Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱

Demon Professor

The truth is that all of my students are brilliant and I don’t particularly care if a few of them slack off toward the end of the semester, but I still sometimes fantasize about being a demon professor.

This comic is a direct homage to the game Little Nightmares II, in which a super creepy teacher is the boss monster of the “School” level. Little Nightmares II is dark and disturbing and awful, and I love it. If nothing else, the visual design is fantastic.

Key Terms in Comics Studies

I’m excited to share the news that a new reference book called Key Terms in Comics Studies has been published!

Key Terms in Comics Studies is a glossary of over 300 terms and critical concepts currently used in the Anglophone academic study of comics, including those from other languages that are currently adopted and used in English. Written by nearly 100 international and contemporary experts from the field, the entries are succinctly defined, exemplified, and referenced. The entries are 250 words or fewer, placed in alphabetical order, and explicitly cross-referenced to others in the book.

I’m honored to have contributed the entry on “manga.” It was a challenge to handle such a broad topic in 250 words, but I think I was able to do it justice while providing references to some of my favorite books on manga, academic or otherwise.

Key Terms in Comics Studies is intelligently organized and extremely useful, and it has the added benefit of being affordable. If you’re interested, you can order a copy from the publisher’s website (here), and it’s also on Amazon (here).

Falling Out of Love with Teaching

Dear Professor,

I’ve enjoyed your class this semester, but I need to prioritize other demands on my time during the exam period. Could you tally my grade and let me know if I can pass this class without submitting the final paper?

Please reply at your earliest convenience.

Best regards,

[Name Redacted]

I fell out of love with teaching during the exact moment I opened this email from an undergraduate student. My disillusionment with academia has always been present in varying degrees since the beginning of my career, but the shift in my belief in the value of my work was sudden and complete, like flicking off a light switch before going outside.

Professors famously enjoy complaining that their students are lazy, and I couldn’t agree less. Having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States, it’s been my experience that the kids are all right, actually. There are always going to be a few students in every class who don’t make any secret of the fact that they’d rather not be there. Still, most undergrads are hardworking and earnest young adults who have grand dreams but are painfully aware of their low likelihood of achieving success. They’re intelligent, they’re socially conscious, and they’re almost frighteningly talented. Unfortunately, for most of them, their prospects aren’t great.

As of 2021, the average annual cost of a four-year college in the United States is $35,770, and the vast majority of college students owe at least $30,000 in student debt when they graduate. The employment opportunities for recent graduates aren’t great, regardless of whether they major in the Humanities or a STEM field. Ambitious students aiming for salaried positions are often forced to enroll in a graduate degree program. Others continue to accept unpaid or underpaid internships after graduation as they chase the chance of a stable job that offers a livable wage. During their hunt for a decent job, many recent graduates feel compelled to move far away from their family and friends, breaking both their intimate social ties and the networks of connections that college life is supposed to facilitate. Any way you look at it, it’s a bleak picture.  

I teach classes about contemporary media cultures in East Asia. The discipline tends to attract Business students and STEM majors who’d like to minor in the Humanities for personal reasons but feel as though they need to justify their choice on a resume. Most of my students aren’t white, and many of them have explained that they’re interested in histories and cultures that aren’t Anglo-European. Some of them have admitted to wanting to learn about the country their family immigrated from in a space that’s mostly separate from the complications of the relationships they have with their parents and grandparents. It can be tricky to occupy to the position of teaching someone about their own culture, but it’s been a pleasure and an honor to stand behind my students during their journeys.  

What I feel that I owe to these young people, the gifted and the mediocre students alike, is to help them make their way in the world. A professor publishes research and teaches classes, but it’s also our job to create connections for our students. We write letters, we make phone calls, we introduce our students to the right people, we send them applications to programs that align with their goals and interests, and we help them win grants and scholarships and paid internships. When necessary, we do battle against the bureaucracy of the university administration on their behalf.

What students get out of our classes isn’t necessarily the acquisition of concrete knowledge, but rather a framework for dealing with the world on both an intellectual and a practical level. In the end, even if our students don’t become specialists in our fields, they will hopefully have a pleasant experience learning about how beautiful and complicated and interesting the world can be.

That’s what I thought, at least, right up until the point I lost my job at a public university during the pandemic. After I was notified that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, I was able to find a part-time job at the sort of well-funded private university that can afford to hire temp workers during a pandemic. Although I’d gotten my degrees at places like this, actually teaching there was an altogether different experience. Many of my students, at twenty years old, have a higher net worth than I will ever have at any point in my life. They know it, and they made sure that I know it as well.

