Sub-Cultural Darwinism: Some Thoughts on the Rise and Fall of Fandoms
Over the past few months, I have been slowly pulling together some thoughts on the question of why it is that certain pop culture institutions prosper while others decline. Traditionally, when people talk about these types of issues they do so from one of two perspectives:
Firstly, they assume that the health of a sub-culture is indistinguishable from the health of the industry that serves said sub-culture and so discussions tend to revolve around issues relating to the expansion and contraction of said market. For example, when people talk about the health of tabletop roleplaying games, they talk about the number of books sold and the number of companies in business. Thus, when the d20 license created a boom in the market that convinced existing fans to buy more stuff, people mistakenly confused this boom with an expansion in the boundaries of gaming fandom.
Secondly, they assume that the creation myths that spring up around a certain sub-culture are entirely correct and so explain all variations in popularity level purely in terms of distance from the original context of creation. For example, when people talk about the decline of written science fiction, they often talk about the lack of interest in space exploration despite the fact that science fiction can fill a number of cultural niches other than as a form of bargain-basement agitprop for the American space programme.
In my view, both approaches are hopeless blinkered and incomplete as they fail to acknowledge the fact that each fandom effectively in direct competition with every other form of fandom.
Think of it this way:
You are a teenager and you have a certain amount of talent and energy left over after your academic and/or professional endeavours. What you do with those remaining reserves of talent and energy will be determined by what it is that interest you. What interests you as a teenager growing up in the 21st Century will be determined by a number of factors including the culture of the day, the values of your parents and peer group, and which activities are financially and geographically available to you. For example, you are unlikely to develop a huge interest in winter sports if you live in the tropics. Similarly, if you grow up in an upper-class family then you are more likely to acquire an interest in tennis than you are in muscle cars.
Based upon these interests, you will be inclined to attach yourself to one or several scenes as a means of a) interacting with people who share your interests and b) accruing social capital. Which scenes you eventually join is, of course, your choice but all potential scenes are effectively in competition for your talent, your energy and your financial input.
Pop-cultural institutions (or ‘fandoms’) are successful only in so far as they as capable of attracting a constant stream of new fans and encouraging said fans to devote their resources to the advancement of said scene. The bigger, more vibrant, more inclusive and more democratic a scene appears, the more likely it is to recruit new members. For example, anime fandom is currently on the rise as the subject matter is cool and because anime fandom is young, inclusive and filled with people from a variety of genders, sexualities and ethnicities. Conversely, written science fiction fandom is dominated by old, straight, white, American men who are frequently hostile to people who are none of these things.
Given that a) anime features a huge number of science fictional stories and b) anime fandom appears far more inclusive and mindful of teenaged sensibilities than that of written SF, why would a teenager decide to join written science fiction fandom?
While I have thus far limited myself to examples drawn from my personal experience of different forms of fandom, the principle of pop cultural Darwinism applies across the board. Written science fiction is not just in competition with anime and console gaming but with sports, music and political activism. All pop-cultural institutions are in competition with each other because all pop-cultural institutions serve a similar set of psychological needs in that they allow individuals to assert their identity through association with a particular tribe or activity.
This idea that all fandoms exist to allow people to satisfy a set of basic psychological needs is perfectly captured in a short scene from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993). In this scene, one of the primary characters finds himself trapped between the socially conservative institutions that have grown up around high school American football and the more radical and hedonistic institutions that have grown up around listening to 70s rock music. As a member of the 70s counterculture, the character wants to get drunk, get high and get laid. However, as a member of the high school football team, the character is expected to make a pledge denouncing such activities for the good of the team. When the character’s team-mates attempt to apply peer-pressure to the character in order to get him to pay lip service to the conservative values of high school football, the character points out that he only joined the football team in order to meet girls and he could just as easily have met girls by learning to play an instrument and joining a band.
The challenge facing all pop-cultural institutions is that of perpetual renewal. In order to remain attractive to each new generation of fans, fandoms must convince each new generation that their institutions are the ideal vehicle for those fans’ psychological needs. If fandoms do not look like places where teenagers can acquire social status, exercise their creativity and maybe get laid then chances are that said fandom will enter terminal decline.
