Neil Cohn: Rhetorical Implications and Visual Lexicon

For this post I want to take a step over, just a bit, and introduce a new theorist who’s work I am recently becoming acquainted with: Neil Cohn.

Up until this point I have made a lot, and I mean a lot, of heavy use of Scott McCloud. This in many ways has a lot to do with my own familiarity with him.

However, as I begin to expand my interests and investigations into Comic book narratives, theory, and particularly the cognitive responses of individuals to the visual forms of comic books and other graphic narratives, Cohn’s work began to really appeal to me.

INTRODUCTIONS

So, who is Neil Cohn?

Well, just for a start, he his currently a member of Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego and the proprietor of the Visual Language Lab (www.visuallanguagelab.com). He “received his PhD in Psychology from Tufts University” where he worked “with Ray Jackendoff, Gina Kuperberg, and Phil Holcomb. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at UC San Diego” (visuallangauge.com). Neil Cohn is also the author of several books, Early Writings on Visual Language and The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. As well as the editor of: The Visual Narrative ReaderHe is also the author of many articles discussing the visual narrative and structure and its cognitive effect on its audience.

Now, what does Neil Cohn have to do with graphic narratives and comics?

Well, for that, I think I will let Neil “speak” for himself (well, visually speak in a way):

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.21.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.22.08 PM Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.22.20 PM

The images above are screen captured from Cohn’s website’s homepage. I am, myself, very interested in the directions his line of research is going.

I guess a good place to start, for myself, as I found when I was exploring (as he says to “Please enjoy the site!”) would be with what I am most familiar with: comic books.

Now, to make sure this has some focus, I want to look closely at and relate how some of what Dr. Cohn has to offer feels applicable to research and things that I am investigating.

SOME SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS

Under the Research section of Neil Cohn’s website, there is a listing of types of research materials he has to offer. One of these is listed as “Introductory writings by Neil Cohn.” In this section, first up is a set of writings entitled “Comic Theory 101.” That is where I would like to engage and take a closer look.

“In Place of Another”

The first writing posted, chronologically (it appears as the last one) is entitled “In Place of Another.” This article opens up by discussing Scott McCloud’s work Understanding Comics and the concept of “closure” (“In Place of Another”). Now, where McCloud, as Cohn recounts, defined this concept as a process of “filling in,” done by the mind between comic book panels, Cohn has some points of disagreement with this definition. Cohn specifically notes that he has “argued that any linear panel-to-panel explanation of how people understand sequences of images has multiple problems . . . in this piece, [he aims] at one particular example of McCloud’s . . . to illuminate a broader phenomenon that occurs” (“In Place of Another”).

He focuses on this example, the one that McCloud uses:

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 6.59.01 PM

He then quotes from McCloud, on a subsequent few pages later, and specifically pulls the reader into the story being told by the two images above: one of murder. Here is the quotation:

“I may not have drawn the axe being raised, but I’m not the one who let it drop or decided how hard the blow, or who screamed, or why. That, dear reader, was your special crime, each of you committing it in your own style. All of you participated in the murder” (Understanding Comics 68).

Cohn points out his disagreement that what really transpired was a rhetorical move by McCloud that creates “ambiguity.” The audience is able to infer from what transpires and “understand that the murder occurs . . . But, that murder doesn’t creatively happen in our minds [as McCloud asserts] because of the space between the panels, it happens in our minds because McCloud chose not to show it in the panel directly” (“In Place of Another”). This is McCloud’s use of the rhetorical figure of metonymy.

Cohn points to the use of metonymy in the second panel of the illustration from McCloud seen above and he goes on to provide his own definition of it as well. Cohn sees “metonymy [as] creating the meaning for something by showing a related thing” and then proceeds to provide several examples “highlighted” in example sentences (“In Place of Another”).

One of the examples is: “The White House leaked a story to the Times” (“In Place of Another”). The actual White House did not leak a story, that title of the building is standing in for the people and administration currently residing there.

Cohn goes on to discuss metonymy more, relating how it “can take on various characteristics” of a whole and express them through parts or vice versa. As referenced from another post of my own, metonymy comes:

“from the Greek μετωνυ^μ-ία , (μετάὄνομα) means a ‘change of name: in Rhet., the use of one word for another, metonymyCic.Orat.27.93, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom. 23Quint.8.6.23′ (Liddell and Scott). Duncan and Smith define metonymy as ‘the use of an associated detail to represent the whole [and its most commonly] used in the depiction of part of a physical manifestation of an emotion’ (134).” (“Rhetorical Tropes and the Man of Steel”).

The quotation above provides both a formal (classical and oral/written) version of metonymy, as well as a definition more skewed towards the visual arts as well.

For Cohn, he notes that McCloud does make effective use of the figure of metonymy as seen in the example above. In particular, Cohn notes that “Metonymy can be used in all sorts ways, graphically [and in particular] It can provide a creative and evocative technique to graphic rhetoric, not to mention providing us with good food for thought” (“In Place of Another”).

Though Cohn appears to have a specific or certain complaint with McCloud’s example, he does appear to, in many ways, wish to explain how and what McCloud is doing (pulling back the curtain) to show the audience the rhetorical moves at play. These moves have traditionally applied to the realms of oral and written expression. Cohn’s aim appears to show how it can work in a graphic form. A form, in fact, perfectly suited for the use of metonymy in fact.

“Visual Poetry”

Another of Cohn’s articles in the “Comic Theory 101” vein that I want to examine is the second to last one in chronological order (second one listed on the website) entitled: “Visual Poetry”

Cohn states a question “if we would like to formalize certain tropes for visual language poetry, what structural features are available to us?” (“Visual Poetry”). He is referring a bit back to a visual poem he created in another Comic Theory 101 article. More importantly, Cohn notes that “In previous articles, I’ve mentioned that we can quantify types of panels by the amount of ‘entities’ in them — the ‘characters’ engaged in an action” and this is where this article attempts to go (“Visual Poetry”). Cohn lays out 5 types of panels to help “quantify” this idea of visual expression and structure.

