art, Art, and aesthetics
DK: Other acafen have told me that my fan fiction tastes are highbrow and shaped by external literary standards (see below), and my lack of appreciation for id vortex stories — that is, stories which revel in extreme emotional connections to pain, romance, torment, and the like in ways that can be deeply satisfying to a reader but which we have been taught to despise as over-the-top — is a weakness in understanding, appreciating, or analyzing fan fiction.
AM: This is a good example of my current obsession (as you’ll know from the book) – the forms of discrimination used by non-academic consumers. It fascinates – and appalls – me that so much cultural theory – Left and well as Right leaning – is predicated on the assumption that non-academics consume indiscriminately. It makes me angry to read authors such as Habermas and Adorno claiming that non-academic consumers will take whatever they’re given, and that the level of ‘trash’ in culture is due the producers forcing their wares onto a helpless public. Anthropologist Daniel Miller has analysed everyday purchasing decisions and shown the level of intellectual work that goes into deciding to choose, say, one band of meat pie over another. Fan cultures fascinate me because they provide well documented examples of such decisions, and particularly their aesthetic elements. Because there’s much discussion between members about these decisions, the systems are both complex and accessible. What you’re talking about here is clear example of an aesthetic system generated within fandom – not from within academia, but in direct response to it. Which is interesting. My own fan interests – Doctor Who is the strongest, and the fan culture with which I am most familiar – don’t have anything like the same sense of resentment to ‘traditional’ literary forms of analysis. They don’t really show up much in our aesthetic systems, either as good or bad objects. Although there’s a lot of fun to be had making fun of Tulloch and Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, which is seen to be full of jargon, and to take the program far too seriously …
DK: Nobody has told me that my taste in comics are too highbrow but I have to admit that I’ve been known to be unattractively smug that most of my comics are indies. Even more unattractively, if a trip to the comic book store has me buying only DC/Marvel comics, I’ve been known to pick up an independent comic that was lower on my shopping list just so I wouldn’t be seen buying only mainstream publishers in a shopping trip (I will do the same thing if I realize that all of comics I’ve bought are written by men, and pick up something on my list which was written by a woman). Interestingly, it’s not the act I find unattractive but my rationale. Making sure I’m supporting independent comic book publishers and female creators is admirable, but doing so because I don’t want the cashier of my favorite store to think that I am a lowbrow reader is fairly ugly. (That being said, I’ve also been told that my taste in fantasy and science fiction books is entirely lowbrow. I don’t have much of a taste for the classics, for the grand old wizards of science fiction. If you tell me to read Ursula Le Guin I’ll pick Wizard of Earthsea (lowbrow simply by nature of being written for children, and don’t even get me started on that problematic valuation) over The Dispossessed in a heartbeat. I prefer early David Eddings to Stephen R. Donaldson. I want my books to have happy endings, and can you get more lowbrow than that?)
AM: I often describe what I’m looking for in a film as ‘singing, dancing and a happy ending’. I think that’s one of the main differences between entertainment and art. And given the choice, I’ll always go for the former.
DK: Though I absolutely love it when something is both!
AM: Ah. Here we go. The old definition – ‘What is art’. I mean, I’m happy to say that the Buffy season 5 finale, ‘The Gift’ is art.
DK: Well, duh, she interjects, proving herself intellectually.
AM: A definition which simply means anything that is beautifully done on its own terms. But in the more institutional definition of ‘art’ – ie, that which is taught in Art History courses at University, or for which one can get an Arts Council grant – then I would have to demur. That kind of ‘art’ does everything in its power to make sure that it’s never entertainment. Which is why I hate it so much. (have a look at this for a laugh – http://flowtv.org/?p=107)
DK: See, I agree with your Flow essay, but not with the way you phrase it here. I think a lot of the art which gets you an Arts Council grant is quite wonderful, and is often entertainment. For all my bragging about how lowbrow I am, I adored ballet as a child, and not just The Nutcracker Suite, but everything from Balanchine to modern dance. Just because The National Endowment for the Arts decided it was worth funding, doesn’t mean it isn’t Entertainment. The focus in your Flow essay is more the inverse, which I do agree with — just because it doesn’t get National Endowment for the Arts funding doesn’t mean it isn’t Art.
