Category Archives: Transliteracies

digital comics

If you want to learn how to draw comics you can go to the art section of any bookstore and pick up books that will tell you how to draw the marvel way, how to draw manga, how to draw cutting edge comics, how to draw villains, women, horror, military, etc. But drawing characters is different than making comics. Will Eisner was the generator of the term ‘sequential art’ and the first popular theory of comics. Scott McCloud is his recent successor. Eisner created the vocabulary of sequential art in his long-running course at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. McCloud helped a generation of comic book readers grasp that vocabulary in Understanding Comics, by creating a graphic novel that employed comic art to explain comic theory. But both Eisner and McCloud wrote about a time when comic delivery was bound to newspapers and twenty-two page glossy, stapled pages.
digitalcomics2.jpg
Whither the network? McCloud treats the possibilities of the Internet in his second book, Reinventing Comics, but mostly as a distribution mechanism. We shouldn’t overlook the powerful affect the ‘net has had on individual producers who, in the past, would have created small runs of photocopied books to distribute locally. Now, of course, they can put their panels on the web and have a potential audience of millions. Some even make a jump from the web into print. Most web comics are sufficiently happy to ride the network to a wider audience without exploring the ‘net as vehicle to transform comics into uniquely non-print artifacts with motion, interactivity, sound.
But how might comics mutate on the web? At the recent ITP Spring show I saw a digital comics project from Tracy Ann White’s class. The class asks the question: “What happens when comics evolve from print to screen? How does presentation change to suit this shift?” Sounds like familiar territory. White, a teacher at ITP, has been a long time web comic artist (one of the first on the web, and certainly one of the first to incorporate comments and forums as part of the product.
When I did a little research on her, I found an amazing article on Webcomics Review discussing the history of web comics. (There’s also more from White there.) There has been some brilliant work done, making use of scrolling as part of the “infinite canvas,” but more importantly, work that could have no print analog due the incorporation of sound and motion. The discussion in Webcomics Review covers all of the transformative effects of online publishing that we talk about here at the Institute: interlinking, motion, sound, and more profoundly, the immediacy and participative aspects of the network. As an example, James Kochalka, well known for his Monkey vs. Robot comics and a simplistic cartoon style, publishes An American Elf. The four panel personal vignette is published daily-blogging with comics.
The lamb breaking the first seal, from Apocamon
Other ground breaking work: Nowhere Girl by Justine Shaw, a long form graphic novel that proved that people will read lengthy comics online. Apocamon by Patrick Farley, is a mash up of Pokemon and The Book of Revelations. There is a well known series of bible stories in comic strip format – this raises that tradition to the level of heavenly farce (with anime). Apocamon judiciously uses sound and minor animation effects to create a rich reading experience, but relies on pages—a mode immediately familiar to comic book readers. The comics on Magic Inkwell (Cayetano Garza) use music and motion graphics in a more experimental way. And in Broken Saints we find an example where comic conventions (words in a comic style font, speech bubbles, and sequential images) fade into cinema.
As new technology enables stylistic enhancements to web comics, the boundaries between comics and other media will become more blurred. White says, “In terms of pushing interactive storytelling online games are at the forefront.” This is true, but online games dispense with important conventions that make comics comics. The next step for online comics is to enhance their networked and collaborative aspect while preserving the essential nature of comics as sequential art.

sculpture as book

the_letter.jpg
Last weekend, I found myself in the familiar position of racing to catch a long-running art show before it closed. This time it was the David Smith retrospective at the Guggengheim. (The show ends on May 14th.) The collection includes sculptural nods to Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism, as well as, foreshadowing Minimalism. Once an ironmonger, Smith employs found objects, he molds and welds into sculpture influenced as much by painting as the traditions of sculpture. While I generally prefer his larger scale pieces he produced late in his career, I was struck by a fascinating mid-career piece entitled, “The Letter” (1950).
The sculpture is a representation of a letter, that begins with a salutation in the upper right hand corner and closes with a signature. A range of theories abound to its meaning. Are the glyphs letters, words, human figures, or scenes? Is this a letter to his wife? One art historian suggests the text references a line from Wonderful Town and about leaving the state Ohio, where Smith spent part of this youth.
Or could it be a response to an author’s writing? The audio tour offered interpretations of a hint to the work of James Joyce that Smith gave in an interview. Listening to these following quotes from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (0:40 – 1:16 of the audio fiie) while looking at the piece, I see and hear relevance to our work at the institute.

