Prefacing the Preface – A New[ish] Hope

I can imagine many of my formerly regular readers have wondered where I disappeared to all of a sudden, after quite a long stretch of regular posting, yet, I can also imagine hardly anyone paid much mind.  My hiatus was never meant to be permanent, and, as you will come to discover in the coming weeks, it was/isn’t, yet I also never intended to be away for so long and thought my book project would be complete long ago.  My habit of diving down ever deeper rabbit holes got the best of me at times and extended an otherwise productive process that was chugging along at pace, though I hope the product of my intellectual divagations will be of interest.

So, I wrote a book–well, I’ve written most of a book.  I am in the process of working through a final chapter/introduction (no, you did not read that wrong), but since, by my calculations, I won’t be posting any of it until some time late in July, I think I have more than enough time to cross my i’s and dot my t’s.  I wrote (read: am writing… still… will perhaps always be writing for the rest of my life, even after I’ve finished posting “it”) a book that, at first, tried to hew closely to a comics framework but over time, given my eclectic (read: comparative) intellectual interests, grew to include larger comments on print culture, historiography, even photography.  I have a lot to say about photography, especially how photographs were reproduced in print periodicals.  I can imagine you will be tempted to gloss over much of this, but I beseech you, dear reader, to slow down and pay careful attention.  There is more there than meets the eye.

The book claims in many explicit and implicit ways to be about comics, and it is, but a more accurate claim might be that the book uses comics as a primary point of entry into larger questions of textuality, especially how textual forms reflect and become embedded in each other, which, nevertheless, once carefully–or differently–considered might be read back onto comics and how we read them.  “How we read them” is deceptively simple: in an ordinary sense, to be sure, how one reads a comic as given according to received conventions but also how, interpretively, we, and I realize this is an awkward expression, read comics into being, meaning, how a particular interpretive act construes a comic as such.  This is where the “larger questions” rear their many heads, but I promise you there is a hydra underlying it all.

I feel perfectly comfortable publishing this book, serially, over the better part of a year on this blog, despite its supposedly limited manga purview, not only because Japanese comics theory figures prominently within it–in fact, Okamoto Ippei and Tsurumi Shunsuke are probably the only theorists/critics who make an appearance without being at least partially debunked–but because the research for this book in addition to my many earlier posts have made clear to me that any arbitrarily limited consideration of the question that gives this blog its name is self-defeating.  Such limits make it all too tempting simply to repeat received wisdoms, which, while wise after a fashion, nevertheless leave much unexplained.  I have gotten flack in the past for focusing, perhaps, overly much on limit cases, examples which undermine otherwise perfectly tolerable modes of thinking and methodologies, examples which detract from a concerted effort to understand what’s typical about comics, what, more or less, accepting that there exists any number of outliers, we might point to something and say with a degree of certitude, “that’s a comic.”

Fuck certitude.

Over the past few years, as comics studies has congealed–like gelatin in a mold–into something like a discipline without a proper institutional home, I have noticed repeatedly, though not with any obvious conspiracy, a desire to finally just get over comics studies’ growing pains, be they theoretical or historiographic or whatever, so that “we” (I’m not always certain whom this is meant to include) can get down to the ordinary work of ordinary scholarship, of creating and developing academic programs, of manufacturing all those institutionally conspicuous signs of having arrived already.  I understand this impulse to a degree but, as any regular reader of this blog knows well, have never been particularly sympathetic to it.  For example, I was in Columbus for the most recent ICAF, and I was even on site when the meeting announcing the Comics Studies Society was held and could have skipped my lunch like many others did in order to attend.  Yet, I skipped that meeting to continue a single conversation left over from the previous panel, the very panel I was on, the panel I could have been removed from with little lasting effect.

The lack of interest in what I’ve had to say at conferences over the years has been deafening.  I have had any number of thoughts about this.  At first, I took it personally, as if I had somehow failed to communicate what was so fucking awesome about these texts.  Then I took it less personally and assumed, with some justification, despite a consistent and widespread expression of interest in Japanesey things among comics scholars, that surprisingly few were willing to put forth the work to meet halfway myself or any of the others who have made sallies beyond the parochial confines of mangagaku.  Of late, I have had to recognize how there are institutional barriers to integrating comics studies in the Japanese-speaking sphere with the wider, international network things like ICAF and CSS try to represent, barriers which I alone have little power to chip away at.  I should note that the reaction to my work has not been complete silence, but I do regularly encounter an exasperation with a cultural milieu and attendant critical tradition that remains not only opaque but surprisingly resistant at times to the international comics studies community.

