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October 24, 2010


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J. L. Bell

After I read Groenstein's book, I wondered if the translation added to the difficulties of understanding it. Which were powerful enough already.

Thanks for sharing the glimpse of R. C. Harvey at work.

My major question about comics criticism/analysis is whether it’s possible to do an adequate job verbally, or whether the medium demands a combination of words and pictures as examples. Which of course raises difficulties for the publishers of such work.


So does "metalepsis" count as jargon, given that R.C. Harvey has had since the 1st century CE to encounter it in Quintilian and look it up?

And if it is out of bounds, how _do_ the salt of the earth refer to the substitution of a metonym for a term which is itself a metonym? Or is it best to just avoid that whole "rhetorical terms" business when talking about comics?

As you well know, I think that for a very long time comics studies actually has had a very strong inclination to use language that is "open to readers, fans and critics" outside the academy--I've tried to do it myself whenever possible. Whether that discourse, taken as a whole, has been notably "academically rigorous" is another question.

In other fields of study, it seems to be a given that different levels of discourse, including the use of technical language and terms of art, are appropriate for different audiences and for different rhetorical situations. I've yet to grasp why the preferences and expectations of R.C. Harvey should constitute the outer boundary of discursive possibilities in comics studies.

Craig Fischer

JL, the question of whether it's possible in comics studies to do "an adequate job verbally" is a good one: frankly, it's what makes writing a comics blog so enjoyable, because I can add as many images as I want. We've also seen heavily-illustrated “coffee table” art books from Fantagraphics and Abrams, and more illustrations in books published by academic presses like Mississippi. (Love the color in both the Chris Ware anthology and Jose Alaniz’s KOMIKS.) I hope all this continues.

Rusty, I agree that "the use of technical language" is dependent on “different audiences and for different rhetorical situations." For me, a conference talk is a performative rhetorical situation where technical terms should be kept to a minimum; I find prose written-for-the-page hard to follow when squeezed into a rushed 20-minute spoken presentation. My formula for a conference paper: one central idea, stated as simply as possible and backed up with a little evidence, and finish. Call it simple (or simple-minded) if you want, but I save my elaboration for the questions I get after I deliver the paper, and for eventual publication.

Pape misread the audience, but I don't think it's his fault. On September 24, everyone signed up for the OSU Festival received an e-mail from one of the organizers, Julia McCafferty, that said the following about the festival's "Academic Perspectives" panels: "Academic Perspectives offers scholars an opportunity to present their comics research to other scholars. Their presentations will not necessarily be aimed at a general audience." Pape was expecting a more academic "rhetorical situation," and was blindsided by the unusual mix of academics, cartoonists and fans present for his talk.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't consider Harvey "the outer boundary of discursive possibilities in comics studies." Actually, I can't decide which is ruder, the bluntness of Harvey’s question, or the fact that (as I said in my post) he didn't bother to engage with Pape's interesting ideas AT ALL.

Readers, for a great example of Rusty writing about an important topic in a way "open to readers, fans and critics," please read (and re-read) his excellent post on the state of comics studies, posted last year here on TB.

Charles Hatfield

For the record, I thought Pape's presentation was very good despite its dependence on jargon. It was certainly one of the most stimulating papers of the day. There were other papers that day that also relied on jargon, but to less stimulating effect. Pape's presentation had a discernible thesis (if admittedly fogged a bit by the rush of presenting it in less than twenty minutes), provocative examples, a very well-prepared slideshow by way of evidence, and intriguing complexities that deserved more than Bob Harvey's tactless question.

The irony here is that Pape was discussing medium-specific aspects of comics, or, to be more precise, the ways in which comics are not other media, and this is an issue that Harvey himself has been very interested in. In his "The Art of the Comic Book," Harvey devotes a whole chapter to how comic art "is not the same as filmmaking," and Pape, although taking a different angle and using a very different sort of language, was talking about the same thing. So the two scholars did not have to be talking at cross-purposes.

