“I AM (not) FROM BEYOND!” – Situating Scholarship & the Writing “I”

Editor’s Note: Welcome to another edition of The Middle Spaces Year-End Meta post, where instead of following the typical tradition of simply looking back over the last year we step back to think about the work of the blog itself. [UPDATE]: This post was recognized, along with two others, by the Comics Studies Society, garnering the Gilbert Seldes Prize for Public Scholarship in Comics Studies at CSS2019

In 1984’s Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1 the company’s most well-known (or well-affiliated) heroes and villains were gathered together to fight it out for ultimate power by an entity that would come to be known as “the Beyonder.” The being first appears as a beam of light emerging from a hole in the fabric of space, as if it punctured through into the comic book itself from somewhere else. “I am from beyond,” are its first words. As in somewhere superheroes—both real and fictional—do not exist, yet somehow it manages to boil down the genre to its essence, asking them to do what they were seemingly designed to do: fight. Of course, the 12-issue maxi-series and the Beyonder both underestimate what superheroes can be about, which could be attributed to both being something relatively new to the world of Marvel Comics. Simultaneously, however, both the series and its narrative catalyst are also the culmination of the genre’s worst and most characteristic impulses. The Beyonder may play the role of a being that comes from outside the comic book universe, but he is also of it in an undeniable way. He is not only not from “beyond,” but the very fact that he adopts “he” as his preferred pronoun also suggests how embedded he really is in superhero patriarchal politics.

As such, while the heroes and villains he’s collected are new to him, such a self-professed god-like being is not new to them or to the familiar reader who makes sense of these cosmic occurrences in relation to a growing context of such ongoing comic book narratives. The Beyonder may claim to lie beyond the world he is deigning to now interfere with, but the routine way the super characters proceed to handle the being’s appearance and the existential crisis he represents, marks him as inextricably entwined with his subject of interest. He claims to be from “Beyond,” but the story suggests business as usual. That is the real (not-so-hidden) secret of this war.

Sometimes I think there is a similar secret war going on in academia.

My article on Jaime Hernandez’s God and Science was the cover story for the first volume of the Journal of Comic & Culture.

I’ve been thinking about the reviewer comments I got back for a scholarly article I submitted to the Journal of Comics and Culture in 2014. For the most part they were very positive and suggested that the journal accept my submission, but there were some critiques they asked I address before publication. The comment that stuck out to me was the reviewer’s surprise that in the course of introducing the article and its subject—Jaime Hernandez’s God & Science: Return of the Ti-Girls—I discussed how the article emerged from a chapter of my dissertation and how it had been shaped by my presenting it on a panel at NEMLA 2014. The anonymous reviewer explained that while what I described in the text was not an uncommon lifecycle for a scholarly article, what was uncommon was my apparent need to include the information in the article itself. They weren’t wrong about that. Ultimately, they suggested that if I must insist on keeping it, that I move the information about that lifecycle into a footnote—so that is what I did. They also suggested that I was perhaps overusing the first-person in the article. That I ignored. Looking back to that revising experience I have come to realize that that kind of meta-framing is something I have yet to purge from my writing.

And to some degree I don’t want to.

The writing I do here on The Middle Spaces—probably because of the blog format—lends itself to this kind of self-referential approach. I am prone to discuss what inspired a post, where I got the comics or first heard the record I’m writing about or even the various stages of writing for that very post. For example, in 2015 I wrote a three-part blog series on X-Men’s Storm and made sure to include that the exploration was inspired by listening to episodes of Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men and Jay’s claim that the “Life-Death” stories were rich for postcolonial reading. Similarly (and a lot more recently), I wrote about Teen Titans #41 and Mal Duncan because an episode of Teen Titans Wasteland, and my post on Brooklyn Funk Essentials’ “The Revolution was Postponed because of Rain” discussed how my analysis of the song had its origins in a poetry class I took as an undergrad. My one contribution to Super-Blog Team-Up regarding “The Death of Jean DeWolf” 1985 four-issue story in Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man made sure to mention my 14-year old self’s impression of the story. Even one of my most theoretical pieces on this blog “The Pleasure of the Serial Comic Book” which is in deep conversation with French critic Roland Barthes takes as its main example my experience with the incomplete nature of reading serial superhero comics in my childhood and teen years.