While writing this book, I had to think a great deal about audience–no, I had to think differently about audience.  Way back when, while I was conceptualizing the tone and content of this blog, I imagined something like an ecumenical readership, and, to that end, I tried to create a blog that would be as useful to the academically as fannishly inclined.  I’m not sure I succeeded in doing so, but in the two years and change since I began that project, I have had to come to grips with the fact that maybe holding out many hands to many huddled masses is fundamentally wrongheaded.  Something Toph Marshall said at ICAF has stuck with me.  Among all the self-congratulatory expressions of having arrived that attended the foundation of the CSS, he gave voice to a necessary warning, that if any of this is to last or speak to a broader intellectual community, “we” (again, I dunno) need to make sense and appeal to those who have little or no background or prior interest in comics.  Here I’ve spent all this time thinking about how to live among the many nations of comics thinkerati that it never even occurred to me to look to a wider and potentially even more hostile/indifferent world.

I can imagine that, for both the academically and fannishly concerned with comics, much of what appears in this serial book will be extraordinarily disorienting.  That’s the point.  Let me be clear: disorientation is the primary means by which I have tried to put the already and potentially interested on an equal footing.  If at times you find yourself, dear reader, at pains to understand why it is I have digressed in a particular way, then you’re on the right track.

The several times I’ve seen Phoebe Gloeckner speak over the years, especially since she’s begun and repeatedly re-invented her more than decade long project documenting the violence in Ciudad Juarez, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut… but in a good way, if it is even possible to say you have had a good experience confronted with the incessant and infuriating mundanity of serial violence.  It’s a disorienting experience for a number of reasons.  Gloeckner is not what you would call an eloquent speaker.  She’s disorganized, she tries to present far too much material, she stops abruptly and just stares at the screen, she makes weird faces, etc. but the total effect of it always shakes me from my complacency.  Though I drink heavily in the aftermath, I think I’m much better for it.

Which brings me to why I decided to publish my book project here and in this way.  As my preface next week will make clear, from the beginning I had in mind to make this work as widely accessible as possible, which led me originally to the digital repository of my current university of affiliation (the University of Iowa, if it matters), but I as I began to edit the finished chapters for nicely formatted booky-looking pdf’s, I realized that one of the things I always liked about the blog is the ability to engage with reader responses, even well after the fact.  It occurred to me that I wanted something not only broadly accessible but open, subject to revision, in which a discussion about the text, be it my own later thoughts or someone else’s, could be there alongside the relevant passages.  I want y’all to speak your mind[s], and don’t be afraid to be as polemical with me as I am with the critics I treat.  I often respond far better to insult than praise, though praise will not go unappreciated.

The text will appear in 2000-ish word chunks, sometimes more sometimes less, which, while part of a longer stream of thought, I hope will present each time something like a coherent point.  The pace, one post a week, is not merely a nod to my original working method for the blog but to give time for each idea, especially the digressive ones, to percolate, to stew, to… whatever the metaphor, give time for consideration.  Beginning next Sunday with the Preface, the book will run well into August, presuming I do not add to it substantially along the way, which, I have to admit, I might, especially if in response to a particularly insightful comment, as disorienting for me as I hope this text is for you.  I will also keep a running track of published sections, so that, should you come to all this at a later date, you will not be entirely lost.

So, without further ado, I present to you:

[Comics] as Reading, or A Theory of Alter-textuality

Dedication:

For Comment[s]

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7 comments

  1. Failed Baisao Wanna-be · · Reply

    待ってました!よっ!團十朗!

  2. WOW! CONGRATULATIONS!

    I am going to be looking forward to the “serialization”.

    And now, a tangent about conferences and walled gardens in academia, “fan studies” and fandoms…

    I had the fun of going to my first academic conference on fandoms, ostensibly in search of fannish “secondary production” that I could absorb into “contemporary arts” which is what I do, but now less, as the trip set off a bit of envy at work and things got ugly – Ok, so now I try a bit of freelancery – which is beside the point. What struck me was how everyone not only had their own fannish interests, but as they were all trying to turn them into research and /or degrees, (and hopefully tenured jobs for life studying and teaching what they …. ok, lets not go there…) they were all pretty silo-ed, walled off, etc by their departments and approaches. I dropped a lot of footnotes and a few names of other researchers working on similar things. It struck me that the “usual suspects” of the westerners-who-found-places-in-Japan manga studies folks – agree or disagree with their approaches, at least share a pretty common set of starting points for their interests – a lot of gender theory, some pop-post lacanian concepts, build up logically with Tamaki and Azuma, etc, etc.. (heck I use em too – perhaps they are handy for beginners) Now whether these are to one’s taste or not, it is obvious that the common terminology and idea set(s) enables productivity and a degree of interaction and exchange. I sorely missed that at this little un-conference, though I got to be a (guy) fly on the wall as a whole bunch of academics fen who were also very into slashing got to repeatedly give up on theory and research approaches in favor of uh… common interests.

