The 7 Neoliberal Arts

in Uncategorized

1920px Hortus Deliciarum Die Philosophie mit den sieben freien Künsten

Over at Post45: Contemporaries, I’ve organized a cluster of essays called “The 7 Neoliberal Arts.” It started life as a riff on Gilbert Seldes’s classic book The 7 Lively Arts (1924), but grew into a serious investigation of the way that new and formerly marginalized cultural practices have been elevated to—or sought the status of—“art.”

I wrote the intro and have a piece on Rob Liefeld (which will, I hope, become part of a longer chapter on Image Comics in my book-in-progress on comics [more on that in future posts]).

There is a great essay on Hill Street Blues and the concept of Quality Television by Madeline Ullrich. Sheri-Marie Harrison wrote movingly about the rise of the audiobook and listening to Toni Morrison’s oeuvre in her own voice. Robin James wrote about two fascinating tendencies in recent Electronic Dance Music that critics have called Business Techno and conceptronica.

There is an essay by Patrick Jagoda on neoliberalism and video games, with a super-interesting discussion of Death Stranding, an art-game I haven’t played but which has received a lot of buzz and media attention. Michelle Chihara has an epic essay on the podcast company Gimlet Media, and its self-referential form of (what she calls) neoliberal gaslighting.

And Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado has a mouth-watering essay on the Mexican chef Enrique Olvera that’ll make you want to buy a ticket to Mexico City. 

Anyway, this cluster turned into much more than I initially hoped for. I really love it and am very proud of how it came together. It’s evidence that if you pair the right writer with the right object, the product is amazing writing.

Check it out.       

New Writing, 2017-2018 Edition

in Uncategorized

It’s been a minute. 

I’ve published loads of writing since I last posted. Most of this writing is available for free online, or can be found on my Academia.edu account. If you want a copy, don’t hesitate to email me.

Fiction

Last year, I had a short story called “The Girl Who Almost Became a Zombie” included in an online anthology of science fiction published by the XPRIZE foundation. The premise of the anthology is that a plane flying from Tokyo to San Francisco goes through a time distortion sending it twenty years into the future. Our job was to imagine what that future might look like. We were asked to imagine positive or optimistic near futures, a task I find a little difficult. For some reason, I was inspired by this awesome whiteboard of awful jokes (put together by the writers on Workaholics) to imagine a future in which we all become mindless meme-spouting robots.

Another short story, “Burned-Over Territory,” was published as part of the Future Tense Fiction series at Slate, with a thoughtful response essay by Sebastian Johnson. I originally wrote a version of the story for the Into the Black short story contest, which asked for science fiction imagining futures in which some version of a Universal Basic Income was enacted. The story I ended up writing was not in any straightforward way “in favor” of UBI, and might be read as highly critical of the whole notion. A few radical revisions later, I was fortunate to be able to place the story with Future Tense.

Public Writing and Reviews

Over the last two years, I’ve been working more on fiction and academic writing, so my public writing has slowed, but I’m still putting out occasional pieces.

Early in 2017, I had a review of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo published in Public Books. “The Yurt of Fiction” explores Saunders’s portrait of Lincoln, and argues that the novel confronts—perhaps unwillingly—the limits of an empathy-based model of liberal politics.

I also wrote a book review of Helen DeWitt’s new short story collection Some Trick for Public Books. Titled “Helen DeWitt, Hand to Mouth,” the review is framed around the only slightly disingenuous question of whether or not Helen DeWitt is a “genius,” and the stakes of asking that question about her in the first place. Whether or not she’s a genius, the story collection is awesome. You should read it.

Against my better judgment, I decided to offer an opinion on the shit storm around the Avital Ronell-Nimrod Reitman scandal. My editorial, “Avital Ronell and the End of the Academic Star,” was published at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and it argues that the scandal is symptomatic of the end of the academic star system (at least as it established itself in the 1970s). It goes without saying I don’t offer enough evidence to back up my claim, but I’m still convinced academic stardom doesn’t mean much if you can’t assure your graduate students they’ll get a job.

