Brooke Notes (3/13)

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


  • Flatness
  • Unflattening
  • Pragmatism
  • Multidimensional
  • Sequential Art

The primacy of words over images has deep roots in Western culture. But what if the two are inextricably linked, equal partners in meaning-making? Written and drawn entirely as comics, Unflattening is an experiment in visual thinking. Nick Sousanis defies conventional forms of scholarly discourse to offer readers both a stunning work of graphic art and a serious inquiry into the ways humans construct knowledge.

Unflattening is an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint. Weaving together diverse ways of seeing drawn from science, philosophy, art, literature, and mythology, it uses the collage-like capacity of comics to show that perception is always an active process of incorporating and reevaluating different vantage points. While its vibrant, constantly morphing images occasionally serve as illustrations of text, they more often connect in nonlinear fashion to other visual references throughout the book. They become allusions, allegories, and motifs, pitting realism against abstraction and making us aware that more meets the eye than is presented on the page.

In its graphic innovations and restless shape-shifting, Unflattening is meant to counteract the type of narrow, rigid thinking that Sousanis calls “flatness.” Just as the two-dimensional inhabitants of Edwin A. Abbott’s novella Flatland could not fathom the concept of “upwards,” Sousanis says, we are often unable to see past the boundaries of our current frame of mind. Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge, Unflattening teaches us how to access modes of understanding beyond what we normally apprehend.

Harvard University Press []

Works Cited

Ball, D.M. & Kuhlman, M.B. (2010). The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

De Bono, E. (1970). Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. New York: Harper and Row.

Jensen, D. (2004). Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.


  • “A changed approach is precisely the goal for the journey ahead: to discover new ways of seeing, to open spaces for possibilities, and to find ‘fresh methods’ for animating and awakening” (27).
  • Unflattening is a simultaneous engagement of multiple vantage points from which to engender new ways of seeing” (32).
  • “In relying on text as the primary means of formulating understanding, what stands outside its linear structure is dismissed, labeled irrational – no more conceivable than the notion of ‘upwards’ to a flatlander. The visual provides expression where words fail. What have we been missing? And what can be made visible when we work in a form that is not only about, but is also the thing itself” (59).


  • Sousanis suggests seeing things from a myriad of different perspectives, but the book has no mention of ethics [at least yet]. Would views considered to be unethical, or harmful, also be worthy of consideration from his viewpoint?
  • Sousanis explains that comics allow us to process images both sequentially and simultaneously. Are there any other formats that also invite this type of thinking? Could you think of shots within a film this way?


  1. The ethical question is an interesting one for sure. I would suppose Sousanis would ask us to reconsider the ethical discussion in light of all the various perspectives. There is a certain trust in humanity that is needed here, as we hope our consensus will yield a benevolent system of ethics. Of course, that has not always been the case.

    An interesting connection to comics. I have not read, but would be interested in, a graphic novel that asks how Superman would change if he landed in Stalin’s Russia. Rather than fight for “truth, justice, and the American way,” he would be defending perhaps a tyrannical regime and would have done so with the support of “multi-dimensional” perspectives.

    Tough question!

  2. Justin,

    I love your question on ethics. When we are too open minded, I do think there is a danger of leaving our own values behind. Our society is becoming more accepting of many different types of people and lifestyles, and that is a beautiful thing. However, being uncomfortable trying on different perspectives is a valid thing, and something to be wary of. All in all, I agree with the author’s visualization of the basketweaving of perspectives. It is not easy, but learning to communicate and listen to each other will deepen and enrich our perspectives. All of this can be done, but while holding each other ethically responsible. That also means respecting the perspectives of others.
    Tricky stuff!

  3. I’m really intrigued by your question about viewing unethical situations from multiple viewpoints. This makes me think of the current presidential administration. I think that with this new political climate, there have been discussions about topics and ethics that many did not anticipate. I think it can be harmful and upsetting to think about unethical views from many perspectives, but perhaps that is how change for the better happens. When we are exposed to these unethical situations, it is then that people are called to action. This can all be connected to visual rhetoric as well, because many of these discussion about perspectives are happening on social media or displayed on social media.

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