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August 18, 2009

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Continuity in Nonfiction

Speaking of intertextuality, probably no readers are more explicitly intertextual than mainstream comic books. Everything you know about genres, the characters, the world(s) they inhabit, their history/histories, and how to read and make sense of what you see, comes from your experience with other texts — usually a lot of them, and not all of them comic books.

Readers see that experience as an investment in literacy. At O’Reilly Radar, Brett McLaughlin looks at comic book fans’ (and presumably, fans in other media/genres) investment in story continuity:

Putting aside issues of story, I’m struck by how much looking back and forth I tend to do in reading a comic. I’m scanning a bit ahead, and reflecting back on what I just read and saw, even while reading the current panel. I’ve got this constant sense of context; I have a continuity in which what I’m learning (about a comic book character, about a love interest, about an island that’s about to be submerged by supersonic waves triggering earthquakes along fault lines, etc.) fits.

So why would we simply accept that in non-fiction—especially projects and products that purport to actually teach something—we can’t have continuity?

I guess weblogs are one solution to this problem; and in its own way, academic writing is another. Both have mechanisms make their own continuities with other writing explicit, and signal when they’re about to reboot.* But general nonfiction, especially journalism? Harder than it probably ought to be. More rewarding when it does pay off.

Which begs another question; why do readers get such pleasure out of continuity? Is it the happiness that comes with recognition, a feeling of belonging to a community, a function of reduced learning/transaction costs when you approach something new…?

*I think rebooting in a series actually pulls in more of your unconscious knowledge about characters, genres, etc. than even continuity does - not only are you establishing all of these new contexts, you’ve got this layer of old context, too — “oh, that’s how they’re handling this event/character/place.” It’s like building a city on top of another city. This is why the ultimate trick to pull is to do a reboot that isn’t really a reboot.

Posted August 18, 2009 at 9:42 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such


Ooh, your reboot reframing just blew my mind a little. (That is, reboot as ultimate nod to continuity. I'm not sure I 100% buy it -- b/c I'd argue it's also possible to come in on the ground floor w/ a reboot -- but I like it a lot.)

I actually think hard-core continuity is analogous to what's called "industry capture" in gov't regulation. The basic idea is familiar; say drug companies end up basically dictating the FDA's rules b/c they have a much more direct incentive to lobby in a powerful, organized way than "the set of all people who consume food and drugs" -- even though our interests, in aggregate, vastly outweigh theirs. It's the logic of special interest groups.

I think superfans exert a very analogous influence in comics and other "nerd media." Their interests -- namely, continuity -- are miniscule compared to the potential enjoyment interest of the aggregate audience. Even a superfandom as large as Star Trek's or Buffy's in no way approaches the scale of those franchises' true audiences. BUT! The superfans are organized. They're online. They're at the conventions.

And aha! It really IS like industry capture: Media companies lobby Congress to extend copyright; without it, the value of their assets erodes. Superfans lobby nerd-media creators to maintain continuity; WHY? Because without it, the value of THEIR asset -- the knowledge of a vast, continuous nerdy canon -- erodes!

I've tipped my hand; I hate continuity, at least in the context of mainstream comics. I think it's a false god that has led us down dark, twisted paths. What now passes for creativity and innovation in mainstream comics is the clever resuscitation and manipulation of old tropes dug up out continuity. It's seriously post-modern (or something) which, I suppose, makes it interesting on some level, but not actually innovative or (speaking for myself, here) any fun to read.

I know you were talking about a bigger idea here but I got side-tracked by how annoyed I am at comics these days.

Right, so. Continuity in nonfiction!

Right, so, two things. One is that I'm distinguishing in part between conscious and unconscious continuity. Conscious continuity is the strict, rule-abiding kind, and unconscious continuity is that sense of being embedded in, at home with, a continuous context of meaning, more archetypal than architectural.

Rebooting works for both conscious and unconscious continuity. On the conscious level, what better nerd cred can you have than to master not just one but several plot continuities, origin stories, issue histories? It's the equivalent of being able to distinguish between variant editions of a text, or releases or mixes of an album. "Have you heard Pet Sounds in the re-relased mono version? Much better than the early CD stereo." "Well, you know, in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, Tony Stark actually has a congenital condition that distributes his intelligence throughout his body - THAT's how he controls the suit." Again, it's the paranoid style, and it's an important part of collector culture of all kinds - the sense that you've attained mastery over an especially complex system, which your interpretive architecture helps to make coherent.

But again, conscious continuity-heads like conscious, explicit reboots. They don't like it when you tinker with stuff or make "mistakes" or act like nothing's changed. The other point that I think even die-hard continuity fans would probably agree with is that continuity is context, ground, not figure. When you spend too much time making continuity issues part of the plot, you can't actually immerse yourself in the shared context of a continuous world -- which is what continuity is all about.

There is a fair amount of RETCON in non-fiction, especially in politics these days ;)

Or maybe we are actually living in one of those issues of "What If....?"

Ha hahahaha. Now THAT is an idea I can get behind. The journalistic retcon. "Well you see, ACTUALLY, economic growth in the late 90s was caused by..."

Academia, too, is all about retcons. "Everyone knows that William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. What this article presupposes is... maybe he didn't?"

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