Saturday, June 20, 2009

A printed rose, by any other name, still smells like ink

As I write this, I have open on the table next to me a copy of Gary Larson's The PreHistory of the Far Side, an anthology of both his cartoons as well as the creative process that went into their creation. I have the book open to a particular panel, a full page of penguins, a veritable sea of them, filling the frame of the cartoon like academics at a conference, thickly huddled, but each looking lost in thought and separate intention.

In the middle of the frame, one lone penguin, wings outstretched, rises above the herd (perhaps I should say "flock," but the Nietzschean connotations of "herd" are important here). Beak to the sky, this lone ueber-penguin sings out with joy, "I gotta be me, oh I just gotta be me..."

Beneath the cartoon, to give the cartoon some explanation and context, Larson has written,
"My publisher's gift and stationary division decided one day they wanted to make this and a few other Far Side cartoons into posters. The problem was this one particular cartoon featured nothing but penguins and ice, which didn't lend itself to color. When the finished posters showed up, I was interested to see they had indeed found a use for color in this cartoon--they made the one penguin (who's singing "I Gotta Be Me") yellow--the others remained black and white. In other words, the entire point of the cartoon had been reversed. In the original version, I was being cynical about the futility of trying to be unique in a sea of commonality. But by making just the singing penguin yellow, the publisher made him stand out, and the cartoon then made the same point the song originally intended."
I remember that poster from my college years. I saw classmates hang it on their dormitory room walls, and we sold it for a time in the bookstore in which I worked on campus. Even at the time (almost twenty years ago now), the yellow penguin struck me as odd. Then, a couple years back, I first read Larson's comments I quoted above. In the time since, I have come to find this strange story of cartoonist and publisher an increasingly lucid example of two interesting points about Bibles, their publication, and their interpretation.

The first point is glaringly obvious once we have heard Larson's version of the events surrounding his monochromatic penguins. Publishers, in the course of publishing, alter the "thing" they publish. Larson claims that the cartoon has one "meaning." Then the publisher has--through the act of turning the cartoon into a poster for distribution--given the image a different and opposite "meaning."

The second point is related to the first. Publishers, in the process of publishing, make these sorts of amendments and additions to the "things" they publish because--whether we are talking about the American corporate marketplace of big-box retailers or the often-praised "marketplace of ideas"--the governing idea of retail is that "different is good." The "new and improved" product or idea, differentiated from the herd, is the one that will catch the eye and move off the shelf faster. At least, so goes the common wisdom.

Why I like this strange little story, about this strange little cartoon and its ambiguously interpreted penguin, is because these questions of differentiation and sameness are, on one level, the very stuff of the cartoon itself. The undifferentiated penguin of the "original meaning," rising up from the sea of sameness, prompts the viewer to consider the ultimate success or futility of the gesture, for in this defiant act of differentiation, there is no observable difference. The discomfort of the juxtaposition is what makes it funny.

It is hard to imagine a way in which making the penguin yellow would make the joke funnier. In fact, it could be argued (as Larson does) that coloring the penguin removes the joke entirely. This fact raises its own series of slightly discomforting juxtapositions. The point of the cartoon, we imagine, is to provoke humor. Yet, with the addition of the coloring (if we trust Larson's assessment) the joke is muted, if not lost. Which might lead us to ask, if the point of reproducing the joke on a wide scale is not the joke itself, what is the point?

There is another interesting question that follows upon this, namely, is Larson the expert with regard to the humor (or lack thereof) of his cartoons? Does his assessment, his claim that his intended meaning was lost, carry weight in this matter? As the "author" of the cartoon, does his "intent" make a difference? If his intent has been abrogated in some manner, is the cartoon in some way invalidated?

I raise these questions because, when we are dealing with one cartoon, created by one cartoonist, these questions of "authorial intent" may seem more straightforward than a situation where we are considering a more ancient manuscript, with several potential (and potentially unknown) authors, let alone scores of redactors and storytellers repeating variations on the theme prior to its being "fixed" in written form. This apparent difference (that we are "closer" to the author's intention in the case of Larson) may not ultimately prove accurate, but we can use it, at least for a moment, as a fulcrum for our analysis.

Consider: Larson crafted a piece of artwork with a certain intended "meaning" (i.e., cynicism about clamoring for "uniqueness"). Larson then signed over to his publisher the rights to reproduce and distribute this artwork on a mass scale, in exchange for financial compensation (fairly standard practice between cartoonists and their distributors). The "original" cartoon artwork is then prepared for publication through a process of graphic design, layout, and prepress decisions. In order to make the sale of these reproduced objects more likely, steps were taken during this prepress process to make the image more eye-catching; to make the image unique and differentiated from other products a consumer might be enticed to buy. Hence the layout artists and prepress executives decide to make an alteration (but is it an alteration or an enhancement?) to the "original" artwork, and a resulting alteration (but is it an alteration or an interpretation?) is made to the "meaning" of the piece.

I am putting this term, "meaning," in quotation marks for the moment. I am doing so because, in my estimation, we often use this word too casually. We are often very comfortable--too comfortable--proclaiming authoritatively what things "mean," as if this were an unproblematic and undisputed fact that was available to everyone, everywhere (or at least every sane one, everywhere), plain for all to see and comprehend.

I would like to suggest that--even in the present case--"meaning" is more complex than that.

For instance, my Mother and I had an ongoing conversation for many years, from my youth and into adulthood, about my interest in comic books. Comic books, of course, are basically just long-form cartoons. My Mother, and, I am sure, many who share her opinion, might wonder why there would be an entire industry (actually, a multi-billion-dollar industry at present) devoted to what basically are nothing more than "squiggles on a page." This viewpoint (that comic art is frivolous, and thus by its very nature a waste of time) might preclude some readers, therefore, from seeing any "meaning" in Larson's cartoon. For readers convinced this is all frivolity anyway, to speak of the cartoon having a "meaning" (let alone to spend time debating what that "meaning" might be) would therefore be at best a waste of time, and at worst a rank absurdity.

Furthermore, we might also imagine whole groups of people in the world who, for a variety of reasons, would look at Larson's cartoon and also fail to find any "meaning" there. For example, certain autistics have difficulty discerning the "meaning" of pictorial representations and abstracted concepts. Line drawings of emotional situations, for example, are for such readers not connected to the emotional situations that occur between people. Hence, for such an audience, the "meaning" of Larson's cartoon might prove elusive.

Moreover, we can certainly assume that there are people in the world who, for a variety of socioeconomic or geographic reasons, have no idea whatsoever what a "penguin" is. Therefore a cartoon about a landscape full of penguins may strike them as odd for very different reasons than the reasons an "informed" reader might give. That is to say, many styles of readers may find the cartoon "funny," but the root of the humor will perhaps be quite different.

Each of these alterations of perspective--though admittedly somewhat fanciful--point to the difficulty of claiming, without complication, that there is some singular "meaning" to the cartoon, even given Larson's assertion that the cartoon was supposed to have a particular "meaning." There seem, instead, to be a series of interpretations, each with a varying attachment to something we might term "humor," which arise in response to the physical object (the cartoon printed on the poster or the page).

Added to all these complications is the complicated matter of Larson himself, and his intention in writing (is this the appropriate term?) this cartoon. As the author of the work, we might very well be tempted to give his intended meaning pride of place as the meaning of the cartoon. Such a simplified position, however, arises only in the suppression of certain salient material facts. Larson entered into a contractual relationship with his syndicated publisher, who, from a legal standpoint, is thereafter considered the "author" of the work. (This is commonplace. For example, I signed a similar agreement with my publisher regarding the book I am writing, and one sees this sort of transfer-of-authorship language often as well in the end credits of feature films.) In other words, the publisher, in compensating the artist in exchange for the rights of distribution, claims the right to be considered, in a limited or full extent, as the originator of the work.

