutter also marks the semantic solidarity of contiguous panels above all, both working through the codes of narrative and sequential drawings. Between the polysemic images, the polysyntactic gutter is the site of a reciprocal determination, and it is in this dialectic interaction that meaning is constructed, not without the active participation of the reader.
(Groensteen 114-115)
[From endnote 17 on page 175 (quoting).
17. Anne-Marie Christin, L’Image écrite (Paris, Flammarion “Idées et Recherches,” 1995), p. 18.]
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Translated from French to English by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Originally published as Systém de la bande desinée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.

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