A recent policy statement on multimodal literacies from the National Council of Teachers of English reads:
According to Ben McCorkle, “we are living in what media theorist Jay Bolter has famously termed the late age of print, what literacy scholar Walter Ong calls the era of secondary orality. … Words are no longer static things, quiet black marks pressed onto a white page; instead, they float alongside sounds and images; they make meaning in their movements. They are visual, aural, and sometimes haptic. As such, their function as objects of literacy i[s] changing in fundamental ways” (http:www.ncte.org/edpolicy…)
A perfect illustration of the anxiety some authors or scholars may feel towards this “late age of print” is illustrated in M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002). The novel presents a bleak American future where images are beamed directly into citizens’ heads. There are no images in the book, but Anderson does describe them and even denote them accordingly: “image:” followed by a description of said image, usually an advertisement. Americans in Feed are insular, selfish, and completely oblivious to the harms of consumerism or big government. Almost as a slight to Ong, Anderson has a professor give this foreboding, dismal account of literacy evolution:
… First, in the deserts and veldts arose oral culture, the culture of the spoken word. Then in the cities with their temples and bazaars came the pictographs, and later, symbols that produced sounds as if by magic, and what followed was written culture. Then, in the universities and under the steeples of young nations, print culture. These – oral culture, written culture, the culture of print – these have always been considered the great epochs of man. But we have entered a new age. We are a new people. It is now the age of oneiric culture, the culture of dreams. (149)
With problems remembering even the simplest of words and lesions covering their entire bodies, Anderson’s Americans give a clear message, especially when coupled with the fact that no images grace the book’s pages: too much attention paid to the visual or to media will devolve human intelligence. This fear actually flies in the face of much education research that suggests that coding something both linguistically and visually aids retention and comprehension better than coding using only one strategy or the other (Anderson himself seems not to share the ominous tone of this character, recently celebrating the recognition of Gene Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese, winner of 2007’s Michael L. Printz award for excellence in Young Adult literature).
Further, as scholars such as WJT Mitchell have pointed out, the interplay between words and images is nothing new, but said interplay can and has redefined the competent reading experience. Mitchell’s notion of imagetext has helped redefine the idea of critical reading and has offered validity to the graphic in texts, defining it not simply as illustrative but as part of an intermeshed unit that combines with words to form a complete unit for decoding. Mitchell defines imagetext in various ways, himself using typography to help distinguish its various incarnations:
the typographic conventions of the slash to designate “image/text” as a problematic gap, cleavage, or rupture in representation. The term “imagetext” designates composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text. “Image-text,” with a hyphen, designates relations of the visual and verbal. (89)
Image/text can be considered an instance where word and image may act in dissonance rather than in concord. Imagetext is notable when words and images seem to work together and augment or supplement one another. Mitchell mentions William Blake’s works as exemplars of image/text and seems to suggest that comic strips use word and image in a more complementary manner, though he ostensibly valorizes Blake’s problematizing of image-text relationships:
It’s not surprising, of course, that Blake’s illuminated books, and the whole related genre of the ‘artist’s book,’ would tend to exhibit flexible, experimental, and ‘high-tension’ relations between words and images. The ‘normal’ relations of image and word (in the illustrated newspaper or even in the cartoon page) follow more traditional formulas involving clear subordination and suturing of one medium to the other (91).
Certainly young adult literature has embraced the visual in recent years, using image-text relations to reach out to young readers who have been inundated with visual/textual interplay.
For example, Lauren Myracle’s series of books, comprised entirely of fictional IM’s (instant messages) between and among teen friends, exploits the utility of the adolescent’s penchant for shorthand iconography and technology. In her novels ttfn, l8r g8r, and ttyl, Myracle’s characters convey meaning, tone, and mood via colors, emoticons, and fonts as they deal with teenage issues of love, trust, and betrayal (Rinkol).
In Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, a novel written as half-epistolary, half-screenplay in which sixteen year old African American Steven Harmon is on trial for his part in a drugstore robbery that ended with the clerk being murdered, images of a young black boy bespeckle the pages as if to taunt the reader to interpret them. Myers never reveals whether Harmon is guilty of the crime with which he is charged, but photographic representations do seem to place him at the scene of the crime. But, perhaps they do not. There are no captions to properly identify the young black male “caught” on camera. Is it definitely Steve or one of the other young men charged with the crime? In Monster, the photographic “evidence” can be read as a hint to the readers or as a red (/read? Misread?) herring. They may be examples of image-text, or image/text, working with the print and the reader’s interpretation of events, or against them.
J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog’s Abadazad series of books actually combines traditional print narrative with comic book-style pages of sequential art. In the Abadazad books, there is no textual breakdown from one format to the other. The traditional print narrative and sequential art narratives flow back and forth with ease, allowing the authors to exploit the potential of each while using both to create an overall sense of form. As such, DeMatteis and Ploog offer an example of how seamless imagetext can be. And, most recently, Brian Selznick’s acclaimed The Invention of Hugo Cabret combines traditional print narrative, graphic novel, and picture book
In these examples, we see young adult authors using various modes to create hybrid texts, and we see their characters making use of their innate visual literacy skills. Though some of these characters may be considered disabled in their ability to communicate accurately or to feel deeply, this seems to have little to do with their choice of modes. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, however, a much more complex image-text dynamic is at play.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003)1 is an image-laden bildungsroman told from the point of view of teenage narrator Christopher Boone. Christopher is a young man dealing with his parents’ failing relationships, mysterious gaps in his knowledge of his family history, and the recent murder of Wellington, a neighbor’s poodle. The young protagonist is also autistic. Though the word is never mentioned, Christopher clearly has Asperger’s Syndrome.2 Those with Aspberger’s often communicate differently than do others, one reason being that they “read” differently than most. For example, an inability to accurately read social cues, especially those that are non-verbal (Kirby), is not uncommon, nor are long conversations about a topic of fixation without regard to audience (Klin & Volkmar). Certainly Christopher has his problems reading people, especially when someone tries to comfort him (he is appalled by most human contact and is apt to scream or punch uncontrollably to keep from being touched), though, since the book is written as his first-person narrative and has been well-received critically, the condition of having no regard for audience might well rest in the realm of individual preference and opinion when it comes to evaluating Christopher.
In the current scholarship on Curious Incident, much has been made of Christopher’s reading and writing habits and abilities in regards to quite literal and traditional notions of reading and writing. Ruth Gilbert says that fiction, in particular the detective fiction that the Sherlock Holmes-admiring boy devours, provides a means by which Christopher makes sense of his experiences (242). The rules of the genre offer a formalized, logical lens by which to view and approach his quest to find the dog’s murderer and later to relocate the mother he thought dead, for example. The book itself is highly metacognitive, always aware of its textuality. Christopher and his teacher Siohban have been working on description, illustration, and approximation as devices, and Christopher often explains why he is making textual decisions. Greenwell makes much of Haddon’s challenges in writing a character with autism because of the character’s inherent trouble socializing and sometimes ponderous use of language (274).
Bill Greenwell asserts, “Some of the devices Haddon uses are straight out of the Laurence Sterne handbook on how to keep readers happily bamboozled. The pictures, the equations, the digressions, the inclusion of letters, the candid asides, the typography – everything keeps the reader busy” (281). Indeed, at times, Christopher’s way of communicating can seem as confusing as one might expect it to be, given the traits of Asperger’s mentioned above. Certainly we can view the myriad pictures and graphs in the novel as pleasurable, intermittent road blocks to keep us “happily bamboozled,”3 but they can also be interpreted as salient examples of imagetext. Christopher loves puzzles and sees a comforting order in their resolution. Considering his many “asides” as imagetext provides a means by which the reader can resolve the apparent puzzles of Christopher’s narrative presentation, thereby gaining insight into Christopher’s intriguing reading and writing “limitations” that might not always be limitations after all, and unlocking possible answers to why he represents things in different ways. Further, approaching his many pictographic representations as imagetext can eliminate the reader’s feeling of being distanced (Gilbert) from the narrator due to his condition.
Greenwell is right that these devices keep the reader busy; they are obviously elements of a book (inherently meaning they are to be read), one of which Christopher seems rather proud, saying “I wrote a book and that means I can do anything” (Haddon 221). Further, if we suspend our disbelief, we see that in and of itself the existence of said book and our reading of it means that Christopher is a rather skilled communicator, just as his love of detective fiction (and ability to compare it to types of writing he does not like) shows him to be an effective reader. So, the many images create an intriguing tension in the text. On the one hand we accept our narrator as someone with certain limits on his ability to express himself, but, especially in regards to Mitchell’s ideas on imagetext, we see that there is a strong possibility that these instances aren’t limiting at all; they simply call for us to read like, and sometimes as well as, Christopher.
