The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett

By Spencer Cawein Pate

When Bill Ectric first emailed to ask me if I was interested in contributing an essay to a Steve Aylett nonfiction tribute anthology / festschrift he was editing, I knew immediately that I would a) enthusiastically accept his offer, since Aylett is one of my favorite writers, and b) write about the influence of The Fall–a mutual favorite band–on Aylett’s work.

Now that Bill’s excellent Steve Aylett: A Critical Anthology (which is co-edited by D. Harlan Wilson, and which includes pieces from such literary luminaries as Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock) has just been published, I’m proud to present the opening two paragraphs of my essay, “The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett.” Anyone interested in satire, cult fiction, and cult music should check out the book! (Tony Lee and John Oakes’ contributions are particularly good, too.)

The Wonderful and Frightening Worlds of Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett

“The difference between you and us is that we have brains”

–From “Intro” [Totale’s Turns] by The Fall

When we first encounter a writer as original as Steve Aylett, or as original as the character Jeff Lint in Aylett’s eponymous novel, it seems as though we cannot help but attempt to territorialize that writer’s imagination, to annex it to what we already know and understand. For example, when Lint‘s laziest reviewers noticed the novel’s superficial parallels and allusions to the life of Philip K. Dick, they automatically assumed it was intended as a roman à clef and proceeded to criticize it on this basis…notwithstanding Aylett’s assertions to the contrary in several interviews. (To be fair, the book may have been marketed misleadingly in this regard.)

But while Jeff Lint was not intended to be a thinly-disguised Philip K. Dick, I do think Aylett may have had other models and analogues in mind—namely, Mark E. Smith (or as fans call him, MES), the lead singer, lyricist, and sole constant member of that British post-punk institution, The Fall. I certainly do not mean to suggest that Lint was implicitly based upon MES’s colorful life, only to assert that his contrarian persona and distinctive approach to cultural criticism have strongly informed the satirical work of Steve Aylett and, by extension, that of Jeff Lint. My intention in writing this essay is thus not to find and catalogue every instance in Aylett’s fiction where he alludes to The Fall (although as an avowed fan, Aylett places many such references throughout his oeuvre), but rather to delineate and compare the satirical currents in MES and Aylett’s idiosyncratic bodies of work.

The world of art needs people like Mark E. Smith and Steve Aylett (or, for that matter, like Jeff Lint) to keep it honest, to save it from complacency. While their idiosyncratic worlds may initially seem frightening to the uninitiated, their audience knows that they are also wonderful. I think I can speak for all of Aylett’s fans when I say that we are profoundly grateful for the presence of his books in our lives. At its best, satire is as constructive of imaginative possibilities as it is destructive of established orders; it teaches us how we can “step sideways” from the world, as Mark E. Smith once put it. Underneath the grotesquerie, satire can represent the fraught, beleaguered defense of what is best in us: reason and creativity and humor, friendship and kindness and love: the ideals and practices that constitute sanity itself.

Posted in literature, music | 1 Comment

Another Book by Paul Murray

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Ever since I read the first two novels by the wonderful Irish writer Paul Murray in 2011 (about which I previously wrote a brief essay), I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book. Thankfully, The Mark and the Void finally arrived on American shores in fall 2015, and I read it over winter break.

While Skippy Dies remains my favorite of Murray’s novels, The Mark and the Void might be his most ambitious and sophisticated work to date (even if the comedy occasionally verges on the overly broad), in that it’s one of a select few novels that not only engages with the complexities and contradictions of late capitalism, but also reflects that struggle to represent that which we cannot access or understand on the level of literary form. (The only comparable novel I can recall is William Gaddis’ 1975 masterpiece J R, to which The Mark and the Void is a worthy successor.) The metafictional frame story (concerning a frustrated, penurious, and none-too-bright novelist, also named Paul, who is shadowing Claude Martingale–a Frenchman who works at an Irish investment bank during the meltdown of 2008, closely paralleling the actual history of Ireland during this period–purportedly as part of the research process for his next book, but in reality as an attempted criminal plot to figure out how to rob the bank, which in turn devolves into a number of other harebrained business schemes) is more than just a clever but meaningless postmodern conceit. Rather, it serves as a running commentary on the representational difficulty with which artists are faced when they attempt to find the human drama in bureaucratic structures, an environment that effaces the historical and geographic specificity of both character and setting: non-people in non-places. And as with fiction, the capitalist ideology of investment banking has a curiously undefined ontological status; while it lacks embodied existence or the fullness of being per se, it nevertheless possesses uncannily persistent material effects / affects upon the real world, which we might call the “force of the fake.”

The madcap narrative resists easy summation, spiraling into digressions about the anthropology and political economy of debt and social class, the nature of the global financial crisis and its social costs, the cultural and sexual politics of banking, the absurdities of contemporary literature and publishing, the desire for authentic connection in the loneliness of the internet age, and post-structural philosophy and abstract art, but ultimately the book’s title–which ostensibly refers to a valuable painting that drives part of the plot–is best understood as a pun: it’s about the ethical void at the heart of capitalism and the marks who are duped into falling for its con games. Like the nonfiction books on the financial crisis by Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis (or the film based on Lewis’ The Big Short), it manages to educate and entertain the reader simultaneously, puncturing the myths of late capitalism. But because of Murray’s great facility with character and dialogue, The Mark and the Void is both uproariously funny (although often in a bleak and all-too-plausible fashion) and deeply serious and empathetic as it plays with the dichotomies between fiction and life, haves and have-nots. Its slingshot ending is as unexpected and delightful as anything I’ve read in a long time.

If there is a flaw with the book, it lies in the fact that the fruits of Murray’s research sometimes seem a little too obvious and on-the-nose in the text. I read it almost back-to-back with David Graeber’s latest collection of essays on bureaucracy, stupidity, and violence, The Utopia of Rules–the implicit dialogue between the two works greatly enhanced the experience!–and it was immediately apparent to me that Murray had seriously studied Graeber’s previous monograph, Debt (which interviews with Murray later borne out). For this reviewer, there were too many expository passages on the subject of money, credit, and debt that were not as well-integrated into the narrative as they could have been, as with, say, the many digressions of Skippy Dies. (Of course, readers who are not already familiar with Graeber’s work may not find this to be the case at all.) Other bits recall the themes and concepts explored by thinkers like Marc Auge, Jean Baudrillard, Franco Berardi, Guy Debord, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, Marcel Mauss, and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, but these allusions are mostly accomplished with stylistic elegance and a lightness of touch. Murray nevertheless deserves commendation for engaging so thoughtfully and thoroughly with ideas from modern anthropology, philosophy, and political economy, and as a result, The Mark and the Void feels directly and uniquely relevant to the present situation. Indeed, we might call it the first great post-Occupy Movement novel! On the level of both content and form, Paul Murray is dragging the classic social novel into the harsh light of twenty-first century realities.

Posted in literature | Leave a comment

Recommended Music 2015

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[see also: 20092010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016]

1. Have You in My Wilderness–Julia Holter

  • From Here to Ear–Céleste Boursier-Mougenot
  • f(x)–Carter Tutti Void
  • Three Exercises–Devin DiSanto & Nick Hoffman
  • Kahraba–EEK
  • Elaenia–Floating Points
  • Morning / Evening–Four Tet
  • St. Louis Friday, Brussels Saturday, Houston Thursday, & Los Angeles SaturdayJandek
  • Cardinal–Philip Jeck
  • Amorphous Spores–Takahiro Kawaguchi & Utah Kawasaki
  • Schwarze Riesenfalter–Graham Lambkin & Michael Pisaro
  • Edition 1–King Midas Sound & Fennesz
  • Parazoan Mapping–Eric La Casa & Taku Unami
  • Fantasy Empire–Lightning Bolt
  • Four Forms–Rie Nakajima
  • Vertigo–The Necks
  • Kannon–Sunn O)))
  • No. 3–Christina Vantzou
Posted in music | Leave a comment

An Interview with Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman’s Three Exercises–released by one of my very favorite record labels, Erstwhile–is one of the most beguiling albums I’ve listened to in 2015. An auditory trace or palimpsest of an artistic happening (involving ping pong balls, cardboard boxes, duct tape, basketballs, and children’s board games, processed by stochastic electronics and obliquely commented on by spectators) that was recorded in an elementary school gymnasium, Three Exercises is both strikingly innovative in the field of electroacoustic music and skewed and oddly endearing as a portrait of artistic collaboration and performance. I decided to interview Devin and Nick to learn more about how they crafted this totally unique album.

SCP: First of all, I was wondering why you chose to record this album in a school gym as opposed to any other kind of public space. Was it merely out of necessity / availability, or was there a deeper resonance there? I ask because I found parts of the album to have a nostalgic cast to them; something about the sounds and acoustics immediately evoked the experience of being a child in elementary school, through a Proustian kind of involuntary memory.

NH: A large, resonant space that is usually associated with bad acoustics–it was Devin’s suggestion, and I accepted the challenge.

DD: I wanted to record in a distinct space that would work well thematically with the different projects, testing, and games that we would be doing. I normally don’t like recording in really reverberant spaces, but it seemed like a worthwhile challenge to make it work.

SCP: What were the circumstances that led to you two collaborating? How easy or difficult was it to meld your different sensibilities? Erstwhile’s Jon Abbey is known for selecting and introducing pairs of musicians in order to produce novel duo improv situations, but I wasn’t sure if either of you had met or worked together before.

NH: We had never met or worked together before; it was Jon’s idea. Fortunately, we had a lot of time beforehand to talk about it and plan things out, so when we actually met it wasn’t difficult to start working. I think we’re both somewhat resistant to free improvisation, so it was necessary to have some kind of plan ahead of time.

DD: I’d been aware of Nick’s music and his label, Pilgrim Talk, for quite a while. He’s released, and been a part of several interesting conceptually based recordings that I really like (Noise without Tears, Cockroach Boy). I figured he would be a good person to work with and would be open to trying new things.

SCP: Was the Fluxus art movement, with its emphasis on indeterminacy, spontaneity, performativity, participation, and DIY ethics / aesthetics (including the use of very mundane and banal materials), an influence on how you conceived of this recording, or on your work in general? In particular, I found myself thinking of Allan Kaprow’s writings on “concrete art” and descriptions I’ve read of his “happenings.”

NH: I first encountered Fluxus at an impressionable age, so I’ve probably internalized some of those ideals (and yes, of course, preposterous DIY ethics that can only be doomed to failure). Even if some of it looks silly now, there’s something really endearing and sweet about the whole thing. I’m still a big fan of Yoko Ono; her book, Grapefruit, is a personal favorite. Many of the qualities you mention are present on Three Exercises.

DD: Fluxus definitely had an impact on me at a certain point, especially works by Giuseppe Chiari (La Strada) and Mieko Shiomi (Spacial Poem No.7). Now it is more of a general influence among others in the area of experimental music / interdisciplinary art. It wasn’t really a direct influence on the making of the recording or something that Nick and I discussed while making it. For me, the use of banal / everyday materials and actions doesn’t come from any specific reference or influence, as it is a fairly common theme running through different films, music and art that I’m interested in. For performances and recordings I often gravitate toward using office supplies, and shipping, industrial and packing materials both for the visual and sonic qualities as well as the functional aspects. I do enjoy Kaprow’s writings though, especially the two Education of the Un-Artist pieces. That spirit has probably rubbed off quite a bit.

SCP: I’m interested in whether you were inspired by some of the recent developments in improvised music, such as the noisy, chaotic systems of the South Korean improv scene or perhaps the very quiet performances and environmental sounds of the Wandelweiser group. Was this the case?

NH: There is a lot of great music coming out of Seoul, and it’s probably fair to say that the musicians involved with the Balloon & Needle and Manual labels influenced me. Devin and I both performed at Dotolim this year, and the scene there is still improbably vibrant and interesting. Wandelweiser is, I think, the opposite of what I’m doing. If the Wandelweiser composers take silence as a starting point, I take noise as a starting point.

DD: I studied with Michael Pisaro when I briefly attended CalArts so that certainly helped shape the way I approach making sound. I enjoy the music from both of these areas, but the primary influence for me, and common link between the Wandelweiser composers and the musicians in Seoul, is the approach, or attitude toward recording associated with them (e.g., Becoming Typewriter, Un Lieu Pour Être Deux). Allowing a space, and the events that take place within / around it to be a presence that is as significant as the performers in the room and the actions they are carrying out, is an intriguing idea, and one that I’ve tried to explore further. What I’m interested in most in relation to this idea is the sound of a situation, and presenting events that occur within the realm of possibility that helps define and characterize that space. The theme and context of the performance, and the different materials involved hopefully frames and provides a character to this sense of potential. Treating sound in a way that reflects this idea is important to me, and was something that I was sensitive to when putting the recording together.

SCP: I also thought that Three Exercises made for an interesting companion piece to some other recent releases on Erstwhile: Graham Lambkin and Keith Rowe’s Making A (not to mention Lambkin’s trilogy in collaboration with Jason Lescalleet) and Eric La Casa and Taku Unami’s Parazoan Mapping, all of which deal with the auditory traces of everyday events and objects. Three Exercises comes packaged with photos hinting at the processes of its production, and of course the album comments on its own creation through the observations of your chosen interlocutors. But the actual “games” you’re playing remain somewhat opaque. At times I felt baffled and wished I could watch a video of what was going on, but ultimately I’m grateful that the focus was placed on the sounds rather than their sources. Did you want to force the listener to use his or her imagination by leaving so many elements mysterious and anonymous, or would you care to elaborate on your methods?

