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.