Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sand Talk

I've frequently mentioned in my writings about sand narratives created by various Australian aboriginal communities. This article from the Transient Languages & Cultures blog at the University of Sydney has a nice summary of some of the work done researching sand drawings, as well as a bit on how researchers record it. In addition to this shot below, it has some nice photos in it and linked from it that can give some perspective for those who are curious what this all looks like.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Mannerism, Imitation, and Iconic Bias

Dirk (who kindly keeps linking to my posts) provides some thoughts on my last post about imitation by describing "Mannerism" (about halfway down the post).

He describes the Renaissance Mannerists (what I'll call abstractly as "cohort 2") copied the style of the first wave of Renaissance artists like Leonardo and Michaelangelo that came before them ("cohort 1"). Where cohort 1 actually studied the anatomy of real animals and people, cohort 2 simply copied cohort 1. As a result, cohort 2 is said by Dirk to have...
"the surface tics of the Rennaissance masters down pat, but his work displays none of the anatomical understanding by which they came to be able to create such accomplished illusions of form and light. Mannerism is an artistic game of Whisper, with details lost and distorted as they move further away from their point of origin."

Dirk goes on apply this same process to describe the work of Rob Liefeld and others (who I've oddly defended on this front before).

Now, this quote to me summarizes almost exactly the points I made last time that are inherent to the "Art" perspective. With Mannerism, it's not just about copying — it's that cohort 1 didn't copy at all, they drew from real life. This is what I've called Iconic Bias in past posts (parts one, two, three): The belief that the graphic modality of expression should resemble real life ("iconicity" in the semiotic sense). The "purity" of that first cohort is drawn from iconicity, and the lack of it in cohort 2 leads to their derision.

My response is that this isn't the way the human mind is primed (the "Language" perspective): the mind is primed for imitation, and any drawing "style" is a reflection of mental patterns that have become habituated within a drawer's long-term memory. Those patterns become set in this case through one of two ways: 1) copying other people's patterns, or 2) copying perception and siphoning that iconicity through one's mental structures.

The "Art" perspective says that only choice two should be acceptable, with minimal influence from choice one. Recall for instance, McCloud's Six Steps of learning from Understanding Comics: His first level is imitation, but then all subsequent steps require one to cast aside all other influences.

But, as I've pointed out in the past, rejecting the influence of any cohort before your own works against the establishment of conventional signs — which are what language is made up entirely of. The only reason there is a "graphic dialect" of a superhero style at all is because of imitation. Manga thrive on a style that was founded on imitation (Tezuka being largely considered cohort 1, but Walt Disney and others being cohort -1 for him).

Imitation hasn't hurt manga at all. In fact, I'd argue that it has probably helped them in numerous ways: 1) A consistent cultural style allows more focus to be placed on what that style is used to express story-wise than so much focus on the surface depictions. 2) A consistent style across numerous authors is more readily accessible to young readers, especially those who want imitate them. In America, when children want to "draw comics," they want to draw stories about stuff. But, when kids want to "draw manga" they want to draw stories in the style of manga because that's the visual vocabulary that they are now exposed to.

This is just like language: "Exposure + practice = fluency." With language, successive cohorts are always the manner by which it is transmitted. A great example of this is Nicaraguan Sign Language, where several deaf children who had created their own gesture systems combined their contributions to make cohort 1. Successive cohorts took what they did only to refine and alter it into further grammatical patterns. With the anti-imitation influence of Art, this process of conventionalization is largely lost (outside symbolic signs like word balloons and speed lines at least).

The Art pespective just wants to substitute the cognitive man-made exposure for that of real life, and with that, jettisoning an idea of fluency (proficiency in a system) for skill (accuracy at depicting real life): "Perception + practice = skill at representing perception."

While I won't go into it at length, I find it intriguing that in Dirk's same post, there is a damning attitude for Greg Land, who takes iconicity to the extreme by drawing wholly from photo reference — only that he picks and chooses parts of photos to combine thereby messing up the anatomy. So, here it seems to be the case of messing up iconicity through the most iconic method possible!

Final note, so my intentions aren't misunderstood: I should point out that this is not a post of advocacy; I'm not saying people should or shouldn't copy other people. I'm just trying to analyze the issues involved, and in some case, defend all strategies as being cognitively acceptable.

