by Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so I apologize for any distracting typos.]
“The Art of Tensions”
1. Code vs. Code
Comics contain both image and text. It is hard to distinguish the one from the other. For, whenever we think we may have designated some element of a comics work as a word, we find it can also function as an image, especially to the degree that is written pictorially or at least serves some pictorial function or has some sensory effect. And likewise, any instance of an image will involve some system or operation of reference whenever that image is perceived in a thoughtful way. For this reason, we cannot follow other comics scholars who deem there to be an absolute distinction between word and image, and we thus cannot go the extra step and characterize pictures by the immediacy by which they communicate information and text by the need for that information to be mediated through learned, culturally-conditioned conventions. But instead of this circumstance leading us either to try to dissolve the distinction or to define image and text on the basis of how elements function (and thus to say for example that one same element is text insofar as it functions referentially and an image insofar as it functions sensory-affectively) we will instead in a deconstructive sort of way make use of the tension between the distinguished terms in a manner that both maintains the distinction while as well seeing how the distinguished concepts play off of one another in ways that call into question the basis for that very same distinction that enables the interplay.
When comics are defined, often there is some appeal to the “co-presence and interplay of image and written text” (133). Hatfield says that for some critics the elements of word and image are opposites and their interaction is a clash of sorts, with “the image’s transparency versus the written text’s complexity” (133). Hatfield cites Scott McCloud as someone who insists not only on the difference of these two elements, but also on the greater importance of images – which he understands as “received information” that is obtained passively by the reader – over words, whose meanings “must be perceived” in a more active way through “committed reading” (Hatfield 133, citing McCloud, Understanding Comics, 49) [McCloud writes: “Pictures are received information. We need no formal education to ‘get the message.’ The message is instantaneous. [...] Writing is perceived information. It takes time and specialized knowledge to decode the abstract symbols of language.” It seems Hatfield will take issue with how this distinction is made here. The basis of Hatfield’s argumentation seems to be that in most cases when we see an image, we obtain the information by means of some mediation through cultural values and through habits of interpretation and so on. Perhaps even it can be said that the ways our minds organize our raw sense perceptions is in certain ways culturally conditioned. His argument against McCloud’s view of text seems to be based on text always taking some stylized visual form or another, often times with that stylization having pictorial qualities and functions. If I might suggest an example, simply italicizing a word gives it a different sound in one’s mind while being read, and certainly much more drastic pictorial variations can be found in comics to even greater sensory effect.] Hatfield then assesses, “By this argument, comics depend on a dialectic between what is easily understood and what is less easily understood; pictures are open, easy, and solicitous, while words are coded, abstract, and remote” (133).
Hatfield view is not the same as this. He notes that “in comics word and image approach each other;” for, “words can be visually inflected, reading as pictures, while pictures can become as abstract and symbolic as words. In brief, the written text can function like images, and images like written text” (133). [At this point I wonder what the basis of the distinction between text and image is. One way to make the distinction is by function. Under this view, insofar as something is functioning as text, it is text, and insofar as it is functioning as image, it is image. With this in mind, one same thing performing both functions could be called by both names. Hatfield’s distinction does not seem to be based on function, since one thing can perform the other’s function. In other words, my confusion comes from the fact that Hatfield first designates something as a word, then says it can function as an image. What I would like to now is on what basis was it originally classified as a word, if we are saying that it is functioning like an image? Perhaps he is saying that certain things in comics can have a primary function but a secondary one as well, and in that way for example text can function as pictures. So for instance, if a sound word like “zap” is drawn to make it appear like electricity, then it primarily functions as a word for the sound that is being made, and secondarily it functions as a picture to evoke in our imagination physical sorts of features of the sound (like harsh, rough buzzing ‘edges’ to the noise) or visual correlates to the sound, like sparks of light flashing erratically in concord with pops or snaps in the sound. Phenomenologically speaking, for me text and image experiences never really blend, although they can coincide or interchange. So were I to see for example the image-like “zap” word, the part of my consciousness that would decode it as being a linguistic signifier is different than the part of my consciousness that would picture the scene and its sounds as having certain tangible features to it. I notice this experiential division sometimes when I see contemporary paintings with a poetic sort of text painted into them. Were it just imagery, I would experience it in a singular sort of way. But with the text in it, I switch between modes of reception, and I often find the experience a bit confusing.] Hatfield says that comics “collapse the word/image dichotomy,” because written text can be made visually “quite elaborate in appearance, forcing recognition of pictorial and material qualities that can be freighted with meaning,” while images on the other hand “can be simplified and codified to function as a language” (133). Hatfield says that this “renders McCloud’s larger argument incoherent, as it belies his earlier distinction between perceived and received information” (133). [I am not sure if I follow, but I think Hatfield is saying that if we take it to be true that there is no substantial distinction between word and image, as one can take the other’s function, then McCloud’s point about the experience of one involving receiving information and the other involving perceiving information no longer holds. For, each case could involve both receiving or perceiving information. But I am assuming Hatfield is not saying that McCloud’s argument itself is incoherent. I do not think McCloud contradicts himself. As far as I can tell so far, McCloud’s view is only incoherent with other views that oppose his. It would be incoherent in itself if McCloud on the one hand said there was a fundamental and unbridgeable difference between word and text and on the other hand said that this difference dissolves in many cases. I think perhaps the criticism here is that McCloud is offering a theory to explain the way certain elements in comics work, but further examination shows his theoretical assumptions to contradict many other obvious findings. The problem we might raise with this criticism is that we have not considered how McCloud might defend his position in the face of this evidence that he did not consider in his book. Would he concede the point? Would he maintain the distinction but with reservations? Would he find fault with these other findings? Here is McCloud’s graphic for the distinction:
