A Bullet (Not Necessarily Speeding)

I’ve just got back from the first day of the ‘Postcolonial Traumas’ Conference at Nottingham Trent Uni. (Thanks to Abigail Ward for organising a great day of lively and interesting debate and discussion — and all those involved, though basically it was all Abi’s doing!) Apart from the great ideas thrown up by many other papers – to most of which I referred through the Tweetbox Machine; follow the #poco_tra hashtag if you’re interested – I had some good questions put to me about my paper, on graphic novel representations of postcolonial trauma. One of these (or, more properly, a series of these) made me seriously think about something in a way that pretty much the same question(s) – usually from senior academics, usually at interview – hasn’t done so: many thanks for this, to an inquirer who shall remain nameless. I’m not sure why this person struck a chord with me in a way that others haven’t, though perhaps it was to do with a certain lack of antagonism in this case which hasn’t been wholly absent from the enquiries of various grey-haired male figures in more daunting situations. The title of this post is a reference to Stephen Weiner’s Faster than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of the Graphic Novel, to which I referred briefly at the beginning of my talk, and which can be found here.

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(Picture (c) Joe Sacco, and The Guardian — the whole strip can be found here.)

Having given my paper on graphic novels and postcolonialism, in particular the work of Art Spiegelman and Joe Sacco, the question of whether or not a literary/cultural critic should be focusing on such a text was one that I’d already answered — at least internally, to my own satisfaction. But I was then asked a series of questions that I’d heard before, in response to my analysis of graphic novel form (I’m paraphrasing, here, but the essence is there):

I struggle to get my head around these strips in the way that you’re suggesting; is it not necessary to learn other vocabularies in order to understand them? Art, say, or film? And it may be a generational thing, but is it possible that an understanding of this form is something that does not really have a place in ‘proper’ literary study?

I’ve heard such questions before, and to a certain extent they are valid. My answer on these occasions – more than likely intimidated somewhat by the people sitting in front of me – has been to agree: yes, I have needed to adopt new vocabularies; yes, I’ve had to learn a bit from film, and a bit from art; and it may be argued that this doesn’t have a place in literary criticism, but I’ve quite enjoyed the political angle provided by such graphic novels, I think there’s a place for them in academic study, and please will you give me a job now, please? (Or words to that effect. I don’t think I’m quite that bad in interview.)

This time, though, my response was more straightforward — and, I believe, more honest: I said ‘no’. Although I have had to learn a bit about the cultural form of the graphic novel, that hasn’t meant adopting a whole new vocabulary; and I don’t believe it should, because appreciating a work of art – of whatever kind – isn’t something that should need a complete overhaul of personal discourse.

More importantly (I was getting up a head of steam, now), I explained how I believe suggesting that a completely new vocabulary is necessary before someone can begin to appreciate a set of ideas is counter to one of the tenets of academic scholarship: disseminating knowledge. Saying that we need to know everything there is to know about film, or art, or photography, or whatever, before attempting to have an opinion on an area of cultural production discourages the idea of interdisciplinarity, so important to new ideas and fresh approaches.

To extrapolate from this small experience, I think these questions – and my response – feed into a wider topic, about the need for a critical mass of knowledge in order to achieve enlightenment. Let me be clear, here: I’m not suggesting that no degree of learning or reading whatsoever should be required before pronouncing oneself a world expert on a topic; what I do think, though, is that some people, both within and outside academia, are discouraged from offering well-read, thoughtful opinions for fear that they need to know more about the subject under discussion.

Is there something in this that connects with a resistance to change? Possibly. After all, in the mid-18th-century, there may well have been critics saying similar things about a new-fangled form called the ‘novel’. ‘Don’t we need a new vocabulary?’ ‘Is this a valid form?’ ‘Isn’t it just cheap entertainment for the kids/hoi polloi/the servants?’

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(An early example of new-fangled-ness.)

There was an article in today’s Times Higher Education [I tried to find a link but couldn’t — it’s about mid-way through this week’s copy, if you can get hold of a low-tech version] about making academic writing more accessible; this, I feel, is the nub of my response to these questions. Let’s not exclude certain cultural forms from consideration — just as we shouldn’t exclude anyone from the audience for our writing.

Why should we need new vocabularies? Why shouldn’t scholarship be more accessible?

(There’s undoubtedly a whole lot more to say about this, so please do comment away. Or tweet, if that’s your thing: @life_academic.)

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