Jack and I were in Helsinki last week and he was educating me on comics. I’ve finally read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in which McCloud presents the Picture Plane, a triangle with pictures on the left, text on the right, realism at the base and iconic at the apex:
We were debating whether it was totalising or not and so to demonstrate an alternative scheme, we used comics at the centre of a Greimas semantic rectangle. Aside: I didn’t know before, but Greimas was a Lithuanian semiotician. I don’t know if you’ve ever handled Lithuanian currency, but the coins are aluminium and disconcertingly light, like plastic. Holding them is a peculiar experience, as it highlights how much we – well, I – associate weight with worth. Recommended.
Here is a semantic rectangle, from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars:
The idea is that you start with the inner rectangle and fill in the S first. Robinson’s example is ‘allowed: marriage.’ Then you fill in the opposite, which Robinson gave as ‘not allowed: female adultery.’ The contrary – the stronger negative – is next, and that’s ‘forbidden: incest.’ The bottom left is the hardest, generally. Robinson picks ‘neither forbidden nor not allowed: male adultery.’
The trick is that all the four have to go together like cogs, so if you can’t fill in the bottom left then you’ve probably got one or two of the others wrong.
Then you make combinations of each pair of corners, and create the outer rectangle.
I like to start with the four points of that main rectangle, do the combinations, and then work inwards one step (to find the underlying concepts), then work outwards again, to see what we reach. So that’s what we did. Comics are at the top-right of the third rectangle in (and, below the image, translated out of handwriting):
It’s a bit hard to read.
- Comics, literature, cinema and shouting are on the main rectangle.
- These are underpinned by a regular 2-by-2: words vs pictures, crossed with read-by-approach vs endure/accosted-by.
- The first level of combining yields: Russian iconography; Powerpoint; adverts; graffiti.
- Recombining yields: Signage; clipart; 2-second understanding; public space.
A sample route is that comics (which are pictures that are read by approaching) combine with literature to make Russian iconography, which itself combines with Powerpoint to make clipart.
I don’t know what it means!