by carl wilson

Fan Dance:
Fandoms & the 2008 Election

Election Dance-Off With the Obamanators and the McCainiacs.

An email from online streaming-music service saying that they'd implemented Obama and McCain "radio stations" where you can listen to the music the candidates have on their own iPods reminded me of something I'd wanted to point out for a while: This article by U of C Berkeley's Abigail De Kosnik comparing political constituencies and fan cultures, particularly in this case regarding the Democratic primaries. Her focus is on the "marginalized fandom" of Hillary Clinton supporters, whom she likens to the portion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom that was self-declaredly "bitter" about plot developments such as the Buffy/Spike romance not working out, or Willow's lover Tara being killed off. (Or conversely, about there having been a Buffy/Spike or Willow/Tara romance in the first place.)

A minority of the Spike "shippers" never forgave the show and spent their time trolling and lobbing rage-bombs on other fan sites, just as a small part of the Clinton faction moved over to various "Democrats for McCain" organizations, notably for example in Pennsylvania, where they are likely the biggest X factor that makes the Republicans believe they have a shot in that state tomorrow. (Listen to the Oct. 24 This American Life show from Pennsylvania.)

John McCain and Joe Biden don't really inspire that many fan-like followers, it seems anecdotally, but both Obama and Palin do, as their appeal is as much in style and identity as in policy. My initial reaction is that if De Kosnik's model is right, it's an indicator of how far the drift into tele-democracy has gone. I'm reminded of the sting of the Republicans' summertime attack ad on Obama as a "celebrity". The charge didn't stick - partly because of the silliness of comparing him to Paris Hilton, as Paris Hilton herself so effectively helped demonstrate - but it wasn't totally void of substance.

Fan democracy, even more than the soundbite-and-spin democracy that mediatization has generally given us so far, feels especially risky because it seems to tip easily into mob mentalities. You see this in the tone of comments sections on lefty-Dem sites such as the Daily Kos (where McCain is routinely called McSlimy) as well as in the ugly, ugly rhetoric that surfaced in late-campaign Palin rallies, where the real and fake America were set up against each other and Obama was accused of not seeing the country the way "you and me" do - that you and me (besides being potentially racially divisive) also being a way of constituting the sort of imagined communities that fandoms construct. Fandom feels like a highly inappropriate way to relate to political life: In my book I discuss the troubling tone of a lot of cultural-taste conversation, the way that it's used to sharpen social distinctions, but at least there the stakes are relatively low (at least in the short term); in politics the consequences feel more dire.

Yet De Kosnik suggests a more positive reading that actually resonates a lot with what I say late in my book, about the need to shift away from an adversarial to a more pluralistic model in taste talk. She points out that there's something impoverished and inhuman about insisting on a purely rational and "objective" ideal of citizenship. She cites (second-hand) George Marcus, author of The Sentimental Citizen, on the way that a modicum of sentiment is necessary to a rounded sense of life (and thus of politics and governance) - as I've argued elsewhere, the label of "sentimentality" (so common a weapon of pointyhead critics against certain styles of music etc.) can be a device to exclude valid parts of the spectrum (arguably those associated with women, the young, the old, etc.), in a parallel way that labels such as "subversive" or "offensive" can exclude dark or ironic material that makes another set of people uncomfortable.

Not fully sure how to reconcile the hopeful and fearful ways of looking at a fan-like or "sentimental" citizenship - that is, the fan as an engaged and more deeply connected citizen, versus the fan as an unwavering and potentially aggressive partisan - I dropped De Kosnik a line. Basically, what she argued was that a "fan" model might be a healthier one than the typical notion of a political partisan - that when we realize that part of our attachment to a candidate or party is based on identification, projection and context, the way that we insert ourselves in any kind of narrative, it's easier to understand that the people who disagree with us aren't evil monsters. It's a perspective worth contemplating in the wake of this extraordinary political year. She writes:

I definitely agree that fandom can be anti-rational and that a "sentimental citizenship" that would be wholly or largely positive for the public-at-large is impossible. At the same time, an Enlightenment rationalist politics is also impossible. I'm not calling for what my colleague David Bates calls a "politics of affect" - rather, I argue that such a politics is already here, it is what we have already, it is a method of emotionally investing in public figures that is equally operative in political discourse as in entertainment/celebrity discourse. So the question is, What do we do with a politics of affect, with "fannish" politics, now that we see that's how it's working?

