BL Roundtable: No Point, No Meaning, Maybe Tenure

Posted by on June 9th, 2010 at 12:03 AM

Part One: Further posts on the topic by Shaenon Garrity and “Kinukitty.” This is the first part of a three-part roundtable (with opening shots on Wednesday, a sidebar on Thursday, and conclusions on Friday).

Boys’ Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-Cultural Fandom of the Genre; Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti, eds.; McFarland; 280 pp., $39.95; ISBN: 9780786441952

This book really helped me come to terms with my past, my regrets, my desires. Speaking as a straight white cisgendered male, I occasionally regret my transgressive decision to drop out of grad school to explore the fluid, abject jouissance of the non-(i)voried and nontowered. But then I encounter a text like this, and in its quivering, jellylike prose I remember why, though riven by radical difference, still numerous numinous heterogenous communities speak with a single pleasurable speech-act when they utter: “academics fucking suck.”

This book is written as if its contributors’ brains threw up in their collective skulls. Seriously, people:
_________________

The inclusion of the local allows for an emendation to Pagliassotti’s already productive call for more research into yaoi reading practices, particularly as such permits the possibility of similarity as well as difference, for, as the rehearsal of yaoi and slash’s critical reception suggests, perceptions of appropriation and agency can be a matter of micro- politics, which are variable—but not wholly independent of—the larger socio-political sphere Altman gestures toward.

____________

Thorn’s observation may point to an understanding of the genre as it results from a meta- narrative rupture for the postmodern generations of women who, in addition to facing continued sexual oppression coupled with changing gender roles, have had to face the reality of (homo)sexuality, particularly as it creates the possibility for their opposite sex desire accruing to a body that exhibits a same-sex desire.

__________________

My reading has always been affected by the social and cultural contexts in which I constructed my sexual identity and if, as it has been suggested, the marginalized individual, by necessity, has to create another story that they can read themselves into (Appiah 1994), it has been between the pages of ?ction that I have imagined, scripted, and played out my sissy-boy desires.

_____________

If you’re Julia Kristeva and have actual complicated ideas, you can be let off the hook when your writing is involuted and complicated. If, on the other hand, all you are saying is (in order): “People in different locations may have different reactions to yaoi,” “Yaoi came about because women’s gender roles are changing and homosexuality is more visible than it used to be,” and “I’m gay, and I fantasize” — well, it starts to look a little like you’re using the big words not to express big ideas, but to conceal the fact that you. are. stupid.

Though perhaps that’s cruel. To be more charitable, maybe the problem is just that you can’t write worth a damn. Which, admittedly, when raised to this level of incompetence, is kind of a gift. After all, here you have a young, vibrant, energetic, unexpected new genre, bursting with ideas, romance, sex and violence. And you take it and, through the mystical alchemy of cultural studies, you turn it into an interminable, turgid slog. It would almost be fascinating to watch if it weren’t so godawful boring.

But why is it boring? What drives these academics and academic wannabes to write so badly about yaoi and boys’ love? What compulsions have caused them to quit their quaint ethnic dances, draw the bones from their multifarious noses, and sit at their keyboards festooned (no doubt) with images of girls dressed as boys dressed as ravening Lovecraftian penguin vaginas, so that they can type words like “female gaze” “problematize,” “queering the quotidian” and even, with an almost visible shiver of daring, “fuck”? Is it a commonality of sexual desire? A shared history of being oppressed by the vast majority of people who are objectively less irritating than they are?

From I Shall Never Return Vol. 1

Alas, my survey results aren’t yet in, so I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I did, much to my sorrow, read the whole damn book, and so I am willing to hazard a guess. As near as I can tell, the authors here seem to be united and inspired by that wonderful fetish known as “anthropology”, or, in Japanese, “condescension.” The pages here are hot and heavy (in, you know, a dull way) with the sweaty excitement of declaring large swathes of other, lesser human beings to be…”transgressive!” Or, less often…”maybe homophobic just a little”! or “Dionysian”! (Try it yourself — it’s fun! And transgressive!)

