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Review of On Comics and Legal Aesthetics: Multimodality and the Haunted Mask of Knowing

By Neal Curtis

Giddens, Thomas. On Comics and Legal Aesthetics: Multimodality and the Haunted Mask of Knowing. Routledge, 2018.

The state of comics scholarship and Comics Studies as a discipline has never been healthier. Every year the quality and diversity of critical writing in relation to the medium grows and its usefulness to other areas of study continues to expand. In this regard we now have the sub-disciplines of Graphic Science, Graphic Medicine, and Graphic Justice. Thom Giddens is a major contributor to this final area of study. For some years now he has been running the Graphic Justice research community and has been responsible for organising a number of workshops and conferences, while also compiling a collection of essays on the subject that testify to the rich connection between comics and the law as institution, practice and theory. It is exciting to read his own take on this relationship and the extent to which he believes the comics medium has a very particular role to play in understanding the law and what law’s rational framework disavows.

As I have noted already, the creation of Graphic Science, Graphic Medicine and Graphic Justice sub-disciplines highlights the epistemological and heuristic importance of comics as a medium. It is precisely the issue of what the law knows and what comics can help us know about law that Giddens tackles head on in this book. As such the book is of value to anyone studying the medium, but it is also an appeal to those working in law and jurisprudence to think about the limits of the law’s claim to rationality and reason. On Comics and Legal Aesthetics is an important critical contribution to jurisprudence and theoretical approaches to the law, although I imagine many scholars working in this area will struggle with the polemical view of law’s limits that Giddens presents, no matter how convincingly they are set out.

The book opens with a chapter that focuses on comics as a medium before explaining how specific comics, from Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum to Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclodepdia of Early Earth, can be used to explain law’s rational limits. The opening chapter makes two significant contributions to the growing literature on definitions of comics, and I believe this should be required reading for everyone seeking to understand the medium and its value with regard to expression, representation, and the forms of testimony for which the medium is now well known (Chute, 2016; Earle, 2017). Specifically the chapter introduces the concepts of ‘multimodality’ and ‘komos’ that enable really rich possibilities for imagining what comics can do.

Giddens defines his concept of multimodality in terms of a medium that ‘employs, exploits, or presents a variety of different modes of communicating—visual, textual, graphic, linguistic, spatial, narrational, and so forth—in a complex layering of multiple frames. This ‘multiframe’ has sophisticated aesthetic and formal rules that can be enforced, played with, or rejected to different ends. Because of this, as a way of knowing, comics encounters complex boundaries and intersections between different forms of knowledge’ (1). Related to this is what Giddens also calls ‘comics-as-komos’, which he understands as ‘the mediation between different orders’ (20), or more specifically the mediation of social order and disorder. In Greek society, komos was a social ritual and took the form of an unscripted or non-directed procession, and is often contrasted with the organization and arrangement of nomos (law). In Greek mythology, Komos also accompanied Dionysus and is known as a festive god of revelry, during a period of excess when the orderly world of Greek society was suspended. Thus, for Giddens, ‘the multimodality of comics can be seen as continuing the traditional function of mediating between different orders as found in the komos’ (21). The form of comics is therefore crucial both for visual and narrative experimentation, but also for exploring different ways of being and knowing.

This is not so much a definition of comics as an innovative way to think about what is specific to the medium, and it is Giddens’s task to show how rich the medium can be for analysing the workings of law, legal writing and the institutions of justice. He continues by adding that ‘the function of the komos was not a general mediation—but specifically a mediation between social order and chaotic disorder’ (21). Hence, ‘as a work of cultural legal aesthetics, the examples encountered across this book aim to show that comics represent a contemporary juristic komos, a mediation of order and disorder—form and chaos, closure and potential—in legal knowing, as well as knowing more generally’ (21).

