Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Some January notes...

Here's just a few notes from recent developments...

For all you Spanish speakers, a new translated article of mine appears in the latest Revista Exégesis, revisiting some of the ideas I had about the comic industry and definitions of "comics" from my "Visual Language Manifesto."

I recently submitted a response to an article in Trends in Cognitive Science that discussed the relationship of syntax and action. If you're interested, you can read it here. That page also has a nice response written by David Kemmerer, who motivated me to submit mine.

For those of you in Germany, it looks like I'll be traveling there to give some workshops throughout the summer. I'm very excited about these, and will be posting more about them once they develop further. I currently have a few stops scheduled, but if you're in Europe and might be interested in adding another event on my calendar, shoot me an email!

Finally, though official US release date for The Visual Language of Comics is still not even until tomorrow (1/30), it's already had to go for a second printing. So, thanks for all who have gotten it so far!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

VLOC released in the US!

I'm excited to say that it looks like my new book, The Visual Language of Comics, is now available in America!

The official release date for the book is still set for next week (January 30th), but it appears that you are now able to order (and hopefully receive!) copies ordered online.

So, if you've been patiently waiting... the wait is over!

Since my post related to the book's release in Europe discussed its contents, maybe here I'll mention a bit about its intent.

This book is essentially an overview of the ideas I've been developing over the past 15 years, and is an invitation to both engage with the ideas and (where appropriate) participate in the discussion and/or research.

Most of the chapters here are simplified or summarized versions of material that appears throughout my research papers. Others provide new theories that I have kicked around for several years but never articulated in a broader discussion. The chapter on "morphology" in the "visual language lexicon" is one of these, and was one of my favorite chapters to write (and draw!).

In all cases though, this work remains an introduction. Ten years ago in 2003, when I self-published my first book on this topic, an advisor of mine remarked that he found it amusing that I titled the book *Early* writings on visual language, because it forecasted that there would be subsequent writings that would supersede its ideas (which was true, even at the time of printing the book).

That same sentiment holds true for this book. In the title, it says "Introduction" for a reason. This is the first presentation to a broad audience of a research program that I intend to develop further over the rest of my career (and hopefully other people's careers too). In none of the chapters do I spell out the entire theory of that topic—I could expand all of them to triple the length. (Note that my constraint didn't stop at individual chapters. Due to a word limit on the book I also scrapped several other whole potential chapters)

I also do not consider these statements to be the final word—no scientific writing ever should. Rather, this book aligns the questions in the ways I think they should be asked, and provides a preliminary analysis of these structures, often just to illustrate how such analyses should be undertaken. Asking these questions allows us to recognize that there are many more questions than we have answers for at present.

This book is truly is an introduction meant to inspire and invite. I hope you take up the chance to join in—now we can really get things started.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Metaphors in the Bayeux Tapestry

Here's an interesting article examining semantic aspects of the Bayeux Tapestry that just appeared in the latest issue of Review of Cognitive Linguistics.

I've written before about Charles Forceville's work applying conceptual metaphor theory to aspects of the visual language of comics. His approach has subsequently been applied by other researchers looking at comics, animation, and film. Now, here's an article that examines conceptual metaphor in historical visual language, particularly the images in the Bayeux Tapestry.

There are several things that are interesting in and about this article. First off, it is one of the few explicit studies of historical examples of visual language that have been done using a linguistic analysis (another being this).

Second, the article nice details various systematic representations in the "drawing style" of the Bayeux Tapestry. As I argue in my book, drawing systems use a "visual vocabulary" of graphic patterns that are reused when people draw. The "styles" of different cultures' drawings emerge from various people sharing the same visual vocabulary. Here, we see the visual vocabulary of medieval English drawing detailed in systematic ways—perhaps "Medieval British Visual Language"?

Finally, the actual metaphors that are examined relate to various aspects of conveying emotion. Conceptual metaphor in general relates to how one domain maps to the ideas in another domain. For example, the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY, is invoked when saying things like she's got a long road ahead of her or he's starting on a path of discovery. In these cases, aspects of living life are mapped to concepts of travel or a journey.

The metaphors described by this article mostly involve aspects of emotion, such as ANGER IS HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER, which in comics and cartoons occurs when steam comes out of someone's ears. Similar metaphors are described here, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Of particular  interest though, is that the authors claim that the same metaphors appear here in the tapestry as in the Old English language. This taps into issues related to how much connection there is between the conceptualization in spoken and visual languages, and in questions of cross-cultural universality and diversity.