Of course, most of these authors are pro-yaoi, pro-fangirl, and generally enthusiastic about the idea of queering everything in sight through some boy-boy lovin’. They would absolutely deny that they were condescending in any way towards this unique demographic phenomena. But…well, let’s cut to the tape, shall we?

There are no “critical” tools a teacher can provide without somehow deducting from the “feminine,” “uncritical” or “subversive” that is yaoi. (p. 224)

That’s Alan Williams, who claims to be a staunch foe of anthropologizing his subjects. And because he does not want to anthropologize his subjects, he has decided instead to cheerily equate the “feminine” with the “uncritical,” because, you know, women — they’re like those subversive, Dionysian dark peoples, overthrowing rational thought with their inability to think logically.

Ann Snitow, in her analysis of mass market romances, delineates their dark aspects. She shows that the heroine is not allowed by social mores to acknowledge sexual desire honestly and has to do “a lot of social lying to save face, pretending to be unaffected by the hero’s presence while her body melts or shivers” because she has to save her virginity for marriage. Distance between the sexes is glori?ed and the sexual inexperience of the heroine adds to the excitement. (p.128)

That’s Tan Bee Kee, arguing that women enjoy yaoi because it avoids the stereotypical roles of paperback romances. To prove her point, Kee references an essay about romance by Ann Snitow — who was writing in 1979. Of course, the romance heroines of 2010 are not sexually inexperienced, nor are they (as Snitow says they were several decades ago) necessarily obsessed with marriage. Also, contemporary romances have lots and lots of sex. Thus, to cheer on/explain the appeal of yaoi, Kee has nonchalantly mischaracterized the huge number of women who read romance novels by suggesting that they (a) are confusedly disconnected from their desires and (b) cling to a sexual ethos that was on its way out when their mothers were young. Thanks Tan Bee Kee! Your ahistorical generalizing has empowered us all!

While violence and anti-gay discrimination are certainly present in the lives of many gay men, it is troubling that this association goes so far to victimize gayness that any representation that does not fall within the con?nes of these negative factors are viewed as “unrealistic” or “idealistic” as TJ says. In other words, this response suggests that “real” gayness is reached through experience of victimization. (p. 217)

That’s Alexis Hall, tut-tutting at fangirls who think that yaoi is unrealistic merely because nobody in yaoi-land ever seems to notice for a second that being homosexual bears a stigma. Hall explains patiently to the silly fangirls that gay identity in Japan is not like gay identity in the West and that they’re being so darn ethnocentric when they suggest that a realistic depiction of Japanese gay life would occasionally mention discrimination. Besides, it’s not like any queer theorists have actually suggested that discrimination and loss are central parts of gay identity and experience. And also, just FYI, suggesting that yaoi is not realistic because the penises therein are invisible demonstrates a horribly ethnocentric and ignorant view, because, in fact, in Japan, all penises are invisible. And all assholes are mystically lubed. It’s a law. Or maybe a side-effect of Hiroshima or repeated Godzilla attacks or something. I know because I took a class once. Nyah!

But while it’s entertaining to pull out and sneer at individual bits of arrogant idiocy, the real problem here isn’t just in the particulars. It’s systematic. Specifically, it’s amazing how little boys’ love fiction there is in this collection of essays purportedly about boys’ love fiction. A certain amount of this is excusable. For example, the book’s first three chapters — which discuss the economics and distribution of yaoi in Germany, Indonesia, and U.S. fan circles — are interesting and mostly inoffensive. But as the page count remorselessly mounts, one gets more than a little tired of the writers’ predictable fascinations with fan investment, communities, general themes, cosplaying and the all important question of “why” — with everything, in short, except the main thing, which is the stories themselves.

The one aspect of boys’ love these essayists don’t seem to want to talk about, in short, is art. What are particular artists doing in particular works in the boys’ love genre? How does one slash writer in particular — not slash writers in general — approach issues of sexual violence, or love, or gender confusion? It’s true that these questions are occasionally addressed. But the texts are always approached as illustrations of some “larger” point, never as worthy of investigation in their own right.

