5(ish) Questions: A Conversation With Dr. Ramzi Fawaz (University of Wisconsin – Madison)

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On the first Friday in February, Dr. Ramzi Fawaz, braving the relative cold, came to UT from Madison, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin, to give a talk on queer theory and comic book superheroes. Called “Flame On!: Nuclear Families, Unstable Molecules, and the Queer History of the Fantastic Four,” the talk is drawn from Dr. Fawaz’s upcoming book, The New Mutants: Comic Book Superheroes and Popular Fantasy in Postwar America. After he left Austin, we spoke by phone about comics, the importance of interdisciplinarity in both scholarship and teaching, and about American Studies as the study of how people dream what it means to be American.

In your talk at UT, you discussed The Fantastic Four and their contribution to queer literary history in the 1960s. How did you come across this project?

That’s a great question. There is a combination of personal and intellectual reasons that I approached this project. The personal one that I always tell is that when I was thirteen I went through this incredibly difficult period of my own life, as someone who was coming out as gay, who was ostracized, made fun of, bullied, etc., and, during this period of difficulty, I discovered the X-Men. I began reading this comic book that was about mutant outcasts, that was racially diverse, and I felt this incredible kind of identification with these characters that I never found in any other form of popular culture. As I grew older and started exploring American Studies in college, I became really interested in the kinds of questions that we ask in this field, where we don’t really think about how “I” personally relate to this object but, rather, what the conditions are that allow me to relate to this object in this way.

The questions grew wider and wider over time, and I began to ask myself if I was the only person who identified in this way? Or was there something about the comic book that speaks to people who feel like outcasts? Through a series of research projects at the undergraduate level, I began to explore the history of the X-Men, and that history lead me back to the sixties, and the array of comics, including the X-Men, that exploded out of that moment, some of which of course included the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, and many, many others. I began to realize that, in that moment, comic book creators began to think critically about readers like myself, and geared their comic books to people who did feel like they were out of the social norm, not merely people who identified as gay or lesbian, but also people who felt politically out of step with the conservatism of the US after World War II. This is fascinating to me.

So, there’s kind of a personal history that lead me to a larger, intellectual set of questions, and I think as a scholar, invested in popular culture more broadly, I fell in love with this question as an undergrad: why would fantasy forms, why would popular cultural forms that seemed so escapist, so distinct from politics, why would they be the site in which people were doing political work? This fascinated me, as someone who felt a commitment to radical, left wing ideals, but also didn’t necessarily express those commitments through direct-action politics but rather through the forms of reading and interpretation. I started to ask why would that be one of the sites where people do that political work? Comics seemed like one of the great objects through which people engaged the political.

Is this work you picked up as a graduate student?

The kernel for this work began as an undergraduate. I was lucky as an undergraduate to be trusted enough by some of my professors to be asked to be their teaching assistant. I was an assistant for a class taught by Kathleen Moran, who was the chair of American Studies at the time at Berkeley. The class was on consumer society, and she asked me to give a lecture on comics and consumerism. She encouraged me to do a reading of a text rather than a history, so I ended up doing this reading of the X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” which some people at UT actually read as a chapter, and we talked about how this storyline was about anxieties of consumption. After I gave that talk, Moran told me “I think you nailed it, and I think you need to pursue this as a project.”

Little by little I was lucky enough to win small research awards, I spent a summer at Yale as an undergraduate research fellow, and I began writing about comics in a scholarly way. When I became a graduate student at GW, I was still very committed to the project, but I wasn’t sure what my method would be. I took an extraordinary seminar with Robert McRuer, which was all about cutting edge interventions in queer theory, and I remember being very transformed and galvanized in that seminar, and it led me to realize that queer theory was going to be one of the primary nodes of intervention that I was going to make in this project, one that had not been done with the object of superhero comics. So, little by little I developed this project, and in graduate school it kind of took shape theoretically, and that was kind of the genealogy of the project.

Truly, I was lucky to have undergraduate mentors who said, you know, “go ahead,” and then to work with graduate mentors who said, “if you’re going to run with this project, let’s make it as precise, as theoretically innovative, as possible.” I think that’s part of the reason that the book has gained so much traction, even before its publication, is because the people I worked with knew that I knew that it wasn’t merely a history of comics, but rather about locating superhero comics in this larger conversation about liberal and radical politics in the post-war period. So that’s been my broader commitment.

In that project, are there particular scholars whose work has been really helpful for you?

