Saturday, October 4, 2008

Blake's Got a New Face

Which is...the author of the first ever superhero comic!!

I'm co-teaching a course on visual narrative right now, and we're reading Blake, who is blowing my mind, again. One of the things I kept thinking about during our discussion on Friday was how much the illustrations in "America: A Prophecy" remind me of old school superhero comics. This larger-than-life, four-color madness particularly shines through in the image of Orc (?) chasing Albion (?) through the sky. Even distinct from the images, the way all of the characters in "America" stand in for larger concepts and can only be understood in relation to each other reminds me of the Justice League of America or the X-Men. (Paine and Washington band together with special powers from Orc to defeat the fascist Urizen! Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!)

In a conversation with a friend this weekend, he asked me why I like superhero comics at all, since they're so dominant within the form. How can there possibly be anything new to say through superheroes? Because I've been thinking so much about Blake lately, I realized that superheroes challenge us to consider oppositions--both how we depend on binaries to make sense of the world, and how those binary systems of thinking always eventually fail us. (The last page of Alan Moore's Batman story The Killing Joke, in which the Joker and Batman are on the verge of killing each other but can't stop laughing is a great example of this--sadly, I can't find an image to link to.)

The particular value of Blake in this conversation, and why I think you can make the argument for Blake as a superhero comic artist, is how he makes the link between allegory, binary structures of thought, and the formal relationship between word and image so clear. What Blake shows us, particularly in "America," is how reading an image-text is always about negotiating the difference between word and image, and finding the place that is both in between these two modes of understanding and in them at the same time. Not either/or, but both/and. Superheroes demand that same trick of thinking, crossing the gap between good and evil and seeing how neither of those definitions are sufficient, even as we're confronted with how much we need them in order to make sense of the world at all. Also, I think the model of the superhero comic gives us a new way of thinking about Blake's negotiation between the weighty, self-serious business of prophecy and the pleasure he clearly takes in illustrating these images (and the pleasure he encourages the reader to take in reading them).

What do you think? Is it too big a leap to claim Blake within the comics pantheon?

Sunday, September 14, 2008


So David Foster Wallace hung himself last Friday, on my birthday. I feel stupid saying this, but I feel like I've lost a friend. This feeling is only made more intense by Wallace's frustratingly ever-present self-loathing and his questionable politics. I've greeted all these pieces of news about DFW as a person with the same emotions that accompany my brother's Republican sympathies and huge house in Scarsdale: he's a lunatic, but I know what he's about deep down, and we're ultimately the same, so I love him enough to take his lunatic choices in stride.

Infinite Jest
saved my life when I first read it in 1998. I'd just gotten sober, and it made sense to me in a way that the approved AA literature just never ever did. Honest and heartbreaking and self-conscious and funny, Wallace made me believe that sobriety could be the beginning of something, not just a bleak ending. That my life could undergo a transformation as radical as what Wallace was able to do with the form of the novel. The sense of Identification Wallace inspired in me as a writer made me able to Identify in meetings, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is probably why I'm alive at all to try to eulogize him in tragically (appropriately) insufficient terms.

So, in the spirit of Identification, here is an incredible passage (long, but that's the only way with him) chosen essentially at random from Infinite Jest. I hope you're smoking cigarettes with Elliot Smith at the big meeting in the sky, my friend.

"If you listen for the similarities, all these speakers' Substance-careers seem to terminate at the same cliff's edge. You are now Finished, as a Substance-user. It's the jumping-off place. You now have two choices. You can either eliminate your own map for keeps--blades are the best, or else pills, or there's always quietly sucking off the exhaust pipe of your repossessable car in the bank-owned garage of your familyless home. Something whimpery instead of banging. Better clean and quiet and (since your whole career's been one long futile flight from pain) painless. Though of the alcoholics and drug addicts who compose over 70% of a given year's suicides, some try to go out with a last great garish Balaclavan gesture: one longtime member of the White Flag Group is a prognathous lady named Louise B. who tried to take a map-eliminating dive off the old Hancock Building downtown in B.S. '81 but got caught in the gust of a rising thermal only six flights off the roof and got blown cartwheeling back up and in through the smoked-glass window of an arbitrage firm's suite on the thirty-fourth floor, ending up sprawled prone on a high-gloss conference table with only lacerations and a compound of the collarbone and an experience that has left her rabidly Christian--rabidly, as in foam--so that she's comparatively ignored and avoided, though her AA story, being just like everybody else's but more spectacular, has become metro Boston AA myth. But so when you get to this jumping-off place at the Finish of your Substance-career you can either take up the Luger or blade and eliminate your own personal map--this can be at age sixty, or twenty-seven, or seventeen--or you can get your the very beginning of the Yellow Pages or InterNet Psych-Svce File and make a blubbering 0200h. phone call and admit to a gentle grandparentish voice that you're in trouble, deadly serious trouble, and the voice will try to soothe you into hanging on until a couple hours of go by and two pleasantly earnest, weirdly calm guys in conservative attire appear smiling at your door sometime before dawn and speak quietly to you for hours and leave you not remembering anything from what they said except the sense that they used to be eerily like you , just where you are, utterly fucked, and but now somehow aren't anymore, fucked like you, at least they didn't seem like they were, unless the whole thing's some incredibly involved scam, this AA thing, and so but anyway you sit there on what's left of your furniture in the lavender dawnlight and realize that by now you literally have no other choices besides trying this AA thing or else eliminating your own map, so you spend the day killing every last bit of every Substance you've got in one last joyless bitter farewell binge and resolve, the next day, to go ahead and swallow your pride and maybe your common sense too and try these meetings of this 'Program' that is a best probably just some Unitarian happy horseshit and at worst is a cover for some glazed and canny cult-type thing where they'll keep you sober by making you spend twenty hours a day selling cellophane cones of artificial flowers on the median strips of heavy-flow roads. And what defines this cliffish nexus of exactly two total choices, this miserable road-fork Boston AA calls your Bottom, is that at this point you feel like maybe selling flowers on median strips might not be so bad, not compared to what you've got going, personally, at this juncture. And this, at root, is what unites Boston AA: it turns out that this same resigned, miserable, brainwash-and-exploit-me-if-that's-what-it-takes-type desperation has been the jumping-off place for just about every AA you meet, it emerges, once you've actually gotten it up to stop darting in and out of the big meetings and start walking up with your wet hand out and trying to actually personally meet some Boston AAs. As the one particular tough old guy or lady you're always particularly scared of and drawn to says, nobody ever Comes In because things were going really well and they just wanted to round out their PM social calendar. Everybody, but everybody Comes In dead-eyed and puke-white and with their face hanging down around their knees and with a well-thumbed firearm-and-ordnance mail-order catalogue kept safe and available at home, map-wise, for when this last desperate resort of hugs and clichés turns out to be just happy horseshit, for you. You are not unique, they'll say: this initial hopelessness unites every soul in this broad cold salad-bar'd hall. They are like Hindenburg-survivors. Every meeting is a reunion, once you've been in for a while. (347-9)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