An interesting example of what can happen when a fandom enters decline can be found in French popular culture. As I pointed out in a piece I recently wrote for Locus Magazine about French graphic novels, French popular culture has a written SF scene but this scene is small and its output is completely overshadowed by works of SF that are translated from English. Conversely, French comics are enormously vibrant and their influence on how we think about science fiction stretches beyond France and Europe and all the way to Hollywood and Japan. In an excellent piece for Tor.com about the French comics artist Moebius, Tim Maughan says:
It wasn’t just Hollywood and Europe that would be touched by Moebius’ influence — somehow Metal Hurlant would make its way to Japan also. Anime legend and Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki considered himself a life-long fan, and the two would become good friends and mutual admirers. In 2004 they held a joint exhibition of their work in Paris, and the two were recorded discussing each others’ work, with Miyazaki saying he discovered his friend’s work “through Arzach, which dates from 1975 I believe. I only met it in 1980, and it was a big shock. Not only for me. All manga authors were shaken by this work…even today, I think he has an awesome sense of space. I directed Nausicaä under Moebius’ influence… We were really amazed when we saw Moebius’ drawings. How to explain that, we had discovered a new way to look at the world.”
The cultural vibrancy of a particular form is intimately bound up with the cultural vibrancy of its associated fandom: Because the French comics scene is vibrant, it recruits more talented youngsters and many of these talented youngsters contribute to the vibrancy of the scene in both professional and amateur capacities either by opening shops, writing reviews, organising conventions or learning to become writers and artists. It is precisely because the French comics scene is more vibrant than that of French written SF that French-speaking teenagers with an interest in science fiction grow up wanting to be Moebius and not Roland Charles Wagner.
Given that this blog post is really nothing more than an opportunity for me to lay down a few thoughts in a (more or less) ordered fashion, I cannot pretend that this way of thinking about fandom is in any way intellectually robust. It may not even be a particularly novel way of thinking about popular culture. One obvious shortcoming is that it fails to acknowledge the fact that, while fandoms must undoubtedly appeal to the young in order to survive and grow, it is not only the young who have needs. This idea that there is nothing morally wrong with tailoring a fandom to suit the needs of senior citizens is put forward with admirable frankness by the fan artist Taral Wayne in the November 2011 issue of Mike Glyer’s File 770 fanzine (PDF). As Wayne puts it:
Adhering to an outmoded model that appeals to no one under the age of 40 binds fandom to our own mortality. But from a purely selfish standpoint, so what? When I’m gone, what difference does it make if fandom survives at the cost of becoming something that isn’t going to honor my memory any- way? Fandom as an abstraction that must outlive me, reminds me too much of other banners man- kind has foolishly followed… often to bloodshed and disaster.
According to Wayne’s Wikipedia page, he first joined SF fandom in the early 70s and has spent his life being creative, making friends, accruing social capital and presumably getting laid in and around written SF fandom. As fans of Wayne’s generation have aged, they have used their demographic weight to ensure that the institutions of SF fandom remained focused upon their needs rather than the needs of later generations of fans. As Wayne argues, what does it matter if his generation drives SF into the ground? He is an old man, he will soon be dead and what matters after he dies is none of his concern.
My first reaction upon reading Wayne’s comments was to view him as a profoundly selfish and reactionary man whose attempt to smear any and all forms of social change with the brush of ideological mass murder is as crassly self-serving as it is morally imbecilic. However, upon further reflection, I will at least acknowledge that the morality of the issue is more complex than it first appears.
In an article that appeared in The London Review of Books, Malcolm Bull argues that one of the reasons why a political solution to the problem of climate change continues to elude us is that while climate change will affect future generations more heavily than it effects our own, our political institutions are set up to serve only the needs of the current generation. As Bull puts it:
The current generation has nothing to gain from reducing emissions and every subsequent one has more at stake than its predecessor. In game-theoretical terms, this means that the current generation has no incentive to co-operate even if every other generation were willing to do so, and that the same will be true of the next generation if the present one has failed to co-operate and passed the buck instead.
In order for written SF fandom to become culturally vibrant its institutions must attract new generations of fans. However, in order for the institutions of SF fandom to attract younger fans, these institutions must prioritise the needs of younger fans over the needs of older and existing fans. The problem that Wayne and Bull both touch upon is that it is not in the interest of existing older fans to change fandom’s institutions. The case for morally prioritising future generations over current generations is far from obvious particularly when these future generations might not even exist.
If the moral case for constant cultural renewal is unclear then the aesthetic case is downright impenetrable.
One of the more intriguing side effects of an aging fandom is that as fandoms age, the more widely read the average fan becomes. The more widely read the average fan becomes, the more likely it is that they will want to experience something new. Thus, an aging fandom can also be a more jaded and sophisticated fandom and a sophisticated fandom is likely to be a more demanding fandom. This link between demographics and aesthetic sophistication accounts for the rise of postmodernism in popular culture throughout the late 1980s and 1990s.
