I’m currently working very slowly on an idea for an original long form comicbook, and have been for good long time now! It’s fleshing out piece by piece, but the going is tough since this is completely new ground. I’ve written in a totally amateur capacity for most of my life so I’ve got plenty of half-baked theories about constructing narrative and writing characters, but it’s with comicbooks that I’ve had my most substantial professional experience… and the only comicbooks I’ve ever written have been very short. The hardest part beyond letting the characters do their thing and keep their breathing space in the plot has been tackling the portrayal of an invented culture. I’ve been pursued by the nagging feeling that there’s lots I’m not thinking about and even more that I’m taking for granted.
So, and for some perverse reason I find this really exciting, I decided to do some research! The first place I went was Anthropology, a discipline that a month or so ago I knew next to nothing about, but that informs the writing of one of my old favourites (Ursula Le Guin, who I’m sure everyone who knows me is sick of hearing about), and one of my new favourites (Carla Speed McNeil, whose Finder series is one of the most original and absorbing pieces of comicbook storytelling that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read)!
A bit of googling later and I found this podcast of a lecture series held at Berkeley on the History of Anthropological Thought by Rosemary Joyce. I’ve literally just finished listening to the last lecture, I can say my mind is properly blown! I haven’t had the chance to read any of the course material, but even without that context, it’s a lecture series so packed full of insight and knowledge that I feel like my way of seeing the world has both crystallised and been shoved spinning at the same time.
The impression that the course gave me, solidified by the closing words of the lecturer, was that Anthropology’s unique concern is that of generating knowledge about ourselves whilst understanding the perspective with which we generate knowledge about ourselves. It tries to account for the similarities we share as animals of a common species, whilst striving never to reduce or explain away the complexity, individuality and multiplicity of our histories, persons and cultures. It seems to be a discipline that is happy to admit that it’s very much in progress, and that if it were ever to claim to collectively have “the answer” about humankind, there would be something unaccounted for. It’s a science that has taught me there are many ways to do science, and that the job of each science is to examine and develop its own particular method in order to produce the best possible results in its field.
Coming from my deep enthusiasm in the physical sciences to this was like being dunked into an ocean (or possibly hauled out of one?). The sciences that I’m used to are all about generalisable laws, and deal with highly tangible degrees of certainty. Their accompanying philosophy, glorified by the sceptical movement, instilled in me the idea that objective and reductive truths should be the goals of all knowledge. It’s a deep shame that the popular objections to this rigid way of thinking are easily dismantled, because I’ve discovered that they’re like dislocated shadows of a truly insightful way of thinking. It turns out that to take the methods of physical science and apply them with strident certainty to disciplines like politics, economics or the creative arts is indeed a flawed way of thinking, and that I’ve always confronted myself, and been confronted with this possibility. The thing that silenced these objections was my inability to articulate them in a way that didn’t just boil down to a mystical denial of all truth, and I fell slowly into the trap of thinking that ineffective subjectivism is the only alternative to effective objective understanding.
Consequently, I don’t feel like I’ve abandoned my enthusiasm for what I understood to be the scientific method of thought, but contextualised it instead. I’ve been given a budding appreciation of a complex and ever-growing discipline that catalogues the ways in which our methods of understanding can fail us, and how we can avoid those failures in the future – my deepest gratitude goes to Rosemary Joyce, and whoever it was who decided to/agreed to make her lectures available for free!
Returning to the original point, the course has also filled me with ideas, suggested many flaws in the way I was going about inventing a culture, and given me the confidence to dive into some actual Anthropological books on some of the cultural traits that I’m dealing with without getting lost! It’s a new beginning :)