31a. The All-important What Question pt. 1 – Heidegger?

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 comics to meet halfway those who are doing the hard work of trying to explain this mess.

So, in that spirit, I propose a few changes going forward.  1) I may not be updating as regularly.  I will try to stick to at least every other week, but as I have new obligations elsewhere, I cannot promise that I will be able to keep it up.  Hopefully, this will help with my sense of burnout.  2) I’m at my best when I’m not terribly collegial, so no more Mr. [Restrained] Critic.  Most of what I intend to do from here on out is surveil the critical landscape orbiting Japanese comics (in English especially but not exclusively, mind you) with a mind to tearing it down (and apart).  3) Zero fucks will be given.  Should your article/blog/book/tweet/whatever come under the assault of my all-too-disapproving gaze, do the brave thing and engage in an open and public discussion about what I have said.  Start your own shitty blog and rip me a new asshole, say nasty things in the comments, heckle me at conferences… use your imagination!

With that in mind, I’d like to wander a little off the beaten (and downtrodden) path, and explain in detail the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of what it is I have been trying to do here and why the “What is Manga?” question that gives this blog its name is not a rhetorical question (i.e. “you don’t know?  Well, lemme tell ya!”) but a guiding principle.  I suggest you pay close attention, dear reader, otherwise next week’s post on Neil Cohn’s [Japanese] Visual Language will make little sense.

Understanding and interpretation/Interpretation

There are two philosophers whose intellectual influence I have always had great difficulty overcoming, if such a thing were even desirable.  The first is Søren Kierkegaard; the second, and far more relevant to today’s discussion, is Martin Heidegger.

When I say that the “what is manga?” question is a guiding principle, I mean that this is a question I am always, if only implicitly, asking myself, and over the years I have had many responses to it and will likely have many more as time goes on.  The reason for this is that any answer can only ever be provisional, and this provisionality is necessary to stay responsive to each new text I encounter and how it might potentially speak to that guiding question.  As a result, I have come to see the ways in which formal conceptions of comics are profoundly sexist, unnecessarily normative, and how they play to certain ugly conceptions of cultural specificity and exceptionalism (c.f. my posts on theories of manga and [prescriptive] theories of Japanese identity).  It has left me open to genuine learning and kept at arm’s length the unfortunate habit of academics to stake out an ideological position, even to the point of doubling down against overwhelming criticism, rather than simply revise what you’ve said.

The manga question is as important to me as the Seinsfrage (question of being) is to Heidegger, and it’s not simply a matter of definition.  The question of manga (i.e. what this thing may be) is important because it keeps in view something that we might otherwise take for granted.  As George Steiner says in his excellent overview, “[t]o Heidegger, the history of Western civilization… is no more and no less than how being came to be forgotten.  The twentieth century is the culminating but perfectly logical product of this amnesia.” (Martin Heidegger p. 38)  I have always sought out those texts or historical moments when a certain easy and all-too-popular conception of what manga or its genres or its demographic categories are break down, because only by doing so can we start to examine the conceptual amnesia that serves to buttress our casual but sweeping pronouncements about what manga and comics more generally are.  Without this examination, I feel, scholars will continue to go about chasing their own tails in a he says/she says theoretical impasse regarding what comics are or can be.

The problem is one of methodology, and when I say “of methodology,” I don’t mean we need to trade one outmoded method for a better one, I mean methodology itself (i.e. the assumption that observational and investigative methods are ideologically neutral) is the problem.  Consider the typical structure of a write-up of a scientific experiment: you begin with an overview/abstract and follow up with an introduction (what’s the problem?), materials/methods (how did I address this problem?), results (what data resulted from the how?), discussion (what do the data mean?), and finally a lit review (how does this fit into the bigger picture?).  According the most basic scientific methods, [i]nterpretation comes in very late in the game, after all the work of experimentation has concluded.  What Heidegger presents us with in section 3132 of Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) is a complete revision of how interpretation functions in this seemingly straightforward and academically ubiquitous process.

