personal masses

comic-al memes

Currently, I’m working on a translation of Rudolphe Töpffer’s essays on the invention and practice of composing graphic novels. When reading the prompt for this part of the seminar (specifically: “relate the meme to a more general linguistic/aesthetic tendency and to a form of personal expression”), I saw an opportunity to connect what Töpffer was doing in the early- and mid-nineteenth century to the meme. This isn’t really a stretch since both comics and memes work with a “general linguistic/aesthetic tendency and to a form of personal expression.” However, I think it’s worth highlighting some of Töpffer views here to extend the concept of a meme.

Töpffer was trained as a rhetorician in Paris circa the 1820s, where he studied the Greek Classics, modern literature, and philosophy, while also studying painting and caricature with his father, a regional artists. While his initial ambition was to become a fine artist, following in the footsteps of his father, he was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease while in Paris. After this diagnosis, he left Paris for his hometown, Geneva, where he took a post as a schoolmaster in 1824 before starting his own school in 1827, and, in 1832, he received an appointment as the equivalent of an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Modern Literature at the Academy of Geneva. In all likelihood (although I haven’t found a direct reference for this claim), part of what helped him receive this appointment at the Academy of Geneva was that Goethe publicly supported his graphic novels as a ‘mad’, ‘unique’, and wonderful innovation in art, literature, and socio-cultural critique (there are plenty of references to this latter claim; Willems, “Between Panoramic and Sequential”; Kunzle, “Goethe and Caricature”; Raebum, Chris Ware, “Building a Language”;, “Comic Transformation”)

Much of his work was focused on the use of both image and text to gesture toward a personal attunement to the world (e.g., landscapes) and to other people–in this last part he focused on Hegel’s challenge (posed in the Lecture on the Fine Arts) to re-develop the ancient Greek use of physiognomy in sculpture back into the arts. Töpffer’s work in his 1845 “Essai on Physiognomonie” was the culmination of his 14-year study of physiognomics (at the time the pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology were all the rage in Europe and the Americas) not as “another grand system,” but as a guide for the representation of an individual’s “inner mood,” as interpreted by the artist. In one of the first essays that he published, “Of a Genevan Painter,” he speaks about how his students (a new population of students from the ‘lower classes’ who had just been given the opportunity to attend schools as the Industrial Revolution was getting underway) would doodle using the classical Greek concepts he brought into the classroom. Here’s the passage he includes about one such student in the essay:

Jacques indeed was at first destined for the grocery store, and as a result, he decided to go to college to learn Latin. Apparently not well-suited to this study, he fell behind, and little by little he took residence in the last row, where, he thought judiciously, was the place for the benefit of beginners. Having a fixed post there, with a group of selected rascals, of babbling pupils, not very fearful of being hit, much less of bad grades, Jacques increasingly pulled away from the language that leads to everything [Latin]; and rather than doing nothing, I set him to using the tools he preferred, by which I mean pens and paper; sketching images in his notebooks in such a way that you would have found a beautiful Roman slaying a Carthaginian instead of a single word of proper Latin. This is what the austere regent was embittered about, and one day told him solemnly: “Jacques, your Latin revolves around barbarisms and solecisms; you will not make anything of yourself.” It was well said, but the classmates in the room, the family, and neighbors beyond the [class]room, marveled at seeing the beautiful Roman and his rifle, saying the exact opposite. “How amusing!,” seeing a little of what he had made. And without having learned how to draw, added the father. This is what Jacques came to understand, that he liked this language much better than the other one, and increasingly drew more, scribbling; so well that, having made one day, to the great delight of his classmates in the back row, a beautiful portrait of the regent with a long nose, spectacles, and a doctoral expression; caught in the act, he was reprimanded and kicked out. For which his father scolded him harshly, but even while scolding him, he smiled at the drawing, which Jacques understood much better than the scolding. Out of this example, Töpffer began develop Jacques’s work into a method for writing with image and text in a popular mode, according to the writer-artist’s individual manner of work. The method he develops from this medium eventually becomes what we today call comics and graphic novels, and the results of this practice, he argues, is a better representation of an individual’s thinking than any external representation of that individual–i.e., not the representation of an individual produced by an artist/writer, but the artist’s or writer’s representation of his/her interpretations; that is, the way individuals forms their personal expressions.

Today, comics and graphic novels have moved way beyond the linguistic/aesthetic practices that Töpffer initially envisaged. For example, take a look at Özge Samanci’s work on Planting Comics, GPS Comics, and Embodied Comics. As Samanci argues in “From Site-Specific to Location-Based Comics,” comics/graphic novels are no longer just a medium, but a genre with diverse methods for communicating personal expressions through both linguistic and aesthetic modes–aesthetic modes that, as we might argue using her work, now include new materialist and rhetorical-ecological approaches for graphic storytelling.

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