The aesthetics of postmodernity are those of excruciating cleverness. What I mean by this is that postmodernism assumes that everyone has read enough, seen enough and played enough to be bored. The correct reaction to a successful piece of postmodernist art is not ‘that is beautiful!’ or ‘that is intensely moving!’ but ‘clever… I see what you did there’. For example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer deconstructs the tropes of the traditional horror movie but in order for this deconstruction to appeal, people must be familiar enough with those tropes in order to be annoyed with them. The same principle is evident in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Moore deconstructs the super hero comic but in order for the deconstruction to be meaningful, the audience must first be familiar with the traditional and un-reconstructed super hero comics where super heroes were both unquestioningly patriotic and seemingly unaware of their reactionary status. Obviously, people unaware of the source materials can appreciate both Buffy and Watchmen on a non-postmodern level but the satirical and ‘clever’ aspects of these works assume that fans will have read enough of the old shit to be bored by it.
A young fandom is a fandom content to experience stories for the first time and a fandom content to experience stories for the first time is also a fandom that does not require particularly sophisticated takes on traditional forms and narratives. It is only when people start to get a little bit older and a little bit more jaded that the old stories begin to seem boring. Thus, a popular culture attuned to the needs of older fans can also be culturally vibrant; this is what we mean when we talk about forms and cultures reaching a certain level of maturity.
The aesthetic difficulties associated with aging sub-cultures only become evident once this first wave of maturity and ‘cleverness’ begins to lose its appeal. As audiences and creators become more sophisticated and the need to appeal to younger, less sophisticated audiences becomes less pressing, many forms of popular culture begin to turn away from the world and in on themselves. An excellent example of this kind of cultural decadence is Grant Morrison’s widely celebrated All-Star Superman.
Morrison’s take on Superman is gleefully iconoclastic in so far as it flamboyantly rejects the dominant paradigm of presenting super heroes as psychologically flawed and conflicted individuals. This fashion for tortured superheroics originates in the 1980s when works such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns attempted to resolve the tension inherent in the fact that adults were reading about super heroes despite knowing full well that costumed vigilantism is a disastrously bad idea. Miller and Moore attempted to resolve this conflict by acknowledging both the morally problematic nature of costumed vigilantism and the fact that you would have to be fucking insane to think that putting on a rubber pervert suit would ever solve anything. What makes both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns ‘clever’ and postmodern is the fact that they acknowledge, exaggerate and satirise the problems of their own form.
The problem with this particular piece of cleverness is that it proved so popular and influential that it effectively replaced the approach to super hero comics that it claimed to be deconstructing. Thus, American comics moved from being simple-minded and quasi-fascistic moral fantasies in which the good guys always win to being simple-minded and quasi-fascistic moral fantasies in which the good guys are always miserable psychopaths standing in the rain. Bored with the preposterous and hypocritical angst of the post-Watchmen era, Morrison set out to create a comic that celebrated the enjoyably uplifting weirdness of pre-Watchmen super hero comics. The problem with All-Star Superman is that in order to fully appreciate it you have to be familiar with both the traditional Superman comics that Morrison is celebrating and the increasing staleness of the dark and postmodern turn in American comics initiated by the likes of Moore and Miller. If you are aware of the source materials and share Morrison’s boredom with grimdark psychopaths in cloaks then All-Star Superman will seem both provocative and long overdue. However, if you are only a casual comics fan or young enough to be new to the form then All-Star Superman is likely to come across as little more than an impenetrable mess of disconnected plotlines and meaningless images.
Works like All-Star Superman only function if their audience has previously consumed and understood dozens of other works. As a result, works like All-Star Superman are usually the preserve of a scene’s cutting edge where the most jaded and most sophisticated fans cry out for something new that panders to their very specific tastes. What makes works like All-Star Superman so dangerous is the fact that the needs and interests of a scene’s cognoscenti are generally very different to the needs and interests of a scene’s most recent converts. The more the aesthetics of the avant-garde come to dominate a form, the more inward looking and inaccessible a form becomes. The more inaccessible a form becomes, the harder it will be for that form’s fandom to recruit new members leading to a death spiral in which aging fans and creative find themselves incapable of renewing either the scene or the artistic form attached to it. This creative and social death spiral is what we talk about when we talk about a culture becoming decadent.
This gradual progression from youthful vibrancy to creative maturity and finally into cultural decadence reappears throughout human history. The failure to strike a balance between increasing sophistication and the need to remain socially accessible accounts just as well for the increasing irrelevance of written science fiction, table-top RPGs and superhero comics as it does for the decline of entire art forms such as opera which, though once vibrantly populist, is now nothing more than a heavily-subsidised excuse for vulgar displays of wealth and geriatric snobbery.
