Thursday, April 28, 2016

On the Universal Experience

No two people of color/Jews/gay people/Mexican-Americans/women/poor people have the exact same experience of racism/anti-Semitism/homophobia/xenophobia/misogyny/classism.

If they did, there would be no point in reading memoirs/novels/poems/histories about racism/anti-Semitism/homophobia/xenophobia/misogyny/classism.

On Being a Loser

A particularly brilliant friend and fellow animation scholar posted this on Facebook. It's from a Princeton professor who put together a CV of his rejections, which well outnumber his acceptances. The exercise is meant to highlight the way in which we assume more success in those that seem successful and thus condemn ourselves all the more.

I read through this CV. He did not get into the Ph.D. program at the Stockholm School of Economics. He was invited for campus visits to Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley, but didn't get any of the jobs. He got turned down for a Fulbright. I for one wish my failures were so impressive. I would call this a humblebrag, but it sounds more like a plain old brag.

I grew up in a hyper-competitive environment. One of my high school classmates lived for years in shame because she could only get into (shudder) Tufts. Another was so embarrassed by his attendance at (horror) Johns Hopkins that he spent years extolling its virtues. They were both intelligent if not the most likable human beings. If they could be made to feel like losers for those accomplishments, there was probably little hope for their lifelong emotional well-being.

I guess I could do my own list. I was waitlisted for a middle-school magnate program. Six years later, I got into Columbia. In 2004, I was rejected outright for a position as arts editor at a newspaper in Spokane, Washington. Three years later, I got a Fulbright to go to Hungary. I came home from my Fulbright and could not get a job. Two years later, I just managed to get into an MA program in Film Studies. Now I'm in the fourth year of a Ph.D. program. Every single rejection made me feel like a failure. And they still make me hurt. I was rejected for a fellowship last week that sent me into an apoplexy.

(I guess we can add the rejections in romance and friendship, which are all more painful, but let's keep this list short.)

I have enough self-awareness that the "failures" I just listed would baffle the vast majority of the population of the country, the people who are made to feel like failures because they work two jobs and still can't pay for their kid's college education or the people who feel their low IQ reduces them to the subhuman.

We're a nation of losers.

On Sexual Fluidity

The New York Times published an op-ed over the weekend from Harris Wofford, someone I never heard of, but who has apparently lived a long and prominent life in public service. He's 90 years old. His wife died 20 years ago. He's about to get married to a man 50 years his junior.

When we hear stories like this, we tend to fall back on a set narrative. The Christopher Plummer character in Beginners. Sal in Mad Men. Joel Grey, the gayest gay who ever emceed in Cabaret, who came out last year at the age of 83. We imagine a long, cold marriage, and decades of longing for a certain kind of love. We imagine an unhappy wife who gave up on sexual pleasure around the time her youngest child was conceived and a husband who quietly found solace in secretive liaisons.

Wofford tells a different story. His marriage to his wife was long and happy. She was a companion, confidante, co-parent and a supporter throughout a fascinating career, which had its successes and failures. He loved her. He loved her unconditionally. Five years after her death, when he was in his 70s, he met a man in his 20s, who was athletic and charming. They fell in love. There was a bit of awkwardness and a little tension when he introduced his lover to his children. But he was happy. Happy happy happy happy happy.

You never really know what goes on in anyone else's marriage. People are different and no two people look for exactly the same thing in any given relationship. You also never really know what someone else desires until you have sex with them. Sex lives evolve. What gives someone pleasure at 14 doesn't give the same pleasure at 42. People develop fetishes. They indulge desires that were always latent. They indulge those desires and then discover that those desires were better left to their imagination.

"After five years, marriage is not about sex at all." -- Every Bad Comedian Ever. I can imagine several different scenarios in Harris Wofford's life. He may have had an intense sex life with his wife when they were in their '20s, coupled with a deep friendship. Age and familiarity diminished that passion, but passion might have flared up for a few months here and there for the next few decades. By their late '60s they were still intimate physically, even if they hadn't performed the act in a few years. By the time he met his new lover, he found someone he could continue that intimacy with. They had sex, but only so much. He may have tried anal sex and not liked it, but found oral sex more enjoyable. His lover was a gerontophile who liked the feel of his skin and his friendship. They might have had an open relationship. His lover might have satisfied a physical rambunctiousness elsewhere and then come home late in the evenings.