    The other universal complaint was how to make the research on their fave things acceptable to whatever academic fiefdom they were in, and to the elder gods who oversaw their research and their thesis work. This was a universal source of grumbling.

    It was beginning to look like there were as many approaches to fan studies as there were fan “study-ers”. The field is still in its infancy. Heck the whole comics studies thing is equally diffuse. And while every university department pays lip service to interdisciplinary research, all want the funds to come out of the other fool department’s budget, and the glory to stay within theirs.

    I guess that is just the nature of the beast. Under such conditions, dropping a independent, accessible work on the genre into the field can only make a substantial contribution, if only by shaking things up and shaking things out.

    I wish you well on this project!
    /Mudakun

    1. Well, you bring up a number of things, but I’ll respond briefly to what immediately piqued my interest.
      “The other universal complaint was how to make the research on their fave things acceptable to whatever academic fiefdom they were in, and to the elder gods who oversaw their research and their thesis work. This was a universal source of grumbling.”
      The academic game simply doesn’t work like that; you can’t compel anything, because higher ed institutions are conservative (in the classical sense of that word) by nature. If, at the end of the day, you need a job to get by, you need to have some form of training in the things people hire for, which is why, more often than not, the, as you say, elder gods try to guide (or cajole) their students into following established paths. A hiring committee may look at your work and even think its rather interesting, but they need someone to teach Shakespeare and three sections of composition, or the dean will cut their funding for next year. If you play this game, the trick is not “how do I get my advisor to recognize how special I am” but rather “how do I get away with researching what I want while appearing to follow the rules.” This means, to a large degree, paying close attention to what jobs are being advertised on the lists early in your graduate career, so that you can supplement your degree requirements with certifications and, more importantly, teaching experience in the broad areas departments generally look for. The other trick is to find an existing critical discourse that resembles yours (for fan studies, reception studies in Classics is likely a good model) and try either to work within their existing framework (conferences, journals, etc.) or use their terms to market yourself.
      If you don’t play the game, forging a new discipline can be perilous, and you need to know in advance 1) how you’re going to pay the bills, and 2) how you’re going to retain access to research materials without an affiliation. #1 is not all that difficult, it’s #2 that can be very complicated. Public libraries just don’t hold a candle to academic ones, and it’s a lot easier to get a paper accepted for a conference or by a journal, if you claim to be from Whatever College or the University of Who-gives-a-fuck.
      Either way, you have to play the long game, and a cynical one at that.

  3. deleuzean · · Reply

    Another option – the one I am pursuing – is maintaining a University affiliation by working in an academic support unit rather than attempting to be an academic. This gives me loads of access to materials without the hassles of playing the academy game.

    I am in the early stages of trying to put together some sort of book on Evangelion focusing on how the primary (TV and movie) texts of Eva generate meaning (particularly, but not limited to) within the space of an otaku consumption-production-consumption feedback loop. I presented a very rough first outline of this in Chicago earlier this year in a one-man panel at Anime Central.

    I look forward to reading what you’ve written, and hope it will inspire me to continue on this project of mine that I hope will end up occupying another kind of “disorienting” space between fandom and academic criticism.

    1. Indeed, there are a number of “support” arenas that provide necessary if not complete access. Some Ph.D.’s end up working in libraries or admin or, as in my case, get periodic nonce appointments in research groups or “centers” that sound good on paper (Research Fellow for the Center of Some Made Up Crap) but upon close inspection are revealed to mean basically nothing. There are clear advantages to working a 9 to 5, non-academic job that provides you with the bare minimum of what you need, namely, as you say, the freedom to find venues for your work that don’t closely track the narrowly prescribed paths to hire then tenure then promotion. Also, you will find that your private life doesn’t get consumed by tasks that, while never explicitly required, you are pressured into, because you know the vast junior high circle jerk that is an academic department will be making decisions regarding your future employment.

      My advice above was based solely on the assumption that you’ve already committed yourself to the official scholar game.

  4. I like the “Research Fellow for the Center of …the universe” angle. Must pursue! Snagging pay-walled research is a mighty big barrier. Thanks for the tip!

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