NH: Prior to recording, we talked a lot about transparency. A lot of so-called experimental music cloaks itself in this kind of phony mysticism or ends up being crushed by its own sense of preciousness. We really wanted to avoid that and just say, “here’s what we’re doing.” So, the observers / writers are there telling the listener exactly what’s going on–it’s essentially a real-time commentary on the music. It was pretty awkward while it was happening–two people taking notes into tape recorders, just sitting there watching us–but their recordings ended up sounding great. Regarding methods: my role on this album is similar to that of an accompanist. You could compare it to the role of an organist during a church service.

DD: I wanted to make a recording that would allow someone to listen to it in multiple ways or from different perspectives, as though it were a music composition, a field recording, a news broadcast, or a mixture of these and maybe more. I wanted to find a balance between a listening experience that is indexical, or oriented around cause and effect in terms of understanding a sound as the result of a specific action with a visual reference, and one that results from the entirety of a sonic environment with its sound-transmitting and modifying elements. I think if a listener is made aware of the conditions of the event taking place, the objects and materials involved, and the space in which they are being used, then deciphering what is occurring hopefully becomes secondary or equal to listening solely to the sonic elements.

SCP: Moreover, are the rules or tasks you set up significant in and of themselves, or are they merely means to an end? In other words, does the resulting album (with its post-production) have primacy as an objet d’art over the absent center of its live, sensory performance, or is it merely an audio vérité document of the multimedia ritual “happening,” which now belongs to the past and is consigned only to the memory of its participants?

NH: It is not a document in any meaningful sense of the word. Although no effects were added and the post-production work is relatively minimal, what you hear on the album is radically different from what happened in the space. From the outset, I wanted it to be very clear that we were creating an audio recording (that would ultimately end up on a CD), and that essentially we would be creating acousmatic music. To answer your first question: the sound is the only thing that matters to me.

DD: For me the tasks / rules and the functions they serve are significant because they were used to structure the recording and provide a context for the sounds being created. The incidental sounds of these activities are also the types of sounds that interest me the most. I think it’s possible for a fairly dedicated listener to piece together the different activities that took place, though I really don’t think it’s necessary. I read a review recently that put it together pretty closely. Overall I agree with Nick. The end result is not documentation of what took place. It is a sound recording that is a reduced and reassembled version and is something entirely different.

SCP: The album contains some very surprising shifts in volume dynamics and scale. How were the sounds you generated modified and recorded in real time, as the liner notes refer to “stochastic electronics”?

NH: Most of my sounds were synthesized in real-time by a computer–in general I avoid using pre-recorded samples. A lot of the electronic sounds you hear are being generated by stochastic oscillators which were programmed in accordance with Iannis Xenakis’ concept of dynamic stochastic synthesis. In short, this means that the output is not completely predictable, but based instead on various mathematical probabilities. The computer was connected to a PA system in the gym with the output played back at high volume. This had the effect of “warming up” the computer tones. Certain other sounds are reacting–via amplitude tracking–to acoustic sounds within the gym itself. It was kind of a nightmare setting it up.

SCP: Do you find that there are political dimensions to your practice of collaboration and participation in improvisation? It seems that there is a radical, egalitarian democracy inherent in how you make and treat sounds as well–they are set free to speak for themselves. It’s very punk, in a way.

NH: That might be an illusion. I’m not shy about eliminating sounds I don’t like (and there are many!). Again, the events were planned out pretty carefully, so yes sounds were allowed to occur more or less naturally, but only within the parameters we had determined in advance. In addition, there are many edits on Three Exercises. I guess there will always be politics in a collaborative situation. A duo is perfect in that it implies a 50/50 balance.

DD: I’m not much of an improviser so I don’t have much insight into that dynamic. Nick has much more experience in that area. In terms of our collaboration, Nick is a really flexible musician and was great to work with. We were able to talk quite a bit and exchange / refine ideas before we met to make the recording.

SCP: Lastly, Three Exercises is so refreshing for its humor, playfulness, and lack of pretension; it confuses the categories of composer and performer, professional and amateur, field recording and composition, sound and noise. What was the subjective experience of making it like?

NH: It was fun. A lot of recording sessions feel rushed for various reasons: someone is only in town for the afternoon, the studio is expensive, people want to get drunk, etc. This wasn’t like that at all. We had two full days in the gym so we were able to try different things out, make adjustments, and then just record until we got it right. It felt really luxurious.

DD: It was a great experience. I had fun playing basketball when we weren’t recording.

Posted in interviews, music | Leave a comment

Math Pedagogy in Plato’s Republic

By Spencer Cawein Pate

This summer, I enrolled in a doctoral seminar centered on the standardization and corporatization of the curriculum in public schools. Our professor, Dr. Tom Poetter, had an ambitious goal for the class: to collectively write and produce a book on the course subject, drawing upon our own experiences and curriculum theorist William Pinar’s concept of currere, within a short and intense span of four weeks.

The book that resulted, Was Someone Mean to You Today?: The Impact of Standardization, Corporatization, and High-Stakes Testing on Students, Teachers, Communities, Schools, and Democracy, has just been published by Van-Griner. It’s an unusual and interesting volume: instead of each contributor authoring a separate chapter, we worked as teams to co-author chapters by weaving together previously-submitted essays and reflections on a common theme. I was in charge of the chapter on rhetoric, which contains three pieces of mine in addition to the chapter’s conclusion: a substantial exploration of the Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic foundations of currere, a strategic discussion of George Lakoff’s idea of linguistic reframing vs. Corey Robin’s advocacy for a “politics of freedom,” and finally a personal narrative about perennialist values in the math classroom. I would like to present a special expanded version of this last piece here, as I think it’s my most succinct and elegant statement of my educational philosophy and practice:

In the fall of 2014, I took a philosophy course centered on Plato’s Republic. Several books of the Republic concern the question of education in the author’s ideal society, and as a former middle school math teacher, I was delighted by how Plato places mathematics at the center of his educational philosophy. Plato, of course, would be an educational perennialist, concerned with passing down timeless / universal / transcendent truths to a new generation. Mathematics and geometry, which in Plato’s view are the very definition of archetypal forms (527b5: “it is knowledge of what always is, not of something that comes to be and passes away”), are ideal for this pedagogy, so long as they remain refined and abstract, divorced from any kind of measurement: “for the sake of knowledge rather than trade” (525d1-2). He goes on to argue the following:

“Then it would be appropriate, Glaucon, to prescribe this subject in our legislation and to persuade those who are going to take part in the greatest things in the city to go in for calculation and take it up, not as laymen do, but staying with it until they reach the point at which they see the nature of the numbers by means of understanding itself; not like tradesmen and retailers, caring about it for the sake of buying and selling, but for the sake of war and for ease in turning the soul itself around from becoming to truth and being. […] It gives the soul a strong lead upward and compels it to discuss the numbers themselves, never permitting anyone to propose for discussion numbers attached to visible or tangible bodies.” (525b11-d7)

Furthermore, the process of learning mathematics models the faculties or virtues of reason and logic that Plato attributes to the philosopher-kings of his ideal city: “More than anything else, then, we must require the inhabitants of your beautiful city not to neglect geometry in any way, since even its byproducts are not insignificant. […] And in addition, when it comes to being better able to pick up any subject, we surely know there is a world of difference between someone with a grasp of geometry and someone without one” (527c1-8). It exercises the mind in the same way physical training strengthens the body: 

“Now, have you ever noticed that those who are naturally quick at calculation are also naturally quick in all subjects, so to speak, and that those who are slow, if they are educated and exercised in it, even if they are benefited in no other way, nonetheless improve and become generally sharper than they were? […] Moreover, I do not think you will easily find many subjects that are harder to learn or practice than it. For all these reasons, then, the subject is not to be neglected. On the contrary, the very best natures must be educated in it.” (526b4-c5)

When I taught math, I would sometimes find myself being asked the inevitable questions by my students: “Why do we have to learn this? When am I going to use this in the real world?” The answers that math teachers typically default to are: “You will use math in your future job.” or “You need to learn math so you can get a good job in the future.” I find both of these answers to be unsatisfying and inaccurate; while many jobs (and everyday life itself, particularly in matters of finance) do involve more math than we often think, some jobs do not, and those that do will not necessarily involve all of the areas of mathematics that are commonly taught (because of specialization). And of course, when one answers with reference to jobs, students will immediately challenge you to specifically describe how the math they’re currently learning will be useful and relevant to a particular career, which is not always easily done.

Moreover, I especially dislike the corporatization and subordination of math education to the technical ends of capital, of being able to “compete in the global economy.” The use-value of mathematics infinitely exceeds its exchange-value; indeed, the study of mathematics doesn’t have to have a reason or a purpose: I believe that the contemplation of math, much like the contemplation of art, is its own reward.  So when students asked me those above questions, I tried to sidestep this trap by reframing what the questions presuppose. I would answer as follows:

“We should study and appreciate math for several reasons:

“1. Because math is beautiful and fascinating in its own right.

“2. Because math teaches us to reason, to think critically and logically, and in doing so, it makes us better and more literate citizens who can participate in a democratic society.

“3. Because math helps us to investigate and solve real-world problems and phenomena.

“4. Because math is connected to every other subject imaginable: science, history, economics, even art and music.”

And only after I listed those four reasons would I cite the fifth–to get a good and enjoyable job someday.

I would like to think that this is a rationale for mathematics education of which Plato would have basically approved. While doubtlessly he would not agree with my progressive pedagogical inclinations, my educational values are perennialist, like his own. Those eternal verities act as a bulwark against the corporatization of mathematics education (often under the guise of STEM), and they can help us to reframe what is considered normative or commonsensical in schooling. We teach and learn math not to serve the interests of capital, but rather for both public and private good.

Finally, I should note that seventh graders generally don’t find my answer any more satisfying than the default one. But we should expect this–after all, they’re still just middle schoolers. However, I believe that an intellectually honest if unconvincing answer is superior to a fundamentally dishonest and ethically suspect answer that is even less convincing. Who knows? Maybe I’ve planted seeds that, in the fullness of time, will flower and bear fruit. I would love to think that when my former students are, say, studying calculus and / or physics in high school or college, some will have an epiphanic moment of realization and exclaim: “Mr. Pate was right–mathematics really is beautiful!”

If you’re interested in reading more on-the-ground reportage and analysis of the disastrous effects of high-stakes testing on public schools–written by actual classroom teachers, informal educators, and college professors and administrators–be sure to check out the book! I’ll end with my reflection on the process of crafting the book:

This currere project reminded me of a quote from the final section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”  It seems contradictory that only gathering and marshaling fragments can stave off encroaching ruination, but in the wake of the corporatization of education, perhaps fragments–of history, of theory, of discourse–are all that remain. Fragments are something we can build with, in the empty spaces between the rubble and debris that capital has left behind. The currere method produced short, sharp fragments of subjectivity (which we called “bits”), that were then worked into longer and more rigorous academic treatments. The treatments were in turn woven and braided into narratives, the narratives into chapters, and the chapters into the book you have just read. But rather than subordinating all of these disparate melodies to a single harmony, the currere process allowed us to babble with a polyphony of voices, a kind of sinuous and riverine music with themes submerging into and surfacing from the flow of the text. For all the messiness of our journey as a course, something spontaneous and surprising and novel emerged. As Charles Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Posted in philosophy | Leave a comment

Pockets of Remembrance, Whispers Out of Time: Male Teachers, Gender Transgression, and Queer Time

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Education in a Democratic Society.”]

We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

—from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery

I. Introduction

As a male student turned male educator, I’m fascinated by the manner in which my entire life and career have been conditioned by cultural expectations of sex and gender. In middle school, I was bullied and socially excluded (e.g., I ate lunch by myself for the better part of seventh grade) because my peers merely thought I was gay, as it was rumored. This should not come as a surprise: boys who succeed academically are often faced with social exclusion and bullying for their intellectual inclinations, which is why so many feel forced to conceal, downplay, or otherwise attempt to compensate for their academic abilities in order to avoid having their masculinity called into question—in order to better conform to those patriarchal expectations from which they are perceived to deviate. In the long term, the experience left me with a sense of unbreakable solidarity with anyone who is oppressed for their gender identity or sexual orientation, since I have suffered only a fraction of the misery that is often inflicted on this community.

But as a teacher, I am hardly free from these attitudes and ideologies either. Despite being 6’1″ in height, broad-shouldered, and possessive of a deep voice that has been compared to Alan Rickman as Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies, the mere fact that I am a teacher means that I get coded as somehow effeminate. And because I am also emotionally sensitive (or “penetrable,” to use a word favored by the queer writer Henry James) and passionately intellectual and artistic, it is still sometimes assumed or suspected that I am gay. (Not that I necessarily mind. Whether I am or not I increasingly prefer to leave ambiguous, so as to make others question their own investment in categorizing others.) Thus, I have gone from being gossiped about in middle school to being whispered about in much the same way as a teacher of middle school students. There is an unfortunate belief I have run up against that male teachers should project a certain degree of masculine or patriarchal authority. I have never been able (or interested, really) in acting, speaking, or teaching like a football coach or a military drill sergeant, but the project of progressive education conflicts with the sociocultural script for male teachers. And when those deviations and conflicts between expectations and reality do occur, one’s status as a man once again becomes called into question, regardless of one’s age.

