October 7, 2012

The Ambiguity of Words and Symbols: The Gift and The Curse

McCloud makes the important statement, "By stripping down an image to its essential meaning, an artist can simplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t." In short, he is saying that realistic art is too descriptive to convey a simple meaning. I like to relate this back to Locke, and his discussion of words and their natural (or lack thereof) roots. John Locke believed the problems with words lie in many words' incapability to be stripped down and related to nature. Cartoon images, on the other hand, can always be stripped down and related to by the reader, because they are not dependent on anything. Whereas a word is dependent on the user's understanding, and can therefore be comprehended in several different ways, a smiley face image can only be seen as a smiley face image. Does that mean symbols and images have emerged as the clearest form of communication? Not exactly.

The image of the smiley face and its ambiguity which allows the reader to put themselves in the work is the same ambiguity that causes misunderstanding, according to Locke. Just as with the ambiguous words that allow the user to put whatever meaning they decide into the word, the smiley face functions as a blank slate readers can put whatever face they want onto, which is usually of themselves. This is because a smiley face has the capability to relate to all human beings, while a detailed face can only relate to one. Anyone can see themselves in a smiley face. However, that is precisely what Locke is arguing. When searching for something natural to trace back to in the smiley face, we come up empty handed, and are forced to make our own observations. Similarly with ambiguous words, when there is no natural meaning to trace back to, we are forced to make (often inaccurate) observations. With comics, it is a gift, allowing the reader to fall into the subject matter. With the spoken word, it is a curse, making the listener confused. But the problem is the same in both situations. We, as humans, see what we want to see and say what we want to say, even if what we are seeing isn't actually there and what we are saying isn't actually being heard.

The question then becomes, can writing use ambiguity to better include the reader into the text? Maybe not in word choice, but Ong and Foucault's analyzing of the authors absence in a text seems to already answer this question for us: YES! In the same way an author takes themselves out of the text, Japanese cartoons (and many other cartoons) take out the lead character of the text by drawing a generalized character. In both situations, the absence, or exclusion, of a lead character in a comic or an author in a text allows for the presence, or inclusion, of the reader. I think there are even more ways to relate McClouds discussion of comic books to all that we have read in class, as I fear this last section is conveying a different interpretation of the text then discussed in the first paragraph. But that is part of the power and beauty of symbols and language. Because of their ambiguity, we can make several different interpretations and relate back to other theorist's work in a multitude of ways, always without being wrong.


1 comment:

What is Rhetagaming? said...

The exploration of words vs. imagery as far as ambiguity is concerned is, at the very least, a fun trip. My question is though, are comic books helped by the fact they are a combination of both text and imagery? Are they also helped by the fact that most comic books are suspended in this inherent realm of disbelief? It's so easy to throw ourselves in because it's a world of strong imagination.

It's a question to think about, but I don't think that's only it. The timing of this is good because I watched Kill Bill Vol. 2 last night. If one has seen it, one might remember Bill talking about his love of comic books, in particular Superman. He talked about how Superman isn't human like the other superheroes. That when Spiderman or Batman wake up in the morning, they're Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne. Superman is Superman in the morning, he was born that way, and Clark Kent is his mask, a critique on an outsider and what it means to act like a human: weak willed, nervous, etc. The imagery and text are important, but so is the narrative.

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