The following piece is part of the Quest’s new series featuring final projects of Minerva students. This piece was written for Minerva’s Socioeconomic Influences on the Arts and Literature course by Kayla Cohen, Minerva Class of 2019. Kayla is a double-major student of Arts and Humanities and Natural Sciences. To view more final projects, click here. If you are a Minerva student and would like to have your final project published, fill out this form.
In 1944, in the midst of the Second World War and Hitler’s fascist regime, two German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer published a damning critique of art and what it had become. Heavily influenced by Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis, their essay “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” claimed that art had been infiltrated by Capitalistic concerns at every level: production, distribution, and audience reception (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). The result, they argued, was the pacification of the audience whose taste had seemingly become as easy to manipulate as Pavlov’s drooling dogs. However, the emergence and sustained activity of fan cultures around specific artworks and art forms suggest that Adorno and Horkheimer’s appraisal no longer holds. In my essay, I address science fiction fandom and argue that their myriad fannish activities demonstrates an active engagement, challenging Adorno and Horkheimer’s model of audience as passive. I investigate the history of SciFi fandom, drawing on concrete examples from American SciFi conventions, Italian fanzines, and online blogs to consider how Adorno and Horkheimer might have interpreted this widespread phenomenon were they alive today. Ultimately, I find their critique to be too cynical, too soon, and that SciFi fandom proves that modern audiences are just as critically engaged as ever.
In their seminal book Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer replace the word “art” with “culture industry”, suggesting that art production and reception were majorly influenced by capitalistic forces. They frame culture as a commodity and audience members as the consumers of this culture-commodity who “ fall helpless victims to… Capitalist production” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). They might then have claimed that art is produced according to the demands of the audience, but they go further to say that capitalism has set in motion a “circle of manipulation and retroactive need” whereby the industry no longer responds to but shapes public demand (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). Thus, in their essay they depict artists as stripped of creative autonomy and audience members as robbed of their consciousness.
Since 1944, the discourse regarding audience reception theory has changed to reflect a growing fandom culture; the most active and persistent groups of which are SciFi-related (Jaworski & Baker-Whitelaw, 2017). Arguably, SciFi fandom represents the quintessential fandom community, its history spanning from 1920 till the present day. What is now an international group of millions of fans first began as a small circle of subscribers to Amazing Stories, an American SciFi magazine that not only published readers’ letters but also their address. This made it possible for “the dialogue… [to move] outside the magazines into private correspondence, personal interactions at meetings and conventions, newsletters and amateur magazines called fanzines” (Westfahl, 1999). Suddenly, SciFi was more than just a genre, it was an organising force that drew people together. Soon, academics had no choice but to move beyond Adorno and Horkheimer’s ideas to change the way they view audiences.
On March, 2012, the 31st annual I-CON SciFi convention celebrating animé and video games was hosted at Stony Brook University, New York. Video-journalist Chris Ware was sent to cover the story for Newsday and captured the atmosphere of the day. Ware’s video reveals the deep emotional connection between the fan participants, with one attendee offering free hugs (see video below) and an interviewee saying “we’re home, it’s where you can be you, no one judges you cause they’re all the same” (Newsday, 2012). These types of sentiments have led psychologists to hypothesise that fans are drawn together by a “psychological sense of community (PSOC)” (Obst, Zinkiewicz & Smith, 2002, p.87). In their essay Sense of community in science fiction fandom, Part 1: Understanding sense of community in an international community of interest, a team of psychologists found that “science fiction fandom reported high levels of PSOC” (Obst, Zinkiewicz & Smith, 2002, p.88). They analysed a sample of 359 SciFi fans at a convention for their views on the following PSOC factors: membership, influence, integration, and shared emotional connection. Using a 1-7 scale (where seven represents the most positive response) the researchers discovered that, on average, fans rate their sense of belonging (membership) at 5.43 and the friendship and support (shared emotional connection) among them at 5.12. The team also added a new factor ‘Conscious Identification’ that measures how aware fans are of themselves in relation to fellow members, which averaged 4.24. This figure is made concrete by comments by interviewees in Ware’s video, such as when one woman explained “It’s important that my costume makes other people feel happy as well as me being happy in it” (Newsday, 2012). Events such as the I-CON convention, as well as the team’s findings, serve as counterexamples to Adorno and Horkheimer’s dystopian vision of inactive audience members mindlessly absorbing entertainment.
