Monday, April 29, 2013

The Nature of Fandom in the Age of Social Networking

Being a fan is a pretty one-sided relationship.  Up until recently  -- and I'm going to get to this in a moment -- it was almost completely one way and non-reciprocal.  There is no mutual recognition in being a fan. 

Fandom is based on things like buying records and things, showing up at huge arenas and stadiums, and being an anonymous admirer.  Being a fan of Cheap Trick does not mean they're going to call you up to consult on song lists or invite you to hang out and talk music -- you pretty much have to be content to admire them from afar.

I don't know if I'm some kind of narcissist, or stuck in an adolescent phase of celebrity relationships, or what, but this non-reciprocity has always bothered me, and truth be told, I always wondered why it didn't bother other people. 

Like if you're talking about some creative/artist fan object -- a musician, filmmaker, writer, whatever -- for me love and admiration for the artistic object (the song, the book, the movie) immediately makes me want to spend some quality time with the fan object -- the creator.  Doesn't it for you?  Don't you find yourself thinking that person has some special insight into life?

Well, I do.  And it makes me want something back.  It's not always easy to sort out what this "something back" is supposed to be, but sometimes it's more like friendship and sometimes it's more like parenting; sometimes it's like romance or sex; sometimes you just want to know they're there, listening to you, thinking you're special and awesome. 

Often I try not to be a "fan," and to stick to just liking things -- this is an essential difference.  For example, I read a lot of novels, and with novels I make a point of trying to read and enjoy them without becoming a fan of the author.  Because it's necessary for the proper experience of a novel that you don't know too much about the novelist.  Otherwise, you're just constantly like "oh I bet that character was based on her awful first husband!" and so on and so forth and then forget it, you are just not reading the novel in the proper way.  This is, of course, itself getting harder in the age of social networking. 

With some things, though, it is really hard to like the thing without becoming a fan.  Do you know that NPR news comedy show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me?  I love that show.  I tried to stick to loving the show, but it was impossible for me to avoid becoming a fan -- of Paula Poundstone, of Maz Jobrani ... and most of all, of Peter Sagal, the hilarious over-caffeinated host. 

But it's no good for me, being a fan of Peter Sagal.  Because now I want him to be my friend, to crack his wisecracks specially to me over a glass of wine, to listen to my problems in life, and mostly just to think, reciprocally, that I am really special and interesting and awesome.

Sorry Patricia, that is not going to happen.

Now, you might think that in the age of social networking this problem is going away, or getting better, or something. Because it is no secret that social networking, and especially Twitter, are eroding the one-sided nature of fandom.  Now anyone can aim their tweet at anyone else, and anyone can engage with anyone, and armies of fans have, if not access, at least a way of getting the attention of the fan object.

Is it the end of one-sided fandom?  Does the fan concept now become reciprocal and mutual, the fan concept of my dreams?

No, I'd say the opposite is true.  Now, the fan concept is more troubling rather than less.  Because now, the one-sidedness of fandom isn't just built into the space-time continuum, like it used to be -- instead it results from actual choices of the participants.

Now, if you're a person with Twitter-wit (a Twit?), who can pack a paragraph of cleverness and humor in 140 characters, you might be able to get that reciprocity.  If you could craft the perfect fan email, with the perfect combination of humor and emotion and narrative peaks and valleys, you might get the attention of that fan object.  It can happen.  The possibility of reciprocity and mutual recognition is there.

But that means if you're just some ordinary person, some humble blogger, some everyday looker-at-pictures-of-cats-on-the-internet, you're still basically SOL.

Which just brings home even more the essential sad truth of fandom for the rest of us:  you're not special; you're just a fan.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Are People Getting More Annoying? Pro-Judgmentalism, Anti-Judgmentalism, and Human Behavior

Jean-Louis Forain [Public domain], Forain, Scène de Tribunal, via Wikimedia Commons
Several times over the past few weeks, in unrelated incidents, young people (say, 18-28 year olds) have expressed to me the following sentiment:  I don't like to actually attend class X, function Y, social event Z ... so I usually just stay home.

When asked why they don't like to attend class X, function Y, or social event Z, the explanation is the same:  the other people one encounters at these events are just too annoying. 

Is it possible that people really are getting more annoying?  In the nature of things it is a difficult thing to say, but I would just like to point out this:  IF people are getting more annoying, the reasons might be connected to another social trend:  the new profound ambivalence about judgmentalism.

I would say attitudes both for and against judgmentalism are both stronger than ever.  On the anti-judgmentalism side, people are passionately committed to a live-and-let-slive style, to the idea that it's never anyone's right to tell anyone else how to live, how to behave, what clothes to wear, how to eat noodles, yada yada yada. 

But also on the side of anti-judgmentalism is the new extreme reluctance to express dismay with others' behavior in person, even when you're clearly in the right. 