In the Clinton vs. Obama fanbase wars, I still see a war raging, though now it's a quiet one compared to the McCain/Palin vs. Obama/Biden fanbase wars. I think one positive outcome that society can strive for with a politics of affect is acting ethically towards people who belong to fanbases different from one's own. For instance, I am neither voting for Obama nor McCain, but constantly find people assuming that I am voting for one and hurling all sorts of insults about the other quite freely. It is as if my participation in one of the fanbases can be assumed. To me, that's just as strange and off-putting as people assuming I'm Christian, or people I know from online communities assuming I'm a certain ethnicity or nationality.

Is it possible to be a fan of one candidate or another, and not speak ill of that person's opponent? ... Broadening the public political discourse to me would mean first of all, acknowledging that most people do have a kind of fannish allegiance to certain politicians or political platforms, and then realizing that there are almost always strong emotions underneath that, and then acknowledging that people who believe differently aren't evil - they're fans of a different stripe. They're Red Sox fans and you're a Yankee fan. They're West Coast rap fans and you're an East Coast rap fan. They're Palin fans and you're an Obama fan.

You'll never think the Sox, NWA, or Palin are the best, you'll never want them to win, but it is possible to have an attitude that people who love those other objects aren't horrid or ill-informed or moronic; they're fans. And so are you.

And when it's acknowledged that emotions run high on both sides, I think and hope there can be a backing away from name-calling and reductionist stereotyping of entire groups of people - millions of people, usually - as somehow morally defective. I know this sounds like "Live and let live," and I do think that is what I'm advocating, but when it comes to fandom and fan wars, it's still important that a clarion call go out for "Live and let live," because fandom too often ends up at, "Believe as I believe."

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, November 03 at 4:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)



Twenty-year fan of Biden here.

Posted by Jordan on November 5, 2008 9:06 AM



That's the kind of thing De Kosnik was trying to get at, too, I think, Julia.

And it exists - one of the reasons I posted the dance-off YouTube video is that YouTube and photoshopped pictures and Facebook groups and all of these fannish creative approaches are part of what's been devoted to Obama (and yes, to Clinton in winter-spring) (and occasionally to McCain-Palin) this year. These are participatory approaches to democracy that add a great deal of depth. (It would be interesting to develop a comparison of the participatory-vs-representative models in political life to the participatory-vs-representational aesthetics in culture.)

In relation to what Mike's saying above and some online response: What I find helpful about the "fan" idea is that while politics are of course very serious in their consequences at the governmental level, and it matters whom we vote for, each of our individual political sets of feelings are not enormously consequential: It is not that important how much our every individual feeling and opinion is recognized and validated. When we want that we are behaving like fans in a negative sense, rather than in the positive sense of interacting creatively and interpretively with the narrative. But when we recognize that impulse and desire in ourselves then we can empathize with it in others, and that might allow us a useful imaginative sympathy with those citizens who disagree with us - useful in the sense that it alters the tone of the conversation to one that respects human dignity *just because it is human dignity.* If you think it has no consequences to abandon that principle, stop and think about waterboarding: I'd say the torture regime of the Bush administration is the ultimate outcome of dehumanizing your opponents.

And again, that's the underlying notion in Obama's campaign: "There is no Red America and Blue America; there's the United States of America." (Unlike the McCain-Palin rhetoric that implies some "Americas" are more "real" than others.) What I trust and hope he also thinks is that the world at large is not divided by any easy manichean system.

