In Defense of Flatness

Thomas Basbøll
Resident Writing Consultant, Copenhagen Business School Library

“In dieser Weise wird die zweifache Ausdehnung der Schreibfläche für die Übersichtlichkeit verwertet.”
Gottlob Frege

In his celebrated graphic dissertation, Unflattening, Nick Sousanis (2015) not only argues for the use of comics in scholarship but capably demonstrates how it is done. On page 31, in a caption to a pair of penetrating eyes, for example, he declares that “there is no single, ‘correct’ view.” “This becomes evident,” another caption suggests, “by looking through only one eye at a time.” Two sets of two panels illustrate the point. In the first, a panel showing the left eye closed and the right open is set above one showing a hand with its index finger extended to partly block our view of the words

WHICH VIEW
IS TRUE?

In the second, the right eye is now closed and the left open, while the hand in the frame below has been shifted a little to the right. “It is this displacement — parallax — which enables us to perceive depth,” a caption reads over a panel illustrating the entire scene from above, with dotted lines to emphasize the lines of sight from each eye. “Our stereoscopic vision is the creation and integration of two views. Seeing, much like walking on two feet, is a constant negotiation between two distinct sources.”

Sousanis argues (through his pictures) that contemporary academic culture suffers from the “flatness” that is implicit in a one-eyed view of the world. He believes that we can be “unflattened” by broadening our conception of scholarship, beyond academic prose, to include pictures, i.e., to express our scholarship in the graphic or “comic book” form. Sousanis says that the way scholars normally experience their world is “one-dimensional”, but perhaps there is good a reason to insist that scholars express themselves this way. In these brief remarks I want to suggest that “graphic non-fiction” is an inapt medium, not perhaps for the communication of ideas, but for their discussion by intellectual equals with knowledge of the subject. The purpose of scholarly writing, after all, is to open our ideas to criticism by our peers, and a book like Unflattening, however beautiful it may be, does not afford us a precise enough occasion on which to check our thoughts.

My own amateur sense of the difficulty of drawing objects is that you have to represent a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. This became clear to me when I tried modelling heads in plasticine based on photographs. I found it surprisingly easy, and I assumed it had something to do with the extra dimension the modelling clay gave me to represent the information in a two-dimensional picture. The medium was richer than the message, we might say. In the same way, it’s easier to draw a face from a photograph than it is to work with a live model. It’s the disparity between the amount of dimensions that the object has and the amount that the representation has that determines the degree of difficulty.

Now, let us say that prose writing is one-dimensional. One word follows another in single file. A sentence is sequence of words; a paragraph is sequence of sentences; an essay is a sequence of paragraphs. It’s one-dimensional and even unidirectional: you can’t read a sentence backwards. But what we lose in the richness of our representations we gain in their precision. In order to provide all the information that is communicated in a picture we may need much more than the proverbial thousand words. But overcoming the difficulty of putting it in prose, as I attempted to do in my opening paragraph, forces us to decide exactly what the picture is trying to tell us. Even if we want to say every single thing that we see in a given scene, writing about it forces us to itemize these perceptions and convert them into propositions.

Now, suppose we did read the panels I began with as offering an argument, a series of logically connected propositions. It seems to me that once we make it explicit, it is either trivial or false. It is trivial in the sense that we all know that no one perspective offers a complete view of an object. If I ask, “What does my hand look like?” you will correctly say that it depends on how I hold it and what I do with it. More to the point, the two views of the text behind the fingers lets us deduce that they say “Which view is true?” on the basis of one image that says “Which _iew is t__e?” and another that says “Wh__h view i___rue?” These views also tell us that the hand is some distance from the words, not pressed directly against them, and the top-view frame lets us estimate this distance. Together, they depict the fact that a hand is being held in front of the words “Which view is true?” But we must not conclude that neither view is “correct”. We must conclude that both are true and that neither contradicts the other since they both tell us what scene looks like from slightly different points of view. Once we rescue it from triviality, then, we realize that “There is no true view?” is simply false. Views are not true or false, propositions are. And propositions, I want to say, are the stuff of scholarship.

Now, it might be countered that by engaging with Sousanis’s book as I have just done I am contradicting myself. Did I not say that it is not scholarship because it is not an apt occasion for criticism? And did I not just seize a critical occasion and offer my views against those of his? Well, I suspect Sousanis (or someone of like mind) would dismiss my “reading” of his pictures as “reductive” — I have reduced the richness of his imagery to simple statements, propositions, and therefore entirely missed his point. Perhaps that is true, I want to ask, but what else could I do? How else can I try to interpret what he means and work out for myself what I think of it? Must I draw you a picture? And is that a demand we should be able to make of each other as peers?

And do also notice that, for the purpose of my critique, neither Sousanis’s drawings, nor my attempt to render them faithfully in prose, were ever really necessary. All that was needed was a series of instructions: (1) Extend your right index finger and hold it halfway between your face and this page (or screen); (2) look at it through one eye; (3) look at it through the other. Now tell me: which view is true? That’s all that was needed to give the reader the visual impressions they’d need to engage with the argument. In other words, an ordinary book of prose has never claimed to be an adequate replacement for the full depth of human experience. It is always an instruction to have (or recall) an experience.

Reading prose does not diminish us; it doesn’t “flatten” us. The writer presumes that before and after reading we will go out and do something in the four dimensions of our full reality. Prose is linear, but it knows that life is not; a writer always presumes that the reader will live after reading. Sousanis’s conception of prose, then, is missing several dimensions that writers and readers take for granted. What Sousanis wants the graphic form to give us, is already there in prose. His pictures, indisputably beautiful though they are, are no less “flat” when compared to the reality we live in than my paragraphs. We need to learn how to see perspective no less than we need to learn how to read sentences. The dystopian bleakness of the imagery in the opening pages of Unflattening isn’t, therefore, a fair indictment of traditional schooling (and, by extension, scholarship). It is, rather, the experience of someone who, properly speaking, doesn’t quite know how to read. In a sense, Sousanis takes writing too literally, which is precisely something he would never do with a picture. He forgets that the strength of prose is that it can be taken literally, not that it must be.

Sousanis believes we must teach students to see if we want to teach them really to think, to overcome the flatness of their (perhaps academic) acculturation. He reminds me of an artist I once knew who responded to people who said they couldn’t draw by asking them how they could see. I have to resist a similar reaction in myself to people who claim to be unable to write. “How can they think?” I sometimes wonder. Perhaps I should say, “How can they entertain a proposition?” People can, of course, think without writing, but I worry that replacing prose with pictures affords us occasions to compare, only our impressions of life, not our understanding of the facts. And scholarship is the means by which we maintain and develop our shared understanding of the world in the face of a cacophony of individual impressions.

Graphic books, I want to stress, don’t need to be scholarship to be valuable. Indeed, people don’t need to know how to read and write scholarly prose in order to be valuable members of society. But I do think scholars should confine themselves, qua scholars, to prose. They can write about all the pictures they like. But they should not be satisfied with showing us merely how things look and feel to them. They should tell us what they see, what they think.

Thanks to Julia Molinari for her comments on an earlier version of the post