“Postmortemistical” Look: The Memory of Things and the Traces of Personhood in Roz Chast and Ben Katchor — Abstract

Here is the abstract of the paper I’m going to present at the Ninth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference, Retro! Time, Memory, Nostalgia, @Bournemouth University, UK, 27-29 June 2018
“Postmortemistical” Look: The Memory of Things and the Traces of Personhood in Roz Chast and Ben Katchor

The paper investigates the ways personal relationships and memories are organized around objects and things, and how these are rearranged once the object/thing is no longer possessed by a person (due to death in Chast’s memoir, and due to abandonment in Katchor’s strips). Objects are represented in both examined comics, that is, in Roz Chast’s memoir about her last years with her parents and their deaths, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Ben Katchor’s collection of strips, Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer: Stories (Little, Brown and Company 1996), as sites of a conflict between personal memory and an apersonal and atemporal existence.

In the paper I argue that in both Chast’s and Katchor’s comics, things and objects (cf. thing theory) exist in a limbo, and are used to investigate personality and personhood in scenarios of absence. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? introduces the idea that objects, such as hairbrushes, bankbooks, photographs, and forgotten everyday objects play important and multiple roles in facing the frailty of memory, dementia and death. Things, for example old color pencils found in a drawer, represent both the past and the present, they simultaneously stand for deep personal connections and fond, and are accumulated junk the existence of which indicates future problems (can it be touched? can it be thrown away?). Likewise, Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl Real Estate Photographer asks questions about the meaning of objects/things left behind: they exist simultaneously in a vacuum of interpretation and in the actuality of physical space. The things and objects are left behind, forgotten, stored, reserved, measured, bulked and sold, but most importantly, they are looked at and represented. The paper investigates the “postmortemistical” look (Chast) that frames these objects for the reader of the comics.

The paper utilizes questions raised by thing theory (Bill Brown and Jane Bennett), and it also builds on the materiality of living and the idea that even everyday and banal places preserve memory (reflecting on Pierre Nora’s concept). As far as methodology is concerned, I use close reading and compare recurring tropes.

knipl

 

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Spaces of Indecision: Interpreting Foreign Language Texts in Contemporary Non-Fiction Comics – Abstract

Comics Forum 2017
Comics and Space
Leeds, 21-22 Sept 2017

 

The presentation examines the challenge the readers face when encountering textual elements in comics that are written in a language inaccessible to the reader: such textual parts create spaces of indecision in the surface of the page, and entice the reader to improvisatorially decipher their relationship to the more easily accessible parts. These textual bits appear either in speech bubbles or in caption boxes, which indicates that they are meant to be part of the symbols that “tell” (Hatfield 40), but as they are undecipherable as language, their status as commentary is made uncertain. At the same time, they are not purely part of the symbols that “show” (Hatfield 40): they are not visual in the same sense as the drawn images in the same panel are, or in the same sense as textual bits appearing in the drawn sections (eg. street names) are. Such textual bits exist in a limbo, and I argue that they take part in the redistribution of both actual physical as well as cognitive space between textual and visual.

These textual sections not only frustrate the reader’s expectations about the roles of text and image in comics, they also question the usual spatial division between the two in a given panel or on a given page. They introduce a productive uncertainty in the experience of reading comics, the reader has to decide to what extent such elements are “decoration” and to what extent they are “language”. The works of comics journalists productively build on this limbo, for example in Rolling Blackouts Sarah Glidden does not give the translation of all textual elements. Multilingual comics artists refuse to translate all their text. With the rise of an increasingly multinational comics market and with contemporary comics non-fiction’s interest in the stories of non-English-speaking communities, such elements become more and more frequent.

I will show instances from Miriam Katin’s work where Hungarian and English text compete for space over the page, and make the reader conscious of the similarities of drawing and writing. I argue that especially in Letting It Go, Katin deliberately establishes such similarities over the surface of the pages, constantly shifting what brings the narrative forward and what is decoration. At the same time I will also show that the Hungarian text is not purely decorative – the archaic representation of these textual bits in both of Katin’s memoirs creates a special private space of memories and belonging for the protagonist and her mother, both living in exile.

 

Reference

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics. An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.