This whole week I’ve been thinking about two things. Besides of course, the political life of the country.

Last semester, I discovered a writer I like quite a bit, a critic named Frédéric Regard. His essay, Autobiography and Geography: A Self-Arranging Question, started me thinking as regards the first essay I want to write, by way of literary criticism, on the graphic memoir. So, this quote in particular:

  • does the act of writing oneself place the self-writing author at the heart of his works, as the passive product of these devices, or does it rather cause him to conceive of himself as a “heterotopia” (Foucault 755-756), i.e. an agency constructing rival spaces in breaking with the dominant geographical order? The geographies of the self are evidently determined by means of objective conditions, but cannot the “geographic” construction of the self, the speech effect of the author, implicate a geographical “ruse”: that is, does autobiography reproduce an absolute space, in which each individual is meant to occupy one place, or can it rather produce other spaces in which to create new relationships with the self and the world, new social relations? Would this possibility not then bring into being something like a utopic delinquency of the autobiographical narrative, which would discursively effect a social operation by means of which the author can redefine himself (Marin 24)?

If that isn’t somehow about the graphic memoir, I don’t know what is. Which is to say, I instantly understood books like Epilepsy, by David B., Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, and Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, all instantly seemed to me to be producing other spaces so the author could have a new relationship to the self and the world both, through a utopic delinquency of the narrative (a term I find pretty great). And in fact, in each case, the author seemed driven to create such a thing, despite the obvious gaps. Which is to say, each of these books—Maus, for example, also—is considered to defy genres. And the authors themselves find the terms that exist for them uncomfortable. Part of what I am interested in is how often the comics artist is driven to create the self on the page, repeatedly. Whether it is an image of themselves used over and over by themselves for the duration of the narrative, or the need, say, in the case of Spiegelman, to continually reinvent the way he represents himself.

If you don’t understand what I mean, take a piece of paper right now, and draw yourself in the manner of a Chris Ware drawing. Make three circles horizontally, with a medium one on top, a small one, and then a large one. Draw stick legs and arms, and then select a single feature, or two features, to represent you on this figure. I would use, for example, my widow’s peak and my facial hair.

Make your eyes and nose with dots. Draw a line for your mouth. And write your name underneath.

See if looking at it makes you feel anything. Protective? More or less sympathetic?

That is a utopic delinquency of narrative, I think. I’m pretty sure about that. But this is just a hypothesis for now.

I use that exercise in my graphic novel class. I do it because I think it helps students read the books. To understand what the writer is doing. Someone asked me recently, What did you think of the way Marjane Satrapi didn’t want to use the term “graphic novel” when she spoke here last year? I gave some sort of answer like, Well, we need to think of it in a way that she doesn’t and even perhaps it could be true that if she did think of it this way, she couldn’t do it.

If I had to answer now, I’d say I imagine she feels the term doesn’t describe the new relationships she has to herself and others as a result of writing these books. Because what is described isn’t precisely a narrative as much as a social result by that statement and also this quote above. Part of what is interesting to me about writing is how writing is a social act—a performance for others, a way to connect that has not one guarantee to it. You write and you don’t know that anyone will ever read it or care. You have to proceed in line after line, like someone descending a stairway towards an unknown space below and past an unknown number of stairs also. It may even be an eternal descent until death. You don’t know how much you’ll have to write before you begin to connect to others—that is the crisis of the student writer, for example, but all writers, I think, recognize that crisis as simply a student writer’s introduction to the idea that they could write for their whole lives and never succeed, and they won’t know, even if they write.

You are basically asking them to walk into the dark and trust that they’ll meet someone there. Someone to whom they’ll entrust all of this work. Most of the time you never say this to them because it is a terrible thing to encounter and everyone makes their own peace with it. But living close to Emily Dickinson’s house, like I do, means it is never too far away from my thinking.

There are other applications of this essay and it’s ideas, but that was the launching point.

The other is a quote from Freud: In memory is forgetting. That one, as I understand it, refers to when a patient uses the repetition of a cycle of self-destructive behavior to forget the reason the self-destructive cycle is in place, a reason they are about to remember.

But, as I said, I am basically mostly thinking about the political life of this country.


  1. Part of what is interesting to me about writing is how writing is a social act—a performance for others, a way to connect that has not one guarantee to it.

    You don’t know how much you’ll have to write before you begin to connect to others

    Collide/Connect. I get it now.

  2. This is great, Alex. So many parts of this are already mushrooming into other thoughts.

    I wish you would say more about “utopic delinquency of narrative” and how you read it. It’s a new term, probably for many of us, I’d like to see more steps in your thought process, re: how you apply it to the graphic novel genre.

    Incidentally, I went to a talk that Satrapi offered in Boston a few years ago. Come to think of it, I went to one by Bechdel, too. Both remain vivid. Interestingly, Satrapi neither read from nor showed images from her work. Bechdel did both. And yet, I recall the two events vividly. They connected (not just with me; with the crowds).

  3. That writing is social is a foundational part of writing center theory. When I tutor writing, I ask students to read their writing aloud. It’s a common technique because it’s an effective way to bring a piece of writing to life for writer and reader/listener. It also allows the writer to perform the writing, which I believe is as much for the writer as anyone else. When we write, we have an audience or audiences in mind, even when writing for ourselves. Maybe it’s some combination of previous audiences or some other part of the self. Writers’ performances tell me something about how they want me to interpret their work. And even when they’re shy, they manage to reveal something about themselves.

    Relating this to your lit crit essay and the ideas you’ve shared, I’m curious about how graphic writers-artists are performing (for) themselves. Is there something more social (or more effectively social) about their visual representations of self and space than words alone can achieve? And that Freud quote blows me away. Does the graphic writer-artist construct a visual/textual world to find the reason for the self-destructive cycle, or is it an elaborate distraction to avoid finding the answer?

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