“Immediate Metacognitive Dispersal”: An Interview with Kate Polak

In Anglophone comics, autobiography has been the go-to genre for dealing with issues of atrocity and historical violence. Art Spiegelman's Maus is the iconic autobio comic and the iconic Holocaust comic, and its linking of the personal and political has influenced other important works like Marjane Satrapi's  Persepolis and Joe Sacco's Palestine.

Kate Polak, as assistant professor of English at Wittenberg, is aware of the autobio tradition. But her new book Ethics in the Gutter: Empathy and Historical Fiction in Comics looks at a different comics canon. Autobiography is about personal testimony, but Polak is specifically interested in impersonal testimony. Autobiographic comics "are explicitly interested in the perspective and experiences of the author," Polak explains.  Historical fiction comics, "on the other hand, present a disconnected creating hand, and the characters that are manipulated with in the pages of a work are more clearly at the whim of the tides of history." Historical fiction can force an audience to think about their own distance from the text in thinking about the author's distance.

For Polak, works like J.P Stossen's Deoragatis about the Rwandan genocide or Jason Aaron and R. M. Guéra, Scalped, about discrimination and violence against Native Americans, force readers to think about the difficulty of empathy. They make you wonder whether you can even find someone else's shoes, much less walk around in them. I spoke to Polak by phone in December about her book, historical fiction, the comics form, and empathy.

You argue that the comics in particular allows for complicated engagement with historical atrocities or historical trauma. Do you think that's something innate in comics as a form? Or is it cultural? Or something else?

I'm reasonably convinced that the form of comics interacts with readers in a significantly different way than texts like fiction or poetry or other forms.

I taught a class taught with Gary Weissman on literature of the Holocaust, and we had substantively different reactions to Maus than we did to narratives like Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel's Night. And by substantively different I mean that people were engaging on an intellectual level that they kind of refused to engage with some of the fictional and more literary texts.

How was the engagement different?

Taking the most horrifying story from this—we had this very good student, she always sat in the front row, it was a huge lecture hall with 100 people. So she turns in her midterm paper, and at this point we've worked primarily with literary texts. And she compares Primo Levi's "over-analysis" of Auschwitz to her own over-analysis of what body wash to use in the morning. And I'm reading this paper and I'm thinking, "Oh God we've failed. Perhaps we're just making this worse."

So I sat her down and had a conversation with her, and pretty quickly realized why that was not an appropriate reaction. But the tenor of this particular student's work on Maus, which was only a week afterwards, was entirely different. She was thinking of the way not that she was engaging with the author, but the way that the author was engaging with his avatar, and the way that the avatar was engaging with the avatar of its father. And so it was this immediate metacognitive dispersal, where she was able to see much more clearly the fact of representation and her distance from it.

And then we got into Simon Wiesenthahl's work, The Sunflower, which is another memoir/philosophical text. And many of the responses immediately reverted to, "Well I felt with them and therefore I've walked a mile in their shows and so I understand the Holocaust." Which is the thing you're trying to avoid in any class related to genocide. No, "understanding" in that way is not the point.

So I thought clearly something is going on here with comics, in that students seemed prepared to engage with comics on this higher intellectual level.

In your book you say that the different engagement is in part because of how comics use gutters. There's a space between panels and people have to imagine the connection, is that right?

The gutter is a kind of reminder that this is a representation and you are involved in creating this representation in your mind as you read it. The gutter creates a space of possibility, where people are reminded that they are a part of the artwork too.

Isn't this something that happens in other artwork as well? I'm thinking about Alain Renais' Night and Fog, a film which pushes viewers to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, for example.

Well, I don't think comics are the only form that do this. I do feel like in many ways that they're a more accessible form in terms of highlighting how they do this.

With film, film is necessarily a more passive medium. But also with forms like fiction, yes you're imagination is engaged, but to some extent your imagination is engaged in a way that doesn't call attention to your own imaginative action, because there' s not as much objectified on the page for you.

I do feel though comics are closer to poetry than they are to fiction. This is a feeling, not something I've researched. My mental space goes to the same kind of area when I'm reading comics as when I'm reading poetry, which is not the same place I go to when I'm reading fiction. [In] fiction I'm negotiating the narrative, I'm tracing characters, I'm very conscious of the fictional artifact as a story that I'm investing in and that I'm following. And I'm less apt to analyze it as I'm going, versus poetry, where I'll read two lines of poetry, I'll read a page of comics, and I'll sit back and think about it. I don't do that with fiction.

In your discussion of J. P. Stassen's comic Deogratias about the Rwandan genocide, you say that the comic through point of view makes it difficult to empathize with Deogratias, the main character who participated in the genocide. Is denial of empathy a denial of ethical investment? Don't we need empathy in order to have a moral commitment?

