Category Archives: academia

What’s the point of big ideas?

Scott Jeffery (noun):  Carbon-based biped of Earth. Has a PhD and teaches sociology. Often wonders how this happened.

First things first, I never expected to become an academic. When I was young I was told I was smart, perhaps very smart, but that never really translated into academic achievement. What I did know, even as a very young kid, was that I loved big ideas. Give me a big philosophical concept-Why are we here? What is reality? What is the purpose of art? – And I was happy as a pig in shit. If the shit was made out of abstract philosophical concepts. (Feces – Antifeces – Synfeces. The Hegelian Diarrhoealectic)

To me, knowledge was a kind of food. An idle thought, that’s like a starter, and then a theory, that’s your main course. For pudding I might have a hypothesis. Notions and conceits, they’re like a light-snack, something you might have for supper. The point is I dug philosophy and art and poetry and foreign films and just thinking and talking about big ideas. I didn’t JUST like those things, I liked a lot of stupid, ephemeral shit as well, but my favourite thing was when those two worlds collided. Really smart, stupid shit. Like Monty Python or Woody Allen or that Daffy Duck cartoon where he’s talking to the animator and keeps getting rubbed out and redrawn (by the way, it’s called Duck Amuck and you can watch it here).

My point being, I loved all that shit already. In my own time. For fun. School wasn’t a place where you learned, it was a place that distracted you from learning.

(I’m being overly emphatic by the way. I did have good teachers, great teachers even, but this is a blog post not a peer-reviewed journal article so get off my back, lady!)

So I didn’t get school. School, as any sane child knows, is boring. My entire early education was marked by could-try-harder syndrome. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, I just made it up. If I liked a project and wanted to do it then I would produce outlandishly detailed presentations like a ten-page critique of the history of censorship when I was thirteen. Of course, it helped that I had a love of horror movies, so I had an emotional stake in whether the British Board of Film classification wanted to stop me seeing splinter go into someone’s eye (which I totally did) but still, this was in the days before the internet, so a guy had to go out of his way to research that shit properly, dig? Continue reading

Thesis Review Part Three: Reader-text assemblages

Part One of this ‘thesis review’ introduced the philosophical and theoretical concepts that guided the research undertaken in my thesis. Part Two elaborated upon these ideas- paying particular attention to the concept of the rhizome-and suggested that the field of Comics Studies could be considered as rhizomatic. It then went on to demonstrate how approaches to studying superheroes that utilised structuralist theories and/or analysed the superhero comic in terms of representation and ideology could be understood as broadly humanist and based on an arboreal model of knowledge whereby the ‘meaning’ of the superhero could be reduced to a single explanatory trunk. It then went on to argue for a Post/Humanist approach to superhero comics that, rather than an arboreal model, adopted a rhizomatic approach. To aid this understanding a cultural history of the posthuman body in superhero comic was adopted. It was then demonstrated how this moves the analysis of the superhero away from ideology by understanding the development of the superhero through the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comic books in terms of historically situated assemblages.

 If the rhizomatic cultural history was suggested as a theoretical corrective to the limitations of ideological analyses then it was also important to address the implied reader at the mercy of ideology in these approaches. As such my thesis involved another strand in which I interviewed comic book readers about their views on the superhero and posthumanism more generally. This was seen as a methodological corrective to the problems outlined in Part Two.

In this section then I intend to familiarise the reader with historical approaches to the question of texts and reader/audiences. Having done this I next offer a model of text-reader relations that draws on the concept of assemblages outlined in Part One. Because of the ethical issues involved and the fact it’s not officially complete yet I will not be presenting the data from my interviews here on the blog at this time. Instead this review presents a brief history of audience studies, highlighting some of the dualities that have informed scholarly understanding of reader/text relations, and how these dualities follow on from the same historically established philosophical dualities that critical Post/Humanism is generally engaged in critiquing. As such I offer a model of reader-text relations as an assemblage, illustrated by a brief overview of historically situated comic-reader assemblages in the Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Ages of comics. Continue reading

Thesis Review Part Two: Superheroes, rhizomes, representation and ideology

Welcome to part two of my thesis autopsy, where I pick apart the first draft of my PhD and try to remember just exactly what it was I was trying to study when I began. As always, this is the blog and not the thesis itself so while there’s a lot of references in what follows its also likely to slip into a more conversational style. Let’s just jump straight in.