Once the solitary, "original" work moves into the realm of reproducibility, all sorts of factors introduce themselves. When reproduction is undertaken by hand, the possibility of "scribal errors" is always present, by which the copying of a text or image allows for the introduction of a host of misrepresentations. In the history of Bible transmission prior to the introduction of mechanical printing, for example, we have innumerable instances of words being miscopied, transliterated, truncated, added-to, inserted or omitted. At times these emendations are unintentional, at other times intentional, and very often their appearance is simply inscrutable. Regardless of reason, they happen. Moreover, in order to consider these emendations as "errors," one must have access to--or imagine--the original. With regard to our ancient manuscripts, this process of recovering "the original" is always a mixture of both access and imagination. The matters of "authorial intent" and "meaning" are never pure in this process--whether we regard the "original" or the copies (which become oddly "co-authored" through interpolation)--and the claims of experts to know the contents of the original documents is as much a political claim as it is a scholarly one.

Mechanical reproduction (such as printing and lithography), in a similar, though not identical, fashion to by-hand reproduction, introduces an instability into the claims of authorial intent with regard to the fixture of "meaning." For example, films are edited, sometimes without the input or consent of the director (leading to the growing number of "director's cuts" available to the public); moreover, in the making of films (particularly big-budget ventures) the script itself will often be rewritten several times, by any number of writers who may or may not share, or even know, the "original" writer's "intent" and vision.

Consider the large-scale industry that flourished in the 1980's and '90's around taking classic black and white films and "colorizing" them. To what extent, in such cases, is the "black and white" aspect of the medium essential or optional? Books, whether fiction or nonfiction, pass through editors and marketing departments, committees of vetting readers, and (increasingly) focus groups of demographically-balanced "ideal" readers, each of whom leave their unseen but indelible mark on the "original intent" of the author. Lithographic, color-separated and offset reproductions of photographs and paintings are subject to mechanical factors affecting the size, contrast, tinting and coloration of the mass-representation of the "original" piece. The songs you hear on the radio have gone through not only a series of circuits and filters that "compress" the sound (allowing it to be broadcast more easily over the airwaves or through an MP3 file), but the voices of the singers themselves are increasingly manipulated to render correct pitch and timbre. Instruments are sampled and textures of sound are synthesized through ever-more sophisticated plug-ins for digital computer recording consoles.

It is difficult, in sum, to find any current expression of human creativity available through the mass market that is not, in varying ways, mediated and manipulated by dozens, if not hundreds, of unseen hands. As noted above, these unseen hands, in very real ways, serve as "co-authors" in the final object we purchase and consume.

To return to Gary Larson's cartoon, then, the matter becomes complex. We can romantically assert that his "intention" with the cartoon was to express a pure message of cynicism regarding assertions of individuality. But, if this were the simple fact of the matter, then why not simply draw the cartoon and (in a sort of Emily-Dickinsen-at-least-while-she-was-alive-and-before-anyone-knew-or-cared-about-the-posthumous-"Emily-Dickinsen-the-genius-poet" sort of move) lock it in a steamer trunk in the attic? Larson did not do this. Instead, Larson's "intention" was not only to make the cynical point, but to distribute the cartoon in which the cynical point was made in the hopes of making a profit. In other words, Larson's "intention" was not "pure," at least in the romantic sense considered above. It was always a complex intention, involving both "meaning" and "market" aspects.

I do not note this as a criticism, but rather to highlight the often-overlooked fact that it is very difficult (certainly in our present age, and perhaps in all ages) to locate these "pure" and non-complex "meanings" and "intentions." Authors, in the hopes of being distributed and read, make compromises on the "pure meaning" of whatever they create through handing the "original" over to these myriad unseen co-authors. Not only is this ubiquitous, it is, I assert, an unchangeable fact. Like the songs we hear on the radio, our artwork, our literature, and our Scriptures have been filtered and altered by the very processes through which they become available to us, removed as we are from the "original" authors and their "intentions."

Do not, in other words, blame that one yellow penguin. That one yellow penguin is all of us.

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