On the one hand, he does have a dotted line clearly separating image from text. However, the instances are placed along a continuum of variation. And he writes “received” and “perceived” not at the centers of each division, but rather at the poles. That fact combined with the way the instances seem to vary more or less continuously from one pole to the other suggests that as we get to the middle, either there is a mix of receptivity and perceptivity, with both in full operation but simultaneous, or there is an equal diminishment of both factors. In other words, it is not so obvious to me that McCloud is making an absolute distinction. But I personally would not construct the spectrum the way McCloud does, because I would be more inclined to place sensory-affectivity at the left pole and conceptualization at the right.] Hatfield’s next point seems to be that there is compelling reason to think that there is not this division between word and text. One thing he cites is Perry Nodelman’s point that [if I understand correctly] the only way we could “read” the pictures in picture books is if we have some linguistic sort of cultural knowledge that is requisite to decipher the images. [Let me quote this, as I probably misinterpreted: “The distinction does not hold in any case, for, as Perry Nodelman points out with regard to picture books, “All visual images, even the most apparently representational ones, . . . require a knowledge of learned competencies and cultural assumptions before they can be rightly understood” (Hatfield 133, citing p.17 of Nodelman, Perry, Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988). Hatfield’s next point seems to be giving reason to think that images are really signs. So perhaps this sentence we just quoted was making the point that signs are really images. But I am not sure really, because I have not had a chance to read this source yet.] And images, according to W.J.T Mitchell, are signs that pretend not to be signs, even though they can never stop being such, because they are bound up with habit and convention just as text are (133). [So the idea here seems to be that whatever is bound up with habit and convention would have to be a sign, which makes sense, as it would be a mediated significance rather than an immediate sort that McCloud seems to think images have. Now, since there are no experiences of images that give their sense immediately in this way, but rather they require the mediation of habit and convention, images must also be understood as signs. Again, I am still a little confused about the criteria for the terminology. If we say that an image is also a sign, because the image has the function of a sign, that on what basis do we say it was an image in the first place? I wonder if Hatfield is saying that there is no need for the terminological distinction between word and sign. Whatever we call a word we can also call as sign, and vice versa, or we could find a word to mean both. So one possibility I think is to say we have visual data that no matter what will serve to a lesser or greater degree both a significatory and a sensory-affective function. But, we can arbitrarily think of it as a word when we are concerned with its signification or we can just as arbitrarily think of it as an image when we are concerned with sensory-affectivity. Another possibility could be to say that there is no difference between these functions. Whenever our senses are affected in a purely sensory way, they are in one way or another serving as signifiers, and likewise, whenever we take something to stand referentially for something else, we are performing a sensory sort of operation, perhaps like how David Hume understood concepts as habits of associating retained sensory impressions.] In other words, as Hatfield summarizes, “Pictures are not simply to be received; they must be decoded” (133).
[In the next paragraph I think it begins to become more evident what mode of reasoning Hatfield is using for this distinction. I think it might be a sort of deconstructive approach in some sense. On the one hand, he needs the distinction (between word and text in comics) in order for there to be a play of opposition between them (but I am not yet sure why that play is needed). On the other hand, the nature of that play, which challenges boundaries, affirms ambiguities and ambivalences, inverts hierarchies, and so on, calls into question the rigidity and integrity of the distinction. In other words, he needs there to be “tension” for the play to operate, so the distinction must hold in some sense. However, the result of this play presents a challenge to the very basis of the distinction that is supposedly responsible for that tension in the first place. Logically speaking this seems to be some sort of a notion of undecidability. Whether some given in a comics work is an image or a text is something undecidable. It is not strictly both or neither, nor is it strictly one or the other. Whatever it is cannot for some reason be decided. I am not sure why, but perhaps it is because sometimes it functions exclusively one way, other times exclusively another, and any effort to pin it down at one pole of functioning will only make it squirm off to the opposite pole, in a sense. Or perhaps it functions exclusively one way but thereby somehow as well must function exclusively the other way, in some paradoxical operation that I am unable to conceive. My own personal view, which I mentioned before, is that the same given can have either function depending phenomenologically on how they operate in our consciousness, and when both operations are somehow at work at the same time, there would have to be a divided but simultaneous consciousness of both operations, or perhaps a rapid interchange between them. The idea of our consciousness having one operation that accomplishes two very different tasks, namely, on the one hand taking something to stand for another thing while on the other hand doing nothing more than simply registering the sensory features of something, is hard for me to conceive or to find in my own experiences. How can one operation of consciousness accomplish both tasks? I can only think for example of Deleuze’s notion of pre-linguistic signalytic material, which is somehow both purely sensory and yet the basis on which significance is built. In other words, we can have sensory-affective experiences that are not linguistic in any way, but we sense differences that make a difference and thus we have a prelinguistic sort of sign or bare significance. But my phenomenological approach is not relevant here. So let us stick with Hatfield’s text:]
Still, responding to comics often depends on recognizing word and image as two “different” types of sign, whose implications can be played against each other — to gloss, to illustrate, to contradict or complicate or ironize the other. While the word/image dichotomy may be false or oversimple, learned assumptions about these different codes — written and pictorial — still exert a strong centripetal pull on the reading experience. We continue to distinguish between the function of words and the function of images, despite the fact that comics continually work to destabilize this very distinction. This tension between codes is fundamental to the art form.
Hatfield, Charles. “The Art of Tensions.” In A Comics Studies Reader, pp.132–148. Edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
Or if otherwise noted:
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northampton, Mass.: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.