Absolutely. I’ve said this many times, but I think a really transformative moment for me was when I read the work of Julia Mickenberg in Learning from the Left. I think Julia modeled for me what it mean to take a particular object, in her case children’s literature, and place it in this really deeply elaborated and thickly researched network of relationships. She not only thinks about children’s literature as a text, but also its relationship to its creators, its producers, its sites of circulation, and then to the broader political context in which it was circulated. So that allowed me to think about an object that was similarly denigrated or thought of as kind of escapist, meaningless, not intellectually worthy, and, instead of thinking of it that way, to actually place it in a context. I also think the work of people like Christina Kline and Melani McAlister, in Cold War Orientalism and Epic Encounters, also do really extraordinary interdisciplinary work in talking about the relationship of political theory and policy to cultural production. Those are some of the books I feel most moved by in American Studies.

I also have to say that, over the course of this project, I was so galvanized not only by queer theory, but also by the uptake of political theory in queer studies. I read some unusual work that would not normally fit into this realm; I read a lot of work by people like Hannah Arendt. I read the work of political theorists like Linda Zerilli, sociologists like Debbie Gould writing about ACT UP and its radical politics, and I read an unbelievable range, in addition to the comic books themselves, of actual primary sources from the radical politics of the sixties and seventies; the Port Huron statement, the radical statements of women’s liberation, gay liberation. All of these together allowed me to see that comic books were not merely entertainment, they were a way to theorize politics and people’s relationship to public life through fantasy figures. I love being able to engage a broad range of work that normally wouldn’t be thought of as political theory. Those thinkers were really central to me.

And I’ll admit to you something that really blows my mind: when I look back it, I read something like 3,000-4,000 pages of comics for every chapter that I wrote. And I wrote seven chapters. I would not only read and reread the actual thing that I was going to look at, let’s say The Fantastic Four or Green Lantern/Green Arrow, I would read many comics that were coming out at the same time, and the political discourse of that moment. So I tried to invest comics in this kind of wider language that’s going on. I was influenced from many, many different directions.

I was going to ask you a question about interdisciplinarity, but you’ve already answered it…

I’m actually happy to elaborate on that, if you want to talk a little bit more about it.

Okay. So, what role does interdisciplinarity play in your research and your teaching?

This is a question I really grapple with all the time, because I think that interdisciplinarity is not only an incredibly difficult and almost utopian achievement that no one ever really gets to – a utopian horizon you could say – but it’s also something that we have to do, in order to elaborate some of the thickness and complexity of the objects that we’re looking at. So I would say that I think that there are two primary ways that interdisciplinarity has been crucial for me. The first is that interdisciplinary thinking does not merely allow me to turn to other bodies of knowledge, like political theory, like history, like sociology, to do my work. Rather, it actually allows me to reconceive the objects I’m approaching as objects that operate in all those fields. So the example that I use is that I had never, when I first encountered comics, thought of them as political theory. I never thought that, for some readers, comics could be conceived of as a literary formation that theorized their relatoinship with the political. And so when I started to read political theory, I had these moments where I thought, “Wow, comic books are actually doing good work in political theory. What would it mean to acknowledge that while comics are not directly political theory, they’re doing political theorizing?”

So on the one the hand interdisciplinarity allows me to think certain research objects as inhabiting multiple valences. And that’s been really, really crucial for me. It’s allowed me to link comic books to much broader discourses, and that’s been huge. I think that the second way that interdisciplinarity really affects my research and writing is that it has allowed me to think about objects as living things. What I mean by that is that I don’t look at an object like a comic book and say “let me now just do a close reading of it as on object.” I think this object can be close read, but whatever I glean from the close reading  is actually coming out of the moment in which its situated.

Like, what Julia Mickenberg does in her work, I’m trying to think about what was the way in which this text was embedded in a whole host of lived relationships, fans, creators, cultural critics. While those are not always my primary sites of analysis (there are other scholars who focus primarily on fans, or who focus primarily on cultural production) I can never actually do a close reading that doesn’t think about all of this network of relations. So interdisciplinarity allows me to think multiple nodes of relations working at once, but it also allows me to access multiple knowledge basis that elaborate each one of those nodes. So, if I want to say something about politics, I need to know about political history. If I want to say something about creators, I need to be able to study production history. And to actually read the discussion across those fields.

