Spiegelman & History

Though it isn’t technically a part of the “content” of the comics in Shadow of No Towers, I found myself very interested in the front cover page of the book. It depicts the front page of The World Newspaper on September 11th, 1901, exactly 100 years prior to the events of 9/11. It’s not quite the nostalgic slice-of-life we’d expect, either—“Anarchist Queen” Emma Goldman has been arrested, President McKinley has been shot, and the world seems at least as amiss as it has been in contemporary history. The back cover page uses the same image, this time superimposed with headlines responding to 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror,” ending with the tell-tale, “Britney Video Shocker—Pop-Tart Shelves Plan to Act Out Suicide.” What exactly is Spiegelman doing with these pages, thematically? My initial reaction was to view them as a “before” and “after,” with the fall of the twin towers acting as a turning point for the rest of American history. The layout of the book would support this, since the newspapers act as endcaps for the book’s content.

However I think Spiegelman’s work in general is more nuanced than that interpretation would imply. Instead, I would argue that he is attempting to frame the events of 9/11 as one historical moment among many, a momentous occasion that is unique among a line-up of other unique, momentous occasions. His use of news media in particular illustrates Spiegelman’s awareness of how the event might be remembered by audiences in the future. The contemporary headlines superimposed over the page from 1901 doesn’t necessarily represent one event eclipsing the other—you can still read the content of the original underneath—but a comparison of historiography. Can we ever understand the past, unhampered by our contemporary perceptions? How do we document the past? Traditional news media, Spiegelman argues, is an incomplete answer.

Comics, we see in Shadow, have the potential to capture history in a way that no other medium can, and to draw visual comparisons and juxtapositions between periods. Spiegelman’s use of his caricatures from Maus, for instance, inevitably draw to mind WWII and its impact, placing it in the same category of trauma as his 9/11 experience. Similarly, Spiegelman’s inclusion of the old comic supplements left me with a sense of a denial of the US progress narrative. He presents old comics that include a number of racist and ethnocentric stereotypes, which on first viewing offer up a sort of progressive-moral-porn-lite but which also draws parallels to the US’ racist responses to 9/11. 

In what other ways does the form of the book play with the idea of historical awareness and progress (or lack thereof)? 

Time and Transition

I’ve never been much of a gamer (more of a watcher, whatever that might entail), but I’m familiar with enough of the tropes to appreciate how Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia was able to manipulate them like Braid had, but in a much shorter span of time. Like Braid, Dys4ia uses video game tropes to lend a sense of familiarity to the player while simultaneously dissociating them. For instance, on more than one occasion, the player’s goal is to fit blocks into their respective sections—however, the blocks don’t fit, thus the game doesn’t adhere to Tetris or its variants. The rules of video games, like the rules of gender, are made to be broken.

It called to mind an essay I read a few months ago, in an anthology of Doctor Who essays, called Queers Dig Time Lords. “Same Old Me, Different Face: Transition, Regeneration, and Change” accounts Jane Bigelow’s transition through an extended comparison to the Doctor’s series of regenerations. It’s an amazing essay, especially for those familiar with the franchise. Mostly, though, I was interested in the way both texts explore time in regards to transformation and transition. 

“Here’s a story I heard: somewhere there was a transgender woman trying to explain her transition to a geeky-but-otherwise-clueless friend. Nothing she tried could really convey what she was going through to him, until she described it in terms he could grasp. “It’s like I’m the Doctor,” she said. “Except I’m regenerating into a woman.”

His eyes lit up. He got it then.”

My basic observation is this: Dys4ia is, suffice to say, a very short game, and a fairly simple one. Despite that, there is never quite enough to time to explore the rules of each level—the player is rushed through without much time to consider the implications of Anthropy’s experience. It creates a coherent narrative due to our expectations of it, but is otherwise disjointed in both chronology and rules. When the levels begin to repeat with variation, the player is invited to view the process of transformation—not into the expected video game trope (the block fits into the hole), but one that is unique and further changed (the block flashes and shifts but still doesn’t fit).

Bigelow’s essay explores something similar. When the doctor knows he will be regenerating in the near future, he makes a survey of his life (across timelines), says goodbye to old places and people; he will be a different person soon, even if he is in many ways the same. There is never enough time, though, so say goodbye, never enough time for him to understand the “rules” of a given lifetime before the irrevocable change. Each regeneration is the same, but different.

I suppose these two transwomen’s accounts—though different in both form and content—made me consider the possibilities of genre in regards to expressing change. A straightforward, “realist” account of a transition did not suffice for either creator; instead, elements of science fiction, time travel, game play, and the blurring of time and space, were necessary to express their respective subjective experiences. Genre or new media elements, to me, express the inexpressible, or at the very least, invite their audiences to experience something they might have otherwise never attempted to understand. In the case of Dys4ia and Bigelow’s Who essay, audiences are moved through disjointed, fabricated time in order to understand the process of transitioning. I found it to be extremely emotionally resonant. What do you all think?

“It’s a small thing, but I feel like I’ve taken the first step toward something TREMENDOUS.”


History versus Historical Fiction

I mentioned in class my interest in the way that Jones does not represent the Civil War as a turning point in the chronology of The Known World. Even though he constantly shifts in historical perspective, he seems to purposefully avoid foreshadowing the war; it’s just not vital the lives of the characters. The war might have brought to an end the institution of slavery, but not the ideologies that drove it; capitalism and its accompanying racism lived on, alive and well, to produce the Jim Crow laws and eventually the “new” JC laws (mass incarceration, etc.) of today.

When discussing why Jones chooses this tactic, Taylor mentioned in our group discussion that historical fiction could be seen as inherently a teaching genre. I’m dubious about this definition in regards to certain texts (like Winterson’s Passion). For the sake of The Known World, though, I agree. Historical fiction of this sort is very self-conscious of what it’s doing that a straightforward historical account never could. If the perspective of pop history is “don’t repeat the past,” historical fiction can be said to argue “look where we’re at right now.” Both categories toe the line of moral porn, though I do think that historical fiction has more potential to move past it, focusing as it does moreso on the present as a means to the past than the past as a means to the present.

If we view chronological time, or your typical timeline, as a sort of map, with as many problems as the map of the “known world” presented here in the text, we find just as many problems at stake. The timeline gestures to more, but can’t encompass events in their totality. Jones critiques this mode of historical mapping in his fiction. Viewing events as causal, while truthful in its own way, obscures many of the omnipresent, institutional problems that pervade a given society, regardless of epoch. Even in historical studies outside of the conceptual humanities, we can see a shift toward studying a particular idea or material throughout time, rather than a focus on a given period as a self-contained entity. Thus, we see Jones’ deliberate avoidance of writing about the “period” of slavery as compared to the “period” of emancipation. 

This is a bit jumbled because I have a lot to say about historical fiction and its myriad potentials. I enjoyed this novel, though, in the same jumbled sort of way (did anyone else have trouble keeping up with all the character names? It was as bad as a high fantasy novel in that way). 

Irony in Web Series

In their presentation this past week, Taylor and Franklin included an episode of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries for our perusal (the whole series is pretty great, for those of you that haven’t checked it out). As I watched it, I was reminded of the discussions I’d had about irony in a Jane Austen & Film class I took a few years ago. The conversation around adaptations of Austen is pretty exhaustive, but the main critique most film critics have of is the films’ inability to carry over Austen’s irony, leaving them far more romantic and, well, Romantic, than Austen herself intended her novels to be. The big exception was the 1995 movie Clueless (adapted from Emma), which used voice-over narration to contradict what viewers plainly saw happening on the screen. 

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries uses the same technique, and then some. Unlike most adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, LBD is solely from Lizzie’s perspective; the vlog format allows for a heavier bias than your standard focused-gaze of a cinematic production. Add to this the extra level of production—twitter accounts, side-series’ etc. from the POVs of other characters—put Lizzie’s shortsighted perspective front-and-center.

I was struck by the use of critical irony in LBD, both in contrast to (most of) the Austen adaptations of yesteryear and to the type of irony we discussed in Wallace’s essay. The modes of irony seem to be in stark contrast due to the ability for the format to itself be a sort of critique of its characters and its viewer’s prejudice. The critical finger points more to the viewer, I’d argue, than to itself. The comparison is obviously not perfect, since the comparison is to film rather than television, but I am curious about the possibilities of irony in new media. Is it a lost art, the “voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage,” (“Pluram” 183) or does it still have the capacity for valuable social criticism? Does new media production, like the fanfiction I talked about in my own presentation— outside (in theory) the realm of for-profit production and the constraints of mainstream media—give more space to this kind of critique?

The Difference Engine and the Mob

One of the most effective uses of setting in The Difference Engine is Gibson and Sterling’s ability to manipulate the image of the mob. This isn’t to say that the image isn’t possible or salient in contemporary consciousness, but the nineteenth century was all but obsessed with it. Throughout the novel, G&S describe the Luddites and other rebel groups as Jacobins, calling to mind popular protest in the French Reign of Terror (1793-4). The subsequent European revolutions of 1848 don’t seem to have occurred in the world of the novel (though some of its real-life results are present, like Louis Napoleon’s reign); the reader’s knowledge of this absence is a tool to build tension and expectation for this social pressure to come to a head. Similarly, the Chartist rebellions of Britain (1838-48) are absent; democratization has occurred to some extent in the novel, and so leftist politics (and mobs) focus on labor instead, as illustrated by Walter Gerard and the anachronistic Luddites.

In a scene that parallels Chase’s consideration of the wasp nest in Neuromancer, Mallory remembers a swarm of earthworms witnessed while walking with Charles Darwin, describing them as “churning in catastrophic frenzy, till the soil roiled and bubbled like a witches’ brew” (130). The worms—the mob—are portrayed as chaotic and supernatural, the antithesis for the society Mallory claims to inhabit. Later on the same page, though, Mallory neutrally describes the Central Statistics Bureau as a honeycomb—a hivemind, like the worms, but one that is orderly and productive. This foreshadows a similar image later in the novel, wherein Mallory praises a flock of birds for their shape, at one point a “movement of a tidal surge” (183). On the next page, he steps over a number of dead starlings on the street, indifferent to the creatures as individuals.

Mallory builds himself a paradox (one of many): the people as a harmonious, aesthetic unit, and as a cruel horde of sans-culottes; as self-conscious individuals and as “numbers.” The “witches’ brew” boils over during the skirmishes of the London Stink, wherein Mallory both seeks out the crowd in the form of a party of prostitutes, and, once sated, reviles the anarchy on the streets.

What does this say about the concept of the “global network” that Gibson has consciously worked with in the past? In the late 19th century—before the eugenics of the 20th, and with the mobs of the late 18th/early 19th still fresh on minds—it would not have been desirable to connect the classes by knowledge or any other singularity. Even with the fast-forwarding of early to late capitalism in the novel, how much resistance would networking meet amongst the upper echelons of Victorian society?