Friday, September 11, 2015

thoughts on the language of fandom....

      I've found myself reading quite a bit of fan discussion during the recent conflict over the Hugo awards.  The pages of File 770 have become my lunch time reading for the past few months.  That process of reading has really reminding me of the very subcultural behaviors of the group, particularly around the construction of language.  It struck me that a dictionary of fandom might be a very interesting literary and sociological project.  Not surprisingly, there are a number of efforts already in existence on the internet, and I suspect probably quite a few in book or magazine form as well.  Most of these efforts cover both the types of short hand developed in fan circles, such as the now fairly ubiquitous fanfic and slash, as well as specifically fannish language such as ghu and fugghead.  Additionally, such publications will often give definitions for the often obscure acronyms such as SMOF (Secret Master of Fandom).

       Clearly, this is relevant and interesting work if you want to develop an understanding of the fractured and conflictual subgenre, but, for me, it misses out on another dimension of language that you find in fannish conversations, which is not found in specific words or terms, but in conventional turns of phrase.  One clear example that I have found over these last months is the phrase, "It bounced off of me."  The phrase is designed to accomplish a couple things.  1.  It indicates that the commenter didn't particularly like the book or film. and 2.  It makes that dislike a matter of personal preference, one that indicates more about the particular tastes of the reader, rather than the quality of the book or film.  At an immediate level, the phrase is an indication of the commitment to pluralism and relativism within fandom.  It insists that one's personal taste is not universal, and that a book may have qualities that are simply not appreciated because of the limitations of the reader or viewer.  This set of particular commitments is often expressed sentiments, such as "We are all fandom" and the Vulcan phrase, "infinite diversity in infinite combinations."

     I don't want to dismiss that commitment, but it is a commitment that is often undermined by the frequently explosively agonistic nature of fandom.  After all, we are talking about an archipelago of people who enjoy argument and frequently get into explosive conflicts that lead to the splitting of organizations, and to long standing enmities.  Fandom is certainly pluralistic, but that pluralism is fraught with rivalries, rants, insults, arguments, and lengthy diatribes that define the lay of the land.  Rather than being a recent phenomenon, we can find these fights at the origins of the formal existence of fandom, and in the Amateur Press Association, which is probably the closest antecedent to that formation.   In this sense, we see a second pole to the structure of pluralism so celebrated by fandom, one that is already implicit the word 'fan' itself, which simply shortens the term 'fanatic'.  While on the surface, this may seem like the unpleasant underbelly of fandom, it's important remember that the forms of intolerance found within this pole often challenge deeply disturbing aspects of the subculture, such as the forms of racism and sexism found in the genre.  Tolerance, after all, often becomes a form of complacency within the context of an unjust system.

      It also adds a second and unspoken dimension to the statement, "It bounced off of me."  Within the context of a subcultural group that so often descends into futile and bombastic argument, the phrase becomes a way of avoiding such conflict.  That is to say, the pluralism and relativism of fandom becomes a way of both regulating and temporarily avoiding the stasis that lays at the heart of its formation.  In a curious sense, fandom is defined by stasis, precisely because so little as at stake.  It is, after all, not a form of citizenship, an ethical system, or anything other than groups of people who share nothing in common but to enjoy a literary form, an act of enjoyment that millions engage in without any need for a subculture or even a community to do so.  Perhaps, within that context, we can give a third definition to the term, and see it as a form of deferment.  "I bounced off of it" becomes a way of say, "We're not going to agree on this one, but rather than getting into a heated discussion, let's wait and see if there is something to discuss that we will both find amenable."  The statement then becomes a sort of rhetorical border, a way of marking what is open for discussion, and what is not, as well.  In a curious manner, the process then mirrors the production of genre that is its reason for existence.

Friday, May 15, 2015

a short set of thoughts on fan criticism, and recent academic science fiction criticism

       In the years that I have studied science fiction, I have read a fairly large amount of criticism produced either by fans of the genre, or authors who regularly engage with fans.  It's not surprising.  After all, some of the first literary criticism of the genre arises from fanzine publications and other texts produced within the subculture of fandom.  I've read the work of Damon Knight, Judith Merril, H.P. Lovecraft, and various fanzines such as Khatru, to name a few sources. 

