Fandom as the vanguard of the new cosmopolitanism

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Interesting essay from Cory Doctorow over at Locus Online; I’m always a little leery of pieces that see science fiction fandom doing that pat-ourselves-on-the-back-for-being-a-little-bit-ahead-of-the-curve thing, but I think Doctorow may have a point when he claims that fandom – alongside many other modern subcultures, it must be said – can be typified by a sort of “gourmet cosmopolitan” attitude peculiar to the post-modern (altermodern?) networked world. In passing, he also makes some interesting points about a core philosophy of science fiction stories which I’d like to see further expanded:

… we tend to think of ‘‘cosmopolitan’’ as a synonym for ‘‘posh’’ or ‘‘well-travelled.’’  But that’s not what I mean here: for me, to be cosmopolitan is to live your life by the ancient science fictional maxims: ‘‘All laws are local’’ and ‘‘No law knows how local it is.’’ That is, the eternal verities of your culture’s moment in space and time are as fleeting and ridiculous as last year’s witch-burnings, blood-letting, king-worship, and other assorted forms of idolatry and empty ritual.

[…]

Which is not to say that cosmopolitans don’t believe in anything. To be cosmopolitan is to know that all laws are local, and to use that intellectual liberty to decide for yourself what moral code you’ll subscribe to. It is the freedom to invent your own ethics from the ground up, knowing that the larger social code you’re rejecting is no more or less right than your own – at least from the point of view of a Martian peering through a notional telescope at us piddling Earthlings.

[…]

Rule 34, the Amish, and fandom’s willingness to wear its sweaters inside-out are the common thread running through the 21st century’s social transformations: we’re finding a life where we reevaluate social norms as we go, tossing out the ones that are empty habit or worse, and enthusiastically adopting the remainder because of what it can do for our lives. That is modern, sophisticated, gourmet cosmopolitanism, and it’s ever so much more fun the old cosmopolitanism obsession with how they’re wearing their cuffs in Paris, or what’s on at the Milan opera.

Comments are open: what are your thoughts? (Unless they’re along the lines of  “Doctorow is an [x]!” or “sf fans are [y]!”; these are opinions you’re entitled to, but I’d request politely that you find somewhere else to share them.)

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6 Responses to “Fandom as the vanguard of the new cosmopolitanism”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    From : Lester del Rey
    To : Academics and members of the mainstream literati taking an interest in SF

    “Get out of my Ghetto”

  2. Dave says:

    I was going to post simply, “Fandom is just another idiotic monkey troupe.” (Short and pejorative but RELEVANT — monkey troupes being the model for our own parochialism.)

    On reflection, though, Cory is making a very cool point: a literature of social alienation, that shows how things could be different from how they have to be, should make its adherents more cosmopolitan. But does it? Empirically I am inclined to think that SF fans are just as clannish and absurd and closed-minded as regular people.

    Partly this may be because SF fails to fulfill its promise of showing other ways of being — inside the genre tropes of spanning space and time, it is often conservative (not necessarily politically conservative — conservative at least of its fans’ attitudes and prejudices). Partly it is because people are by nature bone-headed dolts who spend their meager energies trying to figure out how to shun the outsider.

    Think of the way SF readers online respond to other art forms, like “literary” fiction (a genre which by the way makes similar empathic claims for itself). Think of the way fans of a series defend it against critics. Indeed, think of the times you’ve seen fans froth at the very term “critic.”

    I am being a snob. Popular science fiction is actually a fairly unchallenging genre. SF fandom means (among other things) the people who fund hundreds of hours of derivative TV serials, who have reduced American cinema to peddling in shock, schlock, and nostalgia by swooning for supposedly science fictional action and disaster flicks and comic book adaptations. It’s largely trash, in other words, demands rather little of its audience, and it’s utterly laughable to suggest it makes you a better person. Even the best-loved examples of popular sci-fi don’t do much of what Cory is talking about here (Star Wars? The Matrix?).

    Hey, don’t take this the wrong way — I like you guys, and I appreciate your skeptical framing of this idea. But I don’t think science fiction — especially science fiction considered as a big cultural institution and movement — needs self-congratulation.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    While I wouldn’t fold the comic book fans who ‘argue’ with film critics on Rotten Toms into fandom, I do think that Dave is broadly correct here. SF Fandom is just as tribal and closed-minded as every other sub-culture.

  4. ShaunCG says:

    Fandom is great. Fandom is awful. Tribalism is great. Tribalism is just awful.

    To be cosmopolitan is to be a “citizen of the world” according to its original meaning (a quick Google reveals that the term was intended to be somewhat oppositional to the concept of being a “patriot”) and on that basis I wouldn’t make a blanket statement about fandom being cosmopolitan any more than I would about any other tribal sub-culture that is 90% devoted to the consumption of flavour-of-the-year pop culture and 10% brilliant, amazing, inventive, critical geeks. (Sorry about the made-up stats. I am too lazy to pick a LiveJournal community and begin counting.)

    Put another way: a great many people are content consuming whatever is more or less placed in front of them, provided it meets their approval, and there is nothing wrong with that but it is most certainly not “cosmopolitan”. Cosmopolitan individuals seek out and find, and are exemplified as tastemakers on that basis.

    Cory may have a point that a subculture known for a higher than average degree of self-critical reflexivity, chiefly situated in cultures where individuals are lionised over communal groups (a still-ongoing process, I’d argue), is more likely to ‘pick-and-choose’ its moral stance on a variety of issues than… hell, I don’t know, pick your wider demographic of choice, but that would still be a highly contentious argument even if you divorced it from the re-appropriation of the term “cosmopolitan”.