Or his sex life with his wife was never that intense, a fact which never bothered him or her. Maybe he found in his new lover someone who reminded him of his wife in her youth. Maybe his lover had found a mentor figure that provided him support. Maybe a monetary interest was involved, but 15 years is a long time to be in it for the money.

When we talk about sexual fluidity, we don't just mean a fluidity between desires for different genders. I don't know how happy Harris Wofford is or ever was. No one ever gets everything he wants in life. Sex has brought human beings as much pain as pleasure. Whatever his claims to happiness, I'm guessing that he was probably not as happy as he claims -- very few people are -- and probably, like most of us, a lot more interesting.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On the Charming Neo-Nazi

I'm not entirely sure when the charming Warner Brothers Nazi disappeared, or if there were any attempts to revive the figure before Inglourious Basterds. Maybe Night and Fog killed the archetype. Although, now that I think about it, Ralph Fiennes's Amon Goethe is a little too much fun, as is Laurence Olivier's Christian Szell.

Last night, I saw Green Room, a grim slasher flick with a putrid palette, about a good-looking punk rock band who find themselves trapped in a neo-Nazi compound deep in the Oregon woods. The real stars of these things are always the villains, no matter how little screen time they get. Patrick Stewart plays Darcy. I couldn't tell if he shed his accent for the role. He's one of those actors whose phrasing is so lovely it would be a shame to rework it for any role. He plays Darcy as a paternal teacher, a Picard or a Xavier, and, like the latter, every bit the provider of his own moral code. He's eerily calm. I didn't want to hang out with any of his students, but I would have signed up for any of his classes.

Darcy has a lot in common with Michael Bowen's Uncle Jack in Breaking Bad, a professional, and in his own way, honorable businessman. Uncle Jack prefers handshakes over contracts. He's smart enough to listen to his employees. You don't see it, but you can be pretty sure he leaves his waitresses generous tips.

Darcy and Uncle Jack are in their own ways far more frightening than Goethe, Szell, or Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa. Americans know that we're supposed to be suspicious of a certain Old World charm, but our culture still honors paternal kindness, smart business sense, and civility as virtues in and of themselves. A handshake can be a deadly weapon. Some terrible people score very high on ratemyprofessors.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On the Twenty-Dollar Bill

It's official. Andrew Jackson, genocidal maniac, will no longer be on the $20 bill. Instead, future generations will see Harriet Tubman, a formidable woman who rescued hundreds of people from chattel slavery, when they pay for their coffee. Many of the descendants of the people she rescued are now Canadian citizens. She was also known to threaten her charges with their lives unless they followed her. Morality is complicated. So is history. But the version of Tubman who will appear on the $20 bill is part of our heritage, a stand-in for the many strong, angry women and people of color who fought for social justice and, until the last few decades, were largely erased from our high-school textbooks. The complicated Tubman, the interesting Tubman, the human Tubman, will not be on our currency. That's okay. Heritage has its uses.

I always wondered why Andrew Jackson was on our $20 bill. I'm not talking about his opposition to the national bank. I just don't think the average educated citizen had any knowledge as to his supposed good points, or the parts of his legacy that mattered. If you graduated with an A in elementary American history you know, or at least think, that Washington refused to be king, Lincoln freed the slaves, and Grant won the Civil War. And Hamilton -- well, I guess the average citizen didn't know that much about Hamilton until recently. But Jackson...I don't know if the average citizen even knows about the War of 1812.

If I had complete power, I would split the commemorations on our currency. The paper currency and the obverse sides of our coins would honor unelected social justice giants, like King, Sojourner Truth, Cesar Chavez, and Eugene Debs. The reverse sides of our coins would go to our writers and musicians. Hell, the American empire will be most remembered for its music and literature. So, we can start with Whitman, Dickinson, Crane, Melville, Ellison, Baldwin, Cather, Roth, and Faulkner. Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Little Richard.