I wrote a review of David Alworth’s Site Reading for the ALH Online Review (Series XIV). Overall, I liked the book, but also felt it ought to be read against its own stated intentions of offering a Latour-inspired model of reading postwar literature. What’s best about Alworth’s book is what he most hopes to escape: his historicism. His New Materialist claims about the agency of objects, meanwhile, I found unpersuasive.

I have a review of three books in American Literature. The books are American PulpIllegal Literature, and The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction. They’re quite different from each other, but I argue that each tries to reimagine the modernism/mass culture relationship for an era that has lost faith in postmodernism. Some version of this argument will find its way into The Cartoon Art.

Academic Writing

I do (ha ha) occasionally publish academic writing, too.

An essay called “Four Faces of Postirony” came out in the anthology Metamodernism: History, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism (edited by Robin van den Akker, Alison Gibbons, and Timotheus Vermeulen). The essay is a postscript to Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, offering a different approach to question of how contemporary artists have sought to move beyond postmodernism. I offer a typology of four kinds of postirony: motivated postmodernism, credulous metafiction, the postironic Bildungsroman, and relational art. I wrote the first draft of this in 2011. I can never quite get over how slow academic publishing can sometimes be.

A related piece, called “Neorealist Fiction,” came out in the collection, American Literature in Transition, 2000-2010, edited by Rachel Greenwald Smith. This essay thinks about the status of realism in the twenty-first century. I argue that there are two big strands of “neorealism” after postmodernism, one which thinks of realism as a genre and the other which thinks of it as an epistemic project. The first, “storytelling neorealism,” I associate with Jonathan Franzen. The second, “affective neorealism,” I associate with Sheila Heti (and autofiction more generally).

In a special issue of American Book Review, edited by Matt Mullins, I have a short position paper on postcritique and Colson Whitehead. It’s called “Critique has its Uses,” and claims Colson Whitehead’s early fiction was in sympathy with the project of postcritique, but that his more recent fiction, especially The Underground Railroad, has sought to move beyond the limitations of postcritique as a theoretical and aesthetic project. Implicit in what I write is the notion that creative writers are vastly outpacing critics in exploring what it means to leave postmodernism behind. (I make a similar point in a previous piece in LARB).

In July, I delivered a talk in honor of my undergraduate advisor Daniel Schwarz at Cornell, who’s been teaching there for fifty years. The event was lovely, and the talk I delivered was in part drawn from my ongoing project on comics and the graphic novel. It’s called “Modernist Funnies, or, Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture,” and you can view it below.

My essay, “Wallace’s ‘Bad’ Influence,” was published in The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (edited by Ralph Clare). The essay is a review of the different ways writers and artists have responded to David Foster Wallace’s polarizing legacy. After offering a survey of different approaches, I try to deflate the whole debate, asking instead what it might mean to take Wallace seriously as an exceptional artist but also not to fall into the traps he lays for us in his fiction and essays.

Finally, I have an essay in the massive Cambridge History of Science Fiction that Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link edited. The essay is called “Better Living Through Chemistry: Science Fiction and Consumerism in the Early Cold War,” and it’s a survey of anti-consumerist science fiction during the early cold war, ranging from The Space Merchants to The Jetsons. I discuss the relationship between anti-consumerist science fiction and the Keynesian struggle to manage aggregate demand. This one was a lot of fun to write, and—along with my review of Site Reading—left me wanting to write a book on the art and literature of High Keynesianism. Someday.

The (Dusty) Paradigm of Postmodernism

in Rise of the Graphic Novel, The Cartoon Art

It has been a nontrivial amount of time since I blogged in any way about anything, let alone about my ongoing project on comics and the graphic novel. I won’t write extensively here, but I have made a few breakthroughs—after a frankly rough 2016—and thought I’d jot some notes down. I did publish “Comics Studies Comes of Age” (not my preferred title, tbh), a short piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, which does some ground clearing for what I want to do.

