“The Child Repents and Is Forgiven”

I occasionally out myself here at this blog, on Facebook or at Swarthmore as having a fairly encyclopedic knowledge about mainstream superhero comics, like a few other academics, but I’ve been much less inclined to make even a limited foray into either comics scholarship or comics blogging than I have with some of the other domains of popular culture that I know fairly well from my own habits of fan curation and cultural consumption.

Nevertheless, I’ve followed many comics blogs since the mid-2000s, most of which have traversed the same arc as academic blogs or any other kind of weblogs: from a small subculture dominated by strong personalities who were drawn to online writing for idiosyncratic reasons to a more professionalized, standardized, and commercialized mode of online publication. Two days ago, a well-known male comic blogger named Chris Sims who had moved from maintaining his own early personal blog to paid writing on a shared platform blog called Comics Alliance wrote an apology for having bullied and harassed a female blogger, Valerie D’Orazio, back in that earlier era of online writing.

The timing of the apology, as it turns out, was at least partly a result of Sims breaking through from comics blogging to actually writing a major mainstream title for Marvel, an X-Men comic intended to be a nostalgic revisitation of those characters as they were in the early 1990s. News of his hiring led to D’Orazio writing about how hard that was for her to stomach, particularly given that his bullying was particularly aimed at her after she was given a similar opportunity to write a mainstream Marvel Comics title.

There’s more to it all (there always is), including an assertion by some that “Gamergaters” are somehow involved in stirring this up, but I want to take note of two separate and interesting aspects of this moment.

The first is an excellent reprise of the full discursive history involved in this controversy by Heidi MacDonald. Not only does MacDonald add a lot of nuance to the controversy while remaining very clear on the moral landscape involved, she ends up providing a history of blogging and social media that might be of considerable interest to digital humanists who otherwise have no interest in comics as a genre. In particular, I think MacDonald accurately identifies how blogging used to be a highly individualized practice within which particular writers had surprising amounts of influence over the domains that drew their attention but also had largely undiscussed and unacknowledged impact on the psychological and personal lives of other bloggers, for good and ill. In a sense, the early blogosphere was a more direct facsimile of the post-1945 “republic of letters” than we’ve often realized: bloggers behaved in many ways just as print critics and pundits behaved, with rivalries and injuries inflicted upon one another but also with relational support and mutuality. Where they were interested in a cultural domain that had almost no tradition of mainstream print criticism attached to it (or where that domain had been especially confined or limited in scope), the new blogosphere often had a surprisingly intense impact on mainstream cultural producers. I’m recalling, for example, how very briefly before I started a formal weblog I published some restaurant reviews alongside some academic materials on a static webpage, and immediately got attention from some area restaurants and from some local journalists, which I hadn’t really meant to do at all.

MacDonald underscores the difference between this early environment and now, especially in terms of identity politics. It really is not just a story of going from individual curation of a subculture to a more mainstream and commercial platform, but also of how much attention and discourse in contemporary social media no longer really reproduces or enacts that older “republic of letters”. Attention in the early blogosphere was as individually curated as the blogs themselves, and commentariats tended to be much more fragmented and particular to a site. Now commentariats are much larger in scale, much less invested in the particular culture of a particular location for content, and are directed in their attention by much more palpably algorithmic infrastructures. This is sometimes good, sometimes bad, but is at the least very different.

The second aspect of the Sims controversy that interests me is the very active debate in various comments sections about whether Sims should be forgiven (by D’Orazio or anyone else). This has become a common discursive structure in the wake of controversies of this kind. Not just a debate over what the proper rhetorical and substantive composition of contrition should be, but whether the granting of forgiveness is either a good incentive for producing similar changes in the consciousness of past and present offenders or is an attempt to renormalize and cover-up harassment by placing it perpetually pastward of the person making a pro forma apology.

One of key issues in that ongoing debate is whether the presence of self-interest so contaminates an apology as to make it worthless. E.g., if Sims has to go public in order to keep his job offer from Marvel intact, then is that a sign that he doesn’t really mean it, and thus that his apology is worthless?

I think the discussion about the dangers of renormalization, of quickly kicking over the traces, is valid. But here I’d suggest this much: if male (or white, etc.) cultural producers, professionals, politicians, etc., come to feel that their ability to succeed professionally depends upon acknowledging bad behavior in the past and committing to a different kind of public conduct in the present, then that’s a sign of successful social transformation. The presence of self-interest doesn’t invalidate a public apology, but instead documents a new connection between professionalism, audiences and success. That might turn out to be a bigger driver of change than waiting for a total and irrefutable transformation of innermost subjectivity.

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One Response to “The Child Repents and Is Forgiven”

  1. First a disclosure: I know almost nothing of the comics/blog culture, and I haven’t read your links yet.

    Second, some random thoughts:

    *A true apology needs to acknowledge, if only implicitly, that the act of apology doesn’t entitle one to forgiveness. An apology may be sincerely offered, but the victim retains the prerogative not to forgive. Call this “apology as guilt”

    *Apologies–whether “true” or not, or “sincere” or not–also play a public role. It’s a performance that acknowledges that the apologized-for behavior is not (or no longer) acceptable. (Even though sincerity or trueness is not necessarily in play, it has to be a “real” apology and not a non-apology apology of the “if I offended anyone….” trope we sometimes hear.) Call this “apology as shame.”

    Again, while I know nothing of this particular milieu, I think you can frame the discussion that way. Whether D’Orazio forgives or not is up to her. Whether the apology is a sign of progress is something to be grokked by those in that comic book culture.

    /my two cents

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