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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reading Wordless Books

Posted by John Holbo on 07/12/08 at 09:52 PM

Here’s a postscript of sorts to my ‘is comics a language?’ post.

I just settled down to read a new book, Wordless Books, the Original Graphic Novels, by David A. Benonä (with introduction by Peter Kuper).


It’s a handsome volume, 11 chapters, most of them devoted to individual author/artists - eight in all, plus a chapter on 3 ‘cartoon book’ artists, a general historical background chapter and conclusion. Each chapter gives you generous samples, plus pertinent bio and intelligent commentary on influences, style and technique. So it’s a good introduction. It “represents the major woodcut novels and wordless books, from 1918 to 1951” minus a handful of titles that are listed at the start. So a real effort has been made to achieve comprehensive coverage.

As I happen to own several of these works already, in nice enough editions, it’s a bit redundant on my shelf. But that’s how it goes.

Anyway, here’s the opening of Peter Kuper’s introduction, which seems relevant to the whole ‘comics a language?’ question.

It may seem a little contrary to write about a wordless art form, but a blank sheet of paper doens’t carry much in the way of insight, so bear with me.

In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, humanity has developed one unifying language and comes together to build a stairway to heaven. God, as was His wont, destroys the structure and as an added bonus undoes people’s ability to communicate through a single language for all time.

Apparently he overlooked Lund Ward’s picture story God’s Man.

Ward, like Frans Masereel, Otto Nückel, and the other artists included in this collection, discovered a way to sidestep our language barriers and create complex political, emotional, and humorous stories that can be universally understood.

We humans have been using drawings to tell stories as far back as when our ancestors called caves home. Pictures were used to describe their actions - say hunting a wooly mammoth - and the very traces of human existence remain thanks to the artists who scrawled on those cavernous walls.

Throughout human history, image functioned as language - including the Sumerians’ cuneiform pictograms carved on clay tablets, the expressive symbols painted on the tombs in Egypt, and chinese scrolls with silent illustrated epics that unrolled before the reader’s eyes ...

Here we find the same ambiguity. Is it a language? Or does it function as language (but perhaps it isn’t a language)? Is it universal because it’s a universal language or because it’s not a language at all? It’s worth noting that one of the main reasons we are tempted to say ‘comics’ - or sequential images telling stories - is a language is that we read comics. What else would you read except for language? But this is a bit arbitrary. We call it ‘reading’ because these are books. What else would you do with a book except read it? But we wouldn’t be so presuming about, say, the Bayeux Tapestry or cave art. The verb ‘to read’ tends to tag along with certain sorts of artifacts associated with writing. But that is not to say that everything you do with artifacts of that sort must be ‘linguistic’, per se. Also, it’s a bit peculiar that ‘reading’ comes to seem such an important word in these discussions. The essence of the novel is that it is a thing you read. So if these are novels, you must read them. But this isn’t even true. Illiterate people can listen to audiobooks.

Obviously the interest of the question does not lie in beating our ordinary words to death - ‘language’, ‘read’.

I’m not going to try to write this out here, but an idea I’m toying with is this: a lot of theory of interpretation - hermeneutics stuff - is skewed to the assumption that if you are interpreting it, it must be language-like. The fact that you can even have ‘wordless novels’ is a counter-example to a lot of accounts, then. And this isn’t just a case of the accounts neglecting this somewhat forgotten, perhaps marginal class of works. Rather, the fact that a theory of interpretation must work for wordless novels suggests that most theories of interpretation of literary works are barking up the wrong tree. They are treating interpretation of works as a theory of interpretation of words. But, since images aren’t words, that’s not right. Just a thought.


I’ll be honest, I’m reading this stoned, but at the moment it seems exactly right.  I mention the stoned bit because one thing one learns from reflection while using psychoactive drugs is that there isn’t just one mode of consciousness; what it’s like to “be in the world” depends a lot on chemistry.  That calls a lot of philosophy, especially stuff at either side of the border between phenomenology and metaphysics, into question, in a way that hasn’t quite been grappled with yet.  Disciples of Dennett are going to have to come to terms with disciples of Hegel, Husserl, and (maybe) Derrida.

The assumption that interpretation is a singular and necessarily linguistic phenomenon seems like a similar, maybe related, unwarranted assumption.

By on 07/13/08 at 12:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’ll be honest, I’m reading this stoned [...]”

That’s the most awesome opening for a blog comment ever.  Stoner dude, I salute you.

By on 07/13/08 at 12:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is an area where simple empirical studies could settle what seems to be a theoretical issue.  There’s no way to argue deductively that comics are universal.  I find most comic strips from before 1950 very difficult to parse—Krazy Kat comes to mind.  The visual connections are foreign to me.  I wouldn’t want to assume that everyone would understand the visual crosscuts, zooms, and other complex focusing and framing devices used in comics.

By on 07/13/08 at 12:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I agree that it’s a question with a substantial empirical component, but I think what you are seizing on is more a case of it being a case that needs to be hemmed around with qualifications and caveats, such as were made explicitly in my previous post, but not in this one. There are of course lots of purely arbitrary conventions governing visual art. left to right, right to left or boustrophedonic reading order. That’s a rule. And there are some not-strictly arbitrary but essentially unguessable codes as well. Manga is full of strange conventions about what certain iconic facial expressions are supposed to mean. I don’t know them all myself. So you admit upfront that there are always at least some - and potentially lots of - symbolically conventional elements in ‘wordless books’. But shave off that stuff - freely grant it, that is - and the large consideration still remains: pictures work differently than words.

My hypothesis: interpretation of works needs to be the common denominator of interpreting words and interpreting images, since works may be either or both. But, as it stands, interpretation is treated, rather, as a subset of the question: how do we interpret words?

Thanks for the kind, stoned words, Chris!

By John Holbo on 07/13/08 at 01:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with you there.  I like neither the idea that comics are its own language nor that comics draw on some universal or natural language.

We’re basically talking about generic conventions.  And all generic conventions must be learned, largely through repeated exposure by reflective or “metacognitive” readers. 

My own understanding of hard to understand comics comes from my (thin) knowledge of formal film analysis.  From establishing shots to continuity shots, from the proper use of long, med, and close shots, to the sequencing of shots to establish a scene, to complicated cross-cutting and montage technique, all of these took time for filmmakers to develop and for viewers to learn to parse. 

I just showed my students *M* and *The Big Sleep*, and the former drew on conventions (or challenged conventions) that the latter rests on.  *M* is a “foreign language” to viewers today—and was quite foreign to most viewers in the early 30s.  The metonymic and often paratactic connections between panels in a comic or shots in a film were immediately challenging to their first viewers, raised on novelistic conventions of narrative discourse.

By on 07/13/08 at 04:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, there is certainly such a thing as visual literacy. But here we come back to the same problem. Is it perhaps at least somewhat misleading to call it ‘literacy’. To the extent that it is a matter of codes, more so. But to the extent that it is more a matter of training eyes to dart and notice in certain ways, perhaps it’s more like ... something else. Maybe more like being good at playing first-person shooter games. We don’t normally call having gotten the hand-eye hang of a certain sort of game ‘literacy’, but the ability to watch certain sorts of visual productions appreciatively might actually be better compared to that. I dunno.

The problem is that the language metaphor applies a little bit absolutely everywhere - reading in the book of nature. The language of clouds. The language of the waves. Anywhere there is order that some people appreciate and recognize, others don’t, you can call it a language. The general risk I’m warning against is just wrongly inferring that more than minimal features of language, proper, are to be found in these cases.

