Sunday, December 2, 2012

All Hail the Comics Heroes

Chris Ware made several promotional posters for the "Comics, Philosophy, and Practice" at UChicago earlier this year.

Dear reader -- This thing was "in the can" in May, but went unpublished and grew dusty. Here it is now, five months later, but hopefully illustrative of something of the accelerating tide of comics' move to the mainstream. I know, I know--we've known that comics are "serious" for a long time....but there's a new urgency around the academy's acceptance of the form. This incredible meeting of comics minds was a testament to what's happening now.

Art Spiegelman’s electronic cigarette glowed neon blue as he puffed in the darkness offstage. The scene looked almost like a series of panels from the beginning of a superhero comic book: a stranger’s silhouette hangs in the shadows of an anonymous city, his face illuminated only by the tip of a Marlboro Red. As he exhales, he grumbles, “Forty years ago, we never guessed that this %@&*! would happen.”

In this particular context, “this %@&*!” was an academic conference on “Comics, Philosophy, and Practice” at the University of Chicago’s brand-new $114 million Logan Center for the Arts. Ten miles south of the NATO circus [this was the same weekend as the city-paralyzing show up at the McCormick Center--feels like a long time ago --ed.], the weekend’s symposium brought together its own group of summit-level characters—Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Fran├žoise Mouly, Joe Sacco, and Carol Tyler, among others—and put them in conversation with scholars. When R. Crumb received his invitation from English professor and conference organizer Hillary Chute, he worried about boring the audience. “I try to be entertaining and not too serious or intellectual,” he wrote in a postcard (he doesn’t use email).

“This is, after all, about comic books.”

Of course, it seems like a long time since “comic books” earned recognition as a serious and intellectual medium—one that has established a following of serious and intellectual readers. Despite origin stories about underground presses in East Village lofts and homemade magazines with miniscule circulations, graphic narrative has found a safe home in university literature departments. More broadly, it seems an accepted truth that graphic novels and nonfiction represent some of our best contemporary literature, and that they deserve our closest readerly attention.

That comics count as high-art, and that everyone knows it, was driven home to me when I taught a freshman class on Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. I asked whether anyone was surprised that we were reading something that looked very much like a comic book in a college classroom.

A comic book!

In college!

No one raised a hand, and I stood there in my tweed jacket like a balding, Hamlet-quoting square.

One can still marvel at (or lament) the speed with which comics have attained the academy’s gold star of legitimacy. But it seems more useful to try and figure out what the appropriation of comics by the university actually means for young authors, readers, and Hamlet-quoting squares. For Spiegelman, who joked about the “Faustian bargain” that admission to the ivory tower implies, it still sounds like a strange development. Justin Green, patron saint of autobiographical comics, was slightly less ambivalent. In his hypnotically soothing voice, he wondered what kind of occasion could bring together such a heavy-hitting group of comics authors.

It could be a funeral, he suggested—but then again it might be a wedding.

After all, would the academy really kill comics? Would it slice them up? Couldn’t one as easily argue that comics have already been drained of their subversive oomph by retrospectives at fancy museums and in edited anthologies?

And is Art Spiegelman really smoking e-cigarettes now?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Instagram scattered thoughts

The simple way to think about Instagram is that it's a play on nostalgia--that it looks to recreate the sense of a previous era's photographic aesthetic for the purposes only of making pictures seem vintage.

The problem with this view is not only that it ignores an important reason why people actually seem to use the app. That is, it seems to foreclose a discussion of the emotions that we are trying to evoke with the app's various filters, focus options, captions, etc. Rather, it also seems to paper over the question of how the form of the app is changing what we think constitutes photography.

How does Instagram change our understanding of the snapshot? What are users trying to tap into other than nostalgia?

A framing thought: the photo filters *don't* really aim to recapture any lost sense of how photos creates meaning or induced emotion. When these filters weren't filters (that is, when it was just the way analog technology worked), the style would have seemed eminently modern. So at the very least Instagram actually warps the sensations created by the filters in the very act of trying to reproduce them.

I dunno. I'm on a bus. Thoughts instagrammers?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So Long Zuccotti

Tough to support this claim, guys.
Last night's collective shower was inevitable. Occupation in the absence of meaningful negotiations with (or even a few demands of) those who hold political power is as empty as violence in the absence of meaningful negotiations. In this, as a chapter of OWS comes to a close, it seems an obvious opportunity to talk about why it has failed so far:

Occupation is a Political Tactic, not a Strategy:
As pictures of sanitation workers cleaning up the newly-cleared Zuccotti park have been hitting the Interwesbs all day, I'm struck by the orderliness and swiftness with which evidence of the presence of OWS protesters has been eradicated. This of course reveals something essential to the "movement" itself: its presence is physical, embodied, and built on only one half of the required tactics to achieve political ends. Occupation has always been a stalling tactic--something that brings negotiators to the table; an opening up of space somewhere else for dialogue. Not so for OWS.

Violence against protesters by the police in the streets is a horrible thing. But in a case where negotiators are working with those in power, it can at least be a bargaining chip. Violence against protesters who have no one speaking for them is a total waste.