In many ways, this essay is an attempt to make sense of my experiences, to explore the way male teachers find themselves raveled up with gender transgression and the theoretical concept of “queer time.” I will begin with a philosophical review of precisely this idea, which sheds light on the relationships of gender-nonconforming men to educational practices and institutions, and on the political-economic and sociocultural fault lines between separatism, assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. I will then proceed to a historical review of male teachers as gender transgressors (and vice versa)—which is severely underdeveloped as a category of historical analysis—over the course of the twentieth century. Finally, I will conclude by drawing together these two strands of thinking in order to argue for the power of queer male educators as political actors.

II. Philosophical Review

Back in 2011, I attended a rather dull undergraduate thesis presentation on the topic of “queer time.” An obscurantist concept cloaked in obfuscatory language, I was hard-pressed to determine exactly what this term was supposed to mean. The student seemed to suggest that because the traditional temporal markers of marriage and parenthood may not be present, a gay man’s subjective experience of the passage of time through his lifespan is ostensibly different from that of a straight man. This definition, though, seems so obvious as to be both trivial and tautological. After all, a gay man isn’t necessarily going to perceive his subjective experience of time as “queer,” because to him it will simply remain normal and expected; it is only from the position of a straight person that it will appear “queer” against the background of social consensus—which rather defeats the purpose of the concept to begin with. And when a childfree person like myself can also partake in queer time for lack of reproduction, this exception also serves to stretch the idea rather too thin to be useful.

But the concept of “queer time” has nevertheless intrigued me for years after that encounter, as it resonates with my own interests in what I’ve termed “temporal economy”—“the production, circulation, and consumption of affective states of temporal perception” (Pate 2013). I have made it my aim to learn more about queer time as it is discussed in philosophy and the social sciences, but like many concepts in queer theory and deconstruction (such as Derrida’s différance, for instance), it is an extraordinarily slippery idea that resists positive definitions, lacking a stable referent and perhaps even denoting this very absence of one. Queerness not only upsets our established notions of normality, it also works to destabilize all dichotomies, such as the binary opposition between normality and transgression. To my view, queer time is perhaps best grasped not in philosophy but rather through the arts, as a kind of “time out of joint.” Queer time is the temporal space of introspection and retrospection in the novels and stories of Henry James; the involuntary memory of the past as it haunts the present in Marcel Proust’s novel sequence; the elliptical epiphanies of Virginia Woolf’s fictional and real-life “moments of being”; and finally the quizzical, quixotic lyricism of John Ashbery. (Not coincidentally, all four of these writers were LGBTQA.) Indeed, it is from Ashbery’s moving final lines to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”—“pockets of remembrance, whispers out of time”—from which I drew the title of this paper, as his words best capture the spectral / hauntological nature of queer time, suspended between presence and absence.

If one follows the genealogy of “queer time” backwards through history, we might begin by connecting it to Nietzsche’s concept of “untimeliness.” Amusingly, Nietzsche himself never gave a satisfactory definition of this term either, but following deconstruction’s critique of phenomenology, we might consider it in relation to a moment of time that is split from within, haunted by the traces of the past and the ghosts of the future (Nietzsche 1997). Untimeliness is the spectral presence of anachronism—the “eternal return”—that queers our linear sense of historical progression.

There are as yet few academic works on the subject of queer time, although Judith / Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) is probably the definitive treatment, and it also constitutes a major (if implicit) theoretical category in José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) and Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). In order to guide our further enquiries, we will begin by examining Halberstam’s subtle discussion of “queer time” in the introduction to the aforementioned book:

This book makes the perhaps overly ambitious claim that there is such a thing as “queer time” and “queer space.” Queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identification. If we try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices, we detach queerness from sexual identity and come closer to understanding Foucault’s comment in “Friendship as a Way of Life” that “homosexuality threatens people as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a way of having sex.” In Foucault’s radical formulation, queer friendships, queer networks, and the existence of these relations in space and in relation to the use of time mark out the particularity and indeed the perceived menace of homosexual life. In this book, the queer “way of life” will encompass subcultural practices, alternative methods of alliance, forms of transgender embodiment, and those forms of representation dedicated to capturing these willfully eccentric modes of being. Obviously not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts, but part of what has made queerness compelling as a form of self-description in the past decade or so has to do with the way it has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space.

[…] And yet queer time, even as it emerges from the AIDS crisis, is not only about compression and annihilation; it is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing. In the sections on subcultures in this book, I will examine the queer temporalities that are proper to subcultural activities, and will propose that we rethink the adult / youth binary in relation to an “epistemology of youth” that disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity. Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death. (Halberstam 2005)

Although Halberstam places his emphasis on how queerness “has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space”—“a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing,” he openly acknowledges that “not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts.” Most crucially of all, Halberstam links queer time to subcultural activities and economic practices, and it is this political-economic dimension of queer time that this paper will explore in relation to male educators as gender transgressors. Following his work, we will “detach queerness from sexual identity” and “try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices.” But instead of discussing, as Halberstam does, queer men who “opt to live […] on the edges of logics of labor and production” and “outside the logic of capital accumulation,” those who “could productively be called ‘queer subjects’ in terms of the ways they live (deliberately, accidentally, or of necessity) during the hours when others sleep and in the spaces (physical, metaphysical, and economic) that others have abandoned, and in terms of the ways they might work in the domains that other people assign to privacy and family,” I intend to emphasize the very mundaneity of queer time (which, perhaps, renders it not very queer at all) in educational settings.

Before we delve into the relationship between male teachers, gender transgression, and queer time, we must first define a few other terms. This essay is concerned with gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, or otherwise queer / questioning men in public K-12 schools, and we will use the acronym LGBTQA as a catch-all category to describe this disparate group united by their common status as “gender transgressors.” According to Jackie Blount, a gender transgressor is anyone who challenges traditional, accepted norms of “masculinity” and “femininity” and their attendant expectations of behavior (Blount 1996, 1999, 2000). This includes bachelors, men who are perceived as effeminate and sensitive, and LGBTQA individuals of all stripes. Indeed, even outliers like men in a female-dominated profession or role (such as an elementary school teacher) could be considered to rebel against gender roles at certain historical junctures. In the academic field of cultural studies, we hold these gendered norms of behavior to be culturally constructed categories, constellations of meanings and affects that are attached to the ostensible dichotomy of biological sex, and furthermore that these roles are built over time through iterated performances and presentations of the self (Butler 1990). (And it’s important to point out that this concept is not just hypothetical or theoretical; there is an abundance of empirical support stacked against the essentialist ideas that sex and gender are monolithic, totalizing, and immutable black boxes, instead of being fluid, contingent, and socially-constructed articulations [Fine 2011].) While the base of cultural categories (definitions of what constitutes masculine and feminine) remains relatively stable and changes only slowly, the superstructure of societal configurations evolves more rapidly, accreting and sedimenting around the shifting material conditions of life.

What cultural studies cannot explain alone, however, are political-economic-historical questions, like why many gay men have such a close relationship to the arts—whether that takes the form of restoring buildings, preserving neighborhoods, collecting antiques, curating galleries, or creating art oneself. Fortunately, there is a small but intriguing body of scholarship (such as Will Fellows’ A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture [2005]) that explores precisely this question. One possible explanation for this curiosity might be that gay culture, which cannot automatically reproduce itself socially in the manner of race or ethnicity (because gay men in the past typically did not raise families of their own, and their children in all likelihood would not share the same sexual orientation anyway), must be transmitted through different vectors—oral and textual and performative traditions of affiliation and affinity. Clearly, we are once again dealing with the experience of queer time. It is through this temporal dimension that gay men become custodians or guardians of high culture; a life devoted to antiquity augurs a separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity (Halberstam 2005, 2011; Freeman 2010; Munoz 2009). As Simon Reynolds puts it, “a life dedicated to aestheticism […] held out the prospect of a life apart from the more traditionally macho work cultures in industry or finance, promising a daily existence in which a lot of the people you dealt with would be women” (Reynolds 2011). Perhaps the status of gay teachers is homologous; perhaps the untimely anachronisms (in the Nietzschian sense) of queer life lead to a heightened appreciation for art, music, history, science, and literature and a concern for preserving and providing it for future generations. And, of course, the gender balance of the teaching profession also promises “a daily existence in which a lot of the people you dealt with would be women.” (While the practice of teaching initially might not seem to fit in with the arts, antiquity, and high culture, I would submit that teaching is a creative act closer to improvisatory, performative art than it is to an objective science.) Just as colleges and universities can function as semi-safe spaces for political radicals and eccentrics of all stripes, the public school system allows, to an extent, for the conscious and relatively unconstrained construction and performance of alternative gender and sexual identities. Indeed, Kevin Jennings and Jackie Blount both claim that there is a higher percentage of LGBTQA individuals in teaching than there is in the population as a whole (Blount 2006; Jennings 2005). Even though gay male educators may still face prejudice and outright discrimination and harassment, there are strong legal and judicial precedents stating that public school teachers have the “right to be out” of the closet with regard to their sexual orientations, and many attempts to fire gay teachers have ended with their reinstatement (Biegel 2010; Harbeck 1992). Clearly, this statistic indicates that there must be some kind of incentive for so many gay men to enter teaching, some new form of Deleuzian desiring-production (or libidinal investment in the traditional psychoanalytic sense), or else this would not be the case.

There is, however, one salient difference between gender transgressors in the arts and gender transgressors in education, in that the latter do not have the privilege of a “separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity.” Privilege is correlated with class power; gender transgressors in the arts will most likely have a higher socieoeconomic status than working-class gender transgressors in public education, who must contend with issues of intersectionality. Gender transgressors employed by schools are working in the public sphere, and as such they are held to a different standard of behavior than those who work in the private sphere—such as the arts, which can amount to a social sorting mechanism that deliberately keeps gay men isolated from the rest of society and thus neutered and marginalized from democratic voice and political power. There is nothing inherently radical about queerness; it does not, for example, solve problems of the relationship of labor to capital. As public spaces of social reproduction, schools are veritably saturated in hegemonic masculinity, because it is traditionally held that one of the implicit aims of education is to model gender-appropriate behavior for children as they grow up and become adults (Blount 2006; Blount & Anahita 2004). As I have been told several times throughout my life, male teachers are expected to serve as “father figures” for male children; conversely, female teachers are supposed to act nurturing and “mothering” as they provide care and instruction. It is in this manner that what Gilles Deleuze called the “Oedipal triangle” of the family is transposed onto the field of pedagogy (Deleuze & Guattari 1972). Jackie Blount argues that society considers gender-appropriate behavior to be so important in the first instance due to political economy (with regard to the forces of production and the division of labor between men and women) and, in turn, entrenched sexism—the oppression of women—and heteronormativity / compulsory heterosexuality—the oppression of non-heterosexuals. The unconscious hidden curriculum, of course, is very efficient at maintaining these boundaries of sex and gender in both students and teachers. Historically, in the not-so-distant past, teachers exhibiting the wrong “demeanor” have been punished or removed from school altogether, and at some extremes of social hysteria, they have been subject to “witch hunts” roughly parallel or even coextensive with those directed toward suspected communists.

As a result of this prejudice, discrimination, and harassment, many radical queer theorists (including many of those we relied upon earlier to limn the concept of queer time) favor a certain critical distance or separation from the structures of mainstream culture; they mourn the loss of some of the more distinctive institutions, practices, and transactions of gay culture (namely, anonymous and / or public sex) in favor of greater integration into capitalist markets and monogamous familial units. Separatism presents itself as a kind of Nietzschian affirmation—variously identifying queerness with antisocial refusal, a counter to childhood innocence, a (non)dialectical force of negativity, or the Freudian death drive—although in practice it often collapses into a reveling in one’s own state of abjection (Edelman 2004; Love 2009). But separatism is, to my view, neither possible nor desirable for the majority of gay men, those who do not have the luxury to live in an individual sphere of private privilege. It is our responsibility as citizens of a democratic society to collectively figure out how to live together and tolerate one another, and separatism works against this pressing public need.

Other, more pragmatic or moderate liberal thinkers celebrate the reciprocity of assimilation—they observe not only how queerness has been domesticated and come to be seen as inherently normal, even mundane, but also how our very sense of mainstream normality has been queered by gay culture, allowing for the proliferation of a greater variety of publicly acceptable gender identities and sexual orientations. And while schools are indeed still in the grip of hegemonic masculinity, assimilationists might point out that they are also fungible and penetrable, allowing for the development of counternarratives and countercultures. Far from the sense of resignation and the gloomy pronouncements of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose proffered by historians of sex education, the situation for gender nonconforming students and teachers has improved over the past decade, perhaps especially because other students are increasingly willing to stand up for their friends and act as allies. The condition of homosexuality is no longer as lonely, isolating, and alienating as it once was.

