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