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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I recently returned from my trip to the UK. Before going, I’d read an article in the Globe and Mail about how Canadians have the worst culture shock when we go to Britain because we somehow expect everything to be the same in the mother country. I mean, we have the same Queen, how different can it be? But after almost two weeks of ordering “white Americanos,” specially requesting glasses of water, and hunting in vain for street signs, it's good to be home. Although I’m grousing, I had a great trip. Both conferences I attended were extremely interesting in themselves, and it was particularly delightful to dip my toe into another scholarly community.

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As previously mentioned, I started off at the Joint International Conference of Graphic Novels, Bandes dessinées and Comics, which was jointly sponsored by the journals, Studies in Comics, European Comic Art, and the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. There were two major themes for the conference, space & time and audiences & readership. I spent most of time in the latter stream of panels, and given the formalist and humanistic tenor of most comics studies, it was a breath of fresh air.

It was particularly nice to see some empirical research on comics readers, such as Liam Burke's survey of Thor and Green Lantern movie audiences, which found that half of those who identified as comic fans don't actually read comics while 10% of people who identify as non-fans do, and Shari Sabeti's work with an extracurricular graphic novel–reading club in a Scottish secondary school. Very interesting secondary analyses of data—for example, of press and citizen reviews of Joe Sacco's Palestine (Martin Barker), of letters to the editor of Superman (Ian Gordon), or of previous interview studies of comics fans (Simon Locke)—were also presented. I think social-scientific approaches to comics and concern with the real people involved at either end of the industry still has a long way to go, but it's clear that there is some very interesting work being done in this area that will challenge a lot of the assumptions that we have extracted from isolated readings of texts or ported over from the lore of fandom.

Excepting a lack of delegate wi-fi access, a kooky kabbalistic keynote, and a terrible beeping noise outside my dorm room, I think the conference (or, rather, its first half: I couldn't stay for the meeting of the International Bande dessinée Society in the second half) came off rather well.

An expanded version of my paper, “The Android's Dungeon,” will be published this December in a special issue of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics on the theme of audiences and readership.

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From Manchester, I took a short train ride to Leeds to the Moral Economies of Creative Labour conference, organized by members of the Leeds University Institute of Communication Studies and the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change.

The conference brought together the kind of social/cultural theory I'm used to seeing in communication studies with perspectives from political and moral philosophy, which is much less common, to talk about creative work and the cultural industries. There was also a strong empirical core to many of the papers I saw.

One interesting theme to emerge was the role of universities in shaping the place of creative labour in our societies.

On the one hand, unpaid work placements and internships were an important issue for several presenters. Sabina Siebert, for example, noted that it was becoming common for aspiring journalists to devote as much as 18 months of unpaid labour to media companies, and fewer then half of them get a job out of it at the end. David Hesmondhalgh drew attention to universities' complicity in organizing the market for unpaid work through co-op schemes.

On the other hand, academic labour was frequently referenced during question and discussion periods as presenters sought illustrations of their arguments about knowledge work in general. I wonder if this hard-nosed look at creative and cultural labour is only possible now that our own positions as academics have been suitably professionalized, “precariatized,” and demystified.

I was on a panel more closely focussed on Alasdair MacIntyre’s theory of practices and its application to cultural work. Mark Banks opened, discussing the relative merits of MacIntyrean and Bourdieusian interpretations of jazz musicians’ descriptions of their practice. I talked about audience practices as a normative foundation for cultural policy. Finally, Luke Jaaniste reflected on the competing demands of “practice” and “institution” on cultural practitioners.

I was particularly thrilled to see the keynote by Russell Keat, who is an emeritus professor at Edinburgh and whose book, Cultural Goods and the Limits of the Market, has been really important to me in the last couple years. Andrew Sayer's closing keynote, which discussed at the idea of “contributive justice” and the division of good and bad work amongst workers and jobs, was also a highlight.

John Gilbert Layton (1950–2011)

A Fan by Any Other Name