Back to the Table

The ordeals that have kept me from writing regularly and resuming an academic career for the past three years are…not over. Thankfully. But this past Lent and Holy Week have been an inflection point in my life, I hope and believe.

Completing my first dozen years brought me to faith and literacy; my second dozen to teaching and service; my third to family and study. I don’t have a crystal clear idea where this fourth dozen leads me. But I do have these fuzzy notions: The times mean I’m fighting against revertin’ back to our daily programs. I need to write like I’m running out of time. And if I only live another dozen years, I want to have known that I spent these raising my daughter to be strong and humble, proud and loving, in this world.

So I’m trying to crawl back to the table.

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.

“Listen to Me Marlon”: Storytelling, Lies, and Truthfulness

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Like one path winding through a woods, storytelling reveals reality, and obscures it at the same time.

“Listen to Me Marlon,” the well-reviewed documentary about Marlon Brando “in his own words” culled from hundreds of hours of audio tapes he recorded of himself, is a rumination through the actor’s biography on authenticity, acting, storytelling, and truth.  My wife and I saw it in Berkeley this weekend, and I would recommend it.

Brando is the actor who has influenced me most, even compelling me at one point in my adolescence to consider acting myself.  Watching the film walk through his major roles, I realized how many hours of my life I’d spent, re-watching On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather and even The Wild One and Guys and Dolls and his Caesar, his eyebrows’ tilt and rounded shoulder flickering silver on the screen, performing the pathos, the pain, and the animal prowl I seethed in as a young man.

I’d read five or six biographies of the man, but all when younger, and none put together all these disparate parts of his life– his apprenticeship with Stella Adler and association with the Actor’s Studio, his flirtations and family tragedies, the island in Tahiti, the political statements and alignment with indigenous peoples and Black Panthers, the on-set misbehavior and career self-sabotage and disdain of celebrity, the psychology– nothing had put it all together so well.  And the fillmmakers, it seems director Stevan Riley most prominently, deftly wove together bits of Brando’s own voice, sometimes a daydream, sometimes a mouthful of scorn, sometimes a melancholic reflection, along with newsreel and footage, to tell the man’s life with a convincing sense that here were the contradictions and hypocrisies, yet here was a coherent whole.

It was fascinating.  My wife found it intriguing, and she didn’t know much about Brando.  Meanwhile, I knew nearly every fact and detail, could predict how bits would play out and pay off later when they were introduced as part of his life, and yet still found the storytelling surprising and moving.

Of course, knowing all these various, separate facts about his life, and having gathered them in the haphazard fashion I did, I could maybe more readily smell the bit of fabrication, the bit of a creative reconstruction that the movie was.  Details left out, or introduced in sequences that made certain ugliness less ugly, certain fuzzy facts appear more transparent but suggestion or juxtaposition.

But that just reminded me that stories clarify, crystallize, cut through the fog and to the heart– but almost inevitably, some texture is lost in the clarity, some vitality swept away with the fog, some jaggedness smoothed over in the momentum of stories.  Brando himself seems to ponder this in relation to his own acting, the truth and lie of acting.  He seemed keenly aware, articulately so, of the lie that acting was, the lie that engaged deeply felt truths the way a Method actor does, but a kind of truthiness.  He was aware of himself and the Hollywood system he rebelled against as lies, and spent his life inhabiting it and fleeing it at the same time.  The way the movie tells it, he achieves a peace with that lie, a reconciliation with the possibility that the little bit of falsity and flight of escape that a movie can provide, the being transported when clouded by depression, that it was beautiful, worthwhile, something significant for him to be part of.

Indeed, the documentary itself is a nice harmonization that renders Brando’s life with much of the nobility that made me admire it when I was young, and now quite a bit as an older person, slightly wizened, wondering a little bit myself the worth of devoting life to stories/lies and reality/truth, and of course, questioning that simplistic dichotomy at every turn.  Brando isn’t nakedly romanticized, I think, and he comes across as complicated, unresolved, and sometimes insidious.  But mostly, heroic for the vast life he lived.  And of course, that’s both truth and a fabrication.

John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ and the Magnitude of History

I’m gearing up tonight to reread John Hersey’s Hiroshima, offered on the New Yorker in its entirety right now in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the bomb.

I can’t remember if we read the book in 7th or 8th grade, or maybe in high school.  The experience of reading it is indelibly imprinted, as I counted, counted, counted, and envisioned lives of people around me rocked in similar fashion.  For some reason, the image carved by this sentence stuck: “There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.”  Miss Sasaki in a factory library, the usual routine of dropping kids off before going to work, and then, the bomb.