We still have 15 more years of Jackson. There are so many logistics to take care of before we can switch currencies. One more generation of Jackson. By that point, global warming will have wrought havoc to the world's major economies, inflation will have skyrocketed and the $20 bill may be worth no more than the $1 bill today.

But yes...These things matter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

On The Jungle Book

I saw The Jungle Book at a 9:15 pm show last night. I didn't laugh at the jokes, some of which were Pixar-level clever, and I wasn't moved by the deaths of any of the heroes. I spent most of the movie admiring the lush scenery which recalled the multiplanar camera effects of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Every leaf in the film existed in an ambiguous space between the two- and three-dimensional. I felt the way I feel when I go hiking in the mountains in the Pacific Northwest where my city boy's sense of depth and proportion is upset by new landscapes. But I barely connected to the narrative.

The Jungle Book will be remembered as one of the major CGI touchstones, alongside The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The animal heroes occupy a position very high on the reality meter, like lightly touched-up photographs. But the animators' approach to the animals is different than that of the screenplay's and voice actors'. Christopher Walken's Colonel Kurtz impression comes from his voice, but even though it shouldn't, it feels at odds with the enormous orangutan's lazy pose, suggestive of brutality and appetite. I can listen to Idris Elba's voice all day long, but it hardly lends Shere Khan any more menace than already exists in the tiger's lurch. These voices are human, and the animals' bodies, created by animators guided by what must have been a million hours of research, are not.

From my layman's understanding, animals have emotional lives as complex as ours. But it's still so easy for us to kill and eat them, and even if we happen to be vegetarians, to accept that we have friends who kill and eat them. Why? They don't express their emotions with their eyes, or their mouths. As far as humans are concerned, they wear masks. The most terrifying moment of the film came when Walken's King Louie emerges from the shadows and reveals his stoical, impassive, glass-eyed face. I may know that animals feel a riot of jealousy, sorrow, rage, love, and grief, but it's never that apparent to me. And as much as I know they may feel these ranges of emotion, I remain convinced, whether I'm right or not, that the quality of their jealousy, sorrow, rage, love, and grief can't be the same as my own, that it has to be different.

Maybe the uncanny valley exists in my lived experience outside the movie theater, in a zoo or in a walk through nature. I see all these creatures with consciousnesses so similar to mine but for a few small differences, and faces so like mine, except for their inability to express our common emotional inheritance.


Monday, April 18, 2016


When I started grad school six years ago, I was resistant. I did not like reading bad writing. I didn’t like the tolerance for bad writing, nor people who valued the spoken word, which is to say their own goddamn voice, over the written word. I had come in with Fulbright research, most of which amounted to hours of taped interviews with filmmakers, some of whom had by then passed. I met people who had read their theory on the death of the author a little too literally, and didn’t understand why those hours of taped material would be at all significant. I knew people who willingly cut themselves off from any emotional connection to the objects of their study, and I hated the excuse for that lack of emotional connection: “It’s a product of CAPITALISM!”  

But there was a lot to discover during my first year. I learned that there were great writers in my field, like Tom Gunning, James Naremore, and Rick Altman, and that there were grad students who were much better writers than me. I learned there was an enormous tradition considering the theoretical and practical conceptions of authorship. Still, most of my initial concerns from six years ago linger. 

The International Comic Arts Forum is now 20 years old, but Comics Studies still feels new. Most of the field’s best-known scholars are in their 40s or 50s. We still argue sometimes as to whether or not our field has any legitimacy, or at least enough legitimacy for a Ph.D. armed with a dissertation steeped in comics studies to get a job. It seems to be a settled question that the study of comics is a worthwhile endeavor, that an English professor is welcome to slap Watchmen on his syllabus. It’s not clear to the wider world why Comics Studies is so important. It’s not obvious that even though comics scholars can apply the tools of literary theory, art history, and film and media studies to the study of comics, they also need to develop a separate tradition.

I just got back from the most recent ICAF, which was held in Columbia, South Carolina, and I wonder if, thanks to its new-ness, the field is avoiding the problems of older humanities disciplines. (I should note that my focus is on Animation Studies, but that the study of Yugoslav comics does form part of my dissertation.)   

