Thursday, February 6, 2014

Scheherazade, Art & Science

Finished Chapter Five a little while back and now racing through Chapter Six, and wanted to share the page on stories I teased an excerpt of earlier. This page takes up the importance of stories, with Scheherazade as point of inspiration I build around. I had in mind book pages, frames that expanded from one another, snaking back and forth across the page, with the idea that like the stories within stories that make up the 1,001 Arabian Nights, each panel contains an element of the prior one, either zoom-like (ala the classic Eames’ film/book “Powers of 10”) or via more metaphorical links. But it was important idea-wise for me to talk about stories as not only fanciful tales, but the imagination of scientists – and so in seeking an appropriate example, I came across the work of Columbia University Professor of Arabic and Islamic science George Saliba, who has shown that astronomers working in the Arab Golden Age whose relatively unknown contributions made the revolutionary work of Copernicus possible (and Copernicus was taken up in an earlier chapter). Specifically, I ended up reading about Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and his explanation for a particular kind of observed planetary motion now called the Tusi Couple.

It ended up being an intense search trying to make sense of the history and mathematics well enough to use it for essentially all of three panels that tied into the series of transitions. Not great for finishing this all on my increasingly tighter deadline, but rather a thrill as ideas swirled together and the collision of my aesthetic decisions and research took me unexpected places. Had I been doing this only in text – I might’ve mentioned that by stories I meant science too – and moved on. But because of the visual schema I set forth, I had to find ways to hold it together visually, which made me search further. Those two forces conspired to make a stronger page than I had any inkling of doing otherwise.

In talks of late, I’ve been saying that my comics are smarter than I am. It’s not meant to be cheeky. In engaging spatially with image and text, ideas and aesthetics, I find I’ve got a powerful cohort of collaborators, that in some sense, as I said at MLA recently, “have their way with me.”
Comic strip on arts and humanities

And so that makes me think of the President’s recent careless dissing of the humanities (art history taking the biggest hit) – which I don’t believe he meant nor would he agree with the statement if pushed. (Columbia U art history doc student Tina Rivers had a great response here.) But it points to a larger problem: the tendency to divide into factions, to set up us versus them in this case, arts versus sciences (the divide CP Snow identified way back as “The Two Cultures”). And in some sense this is at the heart of what I’m getting at with “unflattening” in the dissertation and maybe throughout all of my work. My political comics sprang from the idea of needing to talk to one another across artificial boundaries and get beyond labels. Consider the simple fact that in seeing through two eyes we gain perspective and access to depth. Lacking that, our world is somewhat more flat. To engage with our world in a different way, we need multiple viewpoints, multiple modes and ways of seeing. And we need these vantage points to both be a decent distance apart, so that they offer us distinct views, but also that they continue to communicate. Separate yet strongly connected.
From Chapter Two - The Importance of Seeing Double and then some...

To be better thinkers, to be more whole in our thinking, we need engage the various viewpoints, the different ways of seeing, that we have at our disposal. In a grand sense, this means not building barriers between the arts and the sciences. My page as described above, speaks to keeping communication open between the arts and sciences and respecting the different views they each make possible. The stories we fashion - of all types - are essential. We need to be many-eyed to tackle challenges in a more dimensional way – and need to cultivate the multitudes of approaches of which we all possess. 

Onward! – Nick


sachauncey said...

So much of this post makes me think of one of my favorite authors, Carson McCullers. In an excellent biography, The Lonely Hunter, we learn that McCullers considered others who touched her sensibilities, the "we of me" -- the bringing together of diverse viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that make us richer in a multitude of ways.

As always, I love your work!

Thank you for sharing.

nsousanis said...

Thanks for the kind words and recommendation. Not familiar with McCullers but now i will look into. Thank you! - Nick

Roxanne Marina said...

Brilliant. Awesome really. Kinda doing the same thing with sociology, but NOT a dissertation. More like a SOC 101 book. Your art is WAY better than mine though. The advantage of being the author AND the artist I suppose. Nobody needs to explain anything to you. Understanding inside and out is a bit plus.

Please kickstart a production of the book if you don't get a contract for it (but you probably will).

nsousanis said...

Roxanne, thanks for your kind words. Curious to see what you're working on. Agreed, being the author - of ideas in words and pictures expands possibilities for the work. Without going into specifics, a kickstarter won't be necessary to put this into book form. Thanks - Nick

Unknown said...

Hi Nick! Cathy Davidson just blogged about your project to her FutureED MOOC and I hopped over to take a look.

Whoa! I'm impressed! Congratulations! (if that's not too premature! :P

I'd have to be sadistic or insane or both to suggest anything different to your format now that you're pushing so hard to complete this opus. Well, maybe I'm sadistic. Or insane. Or both.

As is, your work is refreshing and amazing. Yet fresh and progressive as it is, it is also very traditional. Yes it's a comic-book instead of a text-book. Yes you're posting pages online.

One thing I'd be very curious about is about trying to explore a transmedia online comic space. Currently your panels are whole images that I can pop up. Text and image are united and interacting on your paper page, but they don't have that quality on your online page where there's a block of live text disrupted by an image I can click on to go read that.

What if each panel was a page? Or a live element within a page? You've reinvented the format of your writing. Yet the narratology remains linear and predetermined by the master author. What if the panels gave control of the narrative experience to the reader? Would that be "more Deleuze"? Would that be a more rhizomatic way of exploring the serendipity and juxtaposition of human complexity?

nsousanis said...

Dear Isabella - thanks for your comments and kind words. Sure, this is very much akin to what one might find in any comic book - spatial organization of ideas, sequential and simultaneous storytelling, image-text interaction, and so on. My use of the online form is not intended to be part of the content in any way. It's purely a means to share the work in lieu of printed copies. But, of course the digital realm offers all sorts of interesting interactive and layering possibilities. Scott McCloud coined the term 'infinite canvas' to talk about the potential for comics in digital form, and obviously all sorts of things are happening in the digital humanities arena.
This sounds like you have such a project in mind! I say - go for it! It's a wide open future for communicating ideas, and I welcome seeing others' explorations... Onward! - Nick

mjc said...

Regarding your comment about 3d being better than 2d vision: I am one of those who do not see in 3d (one term for this is "lack of fusion"). I see separately out of each eye, with one eye being dominant at any time, but am aware of the other eye's input. I can also switch voluntarily between eyes at any time.

nsousanis said...

Martin, Thank you for your comment. You point out a place where the metaphor doesn't always synch up with the lived experience of individuals. It's not in the pages that i've posted, but i have some discussion on how the movement of our heads, the movement of our bodies also creates differences in our relationship to our environment making possible the perception of depth - somewhat akin to the discussion of the earth's movement as creating two eyes for parallax earlier:
Having built-in access to two vantage points perhaps makes this easier, but no less possible coming from a single mobile point. Ultimately it's about engaging multiple ways of seeing, or ways of knowing to expand our understanding. - Nick