From Future Lovers

To take one for instance: Mark McHarry starts his essay “Boys in Love in Boys’ Love: Discourses West/East and the Abject in Subject Formation” by discussing Keiko Takemiya’s groundbreaking BL series Song of Wind and Trees. McHarry argues that Song of Wind and Trees demonstrates the development of a gay identity through an experience of abjection. To prove his thesis, he engages with an actual text as closely as anyone in the anthology. And yet, even so…well, here he is talking about Gilbert, Takemiya’s main character.

Gilbert has suffered a great loss. Takemiya makes its cost clear, for example, as when a younger Gilbert submits to a man’s rape of him. Gilbert’s strangulated “oui, oui” is written in Western characters, clarion amid the Japanese, a signal of the weight of the act (vol. 1, 266). The most urgent representations of human desire and loss are in terms of sex and death. Takemiya’s depiction of Gilbert’s so-called promiscuity is a masterful way of showing the extent of his calamity. Emphasizing the undoing of his corporeality via drawings of his body is a perfect visual expression of the undoing of his mental state. (p.178)

OK. Except…what loss has Gilbert suffered exactly? And how do drawings of his body show the “undoing of his corporeality”? Why couldn’t these drawings, for example, emphasize his corporeality instead? And, good lord, are we really supposed to be impressed by the knee-jerk invocation of “sex and death”? These seem like fairly basic questions, but McHarry doesn’t answer them. Instead he wanders off, eventually ending in quack anthropology and sociology so that he can earnestly retail lame clichés like this:

Stories are a key to understanding ourselves, whether they are used in psychoanalysis, in popular ?ction or in other discursive forms. Drawn images, with their immediacy, illusion of completeness, and ambiguity have the power to stimulate the imagination—to imagine new outcomes—in a way that the printed word alone cannot. (p.184)

… which of course is why Nancy inspired a revolution and “The Communist Manifesto” didn’t.

McHarry goes on to argue that child porn laws shouldn’t be used to censor boys’ love books — and OK, fine, I’m basically in agreement with that. But it’s telling that in order to justify the worth of yaoi, he turns instinctively to (ahem) half-assed theories about the “power” of images, rather than to particular aesthetic achievements. Surely, explaining with greater clarity why he believes Song of Wind and Trees is beautiful or insightful would be more useful in defending boys’ love as a genre than generalized grandiose assertions such as “Boys’ love participants claim power to represent a type of child, the male adolescent, and in so doing create entertainment that obstructs (queers) the ability of the state to organize sexual identities.” Because such assertions make it appear that you can only justify art in terms of practical political efficacy — and if that’s the measure, then you need to stop writing about art altogether, get your sorry writing implement out of the university, and run for office on the “Child Porn” ticket. Good luck with that.

This book, then, treats boys’ love as a sociological and cultural phenomena rather than as literature. Most everyone in the collection babbles on about the wonders of diversity, but they seem unable to process the relatively simple fact that, say, Won Soo-yeon’s Let Dai and Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery (to name the two BL series with which I can claim more than passing familiarity) are really, really different from each other. Their creators have different ideas about men, about women, about homosexuality, about love — about most everything, really. It’s almost as if they were written by two different people rather than, you know, by some sort of communal anthropological Jungian hive-mind. (There is one essay in which the author, M.M. Blair, notes that different manga portray women characters differently, and concludes that manga readers react differently to those characters depending on how they are portrayed. This is treated, rather endearingly, as a revelation.)

The way to show that you respect someone is not by saying over and over, “I respect you.” It’s by treating others as if you actually care what they think. Each work of BL, or yaoi, or slash, is created by a particular person who put into it what she had of craft, of genius and of love. Obviously, the works are created in the context of a community and a genre, and it’s fine to talk about that. But to talk about that exclusively, as if it’s always desires and conventions which shape the individual work and never the other way around — it gratuitously denies BL writers the agency and respect that comes with the label “artist.”