A good example from my teaching is, when I teach a certain class, what I want to do with the literature I’m offering my students is to actually reproduce, in a microcosm in the classroom, the lived experience of people who might have approached a certain text. So I want to actually create the conditions under which something emerged. I teach a class on sexual politics and queer literature since the seventies, and I teach a week called Gay San Francisco. We read Armistead Maupin’s famous serialized novel Tales of the City, and we watch the academy award winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and then we read accounts of living in San Francisco in the 1970s, from queer people joining the gay liberation movement. So those three texts, read together, produce a moment. My students read texts, and they don’t simply read Tales of the City on its own, they think, “Wow! At the same moment people were reading this serialized narrative in the San Francisco Chronicle, they were also voting Harvey Milk into office, they were going gay bars, they were going to meetings of the gay liberation movement.” There’s a feeling that this literary text had a life that intersected with the daily, quotidian lives of queer people and their allies in San Francisco at this moment. To me, that’s true interdisciplinarity.

And it’s not only strict historicism, it’s actually getting them to read across media. They take all these things for granted, they have to say “well, one of these things is a novel, one of these is a documentary, these are personal accounts, they all do different work, but they all help us understand a moment or a zeitgeist.” So that’s how I approach interdisciplinary thinking, and that to me is what allows a student to do critical thinking. Not just to read it and analyze it on its own, but to say, “this meant something, in the world, and this is why its important for me to understand it in a holistic, multidimensional sense.”

Do they respond to that?

I think my students have an extraordinary response to that. I had a student who came to me the other day, this is an example that helps explain what I’ve been describing. I’m teaching a class called American Fantasy in the 20th Century, and we just did a week on pulp science fantasy, in the twenties. We read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, we talked about Tarzan, and then I gave a lecture on the ways in which this historical moment was when American masculinity was in crisis, and American imperialism was also trying to articulate white masculinity to support imperialist projects. I introduced Gramsci’s concept of the “historical bloc,” this idea that its not that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a book and it was popular. He wrote a book that happened to hit at a moment when all of these issues were rising in American culture and the book was popular because it articulated all those things about masculinity and imperialism. I had a student who came to me and said “that idea of the historical bloc blew my mind. I never thought that the reason that something becomes popular is because they’re all these historical realities that are happening simultaneously with it.”

To me, that nails it. That’s why I do interdisciplinary work. I want my students to understand that the reasons why certain stories become popular, gain traction, circulate, are because of a complex set of relationships between historical conditions and, not only do we need to know those conditions, we need to gain theoretical architecture, we actually need to know the language of theory to be able to step out of those historical conditions and understand the structures in which they were operating. That requires multiple levels of thought, and I think that students respond so beautifully to that, because they feel a sense a light-bulb turning on when they approach these texts in an interdisciplinary way. They’re not reading them just to get through a class, but because they want to gain an understanding of why other people think the things they do. I do believe there’s an incredibly positive response that my students have to this way of thinking. It’s also just exciting for them. They’re excited they get to approach objects that wouldn’t be thought of a serious, scholarly objects. They gain a sense of independence, of having a stake in intellectual work when they can study the things they love in a serious way. I think that excites students.

That’s really great.

We have a good time. In my lecture course, we start with a children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and a couple of students told me, after my lecture, they said “that lecture transformed everything about this book for me. I never thought of it as a serious kind of intervention in modernity.” They said, “when I purchased this book, I kind of rolled my eyes, because, I thought, why am I spending $25 on a children’s book, what could I possibly learn out of this?” And it was only by reading scholarship that contextualized The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the history of American consumerism, modernity, the turn of the century, that my students said “wow, I could understand this book was doing so much cultural work.” So that made me really happy. Interdisciplinarity allows students to see the expansive nature of the endeavor we are engaged in in cultural studies. By the way, this is so crucial to the humanities at this moment. People are arguing that the humanities is useless, that it is not training people for the real world, and in fact doing that interdisciplinary work makes clear to students that this kind of analysis is about the real world. It’s about how we live, how we dream, how we tell stories, and how those stories shape our material lives. When they see that, arranged in front of them, they are elated.

I want to switch gears back to the specific project. I’m curious if you have an elevator pitch for the talk that you gave at UT. Could you give it?

