I made this pact with myself that I wasn’t going to write about NBC’s Hannibal. Not in an academic way, at least. For all of its gore, its elegant violence that can make cruelty taste like art, I didn’t want to engage with it on a critical level because I love it too damn much.
See, I’ve had a lot of trouble in the past when I’ve tried to aca-write about texts that I love. During my first Master’s program, for example, I almost ruined my affection for Sam Shepard’s True West by banging my head against it in hopes of saying something smart, something more than “This play is amazing and you should think it’s amazing, too.” The paper itself was not good–I don’t even remember what my ‘argument’ was–and the experience chased me away from the play for a long time, which is a damn shame, because it’s freaking amazing. And central to my thinking about how so much of writing is a bullshit floorshow that doesn’t fool anybody, least of all you as the writer.
More recently, my efforts to write semi-usefully about Misha Collins suffered a similar fate once I realized that I actually like the guy, and genuinely admire the rhetorical, performative strategies he uses to interact with his fans. Although I dug myself out of that hole eventually, I still feel like that project could’ve and should’ve gone further, if only I’d figured out how to use my affection for Collins as an asset, rather than see it as a drag, an obstacle that had to be overcome.
Part of the issue, too, is that there’s arguably a lot of academic writing, especially about pop culture stuff, that can be boiled down to, as one of my dissertation committee members puts it: “Here’s a thing.” Or, “Here’s a text/film/transmedia whatever that I, as an aca, find interesting and cool, and therefore, audience, you should, too.” What’s often missing in these pieces is the why–why someone who isn’t you, who hasn’t studied the thing in the same detail that you have, should care about the text and/or your analysis of it.
The necessity of answering that question isn’t unique to aca-work about popular culture. Far from it. But its absence can feel more acute in pop culture studies because we don’t have the cultural cache to pull the “everyone should care because I’m talking about Shakespeare/Tolstoy/Morrison” card. Most of the stuff we write about doesn’t have a place anybody’s artistic canon, so there’s always already a perception in some (Harold Bloom-shaped) circles that the work is at best, pointless, and at worst, a perversion of the humanities.
So I’m acutely aware that answering that question is always a battle in my work, one that becomes all the more bloody when I’m fighting with a text that I love.
Ipso facto: no dragging Hannibal into the breach for me.
But then I rewatched Hannibal‘s second season this spring and kind of sad Tweeted my reactions to a bunch of it.
Shut up. It’s freaking heartbreaking.
On the one hand, sad Tweeting? A questionable choice. However, my semi-anguished textual bursts were read by a colleague at DePaul whom I’d met at a conference a few months before. When I came to Chicago for yet another conference a few months later, she and I got together for lunch + extended discussion of/gleeful fangirling over this bloody beautiful show. One thing led to another, as they so often do, and when my colleague put together a short series on Hannibal for Antenna, a media studies blog, she asked me to play along. (And if you love the show, you must read her post on Abigail Hobbs. It’s brilliant.)
Now I’m not going to lie: writing that post was HARD: as in, “I had to write 4000 words to find the 1000 that made sense” hard. But it was also incredibly rewarding, in part because I found engaging critically with Hannibal only added to my ardor for the text. That ardor, in turn, turned out to be key to the way I approached my argument; for once, love of the text felt like an asset, rather than a burden I had to overcome. If anything, working with the series in this way only made me want to play with it more.
Heh! More to the point, y’all: I learned something writing that post. I figured out something about how the series works that’s important to me as a fan and to my other work in fan studies–which was a shock, because I went into the project utterly unaware of those connections. And bonus: I was able to make a case for why the piece might be useful to others in this field. It’s been a really, really long time since that’s happened, since doing aca-work felt like its own reward.
And finally–most importantly–writing this piece was fun. It was wonderful to go back-and-forth with my colleague; to write some more and send it on to her; and then talk about it again. Granted, most of this happened over about 72 hours, but still! The churn of the creative and analytic process was a joy. Can’t remember the last time that happened, either.
Ultimately, this experience has reminded me how much of aca-work begins by accident. People you meet at conferences, or on Twitter, or who read your fanfic, or who are friends of friends: that’s where collaboration starts. I’ve found that my best work as a scholar has been a direct result of collaboration, be it formal co-authoring or informal discussions like the ones that inspired and ultimately encouraged my Hannibal post.
Looking back at my posts over the past year or so, it’s evident that collaboration has played an increasingly important role in my scholarship. So why did that feel like a revelation in this case? I’m not sure. Maybe it means that it’s finally sunk in.
Oh. Maybe it means that I’m ready to treat my need for–and love of–conversation as an asset, rather than a drag, in my aca-work. Collaboration, not isolation: that’s what I need to be successful–to be happy–as a scholar.
Not bad for a show about a fine looking cannibal, eh? Thanks for letting me spend time in your company, Doctor Lecter.