Fandom = Participation

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.

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Object Lessons in Juggling Multiple Identities

So this semester, kind of out of the blue, I was offered a teaching assistantship by the history department. The course I’ve been assigned to is centered on Latin America, and focusing on revolution, nationalism, and state building. One of the things the professor wants to explore is the idea of identities, namely that people in Latin America performed a variety of identities, that those identities changed over time, and that sometimes people had to perform multiple, conflicting identities in order to get by.

Hold that thought, because I want to define a couple of terms real quick: construction and performance. Some theorists (myself included) maintain that identities are socially (or culturally) constructed, that they are not innate and that any given identity had to be constructed over time by the society in which it is contextualized. Gender is one of the most common examples: there is no inherent “woman” or “man,” “feminine” or “masculine.” These are concepts that are constructed within societies and change over time; 21st century Japanese constructions of femininity are not the same as 18th century Japanese constructions of femininity. Mid-20th century American constructions of masculinity were not the same as mid-20th century British constructions of masculinity.

The flip side of construction is performance, how “man” or “woman” is enacted in the social context. There are certain actions, thought patterns, fashions, emotions, and so forth, that are considered masculine or feminine within a specific social and historical context. If a woman wears the correct clothes, expresses her emotions the correct way, she is considered a woman, she is performing femininity. When she does something that is tagged as masculine, she might still be performing femininity, but she’s isn’t performing it the “right way.”

In short, construction tells us how to “be” a certain identity, while performance shows other people that we “are” that identity.

So the title of this post. On the first day of recitation (the short class periods where I, the lowly teaching assistant, am the boss), I was wearing a Star Wars shirt. Specifically, it was a shirt that featured Boba Fett drawn in the style of Ralph Steadman, specifically it mimicked art from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thomson. The shirt is actually called “Bounty Hunter S. Thompson.” At the same time, I had my Star Trek water bottle (it’s blue and it just has the Starfleet insignia on it).

I went through three sections, introducing myself, and admitting to my pretty obvious geek identity, before one of my students pointed out that my Star Trek and Star wars fandoms were at odds. I’ve never partaken in the feud between Trekkers and… whatever Star Wars fans are called, because I was raised in a mixed household (both my parents enjoy both properties as well), although I have been a bigger fan of one than the other at different points in my life (first Wars, now Trek, as I’ve matured). I admitted all of this, and pointed out to the students who were there (recitation hadn’t started yet) that this course would be all about juggling multiple, sometimes contradictory, identities, which I should have been illustrating with my own multiple identities in every recitation.

Well, it stands to reason that “teachable moments” can teach the instructor as well.