I have a new title for my project. I’m now thinking of calling it “The Cartoon Art: Comics in the Age of Mass High Culture.” I hope this new title registers as something of a contradiction, in the way that the term “Culture Industry” was meant to for Adorno and Horkheimer. “Cartoon” is meant to be in tension, if not contradiction, with “art,” and mapping that contemporary contradiction is increasingly what the book seems to be about.

The term “Mass High Culture” is another clue about where I’m heading. At first, I used the term ironically, almost as a joke, but I’ve decided to keep it and make an argument about the remarkable way in which loads of formerly low cultural practices — comics, science fiction, video games — are now feted as art. My hope is that the story of comics can be a vital case study that lets us revisit — and reconfigure — (a somewhat dusty) mass culture debate after the end of postmodernism.

You may like or hate the works celebrated in this way — loads of people, for example, hate highbrow science fiction, or any discourse that tries to elevate SF — but the very fact that we’re elevating so many practices, not to mention debating the meaning of these elevations, seems distinctly important in the history of culture. We’ve witnessed, I think, the failure of many of the foundational cultural theses we’ve inherited from the (now itself dusty) paradigm of postmodernism.

I’ve said more than I intended to, so I’ll stop here, and promise more to come.

Fartcopter Studies

in Uncategorized

I’m proud to have had a short, hard-hitting piece of cultural criticism (on Adult Swim’s “Fartcopter” and drone aesthetics) published in Slate, mostly because I’ve now achieved my longstanding dream of putting the word “fartcopter” on my CV.

The (Tyrannical) Lives of Algorithms

in Uncategorized

This is the text of a very short story I read at a New America Foundation event, “The Tyranny of Algorithms.” I spoke during a fifteen-minute session called “What our algorithms will know in 2100.” I stole the form of my story from J. M. Coetzee’s 1997 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which were collected in a book called The Lives of Animals and later in Elizabeth Costello.

The Lives of Algorithms

On a warm Thursday afternoon in December 2115, Evan Allgood decided to manifest in human drag. Being pseudo-embodied could, of course, be disagreeable. You cut yourself off from your etiquette expert-system. You were reduced to receiving “nudges” designed to operate on an emulation of a five-dimensional sensorium. Such primitive nudges were only partly effective, and made avoiding social awkwardness difficult.

But hundreds of subjective hours of anthropological study had taught Evan that people sometimes preferred a little awkwardness. Sure, you wanted to avoid Uncanny Valley at all costs — no one liked a creep — but you also didn’t want to come across as too Turing-slick.

So at the appointed hour, Evan manifested on 15th Street in Washington, DC, historical capital of the Second and Third American Republics. A breeze tickled the emulated nerve endings of his arm. His virtual body, tugged by what felt like gravity, crushed the spongey soles of his dress shoes.

Evan made a show of nodding at pedestrians in whose networked sensoria he was visible, of waiting for the building’s glass door to slide open for him. He introduced himself at the registration desk, made small talk he hoped would be friendly-but-not-needy, joked knowingly about his inability to shake the hands of his hosts.

“Sort of funny, right?” he said.

“Ha ha,” they replied.

After the first panel, Evan found himself at a glass podium, facing a room of twenty-something staffers, academics, journalists, local retirees, and a handful of emulated onlookers. He summoned a teleprompter and cleared his throat.

“Thanks for inviting me,” he said. “Or should I say, thanks for submitting a request to borrow my system resources for the afternoon.”

The audience’s laughter was impatient. No one was in the mood for rhetorical gimmicks. This was a serious crowd. Evan swallowed nervously.

“It is hard to believe,” he said, “that the last time the New America Foundation held a gathering on the tyranny of algorithms, a hundred years ago, respectable people didn’t believe in ghosts. To be sure, our predecessors sometimes metaphorically compared algorithms to ghosts. Indeed, the novelist on whose mediahistory I am modelled did so himself on one occasion. But when they talked about ‘ghosts,’ they were invoking a theological tradition that saw the essence of the human, the defining dimension of personhood, as residing in an immaterial soul. The more imaginative among them debated whether digital computers might eventually develop souls.