This assertion can be considered problematic. Does it imply that reading in and of itself is becoming more and more of an autistic endeavor? Does it add credence to Anderson’s sardonic professor in Feed? Does Curious Incident request its audience to read as a person with Aspberger’s? Not exactly. Our culture is becoming increasingly critically aware of our reading of images, especially in the realm of student education. Taking this into account, we see that Christopher is not quite as distanced from other video game-playing, cell phone picture-taking, music video-watching people his age in his interpretive/representational abilities, and not so far removed from the rest of us as advanced readers either. Furthermore, Haddon’s is not the only recent Young Adult novel to utilize the visual/pictorial alongside traditional print text, and creators of comics have been merging the two for decades. Despite the rather rigid divide between comics and non-comics scholarship, an examination of some of the most salient but rudimentary ideas comics scholarship presents can also help inform a reading of The Curious Incident in the Dog in the Night-time.
Just by using images in the novel, Haddon can be said to be dabbling in imagetext, but since those images are imbued with meaning and actually are read and written as text by Christopher, who relates them to us as best he can in the form that, to him, best represents them, image-text is present as well. Conversely, to what degree we see gaps and ruptures associated with image/text depends on to what degree we care to see Christopher as “disabled” in his ability to write (it is clear he is getting help from his teacher, Siobhan, after all; on the other hand, who gets published without the help of editors these days?) and whether we accept the images as odd diversions from a quixotic mind or try to dig deeper into Christopher’s reasons for representation.
Certainly there are some pictorial elements to the story that are simply best represented in graphic form. For example, the series of facial expressions Siobhan shows him are simple illustrations, though Christopher has come to read some of them as representative of certain emotions. However, there is rupture – between Christopher as reader and sign to be read – when he admits that he is unable to read the pictures of faces that were not clearly happy or sad. Though we see a disability here from Christopher, we must also note his ability to recognize his own delicacies in his relationship to image/textuality. Even here in a moment of “disability,” he is not without a reading/comprehension strategy: “if I don’t know what someone is saying, I ask them what they mean or I walk away” (Haddon 3). Other illustrations include the depiction of the galaxy (10), a chart (11) that shows “how you work out what prime numbers are,” the pictures of the Orion constellation (125), and a graph, which he is quick to point out, “is just an illustration” (101, Haddon’s italics).
However, not all images in the book are just illustrations. Some are representative of actual language, qualifying them as instances of imagetext. Often these instances are veiled as possible illustrations, as Christopher precedes them with slight explanation and the phrase “like this,” but considering the descriptive abilities that Christopher shows elsewhere, it is imperative to pay close attention to when he is able to use words as expression and when he must use their pictorial equivalent. Liane Holliday Willey asserts that Christopher is “expressive though he fails to express himself in ways familiar to most” (686–7), but that does not mean he is not and can not communicate effectively via these combinations of written word and pictographic image that form text.
On pages 130 and 131 is a prime example of how image and text combine to form a complex thought for Christopher – and for his readers if they allow for the notion of imagetext. He is imagining/imaging his options now that he has arrived in London to seek out his mother. He gives direct insight into his thinking process: “I made a picture of it in my head like this….then I imagined crossing out all possibilities which were impossible…. And it was like this,” he says. His ideas on what to do next are not clear to him or the reader until they are represented in visual form.
There are more striking examples of imagetext, however, where the image itself must stand as its self or at least as the closest representation of “selfness” that Christopher can produce. This is interesting because Greenwell has pointed out that Christopher is typical of many people with Asperbeger’s in that he is very literal in his interpretation of phrases and therefore has trouble with metaphor. Christopher knows what metaphor is, but he does not like metaphors (Greenwell 279):
I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards…. when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about. (Haddon 15)
Similes offer no consternation, however, because they are more visually accurate. When he writes, “it looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in [the inspector’s] nostrils,” he footnotes the sentence with “This is not a metaphor, it is a simile, which means that it really did look like there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils….And a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile” (17). So, truth in representation is important to Christopher. Therefore, in any instance where a graphic is preceded by “like this” it may be that we are not looking at a mere illustration but an “imagetexted” simile in the mind of our narrator. Greenwell says that this exclusion of metaphor creates a “tension between wanting to reproduce autistic language and wishing to avoid being ponderous” (280). But, recognizing the imagetext in the story seems to offer some resolution to this tension because what seem to be linguistic barriers are overcome via a rather literary use of images.
