Friday, February 8, 2013

Musings About Culture and Being a Fan

Editor's Note: This is Andy Tisdel, proprietor of Tisdel's Tirades, talking. This post probably has nothing to do with FEMA Corps, and does not reflect the opinions of a majority of FEMA Corps Team Summit 5; it is nothing more or less than an ordinary blog post.
Can we get rid of the idea, once and for all, that there is some kind of master list of cultural touchstones (in movies, literature, music, television, anything else you'd care to name) that everyone should immerse themselves in? And can we boot the equally stupid implication that if you haven't been dunking your heads in the same basin of presumable ecstasy that everybody else has, you've clearly been wasting your time?
Above: something that came up when I Googled "vile soup". I have no idea what's in it.
 Yes, that's deliberately overstated. I'd like to introduce the idea the way it comes across first, then backtrack and explain where it comes from. Let's commence with the backtrack and examination.
There's nothing wrong with exposing people to bits of the cultural galaxy that you've been immersed in. We all do it all the time. 'Hey, have you heard this song, watched this video, seen this movie? OMG! You totally have to! It's soooo gooood!' The part that bugs me is when somebody mixes in a spoonful of mock outrage with the recommendation. 'How on earth could you grow up without watching Aladdin? Did you even have a childhood?' That last sentence, which comes up quite a bit, is as good as a declarative statement by the speaker: 'I believe that there is a certain set of cultural bits that everyone should be exposed to, and the fact that you haven't been exposed to these constitutes a flaw that must be cured as soon as possible'. 
In jest or sincere, the implications are still really creepy. For me, it starts out with the implication that there's some kind of objective ranking of cultural bits. There's not, and it's not news, and there's really no point in listing all the reasons why (people are different, and there's no agreed-upon value for "good"). The best you can do is a pile of statistics, Rotten Tomatoes-style, but even that only gives you what the members of a culture (or all cultures, or any middle ground) think of a bit, not an absolute value that quantifies the bit. Critics can place a bit among its companion bits better than the rest of us can, but they can't tell us that something is objectively good, or objectively better or worse than similar movies, any more than I can. Everything's about the subject, which makes sense, since all of this is art.

No objective good means there's no true list of best bits, but what about making a list of cultural bits that are most important? Same problem. Important to whom, and in what ways? Can you really nail down a short list of bits that are more vital than any other, without defining a topic or otherwise delineating what you’re talking about from the great mass of culture? I don’t think you can. I don’t think anybody really can. There is so much out there to explore, and so much of it is subjectively awesome (depending on your viewpoint). Saying that there are these five or six things that everyone should see, and thereby concluding that the rest are at best secondary and at worst irrelevant, seems comically arrogant.

Of course, questions of subjectivity and objectivity tend to be submerged in debates like this in a sea of fandom, which is something I truly don’t understand. There are many, many cultural bits that I happen to love, and that I recommend to friends and strangers at every opportunity. But I don’t say they’re the best thing in the world; I say they’re really, really good. I don’t understand the rush to lose yourself in fictional characters, to care about their needs and desires and flaws with a passion that approaches violence. Do I enjoy the story and acting and characterization and a thousand other aspects of a show like Breaking Bad? Hell, yes. Do I spend hours debating motivation and morality with fellow fans of the show? Hell, yes. Would I consider temporarily abandoning my own identity by actually taking on the appearance or identity of one of those characters, i.e. cosplaying? Should I engage with them on a primarily emotional level, as cosplayers do, instead of a primarily reasoning one? That just isn’t for me. At the end of the day, they're just characters; you can make your own if you like, which is in my opinion a better use of your time.

Deep emotional involvement with characters (not even necessarily the broad sweep of a show, but individual characters) is where obsessive fandom—covering your walls with posters, breathlessly awaiting each new episode, spending endless hours on Internet chat rooms—comes from. To me, you can be a fan—enjoy and engage with and comment on a cultural bit—without descending into fandom—composing increasingly excessive odes to said bit. And by the way, fandom doesn’t have to be positive; you can put just as much passion and time and energy into denouncing Twilight or Nickelback (two favorite Internet punching bags) as you could affirming Disney or Doctor Who (two favorite Internet snuggle-buddies). 

Speaking of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray or any other piece of pop culture widely panned as garbage, here's one more disturbing idea that's out there: the notion that the cultural bits that you enjoy somehow define you as a person. I get that reading into someone's tastes and favorite bits can tell you things about that person; I'm not arguing against that. But to argue as some do that watching Twilight or listening to Justin Bieber means you have poor taste or are being aggressively vapid or are just plain stupid... I don't see it. Your bits can tell other people about you, but they can mislead as easily as not, and they certainly do not define you.

Cultural relativism, to steal from someone wiser than I am, is about examining and appreciating the nuances of other cultures without losing the set of moral values that came with your own. That's for national and ethnic definitions of culture. In this case, you might say that accepting relativity in pop culture is about accepting subjectivity, being willing to engage with new cultural bits that you come in contact with, without losing your personal sense of what's good and what's not. Again, this isn't difficult; we do it every day. It's giving up the pretentiousness inherent in talking up your particular culture at the expense of everyone else's that's the trick.

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