by Kevin Czap
Let’s talk numbers. I had taken a break from doing these influence talks inadvertently over the past several weeks. Luckily, L has been picking up the slack with her great posts. One that I particularly was excited to read was her riff on mathematics, partly because that was a topic I had thought about a lot and was gearing up to write on myself.
Of course, L and I have different backgrounds when it comes to math – I took the strictly (fine) art route and it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve taken any math courses. However, I can’t help but be fascinated by the subject, at least in terms of its application to areas that interest me more directly. I’ve been told off in the past (or at least disagreed with firmly) by a smarter CASE student when I said this before, but I see mathematics as an intricate language system that is a remarkable tool for helping human beings better understand this world. Numbers are the greatest system designed by men, a declaration supported by the fact that just about every other form of design rely on numbers and math to exist. I fascinated by how well the system works, it’s really beautiful even in its simplest applications.
The beautiful cohesion of this closed system, however, can sometimes pale in the comparison of other forms of language, particularly speech and writing (warning: I already confessed not having much serious knowledge in mathematics, so everything I’m saying here is coming from a biased viewpoint that favors the arts and humanities). With human language, as most of us are more familiar, the sheer adaptability and fluidity sets it above the more rigid number system. Whereas mathematics can be seen as a gorgeously designed object, lasting for ages due to its impeccable construction, language is a living organism that grows and changes constantly, not fitting to any strict definition for long.
Of course, we can’t easily separate these two things so easily, as there’s always been overlap between them throughout time. What I’m going to be talking about is a couple of points of such an intersection. Specifically, when artists use math metaphorically to grasp at things that otherwise escape our comprehension. Why math? Well, after all, it’s designed to deal in the abstract, capturing the terror and awe of the universe and crystallizing it into little shapes, handy enough to slip in between our letters and punctuation.
“Sparkle and Fall”
“The Only Girl at the Boy’s Party” – Sharon Olds, 1983
When I take my girl to the swimming party
I set her down among the boys. They tower and
bristle, she stands there smooth and sleek,
her math scores unfolding in the air around her.
They will strip to their suits, her body hard and
indivisible as a prime number,
they’ll plunge in the deep end, she’ll subtract
her height from ten feet, divide it into
hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
in the bright blue pool. When they climb out,
her ponytail will hang its pencil lead
down her back, her narrow silk suit
with hamburgers and french fries printed on it
will glisten in the brilliant air, and they will
see her sweet face, solemn and
sealed, a factor of one, and she will
see their eyes, two each,
their legs, two each, and the curves of their sexes,
one each, and in her head she’ll be doing her
sparkle and fall to the power of a thousand from her body.
I went to see Seth give one of his famous slide lectures at San Diego ’09. When he said the words “comics are more like graphic design and poetry,” my lid was flipped. I had been thinking similar thoughts around the same time, but never had been able to put them into words. Not only had I embarked on a graphic design career path, but there had been something radiating in my brain about poetry and comics. Though I’m not sure, I believe that was around the time this particular poem came back into my life.
From Sharon Olds’ second collection of poems, reading “The Only Girl at the Boy’s Party” sets off flashes in my brain. Here we have Olds applying mathematical and scientific terminology to a simple scene of children at a pool party. What this allows her to do is reveal that the simplicity on display is only in what our eyes can see. There is far more happening here and in any other given situation — power relationships, trajectories of potential, chemicals binding and reacting, time moving and unmoving. All told from the point of view of a keenly scientific and discerning, although not impartial (this is the girl’s mother, after all) mind. By combining the factual mathematical and biological data here with the love and art of human language, Olds is able to unlock the power in what is so often taken to be the mundane.
“We need an Instrument”
“Instrument” – Fugazi, 1993
That one is predetermined
That one, it finds another
This one comes in one window
Sliding out the other
We need an instrument to take a measurement
To find out if loss could weigh
We need to know value
We need to place value
In case it all comes true
Could it be loss could weigh?
It’s always they that’s dying
But now it’s we that’s dying
So sooner comes the trying to understand that loss could weigh
We’ve been dragged through the fire
We bragged about that fire
But suddenly we’re tired
Could it be that loss could weigh?
