Sunday, April 30, 2017

On Scholarship and Humility

The first issue of INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, a new peer-reviewed journal, has just been published. I read much of it last night. It's excellent.

The issue includes a review of Ramzi Fawaz's The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Fascination of American Comics by Marc Singer. Fawaz's book has gained a lot of attention both inside and outside academia. The book has earned an enormous amount of praise, but not so much from Singer. (Full disclosure: Singer is a friend. I have never met Fawaz.) I have not read Fawaz's book, and for that reason I can only offer so much judgement, but I find Singer's review convincing if only for his diligence in pointing out factual errors, errors which do, in fact, seem to undermine many of Fawaz's arguments. If you have access to a library research database, you should be able to find Singer's review along with the rest of the issue.

This sentence appears in the last paragraph of the review.
For all its faults, The New Mutants is a fine representative of a type of scholarship currently favored in certain sectors of the humanities: highly cultivated in its academic voice, though careless in its attention to textual and contextual detail; dedicated to sustaining its theoretical assumptions, but indifferent to other scholarship that might have complicated its arguments; daring in its impulse to overturn conventional wisdom, yet eminently safe in its unfailing confirmation of the ideological righteousness of its primary subjects. Fawaz’s careful performance of these standards has no doubt contributed to his book’s enthusiastic reception. 
One shouldn't take the artists' intention for his art at face value. Art lives. If scholarship stopped at artist statements there would be no need for scholarship. Still, I think studying art requires two steps. First, consider the questions the text asks itself. Second, impose whatever questions you want to upon the text. From what Singer describes, it sounds like Fawaz skipped the first part and went right to the second. Singer describes a scholar who didn't want to be taught anything by the object of his study, who didn't learn anything once he got to the end of his work that he didn't already know when he started, and who was deeply afraid that there might be one or two questions his scholarship couldn't answer. Singer describes a scholar who is clever, but lacks humility.

I'll keep this review in mind for a long time.

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