The Correct Answers in the Heather Section of the SATs

http://wigleaf.com/201302heather.htm

Wigleaf publishes short-short stories and was one of the jumping off points for my paper.

The Lydia Davis stories were taken from here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120953449

While I didn’t get to talk much about how short-short stories relate formally to poetry, the following poem by Chelsea Martin appears in her collection The Really Funny Thing About Apathy, which contains both short fiction and poetry and doesn’t much distinguish between the two. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/238710

Happy Finals.

 

An archive of distraction (hopefully)

I really liked Bea’s point today about (re)learning what objects get to be relevant to academic study — I was thinking about something like that when I was reading In the Shadow of No Towers in the Div School cafe last week. I felt a little self-conscious reading a giant and colorful comic book instead of a more “scholarly” text. One of the morning regulars — a staid-looking older guy — saw me and asked, “are you reading that for a class?” I was immediately defensive (This old guy is so narrow minded! He just doesn’t get it!). I tried to cast my explanation of the book in the most academic light possible, but I didn’t need to — it turned out that he had read Maus when it came out and just thought it was really cool that Spiegelman was assigned reading. We started talking about whether No Towers represents middle America in a way that is problematic or just accurately critical. It ended up being a really great conversation.

This is kind of what I was trying to get at on Tuesday, which I wanted to come back to here in case I was a little too opaque in my presentation. One of the things that I really love about I’m Trying to Reach You (the book I’m writing on) is how it shows the seemingly trivial zone of YouTube procrastination as a place that can be rich with meaning and value. This certainly isn’t to say that whatever you do on YouTube is Art, or that you should put off working on your finals to endlessly click through videos because “that’s what’s really real, bro.” But I think that that it’s important and difficult to remember that, as Patrick pointed out today, ‘ephemera’ can be meaningful, and even if it isn’t, it can still merit consideration and engagement.

Preparing my presentation made me realize just how many YouTube videos I have re-watched, learned from, and been moved by, often while thinking “I shouldn’t be doing this!” I would love to know the videos (or sites, or craigslist poems, or whatever) that you all find yourself returning to and sitting with, so please post them here! Since we’re going into finals week I figured you could all use some distractions that come highly recommended.

I’ll start with the Jeanann Verlee poem that I played during my presentation (I didn’t want to leave “soak up the semen” without context…):

The tradition of serialized comics

In Spiegelman’s discussion of old-timey comics, he doesn’t dwell much on the serialized nature of most comic strips, but I feel as though this is very important to the comparison he invites between these comics and his own art. He talks a bit about Krazy Kat and how its “daily variations” invited psychoanalytic readings but ultimately “presented an open-ended metaphor that could contain all stories simultaneously.”

 

No comic I know of is as deeply open-ended as Krazy Kat, but it seems to me that because they’re serialized, comics have the potential to tell all stories eventually, if not simultaneously. One of the charms of comic strips, and probably one of the reasons they’re associated with nostalgia, is that characters don’t age; the events of one day’s strip need not have anything to do with the next days. With a limited number of characters, most of which are clearly defined, strips end up exhausting their narratives, and presenting the same narratives again and again. For example, Dilbert has been making fun of bureaucratic absurdity for 24 years: it’s still funny because it’s still relevant.

 

In the Shadow of No Towers, of course, stops at ten strips. Spiegelman’s introduction calls his book “a slow-motion diary of what I experienced while seeking some provisional equanimity,” noting that the political atmosphere began changing after his strips. By foregrounding the political, Spiegelman intentionally limits the scope of his project compared to serial comics, which turn politics into topical humor and leave it at that. Even the largest shadows disappear with the sun (Spiegelman 10).

Obstruction & Affect in In the Shadow of No Towers #3

The use of obstructed objects in #3 of In The Shadow of No Towers has been discussed in terms of the smoke obstructing words in Taylor’s post, but I wanted to expand the discussion to the panels that are covered by the Mars Attacks card and the “Don’t Breathe!” poster (which I am guessing is the poster to which mouse-Spiegelman is referring at the bottom of the page). There are three panels that are significantly obstructed by these items. In the first, speech and thought bubbles are visible and complete, but the characters to whom those bubbles are attached are covered (though it is fairly easy to determine which bubble belongs to which character). In the second, only two words in a text block are decipherable: “It was”. In the third, a single corner of the panel just barely peeks out from behind the poster.

The obstruction of these panels–the second one in particular–frustrated me to a certain extent, because I kept feeling that I was being deprived of an important component of the narrative, but the more I think about that feeling, the more I realize that it is a productive kind of frustration, an intentional affect created by the careful placement of the items on the page. The page itself is about the panic and uncertainty experienced by Spiegelman and his wife while trying to find their daughter, and the frustration is an effective recreation of at least a small part of that sense of uncertainty.

