Reading “The Visual Language of Comics” by Neil Cohn (2013): Intro, Chap 1

Neil Cohn, 2013, Bloomsbury

I sometimes wonder if the chatter that came out of the Linguistics Department in the bowels of Dwinelle Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, where cognitive linguistics gestated and flowered, touched often on comics and comic books.  The distinguished linguists there were, after all, North Americans who came of age in the early and mid-20th century, thinking hard about how language made meaning in our minds.  I wonder if, when Charles Fillmore and George Lakoff and company came up with stuff like “Frame Semantics” and “Conceptual Metaphor,” they didn’t have comics tumbling around their heads, and no surprise that as they studied the languages and minds of others in an increasingly visual culture, found the influence of comics on minds and conceptions of mind.

Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics is subtitled, “Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images.”  Neil Cohn, a cartoonist, found something valuable as an undergraduate at Berkeley in the fields of cognitive science and linguistics, something valuable about how we read not just comics (which he calls a particular sociocultural phenomenon, like any manifestation of certain media within a time and place) but what he terms visual language.  And in the manner of linguists, The Visual Language of Comics sets out to understand how comics reading works as a system, specifically here in the mind of the reader. The book is the linguist’s comics theory book, an attempt to fulfill the potential that any student of linguistics must have imaged when reading McCloud or even Groensteen.

What makes visual language a language, even though Cohn emphasizes that comics “are not a language?”  Sequential images, like language, operate with three characteristics that match language: modalities (ie sound, gesture, images created with intention), meanings (using reference), and grammaticality (ways and constraints for how they’re put together) are all involved to form a system of communication.  Other forms of communication involve some of these elements, but not all three combined, as traditional language and visual language do. To me, the big insight here is that comics are grammatical.  The fact that comics use visual modalities and reference meanings is fairly obvious, though by no means insignificant, and you can plumb the depths of those two aspects of language forever.  But it’s the grammar of comics that interests me the most, and no surprise, demonstrating that systematicity is where Cohn turns next.

Cohn demonstrates the structures of visual language using a page from Kibuishi’s Copper and lays out terms like “navigational structure,” “visual morphology,” and “event structure.”  Introducing these constructs takes Cohn far in making the parallels between language/linguistic categories (phonology, morphology, syntax, discourse, etc.) and visual language.

Cohn anticipates that the first section of the book will examine this.  The second part of the book looks at cognitive research in order to detail how we comprehend visual languages.  Then, in a third section, he turns towards the sociocultural distinctions, with chapters on American Visual Language (comics), Japanese Visual Language (manga), and an Aboriginal Australian Visual Language (sand drawings) that presents a striking comparison and contrast.  Ultimately, Cohn marks out an agenda for visual language research, one he’s in the process of fulfilling.

So far, so good, and just what I expected as a comics reader and a (sort of) linguist.  The evidence of Cohn’s training in Berkeley and at Tufts under Jackendoff shows.  There’s some classic linguistics concepts applied (studying language as a system, with structures at various nested levels), but high value on cognition research (empirical evidence of how minds work to make meaning), and the necessary exploration of the (visual) language in use and how it is culturally contingent to some extent.  Necessary, that is, because even though a non-linguist would suppose that “cognitive linguistics” is a kind of linguistics fixated on the brain, in fact that brand of linguistics is more interested in language-in-use than the linguistics influenced by Chomsky and others, more focused internally on the system of language itself.

One thing I wondered as I read, which I have to give more thought to, is how nested structures of visual language might involve different proficiencies, different sets of conventions and constraints, and different cognitive tasks.  Cohn explains that comics involve two systems, the graphic/visual and the written/verbal.  Of course, the former is understudied (thus, this book) and the latter is widely researched.

But for a moment, I wondered if there were more than two systems involved.  Putting aside the written/visual, just within the visuals, I wondered if there was a system or structure for the drawings or images, relying on iconic representations (Cohn talks about CS Peirce’s semiotics in the next chapter) within each drawing, where a picture has to look like what it’s representing, say a drawing of a dog in a field within one panel.  And then, was there a separate system or structure for the sequentiality and organization of images?   And here, the representation would utilize Peirce’s indexical representation, so that the sign has some visual connection but not a one-to-one relationship with what it points to.  For instance, a series of panels where each one gets more narrow, suggesting time crunching or speeding up (using the spatial-temporal analogy), or balloon placements that suggest the ordering (or maybe disorderliness) of chatter by a crowd of characters.  Were there actually two visual systems at work in comics, one in the images and one in their organization and shaping into panels and pages?

Then I realized that, no, those are nested systems within one visual language, just like words (lexicon, morphology) have their own systems of signification, but these are nested within/beside syntax (organization of elements in an utterance, like a sentence or grammar), another system/structure.  Complex sequences of images and various systems, working together, all at the same time.  In plainer words, we can study vocabulary separately from we study grammar, and of course, vocabulary and grammar work differently, but we wouldn’t therefore say that grammar and vocabulary don’t belong together in a system of language.  They’re both necessary components, and interlaced.

Those thoughts made me excited to read the rest of the book.  I’m not very familiar with the research Cohn mentions, particularly the cognition research on people reading visuals.  I look forward to delving into those chapters most of all.  I’ll continue posting summaries and thoughts here as I read.

“Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2nd Edition)” by Emerson, Fritz, and Shaw (2011) Chapter 2

writing ethnographic field notes
The second chapter is entitled, “In the Field: Observing, Participating, and Jotting Down Notes.”  My summaries and reactions:
To the wary new ethnographer, chapter 2 provides a lot of reassurances and helpful clarifications.  Telling someone to be an observer and a participant among people, without the “scientific” goal of slicing away variables and maintaining an extremely tight focus, means always tangling with perceptions, reactions, emotions, and positions of self in relation to others.  This prospect can fill you with doubt.  Am I capturing what matters?  Do I pollute my observations with my own feelings or subjectivity?
The ethnographer’s fieldnotes always involve perceptions of significant ideas and facts, but that significance is determined first and foremost by the priority to the perspective from “within,” rather than the outsider’s perspective.  Yes, ethnographic writing wants to include initial impressions and reactions of the participant observer, but not uncritical ones.  Those impressions are good for identifying things that regular participants might take for granted, like when a commonly-used saying strikes the observer as strange or unrelated, or a behavior doesn’t appear logical even though everyone takes it for granted.  But the ethnographer is certainly not satisfied with their own perceptions of weirdness.
Rather, the ethnographer does well to note her reactions and responses, observe the reactions and responses of locals or those being studied, and consider the indigenous meanings, narratives, practices, perspectives that make events significant or not, etc.  How do local actors attribute importance or grant attention?  The authors give an example of the observer in an ex-prostitute’s residential program who notes a brief conversation about a woman’s new haircut, jotted down, easily passed over as insignificant, except that people at the site grant it significance by further talking about the haircut and identifying its significance: it turns out to be consequential because the haircut is a step towards the trappings of a sex worker lifestyle that the observed woman is supposed to be getting away from.
Overall, the authors convey that the writing of fieldnotes is tied in with observation, and observation does not dismiss the subjectivity or judgments of the observer, but must discipline them under the endeavor of the anthropological task.  This includes become a systematic observer and recorder, including being attentive to the “where, when, and whom” that are often taken for granted in events by local people, as well as the “why” and “how” of routine and mundane interactional accomplishments.  Over time, then, the writing can narrow and focus, after starting as a broad net, becoming more and more focused on a set of issues.
The authors then talk about “jottings,” writings in the field done to capture a moment before it’s lost to memory, often in the form of mnemonics to be filled in later with detail.  Dialogue, topics, etc.  Jottings are the ethnographer’s activity but also their mindset, approaching the experience in the field with the thought of capturing for later writing.  These jottings involve
–capturing key components, fragments of talk as focal points, sometimes just as reminders of the specificity of the moment,
–sensory details, needed to later reconstruct the feel of what happened,
avoiding “characterizing scenes or what people do through generalizations or summaries,” which are often used by novices as convenient or efficient notes but not helpful for close descriptions.
–details of scenes, conversations, interactions, quotes, concrete events that show rather than tell.
–emotions– how they are exhibited, what they come out as, etc.
–general impressions and feelings, even if their significance isn’t immediately apparent.
Besides the content of field notes, field workers have to think of the occasions and places they can pull out their notebook or Macbook or whatever writing tools.  This isn’t just a practical question of what feels convenient, because the field worker has to be conscious of how the act of writing interacts with the ethnographer’s presence and participation in the field.  The fieldnote writer is torn between being present in the field and pulling away, whether physically or interactionally, for taking notes.  Where does one position oneself?  Does one begin taking notes during a delicate situation, and risk offending or scaring the participants?  Is the ethnographer distracted by the task of writing and missing the actual cues of the interaction?  Whether jottings are open or hidden, strategic and conscious jotting is a key and sometimes evolving part of ethnographic writing.  And of course, there is the ideal that the ethnographer becomes someone the participants trust and have gotten used to, standing by and writing away and recording the situation where the participants are freely doing what they would do, comfortable with the ethnographer’s work and place in the ecosystem.  But reaching that point obviously takes a long process of building trust and familiarity, and introduces a different sort of “weirdness” to the regularity of everyday life.
It’s a weird stance, a weird place to be, and one that requires my sense of judgment and constant critical analysis.  In my case, especially as something more than just a participant observer, I know the colleagues I work deserve that I am being open and honest, remaining critical and analytical of myself in order to be nonjudgmental of others, and striving to be descriptive and purposeful in my writing.  Those are the challenges of ethnographic writing, but dealing with those challenges is the work that you’re doing.
As I read the chapter, I think of the awkwardness of being a fervent notetaker wherever I’ve been.  I just gave a little talk with some middle schoolers at the school (though not the classroom) where I’m doing my observations, explaining how being a note-taker has changed my life.  (This is all tied to the course’s curriculum, which introduces student skills like note-taking in all classes).  Being an inveterate note-taker has utterly shaped the way I belong to social situations involving work, and balancing that with the awareness of faces and voices and presences that I’ve also worked at being attuned to, that’s hard to reconcile sometimes.  When I’m at the site, sometimes I don’t know whether to pull out the recorder, the scrap of paper, the laptop, the notebook, and when to simply be present and conscious.
I do know, however, that I’m guided by the ultimate goal of ethnographic writing, and that requires the tension between participating, belonging, being fully present and heads-up, and stepping back to think, to capture stories, to consider, to tie in with theory, to identify and sometimes make meaning.  That tension is a familiar one, one that I think has some close overlap between other tensions I try to hold together in my work as a teacher-coach and my work in education as a whole.  I feel like it’s an important posture to maintain, the commitment to live with and understand and learn people, but the devotion to an ongoing conversation of reflection and analysis about that living.  There are specific ways that reflection and analysis goes on, a certain kind of disciplined inquiry that ethnography entails, and those commitments are also vital.