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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Teaching the Overdetermined Image

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/05/09 at 04:37 PM

As anyone who teaches funny books or films knows, the task of convincing students that the scene before them is anything other than incidental would try Job’s patience.  You show them a panel from the surprisingly awful Superman and Batman vs. Aliens and Predator like, say, this

image

and ask them to talk about the image as a crafted artifact and they will sit there, stone-silent, for fifty minutes while you prattle on about how (1) the writer wanted Batman represented by a powerful gloved hand and (2) the original alien was a giant penis preying on (a) the crew of the Nostromo and (b) our inborn fear of alien interspecies rape.  You show them the H.R. Giger painting that inspired Ridley Scott

image

and tell them that there’s phallic imagery, phallic imagery, and then there’s the work of H.R. Giger—and still they sit there staring at your Freudian hammer in a World of Nails.  You inform them that the lips of the alien were constructed from six stretched and shredded condoms smeared with KY jelly while they quietly compose comments for Rate My Professor about how everything in your course is about sex. 

“Not everything,” you insist.  “But I mean, come on now, clearly this alien is.  It is a giant penis, and within it is another penis, a penis within a penis, and in this panel Batman is firmly gripping that inner penis—”

And you stop because no matter what you say, professors who open semesters with images of Batman giving an alien a hand job get comments on Rate My Professor about how everything in their course is about sex.*

But it doesn’t have to end like this—there is a better way.  With the help of erstwhile commenter Luther Blissett, I’ve designed an introduction to visual rhetoric assignment that forces students to understand that all comic and film images are obscenely overdetermined.  On the first day of class, I’ll present them with Alan Moore’s script for the eighth panel on the first page of The Killing Joke:

NOW WE ARE LOOKING AT THE POLICE CAR SIDE-ON SO THAT WE SEE THE UNIFORMED OFFICER STANDING FACE ON TO US OVER ON THE LEFT AS HE STANDS WITH HIS BACK TO THE CAR AND COMMISSIONER GORDON FACE-ON OVER TO THE RIGHT, LEANING AGAINST THE CAR AND DRNKING HIS STEAMING COFFEE, MAYBE LOOKING UP WITH A QUIZZICAL AND CONCERNED LOOK OVER THE RIM OF HIS CUP TOWARDS THE EXTREME LEFT OF THE FOREGROUND, WHERE WE CAN SEE THE BATMAN ENTERING THE PICTURE FROM THE LEFT, IN PROFILE. SINCE BATMAN IS (a) CLOSER TO US AND (b) TALLER THAN EITHER THE COMMISSIONER OR THE PATROLMAN IN THE BACKGROUND WE CANNOT SEE THE TOP OF HIS HEAD HERE ABOVE THE BOTTOM OF THE NOSE AS THE FRONT OF HIM ENTERS THE PANEL ON THE LEFT. HIS EYES AND UPPER HEAD ARE INVISIBLE BEYOND THE TOP PANEL BORDER AND ALL WE CAN REALLY SEE IS HIS MOUTH, WITH THE BIG AND DETERMINED SQUARE JAW AND THE GRIM AND DISAPPROVING SCOWL OF THE LIPS. THE BATMAN DOES NOT APPEAR FROM HIS POSTURE TO SO MUCH AS GLANCE AT EITHER GORDON OR THE PARTOLMAN AS HE WALKS PAST THEM EVEN THOUGH BOTH OF THEM STEAL GLANCES AT HIM WITH DIFFERING LOOKS OF UNEASE. THE PARTOLMAN LOOKS UNEASY JUST TO BE IN THE BATMAN’S PRESENCE, WHILE GORDON LOOKS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THE BATMAN’S POSSIBLE STATE OF MIND. RAIN DRIPS FROM EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE BATMAN’S JUTTING AND GRIZZLED CHIN. GORDON GIVES THE LARGELY-OFF-PANEL VIGILANTE A PENETRATING LOOK OVER HIS COFFEE CUP, AND THE BLUE LIGHT ATOP THE CAR WASHES OVER ALL OF THEM AS IT CIRCLES.

