Thinking Through Images: An Interview with Nick Sousanis


At Work

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. Unflattening—both the book and the concept—is talking about multimodality, about interdisciplinarity, about image-text, it’s both public and scholarly. It’s saying that we need to dimensionalize the kinds of conversations we have rather than coming at them head-on.

Did you have many formal models to look to for what you were trying to accomplish?

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics has been a big influence on me. It showed that comics can be lots of things, including educational. My first comics look very McCloudian, where I’m just sitting there doing stuff. A number of educational comics have copied what he did in terms of style but haven’t really played with form—just Professor So-and-So talking about whatever. Studying Alan Moore helped me with this problem. He did a six-page comic with his wife Melinda Gebbie called “This Is Information,” but it’s all visual-verbal metaphor. There’s a narrative, but it’s not a story—it’s the text telling the image what to do, and form matters more than anything else.

In terms of noncomics, there was Ulysses but also Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Doug Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach and James Burke’s The Pinball Effect and Connections. Burke takes an enormous view of history. In Unflattening, I didn’t do as many interludes as I thought I would, but I think my favorite parts in Gödel, Escher, Bach are the interludes with the tortoise and the hare or with Achilles—all those parts where he’s talking philosophy but you can read it. Whereas with the other part, you need a discussion group to read it.

sousanis 132Since Understanding Comics was published, in 1993, there haven’t been many other theoretical nonfiction books using the comics form in innovative ways. As you said, there are a lot of talking-head books. Why do you think there aren’t more formally innovative comics essays?

As a maker, I can tell you that it’s easier to go the talking-head route because you don’t have to come up with something new to draw all the time. But I’m more interested in how you can embody an idea on the page rather than talk about it. Talking about it is easier, and maybe it takes somebody who’s a maker—a serious maker—to get invested in it. David Mazzucchelli is someone who does that kind of work, but he’s not interested, at least at this point, in doing nonfiction.

In one of the endnotes to your book, you say that Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus would be perfect for adaptation into comics form. Do you have plans to do that yourself?

To be honest, I’ve probably read forty pages of A Thousand Plateaus. My point in that footnote is that Deleuze and Guattari are trying to make so many nonlinear connections, and that doesn’t work in text alone—you need layers. In DJing, you can add layers of music on top of one another, but it doesn’t work the same way in text. Or, at least, it didn’t work for Deleuze and Guattari, because it’s not readable—no offense to them.

But that kind of nonlinearity is perfect for comics. I actually wrote to Bruno Latour when I was in the middle of this, and I said, I’m going to try tackling one of your things in comics, and he said, Yes, I think it would be good. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. Latour talks about actor-network theory, where you really need to see layers this way. It includes objects, animals, and other nonhuman actors alongside the human as part of the network of actors in a social-network system. What was key to me—and how it relates to the way that comics handle nonlinearity and a kind of seeing from the fourth dimension—is actor-network theory’s focus on tracing associations. So you’re looking at all these connections—strings, or really vectors—acting on one another. And it’s not just actors and objects. Each element is an actor exerting some sort of pull on the others, and you need to account for all of them.

What kind of reactions did you get while you were working on the book?

I’m often asked if I had to fight to make the book this way, and I really didn’t. The only pushback I had—and it wasn’t really pushback—was in the proposal hearing, where the cohort said, Don’t you think you should hedge and have a text section to explain it? And if I had any hesitation, that was the last time, because I said, No, it’s either its own thing, or it’s not.

While I was making it, I’d print up short comics and give them away at conferences or to anybody I met. I would just say, This is the comic I made. I really liked doing that because that was the point—making comics, making scholarship for people. I lived up in Spanish Harlem, and there were guys—I don’t know where they lived, but they hung out on my stoop all day—and I gave them my comics. I asked one of them what he thought, and he said, Yeah, it’s all about how we perceive things. I don’t know if he’s been to school—I have no idea, I mean, these guys, I know how they make their money, and it’s not going to school—but he got it. And I was so excited—that’s the reader I want. It’s a great if a college-educated person can read it, too, but if this guy can read it and realize that he’s smarter than he realized, that’s pretty cool.

sousanis 65A big part of the book is about visual literacy and visual language and visual perception. Everyone seems to agree that visual literacy is becoming more important in our culture, yet why is it that we don’t seem to study it much or talk about it as much as you might expect, given the widespread agreement about its significance?