“ruled barriers, along which the traced words run, march, halt, walk, stumble”

and

“lines of litters slittering up and louds of ladders slettering down”

Whether it is our overarching discussion of the shift of print text to the computer screen or an overheard criticism of the latest sacrilegious film adaptation of a beloved book, the evolution of text beyond the printed page is clearly a dynamic process. We are aided when any creative mind can demonstrate these emerging relationships in a meaningful way.
In “the Letter,” Smith coyly reveals partial hints to the artist’s intentions, freeing the viewer to create her own insights. Smith is able to simultaneously display a multitude of reflections of meaning, with each suggestion containing a seemingly direct message to the viewer (as seen by the wide ranging interpretations.) Although the iconography could and does represent letters, words and bodies, I remain continuously enamored with the Joycian interpretation.
In that, Smith transforms a book into a sculpture. “The Letter” is bounded like a book, but within those boundaries, the gestures of abstracted forms (rather than letters), the use of open space, and the three dimensionality of the work surpasses that which it mimics. Further, the abstracted sculptural forms with their multiple readings comment upon the various meanings we take from words, which are also open to multiple readings. Therefore, Smith’s vision leaves us with a physical object that embodies not just the words, themes, and emotions of the book (that is the content), but also comments on the limitations of the book as an object (or vessel which holds the content).
Smith’s work, now 56 years old, seemingly poses to us two challenges. First, when we translate print text into the digital or create born-digital books, “the Letter” reminds us that in deciding to keep or reject aspects of both the content and the vessel of the traditional book, we must be conscious of the choices we make in that process. What are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve something greater? Second, it asks us to look at these new forms with eyes unfettered by past conventions and to focus on, appreciate, and take advantage of the potentials of the new medium.

thinking about blogging 2: democracy

Banning books may be easy, but banning blogs is an exhausting game of Whack-a-Mole for politically repressive regimes like China and Iran.

andishe no1.jpg

Farid Pouya, recapping recent noteworthy posts from the Iranian blogosphere last week on Global Voices, refers to one blogger’s observations on the chilled information climate under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Andishe No (means New Thought) fears that country was pushed back to pre Khatami’s period concerning censorship. He believes that even if many books get banned in twenty first century, government can not stop people getting information. Government wants to control weblogs in Iran and put them in a guideline.

Unlike the fleas that swarm American media and politics, Iran’s cyber-dissidents frequently are the sole conduit for uncensored information — an underground army of chiseler’s, typing away at the barricades. Here we see the blog as a building block for civil society. Electronic samizdat. Basic life forms in a free media ecology, instilling new habits in both writers and readers: habits of questioning, of digging deeper. Individual sites may get shut down, individual bloggers may be jailed but the information finds a way.
Though the situation in Iran is far from enviable, there is something attractive about the moral clarity of its dissident blogging. If one wants the truth, one must find alternatives — it’s that simple. But with alternative media in the United States — where the media ecology is highly developed and corruption more subtle — it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Political blogs in America may resound with outrage and indignation, but it’s the kind that comes from a life of abundance. All too often, political discourse is not something that points toward action, but an idle picking at the carcass of liberty.
Sure, we’ve seen blogs make a difference in politics (Swift Boats, Rathergate, Trent Lott — 2004 was the “year of the blog”), but generally as a furtherance of partisan aims — a way of mobilizing the groundtroops within a core constituency that has already decided what it believes.

a map of the political blogosphere

When one looks at this map (admittedly a year old) of the American political blogosphere, one notes with dismay that there are in fact two spheres, mapping out all too cleanly to the polarized reality on the ground. One begins to suspect that America’s political blogs are merely a pressure valve for a population that, though ill at ease, is still ultimately paralyzed.

the times they are a-changin’

Knight Ridder Inc., the second largest newspaper conglomerate in the U.S., is under intense pressure from its more powerful investors to start selling off papers. The New York Times reports that the company is now contemplating “strategic alternatives.” Consider the following in terms of what Bob is saying one post down about time. With the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, news is adopting a different time signature.

