Author Archives: finkbecr

The usefulness of stories

We all define ourselves a certain way, and for better or worse who we think we are is often who we become. I have seen friends become addicts and organizers, crazy hermits and inventors, stick with sports, relationships, ideas, dreams, personality traits long past they had outgrown them or were helpful, or long after everyone else had told them to give them up all because they became a part of how they defined themselves. There is a lot of power in self-definition, it can move you past otherwise insurmountable barriers, in how you think and what you expect of yourself; but self-definition can also be a way to make a habit out of negativity, to hold on to the parts of you that are harmful, it’s a tricky tool and one often best wielded in the presence of good friends. Likewise we often fail to see other people past our immediate perceptions of who they are. It’s how we other others, putting them into a place where we can only see them making decisions for a few motives we prescribe to them. I’m sure none of this is news to you, but I wanted to start by thinking about these things.
I was working in a lab at the UW the summer Michael Brown was shot, I was working with this guy from the Midwest who believed that the protesters were wrong and that the police were justified in their actions. You might expect that someone who held strong opinions about a controversial and polarizing issue would be hard to sway, this was not the case. The PhD student had never really met any people of color growing up, he had never heard the statistics on police shootings of black men in America, I showed him one pew fact sheet and it completely changed his mind within an hour. I think this speaks to the power of stories and statistics. My mom has worked in organizing for a long time and she has a very simple (and successful) approach for talking about controversial issues, open with stories, follow with facts. Stories break down the definitions that we build for others and lets us move them and re-evaluate. Stories build a new normal, an expectation and a path, shaping our conscious and unconscious biases. We are only really effected by the stories we hear, look no further than the increase in public same sex couples and the changing opinions of Americans on same sex couples (http://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/.) Having access to these stories is important and I feel like that is the sort of thing Nami was talking about in their piece, that transgender stories don’t have a place in the modern academic discourse, or really much of the modern public discussion, web comics give other trans identifying people an opportunity for validation and solidarity in a world not built around them but also allows these stories to be shared in an easily digestible and very human way with the rest of the population who doesn’t have a friend or family member who is trans. This wider readership is really important to wider acceptance, and there is a lot more I would like to say, but it is past midnight and I am tired so hopefully this gives some interesting thoughts.

The erotic as the zone

    I have a tendency to be skeptical about any academic work that claims to define actions based off semantics, but I think Lorde makes some really good points. First, I guess is the separation between her erotic and the erotic most people use. Lorde uses erotic in a way that I feel doesn’t mesh with most people’s definition of the word. While most of us would probably define erotic as sexualized, Lorde picks instead a portion of the erotic feeling. Lorde’s erotic has been called a lot of things by a lot of people, flow state, the zone, genius (by Emmerson) that said none of the other terms are really used in a sexual manner. First I think Lorde calling that state erotic works well, one of the ways to get to that place, and I assume one of the most universally experienced is through the “erotic”, not the physical sensation but the part of being with someone where it clicks, almost a separation from time. I really like how Lorde expands on this definition, because while it can be easiest to understand through action, like sports, or sex, that same feeling of momentum, where all you see is one long movement or a path, that same feeling is the feeling of creativity, and as corny as it sounds belief in yourself. Lorde uses this erotic to challenge the established order, which is great from that movement standpoint, in that state there aren’t so much obstacles as objects, and it helps get around challenges that would otherwise slow us down, and cultural expectations that keep us in the same place (which is also what makes anger so dangerous, at it’s worst it uses the same path.) The hardest part about getting there is often the belief that you can’t (or you know being hungry, tired, overworked, ect) but as Lorde said “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.” I have been very lucky in my life to grow up around many people who have created change for the world, for our country, and for themselves and one of the few unifying factors is that when they work on something they care about they go to a similar space. Not necessarily fully into the zone, but they all got to the point where they didn’t think of success or failure, but in movement, a set of actions that could accomplish something, one fluid line from here to there. When you get past expectation to that place a lot is possible, and because you care, a lot gets done. There is a lot of power in living in that place, in part because people like to follow those with confidence, in part from the flexibility that comes with that kind of focus. I would say more about the other portion of her erotic, the standard erotic part that’s also more a piece of empathy, but I’ve run out of space.

