Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Case for Russian Formalism

The Russian Formalist school of criticism has, for several decades now, been greatly discredited. There is good reason for this: at their worst, they totally ignored the role that the reader, society and history played, making claims, as Vladamir Propp made about fairy tales, that there is no difference between novels other than their use of the device.

Clearly, this is problematic. What differences there are stems from the culture that surrounds the work. It would be impossible to claim that the work is completely divorced from the place where it came.

That said, the claim that device (the form used, the structure of the work) and materials (the words and content) are inseparable when searching for meaning is not a baby that should be thrown out with the more asinine bathwater. There is something valuable to examining the device used.

An anology might help here: image that the material (the ideas) of an artists are people, and that the device (the structure of the work) is a building. Once the material is seen in the device, there becomes an order, a manageable collection the the material. That is not to say that anything is fixed; the material is people, milling about the device. But there is only so far that the material can wander. Even in the most architecturally postmodern building, there is a limit to where people can go; so it is true for literature: even in the works that most challenge their form, there is a limit to the pushing.

Taken without the device, though, you just have a group of people milling around, not going anywhere, wandering in free space.

To push the image even further, it begs the question of whether you can have people without a space? If the work building here is to stand for a space that occupies, then clearly there would never be a time when people just stand in open space. Even in a field, there are boundaries to where that field starts and stops.

In essence, you can never have materials without a device. Sometimes the device is less present (people in a field); other times, the device has a more intrusive meaning that requires the reader to notice (people standing in the Guggenheim Art Museum). Regardless, the device, the place where the material is found, needs critical attention.

The immediate problem here, though is defining these devices. Since Structuralism, there has been a constant attack on definitional arguments, and some of this comes with good reason. A definition to tightly wound would limit the number of works, especially those that experiment with the form. In this post-structuralist, postmodernist, deconstructionist era, the definition needs to be able to stretch around those prime examples, as well as the more experimental version, but still say something that is worthwhile.

Here again, it might help to re-imagine the construction of genres. Often times people want to claim a genre exists separate of the work (see my note on Genre Criticism in Comic below), and this approach will always fall apart under scrutiny. Instead, the critic should build the genre from the work upwards. From the works, what family similarities can be found.

Here is where (Russian) Formalism becomes helpful as a means of talking about genre. The formalist were interested in finding the smallest bits of structural meaning (signs of meaning). These small parts could be collected as genre resemblances.

For example, with long and short form comics, what sort of similarities exist in the device? Clearly, short-form comics tends to be published in other mediums, such as a newspaper, comic anthology or magazine. Long-form comics are free-standing publications. That device difference is important to distinguish. If we understand everything to be a sign, the sign of the production are clearly different, and thus need examination. There are also narratological elements that are inherent in the devices, such as type of diegetic. Most comics tend to be heterodiegetic, in that the narrator is completely absent from the narrative. There are a few ways to bring the narrator into the narrative, but these methods require more space than the short-form comic is allowed. Because of this, the narrative type tends to be strictly heterodiegetic for short from comics, while long-form comics can move between hetero- and homodiegetic narrative instances. This is not to say that all long-form comic blend the diegetics, but long-form comics have the space to do so.

There is more to say here, but my mind is piling up with ideas, so I will stop now. More later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Word on Writing

Approaching this dissertation was initially terrifying. Will described it as, simply, 100,000 words. Some perspective on that number, which made my head go numb: a double-space page typed in Times New Roman, size 12, with the margins at an inch will hold roughly 300 to 350 words. Even if I write only in small words, cramming 350 per page, this dissertation will be about 280 - 300 pages. To further put this into perspective: the longest sustained piece that I have written in my life was 22 pages, or roughly 5,000 to 7,000 words.

Having said that, I am not sure I have ever written 100,000 words in my life. Maybe if I compile all the short and long papers written between 1998 (the start of my undergraduate career) and now, I would be close, but not too much more.

As I sat in my room, mulling this over, I had to change my pants often, leaving the window open. Oh that, I say to my disgusted roommates, I don't know why my room smells like shit.

The sheer amount of time it was going to take to write more than I have ever written cumulatively was baffling. I honestly didn't think I would even know how to set on the path of writing anything approaching that long. Luckily, Will is a smarter man than I am.

He asked me first to read something about genre theory and just review it. This is a waste of my time, I thought. I should be reading all these great books about comics I have. I read the book (most of it) and wrote the review, noting the problems with genre theory. Will liked it, said my review voice was good (which I feel is slightly better than saying, you are really good at not presenting original ideas; a better backhanded compliment there is not), and sent me home to write a paper about how genre theory mixes with comics.

This paper I liked a little more as it got me to think about what I was doing, though my comic studies books were collecting dust, getting lonely. Nonetheless, 10 pages later, and it looked like I had the beginning of an intro, a tiny bit of introductory primordial ooze brewing something longer, and more interesting. Will and I discussed it; read: Will sat down with a chisel and a hammer, and began asking questions while whittling down what I considered to be an airtight argument. He again, sent me home to revise this, adding a little more to it, expanding sections, and trying to add something about narrative theory.

I have begun expanding some sections, and incredibly, I have written 15 pages and some change (4,600 words). This chapter, if it works, will nicely introduce all my key concepts, establish a baseline for my criticism, and the genres definitions I will use. All in four weeks. Finally, I got to use some of my cool comics criticism books, and feel a little better on that end.

So, in the manner of so many 80's sitcoms, cue the slow, tinkling piano music: today I learned a valuable lesson. Not just in humility, facing the fact that I don't know everything about everything; more than that I learned the value to slow, steady prewriting and continuous revision. See, before this, I was a single draft writer, never being able to put words on the page until I was certain I had read everything I needed to, had all my ideas, and could bang out 10 pages in a few hours. Now, I can see that I need to let my ideas incubate, that I need to write before I lose the good ideas I had early, and that I don't, in fact, know everything about everything.