"Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship Through Comics" with Nick Sousanis: Response by Carol L. Tilley

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On March 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture "Unflattening: Reimagining Scholarship through Comics" followed by a hands-on workshop, "Thinking in Comics." The speaker was Nick Sousanis, Postdoctoral Fellow in Comics Studies, University of Calgary. Below Associate Professor Carol L. Tilley's (Graduate School of Library and Information Science) response to the lecture.]

A Response to Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening
Written by Carol L. Tilley (GSLIS)

Slumped and bowed, they trudge in an endless row. Visionless humans, lacking not only eyes with which to see, but the ability to imagine something, anything, more. Nick Sousanis opens Unflattening with this nightmarish tableau. To me, these characters look broken and defeated, like prisoners of war. On a more metaphysical level, they are soul-less.But what has broken them? What has, as Nick nods to Herbert Marcuse’s (1964) One-Dimensional Man, “reduced [them] to the terms of this universe”? [1]

Industrialized society with its accompanying rationalization and technological determinism? Neoliberal education and its infantilizing fervor for high-stakes testings? The primacy, or as cultural historian Walter Ong might say, the imperiousness [2], of text that shapes our understanding of and engagement with the world? In Nick’s view, all are equal contenders for the source of these de-spirited creatures, who inhabit our contemporary society and “exist as no more than shades, insubstantial and without agency.” [3] We are those slumped and bowed, the sightless persons, or at least we are in danger of becoming them.

“Languages,” Nick writes, “are powerful tools...but for all their strengths, languages can also become traps.” He continues, “In mistaking their boundaries for reality, we find ourselves...blind to possibilities beyond these artificial borders.” [4] So it seems that we have not lost our eyes, but only that we are trapped inside a perceptual and intellectual ‘Flatland.’ Happily for us, Nick proposes an elegantly and deceptively simple solution: we must only learn new ways of using our eyes. We can escape the borders—unflatten our worlds—through visual education and multimodal thinking. Nick’s book, through its sequential, experimental, and wholly effective visual narrative, models the value of his proposed solution.

I met Nick online through Twitter in the winter of 2013. Our friendship was formed around comics. Although I’m a comics scholar, I don’t really study comics as artefacts or medium; I’m more interested in what people do with them. And as Nick was quick to tell me back in 2013, although his dissertation—the text that became Unflattening—uses the medium of comics, it isn’t really about comics. Instead it’s more about the value of interrogating our world through comics and visual media. We’re both comics scholars, but ones that tend to step a little outside the artificial borders for the discipline. It seems most reasonable then that I step a little beyond the perhaps expected intellectual boundaries for this talk to consider how the work of Otto Neurath—my current intellectual crush—might illuminate Nick’s thesis in Unflattening

Otto Neurath was a philosopher and social scientist whose lasting achievements grew from the ruins of World War I, a war that required Neurath’s hometown Vienna along with the rest of the nation of Austria to build itself politically and economically anew.  Post-World War I Austria was perceived to be lebensunfähig, unlivable. Despite the lack of food, fuel, and housing, and a tenuous government infrastructure, Neurath recalled these years fondly. “After the lost war,” he wrote, “there were more difficulties in the world, but more chances that things could change.” [5] Neurath, like Nick, saw hope amid despair, and both scholars believed that the visual is that source of hope.

In the early 1920s, Neurath established in Vienna the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, the Social and Economic Museum. Neurath conceived this institution as one that appealed to the immediate needs that the Viennese had to understand and improve their individual and collective status. It was not a conventional museum; Neurath alternately described it as a “popular educational institute for social enlightenment.” [6] Rather than exhibits of machinery or dioramas of ancient times, Neurath’s museum used specially constructed charts alongside films, lectures, and similar tools as the focus. Unlike many of his contemporaries who privileged fine arts and classical literature, Neurath was inspired by the mass media’s engagement and efficiency in communication. [7]

Neurath believed that visual communication was key to emancipation. [8] As a socialist working in what was then a socialist government, Neurath viewed knowledge as a necessity if citizens were to gain full economic, political, and social rights. Like Nick, Neurath believed in the absolute imperative for people to be liberated from the boxes, tracks, and systems that constrain them. Where Nick proposes restoring our abilities to ‘vision’ the world, Neurath offered us new ways to see the world.

In his work at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, Neurath developed and refined his vision for a system for “the metamorphosis of statistical material into pictorial sketches.” [9] He didn’t want simply to show how many widgets Austrian workers produced, Neurath wanted to “visualize invisible phenomena, that is, social and economic processes that were not accessible to the naked eye.”[10] Over the course of the next two decades, Neurath worked alongside mathematician and physicist Marie Reidemeister (who later became his wife) and artist Gerd Arntz to build the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics. Later Reidemeister renamed their language system Isotype, or International System of Typographic Picture Education.

Isotype does not eschew the use of text, but primacy is given to the pictograms. These pictograms are simplified images, comprising a vocabulary of sort, and can be combined, ordered, sized, aligned, and repeated to convey meaning. [11] Isotype: a visual argument; a basic juxtaposition of words and images in sequential form. [12] We wouldn’t mistake an Isotype chart for Nick’s work, but they arise from the same foundation.

The key to Isotype is the transformer. It is the transformer that enables the metamorphosis of raw data into visual arguments. [13] Neurath wrote, “A scientific specialist may be ever so eminent in his own field—indeed, he may even have high qualifications as an educator—but that is no reason for supposing that he necessarily knows what is the best way of translating his intentions into visual reality.”[14] The transformer oversees the translation process, serving as a partner to both scientist and designer, but primarily as an advocate for the learner. The transformer is “a sympathetic listener who gently refuses to go away” until the communication process is complete.[15]  It is probably not coincidental that Marie Reidemeister was both Neurath’s transformer and later his wife. There’s an intimacy and sensitivity required in the transformer’s work, much the same as what is required for a loving relationship.

Neurath’s museum and visual education projects led him to a partnership with Belgian Paul Otlet, a pioneering information scientist.  One of Otlet’s many aspirations was to create the Palais Mondial (World City), a global scientific information repository and cooperative resource network. While Neurath was skeptical of some of Otlet’s plans (and vice versa), they agreed to cooperate on a new project Novus Orbis Pictus, an atlas of human civilization, that combined Neurath’s interest in visual education and Otlet’s goals for information sharing. It’s worth noting that the project’s name pays homage to Johann Comenius, a Moravian theologian who created in the 1650s the first illustrated textbook, Orbis Sensualium Pictus. In the book’s opening, Comenius’ tutor apprises the student reader, ibimus Mundum, & spectabimus omnia. “We will go into the world, and we will view all things.”

Although Neurath conceptualized a new mode for scientific discourse and education, he did not live long enough to see it fully realized. In fact seventy years later, we are still waiting. In Reading Images, semioticians Kress and van Leeuwen propose that perhaps, “visual representation is more apt to the stuff of science than language ever was, or even that a science which is visually constructed will be a different kind of science.”[16] Nick’s work, which asserts that it is past time for the visual to have primacy over text, encourages us to discover whether a different kind of science happens. Some of my own work reflects on young people’s use of media and technology. For many young people, stories and information, narrative and content, matter far more than than format or platform. Thus, I have hope that while it may be too late for our generation of scholars to see the kind of radical social and scientific change that such a revolution in representation—a transformation to the visual—would bring, a future generation soon will.

In a reconsideration of Neurath’s contributions to visual communication, designers Michael MacDonald-Ross and Robert Waller provided an apt synthesis of the transformer.

“The message is humanistic: break down the barriers in the interests of the reader. Take responsibility for the success or failure of the communication. Do not accept a label or a slot on the production line. Be a complete human being with moral and intellectual integrity and thoroughgoing technical competence. Be a transformer.”[18]

With Unflattening, Nick is scientist, transformer, and designer all at once. Like Comenius’ tutor, he is leading us into the world, encouraging us to view all things. Moreover, he is showing us that comics themselves have the power to serve as transformers, bridging scholars and lay readers, encouraging all of us to break down barriers and be more than another slot filled on the production line.

References and Further Reading

Burke, Christopher, Eric Kindel, and Sue Walker (eds). Isotype: Design and contests 1925-1971. London: Hyphen Press, 2013.

Cartwright, Nancy, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, Thomas E. Uebel. Otto Neurath: Philosophy Between Science and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Comenius, Johann. Orbis Sensualium Pictus. 1658 (1887 edition). Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/cu31924032499455#page/n41/mode/2up

Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

MacDonald-Ross, Michael and Waller, Robert, “The Transformer Revisited.” Information Design Journal 9 (2000): 177-193.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding ComicsThe Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Neurath, Otto. International Picture Language: The First Rules of Isotype. London: Kegan Paul Trench Trubner, & Co., 1936.

Neurath, Otto. “Museums of the Future.” Survey Graphic 22/9 (1933): 458-463, 479, 484.

Ong, Walter. Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought. In The Linguistics of Literacy, edited by Pamela A. Downing, Susan D. Lima, and Michael Noonan, 293-319. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 1992.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Stadler, Friedrich. Written Language and Picture Language after Otto Neurath—Popularising or Humanising Knowledge? In Image and Imaging in Philosophy, Science and the Arts, volume 2, edited by Richard Heinrich, Elisabeth Nemeth, Wolfram Pichler, and David Wagner, 1-30. London: Verlag, 2011.

Vossaoughian, Nader. Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2007.

[1] Sousanis, Unflattening, 21.
[2] Ong, Writing is a Technology, 293.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 52.
[5] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 23.
[6] Ibid, 47.
[7] cf. Vossaoughian, Otto Neurath, 59.
[8] Neurath believed that knowledge was emancipatory (cf. Cartwright et al, Otto Neurath, 92) and because of his valuing of visual communication as a means of educating for knowledge, it fits that he would view visual communication as a tool for emancipation.
[9] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 63.
[10] Vossaoughian, Otto Neurath, 59.
[11] cf. Neurath, International Picture Language.
[12] cf. McCloud, Understanding Comics. Although I find weaknesses with McCloud’s definition in terms of what it excludes, it works well enough for this essay’s purposes.
[13] Burke, Kindel, and Walker, Isotype, 85.
[14] Neurath, “Museums of the Future,” 479.
[15] cf. MacDonald-Ross and Waller, “The Transformer Revisited,” 179.
[16] Kress and van Leeuwen, Reading Images, 37.
[17] MacDonald-Ross and Waller, “The Transformer Revisited,” 188.


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