Saturday, January 07, 2006

Problems with Closure, part 1

I’ve been reading Mike Meginnis’ blog lately, which has stirred up some observations I have about the issues of closure. As astute readers of my work know, I don’t buy into the ideas of closure anymore. I did once — developing more panel transitions even — but not since four years ago when I realized that it couldn’t possibly work for fairly straightforward empirical reasons.

Closure as a psychological notion from the Gestalts is largely about “image constancy,” which means that you can have a single image with pieces missing and still understand the whole. In daily perception, we experience this anytime one object covers up parts of another one. Despite that part is covered up, we still understand that there is a whole object beneath it.

McCloud extends closure to do this unification across two separate images. It is a compelling entailment to believe that across two panels we merely are “filling in the blanks” for events rather than objects. Or, even, extending this into some philosophical sense that we “fill in the blanks” all the time in daily life for everything. It is, however, wrong. And it’s founded on some basic underlying assumptions that I will articulate over the next several posts.

I will say, though, that I think linear transitions are the intuitive place to start an analysis of sequential images, and McCloud gave a gift to us all by inaugurating this field. But as much as I love the guy and appreciate his contributions, I have to tear into the ideas…

On the surface, closure provides what every body wants out of a theory. It’s a simple, catch –all that imbues the “reader” with individualistic power of contribution to the piece. However, human biology and cognition are rarely simple – nor should they be — given the millions of years of evolution and development they have undergone to reach the point they’re at.

Also, because of how simple McCloud leaves it, he opens the door for it to be applied to various purposes:

1) Is this “filling in the gaps” about unconscious understanding?

2) Is it about conscious interpretation of an “artistic” intent?

These distinctions are very important, and they are just what Meginnis struggles with. On one hand, we’re talking about mental processes that underlie understanding in a very basic sense. The other position is talking consciously interpreting "meaning" beyond that fundamental level of understanding.

Here’s the difference in an analogy to spoken grammar: No matter how much literary theory can explain what the "meaning" of a sentence is, it still doesn’t go into any part of real understanding. While it may debate the senses of words, the author’s intentions, and how well they achieve them, etc., it never actually broaches how the words themselves are strung together in a meaningful whole structurally.

You can debate all you want about what the "meaning" of the last sentence was interpretively, but none of that can go to explaing just why your mind can directly connect the word "debate" to each of the groupings of words "senses of words," "the author's intentions," and "how well they acheive them" (or how those groupings of words are connected to each other). Those understandings certainly aren't linear, which is how you just experienced them consciously in reading.

Such structural concerns are left to linguists, and are largely irrelevant to these “interpretive” questions because they are at a level above the structural investigations of cognition. The same is true for sequences of images.

In the next several posts, I’ll be going more in depth on the problems with closure. These will all be based on underlying problems with the theory, not delving into the empirical examples found in data which invalidate linear analyses (of which there are many).

Problems with Closure: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


Mike Meginnis said...

I agree with you from the framework you're working in, and from mine, I disagree.

In other words: you're right that the process by which I string words together are certainly different from the process by which I decide how Hamlet is feeling during a monologue.

And, if you accept it as a given that the link between two sequential images and the links between words are the same, this would seem to support your seperation of artistic interpretation and basic cognition.

But, from my perspective, we don't arrive at cognition of sequential images by the same processes as those we use to understand sentences. There are similarities -- especially in simple "action to action" or "subject to subject" transitions, to borrow McCloud's model -- but let's take, for example, one of the many fantasy sequences in Jimmy Corrigan.

There is, in my view, no grammatical cue to tell us when we are moving from the "real" narrative to the fantasies in Jimmy Corrigan which are, as you may remember if you read the book as I assume, very thoroughly integrated into the narrative itself.

So how do we know?

I suspect that it is by the same methods that we use to determine other issues of artistic intent.

And while we could argue that we can arrive at basic cognition without understanding the distinction between reality and fantasy in Jimmy Corrigan -- we can, after all, identify the verbs and nouns in a given panel, even if we do not understand that they are imaginary -- we have not understood the work in a remotely genuine way until we have grasped that this is a dream.

If that makes any sense.

Neil said...

Believe it or not, I actually haven't read Jimmy Corrigan, but I think I get what you're trying to say. You're saying that you can't see the "parts of speech" in sequential images, like nouns and verbs of verbal sentences?

This is something that my current research is addressing. I actually do think there are these grammatical categories, and that they are quantifiable and identifiable, its just that no one has done it yet.

My latest article up at comixpedia tries to instruct one way how to do this analysis. I'll be discussing this a bit more in my next couple posts.

I'm also guessing that the Jimmy Corrigan examples are particularly complex (and might even disregard the visual gramamr), but I'd have to read it to know. I'll add it to my list. :)

Neil said...

Oh, I forgot to say: Eventually, my cognitive approach should be able to wrap around and be useful for an interpretive approach.

In the same ways that nouns and verbs are important for linguists (who want to know what they are and what they do) and literary theorists (who want to know how to use them effectively), visual grammatical principles should have the same dual functions.

We just haven't gotten there yet...

Mike Meginnis said...

"You're saying that you can't see the "parts of speech" in sequential images, like nouns and verbs of verbal sentences?"

I was going to leave well enough alone until you posted further, but I don't think I made myself clear; that's not quite what I was trying to say. I don't know precisely where to find the parts of speech in every situaion, but I can basically imagine where it would happen and how I would approach it. In any case, I don't doubt it's there.

(Well, except for logical coordinators like "but" and "therefore." Find me a visual "but" and a "therefore" and I will be thrilled, since they are so important.)

What I'm getting at is that I think functions that could, in prose, be taken on the level of basic cognition -- recognizing an unheralded dream sequence, for instance, or understanding how characters are feeling in a given situation -- is more difficult in sequential images for a number of reasons, and must therefore be moved up to the higher brain functions where interpretation of artistic intent and the like happen.

I am willing to concede, however, that this may simply be because the form is undeveloped as a language, and that your kind of work could sufficiently address and repair that relative illiteracy in time.

(For instance, better-"written" comics might make it more clear that Jimmy is dreaming through the use of a standardized technique.)

My gut says otherwise, but that's another essay for another time, and my gut is hardly an authority.

Is this clearer?

Neil said...

Yes, that is clearer, but I disagree, mainly on lack of evidence. The truth of the matter is, we have no idea what the "brain functions" of sequential images hold, and have only limited knowledge of verbal representation in the brain.

"Artistic intent" is not an issue of basic understanding of sequential images, either. "Artistic intent" can be made of both sequential words and sequential images. The fusing together of sequential images/words to create meaning is below any issues of intention.

To some degree, visual conventions have not been clearly lain for how we understand certain things – like dream sequences – though some conventions do exist. Its just a matter of recognizing them when they're there, and providing analysis to show why we understand them.