An open query

So I'm at a bit of a loss right now as to what novel I should teach in my English 1 class next semester. We usually read a novel and then watch a film that's in conversation with it. I try to stay away from adaptations, just because the relationship is too one-to-one to generate as dynamic a conversation as I'd like. In the past, we've read Dracula and watched "Buffy Vs. Dracula," and read Jane Eyre and watched Rebecca. I was thinking it would be fun to read Jane Austen this time around, but I'll be goddamned if I'm going to watch Bridget Jones' Stupid Diary ever, ever again, and I'm a little scared at the prospect of teaching Emma, which I remember as being a little inaccessible for undergraduates. So my question is this: does anyone know other good loose adaptations of Pride and Prejudice? I'm excited about Mansfield Park (my favorite Austen novel), but again, I'm worried that undergrads might be bored. Any thoughts?

Put another (more interactive, less obviously pitched at other teachers) way, what pairing of Jane Austen novel and film would you most like to have thought about as an incoming freshman and why?

Your Friendly Neighbourhood Janeite

Monday, August 4, 2008

Feminists, Musicals, Sex-Crazed Vampires: Performance among/and Art Fans

1) The Guerilla Girls

“Are the Guerilla Girls really necessary? Take a little test. On one side of a piece of paper, list all of the female artists you've heard of. On the other side of the paper, list the male artists.”
-essortment guide to the Guerilla Girls

It might be easy to forget how few women artists are represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York--after all, so many of the paintings (especially the naked ones) are of women. The Guerilla Girls are out to change that, one piece of guerilla art at a time.

The Guerilla Girls formed in 1985 as a reaction to an exhibition at MoMA called “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.” Out of 169 featured artists, only three were women. Adding insult to injury, the curator publicly stated that any artist whose work was missing from the show should “seriously rethink his [sic] career.” A group of local artists protested the opening, but only managed to piss off patrons and industry bigwigs alike. (Darn those shrill, shrill feminists!) So, in a decision that ultimately matched form to function, they decided to stage their protest as a piece of performance art, hiding their identities and letting the information speak for itself. The Guerrilla Girls make public appearances and conduct interviews, but only while wearing gorilla masks, and only using names of dead female artists. In this way, they can advocate for the value of these sometimes forgotten artists, protect their own careers, and keep the focus on the depressing statistics that form the core of their message (for example, only 3% of the artists in the modern section of the Met are women).

Although they began by focusing their energy on the New York art world, emphasizing inequity in museums and the art world as a whole, they've since shifted their energy to Hollywood, where the situation for female directors and producers is even worse. They posted billboard in LA advertising the gender inequity of Oscars and the absence of any feminist historical perspective in Hollywood films. Their most engaging work, however (if you ask me), is their political posters. Check out this amazing sendup of the “Terror Alert System,” and this shield against the groping paw of the Governator.

I realize this is a departure from my usual focus on fans in this blog, but I think the Guerrilla Girls show the most awesome end point of the resistant power of fan art--using the form of something you love (postmodern art, in this case) as a framework for pointing out the things in it that make you crazy.

2) Andrew Lloyd Webber

Secret love/ secret shame of theater geeks everywhere, Webber is simultaneously an example of what's wrong with theater and what's right. His work brought musicals into the modern era, incorporating lots of different styles, garnering a huge following, and even getting knighted (!)--but his shows are for the most part grindingly repetitive and, well, bad (and this from the girl who can recite the entire libretto of Evita from memory). So the question is, what desire does Webber tap into? What's at the source of his appeal?

I don't have a simple answer to that question, but I do think part of the reason for Webber's popularity has to do with spectacle and seriousness. The musical that really changed things for him was Jesus Christ Superstar (1972), where he moved from the campy pastiche of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1970) to the overblown soaring solos that became his signature (I'm thinking specifically of “I Don't Know How to Love Him). Ultimately, then, I think Webber's popularity is about his ability to do camp (or something that should be camp) seriously--he gets at the seriousness of opera (particularly in Phantom of the Opera (1986), his most famous show) but also the accessibility of big-budget megamusicals like My Fair Lady (1956) or Oklahoma! (1943). This makes him ideal fodder for ten-year-old girls who want to be the next American Idol or at least wear a cat suit on stage (I don't blame you, for the record, if you can't bear clicking on all of these links).

Although Webber was not directly involved with Les Miserables (1985) or Miss Saigon (1989), the success of Evita (1978) and Phantom of the Opera laid the groundwork for those, and these later musicals bear much of the same appeal--big budgets, elaborate sets, insistent refrains, soaringly Serious Solos. The influence of these shows on pop culture can be seen in the way musical parodies get structured, and in how we understand the iconic nature of women in power.

3) The Rocky Horror Picture Show

A rite of passage for freaks and theater geeks everywhere, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a 1970s B-movie transformed into a piece of participatory theater. Midnight movies always have cult value--who but a fanatic will leave their house for a movie in the middle of the night? Over time, though, Rocky Horror has become the Midnight Movie that defines Midnight Movies, with showings in West Des Moines, IA and Hobart, IN. In this way, it serves as a kind of entré into freak culture for people in areas that might not have the most thriving cultural scene. This was certainly the case for me, heading into the Twin Cities from my sleepy suburb of Minnetonka, MN. My parents were out of town and I had a fever of 102, so I don't remember much beyond a heady combination of rebellion and flu medicine, but afterward, I felt like a Real Freak (which was exciting).

The basic formula for Rocky Horror is like Mystery Science Theatre 3000--people yell back at the screen in response to stupid character decisions or bad acting, or as a way of participating in the action of the film. The content of the film itself might be part of what marks Rocky Horror as particularly freak-friendly. Tim Curry (whom you might remember as Wadsworth from Clue or the super-scary clown from It) plays Dr. Frank-n-Furter, a “Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transyvania”--the owner of the Gothic mansion where middle-American bourgies Brad and Janet find themselves after getting lost in the woods. Like horror protagonists everywhere, Brad and Janet get more than they bargained for with their stop, and they both get tricked into sleeping with Frank-n-Furter (and into eating Meat Loaf--the actor, not the dinner!).

Fans understandably see Frank-n-Furter's castle as a kind of anything-goes playground, and the atmosphere at a midnight show feels a lot like the party Brad and Janet first walk in on. People bring props to throw at the screen at the appropriate time, and virgins (first-time viewers) have to undergo initiation while hard-core fans act out the show on a stage in front of the screen. It's similar to a Star Trek convention in that there's a funny balance at a Rocky Horror show between a pressure to be the most hard-core in your knowledge/fandom and a profound sense of inclusion for all fringey types. It's strange, now, how the show has become such an institution. There's a weirdly official “preservation society” for maintaining shows in These Modern Times. And it's hard to take something's fringe appeal seriously when it's praised on The Drew Carey Show.

On another note, this is the last post that I'm doing for the class I've been teaching. From here on out, things will be a little less structured and listy, but also hopefully a little more frequent, and more focused on serials and all things dissertatey. Any ideas? Requests?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Music Makes the People Come Together: Three Larger-Than-Life Artists or Groups

1. Elvis Aaron Presley

Velvet paintings. Buck knives with his picture emblazoned on the handle. Competing stamps with his “fat” and “thin” portraits. A ridiculous movie released eleven years after his death (and twenty years after his fame had peaked) about how he inspires suburban hippies toward patriotism. Clambake. Who could inspire all this fanmania but the King?

The question that always gets me about Elvis is why he inspired the level of fan attention that he did--why Elvis and not Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis? (Especially Jerry Lee Lewis, who was making music at the same time and had the same crossover appeal of taking black music into suburban white living rooms.) Obviously, capturing the cultural imagination is like catching lightning in a bottle, and there's never a simple answer as to why one star makes it over another, but I think Elvis's appeal is all about his ability to transgress boundaries of identity, particularly racial and sexual identity. He was dangerously masculine--courting 14-year-old Priscilla Presley and (according to urban legend) packing his jeans with the cardboard tube from inside a roll of paper towels to emphasize his...appeal. At the same time, however, he showed an effeminate vulnerability--his signature leg movements are rumored to have stemmed from uncontrollable nervous shaking, and he was an infamous "mama's boy."

This sexual ambiguity was only reinforced by his racial ambiguity. I'm not sure Steve Allen would have made him sing "Hound Dog" to an actual dog or Ed Sullivan would have refused to film Elvis below the waist if he didn't present the threat of miscegenation by being a white guy performing music that was so unmistakably "black." Of course, Elvis never would have been famous like he was if he'd actually been black--part of the controversy around him as a singer, then and now, is that he's among the first in a long line of singers from Elvis to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice to Eminem to the Beastie Boys who've been accused of co-opting African-American music for a while middle-class audience. Elvis and Pat Boone deserve this accusation more than Eminem, The Beastie Boys, or even (shudder) Vanilla Ice, since Elvis and Pat Boone re-recorded songs written and already released by black artists like Big Mama Thornton and Fats Domino.

Once Elvis died, however, the nature of his popularity changed dramatically. Instead of race and sex, Elvis fans were obsessed with sex and death and thwarted potential. Elvis's famously excessive personal life captures fans' imagination these days. He's become a much more classically "cult" figure in death, with people positing connections between Elvis and aliens and claiming that he faked his death. The greatest cultural riff on Elvis's lasting cultural appeal (besides Colonel Homer, of course) would have to be the film Bubba Ho-Tep, starring Bruce Campbell and Ozzie Williams as Elvis and JFK, both of whom (the film argues) faked their own deaths. Don't question the logic--just watch the movie--it's awesome.

2. Madonna
If Elvis caught the cultural imagination around the relationship between race and sexuality, then Madonna has exploited our obsession with the relationship between gender and sexuality. As her name suggests, she's always interested in breaking down the virgin/whore dichotomy that structures so much of how people think about gender in our culture.

A confession: the first course I ever took in college was about Madonna, and although I didn't realize it at the time, I think it was there that my obsession with cultural studies started. Madonna garnered a ton of critical attention in the 1980s, and I've heard that it was impossible to go to an academic conference without seeing at least one Madonna paper, if not a whole panel. I remember watching the video for “Material Girl” in class, and then my teacher asking us why we thought feminists were mad about it. More than my answer, I remember being blown away that there was an academic conversation about Madonna at all. I imagine this is how my students feel about Buffy now.

How to characterize Madonna's different stages? There's Underwear Madonna of the early 80s, when she performed at the MTV video music awards and launched a thousand “wannabes.”; scary dominartix Madonna; Evita Madonna, the Serious Actress; Spiritual Madonna, coming back after 40 with Ray of Light, kaballah, and a brand-new British accent; Britney Spears makeout partner and adoption-loophole US Weekly fodder Madonna (her current incarnation). So many different social anxieties seem to coalesce around her: fear of aging, partly, but mostly she seems to address the problem of how American culture can handle an economically and sexually powerful woman. She's interesting to critics because she's infuriating--playing off the cultural stereotypes that have kept her down, but incorporating them into her own image.

Her relationship to the aging process has unsurprisingly taken center stage of late--she turns fifty on August 16 (of course she's a Leo), and so much of the fan art she's inspired revolves around her ability to constantly reinvent herself--and by being constantly new, she never has to worry about getting old.

3. The Grateful Dead
Although you can buy Grateful Dead albums at a store or online (American Beauty is their best, I think), the real deal with this band is live shows. They've been touring nonstop since 1965--have continued touring even after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 under the new monikers "RatDog" and “The Other Ones.” As this second name suggests, Jerry Garcia was the heart of the band.

The mythology of the Grateful Dead is deeply hooked into that of free love and huge festival shows like Woodstock. As such, the music is only part of the appeal of a Dead show. People follow the band around for years, trading bootleg tapes and selling clothes and bags and jewelry at the shows as ways to make money. Fans love their music, of course, but the real deal is the show itself, and the opportunity it offers to form an alternative community based in free love and free drugs. The connection among freaks and hippies (and the way this connection is always measured against "straight" culture") is awesomely characterized (again), by the greatest television show ever, Freaks and Geeks. This blog entry, too, shows how fans narrate their love for the band like a religious conversion: I was trapped by bourgeois mainstream culture, but then the Doors of Perception opened in my mind and I saw the Beauty of Music. I was Lost, but now I'm Found.

This ethic of the always-touring, drug-addled band has been reproduced in bands like Ween and Phish over the years. Even festivals like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, while they feature bands thoroughly disconnected from the free love vibe of the Dead, still build on that pattern of sprawling days-long shows and alternative fan-based communities.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye: Five games that players take seriously

1. Dungeons and Dragons
All conversations about games and role playing must start with D&D. As I mentioned last week, the game conceptually builds on Tolkien's Middle Earth, but offers players a chance to create characters and adventures within that world. The Dungeon Master constructs the specific narrative while the players act out the campaign itself, rolling four-, six-, eight-, and twenty-sided dice to see how successful their fights are.

The real appeal of D&D, though, comes just as much from the narrative as it does from the sense of community that's engendered in the game, beautifully captured in the final episode of Freaks and Geeks. Gordon gets to the heart of most of the items on this list when he sums up D&D's appeal, saying "you can be someone you're not in real life." That's true, but the other thing I notice is how it gives these guys the opportunity to be someone they are, but didn't think they could be--Daniel is able to be good at something, Harris can control the scene, and the geeks can finally become cool guys, if only by association.

One thing that strikes me as sadly true about the utopian community presented here, though, is how it's so aggressively male--where are Millie and Harris's girlfriend and the other girl geeks? The homosociality is part of what makes it possible for the characters to lower their guards, but it's sad to me that there's no D&D analogue for girls. I tend to agree with creator Gary Gygax when he decries the lack of imagination needed for video role playing games, but they have made these gendered distinctions beside the point.

Ultimately, though, the real carrot offered by D&D is the opportunity for community--you need at least three people to play, forcing introverted outsiders to come together and form relationships. These coalitions of outsiders are behind the purported connection between D&D and devil worship in the eighties (and apparently still), but the absurdity of these claims becomes clear when you see actual gamers at play.

Since the shape of role-playing games has changed so radically in the last fifteen years, D&D has lost a lot of its geek stigma, and now seems to be part of nostalgic hipster culture, mourned in the AV Club and memorialized in funny t-shirts. The anachronism of classic D&D is key to its viability as a geek-chic marker, I think--after all, you don't see guys with ironic mustaches showing off their obsession with...

2. World of Warcraft
When people talk about "video game addiction," they're usually talking about World of Warcraft (or World of Warcrack), a massive multi-player online role playing game (or MMORPG) based on Dungeons and Dragons. Like D&D, WoW depends on ongoing relationships between players to work. However, because of the limits of the internet, those relationships can be confined entirely to gameplay--forming the kind of alternative community from the Freaks and Geeks clip would thus be considerably more difficult. Since the game is both limitless (unlike a specific Dungeons and Dragons campaign) and competitive, it's easy to play almost endlessly. Furthermore, since MMORPGs like WoW are still relatively new phenomena, people are more likely to jump to radical conclusions about the games' power over their lives.

It's worth pointing out, though, that WoW players exhibit much less control over gameplay than traditional or live-action gamers. The narrative of Warcraft's fictive World is determined by Blizzard Games, and players advance levels by spending more time (and money) online. The best example of this problematic corporate control over gameplay comes in the case of Sara Andrews, who tried to start a GLBT-friendly guild. When she did, she was immediately chastised by Blizzard Games staff that she was violating the game's anti-discrimination policy by mentioning the sexuality of guild members (in an attempt, of course, to create a space where they would actually be safe from harassment). According to the emails she received from the corporate office, mentioning the sexuality of her guild members would serve as bait for attacks from other players--in other words, if they were hassled, it would only be becasue they were asking for it. After Andrews went public with her complaints, Blizzard recanted and apologized, but the incident shows how the corporation is ultimately in charge of the shape of the narrative. As Andrews points out, non-player characters regularly make homophobic puns, and the incident wouldn't happen if she were playing D&D with a queer Dungeon Master.

3. Second Life
This Onion story on "World of World of Warcraft" is funny, but ultimately not that different from Second Life, a MMORPG that abandons the fantastic aspect of hyper-diegesis for a kind of hyper-realism that places this game squarely in the uncanny valley. Well--maybe hyper-realism is the wrong term. You can, after all, outfit your avatar with a "furry skin"or wings in Second Life which severs the connection to reality almost immediately.

But let me back up. Second Life is essentially a MMORPG version of The Sims, but instead of making worlds to control, you enter into an existing world with an avatar--an online version of yourself, but with whatever improvements or additions you want to make. Second Life differs from many other MMORPGs in that there's no competitive object you're working toward--instead, it functions mainly as a kind of social networking site. Unsurprisingly, then, the main activities in Second Life seem to be buying stuff and having virtual sex. Second Life has its own system of currency of Linden dollars, which are bought with real money (unlike gold in WoW, which you earn for various tasks). In the writing class I'm teaching right now, my students and I talk a lot about the way hyperdiegetic narratives offer an "escape" from real life, and Second Life seems to be constructed specifically around that appeal. If your real life feels disappointing or complicated, Second Life offers an uncomplicated alternative, where social ideals are easier to live up to (it's hardly coincidence that there are so few old, overweight, or nonwhite avatars).

In her article “Same Shit, Different World,” Lauren Bans of Bitch Magazine points out how the fantastic aspects of Second Life don't breed utopian or even different ways of relating to
other people:

The problem is that the virtual worlds these relationships are forged within are actively set up as relatively consequence-free play worlds. It's easy to be Hollywood-thin, never put your foot in your mouth, and have porntastic sex in Second Life, which in turn makes it easer to abide by and not question those cultural standards in the first place. What's more, the bias that members can bring into the virtual arena as fairly anonymous citizens--like deep racism and misogyny--remain unchallenged because Second Life is still a lawless universe looked upson as a light pastime people should be allowed to enjoy in whatever way they want, rather than as an active, burgeoning society. (62)

The thing that blows me away about Second Life, though, is how this desire for "realism" makes the world itself so profoundly boring. When avatars talk to each other, they move their hands in front of them as if they were typing on air, and the Second Life "holiday" posted on youtube seems like an attempt to actualize some kind of prefab postcard experience we've been informed we should enjoy. Without the room for play offered by a dense narrative structure, people seem depressingly at a loss to come up with new stories. If we use the model of fan fiction, every story is a "Mary Sue" story, but the master narrative is just life. Dwight from The Office offers the simultaneously saddest and most awesome example of Second Life as a profoundly mundane "escape."

4. Society for Creative Anachronism
Of course, the drive toward "realism" as escape can also direct people into a past world rather than a virtual one. For members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, this means dressing in "authentic" pre-17th-century British garb and getting together for olde-tymey activities like archery or brewing mead. The society started in 1966 in Berkeley, CA when a group of Medieval scholars/science fiction fans (read "extremely nerdy hippies") had a backyard party that almost immediately morphed into a convention. From the beginning, then, the SCA drew on the same population as the established science-fiction/fantasy subculture. As such, the influence of figures like Tolkein can be seen in the map of the different "realms" of the SCA and in the fan-produced videos of staged battles.

The question of authenticity is an interesting one among SCA members--while they admit to only selectively recreating the period (many fans describe their activities as "recreating the Middle Ages as they ought to have been"), they're simulltaneously deeply invested in accurately recreating the period, down to making tunics and using period-specific language. The language might be the best example of the dynamic at work in the group--as much as it's about being a history nerd, it's about marking yourself as part of a group that stands in contrast to the dominant culture. This is the difference between the SCA and fairs like the Renaissance Festival--since no one in the SCA gets paid, the group is truly voluntary and can afford to be exclusive, particularly around these questions of authenticity. My friend Peter wrote a brilliant post on his blog describing the way that groups like the SCA or science fiction conventions can turn into pissing contests for authenticity--who liked Battlestar Galactica before it was cool, who has the most convincing medieval armor. Why is it that even in subcultures--and maybe particularly in subcultures--we set such stringent standards for inclusion? Is it possible to create an in-group that isn't contingent on an out-group?

5. Scrabble
One of the aspects that immediately marks a subculture as such is its modified use of language--do you know what a hit point is? Do you know what RBI means and why it matters? The difference between a Romulan and a Vulcan? The interesting thing about Scrabble, however, is the way that a hard-core player is marked by his/her ability to divorce language from meaning. The way you know a hard-core Scrabble player wouldn't be from her vocabulary--after all, she wouldn't need to know any words that were longer than seven letters--but she would know all the three-letter words without necessarily knowing their meanings. In fact, it would be profoundly poor strategy to learn the meanings of these words, since that time could be better spent memorizing all the words that use the letter "Q" but not "U." Scrabble, then, offers way to be a word nerd without being a bookworm (you could be one, but you could also be really good at patterns and never read anything more complicated than US Weekly). In fact, attachment of language to meaning is the mark of an underdeveloped player, not a mature one.

"But what about community?" you ask. "This isn't a blog about language--tell me about weird gatherings of Scrabblers!"

Okay. Scrabble tournaments are radically different from home play, particularly in the speed and scores achieved. The high-stakes feeling of a Scrabble tournament was gloriously sent up in the episode of King of the Hill when Peggy goes to a Boggle tournament (here's the recap if you can't bear to watch that awful link). The game itself has gone through several iterations over time, most notably as a game show and an internet game (which was then reincarnated as a Facebook application). Following the theme of corporate interference with communities, Hasbro threatened to sue the developers of Scrabulous--that suit remains unresolved. Ironically, Scrabulous and its Facebook double have introduced players to the game and most likely boosted sales of the "hard" version--but the loss of profit signalled by a free online version of the game is too high a price for Hasbro. I'm still bitter about the loss of the Bogglific application on Facebook.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Let's put the "iterate" back in "literate": 5 novelists with cult followings

1. Charles Dickens

When people talk about the literary/high-culture value of “quality television” like The Sopranos and The Wire, they often refer to these texts as “the new Dickens.” Presumably, this comparison is meant to elevate the former--if The Wire is like Dickens, then watching TV could be good for you, right?

Maybe Matthew Arnold was right, and what this really means is that Dickens was a lowbrow panderer, just like all those soulless TV execs, but I choose instead to see the parallels between Dickens' work and contemporary televised serials as a sign of the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of television. Structurally, Dickens' serials share a number of story elements with contemporary serials: multiplot and densely layered stories, grotesque characters, and melodramatic/gothic elements.

At the same time, noticing this parallel offers us a chance to rethink Dickens as a fan phenomenon, on the level of famous contemporary serials like LOST or Star Trek. At the time of their release, the books were hugely popular both in England and America. Famously, when the final installment reached American shores, there was a crowd greeting the boat with the question "does Little Nell die?" This pressing need to know What Happens Next is at the core of many if not most cult texts, and Dickens is no exception.

Like his less legit contemporary brethren, Dickens has inspired fan fiction, reenactments by fans, and even theme parks (Star Trek only has a casino). Even in the realm of academia, there's a shockingly similar vibe among a group of hard-core Dickens scholars as there is at a Star Trek convention. It's not just by chance, I think, that the most famous annual Dickens conference is maybe the only academic environment where you could find a Victorian Ball. Which people attend in costume.

2. J.K. Rowling/ Harry Potter
Rowling, too, is frequently praised in terms of her similarity to Dickens. This is perhaps a more intuitive link, not just because she writes immensely popular serialized novels that are deeply rooted in the minutiae of British culture, but because she has captured the Anglo-American cultural imagination so thoroughly.

The thing that's particularly interesting to me, however, about Rowling is her intensely proprietary relationship to her characters. Her declaration of Dumbledore's secret gay history came months after the final book in the series had been published. Rather than leaving the matter open for fans to discuss in the forum of a classic critical conversation or through dueling fanfics, Rowling seemingly closed the book on the matter (as it were)--and by declaring Dumbledore officially gay, she precluded the possibility of other characters' queerness being “discovered” by fans. After all, if Rowling has definitively stated that Dumbledore is gay, then we can all stop wondering about the possibility of a love connection between, say, Harry and Draco. Rebecca Traister from has an interesting take on Rowling's “outing” of Dumbledore which you can access here.

Like Dickens' struggle over copyright laws, Rowling has attempted to control fan activity w/r/t the Wizarding Universe she created, recently suing the creators of the Harry Potter Lexicon, a website that offers definitions of everything from Abraxan to Zonko's Joke Shop. Rowling used the web site herself as a resource when making a timeline for the film version of Goblet of Fire, but when its creators wanted to publish a hardcover version of the book, Rowling had a litigious fit, claiming that the printed lexicon would preempt her as-yet-unwritten Harry Potter Encyclopedia, and thus infringe on her authorial rights.
Both the Lexicon and Dumbledore's belated coming-out party place Rowling at the center of an ongoing argument over the power of the author and what defines authorship itself. As yet, puppet shows and middle school dance squads aren't considered copyright infringements, but Rowling's vexed relationship with fan activity opens up the question of where (or whether) the line can be drawn between interpretation, appreciation, and "infringement."

3. J.R.R. Tolkien and The Fellowship of the Ring
It would be impossible to talk about cult fiction without mentioning Tolkien: the "father of high fantasy" and the patron saint of the twenty-sided die. Tolkien invented a fantasy language 40 years before Klingon and The Fellowship of the Ring trilogy has remained required reading for three generations of geeks. For instance, although Gary Gygax (the creator of Dungeons & Dragons) denies any direct influence from Tolkien, he did admit that he had to change a number of the creatures so that they no longer resembled Tolkien's, and hobbits thus became halflings. The difference, of course, is negligible. Most of the tropes that define fantasy lit, and particularly its link to Celtic mythology (with all the elves and gnomes) can be linked back to Tolkien. Although the Fellowship of the Ring trilogy and its prequel The Hobbit are most well known, Tolkien also wrote The Simarillion, a compendium of Middle Earth myths that was published after his death.

The film adaptations were hugely successful, winning a record number of Oscars and changing the cinematic landscape (so it contained a lot more dragons and magic), and Tolkien remained the auteur figure at the center of the myth. Even after Peter Jackson blew most of the good will he'd earned with the LOTR films with his floptastic remake of King Kong and Guillermo del Toro was tapped to direct the adaptation of The Hobbit, the anticipation for the new Tolkien film has remained unabated. It's the fictive world rather than the specific director that provides the fodder for fan excitement (this might seem obvious, but Sam Raimi's connection to the Spiderman movies has been key to their success, as has Bryan Singer's name in relation to the X-Men franchise).

Ultimately, Middle Earth might offer the best existing example of the kind of hyper-dense fictive world that provides fertile ground for cult following, and it's thus no surprise that the narrative has inspired everything from over 40,000 (!) stories on, to Harvard parodies, to fan encyclopedias, to quite possibly the most awesome thing Leonard Nimoy has ever done (including Futurama and Star Trek).

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin

According to legend, when Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he greeted her with the comment, "So you're the little lady who started this big war." It's an interesting comment on the place of the author in relation to a work of literature: she's always diminutive (both little and a lady), and her actions seem to have spun out of control, leading to big, historical, and decidedly masculine events.

The truth of the relationship between Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Civil War is (surprise!) more complicated than Lincoln's comment suggests, but Stowe's novel did move its Northern white readers to pity slaves and reject the institution. At the same time, however, it relied on and reinforced narratives of intrinsic racial difference in order to do so, and continued a long and depressing history of offering black bodies up for consumption in the American marketplace. The industry around Uncle Tom's Cabin traded in images and narratives, not real people, but African-American experience was still the currency by which white readers made sense of their lives. The novel remains the gold standard for the double-edged sword of sentimental literature, where readers weep over the plight of the suffering [fill-in-the blank] and then feel their work is done. It's a short leap from Little Eva's tragic death to Gwyneth Paltrow's African identity.

It's possible, I think, for narratives like this to serve as a kind of gateway to concrete forms of activism, but the commodification of the characters and the experiences makes that leap difficult. What do you think? Is it possible to understand the enormity of slavery's inhumanity when it's presented as a doll, part of a Plantation-themed party, or advertisements for thread and tobacco? Either way, Uncle Tom's Cabin has become the ur-text for some of the most enduring racial stereotypes in American culture: the Mammy, the tragic mulatto, and of course, the Magical Black Man.

5. Jack Kerouac/ On the Road

Required reading for disaffected teenagers everywhere, Jack Kerouac's loosely fictionalized autobiographical narrative of his cross-country travels with Neal Cassady and (more briefly) Allen Ginsberg, as well as other Beat luminaries (William S. Burroughs, Alan Ansen) formed the foundation for the contemporary road narrative. The myth of Kerouac's process is as important as the final product: the famous story is that he sat down and wrote the whole book in three weeks on a continuous scroll of tracing paper. The scroll itself now travels cross-country, keeping up the myth of the American Road.

Kerouac's success was as much about timing as talent--the novel came out just at the point when affordable cars and an interstate highway system made individual cross-country travel possible. In the 1950's, people could for the first time live as itinerant travelera without dropping out of society like Depression-era hobos. Even though Kerouac describes a rebellious and marginal lifestyle, he never loses the opportunity to reintegrate into mainstream culture. His work, then, might be read as part of the creation of the modern notion of adolescence as a period designated for rebellion--where you can step out of the expectations of mainstream culture for a period of time, but always have the option of safely returning (as evidenced by Kerouac's ideological shift later in life toward conservatism). As the clip suggests, Kerouac's later life was marred by alcoholism and misery, and he died of cirrhosis at 47.

Kerouac's understanding of the Road as a space for enlightenment and rebellion set the stage for generations of Road Narratives, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise to epic poems about road trips to gross-out comedies. Kerouac is distinct from other writers on this list because his influence is so widespread--I wouldn't say there's no On the Road fan fiction, but that it's harder to find, since Kerouac's influence tends to show up as someone trying to reproduce the general feeling of his narrative by chronicling their own alcohol- or drug-fueled trips cross-country. But of course, that's not to say that you can't still find weird fan ephemera like an interview with a Kerouac bobblehead doll.

Monday, June 30, 2008

You say passive, I say AWESOME: 5 TV shows and movies that inspire rabid devotion

1. Gene Roddenberry
For better or worse, every discussion of fan culture, and particularly of television-based fan culture, has to begin with Roddenberry and Star Trek. Although Star Trek conventions weren't the first science fiction conventions, they developed a following that set the tone for science fiction fandom to come: self-identified social misfits gathering together to bond over their love of a particular narrative. To this day, the classic image of the obsessed fan is the Star Trek fan, most famously sent up in William Shatner's 1986 SNL skit (the full transcript of which can be found here) where he asks Jon Lovitz's pudgy Spock-ear-wearing geek if he's “ever even kissed a girl.” Roddenberry himself has come to serve as a kind of shorthand for the can't-we-all-just-get-along version of liberal humanism Star Trek is famous for: the show hosted the first televised interracial kiss, but Kirk and Uhura had to be controlled by aliens for it to happen. To Roddenberry's credit, he had originally hoped to make the Enterprise's second-in-command a female character, thus taking bigger chances in terms of diversity with the central cast than the ultimately limited roles offered to Uhura and Sulu (secretary and asexual navigator, respectively). The “radicalism” of Star Trek doesn't look too radical by today's standards, but Roddenberry set the bar for cult science-fiction, inspiring a level of creative output in fans that remains unparalleled. Whether you are interested in love stories between Kirk and Spock, needlepoint of the cast of the original series, videos that show the gay subtext between Kirk and Spock (watch out, there's cursing!), or S/M short stories featuring the cast of Voyager (I'm not linking this one, but trust me), it starts with the story of Star Trek.

2. Joss Whedon
You might call Joss Whedon the feminist's answer to Gene Roddenberry. Although he'd been working as a writer in Hollywood for years, even winning an Academy Award for the screenplay of Toy Story, he rose to fame with the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of a “normal” girl who is saddled with a sacred duty--to catch and kill vampires. As luck would have it, her family moves to a town (Sunndydale, CA) that's situated directly above a “hellmouth”--a mystical convergence of demonic energy. More precisely, the high school is directly above the hellmouth, which lends itself to an almost inexhaustible series of metaphors for high school life. A group of bullies gets possessed by feral hyenas, an unpopular wallflower (Clea Duvall!) becomes actually invisible, and most famously, Buffy's boyfriend turns out to be a vampire himself. Whedon intended the show as an answer to the tendency in horror movies for girls to get punished for their sexuality, saying in series commentary that “The first thing I ever thought of when I thought of Buffy was the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.” Like Roddenberry, Whedon has inspired a massive cult of personality, with his fans congregating on his blog and attending conventions. What sets Buffy apart from similar science fiction cults (like Doctor Who or Babylon 5) besides its politics is the amount of attention the show has gained from an academic audience. Whedon's whole oeuvre has inspired its own academic journal, Slayage, and collections of scholarly essays like Fighting the Forces: What's at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy fan (a full academic bibliography can be found here). The annual conference hosted by Slayage shows how, particularly in relation to Whedon, the line between critic and fan has become almost indistinguishable.
None of this is to say that Buffy fandom isn't distinguished by the same host of stories, videos, and art that have arisen from Star Trek. Sing-alongs to the season six musical episode even happened in theaters nationwide until Fox shut them down for copyright infringement. However, while Roddenberry kept returning to the Star Trek well for ideas, Whedon branched out to Angel (a spinoff from Buffy about her (first) vampire boyfriend) and then Firefly, a genre-bending sci-fi/Western that never made it past the first season. Upon cancellation, Whedon's fan base launched a letter-writing campaign that, while it didn't save the show, made a film sequel possible (the awesome Serenity). Whedon now runs midnight showings of Serenity as benefits for his feminist nonprofit Equality Now. He's recently made the leap to comics, continuing “Season 8” of Buffy, and writing arcs of comic versions of Angel and Firefly as well. He's made the leap to more “classic” comics as well, penning arcs for The X-Men and Runaways. A rabid fan himself of comics and Battlestar Galactica, Whedon thinks like a fan, refusing to stay within the boundaries of a particular genre or medium--more often than not, hard-core Whedon fans think of him almost as a friend. Tellingly, the ultimate sign of a hard-core Whedon-head will be her tendency to refer to him as “Joss.”

3. David Lynch
If Roddenberry and Whedon inspire creative expansion on their narratives, then David Lynch inspires his fans toward exegesis of his. From his first film, Eraserhead, to his recent sprawling (and self-financed!) digital-video epic Inland Empire, Lynch has relied on dense narrative systems that may or may not have some underlying logical thread tying them all together. This scene that opens his film Blue Velvet showcases Lynch's pet obsession: the dark, consuming underbelly of idyllic American life. In 1992, he rose to national fame with the television series Twin Peaks, which hinged on the mystery of the brutal murder of prom queen Laura Palmer. Kyle MacLachlan (the star of two previous Lynch films) played Agent Dale Cooper, the Buddhist Sherlock Holmes charged with rooting out Laura's killer. This famous scene of Cooper's dream shows how Lynch was able to take chances with the television medium that permanently changed what people thought television could do. The show was hugely popular until it became clear that Lynch was much more interested in the journey toward discovering Laura's killer than he was in the identity of the killer himself. After the first season ended with the mystery still unsolved, viewers grew angry and disaffected, but those who remained became more and more obsessed with sorting out the mysteries, and finding the clues that would ferret out the killer. Lynch finally caved to industry pressure and revealed the killer, after which the show went off the rails, piling up more and crazier subplots every week. Lynch's work continues to inspire the same kind of explanatory fervor, however, with fans clamoring to reveal the “true” meaning of his films, particularly Mullholland Dr. Other people see his reliance on symbolism as over-the-top and nonsensical, as shown by this youtube parody. Of course, they might not be too far off the mark. Recently, Lynch has become an active proponent of transcendental meditation, seeing that practice as a way to get in touch with the creative process. His work might be the best example of the way TM can help people try to get in touch with their unconscious minds, since the experience of watching a David Lynch film is still the closest experience I've ever had to a waking dream (sorry this is in Spanish...).

4. Monty Python
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery--that might explain why Monty Python fans find ways to shoehorn quotes from the British comedy troupe's TV show and movies into almost any conversation. The high quotability of Monty Python might be explained at least in part by the show's reliance on absurd humor and abrupt transitions. Classic bits like The Ministry of Silly Walks and The Spanish Inquisition showcase the basics of Python's appeal: it's like Saturday Night Live for Anglophiles and history nerds. Instead of celebrity impressions and pop culture parody, Monty Python builds its humor by mixing “high cultural” references (Biblical narrative and Arthurian Legend in its two most famous films Life of Brian and Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail) with the bawdy mainstays of poop, violence, and cross-dressing.
The fan activity around Python follows this imitative logic, allowing fans to come up with their own silly walks. Even among Monty Python fan art, fans generally reproduce funny scenes rather than bending as far off the narrative track as they might in relation to another text. In that way, it's like The Simpsons: the sign of hard-core fandom is exhaustive knowledge of the source material, not building on that source material.

5. Star Wars
Star Wars might be the best example of how corporate structure affects fan production, both limiting fans and giving them a greater sense of legitimacy. According to Henry Jenkins, "Lucasfilm has been one of the most aggressive corporate groups in trying to halt fan cultural production." Although George Lucas has supported fan projects like the embattled film Fanboys, he has also shut down fan fiction that wasn't "PG" and argued that "expansive" fan projects infringe on his intellectual property, issuing a "cease and desist" order against a Star Wars usenet site. When he has encouraged fan participation, it's always explicitly (and economically) linked to Lucasfilm. For instance, he set up an ongoing competition for the best Star Wars fan video, but those videos then became property of Lucasfilm.
As you might have noticed, most of these films are parodies, which seem to be distinct for Lucas from other kinds of fan fiction. Following that logic, he has given full approval to the Family Guy parody Blue Harvest and the Kevin Smith film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Parodies of Star Wars have proliferated over the years, giving the Star Wars fan community more of a sense of contemporary relevance than, say, Star Trek fans. The images from Star Wars have been used to skewer figures on both left and right, not to mention ineffectual middle managers. Watching Star Wars, we always encourage with the Rebel Alliance, but Lucas's strategy of moving fan production into the control of major corporations sounds more like the Empire to me.