Why do I do this?

As I suggested above, justifying such an approach on a blog is not hard. Here I am beholden to no one and am not necessarily expected to abide by the traditional framework of the academic essay despite my occasional pretensions otherwise. And yet, even in my scholarly writing I have the urge to include a sense of how my thinking developed, to want to explain how I came upon the subject and why it is important to me. I know that this may not always seem “professional,” but the idea of obscuring that element of scholarly endeavor feels disingenuous to me, as if I must pretend that my interest is always some purely objective and research driven question, rather than a question shaped by my very experience as a person interested in literature or music or some form of popular culture. Certainly, there are instances where a scholarly subject emerges from research that follows a question formed by a notable gap or a response to some other scholarly claim, but I have a hard time envisioning that kind of perspective as separate from personal intellectual interest and experience as an evaluative lens, and I am not sure why it should ever be.

This past summer I presented a paper entitled “Navigating the Middle Spaces: Comic Studies and Public Scholarship” at the first annual Mind the Gaps conference held by the Comics Studies Society. I wrote the presentation in part because of the very perspective I am writing about here: that scholarship does not have to pretend to be independent of our human feelings and experiences, that “scholarly” should not have to mean keeping the gate against non-academic interlopers, and that more specifically that comics studies, as an emerging field, is in a position to not emulate the hierarchies of other fields. As such, I used The Middle Spaces itself as an example of public scholarship meant to bridge the gap not only between traditional fandom and traditional academia but between comics and traditional literary and cultural studies. As I reminded my audience, comics studies owes much of its existence to fans who did the kind of research, archiving, and criticism that scholars now build on or respond to, and there is no need to value one as supplanting the other. Instead, the interplay between these strands in the field serve an important role in evoking the capaciousness that makes a field a healthy and growing one.

In light of this, The Middle Spaces becomes a site where in my own work—and through the work of its guest writers and roundtables—where varied approaches and multiple forms of expertise come together.

In giving the presentation at the CSS conference, I explained that in using The Middle Spaces as the example I was performing an autoethnographic approach to this consideration of the field. I have a long-time recurring joke with a pair of scholar friends that defines autoethnography as “studying the thing you were gonna do anyway.” In thinking about this very post, however, I came to realize that my work in comic studies—even when not as explicitly meta as that presentation was—has a taste of the autoethnographic to it. In writing for this blog, my own past and ongoing experience as a comics reader and collector not only colors my perspective, but that experience has been shaped by being a collector and scholar of color whose whole life has been inextricably woven with the consideration of race and gender in America and how that serves as a form of theoretical lens for this work. I care about race in comic books because ever since I could remember comic books were a way that I engaged with the world. They were a significant reflection of both what the dominant culture thought of issues of race (the comic medium providing an essential representative juxtaposition that conveys the tensions between liberal intention and conservative attitudes) and the possibilities for reader-provided closure that reimagines those worlds to make space for something other than the coded white supremacist assumptions woven into much of the medium (a feature of comics that is in no way close to unique among media). When I was older and came to realize that masculinities are plural, I was able to also more deeply consider similar queer tensions in the form that ask us to rethink what is possible in representing a range of expressions of gender.

I am not from beyond and there is not one of us that is, so why pretend?

Cartoon by Tom Gauld for The New Scientist (September 2018)

As such, it is important to me to situate my scholarship as a direct result of my life, thus, even if I write in a detached third-person with the most passive of passive voices, it is personal and will always be so. Even when I am writing about my other literary interests that reality is present. When I write about constructions of urban spaces and their intersections with ethnic identity and im/migration in my literary scholarship regarding the late 20th century and early 21st century American novel, I am writing out of interest that emerges from my own upbringing in the blight of 1970s and 80s New York City and as the scion of a family that moved to that city as a direct result of the economic and social policies of both Spanish and American colonialism. Why would I try to erase that for the sake of seeming objective or professional? If anything, that disclosure leads to not only rhetorically more appealing work but demonstrates the investment a scholar can have in that work. This is not to suggest that a scholar must have a personal connection of that sort to do good work but that pretending that we can deny whatever drives our interest as a person dedicating time and energy (and even money) in that area and that the personal shapes our view of that subject seems like a recipe for disingenuous work. And thus, returning to that reviewer’s comments on my article, while many a scholarly article has its origins in a conference presentation, a dissertation project, a book draft, by making that framework of development a part of presenting that information we situate that work. Perhaps such a positioning is not as necessary as historical context (for example), but adds its own important context, the history of it being thought and written is a form of describing the methodology of the work and it highlights the labor involved.

