Episode 83: Time to Dissertate

One of the hardest things for a would be writer to recognize is just how much he or she has failed at doing what their name entails. Perhaps even harder is to actually get back on the metaphorical horse and start writing once again. Over the last few weeks, I have done a lot of things: travel, present at a conference, run like crazy while helping another conference for “selfless-selfish” reasons, and even a couple of once impossible things. And yet, writing has not been one of the tasks that I once so meticulously attempted to achieve on an almost daily basis. The reality is that if I want to finish my PhD and graduate before the Summer of 2014 then I’m going to have to do some major dissertating over the next few weeks. My unofficial deadline to make any of this even close to plausible I need to have to dissertation chapters in really decent shape by the end of July. In order to keep levels of productivity from lulling too badly, I am making sure to write end of the month reports to my Committee Chair. This however usually turns into the last week of a particular month turning into a string of all nighters. Tonight is just such a night.

There are a lot of unwritten rules in academia, especially over on the English Major side of Graduate Studies. One such rule is that you should be able to trace back whatever it is that you are arguing to either Plato or Aristotle. If you can’t do that then you are obviously not doing your research very well. Luckily for me, Aristotle is a big fan of tropes and codified many of the cornerstones of meta-analysis way back in the day. His “Poetics” does a very detailed analysis of what authorship and narrative are (mostly through the lens of tragedies and epics. Since my main dissertation topic is (at last not officially but it’s at least under consensus) the exploration of  notions of authorship in print and digital media within a serialized context, I need to include Barthes and Foucault. So this post will be me trying to place these three gentlemen over my research and adjust their views to see if they fit in the purview of books, comics, and webcomics.

The first problem what haunts pretty much any academic is having to adapt old resources towards new claims. The process is something akin to being able to write something on a computer but first using a stone and chisel, papyrus, some kind of printing press, and a typewriter before you can actually turn on Word. You need to be able to trace the history of a theory, defend why you chose it, how is it that you are using it differently (since if it had been used for something that made sense, someone already did that a long time ago), and then why some other theories and theorists which everyone else is using are not part of your selection. A lot of your introduction/first chapter is a lot of careful tightrope walking to say that you are doing something original and that this is a very conscious decision for everything, even if it isn’t. Your justifications serve like a bunch of legal jargon to protect yourself from professors who may look at your work and think that you are only doing this because it seemed like it fit with your research ideas without completely alienating every English Department in Western society. There are traditions that at the very least acknowledgement and you need to talk and cite them accordingly, maybe even having to quote someone just as crazy that makes it so that there is precedent. I had to quote Kirschembaum in my MA thesis to say why I was using wikis as a part of my sources and I still needed to add a disclaimer as to how careful I was when going through these sources. The process is a dance and you should be careful not to miss any important steps. What follows is me taking my notes and underlinings from my most recent rereading of Aristotle, Barthes, and Foucault from my Norton Anthology and trying to put them in a new light. Let’s see if my two left feet apply to literary analysis as I chart out this dance plan. And of course it will be written with an odd combination of slang filled rants and florid intellectual rhetoric. Enjoy.

Aristotle:

First off, Poetics is ascribed to being written circa 230 BC. To say that a few things are a bit dated is like calling Lady Gaga’s attire during an awards ceremony “sensible”. Still, there are a lot of good gems to be mined from here and no one will bat an eye lash for me being selective since somewhere around the end he says that characters should be believable and thus they should not be written/acted out as being too clever/intelligent. One of the things that quickly caught my eye (in the second paragraph) is how different representations (which for my analysis is the same as “work” according to Tanselle) can be thanks to various factors. One such factor is media. We as contemporary readers see this and can imagine Flintstones like archaic-future tech but here, media is a lot more encompassing towards how and what is being represented. Think of the Fine Arts (sculpture, painting, architecture, music, theatre, dance, reciting, etc) as their own individual medium for delivering a work; each with their own advantages and disadvantages but with the same overall goal. Subspecialties (like whether the music is from a lyre or the pan pipes) can work as their own medium but can just as easily fall under the umbrella of music, much in the same way that comics are more a subset of print rather than their own unique medium.

