…And so with the final turkey sandwich of October now being fully eaten-up, Bloggers, here’s a thing I had a lot of fun doing over the last week or so: a mini-interview with Geoff Klock, to round off the recent intersection of my blog with his. I confess I really enjoy these blogoverse-only interviews, maybe it’s narcissistic but it gives me a real sense of being part of a community…and sometimes, even quite often, I think “community” is a rather dirty word, but maybe that’s because it gets used so much in so many rather dirty ways?
It is all in how you look at it, I guess. But perhaps names don’t matter so much as the things they refer to, and if they don’t then we don’t need to worry about them so much…I mean “community” may be a good thing or a bad thing, a term used for good or ill…
…But I think the give-and-take of conversation is good wherever you find it, no matter what name it goes under.
Let’s have some, shall we?
PLOK: Geoff, I notice a particular (and appealing) item in all your online bios: that before writing “How To” you worked as a night watchman for two years, and read a book a night…and for me, I immediately jump from that to Colin Wilson sleeping rough outside the British Museum while he wrote “The Outsider”. Did you, or do you, feel like you have some “outsider” status in the academic world, or indeed the working world?
GK: My point of reference when I worked that job was the final issue of the Invisibles, where someone says “My Invisible initiation involved three years as a trainee accounts manager. I learned to shovel numbers, go home and dream, get fat on tortillas and Oreos. Then when I was ready, I found them again.” I totally told myself I was an “outsider” — I went to academic conferences as an “independent scholar.” But the thing is I was outside because I wanted to get inside — I was doing this to get into fancy pants grad school. When I got in, I was relieved to be inside. Then I got a job at a community college which sort of puts me outside again, except I am full time and not an adjunct which is more inside something else. Also — my equal interest in poetry and pop culture means that folks that see themselves as high culture folks and pop culture folks can consider me an outsider or an insider. So I guess those terms don’t have much use to me except as a sort of personal psychological boost — at 3am by the water in downtown Manhattan trying to figure out why I dropped out of grad school while wearing a clip on tie and a whistle on a chain I can tell myself I am an outsider-badass completing my Invisibles training and then bounce back to doing something important.
PLOK: Re-reading “How To” a little while ago, I was struck by how much I prefer it to the various pop-philosophy books that seem to be somewhat in vogue lately — I think because it offered me a look into some stuff I was completely unfamiliar with, through the lens of a pop culture I knew well. Maybe in something like the same manner that people manage to plough through The Da Vinci Code because they’re interested in these new ideas they never heard of, despite the atrocious writing? [EDIT: Damn it, I did not mean to imply Geoff's writing was atrocious there! Shit! Actually I found it quite lucid!] Actually I think that’s a major part of the appeal of detective stories too: the exposure to new subcultural knowledge through the familiar tropes of genre fiction. And those are somewhat loopy comparisons, I know, but…most pop-phil books I come across seem to be loaded with arbitrary or off-hand demonstrations of, you know, how to find Platonism in the Simpsons or whatever, and they don’t seem particularly apposite, just a bit perfunctory. “Look, you can find philosophy in everything, it’s actually really interesting you guys!” So, were you consciously choosing a more focussed and off-the-beaten-track kind of pop-phil strategy, or was that just the effect of your academic training, or did it just sort of all fall into your lap one day?
GK: At school I went into a meeting with one of my college supervisors and told him about my dissertation, and he responded “You seem to really like POETRY.” At first it took me by surprise, because I knew so many people writing about poetry, but the more I looked around the more I understood what he meant. A ton of people like some THEORY primarily — some PHILOSOPHY — and then, as part of making it fun or palatable or accessible or as part of making their lives easier they say Look, you can see it in X popular thing. To paraphrase some guy, people say they like poetry or whatever but what they really like is something IN the poetry. I did start life as a philosophy major but some book or some teacher turned me around into looking down on people who did not take seriously the art part first and the idea part second. And I feel like maybe 20 minutes after that happened I started writing the book, with really no sense of anything like what was going on in like cultural studies or whatever, very much a substance over style discipline. I guess in that sense it sort of fell into my lap.
