You Damned Sadist! You’re Trying To Make Them Think!

Debi has a fascinating post today on ‘the FedEx arrow’ – on the way that once you’ve seen subtext in a work, you can’t unsee it, and the various reactions that can come from that.

Now, I’m not really one to talk about that directly, because I can completely distance my reaction to a piece of work from a recognition of its political flaws – hell, I love Cerebus where for a large part the rampant misogyny and homophobia are text, not subtext. I enjoy the banjo music of Uncle Dave Macon, who recorded songs like “Run, Nigger, Run”. I can distance myself from these things, of course, partly because I’m not in the group being attacked, but also because I can split good art from its message.

However, many people in ‘fandom’ (a group of which I emphatically do not count myself a member ) have real trouble with this. If someone points out, say, that in Star Wars how heroic a character is correlates very strongly with how blonde they are, they go absolutely berserk, asking “How dare you accuse George Lucas of being racist?!” and saying “you’re reading too much into things!” Which is where Debi comes in.

Now Debi thinks, and I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of truth in this, that many of these people are worried that liking something that is (say) racist would make them racist, and since they think (possibly even correctly) that they’re not racist, and they do like those things, then the thing they like can’t be racist. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in this – one should never underestimate the sheer, overwhelming sense of privilege and entitlement in fan circles – but I think there’s more to it than that. I think fans are often fundamentalists.

Many fans (at least the ones who don’t go around trying to find gay subtexts in everything) hate the whole idea of subtext – you just have to look at the people whose reactions to Seaguy we talked about in this comment thread. There is a sizable contingent of ‘fandom’ who hate metaphor, theme and subtext, and who say things like “It’s what it is, you just need to turn your brain off”. Many go so far as to deny, at least implicitly, the very possibility of something meaning more than its literal meaning (which is to say, they deny the possibility of art).

I’ve wondered for a long time what could cause such hostility to the idea of a layered narrative (and if you doubt that such hostility exists, go on to Newsarama and try to discuss Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, or anyone else who’s a relatively competent writer), and why it should show up in ‘fandoms’ far more than in the general public.Because I think, though I may be wrong, that most people’s reaction if you show them that a work they like is one that works on multiple levels, would be to say “Oh, that’s quite clever!” – to use the metaphor Debi elaborates on, they’re pleased to see the arrow in the FedEx logo, rather than thinking the designer was trying to play some trick on them.

In this, fans are like fundamentalists, who believe in the ‘literal truth’ of their holy books, even the bits that specifically state themselves to be fictional (there are people who believe in the literal existence of the Good Samaritan – Fred Clark has a great pair of analyses of their mentality) and who get really angry if you say “Well, the world wasn’t *really* made in seven days”. With the fundamentalists, it’s because they can’t understand the difference between ‘metaphor’ and ‘lie’ – if you say that some of their holy book isn’t ‘literally’ true, you’re saying it’s a lie.

I think some fans have such an intense desire to *actually live in* the DC or Marvel Universe, or the Star Trek or Star Wars or Doctor Who or whatever ones, that any reminder that these are artistic works – any reminder that they were created by a human being with a point of view, rather than just being neutral historical records of true events, is a reminder that they will never really get to travel in the TARDIS or Enterprise, and they react, at least a little, to that. If something isn’t absolutely, incontrovertibly, linear and one-dimensional, then they won’t be comfortable with it.

Which is, I suspect, why so many things created for or by fans are so deeply, deeply awful.

(This post took longer to write than any other post I’ve done, and is fewer words than almost any of my ‘proper’ posts. I’ve no idea why this should be, but thought it worth noting…)

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21 Responses to You Damned Sadist! You’re Trying To Make Them Think!

  1. Terence Eden says:

    I must look at that logo every single day and I never noticed that. Wonder if it is intentional or just a happy coincidence?

    There is another “rule” to add about arrows. Just because you see an arrow, doesn’t mean that the creator intended one to be there.

    The Wizard of Oz story is a prime example of this. I thni a lot of fans get riled up when spurious “arrows” are overlayed on to their cherishedwork for what they see as irreverant or nefarious purposes.

  2. Andy Hinton says:

    See also: Doctor Who fandom’s horrified reaction to Lawrence Miles correctly pointing out that the monsters in The Unquiet Dead are fraudulent asylum seekers.

  3. Hexar says:

    I had actually noticed the arrow in the FedEx logo before, but I tend to forget about it unless reminded.

    But it does remind me of something that I saw long ago… When I was in college the first time around, there was a cartoon in the local “underground” paper; it featured two characters discussing the song “Brown Eyed Girl.” The female character stated that the song was about the first girl that the songwriter had anal sex with. The male character went off, telling the female that she was insane, and that there was no way that was what the writer meant.

    “It doesn’t matter… now you’ll think about that every time you hear the song.”

