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The cognitive grammar of ‘I’: Viewing arrangements in graphic autobiographies

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Gerard Genette’s classic questions about narrative perspective – ‘Who sees?’ and ‘Who speaks?’ – are at their most relevant when it comes to the multimodal narrative intricacies of autobiographical graphic novels. The already complex matter of narration and focalization in a purely visual medium is distinctly complicated when taking the different perspectives of the narrating ‘I’ and the experiencing ‘I’ into account. Furthermore, many acclaimed autobiographical comics, including works like Maus, Fun Home, Blankets or Safe Area Goražde, thematize the construction of their viewpoints, addressing issues of memory, objectivity and (un-)reliability. In this article, I propose a new approach to this complexity, turning to cognitive linguistics – more specifically, to the model of cognitive grammar established by Ronald Langacker and his concept of ‘viewing arrangements’. In Langacker’s theory, all categories of grammar are based on cognitive conceptualizations that represent our position in the world and our relation to our surroundings. These conceptualizations have a distinctly visual bent. In Langacker’s terminology, a ‘viewing arrangement’ is a model of how a viewer conceptualizes a scene, ‘the overall relationship between the “viewers” and the situation, being “viewed”’. These arrangements change constantly, as conceptualizers focus on various parts of their environment, imbuing them with different meanings and expressing various degrees of subjectivity. Applying Langacker’s model to examples from autobiographic graphic novels, I will use the concept of the ‘viewing arrangement’ to illustrate how intricate narrative perspectives in these works can be analysed systematically and how different degrees of subjectivity are constructed with the formal means of comics. The model may not only help to untangle the narrative intricacies of autobiographies, but may enrich discussions of narration and focalization in comics generally.
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Keywords: Cognitive Grammar; autobiography; focalization; multimodality; subjectivity; viewing arrangements

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Ruprecht-Karls-Universit├Ąt Heidelberg

Publication date: October 1, 2013

More about this publication?
  • Studies in Comics aims to describe the nature of comics, to identify the medium as a distinct art form, and to address the medium's formal properties. The emerging field of comics studies is a model for interdisciplinary research and in this spirit this journal welcomes all approaches. This journal is international in scope and provides an inclusive space in which researchers from all backgrounds can present new thinking on comics to a global audience. The journal will promote the close analysis of the comics page/text using a variety of methodologies. Its specific goal, however, is to expand the relationship between comics and theory and to articulate a "theory of comics". The journal also includes reviews of new comics, criticism, and exhibitions, and a dedicated online space for cutting-edge and emergent creative work.

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