Adorno and Horkheimer were writing before the internet exploded onto the scene and so never witnessed the immense impact of technology on the arts. The early fanzines and small gatherings (Glasser, 1961) might not have been significant enough to catch their critical eye, but had they seen the plethora of usenet newsgroups, blogs, websites, and discussion forums that sprang up since the 1990s they might have painted a brighter picture. The “dot com boom” and improved design of web browsers transitioned America and other industrialised countries into the Information Age, and created a borderless place in which audiences from around the world could critically engage with creative work and interact with each other. An especially insightful example of how SciFi communities operate online is the science fiction thread on Reddit, where users are very active. Over 100 discussions have begun in the past ten days alone (April 8-18th, 2018), with subjects ranging from SciFi film critiques – “Why ‘Alien: Isolation’ is one of the best Alien sequels” by user OutForTheories – all the way to award-winning directors allowing fans to “Ask me anything!” (Reddit, 2018). These web-interactions indicate that the internet plays a pivotal role in SciFi fandom, helping to spread information and cultivate a sense of community.
However, since fandom is centered around the enthusiastic consumption of a particular product, one might wonder whether a community of fans are distinct from a community of consumers. Indeed, Adorno and Horkheimer would have a thing or two to say about psychologist Seymour Sarason’s influential definition of community as “the perception of similarity with others, an acknowledged interdependence with others, a willingness to maintain this interdependence by giving to or doing for others what one expects from them, the feeling that one is part of a larger dependable and stable structure” (Sarason, 1977, p.157). Accordingly, SciFi fans can be seen to value conformity and adopt a transactional mindset, which would suggest that they operate under capitalist assumptions. Perhaps Adorno and Horkheimer would have interpreted fandom as merely an expression of capitalism; a legitimised form of audience engagement whereby a cultural product is elevated to quasi-religious status and worshipped. Far from challenging capitalism’s hegemonic grip on art, fans simply create more demand. Sure, they possess power in so far as their demand creates an economic incentive for art producers to manufacture more of the desired product, but fans do not possess autonomy. In fact, by substituting cultural products for social structures that fulfill their social needs, fans may be considered among the most dependent on capitalist culture industry. In this way, fandoms represent a special kind of audience so susceptible to capitalist manipulation that they have developed an insatiable demand and have become ideal consumers.
When contextualised within broader capitalist society, fannish activity is not as active and independent minded as it first seemed. It serves as an excellent illustration of Adorno and Horkheimer’s fear that “real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). A large portion of their essay argues that capitalism has not only commodified culture but human consciousness itself. If “entertainment” was once a “sought after … escape from the mechanised work process”, it has now become so entrenched in the audience’s mind that “its prime service to the customer is to do his schematising for him” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). They claim that the culture industry has a profound psychological effect on the audience, causing “the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen” (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). SciFi fans dwell in unreal worlds presented in futuristic fiction and use this fictional set up to form a network in which their social needs are catered to. Accordingly, fandoms are the realisation of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dystopian vision; they are cliques of hyper-consumers who have bought into the cultural product to such a large extent that they have replaced reality with illusion.
But to characterise fandom as a capitalist monster is to not look closely enough. Academics who study SciFi fandom on the national-level have described the culture as genuinely alternative and autonomous. Literary historian Giulia Iannuzzi studies Italian SciFi fandom in the Information Age and finds that “their activities influenced media development and the shape of the contemporary Italian mediascape” (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.110). Iannuzzi argues that fans have agency and that they influence the media just as much as the media influences them.