Update 2/26: Dirk has a short reply to this post (halfway down). I don't have much in response to it except that it still maintains the "Iconic bias" underlying the last couple posts . Beyond that, he makes some interesting points.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Imitation is bad!... in the immediate

This post over at CBR had an interesting take on some of the Art vs. Language issues that I discuss, so I felt I should link to it. One of its main arguments is the common thread of "don't imitate other people's styles," i.e. be an individual.

The anti-imitation viewpoint (what I call related to the "Art" perspective) is wrapped up in two ideas: 1) that people should be "individuals" in their drawing style — different from other people. 2) That drawing is an imitation of life (Iconicity), and that a person's style is simply their own manner of siphoning those visuals into graphic form.

Both of these run against the "Language" perspective which pushes communal signs that are conventionally shared amongst a culture, learned through imitation. In Language, it isn't so much a matter of using novel structures (words, drawing styles) but of using those structures to say something interesting and novel.

What I thought was interesting about this post in particular is well expressed in this paragraph (italics from the original):

Don't imitate John Cassaday, find out who John's inspirations were, whose work he learned from, and imitate them. Because even if you can imitate John's work, or Jim's, or Frank's, etc., the best you can achieve through imitation is a mimicry of style, and to be known as an imitator. Style, good or bad, is really the only thing that's going to separate you from the pack, and it's not something you can add into your work. Not really. Style is where your personality surfaces in your work, and true style is accidental.

The underlying "Art" sentiments should be obvious here, but what's interesting is the belief that it's okay to copy somewhat, just not of the "generation" right before yours. It didn't just say "don't copy other people," instead it argued for people to copy the artists who the-artists-you-like copied!

While I understand the argument, and can sympathize at least somewhat with the sentiment in terms of creative endeavors (i.e. the type expressed in the Dylan quote at that articles start), what really makes copying one generation's drawing styles different than any other? Why is there this assumption that there is a degradation that occurs from one generation to the next, and that somehow there is a more "pure" root that aught to be copied from?

If anything, this lesson in history should show that everyone is influenced by other people and that you can probably trace those influences so far you'll lose track of who the actual people were. So, why not embrace the imitative styles since its what we're mentally inclined to do in the first place?

I love the Language equivalent of this: "Don't learn to speak English from your parents and peers! You should learn from Middle English... Those guys really knew how to speak back then!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dunkin' pictograms

Speaking of pictographic writing systems that will never be universal, Fabricari sends along this logo from Dunkin' Donuts:

I've been seeing that logo for over a year now, and never quite got that the images were supposed to be a pictographic sentence until a few weeks ago! I had just thought that it was a bunch of pretty pictures. Of course, given that I rarely if ever go to Dunkin' Donuts, I never really put in the effort to try and decode it.

Though, while we're here, I might as well use it as an example as to why pictographs fail as universal systems. Outright, as I mentioned in my last post, the grammar here completely mimics that of English. Of course, that was the intent in this case since its a slogan, which is why there is four units for four words. But, notice also that this conversion makes a very important decision: it chooses to transcribe "America runs on DD" as a verbal-->visual mapping, rather than siphoning the concept behind the idea into the visual modality to then adapt to its own traits. Moving on...

Let's start with nouns. First off, the DD is only understandable if you know the association to the company. The map of America could be read as "map" or some such, but is even more interesting since it is a metonymy. It uses "America" to mean "the people in America."

The verb "run" nicely shows how you can't visually show an action without also showing an object. It's tough to show "run" without also showing the "runner." Verbal grammar (by virtue of its symbolic nature) likes to divide these pieces into [ACTOR]-[ACTION]. In visual grammar this division doesn't work as well (being iconic, not symbolic), instead becoming [ACTOR:state1]-[ACTOR:state2], where "state2" shows the fruition of the action.

Finally, the preposition "on" isn't visually converted at all. I find this to be particularly telling, since it immediately shows the English context. I imagine also that the makers of the logo struggled with it, since this usage of "on" is not the spatial kind ("on top of") but is tied to the verb.

In fact, the interpretation of "run" as an action here (like "run down the street") is wholly off, since they don't mean that Americans "use their legs to run on top of Dunkin' Donuts." Rather, they are using a construction "run on" (arguably not two units) that means roughly "to be powered by." The "person running" image then becomes a "double rebus" --> first mapping the sound pattern to the image, then the image's literal meaning to it's "metaphorical" meaning.