Craig, your point is well taken: conference papers are a kind of rhetorical performance under severe limitations. Truth to tell, they constitute a separate genre from the written journal article. This is not a matter of jargon or no jargon, but of taking the time to present the work effectively. If you're going to present something that relies on jargon (as we did, Craig, at the Narrative conference in Cleveland), you need to gloss the term repeatedly, underscore your points very deliberately, and not be afraid of repetition.

Repeating yourself is usually a sin in academic prose, but it's not when you're delivering from a podium at a conference. That is, a little repetition is welcome: repetition of terms, using full proper nouns more often than pronouns, recapping, summing up--all rhetorical crutches that are less necessary in print but appreciated in spoken delivery.

The use of jargon sometimes cannot be avoided, and of course it's a drag to have to re-explain the jargon each time out; if you do that consistently, you cannot break any new ground because you'll have used up your time before you get to anything new. In such cases, handouts help, as do brief contextualizing remarks. Also, the power of projected images to make your points concrete should not be underestimated.

Pape's presentation used slideshow images effectively (both examples from Ortolani's comic and slides posing his basic terms and questions). His initial presentation of his research problem (in this case, about a self-reflexive comic that mimicked the performative nature of a live medium) was perhaps not as clear as it could have been, and some of the questions might have been better framed in this context if he had sidestepped some of the technical terms just for the sake of time. But, in fairness, he presented a complex thesis and a very diverting set of examples within less than twenty minutes.

Again, the conference paper is a distinct genre, a kind of performance, and it's one that very often doesn't work out. This has less to do with jargon and more to do with lack of training or experience in performance.

In any case, there will always be people in the room who (a) don't get it, and (b) resent the fact that they don't get it. This resentment tends to crop up because people feel that work they cannot readily understand is an indictment of their training or intelligence, and so they feel insulted. The problem is an acute one, but probably unavoidable.

IMO a presenter should make a reasonable effort to communicate her/his points to everyone in the room, but should not feel bad if they cannot reach and convince every single person. Yes, we should try to make our points clear in language that is not needlessly abstruse, but we shouldn't forgo the kinds of work we want to do just because that work entails wrestling with jargon. Sometimes you just have to do the heavy lifting and hope that you've helped your audience work with you.

Charles Hatfield

PS. Regarding the legendary "difficulty" of academic writing, I refer readers to Gerald Graff's "Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind" (Yale UP, 2004), in particular its section on "Communicative Disorders." Graff counsels academics to "dare to be reductive" and to make use of vernacular as well as "academic" language as needed. I think he frames the problem we are talking about very effectively.

Beth Davies-Stofka

So, not having been there, I don't have any idea what Bob Harvey meant, and this blog post sheds no light on that. For the sake of the more sarcastic of the comments here, Harvey holds a Ph.D. in English and is very well-read. I've enjoyed many wonderful lunches and outings with him, and he has directed me to any number of valuable studies of languages and literature, including and beyond the English language. I think I'd prefer to hear the criticism behind his question better articulated before judging. Meanwhile, I think Hatfield makes a number of very sane points here (and I'll add that Bob Harvey has expressed great respect and affection for Hatfield).


R.C. Harvey's antipathy toward academic discourse is well-known and of long standing. His position is most fully articulated in his Sept. 2002 Comics Journal article entitled "More New Historic Beginnings for Comics," a piece not inaccurately glossed by the editors in the table of contents as "why funnybook academics suck."

Harvey's credentials are very much to the point--he is undoubtedly an accomplished historian, and an educated and intelligent critic and reader of comics. He himself is willing to accept and to deploy some vocabulary and critical concepts that would seem to be quite elevated and sophisticated to everyday readers. However, he objects, sometimes vociferously, when his tolerance for academic discourse is exceeded.

My original question was a serious one--rhetorical terms like "metalepsis" are the classic example of specialized critical discourse. We might be able to assume that commonplace terms like "metaphor" or "alliteration" would not be considered "jargon" but merely the vocabulary of educated discourse. Perhaps "metonymy" would too. But what about "chiasmus"? Or "caesura"? Or "focalization"? Or "free indirect discourse"? Or a distinction between "interior monologue" and "stream of consciousness"? What, finally, is the principle that separates garden-variety "intellectual discourse" from "academic jargon"?

(I nearly wrote in my original post, "the expectations and preferences of _The Comics Journal_," but then I remembered Kenneth Smith. If that's the standard for rhetorical clarity, academics have nothing to worry about.)

Charles Hatfield


"So, not having been there, I don't have any idea what Bob Harvey meant, and this blog post sheds no light on that."

It was actually a bit difficult to know what Bob meant. It may be that he chose to respond to Pape's presentation because it was the one that interested him most. I believe he was trying to draw Pape out, into conversation. Unfortunately, it didn't work: Bob's question was so blunt, and so unspecific, that Pape could only seek to defend himself in the most general way (as indeed most any of us would have done).

Again, this was too bad, because there are certainly shared interests between the two.

I'd call the moment we're discussing the most awkward of that day. In a way, Bob may have been venting a pent-up frustration that a number of people in the room felt regarding the use of jargon in some of the presentations. Sadly, it just became an awkward, hanging moment, which is why I used the word "tactless" to describe it. I will say that I enjoyed talking to Bob later and would have liked to have talked to him even more.

I took Bob to task in the pages of TCJ for, I think, the very think Rusty mentions above. I disliked the way he took what I considered cheap shots (at some good, productive, meaningful work) solely on the basis of style, that is, because he didn't like the prose. I note that Bob and I do not discuss this when we see each other nowadays!

I met Bob Harvey in 1995 when we did a panel together at the Chicago CAC based on his book "The Art of the Funnies" and my review of same. So my comments have a tangled backstory. :)

FWIW, I don't think Craig's post does Harvey a disservice: that moment at OSU did happen as Craig describes it, and it really was an awkward, throat-clearing moment. Ahem!

Joseph Thomas


I really enjoyed your Worlds within Worlds essay, and appreciate the link. As Charles knows, I'm a longtime comics enthusiast, as well as an academic and poet, but I've feared entering into the world of rigorous comic "academic criticism," as I feel like a dilettante. You and Charles are great inspirations, though, and I appreciate the way much of your work acts as a kind of map, clearly laying out the terrain so well-travelled by precious critics and scholars of the area. I don't mind "jargon," and think that Rusty's points above about how one person's jargon is another person's standard vocabulary is important to keep in mind (the New Critics were accused of using jargon during their ascendancy, and now their vocabulary seems natural to most critics and academics).

What I find more intimidating than specialized vocabulary is my ignorance of the discourse, the salient arguments and texts that inform, sometimes invisibly, the writing of comics scholars I enjoy or find generative. Seems like there's always another "crucial" book one "ought" to know before responsibly digging into a research question. What I enjoy about the work you and Charles do is that you foreground the conversation in work, again, providing roadmaps for dilettantes like me.

Can't wait to get Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics, which I just ordered from Amazon. A fan of continental philosophy, I can't wait to dig into it.


Charles Hatfield

Nice to have your comments HERE too, Joseph! As for continental philosophy, well, I expect you may find that Groensteen is more engaged with the particular application of structuralism and semiotics to comics (that being a long European tradition) than with confronting post-structuralist philosophy. There is a specific trajectory to comics criticism in the semiological tradition that may, from the POV of contemporary theory as taught in English departments, seem anomalous, though to me it still seems fresh and important. My sense is that the rather specific trajectory of comics study has complicated if not impeded its engagement with what we tend to think of as "continental philosophy" these days.

OTOH, you may find that I'm dead wrong. I dunno!

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