For example:  I like to work at a university library, and I make a point of seeking out the "quiet section," and still there are frequently people who will not shut up.  I mean, it's one thing to exchange a few sentences, but these people are carrying on whole animated conversations.  However annoying they get, no one except me ever confronts them, or even gives them a frown or a side-eye glance.  People just ignore it.  BUT:  when I confront talkers and the talkers quiet down, I frequently get thanked for intervening.  People want quiet; I think they're just reluctant to express any negative judgment about anyone else's behavior.

I saw a particularly extreme example of this the other day.  I was in a long line, where people were lining up in a particularly dumb way that took up all the space and didn't allow people to pass by.  A young woman wanted to pass by, but couldn't; since they were all facing forward they didn't see her.   All she had to say was "excuse me" and push forward.  But she didn't.  She just stood there with an increasingly annoyed look on her face, waiting, waiting, waiting for the way in front of her to open up.  This is extreme reluctance to criticize others. 

But on the pro-judgmentalism side I give you social media.

It's no secret that the internet is full of people judging, and expressing annoyance with, other people's words, thoughts, and actions.  Sometimes it's in group form:  "How typical of an X-type-person, to do offensive/thoughtless/clueless action Y."   In that form, pro-judgmentalism often gets a pro-judgmentalist reply: "How dare you express a judgment about a group like that!  It's unfair/a stereotype/generalization.  Treat people as individuals."

Sometimes pro-judgmentalism goes right to individuals, with complaints about how friend X or acquaintance Y or colleague Z did something wrong -- say, by spending a lot of money on a wedding, or not spending a lot of money on a wedding, or being a vegetarian, or failing to be a vegetarian, or -- the classic of the genre -- breastfeeding incorrectly, failing to breastfeed, having opinions about breastfeeding, not having opinions about breastfeeding, etc. etc. etc. 

One of the stranger manifestations of pro-judgmentalism is the intense bizarro judgmentalism about the bodies and behavior of celebrities.  WTF is up with that?  Is it all the judgmentalism everyone is refraining from in their ordinary IRL life that bursts forth in the having of opinions about the Kardashians weight and dating choices? 

When did gossip pass beyond simple entertainment into the Zone Of The Ultimate Tribunal On Being An Acceptable Person? 

It isn't too hard to see how anti-judgmentalism and pro-judgmentalism, especially working in tandem, can make being around other people difficult.  Because on the one hand, the lack of basic simple reinforcement of good behavior like being quiet in the library and not standing in everyone's way means people are actually behaving in more annoying ways.  And on the other hand, you know that whatever you do, you're being judged.  Even if no one is saying anything -- especially if no one is saying anything -- there may be be opinions formed and traded and shared and written down about  all the things you're doing.

When you think of it that way, it's a wonder we go out of the house at all. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Can Vulnerability Be A Good Thing?

Harriet McBryde Johnson, a few years ago, before she died.
I'm interested in the question, Can vulnerability be a good thing?  I think maybe yes.  I think it can be a positive aspect of femininity for everyone, and that more of it might improve the way we relate to one another.

Though I think that ultimately the answer to this question is yes, I find it almost impossible to reflect properly on the matter, especially in writing.  We can't even ask the question properly, because we're so immersed in a world view in which vulnerability is bad.

The model of humanity that sees persons as individual atoms, as free agents wheeling and dealing with one another, ultimately looking to serve our own good, whatever that may be -- this model is so pervasive I feel like it's gone beyond serving as a "model" to understand people and is now attaining the status of common sense.   It's just the go-to metaphor.

And in that model of personhood, I feel like the answer to the question about vulnerability has to be an obvious and resounding No.  Of course it's worse to be more vulnerable.  Because almost by definition in the model, to be vulnerable is to lose.  You lose the opportunity to control a situation; you lose the ability to confer a benefit or pose a threat; you thus lose in the real sense your ability to get what you need.

These facts ground, I believe, part of the explanation for why people with disabilities are marginalized in our society in such a particular way.  This isn't something I can say I have clear conclusions about, but the idea is that because incorporating people with disabilities into regular public life requires a conceptualization of humanity that can conflict with the model, it puts certain members of the general public into some kind of fight or flight mode. 

Like:  if you're going to spend resources constructing wheelchair ramps, making things visible and auditory, and so on, this raises questions about why we do those things for some people and not other things for other people.  There are good answers to these questions, some of which have to do with fairness and justice and some of which have to do with other virtues.  But those answers -- they don't fit very well with the model.  Let's just say -- they put pressure on it. 

I was thinking about some of these things a few weeks ago when I taught, in my Intro to Philosophy class, this excellent piece in the New York Times magazine, in which Harriet McBryde Johnson -- a lawyer and disability rights activist who was, herself, disabled -- described a debate she had with the utilitarian Peter Singer, over whether disabled infants that no one wants to adopt can morally be helped to die (or maybe simply killed) if their parents wish it.