AM: But I think that when Art becomes entertaining, the ideological apparatuses that manage the sector swing into play to start stripping it of its status. There’s a great chapter on opera in Jim Collins’s collection High Pop. It points out that when Nessum Dorma was used to sell the soccer World Cup in 1990, and became massively popular, many opera critics despaired. The music had become familiar and unchallenging – in short, entertaining – and was therefore, no longer Art!
DK: There’s this fascinating bit of Walter Benjamin where he makes the usual arts/entertainment division (regarding Germany’s reading habits in the 1920s) — and then goes on to attack criticism for being wholly concerned with the literature of the public sphere. It’s exactly the same dichotomy we have now except with the critical lens focused in the opposite direction.
Kristina Busse and I have had a number of conversations that went something like this (and keep in mind I am paraphrasing her — her end of the conversation is much more intelligent than I am probably making it sound here):
Me: Yadda yadda yadda high quality fan fiction –
Kristina: Hold it right there, buster. What do you mean by “high quality”?
M: [I ramble on about a number of things including technical skill, narrative consistency, character consistency, metaphorical layering, and a whole lot of other value judgments which have led Kristina to name me, much to my horror, a New Critic.]
K: And who decided that was the correct axis on which to measure the quality of fan fiction? What about the Id Vortex?
M: There’s a conversation I could start here about how I think you need to use the master’s tools to get the people who live in the master’s house to pay attention, but that’s not important right now. Why don’t I just rephrase it as “I find it a more enjoyable reading experience to read a story which has both Id Vortex AND the measures that the academy would call quality.”
K: That’s just because you have been trained by the academy to think that way.
M: No it isn’t. It’s my aesthetic sense of what I find enjoyable to read and what I find to be quality.
K: How do you know? Brainwash victim.
K: *looks victorious, or at least as victorious as a person can look over the phone*
M: Look, a yak!
So in some senses I am insufficiently aligned to the fangirl axis, or I am too brainwashed by the patriarchal academy. (Of course, when I phrase it this way with Kristina she gets rightfully disgruntled because that’s not what she’s accusing me of at all, but I’m speaking hyperbolically. Kristina, I hope you forgive me for any misrepresentations!)
AM: A better response would be: ‘No – YOU’RE a brainwash victim’. And she would have said ‘No – YOU are’. And so on, until you fell out and stopped being BFF…
This raises an important point for me, about the different between saying ‘I like this’ or saying ‘This is good’. Again, back to my book – you’ve got the whole history of philosophy of aesthetics (spit!), dealing with this distinction, but not getting very far, because most of the philosophers want to find a way to make the claim of ‘This is good’ into an objective statement of fact – which it never can be. It makes more sense to me to see the desire to go beyond the simple personal response of saying ‘I like this’ to say ‘This is good’ as a desire to open up dialogue – to get other fans into a conversation about what criteria you might use in order to judge your favourite texts, to try to persuade each other … and then it becomes about the conversation, about community formation, and about using the text, and your discussions about it, to form a shared system of making sense, and a community. The discussion itself is the point. And so my question is – was your conversation with Kristina, in itself, pleasurable? And if not, why not?
DK: Oh, of course it is pleasurable! Because the act of coming to terms with definitions and their flaws is itself a joyous part of literary analysis for me. Unsolvable, but so much fun.
AM: Exactly! It provides a space in which it is possible for the two of you to keep on talking about the common object which is one of the things that holds you together. In the conversation you cite, I see two points of possible friction. The first is the use of the term ‘quality’. I’ve been tracing the uses of that word for some time now, and it seems to function quite explicitly as a synonym for ‘highbrow’. And with that comes a simultaneous denigration of its implied opposite – ‘trash’. It’s tricky to try to explain why you think something is good, without denigrating other points of view – but it is possible. I think it involves a playfulness, not taking yourself too seriously. That’s more possible when dealing with lowbrow culture than highbrow culture, simply because we know, as we discuss who is the best gay porn director, that there’s something a bit silly about talking in those terms.
