18 Aug 2016

Groensteen (2.2) The System of Comics, ‘A Plurivectorial Narration’, 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
A Plurivectorial Narration

Brief summary:
Narration in comics is accomplished in a non-linear fashion, as subsequent panels cause us to return to prior ones to retroactively revise our interpretations of what they are saying with regard to the parts of the narrative that they contribute to.


Groensteen will now have us “come to terms with what a sequence of fixed images really communicates, and how, subsequently, narration is accomplished” (108). He begins by analyzing a page from Muñoz’ and Sampayo’s Rencontres. He writes: “What seems to be narrated in this page can be summarized in a few words: The hero, Alack Sinner, is awakened by the noise of a newspaper that the wind has blown up against his window. The headline splashed across the front page informs him of the death of John Lennon. The authors use seven panels to produce the equivalent of this statement” (108).

Groensteen first makes two basic observations: {1} “The first two panels are sufficient to deliver the apparent narrative content of the entirety of the sequence, whereas the following images do not appear to add anything except an anecdotal prolongation (Alack lights a cigarette)” (Groensteen 108). {2} “The seven images break down into two series: on the one hand, four panels in which the protagonist appears, and on the other, three panels showing the newspaper and its large headline in shots that are increasingly tightened. No images simultaneously present Alack and the newspaper on which we can read the words ‘John Lennon Killed’” (Groensteen 008).
Groensteen’s first argumentative point is that “If the first two images summarize the sequence, neither can be held to be intrinsically narrative. It is from their juxtaposition that I can deduce a narrative proposition” (108). [I am not entirely sure I follow the reasoning. Is it not possible for two images, in which either or both is intrinsically narrative, to be combined to further create more narrative content? The fact that the two together summarize the narrative to me does not seem like sufficient evidence to conclude that neither on its own has intrinsically narrative features. But it does seem to be true when looking at them that there is no intrinsic narrative content to them.] [Groensteen’s next point reminds me of Charles Hatfield’s distinction between symbols that show and symbols that say, from section 2 of “The Art of Tensions”. I am not certain, but Groensteen might be making the following point. Each panel shows part of the situation. But only through their “confrontation” do they say something (narratively speaking) about that situation.]
Again, this involves no small amount of interpretation. Is Alack really sleeping? If he was awake, was his attention drawn to the noise (no onomatopoeia is signaled) or only to the sight of the newspaper? Nothing allows me to categorically respond to these questions. As a reader, I construct meaning on the basis of inferences that appear to be the most probable. There is the content that each of these images shows, and there is the meaning that their confrontation permits them to say.
[For the next point, we recall a quotation from section 2.1 by Roger Odin (I did not include the quotation there, because I did not understand the part that is now relevant, so let us examine it here): (quoting Odin) “A fixed image can certainly have a narrative structure: it suffices that the vectorization corresponds to an actantial structure of a conflicting type between a subject and an anti-subject or of a relational type between a subject and an object of desire” (104, citing, on page 174: ““Le cinéma: langue ou langage?” Communications, no. 4, Paris, Le Seuil, 1964, p. 63. Text reprised in Essais sur la signification au cinema, t. 1, 1968.”) The part that I did not understand was the notion of “a relational type between a subject and an object of desire”. Now I think Odin might mean the following. A still image can show a subject and also an object of that subject’s desire. Groensteen here will note the panel above where the man is reaching for a cigarette. Because there is a subject and an object of desire, and because also the effort exerted toward fulfilling that desire by interacting with that object is depicted, that means we can say there is an intrinsic narrative element to the image. (I suppose that narrative structure would be something like: character wants something; character tries to get it.) Groensteen then notes the retroactive inferential nature of how we come to see that image as showing the man reaching for the cigarette and lighter. It is only later that we see him holding these items rather than having turned on the lamp, which was another possible outcome of his reaching action. (This notion of the retroactive inferential construction of the story is similar to points Wolfgang Iser made in section 2 and section 4 of “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach”.)]
Nevertheless, in the rest of the sequence, certain images, considered on their own, are instantly translatable to linguistic statements expressing an action; and, faithful to the wishes of Roger Odin, this action puts into relation “a subject and an object of desire.” Thus, for the fourth panel: Alack lights a cigarette. The third panel itself can be translated by a statement of this sort, which would be: Alack reaches out his arm to grab a cigarette and a lighter. But I only opt for this translation because it is verified retroactively by the following panel. Considering only the third panel, I could have also imagined that our friend wanted to turn on his bedside lamp. The fourth panel, which shows him lighting his cigarette, informs | me a posteriori11 of the precise signification of his gesture, at once positively — he had to have taken out the cigarette and lighter for I can see him light the first by means of the second — and negatively — he did not light the lamp, since the room is still plunged in darkness.
(Groensteen 108-109)
[Endnote 11 on p.175 (quoting):
11. This retroactive effect should always be relativized, to the degree that, during the first glance at the entirety of the page it is likely that the contents of the fourth panel.]
Groensteen then pushes this point about retroactive revision a step further: the fact that a subsequent panel invites us to reconsider what is going in a prior one can mean that our eyes will often travel not just in the left-to-right vector but also in right-to-left [and probably in all directions depending on the points of origin and destination].
Furthermore, wasn’t it already a retroactive determination that permitted me to know that the newspaper appears to me, in the first panel, as something seen by Alack—or better: that I see it with him and “through his eyes”? By itself, the first panel only shows me a newspaper flattened against a window, without allowing me to wonder which house this window belongs to, or if the sight of the newspaper is remarked upon by some other occupant. We can therefore formulate this first rule, that the meaning of a panel can be informed and determined by the panel that preceded it much like the one that follows it. If there is a vectorization of reading, there is no unidirectional vectorization in the construction of meaning.
Groensteen then says the best example of “retroactive determination” is the next image to appear, that is, the first one on the next page (110). This might make us [even turn the page backward] and reinterpret the sixth panel (above) where he is coughing (110). [Previously we might have interpreted him coughing just from the cigarette smoke. Now we might interpret him as having been beginning to retch.]

