I initially found this week’s response quite difficult, because I couldn’t really think of examples of how we empower ourselves “within massive abstract systems that depersonalize and alienate.” Beyond just navigating a major metropolitan city like Chicago or Singapore, or even a smaller city such as Copenhagen, I couldn’t think of any examples from my own life. I spoke to my partner just to try to pick her brain, and she reminded me of a recent incident that occurred this past March, when we visited the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2). As with most pop culture conventions, this one is designed to empower fans and engage in a dialogue with them. Moreover, it is a site of world-making, a place where fans can create a sense of community based on shared interests while indulging their own engagement with a variety of invented worlds.
Pop culture cons are often designed in a way that encourages people to drift through the convention hall in a way that recalls Guy Debord’s notion of the dérive. Essentially, attendees “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Knabb 50). Indeed, con-goers often drift from one attraction to another, moving from meet-and-greets with their favorite celebrities to elaborate booths set up by major entertainment companies like Marvel and DC to booths manned by local comic book or game stores. At the same time, cons also involve different forms of playfulness, as attendees often engage in activities such as cosplay, nerd speed dating, playing board games, scavenger hunts, and even invented sports (i.e. Quidditch). All these things are designed to foster a sense of community among the attendees, who can forge relationships based on mutual interests.
Nonetheless, such spaces can become alienating and depersonalizing, as people can still find themselves adrift in a sea of strangers. This is especially true of an event like C2E2, which has grown exponentially in the 10 years my partner and I have been attending. Attendees can feel overwhelmed and anxious, as I did during our most recent visit this past March. Saturdays traditionally draw the most people to the convention, so many that it often becomes difficult to navigate the convention floor. While trying to drift through the massive convention hall, I suddenly found myself surrounded by dozens of people who were doing the same thing. The crush of bodies, the flow of the people, and the awkward bumping of shoulders left me feeling completely out of sorts, so much so that I had to extract myself from the crowd and find a quiet space to sit for a while. In many ways, it reminded me of trying to navigate downtown Chicago during rush hour, with people moving through the city with little regard to their fellow humans. Such spaces thereby feel unwelcoming and even threatening, even as they are meant to serve as a welcoming environment where people with common passions can come together and forge connections.
Of course, fandom itself can serve as a powerful force that motivates people toward a sense of engagement and agency. According to Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shrestova, fans often engage in fan activism, which involves “forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture.” Frequently, people’s fandom can drive their activism; a 2012 study noted a statistically significant link between participation in interest-driven activities online and civic engagement (see Kahne, Feezell, and Lee). For instance, Amber M. Simmons contends that students who read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels are more likely to “connect with many social injustices on a personal and emotional level and … become activists.” Other examples of fan activism include the Harry Potter Alliance, the Organization of Transformative Works, the 501st Legion, and even a protest near Ramallah in the West Bank that saw Palestinian protesters campaign against a controversial Israeli-built barrier between the West Bank and Israel by dressing as characters from the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Closer to home, in 2011 activists used iconography from the Star Wars films to create a sense of community, generate humor, and boost morale while protesting the policies of governor Scott Walker, who sought to eliminate public unions.
Fandom can thus inspire people to activism, and activists sometimes reconfigure fan-like activities and invented worlds for the purposes of political engagement. Such activism can serve as a way to reclaim corporate-owned intellectual properties and use them to challenge or subvert the capitalist ideologies they ostensibly serve to perpetuate. As such, fandom and fan activism both grant people a sense of subjectivity that in turn allows them to push back against the massive corporate entities that disenfranchize individuals by positioning them solely as another revenue stream. This, to me, reflects Debord’s ideas about psychogeography and the dérive because it dissolves the boundaries between art and life, but also provides people with playful, inventive strategies for exploring ideological systems.
Educational Research Newsletter and Webinars. “The Hunger Games motivates students to get involved in social justice.” ernweb.com, last modified 2019. Web. April 13, 2019.
Jenkins, Henry and Sangita Shresthova. “Up, up, and away! The power and potential of fan activism.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 10, June 2012, https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/issue/view/12.
Kahne, Joseph, Nam-Jin Lee, and Jessica T. Feezell. “The Civic and Political Significance of Online Participatory Cultures among Youth Transitioning to Adulthood.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1–20.
Knabb, Ken (ed.). Situationist International Anthology. Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995.