In fact, in writing my dissertation, for example, I made use of copious footnotes that were embedding that work in multiple contexts, creating varied and simultaneous threads that informed my thinking and writing. The notes were something I was playing with in my work before I knew I’d be writing a chapter on Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, though the book helped push me even further in that direction (with my advisor’s support). As the very first footnote in the project reads:

[1] Throughout this introduction and the proceeding four chapters, I make frequent use of footnotes to maintain a form of complementary dialogue with the main text that hopefully expands understanding, contributes suggestions on further reading and points out connections and information about particular people, texts or ideas with the kind of simultaneity I am trying to suggest exists in the ‘field of possibles’ from which the practice of (re)collection emerges. It is a conscious emulation of the work of Junot Diaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to construct a parallel narrative for this dissertation project that keeps a reader cognizant of my own practice of (re)collection, and as a way to “remix” academic discourse. That said, I have been well-trained by some 22-odd years of education to eschew the personal and to perform the role of the disinterested academic, so if these footnotes are unevenly applied throughout, it is because I need to push myself to go further, not because I have gone too far.

The Beyonder’s first words. (from Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1)

This feeling of conflict over the inclusion of the personal in the academic is one I associate with feminist writings of the 1980s and early 1990s. This feminist scholarship was among the critical and self-reflective works that I found most influential on my own perspective as I did my early graduate studies. There was something about how much seems at stake in these conversations among women scholars about both their work and their own role as women in academia that spoke to me as someone who also felt at the margins of these institutions. I frequently feel caught between the sense that I represent intersecting identities whose stories are rarely heard except when ventriloquized by established white male scholars and the simultaneous realization that the personal is not definitive but must always remain provisional, conditional, embedded in contexts that inform those selves and that serve as a proscenium through which to observe and understand the moment of contact with a less coherent thread of being.

I am thinking about work like Jane F. Tompkins’s “Me & My Shadow” (1987) in which she explores both her desire to respond to epistemological claims of scholarly work through its traditional call to transcend the personal and the need to express her feelings about being a woman in the academy and how that shapes both the reception of her work and the work itself. When she writes of the misguided belief that “if we don’t call attention to ourselves as women but just shut up about it and do our work, no one will notice the difference and everything will be OK” I think about how that desire to not have some aspect of our identity noticed is doing what the white cis heteropatriarchy wants not just from women, but from anyone who does not fit the white straight masculine ideal: to not talk about it too much. Such an ideal makes self-erasure seem like a path to “legitimacy” and a defense against perceptions of “bias.” Unfortunately, such erasure, even if desired by the marginalized figure, is no shield against those hegemonic forces that interpellate us—that is, that identify and categorize people based on a hegemonic frame of meaning. As such, I prefer to identify myself first and to my own ends. The reality is that identity is fraught and capricious, and since we know—as Thompkins suggests—that it may not, and probably won’t be, “OK” even if to ignore it, it is best to disclose it, to own it, to make use of it.

Linda S. Kaufman’s wonderfully written essay, “The Long Goodbye: Against Personal Testimony or an Infant Grifter Grows Up” (1992), however, challenges the assumptions of feminist writing like Thompkins’s, claiming “writing about yourself does not liberate you, it just shows how ingrained the ideology of freedom through self-expression is in our thinking” (1164). She isn’t wrong. It is a warning I try to stay cognizant of, but that I also think is too narrow in its view about personal testimony, which is valuable for all the ways it highlights the contingent nature of that testimony and the self that expresses it. Only in speaking, all the ways that voice can never be liberated from history, economics, or even what is sometimes called “the unconscious” (if you’re into that) become clear. Kaufman may want to resist the way individual choice is often framed as “free” (1164), but what she does not seem to be considering is that it does us no good to pretend that the self is not an organizing standard for understanding experience. The “I” that narrates experience is continually re-written, and thus must remain self-critiquing, but cannot, nor should it try to be, self-obviating. Kaufman is concerned with the “I” as commodity. In her formulation it is too easy for personal testimony to mostly serve as to sell the idea that society cannot be changed, only selves can, but I don’t think devaluing the self is any more effective a strategy against that atomization.