I hunted down Barefoot Gen in the library around that time, and kept envisioning.  These characters.  What if this were my teacher?  My neighbor?  My mother?  And I think that obsessive thought, that imaginative extension of nuclear disaster to the awakening world of relationships around me as an adolescent, pretty significantly colored my reality from then on.  Can you somehow make space to dwell in the trauma of the worst of the human condition, when you’re actually in the bosom of comfort?  I took it as a juvenile test.  I got depressed a lot.

But it also helped me find some fulcrum for a semblance of sensitivity to numbers that boggle the mind.  I took the 70,000 killed, wrapped my mind around 2,000 students at my school, the ones I passed every day.  Thirty-five of those, my school.  What if these buildings crumbled, fell one on another, ashes?  I let my mind stay there.

As a teenager, people would ask, “hey Paul, what’s wrong?” and I literally would have no possible way of explaining myself.

So I’m curious, this anniversary, now two decades of life, knowing I’d be a different character in the ‘Hiroshima’ written today, how the text lives, how it might hang over my existence.

Comics as Asian Am Literature: The Shadow Hero (Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew) review Part 1

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A multi-part review of Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s Shadow Hero, just released. This is a spoiler-free entry, but the future parts of this review will be spoiler-replete.

Gene Yang balances many things in ways that I appreciate.  He’s interested in China, invests in research, and makes his Chinese origins matter.  But he doesn’t obsess, is not afraid to syncretically remix and spin traditions and stories in the service of his storytelling as a Chinese American.  His storytelling itself is an art of ambivalences.  Observe the way that Boxers and Saints is designed to be structurally a dialectic, two takes that cross paths, demanding your sympathies and horror at both sides.  This is a typically Gene Yang kind of humanizing move.

One could accuse Yang of thus being dodgy and tricky in this way, slippery in not taking sides.  And one would then be veering into racist territory.  One would be misinterpreting the craft and force of taking such positions, the way that Hank’s super-abilities are mis-interpreted.  But more on that later.

I say this at the top because I think Yang has accomplished in Shadow Hero what he has done similarly in Boxers and Saints and American Born Chinese, and what’s interesting is how he has done it in the realm of superhero comics.  This is not an acerbic deconstruction of the genre, a lá Watchmen.  Nor is it a fawning tribute meekly submitted by an acolyte hoping to be accepted in its ranks.

As Yang has said, superheroes are about America and what America is, but moreover superheroes are about immigrants and the experience of immigration (Yang cites Superman of the Kryptonian diaspora and his creators’ Jewish backgrounds; see Kavalier and Klay).  Chris Sims’ review here summarizes the book well and offers the same ringing endorsement that I would (some spoilers there), but in calling the book primarily a tribute to Golden Age superheroes, I think the review misses the other half of the dialectic, the sharp critique that the book continually poses to racial politics, from its title and cover through its narrative and conclusion.

The book’s background story, Yang and Liew discuss in interviews and explain in the back of the book, is a short-lived comic book character called the Green Turtle created by a Chinese comic artist named Chu Hing in 1944, who was censored by his publisher from depicting the Chinese American superhero he wanted.  The Green Turtle’s face is always obscured in the original 1940’s comic in the deft move of never having to either accede nor disqualify the possibility that the Green Turtle is Chinese, and Chu Hing used even more acrobatics (or kung fu) of storytelling to evade an origin story.  Yang and Liew use this as a jumping off point, is to fill in this origin-story gap, to complete the circle of the subversion that the story was meant to be, right down to explaining the strange pink coloration of the Green Turtle’s skin that Hing’s publisher used to try to whitewash the character.  I think providing an origin story for a character who seems to arrive from out of nowhere is itself a crucial cultural/political endeavor.

I think what Yang has done again, and done so well, is consistent with the tenor and tactic of his previous work: to sharply, and lovingly, expose the exclusionary practices of America’s anti-Asian strains, its systemic orientalism and co-optive minstrelsy, and yet to portray the Asian American/immigrant response in its complexity, from glittery-eyed full participation in America’s dreams to noble and sacrificial resistance to calculated exploitation, whether strategic or venal.  The book is fun to read, and I’d give it to a kid, just like Yang’s other books.  But its depth is in the really deft ways it plays with race, history, and comics, and I wouldn’t let the ease with which you can consume it keep you from thinking about those various dialectics and ambivalences it deals with.

More details on all of this in coming posts, including the book’s treatment of gender, superheroes and powers, and Chinese American history, popular culture and genre, and Liew and Yang’s use of graphic narration.  Like I said, I’ll go into detail in the analysis, so you should get the book and read it before going further.  The paperback released today has stuff I think the Kindle book is missing, so it’s worth the wait.