I heard extraordinary papers. Of them all, my favorite came from the recipient of an award for grad student research.  He is working on a dissertation on Japanese comics from the 1920s and 30s. His archival research was explosive, as much as any research in our field can be. He’s rewriting our ingrained, exotic notions of Japanese comics, which his presentations showed, initially adopted the stylizations and content of Western comics. His research is reworking our ideas of how comics can be read on a page, of the varieties of comic-book-making, and of the concept of the ur-text.

The conference invited major comics artists to participate, among them Howard Cruse, the author of my favorite gay comics story of all time, “Billy Goes Out” (1980), and Keith Knight, a comics laureate of the Black Lives Matter movement. Cruse gave a cathartic talk about his career and his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. He said the comic is created in the reader’s mind, a truth that so many in the room loved and agreed with. He also said something which struck me as the kind of thing academics so caught up in arguments over minutiae that have few real-world consequences need to hear. I can only paraphrase, but I think it went, “Everyone in the gay world was fighting over who was an essentialist and who wasn’t. I think that was all so silly. I was just gay.”  

The scholars treated their objects of study with critical rigor, but through their criticism, you could hear the note of their affective responses. We may still want to set ourselves apart from fanboy/fangirl cultures – which we respect – but we have not yet erased our inner fanboys/fangirls.   

Monday, April 11, 2016

On Hierarchies

Ok, so here's the weird thing. I spent my college years taking courses on the Western Canon. There were exceptions. I took an awesome class on Native American Literatures taught by Karl Kroeber, who was Ursula K. Le Guin's brother and Theodore Kroeber's son. And I took two great books seminars which covered Middle Eastern, Indian, Chinese and Japanese literature. And there was another seminar on American Comedy taught by an African-American literature and jazz scholar. But for the most part, my college career was about Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Shelley, Restoration comedies, Joseph Conrad, and Henry James. I took three great lecture courses on American history, two taught by Alan Brinkley and one by everyone's favorite lefty-Civil War guy, Eric Foner. I took one film course, during the second semester of my senior year, on Akira Kurosawa, but I would have considered it a waste to have spent my college education on movies. I believed in hierarchies.

So 13 years later, I am writing a dissertation on Yugoslav cartoons -- which are awesome -- and writing essays on the side about Marvel Comics, as well as quality comics. Both of these subjects have long had cultural legitimacy in certain circles. Marvel's fans in the '60s included Federico Fellini, Alain Resnais, and Kenneth Koch. Today, Ta-Nehisi Coates (a.k.a. the guy people who are too lazy to read James Baldwin call the new Baldwin) is writing a Black Panther comic. Michael Chabon co-wrote the screenplay for Spider-Man 2. The Zagreb School of Animation drew interest from CineClubs all over the world in the '60s and '70s. But...yeah...hierarchies. I still believe in hierarchies.

So what's good and what's bad? What's up and what's down? What's worth looking at and what's worth ignoring?

I guess there are two kinds of people in academia.

There are those who accept any subject someone wants to study without question. You want to write your dissertation on whether or not Walt Whitman ever read Alexander Pope? Godspeed. You want to write your dissertation on the linguistic variety in the comments section of the YouTube video of the last Beyonce music video? Go with god, sir. Go with god.

And then there are the rest of us, most of us. That would be those who recognize that there are some subjects worth exploring and some not worth exploring. There's a problem here. The minute you start imposing your own hierarchies, someone will be there to crush you with theirs. There are many reasons why I'm glad I wasn't born 30 years before I was born. But here's one: In 1986, I doubt I would have been allowed to write a dissertation on East European animation.

I ended up in academia because the outside world had no place for someone who wanted to do what I wanted to do. So, I'm a little uneasy about kicking anyone out of the academy who ended up here for the same reasons. There's an aristocrat in me, sure. But there's also a democrat. And they're always talking to each other.

On My Friends Overseas

In 1991, following the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia, facing the new reality, saw a threat in southeastern Europe. Yugoslavia's army was just too large. They sent their Jewish agents to foment ethnic tensions in Bosnia, arranged passage for Sarajevo's Jewish population to Israel, and then sat back and watched the place burn to the ground.

