Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Towards a visual sociolinguistics

I've heard some people complain that a "language" approach to drawings and sequential images is overly formal and washes out the ability to talk about socio-cultural issues. I actually think it's quite the opposite. Linguistics has long been acutely aware of social factors such as race, gender, geography, etc. which factor into the structure and usage of language, and are primarily studied under the subfield of "sociolinguistics." Visual language theory allows for us to open up a subfield of "visual sociolinguistics" as well, which I only point towards in my recent book but didn't have the space to elaborate.

Let's first look at the spoken language side of things. Sociolinguistics research has done well to show that speech marks people from particular locations, class, race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and a host of other factors. You can tell these things by the sound of the speech ("accent"), the words they use, the way they interact in a discourse (When do you give feedback? When are you silent?), and many other facets of language structure.

(Note: cognitively, there is no difference between a "language" and a "dialect" or "accents." They all have the same cognitive status, and social factors are what lead to one type being elevated to being a "language" while degrading others as "dialects.") 

Additionally, stereotypes are created about people based on the patterned way in which they speak. For example, the "standard" American English dialect typically reflects the speech of people in media, and is used by educated, white, upper middle-class individuals, which enjoy a social status higher than others in American society. Other dialects of American English do not receive this designation as "standard" because they are used by lower-class, lower-educated, and/or minority individuals. Such stereotypes and social hierarchy is reflected in (and unfortunately often reinforced by) the languages that people use.

Similarly, visual languages carry social information as well. Let's start with a very obvious example, which is the use of highly charged and prejudicial graphic representations. For example, the depictions of minorities throughout the early part of the 20th century were extremely racist, including Africans, African-Americans, Asians, and others (let alone the demeaning behavior often taken by those characters). These highly loaded and prejudicial representations are the visual language equivalents of highly racist words, here tied to the specific visual languages used predominantly in America and Europe.

Both racist words and racist images reflect patterns stored in the heads of those who produce and comprehend them, and such representations carry with them prejudicial associations (whether intentional or not). This is why in many cases we strive to push such representations out of the use in our languages (both spoken and visual).

Now, I wouldn't say that all drawings are somehow intrinsically prejudicial, but I would say that just about all drawings carry with them sociocultural associations that mark them with information about their social context, the social group of their creator(s), and other socially loaded information in just the same way that spoken languages do.

As I've stressed, drawing systems are not universal, and there are many diverse visual languages in the world, each carrying their own social connotations about status and social groups. By seeing a drawing in a "manga style" (Japanese Visual Language), you recognize it as either coming from Japan, or coming from someone who associates with that visual language. If you are familiar with manga, you might even be able to tell the differences between the various "visual language dialects" that exist between Japanese visual languages, most often associated with genres (for example, the differences between the visual language dialects in shonen and shojo manga). If you're not familiar with manga, such diversity may not be readily apparent and it might "all look the same." This is the same as spoken languages: if you speak Japanese, the diverse varieties of spoken Japanese might be very clear, but if you don't speak Japanese, it may all sound the same. (And the same goes for English to non-English speakers, and every other language). 

What's more, just like with languages, people might judge a visual language based on the values they place on the visual language they most associate with. For example, people who exclusively like manga may find the drawing style (graphic structure) and storytelling (narrative structure) of American superhero comics to be hard to read and/or distasteful. The reverse may also be true. While these opinions may to some degree be chalked up to "taste," I believe they also reflect the social biases that come with familiarity to a particular visual language. You prefer the visual language of your "in group" while possibly dis-preferring the visual languages from outside that group.

This just touches on a small overview of what visual language theory can offer research and considerations of the social implications of drawings and visual representations. Far from the "cold and formal" view of this approach, I think visual language theory actually puts us in a better position to discuss these issues of diversity, prejudice (implicit and explicit), and social relations in drawings from a cognitive viewpoint.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Fantom Comics interview

For anyone who missed my recent video interview with the Fantom Comics store, you can now watch it all online here or at youtube.

We had some technically difficulties getting it up and running, so that limited some of the questions we got from the Internet audience. I also had a screensharing mishap, so about a third of my presentation is only audio without the accompanying slides. But, I've been told it was still entertaining, and I had a great time doing it. Quite glad the folks at Fantom Comics invited me to do it, and I'd love to come back and do another one.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fantom Comics Live Video Podcast

I'm excited to say that this coming Sunday at 6:30pm Eastern Time I'll be doing a live video podcast in conjunction with the Fantom Comics store in Washington DC. You can watch online via a Google Air Link,

I'll be taking questions directly from the crowd in the store and from those posted on the Facebook event page which you can also sign up at. For those who are in DC and can make it into the store, they'll be selling discounted copies of my book that are signed and include unique custom doodles.

So, if you have any questions for me, would like to participate, or just want to watch, please tune in!

Here are the links one more time:

1) The Fantom Comics webpage post
2) The Facebook Event
3) The Google Air Link where the show will be

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Commander Mark and visual vocabularies

I got a blast from the past today when my old friend and awesome comic artist Dan Fraga posted this video of "Commander" Mark Kistler's classic drawing show from PBS, The Secret City:

I took Commander Mark's drawing classes during the summers when I was a kid. He was actually from my hometown, and his mother and brother also taught at my high school. I think a childhood friend of mine even sang in the theme song for his show! Apparently his more recent work has even earned him an Emmy, which is most certainly deserved.

Those lessons I'm sure made an early impression on my thinking about how drawing is learned and understood. His basic ideas certainly align with my own: drawing is made up of a "graphic vocabulary" that is used and manipulated to create novel whole drawings. In fact, I still draw various things exactly as I was taught by Commander Mark when I was nine or ten years old.

I also frequently use one of his tricks during lectures and presentations. Just like he did (still does?), I'll ask the crowd to draw something simple, like a house and a flower, and I give them only 10 seconds to do it. Inevitably, they will all draw something exactly the same (which would look exactly like what you're thinking now), and I'll have those images appear on the screen. It's taken as amazing, as if I had some mind reading powers.

Really though, this exercise nicely shows how we all share common cultural schemas in drawing, despite most people not progressing in their graphic fluency. These schemas are analogous to conventional gestural "emblems" like thumbs up or "OK." These gestures might be systematic and shared across our culture, but most people still haven't reached the ability to use a full sign language (which has its own vocabulary and grammar). Similarly, these simple graphic schemas are patterned forms of graphic expression that people are able to produce, even if they haven't fully acquired a complete visual language. I discuss these ideas more in my book and paper "Explaining 'I can't draw'."

In any case, if you're looking for works "to recommend for kids learning to draw," Mark Kistler's books are at the top of the list.