Sunday, August 07, 2016
At the headwaters of Western philosophy, Plato warned us not to be taken in by mere perception. The images we perceive are but copies of copies, he said; only the intellect could “see” true Goodness or Beauty. The image is not the reality.
But would it be possible to intertwine words and images so those images push us to understand more deeply the reality that the words alone cannot adequately describe? That’s the goal of an extraordinary “graphic novel” called “Unflattening” ($22.95 in paperback from Harvard University Press) by Nick Sousanis.
Sousanis has joined the full-time faculty of San Francisco State University to teach “comics as a way of thinking.” Though it may sound like a prime example of misspent education, Sousanis’ book is a serious challenge to the status quo which, he claims, serves to narrow our vision and undermine our potential.
He draws on a nineteenth-century satiric novel called “Flatland,” by Edwin Abbott, in which “A. Square” tells of life in a two-dimensional world. He can’t imagine a world of three dimensions: A sphere passing through Flatland would only appear as an expanding and contracting circle. Similarly, we have trouble breaking through our “reliance on a solitary vantage point … a single line of thought … where we see only what we’re looking for.”
Instead, comic art can be used for crucial ends in bringing to our attention multiple perspectives in which “distinctive viewpoints still remain” but they are “now no longer isolated … (but) viewed as integral to the whole.” Sousanis uses the thought of scientists, philosophers, literary critics and artists to connect, as in a web, a phantasmagoria of images.
The bottom line? “Perception is not dispensable. It's not mere decoration or afterthought, but integral to thought, a fundamental partner in making meaning. In reuniting thinking and seeing.” Sousanis’ black-and-white drawings are choreographed with the text in minute detail and are never mere illustrations of the words.
In comics, when the eye travels from panel to panel as a conversation unfolds, time turns into space (the physical space of each drawing). If time is the fourth dimension, then comics can help us grasp a reality that A. Square could never even dream.