Groensteen then shows how this revises the narrative sequence.
The best example of retroactive determination is furnished by an image that does not appear on this page, since it is the first panel of the following page. We see Alack Sinner leaning over a sink, in a position that leaves no doubt that he is vomiting. This panel provides its own meaning, not only with regard to the images that immediately preceded it (and notably the sixth panel of the reproduced page, which shows Alack coughing and shaking), but to the entirety of the preceding page. In light of this delayed revelation, I must correct my initial spontaneous linguistic translation. The sequence is now reduced to the following statement: The news of the assassination of John Lennon affects Alack to the point that it makes him sick. All the rest (Alack’s awakening, the newspaper, the window, the cigarette) are reduced to the rank of simple circumstances.
(Groensteen 110)
[I am not sure I follow Groensteen’s last point. He seems to be saying the following. Each panel might seem to present some objective independent fact. However, the images of the newspaper headline are more impressions hitting and affecting Alack. We at first might have seen them as objective depictions, but after the vomiting panel, we retroactively realize that they were more of an indication of the intensity of Alack’s subjective experience of the shock they gave him. Let me quote as I think I got that wrong:]
This panel — which we should consider to close the sequence — sheds light on, and justifies a posteriori, the nearby image, as well as the very tight image of some of the letters that compose the title of the newspaper (cf. panels 5 and 7). It is now evident that they materialize the emotional impact of this news on the hero. Shocked, he feels it resonate stronger and stronger within him, at the same time that the nausea rises. The status of these two panels is therefore different from the others: they are not objective representations — otherwise the wind should have already carried the paper away; and also, Alack did not approach the window, so there is no objective reasoning for the enlargement of the letters — but rather they are graphic translations of effects. What they express happens entirely in the head (and stomach) of Alack Sinner.

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.
Image credits:
Muñoz & Sampayo. Alack Sinner #3 Rencontres. ©1984 Casterman.

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