While Giddens makes a convincing case for what comics might do in the area of juristic scholarship he also makes the stronger case that the law itself might be understood in this way. In the spirit of komos, Giddens counters the earnest and solemn self-presentation of the law by proposing that ‘the multiple layered framings of legal regulations can be understood as an example of this expansive understanding of comics: the intricate, nested categories and concepts that constitute statues and doctrine. Law thus becomes a multiframe containing multiple interrelating panels and sites of meaning to be explored as a complex network of braided relations that opens up avenues of meaning and connection beyond linear association’ (23). So, this is not so much a book about comics as they deal with the law, but law as comics and what this means for the story the law tells about itself.

Chapter 2 consequently begins this interrogation of what the law excludes and whom the law is for by tracing law’s unconscious through Shirow Masamune’s The Ghost in the Shell to show how ‘only particular dimensions of the living universe become available to the structures of law’ (29). This is done through a consideration of aesthetics as the animus that undoes the rational, conscious order of the law defined as ‘a ghostless machine, a technical regime devoid—cleaned—of the rich uncertainties of human life’ (58). This is an attempt to interrogate the conceptions of personhood and property and the ways in which the new technologies of robotics and AI challenge these foundations of legal rationality. For Giddens, Masamune’s classic manga helps us understand how we are integrated ‘into a universal network much larger than ourselves, a network of otherness that produces us’ (38), and this is fatal for the law as it is currently understood and in turn understands the world.

Chapter 3 continues this assessment of aesthetics to explore the ‘limits of bureaucratic juridical order’ and the creativity—even poetics—that translates life ‘into criminal legal categories’ (70). Here, Giddens contrasts Batman, ‘a great detective of huge ratiocentric capacity’ (71) with the Joker’s capacity for disorder to draw out the potential chaotic creativity the law assumes but simultaneously disavows. The Joker is thus the madness and the ‘generative potential’ (84) that haunts and threatens the law with dissolution. After all, it is this intimate relation to ‘unstructured life’ (85) that ‘makes the law what it is’ (79). In keeping with this discussion of the indeterminacy that haunts the law, Chapter 4 is then an address to ‘horrific jurisprudence’ as ‘a jurisprudence that does not and cannot, give certainty as the rational surface does’ (104) and remains in fear of the meaningless beyond that threatens to break through. This is done via a fascinating treatment of Alan Moore’s and Jason Burrows’s Neonomicon.

Chapters 5 and 6 are further explorations of the law’s ‘other’. Chapter 5 is a fascinating reading of Hannah Berry’s Adamtine that is used to show how the ‘legal subject is caught between two legal fronts […] the living humanity that created it and that its rational structures seek to quell; [and] the legal authority that constitutes it as a watcher that judges’ (153-4). In both directions there is a generative creativity and something akin to a foundational ‘miracle’ (Schmitt, 2005) that the law struggles to explain. Chapter 6 is then an interesting mediation on Greenberg’s Encyclopedia in which Giddens navigates this fictional realm to bring us up against ‘the originary chaotic abyss’ that undoes the world that the law so carefully delineates and prescribes. This is no nihilistic journey, though, because this blankness is a space in which the world can be redrawn—a truth that takes us to the heart of Giddens’ politics in this book, and the reason it could be so valuable for comics scholars seeking to use the medium to give voice to the lost, marginalised, silenced and unrepresented.

I have my own concerns about the idea that gaining access to this ‘blank space’ might ‘undo the long and complex processes of mythmaking and worldmaking that have structured knowing’ (188). I am not so sure this would ‘bring forth the unravelling of law’ (188) so much as gives us access to the deep-rooted mythmaking of the law as a normative order, but this book’s attempt to take us to these limits and expose them, and thereby release the creativity and life that the law so often seeks to exclude is a commendable political project. Although the book’s prose often takes the form of lengthy and dense interpretations of legal scholarship it is often intellectually rewarding. I would encourage all comics scholars to engage with this book, partake in its spirit and deploy the central concepts of multimodality and komos to open up rich new avenues of criticism and production.

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