PLOK: I mentioned this to you before, but it always seems to me like you, Douglas Rushkoff, Henry Jenkins et. al. are all in this peculiar no-man’s-land as far as the “fans/pros” divide on the Internet goes…even the “pro critics” like Spurgeon or Noah Berlatzky, or indeed the “semi-pro” critics like Tucker Stone or Abhay Khosla, seem to belong on a continuum with the fans and the creators that the guys with academic credentials are more set apart from…I mean even given that Rushkoff has written a comic book, he’s *still* can’t quite make it onto that ladder, it seems! So, do you feel any of this kind of marginalization going on, for good or bad? Or do you feel that the Internet helps to level all these differences out so much that it really isn’t an issue?
GK: Let me rephrase the question to be sure I understand it (and if I do not let me know): People who write about comics — some are mainly fans, some are mainly professional critics that are more objective and sane, and I and some other people don’t fall well into either category, and when that happens marginalization occurs? There are days when I felt marginalized (like I am not really quoted much in other books about comics) and I always attributed that to the fact that my book was a bit on the pretentious side even when it was making solid observations. There are days when I felt totally central — like when I got to speak at the Met. And if I am marginalized it has to be because I did not really dive into more work on comics: Peter Coogan has this dream that comics is a small field and if you work hard and make connections how hard is it to get to the center of it? Whereas I spread myself too thin at times — I don’t want to write another book on poetry OR comics because I feel like I already did that. I want to write about TV or film or music or GOD or whatever. Except you know life keeps getting in the way somehow. As for the pro/fan divide I AM a fan (or at least I used to be — GOD COMICS KIND OF SUCK RIGHT NOW) but I am trained as a professional critic and no clear side of that debate won, although I do feel like the professional side is all style and the fan side is all the content. I can’t imagine being a movie reviewer who was just assigned movies to go see and write about. I have to wait and see if a thing grabs me — and the thing that pisses people off about me is how often I just don’t give a damn even when it looks like I should (Morrison and Quitely’s Batman for instance). It feels to me like comics for example just are not as exciting as they were a few years ago, but I am open to complaints that I have become jaded or something. But you know — what the hell am I supposed to do about it except keep going to the movies or whatever. I think I got off topic here so I will try to answer your last bit there: I just don’t read comics crit broadly enough to know what the internet does to the fan-pro divide for critics. But I know I like fan-critics because for god sakes let’s start with caring about art first and ideas next. Fans err on the side of being too passionate, whereas critics err on the side of just being totally uninvolved and the fan error is the one I want to be stuck with if I have to be stuck with one.
PLOK: Doesn’t like Morrison and Quitely’s B+R…? STONE THE UNBELIEVER, BRETHREN…! HEY, RUBE…!
…Heh. Well, not to project my own stuff on you, I shouldn’t perhaps have employed the loaded word “marginalization” as I did, to me it means something less like “being excluded” and more like “enjoying a very weird and hard-to-reach vantage point that’s got to be good for something...”
Although sometimes I think that may just be me, the lies I learned to tell myself after my Invisibles training failed…my choosing to believe that being a dilettante is some kind of road to Enlightenment…
Is it just me, though? You make me feel a bit better about my own comforting daily white lies when you say you don’t want to repeat yourself, that instead you want to write on TV or music or movies or God or whatever HITS you…I mean, as far as I can see the customary vision of “success” is the one where you DO repeat yourself, and not only that but it works better each time, and the trick is finding the stuff you can concentrate on as early in life as you can manage, that’ll secure that success for you. But perhaps in these days we don’t need to do that as much as we once did, maybe that’s an outmoded script? More lies, I guess: you say you couldn’t imagine the dreariness of being a film reviewer, just churning out this opinion or that opinion for your daily bread, and yet a million people in your line of work and thought and critical predilection and generational interest would probably jump at the chance to do this, that would be their perfect Elysian snapshot of the ideal life: hip young professor, new movie critic for the local paper, Promethean scenester…cool guy!