Singer, a utilitarian who counts up costs and benefits, says Yes:  the benefits outweigh the costs in such cases.  Johnson, naturally, says No:  it's unfair and discriminatory to adopt such a policy with respect to disabled infants when we clearly would not do so with other conditions that affect wantedness. 

If you're at all interested in these questions you should read the essay -- she brings up a lot of interesting things.  One of the things they both touch on in their discussion is the question of whether certain disabled people -- like McBryde Johnson herself-- are "worse off" than typical non-disabled people. 

One of the things Johnson says about this is "Are we 'worse off?  Not in any meaningful sense."    

As I interpret her, I think Johnson means two things with this.  First, of course it's true that some people can't walk or run, but those aren't activities in any way essential to human happiness.  And second, of course it's true that some people need assistance with things -- she needs help eating and exercising her limbs and so on -- but this assistance is often not medical as much as just a bit more of the ordinary things people do for one another all the time.

Lots of people need assistance.  It's not just children and old people and the sick and disabled.  Think about all the moments of vulnerability in your life, where sadness or the events of your life made it seem impossible to put it all back together, or the prospect of doing what you felt you had to do just felt like too much.  Really, the state of needing assistance is more like the norm than the exception.

Expanding on her thought about not being "worse off," Johnson writes,

"There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs."

I think she's absolutely right, and I think that one of those things they have that the world needs is a challenge to the individualistic model of humanity that forces us to see vulnerability as a bad thing. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

The New Self-Help: Problems With Work? Work Harder!

Ivana Kobilca, Ironing Women [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I don't know about you, but I am getting so irritated by this whole trend of solving work problems with work. 

I mean, it was bad enough when "self-help" meant taking baths with candles, drinking herbal tea, writing things down, and talking everything over with a therapist.  But it turns out we didn't know the half of it.  Who knew the main advice for a better life in the new millennium would be Problems With Work?  Work Harder!

It's revolting.  First we have things like this Thomas Friedman opinion piece, which, like so much garbage these days, argues that because of the changes in the way "jobs" are compensated and created, people should become their own job creators. 

Here Friedman is particularly talking about education, and how it needs to teach students to be innovators -- so they can create their own jobs.  Nothing against creativity, guys, but it's ridiculous and offensive to think that this is a scheme that makes sense for the majority of people.  I mean, seriously?  The ability to network, out-think your friends, amass capital, and show off the result at SXSW should not be requirements for a basic life existence.  That is nuts. 

Then, too -- even though this case is more complex -- the return of the Millennial Work Ethic seems to be at least one facet of Sandberg's Lean-In theory of feminism:  that to succeed as a woman with a career, you must push harder at work just at the moments -- as, when you're first having children -- you might think of stepping back a bit.

Yes, Virginia, the solution to too much work is to just, you know, work harder. 

But the thing that pushed me over the brink was this article in the New York Times about "giving" in the workplace.

Did you see it?  Let me refresh your memory.  The article focuses on Professor Adam Grant, the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at Wharton Business School who ... well let's just say he's just a guy who can't say no.

His research -- massively prolific and hugely rewarded -- has to do with "giving" in the workplace.  His idea is that people are motivated by the rewards of giving.  Because he practices what he preaches, the people he can't say no to are his students and basically any one around who wants advice, an introduction, a letter of reference, more advice and what have you.

It sounds nice, doesn't it?  Like someone eager to help.  But it's creepy. 

First of all, it's one thing to take some powerful people with good jobs and point out to them the benefits of giving (and thus perhaps cooperation, though that word doesn't come up).  It's another thing entirely to take a bunch of people at a call center and motivate them to work harder by showing them how their work is helping someone, and it's yet another thing altogether to show that bookstore employees who donated money to a fund felt more attached to the company than people who didn't. 

As the reporter points out, it's a manager's wet dream:  motivate your employees to do more underpaid annoying difficult work not by increasing their well-being or even by making their work more meaningful but by making their work seem more meaningful.   And it costs nothing.

But even worse is the way "giving" really means doing stuff for people who are in your little business world.

In the best part of the story, the reporter tries out the credo of giving, starting with sending emails offering to help people:

The first time I exchanged those e-mails, I usually felt good; after the second exchange on a given topic, I thought perhaps I had done my duty. But I noticed that every offer of help I initiated or granted engendered four or five e-mails, at the end of which I sometimes felt surly and behind on my work — and then guilty for feeling that way. Worse, those exchanges often even ended with the person on the other end wanting to meet for coffee. Coffee! Now I struggled to find a way to say, gracefully, that there was no way I could meet for coffee — not this week or next or the week after that, because there are only so many hours in the day, and if I do not get home in time to make dinner, my children will dine on Pirate’s Booty and Smarties, which would not make me feel helpful or productive or good.