Jews tend to look after themselves. I knew someone whose 80-something aunt was kicked out of an apartment sometime in the 2000s, when the Jewish community was able to reclaim some of its lost buildings in Budapest. Someone else had that same issue when he lost a job to a Jewish man, a friend of his Jewish employer. Maybe, if he had a Jewish name he could have gotten a job. He didn't understand why anyone who was Jewish would want to change their names.

The Romanians, as a whole, protected their Jews. Jews who say otherwise are just trying to protect their interests in Israel and use the Holocaust as an excuse for their own desired ends. Anyway, not as many of their Jews, percentage-wise, died in World War II as did Hungarian or Polish Jews.

In Bulgaria in 2005, if you called someone on your cell phone you had to pay for the minutes. It was free to receive calls. So if you were running low on minutes you would SMS your friend, "Call me." This was a called a "Jewish SMS."

There were a lot of swastikas spray-painted on the walls of Budapest in 2007.  That was all done by a very small minority. The guys who beat up my Indian friends in Riga in 2006 represented a very small minority of Latvians.

As for the Roma, they live in big houses, and they live off welfare. Hitler and Stalin didn't kill enough of them. The gays are trying to make everyone more like them. It's okay if they want to be that way, but do it in private. Also, it's the EU. You can go somewhere else if you want to.

I've met intelligent people in Central and Eastern Europe, and they've held beliefs well in keeping with those of the liberal circles which I occupy in the US, as well as intelligent people who hold very different beliefs. They've told me about their families, their careers, their day-to-day lives, their schools, their pastimes. They've been more open to me than any other group of people I've ever known. They've taken me into their houses. They've fed me. More than once, they've refused to let me pay a dime for a drink. I say this -- and I say this in all honesty -- I love them all.

On Bros

I guess we all think in stereotypes, whether we want to or not. Some are more pernicious than others. A white man stereotyping a black man is uglier than a black man stereotyping a white man. In the circles I move in, we tend to say that there's no such thing as reverse racism, that racism is a function of power, and that a person with power can't be the victim of the person without power. This is the mindset that lies underneath those online think pieces which dissect those "bros". The bro is no longer merely a frat boy with a backwards baseball cap telling rape jokes while watching a football game. Berniebros, brogrammer, gaybros, gamer bros, brocialists...all these are caricatures who have adopted our culture's messed-up ideas of male privilege. Dissecting and caricaturing these figures does no harm. It's balancing the scales.

I guess that's all fine and good, but in the end these pieces are lazy and dehumanizing. As a rhetorical turn, the reverse-anthropological analysis has a long history in comedy, but these pieces are beginning to sound a little too earnest, and their take on power relationships doesn't always fit with my (white male, for what it's worth) lived experience.

I only know so much about my students, which is as it should be. I have had a fair number of male frat boys, those guys who fit the original meaning of bro. I guess I could stereotype them if I wanted to, and -- the subconscious is the subconscious -- I probably have. But, you know, some of these bros' favorite movies include The Hours (god knows why). Quite a few of them have pulled down 20-40 hour/week jobs to pay for their education and their family's needs. Some are shy but interested. They can feel uncomfortable speaking up in class. Some of them can admit when the girl in the discussion is probably right. Some are excellent writers. A couple of them like jazz more than rap. Some of them don't even like football.

I could also tell you about my Chinese students who've written papers about gay rights or the girls who love every one of those Marvel movies with the white straight male heroes.

People, man. They're complicated.

On Jake Lloyd

By 1999, Star Wars was a mass religion made up of demigods and saints with whom we could emulate. Jake Lloyd played one of these demigods. He was whiny and irritating. Everyone's actual little brother was more fun than this kid. The movie was terrible, and Jake Lloyd made it worse. He had no place within our religion.

The news reports should have given us pause. The kid had to go to therapy in order to process the amount of hate he received. I don't know if Jake Lloyd ever actually liked acting, or whether he was driven by awful stage-parents, but if he had any joy in performing, that joy was sucked out of him at a young age, before he even hit puberty.