It is unclear who may want to buy Knight Ridder. Newspaper companies, though still immensely profitable, have a murky future that is clouded by a shrinking readership and weak advertising revenue, both of which are being leeched away by the Internet.
…In the six moths that ended in September, newspaper circulation nationally fell 2.6 percent daily and 3.1 percent on Sundays, the biggest decline in any comparable period since 1991, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. All in all, 45.2 million people subscribed to 1,457 reporting papers, down from a peak of 63.3 million people and 1,688 newspapers in 1984.
By comparison, 47 million people visited newspaper Web sites, about a third of United States Internet users, according to the circulation bureau.

The time it takes to read the newspaper in print — a massive quilt, chopped up and parceled (I believe Gary Frost said something about this) — you might say it leads to a different sort of understanding of the world around you. It seems to me that the newspapers that will last longest in print are the Sunday editions, aimed at a leisurely audience, taking stock of the week that has just ended and preparing for the one about to commence. On Sundays, the world spreads out before you in print, and perhaps you make a point of taking some time away from the computer (at least, this might be the case for hybrid monkeys like me who are more or less at home with both print and digital). The briskness of discourse on the web and in popular culture does not afford the time to engage with big ideas. Bob talks, not without irony, about “tithing to the church of big ideas.” Set aside the time to engage with world-changing ideas, willfully turn away from the screen.
The persistence of the Sunday print edition, if it comes to pass, might in some way reflect this kind of tithing, this intentional slowing down.

it’s about TIME

on tuesday Tom De Zengotita came over to williamsburg to have lunch with the insitute. Tom teaches philosophy at Dalton and NYU and recently published a terrific book, Mediated, about modern media’s profound effects on the human psyche and culture.
we invited Tom to lunch to discuss a new project we’re thinking about — how to use the web to encourage discussion about the BIG QUESTIONS facing humanity. we’ll write much more about this soon, but i couldn’t wait to mention one point that Tom made that’s really got me thinking.
Tom said “It’s about TIME.” if we are going to be serious about confronting big, first order questions, we have to be willing to put in the time to go deeply. we actually have to read the material; we have to wrestle with the ideas; we have to follow through.
this of course runs counter to our current mediated existence which favors shallow surfing over digging deep. i wonder if a sea-change is possible?

more bad news for print news

These figures (scroll down) aren’t pretty, but keep in mind that they convey more than a simple flight of readership. Part of it is a conscious decision by newspapers to cut out costly promotional efforts and to re-focus on core circulation. But the overall trend, and the fact that the core is likely to shrink as it grows older, can’t be denied.
Things could change very suddenly if investors in the big newspaper conglomerates start demanding the sale or outright dismantling of print operations. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday of pressure building at Knight Ridder Inc., where the more powerful shareholders, dismayed with the continued tumbling of stock values, seem to be urging things toward a reckoning, some even welcoming the idea of a hostile takeover. The Times: “…if shareholders force the sale or the dismantling of Knight Ridder, few in the newspaper industry expect the revolt to stop there.”
The pre-Baby Boom generation typically subscribed to several newspapers, something that changed when the Boomers came of age. While competition with the web may be a major factor in recent upheavals, there are generational tectonics at work as well, habits formed long ago that are only now expressing themselves in the marketplace. Even if newspapers start to phase out print and focus entirely on the web, the erosion is likely to continue. It’s not just the distribution model that changes, but the whole conceptual framework.
Ray, who just joined us here at the institute, was talking today about how online social networks are totally changing the way the younger generation gets its news. It’s much more about the network of friends, the circulation of news from diverse sources through the collective filter, and not about your trusted daily paper. So the whole idea of a centralized news organization is shifting and perhaps dissolving.
From the L.A. Times:
Average weekday circulation of the nation’s 20 biggest newspapers for the six-month period ended Sept. 30 and percentage change from a year earlier:
1. USA Today, 2,296,335, down 0.59%
2. Wall Street Journal, 2,083,660, down 1.1%
3. New York Times, 1,126,190, up 0.46%
4. Los Angeles Times, 843,432, down 3.79%
5. New York Daily News, 688,584, down 3.7%
6. Washington Post, 678,779, down 4.09%
7. New York Post, 662,681, down 1.74%
8. Chicago Tribune, 586,122, down 2.47%
9. Houston Chronicle, 521,419, down 6.01%*
10. Boston Globe, 414,225, down 8.25%
11. Arizona Republic, 411,043, down 0.54%*
12. Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., 400,092, up 0.01%
13. San Francisco Chronicle, 391,681, down 16.4%*
14. Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul, 374,528, down 0.26%
15. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 362,426, down 8.73%
16. Philadelphia Inquirer, 357,679, down 3.16%
17. Detroit Free Press, 341,248, down 2.18%
18. Plain Dealer, Cleveland, 339,055, down 4.46%
19. Oregonian, Portland, 333,515, down 1.24%
20. San Diego Union-Tribune, 314,279, down 6.24%