Needless to say, while inaccessibly clever postmodern art is one side effect of an aging scene, another side effect is art that panders to older people in quite simple-minded ways. One excellent example of this type of thing is John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War. Though first published in 2005, Old Man’s War compares unfavourably with works of science fiction published over thirty years earlier. Indeed, despite appearing in 1974, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War comes across as a far more mature and sophisticated piece of writing than John Scalzi’s take on an almost identical set of tropes. However, rather than slithering into the public sphere as a self-published eBook, Scalzi’s novel was nominated for a Hugo and has since been optioned by a major film studio. One explanation for the novel’s popularity is that, aside from being a very old-fashioned science fiction novel, Old Man’s War is also a vehicle for the escapist fantasies of an aging SF fandom. Indeed, the opening act of the novel features a group of OAPs who join the armed services in return for new youthful bodies that allow them to eat like pigs and fuck like minks before embarking on a new career as heroic soldiers fighting to save humanity from a morally simplistic alien menace. To top it all off, the novel’s primary protagonist ends the book by falling in love with a clone of his long-dead wife. A further example of grey fan-pandering is Jo Walton’s Among Others, which landed a Hugo nomination for its fantastical take on the experience of being a British science fiction fan growing up in the 1970s. Much like Watchmen and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, younger fans can enjoy both Old Man’s War and Among Others albeit on quite a superficial level. In order for the full effect of these works to be felt it is necessary to be old enough to yearn for a younger body and to remember pre-internet fandom with some degree of nostalgic fondness. If you are young enough that you can still eat like a pig and fuck like a mink despite your ignorance of offline fandom then chances are that both Old Man’s War and Among Others will seem strangely inaccessible. Indeed, despite being nearly 36-years old I was very much aware that I was not the intended audience for either novel.
Given that works like Old Man’s War, All-Star Superman and Among Others not only find audiences but also vast amounts of critical acclaim, Taral Wayne’s question re-asserts itself: Why should mature and decadent art forms seek to renew themselves? Where, if anywhere, does the impetus for change come from?
One solution to the problem is to acknowledge that social institutions, much like commons, nation-states and multinational corporations are more than the sum of their collective human parts. Social institutions exist on a different plane of abstraction to humans and so to reduce the ethics of social institutions to the ethics of individual humans is to make a category mistake. As individual humans, it makes perfect sense for us to think purely in terms of our own lives but social institutions are not the same things as human lives and to treat them as such is to somehow miss the point. This is why Taral Wayne’s selfishness seems morally abhorrent: written science fiction fandom does not belong to him and his fellow old fuckers so what right do they have to run it into the ground?
In his LRB article, Malcolm Bull sifts through a number of political models in which the rights of future generations are placed on something approaching an equal footing with the rights of the current generation. One of the models he sites is that of Lenin’s socialist vanguard:
Lenin’s account of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat was founded on the idea that it embodied their objective class interests in a way they could not yet do themselves. In this manner, as Georg Lukács puts it, ‘the party, on the basis of its knowledge of society in its totality, represents the interests of the whole proletariat (and in doing so mediates the interests of all the oppressed – the future of mankind).’
Fans and creatives have a duty to remain accessible and relevant to future generations because they are not the owners of the ideas and institutions that they employ. Fannish and creative endeavours only have value in so far as they contribute to the advancement of a field and force its forms and institutions to remain relevant to the problems of the day.
Everybody has needs and everybody feels entitled to have their needs both acknowledged and serviced at all times. The problem is that a lot of the time, the only way for people to have their needs serviced is by drawing resources away from other people and so deny them to right to have their own needs serviced. By rewarding works that pander to older fans and failing to update aging institutions in a way that makes them both accessible and attractive to younger people, established fandoms run the risk of falling into a state of decay and disrepair.
The problem with this moral argument is that in order for it to gain any traction, one must first place some value on a) particular social institutions and b) the rights of future generations to use these generations to service their psychological needs. As someone who consumes a lot of popular culture without really identifying with any particular fandom, I feel little or no gravitational pull from either class of entity. If people stopped writing science fiction novels, I would read science fiction comics, if people stopped writing science fiction comics, I would watch science fiction films and if people stopped making science fiction films, I would watch science fiction anime, play science fiction games or eat in a science fiction restaurant. Similarly, if science fiction stopped servicing my need to make sense of an ever-changing world then I would turn to crime fiction, world cinema or regency romances.
The ethics of popular culture are the ethics of the Darwinian swamp: when a form falls out of synch with the changing face of society it must either evolve or run the risk of dying out. Standing outside the swamp, it is easy to look on as families, species, forms and scenes rise and fall. The anguish of their decay and triumph of their progression is muted by our distance from their daily lives. However, to stand outside the swamp of popular culture is a deliberate choice and a privilege, a privilege that really should not obscure the reality of emotional attachments that humans have to their scenes, their fandoms and their cultural institutions.