This week there has been a flurry of activity on the #gridsgestures hash tag on Twitter as many people have responded to Nick Sousanis’ invitation to draw the shape of your day each day for a week, i.e. to take part in his Grids and Gestures- A Comics Making Exercise. I discovered this activity on the second day, via Matthias Melcher, who has done some great drawings, just as I finished reading Sousanis’ book ‘Unflattening’. It was also Matthias who encouraged me to read the book which has helped to give depth to the exercise.
‘Unflattening’ is a gem of a book. Not only is it visually very compelling – a lovely object in its own right, but the text (which is presented in comic format and is no greater or less than the images) resonates so much with my own work and research. The book is an outcome of Nick Sousanis’ PhD dissertation which he presented in comic format. There is no traditional literature review, but the ideas are informed by historians, scientists, philosophers, educational theorists and artists, many of whom inform my own work.
So what does Nick Sousanis mean by unflattening? The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.
In support of this, Nick Sousanis points out that we see with two eyes, not one, and each eye gives us a different perspective. There is no one perspective. He reminds us that some of the most revolutionary changes of thinking in our history have come about through changes in viewpoint, for example the realisation that the Earth is not flat, its circumference can be measured (Eratosthenes) or that the Earth is not the centre of our universe but moves around the sun (Copernicus).
Like McGilchrist (whose work I have written about before), Sousanis reminds us that we tend to see only what we are looking for rather than see the whole picture. Others have recognised this. Stephen Downes (2014) has talked about this in relation to research methodologies and Checkland and Scholes’s work in soft systems methodology (2001) was about mapping different perceptions in order to better understand the whole rich picture. Sousanis draws on the work of Dreyfuss, Deleuze and Guattari, Bakhtin, Mandelbrot and others to drive home the point that differences are essential, that we need to hold different ways of knowing in relation, that we need views of our own and others and that we need to overcome linear static views through shifts in awareness. As flatlanders, our vision is limited. We need a different attitude, a different orientation, a multi-dimensional view.
Sousanis discusses how traditionally words and images are not equal partners (text has the upper hand) and given that language is the means by which we give shape to our thoughts then this defines what we see. He writes ‘While image IS; text is always ABOUT’. In comics words and pictures co-habit. Comics are the spatial interplay between the sequential and the simultaneous. This is illustrated in this image from his book ‘unflattening’.
Source of image – http://www.comicsgrid.com/articles/10.5334/cg.ax/
Sousanis points out that perception is a dynamic activity in which we see things in relation, we negotiate experience. We create perception from a multitude of views. To experience another’s way of knowing we need to step out of our rut and take a leap of imagination. ‘We need a kaleidoscope of views that convey both our own dimensionality and dynamic capability (p.148) …… Understanding, like seeing, is grasping this always in relation to that’ (p.150).
Checkland, P.B. and J. Scholes (2001). Soft Systems Methodology in Action, in J. Rosenhead and J. Mingers (eds), Rational Analysis for a Problematic World Revisited. Chichester: Wiley
Downes, S. (2014, May 26). Digital Research Methodologies Redux. Retrieved from http://www. downes.ca/presentation/341
Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Harvard University Press
Sousanis, N. (2016) Tapestry Keynote. https://youtu.be/7veGaFlu9Xk
For a review of Nick Sousani’s book see: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/215762