So one of the central tensions within any minority, such as LGBTQA adults, in a democratic society is between cultural separatism and assimilation. For example, assimilationists and separatists might disagree on the extent that LGBTQA teachers can or should be out of the closet about their identities at particular grade levels. I hope to demonstrate that a middle course between these positions is not only possible, but also necessary. I follow philosopher Baruch Spinoza in arguing that there is nothing intrinsically transgressive about gender transgression, insofar as “transgression” always-already remains within the horizon of what is natural and human(e) (Spinoza 2005). In the following sections, I will argue that one of the most important values of a liberal democratic society is cosmopolitanism, which, in the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, is “universality plus difference,” rather like the intersectional union of a Venn Diagram (Appiah 2007). Cosmopolitans believe in the inherent value of diversity, and as spaces of cultural (re)production and reproduction, public schools are ideal sites to cultivate cosmopolitanism, to learn about both individual and group similarity and uniqueness (Biegel 2010; Brighouse 2005; Jennings 2005). Exposure to a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities helps us to develop a sense of social justice and advocate for it inside and outside of the classroom, and having an openly gender-transgressing male teacher will allow students to accept the normality and mundaneity of queerness as an affect and an identity. Over time, hopefully, both students and teachers can come to be free of prescribed cultural expectations and see queerness and gender transgression for what they really are—possibilities on the spectrum of natural human diversity.

One of the most inspiring examples of liberal democratic cosmopolitanism in educational settings is that of the gay-straight alliances that have sprung up across high schools and even some middle schools in the United States. (The main parent organization of these groups, GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network—was in fact founded by the aforementioned activist and author Kevin Jennings.) Gay-straight alliances help to combat the routine bullying of gender transgressing students and the harmful stereotypes that contribute to the pervasive atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity / heteronormativity in school settings. They give LGBTQA students a safe space to talk about their experiences, identities, and struggles, while both gay and straight students gain an education in how to be effective allies, activists, and peer mediators. Such alliances serve to introduce students to themes of social justice and a theory-praxis of activism that they might not otherwise receive in the course of their schooling. Moreover, gay-straight alliances are often spearheaded by LGBTQA teachers who serve as faculty advisors for the groups and, perhaps, as informal mentors to gender nonconforming students. Gay male teachers can take on leadership positions and help to batter down the closet walls that keep themselves and others separated from each other. By putting an end to shame and fear, they can perform their authentic identities and form new collective affinities and affiliations. As adults who have made it through the gauntlet of middle school and high school, they can also deliver the crucial message to students that they are not alone and that it does, in fact, get better. Gay-straight alliances allow gender-transgressing students and teachers to work together and learn from each other in a classically democratic fashion, to put into practice the cultivation of cosmopolitanism in educational settings.

Social reproduction is never perfect and totalizing, and there is never repetition without difference, so educators and political activists have access to spaces and discourses of critical resistance—pockets and whispers, as it were—in which they can work to interrupt these cycles. In a deconstructive sense, queer time challenges the repetitions of history; it has the power to open up possibilities for new affiliations and affinities between the self and others. Paradoxically, public schools allow gender transgressing male educators the chance to “negotiate the self,” perform their identities, and practice the radical “politics of authenticity” (Berman 2009; Evans 2002; Jackson 2007).

III. Historical Review

This historical review will concentrate on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with some discussion of nineteenth century for additional context. While there is still a great deal of academic work to be done on gay male educators, there is actually much scholarship of interest concerning gay male students, particularly at single-sex institutions like private or boarding schools. This should probably not be surprising: because educational environments are more unwelcoming to LGBTQA students than to LGBTQA teachers, it has typically been students who have taken the initiative to form affinity groups and mobilize for collective action rather than educators. Furthermore, gay teachers had a disincentive to organize because they had more to lose—when one’s employment and livelihood are at stake in addition to one’s reputation, caution is the order of the day. (That said, openly gay college students or closeted students caught in undercover “sting” operations also faced serious consequences like expulsion, and university administrations frequently tried to prevent them from organizing politically or socially.)

When one examines the historical record, one is often surprised to find that gay rights movements existed in and out of schools years before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (Beemyn 2003; D’Emilio 1992). There were continuous moral panics about the danger that boarding schools and college dormitories would lead to overly close, romantic, or erotic same-sex friendships / relationships that, in turn, would work to feminize men and masculize women. Before the rise of gay-straight alliances in the 1990s, which serve to link together student and teacher activism against homophobia, LGBTQA teachers who wanted to support LGBTQA students had to do so privately, sub rosa (Mayo 2008). In this sense, gender transgressing male educators could become informal mentors or counselors to students who were struggling with the same issues. The obvious downside of these pre-GSA relationships, however, is that they invited charges of impropriety and that perennial hysteria of the religious right, “homosexual recruitment” or seduction. Students in the 1960s combated this, however, by forming what was at the time called “homophile leagues.” Although the desire to remain safely anonymous meant that these groups had to exercise great discretion and secrecy, the student leagues were actually more militant than the “mainstream” gay rights organizations, serving to build alliances with other activist movements and to construct the foundation for gay liberation in the ensuing decades:

The story sounds familiar: following a 1969 confrontation in New York, a small group of self-identified lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and their supporters created a militant gay rights organization in the United States, one that would help foster the gay liberation movement. However, the individuals involved in this group were not residents of New York City but students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the confrontation was not the riot of working-class black and Latino drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village but the takeover by African American students of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell’s campus union. Nor did the group, the Student Homophile League, begin in the wake of Stonewall; rather, it was formed in 1968, making it the second gay rights group to be organized on a college campus, after Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, of which the Cornell group was initially a chapter.

While Stonewall served as a main catalyst for the rise of a new era in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the preceding gay activism at Columbia, Cornell, and a handful of other universities played a critical role in laying the groundwork that would enable a militant movement to emerge following the riots. Not only did the student groups take the lead in asserting a sense of pride in being gay, but, through speaking unabashedly to others about their personal experiences (what the Cornell group called “zaps”) and developing alliances with those engaged in other struggles, especially the antiwar movement, they made gay liberation an important concern for many nongay people. As a result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s gay politics moved from the relatively insular environment of homophile organizations onto the agendas of many radical student activists. These nongay activists, some of whom subsequently recognized their attraction to others of the same gender and began to identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, helped broaden the base of support for gay liberation at Cornell and other schools in the years following Stonewall.

Yet the importance of college groups to gay liberation has been largely overlooked by LGBT historians, who either assume that the movement was born literally overnight following the riots or give too much credit to the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other mainline homophile organizations, many of whose members were actually opposed to the greater militancy represented by Stonewall. In order to sharpen our understanding of the emergence of the gay liberation movement, I will trace the development of the gay rights groups at Columbia and particularly at Cornell, where the militant tactics of the campus antiwar and Black Power movements encouraged the university’s Student Homophile League to become more visible and more confrontational. The transition of Cornell’s SHL from focusing on civil liberties to advocating social and political liberation both reflected and contributed to the growing radicalism of the LGBT movement. (Beemyn 2003)

In this excerpt, we can clearly see the tensions between assimilation and separatism that existed in early activist groups; there was as yet no consensus regarding strategy. The separatist radicalism on display eventually became tempered with the desire for mainstream respectability, leading to the assimilationism of the latter twentieth century. Cosmopolitanism is always a work in progress, something that is held and constructed in common rather than conforming neatly to a public-private (false) dichotomy.

We will begin to discuss the history of male gender transgressors in public K-12 schools by surveying the large-scale sociocultural and political-economic trends in educational employment, with special reference to the seminal work of Jackie Blount in this field (Blount 1996, 1999, 2000, 2006). (We should also note that Blount cautions us that public discussion of homosexuality has traditionally been surrounded by silence and warded off by taboos, so the public record about the gender and sexual identity of teachers is highly fragmentary and elliptical as a result, leaving us with traces and palimpsests—here and there in pockets of remembrance and whispers out of time, as it were—to interpret.) Her compelling and convincing historical narrative seems to consist of three moments in a dialectic of sorts. The first period covers both the era in which the teaching profession was almost exclusively dominated by men (roughly 1800-1850) and the era when the gender balance of the field became almost entirely inverted from what it was before (about 1850-1910). During the mid-nineteenth century, the common school movement led to an expansion of the education profession, and when schools found themselves in need of an inexpensive labor supply, they turned to women as a source of cheap prospective employees (because, unfortunately, they could get away with paying women less). In this latter time period, the number of men in the profession decreased dramatically. As a result, new administrative positions, such as principals and superintendents, were created in order to attract men and retain them in the education profession with the promise of more money, lest they leave and join a more actively masculine line of work, one offering greater independence, social standing, and opportunities for promotion. It was mandated that the women who were to serve as teachers remain unmarried, because it was assumed that married women would be less loyal to their employer and their school because they would naturally devote more time and energy to their own children and families. “Old maids” and “spinsters” quickly began to dominate the profession to such a degree that the remaining men were gendered as effeminate in the popular imagination. Moreover, it was believed that even ostensibly masculine male teachers would be made effeminate by the proximity of women in school contexts.

In the second phase (about 1900-1930), education remained a feminine field, but younger unmarried women began to enter in much greater numbers. Interestingly, Blount refers to evidence indicating that a surprisingly large proportion of these teachers may have been (at least latent) lesbians, so education might have felt to them as something of a safe space. In the Depression / WWII era (1930-1945), however, the preference shifted to married teachers; schools both opened up the profession to married women and attempted to purge single women from their ranks precisely because of those fears of lesbianism surrounding “spinster” teachers. In the third phase (1945-2000), when anxieties that the preponderance of women teachers would lead to a generation of “sissy” boys, public opinion encouraged men to enter education once again so as to reassert masculine values and reinscribe traditional gender roles and norms. Blount notes the following conditions for male teachers during this period:

While the proportion of single to married women teachers drastically declined after WWII, conditions for male educators changed as well. Codes of properly masculine conduct and demeanor became tougher and narrower. Earlier in the twentieth century, somewhat effeminate men were considered undesirable for teaching positions in part because they were thought to provide poor role-modeling for young males. On the other hand, G. Stanley Hall argued in his widely read book, Adolescence, that properly masculine men hired to become teachers often became effeminate by working alongside women because such colleagues would cause them to “suffer some deterioration in the moral tone of their virility and lose in the power to cope successfully with men” (p. 623).

However, by mid-century effeminate men were also broadly considered to be homosexual, making matters even more complicated for male school workers. […] The possible presence of effeminate male teachers in schools, then, became a matter of public concern, it was argued because such teachers “carry sex problems into the schools, and transmit abnormal attitudes to their pupils” (Waller, 1932, pp. 147-149).

Making this situation potentially even more dire, conventional wisdom of the time also held that homosexual males were particularly drawn to a few professions, including teaching. Alfred Gross, author of the Strangers in Our Midst (1962), argued that:

Denied, through lack of wife and family, the satisfaction of home life, the homosexual must look more and more to his work to bring him what might in some sort compensate him for this deprivation. This may be a reason why some homosexuals, consciously or unconsciously, gravitate to professions that can give emotional satisfaction—teaching, social work, the ministry, and the like (p. 151).

Because homosexual men were thought to be particularly drawn to professions such as teaching, because conventional wisdom held that homosexual men could be identified by effeminate characteristics, and because one important role teachers were required to fulfill was to provide correct gender modeling for the children they taught, the 1950s and 1960s brought national campaigns to find the men to work in schools who reflected the most proper, respectable standards of masculinity for the time, i.e., seemingly heterosexual men. (Blount 2000)

As such, LGBTQA teachers constantly had to worry about the suspicion of the public and the state of their reputations (sometimes even going so far as to enter into so-called “lavender marriages” with other LGBTQA individuals), which were threatened by the aforementioned periodic moral panics. These panics sometimes expanded into full-blown witch hunts similar to or coextensive with those directed toward suspected communists in public employment. The most infamous of these campaigns was the Johns Committee in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s, which Karen Graves documented in her stunning book And They Were Wonderful Teachers (2009). This Florida Legislative Investigative Committee—named after Charley Eugene Johns, a state senator and former governor obsessed with rooting out supposed perverts—used covert informants (which often amounted to gossip or rumors from student testimonials), forced interrogations, and outright entrapment to publicly dismiss suspected or admitted LGBTQA educators on the flimsiest of evidence. By the end of the Committee’s reign of terror in 1965, over 39 college professors and deans were fired, and 71 public school teachers had their certificates revoked (Graves 2009). Of course, this is hardly the only such instance of the so-called Lavender Scare in the United States, and Graves actually suggests that more men and women lost their job for ostensible sexual deviance or perversion than for communist associations. Joseph McCarthy often reflexively associated communists with homosexuals during the Second Red Scare, attempting to smear his targets and enemies with guilt by association. And as late as the 1970s, the (resounding failure of the) Briggs Initiative in California—which was in turn inspired by Anita Bryant’s successfully “Save Our Children” campaign that repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida and other states—attempted to pass legislation that would have prevented LGBTQA educators from being employed in public schools, or for other teachers to make positive or even neutral statements about gay rights in school settings (Graves 2013). Indeed, if recent history teaches us anything, the principal result of a climate in which teachers cannot privately or publicly support LGBTQA students is bullying and ostracism so severe that some teens are driven to contemplate or commit suicide (Erdely 2012).

What also intrigues me, however, is that the pseudoscientific psychological arguments proffered by Alfred Gross in the above quote—in which gender transgressing men are figured as deprived deviants who lack emotional satisfaction and the fulfillment of family life, and who thus turn to and immerse themselves in the work of teaching as a compensatory measure—actually contain a grain of philosophical truth. As I argued with regard to the concept of queer time, schools very likely did afford in the past (and continue to provide in the present and future) male LGBTQA teachers with something of a “separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity” in which they can “become custodians or guardians of high culture” with a “heightened appreciation for art, music, history, science, and literature and a concern for preserving and providing it for future generations.” The salient differences between my position and that of midcentury psychologists are that a) Gross depicts gay men as inherently isolated and lonely, whereas we are now well aware of the existence of thriving gay communities (at least in urban areas) and networks of sociality, and b) Gross places a negative spin on the lack of a traditional family structure, which I have attempted to present neutrally or give a positive twist, since this apparent lack can be transformed into a new form of desiring-production in educational theory and practice. Nonetheless, Gross’ argument may ring truer for gender transgressing men in rural or suburban settings, which are traditionally less tolerant—less cosmopolitan, as the word root of this adjective (polis) actually means “city”—than urban areas. Indeed, schools may well have served as surrogate families for gay men in the sprawling seclusion of the American Midwest.

