Not the right ideas about character

Working on the book – at least for me – is a constant process of trying to figure out which ideas are worth keeping, and which aren’t. Sometimes I hold really tightly to ideas that aren’t worth keeping, or that I just can’t keep, and then these ideas lead me down confusing and time-consuming rabbit holes where I end up learning a lot about how supercomputer processors work or something (actual example from my dissertation research). Cool! – but not really the point.

The chapter I’ve been working on lately is Chapter Four, which is about how preparedness materials use the vocabulary of resilience to talk about characters and characterization. I look at how characters, specifically the character of the hero – that most resilient of characters – pop up in 9/11 anniversary speeches, online games designed to teach kids about natural disaster preparedness, and the CDC’s zombie pandemic public awareness campaign, and I try to think through the particular investment of preparedness materials in character, broadly construed.

I don’t know if you know this, but lots of people have written about character in literary studies (and in film studies, and in game studies). One of the things that’s led me astray in this chapter is my tight grip on the idea that I need to read everything out there on character. If I just read it all, I thought, things will snap into place. I will know what I am trying to say.

But it hasn’t really worked out that way. In fact, my effort to read and synthesize everything out there on character has not only created more confusion and anxiety about what it is I am actually trying to argue in this chapter – it has also led to the creation of some overly complex conceptual frameworks. For instance, one idea I had for the structure of the chapter was that I would apply different “models” of characterization – like a moral exemplar model of understanding character, or a typological model – to the chapter materials and delineate how these models “failed” to fully capture what was happening with character in the context of preparedness. This would then allow me to elucidate what I’m informally calling “the zombie model of characterization” using the CDC materials – a model of characterization that depends on the form of identification but without its content.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that, once again, I am dealing with more than kind of media in this chapter: I am dealing with speeches, online games, and graphic novels. I read everything I could find about character in film studies (close cousin to games and graphic novels), game studies, and comic studies, and I boned up on some foundational film theory about identification, and some newer stuff on identification in games and comics.

This approach didn’t work for a variety of reasons, but one of them was that I was just trying to do too much. I was setting up these models of characterization and citing everything I could think of, and in so doing, I kept getting sidetracked by things like the issue of personhood; and how literary criticism at various points has insisted on reading characters as people, or not, and what that means; and what the transcendental subject is and how it relates to psychoanalytic theories of identification in film studies; and what a hero is, and whether or not a hero is an archetype or a character, and whether or not an archetype is a character; and how identification works in comics; and how the moral and literary/fictional understandings of character are intimately intertwined; and the etymology of character; etc etc etc. I kept losing the thread.

Finally, my partner released me from this misery by saying, “Forget about everyone else. Let the materials you are writing about do your theorizing for you. You are not trying to apply someone else’s theory or history of character to your materials; you are showing how preparedness has its own theory of character.” This, of course, is absolutely right.

Realizing this took a load off of my shoulders. I wasn’t responsible for knowing and regurgitating everything ever written about character. Instead, I was responsible for articulating what preparedness materials say about character. The main argument of the chapter became clearer, and it was simpler: 1) Demonstrate that we need to think about “the resilient character,” not just “the resilient subject” (a persistent figure in critiques of preparedness by security studies scholars) because this reveals a different story about preparedness and resilience: the story is not only – or even not primarily – ideological; it’s also about identification with explicitly fictional “heroic” characters; and 2) But this “identification” (and I’m not yet convinced I want to call it that) is bizarrely empty of content: it is not about identifying with particular qualities or features of the hero, but rather simply reproducing the form of the hero without end (hence “the zombie model of characterization”).

I’m still working on it, and I’ve not yet figured it all out, but I am getting closer. I have the sense this is the way to move forward with this chapter. And yet. The more I write, the more I realize that one of the more difficult parts of it for me is the grief I feel for my wrong, or bad, or just unusable or infeasible ideas. Writing things down necessarily means not writing so much more. It means shedding all of the words I could write, all of the ideas I could tackle – shaking them off. I struggle sometimes to feel like I am equal to the task of writing this book.

Flailing to write the book

The book, the book, the book. For a long time after I graduated with my PhD and somehow got a job I wasn’t making any progress on my book at all. In fact, I took a whole year off from even thinking about writing the book during my first year at my old job at Clemson University. And then after that year, I wrote a lot of things that were supposed to be the book but that didn’t feel right. I was cobbling half-baked ideas together and putting band-aids on chapters I didn’t know how to end or begin and glossing over things that seemed important because I couldn’t articulate how they fit with my grand design. But I kept pounding away at it, doing what I do best, which is trying really hard. It wasn’t working. I did a lot of flailing, which is not quite failing, but which can feel like it.

Luckily, after a year of flailing, I applied and got into the First Book Institute at Penn State’s Center for American Literary Studies. (Sidenote: If you are working on your first book in American literary studies, you should apply to go to the First Book Institute. It was a transformative experience.) On the first day, Priscilla said something to this effect: Sometimes the concept you cling to the hardest is the concept holding you back from writing the book you want to write. I realized in that moment this was exactly my problem, although I wasn’t ready to admit it until a couple of months after the institute.

