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.

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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".

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