For all the magic of teaching and learning, higher education in the United States is a tool of social and economic privilege. The rich use it to maintain their wealth, while it causes the lower and middle classes to become poorer. The undergraduate students who go to colleges that aren’t “top twenty schools” work hard and take on massive amounts of debt in order to have access to something that students born into wealth feel entitled to. No matter what my intentions may have been when I entered academia, no “decolonizing the classroom” initiatives, job placements, or glowing recommendation letters can account for that fact that I function as a cog in an engine of inequality. To add insult to injury, my salary isn’t even that high. American universities espouse a neoliberal ideology of “personal commitment to teaching and service,” which functions as a means of justifying their exploitation of the precarious labor of instructors.

In other words, my career in academia was like an abusive relationship. I kept telling myself that it would get better, but this was little more than a fantasy that supported my idealistic but naïve view of higher education in the United States. Nothing made this clearer to me than reading my first “please reply at your earliest convenience” email from a student who saw our power dynamic for what it was and had no qualms about using the privilege of his position to negotiate a grade.

You may be wondering how I responded. I allowed the student to pass the class without completing the work, of course. The way I see it, you either do things for love or money, and I’m not being paid enough to care.

Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.

Emotional Support Photo

Embarrassingly enough, this actually happened to me in 2018.

The one thing I didn’t miss in 2020 was having to go to academic conferences. I’m not crazy about infinite Zoom meetings, but flying across the country to spend two nights in an expensive conference hotel so that I could work sixteen hours in one day wasn’t fun either. I used to love flying when I was younger, but I eventually got to a point where it started to stress me out. If nothing else, it’s nice to be able to take a break from conference travel.

I still use (this photo) to help myself cope with Zoom meetings, though.

Two-Step Tumblr Thinking

I have a theory about why nuanced discussions of complicated topics have become unnecessarily fraught during the past five years or so. This is one facet of many, of course, but I’ve had enough experience with this particular discursive mode that I think it’s worth describing in concrete terms.

Social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr promote a style of messaging that is easily consumable and sharable. I don’t think this is a bad thing. Concise and witty observations, one-sentence press releases with hyperlinks, and captioned comics and artwork are the majority of what I share on social media, and I’m grateful to have access to this content without having to scroll through endless reams of blog posts in an aggregate feed reader.

Unfortunately, this sort of messaging tends to flatten discussions. Although I see this on Twitter too, I joined Tumblr in 2011 and have watched in real time as discussions of subjects like race and sexuality have been adjusted to a format better suited to easy consumption and sharing. After becoming more familiar with the patterns of how this tends to play out, I’ve started to refer to this oversimplification of complicated topics as “two-step Tumblr thinking.”

The basic model for this type of thinking is as follows:

  1. [X] is bad.
  2. A piece of media contains [X].

Numerous conclusions can be drawn from these two observations, but they tend to be something along the lines of “the piece of media is therefore bad” or “anyone who likes the piece of media is bad.” These conclusions in turn result in the sort of call-out culture (or cancel culture) in which relatively powerless individuals, often young people occupying positions of relative disadvantage, become the targets of anger and frustration that might more appropriately be directed at social and economic systems or perpetrators of violence and injustice in the real world.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to call out bullshit when and where it exists. Sometimes bullshit is nothing more than bullshit, and calling it out doesn’t need to be “a nuanced discussion.”

Still, simplifying every discussion of a complicated subject like media representation to “this is bad” serves to inhibit critical thinking while erasing perspectives that don’t occupy a mainstream or normative position. In other words, the demand for a flattened mode of discourse serves to reify injustice, not resist it.

To give a specific example, this is an argument I’ve made (here) about the villainous character Ganondorf in the Legend of Zelda games The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.
  3. But the game is not made by white Americans.
  4. Japan has a complicated history with imperialism.
  5. The dark-skinned villain comments on imperialism.
  6. He does so using (Japanese) language that invites sympathy.
  7. The games were made during a surge in ethnic visibility movements.

Following this chain of thinking, one might be able to suggest something interesting about the games and the different layers of the story and message they convey. You might not come to the same set of conclusions I did, and that’s totally fine. (I would love that, actually.)

The problem is that most discussions stop after the first two steps, so you get:

  1. Racism is bad.
  2. The villain has dark skin.

According to this chain of thinking, the Legend of Zelda games are racist, and anyone who enjoys the games or wants to talk about the character Ganondorf is therefore racist as well. The only place a discussion can go after this conclusion is a squabble over ad hominem identity politics, which is unpleasant even when it’s not happening online.

I’m not saying that positionality isn’t important, or somehow irrelevant and invalid. Rather, if “being allowed to talk about something” is dependent on nothing more (and nothing less) than individual positionality, this creates a tense atmosphere that encourages shenanigans like racebending (which is when white people suddenly discover their “ethnic” heritage) and infighting within the LGBTQ+ community over who is allowed to “count” as gay.