To come back around to my initial statement about mimicing English grammar, this actually can't even do that since the slogan doesn't use concrete elements. A literal reading of this ends up being totally bizarre (bracketed by panel, italics adding clarifying info):

[The country of AMERICA][uses its legs to RUN][ON top of][DUNKIN' DONUTS]

SO... this example only goes to reinforce how hard it is to "accurately" map verbal expressions to visual signs — both individual signs and grammatical sequences — especially when it involves metonymic and metaphorical expressions (add those semantic aspects to the list then). While English speakers might be able to figure this one out, can anyone possibly imagine this working on a global scale?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sorry, there will never be a universal writing system

Jochen Gos emailed me awhile back with news of her new book Icon-Typing and website Icon-language which is a font that creates pictograms when a person types in their own language's sentences. Unfortunately, it's taken me a rather long time to finish this post about it.

While it's a fun idea, and reminiscent of other projects of the same nature, I should say that I do not consider any of these approaches to be "real" visual languages. And, perhaps dissapointing to some, I don't consider any enterprise that strives for a "universal pictographic writing system" to be a fruitful endeavor for multiple reasons.

I do think that the idea of a pictographic language stems from a deeply felt intuition that there is indeed a visual modality language, but cannot reconcile it with the assumptions our culture makes about graphic signs and language. Among the problems holding back these types of endeavors:

1. Semiotics - There is a general misunderstanding, both in and outside of academia, that there are only two types of graphic signs: those that map to "ideas" – mistakenly like Chinese or pictures – (ideographs) and those that map to sounds - like alphabets (phonographs). This is a gross over generalization that I attacked in my thesis ¡Eye græfIk Semiosis!, trying to show that there is a much more graded system of expression at work here.

2. Grammar - All "univeral" pictographic languages must piggyback on the grammar of existing verbal languages. Verbal languages are vastly different in their grammars so much so that no possible universality could ever be reached. There is a deeper reason for this though: dividing pictograms into linearized individuated units denies the grammatical qualities inherent to the actual visual form. A grammar must arise up out of the signs themselves, not be imposed on signs from the outside (see again my paper ¡Eye græfIk Semiosis!). An Example: A pictographic system might use a marker to show plurality paired with an icon. So, a pictographic symbol might express "men" like [MAN PICTURE]+[PLURAL MARKER] (not necessarily linearly)as opposed to just showing multiple men couched in an environmental setting. In one, the concept arises directly from the sign, in the other it's latching onto the way that verbal languages do it.

3. Morphology - Believing that pictograms from all languages can easily substitute in for the words of a language presupposes that all languages have "word" units like English. What would this do for a polysynthetic language like Greenlandic or Dene that chunks multiple meaningful units into a whole syntactic unit (i.e. a single "verb" in these languages might have the same quantity of information as an English sentence). Chunking up visual pieces like this betrays a bias for how European languages break up units, not all languages.

4. Linguistic relativity - To believe a universal writing system is possible assumes that all languages structure concepts the same way. This is simply not true. The aforementioned Dene has several forms of the same verb meaning, each one reflecting a different type of object (for instance, the verb "give" changes based on the texture and character of what is being given – whether its animate, granular, squishy, flat, etc). Less "exotic" differences are like that Japanese lacks plurals and definitive articles. Plus, given how widely languages differ, which morphemes would be worthy of visual conversion? Do you convert all of them (including things like transitivity or definiteness?) or just those most "visually relevant"?... and how would that not be a subjective decision based on the preferences of the speaker of a particular language? A speaker of English might be more inclined to need particular features (like plural) that differ from a Japanese person (like politeness). A universal writing system assumes that concepts are universal to express and do so in similar ways: a big assumption.

5. Transparency and Iconic Bias - There is a general belief that Iconic signs that look like what they represent are wholly transparent in their meaning and non-culturally relative in and of themselves. This is also untrue. While most all cultures seem to be able to decode what "realistic" drawings represent, they often are subject to entrenched variability. For instance, Australian drawing systems usually feature aerial viewpoints, which can lead to odd interpretations of lateral viewpoint representations. Furthermore, simplfying the "concept bundle" of images down to a one-to-one concept-to-sign ratio is extremely difficult.

Finally, the biggest issue here is that the visual form is implicitly considered as lesser than the verbal. It uses the verbal form to be translated into the visual without stopping to think that the visual form might already have its own visual language system naturally that doesn't need a verbal connection at all. Writing systems themselves are not a bad thing, but as an importation of one expressive modality into another they will always be subject to the constraints of the imported system.