Most of the available ethnographies, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs about gay male educators discuss this paradoxical tension between isolation and companionship. (Unfortunately, most of them fail to ask, or to answer, a very basic yet very important question: “What drew you to teaching as a career or as a calling?” This omission renders these studies far less useful than I had hoped.) On the one hand, some teachers feel forced to consciously switch the gender of their life partner when that person comes up in teachers’ lounge or classroom conversations; the effort of doing so becomes exhausting and induces anxiety over the possible price of slipping up. Some go so far as to withdraw from community life as much as possible in order to avoid being seen by students outside of school. On the other hand, such teachers feel that they are able to form stronger bonds with students—albeit still professional ones—because of the solidarity they feel with anyone else who is struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, one of the common (if implicit and unspoken) themes running through all of their testimonials is that of vulnerability, which has both positive and negative effects. Vulnerability can be converted from a negative into a positive, however, by openly acknowledging it—essentially, by coming out of the closet. Publically sharing our vulnerabilities unites us, bringing us closer together rather than isolating us through private shame and fear.

In recent years, I have often heard authority figures, such as politicians and school administrators, urge men to enter the teaching profession so as to serve as positive role models or father figures for male students. Taken at literal or face value, I actually find this ideal to be fairly innocuous. After all, many male children do indeed lack alternative real-life models for adult masculinity—models in which masculinity is not opposed to the intellect or to emotional sensitivity and caring—outside of the reductive images proffered by popular culture, i.e., professional athletes, rappers, action heroes, etc. More problematic, however, is the idea that male teachers need to be ultra-masculine in order to serve as a bulwark against the creeping feminization of education and, indeed, against the supposed encroaching feminization of society as a whole. What this really amounts to is the equation of femininity with weakness. For example, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, conservative commentators in the media made the (unbelievably disgusting) argument that if there were more “traditionally masculine” male teachers present at the school (and especially at elementary schools in general instead of just middle and high schools), such as former athletes and members of the armed services, then they could have saved more lives or even stopped the shooter before he murdered more innocents. According to Charlotte Allen in the pages of the National Review,

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K-6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. […] But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak—but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza. (Allen 2012)

This is, of course, a totally vile and insulting line of “thinking,” but it many ways it remains sadly typical of hyper-masculinization as the flipside of the feminization of the teaching profession. In the eyes of too many adults, male gender transgressors have no place in schools or in society.

Similarly, this masculinist ideology was also made manifest on a local level post-Newtown when Butler County sheriff Richard K. Jones publicly proposed hiring retired police officers as armed substitute teachers for local school districts (Pack 2013). These veteran officers would be made exempt from school regulations concerning firearms—concealed or otherwise—and could thus serve to protect students and staff should an attempted school shooting occur. Notwithstanding that armed school resource officers have failed to prevent violence in the past (such as Columbine), this idea managed to insult me, a former substitute teacher, on two separate levels. First, Jones implied that absolutely anyone could do my job—presumably, he pictured it as consisting of showing videos and running study halls. As an experienced educator who led the instruction of regularly scheduled lessons most days as a substitute, I was genuinely offended by this suggestion. Second, Jones also insinuated that substitute teachers as a profession—most of whom are women, and many of whom are themselves retired educators—are insufficiently masculine to protect our students. When placed side by side, these arguments create an image of a world in which violence is inevitable, and only “manly men” have the power to combat it through further acts of violence. The deleterious effect on school culture and climate that would result from the implementation of Jones’ proposal should be obvious.

One of the most damaging consequences of this attitude is the pervasive silence surrounding LGBTQA educators. As noted above, those educators themselves feel compelled to maintain that silence by, essentially, denying their true identities and constructing / performing a false one for the public. The steep price of maintaining this facade is anxiety, depression, and a loss of satisfaction in one’s job (Sanlo 1999). Silence, then, is something we must loudly transgress against. As the AIDS awareness activist group ACT-UP put it so succinctly and eloquently in the 1980s, if “silence = death,” then “action = life.” In this context of escalating masculinization, gender-transgressing male educators are transgressors in the purest sense: these teachers subvert notions of manhood that equate it with strength and domination and replace them with an ethic of care.

IV. Conclusion

Queer time belongs neither entirely to the private nor wholly to the public. Rather, queer time is a liminal state of being that ironizes this very separation between public and private spheres, as it binds together private, marginalized, and isolated individuals in the formation of new oppositional countercultures and counterpublics (a term coined by queer theorist Michael Warner)—which is something LGBTQA culture has always excelled at, at least with regard to sexual cultures (Warner 2005). Gender-transgressing male educators are one such counterpublic-in-becoming, one that has the potential to redefine our notions of what constitutes masculinity and the concept of a fulfilling life. LGBTQA teachers have abundantly demonstrated that one does not need to be married or have children to seek and find fulfillment; the surplus-enjoyment and desiring-production of education as a form of care and as a kind of cultural labor is satisfaction enough. More than a mere surrogate family, the classroom is a “queer space” in which “queer time” disrupts social reproduction, opening up instead possibilities of teacher-student activism for social justice.

I would like to suggest, tentatively and provisionally, that the subjective experience of queer time is in many ways synonymous with the subjective experience of learning as such. In 2013, I wrote the following:

If education as an institution is to avoid becoming an anachronism, then our pedagogy must become actively, deliberately anachronistic in its essence.

[…] I mean the word anachronism very literally—“against time,” as in the “untimeliness” suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. This kind of anachronism can be seen in the time-less anachronism of literary modernism (such as T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”), the deep arche-time of the sciences, or perhaps the contemplative time-zone of the monastic tradition. It is akin to a Platonic archetypal form or the Hegelian absolute—a truth or “eternal idea” that is orthogonal, not retrograde, to the passing of time, and which can only be uncovered through a clockless, analogue suspension of time’s flow, a dissolution of it in the moment of contemplation. (Pate 2013)

Queer time is exactly this: “a clockless, analogue suspension of time’s flow, a dissolution of it in the moment of contemplation.” Gender-transgressing men are thus “keepers of culture” in the purest sense, acting as guardians of art and antiquity. But ironically, although schools have never been friendlier (or at least less hostile) to LGBTQA teachers and students, the walls are closing in on queer time. This Deleuzian “intensive space” is being encroached upon by the (re)territorializing forces of standardization, high-stakes testing, and educational technology, turning it into a “metric space” in which a factory model of education—lean production plus Frederick Taylor’s scientific management—can be fully implemented (Deleuze & Guattari 1980). The relentless digital quantification of time in schools militates against queer time, against the suspension and dissolution of time that is at the heart of learning as such.

So what is to be done if we wish to halt this capitalist enclosure of education? I would argue that gender transgressing male teachers not only need to be as open and uncloseted as possible, but also should work to connect their own struggles—against heterosexism—to broader movements of social justice activism: labor politics, feminism, racial equality, etc. As E.M. Forster—another gay writer well-versed in aesthetic queer time—famously wrote, we must “only connect” with each other. And in John Ashbery’s words, we feel “too confined, / Sifting the April sunlight for clues, / In the mere stillness of the ease of its / Parameter” if we allow ourselves to be socially isolated from our communities. Gender transgressors must return to the public, cosmopolitan, celebratory “balconies”—the kind of vantage, for instance, from which one might watch and cheer on a gay pride parade—wherein “all things happen,” rather than resume our actions within alienated, separatist private spheres in which “the action is the cold, syrupy flow / Of a pageant.” LGBTQA teachers must embrace the negative capability—the contingency, uncertainty, and doubt—that is at the heart of teaching and learning: “The hand holds no chalk / And each part of the whole falls off / And cannot know it knew” (Ashbery 2008). It is a queer time, a queer space, a point at which the private, individual politics of authenticity transform into a radical public dimension of collective joy.

V. Acknowledgements

Thank you to Dr. Karen L. Graves for sharing with me the fruits of her extensive bibliographic research, and to Dr. Kate Rousmaniere for her thoughtful advice and continual support of my graduate studies and career.

IV. Bibliography

Allen, C. (2012, December 19). Newtown answers: NRO symposium. National Review. Retrieved from

Appiah, K.A. (2007). Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a world of strangers. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ashbery, J. (2008). Collected poems: 1956-1987. New York: Library of America.

Beemyn, B. (2003). The silence is broken: A history of the first lesbian, gay, and bisexual college student groups. Journal of the History of Sexuality 12(2), 205-223.

Berman, M. (2009). The politics of authenticity. New York: Verso Books.

Biegel, S. (2010). The right to be out: Sexual orientation and gender identity in America’s public schools. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Blount, J. (1996). Manly men and womanly women: Deviance, gender role polarization, and the shift in women’s school employment, 1900-1976. Harvard Educational Review, 318-38.

Blount, J. (1999). Manliness and the construction of men’s and women’s work in schools, 1865-1941. International Journal of Leadership in Education,2(2), 55-68.

Blount, J. (2000). Spinsters, bachelors, and other gender transgressors in school employment, 1850-1990. Review of Educational Research70(1), 83-101.

Blount, J. (2003). The history of teaching and talking about sex in schools. History of Education Quarterly 43(4), 610-615.

Blount, J. (2006). Fit to teach: Same-sex desire, gender, and school work in the twentieth century. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Blount, J. and Anahita, S. (2004). The historical regulation of sexuality and gender of students and teachers: An intertwined legacy. In Rasmussen, M.L., Rofes, E., & Talburt, S. (Eds.). Youth and sexualities: Pleasure, subversion, and insubordination in and out of schools. (63-83). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brighouse, H. (2005). On education. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge.

Connell, C. (2014). School’s out: Gay and lesbian teachers in the classroom. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1972). Anti-Oedipus Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1980). A thousand plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

D’Emilio, J. (1992). Making trouble: Essays on gay history, politics, and the university. New York: Routledge.

Edelman, L. (2004). No future: Queer theory and the death drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Erdely, S.R. (2012). One town’s war on gay teens. Rolling Stone 1150. Retrieved from

Evans, K. (2002). Negotiating the self: Identity, sexuality, and emotion in learning to teach. New York: Routledge.

Fellows, W. (2005). A passion to preserve: Gay men as keepers of culture. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Fine, C. (2011). Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Freeman, E. (2010). Time binds: Queer temporalities, queer histories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graves, K.L. (2009). And they were wonderful teachers: Florida’s purge of gay and lesbian teachers. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Graves, K.L. (2012). ‘So, you think you have a history?’ Taking a Q from lesbian and gay studies in writing education history. History of Education Quarterly 52(4), 465-487.

Graves, KL. (2013). Political pawns in an educational endgame: Reflections on Bryant, Briggs, and some twentieth-century school questions. History of Education Quarterly 53(1), 1-20.

Halberstam, J. (2005). In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York: NYU Press.

Halberstam, J. (2011). The queer art of failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harbeck, K.M. (Ed.). (1992). Coming out of the classroom closet: Gay and lesbian students, teachers, and curricula. New York: Routledge.

Harbeck, K.M. (1997). Gay and lesbian educators: Personal freedoms, public constraints. Malden, MA: Amethyst Press.

Harris, A. M., & Gray, E. M. (2014). Queer teachers, identity and performativity. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Jackson, J. M. (2007). Unmasking identities: An exploration of the lives of gay and lesbian teachers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Jennings, K. (Ed.) (2005). One teacher in ten: LGBT educators share their stories. New York: Alyson Books.

Kissen, R. M. (1996). The last closet: The real lives of lesbian and gay teachers. Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann.

Love, H. (2009). Feeling backward: Loss and the politics of queer history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mayo Jr., J. (2008). Gay teachers’ negotiated interactions with their students and (straight) colleagues. High School Journal, 92(1), 1-10.

Munoz, J.E. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. New York: NYU Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1997). Untimely meditations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pack, L. (2013, January 17). Sheriff proposes plan for armed personnel in schools. Hamilton Journal-News. Retrieved from

Pate, S.C. (2013, October 8). Education in Chronopolis: On the political and temporal economy of educational technology. The Light of Lost Words. Retrieved from

Reynolds, S. (2011). Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past. London: Faber & Faber.

Sanlo, R. L. (1999). Unheard voices: The effects of silence on lesbian and gay educators. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Spinoza, B. (2005). Ethics. New York: Penguin Classics.

Warner, M. (2005). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

Woog, D. (1995). School’s out: The impact of gay and lesbian issues on America’s schools. Boston: Alyson Publications.

Posted in literature, philosophy | Leave a comment

Media Literacy, Comic Book Pedagogy, and the Aesthetic Myth of the Given

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Literature and Other Media for Adolescents.”]

“You fellas think of comics in terms of comic books, but you’re wrong. I think you fellas should think of comics in terms of drugs, in terms of war, in terms of journalism, in terms of selling, in terms of business. And if you have a viewpoint on drugs, or if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism.”

–Jack Kirby (quoted in Howe 2013 p. 103)

We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they can help us to confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us.

