Cartoon commies

For as long as there have been communists, so also have there been cartoonists. At times, cartoonists and communists have been one and the same. The young Friedrich Engels observed this in a letter written to his friend Karl Marx in October 1844:

I have been in Elberfeld, where I once again came across several communists I had never heard of before. Turn where you will, go where you may, you’ll stumble on a communist. A very impassioned communist, a cartoonist, and aspiring historical painter by the name of Seel will be going to Paris in two months’ time. I’ll direct him to you…[H]e may very well come in useful as a cartoonist.

Engels was something of a cartoonist himself. His caricatures of the Young Hegelians in »Die Berliner Freien« and of the anarchist Max Stirner have been reproduced down to the present. On the back of E. Voswinkel’s letter to Marx from January 1849, Engels drew a cartoon of Frederick William IV and the Prussian bourgeoisie apropos the elections to the Prussian Diet. Marx tried to get it published in the Brüsseler-Zeitung.

Engels' caricature of "The Free," the Berlin group of Young Hegelians (Words in the drawing, Ruge, Buhl, Nauwerck, Bauer, Wigand, Edgar [Bauer], Stirner, Meyen, stranger, Koppen the Lieutenant. The squirrel is the Prussian Minister Eichhorn

Lenin appreciated the odd cartoon here and there as well. Yelena Stasova sent him a cartoon in honor of his fiftieth birthday, which depicted the Marxists as children who came to congratulate the Narodnik Mikhailovsky on his fiftieth birthday in 1900. Stasova wrote that at the time of Mikhailovsky’s birthday the RSDLP had been in its childhood, whereas it had since matured. “This is the result of your work, your mind and talent,” she explained.

Upon receiving it, the Bolshevik leader decided to share it with his fellow celebrants and guests:

Comrades, I must naturally begin by thanking you for two things: firstly, for the congratulations addressed to me today, and secondly, even more for having spared me congratulatory speeches (Applause.) I think that perhaps in this way we may gradually, not all at once, of course, devise a more suitable method of celebrating anniversaries than the one hitherto in vogue, which has sometimes formed the subject of remarkably good cartoons. Here is one such cartoon drawn by a prominent artist in celebration of such a jubilee. I received it today with an extremely cordial letter. And as the comrades have been kind enough to spare me congratulatory speeches, I will hand this cartoon round for all to see, so as to save us in future from such jubilee celebrations altogether.

Nikolai Bukharin — the party’s favorite, and its leading economist — was also a quite talented caricaturist. Zinoviev, Lenin, and Dzerzhinsky all show up in his sketches. Bukharin made a few drawings of Stalin, the man who would later send him to be executed, during their brief alliance in the 1920s. Krzhizhanovsky and Mezhiauk contribute a few doodles as well. Have a look.

Cartoons are primarily illustrative. That is to say, they convey their meaning by means of pictures and not words. But text often accompanies cartoons and comic strips, either as a description of that which is depicted or as dialogue (the speech bubble between characters or the thought bubble for internal monologue). Roland Barthes, to whom we devoted an entire post just one week ago, explained the signifying structure of cartoons in his essay “The Linguistic Message”:

Is the linguistic message constant? Is there always something textual within, beneath, or around the image? In order to discover images without words, we must doubtless go back to partially analphabetic societies, i.e., to a sort of pictographics of the image; actually, since the advent of the book, the link between text and image is frequent; this link seems to have been studied very little from the structural point of view. What is the signifying structure of “illustration”? Does the image duplicate certain items of information in the text, by a phenomenon of redundance, or does the text add a brand-new item of information to the image? The problem might be put historically apropos of the classical period, which had a passion for books with pictures (it was inconceivable in the eighteenth century that La Fontaine’s Fables would not be illustrated), and during which certain authors like Father Menestrier explored the relations between the figurative and the discursive. Today, on the level of mass communication, it appears that the linguistic message is present in all images: as a caption, as a headline, as a press article, as a film dialogue, as a comic-strip balloon; whereby we see that it is not quite accurate to speak of a civilization of the image: we are still and more than ever a civilization of writing, because writing and speech are still the “full” terms of informational structure. As a matter of fact, only the presence of the linguistic message counts, for neither its position nor its length seems pertinent (a long text may comprise only a total signified, thanks to the connotation, and it is this signified that is put in relation with the image). What are the functions of the linguistic message in relation to the (double) iconic message? There seem to be two: anchoring and relaying.