So I guess I’m asking…what makes you recoil from that snapshot, if indeed I’ve got it right and you do? Is it something to do with the “poetic” fannish enthusiasm, or the “philosophical” critical training, or both? Or neither?
Or, you know…do I even come close to the mark, here?
GK: I think you are right that the image of success is repeating
yourself with variations: Bloom and Zizek, just to name two writers I
really admire, do that exactly — just sort of say the same thing in
every book for years, with a very slight “development” maybe. I think
the reason I don’t want this for myself is that very early on, like
maybe 8th grade or something, my path got “set” by Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance (that, and wanting to be like Chris from
Northern Exposure). That book, which looks very quaint to me now (but
which also predicted my eventual status as a composition instructor)
argued that we are far too specialized, everyone working in little
cubbyholes and not seeing the big picture. Emerson said it better,
about how we are all dwarves or whatever, but that idea really stuck.
So as a kid I wanted to be this sort of general philosopher who could
talk to anybody about anything — the fact that I ended up being the
“comics” guy or the “poetry” guy (and you can see me resisting
specialization by having two things there) was the result of the grad
school machine which simply will not let you leave with a fancy degree
unless it is very specific — and even in my doctoral thesis I covered
poets from Blake to Anne Carson, from England to America, from the
18th Century to the 20th. And I would have gone even more broad except
I am not so good with the foreign languages (though I did shoehorn in
as much Dante as I could). I think one of the people I really admire
is someone like Stephen Soderbergh — the guy seems to be able to make
any kind of movie he wants from star-studded moneymakers like Ocean’s
11, to tiny indie things like The Girlfriend Experience, to long and
political stuff like Che to movies like Solaris where he has to KNOW
he is going to lose money but is going to do it anyway because he has
accumulated enough financial and cultural capital to get away with it.
Getting back to Chris from Northern Exposure I think TV gave me this
image of an intellectual as someone who just knows EVERYTHING, who has
something to add to any subject, and that made me not want to be the
other image of the academic, the guy who just knows this one tiny
corner of the world and misses the big picture. I never thought about
it like this before, and typing it it feels really silly, but there
you go. TV gets right under your skin.
PLOK: I recall someone asked you something like if you would be writing a next book after “How To”, and I believe you replied “well, I kind of figured this blog would be the “next” book”…do you intend “Remarkable” as a project, something that could be thought of as belonging to your body of work, rather than just an online hobby plain and simple? Or am I possibly making you sound like a guy with absurdly over-firm intentions and motivations?
GK: Like the thing about outsider status I just tell myself lies so I can sleep at night and then I tell them to other people sometimes when I forget where I am when I get asked a question. I did say that, and that may have been my intention at some point, but now that just seems like a way of appearing to have a plan and staying active when I do not have such a plan. I see the blog as a place where I can do writing and get feedback on whatever it is, and every writer needs that. I guess I see it now as place where I could begin to write a first draft publicly and get feedback and support or whatever, and I keep telling myself I need to start a long term project there — like the New X-Men issue by issue thing, but longer: at one point I wanted to blog about every episode of LOST and then collect it into a book but then the 5th season of LOST was such a letdown. I still think about doing something big and I have a list of ideas and maybe I will do something but I am just sort of waiting for some project to sucker punch me and fucking DEMAND to be written. I believe I am almost there, but I also tell myself that a lot so maybe more lies?
PLOK: Aha, so LOST screwed you over, strangely I feel the same way about “Survivor”…not joking there, I actually feel like it screwed me over, I admired that show for what I imagined it taught me about the secret inner lives of Americans, and I found it incredibly addictive for just as long as I thought it was doing that, but then it seemed like it became determined to wash that stuff right out of its hair, and in something of a hurry too. Not that it was really being made with me in mind, of course…but I still totally sympathize with the wanting for something to come along and punch you in the gut, and then you’re hoping this thing here will but it just kind of fizzles out instead…never follows through…
So what is it, that gut-punching “something” you’re waiting for? I mean obviously one never specifically knows what it is until the gut-punch actually arrives, but is it possible to ready yourself for it, can you kind of feel out its shape by its absence, to know what it probably would have to do with, or how you would recognize it…what you would recognize in it? You mention TV and movies (I carefully leave out God, lest He screw up my question)…so is it something of modernity you’re looking for, something properly and satisfyingly up-to-date, that you don’t see out there, or that you see being only half-formed or half-accomplished? Can’t help thinking of your New X-Men series in this regard: for most superhero fans, a breath of fresh air, a shock, all the while still being comics, so…you know, here’s this weird-looking thing, but it’s still comics, so deal with it, fanboy…!
