Finding Your Friends / Adornofangirl’s “Favorite Things”

November 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the process of selecting my primary texts for my dissertation, I’ve started to feel like I’ve been asked to choose my friends — no longer can I act out all these relationships I pretend are primary with the writers I love. No longer can I spend my days re-writing my own hierarchies, deciding between Buffy and Angel, or Joss Whedon versus Alan Ball, as “author of life as I understand it.” I feel a self-imposed pressure to select texts from the greatest possible multiplicity of canons — MFA as well as NYC, HBO as well as YouTube, and the Lambda, Eisner, and Streamy award-winning works alongside one another. Each canon is full of leakages and forgetting, but together, I’m hoping they’ll reveal something of value. Obviously, it would be crass to select my actual friends according to such categories — I’m not a Disney agent, after all, looking to cast a social microcosm in a dollhouse. But I do see an analogy between my choices when it comes to objects of extended study and my choices when it comes to approach — which interlocutors do I want to address my work to, and which of these do I feel are on my side. Not in terms of agreeing with or endorsing my work personally, but rather simply in terms of having the same major concerns of investments — how can we bring what’s awesome about criticism up to date in the 21st century, and how can we bring it to bear on significant questions we face with a particular intensity at present. (For me: Privacy, Digitization of Culture, Whims of Kyriarchy.)

It gets more specific, I promise. But that’s the groundwork. I want to look at two subcultural hierarchies in order to test out my ideas here about the value and limits of a subcultural intellectual sphere (like an academic field), and how these play out in various contexts. My two sites for analysis are the so-called “geek hierarchy” and biphobia in the queer community.

First, the geek hierarchy. Various versions of this diagram have been circulating for years now, but here’s a solid example from 2002 (click for a larger image):

The main thing you’ll notice here is the way in which the top and the bottom of the hierarchy reinforce the structures already once imposed on us by our phase of capitalism: Published Authors at the top, niche fanfic writers at the bottom. And of course, these have particular effects in the academic sphere as well: one gets a certain cachet from adopting x or y author or form from the top of the hierarchy, and has to spend an increasing amount of time defending her right to exist as a scholar of q or z form from lower down. And I’m sympathetic to the reasons that even some progressive scholars reinforce that kind of hierarchy, for there is an immense external pressure to make one’s work recognizable, legible, interesting to an audience who likely won’t take the time to “catch up” on a niche intellectual sphere foreign to their own. And so, why not take on the in any case worthy intellectual challenge of making your most significant insights available to that audience, rather than insisting on protecting one’s own right to an in-group jargon, or seemingly antagonistic set of principles?

But here’s the thing: it’s certainly not the case that the language of fanfiction is more unnecessarily complex than, say, the language of Frank Herbert’sDune. So the idea that there is more respectability afforded the latter (although I’m not pretending that Frank Herbert is the next Shakespeare in terms of authorial industry creation) reveals something important about the way in which we decide who exactly our audience is, and what terms they are most likely to be familiar with. The accusation of jargon has always struck me as disingenuous, in any case, especially within the academy — a field-specific vocabulary strikes me as a necessary way of instantiating deliberative conversation about complex matters. We all take some shortcuts in speech and writing, whether these are weasel words in favor of our own taste, as can be seen in this obviously misogynistic piece on Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, or simply generational assumptions about one’s audiences likely familiarity with recent innovations in internet culture. The point remains in either case that the shortcuts one chooses to take can eliminate a segment of one’s desired audience, and I therefore think that the decision ought to be taken seriously. In my case, I’d much prefer to eliminate anyone who holds what I see to be bigoted and hierarchical assumptions about whose voice deserves to be heard in the contemporary media landscape, than I would be to accidentally alienate anyone who might share my love for the primary texts I have chosen, but whose “take” on them differs significantly. Basically, I have no interest in making friends in thought with someone who uncritically codes women’s culture as frivolous, but I very much hope to leave my writing open to contribution from people who think that I’ve failed to appreciate an artist who might productively challenge my argument.

I love geeks, I am a geek, and I’m entertained by geek hierarchies. But I think it’s important to ensure that they aren’t reproduced in institutions, and retain their rightful place in webcomics.

Another hierarchy under discussion among my friends of late is the hierarchy of queer people. Well, not the hierarchy of queer people — something I really don’t want to spend time thinking about. But particularly the perceived invisibility of bisexuality in some queer social circles, sometimes even veering toward biphobia. Now, I know it’s a logical fallacy to generalize from personal experience, but I have to say before I go on that I’ve never met anyone I want to be friends with who’s biphobic. My formulation there may come across as immature, but it’s exactly what I mean to say. Have I met biphobic people? Certainly, just as I’ve met regular old homophobes, racists, misogynists, ableists (most of the world, most of the time) and jerks. But do I see their biphobia as indicative of a real problem within queer community building in the places I’ve lived? No.

It should go without saying that I think that much of the social world is unfair and unreasonable. People well into adulthood are kindergarten cruel to people who are different, and go out of their way to make them feel wrong, ugly, fat, weak, and anything else you can think of. This treatment has seriously unfortunate consequences for the social whole, in its worst cases leading to extreme self-destruction among those targeted. But. I really think that the biphobia of the queer community is not a part of, or at least certainly isn’t a primary part of, this oppression. It seems to me that the point of queer community-building is one that would have no time for this business. I know it exists for some people, just as the geek hierarchy does. I know that the idea of it contributes to the ridiculously limited representations of queer people we get in mainstream media. But in terms of your work, your daily work, your daily being-queer or geeking-out, your finding a guild or a group of friends to go to the gay bar with? It’s not the defining factor. If there are queer people who feel they surpass you on the Kinsey scale, and they feel the need to talk about it? Don’t talk to them. If there are geeks who feel your understanding of Battlestar Galactica falls short because you’ve misapprehended the physics of space travel? Step away slowly. Hang out with some shippers.

Again, when it comes to institutions, things are a little bit different. Shunned from the LGBT student organization for identifying as bisexual? A problem. A serious problem. Bullied out of Sci Fi club for admitting you prefer Fantasy? A problem. Absolutely. But (and maybe this is my own version of an “it gets better” post), as Kevin Gnapoor would say, don’t let the haters keep you from doing your thing. Institutionalized canons are one thing, and these should be fought, or at least derailed at regular intervals. (There is no reason one should simply be expected to familiarize oneself with all that’s preferred by kyriarchy before following one’s own research path.) But I also think it’s important to note where institutional hierarchies fail to replicate — in dynamic social spaces organized around shared interests and principles. Because I really do think the biggest risk in pitting microcultures within subcultures against one another is the appeal it has to the real oppressors — there’s nothing the powerful seem to love to see more than in-fighting among groups fighting for the right to exist oppositionally.

(Side note: this dynamic is what disappointed me most in the bickering between leftists and libertarians (some left, some right) about enhanced TSA screening processes. Since when does either group think that it’s a waste of time to complain about the infringement of rights enacted under the false rhetorical pretense of a “state of emergency”? See herehere, and here if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.)

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