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.
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.
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…).
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.
This 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 not a fait 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.
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!
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