pages á la carte

The New York Times reports on programs being developed by both Amazon and Google that would allow readers to purchase online access to specific sections of books — say, a single recipe from a cookbook, an individual chapter from a how-to manual, or a particular short story or poem from an anthology. Such a system would effectively “unbind” books into modular units that consumers patch into their online reading, just as iTunes blew apart the integrity of the album and made digital music all about playlists. We become scrapbook artists.
It seems Random House is in on this too, developing a micropayment model and consulting closely with the two internet giants. Pages would sell for anywhere between five and 25 cents each.

google is sued… again

This time by publishers. Penguin Group USA, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons. The gripe is the same as with the Authors’ Guild, which filed suit last month alleging “massive copyright infringement.” Publishers fear a dangerous precedent is set by Google’s scanning of books to construct what amounts to a giant card catalogue on the web. Google claims “fair use” (see rationale), again pointing out that for copyrighted works only tiny “snippets” of text are displayed around keywords (though perhaps this is not yet fully in effect – I was searching around in this book and was able to look at quite a lot).
Google calls the publishers’ suit “near-sighted.” And it probably is. The benefit to readers and researchers will be tremendous, as will (Google is eager to point out) the exposure for authors and publishers. But Google Print is undoubtedly an earth-shaking program. Look at the reaction in Europe, where alarm bells rung by France warned of cultural imperialism, an english-drenched web. Heads of state and culture convened and initial plans for a European digital library have been drawn up.
What the transatlantic flap makes clear is that Google’s book scanning touches a deep nerve, and the argument over intellectual property, signficant though it is, distracts from a more profound human anxiety — an anxiety about the form of culture and the shape of thoughts. If we try to grope back through the millennia, we can find find an analogy in the invention of writing.
The shift from oral to written language froze speech into stable strings that could be transmitted and stored over distance and time. This change not only affected the modes of communication, it dramatically refigured the cognitive makeup of human beings (as McLuhan, Ong and others have described). We are currently going through another such shift. The digital takes the freezing medium of text and throws it back into fluidity. Like the melting of polar ice caps, it unsettles equilibriums, changes weather patterns. It is a lot to adjust to, and we wonder if our great-great-grandchildren will literally think differently from us.
But in spite of this disorienting new fluidity, we still have print, we still have the book. And actually, Google Print in many ways affirms this since its search returns will point to print retailers and brick-and-mortar libraries. Yet the fact remains that the canon is being scanned, with implications we can’t fully perceive, and future uses we can’t fully predict, and so it is understandable that many are unnerved. The ice is really beginning to melt.
In Phaedrus, Plato expresses a similar anxiety about the invention of writing. He tells the tale of Theuth, an Egyptian deity who goes around spreading the new technology, and one day encounters a skeptic in King Thamus:

…you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks, they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy not for memory, but for reminding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

As I type, I’m exhibiting wisdom without the reality. I’ve read Plato, but nowhere near exhaustively. Yet I can slash and weave texts on the web in seconds, throw together a blog entry and send it screeching into the commons. And with Google Print I can get the quote I need and let the rest of the book rot behind the security fence. This fluidity is dangerous because it makes connections so easy. Do we know what we are connecting?

a book is not a text: the noise made by people

The frontispiece for _Tristram Shandy_
Momus – a.k.a. Nick Currie, electronic folk musician, Wired columnist, and inveterate blogger – has posted an interesting short video on his blog, Click Opera. He’s teaching a class on electronic music composition & narrative for Benneton’s Fabrica in Venice. His video encourages students to listen for the environmental sounds that they can make with electronic instruments: not the sounds that they’re designed to make, but the incidental noises that they make – the clicking of keys on a Powerbook, for example – that we usually ignore as being just that, incidental. We ignore the fact that these noises are made directly by people, without the machine’s intercession.