A real, natural Visual Language should be able to stand alone without needing such connections to lean on, and would reflect the diversity of different cultures as well.

Friday, December 08, 2006

License plate linguistics

Here's a little fun with writing and ambiguity. A few nights ago I saw a license plate with some friends that read:


Oddly enough, I parsed this first as being "Oya Baby" — drawing from my Japanese knowledge. In Japanese "Oya" is "parent", and there is a dish served with chicken and eggs over rice called "oyako don": Parent (oya) and child (ko). So, my first thought was that this plate was a Japanese oriented person making some sort of strange reference like that.

Then I hit upon another interpretation... Maybe this person was Jewish, with a nice "Oy! A Baby!"

Of course, right as I said this aloud, my friend proclaimed what seemed like it should have been obvious: "O Ya Baby!"

It seems my knowledge of Japanese and Jewish exclamations trumps my coolness.

What I particularly liked about this exchange was that each of the three parsings covered all the possible combinations for those letters:


And, with each parsing, the polysemous meaning of "Baby" took on a different meaning. For the first two, it was an infant, while for the second it was a familiar term of endearment (for lack of a better descriptor). (Though, you could flip the Baby meanings too: "O Ya Infant!"). It's a nice demonstration of how ambiguous written representations can be without an express phonemic link.

Of course, that license plate still isn't even close to my favorite plate from Berkeley: GRRARGH

Bizarro Scholarship

While listening today to the last lecture of this semester's Intro to Linguistics class that I TAed for, I was thinking a bit about how some of the underlying issues of scholarship in visual language contrast the way they've been approached in linguistics. By and large, I would say that my intentions for a cognitive and mind based approach to drawing and sequential images fit right in to the intents of modern linguistics. But, some of the minor issues are different.

For instance, there is often a distinction made between "Big L" Language and "little l" language. "Big L" Language is the abstract system of communication that is shared by all humans, composed of certain universal structural principles (things like syntax, phonology, semantics, morphology, etc.). "Little l" language is the instantiation of that system in the world into diverse and varied forms: English, Nicaraguan Sign Language, Chinese, Tagalog, etc. These are the variations that come from the manifestation of an abstract system.

Realizing that all these (little l) languages share a broader structure is a significant step in the study of Language. For one, it recognizes that there is a broader field that unifies the study of all the little ones.

The opposite concern occurs with regard to my notion of visual language. People already recognize a broader capacity for people to draw. It's common, normal, and uncontested as a cross-cultural phenomenon shared by all humans. However, what isnt' acknowledged is that there are "little d" drawings — that cultural forms might actually differ from each other in significant and categorizable ways.

Interestingly enough, this reverse concern yields the same ultimate result: the acknowledgement of an underlying system that is both generalizable and diverse. We can't identify individual visual languages from different cultures (say, the difference between a "superhero dialect" of American VL versus a "shojo dialect" of Japanese VL) without first acknowledging that there is 1) an underlying system behind graphic creation and 2) that the underlying system can differ between cultural populations. No matter which way you start with, the path lead to a recognition of both elements.

Other bizarro turns have been less broad. For instance, when Noam Chomsky was first arguing for generative grammar he emphasized that sentences could run to infinite lengths using finite means (ex. Phil said that Krysta said that Gina said that...). His approach sought to find a system that could have infinite expressions using finite means.

Visual sequences faced the exact opposite issue. McCloud's transitional approach to sequences of "comic" panels left no endpoint except for arbitrary physical restrictions like the end of a page or book — which have no qualitative structural impact on the system of images themselves (i.e. you could take those same images and put them into another context and they'd still process roughly the same... like on a webpage instead of a book). Transitions were inherently infinite.

When I started in on my own generative approach to panel sequences, I very quickly realized that there had to be some end for strings. So, I had to try to establish a notion of visual language "sentence." I had to argue for limitations rather than infiniteness.

I'll be on the lookout for any more of these type of contrasts...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

More reruns! Comics≠art

Continuing with the re-posting of my Comixpedia articles, has a posting of my old article Comics’ Identity Crisis: Claiming “Art” is a Misguided Quest. It's weird to see these older papers of mine as if they're new again, and kind of fun. Perhaps if people jump into them again they'll find something new in there...?

For anyone who surfs over from Sequart: thanks for dropping in and welcome to my site!