  4. sean witzke says:

    I have kind of a quibble with the “fedex arrow dealie” theory, because it disregards that there can be multiple valid readings of any text. Robocop works as the Lone Ranger story, as Dark Knight Returns for non-comics fans, as Scanners meets Terminator, as a science fiction recasting Jesus story, as a criticism of 80s capitalism, a slightly smarter shoot-em-up action movie, and as a story where a cyborg fucks up an entire city. You can go with any of those and the film makes sense. There’s a hundred different ways into a good story, and if you can ruin it by talking about one specific take, it probably isn’t a good story (or they aren’t a very good reader).

  5. s. barrios ("tdaschel") says:

    this is good information! never considered the … identity politics of Fandom / same, i guess, as identification with a nation or any other entity well beyond one’s personal boundaries: one feels one’s fate entwined with “it” / “you burn my flag, i’ll beat your ass” sorta thing. thing i always admired about Ouspensky is he was skeptical even of identification with “oneself” / habits of being that may, in fact, be nothing but a spellbinding fog of false personality…

  6. Zom says:

    I can imagine some Barbelithers disliking this characterisation of some sections of fandom, but having inhabited the fan mindset it seems to me that people actually do think think of continuity as history, because, well, *I* have been known to think like that. Ongoing continuities encourage that kind of nonsense.

    Just because you see an arrow, doesn’t mean that the creator intended one to be there

    Terence, not sure if you’re missing the point that subtext doesn’t have to be intentional. Death of the author, innit.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, *I’ve* been known to think that way too – *OFTEN*. It”s fun, actually. The difference is that some fans go absolutely berserk when you point out to them, even indirectly, that it’s not really real.

  7. Zom says:

    Yes they do.

    Trying to think how this works in sport now. Was listening to one of those interminable conversations the other day where two chaps talk absolute bollocks about football but in terribly authoritative voices. The kind of shit talk that is self evidently shit talk even to non football fans like me (note I don’t hate football, I’m just not a fan).

    So anyway, what really did for me, what made my jaw drop down to the floor was the assertion that it was Team X’s “turn to go through”, and the way that this utterance acted as the foundation stone for the entire discussion. It wasn’t challenged, it wasn’t even picked at, it was taken as a given and the conversation went on from there.

    Completely nuts

  8. Simon Hacking says:

    This is why English Literature (or equivalent) is such a vitally important subject at school. If you teach people what subtext and ‘meaning’ are, and how to see them in a text, then they’re not going to end up arrow-blind (I have to say, demonstrative as the FedEx arrow example is, I’m not a big fan of ‘arrow’ as a synonym for ‘meaning’).

  9. Simon Hacking says:

    Also, I think the most important thing to remember is that texts don’t have ‘hidden’ meanings that unenlightened people (e.g. fanboys) can’t see, but rather they have no fixed meanings at all, and so any interpretation is valid. You can’t invalidate someone’s reading of a text by making a different reading of it

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      So, Simon, what you’re saying is that blancmange is definitely better than trifle, and vicissitude rhubarb incrementally?


      Words (and other symbols) have generally-agreed meanings, and some interpretations are a *lot* easier to justify by reference to the text than others…

  10. Zom says:

    I’m not sure that I think every interpretation is valid. That’s a pretty extreme stance, although I appreciate that some people subscribe to it

  11. Simon Hacking says:

    Andrew – yea, but I’m not talking about the meanings of specific words (I completely agree that words have to have agreed-on meanings to be useful), I’m talking about more general ‘meaning’ or subtext in a film, comic, novel, painting etc. (which is what I meant by ‘text’), e.g. reading Star Wars as Aryan propaganda or whatever.

    I agree with your arguments in your article though! I don’t think we really contradict one another.

  12. Simon Hacking says:

    Zom – yea, I realise that’s a little extreme. I do still think an interpretation requires justification to be useful, but I also think it’s hard to put an objective value on any one reading. How do you decide that one interpretation’s more valid than another? I don’t think you can.

  13. Zom says:

    It depends on what you mean by validity. Certainly the philosophical definition of the word wouldn’t allow any old reading to slip through the net. But if one were to allow its broadest possible meaning, then you’d probably want to start asking questions about social value vs subjective value. Whether a given reading was useful or not (again, useful in what way, to who or what, when and how) would also be good to think about.

    But the main thing is that when start asking questions about value you get into much bigger philosophical ground (ontology, ethics, epistimology). Theorists of all ilks can and do makes sound arguments about the relative value of readings – it’s a completely normal and necessary part of intellectual and theoretical discourse. A feminist, for example, might be concerned about subtext x in that it’s an easily supportable reading (given the current cultural background) that works to bolster patriarchy.

  14. Zom says:

    “Theorists of all ilks can and do makes sound arguments about the relative value of readings…”

    …based on their respective ontological, ethical and epistemological positions!

  15. Oliver Townshend says:

    A work of art without meaning is a meaningless work of art. Roll on subtext!

  16. pillock says:

    Of course, all readings may be valid, but some are ludicrous. Right?

  17. According to Undercover Black Man the song “Run Nigger Run” was originally sung by black slaves as a celebration of resistance. That just shows how meanings can vary.

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