Christopher is disabled in his ability to adequately decode certain elements he encounters (skills he and his teacher have been developing), even though he has been instructed “to include some description of things” and not to follow his original idea of using photographs because Siobhan “said the idea of a book was to describe things using words so that people could read them and make a picture in their own head” (67). Yet, he still shares many complex elements via imagetext. Christopher may simply think that things can be like some other things, but why should they be something they really aren’t when a literal representation of what they are is accurate enough? The cloud on page 68, the alien robot on page 76, the cow’s pelt pattern on page 142, and many other examples are all preceded by “like this” but are clearly images that Christopher doesn’t have the words to adequately represent. And why should he? We can read the shapes and forms just fine, better, more accurately, even, than if we could only read words attempting to describe them or be them. Christopher has, in these instances, solved “the problem of ekphrasis” in his narrative (Mitchell 152), a pointed example of how he is enabled and how imagetext is valued in the novel via the narrator’s “disability.”
In the most striking examples of imagetext, however, Christopher lets the thing itself represent itself without any possible regard to simile. For example, Christopher sees a sticker on a guitar case and does not or cannot offer any print-based description of it, only “And then there was a sticker on her guitar case and it said” (184) then the imagetext. The sticker is printed as a sticker, image as text as the thing itself. When he sees a postmark on one of his mother’s letters, he admits that the image “was quite difficult to read, but it said” and then gives us the image as language before interpreting it to mean “that the letter was posted on 16 October 1997, which was 18 months after Mother had died” (98). Yet, despite what might be viewed as an inability or at least a difficulty to communicate on Christopher’s part, we read these images and understand them as well as he does. Words themselves sometimes act as metaphors for Christopher, who readily admits that the word metaphor is itself a metaphor, and whereas we can view the images in the book as representations of Christopher’s disability, we can also see them as a more pristine form of representation in his opinion, which simply gets at a writer’s preference, not necessarily his ability. The Platonic argument that the visual representations are just as metaphorical in their own way, just as far removed from the actual “thing itself” as the words that represent them, can certainly be made, but whereas Christopher makes this connection with text as letters as words, he does not apply it to image as text (as imagetext). Mitchell might suggest that Christopher’s solution is too simplistic because neither words nor images can adequately get to the realness of an object or idea. Against the tendency to equate pictures with reality, Mitchell asserts that
Words and images seem inevitably to become implicated in a “war of signs” (what Leonardo called a paragone) in which the stakes are things like nature, truth, reality, and the human spirit. Each art, each type of sign or medium, lays claim to certain things that it is best equipped to mediate, and each grounds its claim in a certain characterization of its ‘self, ‘ its own proper essence (Iconology 47).
However, Christopher does not differentiate between types of signs, does not attempt to overcomplicate. He is simply representing, whether in word or image or combination thereof, as truly and accurately as he can. Sometimes this is with print text; sometimes it is with image-text relations. Truth, reality, is not so divided for Christopher; he does not seek for his words or images to lay claim to specific domains (though we can read this happening); he simply seeks to tell his story as best he is able. Indeed, he may be able to provide such pure instances of imagetext because he is not burdened by conventional, divisive ways of seeing and attributing.
A strong example of image/text, the gaps and ruptures inherent in his modes of representation, comes when Christopher tries to explain the train station in which he finds himself in a holding pattern. As are most of the instances where an image is used, it is accompanied by only the slightest of description. The image itself must tell us what Christopher knows, sees, reads, and thinks. Further, Haddon offers another italicized hint that he and Christopher are trumping our preconceived notions of reading as print-letter based only (and perhaps our notions of the distance or patience we need to keep while reading the work of someone we know to have a “disability”) by bringing another strong element of representation into play: memory, that which Mitchell says is itself “an imagetext, a double-coded system of mental storage and retrieval that may be used to remember any sequence of items, from stories to set speeches to lists of quadrupeds” (192). Christopher says, “I was scared so I was not noticing things very well and this is just what I remember so it was an approximation” (145). The map is not quite the thing itself. It is imagetext as image/text. Christopher and his teacher have been working on decoding and using examples of description, illustration, and approximation; this work is shown via his labeling of certain visuals throughout his narrative and adding another level of understanding to Christopher’s easy to underestimate literacy skills. The novel is always metacognitively aware of itself as text, and its notions of “text” include the visual. At times the text even self-explicates, as in “Siobhan said that the book should begin with something to grab people’s attention. That is why I started with the dog” (5), or in Chistopher’s aforementioned labeling of sections of text as descriptions and pictures as illustrations or approximations. With this level of textual awareness embedded throughout the novel, it seems a fallacy to focus on how Christopher can’t adequately read or write for the reader or even how his autism provides challenges that might distance him from his readers.
