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Posts Tagged ‘Bach’

Thinking Through Images: An Interview with Nick Sousanis

July 20, 2015 | by

First idea map for Unflattening, April 14, 2011.

First idea map for Unflattening, April 14, 2011.

Everything about Unflattening is odd, from its ungainly title and unfashionable subject matter (Rudolf Arnheim art theory meets Herbert Marcuse radicalism meets Scott McCloud comics boosterism) to its provenance: Nick Sousanis initially wrote and drew this full-length comics essay as his graduate-school dissertation. (He was earning his doctorate in education at Teachers College Columbia University, studying under the philosopher and social activist Maxine Greene.)

Sousanis’s career might be considered a little odd, too. He followed up an undergraduate degree in mathematics with a brief stint as a professional tennis player, then cofounded and edited a cultural magazine in Detroit, while also working as an artist. This isn’t the typical career path for a cartoonist—though to be fair, that profession doesn’t provide many followable emblematic models in that regard. Wild enthusiasm and plunge-taking fearlessness aside, Sousanis seems like a solid citizen; while his ideas are radically utopian, their flavor is resolutely wholesome. He is reminiscent of the kind of small-town high school teacher who’s popular with students because they believe he tells the truth and is unafraid to veer away from the curriculum-assigned script.

The script Sousanis is veering away from in this case is the age-old Western bias against visual imagery (and in favor of the Word), which he traces back to Plato’s cave. Sousanis believes that verbal language alone is a poor vehicle for capturing the multidimensional, many-layered fullness of human experience, the equivalent of Edwin Abbott’s two-dimensional flatworms trying to explain a sphere. It’s not so much that a picture is worth a thousand words, but rather that a picture is worth concepts that can’t even be put into words. And in an attempt to prove his case, he drew it.

What does “unflattening” mean?

It would be easier to tell you what the book’s about than to tell you what “unflattening” is. Actually, I’ve thinking about that lately because there’s a French translation in the works, and they can’t use that word because it doesn’t mean anything.

How could it not mean anything?

Well, I don’t think it means the right thing. It doesn’t mean anything in English—it’s not a word people use. The book is very much an argument that we make sense of the world in ways beyond text—teaching and learning shouldn’t be restricted to that narrow band. So rather than talking about visual thinking and multimodal stuff—from Howard Gardner to Rudolf Arnheim, people have been talking about it—comics just let me do it.

That’s what the book is about, if it’s about anything. Read More »

Java Jive

September 29, 2014 | by


A coffeepot truck from 1956. Photo via Retronaut

There are too many coffee clichés: nineties Seattle yuppies, current obsessives in Portland and Brooklyn, the enormous and always hilarious line of tchotchkes that emphasize the importance of caffeine to functioning and the inadvisability of approaching the addict pre-coffee. And that Friends pop-up! Oh god, the Friends pop-up. It makes one squirm with vicarious humiliation. It is impossible to mention coffee in any context without falling into some hoary cliché trap, which I imagine being like one of those pits cleverly disguised with leaves. But there's a funny paradox at work: however much we take it for granted, coffee has become a sort of identity. In a time when the real thing is scarce, coffee is sold to us as craftsmanship, as connoisseurship, as signifier—for ideas of glamor that very few of us can actually afford. 

It was not always so. Joseph Smith reported that hot drinks are not for the body or belly; Bach wrote the “Coffee Cantata”; and Balzac may or may not have died of coffee poisoning:

I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain. From that moment on, everything becomes agitated. Ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army to its legendary fighting ground, and the battle rages. Memories charge in, bright flags on high; the cavalry of metaphor deploys with a magnificent gallop; the artillery of logic rushes up with clattering wagons and cartridges; on imagination's orders, sharpshooters sight and fire; forms and shapes and characters rear up; the paper is spread with ink—for the nightly labor begins and ends with torrents of this black water, as a battle opens and concludes with black powder.

I recommended this way of drinking coffee to a friend of mine, who absolutely wanted to finish a job promised for the next day: he thought he'd been poisoned and took to his bed, which he guarded like a married man. He was tall, blond, slender and had thinning hair; he apparently had a stomach of papier-mâché. There has been, on my part, a failure of observation.

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A Week in Culture: Wesley Yang, Writer, Part 2

January 20, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Yang’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


Bach Organ Works.

One of my many collegiate affectations was to play old records on a plastic turntable that I purchased at a garage sale. I had a bunch of classical LPs from my parent’s living-room bureau that I brought with me, including the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major and Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E-flat Major. The poor fidelity of those enormous sounds pressed through that tinny speaker gave the music an abstract and deconstructed quality that made it somehow purer.

My best friend at the time was Hoon, who was only four feet, eleven inches tall and very slight. We both shaved our heads totally bald in the summer between freshman and sophomore year in emulation of Michel Foucault. “I have a good head,” Hoon assured me in advance of shaving it. He was right—it was a very elegant ovoid shaped like a coconut that you could hold in the palm of your hand. I doubted I would have a good head, and after spending an evening trying to depilate it with a disposable Bic razor (I had to go to the barber the next day to finish the job, as there were impacted clumps that would not come off), I discovered that, in fact, I have a grossly oblong, egg-shaped head.

During my sophomore year at Rutgers, I fell into a desperate and unrequited passion for a Colombian girl who lived a floor above me in the river dorms (where I had moved after feeling alienated in Brett Hall, the honors dorm where 95 percent of the students were Orthodox Jews from South Jersey), and then had something like a minor breakdown. I would spend hours staring at the record player as it spun out this strange celestial music that induced a cold rapture that was intense in its longing but inhumanly remote. It seemed the aural manifestation of an austere and exacting God. I never quite enjoyed it, but everything else felt irrelevant.

I never really got over that record of Bach. I carried the little plastic record player with me throughout the rest of college, until finally my roommate during senior year snapped the record in half in a passive-aggressive fit. He had reason to be upset with me: I had made out with his sixteen-year-old sister who had visited us for a week after refusing to return to school that January. We stayed together, on and off, for the next seven years.

Very recently, I downloaded a complete set of Bach organ works by another performer and assembled a playlist of the tracks that made up the original record. The tonalities do not compare in beauty and strangeness to the ones recorded on the LP, and now I think I hear what the roommate must have heard. At the time, he confessed to me that he believed I played that record specifically for the purpose of tormenting him, and that was the reason he broke it.

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