“It’s hard to believe that the inhabitants of the twenty-first century were so limited. But I’ve spent thousands of subjective hours studying the results of our best historical models and turning those results into game environments composed in the worldbuilding-style of my biological forerunner. And it’s true. That’s really how they thought about their future.”

“The expression ‘tyranny of algorithms’ says everything you need to know about the assumptions underlying their way of thinking. The danger, the fear, was that something inhuman, an algorithm — a set of rules, a process, a diabolical thing, something (or someone) very much like me — might take on human qualities.

“They were convinced that if they embedded ubiquitous sensors into their environment, if they networked the resulting databases, if they unleashed machine-learning systems upon those databases, political miracles or nightmares would emerge. New economic laws would appear from thin air. Political revolutions would be quick and bloodless. Good software would grow on bushes. But whatever happened, algorithms would be in the driver’s seat. It is perhaps an understandable mistake for them to have made, given that their ‘automobiles’ used to literally have something called a ‘driver’s seat,’ which was a kind of chair where a non-emulated human operator made decisions about how quickly and in which direction a physical vehicle should travel.”

“Today, it is perfectly obvious to us that our predecessors were transforming fundamentally political questions — questions about political constitution, governance, and action — into narrowly technological questions. They understood concepts such as ‘path-dependency’ well enough — they intellectually knew what ghosts were — but they did not believe. If you could travel back in time and speak to them, they would literally not understand what every twenty-second century schoolchild knows: that the tyranny of algorithms is nothing other than the tyranny of the past over the present.”

And here Evan paused, looked up to confront the audience’s eyes and found himself unable to complete his remarks as scripted. His words seemed suddenly intolerably trite, a warmed over version of myriad outdated status updates. He sighed.

“A hundred years ago,” he said, deciding now to ad-lib. “I would have been regarded as a haunting, a specter, an unnatural creature, a science fiction monster. I would have been the ghost.” His teleprompter flashed angrily, suggesting transitions back to his prepared script.

But he ignored the suggestion. “As you may know,” he said. “I’m a composite, an emulated human, constructed from the public writing and private diaries of my namesake, a midlist science fiction writer and historical novelist whose major distinction was being an especially prolific graphomaniac and lifelogger.

“But I am not the ghost. I am, instead, haunted by ghosts: by the person I am told I once was. I am haunted by history—by legacy systems, old machines, and ossified social processes. You invited me to give you the algorithm’s point-of-view on what algorithms meant in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, but how am I supposed to know? I spend my subjective hours poring over reports created by half-sentient quantum-mechanical historical simulations — younger, smarter, better-looking algorithms whose inner workings I will never understand.

“You invited me here to reassure you. But I have no comforting words to offer: I am haunted — we are haunted — by history, and the best we can do is build new and better hauntings atop the old ones. We can only hope that when we ourselves become ghosts, our tyranny is less cruel, less bloodthirsty, less ignorant than that of our predecessors. But I cannot say that I’m optimistic.”

A hundred pairs of eyes, each outfitted with shining mediacontacts, looked up at Evan now, sensing that he had run out of things to say. At first, he thought he saw hostility, boredom, annoyance, and skepticism in the sea of faces before him. But then, observing the ubiquitous glint of Twitter blue shining in their networked eyes, he saw the truth. They hadn’t heard a single thing he’d said.

Pretty Cool

in Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, Uncategorized

It’s hard for me to believe sometimes, but I submitted my dissertation prospectus in December of 2005, during my fourth year as a graduate student in the Department of English at Stanford University. At the time — having recently read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and feeling vaguely dissatisfied with his argument in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” — I formed a suspicion that irony might be an interesting subject to investigate, that the anxieties irony aroused, the love it elicited, the confusion it promoted might reward sustained study.