      Through that engagement, I've found that fan criticism most often produces taxonomic criticism, that is, it creates categories to group texts together in order to see thematic and occasionally formal connections between texts in the genre.  I've always had a mixed response to these critical texts.  One one hand, I find myself wanting the sort of rigorous, formal engagement that one gets out of academic literary criticism produced after the structuralist moment, and on the other hand, I always enjoy the interesting thematic connections that these authors produce, and, just as significantly, frequently find myself using these critical endeavors to expand what I read. 
     To be honest, it's a set of benefits that I really didn't give much thought to until recently.  I took it as an inadvertent result of reading the comments of a thoughtful and well read person who is engaged in the genre.  But I've been rethinking that unthought assumption as I work through Farah Mendlesohn's relatively recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy.  It would be a mistake to understand Mendlesohn's text as simply operating within the same critical framework as those texts.  It brings in a critical vocabulary from the structuralist literary criticism of Todorov, amongst others, and brings in art criticism, as well.  At the same time, it produces a similar chain of associations and connections through rhetorical categories that you find in those texts. 

      What I've finally realized is that this chain of texts is consciously designed to put its readers in touch with a chain of texts that the reader might find similarly interesting, to open up the reader to new worlds of reading through this critical apparatus.  In effect, it's a structure that is not that dissimilar from the book reviews that are also published in such publications, although they offer a broader evaluation of the genre.  At the same time, it points to a criticism that goes beyond that form, through the production of a critical archive, and the production of a series of connections that can be developed further.  But in both cases, the central focus of the engagement is the pleasure of the text.  The works are deeply normative, in this regard, asking what texts might be enjoyable to its readers, as well as why they might enjoy these texts.  Writers such as James Blish and Damon Knight go further as to identify what qualities might produce better fiction. 

      Through that engagement, they remain much more connected to the genre, refusing the separation of critic and writer that is produced by post-structuralist critics such as Pierre Macherey.  Instead, the critic operates more as guide to consumption, a critical archivist, rather than producer of knowledge.  However, we're seeing a synthesis of this older form of criticism with academic criticism recently.  We can see this with Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fiction, along with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr's The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and the Parabolas of Science Fiction collection edited by Brian Attebery and Victoria Hollinger. Each of the texts take a pluralistic approach to the reading, while simultaneously engaging in a pluralistic disciplinary approach, combining the structuralist tendencies of Todorov, Suvin, and Delany with the taxonomic approaches that one traditionally finds in the fan and authorial critical writing of any number of writers. It's an interesting approach.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Opening Post

     So, I have decided to start another blog to get back to writing on a more regular basis.  I found myself writing less and less for the last blog, Work Resumed on the Tower, largely, because I had found myself at the end of two major projects that animated my writing during that period, my work as a graduate student, and my work within the reform movement of the graduate student union, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union.  With those projects finished, it made increasingly less sense to continue working on the blog.  I was also in a position where I was fairly substantially underemployed, and at a loss what I would do next with my life without those projects.  I initially considered creating a blog that would focus on my work on science fiction, but I don't feel focused enough to create that blog, and I'm not entirely convinced that I want to get involved in the fights of science fiction fan community.  Perhaps, I will come up with a way to engage with the genre that will avoid the kerfuffles and focus on the formal structures of the genre, but that will have to wait.

     Instead, I'm going to put together a blog that will let me write about any particular topic that comes to mind.  Not surprisingly, I'm probably going to cover a lot of the same things that I covered in the earlier blog, politics, culture, and theory.  You're not going to get the same sort of inside baseball coverage of the union, and the activist and academic politics of the University of California-Irvine, but those were issues that were of interest to a very small group of readers, in any case. On the other hand, I'm not sure what is going to be the focus of the blog because, despite getting some relatively stable employment, I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to be doing with my life.  I'm still in the process of trying to find a tenure track job, but that search is not terribly promising given the state of the humanities.  Additionally, I'm interested in getting involved in political activism again, hopefully outside the subcultural activism that I was previously involved in, but I'm not sure what direction that might take.  In any case, the structure of the blog remains open.

     The title of the blog is taken from a brief inter-title within Jean-Luc Godard's film, Masculin/Feminin, where Godard notes that, if he were to rename this film, hew would call it The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.  The name always appealed to me because it gestured towards the dual influence of radical politics and popular commodity culture on the new left and counter-culture, which largely still influence the radical politics of the United States today, even if that social formation lies in ruins.  It also allows me to recognize two streams within my work, the first being the substantial influence of Marxist theory and practice on my work as both an intellectual and an activist, and the second being my interest in popular culture in a variety of forms, most notably in the form of science fiction, but also music and film.  In any case, the title provides quite a bit of latitude in what I can discuss in the forum, while remaining within the rubric of the title.  Let's see where we go from here...