While, for this particular work, I do think that the comix format was particularly useful to communicate the narrative, especially given the motif of smoke that accompanies the story on #3, but I have encountered other media that create a similar affect by withholding or obstructing information. One example that comes to mind is the novel House of Leaves. The novel takes the form of a lengthy film critique of a nonexistent (even in the world of the novel) documentary about a family that discovers that their house is infinitely large on the inside. This film critique is discovered by the character Johnny Truant, who adds his own footnotes and commentary. In one section of the novel, the author of the film critique is about to reveal a particularly revelatory piece of analysis about the film–only to have Johnny admit that the pages in which the author discusses that particular piece of analysis are missing. While the motives for the novel’s author withholding that information may be different and have different thematic implications, the general affect is similar: it produces a feeling of frustration and a sense of incompleteness in the reader.

Spiegelman & History

Though it isn’t technically a part of the “content” of the comics in Shadow of No Towers, I found myself very interested in the front cover page of the book. It depicts the front page of The World Newspaper on September 11th, 1901, exactly 100 years prior to the events of 9/11. It’s not quite the nostalgic slice-of-life we’d expect, either—“Anarchist Queen” Emma Goldman has been arrested, President McKinley has been shot, and the world seems at least as amiss as it has been in contemporary history. The back cover page uses the same image, this time superimposed with headlines responding to 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror,” ending with the tell-tale, “Britney Video Shocker—Pop-Tart Shelves Plan to Act Out Suicide.” What exactly is Spiegelman doing with these pages, thematically? My initial reaction was to view them as a “before” and “after,” with the fall of the twin towers acting as a turning point for the rest of American history. The layout of the book would support this, since the newspapers act as endcaps for the book’s content.

However I think Spiegelman’s work in general is more nuanced than that interpretation would imply. Instead, I would argue that he is attempting to frame the events of 9/11 as one historical moment among many, a momentous occasion that is unique among a line-up of other unique, momentous occasions. His use of news media in particular illustrates Spiegelman’s awareness of how the event might be remembered by audiences in the future. The contemporary headlines superimposed over the page from 1901 doesn’t necessarily represent one event eclipsing the other—you can still read the content of the original underneath—but a comparison of historiography. Can we ever understand the past, unhampered by our contemporary perceptions? How do we document the past? Traditional news media, Spiegelman argues, is an incomplete answer.

Comics, we see in Shadow, have the potential to capture history in a way that no other medium can, and to draw visual comparisons and juxtapositions between periods. Spiegelman’s use of his caricatures from Maus, for instance, inevitably draw to mind WWII and its impact, placing it in the same category of trauma as his 9/11 experience. Similarly, Spiegelman’s inclusion of the old comic supplements left me with a sense of a denial of the US progress narrative. He presents old comics that include a number of racist and ethnocentric stereotypes, which on first viewing offer up a sort of progressive-moral-porn-lite but which also draws parallels to the US’ racist responses to 9/11. 

In what other ways does the form of the book play with the idea of historical awareness and progress (or lack thereof)? 

Upside Down Reading

The strip I wondered about most from the supplement to “In The Shadow of No Towers” was the one entitled “The Upside Downs of Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo”. In order to read the whole story, the reader must turn the book upside down, considering what had been ground sky and what had been sky ground. The main characters are already pretty silly-looking, and in this fairy-tale story, the reader accepts that this strip uses a fun trick to tell a magical story which functions as a mirror. Each panel depicts two things which happen in the same location at times equidistant from the middle turn-around point where the book is flipped. It’s mostly remarkable because it is both impressive and comical that the story should make sense in both directions.

It’s interesting to compare this strip, which uses the upside-down technique to depict a fictional universe with internal consistency, with “An Upside Down World”, a strip on page 7. When I first read it, I didn’t even bother to flip the book around — I could tell from the little red man’s pointy nose that this demon-filled sky was meant to evoke Spiegelman’s feelings about the unreasonably powerful Republicans. But the strip conveys more than just his anger- the Spiegelman character connects the politics to questions he has about reading: who will read his strip? Will any soldiers even get to read it?