Cool quote for future reference: “Comedy prefers to represent people who are worse than those who exist, tragedy people who are better.” Aristotle
Just compare Seinfeld to Othello and you will quickly realize that this bit of wisdom is still pretty valid.

Representation (remember, I’m still equating this word to “work”) “has three points of difference… its media, its objects, and its manners”. Media I already talked about, objects are the subsets and tools by which it is done (water colors vs acrylic, big stage with chorus vs small stage for one person, etc), and manner is genre plus the different ways that tropes up are presented.

Another cool thing that Aristotle mentions is how representation (which I think fall better under “art” in this case) “is natural to human beings from childhood”. We learn a lot of important life lessons from here, something animals can’t do. Then again, I wonder if those gorillas that know sign language can tell stories from things they have experienced or are even capable of saying something that would fall under fiction. It’s also worth noting how Aristotle claims that comedy and tragedy arose “from an improvisatory beginning” which then fell under the more concrete and traditional forms. Hard to believe how people over two thousand years ago had to write up the blueprint for something we now consider to be obvious. I’m still trying to figure out if early comic book pioneers had the same trouble in finding what was right and whether webcomic cartoonists did/are going through a similar process.

There is this weird but ultimately pretty cool moment where Aristotle describes how tragedies are representations of action, enacted by people. Since the people are doing the action, then this is the most important part. I want to call this Aristotle’s primacy of plot (need to check if someone already said this, they probably did like a thousand years ago). Aristotle then goes on to say that a tragedy should have six parts: plot, characters, diction, reasoning, spectacle, and song. Notice how plot is first? This gets extra interesting when he says at the end of that paragraph, “consequently the incidents, i.e. the plot, are the end of tragedy, and the end is the most important part of all. Let me get a new paragraph going because I’m about to go into full dissertating mode.

Plots have an ending but only within a particular representation. This assessment becomes unclear once one takes into consideration that many ancient Greek tragedies are derived from the mythology of the time, which meant that these stories were interrelated at the very least through a common chronoverse with stable outside characters like the entirety of the Parthenon and the Oracle at Delphi. Narrative stability and continuity thus become a backseat element from which poets/authors could draw from but could never really stray away from. One cannot imagine a tragedy that introduced new gods or had versions of characters that were disparate from everyone’s common knowledge (a scrawny Hercules or an ugly Aphrodite, for example). Plot could and should provide new elements but there is a certain canonicity that must remain stable. Furthermore, the end/conclusion of any tragedy/epic is limited in Aristotle’s description as such to an individual representation or story. And yet, we know that Electra cannot mourn her father or Odysseus sail into the infinity until after the events of the Trojan War, thus making each representation a kind of sequel to Homer’s Iliad. Thus, each story is interlinked based on the already present knowledge of such events by the audience who in turn learned it from different representations. The narrative cycle is then about repetition and maintenance, rather than change and the plots do not end as they merely exist within the audience’s memory. The primacy of plot then must focus on each individual performance, rather than the abstract creation of the representation. *rant over*

Okay, back to over analyzing sentences. Perhaps the coolest part of Poetics if you are huge lit nerd like is the moment when Aristotle starts to explain how every representation needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then he defines what they actually are. The fact that over two millennia ago someone realized the importance of this and actually gave it a formal definition is particularly awesome. For dissertation purposes, I focus on the ending part, which goes a little something like this: “A conclusion, conversely, is that which itself naturally follows something else, either of necessity or for the most part, but has nothing else after it.” Serialization is all about deferring conclusions to later points, making it so that there is no ending, just an ever expansive middle. A particular story arc or installment may end out of necessity for the story (it ran its course, time to do something new) or as a limitation of the medium (there are only so many pages in a comic book). However if the ending is something natural, then wouldn’t postponing/forgetting it so that further installments can exist become an unnatural process? Not to mention what happens when someone decides to continue the story long after there has been an official ending.

In my years of research as a fan and as an academic, I think I have something close to an answer but it still needs a lot of refining before it’s safe to throw out to the wolves of editing and critical theory. Here goes my best shot at explaining what I have so far. There exists a dichotomy within the reader when it comes to the serial reading experience (I seriously need to check out how to trademark that term). On the one hand you have an empathy towards particular characters. You want the heroes to save the day, the star crossed lovers to be together, the evil bastard/bitch to get what’s coming him/her. This attachment to characters contains the necessity for a conclusion to occur and have the cliché happy ending. On the other hand, you have the plot advancement, which is most of the time character driven. As much as you may want for the destination to be reached, you want the journey to keep going. A series may be drawn out and barely relevant but there is still a desire that it continue just a bit longer. Since plot without conflict leads to nothing happening you need to keep pushing that happy ending unto the horizon so that the characters can keep going with their lives, albeit if it is an unhappy one. If you don’t care about an overarching story plot that spans a multitude of installments, then the problem is momentary and can be easily fixed (a lot of sitcoms and early comic books did this a lot. Still, whatever was fixed or learned barely carries over unto the next installment. If the grumpy dad realizes that he should not be so strict to his children and then there is a big family hug, you can bet that the actual character will continue to be strict and grumpy 99/100. Umberto Eco famously stated in his Myth of Superman essay that the process of saving the day but having basically the same menace pop up again led to “narrative redundancy”. Think how many times Lex Luthor ended up in jail at the end of one comic only to threaten the world again an installment or two later, often with no explanation as to how he is no longer incarcerated (stupid Silver Age lack of overall continuity). Then again there are the stories in which the story becomes richly complex with details and a growing list of characters, each with their own motivations and subplots. The narrative is now one that needs to be followed almost religiously and things can easily become absurd (a lot of long running soap operas stumble unto this predicament) or the amount of details can become staggering for authors and readers alike. This means that you are making a barrier for new and casual readers due to high standard of narrative accessibility. Not to mention the retcons that will probably occur along the way.

Now let me take a moment to officially declare that Aristotle had it wrong. Not everything, just one big point, at least to me anyway. He places a primacy of plot when characters are what really become iconic and memorable, especially in the context of a serialized work/representation. Even the best plots and story-arcs cannot compare to the initial image of a particular protagonist or antagonist that becomes a permanent identity marker amongst the readership. Consider the case of the death of Jason Todd in the 80s. For the non nerdy among you in this area, let me give you a recap. During the 80s Batman and Robin had an adventure where they were tracking down the Joker. The chase leads to Jokes trapping Robin in an abandoned warehouse and beats the crap out of the legendary sidekick with a crowbar, leaves him for dead, and proceeds to put a bomb in the warehouse as he leaves. The cliffhanger for that particular installment had the last page include a 1-900 number for people to vote whether Robin would live or die. With less than a one percent difference, the dynamic duo was halved and people were pissed as they should be. Here’s the problem, a lot of the people complaining were not up to date in the comics. They thought the authors had killed off Dick Grayson, the original Boy Wonder who had long ago become Nightwing, served as leader of the Teen Titans and was currently his own full fledged solo hero. The victim was actually Jason Todd, the second Robin that was not nearly as popular as the original sidekick. It got even more complicated about ten years later when Jason Todd was revived thanks to Superboy Prime punching the walls of reality (it kind of makes sense if you have been reading all of DC for the past 30 years or so). However, plot had changed a lot of things in Batman over the years but the death of an identity, even one that is mutable is what caused a larger impact. Of course, one can argue that Jason dying was a plot point and these lines become blurry very quickly as to when plot ends and character bio starts, especially once a story arc ends. Plot too quickly becomes history and then just becomes a famous exploit of the character. Just remember, there are people who have not read a single Harry Potter book or seen any of the movies that can recognize a bespectacled youngster with a peculiar scar and a wand as the eponymous Boy who lived.

There is a lot more Aristotle I could talk about but that goes into methodology and linguistics more than anything else and is better suited for a future analysis/rant. Onward.

Roland Barthes:

Back in 1968, Barthes famously declared that the author had died. As a researcher who wants to study contemporary serialized texts, this seems like a good cut-off point. I am still trying to figure out an elegant way of saying that Barthes’s declaration changed the way texts are received, but also how they are made. I may not agree with Barthes finality of the author figure but we can all recognize that the deity like reverence for certain writers of the classical canon was lost, for the better (I hope). His epitaph on the tomb of authorship became the standard bearer by which the readership became empowered but many authors of the classic bygone era and those just beginning to scrawl their thoughts. It is a turning point in literary history, and studying authorship from this point on can lead to some pretty interesting findings, or so I hope I can convince my committee of.

One of the first things you notice is how Author is capitalized, further reflecting the importance and title of the word. The next point that caught my eye is the use of Sauserre’s linguistics to justify this claim. It appears that my unofficial minor in linguistics (or so I keep writing in my CV) from my pre PhD days is still pretty useful. Somewhere in the old writings that signifier over signified equals sign, everything the world knew about language was shaken to its very foundation. We realized that signifiers were abstract and had very little connection to the actual meaning ascribed to them. Language was an arbitrary collection of sounds with which we had somehow made a consensus of what meant what Somewhere down the line of this reasoning, the messenger and the receiver lost importance and the message had taken center stage. This new mindset got Barthes thinking that the same process can be used to shatter the pedestal upon which the concept of the author was made and kept for so long. He wants to leave behind the idea of a chronology or time grid between author and text. “The Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book: book and author stand automatically on a line divided into a before and an after. The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relationship of antecedence to his work as a father to his child.” From what I can barely understand of the time space continuum, this makes sense to me and to a lot of either people, even with the female parts being underwritten/completely ignored. However, Barthes wants to focus more on the concept of the “modern scriptor” who has no reverence for whatever is written or said but rather that what he communicates is ephemeral. This simultaneously disempowers the idea of voice but somehow makes it attainable to the masses. A little Marxistish but perfectly understandable.

The point where it gets tricky for me as an English Major is that, according to Barthes, no more Authors means that analyzing language is no longer important. “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. . . . Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has been that of the Critic, nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author.” The irony of me quoting Barthes in order to better understand my own forms of literary criticism to study authorship is very palpable in its irony. I think that critics and fans, no matter how much they may advocate for the freedom of analysis will undoubtedly posit the question of what “the author meant” and can use anything directly by him or her as evidence to support such a hypothesis.

The part it gets tricky for me and where I start declaring shenanigans is when bathes goes for a primacy of readership. The audience/viewer/reader/fandom of any particular work is the recipient. Barthes takes that a step further with which I disagree. “Yet this destination, can no longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology, he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.” Oh how I would love to see the blogosphere/ twitterverse and other forms of social media if someone said this. Even when going for the lowest common denominator of readership, you are creating an intended reader for which the work is designed. I write to you, my intended and probably imaginary reader, as someone with a hint of nerd that can appreciate references and non-sequitors with Craked style articles (though without the pictures, I’m bad at embedding stuff). Let me continue my pandering in that you are also quite intelligent and my musings to get some new thoughts to emerge. There is always an intended reader and you tailor the work to such a group. Agewise alone we categorize texts this way, so don’t tell me we should keep the reader as some abstract entity ( I really hope I’m not misreading Barthes here or else I am going to be in a lot of trouble down the line). When you write towards a specific niche audience, like with webcomics about video games being written mostly for twenty something gamers, if you are not in the group and want to read along, then go ahead. But if you know nothing of the material or culture and start complaining as to how you don’t get it, then you are gonna have a bad time. I would love to enter a classroom for an advanced course in which I had no knowledge or expertise just to see the professor’s reaction to my presence, much less me actually saying anything in the class. It’s weird how we can think of authorship these days as being capable of broadcasting to anyone who knows the language or microcasting to a loyal handful of readers who know the story better than the author.

I’ll continue this on a future post. Need sleep.

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