So to all these gender-theory steeped writers trying so hard to show that they’ve overturned patriarchy, heteronormativity, and even the c-word of capitalism itself, I say to you: the next time you read a BL manga or slash fiction story? If you really want to be subversive, instead of trying to figure out what that story says about yaoi readers and the yaoi community, and gender and homosexuality and what have you — could you start by figuring out whether you like it? Not whether you like yaoi in general, but whether you like that particular story. And you know what? Even if you think that that story is the worst thing you’ve ever read, you’ll still be showing the author, the community and yourself more respect than you’ve shown anyone or anything in this condescending, embarrassing, abominable dog-turd of a book — which, in the interest of treating you all as colleagues and peers, I make free to say I loathed.

Songs of Wind and Trees image nicked from Web; copyright its respective copyright holders.

Tomorrow: “The Mirror of Male-Male Love” sidebar by Dirk Deppey.

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11 Responses to “BL Roundtable: No Point, No Meaning, Maybe Tenure”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ko Ransom, ClarissaG. ClarissaG said: RT @kransomwastaken: pt1 of a great roundtable on TCJ.com on new academic book Boys' Love Manga http://bit.ly/a6BiiU http://bit.ly/90kRs … [...]

  2. JRBrown says:

    “The one aspect of boys’ love these essayists don’t seem to want to talk about, in short, is art. What are particular artists doing in particular works in the boys’ love genre? How does one slash writer in particular — not slash writers in general — approach issues of sexual violence, or love, or gender confusion?”

    Noah, I think you are a little off base here. This collection was not intended to promote literary analysis of the works, it was intended to promote analysis of the readers. The original call for papers (reproduced here) states: “The collection’s primary focus will be the ways in which fans in countries and cultures other than Japan interpret and use these genres, although the editors are open to contributions about boys’ love fandoms in Japan as well.” I think that systematic, academic literary and/or artistic analysis of BL works would be quite interesting, but this collection was not the vehicle for such studies.

    And furthermore 1) “female gaze” is a perfectly valid and highly useful concept, and 2) I think much of Kee’s analysis (which, sadly, is not particularly original) is indeed relevant to the sexual dynamics of both yaoi and shoujo, and for that matter much josei. If you can overcome your distaste for academic-ese, I recommend Deborah Shamoon’s Office sluts and rebel flowers (in Porn studies, ed. Linda Williams) and Kanako Shiokawa’s Women and violence in Japanese comics (in Themes and issues in Asian cartooning: cute, cheap, mad, and sexy, ed. John A. Lent), both of which reference untranslated studies by Yukari Fujimoto (or Fujiwara) which make some of the same points in reference to “ladies’ comics” (women’s hetero-porn manga).

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey JR. Nice to talk to you again.

    “This collection was not intended to promote literary analysis of the works, it was intended to promote analysis of the readers.”

    Yes. This is always the tack. Everybody wants to anthropologize the readers and nobody wants to talk about the works. I think that dynamic is poisonous, disrespectful, and stupid. The fact that they did what they set out to do doesn’t change the fact that what they set out to do was wrong-headed.

    The use of female gaze by Kee is a fine case in point. I’m willing to accept the idea that female gaze could be a useful concept in some situations. But to apply it to 30 year old romance novels and then interpolate from that broad anthropological theses about readers today is to make yourself look like an idiot.

    Analysis without specificity is worthless, and often worse than useless. Boys Love is a literary genre, not an anthropological ritual. The problem isn’t that these people are academics per se, but that they’re writing is bad and their theses are moronic.

  4. JRBrown says:

    “This is always the tack. Everybody wants to anthropologize the readers and nobody wants to talk about the works. [...] Boys Love is a literary genre, not an anthropological ritual.”

    Well, I disagree. There is value in literary analysis, and there could certainly be more literary analysis of BL than there is now, but there is also value in analysis of fan practices and fan communities and of the effect of the larger social context upon texts (and vice versa).

    I don’t think the Kee article was particularly good; it’s a bit of a muddle, it’s rather naff for an academic essay, and in much of it she’s basically applying a fairly well-trodden descriptive structure to a new fandom, so every point she made was one that had been made before, and made better, by others. I’m going to cut her a bit of slack for being a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student, and +1 to fun points for using fan essays as sources of analysis (I got a kick out of recognizing many of the things I found on the web when I first started reading yaoi). But I don’t feel that one inept application of existing theoretical perspectives invalidates those perspectives.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “I don’t feel that one inept application of existing theoretical perspectives invalidates those perspectives.”