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Those in power are reading “the book of revelations”, and he’s “reading the paranoid science fiction of Philip K. Dick” — everyone’s reading about the end of this world, but no one is reading the same stories. In the first and last panels, Spiegelman seems to be walking on the ground near a building, but in all of the others he seems to be up in the clouds too – props appear and disappear out of nowhere – his book, cigarette, peace sign. When the page is flipped, a mouse has a nightmare, and then we see red Bush leading his animals back through the strip. This world doesn’t make sense, either from above or below, and the Spiegelman character worries about his page’s being “well-printed”. If it can be said that the old timey comic uses the upside-down technique to create a coherent, but unreal space, this strip depicts some other (maybe inner) world, where all these elements coexist but the meaning doesn’t come from some internal logic. On the purely physical level, these strips invite the same type of “reader participation”, but they depict very different spaces within which the technique’s meaning is drastically altered.

I think that this can also be connected to the book’s title — what is the sense of his (or our) being “in” the shadow of things that no longer exist in reality? Is the shadow the effect of the event — the feeling of a lack, or of a lingering sadness? Or is it something more like the absence of the light of knowledge, logic, coherence? We might be engaging in the same activity with both strips, but the activity no longer has the same meaning it had in the context of the old-timey comics. What does it mean that the way we’re used to reading can no longer serve as a guide?

Memory & Horror Vacui in In the Shadow of No Towers

As we discussed in class, Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers is fueled by horror vacui, both in terms of content and form.  The visual networks and layerings that saturate each page and even seem to extend off of the page in its intensity.  Various narratives entrenched with a multiplicity of themes and symbols intertwine and constantly complement and compete with each other.  Spiegelman’s obsessive dependency on intertextuality in constituting his work also contributes to the overall cenophobic aesthetic.

The maximalist principles that No Towers operates under root in that the work explores the nature of memory; specifically, the complex and idiosyncratic individual systems of remembering and forgetting in regards to traumatic experiences.  Spiegelman had already begun to unfold a discourse on how trauma shapes an individual’s agency in accessing and understanding his or her memories in Maus.  The experience of trauma that the character of Spiegelman undergoes as he navigates through the account that his father presents has as much to do with Spiegelman’s father’s willingness and capacity to recount, how the character of Spiegelman internalizes the information available to him, and the framing device and formal constructs that the character of Spiegelman channels his newfound trauma narrative through, as the initial first-hand experience of trauma that Spiegelman’s father experienced.

In No Towers, he intensifies his interrogation of the problems of remembering and forgetting and the interstitial space between and around, as he immediately contextualizes the trauma that he experienced post-9/11 within the lineage of trauma embedded within him beginning with the second-hand trauma that his interaction with his father as portrayed in Maus initially spurred.  A recurring integral intertextual moment is when Spiegelman draws from Maus and layers the representation of himself as a mouse as in Maus with the representation of himself in the wake of the 9/11.  For example, the series of panels entitled “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist” on the second page show four different iterations of the author Spiegelman’s pereception of the character and narrator Spiegelman.  The way in which the four faces are presented compactly and serially in relation to each other not only chronicle the different manifestations of self as undergoing traumatic experiences but also introduces the obsessive rehearsing of identity as well as how traumatic experiences complicate representations of self.

On a broader scale, the acknowledgement, if not celebration, of the multiplicity of truths that No Towers draws upon emerge as an integral property of postmodernism.  Much like how Jameson dissociates the notion of the “ultimate truth” from postmodernity, Spiegelman poses that there is no neatly packaged linear, unified narrative that accurately accounts for all the multifaceted responses to the universal trauma of 9/11.  Not only is Spiegelman commenting on the extent of the impact that 9/11 had, but he is also alluding to the essential (if I can say that) condition of postmodernity that there is no single all-encompassing narrative and that the individual narratives have a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, relationship with one another.  A recurring example of Spiegelman’s anti-minimalist presentation of assorted intertexts that simultaneously remarks on the construct of memory and postmodernity are the interweaving of a multitude of public and public source materials such as on page 3.  On page 3, a number of different media compete with one another for attention yet complement each other in that they serves as diegetic worlds and metanarratives for one another simultaneously, much like the self- and otherwise referential nature of memory and postmodernity. (Maybe it’s mostly in the semiotics and it’s the “language used to describe memory” versus “language used to describe postmodernity”—but does it matter?)

In fact, not only do multiplicity of truths fuel No Towers, but explode it.  Spiegelman is constantly establishing and challenging frames within frames in the giant book form that he chose.  Each frame seems to contain a kind of structured universe, but the expectation is quickly subverted when the boundaries between the frames literally become destroyed and the “inside” and “outside” become moot points.  For example, on page 8, a magnified rendition of the face of the character of the author intrudes upon the neatly contained world of a single panel where the character dwells at the same time—or is it the other way around?  The outside lining of cartoon figures on the page “PLATE V” seems to constitute their collective identity in that they are anonymous faces outside the “main” narrative, and seems to invite the reader to identity as one of them.