No! (laughs) No! I go a little bit into this in the book. I don't buy empathy as anything related to morality. Empathy is consonant with immorality. It has no ethical valence.

Torturers are great empathizers because they know what's going to make that person hurt the most. People who are highly manipulative are very good at empathizing because they're very good at getting into your head and figuring out how you feel about something and able to take advantage of you. That's empathy.

We like to think of empathy as this pop psychology term, where if only we felt like another person feels then we would behave differently. But I don't think that's true.

So if we're not supposed to empathize with people in pain, what should we feel for them?

Well, sympathy is a start. Sympathy involves feeling pity for someone. Empathy just involves feeling what they feel.

People like thinking that feeling what someone else feels will make you a better person. But ultimately empathy is an enormous amount of effort, because it involves feeling not just what another person feels but feeling it as they would feel it. And that's a huge imaginative leap. And even if you're able to do that, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be inspired to alleviate suffering.

Why was it important to you to choose fiction narratives rather than autobiographies? For example, why Jeremy Love's Bayou rather than Maus? Don't firsthand accounts of atrocities or historical trauma offer an important perspective?

I think there's a lot that's valuable about firsthand accounts, and a lot of people have written persuasively about how valuable those accounts are. But they're not the only accounts.

Once again I got back to Holocaust literature just as my kind of touchstone. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levy, both of these are valuable accounts that are memoir. But there are other valuable accounts of the Holocaust, including historical fiction like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America that illuminate different aspects of historical trauma in part through their fictionalization.

For example, one of the things that Bayou does very effectively is that it creates a sense of discomfort in the assumed white reader, and a sense of complicity with Lily. Not that Lily is a bad person, but that Lily means well but is still terrible.

And this kind of insistence on a black girl saving the world, i.e. the white girl, being the hinge of the plot, and it's only in order to save her father. But the only way by which she can save her father is to salvage the white girl's life, who only got into this mess because she lied about the black girl in the first place. The layers—it's just beautiful, and the way Love incorporates all of this is fascinating, because he does it in a seemingly effortless manner. But at the same time he really centers some of the debates and discussion we've been having in Black Lives Matter and in the conversation surrounding that in the last few years.

In your last chapter, you talk about an issue of Hellblazer called "The Pit" by Mike Carey and Marcelo Frusin in which John Constantine visits Tasmania and encounters ghosts associated with the Tasmanian genocide. You argue that the comic is about Constantine's callousness towards the victims of the atrocity. But I wondered if there's a firm difference there between Constantine's callousness, and his girlfriend Angie's callousness, and callousness on the part of the comics' creators? How do you distinguish between a comic that is commenting on withholding empathy, and a comic that actually just withholds empathy?

That's a good question!

In the specific case of Hellblazer, of that particular issue of Hellblazer, it really does come down for me to the very graphic demonstration of the way Angie's narrative getting twice the space as the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman. And the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman saving Constantine and the line, "She told him all he asked."

Anyone who pauses on that line understands that something's been left out of it. And anyone looking at the Tasmanian woman's narrative vs. Angie's narrative understands which is the more horrible narrative. That the equalizing of everyone's pain is absurd and ridiculous in this context. The Tasmanian woman is talking about the utter annihilation of her people and Angie is talking about her brother undergoing mental illness. It's not that Angie's narrative isn't terrible, it's just that it's not going to measure up to genocide.

And I think the creators are fairly clear on that. But to the other question how to tell the difference in terms of withholding sympathy or withholding empathy, I think you have to look for cues where people know the areas in which they can't tread.

When I think of that issue of Hellblazer I point towards Constantine's being shuttled into the dead British soldiers' dream when he goes on the dream walk, rather than going into the dreaming of the aboriginals as he intends. It would have been so easy to create a comic in which he dreamwalked with the dead spirits of the Tasmanian aborigines. That would have been an easy comic to write. But Carey and Frusin chose instead to complicate it in order not to access that space, in order to not pretend that space was accessible to a white character. And particularly a white British character.

I think of J.P. Stossens Deogratias in a very similar way. Stossen is pretty intensely committed to not coopting the points of view of black Rwandans whether Hutu or Tutsi. He's a Belgian émigré, and he's clear on that and I think you can read it in the work as well as understanding that from the biography of the author.  He doesn't want to pretend as though he has some special insight into their points of view.

In fact one of the rare times that we as reader are directly addressed with a point of view—not an over the shoulder, not approximating the point of view, but are directly seeing through one character's eyes—is when Deogratias is looking at the results of the violence he's committed during the genocide. And to me that's an indication that the assumed white reader is in Stassen's view complicit. The presumed Western white reader is not directly complicit, perhaps, but is complicit in looking at the spectacle of genocide as something titillating.