Loss could weigh
The math at work in “Instrument” is more indirect than Old’s poem, but it would seem that Fugazi has similar aims in using it. In fact, the very indeterminacy of the lyrics is the whole point of the message precisely. Take a lot at the opening and chorus — “that one,” “this one,” etc. We have no idea what exactly is being referred to (something gliding around, in and out of windows?) and the continued use of pronouns reinforces the call for an instrument capable of making sense of it all. Again we have an artist using mathematical/scientific terminology to illuminate some larger abstract concept that surrounds us at all times unseen.
Despite the obtuse use of language in the lyrics, we’re able to piece together at least one point of this song. Without attaching specific political references, the Fugazi boys are confronting the issue of how much death/destruction/loss is enough. And it’s not just about body counts — they’re looking for a way to quantify the whole scope of consequence. Psychologically, economically, environmentally, physiologically, etc. These are all things that would seem to be beyond our ability to comprehend, especially given the fact that most if not all of these consequences are ignored. “It’s always they… now it’s we.” The imperative is there to understand these things but not the tools to do it.
As with most things beyond human grasp, this song invokes the structure of the empirical method to try to get a handle on the incalculable. With “Instrument,” however, the power comes from taking the focus off of the structure and placing it on the invocation. One of the many many reasons Fugazi is such an important influence for me is how poetic the songs are. Ian MacKaye describes it like this, which I feel is a fitting way to round up this section — “if you’re making clothes, if words or songs or lyrics are clothes, then really direct ideas become uniforms that anybody can put on… it’s easier to abuse because the ideas were finished… so in later years I thought I shouldn’t really produce finished articles of clothing, I should try to work on creating really quality fabric for people to make their own clothes.” 1
“The Sunset” – Kevin Huizenga, 2001
This is one of my favorite comics of all time, yes yes yes. I can say unequivocally that when I first read this short, all of the ideas I had about the comics medium were wiped clean and I was able to start again from a new, more enlightened, place. This is comics as music, comics as poetry, comics as comics. Not only is it a deeply moving experience, but it’s hilarious too, in that special Kevin H way (look at that first panel, with the book!).
So we Kevin Huizenga, long time advocate for diagramming, taking a similar approach to mathematical conventions as we’ve seen in the previous two examples. A day at the library with Glenn Ganges turns into an explosion of meaning as our senses get cranked up a thousandfold. In the second image posted above, the great climactic centerfold, Huizenga lets loose and seems to diagram every possible aspect of the scenario. Glenn’s stray thoughts, the location of the celestial bodies and the noises from outside are all vibrating atoms make up the larger matter of the page. I also love how much silly comic iconography is in there, lots of Herriman, lots of exasperated flopping. One of the little pieces that really sends me through the roof is how the birds’ chirping, represented as musical notes (cartoon eyes), sprout legs from their speech bubbles and run amok. The speed of sound!
Too in-depth an analysis here isn’t necessary, this comic is all about experiential stimuli. Ten years later, Huizenga is still a master of the form, and I am constantly moved to make more and better comics because of things like this. After all, as he puts it, “I don’t think less, or fewer, is always more, or specifically, better. Not necessarily.” 2
To wrap it up
Rhythm, as much as if not more than language, is the invisible engine that sends poetry, music and comics along. And as most musicians, poets and comics artists can tell you, rhythm is just the sort of thing that we have devised number systems to help us understand. Because as I’ve been talking about mathematics as a manmade construct, it’s important to consider that it relates to a natural phenomenon. Place three blocks in front of you, the amount there is a constant, at least to our eyes, however we’ve collectively made up the concept of three to help us understand what we’re looking at. So from this logic, it is absolutely appropriate to use these same systems to continue to make sense of the world through art.
I’ll often get stuck on thinking that my approach to certain topics is too literal. Works like the ones I’ve discussed here are invaluable to me in helping adjust my thought processes to a more abstract framework. Not just for whatever reason, but because it’s the greater abstractions, the meanings behind these literal problems, that I’m really interested in addressing. So having another angle to approach my work from allows my brain to stay active and, hopefully, I can produce something that is truer to my view of the world.