No Dialogue.

Then I’ll ask them to draw it.  After assuring them that I did indeed say draw, I’ll let them have about ten minutes to transform Moore’s prose into stick-figure theater before showing them how Brian Bolland interpreted it:

image

Discussion will ensue.  I’ll show them the scripts to other panels—ask them why, for example, Moore insisted the receptionist at Arkham Asylum be reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians—and if all goes well, I won’t spend the next few months reading essays about how in this panel Alan Moore wanted Batman to punch someone in the face so he told Brian Bolland to draw a picture of Batman punching someone in the face. 

(x-posted.)



*Or not.  A proper interpretation of that image—one that factors in feminist interpretations of the alien as a species which rapes its prey to death—leads down paths too disturbing to tackle the first day of class.


Comments

The problem with overemphasizing phallic imagery is that once you’ve pointed it out, what then? Unless you are willing and prepared to do a close analysis and critique of Freud, you basically have to ask students to accept without critique the implications of the phallic imagery. In this case, it supposedly plays on our fear of alien rape. But what if you don’t fear alien rape? It’s certainly not a fear I’ve heard many people express.

Be honest. What was really scary about the first Alien movie (I didn’t see the others)? Was it fear of alien rape? Or the spooky atmosphere and the fact that a big bad ass could jump out and kill you? I’d wager the scariest moment for most people involved a cat and not a monster. What made the movie scary has far more to do with directorial skill than with phallic monsters. But if you make a big deal of phallic imagery, you’re implying (or stating outright) that it’s a cause of their reactions, assuming they really had any. No wonder students stare blankly.

My reaction to the Batman hand job—yes, certainly, the artist certainly evokes a handjob, what with the slimly liquid dripping from the alien appendage. But Batman is clearly preventing the alien from attacking/biting/impregnating him (whatever), so the imagery is at odds with what’s actually happening, unless you maintain that victims give handjobs to avoid rape. I’m certain the artist was sniggering when he drew that scene, and it does strike me as rather juvenile. I’d think most of us rolled our eyes at such obvious and clumsy phallic imagery.

My reaction to most discussions of phallic imagery is often “Yeah, but so what?” These discussions rely on some degree on the phallic being “naughty,” but after awhile, it just gets old, so to speak ;) Same with vagina imagery. As the bit goes, anything longer than it is wide is phallic. The reason people use guns to hunt deer has far more to do with the fact that hunting with C4 is illegal than with the supposed manliness of the phallic gun. I use a pen to write with instead of smearing my finger with ink because a pen is more effective (and if I did use a finger, someone would analyze it as a phallic object). Thank god attachment to phalluses didn’t prevent the use of keyboards.

I like your idea of pairing scripts for panels with the resulting artwork. That at least allows students to compare, find what the artist emphasized, what he downplayed, etc.—much better than expecting students to accept often quite silly notions about phallic imagery.

By on 01/06/09 at 05:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you suggesting that the composition, lighting, etc., of every panel of every comic book, and every shot in every film, are all deeply intentional? That there isn’t ever stuff in film or comic books that was merely tossed off?

I can’t tell completely.

By on 01/07/09 at 11:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CH, yes, I am.  If you take a look at Moore’s script, you’ll see that there’s nothing accidental.  (Even the deviations from the script are negotiated.) That’s not to say you can’t have moments—as with Batman’s gloved hand up there—that are ineffective and/or imply more than they intend.  That said, there are obviously hacks out there, writers who lack Moore’s commitment to detail; but for the purpose of the classroom, i.e. teaching visual rhetoric, I want the students to treat each panel as if the entire composition is an intentional artifact.

Trent, you write:

The problem with overemphasizing phallic imagery is that once you’ve pointed it out, what then?

