Last week I wrote about the urgent necessity to teach students to listen rhetorically, that is, to try as hard as possible to hear what the other person or group is saying—from their point of view. Listening has dropped out of the curriculum in most college classes, but it seems to me we have never been in more urgent need of people who can listen openly and fairmindedly.
Then this week I picked up a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time, the published version of Nick Sousanis’s Columbia dissertation, the first done entirely in comic book format. The book is called Unflattening and it is just out from Harvard University Press. (I first mentioned this book here.)
I heard Sousanis discuss his dissertation, now book, when he visited Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project a year or so ago, but I hadn’t had time to take a real look at it until a few days ago. And what a literal eye-opener it is! The book opens with a visual/verbal meditation on how we have been taught to see only in “flat” ways—that is in cookie-cutter, unidimensional, static ways. The images are plodding along, eyes cast down, unseeing:
Another page from Unflattening
The figures all “stay in line,” as though there were “a great weight descending, suffocating and ossifying; flatness permeates the landscape,” and “so pervasive are the confines, inhabitants neither see them nor realize their own role in perpetuating them.” Cogs in a machine, seeing through narrow, narrow blinders. Seeing becomes “standardized” and “boxed into bubbles of our own making: (5, 8, 14). This condition comes, Sousanis argues, from the division of mind and body (think Plato) that becomes reified in Descartes’s “I think; therefore I am.” These thinkers led the way to “flattening” our vision by turning ever inward, to the mind or the eternal truths.
Sousanis sets out to unflatten our ways of seeing, and he does so in a stunning merger of images and words. As he says, images are what IS; words are always ABOUT. But the two together can open new vistas of imagination for us through unflattening, which he defines as “a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing” (32). The rest of the book explores this possibility, showing how we can see things one-at-a-time and all-at-once, as we do an image. We need both images and words to get not only to new ways of seeing and apprehending but to new ways of knowing and being in the world. I could not stop reading this book—and I will be returning to it again and again as I try to teach myself to be unflattened.