Essays on “Narrative Art”

Rob Vollmar has an ongoing essay up about “narrative art” on his blog, currently serialized in three parts:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

It seems like he might be going somewhere with it, but as someone who has studied a little of cognitive neuroscience (and hopefully will be doing direct research on it very soon) I am a bit put off by his continued invocation of right/left brain distinctions. So little of the brain’s functioning is known that it is easy to make broad sweeping claims about it and hard to say anything truly substantial. It might seem like a picky thing, but it struck a nerve for me…

It is easy to be enticed by the desire to discuss the brain. After all, it is the hidden key to understanding human activity, and I can see how mentioning it lends a feeling of legitimacy totalks of “narrative art.” However, in most discussions (like here), it is largely irrelevant. “Word, images, and writing” can adequately be described and interestingly discussed as human behavior without invoking vague pop-psychological discussions of the brain, especially for his “historical” aims.

It is very hard to make claims about neurological activity (like that “narrative art” involves right or left brain activity and/or their interactions) without some sort of experimentation. Hell, it’s hard to make conclusive claims about the brain even with experimentation! (…which is partially what makes it so intriguing to study)

At this point in studies about “narrative art,” (as Vollmar calls it) just discussing the functions, of how image and text work together is enough to provide fascinating reading. Vollmar clearly has intuitions that can lend to interesting observations about this topic. I hope that his future writings can tap more directly into them.

In both scholarly and public avenues, I often get asked about “comics” and the brain. The fact of the matter is, no one knows anything (yet). I know of no studies addressing it at all (yet). At this point it is wholly conjecture, and a big blank white page on which to paint any number of discoveries (or tabulate data, as the case may be).

With that I will now turn to sleep, so I can wake tomorrow, begin this adventure called “grad school,” and aim to hopefullly build some contributions to this neuro-comics discussion before too long.


  • Neil,

    Thanks for linking to the Rage of Angels essays and for your time in consideration of them.

    I don’t think it’s picky to suggest that a hypothesis, which is essentially what my writing on narrative art amounts to at this point, might be made more defensible as a theory by empirical data to support it.

    What you dismiss as “pop-psychological discussions of the brain” though seems to me to be rooted quite simply in a relatively settled question in regards to human brain function; namely that humans enjoy the benefits and disadvantages of hemispheric lateralization and that those two hemispheres behave according to some fairly specific criteria.

    I will concede that, in the absence of hard scientific data to support my specific claims about how it relates to the interpretation of narrative art, that these generalizations that I’m assigning to them should be treated as such.

    But whether these impulses are physically located in the particular hemisphere in question or somehow less tangibly associated with the organizing principles we regularly assign to them, I think the observations are sound and represent a marked enough departure from the concensus of contemporary criticism to warrant a continued exploration of them.


  • Rob, thanks for the reply. The truth is that most all behaviors rely on processing from both sides of the brain. Even something as normally lateralized as language involves both sides of the brain.

    The brain is also very plastic: people with a whole hemisphere removed in childhood will do just fine with processing everything on just one hemisphere. And, right/left hemispherical differences are just tendencies, since in some people the functions are reversed.

    Moreover, the sources you cite for evidence of this clear cut lateralization don’t include any from actual brain science (or linguistics, or psychology). Where are the sources for this “settled question”? If you do take a look at actual neuroscience writings, I think you’ll find that its a lot more messy than authors in the humanities make it out to be.

    However, my main point is that while you feel those generalizations are okay, I see them as being empty claims that don’t really amount to anything. And more importantly, I don’t think they are necessary for your intentions at all.

    You could do just fine replacing your terms of hemispherical differentiation with just talking about the interaction of text and image functionally or semiotically.

    Instead of talking about the “left-brainness” of writing (which also involves a lot of right hem. activity), you could talk about it’s function of dominant symbolism. Instead of “right-hem” for pictures, talk about how iconic they are.

    It seems to me that these are the types of things you’re trying to get at anyways, only you’re using the brain as a metaphoric way to access them. Drop the metaphor and go straight to the good stuff.

  • Neil,

    You bring up some really good points. While I agree with some of them more than others, I want to take the time to put together a clearly articulated response.

    Unfortunately, I’m being eaten alive by writing deadlines for the next seven days after which I will be taking a short vacation.

    Look for me either to address some of your concerns in a future installment of ROA or to show up back here in October to discuss it here with you further.

    Thanks again for reading. ROB

  • Neil,

    I wanted to drop back in and address a few of your concerns from our last conversation. I have been searching for a way to frame my defense of these ideas to you that didn’t rely on an appeal to authority (in the form of my research). The fact that you study brains outside of your interest in comics makes it very difficult for me to defend my position on an equal footing as you obviously have a greater base from which to draw your argument. Nevertheless, I believe from your passionate writing on comics that your goal is to seek out knowledge, not win arguments. With this in mind, let me be just more transparent about some of the research that is feeding RAGE OF ANGELS.

    As referenced in the introductory essay, the inspiration for the physiological component of ROA is Leonard Shlain’s book, THE ALPHABET VS THE GODDESS. While ALPHABET probably short as an academic text due to the narrowness of its focus, Shlain is a neurosurgeon as well as an author so he is not without his own credentials in relation to brain science. His premise, that the onset of alphabetic literacy in a culture can be historically linked to otherwise inexplicable outbreaks of mass insanity, basically rests throughout the book on a foundation of the unique properties of hemispheric lateralization in human brains. He, of course, offers caveats throughout that not all brain activity can be absolutely accounted for by this generalization but maintains that most activity occurs predominantly in the hemisphere that one would expect it to.

    I don’t disagree that these processes can be described as functions as you suggest. I’ll even concede that “functions” (an abstraction) are much easier to defend than “hemispheres” (an empirical reality that can be measured) in the absence of hard clinical data that I myself have drawn through experimentation. Still, I found and find Shlain’s presentation of the data compelling enough that I am hesitant to abandon a notion that presented (at least to me) a new way to consider an old question that has, in every other instance, yielded pretty rich fruit.

    Whoever it was that said that “a little bit of science can be a dangerous thing” probably had a situation much like this one in mind. RAGE OF ANGELS is not brain science and perhaps I was disingenuous in pretending that it was. I don’t believe that your intention in bringing these points up was to change my mind about hemispheric lateralization but rather, the danger in taking science out of its process and drawing analogies from it upon abstractions. It is a point well taken.

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