Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

UnflatteningUnflattening by Nick Sousanis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.
—Umberto Eco (qtd. here)

This book became famous before it was published, as it is the first doctoral dissertation done in comics form. Unflattening is based on a great idea, one implicit in several of the most important comics and graphic novels of the last few decades (Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell, Morrison’s The Invisibles and The Filth, Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Bechdel’s Fun Home, McGuire’s Here) and explicit in McCloud’s Understanding Comics: namely, that comics is or ought to be the major art form of our era because its spatialization of time and its mutual imbrication of word and image promise to heal the rift opened by western modernity between abstract thought and concrete experience. By making a unity of text and image, of space and time, comics undoes the modern antimony that separates the known from the felt.

But the strength of this idea as presented in Understanding Comics comes from McCloud’s grounding in the history of the arts in general and comics in particular (McCloud, by the way, provided a blurb for Unflattening). Ironically, Understanding Comics reads like a far more legitimate dissertation, in its painstaking historical awareness and its subtle extension of its comics-specific thesis to culture at large. Sousanis is, by contrast, all over the place, making enormous and extremely tendentious claims about how modern society has stunted human potential (we are all “standardized,” “shades, insubstantial and without agency”), claims that go on, illustrated with ridiculous melodrama by pictures of people being produced on assembly lines and the like, for about 20 pages with scarcely any corroboration beyond some lines from Marcuse and with no qualification, despite obvious objections (for one, does not social media and pop culture constantly invite us to express our individuality? Sousanis writes as if were 1952). As I read, I began to understand why dissertations-in-comics-form might be discouraged!

Following this simplistic beginning, Sousanis’s treatise does become more persuasive as he discusses the negotiated quality of human perception: we all have two eyes that together produce an image, and moreover, we see only small aspects of anything at one time, aspects that our brain provisionally and contingently builds into wholes. Consequently, our culture should adjust to this nimbleness and complexity of perception rather than forcing standardization of all sorts on us. When the argument is stated at this level of generality, I suppose I agree, though I also note that rigid and hierarchical societies produced some splendid monuments, just as the standardized scientific worldview Sousanis decries has enabled him (and me and you) to live in comfort and safety beyond the dreams of ancient monarchs. Despite Sousanis’s universalism and multiculturalism in this book, he essentially endorses the conventional ideology of the postmodern west, even introducing as his foils the usual villains of postmodern thought, the idealists Plato and Descartes.

Sousanis builds his thesis with examples, illustrations, and corroboration from a large number of domains, from astronomy to philosophy to anthropology to design to cognitive science. He never dwells on any idea long enough to evaluate its complexity or even its compatibility with any other idea he cites. Frankly, he would need many more words and many fewer images to do so, which, again, is why comics may be good for some things—narrative or lyric, say—and not for others—such as academic argumentation. To stay with only what I know, it is a falsification to quote or cite philosophers who are at odds with each other over first principles as if they were all, at bottom, saying the same thing, as Sousanis does with Adorno and Deleuze; it is an oversimplification that testifies against Sousanis’s own thesis, because he is asking image-and-text to do fundamentally, inescapably textual work. And this is without mentioning the book’s crypto-Buddhism, never explained or defended; Buddha appears as an image of the reconciliation of opposites that will put the Humpty-Dumpty modern subject back together again, and yet this is never integrated into the argument, nor is its divergence from other elements of the argument ever addressed.

Moreover, while Sousanis’s drawing is functional and often—as when he does pastiche—amusing, it is largely inexpressive and, design-wise, complicated for complication’s sake (as if to say, “Look what comics can do!”) without adding much conceptually. Often, in another instance of inadvertent counter-testimony to his own argument, his rather (forgive me) flat artwork has the effect of illustration in a scientific textbook, a pictorial genre which has existed for a long time and which required no emancipatory perceptual revolution to come into being.

Finally, too much of Unflattening is simply platitudinous, as here:


Sousanis’s composition, his skill with leading the reader’s eye around the page, is impeccable and one of the book’s strengths, but the book’s overall faults are encapsulated on this page. Sousanis provides the fairly standard rhetoric of progressive education (the wisdom of which I tend to question, speaking as a person educated rather rigidly by nuns, whose severe inculcation of fact and value has actually served me well because it gave me a solid base from which to launch my later flights of fancy). He does not even express this progressivism verbally with the grand poetry of its ultimate sources in the literature of American critical optimism, such as Emerson and Whitman, and he illustrates it with exemplary pop culture figures that bring few ideas along with them, and merely serve as a cutesy flourish.

To end with a positive observation: as I noted, Sousanis’s degree was conferred by Columbia Teacher’s College, and I could easily imagine Unflattening as a pedagogical text for high school students or first-year college students in composition, literature, philosophy, or the arts. Precisely the qualities that make it inadequate as a philosophical or historical argument would probably allow it to serve well as an introduction a broad range of ideas to students, and it probably speaks to their own frustrations in dealing with academic institutions, which, for reasons not totally bad or avoidable, answer to the charges Sousanis too hastily flings at western society as a whole.