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Reload the Canons!
This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.
Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.
Sunday, April 13, 2014
Parafanfiction and Oppositional Fandom
Over the course of the last week, I've been working on a very involved project called "The Parafiction Museum." This project, incidentally, is why there wasn't a Storming the Ivory Tower last week. The assignment was to create an entire catalogue for a fantasy exhibition of contemporary art. Alright. That's pretty straightforward.
I, of course, decided to host an exhibition based around the most confusing idea I could find: Parafiction.
Now, all of this is explained within the essay for the catalogue (which can be viewed here, although I recommend downloading it since Drive visually compresses PDFs) and I won't go on too long because A. the essay in the catalogue is already 2000 words not counting all the information on individual works so I'm bloody sick of writing and want to go break rocks in Minecraft for a while and B. I actually do think the essay does a good job of explaining what Parafiction is and why it matters. But the essay is written for a fine art audience rather than you weird fandom people, and I want to do a little bit of work contextualizing why its important particularly to fan works and transformative works.
So what is parafiction?
Well, it's work that straddles the line between truth and fiction. It's the art of truthiness--it purports to be real and accomplishes certain things by hoaxing the audience but it also depends upon the revelation of its fakeness. It's not JUST a hoax that accomplishes by trickery, it's ALSO A REVEALED HOAX, which accomplishes by the revelation of the truth.
Carrie Lambert-Beatty, who coined the phrase, cites people like the Yes Men or Stephen Colbert as a good example of this. If you're not familiar with the Yes Men, they're a duo of artists who basically go around forging fake corporate or political identities that allow them to infiltrate media events in order to undermine corporate images.
Like, lemme tell you about the Bhopal disaster and Dow Chemical. There was a huge, disastrous chemical leak at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India that killed and injured at minimum tens of thousands of people. While some money was paid by the company responsible for the leak, Union Carbide, the environmental and health impacts, it was, predictably, nowhere near enough. Years later, Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide.
And a few years after that, this interview with Dow Chemical representative aired on BBC.
Of course, "Jude Finisterra" was not a representative of Dow Chemical at all, he was a member of the Yes Men, who had created a fake press release and a raft of fake websites to position themselves as legitimate representatives of Dow. And when they got an interview, "Jude" proceeded to list off all the crimes of Union Carbide and Dow, and then claimed that they were going to finally make good.
This had two effects. First, Dow Chemical's stock tanked.
Second, Dow Chemical was forced by this intervention to come out and say, no, we aren't going to pay the people suffering from the effects of this chemical poisoning what they need to be paid so that they can attain a basic humane standard of living.
This is how parafiction works. It first establishes certain ideas through the hoaxing of the audience--an audience that included the BBC!--and then it reinforces those ideas through the revelation of the deception.
What makes this really interesting for art is that parafiction can come in the form of actual objects that have this real/fake dynamic. That's the core idea behind this show: the objects within it dance upon that line of truth and falsehood to achieve certain ends.
So, just to recap, the catalogue for this exhibition... is itself a parafictional object claiming to represent a nonexistent show about parafictional objects. Needless to say, things get really confusing really quickly with this topic, and delving into the origins of some of the works ostensibly in the show can result in your mind getting bent into a lovely pretzel shape. The layers of deceit in Marcel Duchamp's work, in particular, are so difficult to wade through that you may end up feeling further from the truth at the end of your exploration than when you started.
But alright, so that's parafiction, but what's this thing called parafanfiction?
Well, that term refers to a particular subset of parafictional art that claims to be fanfiction of, or some other record of, an external media object that does not actually exist. The most notable examples of this are the Homestuck Anime and Squiddles, both of which are spinoffs of the actual Homestuck hypercomic. The idea with those projects is to fabricate an entire alternate reality where Homestuck is an anime and the in-comic show Squiddles actually exists. The fans participating in these projects create objects ostensibly taken directly from the shows in question--screencaps, pictures of old VHS tapes, GameBoy Advance cartridges, gif edits, and so on and so forth--in order to sell the idea that these shows actually exist.
Now, I'm really interested these days in the way that transformative works serve to undermine the binary division between creator/consumer and to screw up the idea that successful creative workers are successful primarily due to skill alone, as opposed to luck, available resources, social circles, more luck, &c. &c.. The divisions are particularly egregiously visible with a show and fandom like that of Sherlock, which is objectively speaking big-budget fanfiction. That is literally all it is. And frankly, it has way more issues with its narrative than quite a few fanfics I could mention. And yet the fans of the show, particularly fans that ship John Watson and Sherlock, are consistently pathologized by show runners and sensationalist corporate media hacks alike. While their actions are objectively 100% the same god damn thing, one class of creator is canonized and consecrated, while another is ostracised and vilified.
Introduce into this media environment a host of objects that seem to be simple archival records of an existing show. They appear visually to be of the quality one would expect from what they claim to be... in fact, so convincing are they that you begin to believe that they're the real thing.
When you discover that the whole thing is a hoax--a parafanfiction--what are you forced to conclude?
Well, I think the obvious conclusion is that consecrated art is indistinguishable from unconsecrated work without outside intervention. Our perceptions of what is legitimate are subject to manipulation. This undermines the mechanisms of consecration by exposing their arbitrary nature.
This is a big deal because it forms a core of what I'm increasingly mentally categorizing as "Oppositional Fandom"--fandom practices that in some way disrupt capitalist control of art, the reign of intellectual monopoly holders, and notions about the proper power relationship between corporate media producers and fans. Related practices include distributed fandoms--fandoms sort of like that of Twitch Plays Pokemon that eschew centralizing voices in favor of a kind of fractal growth of ideas and media objects, where no majority or individual is able to effectively dictate what "the canon" is--parafanfiction projects without any original source--Ghost Soup Infidel Blue apparently falls into this category--attempts to reclaim intellectual property that has been effectively abandoned by its creators--my own project, the Magic: Expanded Multiverse falls into this category, as does this attempt to rebuild Danny Phantom Season 3--and parafictional projects that ultimately result in an underserved audience getting recognized through the sheer force of productivity--Swimming Anime, or, as it was eventually dubbed, "Free!," is the one really, really huge example of this.
These ideas share a disinterest in the models of intellectual monopoly that emerged over the course of last century. They elevate concerns for the health of our artistic culture above the concerns of profit-driven corporations. I mean, this idea isn't new to me exactly. A couple of years go I wrote a whole thing positioning readers as having a moral imperative to salvage ideas that are underused in existing texts, and I still basically stand by that logic.
What the idea of parafanfiction does--particularly, what putting a name to this concept does--is it allows us to talk about one particular strategy whereby that reworking of our ideas about creativity and our understanding of our role in fandom takes place. It allows us to look at works and say, ah, this isn't just a crazy Internet thing, this is a symbol of people expressing their creativity in a way that is outside our culture's sanctioned modes of creative expression. Its weirdness, its nested nature, the way it dissolves the boundaries of what is a "real" media product, the potential for layer upon layer of head games... all of this stuff makes parafiction and parafanfiction worthy of study and worth embracing as a creative strategy.
The essay goes into all of this in a more theoretically rigorous way, and I think it's well worth checking out, although I must confess that the catalogue probably has all kinds of problems (mostly along the lines of image credits and citations). It wasn't really optimized for public viewing, to be honest, and only became public when I realized that a lot of people are very, very excited by the idea of parafiction.
So, consider this a starting point for wider conversations. Fandom studies is a barely established field, and Parafiction as a term is only starting to spread throughout academic culture. We have the potential to start breaking down that binary too--between scholar and fan, academic and layperson. The future of fandom studies is ours. Let's keep the conversation going.
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