Lloyd has been in prison for the last 10 months. He's being transferred to a mental health facility where he will be getting treatment for his underlying schizophrenia. I don't know the cause of his mental illness, but I imagine a 10-year-old who suffers the hatred of millions of people he has never met and will never meet will have a hard time leading a healthy, happy life.

Jake Lloyd has spent a good part of his life trying to answer one question for which there was never a good answer: Why did everyone hate me?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On Getting C's

The Ivy League sent out its decisions this year. If I remember right, my incoming class at Columbia in 1999 had a 17-percent acceptance rate. The number for my school is now at around 6 percent.

I had a valedictorian mindset inasmuch as I wanted to be a straight-A student in the interest of attending a top school, but I did not have a valedictorian's talent. I went to a competitive magnet program, but my GPA barely cracked a 3.5, which I'm pretty sure was below average. My SAT score was a 1450, which was average there. I was the captain of my school's quiz bowl team, but one of its less talented players. I was the head of my school's archaeology club and film society. I was an interesting, smart person, but I doubt I would have gotten in without my choice to go early admission or my legacy. (My dad was the class of '68.) And I doubt my 17-year-old self, even with a legacy, would have made the cut in 2016.

I grew up in D.C. Here's my impression of meeting people in D.C:

"Hi, my name is [name]."
"Hi, my name is ---"
"So what do you do?"
"Well, I'm a grad student at UW."
"Oh, UW...Where did you go undergrad?"
"Ooooohhh!!! Columbia...I went to [name of school listed anywhere in U.S. News Report top rankings, other than Harvard]."

These last two lines can be replaced with:

"Oooooohhh!!! Columbia...I went to [sotto voce] Harvard. Columbia is a great school"

This is a short way of saying that I don't like D.C. and that there is a propensity in certain circles to judge individuals' ability/worth/social utility based on your performance in high school and the sociological position you occupied in your teenage years that was necessary for you to get into and pay for -- or the willingness of you or your family to go into debt to pay for -- a school in the top rankings of the USNWRCR.

I don't want to piss on my school, or ignore what my college years meant to me. There's a complaint that professors at these schools don't care about teaching, that they only care about their research. That wasn't my experience. Some damn top professors took time out for me and my classmates, and I still call and email some of them 13 years after graduation. A few kicked my ass on writing. I related more to my college friends than I have to any group of people I've been around in the years since. They had a similar personality and sense of humor. Contrary to the stereotype, most of us weren't protesters, and I would say most of us have a relatively healthy self-awareness of what we now call "privilege". The humanities guys among us just liked talking about novels, history, philosophy, movies and politics. We talked about The New Yorker more than Judith Butler. We shared an ironic sense-of-humor. My close friends from that time all live different lives and I still keep up with some of them. There's my old comic-book buddy who went back to do his pre-med courses after graduation and is now a doctor in New York, a rabbi who works as an activist for prisoners and migrant laborers, a lawyer at the DOJ, a professor in the Spanish department at Virginia Tech, and an editor of a graphic novels imprint at a major New York publishing house. They live interesting lives. They can all list me as their friend who is now writing a dissertation on Yugoslav animation. 

Those years were also difficult. I made friends, but had a hard time convincing them to go somewhere south of 110th Street on a Friday night. I also hated a lot of the people I was around.  My freshman year was one of the unhappiest years of my life. Top schools attract a lot of sociopaths who tend to make their presence known and I had two of them on my dorm floor. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, who was worth listening to and who wasn't. I spent an insane amount of hours at gay clubs, talking to people at those places, making out with them, sleeping with them. Those years introduced me to people who knew very different lives than I had ever known. (Gore Vidal had that line about how gay life connected people from different classes that would otherwise never have met each other. He said it more elegantly.) I spent long hours on the subway traveling to weird corners of New York. That's where I did most of the reading for my classes. (All these years later, I recognize that I was a terrible reader.)

So, I am honest enough to admit that my family did pay for a degree, for the "Columbia" name at the top of my resume. But I also believe I got more than that out of my time there. Still, you always wonder about the alternative life, and I wonder if I would have been better off, 1. going somewhere else, and 2. being a different kind of high school student, the kind that doesn't care whether or not he goes to a top school.

