Linda Hutcheon’s Postmodernism – in comics?

There have already been five posts about postmodernism on this weblog, so why a sixth one? Linda Hutcheon’s 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction is interesting because it directly engages in a dialogue – or should I say, argument – with previous texts on postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson’s.

Hutcheon defines postmodernism as:

  • “fundamentally contradictory”,
  • “resolutely historical”, and
  • “inescapably political” (p. 4, my emphasis).

This seems to contradict Jameson’s and other authors’ view of postmodernism as ahistorical and depthless. But what exactly does Hutcheon mean by ‘historical’ and ‘political’?

The treatment of the past in postmodern works is indeed different from earlier, modernist works. Postmodernism “suggests no search for transcendent timeless meaning, but rather a re-evaluation of and a dialogue with the past in the light of the present. […] It does not deny the existence of the past; it does question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains.” (pp. 19-20, emphasis LH).

Likewise, the political nature of postmodernism is a complex one, “a curious mixture of the complicitous and the critical” (p. 201). “The basic postmodernist stance [is] a questioning of authority” (p. 202), but at the same time it is also “suspicious of ‘heroes, crusades, and easy idealism’ […]” (p. 203, quoting Bill Buford). “The postmodern is ironic, distanced” (p. 203).

The contradictory nature of postmodernism, on the other hand, is something everyone can agree on. This characteristic seems to be more of a prerequisite for or superordinate concept of the other two.

Hutcheon’s idea of postmodernism is a relatively narrow one. Although she references many examples of postmodernist works (mainly novels), it becomes clear that those examples represent only a part, and probably not a large one at that, of contemporary cultural production. Which brings us to today’s comic, which is not quite as randomly selected as previous examples in this column: it might fit Hutcheon’s criteria (well, see below), but some other comics that have a more ‘postmodern’ feel to them might not.

Brahm Revel’s Guerillas vol. 1 (Oni Press, 2010) opens with a quotation attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). The first words of the comic proper are in a caption box that says, “Vietnam, 1970.” For the next 50 pages, the story follows John Francis Clayton, an “FNG” (Fucking New Guy) in a military unit in the Vietnam War. Revel pays a lot of attention to detail, such as military equipment and jargon. There are references to historic figures like Richard Nixon or Jane Goodall. And the depicted events are typical of what is commonly known about the Vietnam War: U.S. soldiers raping native women, torching villages, falling victim to the Viet Cong’s guerilla tactics, etc.

All of this serves to create a sense of historical accuracy. While the story narrated by Clayton can with some certainty be identified as fictional, the events just might have happened as depicted, in Vietnam, in 1970.

Then there’s a rupture around p. 56, at the end of the first chapter, when the chimpanzees are introduced, a rogue squad of trained apes equipped and dressed as U.S. soldiers, who fight against the Viet Cong on their own. Chapter 2 tells their origin as an experiment conducted by scientists (of German descent, of course). The chimpanzees exhibit a mix of human and animal behaviour; they thump their chests but smoke cigarettes.

This appears to be the contradiction that is central to Guerillas: the outlandish, ‘unrealistic’ motif of the scientifically enhanced apes clashes with an historically accurate, ‘realistic’ setting. While the beginning of this comic might be read as Revel’s version of what really happened in Vietnam, the story of the chimpanzees can hardly be interpreted this way: here we’re clearly in the realm of fiction, or entertainment, or fantasy. Of course, earlier fantasy and science fiction stories have used similar setups (e.g. Bram Stoker’s Dracula). However, the main difference is that in those classic stories, the authors went to great lengths to make the improbable seem plausible and fit into the realistic setting, whereas it’s harder to suspend one’s disbelief when reading Guerillas (not least because we’re reading it with the experience of many of those older similar stories).

According to Hutcheon, such a treatment of the past tells us something about the present, and this is also where the political nature of the work comes from. It is unreasonable to assume that the depiction of the grimness of the Vietnam War is a protest against, reassessment of, or coming-to-terms with it, given that the comic was made over 30 years after the end of the war. The ostensible reason for the Vietnam setting is that it makes more sense to deploy chimpanzee soldiers in the Vietnamese jungle than e.g. in the desert of the Gulf Wars, or in WWII in which the U.S. experience of the tropical regions was dominated by naval and aerial warfare (The Thin Red Line perhaps being the exception that proves the rule). But maybe Guerillas isn’t so time-specific after all. One of its themes is that a man learns from animals what humanity truly is, and this is a message that is relevant regardless of time and place: not unlike Pride of Baghdad by Vaughan and Henrichon, Guerillas can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanising effects of the war in Iraq, and by extension also Afghanistan and any other armed conflict.