As we shall see more clearly in a moment, every image is polysemous; it implies, subjacent to its signifiers, a “floating chain” of signifieds of which the reader can select some and ignore the rest. Polysemy questions meaning, and this question always appears as a dysfunction, even if this dysfunction is recuperated by society as a tragic act (a silent God affords no way of choosing between signs ) or a poetic one (the panic “shudder of meaning” among the ancient Greeks); even in cinema, traumatic images are linked to an uncertainty (to an anxiety) as to the meaning of objects or attitudes. Hence, in every society a certain number of techniques are developed in order to fix the floating chain of signifieds, to combat the terror of uncertain signs: the linguistic message is one of these techniques. On the level of the literal message, language answers, more or less directly, more or less partially, the question What is it? Language helps identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself: it is a matter of a denoted description of the image (a description that is often partial), or, in Hjelmslev’s terminology, of an operation (as opposed to a connotation). The denominative function corresponds nicely to an anchoring of every possible (denoted) meaning of the object, by recourse to a nomenclature; in front of a dish of something (in an Amieux ad), I may hesitate to identify the shapes and volumes; the caption (“Rice and tuna with mushrooms”) helps me choose the right level of perception; it allows me to accommodate not only my gaze but also my intellection. On the level of the “symbolic” message, the linguistic message no longer guides the identification but the interpretation; it constitutes a kind of vise which keeps the connoted meanings from proliferating either toward too individual regions (i.e., it limits the image’s projective power ) or toward dysphoric values; an ad (d’Arcy preserves) shows a few fruits scattered around a ladder; the caption (“As if you had picked them in your own garden”) distances a possible signified (parsimony, poor harvest) because it would be an unpleasant one and orients the reading toward a flattering signified (natural and personal character of the fruits of the private garden); the caption here acts as a counter-taboo, it combats the disagreeable myth of the artificial, ordinarily attached to canned goods. Of course, outside of advertising, anchoring can be ideological; this is even, no doubt, its main function; the text directs the reader among the various signifieds of the image, causes him to avoid some and to accept others; through an often subtle dispatching, it teleguides him toward a meaning selected in advance. In all these cases of anchoring, language obviously has a function of elucidation, but such elucidation is selective; it is a matter of a metalanguage applied not to the whole of the iconic message but only to certain of its signs; the text is really the creator’s (and hence the society’s) right-of-inspection of the image: anchoring is a means of control, it bears a responsibility, confronting the projective power of the figures, as to the use of the message; in relation to the freedom of the image’s signifieds, the text has a repressive value, and we can see that a society’s ideology and morality are principally invested on this level.

Anchoring is the most frequent function of the linguistic message; we frequently encounter it in press photographs and in advertising. The relaying function is rarer (at least with regard to the fixed image); we find it mainly in cartoons and comic strips. Here language (generally a fragment of dialogue) and image are in a complementary relation; the words are then fragments of a more general syntagm, as are the images, and the message’s unity occurs on a higher level: that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis (which confirms that the diegesis must be treated as an autonomous system). Rare in the fixed image, this word-as-relay becomes very important in cinema, where dialogue does not have a simple elucidative function but actually advances the action by inserting, in the sequence of messages, certain meanings which are not to be found in the image. The two functions of the linguistic message can of course coexist in the same iconic whole, but the dominance of one or the other is certainly not a matter of indifference to the work’s general economy; when language has a relaying diegetic value, the information is more “costly,” since it requires apprenticeship to a digital code (language); when it has a substitutive value (of anchoring, of control), it is the image which governs the informational charge, and since the image is analogical, the information is in some sense “lazier”: in certain comic strips meant to be read rapidly, the diegesis is chiefly entrusted to the words, the image collecting the attributive information of a paradigmatic order ( the stereotyped status of the characters): the “costly” message and the discursive message are made to coincide, so as to spare the hurried reader the bother of verbal “descriptions,” here entrusted to the image, i.e., to a less “laborious” system.

Adorno took a rather dim view of comic strips, as he did most products of mass culture. “The desire for particularity,” he wrote in Minima Moralia, “has silted up while still at the stage of a need, and is reproduced on all sides by mass culture, on the pattern of the comic strip. What was once called intellect is superseded by illustrations.” Of course, here he was referring to images reproduced on a social scale for immediate consumption. Not so much to doodles.

I leave the reader with some caricatures of famous revolutionaries and radical intellectuals by the late NYRB cartoonist David Levine, as well as a couple amusing sketches of the Social Democratic firebrand August Bebel. Enjoy.

Bebel_Kladderradatsch_1903 Bebel_Holzschnitt_1896

2 thoughts on “Cartoon commies

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