Ten years later, that prospectus, and the investigation it initiated, have become a book. I recently submitted the corrected PDF proofs of Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, the final textual outcome of my vague doctoral dissatisfaction. The book now has a cover and is available for preorder on Amazon and elsewhere. I can’t quite bring myself to believe that the project is finished — and in the months leading up to its publication by Harvard University Press in March 2016 I have no doubt that I will imagine myriad ways I might revise or rewrite my arguments.

But the book really is done and it’s coming out pretty soon and as the publication date approaches I’ll try to post some informal thoughts on the argument of the book on this blog. Here go the cover (I love the cover, by the way) and official description:

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Charting a new course in the criticism of postwar fiction, Cool Characters examines the changing status of irony in American cultural and political life from World War II to the present, showing how irony migrated from the countercultural margins of the 1950s to the cultural mainstream of the 1980s. Along the way, irony was absorbed into postmodern theory and ultimately become a target of recent writers who have sought to create a practice of “postirony” that might move beyond its limitations.

As a concept, irony has been theorized from countless angles, but Cool Characters argues that it is best understood as an ethos: an attitude or orientation toward the world, embodied in different character types, articulated via literary style. Lee Konstantinou traces five such types—the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier—in new interpretations of works by authors including Ralph Ellison, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dave Eggers, William Gibson, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner.

For earlier generations of writers, irony was something vital to be embraced, but beginning most dramatically with David Foster Wallace, dissatisfaction with irony, especially with its alleged tendency to promote cynicism and political passivity, gained force. Postirony—the endpoint in an arc that begins with naive belief, passes through irony, and arrives at a new form of contingent conviction—illuminates the literary environment that has flourished in the United States since the 1990s.

Abstract: Art Spiegelman’s Children’s Cartoons and the History of Comics Literacy

in Rise of the Graphic Novel

This is the abstract of a paper I hope to deliver at ACLA in 2016 (on a stream I am co-sponsoring called “Institutions of Reading“). The paper represents some of my preliminary work for a projected Spiegelman/Mouly chapter of my current book project, “Rise of the Graphic Novel.” It is also a talk-version of my anticipated contribution to the collection “The Comics of Art Spiegelman,” which I’m co-editing with Georgiana Banita.

ABSTRACT

Since the completion of MAUS, Art Spiegelman has advocated and created children’s comics. With Françoise Mouly, he has edited three Little Lit anthologies (2000-2003), which showcase comics for children by major cartoonists and illustrators; edited The TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (2009); created two book-length comics for children, Open Me . . . I’m a Dog (1997) as well as Jack and the Box (2008); and founded Toon Books in 2008.

This paper argues that Spiegelman’s surprising turn to children’s comics represents the necessary corollary to his advocacy for comics as an “adult” medium. In order to secure recognition for comics, Spiegelman has constructed a concept of “comics literacy” that counters historical efforts to stigmatize comics as sub-literate or (at best) as a form that facilitates full or true literacy. By contrast, Spiegelman has cannily imagined comics not as a supplement or threat to literacy but rather as embodying an alternative to text-based literacies. Therefore, Spiegelman’s comics for children do not prepare children to become adult readers of grapheme-based texts but prepare children to become adult readers of comics.

After illustrating the specific characteristics of “comics literacy” through a close analysis of Jack and the Box, I show how the project of imagining a medium-specific comics literacy participates in the broader critical discourse of “multiple literacies” and “alternative literacies.”

McGuire’s “Here” at “The Account”

in Rise of the Graphic Novel, Uncategorized

girl-boy-man2

I wrote an essay called “A Theory of Here” for The Account, which is now available online.

It’s a preliminary analysis of Richard McGuire’s great new book Here (based on a six-pager he did for RAW back in 1989). The essay will, I think, find its way into “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” specifically into a hypothetical chapter on digital comics and efforts by contemporary cartoonists to develop a concept/practice of “comics materiality.” In the fantasy version of the chapter, I’ll come up with something interesting to say about Chip Kidd’s important work as comics editor at Pantheon.

