Effects on Cognition

Scott McCloud publishes <em>Understanding Comics </em> and academic study begins in earnest.


Bill Watterson satirizes the complexity

of the written word using text and fixed

image narrative.

Walter Ong is well known for his work with reading and cognition. In his book, Orality and Literacy, he discusses the cognitive and social changes brought on by the advent of writing and ultimately print. During the age of primary orality, humans, Ong argues, had a greater sense of communal identity. This continued even after writing was introduced, as most of the earliest manuscripts were written to be read aloud to groups. These groups had a shared experience that knit them together as a unit. The visual space, spelling, and aesthetics of the actual book were unimportant. Instead, it was how a work was read or performed that dictated its reception. However, in the mid-fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press. With this monumental invention, Ong and McLuhan insist, we see a dramatic shift in the way men and women read, interact with text, and think (Ong 2004 and McLuhan 1968). Moveable type deconstructed the word, which prior to writing was nothing but sounds. Once the word was deconstructed, it became an object that could be commodified. In addition to the commodification of words and the printed text, we also see a dramatic shift in the way people read and interacted with texts. Once the printing press was in full use across Europe, more and more people began reading. The book lost its luster as a social medium and became a private medium. Silent reading took precedence over reading aloud to an audience, and in this silence, the acts of introspection and eventually individualization took hold. 

While McLuhan insists that technological advancements created contexts in which we could form modern society, Ong delves deeper and goes beyond technological determinism. He explores cognition and how new cognitive acts affected society. He complicates the simpler teleology with a more complex view that combines Kubler’s useful and aesthetic inventions. In this way, the advent of print became both a useful invention that allowed for the scientific revolution, the Renaissance, and the industrial revolutions to take place and shape our world, and an aesthetic invention that changed the way that we interact with one another, see ourselves, and perceive our world. We shifted from an oral culture that gathered most of our new information by listening, to a visual culture that gathered most of our new information by reading (Ong 2004). The words, once oral, transitory, and shared were now visual, fixed, and individualized. Words were reified and fixed in space on a flat sheet of paper because “printing situates words in space more relentlessly than writing ever did” (Ong 2004). The reification of words is an interesting and necessary development in the evolution of the comic book because the idea of words fixed in space was even more essential with comics. Once printed materials became the standard, identical copies of texts were readily available. These identical texts fixed information and topics to specific pages, allowing for the rise of indexes and lists that were dependent upon a word’s fixed location in space. Ong points out several examples of early printed texts that were entirely dependent upon spacing of words on a page for their meaning. Taken out of their physical space, the words became meaningless. The same can be said of the comic book and graphic novel.

Without the specific placement of panels, text boxes, and words in speech bubbles, in conjunction with the graphic images used to tell the story, a comic is meaningless. One only needs to read a comic out loud to a friend for this assertion to be self-evident. The more complex a narrative becomes, the more essential the placement of words in relation to images in space also becomes. In this sense, the comic book and graphic novel extend the cognitive move from community-centered, shared experiences to introspective, individualized experiences. While the modern novel may well be read aloud in a classroom, to a child, or an ill family member, most text and fixed image media, by definition, defy the return to orality.