    But the whole book is inept. Different essays are inept in different ways, but the refusal in general to engage with specific works cripples the analysis.

    As Kinukitty points out, the fandoms are about writing and about literary works. If you aren’t willing to engage with those, I think, you’re not going to understand what’s going on with the communities.

    I don’t have any problem using gender theory, or Freudian theory, or even anthropological theory in certain situations. But treating people as anthropological subjects is always pretty dicey. And the enthusiasm for treating fans and writers of BL as anthropological subjects rather than as writers seems to me to have everything to do with the sense that BL fans and writers are weirdos to be condescended to, rather than artists to be respected.

    You don’t see folks looking at Dan Clowes’ fans this way. They don’t spill hundreds of pages of prose trying to figure out what anthropological truths the Dan Clowes readership demonstrates; they analyze the writing, and assume that the worth of the writing validates and explains the fans. It’s only when the material is considered intrinsically worthless and the fans considered intrinsically odd that the dominant mode shifts from literary criticism to anthropology.

  6. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I should add…I know you’re a BL reader yourself, and that you respect both the writing and the communities. I’m don’t think this book does, though.

  7. eric b says:

    Not really true. These kinds of reading strategies are applied to a variety of different texts…”canonical” or not, respected or not. That is to say…studies of “readers of Virginia Woolf” or of “readers of writer x” are not foreign to literary criticism in general and are applied to texts that are also read “aesthetically.” “Fans” is another version of “readers”–although the term is, again, more often applied to consumers of mass culture. It is, admittedly, true that such reading strategies are more often used for “mass culture” or “pop culture” products, presumably with the assumption that their “massness” or “popness” is part of what is interesting about them and there might be something useful about surveying/consulting the masses of readers out there.

    This book may well be crappy (or great). I haven’t read it, but its use of this approach isn’t necessarily a sign that the collective authors see yaoi itself as unworthy of aesthetic appreciation. This is just a wild guess–but it seems unlikely to me that authors in a project like this are participating unless they are already fans themselves, read and like yaoi, etc. A person’s academic interests are more likely to arise from their personal interest than in complete isolation from (or in opposition to) them. Writing about yaoi as an academic would require a lot of reading of yaoi. If someone didn’t like yaoi or felt “above” yaoi in some condescending away, it would be unlikely they would want to devote the time to do so. The writing may come across as condescending and anthropological (which may be all that matters), but I doubt it comes from a personally negative attitude toward the subject matter (finding the material “intrinsically worthless”). Matthew Pustz’s book about comics fans (which I like, actually) comes across as condescending occasionally, but it’s still an interesting account of fan culture to my mind. I have little doubt Pustz is/was a fan of superhero comics.

    I’m an academic and I wouldn’t respond to that call for papers…simply because I don’t read yaoi, have only read a few short stories here and there, and am unlikely to get started in the near future. You’re simply not going to write and research on something unless you are already a “fan” of one stripe or another. The nature of academic writing (under critique here, obviously) is to not come across as “fannish”– and so may seem to be the opposite. It rarely is, however.

  8. JRBrown says:

    “And the enthusiasm for treating fans and writers of BL as anthropological subjects rather than as writers seems to me to have everything to do with the sense that BL fans and writers are weirdos to be condescended to, rather than artists to be respected.

    [...] It’s only when the material is considered intrinsically worthless and the fans considered intrinsically odd that the dominant mode shifts from literary criticism to anthropology.”

    You know, I don’t think that’s the case. This anthology is from a media studies perspective, and the editors and contributors are largely from a media studies background; media studies tends to involve a lot of “anthropologizing” regardless of the “worth” of the texts because many aspects focus on the fans, communities, and practices rather than on the texts themselves. Dan Clowes attracts a different kind of analysis because he has a lot of appeal for formalist, artistic and literary approaches but doesn’t have the type of visible, organized fandom that gets the media-studies people interested; there’s no DanClowesCon, however awesome that would be.