I think we have a hard time thinking through images. I think we have a hard time thinking about how to think through images. We know how to illustrate what we say—comics artists and artists in general do amazing things with ideas—but when we think about visual ideas in terms of education, there’s a stumbling block. I was deeply influenced by Picture This, Molly Bang’s book of cutouts about how pictures work. She took Arnheim’s theories but made them super-readable. For instance, if you make Little Red Riding Hood a red triangle, then what does the mother look like? Well, if you make the mother a big red triangle, you understand that they’re related, but she’s too visually dominant. We want Little Red Riding Hood to be our protagonist, and if the mother is in the same scene and looks the same only much larger, then Red Riding Hood shrinks almost to the background. So what if we make the mother a pear shape? Okay, now she’s sort of soft, and she’s related to the small red triangle, but she’s still too dominant. When we start thinking about those kinds of spatial relationships and how our fundamental ideas are grounded in that way of thinking, when we have that kind of training, it might change how we write and how we are able to communicate.

What can comics achieve, what effects can they have on a reader, that prose text alone can’t?

Lynda Barry speaks to it a lot more, and so does Susan Langer, but it has to do with the emotional content of images. We tend to think images are emotional things, irrational, because the scaffolding of language doesn’t fit them very well. Not because they’re actually irrational, but because we don’t have the ways to hold them in. Our language can’t fully contain them.

I think the comics I make are a lot smarter than I am, because I can make connections through them that I wouldn’t make in my writing. Chris Ware demonstrates this idea beautifully—the nonlinear, tangential ways our thinking moves. That sideways thinking doesn’t fit very neatly into text, and it doesn’t fit very neatly into film. But comics let us go sideways even while we’re plowing forward. That’s less about images and more about space. My own interests tend to be more about the spatial ideas of comics rather than the emotional quality of a line, which is a whole other area that should be talked about.

Can you think of an example of a connection you made by creating comics that you wouldn’t have made otherwise?

I could probably give you an example on each page.

Here’s one at random.

sousanis 39The kaleidoscopic one. My Deleuze and Guattari page. It’s the concept of rhizome, which is what their unreadable book is about, but I think right there, you see it. There are all these little people looking through periscopes, and you can see through the panels that they’re all connected but that they all have different viewpoints. The whole idea is right there on the page. I could say, “Well, rhizomes are this thing where everything’s connected, and each one is a point of view,” but it’s more of a visceral concept, rather than an intellectual one, or a visceral concept that can then become an intellectual one.

I think about my daughter learning to use her fingers. She looks at her hand and rotates it, and she’s clearly thinking, This is what my hand does. There’s a lot we can do in comics and through visuals that gets at how our bodies work and how we think through those ideas better than removing it a step and having to describe it.

Another major topic in the book is how language trains us to think and how the culture we’re born into shapes the way we think and act, almost like strings on a puppet. You write that there’s a way not exactly to achieve true freedom but to recognize the structures that bind us, and possibly to gain control of them through that recognition.

A big thing that they teach in visual-culture classes is how visual advertising works. When you can start to see the cues of how advertising works, it’s still there—there are still strings trying to pull you—but you know that’s what’s happening.

College is another good example. Why is college the thing you do? Well, it’s the thing you do because that’s what people have been doing—that’s the way the funnel works. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or good, but we should understand that it’s something someone made up once upon a time and other people accepted and walked down that path. We should at least be aware enough to know that it’s not how it is, it’s something we invented. Accepting that means you have some chance to change its course. It’s hard. I don’t know how we change these things for real, but I believe strongly in education, and I think education has the potential to foster the same kind of thinking.

sousanis 111My daughter was born three weeks before I finished the book. She didn’t then exist, but she’s in my notes three years before she was born and she’s in my book. I always knew I would end the book with a child’s eyes looking upward and outward, with the idea of seeing as if for the first time. When that first spark of her showed up on an ultrasound, I became intensely aware of how her anticipated arrival would coincide in a cosmically weird way with my finishing this book. When I finally went to draw that scene, she was actually there and, in fact, served as the model.

I watched my daughter those first weeks and months as she would stretch her hands, exploring how they worked and her ability to consciously control them. That experience of seeing new is something I wanted Unflattening to remind us of. Obviously, this could be a problem—if you had to figure out how your hands work each day, you couldn’t do anything. But if you can find ways to keep your eyes open in that same way, while retaining the experience of knowing how to use your hands and not having to learn that all over again—that’s what I wanted to get at. To see new, but acknowledge that we have experience and it’s necessary to have experience in order to do something. You want your children to be very “unflat,” to recognize the circumstances they are born into and that they acquire but also able to see with open eyes so as to make their own way.

Timothy Hodler is coeditor of The Comics Journal.

Images courtesy Harvard University Press.