18. Pros at Cons – Thoughts on Conventions and Conferences

This morning I hosted a panel on anime/manga fandom in the American educational system at AnimeIowa, and I hope it was as enlightening for those present as it was for me.  I know by the end I verged a little too much into my own antagonist views on public education, but I don’t think that affected things too much.  It has been quite a long time since I’ve been to an anime convention, and I was surprised both by how much has changed and by how much has remained the same.

Pros

An Anime Scholar

An Anime Scholar

The great thing about a convention is how much more diverse it is, at least compared with an academic conference.  It does sometimes help at conferences, when you know you have to present a rather complicated argument in 20 minutes, that there are certain things you can take for granted or you can reasonably assume your audience should know.  This can also be the great bane of conferences, the likelihood that you’ll hear much the same thing year in and year out, and I have never in the years I’ve been a comics scholar been genuinely surprised by a question I’ve been asked.  As I said at the panel this morning, I rather like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, but I’m not sure how many more articles and papers I can take, when basic historiographical research on, say, the relationship between newspapers and comic strips has yet to be done.  I find it frustrating how quickly comics scholars have gravitated toward the standard practice of overemphasizing the super-specific, when the “field” as such has done a very poor job of defining what it is, how it fits within pre-existing institutions, and, most importantly, why anyone should be giving you money to do it.

As my life partner in crime pointed out at said panel, the problem is nobody (I would revise that to read hardly anybody) wants to do basic archival research, even though at the moment that is what is desperately needed.  Unfortunately, archival research is expensive, in the context of manga even more so, because the stuff you need to look at is on the other side of the world.  A single research trip to Japan can cost you upwards of $2000, if you’re being frugal, and when you’re in my situation, without travel budgets and research stipends, that’s $2000 you simply don’t have.  Add on top of that the fact that Japanese pop culture studies of any kind are looked down upon the bald heads of Asian Studies pursestrings, and you find yourself in a situation where those who actually want to make the object of your fandom a worthy object of study have no real access to the resources to do so.  I suppose you could create a bubble apart from mainstream disciplines, but I’m not sure how wise that is, when you consider how something like the Mechademia volumes will soon be no more.

Akemi-sensei's in trouble...

Akemi-sensei’s in trouble…

There were several teacher types present at this morning’s panel, and I heard one echo a common problem: she teaches in a public school setting and would love to integrate more SF, fantasy, horror, comic, animation, etc. media texts into my classes, but has to deal with colleagues and parents who will immediately recoil at the mere suggestion.  What should she do?  I have had many responses to this concern over the years, often trying to take into consideration various competing desires, but given how none of that ever seems to work, I feel like the only solution is to just do what you want, consequences be damned.  I don’t say that lightly–in fact, I say it knowing all too well the effect “doing it your own way” can have on your career, but at the end of the day there is a simple moral calculus you have to confront: it’s never going to be better for you.  Nothing you do now is going to erase the stigma attached to the objects of your obsession/inquiry; nothing is going to vindicate you.  The best you can hope for is stick your own neck out, to risk your own prerogatives, for the benefit of those who will come after you.  Of course, academics are a risk averse lot, but thankfully this morning I wasn’t talking to any academics (that I know of…).

Cons

Miyazaki says: manga iz srs bzns

Miyazaki says: manga iz srs bzns

Back in 2001, in my intermezzo between undergrad and grad school, I attended a panel at ACen titled “Anime in Academia.”  The three presenters impressed upon me so much that I don’t recall a single thing they said.  I do recall one of them having incredibly thick glasses but beyond that not a jot.  I also remember, though, a particular question from the Q&A.  A young man, probably a college freshman or sophomore, told everyone about an experience he had with a professor in his composition class who more or less refused to grade one of his writing assignments, simply because it was about an anime he liked.  Thick Glasses responded almost immediately, “well, did you tell him that anime studies is a fait accompli?”  I’m not sure about most of that, though I am 100% certain he said fait accompli.  It’s just the sort of thing a deluded grad student who doesn’t know shit about shit would say and is characteristic of a strong sense at the time among academic types that anime has its foot in the serious door, so it’s only get better from here.

