Unflattening: A review

BOOK REVIEW by Professor Carol Hendrickson


by Nick Sousanis

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015


      Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening started its life as the author’s doctoral dissertation from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Done entirely as comics (the author’s preferred term), the work is said to be the first graphic dissertation and a work that presents new possibilities for words-and-images in academic realms.

      The stated goal of the work is “to discover new ways of seeing, to open spaces for possibilities, and to find ‘fresh methods’ for animating and awakening” (27).[1] Of course, I’m using words and highlighting one of the author’s key blocks of text here, but such is the propositionality of language to enable us to reference and make claims about the world. But, as Sousanis argues in his book, language isn’t the only system for conveying information, for expressing oneself, and for making an academic argument.

A sketch of the flow of the book

      From the start—on the cover and in the opening pages—feet/footprints/tracks are a dominant theme. (I’ll use forward slashes to group words that give a sense of the visual element or activity but that also reflect the fact that rarely is there a simple one-to-one link between an image and a word.) These drawings begin to reference ideas such as flow, movement, plodding drudgery, the individual, humanity, and life’s journey. The images play with the text (e.g., the word “tracks” [8] goes from reference to a baby’s first steps to humanoids on conveyor belts in under two inches). And these words and images form webs/rhizomes/strings of related meanings that reappear throughout the work. The cover image shows a flow of footprints/beads/droplets, while the dedication includes white-ink prints—a Peircean index of the feet of Sousanis’s baby daughter. By the first of two interludes within the mix of eight other chapters, the theme and possibility of transcendence is linked to winged feet, and all these themes reappear in some form throughout, including in the final chapter.

      The opening chapter presents a dreary landscape with generic and zombielike humanoid figures trudging along narrow pathways. The figures are labeled “inhabitants” and “creatures,” “humans” who are converted into data (12). The space they inhabit shifts from a vast Piranesian structure of elevated walkways to conveyor belts and associated machinery to a world of cubes and slotted spaces—including one space for the transmission/education of the “receivers” who are fed data directly into their heads. Words explain that the wider universe of possibilities for thought and behavior (shown with a representations of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and dancing/spinning tops) becomes flat/one-dimensional, a dystopian world full of industrial, educational, urban, white-collar gloom.

      This leads to an “Interlude” chapter in which Sousanis presents a brief rendition of Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, which serves as a metaphor for the larger project of Unflattening. For those unfamiliar with Abbott’s work, the beings of Flatland live in two-dimensional space. We who live in 3-D can easily understand Flatlanders’ limitations, but how are we to understand our own? This helps frame the basic question of Sousanis’s book via geometric considerations: what are we missing that the very conditions of our life restrict us from experiencing? Winged sandals allow Sousanis’s every-person Flatlander to leap into three-dimensional space.

      In subsequent pages, Sousanis presents other instances where limitations of seeing/understanding are broken because people recognize, appreciate, and combine multiple viewpoints. These viewpoints can be literal: for example, Sousanis explains parallax and related phenomena (e.g., human vision; the earth as spherical, not flat; new vision technologies leading to new knowledge). In this mix there is reference to culture and the challenge of understanding across a space/abyss. At this point I found myself anticipating a discussion of the idea of culture and something like cross-cultural (mis)understandings. However, that was obviously a direction my training in anthropology had trained me to hope for. Sousanis’s figures overcome their divide (drawn as opposing cliff edges) and metaphors of war via dance steps, dancing, and the embrace of partners. There follows the statement that “seeing through another’s eyes . . . serves to shift our vision from the one-dimensional to a more multidimensional view” (39). But how to do this? Turn the page and Sousanis talks about the sense capacity of dogs (their senses of sight, smell, and hearing) followed by a further interweaving of issues having to do with math (dimensionality and fractals), which in turn are woven with mention of William James’s pragmatism, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and a complex graphic that references earlier themes as well as foreshadowing themes-to-come: comics, boxes, flows, flowing water, plus machines and mechanical webs of various sorts.

      Subsequent chapters consider the nature of thought, movement and thinking, and imagination. Sousanis continues to argue for multiple dimensions of understanding, with explicit reference to combining words and images. Leading up to his statement of preference for the term “comics” is a brief history of the triumph of words-as-thought in Western history and an explanation of the preference for the written word in academia. But what about words and images? Words versus images? Words visualized? Hybrid forms? If words are a line, then images are a plane and offer very different “routes” to understanding. (It is here that I wonder why the book is entitled “unflattening” because, in this sense, the argument is to expand the written line to a flat, more expansive plane, rather than the one-dimensional written line.) Several pages of heads with “thoughts” inside as well as scenes/objects/words covered in words accompany ideas attributed to different writers (e.g., Ernest Hemingway, David Lewis, Edward Tufte, Bertrand Russell). These ideas exist in the company of visual references to cave paintings, Botticelli’s Venus, Alice in Wonderland, the Buddha, a board game, and more.