Marvel minority heroes

I agree with Lamb’s feeling that a lot of minority superheroes are copies of other better known characters and those that are not are often written in ways that don’t highlight their complexity. Most of my knowledge of superheroes comes from my reading of Marvel comics, and so my knowledge is limited, but this is a trend that I have noticed as well. There has been a tendency for writers to create interesting heroes of color and then when the next writer comes in they are rapidly simplified down to a few “core” elements that the new writer thinks are interesting or popular. Marvel in particular has been capitalizing off any sort of character popularity by giving them the BBC Sherlock treatment and turning them into flanderized caricatures. This often happens to minority heroes that people latch onto, after an interesting run filled with depth of character and nuance (that made them interesting in the first place) they are quickly cut down to a couple buzzword-y lines and some unnecessary quirks. One unfortunate example of this is Kamala Kahn (Ms. Marvel) in the Champions, Kamala is a really interesting character, her solo books show her flaws, her challenges, and her unrelenting commitment to making others lives better. At the same time outside of her solo title she has a tendency to get tokenized and broken down to a few irrelevant traits. She often appears in leadership roles but never feels like she has weight behind her. She leaves the Avengers because she doesn’t feel like they take care of people after their fights, but it doesn’t have the same impact as her disillusionment with Carol after Civil War II; in fact to many of her interactions with “adult” superheroes, just end up being an excuse to talk about her fan fiction. Kamala is held up as an ideal, but without the backing; she is the moral compass without reason or sacrifice. There is no best of us moment (https://www.reddit.com/r/marvelstudios/comments/4ygvkz/the_day_i_hear_cap_recite_these_words_to_spider/), no explanation for her actions, no moment where she shows how much she is willing to do to help others, instead we get quirks and cardboard innocent idealism and I feel like that really weakens the character in a way that doesn’t give respect to what Amanat started. I feel like a lot of this comes from a lack of diversity on the writing teams, part of the reason that there are so many white superheroes are there are so many white writers. At the end of the day the hero is supposed to be who you want to be, who you are on your best day, and lives with your flaws and your struggles. I think its intimidating for writers to come in and portray someone like Kamala who has her culture as such a integral part of her character, and hard for them to put themselves in her shoes to tell the nuanced emotional stories she deserves; instead they fall back on what they took away from her character that’s safe off the top of their head, nice, nerdy, infallible moral compass. Unfortunately without nuance there is no weight, without history there is no growth, so one characters of color are separated from the writer who got them right it can be a while before they become more than just cardboard cutouts of themselves.

To another theme of these articles, I don’t think that superheroes are always proactive and violent, and I think Spider-Man is a really good example of that. What makes Peter Parker special is his sacrifice, at the end of the day Batman and Tony Stark are billionaires, Captain America represents his country, Superman is invincible; but Peter has no money, barely any friends, no free time, and no one really likes or respects him. What makes Spider-Man a great character is that he doesn’t do it for himself, that he doesn’t feel like his job stops when he rescues the woman from the exploding car. One incredible snippet from a relatively recent Spider-Man run shows that Spidey even watches out for his villains (https://imgur.com/gallery/7N3Nz), hell for a while Spider-Man was a teacher (and tutored a kid who was a lookout for a robbery https://www.reddit.com/r/Spiderman/comments/9jd7sh/spiderman_is_a_good_dude_a_kid_who_was_a_lookout/), just recently he gave up his dream job and company to help others. Daredevil is a similar character, he has a complicated relationship with the justice system because he is a lawyer and will put the law before some of his own vigilante activities. I think these sorts of characters who focus more on the effects their actions have on society are in an interesting place to explore the stories and characters Lamb feels cannot be shown with characters like Superman.

