The New Inquiry Vol. 41: Fans Editors’ Note
This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 41: Fans. View the full table of contents here.
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A fan is a truncated fanatic, which is itself the internal enemy of so-called rational Enlightenment thought. Its derivation comes from the Latin word “fanum” or holy place, which is preserved in English through negation: We know it only as profane. So the fan is a devotee in an unbelieving territory. Its object can be either esoteric or a pillar of mass culture, but a fandom is never compulsory. You are never required to become a fan of this or that object in the way that you are required to accept this or that ruling class myth. This element of choice is how being a fan passes as a question of simple consumer taste, the rational (if extreme) behavior of an economic agent. This camouflages the threat of stampede, the readiness for human sacrifice, the zealousness and disregard for pain that fandom can inspire.
Fans aren’t the irrational ones. They know how to seize pleasure from the world and hold tight even as it hurts them. If fandom is simply an obedient response to the signals of the consumer market, it is an obedience which threatens to overrun its master while saying yes. This threat is old: In Alberto Toscano’s book Fanaticism, he traces the larger epithet’s emergence as a boogeyman of the Enlightenment philosophers. Kant and Hegel pick it up from Luther, who used an earlier formation to castigate the ideologues of the peasant armies who rose up against the Church as schwärmerei, or swarmers. The crowd or rabble and their uncontrollable passions swell the concept of the fanatic to something that overwhelms the more thoroughgoing and rational criticism of the philosophers. And in the partially completed world that these haters envisioned, and where we now live, fans persist as the version of the fanatic the market has come to rely on to keep its flagging energy up.
On this market, billions of dollars are circulated in the hopes of capturing buyers and converting them into loyal subjects whose identification with the commodities they buy becomes more than contingent or disposable. The outward signs of this kind of identification can be treated with mild disgust, if the fans are poor, or Black, or women — see the difficulty the media has had with countenancing the Beyhive — and with mild solemnity, if those fans are whiter men: see the spontaneous respect for the shrines erected outside Apple stores after Steve Jobs’s death. As always, these discrepancies are about which fandoms you see and which ones you are a part of.
Adoration of all kinds is a technology of proximity. By establishing a direct and personal relationship with a brand or a commodity, fandom generates a heat to ward off the chill of an alienated society. Brands actually do serve as fine ersatz attachments, at least for a while, simply because commodities are made of people — there really is someone on the other side. And sometimes what you want from your object isn’t reciprocated love but disdain or even hate. In Emma Stamm’s “The Crimson Ghost” from this issue, she writes about idolizing artists who hate their fans as a clarifying experience of self-assurance. “Routing self-love through figures like GG Allin allows one to love oneself selflessly and spontaneously,” she writes, because “it gives fans the opportunity to dwell in and take pleasure in their own adoration without feeling as if this pleasure is a mere service to the capital machine.”
The profane world we are left to live in readily makes use of the structure of fandom to ensure affiliation with the proper objects of political subjecthood: nation, family, businessman. The slippage between fandom and a political base can sometimes work to reveal the proto-political nature of consumer preference. More often, though, it reveals the investments of certain would-be administrators in a particular image of themselves. In Sydette Harry’s “I’m Not Ready,” the Hillary Clinton campaign’s reliance on readiness as a trope casts supporters as fans and shows the anti-Black bias of white feminism. How, she asks, “can I be ready for someone who is as yet unready for me?” And in Nathan Eisenberg’s “Ultra Violence,” he investigates the political tendencies of Ultras, hardcore soccer fan clubs that arose in post-war Italy. Though some clubs famously and heroically participated in uprisings in Turkey and Egypt, Eisenberg finds that Ultras generate a kind of nationalism without a nation, providing “the model for a kind of violent organizing that sees its greatest historical resonance with the far right.”
In “Fifty Shades of Yellow,” Olivia Coy dives into the archives of online message boards left as forums for “tinhatters” to jockey for social position based on their inventive conspiracy theories about hidden gay relationships between film or tv franchise stars. These theories circulated as currency in early-oughts online fan communities, when constant access to other fans and information was a historically new arrangement. And in “Healthy Boundaries,” Hannah Barton pokes around in the recesses of the Trypophobe community, a self-named group of people who share a phobia of irregularly shaped holes. Without recognition from any medical board, their auto-diagnosis is a kind of medical fan art, joining other non-canon diseases like Morgellon’s in a quest for institutional recognition.
Fan art’s challenging of who can be considered a legitimate producer leads to some defensiveness on the part of institutionally-backed artists whose practices can’t easily be distinguished from fandom’s. In “The Soft Boys,” Cassie Packard writes about Elizabeth Peyton’s swoonworthy portraits of beautiful male stars like Kurt Cobain and Robert Pattinson, using the tropes of amateur fan art to tame queer desire to fit the art market. And in an excerpt from the fanfiction novel Chubz: The Demonization of my Working Arse, Huw Lemmy’s tale of London on the eve of the 2011 uprising, Lemmey takes the avatar of journalist Owen Jones and fucks it to illuminate the political experience of a riot.
In “Lucas Christ Superstar,” Mike Thomsen watches the Phantom Menace on acid and reflects on the distance between the Star Wars universes of the first and second trilogies, with George Lucas’s generosity toward his fans eventually losing out to a self-indulgent generosity to himself. “The Phantom Menace is the end of cinema not in the historical sense but in the topographical sense,” Thomsen writes. “It takes the linear story-driven movie to the limits of credulity, a simultaneous homage to and desecration of its origins.” Ben Gabriel takes on an equally intricate universe for fans to inhabit: Hello Kitty’s. He reads the volumes of fan art created to make sense of Kitty’s distinction: she has no mouth, yet she speaks to all of us. For Gabriel, Kitty is a paradigmatic commodity that deploys cuteness to engage its fans in the work of maintaining its meaning.
Fans are an active army of consumers who will do the work of circulating the vehicles for brands’ value, and are retained at the cost of their utopian insistence on their personal experience of these products. After all, the structure of fandom just as easily accommodates a child-labor profiteer like Jobs as it does a legion of One Directioners. But being a fan also accommodates joy. In fandom, the stakes belong to a smaller universe, one not as overwhelming as our less self-designed circumstances. And perhaps finding something to enjoy about the world is the first step toward realizing the utopia we sometimes need to act as if we already inhabit.