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The Indisciplined Middle Space by Tony Venezia

27 Oct

We all pined for those middle spaces, those summer hours when Josephine Baker lay waste to Paris, when “Bothered Blues” peaked on the charts, when a teenaged Elvis, still dreaming of his own first session, sat in the Sun Studios watching the Prisonaires, when top-to-bottom burner blazed through a subway station, renovating the world in an instant, when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord run from a streetlamp, when juice just flowed […] A middle space opened and closed like a glance, you’d miss it if you blinked.

Jonathan Lethem [1]

Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, a novel of friendship, family, music and comic books, concludes with an enticing and affective vision of an imaginative ‘middle space.’ Dylan Ebdus drives home with his father through a snow-storm listening to the swirling soundscape of a Brian Eno tape, invoking the aforementioned ‘middle space […] conjured and dwelled in’ (p. 509). The novel artfully weaves a highly personal story out of a pop culture collage of science fiction art, forgotten soul singers and New York superheroes, acknowledging the complexities of comics’ continuity as so much essential cultural history. The novel is itself something of a middle space where lines and boundaries are productively blurred.

Comics studies, at least in the UK and the US, can be said to occupy just such an oddly pleasing if precarious institutional middle space. Such disciplinary precarity, while far from ideal offers plenty of scope for creative opportunity. This state of affairs has arisen largely as a result of necessity: there are no comics studies departments, and if we’re honest there are not likely to be in the near future. Unlike film or literature, comics do not command a mass audience and their value status remains unstable. And yet…it is debatable whether comics studies departments are actually desirable at all other than as territory for disciplinary stability.

Philosopher of science and Tintin fan Michel Serres has made something of a career out of gleefully ignoring disciplinary boundaries and revelling in an insistent mapping of diverse discourses. Serres’ tutelary deity is, not surprisingly, Hermes; messenger of the gods, as well patron of commerce and theft, boundaries and travelers, whose statute was traditionally placed at the crossroads. For Serres, this represents a middle space between disciplines that is underexplored and far more complex than the crude notion of an intermingling between two stable concepts; it is instead ‘less a juncture under control, than an adventure to be had. This is an area strangely void of explorers.’[2]

Questions regarding the validity and establishment of comics studies departments are perhaps best suited for convivial post-conference socialising. Rather than dwell anxiously, even unhealthily, on this point, and as part of a deliberate ploy to avoid the lure of revisiting over-rehearsed posturing on matters of legitimation, I will instead use this post to discuss a specific and pragmatic example of an indisciplined middle space increasingly occupied by a variety of explorers concerned with ‘mediation, translation, multiplicity.’[3]

Last year I organised what was supposed to be a one-off symposium on comics, Transitions, at my institution, Birkbeck, University of London. I had the generous support of Dr Roger Sabin, who acted as respondent, and the inestimable Paul Gravett, who graciously promoted the event as part of Comica 2010, not to mention Birkbeck who provided rooms free of charge as well as some refreshments. I was motivated by having attended and spoken at the first Comics Forum in Leeds that Ian Hague had organised in 2009, and felt that I should at least try and stage something similar, though perhaps on a smaller scale, in London. The event gradually expanded as Roger suggested contacting likeminded comics students.

The symposium started as a kind of guerilla event, and blossomed into something else entirely. Due to contingency, there was never any specific theme, hence it was promoted as a platform for new research. Any faults with the day are entirely mine, while the successful parts were down to the participation of the speakers and delegates. I was pleased that the day attracted a mixed crowd of academics, fans and artists (and indeed, as some of the speakers proved, it is possible to be all three at once).

The background to all of this is obviously the growth of comics related conferences in the UK over the past couple of years or so, a growth tied to the publication of dedicated journals. As well as the now established Comics Forum in Leeds, there is the annual International Comics Conference in Manchester (relocating to Bournemouth for next year), and the Word and Image conference in Dundee, as well as numerous one off events.

Almost as soon as the serious stuff was over and the festivities began, there was talk of a follow up event. What had come about more by accident rather than design, now actually seemed strangely necessary. There have been many excellent themed comics conferences in London (such as the recent Comics and Conflict conference at the Imperial War Museum this summer), but no annual event in the capitol. The idea of turning Transitions into a regular conference which would act as a space for new research in the field seemed to make intuitive sense. Such an event would differentiate itself from other regular themed conferences by attempting to trace trends rather than anticipate them. This in effect reverses the tendency of most conferences that publish proceedings, and instead works to become more open, encouraging future collaborations.[4]

Transitions 2 poster, by kind permission of Peter Stanbury.

Having once again secured the support of Roger, Paul and others, a call for papers generated a good response, so much so that parallel sessions became necessary to fit in as many excellent submissions as possible, with Dr Julia Round stepping in to act as co-respondent. This year Kent Worcester, Professor of Political Science at Marymount Manhattan and co-editor of A Comics Studies Reader, is coming over to give a keynote, and there are speakers coming from Lebanon, India and Australia, as well as all over the UK. Transitions 2 is once again supported by Birkbeck, and I should make special mention of doctoral colleagues and friends, at Birkbeck and beyond, who have volunteered (or have been volunteered) to help out. Hopefully, this year will be a fruitful hybrid of last year’s informal guerilla qualities with a more active engagement with recent research trends across disciplines.