Polymorphics

This is the highest level. It is the highest level because it “contain a full action, by repeating entities over and over again” (“Visual Poetry”).

Here is the example that Cohn uses to illustrate this idea:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.21.28 PM

Here is another example, of sorts (uses a bit of multiple panels spread over a page that overlaps but one that does communicate full action), from Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye run:

hawkeye_dog_graphic_h_15

Macros

Cohn points out that this kind of panel or scene “hold[s] a full scene, [but has] more than one “entity” in them (“Visual Poetry). Here is the example that Cohn himself presents:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.29.04 PM

And though this a meme now that has been abused quiet a lot, I feel it also meets the criteria for a macro scene:

120345790360

Monos

This here is a scene that, as Cohn points out, “contain[s] only one entity (“Visual Poetry”). So, where a “macro” has a full scene with more than one figure, a “mono” contains only one “entity.” Here is the example that Cohn offers:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.29.53 PM

Here is another example taken from the cover of Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man:

1f953837f34ecebcd911153ad8fee583

Micros

This type here is one that “contain less than one entity – often through a ‘close-up’ shot” (“Visual Poetry”). Again, Cohn provides a specific close-up of someone’s mouth:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.29.59 PM

Here is another example, again taken from Hawkeye (issue #14), again written by Matt Fraction, with artist Annie Wu this time on interior art. Here we are treated to a close up image of Kate Bishop’s face.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 6.33.43 PM

Before moving on, I want to take a bit of account here of Cohn’s choice of terminology with Macro, Micro, and Mono.

Of course, looking at the three prefixes you have:

Macro – Large

Micro – Small

Mono – One or Singular

Now, Cohn uses Macro/Large to describe a whole scene with more than one entity in the scene. Micro is smaller and contains only one entity in it. Mono focuses on a close up element of “one” entity. It is an interesting choice of terminology. One can hopefully assume that Cohn is in particular, considering the other terms: Polymorphic and Amorphics, that Cohn’s primary focus in this terminology is the scene itself and not, in particular, the number of entities present in them.

Amorphics

This is an example where there is no entity present in any way in the scene. The scene could be seen as an empty street scene or city scape, most likely aimed at helping to set up an event or orientate the reader.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.31.43 PM

City

Cohn notes that there is a form or order to “graph these descending panel quantities in what I call the ‘Lexical Representational Matrix’ or ‘LRM'”:

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.32.08 PM

The “Lexical Representational Matrix” (LRM) is something that Cohn defines in an article as being “Based on the amount of positively charged entities they depict” (“A Visual Lexicon”). In other words, what is represented in a panel or scene is defined by how many are depicted taking part in a positive action.

What Cohn aims to demonstrate in his article “Visual Poetry” is the ways that these different types of “levels” can in fact

“be utilized in the same manner of syllables; they allow for a quantity of “beats” depending on how much information they hold. Let’s pose a hypothetical poetic line: 

Polymorphic – Micro Refiner – Macro – Micro Refiner – Mono – Micro Refiner 

Here, the poetic aspect would come from traveling down the LRM, with an alternation of Micros between each panel. By “Refiner,” I indicate that the Micro plays a grammatical role of “zooming in” on an aspect of whatever panel it follows (see my [EDIT: book The Visual Language of Comics for further] discussion of this)” (“Visual Poetry”).

Cohn begins by presenting us with a visualization of “what a poetic line” (“Visual Poetry”) in this format or “fashion” might look like:

reducto_flat

Now, this appears very basic, linear. Cohn goes on to ideally point out that often times poetry aims to make use of aesthetic arrangements to help provoke or “invoke certain feelings” (“Visual Poetry”).

Cohn postulates, based on a narrowing approach, that perhaps the use of certain elements, such as “the Micro Refiners can overlap the panels they modify — except at the end, when the Micro is still a Refiner but represents the bottom of the LRM. Here, the variance of the layout is modified to emphasize a different part of the structure” (“Visual Poetry”)

reducto_diagrammed

Notice that there are two main aspects heightened by the layout. Along the vertical plane is the reduction of the major categories of the LRM. Meanwhile, along the diagonal we find a row of Micros with similar content, but highly refined viewpoints. This diagonal emphasizes the feeling of narrowing of information. Both of these lines converge upon the Amorphic panel – reducing substance and refining substance, both focused down to a releasing point of no active elements at all.

reducto_arrows

All together my example from above becomes:

reducto_full

Cohn postulates this “visual language” and its application here as a “reducto” form (“Visual Poetry”). His closing remarks focus on the idea that such terms and ideas might be applied to inspiring people to engage more in this kind of creation, this visual poetry.

Conclusions

For me, myself, I find the ideas being enhanced, challenged, and expanded by much of what Neil Cohn has to offer. He not only makes close note, along with McCloud, of the possibility of rhetorical figures to be found in analyzing visual narratives and graphics, but even more so he applies and helps create a language for engaging and viewing visual narratives in congress with traditional written narratives. This is a concept that helps bridge the caps for some students and provide myself with more windows to peer through.

Works Cited

Cohn, Neil. “Comics Theory 101: In Place of Another” Visual Language Lab. Web. 07 August 2015.

—. “Comics Theory 101: Visual Poetry.” Visual Language Lab. Web. 07 August 2015.

—. “A Visual Lexicon.” Psu.edu. Purdue U. Web. 09 Aug. 2015.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.

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