18 March 2015

ExplodingCanon: Giddens in using-comics-in-academic-research-shocker!

I had a very interesting experience on 11 March 2015 presenting some of my work on Batman at the British Society of Criminology seminar series at the LSE Mannheim Centre. The paper was an aesthetic analysis of Morrison and McKean's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and used this Batman graphic novel to explore the limits of rationality when faced with the complexity, messiness and phenomenal dimensions of life. In outline, my analysis read Batman as a metaphor for this division between rational order and the chaos of life that exceeds rational knowledge, with Batman on the one hand being a rational detective, and on the other being fuelled by a deep, phenomenal pain. I worked through Morrison and McKean's narrative, which is layered with various symbolic orders and frames this over-arching divide in terms of Batman's navigation of his own unconscious (facing the demons that threaten the rational order of his fight for justice and his attempts to quell the madness of his own mind and the disorder of Gotham's streets). Ultimately, Batman faces his inner dragon and emerges stronger, more sane. This I read as a metaphor for the problematic denial of that which remains outside rational attempts to encode or 'know about' the world, including those of rational law and bureaucratic criminal justice—a denial we need to face in order to produce 'stronger' knowledge that is aware of its epistemological grounding, origins and limits.

OK, so perhaps not your typical criminological fare, but not exactly an unknown area of engagement. There have been a number of books in recent years examining the knowledge of criminology (such as this, and this), not to mention legal knowledge (need I mention this, or this). With the rise of sub-disciplines such as cultural criminology and cultural legal studies, this kind of work is highly topical and has wide relevance. The use of cultural products, arts, humanities, etc, to explore ideas around law, justice, crime and morality is actually quite a large area of research, and one that seeks to add cultural insight to orthodox knowledge, and challenge traditional boundaries and forms of knowing. And need I mention the network of some 30 plus academics looking precisely at comics and law/justice? Or thisthisthis, and this?

At the Mannheim Centre, this kind of research seemed to either unheard of, ignored, or rejected, when, after presenting my paper, I was bombarded with a very rigorous set of questions and critical comments. Things like (and I'm paraphrasing here), 1) 'why are you looking at Batman and not just sociological theory?', 2) 'this is a comic, and one that doesn't reflect the realities of crime', 3) 'Arkham Asylum is not an accurate representation of mental health services or patients', 4) 'what about the vigilantism angle?', 5) 'describing Batman and/or his world and/or his enemies as 'dark' is problematically insensitive to issues of race', and 6) 'isn't this all too American'.

1) I was not looking at sociological theory because I was engaging with the rich philosophical tradition of epistemology and aesthetics, stepping back and asking questions about the limits of rational knowledge. Engaging with aesthetic and cultural products (like Batman) is a really insightful and critical way of examining this limit, and actually takes the argument seriously that there are different orders of knowledge and that we need to be critical of where our 'true' or 'dominant' knowledge comes from. As a comic, Arkham Asylum actually models many of the epistemological complexities involved in these issues (as I explain of comics generally here). 2/3) Yes, comics like this aren't 'real', but I'm not making an empirical argument about representation, but a philosophical one about knowledge, reading comics as an alternative discourse (I can't count the number of times I said 'symbolic of' and 'a metaphor for' when presenting my paper). I'm not talking about representation, but comics as philosophy. 4) Yes, Batman is a vigilante, but I was going beyond that typical reading. I have engaged with those issues elsewhere (as I have issues of violence and natural law). 5) I wasn't discussing race because I was discussing epistemology. Yes, knowledge is racially constructed, as well as being gendered and classed, but I wasn't examining the sociological processes of production, but rather the philosophical dimensions of the limits of that dominant way of knowing we call rationality and reason. Terms like 'dark' may not be neutral, but no terms are. Batman is dark, he is dressed in black, he does inhabit the shadows—does that make him racially loaded? (I was wearing a black shirt, too, but didn't ask whether that had racial connotations). Yes, race (and gender) are not neutral, and we are all 'raced' and 'gendered' in some way, but Arkham Asylum is not about race; it is explicitly about the wider conflict between reason and unreason. I took particular offence at this set of questions, because it seemed to be suggesting that by not discussing race I was in some way racist—as if it was offensive to give a paper that didn't engage with race in some way. There were many other issues I didn't engage with, too, such as Batman's age (we are all 'aged') or sexuality (hetero/homo sexual etc are not neutral terms), but critical questions about ageing and how we construct sexualities etc were not raised... 6) Grant Morrison is Scottish, Dave McKean is English. Knowledge is produced all over the world. Most of the philosophical theory I was relying on is in the 'continental' tradition.

It was a shame we didn't get to discuss the substantive arguments of my paper in more detail. There were some interesting questions about my actual analysis, but a lot of the time seemed to be spent getting over the fact a) I was talking about Batman qua juvenile, low art (ignorant of the rich cultural history of comics generally and the horrific complexity of Arkham Asylum in particular, a complexity I spent the paper discussing in relation to criminal justice bureaucracy), and b) I wasn't talking about representation, but using comics as discourse. The second point is perhaps more part of my substantive argument anyway, to do with my particular approach, but the first one was a real shock in this era of cultural criminology and cultural legal studies, and the massive tradition of critical theory around aesthetics and epistemology--not to mention the push more and more towards needing to be undertaking interdisciplinary research.

This kind of response, in many ways, speaks to exactly the point I was making in my paper, about the limited and particular nature of rational knowledge and the issues raised when we face those limits and the ‘threat’ to our rational order that those things outside it (the aesthetic, the emotional, the symbolic, the visual) represent. By focusing on issues such as why I was talking about a Batman comic, or not appreciating the metaphysical and epistemological level of my reading (rather than being the familiar one of representative/content analysis), it felt that my point was being made for me: that orthodox knowledge has its own particular priorities and forms, and that alternative orders of understanding, or forms of knowledge production, are seen to destabilise that orthodoxy and are thus approached as a threat. But by approaching these aesthetic knowledges as a threat, and thus denying or discounting them, the insights they offer around the limits of rationality and how we know about the world are lost. Failing to see beyond Batman's mask, his superficial appearance as an emanation of popular culture to be denigrated and not taken too seriously, fails precisely to venture beyond the rational mask of knowledge and engage more meaningfully with the fluidity of life in its phenomenal, ineffable fullness.

A copy of my controversial paper can be found here.

This post has been reblogged from ExplodingCanon.