Posted by zoilus on November 4, 2008 1:55 PM



I'm intrigued by the comparison of political 'fans' to Buffy/Spike shippers, but I don't think it actually holds up. Rather, I think fans of any political leader would have a thing or two to learn from so-called 'Spuffy' fans. Although the occasional (or more than occasional) 'hater' will turn up (someone who reacts violently against the text when it does not meet one's expectations), it seems the vast majority of devoted Spuffy fans take a much more creative route. Instead of leaving the text as is, they become active participants in the writing process, re-imagining the text in myriad ways such that it becomes richer and more layered. There exist whole fanfiction communities, which include some writers who rival Joss Whedon in wit and realism.
What is the political equivalent? What would it look like if the so-called 'marginalized fandoms' actively participated in writing the media-text? I wager that it would look a whole lot more interesting than "Democrats for McCain".

P.S. Zoilus, Jon M. Chu, and Buffy... I'm getting a good feeling about today.

Posted by Julia on November 4, 2008 11:37 AM



Hey Carl--speak of the devil, I didn't see this yesterday, but I've got a post coming out on Idolator later today that addresses a pretty similar subject, that of "authentic" political participants and inauthentic ones. This subject in general is one I'm pursuing pretty strongly in my academic work these days.

You might be interested in the last chapter of a book called Hearing the Other Side by Diana Mutz. She's much more pessimistic about the possibility of talking politics with people who disagree with you (based, it should be said, on some very interesting studies she did), but she makes an interesting analogy between political alignment and sports fandom--that we see one as deadly serious and the other as frivolous enough that you can interact with a fan of another team. She suggests that maybe if we were able to see politics, on the level of the individual voter/citizen, as not so serious, then we might be able to actually have productive conversations. I may be misstating her argument, but that's what I remember.

Posted by Mike B. on November 4, 2008 10:40 AM



Well, I think the argument would be that very few of the people who are Palin "fans" are genuine supporters of victim-paid rape kits - they're people who explain those things away to themselves on the basis of their fandom, within the psychology of how we relate to what comes to us through the media in this age. And so the question becomes, how do you convince people to think differently? It's certainly *not* by attacking Palin as a monster. You perhaps say that as nice a person as she seems, she has some wrongheaded ideas, to which she's perhaps come naively rather than through malice. And while that may seem overly generous, it strikes me as having a ring of truth compared to the notion that she's *secretly* some kind of mad fascist. And what seems notable to me in this campaign is that this has been the Obama argument against McCain, that he's an honorable man who through a combination of out-of-touchness and political desperation is making cases that even he, in a cooler head, would recognize are not legitimate. They don't violate the idea that you have the right to feel affection for this person. And the effectiveness of that, I think, will be clear tomorrow.

Now, some people might think this kind of accommodation is too much of a compromise, and that the truth is that you can't let maliciousness pass, or explain it away as merely human. But it seems to me much more insightful than an adversarial approach in which the people opposed to you are corrupt of soul.

Not that there are no people corrupt of soul out there. But in a fandom-ridden political scene, that presumption seems like something you need to grant to the other side, in order to avoid the kind of destructive polarization that Lee Atwater types brought to the American polity since the Reagan era.

Posted by zoilus on November 4, 2008 12:45 AM



Live and let live is great, but I do think that people who make women pay upwards of $1200 for their own rape kits are evil monsters.

Where does that leave me?

Posted by KC on November 3, 2008 10:25 PM



Some valid points...but comparing "fans" of Obama or Palin to Yankees or Red Sox fans trivializes what's at stake. If some Yankees fans can simply accept that someone else is a Red Sox fan, it's because they recognize that there's very little of importance at stake; that the other person's Red Sox fandom will have little effect on the world. The reason people are passionate about such political fandom, though, is based on a belief that the choice of candidate matters - and while there's a politics of cynicism that argues it doesn't much ("Obama's just a centrist; little will change" etc.), it's fairly evident to most people that although the world will not be filled with happy shiny puppies just because Obama wins, that's a long way from it making no difference at all. And: that belief, however misguided ("Obama's a socialist!" "McCain's going to declare martial law!"), still is based on a sense that political decisions have a real effect on people's actual lives. While I won't deny that fandom can have real effects, personally, socially, in rare cases even culturally, it's clearly nonsensical to argue that if there are more Yankee fans than Red Sox fans, there'll be war in Iran, the economy will crater further, and more Scalia clones will fill the Supreme Court.

Posted by 2fs on November 3, 2008 10:07 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson