Thursday, 01 February 2007

Observations on the Latest Modern Fiction Studies (x-posted to the Valve ) The Winter 2006 number of Modern Fiction Studies hit the streets this morning. This issue is special, devoted to what it calls “graphic narrative,” but which everyone I know calls “funny books.” De gustibus, yes, but accompanied by a strong impulse to legitimize the objects they’re studying. After all, this is MFS, not The Journal of Popular Culture. For the sake of reference, the previous special issue (Summer 2006) was devoted to Toni Morrison, not exactly a marginal figure in contemporary literature. Reading the introduction and first three essays, I sense that the audience of this issue is MFS readers, not scholars of the works in question. More evidence: Art Spiegelman’s Maus rests the on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Not that Maus isn’t brilliant—although, what with my interest in race and essentialism in contemporary literary studies and fin de siècle evolutionary theory, I find elements of it highly problematic—only that scholars have been embracing it for the better part of two decades. Project Muse alone pulls up 261 references to it, many of which with serious, scholarly titles like Erin Heather McGlothlin’s “No Time Like the Present: Narrative and Time in Art Spiegelman’s Maus” and Victoria A. Elmwood’s “‘Happy, Happy, Ever After’: The Transformation of Trauma between the Generations in Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.” Being the subject of articles in Narrative and Biography indicates a work has acquired canonical cachet—so much, in fact, that its mention lends prestige to the lowly genre to which it belongs. Hillary Chute and Marianne DeKoven, the editors of this issue, say as much: The project of this special issue is to bring the medium of comics—its conventions, its violation of its own conventions, what it does differently—to the forefront of conversations about the political, aesthetic, and ethical work of narrative. For many of us interested in graphic narrative, without any clear-cut methodology established for considering contemporary comics texts as multilayered narrative works (aside from debates within the field of postmodern fiction and postmodernism generally), and, until recently, without a range of examples to sit next to Maus on our bookshelves, Maus itself set the terms for ways to talk about what comics could do. It continues to set the terms, as a great, lasting work. While I endorse all Chute and DeKoven say here, I’m a little perplexed by the notion that “until recently, without a range of examples to sit next to Maus on our bookshelves.” Cerebus—about which I’ll say more in a minute—hit its stride thirty years ago with High Society, Church and State and Jaka’s Story; Neil Gaiman started publishing The Sandman in 1988; the first volume of Maus appeared in 1986. All of which is only to say, if someone couldn’t find something to put on their shelves alongside Maus, they must not have been looking. And before anyone complains this is my inner enthusiast speaking, let me state plainly: It isn’t. It’s my inner historicist—who is, admittedly, no less petulant—compelling me...
The Intellectual Shortcomings of Other People's Fields; or, See this Gauntlet? Consider it Dropped (But Politely, in Case I'm Mistaken) I have a quick question regarding the status of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the gaze in film studies. (At this point, the hastily crafted “blog-work” cedes pride of place to something I wrote this afternoon. Now you can account for the ungainly tonal shift you’re about to experience. Were I not genuinely interested in hearing what you think of the following account of Lacanian influence in film studies, I would take this opportunity to wax free-association about the difference between this here parenthetical prose and what you see beyond its elliptical fortifications. Now, where was I?) The first sentence of her most frequently cited article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” clearly states its purview: “This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him.” Twenty years later, David Roberts summarizes her initial exposition of the male gaze in this essays as having two functions: The first is narcissistic: male spectators gaze at the male subject they aspire to resemble. The second is voyeuristic: the same spectators gaze at the female performers they desire to possess and subject. In the thirty years between Mulvey’s article and Roberts’, the psychoanalytic framework has become invisible, so much so that Roberts can claim that “however [her] ideas are challenged or inflected, they say something important.” The means by which they do so—the authority of psychoanalytic accounts of human consciousness and social interaction—exist now only subterraneously. What had been a decidedly Lacanian argument in which film, abetted by the gaze and its imagined mastery, functions like the mirror stage, deceiving the viewer into believing there is no underlying symbolic structure, becomes a truism whose assumptions need not be addressed so long as the results of its application “say something important.” Such a subsumption has consequences both for the theory being subsumed and the work to which it is applied. As Todd McGowan [JSTOR] notes, the emphasis on the gaze in film studies has pushed the third element of the Lacanian triad, the Real, past the vanishing point, a “crucial omission, because the Real provides the key to understanding the radical role that the gaze plays within filmic experience.” Doing justice neither to the art object under examination nor the examining theory, the routinization of “the gaze” in film studies speaks to the intellectual deficit caused by professional isolation. Am I wrong?

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