But wouldn’t this – i.e. extrapolating from the specific to the universal – be a rather modernist reading? Indeed, Guerillas doesn’t seem to be the ideal example of Hutcheon’s postmodernism, but then again, few comics would meet her criteria without reservation. Still, Guerillas comes close. One can easily imagine how it might have qualified if Revel had made some different choices, e.g. if the protagonist would have been made identifiable as a real person (thus creating a contradiction between the genres of biography and fiction, cf. Hutcheon p. 9), or if the chimpanzee experiment would have been based on more advanced science and technology (thus creating a contradiction between different time layers, cf. Hutcheon p. 5). The resulting work would have been postmodern in Hutcheon’s sense, but whether it would have been a better comic is another question.


Nina Zschocke’s visual irritation – in comics?

Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Last year I realised I had written only one single blog post about a female art historian / scholar / theoretician, so this year I scheduled two posts on women (that I would have written anyway) for March. This first one is about a German book that was published only ten years ago, Der irritierte Blick: Kunstrezeption und Aufmerksamkeit by Nina Zschocke. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an English translation of it yet. The title can be roughly translated as, “The irritated gaze: art reception and attention” (albeit “irritated” in the sense of “confused”, not “annoyed”).

The first ~70 pages of Der irritierte Blick form an introduction to reception aesthetics and its psychological prerequisites. This first part is well worth reading in itself, but the second part introduces Zschocke’s concept of visual irritation with which we’ll deal today. Recipients are visually irritated when they “think their visual interpretation is ‘wrong’ because it contradicts other assumptions or information about the perceived situation” (all translations mine). Within visual irritations, those that contradict basic rules of perception acquired during childhood (regarding the formal attributes of colour, shape and space) can be distinguished from phenomena that contradict assumptions “of a higher level”, i.e. regarding the perceived content. Another distinction can be made between stable “illusions” and multistable phenomena: multistability occurs when several mutually exclusive interpretations appear equally plausible. In any case, the viewer sooner or later experiences a sense of failed perception and irritation.

Zschocke’s point is that visual irritation is an artistic strategy. Contemporary artists (Zschocke examines the examples of Josef Albers, Anish Kapoor, and Thomas Demand, among others) deliberately compose their works in such a way that the recipients are astonished, their perceptual sensitivity is heightened and their attention is turned back on itself, so that they are encouraged to reflect on the act of perception.

Does visual irritation occur in comics too? A prime example of a visually irritating comic might be L’Oud Silencieux (Die Schweigende Laute / “the silent oud” or “lute”) by Martin tom Dieck (L’Association, 1996). This wordless 22-page comic has a page layout of two panels on top of each other. From the panel transitions it soon becomes clear that the horizontal connections across pages are stronger than the vertical ones on the same page. In other words, the upper panels tell one story (a man playing an oud) and the lower panels another (a man dreaming of some sort of fairy).

p. 4 from Martin tom Dieck's L'Oud Silencieux

p. 4 from Martin tom Dieck’s L’Oud Silencieux

So far, so interesting. While the two stories seem entirely unconnected at first, it is fun to look for similarities between them. For instance, both men watch television at some point. Furthermore, one man falls asleep and wakes again when (i.e. on the same page as) the other stops and starts playing his oud.

The real point of visual irritation occurs on the fourth page: on the top panel, the oud player sits on his rooftop, while on the lower panel we see the other man’s television. The funny thing is, the television screen shows the oud player on the rooftop from the top panel. So clearly the two stories are connected after all. However, what is their exact chronological or spatial relation? I can’t think of a single completely satisfying explanation. For instance, the upper story cannot be a film that is shown on the TV in the lower story, because when the man in the lower story wakes up (p. 20), his TV is blank instead of showing what’s going on in the upper panel. Thus L’Oud Silencieux contradicts the reader’s assumptions about comics, as the sequence of images in a comic is usually thought to be “intended to convey information”, as Scott McCloud’s famous definition says. (The second part of this quote, “… and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, is often forgotten.) Ultimately, the recipient is left visually irritated and, perhaps, pleasantly amazed.

[EDIT: Speaking of Martin tom Dieck, another “multistable” comic is his Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt, because one cannot decide whether it depicts the real warehouse district in Hamburg or not. I have written about this ambiguity in a conference paper from 2011, albeit without having read Zschocke’s book back then.]

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog