Friday, February 29, 2008

The Invisible Middle Ground

A friend of mine and I had a really interesting discussion the other day about how difficult it is for a reasonable, mediating, middle-ground type of theory to survive in the scientific landscape. Within linguistics, there are a lot of debates I think a middle ground position serves the most efficient explanation.

However, there are several things holding back the success of such views. For one thing, extremes are usually louder. People are more vehement when defending/attacking a radical viewpoint. A mediating voice may simply be passed over as "not getting the whole picture" by the extremist views, instead of as a "reasonable middle ground." Both sides then view the middle ground as too much like the other side to be accepted.

As my friend pointed out, it's also the nature of statistics and experimental design to not support middle ground viewpoints. Outside of the rarely used Bayesian stats, hypothesis testing forces a binary distinction of confirmed or denied. That is, scientific methods promote extremist viewpoints.

If a hypothesis is tested and reveals a confirming answer, it is usually taken to mean that it is right and that opposing views are not — even if opposing views also receive confirming experimentation. What ensues is usually an unreconcilable clash of arguments, where neither side can see the validity of the other. Can't two rights exist at the same time?

Moreover, competing views often legitimately belong to differing paradigms of thinking. New paradigms are often asking new and different questions than the old ones, and thus providing new answers. Often, this involves chucking the old paradigm. However, do paradigm shifts have to throw out both the baby and the bathwater?

Perhaps Sinfest has the right idea...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Podcast: The Functions of Panels

The last podcast I did with the VizThink folks was so fun I decided to do another. This one is about the various functional roles that panels play in the visual language used in comics. Among the topics I hit are:

• focusing information within panels
• navigating page layouts
• visual "storytelling"
• text-image relationships

It's a slightly pared down and also expanded (at the same time!) version of the talk I gave at the VizThink conference. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Definitions of "Comics" and their unimportance

Derik Badman has a new article up over at Comixtalk about the general trend of defining "comics" and "why we should stop bothering." This is similar in nature to an academic article by Aaron Meskin that I've continually not gotten around to reviewing here for the last several months.

A few concerns: In general, the task of defining "comics" is like any other quest to understand how categories and conceptualization works. And, as Derik points out with a reference to Wittgenstein, it is very difficult to exact any rigid definition with regards to anything.

This is one of the reasons my forays into this discussion usually are UN-defining "comics" — because it's an attempt to deconstruct the notion past any rigid definition. Though I may be regarded as a culprit of the "definitions" club, the result of my attempts usually end up with a very vague and non-explicit definition that says "comics" means a complex of socio-cultural things including an object, industry, genre, culture, etc. (but not a medium).

That said, definitions and categories do matter, as can be seen in very realistic terms in debates over whether gays really can get "married", or whether water-boarding is or isn't "torture." In terms of this debate, we see it in other places like whether "graphic novel" has its own meaning or if it's an upscale synonym of "comics." In all these scenarios the result of the decided-upon definition has legitimate real-world consequences.

Like it or not, McCloud did set a definition in many people's minds for what "comics" means. These people often argue passionately in their absolute certainty that the word means exactly what McCloud said it does. Engaging in this discussion is to say: 1) McCloud may be wrong, 2) why?, and 3) what does that mean for how the word (and its referent) is used/treated in society?

Personally, I think that the most important fall out of such a discussion is to recognize that "comics" and "sequential images" are two entirely separate things (contra McCloud), and that such a separation yields extraordinary consequences. Those results end up seeing many of the branches on Derik's family tree of comics not as "comics" at all — with ultimately the notion of "comics" dissolving and marginalized to something else far more fundamental.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

See Figure WTF!?

I recently received a French book on comic theory from interlibrary loan that has been decently interesting. While reading it though, I started noticing something very strange. I'd be progressing along, and the graphic examples weren't there — there was only a little tag "Figure X". Quickly, I had the infuriating realization that they were all at the back of the book.

Seriously, can anything be more annoying than reading a lovefest of papers about the joys of integrated text-image relationships in a book where text and image are as far apart as possible?

As an upcoming of podcast of mine will discuss, there are many functions of panels. Yet, one of the most useful is their ability to bundle text and image into a singular unit. This same process happens with gestures and speech by virtue of their co-occurring in time. In a spatial form, proximity can allow this integration, but an enclosed border does even better.

Of course, one wonders whether academia will ever figure that out.

In my paper, "Interactions and Interfaces", I demarcated "Independent" relations as those that have no physical connection between text and image — usually done through a semantic index alone like "See Figure 1." However, now I'm beginning to wonder if there's a gradation in there for physical distance. Having a Figure on the same or adjacent page, while annoying for its non-bundled nature of text-image relations, is still a lot better than having a Figure at the end of a book.

Of course, all Independent relations are inferior in integration to bundled relations using panels. Perhaps one day scholarly papers will allow for formating options that do away with the biases of text-image independence? We can only hope...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Coherence-building in comics

Bridgeman, Teresa. 2004. Keeping an eye on things: attention, tracking, and coherence-building. Belphégor 4 (1).

Bridgeman's article discusses various aspects of coherence-building throughout comics structure — "coherence" being the discourse theory notion of a salience across various units. It thus joins various other works that apply discourse theory to comics, though dabbles in cognitive science a bit as well.

The piece covers a lot of ground over various parts of comic structure (style, color, composition, layout, etc), and it uses cognitive principles to at least elucidate the elements of structure fairly well, though it sticks to a fairly generalized notion of them. On the whole though, not much is "new" about the work presented here. It takes the fairly overt elements of structure and simply maps cognitive-theory-lite to them, while also drawing from a well-done mixture of McCloud and Groensteen's ideas.

McCloud and Groensteen's theoretical orientations are often put at odds with each other, yet this paper makes ample use of both of their theories. While I may not particularly subscribe to either of their theories (I do have my own ideas, you know), it's at least nice to see that not everybody falls into one camp or the other.

Partly though, the non-novel nature of the paper may be due to "intent," which is less to provide a cognitive analysis of the structure, so much as (it seems) to use cognitive principles for analysis. This seems to be an inherent disciplinary tension though. While I do think it succeeds as an application of cognitive theory to literary analysis (which most of the paper is devoted to), I'm also wary for whether it knows the difference between the two intentions.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Graphic safety for airplane crashes

One of the reasons I've been a bit MIA from the blog lately is because I've been traveling a lot. On one flight, I noticed some interesting things in the safety manual. First, let's look at a section that isn't too bad:

This part shows a nice step-by-step for what to do in the event of increased cabin pressure: how to put on an oxygen mask. Note the "no smoking" sign to the side — smoking with one of those things would be bad. Here, the numbered panels may serve two purposes — it gives a reading order along the "z-path", left-to-right and down, and it also gives an order to the procedure. You need to follow these steps in order to put the mask on correctly.

Comparatively, this one from right below seems very strange:

If the numbers are meant to direct a stage-by-stage process (or even just an order for reading the panels), then perhaps I can paraphrase the overall meaning (and the signs to the side):

"In the event of either a land or water crash, first, African Americans need to cover their heads. Then, blond women need to grab their legs, followed by white men who should force their children down next to them into submission. Lastly, once all the other groups are safe, pregnant women should brace themselves. They're the bottom rung in our concerns."

Ok, so maybe I added a few minor embellishments, but my point should be clear: this sequence has no need of numbers for any purpose. Really, all people should brace themselves as quick as possible in one of these ways, not in any particular temporal order. And, despite that people probably would read it in a z-path anyhow, there isn't any need to read these in the numbered order here either.

I love this example especially because it provides great support for why sequential images are not always a sequence in time. Each of these panels simply shows a different viewpoint of a broader scene. It's a shift in Space but not in Time. Truly, you could rearrange these panels in any order and still maintain the same meaning — clearly a sign that no "time" passes across the panel boundaries.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Odds and Ends

Between school, conferences, and life, my time has become quite precious lately. A few days ago my BioPsychology professor said that we'll be dissecting sheep brains in class. That should be interesting.

I've finally gotten a chance to analyze a bunch of the data that has come in from my Peanuts experiment and things are looking very cool. I haven't yet run the actual statistics, but some initial graphing of results show signs that my predictions about visual grammar may be borne out. Time to start crunching numbers...

Bob Weber passes along a link to his blog where he posts kids' drawings and gives encouraging comments. Its a nice interactive idea. What I'm struck by most is the huge range in ability for various ages in the posts he has there.

Finally, if today is your primary, be sure to get out and vote!