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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
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Past Valve Book Events

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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Academic Respectability, Comics and Criticism

Posted by John Holbo on 04/16/09 at 12:46 AM

Our Scott K. complains about Doug Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean [amazon]: “Every reference I catch—about half of the ones Wolk drops—complements his argument; however, the way you wear your erudition lightly on the web differs from how you do it in print.  The book’s delicious quotability is a byproduct of its learned chattiness, and if the medium is ever to attain academic respectability, its expositors will need to try a little harder than this.”

I’m making this into a separate thread because it’s a bit tangential (but I’m also responding to Scott’s critique that I praised Wolk too highly in my reviews): what’s academic respectability worth, eh? After all, most of the people (literary) academics study aren’t, themselves, respectable academics. A lot of silly poets, eccentrics, madmen and just plain chatty dilettantes and book-ish types, colorful scribblers. But they are dead now, so many of them. By the numbers, in the long run, it seems the best way to achieve academic respectability is not to have been a respectable academic in life but to have made a mark in some other way. Then, posthumously, your corpse becomes food for the bookworms and, in that way, you yourself become sufficiently bookwormified by proxy, and without having gone to the bother. Not only can you sleep when you’re dead, you can improve yourself through academic studies.

But I digress. How should you wear your erudition? Heavily, or lightly? I remember a good discussion by Bernard Williams - in some piece of journalism he wrote somewhere, if memory serves - about how erudition, worn heavily, often amounts to a ridiculously over-armored defensiveness. You are like the hedgehog that knows only one thing: I am going to be attacked and, by God, I will be ready. You make a move and explicitly anticipate and elaborate and catalogue and classify all the possible counter-moves to it and how they will be met. (Sort of like Frank Miller’s Batman, but more tweedily.) Even though any moderately intelligent, charitable reader should be able to see that most of these possible objections are not very good, hence not very interesting. You never make the sorts of broad gestures that leave any soft bits dangerously exposed.

Actually, this is true more of philosophy writing than literary studies stuff, in my experience. We tend to be compulsive completists about possible argumentative paths, easily resulting in a kind of pettifogging judo style. But literary studies folks have their own forms and formulae for exhibiting elaborateness and completeness, to a degree that no sane non-academic would ever voluntarily emulate. You hereby signal ‘academic respectability’. I think Ph.D. dissertations tend to be exemplifications of this tendency. This is the moment when you have to prove academic respectability, more than any other point in your career. It is no coincidence that dissertations are notoriously baggy and ponderous. They are, shall we say, un-gazelle-like, in their intellectual movements. Nay, they do not, as Nietzsche advised, get in and out of the cold baths of their ideas in any hurry.

On the other hand, as your career progresses you may succumb to ‘old phllosopher’s disease’, as we sometimes call it: you write books that are relatively sweeping and opinionated and that tend to be regarded as somewhat cranky. You earn the right to be cranky by being picky for a long time first. (No, I don’t like it either. I want to start by being cranky. Youth is wasted on the young.)

Which is the better sort of stuff, intellectually? I think it’s pretty obvious there are good and bad examples of both, both serve legitimate intellectual functions. Of course, a lot of stuff dwells somewhere in the middle. That stuff, too, is good and bad.

Of course we object to stuff on both ends by pointing out that it’s sloppy or careless or, on the other hand, picky, over-focused and scholastic. And rightly so. But it’s still a bit confused - or confusing - that we do so. Because it’s not the case that the intellectual ecology as a whole would be healthier without this diversity of styles.

In a case like Reading Comics, it seems to me that the question is this: is this a good book? Yes. Very good. Would it have been better book - intellectually more valuable - if it had been more ‘academic’? If it had been encased in an extra inch of justificatory armor, say? I’m not sure it would have been. These thoughts wouldn’t have been expressed in such clear, vivid, condensed form. And if this book wouldn’t clearly be made better, absolutely, by being made more academic, in what sense should I bother about its lack of ‘academic respectability’?

It so happens I was reading Theirry Groensteen’s The System of Comics [amazon], at the same time that I was reading Wolk’s book. It is certainly much more academic in intellectual style, hence more academically respectable. But it isn’t nearly as good.

Not that Wolk couldn’t have footnoted the thing a bit more fully, mayhap.


Comments

this is great--I’m thinking about this over on my blog right now and would appreciate thoughts.  a little argument has broken out making it all the more interesting.

I’m working on a project about New Media and epistemology and one of the various mini-projects contained within is the how formal scholarship may change.  What I find interesting here is the tension between form and content--is SEK’s beef really simply with tone?  how the work will remain to be seen?  and if the content is an object that serious, intelligent fangeeks who may or may not have academic backgrounds, would wearing erudition heavily actually alienate one of its most promising audiences?  (Anyone who’s been to fansites knows the levels of theory that fangeeks apply to the objects of their affections.  I’m no saying I have, m’just saying.)

And doesn’t the chatty conversational styles that arising in new media eventually have to affect us in some way?  there are quickly multiplying manifestations of erudition thanks to the way new media is allowing us to visualize data and create documents with depth and breadth.  Our work can be a multi-user experience that allows the reader to create his or her click map through the document making the work as thick or as dense as he or she needs/wants it to be.

This will inevitably affect tone and style will it not?  Tweeting theory, so to speak?

And does the form act on the content?  Or is style and tone merely an aesthetic choice?  Thanks for this.