The Call to Arms by the Newer-New-Left has been Unhelpful (their reading of the financial collapse is incomplete, and their call for abstract change is counterproductive)

Sweaty, bedraggled, and seemingly trying to hold back a smile during a fiery speech in the early weeks of OWS, Slavoj Zizek lay down the hammer:
Here there is already socialism for the rich. They say we don't respect private property. But in the 2008 financial crash down, more hard-earned private property was destroyed than if all of us here were to be destroying it night and day for weeks. They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself.
The first part of this paragraph, which emphasizes the weird cult-like aural landscape induced by the "human-megaphone"--seems right enough, except for the fact that it wasn't as much private property that was destroyed as financial capital. The difference is not unimportant. The intangibility of the crisis itself has resulted in an incoherent (or, at best inchoate) set of demands from protesters.

This might be why the materialist critical response to the financial collapse has been so unsatisfying: it's difficult for thinkers in the Marxist tradition to talk about things like credit. This is especially so when it seems that people are less interested in overthrowing the system of private property and more interested in getting jobs. For the most part, even the most unreasonable sounding protesters at OWS wanted jobs and health insurance--not the overthrow of capitalism.

  • It's not the eradication of banking: it's the privileging of a certain kind of bank (credit unions)
  • It's not the eradication of corporations: it's the eradication of an ineffective corporate tax structure masked as rhetoric that wants the end of corporations
  • It's not the elimination of globalization: it's the perceived democratization of the means of global interchange (side note here, this is why Twitter and Facebook were so much more effectively used in Arab Spring revolts, where these methods of communication were perceived as unsuppressable...they were used in defiance of political powers. Here, it was frequently observed that corporations would never shut down wireless systems to prevent people from Tweeting pics of their drum circles from Zuccotti).
 The failure to articulate a concrete set of demands is, in other words, not just the fault of the protesters. It's the fault of the intellectuals and politicians who exacerbated the problem by fanning the flames of--not really extremist: if you notice, there's nothing that extreme or really new about what Zizek says--totally impractical rhetoric.

If You're Planning on Repopulating Zuccotti, Bring a Warm Blanket--and Also, Read About the Tea Party

There are 62 members of the Tea Party Caucus right now in Congress. There will be ZERO Occupy Wall Street representatives in Congress as of next fall if nothing changes. Elizabeth Warren can't be the only reasoned voice in the room. Period.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

On Memory and Moving On

Try to Praise the Mutilated World, Adam Zagajewski, September 2001
 Try to praise the mutilated world. 
Remember June's long days, 
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. 
The nettles that methodically overgrow 
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world. 
You watched the stylish yachts and ships; 
one of them had a long trip ahead of it, 
while salty oblivion awaited others. 
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere, 
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully. 
You should praise the mutilated world. 
Remember the moments when we were together 
in a white room and the curtain fluttered. 
Return in thought to the concert where music flared. 
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn 
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars. 
Praise the mutilated world 
and the grey feather a thrush lost, 
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes 
and returns.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Times Finally Reports on Nineties Nostalgia

NYTimes did a piece on Nineties Nostalgia (the existence of which, somehow, surprised them). What struck me is how smart Nick is in their redeployment of Doug and others. They're not only responding to pressures from social media outlets, but now also responding to audience participation on social networking sites to determine their schedules.

The other thing, as I've continually been thinking about nostalgia these past few months: we're nostalgic for forms of media engagement. As those forms change more rapidly, the thing we can be nostalgic for gets more and more recent. After school cable television was the primary form of entertainment. But check out these social networking stats (passed on me by Tyler, of course....). Notice the crazy-weird spike of internet usage by the youngest demographic. Also note that 11% of Facebook users are 13-17 years old. ELEVEN PERCENT! This is more than 75 million kids.

Forget about watching stuff like Nick. KIDS are online poking each other *cough* ever earlier.

These kids will be nostalgic for the old Facebook messaging interface, like, next week.

(Just kidding, they'll be nostalgic for Google+).

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Errol Morris's Favorite Commercial

I've written about Errol Morris's directorial work on the High Life campaign here and (I think it should show up this afternoon) on Splitsider. But props to NPR for spotting and boosting Morris's tweet from year calling out this commercial as his own personal favorite.

Take that, High Life Man.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Critical Engagement with "Tree of Life"

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie. (Jonathan Franzen, Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts," NYTimes 5/28)

In a sharp and often moving criticism of social networks, Jonathan Franzen sets "liking" against "loving." Whereas to like something sets us apart from the liked (or disliked) object, love demands the opening of one's life to another. Love is about cohabitation, and not just in the sense of splitting the rent. It's about a metaphoric (and sometimes not metaphoric) sharing of the same bodily, mental, and emotional space. To put it in the words of the only *actually* moving wedding homily I've ever heard, it helps us salve the loneliness inherent in the human condition. And it does this by attempting to come as close as possible to shared consciousness with another person--regardless of whether one believes this idea is nutty (at best) or impossible (at worst).

But the kind of criticism that has emerged in the wake of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life has exposed a complication of Franzen's argument. Simply to like or dislike a film embodies the laziest sort of critical response available to a writer. I was taught this in high school. An English teacher instructed me never to write "I like this book" in an essay. He told me that merely liking something is uninteresting, and that asking what I think something means would always constitute a more worthwhile form of engagement. But critiques about Tree of Life often ignore the lesson of this observation about good writing, and instead go to the extreme to defend or attack the movie, along with Malick, contemporary filmmaking, and, in some cases God.

That is, we don't need to like or dislike the film. But neither do we need to address what it means.

We need to love it or hate it.