I was staggering around the Internet this evening and I kept tripping over fan subcultures. You know the ones I mean: Harry Potter maniacs, Pern obsessives, people whose entire existence revolves around one rock band, fanfic addicts. It made me wonder about modern popular culture, which is to say U.S. culture.

I’ve read thousands of books so far in my life, and more than a few of them are in my personal Pantheon of literary quality; I re-read them regularly. I’m a lot less of a movie fan but there are a few I enjoy enough to see once in a while and know whole bits from, etc. And I spent years as a pop music critic and have been obsessively in love with a few musical acts over the years too.

But I’ve never felt the impulse to reenact my favorite movie, dress as my favorite character, go to conventions about some artist or work of art, write fan fiction, or in any way be a “fan”. In fact, I can’t stand it. It freaks me out! I remember back in the mid 80s when friends of mine were following some band like R.E.M. or the Meat Puppets all over the country and I was thinking “Great band, yeah! I buy all their records! I am yelling WOOHOO in the front row when then play in town. But FOLLOW them?”

The other thing that’s interesting to me is that the fan cultures I see on the Internet are all about pop culture, recent pop culture at that. You don’t see people getting together at a hotel to share their love of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Small fan subcultures like the Lord of the Rings folks balloon to huge size when the feature film comes out. And some of these, like the furries, are entirely creations of pop culture. No one dressed up as a cartoon animal and went to conventions about it until cartoon animals had been around for quite a while.

I don’t want to get too McLuhan about it, but it seems that fan subcultures are linked very closely with television and movies, as though these groups of people imprinted on a visual image like baby ducks. Does fandom push our parent/child button or something?

13 thoughts on “fandom

  1. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
    Fandoms present a version of life in which everything can be taken into account and understood. In even the most complex of them there can’t be nearly as many variables as there are in real life, because real life is so complex it doesn’t make much sense a lot of the time, and that’s not good storytelling.
    One of my roommates mentioned to me this evening that on one episode of Star Trek a character makes a passing reference to a bowling alley somewhere on the Enterprise. So now every plan or blueprint of the ship that anyone makes has to contain a bowling alley somewhere. To know these things and take them into account can be profoundly satisfying, because it smells, tastes, and acts like dealing with life’s odd complexities, except that life is a neverending series of odd complexities, most of them unsatisfying, whereas Star Trek will only have, say, a few thousand, and a disproportionate number of those will turn out to be important because that’s how storytelling works. You can memorize those few thousand complexities. And that smells, tastes, and acts like being in control of life, because you are in control of life — as it exists in the world of Star Trek. Having that sense of control is a primordial need that the real world will never satisfy completely.
    I don’t know why rabid fandoms tend to involve visual media. Maybe it’s because visual media are uniquely attractive to people without the imagination to get much out of nonvisual media like books, and people without much imagination are the most likely to get fannish — to become a kind of vampire feeding on the imaginations of others. The books that inspire fannishness also tend to be fantasy novels, your Rowlings and your Tolkiens, the sort of books with lots of visual images in them, lots of magic, stuff happening on a big scale. Literary pyrotechnics. Maybe that also appeals to people with limited imaginations (though I’m not suggesting that everyone who likes Rowling or Tolkien is unimaginative, because I know that’s not true). Or maybe the people who most need to escape the real world will tend to be drawn to fake worlds where things happen on an operatic scale and are always really Important.
    Furries, of course, are evidence that we are living in the end time.

    1. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
      “Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strengths—life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the inderect and most frequent results.”
      “It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself when a thinker senses in every “causal connection” and “psychological necessity” something of constraint, need, compulsion to obey, pressure and unfreedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings—the person betrays himself.”

      -Beyond Good and Evil

      1. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
        Um, no.
        There are so many constraints in fandom. The whole world is a closed system. The rules are known and set. Anyone willing to sublimate their own identity to these rules is kind of freaky to me. It is a betrayal of their own individuality.

      2. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
        Good point. It reminds me of being 10 years old, when what we all wanted was a game with really defined rules.

      3. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
        All this talk reminds me that I HATE THE FUCKING GRATEFUL DEAD!
        HATE THEM!

      4. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
        I saw them once. I don’t do drugs. I had a hot dog during the drum solo.

      5. Re: R.E.M. nothing — I follow Conrad Lorenz
        “It is almost always a symptom of what is lacking in himself when a thinker senses in every “causal connection” and “psychological necessity” something of constraint, need, compulsion to obey, pressure and unfreedom; it is suspicious to have such feelings—the person betrays himself.”
        Nichi! (I declare this the reformed spelling.)
        Did Nichi know about recursion?

  2. I’d have to disagree about the furries (not that I am one or … um … anything). Making animal snarls during sex and liking to rub up against soft fur, seem as old as the dawn of man.

    1. If they dressed as realistic animals or behaved like idealized real animals, that would make more sense. But it’s cartoon animals! Very odd.

  3. I disagree with all these people. Especially about people being fans because they don’t have imagination, or they want simple rules to deal with complexity. I think they’re more about creating connections between people. Lots of people in fandom are not the most…socially inclined. Taking one hobby or interest and exaggerating it, grouping all the people with that interest together and using it to bond, can be immensely satisfying for the categorizational part of our brains as well as being a pathway along with connection can be made in a lonely world.

    1. Re: good point
      The social aspect is very important, especially for people who are socially isolated. That’s probably true of most hobbies.

  4. I don’t think it’s a question of media — there was Potter fanfic before there were movies. Maybe what’s new is that a lot of our entertainment consists of entire fantasy universes.
    Building the “world” of the story is usually more important than the story itself. Aside from seeing celebrities, people go to see films for the mise-en-scene. The average filmgoer will cheerfully acknowledge that the story sucked but the special effects rocked, so it’s “worth the money”. I mean, who talks about literature like that? In paperback, Grisham costs about the same as Austen.
    The really weird part is that the world-building mise-en-scene people are the new cultural heroes. Creating a fantasy that gets you as far away from reality as possible is now good. Animators, set designers, stuntpeople, costume designers… all the DVD extras are about these people. How many DVD extras have you seen about different drafts of the script?
    It’s not surprising that people want to participate in their own way… write fan fiction, create their own costumes.
    One of the things that freaks me out about the LoTR people is that they talk about “our” films like they worked on them. To some extent they were mobilized by the filmmakers as extras in the spectacle of the film’s release — lineups and camp-outs and so on.
    I read on one of their boards how Miranda Otto (who played Eowyn) walked right past them without saying hi at a premiere, and some guy stood up and said “you can’t ignore us! we’re gonna see this film fifty times and buy all the merchandise!” We own you, bitch.

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