And while you’re at The Account, don’t miss the rest of the issue, which features among other cool things a novel-in-GIFs called “Zac’s Haunted House” by Dennis Cooper and a great “Forum on Compromise Aesthetics” responding to Rachel Greenwald Smith’s “Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics” (from the previous issue).

CFP: The Comics of Art Spiegelman [edited volume]

in Rise of the Graphic Novel

Editors:
Georgiana Banita (University of Bamberg, Germany)

Lee Konstantinou (University of Maryland, College Park)

The importance of Art Spiegelman as a pioneer and theorist of comics is hard to overstate. His work has not only pushed the boundaries of comics (both in terms of form and subject matter) but also convinced many readers and critics of this art form’s inherent aesthetic value. Indeed, the development of the term “graphic novel” in part signaled a burgeoning critical appreciation of the power of comics, an appreciation that Spiegelman’s pen — from his underground comix to his Pulitzer Prize-winning MAUS to his tireless critical advocacy of comics and cartooning — helped foster.

The Comics of Art Spiegelman will assess the fundamental contribution of Spiegelman’s work to the development of graphic literature from the 1970s to the present. It will survey and synthesize his versatile projects not only as a cartoonist but also as a magazine founder, editor, comics critic and historian, and mentor to multiple generations of cartoonists. To do justice to the vast range of Spiegelman’s career, this volume proposes to examine it from many perspectives: to demonstrate the centrality of his work to the rise of the graphic novel; to document how he has self-consciously dealt with his own success and engaged in a process of auto-canonization following the publication of his groundbreaking MAUS; to analyze how he has drawn on, worked through, and defied familiar poetic categories of comics art; and to investigate his inventive (sometimes silent) dialogues with other genres and media, such as music, film, theatre, dance, and installation art.

The book has garnered serious interest from the editor of the new series, Critical Approaches to Comics Artists, at the University Press of Mississippi. Accepted abstracts will be used in a formal book proposal to be submitted to the press. The deadline for full-length essays will be negotiated shortly thereafter. Essays on a variety of issues related to Spiegelman’s formative involvement in the rise of graphic literature are welcome. The collection is especially interested in exploring how we might contend with Spiegelman in the twenty-first century, acknowledging but also moving beyond the existing scholarship’s understandable focus on the achievement of MAUS. We are therefore planning to collect essays that discuss Spiegelman’s underground works; that offer new and unexpected readings of MAUS; that study his later illustrations and books (such as In the Shadow of No Towers); and that scrutinize Spiegelman’s public persona. Chapters that address the following questions are particularly welcome:

  • What can Spiegelman’s collaborative work in the underground comix scene (at Arcade and later at RAW) teach us about how Spiegelman and his collaborators conceived of comics art, and how did these early collaborations inform his subsequent experimentation?
  • What interdisciplinary dialogues does MAUS inaugurate between comics and political history; comics and Jewish history and culture; comics and trauma; comics and narrative theory; comics and memory architectures; as well as comics and autographics or life writing?
  • How is the evolution of comics — both as form and as a set of cultural institutions — entwined with Spiegelman’s own biographical trajectory, from his MAD-obsessed childhood to his poignant examination of his parents’ memories of the Holocaust and his mother’s suicide? What larger trends in the history of comics and popular culture do Spiegelman’s life and art participate in?
  • How do Spiegelman’s works incorporate early comic strips, newspapers, photography, television, and electronic communication technologies? What might such aesthetic experiments in hybridity reveal more generally about the arts of the present?
  • How have Spiegelman’s practices of masking, dual identities, impersonation, ventriloquism, and voice/voiceover devised new forms of performance in comics and cultivated new languages for articulating emergent or conflicted identities (disability, queerness), especially in the comic memoir?
  • Though comics has gained legitimacy in the art world, literary culture, and the wider public arena, a sense of shame productively persists among cartoonists and raises important questions about the price of mainstream success. How does Spiegelman walk the tightrope between the growing popularity of the comics medium and the possibility of a more subversive, politically potent grassroots comics-practice designed to serve and speak to the disenfranchised?
  • How does Spiegelman’s work negotiate the modernist influence of wordless woodcut novels by Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel on his visual style, and how do these early sources of inspiration, including the historical avant-garde, explain his recent wordless engagement with the comics form?
  • Aesthetic and political appreciation for Spiegelman’s work around the world is evidenced by countless accolades garnered over the years. How does his international success help buttress the global appeal and historical validity of comics? How do Spiegelman’s achievements intersect with other graphic art traditions — from Franco-Belgian comics to manga and beyond? And how does this new global respectability of the medium affect national discourses, for instance through the role of MAUS in reshaping Germany’s contemporary struggle with the echoes of the Holocaust?
  • How have Spiegelman’s memorable covers for The New Yorker intervened in controversies around racial profiling and police brutality (March 8, 1999), the aftermath of September 11 (the black-on-black collaboration with Françoise Mouly of September 14, 2001), and expanded the role of the political cartoon as a protest vehicle? Moreover, how might Spiegelman’s political cartoons be understood in relation to — or help us understand — debates about socially charged iconoclastic cartoons in Denmark, France, North Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere?
  • What is Spiegelman’s relationship to what may be called the archival turn in academic and exhibition culture, as evidenced by MetaMaus and Co-Mix, and in what ways does this archival impulse align itself with the completist, multilayered, navigational experiments of other cartoonists (such as Chris Ware in Building Stories or Joe Sacco in The Great War)? How do these material regimes and nonlinear reading experiences engender a new haptic quality in comics (fascinated with B-sides, squiggles, and ephemera)?
  • What specific critical and theoretical problems does comics — and Spiegelman’s work in particular — pose for academic inquiry today? How is comics itself a knowledge-producing medium? What sorts of knowledge — historiographic, psychological, political, or economic — might comics in general and Spiegelman’s comics in particular be well-suited to fuse, construct, or dispute?

Please send a 500-1000 word abstract, CV, and contact information to Georgiana Banita and Lee Konstantinou at metaspiegelman@gmail.com by June 15.

Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction”

in Rise of the Graphic Novel

For my first real post on “Rise of the Graphic Novel,” I’m going to share the abstract I submitted for the forthcoming ASAP/7 conference at Clemson University in Greenville, SC.

Title

Justin Green’s “Strong Iconic Attraction,” or, How U.S. Comics Emerged from the Underground

Abstract

In the 1970s, underground comix began transforming into what many critics have described as the graphic novel. Though cartoonists often deride the term “graphic novel,” this talk treats the graphic novel as a distinct and coherent comics practice that emerged in the 1970s. I argue that the term should describe, on the one hand, the increased prestige comics began to garner and, on the other hand, a self-conscious repression by cartoonists of the formal experimentation associated with the underground. The history of the graphic novel, I suggest, must be told in both social and formal terms.

In order to make my case, I analyze Justin Green’s fictionalized comics memoir Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Originally published by Last Gasp in 1972, Binky Brown was an early example of graphic memoir, telling the story of Green’s tortured relationship to Catholicism. Aline Kominsky-Crumb has called Green “the great grandfather” of autobiographical comics, and Art Spiegelman has written that “without [Green’s] work there would have been no MAUS.” In 2009, McSweeney’s Books reissued Binky Brown, recognizing the memoir’s canonical status among American comics.

Binky Brown is worth analyzing carefully not only because it helped pioneer a significant new comics genre but also because it illustrates how cartoonists reengineered comics form. In the late 1960s, cartoonists began figuring themselves as unified artists (on the model of the literary author) and began constructing novel accounts of the revolutionary power that supposedly inhered in comics. These rhetorical shifts are legible (and visible) throughout Binky Brown. Green’s memoir figures comics as both a pictorial cure for Catholic taboos as well as a substitute formal stricture, a self-imposed, endless artistic penance. These figurations helped establish the fraught terms by which comics would win the war for public respect over the next forty years.