      The chapters on seeing and thought (presented from different Western perspectives) move on to a consideration of the body in motion and then to what Sousanis calls a fifth dimension. Visual perception not only depends on the eyes but also the positions of bodies that move. Here he stresses the worth of drawing in his quest to “unflatten” a conventional way of thinking/(re)presenting. He notes: “Putting thoughts down [via drawing] allows us to step outside ourselves . . . . We thus extend our thinking—distributing it between conception and perception—engaging both simultaneously. We draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads but to generate them in search of greater understanding” (79). The fifth dimension enters his discussion as “boundless possible perspectives beyond where we’ve been” (88) and the power of one’s imagination. The visuals at this point echo some of the previous representations—footprints, winged feet and flying, eyes, spatial gaps, and astronomical imagery—as well as Russian nested dolls (“dimensions curled up within us accessible only through imagination” [96]) and a chest cavity showing multiple planet Earths. In this context that Sousanis writes of a capacity that humans hold within themselves, namely “to make the familiar strange” (96).

            With the appearance of this phrase, I was again sure that anthropological insights were in the wing, ready to enter the discussion. This anticipation grew with the next two chapters: “Ruts” and “Strings Attached.” Here his words and images are concerned with the well-trodden pathways humans follow. The visuals echo those of early chapters: footprints, ranks of humanoid figures on paths/runways/treadmills, babies, walking, and the act of learning becoming routine: for example, a marionette/man lives a routine life. But then something happens that breaks the usual: a caterpillar (with references to Alice in Wonderland) becomes a question mark and asks, “Who are you?” (122). And customary pathways may be broken by silly walks (reference Monty Python) and dancing/singing in the rain (reference Gene Kelly’s movie role). Anthropological insights are not among the suggestions.

            The book finishes with more visual/verbal contemplations on the social and biological bonds/attachments/fabrics that constrain us and shape identities. It is in this context, in the penultimate chapter, that Sousanis has a two-page spread on Pacific Islanders navigation techniques as a non-Western example of being/knowing/moving in the world. He gives this brief nod to other cultural worlds before moving to a final chapter entitled “Awakening,” which opens with the profile of a baby. He then carries on with foot imagery and further discussion of difference, pathways, and exploration. The body of the book ends with an eyeball filled with angles/eyes—referring back to relational positions/distances/gaps— and the words: “unflattening, we remind ourselves of what it is to open our eyes to the world for the first time” (152).

      Though this seems like the end of the book is not. The final chapter is followed, not surprisingly for an academic work, by “Notes,” which Sousanis presents as the “backstory” and sources of inspiration for the preceding chapters. While words predominate and page numbers organize the flow of information, preliminary sketches for book imagery appear in the margins and as ghostly presences in the background of some pages.

      The notes are followed by a bibliography and acknowledgements and then, on the last five pages, idea/road maps for the work. These sketches range from an initial “idea map” dated April 14, 2011, to a “roadmap{ for Chapter 6 dated January 21, 2014. They entice readers to consider the evolution of this book as well as possibilities of word+image outlines in other cases. The red “endpapers” and folded flaps with book and author information add another sensuous element to the work. The red in particular sparkles out from the otherwise predominantly black and white book. In fact, the only other color—red, again—is used for the author’s name on the cover and as a line surrounding a box with laudatory quotes on the back cover.

Unflattening through the eyes of an anthropologist

      I am heartened knowing that it is possible, under certain conditions at least, for a graduate student to complete a doctoral degree that breaks from the usual words-only or largely-worded Ph.D. thesis form. The effort is further validated by publication by Harvard University Press. And we who read the thesis/book have our interest piqued and are challenged to think what else might be done to “unflatten” academic volumes or, at least, move from the written line to the word+image plane.

      I also ask myself: what would I add to Unflattening? While I realize that Sousanis did not train as an anthropologist, it seems to me that his book cries out for insights that anthropology offers. His discussions of the ossification/strings/ties/bindings/ruts of our biologically and socio-historically constructed selves are firmly grounded in Western traditions and his call for liberation is answered by pointing to imagination, reaching or stepping out, and finding unique paths. How to concretize this? Sousanis offers as examples revolutionary insights by ancients (e.g., Eratosthenes and Copernicus) as well as the analogy of Flatlanders moving into 3-D. But what about basic lessons from cultural anthropology (think of an Introduction to Anthropology class) or from ethnographies that offer bridges of understanding to very different worlds? Anthropologists and readers of ethnographies are constantly challenged to see/understand in very different ways. The worlds thickly described in ethnographic volumes are meant to illuminate people’s lives and, yes, make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

      As I go back over Unflattening, a passage from Franz Boas’s 1938 “An Anthropologist’s Credo” repeatedly comes to mind. By that point in his life, Boas was an old man and his immense influence on the field of anthropology already well established. In this piece he is reflecting on his life’s work and the concerns that shaped his thinking. He writes: “In fact, my whole outlook upon social life is determined by the question: how can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to break them.”[2] While Nick Sousanis might not write about or reference Boas’s work his concerns certainly echo those to which Boas devoted his life. As Sousanis might put it, both his and Boas’s footprints are joined on the path to upend—or unflatten—conventional thinking and move to new/different ways of understanding.


[1] All single page numbers in parentheses refer to material from Unflattening.

[2] Boas, Franz. 1938. “An Anthropologist’s Credo.” The Nation 147: 201-204. Published as “The Background of My Early Thinking” (opening paragraphs of “An Anthropologist’s Credo”) in Stocking, George, editor. 1974. The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911: A Franz Boas Reader. New York: Basic Books, Inc.