Bizarro Scholarship

While listening today to the last lecture of this semester’s Intro to Linguistics class that I TAed for, I was thinking a bit about how some of the underlying issues of scholarship in visual language contrast the way they’ve been approached in linguistics. By and large, I would say that my intentions for a cognitive and mind based approach to drawing and sequential images fit right in to the intents of modern linguistics. But, some of the minor issues are different.

For instance, there is often a distinction made between “Big L” Language and “little l” language. “Big L” Language is the abstract system of communication that is shared by all humans, composed of certain universal structural principles (things like syntax, phonology, semantics, morphology, etc.). “Little l” language is the instantiation of that system in the world into diverse and varied forms: English, Nicaraguan Sign Language, Chinese, Tagalog, etc. These are the variations that come from the manifestation of an abstract system.

Realizing that all these (little l) languages share a broader structure is a significant step in the study of Language. For one, it recognizes that there is a broader field that unifies the study of all the little ones.

The opposite concern occurs with regard to my notion of visual language. People already recognize a broader capacity for people to draw. It’s common, normal, and uncontested as a cross-cultural phenomenon shared by all humans. However, what isnt’ acknowledged is that there are “little d” drawings — that cultural forms might actually differ from each other in significant and categorizable ways.

Interestingly enough, this reverse concern yields the same ultimate result: the acknowledgement of an underlying system that is both generalizable and diverse. We can’t identify individual visual languages from different cultures (say, the difference between a “superhero dialect” of American VL versus a “shojo dialect” of Japanese VL) without first acknowledging that there is 1) an underlying system behind graphic creation and 2) that the underlying system can differ between cultural populations. No matter which way you start with, the path lead to a recognition of both elements.

Other bizarro turns have been less broad. For instance, when Noam Chomsky was first arguing for generative grammar he emphasized that sentences could run to infinite lengths using finite means (ex. Phil said that Krysta said that Gina said that…). His approach sought to find a system that could have infinite expressions using finite means.

Visual sequences faced the exact opposite issue. McCloud’s transitional approach to sequences of “comic” panels left no endpoint except for arbitrary physical restrictions like the end of a page or book — which have no qualitative structural impact on the system of images themselves (i.e. you could take those same images and put them into another context and they’d still process roughly the same… like on a webpage instead of a book). Transitions were inherently infinite.

When I started in on my own generative approach to panel sequences, I very quickly realized that there had to be some end for strings. So, I had to try to establish a notion of visual language “sentence.” I had to argue for limitations rather than infiniteness.

I’ll be on the lookout for any more of these type of contrasts…


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