Fandom and the Other

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    I had an interesting thought earlier today: that the origin and growth of many minority communities such as gay, lesbian, queer, transgender (non-monolithic to be clear) is in many ways similar to the origin and growth of science fiction fandom.

    Think about that. Back in the late 20s and early 30s, fans lived in isolation. Each individual had interests, feelings, thoughts and emotions that they perceived as setting themselves apart from the mainstream. Many of their interests and beliefs were non-conformist, antithetical to society, challenging to the primary culture’s belief systems.

    And even more: no one would know how different a fan was unless that fan was revealed through accident, sabotage or took the then risky (but ultimately self-fulfilling) step of proclaiming their affiliation to a group of outsiders.

    And more so: in being outed, fans found themselves subjected to ridicule, discrimination and disdain, both from society at large and also often from the people who were closest to them – family and friends.

    Once the magazines began hitting the stands, these isolated untouchables acquired a communications channel, made the happy discovery that they were not alone. They experienced relief, felt a sense of justification. They became armored with the evidence of the existence of others just like themselves.

    They began to organize. They argued and fought over what exactly being one of them meant. They created safe havens for themselves, they created organizations that engaged in outreach and recruitment. They began speaking out, defended themselves against discrimination and in doing so created a narrative that taught the mainstream how to speak to them and about them.

    Today, well, today, fandom has transformed into geekdom and geekdom seems to be ruling the world. I haven’t heard of a single schoolkid getting beaten up on the bus for reading Asimov’s Foundation in at least four decades. (If such a thing has happened more recently, please let me know.)

    Of course the analogy breaks down if one begins to analyze it too deeply.  Perhaps the greatest disconnect being the fact that fans chose to be fans while sexual orientation and gender identity are not choices (though I am sure you will find many fans unwilling to agree that their fannishness is a choice).

    Regardless, there are some mighty strong similarities to be found here.  Food for thought.  Maybe there are a lot more people out there just like us than we ever imagined.

    6 COMMENTS

    1. S.M.

      first, the point about the editorial was not about how close the analogy was. In fact, I pointed out towards the end that when you begin to examine the analogy closely, it does begin to fall apart. the point I was trying to make is that those who are currently struggling with discrimination, rejection &c ought to (emphasis there) ought to be finding folks within fandom who have had many of the same experiences. That this is not so ought to be something for those fans to think about.

      second, your mileage varies from my own. we are roughly contemporary with our time frames and my personal experience is that I was teased and ostracized routinely for the things I was interested in: I was not a “nerd” or “uncool” I was a (sometimes) cool kid who had the unfortunate habit of finding joy in things that most others found unacceptable and a waste of time.

      third – the reception of science fiction as literature has changed perceptibly over the past 50 odd years; yes, there are plenty of critics, commentors and academics who still look down their noses at the literature, but (my view) is that it is a lot more accepted and mainstream now than it was during the 60s.

      fourth – I don’t see how you can reconcile “SF and its readers were regarded (and in many cases still are) with contemptuous indifference by the guardians of literary respectability.” with “it wasn’t like being a member of a minority group.” I personally think that being regarded with knee-jerk contempt for superficialities is similar to being a member of a minority group being regarded with contempt for superficialities – like what race you are or what gender you identify with. With one major exception of course: you choose what you read and can walk away from it.

      fifth – yes gender is a continuum – but I don’t see how that relates to my sentence. I’m not surprised at how you characterize the response to your statement – gender identity (if you are not of the binary mainstream) is not about “making out with whomever you desire” at the moment. It’s about not being allowed to be who you are without experiencing discrimination and rejection for it. It’s about not finding yourself in the check boxes on questionnaires. And a lot more.

      sixth – no, you can’t make others say or think anything – but you certainly can’t encourage them to change their minds if you do nothing. What I was referring to when I talked about creating a narrative was fandom deciding how it wanted to be treated and then going about and demanding that treatment – which was some degree of respect for the literature, its interests, its events and its people. Not to be dismissed out of hand. And gee, look, SF is pervasive throughout our culture. Colleges teach courses in it, even the major critics are beginning to re-examine the works of authors like PK Dick, Ballard, etc. People laugh WITH the characters on The Big Bang Theory, not AT them.

      I’ve no clue where you got the idea that I was suggesting that minorities are “looking for” an identity. They already have one. What they are doing now is trying to get the rest of us to recognize that they do.

      • “the point I was trying to make is that those who are currently struggling with discrimination”

        — my point is that saying SF fans experience discrimination (or ever did) is ludicrous exaggeration; “verbal inflation” and devaluation of the word, in fact. The phrase “first world problem” comes to mind.

        The white crow in the flock always gets pecked, whether it’s a Republican in Berkeley or a Christian in Aleppo or a SF fan among jocks. The crucial question is the -degree-. And frankly, we just don’t have serious cause for complaint. I got beaten up a fair bit in my teenage years because I was a reclusive weirdo, until I set out to become dangerous, but that’s life.

        “I was a (sometimes) cool kid who had the unfortunate habit of finding joy in things that most others found unacceptable and a waste of time.”

        — you don’t get to decide whether you’re cool or not, any more than you get to decide whether you’re sexually attractive or not.

        If you could, everyone would be highly cool and very attractive… which is impossible. If the other people around you find your interests dumb, you’re uncool by definition because you’re unfashionable, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.

        Likewise, everyone can’t be beautiful or above average (well, maybe in Lake Woebegon). Coolness, like beauty or power or riches, is a positional good. One person having more of it means others have less. That’s why people fight over these things so constantly and so ruthlessly.