12 years later, and anime (hell, all Japanese popular culture) still only has its foot in the door.  In fact, anime is in many ways the easiest to get away with in Asian Languages departments or Japanese Studies programs, because you can reasonably spin yourself as a film scholar, since in J-Humanities, literature, history, and film [EDIT: and religious studies] are the only things that garner official approval.  You might be able to get away with including a few manga in class–and your colleagues will pat you on the back for being so forward thinking–just don’t try to teach a course on manga.

batman_costume_amnesiaThis is not just a problem with Japanese studies, of course, almost no one who is a comics scholar has their job because of it, and most have one in spite of that fact.  You are expected to be one thing by day (a medievalist, a children’s lit specialist, a linguist, etc.), and “comics scholar” ends up being your costumed alter ego.  The reason anime/manga/whatever are notfait accompli is that no one is really willing to stake their professional reputation on it, and given the hiring environment in the humanities at the moment, where some jobs have literally hundreds of people applying for them, it’s not even a reasonable risk.  If your chances are already one in a hundred that someone will take your work seriously, you don’t need that to compound your already slim chance of having your cover letter completely read by an overworked search committee looking for any excuse to dump 75% of the applications into the NO pile.

It saddens me how little has changed in fandom, how what once, when I still thought youth was a desirable thing, seemed so fresh and interesting now seems tired and repetitive.  Things being shown in the video room were things I had seen eons ago when they were first fan subbed, and it was rather shocking to me how many costumes I recognized.  I had gone into the whole thing thinking I’d have no idea what it is kids are watching these days.  As it turns out, they watch most of the same shit I watched back when.

Neither a Pro nor a Con Man

I’m rather dissatisfied with the talk I gave on Friday, and not solely because my cold-induced mind fog made an already convoluted argument even more incoherent.  I suppose those present got something out of it, if nothing else that they should read Miyazaki’s manga as well as watch his films.  What irks me in retrospect is how I basically ended giving a watered down version of a conference talk, a talk I rather condescendingly dumbed down thinking I’d make it “easy to understand.”  The fact of the matter is I was still in professor mode, even though I have no earthly reason to be that way anymore.  In a sense, I wasn’t much better than Thick Glasses pontificating in borrowed French.  Sure, I was likely much funnier than he was but the disconnect is much the same.  The virtues of a con lie in the ability to engage people on more or less equal terms.  Sure I may know more theory and more trivia about Miyazaki’s output, but that doesn’t mean I have to package it into a neat little argument and shove it down your throat.  The Q&A was far more productive and, in hindsight, I should have laid out the rough sketch of a significant point (i.e. you can use Imamura’s theory of animation to show how in Miyazaki’s work animistic spirits and machines are really the same phenomenon) and then opened things up for discussion.

An early Gundam prototype

Your average comic studies conference

The academic comics conference is a strange beast, and it gives me no pleasure to say what I have to say: it exists to provide the pretense of respectability, when the reality is we labor alone, fighting tooth and nail for colleagues–who haven’t published shit in years on their, like, totally serious topic–to pay attention to our own work.  It’s a panacea for an all too real ill, one that at least some comics studies people are aware of and trying to do something about.

The fandom in education panel this morning worked far better, to my mind, because it gave me the opportunity, once I explained where I was coming from, to step out of the way and let other people engage both with what I was saying and what they were saying to each other.  The real horror in sticking your neck out lies in the sense that you might go to the mat for something you care about, and, in the end, no one will care.  When you fail, and you will fail, over and over again, it’s so much easier to keep trying when you know others are on your side, so that laboring alone doesn’t have to be laboring in loneliness and despair.  At least that’s what I got out of it… your mileage may vary.

Next week: into the great unknown!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com

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9 comments

  1. I was wondering if you would attend a convention like Anime Expo, since it makes it seem like that anime/manga is still strong. I think nostalgia will always play a role in fan’s hearts, but it does frighten me to how much they may not be willing to accept any new series. Though it makes you wonder if they really are “true fans of the medium” to a certain degree.

    With regards to what you said about being more comfortable with speaking at an anime con, I always have felt that the spread of anime/manga is due to fans. While you may have your crazy fans, the real power goes to those fans that are passionate and do voice a reasonable opinion while respecting yours.

    Also, I think Japan overall doesn’t give too much care about the spread of its culture outside of its borders. That does tie into your last statement. The only support you might have are your fellow countrymen and not the ones you really want (but not necessarily need) to support you.

  2. What prevents me from going to cons outside the midwest, and, frankly, most cons period, is money. I don’t really have it, so unless I otherwise have a good reason to be there, I don’t feel as if there’s much point.
    I’m also not in any position to determine who is a “true fan,” and I think judgments like that do more harm than good. Nostalgia is all too often simply a reaction to an overabundance of media. There is simply so much MORE available now than even a decade ago, that one can be forgiven for falling back on the tried and true in the face of sorting through a lot of terrible crap just to find something new that is good.
    The problem with the Japanese approach to media distribution is that it has to be entirely on their draconian terms. Japanese media companies are completely unwilling to tolerate the amateur translation community, even though it is almost solely responsible for creating the market in the first place. They would rather not put forth any effort at all to distribute outside Japan than acknowledge that fan communities ought to be given some legal leeway in order to get the word out. Add to that the fact that dvds/bluray are far cheaper in NA and Europe than in Japan, and you have a mostly lose/lose situation.

    1. Good point about the “true fan” mentality. We need all types of fans to keep communities alive.

      Interesting how you mention DVDs/Bluray since anime sales on those mediums in the U.S. aren’t particularly high and you have Aniplex USA charging what fans call “unfair prices” for their sets.

      1. What companies charge is about as low as they can possibly go and not piss off the Japanese companies. Even at those rates, they cannot compete with the prices of Anglo-American produced content. Some simple math, to demonstrate how mind-boggling this all is:

        The Rozen Maiden complete collection, with 650 minutes of content, lists for $50 in the US.
        One Japanese Rozen Maiden DVD with 48 minutes of content lists for 5250 yen (~54 USD).
        The two Japanese Bluray boxed sets (without the Overtures, which the US localized set has) list for 19900 and 22000 yen respectively for a total of 41900 or 428 USD.
        Napkin math (based on runtimes) indicates you’d have to spend nearly 700 USD to get the equivalent in Japanese media to the American boxed set.

        The Fringe season 1 DVD set lists for $60 (but is available for $15!) and clocks in at 1028 minutes.
        The Adventure Time season 1 DVD lists for $27 and clocks in at 286 minutes.

        Clearly streaming is the most reasonable option in the US, but Japan lacks an equivalent service to Netflix/Hulu/Etc. and so for some time many Japanese media companies have been loath to license their content to such services.

      2. Oh, and Aniplex is basically Sony, so the price of any given Aniplex DVD, say $54 for a 100 min. Read or Die DVD, is reflective of what Japanese companies think these things should cost.

  3. What? Mechademia will be no more? Hmmm Mixed feelings, It used to be downloadable, then it was paywalled, and finally one had to buy the hard copy to get it. I ponied up for V6, sent from the UK for under $20 because Amazon forces better deals than ebay when shipping is taken into account (US used bookstore on ebay will only ship to Canada by hyper-expensive means) The resulting artifact is a mixed bag. A discussion of Ghost in the Shell w/o reference to the manga, or to Gibson’s The Winter Market, but the emphasis on Belmer’s Dolls was interesting. Lots of Gender Studies stuff, blame Saito Tamaki who libidinised the discourse on Otaku, some history pieces, mostly on gender studies issues hmmmmm…. Everyone writing seems to be an academic, so lotsa taxpayers of various countries subsidized it, but it is walled off from wider debate by wider communities of interest. I really don’t know if I would mourn its passing. Depends on what it is replaced with. The folks at TWC, when not publishing stuff on Dr. Who slash, sometimes have good stuff on Japanese pop culture. Then there is Intersections, if you can plow through the “queer theory” focus. Yawn! Maybe both would get better submissions if things changed? Anyways, fine post here, congrats and thanks..

    1. “Mixed bag” is probably the best way you can describe the whole Mechademia thing, and thing is the only appropriate word for it, because it’s more than just an anthology published yearly. They hold a “conference” every year (Schoogirls and Mobilesuits) that is a not terribly comprehensible mashup of an academic conference (there are panels and a keynote) and a fan convention (there’s a fashion show, screening rooms, dealer’s room, etc.). There is also now something of a Mechademia clique (yes, even the academy can be like junior high) that is very in group/out group. I have spoken with several rather bright people who have been thoroughly alienated from the Mechademia thing (i.e. refuse to go to their conference), because their submissions have been rejected several times based almost purely on their having criticized the work of one of the in group (Napier and Lunning are particularly easy targets, though Orbaugh and LaMarre aren’t much better). When I heard this for the first time, I thought the person in question was just being paranoid, but having been to the SGMS conference myself, I can see what she means. They send back your submissions without reader reviews, giving the strong sense that it was submitted to a simple thumbs up/down decision and not a peer review process. I know many people who have submitted to them numerous times and have been rejected, meanwhile any old piece of crap one of the in group writes always seems to find its way into the volume. The past couple of years they’ve always extended the deadline for abstracts for the SGMS conference several times, and when I went, several of the panels had to be filled in with undergrads giving “papers” far worse than, say, a wikipedia article on that topic. They’ve already alienated most of the actual scholars from their clique, so there’s not really anyone else who can keep things going.
      As for open access to scholarly work, you’re preaching to the choir. The state of academic publishing is one of the major reasons why my book, once finished, will be freely available from an online depository.

  4. […] the work of others (and how it stacks up critically).  I’ve also continued my habit of making it to conferences and conventions, when I can, if only to get the message out.  I’ve been in constant contact with both […]

  5. […] 18. PROS AT CONS – THOUGHTS ON CONVENTIONS AND CONFERENCES […]

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