So is it that you’re looking for another “New X-Men”, another irruption of “see, or also it can be like this too, you guys!” into tired old formulaic mass-media offerings, that reinvigorates them? Or is that you’d just pretty much be happy with anything that punched you in the gut?
How attached are you to the conventional media channels, as a place to look for new poetry or new philosophy?
GK: I am just waiting for the thing to hit me in the gut and I don’t
care what it is in a way, and I don’t think I even GET to care what it
is because it is like a religious thing — it chooses you, you don’t
choose it. It is like asking me what kind of person I might fall in
love with — I can give you a description of my “type” but it is very
possible to end up loving someone who is not your “type” at all. It IS
possible to ready yourself for it and that is all I do with my time
really. To continue on the sex-relationship theme, I remember this
response of Dan Savage to a reader of his column who wrote in and said
he was 15 and a virgin and wanted to know how to get laid. Dan Savage,
and this always stuck with me, told the kid to FORGET about getting
his 15 year old self laid — no one wants to have sex with a pimply
15 year old — and concentrate on getting his 20 year old self laid:
read books, get active in causes, hit the gym, eat right, work on a
good hygiene routine, talk to people so you have good social skills,
listen, etc. This is what I do now waiting for my next subject to
arrive — I exercise so people will not distrust me for being a brain
on a stick, I keep the website up with the help of guest bloggers
because when something comes I need a strong internet presence
(blogger, facebook, twitter etc), I stay organized and get stuff done
at work so I can successfully find the time to do something when it
arrives and so on. And if that something never comes, all that stuff
is not so bad on its own. And I am pretty attached to conventional
media channels for subjects since I don’t want to speak about someone
so obscure no one knows what I am talking about.
PLOK: One of the more resonant remarks from an online friend that I’ve encountered went something like (I am doing some violence to it here, ’cause it’s late) “some people see Star Wars and they get into Kurosawa, get into movies…other people just want some explanation for why the evil Jedi have red lightsabers…” Awful to misquote it this way, but I’m just trying to batten on a point here, which is that I think there’s a legitimate field of fascination in the autopsy of the butterfly; and yet I also firmly believe the thing fans ought to do is, um, “broaden their fandom” — or use it to understand other fandoms…?
Well, maybe I overstate the case by saying I firmly believe it…I mean I guess I don’t sound very “firm” in that belief…
But I’m thinking of how another friend of mine was heavy into those weird little brightly-coloured Japanese vinyl toys for a while, the thick glossy magazines about them, how Japanese rock bands jumped on the “vinyl toy thing” in their promotions…Japan seems to turn up these new faddish fascinations all the time, like rough diamonds, and yet in the West we’re stuck so heavily on the past…I mean, my latest fascination is a ten-year-old sci-fi rap opera, I’m currently boring EVERYONE I know with my complaints that this isn’t a major part of the way we imbibe SF now, as MUSIC…or alternatively, I mean how wrong is it that the best skateboarding movie we got out of the Eighties was “Repo Man” even though there was no actual skateboarding in it, and the skateboarding movie that was mostly about skateboarding from that time was only “Gleaming The Cube”?
I don’t know, is it that we’re just spending so much time getting into why the bad Jedi have red lightsabers, and not enough time looking for more enriching connections that are more external to our fandom?
GK: I think broadening fandom is exactly what folks should be doing.