I make it a point not to discuss my students in any detail, but I will say one of the most interesting students I ever had went to a competitive high school where he made a B average. He spent his teenage years reading books he liked to read and practicing in a pretty good rock band. (This barely scratches the surface of what made him an interesting/extraordinary student. I'm trying not to go into detail.) If he had come from a family a bit higher up on the income ladder, he might have tried a little harder and got into a higher-ranked school. Instead, he did what interested him, and that might not have been such a bad thing. He was just as capable as any of my classmates in college, and was a lot more fun to talk to than at least 90 percent of them. What made him different? He got a few C's in high school. I wish I had allowed myself to get a few C's in high school and I wish our elite schools would consider a few C's on a report card an asset. I also wish we didn't care that much about our elite schools. I wish a good college education was free for everyone, that professors were well paid, that no class had more than 15 students, that we figured out a way to balance our students' vocational needs with our humanist expectations, that we accepted, even celebrated failures, that we provided a threshold for a decent standard of living for every student/person in the country, that we abolished grades, that the originator of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings burns in hell for all eternity, that protesters at Columbia spent a little more time in the '00s trying to stop the school's expansion into Harlem, that Bernie Sanders becomes president, that more top students were taught a trade, that we could celebrate work and craftsmanship as an end in and of itself and not as a means towards status, that attendance at a lower-ranked school brought no one shame, and that admission to a higher-ranked school brought no one pride.

Back to my cartoons.


Sunday, April 3, 2016

On Curiosity and Incuriosity

Today was the last day of this year's Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference. For those of you outside my field, this is the most important annual gathering for people who do what I do. Professors, grad students, and a few independent scholars, present nearly 500 papers. The place crawls with what passes for celebrities in academia. This was a particularly interesting year. The hotel next door was holding a Furry convention, which made us only the second nerdiest people in the city. I made a pilgrimage to the Center for Puppetry Arts, which has a huge Jim Henson exhibit. I visited MLK's church. I toured the studio where the TV show "Archer" is produced along with my fellow animation scholars. I hung out at a Cuban cigar store for a few hours and chatted with some local businessmen. I sat through some papers and, this morning, I presented my own on Alain Resnais and Stan Lee's un-produced screenplay. I hope to turn it into a publication, but I think it will be the last thing I write outside this blog and my dissertation until I get my Ph.D. I had moving conversations with old friends/professors I hadn't seen in years. I've kept my notes on all these experiences...Wait, did I mention we were right across from the Furry convention? Because that's where we were, right across from the Furry convention. We saw Furries. Furries! FUCKING FURRIES...but I want to share some thoughts on what it means to be a scholar, the point of it all.

On Saturday morning, four top comics studies scholars, one of them an outside reader on my dissertation, met to talk about the state of this still evolving field. There were the general concerns. How do we make sure this field doesn't become ossified? How do we set ourselves apart from other fields without cutting ourselves off from other ideas? How do we convince publishers to spring for high-quality images in our books? How do we teach the entirety of comics in 10 or 13 short weeks? At the end, one of the speakers mentioned a salient fact that troubles him a little bit. There is a tendency, almost a convention, in comics studies scholarship to begin essays and books with a little memoir about one's childhood reading experiences. "I remember when I was 8-years-old and I read my first Chris Claremont X-Men." "I remember standing over the comics pages when I was 6." "Superman changed my life. It's very hard for me to talk about this, in a way." The speaker was guilty of this convention. I should say that I've fallen into that trap in some of my non-academic work, but never my academic work. I consciously avoided that trap in my essay on Magneto, and almost completely avoided it in my essay on Spider-Man, both of which were written for a general audience for the Millions. I save my first-person musings and mini-memoirs for this blog. I learned early on that I was the least interesting subject of any research-based writing I produce. If I'm any good and if I can develop a voice, readers will develop some idea of who I am, regardless of whether or not I'm writing about myself.