“Any interpretation [Auslegung] which is to contribute to understanding [verstehen], must already have understood what is to be interpreted.” (trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 194)  This is a rather typical Heideggerean paradox, and one which his detractors often point to as a meaningless tautology.  However, like all his paradoxes, the point is to rethink a certain nigh universal preconception, often embedded in the very language we employ, that we have never meaningfully challenged.  Heidegger makes a distinction between two kinds of interpretation: the German Auslegung, which M&R consistently render with a lower case i, and the Latinate Interpretation, which they capitalize.  The former is more preliminary and fundamental and is linked to our most basic and necessary understanding of the world.  It is the means by which we comprehend things in the world as something rather than not at all.  It is what makes meaning possible in the first place and as such is not properly located in the “discussion” of a write-up but in the very birth into awareness of the scientist herself.  “If, when one is engaged in a particular concrete kind of interpretation, in the sense of exact textual Interpretation, one likes to appeal to what ‘stands there,’ then one finds that what ‘stands there’ in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting.” (p. 192)

The “understanding” Heidegger refers to is a radical critique of the world as an objective sphere in which things merely exist (i.e. are objects) and which we, as subjects, observe and interact with from a certain conceptual remove.  The classic Cartesian order of the universe is one in which things as objects are “out there” (res extensa) and from which our thoughts and selves are more or less independent.  Heidegger refers to this classic “objective” mode as one in which things are vorhanden or present-at-hand and emphasizes the etymological components of the German word for object, Gegenstand (i.e. “stand against/opposite”), to make clear how the very language we facilely employ sets the world over against us.  You might get something of the flavor of what Heidegger is implying by saying, “an object [of analysis] is something to which one objects.”  He prefers to think of things as zuhanden or ready-to-hand, meaning their being lies in their relationship to other things and to ourselves.  In a sense, though Heidegger never says this, we are zuhanden to each other and to the things of the word; our being consists in that and not in some isolatable substance, such as a soul or body or form or idea or what have you.  The world, then, is not an “out there” but the totality of the involvements of all things in each other.

If this is so, then understanding as verstehen (note there are echoes here of Hegel’s very loaded term Verstand) is not made up of quanta we assemble piece by piece as we encounter the world as disclosed to us.  Rather, we always have a complete and total[izing] understanding of the world and the relationship of things in it.  By learning and becoming we do not add to our understanding but rather revise it, and I feel that Heidegger clings to the verbal verstehen rather than the noun Verstand (both of which might be rendered in English as “understanding”), because he wants to emphasize how understanding or more specifically understanding as interpretation (which just so happens to be the title of section 3132) is only ever provisional.  From the moment one has the capacity to understand the world at all, she understands it in a complete way.  Only through this complete understanding is she able to make sense of the world at all, and only through her interpretation of what is understood can she proceed to understand going forward.

Manga/Comics as Zuhanden

I have already written up how these larger theoretical questions pertain to my understanding of comics, so I will alert you, dear reader, once that publication finally sees the light of day.  What I did not cover in that piece, however, is the darker side of this, to my mind, rather liberating conception of understanding and interpretation.  If what Heidegger says is accurate–and I am inclined to say it is–then the failure to examine our conceptualizing understanding as basic but fundamental interpretation (c.f. Auslegung) and the failure to examine how that understanding guides the way we even begin to think important questions do serious harm.  “[T]he way in which the entity we are interpreting is to be conceived can be drawn from the entity itself, or the interpretation can force the entity into concepts to which it is opposed in its manner of Being.  In either case, the interpretation has already decided for a definite way of conceiving it, either with finality or with reservations…” (p. 191)

The reason why I am generally loath to think of phenomena in comics/manga outside of genealogical terms (i.e. where does this come from and what does it relate to?) is that by isolating phenomena and trying to respond to them “objectively” (this is common fault of formalism), one creates more problems than she solves: not only have you failed to respond to the open-ended what question, but by pinning things down, so to speak, you have perpetuated the delusion that such a fundamental question can be definitively answered and thus dispensed with.  I provide many different and sometimes contradictory answers to the question of manga (as well as many different ways of approaching it), precisely because I do not think the question should ever be dispensed with.  It should continue to inform how we address comics, to cause us to be responsive to historical shifts and formal changes, and to see how not only do we enter into a relationship with these texts that determine in part what and how they are but also how they serve to determine ourselves as scholars and readers.

Next Week: Neil Cohn’s [Japanese] Visual Language

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] the run of this blog comes from conceptually.  I would strongly suggest, dear reader, that you go back and read it before advancing any further.  Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get […]

  2. […] printed marks as letterforms is an act of interpretation, one that corresponds nicely, I feel, to what I had to say about Heidegger’s use of the word Auslegung.  This means the distinction between words and images that Miodrag asserts as simply there in her […]

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