You see, during that time of flailing, I was still trying to write the book I thought my dissertation should become. I had written this whole dissertation, after all, and I wasn’t going to waste all of that effort. My dissertation was a media studies project about national security. I examined different kinds of what I called “security media” — including stuff like policy documents, disaster preparedness training exercises, popular films and novels, surveillance networks, and databases — and tried to figure out what any of it had to do with digital media. Turns out, I couldn’t figure it out, not really, not in time to finish my dissertation. But the book, I thought, was my chance to rectify that. I would finally do good on my promise to write something about mediation and national security!

But I couldn’t do it. I started a new job and tried to fathom actually finishing the book. Then something shifted.

I read back through my notes from the First Book Institute and discovered that I wrote a lot about fiction. When Priscilla and Sean asked us to reflect on what was important to us about our books, I reflected on fiction. I realized a lot of the feedback people had given me about my chapters was about how and why I was thinking about how preparedness materials use fiction. I remembered that Matthew, another participant at the institute, actually said, “I don’t think your project is really about preparedness media.” After the institute, I went home and read the terrible fiction of Richard Clarke, former national security advisor. His books were painful and often boring to read, but there was something about these airport political thrillers that wouldn’t let me go. I recalled what fascinated me about my dissertation topic from the very beginning: how national security discourse relies on fiction — on made-up disasters — as a form of knowledge production. How national security discourse takes these made-up things way more seriously than literary critics and scholars ever would. I reflected on the parts of my dissertation I enjoyed writing the most, and reminded myself they were all about fiction or fictionality, the concept of fiction. The more I let go of the media idea, the more things came into focus. I would write about the concept of fiction, broadly conceived — about how national security materials use fiction to shape how we imagine and respond to catastrophe.

So, I decided to scrap most of the content and theoretical focus of my dissertation, but keep the topic. This has meant re-writing everything from the ground up. Some small parts of my dissertation will make it into the book, I think, but not many. But it’s a much better book for it.

The weirdest thing to me about this whole story is how I somehow forgot what most interested me about my book topic in the first place. Or, I didn’t quite forget it, since I was writing about fiction all the time, but it had become an implicit rather an explicit concern of project. I think some of that has to do with excitement about media studies from grad school. Most of the materials I write about in my book are not really works of fiction (although Richard Clarke found his way in there!); rather, they are things like preparedness training exercises or national security plans and documents — materials that use fiction or concepts from fiction to do their political work. That threw me off for a good long while. Plus, all the cool kids (who got jobs!) in grad school were in media studies.

But getting a job in an English Department, and teaching contemporary literature classes, and thinking a lot about methods in literary studies and what it means to read literature and how to teach other people to do it — all of this brought me back around to where I started. Turns out I wanted to get a PhD in English because I wanted to think about literature. Although my book doesn’t contain a lot of literature, it is definitely about literature. Or, at least, it’s about one of the things that literary scholars have spent an awful lot of time thinking about: fiction.

Failing to get an article published

Not much to say about this one: I recently had an article about critical reading practices rejected for publication. I think in this case it was mainly a situation where the article wasn’t the right fit for the venue, but I don’t know for sure. I know rejection is a totally normal part of the job, and this rejection was not mean-spirited or unfair — but it still stings, right?

I know I should just send it somewhere else. And while there are some parts of the thing that are fine, I want to make some changes — ok, I want to change the article entirely — and I don’t have time to do that right now. It’s a one-off piece and I really just gotta finish this book. Yet it’s still bothersome: I’m not particularly attached to the article itself in its current configuration, but I AM attached to the many hours I spent writing the damn thing, and to the idea of having written it.

Maybe, in the utopian dream that is “next summer,” I will find the time to resuscitate the article and do something with it. And/or maybe pieces of it will just end up on this blog while I figure out what to do, little bits of mess.

Messing up payroll paperwork

This one’s a doozy: Some wonderful graduate students here at the University of Miami are working with me on the WhatEvery1Says project (WE1S), which examines public discourse on the humanities using methods in machine learning. We recently received a sizable grant to do this work, and I’ve been trying, and mostly failing, to figure out how to be an administrator so that I can administer my end of the grant. Unfortunately for these wonderful grad students, one particularly important thing I failed at was getting their time sheets in on time so that they could be paid for their first month’s work on the grant. The problem was simple and dumb: I misunderstood when the time sheets were due and told them to turn them in way later than they needed to. As a result, they didn’t submit them in time to make the payroll deadline for this month.

After talking with some colleagues in my department, we figured out something of a backdoor solution, and the grad students will get paid. But that hasn’t stopped me from feeling pretty terrible about this one. Part of my personal code of ethics when it comes to working with graduate students as a faculty member is that you don’t screw over the graduate students who are working with you, especially when it comes to paying them for their work. Grad school wasn’t long enough ago for me that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to constantly worry about money.

We’ve only been at this grant thing in earnest for less than a month, but one thing I’ve learned is that project management is really, really hard. It takes a lot of work to ask people to help you do work, and to get organized enough so that they can understand and do this work. I’m sure I’ll be messing this project up lots more in the years to come.