That is one of the reasons I like the Planetary as it opened. Before
issue one I had never really thought about the relationship between
the golden age comics and the pulps but after that I went out and read
some pulp novels and they were pretty fun. Planetary had this potential
to point comic book fans to all kinds of other things, but it of course
eventually just kind of petered out for whatever reason. I distrust
the hell out of nostalgia. It feels like the shadow of an experience.
I get that it is comforting, and I find stuff like that comforting,
but then I see people who after a while ONLY listen to the music that
was on when they were between 13 and 17 and that is not what I want
for me. Again, for me, it is all about role models, and one of the
reasons I wanted to be a professor was all the professors I knew were
in their 70s and still saw and talked about in class all the most
recent movies or whatever and they seemed more into the current culture
than my parents who were 30 years younger. I have an irrational fear
of cliched roles we can live in and I just don’t want to be the old
guy who doesn’t get kids today or whatnot — and it is not an easy
thing to do as I get into my 30s and now don’t know who the guest
stars ARE on the most recent Simpsons episodes (and who the hell still
watches the Simpsons anyway). That is what is great about influence
and genre and all that stuff that I like so much — everything you see
points you in 10 different directions to both the past and the future
of the genre and medium and other genres and mediums. Follow those
paths and stay young maybe? And just in case it gets too insular too
much of the snake eating its own tail you can always jump to analogous
stuff, as I did comparing poetry to comics.
Looking at these questions like this I get to thinking about PEOPLE
and broadening from watching stuff to talking to folks, or spending
all this time prepping for some imaginary conversation or social
circle or lecture series or something. And I don’t know what to say
about except it is really good that spending time with books and
movies and comics and poetry and music is an end in itself as well as
a means to an end, because even if I never DO anything else ever
again I won’t say that I have wasted my time.
PLOK: How would you describe yourself as a comics aficionado, or indeed as a pop-culture geek in general: more on the passive or random-sampling side, or more the active “passionate consumer” type? Do you think of yourself as a “highbrow” or a “lowbrow” kind of reader of pop culture, or do you think those distinctions are artificial?
GK: As a comics reader I like prestige-pop — genre stuff that comes out rarely, and is always of very high quality (great writing great art accept no fill-in artists) and that gets shut down when the thing needs to be shut down (rather than continuing as a money-making franchise): I like Hellboy and All Star Superman and Casanova and Frank Miller on Batman and so on. I don’t think there is a name for that kind of comic book fan, but that is what I am. I don’t really care about Superman I care about the 12 issues Morrison and Quitely did. (I am a sucker for the X-Men but not enough to get it if there is not a great team on). I will get comics that have EITHER great art or great writing but not both — but that is just a kind of completist thing (like when I got some Bachalo Spiderman issues, or the recent Batwoman JH Williams III run): I never really emotionally invest in those. But now that I think of TV I am even less sure how to answer because I do emotionally invest in stuff I can see it kind of basically dumb (LOST) as well as “highbrow” TV like the Wire (the Wire is highbrow right?) So I guess I am forced to say that the highbrow lowbrow distinction does not do a good job explaining my pop culture consumption habits.
PLOK: In the great big comics “canon”, such as it is (or rather, such as it *isn’t*), who’s a beloved name that you’re really attracted to, and who’s is a beloved name whose work you’ve never really been able to get into?
GK: I love FRANK MILLER really deeply and I am kind of mildly terrified what kind of horrible things that says about me. That is the comics person I have loved the most and the longest and I do not know what to say to people about it exactly, except, as my wife will tell you, I seem to have a kind of sick hero worship of people that are obviously crazy. I was NEVER able to get into Brubaker. I don’t know what I am doing wrong but I have read a bunch of his stuff and it just leaves me cold. I don’t hate it — I just don’t get what people see in it. Ennis either, but that is more a sense of humor thing I think, we don’t share the same kind.
PLOK: That bit about Frank Miller makes me laugh — I recall you mentioned to me that you don’t “get” politics, that you’d be sitting playing the Hulk video game and your friends would walk in and say oh that Geoff, look at him and his “innocently” violent entertainments, ha ha, and you’d be baffled…
Something like that, wasn’t it?
