In an essay that Samuel R. Delany published in 1996 on “The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism,” the science fiction writer closes with a call for comics scholars to abandon the idea of “definitions” and “origins” as a scholarly imperative. Not surprisingly, Delany used Scott McCloud as the catalyst for his argument and while the essay praises much of Understanding Comics, he stridently challenges the premise of the book’s opening chapter in which McCloud settles upon the formulation of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” Critics have since deliberated untiringly over McCloud’s words, but Delany takes issue with the entire definitional project altogether. He characterizes the enterprise as a series of “empty gestures” from the 1930s when “American critics wanted to make literary criticism more scientific” and that ultimately reinforce the false notion that paraliterature genres lack the quality and complexity of literary works (Shorter Views 239-240).
Delany advocates a different approach to genre collections such as comics, handling them as “social objects” that are incompatible with rigorous definitions and instead, “exist rather as an unspecified number of recognition codes (functional descriptions, if you will) shared by an unlimited population, in which new and different examples are regularly produced” (239). Many scholars seem to have followed Delany’s lead and left the constraints of definitions behind in the nearly two decades since Understanding Comics was published. Even our little corner of the blogosphere at PPP privileges “functional description” (see posts here, here, here, here and here). “A discipline is defined by its object,” Delany says, “But disciplinary objects themselves are not definable. That’s why they must be so carefully and repeatedly described” (212).