DK: And yet it’s so meaningful, and as you point out in Beautiful Things, everybody does it every day. I could tell you what I think is the best porn, gay or otherwise, without even having to stop and think — and it doesn’t correspond to highbrow artistic style mapped onto the porn genre You’re right, too, that this phrasing — “highest quality porn director” — provokes a double take. This moment of cognitive dissonance makes apparent the disturbing correlation between “quality” and our ideas of “highbrow”.
AM: I think that when you start pulling in the language of the oppressors – which I think ‘quality’ is – it becomes harder to do that playfulness. From an empirical point of view, there’s almost a 100% guarantee that when somebody says that something is ‘quality’ – quality television, quality film, quality writing, quality journalism – I know that I’m not going to like it. Whereas, if it is described as ‘trash’, there’s a high probability it’s going to engage, delight and excite me.
On the other side of your debate with Kristina, the idea that somebody’s pleasures should be denigrated because of ‘false consciousness’ makes me pretty angry. Which is why I suggested the riposte of ‘No, you are’. Cos that’s the problem with false consciousness – it applies to everybody equally. There’s nobody who’s got true consciousness – or at least, who can prove to my satisfaction that their consciousness is true and mine is false …
DK: Definitely. And if in my humorous paraphrase above I represented Kristina as someone who would denigrate someone else’s pleasures, that is about the most extreme misrepresentation of her I can conceive of. But we have different tastes, different aesthetic senses, and it’s valuable to me to be challenged on my definitions of objective quality. It’s always startling to me to discover I have these; on the one hand I’m a relativist and a social constructionist, and on the other hand I’m a book reviewer who makes absolutist statements about the value of a text. I’m telling you, there’s nothing that can shock a good deconstructionist literary theorist into analyzing her own assumptions more than being called a New Critic. *shudders*
AM: Which raises an interesting point. The only place that I make fully absolutist statements about the value of texts is in doing academic book reviews and refereeing journal papers (leaving the marking of student essays to one side – not because it’s not important or relevant, but just because, as they say ‘Don’t get me started on that’. It’s a whole other book about power, authority and knowledge). And even there, I have to admit, I’m getting more and more relativist. I learned a lot from editing an academic journal for eight years. Often I would send a paper off for blind refereeing, and get back one report that said ‘Publish exactly as is’, and one that said ‘Must never be published, this is crap’. Getting that response, over and over again, was an eye opener … so now I tend to say, ‘This is a very good example of its genre …’ or ‘The paper does not have a clear linear argument, but you may not feel that this is important’. On this last point, I’m a huge fan of the clearly made linear argument supported by evidence – but of course, that means that whenever I get a paper of cultural theory to referee, my first response is just to tick the box marked ‘This is a load of nonsense’.
DK: One day I will send you this self-published science-fiction novel I had to review. Just when I think I am getting relativist about the aesthetic quality of texts I get a complete and utter pile of rubbish sent to me for judgment. (On the other hand, I work closely with a teacher who brings many of the young adult novels I review into her seventh grade classroom. Although for the most part I think her students are excellent readers with what I would call in any other conversation “excellent taste”, I do get continuous reports about books I found mediocre which get gobbled up, and books which I found sublime which get ignored. Which brings me back to questioning what it means to be a reviewer, what it means to make objective statements about texts which are really more objective statements about my own taste.)
AM: ['excellent taste' = 'taste just like mine'. In my definition of the term anyway]. My response to this point is an anthropological one with a commitment to conversation. The decisions about what is good and what is bad can be entirely subjective – but if you are the only person who thinks that way, then we call you mad (‘Gigli is the best movie ever made!’). But it gets interesting when you start looking at what communities of people agree are good and bad. And those decisions are never final, and change over time. Criteria alter. Finnegans Wake, for example, fails to be a good book on every criterion that is normally used to make those judgements. But there is a community of people who can make an argument that it is a good book in quite another way. At the moment, there may not be a single person who agrees that the utter pile of rubbish you had to review was anything other than an utter pile of rubbish. But it may be that in fifty years time it will have been rediscovered as a forgotten classic that showed us a completely different way to write such a novel. Or it may remain an utter pile of rubbish. You can’t tell from the text itself. Which isn’t to say that “anything goes”. It depends on what the communities discussing the texts decide, and no individual has control over those. Your job as a reviewer is to play your part in this debate, to offer interesting and insightful and intelligent comments about the texts that other people can then engage with, and thus keep the whole game ongoing – the game of a community making sense of the world. And – importantly – don’t get angry when people disagree with you. Delight in it and take it as an opportunity to make contact with the thinking of another human being. Which brings joy and makes life worth living. For me, at least.
DK: That does it, I’m sending you this book. Trust me, you will agree that there is at least one book in the world about which absolutist statements of quality are true. (Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek; what you are saying is very true. And yet if in fifty years time this particular book has been rediscovered as a forgotten classic, I despair for the future.)
You conclude here with what for me is the most important part of any intellectual debate, conversation, or interaction. Delight, joy, the opportunity to interact with others and learn from them.
Baseball, Doctor Who, and gender
DK: I don’t think there’s anywhere to go with this unrelated thread, but reading the other conversations has gotten me interested in one other fandom with which I identify myself (and possibly the only fandom for which I am a participant but not a scholar): baseball. I am a proud and true citizen of Red Sox Nation, and the fact that it is a fandom I didn’t choose but was born into by virtue of geography doesn’t make it any less real and visceral for me. I think I fall in a place between highbrow (which in baseball fandom I would identify as following statistics, knowing what’s going on off the team, reading all of the sports news and being aware of potential trades) and lowbrow (which I would identify as wearing “Yankees Suck” T-shirts and spilling beer all over a residential street). I’m fanatic about the team but without participating in any of either highbrow or lowbrow activities. Several years ago, when I lost my old blue Red Sox hat, I decided to buy a pink one. I was in the mode of branching out from my youthful “pink and high heels represent all that is evil about women’s fashion” fashion consciousness, and I thought it was fun to have a pink hat. I came to love that hat, which I still have and wear.
And then about three years ago, the Boston sports media went on a rampage about the “pink hat brigade”. The basic argument goes like this: Only women wear pink baseball caps. Women don’t really like baseball, and they are only here because the team is winning and because they think that Jason Varitek has a really nice ass. [Editor's note: he does. He is also a fantastic catcher.] Fans who are here for the wrong reasons ruin the sport. If a woman says “I wear a pink hat and I have loved the sport and followed it religiously since you were a glint in the postman’s eye, you asshat”, she is required to prove her “real fan” nature by reeling off some statistics about players. At this point, if it is a public conversation and not a newspaper article, somebody else usually burst in with “well, I like the pink hat brigade, because they are eye candy.”
Now, letting aside the fact that I HAVE followed the sport religiously for many, many years, I do find it interesting how gendered the assumptions of what ruins a sport become. Very few people rail against the legions of male fans who didn’t start paying attention to baseball until the Red Sox won the World Series, and then bought up a factory’s worth of “Yankees suck” T-shirts instead of “Red Sox world champions” T-shirts. Which makes me wonder if I looked around the much more female space of livejournal fandom if I would find people attacking practices that they think are particularly male. I don’t think so, actually. Far more of the practices that get attacked based on unwarranted assumptions of the “bad fans” backgrounds assume that the bad fans in question are 16-year-old girls.
AM: So sports and academic cultures both attack feminised fan practices – I think that’s true. Again, the Doctor Who comparison is interesting. I think there are gendered practices here too. I’ve never heard a female Doctor Who fan recite the production story codes for every episode of the program, but I know boys who can do it. And in the latest revamp of the program, the showrunner, Russell T Davies, made a point of introducing more emotional content to the drama as a way of locking in a female audience that previously hadn’t been so interested in the show.[Of course, it's important to say in relation to this that some of the best known fan work has undermined these general trends, with the two most important fan writers who introduced emotional content to the program being Kate Orman and Paul Cornell, the latter of whom is definitely male - and, surprisingly, a heterosexual one at that].
