The act of consumption, specifically of popular culture, gets criticized a lot, especially be elitists (sometimes masquerading as populists). The basic logic goes that consumption is mindless and simply a tool used by the capitalist oppressing class to lull the masses into a false sense of happiness, so we don’t notice that they’re oppressing us.
I’m not saying that capitalists don’t make use of consumption in this way, but such arguments set up the consumer as a straw man (or lady, or person) without any real agency.
Recently Jacobin.com (yes, I read Jacobin, sometimes) ran some blogs about geek culture. Two of the three were pretty weak. Ian Williams basically argues that geeks are corporate shills who buy into whatever Marvel, Disney, or whomever is selling. I call bullshit on that.
Despite his identification as a geek, Williams’ piece shows a pretty stark unfamiliarity with geek culture (a term that, in and of itself, is pretty empty), but it shows a definite unfamiliarity with fan production. The basic assumption is that fans don’t question or critique anything, that we just sit here like sea cucumbers (and not the cool ones like Sea Pigs) and consume whatever floats our way.
The subjects of my MA thesis, the people who edited their own fanzines about comic books, or contributed to or even read those fanzines, were certainly not passive consumers. They were thinking about the stories, the characters, the industry and its actions, and they were discussing them, extensively. Today this happens on forums around the Internet. When people cosplay at cons, they choose their costumes because those characters resonate with them in some way, whether they’ve consciously thought about it or not.
Fandom is inherently participatory, even if you don’t critique every episode of Warehouse 13, the simple fact that you chose to watch that show, instead of something else, means that you actively thought about your decision. This is becoming especially true in the days of streaming media: I can’t let Netflix just run and play shows at me, I have to choose them, which means I have to make decisions about what media to engage with at a particular time.
Were we to create a theoretical hierarchy of consumptive acts, the choice of whether or not to watch or read the thing in front of you, instead of doing something else, would be on the bottom, but even that is still active. Higher up would be the decision to see a film or to boycott it, higher still would be writing fan fiction, doing cosplay, or making a fanzine (in absolutely no order at all).
All consumption is inherently active, and inherently participatory, because consuming media is one of the ways in which we participate in contemporary capitalism. Fandom takes that participation a step further, by engaging with some kind of media to a greater extent than just consuming it. I’m not here to put labels on people, because fan and geek are self-applied identities, and nobody gets to tell you that you “aren’t a fan” of something, try as they might. So the simple fact that you choose to watch a show regularly, without going on forums to talk about it, makes you a fan if you choose to identify yourself as such. Among other things, I’m a Brony, even though I’ve never written pony fan fiction, remixed a song, or drawn Applejack fanart (Applejack is best pony), but I’m still a fan of the show, and own a bunch of random pony merchandise.
I should note that Williams wasn’t writing a “dismissal of fandom or media consumption as a whole” (his words), which is good. I still disagree with some of the basic assumptions he’s making though, which I find happens a lot when discussing “geek” culture (I really want to write something about assuming that all geeks are unpopular, only popular because geek is “chic” or have all been bullied). It’s only a blog post on a website, and so it would be too much to ask that it (or this post, for that matter), be terribly in-depth or well-sourced. It’s a spring boar to other ideas, and part of a larger conversation.
That conversation continues directly in a Jacobin piece by Jase Short, which specifically responds to Williams. He does a nice job of challenging this passive idea of consumption. I’m a Marxist scholar at heart, but Marx was writing quite a while ago, and he never could have predicted how capitalism would have evolved (and yes, companies like Marvel only exist because of capitalism), and since human societies change over time, the theories that we use to discuss them have to as well. There are a lot of very interesting philosophers, scholars, authors, social critics, journalists and so on who have written things that are relevant to studying popular culture, consumption, capitalism, and the like. No single one of them has gotten it totally right, and those of us who want to continue this trend of studying the things that make up the day-to-day experiences of humans have to take what works from each and add to it ourselves. Otherwise we won’t learn anything.