On the Origins of Monsters

I thought Cohen had some good points, sources of monstrosity are often defined by culture, and monstrosity has often been used to “other” groups and justify violent acts against them. That said I feel he falls into a common academic trap; making an argument that sounds good and largely based on metaphor. By doing so he by extension oversimplifies and overcomplicates things at the same time. To begin we should first ask ourselves what we view as monstrous and why (otherwise it is easy to make monsters out of those who created the idea of monstrousness, and if we do that we can’t follow them down that rabbit hole.) Personally, I feel like monstrosity comes from a combination of physical fear and disgust or dislike of ambiguity. Physical fear is a relatively straightforward things are scary because they can hurt you. As I’m sure many of you agree this is very powerful for how simple of an idea it is and how glib I just put it, and is worth discussing further; at the same time I feel it is the easiest to understand, so on to the rest. Disgust is interesting, no matter how much we might hate it society is built on boundaries, not just limiting us in the things we know, but shaping what we would even consider. (Almost no one if anyone at all reads their books upside-down, even though all the letters are in the same order. You just have to read from the bottom right hand corner rather than the top left.) Culture then provides an at times necessary role, constraining what we think is “correct” or even consider possible, holding society in a set format so everyone can understand each other, and everyone is protected from each other. I think monstrosity is partly a tool, partly a source, and partly a byproduct of this effort. The fist part of this abstract monstrosity, is the abstract physical portion, or using monsters to scare people so they don’t get sick. For large swaths of human history it has been challenging to figure out what is dangerous, imagine if you didn’t know about germs and how they were transmitted, how would you tell people to avoid disease? Dead bodies are scary partly because the force you to face your own mortality, but also because the same stuff that decompose them will eat away at you. The Alien from Alien isn’t just scary because of its size claws and teeth, it looks like some possessed slime mold that will make you sick from being in the same room as it. You look at rates of STDs in parts of the world without sex-ed and access to birth control, while these are things that we expect to be around today (in theory) they haven’t always been, is it surprising then that sex and monstrosity are so closely linked? I think it could be argued that some of of the monstrosity that has been ascribed to women is related to an overextension of this “sickness” based use of monstrosity, after all in most cases blood coming out of your body or something growing inside of you is something to be avoided at all costs, and in other cases is a natural part of life. Evolution, gut instinct, and culture, aren’t always fast or smart enough to make that kind of division. I think it’s interesting that not only is the prominent “monster” in Monstress almost birthed from the protagonist’s arm, but also is the kind of dark tentacle-y mass that you would never want to find in your own body. The thing that makes it scary isn’t just the process or gore so much as the vulnerability and possible infection from being attacked by a bloody tentacle. You wouldn’t get that same feeling of fear mixed with revulsion that makes it monstrous if it was a bear arm (a bit less) or weapon (a lot less), so its not jut because of immediate physicality, but physical danger hidden in the unknown or perceived sickly. There is much more to be said about the other portion of the abstract part of monstocity, something that looks “wrong” or is unexpected, than I have space for here. That said I think is largely constructed rather than rooted in some kind of use, the concept of rules are largely meant to protect the group. While some of those rules are based off real things like informing people how to be healthy or physical protection of the group (and the individual) from others, the fact that culture and rules can be used bind people together and guide them makes rules ripe for exploitation. Once the system for guiding peoples opinion is in place, and because there are no clear boundaries on the limits culture it can be used, on accident or on purpose, to other groups of people for most any reason. To wrap up I thought that Cohen traded a focus on people and their motivations, for a focus on abstract ideas, and its that kind of abstraction that ironically allows for the corruption of monstrosity in the first place. When we fail to think of people as complex and merely reactionary we are unable to even get the chance to dissect their motivations, and by extension combat the systems they create.

* I should say for all my culture bashing I think culture and groups can give people a feeling of belonging and support that is really important and helpful. Every culture is different, and has evolved differently through time, with its own strengths and weaknesses. I don’t like groups, or like prescribing to others ideas of right and wrong without thinking through it myself. On the other hand, culture really is a glue that helps hold us all together, and where the line should be drawn is a decision for every individual and every group.

Thinking about other people when writing about yourself

The thing I found most challenging about writing an autobiographical web comic was finding a way to tell a story without explaining too much. I went into this comic focused on the general idea rather than the story, which made me feel like I ended up using pictures to accompany words, rather than pictures, with words. Without the story, there isn’t nearly as much weight to the comic itself.

In her paper Schlick spends a lot of time talking about intertextuality; for Fun Home in particular she takes the parts of the story apart and frames them in their literary references. We mentioned in class that many English departments who use Fun Home, teach it through its literary references, tying the character’s back to the stories they read.  We also talked about that this isn’t necessarily the point of Fun Home, that the book (which certainly leans heavily on allusion) has the ability to stand for itself as someone’s story, and overlooking the story for the references could miss the personal experience behind it. These references however do another piece in the confrontation of the greatest problem faced by any means of communication ever, actually communicating things, or having someone think about something the way you do, if only for an instant. While many readers (myself included) aren’t the most intrigued by her references if you have read them (and enjoyed them, and talked about them with your friends over lunch) they do help breakdown another barrier of identification between the reader and Bechdel, easing them into the mental space that she constructed to bring them along with her. While I have been spending most of this talking about literary references I think this idea of using tools to construct a mental space for the reader, or in other words, making others feel how you felt, is the central focus of many autobiographies (certainly for any autobiography that is not just concerned with lining up dates correctly.) I think the reason Barry and Bechdel are such great writers is because their decisions appear to ultimately be facing back to this idea. Bechdel in particular brings all elements of her form that she has control over to put the reader in a place where they can understand what she was saying, it’s not just the stories she chose, but the way her figures stand, the colors she uses, the references she makes, each trying to form a connection with the reader, each its own type of metaphor trying to put the thoughts and feelings that ran through her head into yours. Barry while less “refined” is after the same thing in her novel. Simple short stories relatable enough to feel and sink into, paired with grotesque yet storybook-like visuals gives the reader that feeling of exploration and anxiety of the teenage years where most of her stories took place. While Schlick takes apart Cicadas from One! Hundred! Demons! for all the straightforward x is like y metaphors, I think Barry’s true mastery comes from how she constructs a different kind of metaphor, building a scene that is like our lives but different. Taking all the times we have walked into a house with fruit on the table and adding a rope. Pulling the reader into to her mental space with what they know, and adding something different.

That’s all to say, I think I should have added more story in my autobiography, while most of it makes sense to me, I don’t think that I included enough interface for the reader. Maybe next week.