–from Supergods by Grant Morrison (2012 p. xvii)

I. Introduction

In a vastly influential paper published in 1956, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars coined the concept of “the myth of the given.” The proximate target of Sellars’ critique of “givenness,” of the apparent immediacy of knowledge as derived from sense-data (“knowledge by acquaintance,” as he called it), was intended to be foundationalist epistemologies such as phenomenological theories of perception and cognition, but it has often occurred to me that “the myth of the given” can be formulated or translated into aesthetic terms as well as philosophical ones (Sellars 1956).

For example, it’s frequently argued that reading prose is inherently superior–in cognitive terms if not also in morally virtuous ones–to viewing films or engaging with mixed-media texts like comics. This argument relies on an assumption of the native “givenness” of meaning for the spectator of movies and comics as opposed to that of literature, in which it assumed that meaning must be actively constructed by the reader and is therefore not given as such. What requires more effort, what makes the audience work harder, is asserted to be better for the consumer and perhaps even for society as a whole. (We can see this snobbish attitude literalized and illustrated in Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which–horror of horrors–text-based newspaper articles have been replaced with wholly pictorial representations of events.)

The purpose of this paper is to argue against the aesthetic myth of the given in theoretical terms and then on practical, pedagogical grounds as well. I hope to demonstrate why and how comics should be taught as part of a comprehensive program of media literacy instruction in schools and across content areas, and not just utilized as a mere transitional / remedial form introduced in order to hook “reluctant readers” on literature. Rather than being an unhappy medium or mere hybrid between prose and cinema, comics in their syncretism can embody the finest qualities of both while accomplishing things that neither books nor movies can successfully pull off. (An outstanding recent example: in Silver Surfer 11, Dan Slott and Mike Allred designed the page layout and narrative of the entire issue with the looping structure of a Möbius strip [Slott & Allred 2015].) We will begin by formalizing and critiquing the aesthetic myth of the given, proceed to defining and advocating for media literacy and adolescent literacy as such, and finally demonstrate how comics fulfill the key elements of media literacy instruction and explore their pedagogical implications in content areas across the curriculum. (Please note I’ve already covered cinematic media literacy through film history and theory in two previous essays.) While critics often prefer to hold up universally-acknowledged masterpieces like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen and From Hell as specimens of comics at their most refined and literary (read: wordy), I plan to focus on comics at their most ubiquitous and popular among adolescents, which is to say superhero and science fiction / fantasy comics. A significant amount of Japanese manga undoubtedly falls under these categories as well, but as I only have a passing familiarity with this genre, I will mostly concentrate on Western comics. And as an ardent and lifelong Marvel Comics fan, that publisher’s books are going to be given far more space and consideration than DC.

II. The Aesthetic Myth of the Given

Surely, there is an element of truth to the aesthetic myth of the given, at least with regard to reading. Speaking from personal experience, I possess what William Butler Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult,” which is why I find the prose of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and the poetry of Hart Crane and John Ashbery to be so deeply enjoyable and rewarding. And even the most ardent proponents of whole language reading instruction would agree that the apparently simple task of reading for comprehension is really an extraordinarily complex act, one that involves the decoding of signifiers–not just individual words, but also sentences, paragraphs, narratives, and megatexts or discourses–on multiple and simultaneous levels (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 12-15). Learning to read and write cannot be accomplished through cultural osmosis in the manner of learning to talk and understand speech; these skills must be actively taught or facilitated by an educator.

But the aesthetic myth of the given fails when it comes to comics and film, because meaning is no more immanent in images than in prose. In other words, just because a narrative is primarily told through images instead of text does not mean that processes of decoding and sense-making are absent in these mediums. The comprehension strategies of visualization and inferring are related but distinct: comics always-already provide us with visuals, but we must still do the inferring (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 130-132). Moreover, these interpretive processes are fundamentally learned behaviors; we only fail to recognize them because they take on essentially different rhetorical forms than the codes and modes of representation in literature. Although it’s undoubtedly easier to learn how to read a picture book or comic than a piece of prose, one is no more born knowing how to read comics by their arbitrary and sometimes contingent rules–to understand, for example, that every panel is a discrete temporal moment and spatial frame, or that one generally reads the pages and panels from left to right and top to bottom (Japanese manga, for example, is different in this regard)–than one is born knowing how to read text. Written texts generally make meaning through signification and symbolism, while drawn texts like comics primarily build meaning via dialectical juxtaposition and movement either within or between frames–or as it is called in film discourse, montage (Cousins 2011; Godard 1988; McCloud 1994).

Let us illustrate this distinction using a semi-hypothetical model from the musings of the film director Jean-Luc Godard. (Incidentally, along with his fellow nouvelle vague filmmaker Alain Resnais, Godard was a fan of populist comic books [Howe 2013].) When asked whether he ever considered becoming a writer, Godard replied:

Yes, of course. But I wrote, “The weather is nice. The train enters the station,” and I sat there for hours wondering why I couldn’t have just as well written the opposite: “The train enters the station. The weather is nice” or “it is raining.” In the cinema, it’s simpler. At the same time, the weather is nice and the train enters the station. There is something ineluctable about it. You have to go along with it. (Brody 2008)

Written texts rely on signifiers, such as the word “train.” The letters t-r-a-i-n, when decoded as the word “train,” serve as more-or-less stable referent for the set of essential characteristics that describe a form of mass transportation that runs on rails. The arrangement of the opening sentences also creates meaning, because sentences and paragraphs are nothing more than higher-level signifiers; each of the two alternatives signifies a subtly different mental picture and limns a slightly different mood. This ability to make sense and meaning from letters and words that we call “reading” is nothing more than this process of decoding. By contrast, in a frame of film or in a panel of a comic, the images of a train and the weather–the visual diegesis–are near-instantaneously given to us in its sensuous immediacy. Does this indicate that meaning, too, is always-already given? No; this conclusion does not follow from the premises.

As Godard observed, the temporal and spatial simultaneity of images is a foundational principle of visual texts like comics and film. There is not necessarily any inherent meaning within the picture of the train and the rain, but there would be meaning if this picture were followed by, say, one of a businessman struggling with his heavy briefcase as he futilely chases after the train as it pulls away from the station. This juxtaposition between images–regardless of whether this juxtaposition was crafted through cross-cutting by editing between scenes, the horizontal motion traced by a tracking shot, or the absolute spatial continuity preserved by a long shot (although each alternative again suggests varying shades of meaning)–naturally leads the curious viewer to ask questions: Who is this man? Why did he miss the train? What is he running toward, and what is he running from? What’s in the briefcase? Regardless of the viewer’s predictions, the audience knows that the answers to these questions are likely to be clarified in scenes to come. And, in turn, avant-garde filmmakers would not be able to deliberately subvert our expectations if we didn’t have expectations to begin with–the inculcated set of rules which film theorist Noel Burch called the “institutional mode of representation” (Burch 1973).

However, comics are not subject to the institutional mode of representation to the degree that film is; there is more freedom, more slippage allowed within this medium. Noel Burch claimed that following the “primitive mode of representation,” films identify the viewer’s sight with that of the camera and utilize rules of three-dimensional perspective to make the diegetic space of the screen continuous with the viewer’s environment. Furthermore, each shot in a cinematic sequence–analogous to the individual frame of a comic–conveys a single piece of information. Close-ups, which focus inward on one discrete image, are perhaps the most salient example. However, close-ups briefly disrupt the aforementioned spatial continuity, so the latter quality must be preserved through eye-line and directional matches (Burch 1973). By contrast, while comics constantly zoom in and out between frames and utilize jump cuts and cross-cutting, eye-line and directional matches are not so important. In their radical compression and dilation of time and space, even humble superhero comics can be almost inadvertently avant-garde and psychedelic; their genealogical lineage is closer to the experimental Soviet, German, and French cinema that pre-dates or post-dates the institutional mode of representation than to the modern Hollywood blockbusters that superhero comics have inspired. 

Meaning, then, emerges from the cracks within and between images. It is not given, nor decoded from a single image, but dialectical or dialogical in same manner of the rhythm at the heart of film editing: shot-reverse-shot: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. With comics, this is obviously complicated by the presence of signifers in the form of dialogue, narration, and monologue, meaning that they are ultimately a form of aesthetic bricolage or assemblage of affects. But because the essential axis of a comic is its visual dimension and not its textual characteristics, the point still stands. (I.e., you can have a comic without text–indeed, there are many such “silent” comics, such as the remarkable woodcut novels of Lynd Ward, the phantasmagorical Frank stories by Jim Woodring, Shaun Tan’s classic picture book The Arrival, or even particular issues of ongoing series, like Jonathan Hickman’s moving Fantastic Four 588–but you can’t have a comic without pictures.) The aesthetics of painting, comics, and film emphatically do not comprise a kind of “visual language” whose semiotic structure and symbols can be delineated with any kind of consistency (at least not across spoken languages or cultures). By reducing the concept of literacy to the mere decoding of written language, the myth of the given thus serves to impoverish our world of aesthetic experience by obscuring visual / non-linguistic ways (in this case, montage) of constructing meaning.

Why is the aesthetic myth of the given so universal and so difficult to identify and critique? It almost certainly derives from class prejudice. Comics, being a rich and vibrant tradition with its origins as a working class art form, are automatically denigrated as simplistic trash for children, while the most aggressively mediocre works of prose fiction or nonfiction are elevated far beyond their actual stature or quality. (Indeed, newspapers used to publish stories with perennial regularity on the subject of: “Comics! They’re Not Just for Kids Anymore,” causing every comics professional / journalist alive to groan in unison [Rhoades 2008].) Comics are, to be sure, a populist medium (albeit one that’s more sophisticated and stylistically diverse than ever), but they don’t have to be lowbrow. At their best, comics embody what J. Hoberman once said about his fellow film critic Manny Farber: they short circuit the lowbrow with the highbrow and play both ends off the middlebrow (Farber 2009).

III. Comics and Media Literacy

If a school’s curriculum is something like a map, showing us the breadth and contours of its terrain, then media literacy is a sprawling, uncharted blank spot; it is terra incognita waiting to be explored with the depth this rich topic demands of us. Few public high schools (usually just some of the largest ones) offer a course or even a course unit in media literacy. The closest many schools come is a technology course on digital art–i.e. learning the basics of computer software for graphic design, animation, and audiovisual editing. In the digital art classes I’ve seen, a lesson on making comics was one component of the curriculum. These technology classes may be pragmatically useful, intellectually and creatively stimulating, and even innovative in curricular terms, but they are quite different from learning media literacy as such. If this subject is taught in its own right, it is almost invariably territorialized by the content area of language arts, which can sometimes lead to it being taught both inadequately and inaccurately. The end result is art that loses much of its medium specificity and aesthetic charm in translation.

It is my belief that public schools–whether at the middle school or high school level–need to start developing courses and thematic, interdisciplinary units in order to teach media literacy as part of the curriculum. Media literacy is defined by the National Association for Media Literacy Education as being:

seen to consist of a series of communication competencies, including the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in a variety of forms, including print and non-print messages. Media literacy empowers people to be both critical thinkers and creative producers of an increasingly wide range of messages using image, language, and sound. (NAMLE 2013)

And as a subset of media literacy, Nancy Frey and Douglas B. Fisher define visual literacy as:

describing the complex act of meaning making using still or moving images. As with reading comprehension, visually literate learners are able to make connections, determine importance, synthesize information, evaluate, and critique. Further, these visual literacies are interwoven with textual ones, so that their interaction forms the basis for a more complete understanding. The twenty-first-century learner must master this intermediality of images and text in order to interpret an increasingly digital world. (Frey & Fisher 2008 p.1)

What is “the visual interwoven with the textual” but a description of the form and content of a graphic novel?

While budget cuts and the standards-based education movement have led to a drastic reduction in the art classes and electives that schools offer to students, there are several conceptual and empirical reasons that support my arguments about the importance of media literacy instruction. Increasingly, adolescents are surrounded by screens and omnipresent media images for almost every waking moment of their days. Their lives are always-already mediated, but they nonetheless have little idea as to how one can contextualize, analyze, and evaluate visual texts like comics. (This would hopefully not be the case with written texts, which they will have studied for many years by the time they graduate from high school.) And without being able to properly contextualize, analyze, and evaluate, one cannot move to the level of media critique for which many theorists of media literacy advocate. I believe that critical media literacy is a public good; it is particularly invaluable in the process of coming to political consciousness which Paulo Freire termed conscientization. In Freire’s words, media literacy helps us to “read the world” (Freire 1968).

Media literacy is thus a natural component of the expansive definition of adolescent literacy proffered by Moje, Young, and Readence (2000). Adolescent literacy refers to both the practices of reading and the body of texts and discourses that adolescents encounter in their daily lives. At its narrowest, it includes school-based literate activity: namely, the books that adolescents are expected to read, discuss, and write about as part of their formal education, as well as the works they choose to read voluntarily (young adult or otherwise). At its most broadly conceived, however, adolescent literacy encompasses multiple emerging extracurricular mediated literacies: magazines, newspapers, advertisements, emails, text messages, social media, the web, music, film, video games, comics, etc. Neither most adults nor many adolescents themselves consider the more ephemeral of these mediums and forms of communication to be legitimate literary practices, but their very ubiquity and invisibility is what makes them such important supplements in the contemporary language arts classroom. Through the use of media literacy as a subset of adolescent literacy, teachers can a) demonstrate that their students are always-already literate and possess reading skills and knowledge in a number of alternative, informal ways, b) connect students’ informal literacies back to formal literacy practices in and out of schools, and c) make their own instructional practices more culturally and generationally relevant (Moje et al. 2000).

