Session 8(a): Visual Facets and Fistulas

4th Global Conference


Wednesday 7th July 2010 – Friday 9th July 2010
Mansfield College, Oxford

Visual Pathography: Graphic representations of illness in David B.’s “Epileptic
Evita Lykou
University of York, York, United Kingdom

In this paper I will discuss how illness is presented via the graphic medium and how the very use of it creates the premises for understanding illness not merely as a somatic manifestation of poor health, but, in psychoanalytic terms, as a mental fermentation of unconscious instability and the Unconscious itself. In the graphic novel Epileptic, David B. recites his childhood as the younger brother of the epileptic Jean-Christophe, whose condition casts a heavy pall over the lives of the family; his illness does not respond to medical treatment, forcing his parents to search for alternative therapies; driving the whole family into a spiral of homeopathic and oriental practices, spiritualism, mysticism and occultism. This somewhat contradictory existence has dire consequences on the development of the younger siblings’ mentalities and is reflected in their adult lives. Throughout the course of the story, the disease acts as a major motive force, both in terms of plot and character development. Demonstrated through Epileptic’s distinctive art, this malaise bears down on every situation, trapping Jean-Christophe and his family in a repetitive loop of grinding hopelessness. In Epileptic, complex visual representations are employed to depict familiar circumstances; a visual construction that comprises of real-life, monsters and occultism; a truly nightmarish narration. In Epileptic’s use of both a communal linguistic and more subjective visual semiotic we can read the text as a graphic representation of the Unconscious, in psychoanalytic terms, particularly as formulated in confrontation with the mysterious sickness. The author-narrator attempts to reconstruct his childhood in order to illustrate, explain, and finally understand the brother’s illness which shaped his own life. The visual medium employed by David B. functions, as I will demonstrate, both as a means of creating and a means of understanding, a means of presenting, but also a means of perceiving.

Download Draft Conference Paper (pdf)

Cracking Galton: Re- Reading Galton’s Composite Photography
Suzanne Bailey
Department of English, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

The Victorian genius Francis Galton is a troubling figure in nineteenth-century science. On the one hand, he pioneered twin studies, invented the concept of statistical correlation, was the first to identify particular forms of synaethesia, and made important contributions to meteorology. On the other, he coined the term eugenics and, as a cousin of Darwin, pursued the notion of natural selection through marriage, publishing a utopian work of fiction on this theme. The codes he himself is most associated with ‘cracking’ involve criminology, as Galton was the first to popularize discoveries about the uniqueness of fingerprints and invented a particular kind of composite photography though which he attempted to identify criminal types.

Galton’s work has attracted surprisingly little critical attention, likely overshadowed by his deterministic leanings and the extremes to which his concept of eugenics were later taken in the early to mid-twentieth century. My contention is that we need to ‘crack’ Galton himself, both by probing his full scientific career, including the relationship with Darwin’s discoveries, and by examining the extent to which this unusual genius drew on his own mental experiences in the various thought-experiments which he records in works like Enquiries into Human Faculty (1883). In the larger project of which this paper is part, I take Galton’s work as paradigmatic of larger issues in Victorian culture and in our own time, involving genetics and patterns of inheritance, and fraught decisions about what we do with this knowledge.

In my conference paper, I focus on the example of Galton’s composite photography. These photographs have been read as part of an enterprise involving a semiotics which codes the body in terms of invisible states, whether these involve behavioural tendencies, or deviance from norms. As Anne Golomb Hoffman correctly observes (2009), the kinds of nineteenth-century endeavours represented by photography of mentally-ill patients at the Salpetriere are related to earlier practices such as phrenology; Galton’s work, too, I’d argue, provides a scientific ‘cover’ for older ideas. His theories of the ‘types’ revealed through composite photography flatten out or attenuate notions of individuality or uniqueness by positing universal, visually-identifiable identities. Galton develops these types as part of his fascination with statistical and other forms of patterning. His project ends up reinforcing long-established social stereotypes involving criminality and deviance. Yet our repulsion at such stereotyping has obscured other dimensions of Galton’s photography, evident in his reflections on the nature of photography and portraiture, as well as the “physiognomy” of disease. My paper examines some of these essays and asks whether aspects of Galton’s obsessions in effect prefigure current scientific endeavours in the age of the Human Genome and other such projects.

Childhood Depression and the Picture Book: Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree
Deborah Pike
The University of Notre Dame, Australia

This paper is a study of childhood depression as depicted in the award-winning picture book, The Red Tree (2001), written by and illustrated by Australian author Shaun Tan. The Red Tree presents a day in the life of a young girl ‘with nothing to look forward to’ (Tan 2001, p.1). Her subjective state is portrayed in a series of architectural metaphors which invoke a dystopic imaginary. Inspired by Georg Simmel’s argument that the preservation of the self in a modern city is the central problematic of modernity, this paper reflects upon Tan’s images of alienation and subjective ‘atrophy’ as the girl is faced with ‘the rapid change in external stimuli’ (Simmel 1969, p. 58) in a progressively mutating metropolis.

While the theme of the metropolis dominates in The Red Tree, Tan also charts the girl’s emotional states through a rich repertoire of fantastic images revealing of states of turmoil, isolation and depersonalisation: the girl is at one time lost at sea or trapped in a bottle, then alone in a desert or on stage as a puppet. The girl’s subjectivity simultaneously becomes and is projected into her environment. The red leaf, which appears on each page, becomes the transcendent symbol of hope and ‘disalienation’ which eventually restores a sense of self.

Tan’s work is suggestive of the contemporary reality of childhood depression in an increasingly urbanised world. The complex interaction of the visual and lexical symbols make the picture book a powerful and sophisticated mode of expression which can be used for therapeutic ends.