Why doesn't Professor Grant have this problem?  Duh:  he has a wife who takes care of the kids and the home full time. 

The article says Grant is "devoted" to his family:  "he has dinner most nights at home and takes his daughter to a preschool activity on many afternoons. But he also works at least one full day on the weekend, as well as six evenings a week, often well past 11."

So now "having dinner most nights at home" then going immediately back to work is "devoted to the family"?

As the great Ninotchka said, "It won't be long now, comrades."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Buzz Bissinger Wants Beautiful Clothes, And I Do Too

If you've read any Victorian literature, you know that those equestrians also loved beautiful clothes.  This is Anson Ambrose Martin (1787 - 1887), James Taylor Wray of the Bedale Hunt with his Dun Hunter, via Wikimedia Commons.

Did you see Buzz Bissinger's essay in GQ about his clothing obsession?  Probably you did.  If not, here are the facts:  Buzz B. got addicted to shopping for high fashion designer clothing, and spent like 500,000 dollars over a period of a few years.  He bought men's and women's clothing, the flashier and more outrageous the better.  The fact that he had been Mister All-American Sports Writer Guy makes this all the more surprising.  In his essay, Buzz B. reflects on the relationships among clothing, sex, and the desire to feel alive.

The article is titled "My Gucci Addiction," and this leads you to think the article will be, like, shopping, shopping, freaking out, shopping.  But I thought the narrative of the article was more like shopping, shopping, freaking out, shopping, sex, sex, sex, shopping.  Which is, of course, much more interesting. 

Although in certain ways the story Buzz B. tells is clearly one of becoming unhinged, some aspects of Buzz's B.'s experience resonated with me in a powerful way.  Like Buzz B., I have been excited by exciting clothing, and like Buzz B., I've connected clothing with sex and sexuality for as long as I can remember. 

Although I'm not sure I would ever spend 22,000 dollars on a coat, and though I can see why Buzz B. feels so freaked out by his own strange spiral, still I find the form of the desire -- for the perfect article of clothing -- to be one that is familiar and close to home.

Buzz B. finds the experience of buying Gucci clothing and wearing beautiful leather electrifying, and yes, he explores the possibility that what he's really into is S&M, or sex with men, or something.  He makes clear that he is probably, in some sense, sexually bored in the way of the 58-year old man and that is all part of it.

So he tries some stuff.  He has sex with men, and finds that despite the charm of gay guys, it's not really his thing, or at least, it's not the thing he's craving.  He tries trips to sex clubs in Macau and Hong Kong:  again, not really quite the thing.  He tries getting further into cross-dressing, and that's not it either:  it's not so womanhood but rather androgyny that appeals.  It's not about sex alone, evidently, but rather about sex and clothing connecting him to desires and the feeling of the life force. 

Obviously the frame of the piece -- of Buzz B. as a "shopoholic"-- is meant to showcase a point about gender:  that while we associate obsessive shopping for clothes with women, it can happen to a guy, and here's what that's like.

What I want to say about all this is that the case of women is much more like this than is sometimes thought, and we all do a disservice to women when we interpret their clothing and shopping choices in a certain way. 

When women become obsessed with clothes, it's often read in ways importantly different from the Buzz B. narrative. 

1)  It's interpreted as being "into luxury," in a way associated with feminine fussiness and consumerism. 

2)  It's interpreted as showcasing and showing off for other women. 

3)  Insofar as it's interpreted as related to sex and sexuality, it's interpreted not as an expression of sexuality, but rather as a tease.

With respect to this last, there's still something about a woman who gets dressed up in a high style and sexy way that makes people -- men and women both, I think -- say to themselves:  well, she must be looking for sex, and if she isn't, all the dressing up must be an effort to seduce and manipulate people, to get attention, all in some problematic way.

What gets left out in these interpretations is, I think, just what Buzz B. describes:  the desire to feel alive, to feel the surge of pleasure and energy and connectedness to life that beautiful and sexy clothing gives you.  Sure, that can be related to a desire for a sexual feeling.  But if the options on the table for actual sex are a problem, or bore you, or aren't all that appealing for whatever reason, that doesn't get in the way. 

It doesn't get in the way because the connectedness to life is the mixed interplay of desiring and feeling desirable.  This is different from simple pleasure, and obviously, different from the having of sex itself.  It's also different from the simple clothing-as-signal of availability so often used in the common interpretations when women dress up. 

I think one reason it's difficult to interpret women's choices in the more complicated way is that we are caught up in the picture of women's sexuality as responsive or secondary or focused on the desirability question for women that we forget about the desiring part of the equation.  I think a second reason it's difficult to interpret women's choices in the more complicated way is that for all social and cultural changes of the last few decades, people are still bothered, upset, disturbed somehow, by the fact of women's sexual desires being just that -- desires.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go clothes shopping.