October 7, 2012

What McCloud led me to discover about the Viewer

The most striking section in McCloud's "Chapter Two: The Vocabulary of Comics" is on page 30:

This section reminded me of so many of our readings that it made a lot of things fall into place. Although this isn't his main point, I think McCloud is trying to call attention to the role of the viewer. Many times, we can overlook our own involvement with a text, especially a visually based one. We can view it as a form of art which takes skill, deserves respect, and therefore we aren't meant to interact with it, just observe it. Other times, we can over accentuate the role of words and under-mention the role of the image part of a text. Calling back our learnings from the "Agent/cy" unit, the text can not exist with only a grand, all-powerful Author (Barthes). The author must fictionalize the audience to even write, and the readers must then become a part of that audience in order to gain meaning (Ong).

So why do we give ourselves so little credit when it comes to experiencing what others are communicating? When we "listen" to someone communicate, we are not passive; why, then, should "reading" or "viewing" a text be viewed as passive? The viewer has at least an equal part in creating meaning -- or, to put it in terms of our unit, the viewer has a role in signification. Seeing the role of the viewer as a passive one can be potentially dangerous -- this is similar to Lakoff and Johnson's ideas in Metaphors We Live By. While word choice isn't exactly a metaphor, calling someone who interacts with a text the "viewer" distances them from the text. As a viewer, they are not supposed to alter the text at all. This is similar to the mantra of a camper -- take only photos and memories, leave only footprints -- except the viewer isn't even allowed to leave footprints. Thinking about this role as a 'viewer' makes their active role in signification negligible and restricts their ability to fully immerse themselves within a text.

The role of the viewer is certainly present in comics. The gaps between frames rely on the viewer to make the mental leap between the parts expressed. The mind can put images into motion, create the passage of time, transition from setting to setting, and even put together non-sequitor images so as to create the signification. So, going back to the portion of McCloud's chapter, perhaps he meant 'why do we signify so much with and through cartoons?' but I got caught on the 'involved.' Involved is such an active word, it really emphasizes the role of the viewer. McCloud would certainly agree that the viewer plays a role in signification. "We assign identities and emotions where none exist. And we make the world over in our image." (McCloud, 33) The manner in which McCloud writes about "we" implies the active role of the viewer, not just the composer.

While I have so many more answers, there are just as many, if not more, questions: Does the viewer have a bigger role in signification or does the composer? Can the viewer and the composer have a 'relationship' without any physical, in-person interaction? Is what is signified to the viewer always what is intended by the composer? If not, is this an instance of one of Locke's misuses of language or a differing of Bakhtin's languages? Do the composer and reader have to speak the same language (Bakhtin) for signification to occur? If you can signify something -- does that mean you have agency? Can a text itself have agency, and therefore be a cause of signification? When does antisignification occur and who (if anyone/thing) is to blame?

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