As always, I'd love to see more careful, systematic research of this sort with existing comics and historical representations alike.

Full abstract:
Following Forceville (2005, 2011), in this paper I show that the same conceptual models underlie the expression of Old English emotions in both the language and the visual modes. Kövecses (2000, 2005) and Stefanowitsch (2004, 2006) have shown that verbal expressions and idioms used to describe emotions can be traced back to a limited number of conceptual metaphors. In the light of these findings, I will analyze here the pictorial representations of emotions in the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th century embroidered cloth that narrates and depicts the events that led up to the Norman Conquest of England and the invasion itself. The tapestry, which has been described as an example of early narrative art (McCloud, 1993, pp. 12–14), shows hundreds of human figures in an astounding range of poses and circumstances. My analysis of the set of pictorial signals used in the Anglo-Norman Bayeux Tapestry to represent emotion types such as ‘anger’, ‘grief’ and ‘fear’ shows that (1) Anglo-Norman artists used a well-organized set of visual stimuli to convey emotion-related meanings in a patterned way, that (2) the same idealised conceptual models are shared by verbal and visual modalities, and that (3) whereas verbal expressions of emotions regularly draw on non-embodied, behavioural concepts, visual representations show a clear preference for embodied container concepts.

ResearchBlogging.orgE. Díaz Vera, Javier (2013). Woven emotions: Visual representations of emotions in medieval English textiles Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 16, 269-284 DOI: 10.1075/rcl.11.2.04dia

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Universality and diversity in visual languages

One of the interesting byproducts of my theory of visual language is the implication that drawings are not universal. Because images look like what they represent (the are "iconic), they are often taken to be universal in their ability to convey meaning. While this is often the case, it is not the whole story.

Visual Language Theory is committed to a cognitive viewpoint for looking at images. As I argue in my book and my article "Explaining 'I can't draw'," drawings are not created out of our perception of the world. Rather, we use a vocabulary of graphic "schemas" that then correspond in meaning to the way things look. For example, Jack Kirby had a particular way of drawing open hands that he used each time one was called for. This graphic pattern was stored in his mind, and connected to the concept of "open hand."

This means that in order to draw, each individual needs to build up a vocabulary of patterned ways to draw things. I've argued that this is one of the reasons why people end up not being able to draw proficiently: they don't build up (i.e. learn) a sufficient visual vocabulary of graphic patterns in this way, in the same way that learning a language requires you to learn the vocabulary of words (i.e. sound patterns connected to meanings).

This perspective flips the consideration of images away from perception (seeing images) to production (producing images). In order to view images, they first must be produced from the mind of an individual, and from that individual's cognitive patterns (*modern computers notwithstanding).

Ok, with that on the table, let's now talk about issues of diversity and universality.

In terms of comprehension, drawings are indeed fairly universal in their understandability. At least, most parts of them. The studies I've read seem to suggest that the iconic aspects of understanding images are fairly understandable across the world. People can generally understand basic images if they look like what they represent, such as a horse is understood as a horse, a car as a car, etc. (but not always stick figures, interestingly enough). This applies at least to basic line drawings.

The aspects of drawings that pose a challenge to certain people (such as those removed from Western society, like from African tribes) are the more "realistic" aspects of images. Things like depth (especially perspective) and realistic shading end up being less understood (compared to depth using size or simple drop shadows, which don't pose problems). There are some other variables too, but these are the basics. (Of course, highly conventional things like thought bubbles, speech balloons, and motion lines are also culturally relative, but we'll keep the discussion to the iconic aspects of drawings).

So, in comprehension, there is a balance of what appears to be universally understandable (i.e., recoverable from vision alone) and what relies on knowing aspects of culturally relative drawing drawing systems.

In production, the diversity should be even more apparent. Because drawings come from the minds of individuals, a person's "drawing style" reflects the visual vocabulary they have developed. If various people share common patterns, we can say that they all draw in a common visual language. This gives rise to different visual languages in the world, just like there are different verbal languages spoken by different populations of people with common patterns in their heads.

Thus, why do American comics and Japanese manga look different? It's because they are produced using different visual languages.

In this way, even though drawings may be iconic—resembling what they look like—they are not universal. Like any other language, visual language remains culturally relative and diverse.

Having made this distinction, the questions then become 1) what underlying aspects of drawings are indeed universal, and 2) what are the ways in which different systems diverge. Answering these questions requires as serious and expansive research as would be necessary to describe the "universality" in any other linguistic system.