Book alert: ‘Unflattening’, Nick Sousanis

writen by Machiel Keestra

12 February 2016

From cartoonist and co-author of the climate comic strip in Nature, Nick Sousanis, came his entire thesis in the unusual form of a graphic novel titled ‘Unflattening’ (Harvard University Press, 2015). This comic strip is part of the emerging trend of the last several decades that has seen the genre become much broader and richer, thanks to the publication of various comics tackling serious and ambitious topics, as well as the ‘stripification’ of novels and classics. Comic strips have also become a medium for scholarly subjects, ranging from introductions to physics or the Middle Ages to an intriguing ‘Logicomix’, with language philosophers and logicians, such as Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein playing a central role.

There are various reasons why comic strips lend themselves so well for such complex subjects. For one thing, a combination of images and text opens up possibilities for the author to give visual form to various topics which would otherwise be difficult to explain with words alone. Additionally, parallel processes can be conveyed much more clearly by comics than by linear text. However, the publication of ‘Unflattening’ was still - in spite of these advantages - remarkable, for it was this unconventional thesis with which Nick Sousanis earned his PhD at the Teachers College of the prestigious Columbia University. Recognised in academic circles, Sousanis' book also resonated for its artistic and creative value and received national and international media attention in the form of reviews and interviews, and exhibitions across the country and world. Its widespread success also led to the invitation from Nature ( ) to create the climate change comic already mentioned above.

sousanis fingers

Loss of perspective

In his thesis, Sousanis uses various narrative methods to illustrate how our knowledge-based, scientific approach leads to a less varied and distinctive perception of reality. Partly inspired by Edwin Abbott Abbott’s portrait of ‘Flatland’ (, Sousanis starts his dissertation by describing and, in particular, illustrating how, in order to function in modern-day society, we must inevitably adopt far-reaching standardisation, in which education is instrumental. Through their analysis, insights are broken down into smaller, similar parts which can more easily be communicated to others. In the process, we not only acquire new information in dissected form, but we also internalise this form of analysis. Sousanis briefly explains this process, but also gives us a glimpse into his critical vision, by drawing hordes of people as zombies, stripped of all individuality. ‘Unflattening’ seeks to explore the ways and places in which this loss of perspective occurs, and help us rediscover our capacity to perceive greater depth. The methods are familiar: with simple images, Sousanis shows us that because we see two pictures of reality, which differ only slightly from each other, a qualitatively different image suddenly appears when they are merged: a reality in three dimensions.

Embodied cognition

Sousanis then deals with the phenomenon of ‘embodied cognition’, the integration of our physical interaction with reality. In a sense, this precedes our knowledge, after which we forget the source all too easily. Just how much tempo, rhythm and dynamics are part of that original experience, dimensions we risk losing conceptual grip of, becomes almost palpable in the series of illustrations. Those moments demonstrate beautifully the added value of the genre, compensating for the book's occasional lack of argumentative depth.

Arguing for an interdisciplinary approach

Taking an interdisciplinary approach to the issues can also help us ‘unflatten’ how we understand and deal with reality and hence allow aspects to reveal themselves which otherwise would risk being lost through analysis and standardisation. This plea for an interdisciplinary view should come as no surprise: Nick Sousanis became a member of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS) during his time as a PhD student. The Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS) has also been an institutional member of this AIS for years and many colleagues have drawn inspiration from AIS conferences, where they have exchanged ideas with colleagues with extremely wide-ranging expertise and backgrounds. In other words, the Sousanis’ comic strip and travelling pop-up exhibition showing work of his book, fit perfectly in that frame and IIS hopes that UvA staff and students will open their minds and be inspired by the images to change their view of reality!

sousanis walk the line

A pop-up exhibition of several of Sousanis' prints will be on display from 2-18 Feb in the University Library at the Singel, 2nd floor. The exhibition will then pop- up at Science Park (22 February-09 March). This exhibition is an initiative of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies and was made possible in collaboration with Utrecht University.

Published by  Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies