Science Fiction World Building in a Capitalist Society: An Interview with Dan Hassler-Forest (Part One)

Most work on transmedia storytelling and world-building to date has come from a formalist perspective, asking how these techniques transform our traditional understanding of how classical Hollywood told stories. Or it comes from an ethnographic direction — how do these techniques reflect the new interplay between media producers and consumers, with these relations often understood through the lens of a Fandom Studies approach. Or they are written from a production perspective — how might a media-maker apply these techniques to his or her own work or how did a particular production evolve new approaches to serve the particulars of its content and market. All of these are important questions to ask about transmedia and all are approaches I’ve featured on my blog in the past.

A few months back, though, I was delighted to get a chance to read an advance copy of a recently released book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism, which adopts a more ideological perspective. Here’s what I wrote as a blurb for the book:

Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics explores the intersection between world-building as practiced in speculative fiction and the desire to imagine (or constrain) alternatives to contemporary capitalism. He writes knowingly, affectionately, yet critically, about franchises as diverse as Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, and The Walking Dead, mapping the ways each embodies contradictions at the heart of neoliberal capitalism — contradictions that surface in terms of their formal properties as transmedia franchises, their commercial contexts, and the consumer practices they inspire.”

I will be honest that this was not always an easy read for me — the book’s author, Dan Hassler-Forest challenges many of the core assumptions that have governed my own work on these topics. I emerged from the experience a tad bruised, perhaps, but also recharged, full of new thoughts and perspectives I would have encountered nowhere else.

As my blurb suggests, this guy knows his stuff: he isn’t sniping from a high altitude above the text, tossing theory in coke bottle down to the masses below, and he isn’t cherry-picking awkward moments to skewer, and he isn’t dealing with sweeping generalizations. He brings his critical apparatus to bear here but he also comes in as someone who has a fan’s care for the nuances and particulars and a deep respect for the core building blocks of the genres he discusses. He knows his stuff and that’s what makes his ideological critiques hard to ignore.

In the interview that follows, you will see us wrestling a bit with some of the core premises of the book. I push back where I feel I must, but in the spirit of trying to pull out his core assumptions. We cover a lot of ground here — intellectually and culturally — and there’s sure to be something in all of this that will provoke you to reconsider some of your own cherished assumptions about  transmedia and world-building.


HJ: Most work in transmedia studies to date has approached world-building from a formal or production studies perspective, whereas your approach might best be described as ideological analysis. What do you see as the value of concepts such as transmedia, franchises, and worlds for understanding contemporary struggles over capitalism?

DHF: I think these concepts are enormously important for understanding both the economic and cultural logic of global capitalism. First, we’ve seen how transmedia franchising and world-building has really surged over the past two decades, to the point where fantastic fiction seems to dominate the media industries and our cultural landscape more and more. For fans of these genres, it’s great in a way, because there is such a wealth of material being developed and produced in popular fantasy, and most of it caters directly to fans’ sensibilities and desires. At the same time, I also think this is ultimately bad for fan culture, because all this stuff is being produced by media conglomerates working in a very competitive environment, and the sheer amount of material seems to impact fans’ ability to participate creatively in any meaningful way.

I think this also illustrates the larger dynamic of global capitalism, where those who can afford it have access to cool technology and a wide variety of awesome entertainment, while we surrender control over these storyworlds to the corporations who claim ownership over properties that should be considered a form of cultural commons.

Second, I see in fantastic world-building a fundamental desire to imagine alternatives to the social and material realities of modernity, and therefore of capitalism. We do this by imagining and expanding complex and immersive fantasies about worlds that are pre-capitalist (as we see in a lot of fantasy) or post-capitalist (which defines a lot of sf), which gives world-building a very fundamental political direction. Even if we’re not necessarily aware of it, engaging in fantastic world-building helps us reflect on so many aspects of our world and how we understand it, and that’s an especially important cultural activity in our current context, where capitalism has become the only game in town. And since fantastic world-building developed historically as a highly participatory and collaborative cultural activity, it has a lot of political potential.

HJ: The central frame running through your book draws on Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire and the Multitude. Can you explain these concepts for the reader? What is the underlying model of social and political change you are drawing upon across the book?

DHF:The major benefit of Hardt and Negri’s work on globalization and capitalism is that it provides a fairly straightforward and easy-to-understand set of terms for understanding the basic notion of fully global capitalism. Since I’m trying to bridge a gap between radical critical theory on the one hand, and fan studies, science-fiction scholarship, and transmedia storytelling on the other, I thought their work would make a nice fit.

Because even though their major works provide a lacerating critique of global capitalism –which they call “Empire”– they are ultimately also optimists who have great faith in the creative, democratic, and collaborative potential of the people, for which they use the word “multitude.” This term is so much more appropriate to our current era because it isn’t reductive and homogenizing in the way that more traditional Marxist terms like “proletariat” can be. Instead, they emphasize that the multitude is fundamentally plural and radically diverse, both in the larger sense (allowing for an unlimited diversity of identities) and at the individual level (meaning that the individual subject isn’t singular but plural).

For anticapitalist theory and activism, this plurality is obviously both an obstacle and an opportunity: if we all see ourselves as unique snowflakes, preoccupied with our own special interests, it’s that much harder to develop empathy, solidarity, and the kind of collective action that would be necessary to overcome Empire’s hold over us, and develop postcapitalist alternatives.

But at the same time, the cultural, social, and technological changes that have facilitated the rise of global capitalism can’t be controlled by Capital itself: above all, Hardt and Negri see the multitude overcoming Empire not by retreating from digital culture and immaterial labor, but by reclaiming it for its own ends. So again, I see a lot of provocative parallels with transformative fan culture and the way it developed as a set of social and cultural practices that were also about embracing, appropriating, and transforming the products of powerful media corporations.

HJ: You are interested in identifying ways that popular narratives confront the contradictions at the heart of global capitalism, sometimes even introducing what you describe as “anticapitalist elements that can contribute to the important cultural work of imagining viable political alternatives.” How are you identifying what counts as an “anticapitalist element” and how do we think about the paradox of “anticapitalist” elements circulating within texts like The Hunger Games that are themselves generating profits for multinational media conglomerates?

DHF: This is one of the weirdest and most bewildering contradictions of mass media and commodified popular culture. Can culture be anticapitalist if it is produced, distributed, and consumed as a commodity within a capitalist system? Is there such a thing as anticapitalist culture, and, as Jeremy Gilbert asks in his terrific book Anticapitalism and Culture, would we even recognize it if we saw it?

In the twentieth century, before capitalism became truly global, we came to experience mass media as pretty homogenous and formulaic, and Marxist criticism saw in them the constant reproduction of a “dominant ideology.” So in that context, commercial culture was seen by many as a type of propaganda, where subversion and resistance was only really possible in “underground” productions, and of course in fans’ transformative appropriation of these properties.
But in the twenty-first century, we’re seeing a much more diverse media landscape that has fewer restrictions in terms of its ideological contents. Things like Hunger Games and the TV show Mr. Robot are both good examples of popular texts that tap into a certain anticapitalist energy, even if there is also a lot of ambivalence and even contradiction within the texts themselves – as well as a wide range of readings in terms of their reception.

 

What I was very interested in exploring and ultimately foregrounding was the way in which some pop-cultural icons can suddenly cross over into political activism, like the “Frodo Lives!” slogan used by protestors during the Vietnam War, the Anonymous mask from V for Vendetta, or anti-government activists in Thailand making the three-finger salute from Hunger Games. I think they show that these commercial franchises can also become part of a common cultural vocabulary, not because the texts themselves are necessarily anticapitalist or even entirely political, but because certain communities interpret them that way, and use the iconography in a context that makes those gestures and the texts they come meaningful as political symbols.

Dan Hassler-Forest works as Assistant Professor at Utrecht University’s department of Media and Cultural Studies. He has published books and articles on superhero movies, comics, transmedia storytelling, adaptation studies, critical theory, Afrofuturism, and zombies. He co-edits the journal Science Fiction Film and Television with Sherryl Vint and Gerry Canavan, and the book series Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence with Matt Hills. His most recent book, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, will be published in August 2016. Dan loves to play the ukulele and still dreams of someday mastering the banjo.