As Carrye Kay Syma and Robert G. Weiner note in their book on Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom (to my view, possibly the best work on the subject), “sequential art, cartoons, comics, and graphic novels are not a genre, they are a format and a technique for telling a story or conveying information. […] [C]omics are a form of social history that can be used to impart knowledge about a particular era.” In other words, comics are an artistic medium rather than the determinate content thereof. They go to claim that “In the past 10 to 15 years, the use of sequential art in education has exploded. […] It is no longer a question of whether sequential art should be used in educational settings, but rather how to use it and for what purpose” (2013 p. 1). Finally, Syma and Weiner connect comics back to media literacy in precisely the same terms and arguments I have utilized:

In today’s transmedia culture, the concept of just what it means to be educated and literate continues to change and mutate. […] The combination of images with text in order for students to understand and interpret the world is probably the most important aspect of teaching literacy in the 21st century. […]

Sequential art, of course, usually combines both the visual and the narrative in a way that readers have to interpret the images with the writing. With comics and graphic novels permeating all aspects of popular culture and the world it is almost impossible for even those who disdain the format to not be touched by it (for example, in 2012, The Avengers was one of the biggest movies in the history of popular culture, and its source material is comics). Even those who may never pick up a comic for pleasure reading or analysis are still touched by the world of comics. Comics are probably one of the purest forms an educator could use to teach visual literacy.

One of the things that make comics such a good fit for education is that students are using a format that provides an opportunity for active engagement. Their minds are lively when reading comics. The readers involve their minds with both the visual and narrative content, hopefully resulting in greater comprehension and interest. (Syma & Weiner 2013 p. 15)

In the twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to ignore all forms of literacy except for printed text on a page. While comics should not serve as a substitute for all of these other forms of media literacy, they remain one of the most exciting and fruitful ways to teach and learn about this subject. In the following section, we will explore some specific pedagogical implications of comics in several separate content areas or domains.

IV. Comics and Pedagogy

Since comics as an artistic medium are inherently interdisciplinary, formal instruction on the subject would need to mirror this content in its very form. Thus, one could easily build exciting curricular connections and thematic units between language arts (studying comics and reading / writing criticism thereof); visual art (making comics and exploring their history); and social studies, science, and technology. Comics have pedagogical implications and applications across the spectrum of a school’s curriculum, and we will demonstrate this by examining each of these content areas in turn.

A. Language Arts

One of the elements of comics that I find most interesting is that of narrative compression. For example, the iconic origin story of Spider-Man as told by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in Amazing Fantasy 15 is a masterpiece of compression; they constructed a complete, compelling, and self-contained story in a mere eleven pages. It’s fast-paced, showing the viewers only the most crucial scenes as it swings to its climactic denouement. When Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley retold and greatly expanded upon this simple narrative for a new generation at the beginning of their Ultimate Spider-Man series, it took them a seven issue story arc of about twenty pages per issue–or roughly one hundred forty pages total, over ten times as long as the original (Morrison 2012 p. 96). This is not to say, however, that the slower pace of modern comics is necessarily inferior to the seminal works of the 1960s. On the contrary, this “decompressed” approach allows for a greater naturalism and flexibility, an increased focus on character development and dialogue, and a reduction in repetitive, overbearing narration and expository direct addresses to the reader. Indeed, nostalgia often prevents us from seeing just how well-written the average modern comic is to the comics of yesteryear. (Unnecessary sound effects are, alas, still with us.) But regardless of how much space and time is covered in a certain span of pages, comics rely upon compression, on the viewer’s knowledge that one is traveling through time as one’s eyes scan across from panel to panel. Compression is a feature, not a bug. It’s impossible to depict a continuity of motion on pages as film is capable of showing (through the fusion frequency of twenty-four frames per second), so comics can only select representative high points of the action.

The beauty of compression is that it forces the reader to make inferences–Scott McCloud calls it “closure,” in that in involves closing the gap between parts that comprise a whole–about what happens in the interstitial gutters between panels or the margins between pages; reading comics is thus a fundamentally participatory act (McCloud 1994; Yang 2008). (Also, for what it’s worth, Robert Brandom’s “inferential role semantics” and meaning holism as an influential school of pragmatist thought in analytic philosophy, derives in part from the work of Wilfrid Sellars [Brandom 1994, 2000, 2015]. In other words, linguistic inferentialism comprises a powerful challenge to the aesthetic myth of the given.) Language arts teachers spend much of their time trying to get students to consciously make predictions–which are one type of inference–about the future events of a work of prose fiction, when comics already do this quite naturally (Harvey & Goudvis 2007 p. 141). This is also the quality that makes them a powerful pedagogical tool in the multilingual classroom, as English-language learners can infer the meaning of vocabulary words from reading them in the context of images (Cary 2004).

To demonstrate inferences from narrative compression, we might turn to the opening of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s twelve-part All-Star Superman, an elegant, wordless two-page spread recapitulating the essential, instantly-recognizable elements of Superman’s origin story, compressed to its mythic core (Morrison & Quitely 2011). Like hearing the first few notes of a familiar melody, viewing these pages prompts the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own memory. A more recent and even better instance would be Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez’s immensely clever and amusing Edge of Spider-Verse 2. In an alternate universe story about a world in which Gwen Stacy–Spider-Man’s late girlfriend in mainstream Marvel continuity–and not Peter Parker himself is the one bitten by the radioactive spider, Latour and Rodriguez accelerate through Spider-Gwen’s origin story in a two-page montage, much like Morrison and Quitely. Unlike these two creators’ work, however, Latour’s script is more like an improvisation upon an old standard than a faithful cover version. The reader scans the rapid editing between this alluring display of images, inferring from each one the key divergences between the respective histories of Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen, with the former serving as a kind of aporia, an absent center, around which the latter is constructed.

One of the finest examples of inferentialism in comics as a pedagogical tool for the language arts classroom, however, might be Matt Fraction and David Aja’s delightful, award-winning Hawkeye 11–otherwise known as “Pizza Is My Business” (Fraction & Aja 2013). A near-wordless issue shown from the perspective of Hawkeye’s pizza-loving dog, Lucky, as he pieces together the subtle clues of a murder mystery from the previous issue, Aja conveys information through Lucky’s associations of characters with distinct scents, which are represented through networks of thumbnail graphics. The only pieces of dialogue we are allowed to see are the words that a dog might know or understand, so without words to assist us in making sense of the sequence of pictures, we must work harder to infer the connections between clues and make predictions alongside our unlikely protagonist. It’s a totally satisfying narrative in and of itself (although one needs to have read the previous issues for context), and as an experiment in representing nonhuman perception, it demands multiple readings. I, as an adult, find something new to discover and appreciate every time. Fraction and Aja also constructed a terrific follow-up in Hawkeye 19, another nearly silent issue in which spoken dialogue and word balloons are replaced with sign language. Taken together, they are a magnificent demonstration of the power of comics to elicit reader participation in constructing meaning through inferences. Not only do comics appeal to reluctant readers, they also work to teach the literacy skills we associate with conscientious readers and desire to inculcate in our students.

One activity language arts teachers might employ is to engage students in “translating” a written script to a page or spread of a comic–or, conversely, to deduce the script from the comic representation thereof. By comparing and contrasting various students’ pictorial interpretations of a particular printed script (and perhaps also viewing them alongside a professional comic artist’s adaptation in a published comic book), students can gain a better understanding of how there can be multiple valid visual representations of a given textual diegesis, and that each version conveys different shades of meaning. Moreover, aspiring students of creative writing can learn a great deal about naturalistic, witty dialogue from the work of such writers as Brian Michael Bendis, Al Ewing, and Matt Fraction.

Comics also allow language arts teachers to introduce students to the concept of flat vs. rounded characters. Most superheroes-as-protagonists are defined by a set of key personality attributes and traits, but conversely they also grow and change–if slowly–over time, adding depth and turning them from flat into rounded characters. The sheer accumulated volume of publication means that once-simple characters have become, issue by issue, complex and compelling creations (Wolk 2008). Other, more minor characters and supervillains, however, are more liable to be flat and static as they continually revert back to their original status quo.

Including comics studies in the language arts classroom might also involve reading and writing criticism of comics. Douglas Wolk’s work serves as an intelligent and wide-ranging introduction to the field, while Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith capably put comics in historical, artistic, and political-economic context in their textbook on the subject (Wolk 2008; Duncan & Smith 2009). Finally, the two academic volumes edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester bring together some of the most crucial theoretical and critical texts in the nascent field of “comics studies” in a pair of serious and thought-provoking anthologies (2008, 2013).

B. Visual Art

In his seminal Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud accurately points out that the history of comics stretches back centuries (even millennia) further than we might imagine; Greco-Roman sculptures, Egyptian and Mesoamerican picture narratives, and medieval tapestries all tell stories through the sequential juxtaposition of images (McCloud 1994). Exploring such connections between contemporary superhero comics and the art of the ancient world might get students interested in learning more about art history and mythology. Furthermore, discussing how a single panel of a comic represents a moment in a greater narrative is a wonderful way of introducing the visual literacy skills necessary to comprehend figurative / representative painting. By examining their overall color schemes and use of light and dark, specific penciling and inking techniques or brushwork, tensions and balances of framing and perspective, selection and deployment of specific detail, grasp of the human anatomy, and capture of movement and emotion through gesture and expression, we can learn to analyze the meaning and evaluate the quality of paintings and drawings as well as narrative comics. And just as the works of Edward Hopper have been compared to stills from film noir movies, paintings often suggest a larger story extending beyond the confines of the frame. Again, the very open-endedness they share with comics is what leads the viewer to make inferences and predictions.

Comics can also demonstrate the differences between Western and non-Western art and the historical trends within each tradition. While comics still generally abide by the Renaissance conventions of representation (like three-dimensional perspective), their vibrant dynamism and hyperreal exaggerations mark them as products of artistic Modernism and / or Postmodernism. In recent years, superhero comics (particularly those published by Marvel) have moved away from cinematic, detail-heavy mimetic realism to a smoother, more stylized, flattened-out graphic approach.

Other series might serve to illustrate the influence of artistic movements upon wider popular culture. Grant Morrison’s career in independent comics alone serves as a superb illustration. In its boundless overflowing of mad creativity, his Doom Patrol (with Richard Case, among others) is a mindbending journey of surrealism and psychedelia. Morrison’s Flex Mentallo (with Frank Quitely), The Invisibles (with a rotating cast of artists), and The Filth (with Chris Weston) verge on pop art, while Animal Man (with Chas Truog) is realism spiced with metafictional, postmodern self-reflexivity. His brilliant, thrilling, and heartbreaking We3 (with Frank Quitely) is “Western manga,” combining a kind of inhuman naturalism with a Modernist fracturing of space and time, while Seaguy (with Cameron Stewart) and Vimanarama (with Philip Bond) hearken back to the glory days of Jack Kirby in their retro stylings while bringing in influences from Disney cartoons and Indian culture, respectively.

Finally, visual art classes can teach children to make their own comics to tell stories–either adaptations of pre-existing narratives from literature or stories that students create on their own in order to express themselves (McCloud 2006). As mentioned above, many digital arts classes already instruct students in how to create comics and animations using various software programs and apps found on the web.

C. Social Studies, Science, and Technology

Superhero comics often strive for relevance within contemporary pop culture–they reflect the time period in which they were created–so they can be utilized in the classroom as an index to broader sociocultural shifts (Syma & Weiner 2013). Many social studies classes already make extensive use of political cartoons, so delving further into graphic narratives makes sense, too. For example, Captain America can tell us something about perceptions of the United State’s role in World War II and other conflicts, while the X-Men have always served as a literalized metaphor for prejudice and discrimination–toward racial and sexual minorities, for example–of all kinds. Sean Howe’s totally engrossing Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a hilarious and often horrifying chronicle that engages with such issues as the class struggle, U.S. labor and business history in the twentieth century, the contributions of immigrants and religious / ethnic / racial minorities to American culture, the impact of drugs and sixties / seventies psychedelia upon society, moral panics and political anxieties, conflicts between creativity and copyright, and the uneasy relationship between commerce and art (2013). Moving from straight history to a sui generis work blending subjective history, criticism, philosophy, and memoir, Grant Morrison’s entertaining Supergods (2012) is a mind-expanding look into what comics can tell us about the (post-)human condition. Finally, David Hajdu’s work on comics in the fifties and sixties gives us great insight into the history of censorship in the United States (2008). The website of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a group that promotes and protects First Amendment liberties, also contains many detailed resources on banned and challenged books (CBLDF 2015).

It’s worth noting that in recent years, Marvel’s superhero comics have become more diverse (both stylistically and in terms of representation) than ever. In addition to all of the original, classic characters, there’s now a biracial Spider-Man, a black Captain America, a female Thor, a female Captain Marvel, a Pakistani-American (and Muslim) Ms. Marvel, a Korean-American Spider-Woman, a Hispanic Ghost Rider, and several gay or bisexual Young Avengers and X-Men. Having such an egalitarian cast of characters can allow previously excluded minorities to hear their own unique voices, to see themselves reflected–as heroes instead of sidekicks or villains–in the media they consume. At their best, superhero comics can widen the circle of our empathy and inspire us to create a more tolerant society.