    Where I do think Cory has a point, although it reads more like a subtext from what’s quoted above, is about a shifting of the focus of taste in terms of cultural value: rather than being about opera and fashion and however else C17 elites chose to determine their self-worth, for his conception of fandom it is about ideas and moral positions. I still don’t necessarily agree – the same is surely true of thousands of intellectual and artistic groups and subcultures throughout history, plus he seems to be confusing cosmopolitanism with a sort of Stirneresque anarcho-individualism – but it’s an interesting point.

  5. Dave says:

    After reading the article (forgive me, these are blog comments), some further thoughts: cosmopolitanism is not really the same as the insight that “all laws are local” — the latter can be joined with a kind of contempt for locality, which Cory describes sympathetically in his essay (“The head cheerleader and the quarterback [are really, he almost says,] ugly, stupid and ridiculous.”). The ideas are related but there’s space between them.

    Cosmopolitanism is or can be a more accommodating attitude. For example, a cosmopolitan knows that the custom of eating with chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant is an irrelevant historical accident with no ultimate significance — but he will learn to eat with chopsticks anyway.

    So cosmopolitanism can or does adapt to the cultures it finds itself in; what Cory is talking about is rather a kind of acultural arrogance, which takes a “view from nowhere” and feels superior for it. (Query whether this attitude really characterizes the SF fan exactly; rather it belongs to a kind of nerd who is unerringly confident in his own untutored analyses of the world: wherever he differs from other people, the others are blindly adhering to a contingent convention. To just know that a black t-shirt with a *nix joke is the objectively best way to clothe yourself. Etc.)

  6. Wintermute says:

    I do think there is a certain relative-openness that tends to exist in, tends to be fostered by science fiction (with the exception of sci-fantasy, dumbed down neo-modernist and war machine propaganda). Cory is speaking from the specific vantage point of a San Franciscan ex-patriot Canadian, and this particular sub-geo-culture of the United States has a very long and storied culture war history with what both blue-hued cosmopolitan coastal seaboards have not-endearingly aliased “Jesus Land” or “The United Racist Idiocracies of Palinia” or “That Hell Hole of close-minded religious freaks I narrowly escaped after the eightieth swirlie and lynch-threat by Billy Bob & friends for being gay”. And much of San Francisco and Canada consists precisely of refugees of the uglier faces of the American “Heartland”.
    The Godfather, William Gibson himself, hailed from deep-deep south Conway South Carolina, spending most of his childhood in a tiny tiny Appalachian town where anything beyond The Village was still the colloquial “Devil”, as they say here (weren’t too keen on blacks either). He has spoken many times of science fiction as his initial gateway out of the hermetically sealed Truman Show of his backwoods racist town, a way for him to begin constructing an alternate self that viewed reality through the telescope of some other entity in space and time (he refers alternately to the alien vantage point and to the perspective of someone from the 1400’s time-machined to the present.) The trope of the know-nothing-and-proud-of-it Southern freak is a common motif — vis Spook Country’s Brown, the Bridge series mega-televangelists, All Tomorrow’s Parties’ “Little Bird” the big stupid bigotous Deliverence extra, a tall ‘n lanky southerner that seemed almost an alternate version of Gibson himself in an alternate history wherein he never discovered SF (sci-fi / San Fran)
    I think “fan” is not really the best term because of the sort of cliquish feetishism it connotes, and the use of it by Doctorow is I think an unconscious “fanservice” to the more genre-based, otaku-ish, io9 side of science fiction who worry more about whether the thread count on their Chewbacka costume is exactly correct than the socio-political implications of The Forever War. And one can argue the “association does not indicate causality” chicken-or-egg; do cosmopolitans flock to science fiction or does science fiction create cosmopolitans? But even just experiencing culture-examining writing other than League of Concerned Christians-approved cinema (sorry, Harry Potter) is a big step in the worldly, multicultural direction. And generally science fiction takes things further, placing you within actual socio-cultural experiments, throwing the knobs up to 11, intentionally designed to make you think about the cultural norms and mores of your time (1984, Brave New World, 60’s new wave SF, pretty mch any cyberpunk and spiritual spawn thereof).

    Perhaps the “Everyone’s culture is a bunch of empty ritual carried out by mindless idiots – REAL (cosmopolitans, bright greens, INVENT their OWN code of ethics,” could be viewed in a different light and more diplomatically as, “Nothing can break down the 2-dimensionalization and demonization of “Others” be it racial, political, or otherwise, like experience with a group other than your own.” Building webs of empathy. What changed in the 60’s? People started getting On The Road, getting all up in each other’s shit, seeing, feeling with other people for the first time, and it changed the whole direction of the US as a country. This could involve things like reading about different cultures, seeing a film, interacting with others from a different group, or going on a “mission” or an extended community service trip in an area other than your own. If you’re from Hickville, Kansas, maybe that means working in a soup kitchen in LA. If you’re from San Francisco, this might mean working on a farm (and not just some vegan compost party) for a few weeks. It’s possible to travel the world in a sort of selfish splurge of relaxation and tourist amusement park, a form of the shallow Milan-fashion cosmopolitanism that never really gets “down to Earth” and actually meets and comes to truly empathize with the people of the places they visit. Completely exclusive enclavism breeds close mindedness, racism. Unrooted cosmopolitanism breeds elitism, apathy, stockbrokers, class division chasms, snobbish geeks. Cosmopolitan subcults have the potential to evolve into closed enclaves of their own.