To take one immediate example; there is a definite drift toward transmedia approaches to studying comics. This is undoubtedly to be welcomed and encouraged, and arguably represents something of a rebuke to the somewhat tired received wisdom of emphasising medium-specificity. Such comparative criticism would be, as Jacques Rancière puts it ‘not a way of explaining or classifying things, but a way of extending them and making them resonate differently.’[5] Comics are themselves not produced, distributed or consumed in isolation despite what some purists may think: there is no single method of studying comics. They are instead part of a matrix of visual cultural production, the study of which always raises issues of disciplinarity.[6]

Questions of disciplinarity are a constant source of debate in the humanities, and many will recognise and possibly recoil at the overused, ill-defined and frankly often tokenistic invocation of ‘interdisciplinarity.’ As Transitions and other conferences and journals show again and again, comics studies is demonstrably multi-disciplinary in a very literal sense; these middle spaces bring together critical approaches from diverse knowledges and encourage dialogue. What I want to conclude with however is to suggest, only partly tongue in cheek, that we should embrace what Rancière has called indisciplinary thought, a procedure which ‘supposes the creation of a space without boundaries which is also a space of equality.’[7]

It may be that this is as far as Transitions can go in this undisciplined format; while it possesses an agreeable punk-style messiness, it has become too much for one person to take on. Thankfully, and fully in keeping with the spirit of the event, I have already been approached with an offer to help on Transitions 3 next year. Watch this space…

Tony Venezia is a PhD student and tutor at Birkbeck, supposedly working on a thesis on history and historiography in the work of Alan Moore due for completion any time between now and next September. He has published reviews and articles in Peer English, Radical Philosophy, Studies in Comics and the International Journal of Comic Art and elsewhere and has contributed a chapter to the forthcoming anthology Alan Moore and the Gothic Tradition (edited by Matt Green, Manchester University Press). He is a founder and contributor to The Comics Grid, and co-convenor for the Contemporary Fiction Seminar series at the Institute of English Studies.

[1] – Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 510.

[2] – Michel Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, translated by Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p.70.

[3] – Bruno Latour, in Conversations on Science, Culture and Time, p. 1.

[4] – Again, it is instructive to point to pragmatic, concrete examples when making such abstract points and there are two I’d like to mention here. Dr. Jason Dittmer, a human geographer based at University College, London with an interest in popular culture, attended Transitions 1 and is currently in the process of putting together an anthology on comics and geography with some of the participants of the first symposium. The second example is a special issue of the journal Studies in Comics on comics and cultural theory; ‘From Akira to Žižek.’ This arose out of post-conference discussions on the need for a more substantial engagement with the increasingly diverse strands of contemporary cultural theory. The call for papers is available from their website.

[5] – Jacques Rancière, interviewed by Marie-Aude Baronian and Mireille Rosello, ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity’ translated by Gregory Elliott, Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, 2.1 (2008) http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/jrinterview.html [accessed14 October 2011]. No pagination. Rancière is talking about literary and film criticism, but the point is valid in this context.

[6] – There is, I would suggest, a clear affinity with the open field of visual culture studies which deals with a range of media forms.: ‘Visual culture is […] a comparative mode of critical practice. Its comparison of specific visual objects that are usually studied by medium-specific disciplines is motivated by the desire to work through the genealogy of these interfaces.’ Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture, second edition (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 9. An exceptional, and recent, thorough working through of the implications of Mirzoeff’s statement is Hillary L. Chute’s Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), in which she calls for the field of visual culture studies ‘to grow to include analyses of comics.’ (p. 221, n18).

[7] – Jacques Rancière, ‘Thinking between disciplines: an aesthetics of knowledge’ translated by Jon Roffe, Parrhesia 1 (2006), 1-12 (9). http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia01/parrhesia01_ranciere.pdf [accessed 14 October 2011]. When interviewed, Rancière expounded on his ‘indisciplinary’ approach: ‘It is not only a matter of going besides the disciplines but of breaking them. My problem has always been to escape the division between disciplines, because what interests me is the question of the distribution of territories, which is always a way of deciding who is qualified to speak about what.’ (See ‘Jacques Rancière and Indisciplinarity’, link above). (My emphasis). For some, there is a compulsion to set out a canon and define a technical language capable of describing what comics do. Both valid practices, but I would reiterate for all the formalists out there – – there is no one way of studying comics. Canon building and definitional projects risk becoming ends in themselves. The point of a middle space is precisely to avoid this and generate shortcuts and pathways between what would otherwise be distinct postions.

Transitions 2 takes place on Saturday November 5 at Birkbeck, University of London. The symposium is free to attend; to register contact Tony at transitions.symposium@gmail.com. For further details of Transitions 2, and to download the schedule and abstracts, please visit the website: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/arts/about-us/events/comica-symposium-2011-transitions-2-new-directions-in-comics-studies.

 

3 responses to “The Indisciplined Middle Space by Tony Venezia

  1. charleshatfield

    2011/10/27 at 23:02

    Very relevant and important reflections here, Tony, thank you! May I suggest creating a dialogue between the above and the following, my own contribution to the question?:

    http://transatlantica.revues.org/4933

    Like

     
  2. Tony

    2011/11/07 at 22:46

    Apologies for impolite tardiness of my response – I’ve been insanely busy and have just had this pointed out to me. As it happens, Ian Hague pointed me to your Transatlantica article – I’ve only had a chance to read it quickly, so will sit down and have a proper look then formulate a more considered reply either on here or directly to you. Enjoy Alcala!

    Like

     

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