I agree absolutely; moreover, once you start calling anything longer-than-it-is-wide a phallic symbol, you’ve transformed the act of interpretation into an Easter egg hunt, except with penises.  (Not that there aren’t classic works of literary criticism that amount to pretty much that—for my casebook on Kafka’s The Trial, I read a famous study from the ‘50s whose main argument was that The Trial was an aesthetic failure because it lacked the cock [K.] and balls [the assistants] of The Castle.) I’m not advocating teaching phallic imagery here—in fact, I’m trying to move students away from the high school notion of “symbolism” and “imagery” and towards an understanding of how rhetorical effects are built by particular techniques.  What I reproduced here was, in short, what I performed in class; that is, I demonstrated the inadequacy of the find-the-phallus technique of interpretation and guided them to a nuts-and-bolts analysis of textual material. 

Moreover, I tricked them into doing a close-reading by forcing them to draw the panel Moore describes.  It’s the sort of description of a scene and/or setting they normally skim over—the sweeping shot of Hogwarts, as one of them said, they don’t read to find out what happened to Harry.  By making them draw it, they had to think about where the characters were in relation to each other; how their expressions interacted to create a scene with content; &c. 

The effect is a similar one to when you teach drama with and without stage directions.  Whenever I teach Shakespeare, for example, I make sure that one of the editions contains extensive stage directions—usually one of the flimsy blue books designed for theater companies—and have the students block a few scenes.  For the rest of the quarter, I then ask them how they’d block a scene, how lines would be best delivered, &c. 

On to the alien rape:

But what if you don’t fear alien rape? It’s certainly not a fear I’ve heard many people express.

To be honest, I think the first time I saw the film it was a fear of alien rape that stuck with me: first, the violence of the face-hugger’s attachment, the suffocation it implied; second, the transformation of a man’s stomach into a womb and the horror of the chest-buster’s birth.  Though I wouldn’t have put it terms of rape at the time—I was seven or eight when I first saw it—the discomfort I felt certainly resulted from what, as an adult, I can associate with the violation of rape.  (And if you click on the link, you’ll see the film’s writer talking about how that was intended.  Obviously, the writer’s not the end-all be-all here, but his statements did conform to my general feeling about the film.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/07/09 at 01:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

CH, yes, I am.  If you take a look at Moore’s script, you’ll see that there’s nothing accidental

Really? What color is Gordon’s hat, according to Moore?

By ben wolfson on 01/07/09 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Point taken (although it may’ve been indicated earlier, I don’t have the script on me).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/07/09 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, indeed it might, but the idea that he’s specified everything is insane.

By ben wolfson on 01/07/09 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ben—Just because Moore doesn’t specific every detail does not make those details accidental, right?  It just means that, in a collaboration between a writer and an artist (and maybe an inker, a letterer, etc.), some decisions are specified in the script and others are specified in the image itself.

I’ll share my experience with this phenomenon from today’s class.  I’m finishing up *Les Miserables* with my tenth graders, and we were discussing the significance of Gavroche’s death (fyi, he’s a homeless young boy shot to death by French soldiers while gathering unspent ammo from dead French soldiers at the barricades). 

I began with the details: what’s he doing when he is shot (collecting ammo, singing taunting songs).  We moved to motivation: his sacrificial spirit, his spirit of optimism and joy, his dedication to the republican cause). 

Then I asked: “Why does Hugo shoot him?” One student replied, “Because he is gathering ammo out in the open.” So I said: “That’s how he is shot. But why shoot him?” Another student said, “Because Hugo has to wrap up all the plot lines.” So I asked again: “Why shoot him?  Why not have him escape?  Why not have him spared?”

And a student said, “Because if he lives, he will go back to being homeless.  And the rebellion fails, so he’ll lose hope.  And then he’ll begin to grow up and become serious.  And he’ll grow old, hopeless, homeless, but Hugo doesn’t think that’s how we should end up.  So Gavroche is killed while he still belongs to the cause, while he is still full of hope, and his death is a sacrifice.”

My head exploded with joy.

By on 01/07/09 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just because Moore doesn’t specific every detail does not make those details accidental, right?  It just means that, in a collaboration between a writer and an artist (and maybe an inker, a letterer, etc.), some decisions are specified in the script and others are specified in the image itself.

