"The Graphic and the Graph-ick" introduces the book's theory of the graphic as a term tellingly at odds with itself. This chapter situates the book's use of "affect" in relation to the work of theorists like Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, and Eugenie Brinkema, while defining what "graphic" has come to mean in the contemporary information age. The introduction defines the affect of disgust alongside the forms of the grid and the diagram. It then argues that doubly graphic moments in American literature complicate the release theorists have argued is afforded by the disgust of the grotesque, leaving us caught instead with a discomfiting ambivalence, whose crux is the promise (and perversity) of identification. The introduction ends with a brief preview of three axes of the double graphic: the ethnographic, the pornographic, and the infographic.
This chapter provides a topographic rereading of the aesthetic category of the grotesque via three key American modernist novels: William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. The geometric faces of these texts coolly freeze the grotesque and, in doing so, become graphic. These examples reveal that the crux of the distinction between the two is dimensionality and the havoc that mistranslations between or misapplications of two- and three- dimensionality wreak on the affective legibility of bodies. These bodies, these others, are at once too round and too flat for comfort—both three-dimensional grotesque bodies and planar, impenetrable diagrams. The feelings that stick to and circulate through them expose the uncomfortable and paradoxical intimacy of poses towards the bodies of others—cool evaluation and sticky attraction/revulsion—that we assume to be diametrically opposed to one another.
Beginning with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe, this chapter demonstrates how forms of vaunted "scientific" calculation—charts, diagrams, logbooks, but particularly the silhouette—collide with and enable violence: disfigurement, cannibalism, sexual violation. Poe's "Africanist" characters are not just stereotypes or caricatures, but silhouettes—flat, matte, black—at once constitutively opaque and seemingly readily legible to the nineteenth-century gentleman-scholar's "scientific" eye. The chapter argues that Kara Walker's silhouette tableaux take Poe's ethnographic forms, in all of their violent flatness and affective ambivalence, into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—demonstrating both Ngai's aesthetic category of "the interesting" and her "ugly feeling" of "racial animatedness." The chapter concludes with an exploration of Mat Johnson's revision of Poe in his 2011 novel Pym, which refleshes the ethnographic silhouette and renders overidentification with figures that were once flat its own form of discomfort.
The chapter considers the graphic's relationship to gender and sex through Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Fran Ross's Oreo, and the obscene burlesque performances of the contemporary "avant-porn" mixed-race artist Narcissister. These texts beg discomfiting questions about sexual objectification and the affective dynamics of visual and literary voyeurism. The figure of the sex doll emerges in all three as the pornographic object par excellence. It materializes, and makes tactile, the lust for "the 'knowledge-pleasure' of sexuality" that Linda Williams locates at the core of the pornographic: the desire to make the sexual object fully, ecstatically, calculably, manufacturably knowable. The sex doll points to how such a drive uneasily—unethically, uncannily, and often quite humorously—elides people with things and messily merges empathic and documentary identification. Along the way, Narcissister and Ross pose answers to the question of what happens when the sex doll learns to masturbate.
This chapter uses Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Teju Cole's Open City to explore how the graphic appears in postmodern database novels structured by incidental revelations of, or casual contact with, trauma in which humans are treated as data points. This rendering of violence and viscera, particularly in instances of sexual violence, into data—a Wikipedic mastery of information that translates public and personal atrocities into dimensionless factoids—characterizes the chill of these novels' double graphic. The chapter analyzes the work of narrative and geometric "tangents" in both texts, their analogous ways of disposing of diegetically useful others, and the ethical and affective import of their protagonists' modes of informatics-inflected narrative parasitism.
The book concludes by arguing that the double graphic make nonsense out of the presumed pleasures of reading as a way of inhabiting, knowing, and intimately feeling (for, with, as) the other. The double graphic evinces and evokes a fundamental discontent with the possibility of readerly identification qua sympathy. The conclusion of American Graphic probes the medium specificity of the book's theoretical intervention with a brief look at the fraught dynamics of identification in comics and graphic narratives. Robert Crumb exemplifies the grotesque, Chris Ware, the diagrammatic extremes of the graphic; Phoebe Gloeckner's work, at once convulsive and clinical, marks their ambivalent convergence. A sort of glitch in the aesthetic emotional matrix, the double graphic disrupts affect by surfacing the violence often inherent in sympathetic identification.