In Secret Wars II, when the Beyonder creates a (male) body for himself, he later decides to learn what it is to be human by establishing limits for that body (from Secret Wars II #9 [March 1986]) Words by: Jim Shooter. Pencils by: Al Milgrom.

I am totally with Kaufman when she writes “I want to continually cast doubt on the status of knowledge even as we are in the process of constructing it” (1168). In writing about Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in my dissertation, one of my claims about those aforementioned footnotes is that they become a kind of reflexive and proactive defense against accusations of misogyny and perpetuation of toxic masculinity, while the text participates in those very attitudes. It is part of what makes the novel simultaneously brilliant and dangerous. Yunior (the “I” that speaks) emerges from the anonymity of his role of narrator both as a character in his story and as its teller, shaping our view of him through a kind of self-justifying and insufficiently apologetic strategic honesty. In other words, his well-intentioned “I” cannot be trusted to speak distinct from social forces that shape it, even if it tells us otherwise. Heck, Yunior even warns us as much, but even the wary reader can be nevertheless easily pulled in by his charm and his suggestion that he too is a victim (a warning that unfortunately seems to also apply to the writer himself).

So, yes, we must heed Kaufman’s concern and emulate her doubt, but even in her statement there is an “I” that speaks that cannot be separated from its formulation, no matter how fragmented and contingent that “I” may be. Rather than accept the self-erasing academic discourse that just happened to arrive around the same time as the voices of women and people of color of all genders were being heard and taken seriously in earnest by the academy, those selves and those stories become lenses through which to examine the assumptions of our worldviews. Making our self and the story of the development and research of our work part of the work is a way to remain self-critiquing.

In Barbara Christian’s 1990 article, “The Highs and Lows of Black Feminist Criticism,” she asks, “Has our training led us back to the high ground that has rejected us, our education to the very language that masked our existence?” (54-5). In other words, Christian is concerned with the limits of “acceptance,” both in terms of the exceptionalism of token representation and the ways in which acceptance is predicated on recapitulating the very toxic attitudes that served to erase the work of black women and other marginalized voices. Christian’s main concern in this classic work may be black feminist thought’s role in the academy, but her focus on what she calls “palaver,” that is, ongoing parley and exchange between forces in the field suggests to me that the challenge she represents is not limited only to black women, but to anyone to whom those voices matter and whose own voices get unfairly pushed to the margins to varying degrees.

This is a long way of saying that for me the work I present here—both my own and that of guest writers—is meant to add to the scholarly discourse of popular culture even as it challenges both that discourse and the larger scholarly discourse in which it resides by questioning the assumptions of the proper way forward or even the presumption that all scholarly work must have the same goals and standards. Sure, sometimes it can go wrong—as when I look back on my 2013 Robocop post and cringe when I get to the part about being drunkenly angry while arguing with a white dude about race—but even those moments can be productive and revelatory. I cringe because some part of me still fears exposing my emotional reaction to the necessity of repeating these arguments. But that repetition must be considered, and that frustration is palpable in the feminist scholarship I quoted here and in countless other examples. My use of these feminist scholars is not meant to misappropriate feminist scholarship but to demonstrate that it has a lot to teach us about scholarship itself, especially as a site of contestation, and it will continue to guide my work regardless of the subject by giving me the language and framework to remain cognizant of what can be limiting about the personal point of view while not giving in to the limited and damaging demand to absent ourselves from the finished work.

But of course, like the self, this work is never really finished, so I look forward to exploring new ways of performing critical nostalgia as 2018 becomes 2019 and a whole new set of inquires (and some returning ones) emerge on this site. Remember, if you’d like to see that keep happening and happen more often, please consider supporting The Middle Spaces patreon.

(from Fantastic Four #133 [April 1973])

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU SWELL BUNCH OF JOKERS! LET’S HOPE 2019 GIVES US ALL REASON TO CRACK A SMILE!


Page numbers for the articles cited in this post all refer to:

Herndl, Diana Price and Robyn R. Warhol, editors. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed.,Rutgers UP, 1997.

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