There's something about comics studies that encourages these mini-memoirs. I am mainly an animation guy, and we animation scholars tend not to have the same problem. Comics studies scholars may not have outgrown the fear of their own lack of legitimacy and need a personal story to compensate. There may be something deeply personal, something connected to childhood development about comics, which makes avoiding the subject of your childhood memories almost impossible. Still, I think it's time to retire these gestures. I say we police this at the top. No, I don't care about your trip to the head shop to buy Robert Crumb in 1969. Wait, Claremont's X-Men got you into S and M? Okay, great. Let's move on...

Anyway, although I think the memoir-ish turn in is particularly common in comics studies, it points to a problem that spreads throughout academia.

First problem:

If you start off talking about yourself, you are centering your scholarship around your biography. Doing so prevents you from looking at your object of study at the remove necessary to understand it. More importantly, don't you want to see things from outside yourself, just as you might want to imagine alternative lives? I am currently working on a dissertation about an animation studio in what has been the most exoticized region of Europe. The two most famous English-language books about that region - Balkan Ghosts and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon - are respectively, terrible and okay, because their authors never rise beyond their own positions within the narratives they are telling. They surround themselves with what they can only describe as strange, because they never attempt to exit their own consciousness, never attempt to make the strange sound familiar. I am writing about craftsmen who speak a language I will never master, and do work with their hands that I will never be able to imitate. Trying to understand them is hard, and that hard work makes my project worthwhile.

It's not that your personal experience is irrelevant. Far from it. I came to the former Yugoslavia and animation from personal experience, namely my first experiences traveling in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia when I was 25, and attending animation festivals when I was 10. My interest in both subjects began with those experiences, but those experiences will remain in my head, my journals, and maybe at some point on this blog, but they will not make it to the page. My scholarship will be about myself in some way, I guess, but I need to make it about something other than myself in order to make my subjects sound human.

Second problem:

The greatest sin in academia is a lack of curiosity. This manifests itself in many ways. Hang out in the hallways of SCMS and you'll hear snickers about the scholars who do quantitative analysis on fandom and ignore analysis of actual films. You'll meet film scholars who study 1930s Hollywood, the equivalent of dead-white-male literary analysis, who don't much care to hear the papers on new directions in Laotian documentary filmmaking, and vice versa. You'll hear scholars rooted in art history who don't much care for the guys who study the history of sound technology. Marxists who roll their eyes at papers that seem to celebrate those capitalist producers. It gets catty, mean-girl cliquish. It's worthy of some good satires. And even though I'm guilty of all this myself, I also have to condemn it. It betrays a certain level of contempt for the many avenues of scholarly inquiry, which is deadly for an intellectual.

The memoir encourages this lack of curiosity. After all, if you didn't grow up watching 1930s Hollywood movies, but did grow up watching John Hughes movies, you can use that part of your biography to claim that placing It Happened One Night in the canon while ignoring The Breakfast Club amounts to an assault on who you are as a person. If you never visited Laos, if that isn't part of your biography, and if scholarship relies on the autobiographical turn, then you have permission which you don't deserve to dismiss anything to do with Laos.

Third problem:

Your personal experiences of watching movies or reading are incredibly important. But I always tell my students to start by trying to figure out the questions the text itself asks. Afterwards, go ahead an ask the text any question you like. I don't know if this is always the correct strategy, but just as it's good to shut up and listen in the middle of a political discussion, it's a good idea for scholarly inquiry, to listen to what people have to tell you before you bother asking a question. In other words, The Breakfast Club is about five interesting teenagers connecting with each other during a Saturday detention. It's about you, too, if you want to make it about you. But first and foremost, it's about those five teenagers.


At some point, most of us walked over to the other hotel to check out the furries. I could write my own thoughts about them. But it was clear from walking around that this was a different subculture entirely, with its own ideas about sex, gender, hierarchies and performance. There were happy people there, but also nervous people who probably didn't like the idea of people like me coming over to look at them. There were sad people who might have been awkward as a whole, and had a hard time making friends even at a convention of awkward people. I make assumptions about who they are based on my own experiences, the subcultures I have been a part of, and I imagine my experience walking through that hotel would find a good place in a novel if I had time to write one. But I have no idea whether or not my own experiences have misled me or not. If I were to write about the furries in any scholarly detail, I would make sure to write at least 10,000 words before using the word "I".