27a. WiM Retrospective pt. 1 – “Manga” in Comic Studies

I realize that I have yet to hit the 1 year mark, but I wanted this retrospective to be a two-parter, so I thought it best to get things underway.  Next week’s post will be a more nuts and bolts redux of topics covered so far with a critical bibliography detailing how those posts pertain to each topic, so that, in lieu of an actual subject guide (which needs to be done at some point), there will be something to help facilitate navigation of my occasional diversions and whimsies.  Today’s topic is apropos of a week spent screaming into the wind, as one of my unfortunate interlocutors put it, a much needed catharsis of tension and resentment and frustration that had been building over the course of a year on the periphery of academia.  I might have been better off simply training as a cook and finally severing ties, but, it is to my great misfortune and to the loss of my hair that I continue to care about a profession and its scholarly/intellectual endeavors, even after it has made clear in so many ways that it gives less than a shit about me.  Oh well.  Anyway, I want to take this opportunity to examine some of my stated intentions for this blog, way back when, and how they have fared against the roadblocks and with the triumphs of the past year.

Two Audiences, One Blog

Comic studies in various national/linguistic traditions is obnoxiously parochial, and I had hoped that this blog would be at least a modest effort toward relieving feelings of ignorance about and the perceived inaccessibility of manga to a scholarly audience that otherwise might be seriously interested in knowing something, if it were not for the formidable linguistic barrier, i.e. learning to read the Japanese language.  A year ago, I was sympathetic to the plight of the interested non-specialist, and many of my efforts were directed toward not only providing my own take on certain difficulties one is likely to encounter without an extensive background in Japanese cultural studies (e.g. the whole nihonjinron thing) as well as bringing to people’s attention 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 academicky and fannish audiences, and while I’m pleased to say I have great hope for the latter (i.e. fans), I have little left but despair for the former.

Some context: a certain comics library/collection announced its schedule of speakers for the academic pre-conference to the library’s grand re-opening, and I (perhaps) overreacted at the complete lack of anything in the way of a speaker about manga, despite the fact that this particular library has the largest collection of manga in NA.  I complained publicly, someone responded trying to defend the choices that were made and to calm me down a bit, the defense actually made me more angry, I pointed out how this someone’s response demonstrated their own critical blindness (always a good move!) with regard to manga, someone got defensive and implied that my blog post about visiting this collection demonstrated what a whiny little brat I am (guilty as charged, though not for this reason, as I left out of my post the more than a few actual fuck-ups that likely would have reflected poorly on the wrong person), others came to someone’s defense, and I learned a great many things I already knew far better than they.  One objection to my frothing in particular begs to be dissected: no one but me applied to the CFP with a manga related proposal, therefore it made little sense to put together a panel on it or try to pigeonhole it into another largely unrelated panel.

This might sound fair to some, but if the only strategy for soliciting manga related papers one employs is a CFP to a comics scholars listserv, then the situation is never going to be improved.  The job market is so ridiculously shitty and Asian Lang. departments so irrationally opposed to hiring people whose research focus is pop culture that those who do work on manga in some reasonable capacity are scattered to the winds.  I started this blog to help raise the visibility of manga studies in the Anglo-American sphere, but it seems even that is not enough.  Frankly, with soon to be ten volumes of Mechademia, special issues of IJOCA devoted to manga topics, articles here and there in pop culture journals, translations of at least some important critical works from Japanese, I no longer think it’s reasonable to claim that the secondary literature on manga is insufficient.  Sure, some of it is bad, but then some of the work in any field is bad.  Works of manga scholarship have been written and criticized by others to, I think, a sufficient extent that the uninitiated could at least begin to sift through it.

I’m not convinced the desire or the effort are there, certainly not the former, since, I would assume, that effort would be facilitated greatly by a desire to know and to integrate said knowledge comparatively into one’s own critical narrows.  This is not universally true of all comic scholars, I hasten to note, but because in comics studies as it is now you can get away with putting forth surprisingly little effort to research either primary or secondary sources, I feel as if my time would be better spent writing up extensive bibliographies and profiles of work on manga in English, thought I’m not sure even that would be enough.  I already have my reservations about comic studies becoming a largely academic thing; the reticence of so many comics scholars to step outside their narrow purview has not assuaged my fears.  True, interdisciplinarity is that thing nearly every scholar professes to believe in while doing surprisingly little to support it institutionally, but I would expect that from people in an English or French or Japanese department, established institutional entities.  Comic studies seems hell bent on adopting all the negative qualities of a discipline while enjoying none of the benefits.

When cornered, I, like any good badger, have a tendency to double down on the acidity and downright meanness of my critiques.  What few know about me is that often when they perceive me as behaving like a raging asshole, I am, in fact, holding back.  This might make me incredibly hard to work with or seek assistance from, but it also frees me to call out the abject laziness of my occasional colleagues.  I don’t hold hands (except in the parking lot, cuz that shit’s dangerous!), so if manga scholars are going to put forth the effort to publish in English, which, from a professional standpoint makes little sense, then interested scholars need to read what they write.  If what you want is more bibliography, less bloviating, then I’m willing to oblige, but bear in mind, should your laziness get the better of you, the claws can truly come out.

Thank [a flying spaghetti monster] for the Young!