My thesis began with two broad questions: what could the development of the superhero tell us about posthumanism, and how did readers of superhero comics relate to the posthuman? In Part One of this thesis review I pointed out that answering those questions first required clarifying the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying them. So it was that Part One introduced several concepts borrowed from Delueze and Guattari that served as the theoretical guide for undertaking this research project. In this part I want to re-introduce Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome (touched on briefly in part one) and how it differs from traditional models of thought and culture.

 These ideas will then be illustrated through a discussion of the filed of Comics Studies as rhizome, and also how many scholars approaching the superhero have relied on structuralist analyse (often accompanied by an ideological critique). Such approaches, whether positive or negative in their final reading of the ‘meaning’ of the superhero, are presented as arboreal or tree-like. I argue that such approaches can be characterised as Humanist. The rhizome is then offered as an alternative, Post/Humanist model for thinking about superheroes.

The article then goes on discuss how Foucault’s notion of discourse operates within a rhizome. Several theoretical (and occasionally methodological) objections are raised to move comics analysis away from questions of representation and identity politics, and an argument put forth for the production of a rhizomatic cultural history of the posthuman superhero body.

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Thesis Review Part One: Assemblages and Rhizomes

Hello you! There’s been no blog posts for a while. Comedy and academia have been eating up my time. In a few days time (Friday 15th to be exact) the world premier of Woodward and Jeffery: Laughter on the Outskirts will be on at the Leicester Comedy Festival. This looming comedy deadline has had the added benefit of forcing me to go full pelt at completing a draft of my thesis beforehand. (UPDATE: It’s been and gone and I wrote about it here).

It’s been a long three years, and its not over yet. But with a full initial draft of my snappily titled thesis Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Comics finally in the bag, now seems a good time to present some of the ideas from it on the blog. A ‘thesis review’ where the monster’s still dying corpse can be dissected and unimaginable, as-yet-unnamed organs extracted from its still-warm carcass and held up to the light: “Now look what we have here”, I will say, rubbing the ungodly creature’s black blood on my lab coat.  As ever, the reader is forewarned that this is the blog and not the thesis itself, so expect a potentially unpalatable mix of personal literary style and academic writing. Although to be fair if you are still with me after the whole monster autopsy thing then we’ll probably be okay. So lets begin.

In short I set out three and a bit years ago (or perhaps 34) to investigate two related questions. Firstly, how had the figure of the posthuman body developed in superhero comics? Or to put it more accurately, in what ways did the development of the superhero relate to a wider discourse of the posthuman body? A discussion of how the posthuman body of the superhero has developed can be found elsewhere on the blog (here and here) so will only be touched on occasionally in this piece

Secondly, I wanted to know what sense comic book readers made of the posthuman body. For example, did a familiarity with the superhero genre make one more or less amenable to the idea of human enhancement as espoused by Transhumanism? The question of reader-text relationships is addressed briefly below but the more elaborate discussion it requires will have to wait until Part Three of this series. Part Two takes the theoretical concepts presented below and demonstrates the advantages of applying them to the study of superhero comics.

In Part One of this ‘thesis review’ I instead want to present some of the philosophical concepts that informed the approach I took in my thesis to the posthuman body in terms of both theory and methodology. Or to put it another way, the following discussion is about what separates a ‘critical analysis’ or ‘cultural theory’ of superhero comics from, say, reviewing them. Long story short: the questions of how superheroes have developed and what readers get from them are not simple to answer. Or, rather, may lead to a multitude of, often potentially conflicting, answers to those questions depending on the assumptions the questioner starts out with. As such this article lays out my epistemological and ontological framework.

As Voltaire once said, “if you wish to converse with me, first define your terms”.

Ready to define some terms? Let’s go!

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The Avant-Garde meets Peter Parker Part 1: Comic Book Cut-Ups

5. named peter parker-and harry osborn

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of cut-ups, I had some familiarity with the concept from reading William S. Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge but I’d never performed the experiment myself. So this post details my experiment in performing the cut-up technique on one particular comic, The Spectacular Spider-Man issue 183, chosen at random because I’d ended up with an extra copy. The full results can be seen here at my Flickr account or scroll down to the bottom of this post . First of all the history and theory of the cut-up will be outlined, followed by a discussion of its more occult implications. After this outline, I want to relate the technique to Robert B. Ray’s suggestions about using surrealist techniques as a way of theorising film and suggest that the same methods could be applied in the study of comic books. This is not a finely honed theory or methodological prescription however. For now it remains an interesting experiment. That said, the final section will discuss what this particular experiment reveals about Spider-Man. The plan is for this to be the first of several such experiments applying avant-garde artistic methods to superhero comics.

Never let it be said that I don’t know how to have a good time!

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Posthuman Social Policy

One of the things that comes up when people ask about my thesis (an action they soon regret-I do go on) is a sense of surprise. Not just because I managed to secure funding. More because the idea of the posthuman still has a whiff of science-fiction-with emphasis on the latter- to the general public. Almost everyone is familiar with say, Arnie’s cyborg The Terminator or the super-humans of The Avengers, but the notion that such beings might become a reality are generally dismissed as either ridiculous or thousands of years away. In fact, one of the problems any proponent of Transhumanism must face is the inability of most current humans to think beyond their own lifetime; or to think in deep time, if you like.

Of course, writers like Ray Kurzweill  and others argue for an exponential development of science and technology (see here for more on ‘accelerated change’. In which case our post human future is not a question of deep time but one that requires a public debate in the present. Current developments in techno-science push us ever closer to a point beyond the existential dilemma of knowing who we are to the ethical question of knowing what we want to become. Choosing which of the qualities we have come to define as human we wish to retain. If any.

At any rate, that is a discussion for another post. What I want to do here is present a list of various governmental and parliamentary reports that relate to the development of the posthuman. This is not a complete list, I’m sure there are many more of these from various countries and research groups, so if anyone knows of any please do get in touch and pass them on. I’m sure there’s an interesting comparative study to be done of the local differences of approach. A flavour of such differences may be gleaned here. I’m going to put them in reverse chronological order because I want to end by highlighting the importance of a public debate about post/transhumanism. More importantly, I hope that this list at least provides sceptics with evidence that these issues are no longer the sole province of science-fiction. These are real governmental reports addressing real questions. And of course they are all hyper-linked for your reading and research pleasure. The search for a posthuman social policy starts here!

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Posthumanism/Transhumanism/Superheroes: A Bibliography

With the deadline for my thesis looming I have been going through the various bits and pieces and ensuring all the references are there. It occurred to me that at least one bibliography, covering the literature review on Posthumaism and Transhumanism, might be of interest to readers of this blog. I will of course put the full bibliography for the thesis up at some point after i’ts completed. In the meantime my Google Library contains several of the works I have used as well as more besides dealing with posthumanism, the body, superheroes and comics studies more generally. I try to keep the Google library updated whenever I come across across a new text so it is becoming quite a useful resource. They can be found by clicking here.

On a related note the next Comics are Magic will be a bibliography of works relating to religion, magic, mythology and superheroes. That should be up in the next couple of weeks. And since I have nothing published as yet, I can at least draw attention to my own two papers dealing with superheroes, posthumanism and Transhumanism; Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives and The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman. Or if you’d prefer just to read the abstracts for those two just click here.

Specifically, this post presents a list of those works that directly invoke the comic book superhero to talk about posthumanism and/or transhumanism (but not the many works which merely mentioned superheroes in passing). Such approaches are relatively rare, at least in academic terms, so I hope this list proves useful to anyone thinking of exploring this intersection.Where possible, I’ve tried to hyperlink them to their source. Hopefully some day my own thesis can be added to this list. It goes without saying that my thesis would not exist at all without these preceding works. Hopefully this short bibliography will prove of inspiration and use to others. So let’s begin. Continue reading

Superheroes, psychedelics, counterculture, magic and posthumanism: Best post ever?

Hello humans.

My paper “The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman” is now available HERE on Nth Mind or HERE if you’d prefer a printable version with illustrations (and who could blame you?).

I’m very happy with this one. But then, of all the types of posthuman body discussed in my thesis the Cosmic Body is the one closest to my heart and the vision of posthumanity that is most capable of ensuring the greatest happiness for all. Posthuman bodies require posthuman minds!

Valuable context is available in the first paper, “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives” (click the tile to read that), which lays out my idea that the discourse of the posthuman is a matter of bodies -discourse being not just representations (talk, language), but also material practices. So for example, ‘genetic engineering’ is not just a matter of science-fiction but also a real-world techno-scientific practice. Not to mix my academic work with parlance of hip-hop but this shit is real, baby.

