On the Shores of Word and Image
“In the beginning was the Word.” But what do we lose when we value language over images? And how can we think using both at once, the visual and the verbal?
Artist and educator Nick Sousanis made waves in academic circles last year by presenting his doctoral thesis at Columbia University in the form of a comic book, now released as Unflattening. The medium was vital to Sousanis’s message: a comic which dethrones the primacy of words over pictures in Western thought, and posits comics as an art form which transcends both.
This isn’t Magritte’s “Treachery of Images,” taunting us with “Ceci n’est pas une pipe" (1929). Sousanis is keen to explain; he’s more teacher than provocateur. He describes comics as a way of juxtaposing the visual and verbal in meaningful order. This medium, he argues, helps us to see all things—concepts, objects, abstractions, fantasies, experiences—in relation to one another. Although the implications are profound, Unflattening is less an insurrection than a carefully argued case for rethinking our priorities about art and learning.
Unflattening is above all a humane piece of scholarship which challenges our assumptions about perception. Sousanis reminds us that all art and knowledge are created by beings who inhabit bodies and see the world from a unique perspective, and that every mark on a page or painting was authored by some living hand.
Sousanis works with a wide range of visual and verbal references, drawing imagery from TV and movies, natural science textbooks, and the classical canon of art. In the opening page alone he acknowledges the inspiration of Piranesi’s etchings, set design from the Batman films, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But this book is neither a geek-fest nor a referential ramble.
With its breadth and ambition, Unflattening doesn’t aim to deeply interrogate every last one of the texts it calls on. Its tone is oracular, and Sousanis’s attempt to leap beyond the limit of mere words leads him, by necessity, away from close textual analysis. Allusions to Bruno Latour and Herbert Marcuse flit past in the kaleidoscope of words and images. An aphorism from Kahlil Gibran bears as much weight here as Deleuze and Guattari. Sousanis compares the process of exploring ideas to that of measuring a coastline: as the length of our measuring unit decreases, we find ever more tiny and subtle folds in the shore. An ant that walks the exact border between sea and land must weave a longer path than a heavy-footed human. Sousanis’s book seeks to outline a vast conceptual geography, and its map can only sketch out some finer points in the territory he surveys. Still, these limitations only challenge us to take Unflattening’s method further. Reading the book, one tries to imagine finely treading the shoreline between the visual and verbal, as an ant would. With Sousanis’s large-scale map in hand, we can seek a way of interrogating both words and images ever more meticulously.
Unflattening’s very first image, on the dedication page, is the double footprint of Sousanis’s daughter, born while he was writing his doctoral thesis. As readers, the author invites us to take our first steps, too: to recognize the many different ways humans have of perceiving, and see the world anew. This is the work of an expectant father, seeking not to limit the future or deny the past, but to unlock doors and invite others to discover their potential.
MATT FINCH writes and creates fun things for people to do in public spaces. See more at www.matthewfinch.me/about.