I have been pleasantly surprised, on the other hand, to see how much more intellectually sophisticated your run of the mill fan has become, how willing they are to support each other, to put their potentially ill-formed work out there, how thorough blogs especially have become now that it is obvious an audience is out there.  It used to be the case that knowledge of cultural background, the Japanese language, and other contextualizing factors held back your average fan’s sometimes encyclopedic knowledge of particular texts or demographics from ascending beyond the realm of mere speculation.  More and more, though, as students studying Japanese find themselves mostly unwelcome in MA and Ph.D. programs in Asian Lang. /Japanese if the words anime or manga are even alluded to in their app letters, as they have ventured into other fields, translation in particular, the non-academic conversation about Japanese pop culture has improved immensely, and it is the academics who are revealed as needing to step up their game.  Now that anime conventions in particular are a massive institution in the Anglo-American sphere, there is a real possibility that an entire manga discourse will simply leave the academy behind.  I cannot say for certain anymore whether this would be a shame or a simple necessity so that people who care about Japanese comics, animation, music, or what have you find their critical voice.  It’s easy to denigrate fans for their eccentricities, but they are far less prone to thinking themselves and their opinions to be “important” or “necessary” in that manner scholars so often have of patting themselves and their friends on the back.

I say “they,” because, well, while I may have once counted myself part of their number, I no longer do, though my sympathies rather obviously lie there rather than the needs of a tenure-track schlub trying to make her bones in a hostile world.  Yet, I do at least understand what that’s like, what it’s like for people whose academic positions are already secure to talk down to you in sweeping and useless ways, what it’s like to manage their ever increasingly contradictory expectations.  I wouldn’t count myself among their number either.  I prize my critical and editorial independence, a freedom to shoot off my mouth that has gotten to me in trouble more than once and for which I often have to hastily apologize.  One of this week’s shouting matches involved my spewing a slough of rather harsh things about an established scholar whose friend felt the need to defend him.  Though I still feel my criticisms are justified, I took it all back when the whole library festival kerfuffle I instigated erupted in full force.  In that back and forth, it became blindingly obvious to me that we need about a thousand more Fred Schodts, not one less.

Which leads me to a bit of introspection: my own takedown tendencies are not all that productive.  To me it seems valuable to point out where I think existing research has gone astray, but in practice what this has meant is that the lazy are given an excuse not to pay attention to what they really ought to be engaged with.  The standard I have always applied to myself has been never to simply repeat what a scholar has said but to analyze and situate it, to provide both what that person thinks as well as a potential critique of it.  Even when not teaching, I cannot help but resort to teacher mode.  I think a reprieve from bile and bitterness might be in order, detente if you will, though that doesn’t make me any more sanguine about what Hillary Chute might have to say regarding Nakazawa Keiji.  I will reserve judgment, though.

To come full circle, I noted in my very first real post that part of the reason for my starting down this winding road was a common occurrence at conferences: scholars telling me that there was always great demand for manga content in comics classes they teach, but the scholar in question typically felt they lacked any qualification to do so.  What I didn’t mention at the time, because I was at least attempting to be conciliatory, was the palpable fear, sometimes explicitly stated, that the very students they might teach a Japanese text to know so much more and thereby might reveal the scholar’s ignorance.  There’s nothing your modern academic fears more than to have their mistakes pointed out to them.  As such, the scholarship produced by junior faculty has a tendency to be watered down, obsequiously deferential to pre-existing discourses, and often simply quite repetitive and boring.  This fear leads your average academic to being extremely risk-averse, even when it comes to providing course content his/her students are loudly clamoring for.

Something has to change in the culture of comic studies.  Teachers/scholars need to let go somewhat of their authoritarian prerogatives and, perhaps, simply admit to a lack of knowledge and, I don’t know, invite students to fill in the gaps.  Why has it never occurred to the terrified-but-interested to simply ask students what they want to read and, as part of the bargain of letting that become a text in the class, put some of the onus on them to present it?  Why not simply tap into that fervor that is so obvious at a con but which unnecessarily gets projected as the bane of “serious inquiry,” whatever that is?

Likewise, dear younglings full of vim and caffeine, bear in mind your teachers may very well be terrified of what you know.  Do try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Next week: a bibliography, more or less

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

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3 comments

  1. […] 27A. WIM RETROSPECTIVE PT. 1 – “MANGA” IN COMIC STUDIES […]

  2. […]  I apologize wholeheartedly, dear reader, if this disturbs the rigid sense of objectivity and fairness that this blog has become synonymous with, but it cannot be […]

  3. […] I wish I could say that my month long hiatus was more productive–this isn’t to say that it was unproductive, merely that I find myself at something of an impasse.  Maintaining this blog and, more importantly, maintaining the quality of insight and observation that I expect from myself takes a lot of time.  Shortly, I will be more fervently engaged in yet another (collaborative) project that will likely eat up even more free time, so I find myself needing to reassess which baskets in which to put my limited supply of ova.  About a week and a half ago, I had decided that this and next week’s posts would be my final hurrah on the WiM blog, that I would devote my time and attention to things that are more likely to be read by someone.  However, as I was doing some preliminary reading for the supervision of a student’s thesis project, it occurred to me that perhaps I could simply retool my focus.  Originally, I had intended for this blog to be useful/edifying for those with an academic interest in comics and manga in particular.  This, as it turns out, was the high road to despair, for, as I noted in an earlier post, there is a remarkable unwillingness on the part of those who profess a passing interest in Japanese…. […]

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