Fanishness, Consumption and Desire

I like The Good Place.

Shock, right? The weird nerd who can’t shut up about Deleuze and Guattari, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche likes the show that is literally a sit-com actualization of famous ethical problems.

But memes like this one drive home that there may be… other… reasons why I enjoy the show. There is a language-of-community that traces lines between media properties and identities. In the case of queer identities these are often representational. Eleanor Shellstrop is an out bisexual. The simple fact of her enunciation of attraction not just to Chidi but also to Tahani was probably sufficient to earn The Good Place a fair number of fans among what we might loosely describe as the Bisexual community just by dint of being able to see our experience of desire articulated even in such a basic way.

The same pattern holds through for a whole ecosystem of media; similar memes appear for Brooklyn 99 – another show with an out bisexual protagonist. But these go farther; “every bisexual likes Brendon Fraser’s 1999 adventure film The Mummy.” In this case it is entirely driven by aesthetic indicators that aren’t even subtext. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo and Patricia Velasquez didn’t play bisexual characters; but the use of gaze sexualized these four principal characters to almost the same extent and this, combined with the likelihood that it was a formative movie for a lot of millennial adolescents in the late-1990s has made it into something of a “bisexual fave.”

Of course, not-said is that in the 1990s, when many bisexual millennials were adolescents, there wasn’t much in the way of out-bisexuality on screens. The hints of subtext in queer-coded cartoon villains and in the gaze-decisions of adventure films were often all that they had to build an understanding of their desires around. And these weakly-representative media, or the non-representative media that has been post-factually coded as representative media, has become very important to a generation of bis such that a lot of my fellows will get quite defensive of the importance of such representation in its function to rendering the bisexual experience intelligible to straight audiences. I mean can’t you see the corollary of desire between Evy and Rick? Isn’t it obvious how being able to show the way in which the camera allows us to look at Rick and the way in which the camera allows us to look at Evy are similar? Doesn’t this relatable bit of nostalgia allow me to be seen?

We all want to be seen and understood at some level. And this desire, to use media to create a matrix of understanding that another can use to see you, is a central one underlying most fannishness. But this leads to a more insidious process whereby the desire to be understood via a thing becomes an internalized self-understanding via the thing. “I felt more bisexual after I got this haircut,” cue Twitter drama.

This provides a valuable lever for marketers. People aren’t, after all, that picky about what identities they form, and any given group of people will be as likely to form an identity around a product or sequences of products as they are to assign a correlation between product and an implicit and existing identity. This is how you get trekkers, how you get the post-ironic Jedi church, and how you get formations like the Sad Puppies.

Remember the Puppies?

Friend-of-the-blog, Camestros Felapton has been working on a detailed history chronicling the Sad Puppy movement at their blog which I would recommend to get a sense for the major players in this fraught period. If you are interested in learning how the Sad Puppies arose, how they relate to other online reactionary movements, what they did and for whom, the Debarcle series is an incredible resource which I would recommend highly.

I’m not so interested in this case in looking at the specifics of major figures such as Vox Day or Larry Correia except in-as-far as they operated as marketers with a product (their books) to sell. To put it simply, these authors were very successful in mobilizing a fanbase to move copies of their books, to attract attention to their personal brands and to develop a position as a sort of thought-leader within the broader “fandom” community. What is interesting is the way that they essentialized consuming a product (buying a certain type of science fiction and fantasy novel) as the principal activity of a fan.

It’s these fans I’m principally interested in. Not any given fan as an individual, mind, but the great breadth of the fan culture that the Sad Puppies inculcated. Because they were, in a lot of ways, not dissimilar from other genre fan groups such as the Browncoats.

In both the case of Browncoats and Sad Puppies we saw groups of fans whos identity was centralized around their consumption of a specific type of media. Note that while some Browncoats may have been fan artists (fic writers, cosplayers, etc.) this was not a central part of Browncoat identity. What was central was an open, public and emphatic love of Firefly signified largely through the use of linguistic signs and occupation of shared spaces. The same happened with Sad Puppies. Being a Sad Puppy didn’t preclude being and artist (as many of its ringleaders were authors) but being an artist was not an essential part of the Sad Puppy persona. Instead it was the adoption of a certain rhetorical position, the use of a shared vocabulary and occupation of shared spaces all with the aim of celebrating their love for a specific marketing category of art.

And we can observe how this identification with a product turns sour in both cases. In the case of Browncoats there was an ongoing sense of ressentiment toward the cancellation of Firefly and a constant effort to maintain Firefly as a significant part of the cultural lexicon of the broader genre-fan-communities. Browncoats often acted as evangelists, attempting to persuade other people who entered into their shared spaces not only to show politeness toward the idea of loving the show but also to become Browncoats themselves. This evangelistic aspect of behaviour seemed to be an attempt to act upon, and thus mitigate the ressentiment that they felt over the show’s perceived poor-treatment by its parent network and subsequent cancellation.