Yes, but if you look at Scott’s claim, you’ll see that he says that “If you take a look at Moore’s script, you’ll see that there’s nothing accidental”.

Now, there are two interpretations you could put to this:

1. Nothing in Moore’s script is accidental; there’s a reason for everything he, Moore, specified in the script. That’s not very interesting, especially because this interpretation focuses on what Moore specifies in the script and not the script itself (for instance, the order of the specifications, which might well be accidental). It also doesn’t respond to CH’s question.

2. Moore’s script leaves nothing in “the composition, lighting, etc.” of the panel undetermined or inessential (to realizing the script, I suppose). But this is obviously false.

Even regarding your larger claim, I’m skeptical. Sure, all the details are filled in at one stage or another—the panel is a fully determinate thing—which may merely mean that “accidental” isn’t the right word. CH surely wasn’t asking whether part of the panel might be the result of the inkpot falling over (and in fact “accidental” was Scott’s word). You can even take the line that every detail in the panel is essential for the overall effect. But that doesn’t mean that every detail in the panel is significant. Take the upper right-hand corner: there’s a black dot, and to its left, two slanted, thinner lines. Presumably these are all involved in the depiction of rain. These are fully determinate details specified perhaps not in the script but at some point; I don’t know much about the mechanics of comics construction so it beats me which of the myriad artistic roles might be responsible. ("Specified" might also not be the best word.)

Is that the sort of thing to which a good interpretation of this issue must attend? After all, the lines could have been a little closer together, or the dot on the other side of the lines, or even between them.

By ben wolfson on 01/07/09 at 08:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I see the value of encouraging them to interpret details closely ad nauseam as if every little brushstroke was intentional.

But the sincere claim that every single element of every work of art is intentional and not incidental-- it sounds like sophistry.  It’s like Bloom suggesting that Shakespeare invented humanity.  Kind of a neat theory to try out on someone in a bar, but it’s clearly untenable.

I could recourse to specific examples of great artists (visual, literary, etc) who did not consciously determine specific elements of their art, but I’ll wait for the thread to develop a bit. This almost seems like a con.

By on 01/07/09 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that good pedagogy does not necessary make good theory.  In this case, sure, telling students to draw the Alan Moore panel, look at the script directions and so on may make a good teaching tool, but I don’t see the point that Scott is getting at.

Most of it seems to be confused due to the use of visual media.  Let me rephrase it in terms of written media.  Let’s say you have a short story, or a poem.  Surely every word is “deliberate”, right?  But that doesn’t mean that they are either overdetermined, or have single, determinable meanings.

What Scott seems to be saying is that it’s a challenge to get his students to recognize that visual media have hidden elements of craft that visual artists use to create meanings that are not immediately accessible, especially to naive viewers.  Well, the same is true of written media.  A beginning student can read a poem and think it’s about something straightforward and have no idea that its word choice is helping to create a particular effect.

By on 01/07/09 at 11:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich nails it: “good pedagogy does not make good theory.” Ben’s got me nailed, theoretically, for writing a sloppy sentence within the context of this discussion—but this discussion is, titularly, about “the overdetermined image.” To call it a “con,” as CH does, is correct; moreover, manipulation’s a vital part of my pedagogical strategy.  I want them to remember what they’ve learned, and having them break out their colors and draw in a composition class is, for them, a memorable experience.  So is the moment when I show them the actual panel: they’ve spent fifteen minutes closely reading Moore’s description, then they receive the pay-off for that intellectual labor on screen.  Light bulbs aplenty pop. 

Put differently: I’m not creating an army of Walter Benn Michaels clones, I’m fighting uphill against the ingrained belief that stuff just sort of, you know, happens.  I have to push really, really hard to get them to understand that the composition of a panel, stage or set is the product of an intentional act—I mean, they know that in the way they know Madison Avenue tries to manipulate them, but they don’t know how they’re manipulated.  Once they know that, they’re better equipped to understand why, from the universe of possibilities, this writer/director/advertising executive did one thing instead of another.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/08/09 at 04:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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