Operationalising Ambiguity; Mapping the Structural Forms of Comics

paper, specified "long paper"
  1. 1. Alexander Robert Turton

    University of East Anglia

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In response to the conference’s theme of ‘Complexities’ and the “humanist way of building complex models of complex realities,” this paper will report the findings of my doctoral research into how different structural forces “meet, reroute and disrupt” one another (Levine, 2005) in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir,
Fun Home (2006). By encoding multiple understandings of the same source material at the data creation stage of the project, and by creating tags that reflected a “plural, partial and situated” (Haraway, 1988) conceptualisation of ‘Truth’, it was possible to “operationalise the resulting parallax” (Turton, 2017) and build a richer model of the comic’s rhizomatic rhetoric. This made it possible to better understand the critically under-theorised issue of how different structuring ‘forms’ operate on the text and one another. In addition to reporting these specific findings, this paper will communicate the investigative method by which I reached them in the belief that it has a broader application for Digital Humanities projects that must work with non-indexical or otherwise ambiguous sources.

Background and method
The narrative of a comic is organised by structural, spatial, temporal, and thematic logics, but analysing how each of these ‘forms’ interact with, and organise, one another is challenging not only for non-digital scholars but also for digital ones. This is because each of these categories can be understood, defined, and therefore represented in a database, in multiple, equally plausible and valid, ways; it is unclear which particular understanding(s) of which particular ‘form(s)’ might prove to be the most productive in explaining the patterns and relationships that emerge from the data.
The recent emergence of digital and empirical approach to comics (Dunst et al., 2016; Tufis, 2016; Walsh, 2012) reflects an understanding that the volume of information found in a comic’s panels exceeds the capacity of human memory and, therefore, requires prostheticising into digital memory if scholars are to progress from, and in some cases even apply, non-digital criticism and theory of the system (Groensteen, 2007) or language (Cohn, 2013) of comics. A key facet for digital approaches to comics, and an almost unique opportunity in terms of distantly reading literature, is the medium’s mode of articulating time, the panel. Panels assemble signifiers at a discrete site, giving creators minute control over what – both in terms of content (words; characters; objects; themes) and container (headers; speech; inset captions) – is present for, and therefore co-locates with, each disclosure of narrative information, each event, each phase of a scene. This means that themes and references can be rhetorically woven into the diegesis. In
Fun Home, for example, Bechdel’s father was killed by a Sunbeam bread truck, and loaves of this particular brand are scattered through the text at otherwise seemingly innocuous moments, inextricably linking them to that pivotal scene.

This rhetorical affordance, however, isn’t limited to the content of panels. It extends to the structures that organise that content, too, the ‘forms’ that execute the parsing of narrative information, the unravelling of a text’s arguments. Not only does each signifier occur at a discrete site, but that site is also placed in varying relations with other sites. Some of these relations are more literally structural and include linearity (they come after one panel and before another), as well as being part of a particular row and page, and row layout and page layout. Others of these relations are commonalities they have in terms of
diegetic chronology, event, scene, thematic concerns, location or source of information.

Each of these different kinds of organising logics, or lines along which the text can be folded, operate on a comic’s content, its words and its images; they are in relationship with them. Further, the combination of words and images found in comics means that one narrative track, often the words, can be used to anchor the narrative, allowing the other track to move around freely, and without extra-diegetic explanation, in time, space, or subject (Bechdel and Farley, 2012); the medium exists in a state of almost perpetual montage and this produces a richer and more networked rhetorical texture. As well as choosing what is present for the disclosure of information, the author has precise control over the pacing of their narrative and can rhetorically interweave different chronologies and different sources of information.
By ‘sources of information’ I particularly mean archival documentation. Whilst drawing on archival “evidence” (Cvetkovich, 2008) is a feature of most graphic memoirs (El Refaie, 2012; Chute, 2010), particular attention and acclaim has been directed towards its usage in the scholarly and popular reception of Bechdel’s memoir (Chute, 2010; Rohy, 2010; Tison, 2015). Indeed, over the course of the memoir, Bechdel draws on photos, maps, diaries, letters, dictionaries, tape recordings, annotated copies of family books, and newspapers. But where these existing scholarly analyses stop is when it comes to linking this usage to, or interrogating its relationships with, the other structuring ‘forms’ at play in the memoir. Most strikingly, given it is the very mode of articulating narrative, this intersects with another gap in the critical context – and one by no means unique to
Fun Home – a sustained study of the rhetorical effect of page layouts. Critical attention to page layouts tends to be reserved for unique and remarkable layouts, even though the signification of the majority of panels is operated on by more standardised, and reproduced reproducible layouts. It is these gaps in isolation,
and in their relationships to one another, which my doctoral work, and this paper, addresses.

These critical gaps can be understood partly as a result of the analogue mode of scholarship used to investigate such an information-rich medium, and partly as a result of the idiolectical nature of usage, meaning these features cannot be precisely formalised across texts by theorists. However, another significant cause of this gap – and one which persists in larger-scale digital approaches to comics due to their need for a single cross-corpus markup scheme – is that these organising logics cannot be formalised into a single classification scheme without doing significant violence to the source. This is where my method differs from other, larger, digital approaches to comics. Not only are the contents of panels ambiguous signifiers, but so are the structuring ‘forms’ that operate on and organise these contents; both can be understood in multiple and equally valid ways, and by restricting my project to a single text I was able to encode several of these interpretations and play them off against one another.
Not only do singular definitions do violence to the source in their positivism, but they forego the potential of leveraging different conceptualisations against one another to see which definitions of which features interact with the data in meaningful ways, create rhythms and harmonies, and furnish us with consistent interactions. By encoding different interpretations of these organising ‘forms’, and comparing the strengths of the resulting correlations, relationships, and collisions, it is possible not only to enrich our understanding of how they organise the book, but also which definitions of them are more appropriate in the book’s system. Rather than getting caught in a “feedback loop of fore-projection,” (Sculley and Pasanek, 2008) this method offers a mode of investigating sources when not only is it unclear which features will prove significant or interesting, but also what conceptualisations of those features will, and leveraging this ambiguity for investigation.

By building “a complex model of [a] complex realit[y],” and by asking how different structuring ‘forms’ are arranged, arrange, and arrange one another in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir,
Fun Home, this paper will demonstrate the investigative power of multiply tagging ambiguous data outlined, and advocated for, in ‘Towards Feminist Data Creation,’ and will report the specific findings of this doctoral research as a counterpoint to the larger projects undertaking digital comics research.


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Fun Home. Jonathan Cape, London.

Bechdel, A. and Farley, C. (2012). 
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Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia UP, New York.

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Women's Studies Quarterly, 36.1/2.

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Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton UP, Princeton, p. 23.

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Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 694 – 697.

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Walsh, J. (2012). “Comic Book Markup Language: An Introduction and Rationale.”
Digital Humanities Quarterly, 6(1).

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO