Thursday, 5 September 2013

Neoliberal Consumer Cults (aka Fandoms) and the Politics of Inclusion

I had a professor who would argue that capitalism, while it certainly enables a number of social catastrophes, also provides a certain number of social benefits. For instance, in the pursuit of capital, businesses will cater to affluent members of the gay community. In Canada, the rainbow symbol of Pride is posted up at restaurants and shops in order to say "Spend your money here. You are included." It is a valid argument, although it only seems to have teeth if excluded minorities manage to accumulate enough extra spending money to be worth the pursuit.

A recent conversation over on Verity! reminded me of that professor's position. Verity! is a Doctor Who-related podcast hosted by a small group of very dedicated female Doctor Who fans. The recent unveiling on a new Doctor, to be played by Peter Capaldi, had stirred up the usual pre-Doctor debates among fans. Could and should Doctor Who be female? Black? Otherwise non-white? Old? Given Capaldi's age, that last question was especially pertinent. I have it on authority that when the newest Doctor was announced a large number of seemingly female, seemingly young Doctor Who fans complained about the choice of Capaldi. They'd gotten all hot and bothered over young, handsome Matt Smith. This older fella just wasn't going to do it for them anymore. Apparently older, 'hardcore' geeks, that predominantly male category of fans who survived the so-called 'wilderness years' when Doctor Who was no longer a viable televisual property, did not appreciate the attitudes of those female fans. If 'fangirls' didn't like Doctor Who for its essential Doctor Who-ness then they could fuck right off.

The entire situation is silly. I'm embarrassed to even have to report on it.

Anyway. In their roundtable discussion, the members of Verity! cited a blog post entitled "A Creator's Note to 'Gatekeepers'." The argument of that piece is that geek culture is a product meant to be consumed. People make money from watching things like Doctor Who. Gatekeepers, those fans--often called 'fanboys'--who, through the nature of their discourse and rhetoric, attempt to exclude or delegitimise the fandomness of others, particularly females, non-whites, or LGBTs, are keeping money from the pockets of rights-holders and contract labourers. Among members of Verity!, this appears to have been a very persuasive and familiar argument, one that they assert should unify Doctor Who fans by silencing those suffering from an undue sense of entitlement. Can't we all just enjoy, share, and pay for merchandise related to this property, using our disposable income in peace and har-money?

It is not uncommon for critics to point to the corporate-owned nature of consumer cult objects. Disney owns Marvel Comics and Star Wars; Warner owns DC Comics; CBS owns Star Trek; the BBC owns Doctor Who.* Consumer cults, or 'fandoms,' name the mass of unnervingly dedicated fans (short for fanatics) who base their conversation, social life, and vacation time around a particular corporate-owned property, sometimes going so far as to permanently mark their bodies or conduct their rites of passage in rituals of identification. We see a similar sort of behaviour in sports fandom, which is equally corporate-owned. Some will respond (cannot find the link!) that sport fandoms are more corporate than geek fandoms since there is more creativity and independent craftsmanship in the later than the former. Doctor Who fans will dress in unofficial, non-BBC designed outfits when identifying themselves with their chosen corporate property; hockey fans will buy the officially approved Red Wings jersey.

You can split hairs all you want on that front.

When you consider the twin facts that fandoms represent persistent, organised forms of consumer enthusiasm, and that the objects of those forms of enthusiasm are predominantly owned by media conglomerates who no doubt lobbied for legislation such as SOPA, it becomes a little troubling to think about. The act of obsessing over things like Spider-Man's new costume or the mysterious identity of that new Star Trek villain, is entangled inextricably with the wider socio-economic, political world. This is to put aside the basic notion that if you ask someone about the batting average of some pituitary case you're likely to receive a semi-knowledgeable response. But if you then ask about the latest in world news you'll get a blank stare. Fandoms are, in essence, harmful to informed thought regarding the world at large.

At the moment, fans are generally splintered along categorical lines reminiscent of religious institutions. There are ultra-Orthodox, orthodox, reform, radical, and ecumenical types of fans.** I've commented that Verity! falls under the ecumenical category, with a hint of orthodoxy. What this means to me is that they represent the element of corporate property enthusiasm which seeks to unite races, genders, and creeds through the liberating virtue of money, through the shared participation with spectacle. As such they perhaps represent the most pernicious, albiet paradoxical, aspect of neoliberal consumer cult behaviour. After all, what is the logical conclusion of their ideology? A world in which everyone loves Disney, but no one knows what is going on.

*I'll admit that in the case of Doctor Who, the money is used to support things like the right-of-centre BBC news.

**In their latest episode, Verity! even--without really dwelling on the fact--likened the establishment of a religious canon with that of corporate-owned property storylines and products.


  1. Interesting article, but I'm a bit confused on one point. You didn't cover how or why being well-versed in world events and actively participating in a fandom are mutually exclusive. Some of the most in-touch-with-the-world folks I know are also the biggest fans--of sports and sci-fi properties. I think your conclusion is inherently flawed. Joining a fandom (or several) doesn't automatically lead to excluding everything else from one's life. That's just plain silly.

  2. Hi Erika. My name is James. Sorry for the delay with this response. I was at work and then had a busy evening.

    Thanks for responding. My piece comes off as more cranky than intended, but I won't edit it. You gotta live with your mistakes, right?

    I'm glad that you responded as you did. You could have easily accused me of accidentally(?) recapitulating the 'your PC agenda will destroy free thought' attitude that you often see from people threatened by so-called 'second wave fandom'. You could have also noted that I come close to recapitulating the very thing that I criticized in THE NEWSROOM. Neither counter critique would have been wrong. I'll have to examine my thinking here....

    Anyway. I'm going to use an analogy in my reply. It's a bit unfortunate, since it equates weight-gain with ignorance, but I'm going to use it anyway.

    Not everyone who eats potato chips all the time gets fat. Similarly, not everyone who engages in persistent, organized consumer enthusiasm groups (fandoms) becomes ignorant of the world at large. But most people who eat lots of chips get fat; and those who think only in terms of consumer products tend not to think in terms of anything else.