By blognerd on 04/16/09 at 05:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

As we’ve been discussing over at Acephalous, really the problem (in my opinion, anyways) isn’t lack of erudition or footnotes, it’s that Wolk doesn’t really develop any theory in the first half of the book that he actually uses in the second half, the reviews.  The reviews are often good, but they’re intuitively good—it’s not like he really develops ideas that could be applied to other works.

Justificatory armor isn’t required, but something tying together the potted bits of criticism from other people throughout the first half of the book would have been good.  The first half is derivative (as Wolk himself says: he credited everyone), unfocussed, and undeveloped.  Nor is it really set up to be a survey.  That’s what’s wrong with the book, academically.

By on 04/16/09 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I vaguely recall (and unacademically so, for I cannot supply the references) that critics of Baudrillard’s System of Objects complained about his referring to sources (such as Vance Packard) who were deemed not academic enough. The resulting book is (perhaps like Packard) rather fun, but last I knew, it was itself a bibliographical no-no. I wonder therefore if ‘respectability’ is, at least to some extent, related to fashions and their schools?

By D. Coys on 04/16/09 at 12:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In a case like Reading Comics, it seems to me that the question is this: is this a good book? Yes. Very good. Would it have been better book - intellectually more valuable - if it had been more ‘academic’? If it had been encased in an extra inch of justificatory armor, say? I’m not sure it would have been. These thoughts wouldn’t have been expressed in such clear, vivid, condensed form. And if this book wouldn’t clearly be made better, absolutely, by being made more academic, in what sense should I bother about its lack of ‘academic respectability’?

As Rich noted, I think the disconnect between the first and second halves of the book do Wolk a disservice: if he had sat down and put some order to his intuition, he may’ve been able to communicate how he acquired that intuition—what he emphasizes, how he examines it, &c.  Instead, he leaves it to the reader to intuit from his readings the system that produced them.

That said, it’s not like you need to write like a caricature of an octogenarian Oxford don to be academically respectable.  (For example.) But if you write a book called Reading Comics, and if that book ostensibly teaches other people how to read comics in a more sophisticated fashion, you need to provide some sort of framework that will allow readers to produce more sophisticated readings.  Otherwise, readers can’t be sure whether the examples are supposed to function as exempla.  They could, after all, simply be a function of Wolk’s own cleverness as a reader and assuredness as a writer.

Moreover, the second-order parroting of the Ditko expert’s non-argument strikes me as laziness.  Art historians have developed a language for talking about lines, one that at the very least we could borrow.  It’s not a perfect fit, obviously, but it’s better than “those hands are so Ditko, it is crazy,” which doesn’t tell us anything about the distinctiveness of Ditko’s depiction of hands.  So I’m not arguing for dissertation-level armor-plating here—I wouldn’t want to do that to myself—but I do want to be able to ask (and receive a solid, evidence-laden answer to) questions like “How do you know those hands were drawn by Ditko?”

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/16/09 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I find interesting here is the tension between form and content--is SEK’s beef really simply with tone?

Tone and rigor, basically.  The Ditko hands from my post sums up my objection with his method—he’s presented a series of interpretations whose theoretical base is, well, I don’t know, but that means his readings aren’t repeatable.  Not that I would want to repeat them, mind you, but if I wanted to build on them, I wouldn’t know how.  He could just respond to my criticism of this argument the way they do in theory circles:

“Your criticism of this Derridean line fails to take the Foucauldian theory of circles into account!”

“Any competent Zizekian knows that lines aren’t nearly so important as the squiggles between them.”

“How you consider the implications this has for postcolonial cross-hatches?"

Also: “m’just” is now my new favorite contraction.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/16/09 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

They could, after all, simply be a function of Wolk’s own cleverness as a reader and assuredness as a writer.

These are not actually bad things.

I downloaded and have been reading Wizard Magazine’s “Top 100 Single Issues Since You Were Born".

It is amazing to me how shitty most of these comics are.  “Watchmen” is good and all, but Alan Moore has a lot to answer for.

By on 04/16/09 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Many of them are shitty, absolutely, but I just taught the Planetary: Night on Earth yesterday—as a means to teach historical context and issues of audience, the revolving Batmen are second-to-none—and can say, with certainty, that it’s top-shelf.  That said, Moore does have quite a bit to answer for, but that’s because he takes risks, which pay off some times, not so much others.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/17/09 at 01:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Art historians have developed a language for talking about lines, one that at the very least we could borrow.  It’s not a perfect fit, obviously, but it’s better than “those hands are so Ditko, it is crazy,” which doesn’t tell us anything about the distinctiveness of Ditko’s depiction of hands.

Actually printing the panels in question would be a much stronger argument that doesn’t require jargon. (Excuse me—art historians’ language for talking about lines.) That’s the point of the graphic form, after all: visuals can convey information that verbals don’t handle as well, and vice versa. Wolk’s throwaway “It’s the hands” comment ("Chicks dig the hands") would be perfectly communicative alongside panels showing Ditko hands.

Of course, once you set out to reprint copyrighted visual material, you get into issues of space and permissions—issues with an economic dimension. The publisher starts to exercise a lot more control. Wolk probably didn’t think his comment was that important.

I agree that, absent images, Wolk should have cited the webpage where he got that info. I note that, when he first wrote those remarks on Ditko for Salon back in 2005, he did.

By J. L. Bell on 04/17/09 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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