Let me give another example based on an academic article I was asked to review for a well-respected journal. The author was writing about an interesting manga that I would describe like this:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.
  3. But the manga is drawn by a woman.
  4. And most of the manga’s fans are women.
  5. The artist explicitly addresses the violence of misogyny.
  6. Many fans openly address misogyny in their fanwork as well.

What I would argue (as I’ve argued before) is that this type of storytelling is a form of collective therapy, healing, and empowerment for the objects of violence, who tell stories in which they become the active subjects and literal authors of their experiences.

If this discussion stops after the first two steps, however, you get:

  1. Sexual assault is bad.
  2. The manga depicts sexual assault.

This type of discursive flattening led the author of the article to argue that the manga advocates for violence against women and is therefore, in a very literal sense, just as bad as #Gamergate, a social media “movement” in which anonymous users sent a barrage of rape threats to female game developers and journalists over several months during the summer and fall of 2014.

I have to admit that, as a peer reviewer, I had no idea how to respond to this. One might as well argue that Joyce Carol Oates, in writing about the violence of rape, was justifying rape; or that Toni Morrison, in writing about the violence of slavery, was advocating for slavery. This sort of argument is absurd, obviously, and I don’t think it’s any less absurd if it’s applied to a story that addresses its themes through fantasy instead of with mimetic realism.

Again, I’m not saying that being able to quickly share information about sexist and racist bullshit on social media is bad. If someone in a position of power is abusing their privilege to hurt people, I don’t need “a nuanced discussion” of the matter.

I also want to emphasize that I respect people’s positions on what they are and aren’t able to tolerate in any given piece of media. Speaking personally, I have a set of topics and styles of representation that I avoid on sight (or reputation) whenever I encounter them in entertainment media, and I don’t care how “nuanced” or “complicated” the piece of media’s treatment of them may be. This is valid for me, and it’s valid for every other human being on this earth.

At the same time, I don’t think that two-step Tumblr thinking should be the default for critical discussions of complicated topics, especially not in an academic setting, whether it’s a classroom or a peer-reviewed article. Sensitivity is always necessary, of course, but “Toni Morrison was racist because she wrote about race” isn’t an exercise of critical thinking by any stretch of the imagination.

This especially applies to conversations about cultures outside of Europe. If we want to encourage conversations about “difference,” then we’re going to have to accept that people operating in the context of different cultures have different ways of telling stories and talking about important issues. Again, I’m not trying to excuse bad behavior, but I think discussions of complicated topics could benefit from more research and critical thinking instead of stalling after the first two steps.

Big-Hearted Lad Appreciation Hours

I’m looking forward to 2021, so this year I’ve decided to send out New Year’s cards instead of holiday cards. 2021 is the Year of the Ox, so I thought it would be fun to have a card with a muscular big boy with ox horns showing off his eggplant and arrows while posing against Mt. Fuji. Himbos please drag us out of the toxic swamp of 2020, that sort of thing. I checked the websites I use for Japanese stationery, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I guess I’ll just have to make it myself.

When it comes to fictional characters, some people argue that the celebration of powerful men with big bodies is “fetishization.” I don’t think that’s quite right, as gendered power imbalances in the real world still result in misogynistic discrimination and violence. To give three examples that are very close to me:

I have a male acquaintance who moved from job to job after grad school, and at every position he left behind warnings on Rate My Professor from female students saying he harassed them. People in my field know this but still hire this man because “you can’t trust what kids say on that site.”

I spent four years quietly suffering harassment from my male department chair before finally being forced to leave my position, relocate, and find a new job during the pandemic. This man now has his own page on Wikipedia, and I don’t even have health insurance.

In college, I once had to watch a man deliver a monologue to a giant dildo about how fanfic is only written by gross women who want to get raped. I still post my “gross” fanfic on AO3, but that man ended up becoming one of the key figures behind the Detective Pikachu movie. True story!

I think that, before someone gets angry at writers and artists for indulging in a fantasy of men who are visually coded as powerful yet still have a kind and supportive personality, maybe they should ask themselves why this type of male character is considered to be a “fantasy.”

I think it’s appropriate that 2021 is the Year of the Ox, because we have a lot of work to do this year. Everyone defines strength differently, and everyone expresses strength in different ways, but I personally have spent so long feeling weak and afraid that I’m absolutely ready to feel strong and powerful.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with many men (cis and trans) who reject toxic masculinity and use their power and privilege to support the people around them. Hell yes I will celebrate these men, and damn straight I will create strong and attractive fictional characters based on them!

School’s Out

I’m like this at the end of every semester, but it hits especially hard this year.

It’s tough to get to know a group of interesting and talented people as you watch them learn and grow from week to week, only to then no longer see or talk to (most of) them ever again.