Hmm, so maybe lowbrow/highbrow really doesn’t do a good job of describing your tastes, because I don’t know if that distinction doesn’t require some sort of quasi-political orientation to start with — e.g. “this is the good stuff because X,Y, and Z; and this is the bad stuff because it isn’t X,Y, and Z and therefore by definition it’s anti-good stuff” — even if you’re not coming right out and saying “liking stuff” is a political act (at least not as far as Batman and Superman go), still I think a lot of people struggle with depoliticizing their idea of their taste, at least to the extent that, you know, they’ve got a guilty pleasure or displeasure according to some code or other, and is that okay, etc. etc. etc. And obviously we’re all hoping it will be okay, that we won’t have to change any of our opinions about what kind of person we are, just because we like something JUST BECAUSE we like it…or dislike it for the same reason…so I think I won’t ask you, as I asked the Mindless Ones, how obligated we are to do something with a favourite artist’s politics, whether that something is to care about it or ignore it or what…but maybe I ought to ask you, while I’ve got you here, how you perceive other people’s dance around those political elements, since you seem reasonably immune to them. Are most of us dancing around, saying weirdly-at-odds stuff a lot of the time? Are we all caught up in justifying our tastes to ourselves, slathering this extra stuff all over it, do we look like maybe we don’t believe everything we believe? Not that I’m asking you to pass judgement on other people’s tastes, but from your Frank-lovin’, Ed-not-gettin’ perspective do you ever see groups of fans getting hot with one another over this comic or that comic, and feel like you’re watching a bunch of manifestoes fighting it out over newly-discovered territory? Like, someone trying to deliver a whole boatload of external consistencies, to an experience that you find more simple or more direct?
GK: That Hulk example you remember exactly right. Academics often
come off like that to me: kill joys, telling me the stuff I like is
actually really bad on this political level. Although a lot of time I
actively ignore how bad the stuff is on that level, it is not that I
don’t KNOW it is bad. I know chicken fried steak with cream gravy is
bad for me. Hell: part of what makes it fun to eat is that I KNOW it
is bad for me. It becomes like the warnings on cigarettes, the thought
that people smoke them because they just have not heard they are
unhealthy. I think you are right about that high low culture split
being a political thing – but the politics people tell me there is
nothing outside politics, nothing outside their thing, to which I fire
back that there is nothing outside my thing, aesthetics, which like
them I claim is the umbrella term, politics being only a form of
aesthetics and round and round we go.
Your point about people hoping the thing they enjoy will be ok,
justifying it as ok, is exactly right. But since I am going to
manipulate the results so All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is
something I can still read why not just skip the justification and
start with the comic book? And as far as following the politics of
artists goes why on Earth would want to do that? I would not take
political advice from Frank Miller any more than I would medical
advice from him. He is a Batman expert so I read him just to watch
what he does with Batman. See, when everyone else was reading Said I
was reading Walter Pater who said that you should never allow any
ideology, even your OWN, to prevent you from enjoying the hell out of
some good work of art. This is a guy who went to church because he
thought the ceremony was really nice looking, so I think he would have
liked a Frank Miller comic. And as for your “boatload of external
consistencies” Emerson and Whitman, two of my favorite writers, were
big fans of contradicting themselves. Enjoying stuff should come
first: “Damn Consistency” was a title Emerson wrote that he wished he
could have used.
PLOK: A pretty good title for a blog, at that. Well, I wish we could keep this going a little longer, myself, but man it’s difficult to cut and paste all this stuff from email, and try to make it look presentable, and besides longer conversations are exactly what we have blogs for, I guess. So thanks a lot, Geoff, it was a blast — although, wow:
Chris In The Morning?
For me it was Fleishman, all the way.
Oh my God, talk about identifying with a crazy person. Thank goodness we did that last question…!
Before our time today was up.
Really enjoyed this; I shall sacrifice a few bottles of beer to the Mindless Ones tonight for instantiating the inter-blogger interview form. In fact I am already well on my way.