        There is always a hierarchy of regard, just as there’s always a (usually closely related) hierarchy of power. Who’s on top may change; the fact that most people aren’t, doesn’t. The concept of beauty prevalent in the 1950’s differs quite considerably from the one general today — take a look at Mariyln Monroe next to the current crop of actresses. But the fact that most people don’t have it is exactly the same.

        I might add that if you attach much importance to someone’s opinion, you’re giving that person power over you. In any relationship, other things being equal the person who wants most is the sub and is at the mercy of the one who wants less.

        If someone can beat you up or imprison you or kill you or take away your money, they’ve got power over you willy-nilly and you have to take their opinions of you into account. But valuing their opinion when they -don’t- have these things is sort of like voluntarily handing over control of your life. It’s aways puzzled me that people do this.

        “but (my view) is that it is a lot more accepted and mainstream now than it was during the 60s.”

        — popular culture in general is; postmodernism and all that. The nadir of regard for SF came with the reign of pickle-up-the-butt high modernism in the period between the 30’s and the late 60’s. Before the 1920’s, of course, SF didn’t exist as a separate genre; it was just something that some authors did sometimes, like Wells. They didn’t even have a word for it.

        The change since the 60’s is not because there’s been a significant shift in the view that SF is trash; there’s been a shift in the valuation of things thought to be trash, like Andy Warhol’s soup-can labels.

        In other words, literary academics don’t respect us more, they just respect themselves and culture in general less. They’re self-consciously wallowing in the gutter with the filth (which is to say, with us.) Like Baudelaire crawling through the watering-holes of pre-Haussman Paris and consorting with thieves and hookers, only without his talent.

        Their opinions have never bothered me much because I quite simply don’t care, and have always considered them a bunch of ludicrous, irrelevant pedants/parasites. They’re not part of my social reference group and I considered my time in university to be a purgatory from which I escaped joyfully.

        So they don’t control anything I value. I’m not trying for a tenure-track position, thank God, or a glowing review in the NYT. Life is too short and then you get to be dead for a very long time. I will gladly settle for a position on their bestseller list, which reflects something real; ie., money.

        >I personally think that being regarded with knee-jerk contempt for superficialities

        — what you read is scarcely a superficiality; it’s of the essence. In fact, it’s one of the most important things about you. We should not confuse an -arbitrary- dislike for one based on -ideology-, which is essentially what we’re talking about.

        >What I was referring to when I talked about creating a narrative was fandom deciding how it wanted to be treated and then going about and demanding that treatment

        — dude, you can only make demands successfully if you have power. If you think SF fandom has power in that context… oh, my. How many moons are there on your planet? 8-).

        SF has -market- power, but that’s another matter entirely. No amount of popular success will actually get you respect from the people you’re talking about.

        “They already have one [identity]. What they are doing now is trying to get the rest of us to recognize that they do.”

        — look, an identity is not something you -have-.

        That’s because it isn’t a thing-in-itself at all. It has no existance except inside people’s heads. That’s what nations and so forth are.

        It’s a performative act, something created by people doing it; social kabuki, a prevailing opinon. Eg., as I mentioned, neither SF nor fandom existed prior to the 1920’s. SF -stories- and people who enjoyed them did, but not either of those concepts.

        And since identity is -social- kabuki, it’s never a product of what -you- want, it’s a product of the sum of wants/power/perception in the social group in which you exist, in a constantly shifting and fluid mix.

        It’s a good thing to keep this in mind: identity is not like, for example, the color of your eyes. It’s more like your clothes.

        So while it’s fine to play the game, don’t take it too literally and don’t get too invested in it. Avoid “literalizing the metaphor”, as it were, or you’ll end up like somone willing to get killed over a set of gang colors.

        • S.M. Sorry it took so long to post your follow-on comment. I’ve neither the time nor the inclination right now to wade through your response and my brief survey of it seems to suggest that you are nitpicking, exaggerating and misconstruing. So I’ll simply say that I think we largely disagree on most of the points and leave it at that.

    2. “They began speaking out, defended themselves against discrimination and in doing so created a narrative that taught the mainstream how to speak to them and about them.”

      — this is extremely strained.

      Furthermore, nobody ever gets to decide how others will speak about them; still less, how others -think- about them. You have some control over how others will speak -to- you, but usually not much, unless you’re God-King of the Universe.

      SF and its readers were regarded (and in many cases still are) with contemptuous indifference by the guardians of literary respectability. Whether you were a fan was never particularly important to most non-fans.

      So it wasn’t like being a member of a minority group.

      It was more like being a nerd, or weirdo, or just deeply unfashionable. I’ve been reading this stuff since I was around 10, in 1963, and the worst I ever got was being considered deeply un-cool and shunned.

      Since I had absolutely no desire to be cool or popular, particularly with the people who didn’t read the same stuff, this was not a problem. After all, you have no right to be liked or accepted.

      >Perhaps the greatest disconnect being the fact that fans chose to be fans while sexual orientation and gender identity are not choices

      — that’s actually often a pious myth; it’s a continuum, not a binary opposition.

      I know people who’ve loudly proclaimed changes in their sexual orientation at least… lemme see… in the case I’m thinking of, five times in the course of twenty years and have now ended up back where they started (straight). My advice that they stop worrying about it and just make out with whoever they desired at the moment and could talk flat never seemed to make much of an impression, but hey, advice is worth its weight in gold.

      More generally, if you have to go looking for an identity, you will never find one. Identity is always fluid, hybrid, a performative act. Social identities exist because we think they do, rather like Tinkerbell.

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