Momus’s remarks put me in mind of something said by Jerome McGann at the Transliteracies conference in Santa Barbara last June – maybe the most important thing that was said at the conference, even if it didn’t warrant much attention at the time. What we tend to forget when talking about reading, he said, was that books – even regular old print books – are full of metadata. (Everybody was talking about metadata in June, like they were talking about XML a couple of years ago – it was the buzzword that everyone knew they needed to have an opinion about. If not, they swung the word about feverishly in the hopes of hitting something.) McGann qualified his remarks by referring to Ezra Pound’s idea of melopoeia, phanopoeia, and logopoeia – specific qualities in language that make it evocative:

. . . you can still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, called phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia. You can use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this.

(The ABC of Reading, p.37) In other words, words aren’t always just words: when used well, they refer beyond themselves. This process of referring, McGann was claiming, is a sort of metadata, even if technologists don’t think about it this way: the way in which words are used provides the attuned reader with information about their composition beyond the meaning of the words themselves.

But thinking about McGann’s comments in terms of book design might suggest wider implications for the future of the book. Let’s take a quick excursion to the past of the book. Once it was true that you couldn’t judge a book by its cover. Fifty years ago, master book designer Jan Tschichold opined about book jackets:

A jacket is not an actual part of the book. The essential portion is the inner book, the block of pages . . . [U]nless he is a collector of book jackets as samples of graphic art, the genuine reader discards it before he begins.

(“Jacket and Wrapper,” in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design) Tschichold’s statement seems bizarre today: nobody throws away book jackets, especially not collectors. Why? Because today we take it for granted that we judge books by their covers. The cover has been subsumed into our idea of the book: it’s a signifying part of the book. By looking at a cover, you, the prospective book-buyer, can immediately tell if a recently-published piece of fiction is meant to be capital-L Literature, Nora Roberts-style fluff, or somewhere in between. Contextual details like the cover are increasingly important.

Where does the electronic book fit into this, if at all? Apologists for the electronic book are constantly about the need for an ideal device as the be-all and end-all: when we have e-Ink or e-Paper and a well-designed device which can be unrolled like a scroll, electronic books will suddenly take off. This isn’t true, and I think it has something to do with the way people read books, something that hasn’t been taken into account by soi-disant futurists, and something like what Jerome McGann was gesturing at. A book is not a text. It’s more than a text. It’s a text and a collection of information around that text, some of which we consciously recognize and some of which we don’t.

A few days ago, I excoriated Project Gutenberg’s version of Tristram Shandy. This is why: a library of texts is not the same thing as a library of books. A quick example: download, if you wish, the plain text or HTML version of Tristram Shandy, which you can get here. Look at the opening pages of the HTML version. Recognizing that this particular book needs to be more than plain old seven-bit ASCII, they’ve included scans of the engravings that appear in the book (some by William Hogarth, like this; a nice explication of this quality of the book can be found here). What’s interesting to me about these illustrations that Project Gutenberg is how poorly done these are. These are – let’s not beat around the bush – bad scans. The contrast is off; things that should be square look rectangular. The Greek on the title page is illegible.

Let’s go back to Momus listening to the unintentional noises made by humans using machines: what we have here is the debris of another noisy computer, the noise of a key that we weren’t supposed to notice. Something about the way these scans is dated in a very particular way – half of the internet looked like this in 1997, before everyone learned to use Photoshop properly. Which is when, in fact, this particular document was constructed. In this ugliness we have, unintentionally, humanity. John Ruskin (not a name often conjured with when talking about the future) declared that one of the hallmarks of the Gothic as an architectural style was a perceived “savageness”: it was not smoothed off like his Victorian contemporaries would have liked. But “savageness”, for him, was no reproach: instead, it was a trace of the labor that went into it, a trace of the work’s humanity. Perfection, for him, was inhumane: humanity

. . . was not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them . . 

(The Stones of Venice) What we have here is, I think, something similar. While Project Gutenberg is probably ashamed of the quality of these graphics, there’s something to be appreciated here. This is a text on its way to becoming a book; it unintentionally reveals its human origins, the labor of the anonymous worker who scanned in the illustrations. It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s a great distance still to go.

convergence sighting: the multi-channel tv screen

tv mosaic.jpg
Several new “interactive television” services are soon to arrive that offer “mosaic” views of multiple channels, drawing TV ever nearer to full adoption of the browser, windows, and aggregator paradigms of the web (more in WSJ). It seems that once television is sufficiently like the web, it will simply be the web, or one province thereof.