By John Holbo on 07/13/08 at 04:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: A couple of things:

1. . . . a lot of theory of interpretation - hermeneutics stuff - is skewed to the assumption that if you are interpreting it, it must be language-like.. Well, you know, there is the line that “it’s all interpretation,” which is explicitly meant to indicate that all sensory input must somehow be interpreted; it’s not just the arbitrary linguistic sign that calls for interpretation. My sense is that folks weren’t quite so free with this line before Theory, nor had reading (in the ordinary sense) slipped in reading (in the sense of explicit theory-driven intepretation in written form).

But, it is the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign that poses the biggest challenge in the elucidation of literary works and, you’re right, it’s a mistake to generalize that particular problem all over the place.

Q. You are, of course, familiar with Quine on translation and the “gavagai” example. My guess is that someone could now draw on evolutionary psychology and psycholinguistics to argue that the situation isn’t nearly so arbitrary as Quine presents it, that there is a “natural” tendency for us to parse the world in a certain way and, e.g. “rabbit slices” is not terribly natural. Those natural tendancies would come into play in that situation and eliminate most of the more creative and “Borgesian” construals of “gavagai.” Do you have any idea if someone’s written that article?

2. You ought to take a look at David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1988), which I’ve just blitzed my way through. You download a reply-to-critics type article (12M PDF) that runs through the main points. He has quite a bit to say about how the business of “making meaning” (that is, the production of explicit interpretations of films in written form by professional critics) works, both cognitively and institutionally. He also argues, in the last chapter of the book, that it’s time to move on to a genuine poetics that analyzes and describes films. The intepreters don’t do that very well and maybe it’s interesting and important that we understand more about how these things are made.

3. I’d assume if you looked around in art history you’d find stuff on the interpretation of the visual image. The Wikipedia entry for Erwin Panofsky, for example, has this about his 1939 Studies in Iconology concerning levels of understanding:

▪ Primary or Natural Subject Matter: The most basic level of understanding, this strata consists of perception of the work’s pure form. Take, for example, a painting of The Last Supper. If we stopped at this first strata, such a picture could only be perceived as a painting of 13 men seated at a table. This first level is the most basic understanding of a work, devoid of any added cultural knowledge.

▪ Secondary or Conventional subject matter (Iconography): This strata goes a step further and brings to the equation cultural and iconographic knowledge. For example, a western viewer would understand that the painting of 13 men around a table would represent The Last Supper. Similarly, seeing a representation of a haloed man with a lion could be interpreted as a depiction of St. Jerome.

▪ Intrinsic Meaning or Content (Iconology): This level takes into account personal, technical, and cultural history into the understanding of a work. It looks at art not as an isolated incident, but as the product of a historical environment. Working in this strata, the art historian can ask questions like “why did the artist choose to represent The Last Supper in this way?” or “Why was St. Jerome such an important saint to the patron of this work?” Essentially, this last strata is a synthesis; it’s the art historian asking “what does it all mean?”

4. Surely you’ve heard some of the pre-release jitter-buzz on WALL-E (at the Brew, for example), particularly the line that goes: “OMG, no dialog for the first 40 minutes? Isn’t that too strange? Will the public go for it?” The public seems to have gone for it, surprise, surprise.

By Bill Benzon on 07/13/08 at 07:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My problem isn’t with the idea of a “reading” of comics, but with the reduction of reading to reading signs, and the reduction of signs to the Saussurian sign.

I remember reading an essay about Peirce that discussed his seven-fold classification of signs; perhaps we need to expand our notion of what constitutes a sign?

Off the top of my noggin, I’d say that a sign is anything that requires the application of past knowledge to understand.  Which is to say that anything that becomes *meaningful* for humans becomes a sign.  A rain cloud isn’t, in itself, a sign.  But for humans, with experience of rain clouds, and with a desire for rain (or to avoid rain), a rain cloud *does* in fact become a sign. 

Of course, the rain cloud is a different sort of sign than a sculpture or a simile.  (Husserl distinguishes between indicative and expressive signs here.) But anything infused with a human’s act of intentionality and desire, whether it’s a farmer looking into the sky or a grad student reading a novel, is a sign.

I’m not making any sense.

By on 07/13/08 at 04:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the crucial point, Luther, is that ‘clouds mean rain’ is an example of what Grice calls ‘natural meaning’. We use meaning as a synonym for various forms of implication (causal, logical). This is human independent. Clouds mean rain even if there is no one there to see them mean it. I don’t want to insist that this is totally unproblematic - obviously tree-in-the-forest problems apply. But the point is: unless you are actually going idealist about it, then sometimes a perfectly ordinary and generally recognized sense of meaning is entirely mind and intentionality independent. This is just one way the word gets used. I don’t mean to insist that this makes the sense sacrosanct. Just to point out that, in fact, one way that people back into very idealistic sign-centric talk is via failure to recognize that they are talking about natural meaning.

Now, my point would be this: a lot of what you interpret, when you interpret works, is natural meaning. You know that punches mean pain. That’s what helps you understand what’s going on, the connection between the frame. But punches mean pain is not a signifying relation at all. It’s a causal relation. (Pierce, by the by, includes ‘natural signs’ in his seven-fold typology, if memory serves.)

Bill: “Do you have any idea if someone’s written that article?”

Yeah, a lot of people have tried. Whether they have succeeded? Yes and no, I would say.

By John Holbo on 07/13/08 at 09:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We use meaning as a synonym for various forms of implication (causal, logical).

“We,” meaning analytic philosophers or human beings in general?

Just to point out that, in fact, one way that people back into very idealistic sign-centric talk is via failure to recognize that they are talking about natural meaning.

I suspect you’re right about this.

By Bill Benzon on 07/13/08 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s pretty clear that a farmer who leans out his window and says ‘those clouds mean storm’s a comin’’ is not, thereby, locating himself within the analytic tradition.

By John Holbo on 07/13/08 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What about the guy who didn’t understand what you said and so asks, “What’d you mean?” He’s not asking you to make an inference, though I suppose you might say that he was unable to make a coherent inference in response to your words, but that’s a strain.

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/08 at 07:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"What about the guy who didn’t understand what you said ... “

By pointing out that, in English, ‘mean’ has non-semantic uses is not to suggest that it has no semantic ones.

So if someone fails to understand a non-semantic use of ‘mean’ like ‘clouds mean rain’ I’ll just teach him English.

By John Holbo on 07/14/08 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What I’m curious about is when “to mean” becomes nominalized to this “meaning” stuff, as though it were some kind of metaphysical substance. Literary texts. among others, have meaning and, if they are good texts, they are rich in meaning. But just what this meaning stuff is, that’s a tough one.

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/08 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s a fallacy to suppose that nominalizing terms amounts to metaphysicalizing whatever they are about. The noun ‘meaning’ is not more presumptively metaphysical than the verb ‘to mean’, so far as I am concerned.

By John Holbo on 07/14/08 at 10:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My problem is with the presumption that the nominalization of a perfectly good verb results in a perfectly good noun. Just because we have a noun doesn’t mean that anything corresponds to it anywhere in the world.

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/08 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, the thing was already nominalized when I got here. ‘Meaning’ is an ordinary English word, as is the verb ‘to mean’. What reason can you give for supposing that the verb ‘to mean’ and the noun ‘meaning’ are not on the same metaphysical footing, order of explanation-wise?

Supposing we have a noun that doesn’t correspond to any discrete entity anywhere in the world. Why is that a problem? Why couldn’t it still be a ‘perfectly good’ noun? Lots of nouns work that way, at least apparently.

By John Holbo on 07/14/08 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, I’m not complaining about you, John. I’m complaining about the state of literary thinking. “Meaning” may be a perfectly good English word, but when literary critics . . . oh, never mind.

By Bill Benzon on 07/14/08 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On the written word, kung fu movies, and how Kung Fu Panda got it wrong:


By Bill Benzon on 07/18/08 at 04:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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