Of course, Haddon’s narrator continues to work under the cloak of impairment. None of the other texts mentioned problematize the textual-visual interplay to the same extent because their characters or narrators are of at least average cognitive and physical ability. To see Christopher’s disability as ability might seem to implicate that imagetexted works move the reading experience towards the autistic. Yet this would be a gross misrepresentation of the point. Surely seeing an authorial move towards the visual, towards imagetext, as a move towards impaired ability or cultural stultification would be folly.
Here is where the work of those who study comics can act as a bridge to better understanding Christopher’s unique and impressive abilities. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, has shown that the pictorial and linguistic have often been used in conjunction throughout human history. Comics, McCloud says, are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to covey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9), and he points to hieroglyphics as an example of a pictorial sign-system that can also be read as an alphabet. Letters are themselves just a series of lines or squiggles laced with specific but abstract linguistic meaning. Letters, and therefore words, are actually the most abstract pictographic forms we have to interpret. As McCloud states it, “words are totally abstract icons. That is, they bear no resemblance at all to the real McCoy” (28). Comics creator Dylan Horrocks has offered a critique and clarified expansion of McCloud’s ideas, which he calls into question because McCloud’s definition of comics is too exclusive and his precepts steeped in what seems to be his personal ideology. Horrocks also points out that among cartoonists, there is a fear of the word as dominating factor, an inversion of the possible anxiety those who privilege traditional text may feel. Horrocks suggests a broader, more inclusive definition of not just comics or print text, but language in general, and this definition is laden with imagetext sentiment:
An alternative metaphor for communication is that language (in all its forms – verbal, textual, visual, gestural) is the field in which we construct meaning. It is how we organise [sic] our experience of the world. Rather than language being merely a tool for the communication of ideas (which are somehow supposed to exist outside language), it is the very stuff of which thought, ideas and communication are all made. Language, then, is not something to fear – to struggle against in an effort to preserve the purity of our own ideas. Instead, we are all immersed in language – in a sense, we are made of it. In an act of communication, both the speaker and the audience work with language – with that infinitely complex field of meaning – in a way that creates meaning socially (http://www.hicksville.co…)
While Horrocks faults McCloud for failing to consider aural history/the spoken word as he explains comics precedents and the image-text connection, his critique in effect highlights McCloud’s own concerns with linguistic-textual relationships. Both McCloud and Horrocks suggest that the pictorial exists to be read as text. This basic idea has much cache in comics scholarship (see essays by Harvey, Berona, Cioffi, and others in Robin Varnum’ and Christina T. Gibbons’ The Language of Comics). Some, such as Neil Cohn, suggest that the comics even comprise their own language, complete with syntactical and grammatical structures.
Though Christopher does not offer images juxtaposed in sequence such that his images can be considered examples of comics based on McCloud’s or most other definitions of “comics,” recognizing that Christopher is being deliberate in his intentions to convey information to his reader through the use of print and image should in its own way cancel out a reading of his narrative as one imbued with disability. Christopher is not moving his audience towards an autistic, disjointed, or disconcerting mode of reading or asking readers to accept his text as an example of “the best he could do.” Rather, in his use of imagetext, he hails forth the most fundamental comprehension skills we use to read any of the myriad texts we encounter in our daily lives.
Imagetext theory may help reform and extend scholarly perception of Curious Incident by showing that we can read the text without the patience and distance previously considered necessary due to the reader’s knowledge that the fictional writer is hindered by his mental condition. In fact, via imagetext, we see that Christopher is a more enabled storyteller than we might have ever imagined. He reads and writes in words, images, wordimages and word/images, utilizing the full spectrum of his available literacy skills. And he is good at it. We need not consider his pictorial elements as asides, as “digressions” of “simple entertainment” (Greenwell 281), but as complex choices, or at the very least as rather intelligent coping/writing strategies. As educators, scholars, and the rest of us begin to value the image as much as we have valued the printed word, we will hopefully also move towards valuing the image as word and as imagetext. In so doing, we may see that Christopher’s closeness to us (and to our young students) in terms of our own literacy skills, our own abilities in reading, writing, and representing, more than closes the gap left by a reader’s sense of distance assumed when one focuses on his Asperger’s Syndrome as presenting reading and writing disability.
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