Absolutely. The talk that I gave last week, “Flame On” explores some of the ways in which the Fantastic Four reinvented the American superhero from its previous figuration as a figure of white, masculine vulnerability, to one of intense vulnerability, body transformation and mutation. The way in which the comic book did that was by imagining a kind of fantastic family formation, four characters who appeared to be normative social types, mother and father, two bickering children, or, you might say, the child and the uncle. It imagines what would happen if the normative family was transformed into mutants, their bodies literally absorbing some of the textures and objects of the material world of the 1950s and early 1960s. Part of what I try to do in this talk is to trace the comic book’s investment in presenting these normal bodies as monstrous or mutated, to actually try to imagine what it would mean to take pleasure in those mutations, to want to be out of the ordinary, to want not fit into the nuclear family. And so I argue, essentially, that the comic book is an extended visual meditation on forms of non-normative or queer embodiment in the 1960s.

Because of that, in the talk, at least, I argue that this allows comic books to be conceived of as a kind of proto- or early form of gay and lesbian literature, even though the comic book, because of the constraints of its historical moment, never actively identifies any of its characters as gay or lesbian. My point is to say that superhero comic books in this moment reject this broader zeitgeist to identify non-normative or non-traditional ways of inhabiting things like family form, gender and sexuality, which ultimately became the purpose of radical gender and sexual movements the 1970s and after. So that’s part of what I’m doing in the talk. I’m also trying to lay bare the way comic books functioned, at this moment, as a really elaborate primary source in the history of sexuality, as an object that actually shaped popular conceptions of sexual cultures as they got articulated to more radical politics, the politics of the New Left, with gay liberation. I don’t know if that does that trick, but that’s my elevator pitch.

I’m sort of curious, going off that last little bit, does comics as a form plays into this, because this seems specifically attuned to that, but also into your work more generally?

This is actually one of the big struggles that speaks exactly to interdisciplinarity in my project. My project is about comic books, but it’s not a traditional comics studies book, meaning that it does not spend an extensive amount of time debating about the formal qualities of comics, which is a major, and rightly so, of comics studies. One of the things I’m trying to do is balance a study of the aesthetic work of comics and their political content. Rather than try to make universal claims about the formal qualities of comics,  comics, I’m specifically interested in taking up those moments when formal elements articulate to specific transformations and political realities. Right now I’m writing an article for Radical History Review that is called “Queer About Comics,” in which I actually develop an argument about the critical relationship between the aesthetics of comics and their political understanding of gender and sexuality.

One of the claims I make in the article is that the serialized nature of the visual form of comics, the fact that you get multiple panels that represent the same bodies or objects in different ways, actually models Judith Butler’s conception of gender as a copy for which there is no original. One of the things that I point out is that this idea, that you get repetition with a difference, creates the possibility for endless transformation of bodies in the in-between space between panels. If, as Judith Butler argues, gender unfolds as a series of performances where every new performance has the chance to rupture what came before, I argue that that structure literally describes the visual architecture of comics themselves.

So I argue that, while, not all comics take advantage of this possibility, comic books from the 1960s and 1970s that were interested in articulating radical forms of non-tradition embodiment constantly use that quality of comics to take bodies to a place where they’re always switching, from one gender, one sexual position to another, across panels. So that’s one good example of where I activate form or formal structure, to do this work. An example from the talk that you saw, was that I discuss that panel where Johnny Storm looks like a normal boy, and in the next panel he’s on fire, his body is turned into flame. It’s extraordinary—we get the repetition of his body, with a difference. And that difference is articulated to a difference in gender and sexual performance, because the first panel says, “There’s only one thing I love more than cars,” and you expect him to say “girls,” but in the next moment he thwarts the direction of heterosexual desire towards his own body, and he says this is what I love more than anything else, essentially, “my body on fire.” This in an amazing moment in which the actual, formal structure of comics is articulated to questions of non-normative gender and sexuality.

The final question, and we ask this to everybody, is that if you could define American Studies in one sentence, what would that sentence be?

I think that American Studies is the exploration of the numerous ways in which people dream about what it means to belong. I think that that’s what it is. I really do. It’s about the ways in which people tell stories about how they fantasize being American, about belonging to something, whether it’s a nation, or a social movement, or a family or kinship, and that’s what we do in American Studies. And I think that dreams are by their very nature interdisciplinary. The way we dream or fantasize about how we belong, comes out of so many different areas, that it specifically requires an endlessly interdisciplinary method to study how people fantasize themselves into existence.

One comment on “5(ish) Questions: A Conversation With Dr. Ramzi Fawaz (University of Wisconsin – Madison)

  1. […] Production and the Digestive Life of AIDS.” Fawaz visited UT last year and we sat down and interviewed him right here on AMS::ATX. Fawaz is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at The […]

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