Navigating through the thick jungle memory that Spiegelman created reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov’s quote: “I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.”  Without being sappy about the graphic novel and putting Spiegelman on a pedestal too much, I think it is important to note the immense generosity and bravery that must have been required of Spiegelman to vomit in text and images his process of coping with the accumulated trauma.  The intense vulnerability that Spiegelman as a narrator allows us to access makes the work a one that constantly corporealizing itself in ways that are unique and compelling to individual readers.

Continuity in In The Shadow of No Towers

Considering that Spiegelman worked on these pages one at a time, for months at a time, I’d like to discuss the continuity, or lack thereof between pages.

To begin with, there’s the use of the different art styles. Page 4, the scenes of Nadja’s school, stood out to me the most as having the art style most distinct from the rest of the book. The pastel colors and soft lines contrast significantly with the generally sharp or harsh lines and stark colors used throughout. 

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On the face of it, this seems like an attempt to channel the feelings of disorientation and un-realness stemming from his experience and the process of piecing memories back together after a trauma. In invoking the different art styles, Spiegelman is also bringing up his relationship with those segments of the comic world, which Colin talks about in his post. The use of different art styles also seems to be a way to break past the two dimensional barrier. The different styles juxtaposed over each other suggest a collision of multiple sources from outside the page.

This push against the two dimensional boundaries of the page is reflected in the way that the panels are placed. On every page, Spiegelman uses the gutters between the panels to give depth perception to the comic: the panels look like they are pasted over a background. Page 8 provides an example of him turning this around, by showing the foreground Art in the panel take a jackhammer to the forehead of the Art in the background upon which the panel is placed, resulting in an M.C. Escher-esque impossible geometry.

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This use of the third dimension in the two dimensional medium draws upon the architectural aspect of comics that we have mentioned. The reader not only goes up and down, left and right, but in and out of the page as well. This depth also emphasizes the disparate collection of sources that the panels have been assembled from and the disorientation that is inherent. The image in page 2 of the frame rotating to become a burning tower uses the third dimension to demonstrate how the trauma has broken the existing structure:

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However, this ability to move along the third dimension is hindered by blocked panels, by barriers that are impossible to move past. At once this provides possibility and frustration to the reader, reflecting perhaps the structure of memory.

While the varied art style and three-dimensional layering suggests tendencies towards discontinuity, one thing to notice is that the image of the burning skeleton of the World Trade Center is on every page somewhere, sometimes in foreground panels, sometimes in the background, but always there. This seems to me to be a conscious effort by Spiegelman to maintain an ongoing coherent thread from page to page.

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Smoke Signals

I wanted to revisit the conversation we had last week in class about the smoke on page 3 of In the Shadow of No Towers, because I think it lends itself to a larger discussion on the advantages of “comix” as a medium and the possibilities for translation into another. The layout of the page, bookended by two producers of smoke (the falling Tower on the left and Art’s cigarette on the right), would be very difficult to recreate in another form.

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The way the smoke obscures bits of text near the bottom and clears near the top of the page would definitely not play in printed prose, given the lack of images, and it really would not play so well in film, due to the leveled layout of the page. As mentioned in class, the layout is almost architectural, and each of the stories occupies a different storey. The comic page allows the audience to take in the whole scene at once, top to bottom, while also picking out the individual components at will.

The only medium I could see capturing the movement from top to bottom, left to right, so well as the comic page does would be that of the video game. Braid is a good example of a game that used text and obstruction to good effect, and the interactivity of the player with the text itself was interesting. If this particular page had been a stage in a video game, I could imagine a little 8-bit Art Spiegelman moving up, down, left, and right across an interactive version of the page, with the falling tower and the towering cigarette sectioning off the playable area, the various scenes playing out at different levels.

Still, a video game, and any kind of interactive, audio-visual medium, would have its limitations. The immovability of the smoke and of the other various objects obstructing the text is partly what makes the page so effective.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.09 PMThe freeze-framed moments of Art and Francoise on their way to Nadja’s school capture very static, isolated moments of panic, at times truly terrifying, at others absurdly comical.

Screen Shot 2013-12-01 at 11.36.28 PMComic Art’s anxiety is interrogated from such a wide variety of angles, all of which are present on the page, but none of which ever have to mingle with each other unless precisely dictated by Art the artist. The precision of the layout, carefully crafted by Art, paints a very particular, very Art-specific portrait of the experience of 9/11 that might not come across as so deeply personal if the audience were presented the opportunity to interact with the text.