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.

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