This mutually dependant relationship need not be thought of negatively as a type of manipulation. A brief history of Italian SciFi fandom shows that “ new media influenced fans’ activities… by making new spaces and tools available to produce content and connect people ” (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.111). From “ the first clubs and… fanzines appearing in the 1960s ” through the “ spread of Bulletin Board Systems during the 1990s” and finally “the advent of the Internet in the 2000s” technological advances have been employed by fans looking to empower themselves (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.111) . According to Iannuzzi, fannish activities “can… be interpreted as direct responses to specific shortcomings in the contents offered by cultural industries” (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.122). Instead of working within capitalist systems, fanzines worked around them, publishing content that had been rejected by professional publications for commercial reasons. Thus, fannish activities were “born outside of the canonic cultural institutions” and reveal “activist tendencies” analogous to grassroots political insurgencies (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.116). Italian fans are not passive receptacles for SciFi products, but constantly “yearning for creative and critical spaces” in which to analyse art and express their own imaginative leaps (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.116). This is reflected by the fact that many people started out as fans and ended up professional writers, such as Gianfranco de Turris and Gian Luigi Staffilano. Even today, fandom serves as both a “training ground and contact network” that helps catalyze the careers of budding writers (Iannuzzi, 2016, p.115). Beyond a sense of community, fandom expands the horizon of opportunities for consumers who wish to become producers, uncurtailed by mainstream taste and capitalist ideas.
Another phenomenon that poses a challenge to Adorno and Horkheimer’s views is fanfiction. SciFi fans are such prolific producers of art that they have created a new literary category “fanfiction” wherein fans write stories set in pre-established fictional worlds and/or about characters already created by professional writers. The social dynamics within SciFi fandom influences the fanfiction produced. The marginalisation of female characters in SciFi and the historic reality of females as a minority within SciFi fandom has led to a demand for reimagined heroines. Exercising their agency as consumers-producers, female SciFi fans have filled “the need of a mostly female audience for fictional narratives that expand the boundary of the official source products offered on the television and movie screen” (Bacon-Smith, 2000, p.113). According to an essay published in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, female authors accounted for 83% of Star Trek fanfiction by 1970, and 90% by 1973 (Coppa, 2006), showing just how proactive female audiences are. The depictions of women that sell best – as love interests or side characters – did not cater to their desire for realistic portrayals of the female sex. In this way, fandom can be seen to spiral out of capitalist control.
However, a literary analysis of the jargon used by SciFi fans online reveals a deep gender divide within the community. In his seminal essay “The Neo-Fans Guide”, Arthus Wilson “Bob” Tucker provides a glossary of terms to help novice fans navigate “the jungle known as Science Fiction Fandom” (Tucker, 1955). In it, he distinguishes male followers from female “fem-fans” or “fannes”, implying that the generic term “fan” applies to men only. Indeed, this gender divide continues to express itself through gender-specific labelling of new genres of fanfiction. For example, slash fiction is a genre of fanfiction that features sexual attraction between characters of the same sex. While the genre officially comprises both homosexual and lesbian encounters, fans often differentiate between the two by using “femslash”, “f/fslash” and “femmeslash”. Thus, while female SciFi fans continue to demonstrate their agency by producing most fanfiction, they do so within a sometimes hostile environment of majority male members.
Regardless of the social dynamics within SciFi fandom, the group remains a strong counterexample against Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimistic views. Their fannish activities extend way beyond consumerism to produce their own fanfiction and a distinct set of social relations. The major impact of the internet on fan communities was such that it allowed them a new sense of agency by providing new spaces and tools. Their sustained critical engagement with SciFi products through fanzines and forum discussions disproves Adorno and Horkheimer’s model of audience as passive. While it is true that SciFi fans often deploy fictional worlds to organise their reality and social lives, this does not demonstrate a mindless absorption of the “culture industry” but rather an active reckoning with and reimagining of science fiction media.