For the majority of Sad Puppies, this connection between ressentiment and evangelism also holds true. They had a belief that the category of product around which they’d developed a shared identity was being maligned. They acted upon this by evangelizing, attempting to persuade others that they were a legitimately aggrieved party, and also in ultimately useless attempts to brigade an award nomination as if assuming that award would undo the negative light under which their preferred marketing category was viewed.

This is ressentimental in character because both Browncoats and Sad Puppies were impotent. Despite the occasional success of fan-writing campaigns to save at-risk shows, it was never particularly likely that the Browncoats would succeed. As time went by, these odds reduced even further. However what they did succeed in doing was in identifying themselves to marketers as an easy audience for secondary products: cosplay artifacts, signed actor-photos, tie-in fiction, tie-in games, branded glassware, keychains, posters and other d├ęcor items, etc. The Sad Puppies, for all their sturm und drang, were likewise impotent. Even if they had succeeded in brigading the Hugo Awards, it would not have marked a significant change in the regard the general public had for their right-wing inflected pastiches of Heinlein juvenilia. But they made themselves very easy to identify by marketers who were all too happy to sell them books and the other various cultural signifiers that they could use to signify participation in this identity.

There is an impotency to the consumptive fan. This impotency is built into the conflation of me and mine. A consumptive fan has staked his own self-recognition on a series of identities he can try on. He is a Browncoat, a Sad Puppy, a science fiction convention attendee, a Hugo voter, a Marvel fan, a metalhead. He seeks himself in these product identities and ultimately finds nothing. Of course Sartre argues that being-for-itself must haul itself whole-cloth out of nothingness, but the consumptive fan does this by just pointing at this or that object and saying, “that is me, and that, and that.” But how can one be for one’s self when all one can imagine being is a series of brand markers, projected by another, with the intention of becoming nothing more than a consumer of product?

Gates and walls

When a person has thus staked their identity upon the impotent demand to consume another imperative arises. Because we can’t forget that capitalism is a deterritorializing force par-excellence. It creates the ‘interpassivity’ and a subjugation via interaction and participation that Fisher warns of in Capitalist Realism. If capitalism is going to be everything and sell everything it creates a problem for the person who has built their identities around consumption of various products. Deleuze and Guattari describe a subject who, “spreads itself out along the entire circumference of {a} circle, the center of which has been abandoned by the ego.” This consumption-as-identity is ultimately more scizo than the fan is comfortable with; by making themselves nothing more than a series of marketing categories, they risk dissolving into all those dividual bits from which they’ve constructed their being back into nothingness. If Firefly is forgotten where is the Browncoat?

The solution is to harden the shell. The consumptive fan must construct a binary, an inside and an outside that doesn’t exist except within their own hearts. There are us, the Sad Puppies, and them, those horrible commie pinko science fiction snobs who don’t like Heinlein or two-fisted action adventure stories. There are us, the Browncoats, and them, the people who think Firefly wasn’t actually very good. The consumptive fan must build a wall around the camp of their fannishness in order to retain the cohesiveness of such a threadbare identity as the one they’ve formed. But the fan is also an evangelist, so they must construct gates through these walls. Those gates take the form of sharing behaviours – whether that’s Easter-egg hunting in an MCU episode, using Whedonesque patois, or putting watch gears on a pair of goggles. A person can signal that they are to be let within the walls by demonstrating sufficient commitment to the consumer-culture of the in-group.

But when you have a wall and you have a gate you have guards. And gatekeepers are always watching to catch people who slip up – who demonstrate insufficient loyalty to the identity. The weaker the tie there is between these consumptive identities and some implicit identity, the more fiercely the guards will protect it. Introspection is dangerous, if you look too closely at an identity built around being a fan it begins to crumble under the weight of scrutiny, but panopticist inspection of your fellows is not only expected: it is necessary for the maintenance of the identity. See, a fan must always be watching out for imposters because any devaluing of the product consumed is a devaluing of the fan’s own being. If I have built an identity around loving The Good Place and then somebody comes along and points out that, just maybe, the philosophy presented is a little trite, perhaps the actors aren’t quite the paragons of kindness the marketing makes them out to be, maybe Eleanor Shellstrop’s bisexuality is merely a bit of performative winking to attract an easy mark in recognition-starved bis, that wounds me.

Any violence to the object of devotion becomes violence to the subject who is devoted. “When you said my show was bad it was as if you kicked me,” “how dare you defile the good name of Firefly by pointing out its racism,” “the authors I like deserve awards more than those gay communists.” The sense of injury is real even if the injury itself is not.

Desire

We must treat desire not as a response to a lack but as rather a site of production. It is, in fact, one of the principal machineries by which the Sartean paradox of being-for-itself arising out of nothingness can be resolved, as the action described in Anti-Oedipus of desire attempting to penetrate the potentialities of the surface of the Body Without Organs and the repulsive production that happens in response maps the flows by which a being is able to create itself. As such, desire is intrinsic to being. Don’t think cogito ergo sum but rather cupio ergo sum. Desire creates the object of desire, and Deleuze in Guattari are quite clear in Anti-Oedipus that this is a real creation. If a desiring being is prevented from acting upon that desire materially they will create the object of desire in their minds nonetheless. The schema of desire proposed by Deleuze and Guattari involves an ever-complexifying network of machinic processes. Each step of this process involves a machine that couples to another, syphoning off the output of the former. And each machine in turn becomes the input to subsequent processes. Through this network of machinery, a great roiling fabric of desire can be seen and this arises both in the personal field and also through the social field, with the inscription surface, the Body Without Organs of the social field being described as a socius.

This is the basis for which I am describing some distinction between those desires that arise within a being and those desires that arise at the prompting of pressures of the desiring machines of the socius. There is a common mistake made by dialectical materialists of assuming that all desire is imposed from without – with their distaste for the power relations inscribed upon the socius, they reduce each being to a naked pool of nothingness, reduce the self to the mere hammer of history. But of course all this is doing is assigning a kind of essentialism to bourgeois desire, as if capital were so powerful and so intoxicating that an entire false-consciousness could arise that would stamp out any sort of desire that arises within a being.

It is never so simple as such binaries. Rather, as desire represents a dynamic flow, it is generally a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic sources acting upon a subject. Talking about Proust‘s depictions of sexuality within In Search of Lost Time, Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “everyone is bisexual, everyone has two sexes, but partitioned, noncommunicating; the man is merely the one in whom the male part, and the woman the one in whom the female part, dominates statistically.” If everyone is, in fact, bisexual, then my bisexual desires almost certainly have an intrinsic rise. But the ways in which I engage with that bisexuality – the norms that tell me when I should simply pass as straight, the deliberate preference of certain media in order to present that matrix of understanding to the world, how I style my hair or the language I use, what walls I watch and upon whom I engage in scrutiny – these are a decidedly mixed bag.

I liked The Mummy just fine, but it wasn’t part of my matrix of personal understanding; in 1999 The Matrix was much more formative to my sense of desire, as was Eyes Wide Shut. And yet, as other Bisexuals don’t talk about Eyes Wide Shut, I rarely do either, what’s the point? It wouldn’t become something I could use to form a position of recognition in others. Continuing on the topic of bisexuality, Deleuze and Guattari put forward, “in contrast to the alternative of the ‘either/or’ exclusions, there is the ‘either… or… or…’ of the combinations and permutations where the differences amount to the same without ceasing to be differences.” We cannot reduce these differences down to nothing but media consumption. We cannot assume every person is just a little nothing – a blunt instrument of historical force – with no real differentiation even when we recognize the insidious way in which the desires of others can shape our own wants.

Ultimately the consumptive fan is not a totalizing identity. A person can be now a fan, now an artist, now a critic. On a day when I’m feeling tired or isolated it can be fun to lose my self in the fantasies of Neo, the slick leather and gleam of dark glasses in seedy underground clubs speaks to me at a deep level. I can create those dangerous virtual spaces as a reaction to the desire to be different among others. Or it can be fun to lose myself in Eleanor Shellstrop: a disaster of appetite and ego – the learner whose hunger to learn is as much a product of her appetites as everything else about her. And in those moments I might point at those objects and say, “this is me, and this and this.” As such we shouldn’t be too hard for people just for becoming trapped in the desires of others. Deleuze put it bluntly, “If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked!” And for many people who occupy the role principally of the consumptive fan, this is entirely what they are. We should pity such people and help them to find liberation where they can. Art arises from the intrinsic desire; it is the waste-output of the construction of being-for-itself, and it is a desiring machine. We insert this machine into the sequence of our own desires because that is how desire works.

But this doesn’t mean we cannot tend our gardens. We can recognize that there is a difference between, “this is mine,” and, “this is me,” and do the work of bringing the desiring machinery of the art we engage with to the point of breaking down before recursively returning it, newly imbued with our own being. As much as every artist has the potential to be the consumptive fan, so too does every consumptive fan have the potential to be an artist. And as we smash walls and dismantle systems of panoptic surveillance, so too must we help to situate these beings closer to the wellspring of their sense of being-for-themselves.