Mad Men: “I’ll have your tags by lunch.” “Round and round….”

I got a tiny thrill watching Don Draper throw off his wine glass and bypass his coach to sit determinedly at his typewriter at the end of this week’s Mad Men. And then the end-credit music started playing, from the era I assume, saying “round and round and round and round….” and I realized my thrill was about the way I love that spot, that post-prodigal, post-hangover, sober black coffee determination to be the man. And how to me, it’s real, but to others, it’s fleeting and fake. Portnoy’s Complaint.
Against these machines that run, always, these tools that await our human waves of wild inconsistency, we will always appear not to deliver, and then sometimes to alchemically appear.

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“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” by Kendrick Lamar

The tenth track on Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city feels like three tracks bound together, intentionally, inalienably.  It must be, like a trinitarian necessity.  A raw paean to hope of memory in the midst of abrupt death, a desperate hustle that cries out for redemptive washing, and Maya Angelou leading wounded, angry young men to the Water.  The whole narrative of the album is worth a listen, but I keep this track on repeat because I can barely hold myself together during these words:

“I count lives all on these songs/Look at the weak and cry, pray one day, you’ll be strong/Fighting for your rights even when you’re wrong/And hope that at least one of you sing about when I’m gone/Am I worth it?/Did I put enough work in?”

(Note for my readers: the song spares no graphic voicing; it’s aware, but too gritty for simple audiences.  That means your kids.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a better anthem to the cultural work of the street prophet.

Comic book: Hawkeye

Plenty of raves out there about this comic (not quite my favorite of 2013, which has to go to Building Stories, which is so good I can’t even bring myself to finish it).  But if you find the superheroes thing boring (even the movies are boring me), besides the crackling wit of Fraction’s dialogue (only Brian K. Vaughan is better, to me, right now), the pitch-perfect visual storytelling (a master lesson–one day I’ll post my thoughts about the evolving grammar of American comics, via Eisner and McCloud and Chris Ware), and the not-quite-too-cute-but-close meta-commentary (my favorite so far, in ish 11 about “pizza dog”: “this is what does pretty much every day because he is a dog”), the reason you need to read Hawkeye is that it also wants to envision heroism without superpowers, and finds those very words getting caught in its own throat.  Like young America, it dares not utter the idea of “hero” in the shadow of the monumental artifice of superpowerdom, but it also does not need to flee in the other direction, nihilistic anti-heroism.  In resisting both sentimentalism and brutal realism by vacillating helplessly between them at just the right frequencies, it’s perfectly American, perfect for our times.
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Reading “Felina” (Breaking Bad spoilers)

How late can you be to writing about TV?  Breaking Bad ended two months ago, and yet my days still hang sometimes with the sagging, earthen colors of Bryan Cranston’s craggily, bespectacled furrows, the haunting thought that Jesse Pinkman is locked away in a meth dungeon, and Damocles’ Sword swinging over the Southwest.  The end of one of TV’s best shows ever predates this blog, but the DVD set’s release occasions this post, as well as this recently-released video of Cranston and Aaron Paul reading the script of the finale, which of course you should only watch if you are, like me, similarly satiated by the completed story, rather than lucky enough to still have that show and its savory final season before you on a platter, fully-cooked.

The last season was worth all the acclaim it got, as was the whole show.  Not until season 5 did I watch episodes when they aired.  Instead, I mainlined them like a fix for a stint, before the darkness got too dark and invaded my normally sunny life, until I needed to come up for air for a few months.  The show had its closeness to home for me from the pilot, the “there but for the grace of God go I.”  A teacher, feeling regularly emasculated, like a big old nobody after all the promise and genius that filled him with expectations/delusions otherwise.  That feels like me.  The bitter rationalizations of the victimized, victimized by the contemptible world, by the rich, by the fates, who senses the moment and seizes the excuse to finally be powerful, autonomous, and right.  I get that.

Walter White hates the dirty work, but he’s reveling in the chemistry; he finds the climb to criminal power deeply distasteful, but necessary to protect his family, his name, and his surrogate son Jesse; he dons the dark hat as a disguise, but he’s truly, truly beige and white and maybe, just for kicks, the purest blue.  No, by the end, that’s all unmasked.  Just about the most poignant moment I’ve seen in a TV show, when he curses out his wife over a tapped phone and says the opposite of everything he means as perhaps his parting words, at least until he can see her again and come clean enough to recognize that he did it all… for himself.  The dirty work, the distasteful empire, the dark hat… it was no more or no less Walter than the beige pants and the tighty whiteys and the sanitized chem lab or chemo clinic.  We are all shot through with Heisenberg, with the will to power, just as we are all crumbling and tearing apart, like Mr. White.  We are all clutching desperately for survival and our families, just as we are all, in fact, filthy to line our pockets with security, ego, vengeance, and wrath.  It became my mantra after watching each season, a deep sigh with the words, “I am Walter White.”