This posthuman discourse consists of three overlapping discursive domains-speculative Trans/humanism (also including ‘real-world’ tecno-science); critical-philsophical Post/Humanism (in which include people like Foucault, Haraway) and of course Superhumanism (the realm of science fiction, but also comic books). Superhero comics offer a delicuos smorgasboard of posthuman bodies. Considering these bodies lets us also consider how they are found in the other two discursive realms.

Without going into too much detail (you can read the paper for yourselves after all), this paper takes a rhizomatic journey through the Cosmic Body, following the hidden underground root systems that link superheroes with the psychedelic counterculture of the sixties with Transhumanism’s forebear the Human Potential Movement with eastern mysticism with Nietzsche’s critique of Humanism with shamanism with Western occultism and the scientist-shaman with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol with One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest with, well, you get the idea.

(The paper isn’t written in this style I should add. I’m a professional, I just blog as an excitable child with a precocious interest in esoteric ideas and countercultural philosophies)

At any rate, this paper is a point where it feels my academic, philosophical, personal and creative interest came together as one. A point where, as I say in the paper, critical theory and cultural criticism can become productive and transformative practices rather than simply nihilistic and deconstructive (not that that doesn’t have its own appeal).

Make your own minds up, of course ( and anyway, in a couple of months I might think it’s rubbish) but I would love to hear any comments, criticisms and suggestions. Anyway, once again, because I wrote more there than I meant too, here is “The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman“.

Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives

As promised/threatened I have finally written up my presentation “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives”, a paper I gave at the 2011 British Sociological Asscoiation Annual Conference and in a longer form as a departmental presentation earlier that year. It gives an overview of some of the main concepts I’m working with in my thesis and serves as a pretty thorough introduction to it.

I’ve posted it on NthMind here:

but there is also a version with the illustrations used in the presentation that can be downloaded and printed of here.

Look forward to any comments, thoughts, ideas, etc.

Whither academia?

It occurs to me that this blog, charming as it is, is a bit weighted towards creative stuff at the moment, at the expense of any academic work. The question of whether academic work ought to be considred equally ‘creative’ in its way will have to wait for another post. For now, I plan to rectify the situation (I know, ‘finally’, I hear my legion-yes, LEGION-of followers say) by dusting down the three conference papers I have delivered this year and posting them.

As such, right now, I’m working on writing up a departmental presentation I did that outlines the main concerns of the thesis, namely, how we can read superhero comics as a posthuman body genre. Which is to say that the transformations (in every sense of that term) undergone by the superhero over the last seventy odd years reflect how the notion of the ‘posthuman’- the superior being that will potentially come to replace us mere humans-has evolved, through a series of socio-historic mutations, in philosophy, critical theory and, perhaps most pressingly, techno-scientific discourse.

That paper, “Producing and Consuming the Posthuman Body in Superhero Narratives” provides a pretty neat introduction to some of the main ideas , without posting any actual phd chapters (not entirely sure what the rules are there but seems a bit risky while the thesis is still ongoing). Here is the abstract for the version of it I presented at the 2011 British Sociological Asscoiation Annual Conference. (UPDATE! This paper can now be found HERE!)

For over seventy years the superhero comic book has presented narratives of the posthuman body. In these stories the posthuman body has been put to work as patriotic propaganda, used to explore notions of morality and identity, and, in more recent years, used to interrogate, however crudely, the workings of the military industrial complex.
These developments have been paralleled outside of comic books by a
wider discourse of posthumanism, which has taken both popular and
academic forms, but shares in both cases an emphasis on the impact of
science and technology on the human body. This paper highlights three of these intersections between the comic book posthuman and the wider discourse of the posthuman. The Golden Age of superheroes of the thirties and forties are understood in terms of the eugenics movement, the Silver Age of the sixties in terms of the psychedelic counter-culture of that time, and the contemporary superhero in terms of a globalised military/industrial complex and the emerging technologies it is funding and building. This paper demonstrates how the science-fictional discourse of superherocomics both influences and is influenced by these wider discourses.

That piece should be up in the next few days.  Swiftly followed, all going well, by another paper I presented at this years Transitions conference entitled “The Silver Age Superhero as Psychedelic Shaman” (UPDATE! This paper is now available HERE!). Aspects of this will be touched on briefly in the first piece, but ‘Psychedelic Shaman’ goes into more detail about one specific type of posthuman body found in superhero comics, what I’m calling the Cosmic Body. here’s the abstract: Continue reading