    Maybe the difference in my viewpoint is that I’ve read a fair amount of “anthropologizing” of different fan communities since college, I don’t see a fundamental difference in the way this book treats BL and the way that slash, superhero, SF&F, videogame, Harry Potter, or TV-show fandoms have been treated by other writers, and I know that much of that “anthropologizing” is done by academics who are also fans in those same communities (case in point: Henry Jenkins, who is a huge, huge SF-and-everything-else nerd in addition to being an academic, and has no patience for those who view pop culture as “intrinsically worthless”). I agree that the book as a whole could be better, but it doesn’t do literary criticism because that’s not the aim of the book, not because the authors think the texts are “worthless”.

  9. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “That is to say…studies of “readers of Virginia Woolf” or of “readers of writer x” are not foreign to literary criticism in general and are applied to texts that are also read “aesthetically.””

    Hi Eric. I’d say that the big difference there is “also read aesthetically.” It’s the utter lack of academic interest in reading these texts aesthetically, and the huge interest in reading them for cult studies cred, that I think is the problem. It creates an imbalance where the assumption becomes that all these texts are the same, which ends up making all the readers the same — which is really condescending.

    “I don’t see a fundamental difference in the way this book treats BL and the way that slash, superhero, SF&F, videogame, Harry Potter, or TV-show fandoms have been treated by other writers, and I know that much of that “anthropologizing” is done by academics who are also fans in those same communities”

    The cult studies perspective is pretty problematic in general I think, for the reasons I suggested. I don’t doubt that many of these people are fans or enthusiasts — but the academy is interested in them treating their enthusiasms in particular ways and for particular reasons. Discourses are important, as some father or other of cult studies noted. Just because folks have a personal stake in the material doesn’t mean that the venue and genre doesn’t force certain unfortunate stances on them.

    And, of course, there is good cultural studies work done. Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws is a fairly cultural studies kind of book, and she talks about gender issues in horror in a somewhat generalized way. The difference is that she also does specific readings of specific films, which complicates her thesis and allows the filmmakers some sort of creative power and agency. I don’t see that happening in this book — and, as a result, I think it should be sneered at.

  10. vommarlowe says:

    I think it’s pretty pointless (and stupid) to analyze a group of readers’ behaviors and responses to the text if you don’t pay any attention to the text itself. I say this as both a reader and a writer of yaoi and as someone who has plenty of respect for well done cultural studies. If you don’t have a real idea what the text actually says, you’re just going to continually fuck up what the readers are doing and why.

    In other words, I did not write my Weiss work for the reasons they say and I am going to sit over and laugh my ass off at them for trying.

  11. ninelegyak says:

    That’s Alan Williams, who claims to be a staunch foe of anthropologizing his subjects. And because he does not want to anthropologize his subjects, he has decided instead to cheerily equate the “feminine” with the “uncritical,” because, you know, women — they’re like those subversive, Dionysian dark peoples, overthrowing rational thought with their inability to think logically.

    Since you linked my name to this scathing review, I wanted to clarify something. Equating the “feminine” with the “uncritical” is not the same as equating women with being illogical. I assume you read the essay and know that the “feminine” as I used it is connected to desire, and desire, the way I was using it, is uncritical and often subversive and political. This is how Grosz, Braidotti, Butler and lot of other feminists talk about desire as political. Sure, there’s the problem of this being dualistic (which I noted), but steeping yaoi fans (which includes myself) in dualism is not the same as “anthropologizing” them.

    In terms of the concern that there is not enough textual analysis in the anthology, I think this is an important observation. Breaking down the art/scholarship binary goes a long way in terms of respect. I was in a cultural studies program and the artists and performers in my cohort (including myself as a writer of fiction) felt very undernourished, as if “art” is something one does outside of “real” academic work. So, I get this argument. I also agree that good cultural studies offers something “new” to the world, perhaps ultimately writing itself into the cultural formation it’s studying (and perhaps engaging with a cultural formation’s texts is the best way to do this). But I think it’s too early to say whether this anthology simply fails because it doesn’t engage more in textual analysis.