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

 

HJ: Can you say something about the role that genre plays in your work, given you are writing here about texts that might variously be described as fantasy, science fiction, and horror? Do different genres raise different possibilities for thinking about these ideological concerns? You, for example, talk about pre-capitalism in terms of The Lord of the Rings, postcapitalism in the case of Star Trek, and even post-humanism in the case of The Walking Dead.          

 

DHF: I’m fascinated by the different and sometimes contradictory roles that genre plays in our current media landscape. On the one hand, you might say our popular media have become very “post-genre,” at least in the sense that media producers tend to assume a very high degree of media literacy among the audience, and mix up often highly diverse genre elements into a franchise or even a single text. And on the other hand, genre fiction of the kind that has been described as “popular fantasy” seems more visible and more dominant than ever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good example of both those aspects: we think of it as a superhero franchise, which is certainly perceived as a specific kind of genre with its own register, audience, industrial practices, et cetera. But at the same time, we see very clearly that the producers go out of their way to diversify the brand and include a wide variety of genre elements and registers. So if you compare Captain America: The First Avenger to the Netflix series Daredevil, we see huge tonal, aesthetic, and structural differences that we associate with very different genre traditions. Therefore, even though all these texts take place within a single storyworld and share a single brand identity, the franchise now incorporates elements from war films, film noir, martial arts movies, romantic comedy, action-adventure, conspiracy thrillers, and many more.

In this context it doesn’t make much sense to me to foreground the differences between traditional fantastic genres too much. Within Marxist criticism, which is largely the tradition I’m working from, there has been a tendency to privilege some popular genres over others because of certain assumptions about their respective political and ideological implications. So for instance, sf is still generally favored over fantasy because sf has been associated with reason and progress, while fantasy has suggested magic and conservatism.

While I can see where those distinctions come from, I’ve never felt comfortable with them, and I think that the ease with which both media creators and audiences mix and match elements from across genres now makes it irrelevant, at least as a basic formal distinction. Therefore, I’ve tried to show in the book that there are similar tensions that inform those different genre traditions across fantastic world-building.

When it comes to using terms like precapitalism, postcapitalism, and posthumanism, I can certainly see how we can intuitively associate them, respectively, with sf, fantasy, and horror in a sort of superficial way. But I also think it tends to break down once you start looking beyond the most obvious and easy examples. And even then, you have to ignore a lot of detail to hold on to that reading.

I do make that generalization in the book, associating Tolkien with a precapitalist fantasy and Star Trek with postcapitalism, just to get that ball rolling and establish what seems like an obvious relationship between these fantastic storyworlds and capitalism as a set of social relations.

But if you think about it, Star Trek is also obsessed with exploring “primitive,” precapitalist societies and comparing their possible developmental paths to their own, so it’s really much more layered and diverse than some might assume. And figures like Data and the Borg are obvious and complex ways of opening up discussions about posthumanism and organic-technological hybrids.

So I prefer to treat those assumptions about the political potential of specific genres as expectations that have accumulated over time, and therefore as flexible and contingent rather than as stable, transhistorical definitions. I therefore try throughout the book to approach fantastic world-building as something like a fuzzy set, with a variety of (sometimes overlapping) ways in which various genres, franchises, and brands deal with political and ideological questions.

HJ: You write early in the book: “The triumph of geek culture and its “everything is awesome” mantra has in recent years created the seductive illusion that fans have graduated from consumerism to full participation in media production. But their actual degree of agency all too often resembles the quite limited movements available to a single player within a videogame: while experiencing the sensation of directing an avatar freely through an immersive and richly detailed environment, the player’s control is in fact limited by the design of the game to encourage and reward certain forms of behavior, while discouraging and even actively precluding others.” Can you break this down for us? What roles are fans invited to play? What factors do you see as limiting and discouraging forms of viewer participation? What possibilities do you see as “precluded” altogether? You certainly describe the way San Diego Comic-Con has become, in effect, an extension of the entertainment industry rather than a grassroots alternative to it, and I would agree, but you also point to examples of fan activism that have built upon the political themes of, for example, The Hunger Games as the basis for political mobilization and there are still many examples out there of fans writing counter-cultural alternatives to the mainstream depiction of gender, sexuality, and race.

 

DHF: I wanted to establish early on that I was approaching fandom from a critical perspective that presents them in the first place as participants in a political economy. It’s certainly a very polarizing way of introducing the nature of fandom, and probably one that will piss off a lot of readers!

It’s also obviously not the most nuanced way to describe fan culture, but I thought it was important to make this the starting point, and then try to weave back in more elements that still illustrate fandom’s remaining political potential. My main reason for taking this approach is that so much work within fan studies still seems to be about documenting and celebrating fan culture as a transformative and ideologically subversive set of practices. This is an idea that was of course established in your early work, especially in Textual Poachers but also to a large degree in Convergence Culture, and I can still see its attraction.

But as you have noted yourself in some of your more recent books, we are also becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of fandom and fan culture as a kind of model for social, civic, or democratic participation. In the twentieth century, genre fans had an outsider status that seemed to inspire a lot of creative and collaborative activity. These were so often provocative and subversive because they were reacting against a media industry that was much more monolithic and non-inclusive than our own.

Now that a lot of different factors have contributed to huge changes in media production and distribution, I no longer see those kinds of activities as having the same kind of political and ideological power. Instead, a lot of it seems to boil down to debates over representation and identity politics, which I certainly don’t want to disqualify, but which also align themselves rather easily with the cultural logic of neoliberalism. In other words: while debates about gender, race, and sexual identity in media are important discussions to have, they aren’t necessarily the most vital issues from an anticapitalist point of view – at least not unless you also explicitly see racism, sexism, and homophobia as interconnected aspects of capitalist exploitation.

If you look at what’s going on the big franchises, we see that the producers are only too happy to be more sensitive about questions of representation, and develop more roles for characters who aren’t necessarily white, straight, and male. But as happy as I am to see this happen, and in spite of the fact that there clearly still is a lot of work to be done, I found myself wondering about the endgame: supposing we win this culture war and we get wonderfully diverse casts in these franchises, and maybe even stories that move beyond our Eurocentric and teleological traditions – what then?

We’d be consumers of even better, and ideologically impeccable commodities, but we’d still mainly be consumers, stuck within capitalism’s unsustainable engine of endless accumulation.

This dynamic is also reflected in the digital infrastructure of Web 2.0: I think it’s safe to say that a lot more people are now creating and sharing fannish material about genre fiction than ever before. But it no longer functions as the kind of gift economy that used to typify fan culture. Instead, we’re creating free content for corporate media platforms that profit from our efforts.

So every time I share a meme or an animated GIF or a few snarky lines about the latest episode of The Walking Dead on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, I am creating value for a corporation for which my material attracts other users, while they can also use my data to track my preferences and behavioral patters in order to monetize my online profile. This, I think, is a very scary change that entails not only the commodification of this type of “sharing,” but that also imposes huge limits on the kinds of material that are being produced. The design of these platforms very strongly privileges material that is short, funny, and –to use your own term– highly spreadable.

Finally, one more thing I would mention is the sheer amount of material being produced, and the way in which fans are drawn into the media producers’ news cycle. Details about casting, plot, locations, sequels and franchising plans, reboots, and the strategic release of teasers, trailers, and leaked scenes now totally dominate film blogs and social media. There seems to be such a perfect alignment between media conglomerates’ increasingly canny release schedules and publicity plans and fans’ hunger for new information that it becomes a constant deluge of news that we’re all too eager to share.

So again, I think this really pushes the nature of participation away from creativity, subversion, and collaboration, and makes us willing and absolutely vital collaborators in the media industries’ publicity strategy.

HJ: I was interested in how you characterize your own role as a critic in terms of something close to a form of textual poaching. You write at one point, “I am purposefully seeking out those Tolkienian elements that are worth salvaging from an anticapitalist perspective, while also identifying and critiquing the factors that impede or even contradict such a reading.” Where fan fiction might go further into poaching is that they might construct alternative narratives which show us what might happen if we took the possibilities implicit in these texts further.  For example, you write, “Given Star Trek’s political potential, it is remarkable how rarely it has explored the social, economic, and cultural implications of a world beyond capitalism.’ Yet, there are examples quite early on in ST fan fiction — for example, Leslie Fish’s The Weight, which I discussed in Textual Poachers or Jane Land’s Demeter which I discuss in Science Fiction Audiences — which do explore what alternatives to capitalism and patriarchy might look like. What might the academic equivalent of fan fiction contribute?                        

 

DHF: My two great passions are fantastic fiction and radical critical theory. And a large part of my inspiration for this book comes from the passionate and joyful ways in which fandom has engaged with and transformed fantastic storyworlds, which is something I’ve known personally my entire life, and have always loved about your work.

But I’ve also always been skeptical about the question whether fan culture really is changing the world for the better: I just can’t help but wonder whether at least some of those staggering amounts of energy, imagination, and creative ability couldn’t be put to better use. I suspect the development of my other great passion besides fantastic fiction derives in part at least from that feeling: what I love so much about radical critical theory is how it is fundamentally a project in which we try to see past the surface and better understand a deeper reality, while at the same time trying to imagine what another, hopefully better world would look like.

Although I therefore think that academic studies of fantastic fiction (and its fandom) has a lot in common with critical theory, they do often seem to run in opposite directions. Radical philosophers and political theorists for instance either ignore fantastic fiction, or only use it rather irresponsibly to illustrate a theoretical point they’re trying to make (as Slavoj Žižek so often does). By the same token, scholars working on fan culture or sf studies are often so invested in the specifics of their objects that they sometimes lose the bigger picture, or simply get carried away by their own enthusiasm for their research.

I also feel that those working in critical theory feel pressured to be critical about everything, using clever readings and complex theory to elevate themselves above the things they’re talking about; while a lot of those in fan studies, for instance, seem to feel the opposite pressure to come up with examples of productive transformation, subversion, and resistance, thus legitimizing both their research objects and their personal and professional interests. And as someone who feels like he’s got one leg in each of those worlds, I could really feel that tension as this project first took shape.

But while my original perspective was completely critical and quite negative about the current state of fandom, I soon realized that I didn’t want to write a book that would amount to little more than a grumpy Marxist’s critique of transmedia world-building as a purely political economy. Besides, I also felt I had already done something like that in my first book Capitalist Superheroes, which performs that kind of ideology critique in what I now tend to think is a fairly one-dimensional way.

So I thought this next book might benefit from a little more contradiction, imagination, and (dare I say it?) optimism. These were all things that I recognized and responded to strongly not only in Hardt and Negri’s work, but also in other huge influences like Jeremy Gilbert, David McNally, Jodi Dean, Steven Shaviro, and Mark Fisher.

In the end I realized that what I liked so much about all of their writing was that it not only helped me understand the world better, but also gave me a real sense of possibility for the future. So even though a book’s critical focus is on explaining some of the biggest problems facing us today, their energy is at the same time directed towards creating a sense of hope, even of infinite possibilities. I tried to let that sense guide my own thinking on this book: not wanting to pull any punches on the one hand, but also finding ways to resist the purely critical mode that feels like the main trap of radical critical theory.

Trying to find the right balance between the two was the hardest thing for me, and I have no idea to what extent I succeeded. But ideally, the book would reflect that wonderful Antonio Gramsci quotation: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

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.