What disappointed me about the ending was that there had to be someone much worse for Walt to kill in order for him to find redemption.  There had to be irredeemable Nazis and an icy, merciless Lydia.  Not that Krazy 8, Tuco Salamanca, or Gus Fringe were great souls, but you could root for Walt to be free rather than rooting for them to meet grisly deaths, and in all cases, the end felt like a twisted necessity, a Ricin-less last resort.  In Felina, the fist-pumping moments were for a calculated unsheathing of raw violence, like rooting for Travis Bickle’s trench coat drawer-slide contraption to work and forgetting how morally misaligned it had all become.

And yet, watching that newly released video of Cranston and Paul read the ending, moved to tears, I was moved in turn.  Jesse and Walt are these horrible people, but people, whose humanity had been reinforced by each moment that it was being withered away.  (The same, it must be said, could have–should have–been done for the Hectors and the Andreas and, heck, even the Gomeys, as it seemed to have been for the Mikes and the Janes and the Hanks).  Every degradation flecks off a piece of what is undeniably flesh, hardened or burnt as it may be.  The terror behind Jesse’s eyes is not the dissociation that makes Todd a different species from himself, but the even more terrifying recognition that he is just heartlessly angling for what Jesse has already become.  My sympathies for Walt and Jesse don’t persist in spite of their failings, but exactly because of them.

I am Walter White.  This is not a confession tape.  I have not manufactured any illegal substances, under compulsion from my brother in law or otherwise.  But I got choked up watching Walt’s end and Jesse’s tortured liberation, not just because it was the end of a great show, but because it was a sweet and terrible relief to not live inside their plausibility structure any longer.  I was moved by the end for the same reason I’m so moved watching this video of Paul and Cranston being moved.  Because they had inhabited these guys for so many years, and as both have said repeatedly, not in defense of their actions but purely out of the commitment actors must have, they have rooted for them as well.  Rooted for them to live and thrive and choose well.  No empty absolution of their sins, no denying justice waiting in the wings, but just simply to wish for the quality of mercy on men who have become, five/six seasons of moral water under the bridge, people.  Terrible, beautiful people.

I look back at a lot of my own human endeavors with the same ambiguity and finality.  As I bookend things, even in celebration, I can’t help but see a soiled mess.  Even in victory, shot through with selfishness and greed.  And yet, in the end, the notes of grace to unwarranted monsters like us–nothing captures it better to me than Holly White– remind us that even on a road to hell, we are humans, caked in dirt, imago dei.

 

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Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

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Recently published, O’Connor’s prayer journal seems like a bit of an intrusion.  She’s only twenty to twenty-two years old at the time.  In my experience, my prayer journals are full of sincere yearnings and unguarded complaints, with the occasional thought that someone in public someday will read it but mostly the private effort to narrate in visible words the groanings of my spirit to God.  They feel like an intrusion because they seem so very authentic, and they seem to me so authentic because they sound and flow and twist and unfurl so much like my own prayers.

The rhythms of her prayers are completely familiar, a remarkable relief of recognition, like someone else’s soul speaks the same language.  The turns and the movement, from supreme confidence to self-deprecating humiliation, from exultant praise to supplicant pleas.  She even says at one point that “Supplication” is the only one of the four she’s good at, and like so many thoughts in the book, I know exactly what she’s thinking of, having not only learned the pattern of Adoration, Contrition or Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, but also felt the guilt of having come to God with nothing other than the last of those.

Some cries are eloquent, some guttural.  They are stunningly honest.  She has ambitions to be a writer, a great writer, a professional writer, and she is not afraid to ask God for that.  But reading prayers are listening to one end of the conversation, with only our imaginations and inference to construct the other end, but you can see the ways her ambition and desire is being fine tuned by God, pointed in the process of the asking.  They are not separate from, but coterminous with the general ways in which she seeks God’s face.

But I also learn from her the sense of writing as redemptive and painful labor.  “If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service.  I would like to be intelligently holy.  I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.”  Writing has often felt like lonely and directionless labor, and Flannery inspires me to bear it, bear it with a prayer that it will be an instrument of grace.  “The intellectual and artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with a thirst for the attendant suffering.”