So there are differences there. But I don’t see the same kinds of attacks on gendered cultures in the DW community. Because of the revamp, we now have a huge number of female fans coming in to the Doctor Who community who weren’t there before – and I haven’t seen much evidence of resistance to that from the men. Indeed, I’d say there’s almost a gratitude. For a long time we’ve been seen as sad, geeky nerds, in this exclusively male hobby whose very maleness seems to show how sad and geeky it is (it’s very different from Star Trek fandom). And so the fact that women are joining the fan community – many of them focussing on the emotional relationships in the program – is seen as something of a relief – we are becoming like normal people rather than geeks.
But what caught my eye about your final comment wasn’t the gender – but the age. 16 year old. Because although I haven’t seen any resistance in the Doctor Who community to women joining, I have seen resistance to young people joining. There was recently a poll for ‘the best Doctor’, which was won by the current incarnation (David Tennant. Also a favourite with female fans for his ‘floppy fringe’). This led to some venomous outbursts from older fans against the (presumed) young fans who had voted for him from a position of (presumed) ignorance. The young fans have become an enemy, without the proper historical knowledge of the program, who haven’t been here for 40 years like we have, watching every story and learning the nuances of the program. (as I’m writing this, I can see that as many of the new fans are female, there could be an overlap between the hatred of young fans, and the hatred of female fans – but I can honestly say I haven’t picked up any of this in the discussions that I’ve seen. The attacks haven’t drawn on language that is gendered either in the imagined bad fan, or in their supposed interests in the series).
DK: I’m fascinated to see you say that. Mostly I’ve avoided online Doctor Who fandom since the new series began. I know the quirks of the female fan community which has adopted the show wholeheartedly, and I remember the craziness of rec.arts.drwho, and I was looking forward to watching those two communities meet like matter and antimatter. I know that there have been enough conflicts in my own off-line life between those who are fans of the old show and new show both, and those who discovered the show with the new series. Primarily we argue about ‘shipping, about relationships and whether or not the Doctor can be romantically involved with a human Companion (the Eighth Doctor movie never happened I’ve got my fingers in my ears I can’t hear you la la la la). And I know from tidbits I’ve picked up that our conflicts mirror many of the conflicts between old-school fans and new-school fans of the show in general.
But I have to admit I would have assumed the conflict would be more gendered in tone. After all, you’ve got a fandom that (me notwithstanding) is primarily male, heavily gay. And suddenly it’s interacting with a new group of fans who are primarily female, many of whom eroticize male homosexuality. I guess I would just expect that to turn into a gendered conflict.
I’m also interested in your characterization of the new-school fans as “young”. In the places where I’ve seen new-school Doctor Who fans, they’re not necessarily any younger than the male fans — they are just new to Doctor Who. I admit I see a very small corner of fandom, and like I said, I’m generally avoiding online Doctor Who fandom.
AM: You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a national difference here. The new Doctor Who isn’t huge in Australia, but it’s absolutely massive in the UK – always in the Top Twenty programs for the week on telly, often in the Top Ten, often the number one rating non-soap drama. And it’s marketed as, watched as, and known as, a ‘family’ program – ie, the core audience are kids, with their parents watching alongside. I suspect that this isn’t true in the US? Probably because of its positioning on the Sci Fi Channel – and also because there is a pre-existing community of female SF fans in the US into which Doctor Who can enter?
DK: That makes perfect sense, though I admit it’s an unexamined point. It’s not a “cool” show here, except among geeks, and I’d be surprised if it had a large child audience. But you’re right, in the UK I know it’s very much a family show. So my assumption is that any new fans are adult female media fans — the pink hatters, I suppose, allegedly looking for attractive stars instead of good scripts. I assume, based on my unexamined hypothesis about the audience, and that the new viewers will fall into a certain demographic and any conflicts will follow from that demographic. But if I were in the UK I think I would have a very different set of assumptions.
AM: We have to leave it there. In closing, I’d just like to thank you for a conversation that was exactly what, I think, aesthetic discussions should be like. We don’t agree on everything, but we’ve treated the differences between us as points of interest that we wanted to learn more about. You’ve made me think, you’ve made me laugh, you’ve delighted me by coming up with ideas and jokes that I wouldn’t have seen myself. It’s been a genuine pleasure. Thank you.
DK: And thank you, for exactly the same thing.