Scott McCloud suggests in his Reinventing Comics that webcomics–which are not bound to the dimensions of a printed page–can give creators the freedom to sprawl out in multiple directions, to play with the representation of space and time (2000). But regardless of whether comic is published on paper or on a screen, all comics allow the reader to pause, rewind, and fast forward, to play with the subjective flow of time. This is exactly the quality that makes them so ideal for conveying information regarding science and technology. As Syma and Weiner note, a growing number of high school and college textbooks and “graphic guides” on various academic subjects utilize comics as a concise and elegant way of explaining concepts, one that lends itself to repeated viewings for the purpose of studying or memorization (2013). In many ways, superhero comics actually anticipated this by overlaying pictures with explanatory text that referred the reader to the numbers of previous issues for context, in a kind of primitive augmented reality.

(Speaking of memorization–anyone who thinks superhero comic books are light reading with low cognitive demands on the reader likely has not read one lately, for few genres require the reader to file away and recall later as much minutiae and trivia from decades of relevant backstory as this one does!)

V. Conclusion

Artistic innovation flows upward, from the lowbrow to the highbrow, as often as it trickles downward in the reverse direction. With regard to graphic novels, the subtle innovations of Alison Bechdel, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, Craig Thompson, and Chris Ware–to name some of the “prestige” comics creators acclaimed by the literary mainstream–often pale in comparison to the splashy psychedelic hyperrealism and radical reinventions of both form and content that can be found in the humble superhero comic. Panel after panel, page after page, too many graphic novels limit themselves to repetitive foresquare panels and staid rectangular page layouts, with a kind of lazy middlebrow naturalism (perhaps gleaned more from television or film than from the history of comics) serving to render them aesthetically conservative or even downright stodgy.

In his remarkable essay “The Middle Against Both Ends,” the great literary critic Leslie Fiedler correctly contended that the relationship between comic books and American culture is predicated primarily upon socioeconomic class. Fiedler’s argument is as perspicacious and relevant now as it was in 1955, and it’s well-worth excerpting at length:

The notion that there is more than one language of art, or rather, that there is something not quite art, which performs art’s function for most men in our society, is disquieting enough for anyone, and completely unacceptable to the sentimental egalitarian, who had dreamed of universal literacy leading directly to a universal culture. It is here that we begin to see that there is a politics as well as a pathology involved in the bourgeois hostility to popular culture. I do not refer only to the explicit political ideas embodied in the comics or in the literature of the cultural elite; but certainly each of these arts has a characteristic attitude: populist-authoritarian on the one hand, and aristocratic-authoritarian on the other.

[…] We live in the midst of a strange two-front class war: the readers of the slicks battling the subscribers to the “little reviews” and the consumers of pulps; the sentimental-egalitarian conscience against the ironical-aristocratic sensibility on the one hand and the brutal-populist mentality on the other. The joke, of course, is that it is the “democratic” centre which calls here and now for suppression of its rivals; while the elite advocate a condescending tolerance, and the vulgar ask only to be let alone.

It is disconcerting to find cultural repression flourishing at the point where middling culture meets a kindly, if not vigorously thought-out, liberalism. The sort of rightthinking citizen who subsidises trips to America for Japanese girls scarred by the Hiroshima bombing, and deplores McCarthy in the public press, also deplores, and would censor, the comics. In one sense, this is fair enough; for beneath the veneer of slogans that “crime doesn’t pay” and the superficial praise of law and order, the comics do reflect that dark populist faith which Senator McCarthy has exploited. There is a kind of “black socialism” of the American masses which underlies formal allegiances to one party or another: the sense that there is always a conspiracy at the centres of political and financial power; the notion that the official defenders of the commonwealth are “bought” more often than not; an impatience with moral scruples and a distrust of intelligence, especially in the expert and scientist; a willingness to identify the enemy, the dark projection of everything most feared in the self, on to some journalistically-defined political opponent of the moment.

This is not quite the “fascism” it is sometimes called. There is, for instance, no European anti-Semitism involved, despite the conventional hooked nose of the scientist-villain. (The inventors and chief producers of comic books have been, as it happens, Jews.) There is also no adulation of a dictator-figure on the model of Hitler or Stalin; though one of the archetypes of the Deliverer in the comics is called Superman, he is quite unlike the Nietzschean figure–it is the image of Cincinnatus which persists in him, an archetype that has possessed the American imagination since the time of Washington: the leader who enlists for the duration and retires unrewarded to obscurity. It would be absurd to ask the consumer of such art to admire in the place of images that project his own impotence and longing for civil peace some hero of middling culture–say, the good boy of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, who, because he has studied hard in school, has become a lawyer who argues cases before the Supreme Court and has friends who own their own tennis courts. As absurd as to ask the general populace to worship Stephen Dedalus or Captain Ahab! But the high-minded petty-bourgeois cannot understand or forgive the rejection of his own dream, which he considers as nothing less than the final dream of humanity. The very existence of a kind of art based on allegiances and values other than his challenges an article of his political faith; and when such an art is “popular,” that is, more read, more liked, more bought than his own, he feels his raison d’etre, his basic life-defence, imperilled. The failure of the petty-bourgeoisie to achieve cultural hegemony threatens their dream of a truly classless society; for they believe, with some justification, that such a society can afford only a single culture. And they see, in the persistence of a high art and a low art on either side of their average own, symptoms of the re-emergence of classes in a quarter where no one had troubled to stand guard.

The problem posed by popular culture is finally, then, a problem of class distinction in a democratic society. What is at stake is the refusal of cultural equality by a large part of the population. It is misleading to think of popular culture as the product of a conspiracy of profiteers against the rest of us. This venerable notion of an eternally oppressed and deprived but innocent people is precisely what the rise of mass culture challenges. Much of what upper-class egalitarians dreamed for him, the ordinary man does not want-especially literacy. The situation is bewildering and complex, for the people have not rejected completely the notion of cultural equality; rather, they desire its symbol but not its fact. At the very moment when half of the population of the United States reads no hard-covered book in a year, more than half of all high-school graduates are entering universities and colleges; in twenty-five years almost all Americans will at least begin a higher education. It is clear that what is demanded is a B.A. for everyone, with the stipulation that no one be forced to read to get it. And this the colleges, with “objective tests” and “visual aids,” are doing their reluctant best to satisfy.

One of the more exasperating aspects of the cultural defeat of the egalitarians is that it followed a seeming victory. For a while (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) it appeared as if the spread of literacy, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the emergence of the novel as a reigning form would succeed in destroying both traditional folk art and an aristocratic literature still pledged to epic, ode, and verse tragedy. But the novel itself (in the hands of Lawrence, Proust, Kafka, etc.) soon passed beyond the comprehension of those for whom it was originally contrived; and the retrograde derivations from it–various steps in a retreat toward wordless narrative: digests, pulp fiction, movies, picture magazines–revealed that middling literature was not in fact the legitimate heir of either folk art or high art, much less the successor of both, but a tertium quid of uncertain status and value.

The middlebrow reacts with equal fury to an art that baffles his understanding and to one which refuses to aspire to his level. The first reminds him that he has not yet, after all, arrived (and, indeed, may never make it); the second suggests to him a condition to which he might easily relapse, one perhaps that might have made him happier with less effort (and here exacerbated puritanism is joined to baffled egalitarianism)–even suggests what his state may appear like to those a notch above. Since he cannot on his own terms explain to himself why anyone should choose any level but the highest (that is, his own), the failure of the vulgar seems to him the product of mere ignorance and laziness–a crime! And the rejection by the advanced artist of his canons strikes him as a finicking excess, a pointless and unforgivable snobbism. Both, that is, suggests the intolerable notion of a hierarchy of taste, a hierarchy of values, the possibility of cultural classes in a democratic state; and before this, puzzled and enraged, he can only call a cop. The fear of the vulgar is the obverse of the fear of excellence, and both are aspects of the fear of difference: symptoms of a drive for conformity on the level of the timid, sentimental, mindless-bodiless genteel. (Fiedler 1955 p. 21-23)

When I first entered the world of comic books and graphic novels, I assumed that superhero comics were merely a text to be critiqued, deconstructed, or parodied rather than appreciated in their own right. This attitude, which was no doubt borne of reading postmodern works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen before I ever encountered a single superhero comic, prevented me from perceiving and entering into the “living conversation” surrounding the medium (Buehler 2009). In his “theoretical fiction about postmodernism,” Doom Patrols (which was in turn inspired by the eponymous series by Grant Morrison), the theorist and critic Steven Shaviro points out that comic books have a curiously bifurcated nature:

The mechanically reproduced object has two lives: one as an ephemeral throw-away item, the other as a precious fetish. This also corresponds to two ways that comics are consumed by their audience. On the one hand, you need to leaf through them quickly, with what Walter Benjamin calls distracted attention: it’s precisely in this suspended state that they become so strangely absorbing. On the other hand, you need to go back over them, studying every word and every panel, with a fanatical attention to detail. The letters pages of any comic book are filled with the most minutely passionate comments and observations. The letter-writers worry about inconsistencies and continuity errors, express approval or disapproval of the characters, engage in lengthy symbolic analyses, critique the artists’ renderings, and make earnest suggestions for future plot directions. In this way, these books become interactive; as Marshall McLuhan was apparently the first to note, comics are “a highly participational form of expression.” It’s all so different from the old habits of highbrow literary culture. A comic book has fans, more than it does “readers.” The medium is the message, as McLuhan always reminds us. The disjunctive mix of words and images, the lines and colors, the rapid cinematic cuts, the changes in plot direction, the tactility of newsprint at your fingertips: all these are more important than any particular content. (Shaviro 1996)

As Shaviro alludes to above, there are already expansive subterranean literacies–such as letter columns in the back of single issues, online forums devoted to comics, and comic book shops themselves–in which adolescents and adults can engage in passionate discussion and debate. For example, if one enters a chain bookstore, one is unlikely to overhear customers and staff members talking animatedly about the merits of individual creators, characters, titles, and storylines, but when one walks into a comic book store, this is exactly what one might reasonably expect to immediately encounter. As a form of collaborative storytelling and mass readership, comics are perhaps unique in inspiring more devotion, attention to detail, and vociferous praise and criticism, than any other text-based medium. As educators, we need only reject or revise our aesthetic assumptions and myths (which, in the last instance, often amount to sociocultural ones) about what constitutes literature and, indeed, the act of reading itself, in order to access this rich and colorful discourse and to encourage a new generation of media literate citizens.

This essay is dedicated to Nich Boyd–for getting me back into comics. Thank you also to my local comic book store, Nostalgia Ink. 

VI. Works Cited

Archer, J. (Producer), & Cousins, M. (Director). (2011). The story of film [Motion picture]. Ireland: Hopscotch Films.

Brandom, R. (1994). Making it explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. (2000). Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. (2015). From empiricism to expressivism: Brandom reads Sellars. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Brody, R. (2008). Everything is cinema: The working life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Da Capo.

Buehler, J. (2009). Ways to join the living conversation about young adult literature. The English Journal 98(3), 26-32.

Burch, N. (1973). Theory of film practice. New York: Praeger.

Cary, S. (2004). Going graphic: Comics in the multilingual classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

CBLFD. (2015). Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved from

Duncan, R. & Smith, M.J. (2009). The power of comics: History, form, and culture. New York: Continuum.

Farber, M. (2009). Farber on film: The complete film writings of Manny Farber. New York: Library of America.

Fiedler, L. (1955). The middle against both ends. Encounter, 23, 16-23.

Fraction, M. & Aja, D. et al. (2013). Hawkeye vol. 2: Little hits. New York: Marvel.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Frey, N. & Fischer, D.B. (2008). Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Godard, J-L. (Director). (1988-1998). Histoire(s) du cinéma [Motion picture]. France: Gaumont.

Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague: The great comic book scare and how it changed America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Harvey, S. & Goudvis, A. (2007). Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension for understanding and engagement. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Hatfield, C., Heer, J., & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2013). The superhero reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Heer, J. & Worcester, K. (Eds.). (2008). A comics studies reader. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Howe, S. (2013). Marvel comics: The untold story. New York: Harper Perennial.

Latour, J. & Rodriguez, R., et al. (2015). The amazing Spider-Man: Edge of spider-verse. New York: Marvel.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: William Morrow.

McCloud, S. (2000). Reinventing comics: How imagination and technology are revolutionizing an art form. New York: William Morrow.

McCloud, S. (2006). Making comics: Storytelling secrets of comics, manga, and graphic novels. New York: William Morrow.

Moje, E.B., Young, J.P., Readence, J.E., & Moore, D.W. (2000, February). Reinventing adolescent literacy for new times: Perennial and millennial issues. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(5), 400-410.

Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods: What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Morrison, G. & Quitely, F. (2011). All-Star Superman. New York: DC Comics.

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2013). Media Literacy Defined. Retrieved from

Sellars, W. (1956). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shaviro, S. (1996). Doom patrols: A theoretical fiction about postmodernism. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Slott, D. & Allred, M. (2015). Silver Surfer vol. 3: Last days. New York: Marvel.

Syma, C.K. & Weiner, R.G. (Eds.). (2013). Graphic novels and comics in the classroom: Essays on the educational power of sequential art. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Wolk, D. (2008). Reading comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean. New York: Da Capo.

Yang, G. (2009). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts 85(3), 135-140.

Posted in film, literature, philosophy | Leave a comment