This year marks the 170th anniversary of the publication of Rudolphe Töpffer’s Essai de Physiognomonie, a work addressing the theoretical grounding informing the invention of graphic literature and public scholarship that has much in common with contemporary issues surrounding the role of academic discourse in public discourse.
While well known among comics scholar, Töpffer remains a relatively minor figure in the histories of (visual) rhetoric, philosophy, media studies, graphic literature, and public art despite having been a widely popular author-artist during his lifetime.
According to Chris Ware—one of the more popular, innovative, and theoretical comics artist-writers today—Töpffer was “admired by both Goethe and Tolstoy,” and despite being urged by Goethe “to publish his ‘comic albums,’ he remained reluctant to do so “for fear of being branded a ‘caricaturist’” (“Rudolphe Töpffer” 20-21).
Sadly, this characterization of comics-artists as ‘mere caricaturists’ persists in contemporary popular culture and even in academic environments where comics and graphic novels have entered the curriculum. To move beyond this characterization, it may help to examine Töpffer’s rationale for the invention of comics and some considerations that could ground the historical roots of academic multimodal project and new media.
Here I want to offer some brief notes on Töpffer’s late reflections on comics as it relates to contemporary issues related to the public arts and multimodal scholarship. Perhaps the first important thing to note is that Töpffer was trained as an academic in the Greek Classics and literature, studying in a Paris university while simultaneously studying figure drawing with his father—a regional painter and caricaturist.
While in Paris, Töpffer developed a degenerative eye disease that, as French literary historian Philippe Willems argues, “forced [Töpffer] to reconsider his options” (227). After serving as a schoolmaster in Geneva for a handful of years, he founded his own schoolhouse in 1827 before being appointed the equivalent of an Assistant Professor (of rhetoric and modern literature) at the Academy of Geneva.
At first, the form of literature in prints emerged as a pedagogical method for teaching his students at the schoolhouses where he worked, but later became a mode of bring academic knowledge to a general public. In chapter 3 of the 1845 Essai de Physiognomonie, he writes:
“There are books and books, and many very profound, many very worthy of admiration for the beautiful things they contain, which are not usually quickly perused by the greatest number of people. Of the most mediocre, provided that they are sound in themselves and engaging for the strong of spirit, they often exercise a better understanding of an action and, thus, are more advantageous. That is why we think that with whatever talent in line drawing (along with some discipline), even people with little ability can exercise a very useful influence with the practice of literature in prints.”
Two things to note from this passage:
- Töpffer appears critical of traditional academic publications for not engaging (or even considering) the significance of such work for a wide public audience (“not usually perused by the greatest number of people”); and
- The quality of the art in comics is not as significant a consideration in their composition as is their ability to provide even the least skilled artist an opportunity to convey knowledge through the use of text and image, where image also indicated the use of bodily gesture—e.g., a manner of incorporating the gesticulations in oral speech lost in the millennia-long era of literacy since Plato (who he was likely familiar with given his collegiate education).
In another passage (from chapter 3), he consider the use of the then-recent development of lithographic printing technologies while also decrying those technologies’ ability to reflect the autographic method of visual representation:
“in the question concerning literature in prints—which is to say a series of sketches where accuracy counts for little and where, in contrast, the clarity of the idea, quickly, elementarily expressed, counts for everything—there is nothing comparable to the speed, the convenience, the economy of the autographic method that requires neither an intermediary engraver nor that we draw in reverse for the printed image to be found correct, nor to wait more than an hour before the image is ready to be etched onto the engraving stone, ready to produce one thousand or two thousand copies. For the greatest speed and least embarrassment, we will not employ, ourselves, such a process only crude enough for printing pamphlets and circulars; however, we have enough practice to be well convinced that its use has the potential to be infinitely perfected, to the point of producing equivalent results as those of etchings supported by dry point and burin.”
In this passage, Töpffer obviously favors the method of hand-drawing literature in prints for each pamphlet over the use of printing technologies. However, it is important to note that these technologies were in their (relative) infancy at the time, and that they were prone to leave break that disrupted the image, such as this series of image from the essay:
Almost two centuries later, these technologies are far more advanced—including the recent development of 3D-printers—that offer the potential for multimodal writing projects aimed at engaging public audience with multimodal and installation based arts projects beyond fields within the traditional category of the Fine Arts.
In my own fields—rhetoric (across oral, digital, and material cultures), communication, and media studies—this kind of work has been underway for decades (Audiovisual Thinking, Hyperrhiz, Kairos, Itineration, Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, among others), even while rendering resistance from institutions that maintain allegiance to ‘the many very profound and worthy of admiration books’ that contain academic knowledge.
Given Töpffer’s interest in public arts and humanities work, and his interest in emerging technologies, I find it difficult to imagine that he wouldn’t be intrigued and excited about the possibilities of video and other digital technologies (within rhetorical and literary studies) for bring academic knowledge and research to public audiences.
However, as Willems and David Kunzle have both noted, Töpffer’s work received a lot of skepticism in his bid for promotion (and tenure) from his colleagues at the Academy of Geneva, due to his work with such an unconventional form of scholarship. While he did eventually earn tenure, even rising to become Chair of the Rhetoric and Modern Literature department at the Academy of Geneva, Töpffer’s vision for offering (open) access of academic knowledge to a wide public has emerging opportunities has yet to be accepted by the traditional university, as demonstrated in works like Mark Goulthorpe’s and Gregory Ulmer’s critique of the Recommendations of the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education – “Advising the Tyrant of Syracuse: Notes on the Recommendations on the Future of MIT Education”).
And GAIN’s collective of “visionaries and change-makers” (“Home”) is part of the move toward realizing Töpffer’s 170-year old vision on wider, systemic (in both public and university) scale.
Sergio C. Figueiredo is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Kennesaw State University with teaching and research interests in rhetorical theory, media rhetorics, comics, visual design/composition, professional communication, and public and civic engagement.
Originally published May 9, 2015.