Powerlessness Corrupts


More curated tumblr jottings, which some people seemed to like.  Rewritten and expanded.

There is, in fandom, an impulse to denounce which is very congruent with a similar impulse that exists in some iterations of right-on politics.  It comes from a similar place: helplessness.  We’re always told that power corrupts, and it certainly does.  But powerlessness corrupts too.  People in fandom get accustomed to worshipping that which is handed down to them.  They can then discover the opposite but equal pleasure of execrating that which is handed down to them.  What both have in common is the idea of passively accepting what you’re given.  And yes, hating on something is a form of passivity quite distinct from the activity of criticism.  Passive acceptance of texts is, contrary to myth (a myth largely put around by fans, amazingly enough) far more common within fandom/s than in the general television viewing public. 

Jane Q Citizen puts Doctor Who (or whatever) on her telly, doesn’t like it, and so switches over to hunt for something she does like… or she likes it (having no long-cherished internal needs that she has trained herself to expect to be met by it), so she watches it, and then she forgets about it.  John Z. Fan puts Doctor Who on his telly, doesn’t like it, but cannot switch it off because he is a fan (and yes, this can apply to me too in some ways).  So, passive and powerless to influence the show that he loves but finds disappointing, he rages.  He isn’t writing it or producing it himself, and he doesn’t even have (because he’s chosen to abnegate it) the basic and paltry consumer freedom that capitalism grants us and lauds so much: the freedom to hunt for another product that will satisfy us where one product has failed.

Meanwhile, in many sections of right-on politics, splittery and sectarianism and denunciation rule the day because the right-on either have no real mechanism by which they can actually change any of the stuff they don’t like (clicktivism being such a dead end, and most branches of direct action and protest being dead ends too when taken by themselves) or they despair of the one thing that really can change things - mass, working class action - because we’re in a long-term trench of neoliberal downturn.

The powerlessness corrupts.

Meanwhile (again), there is another strange tessellation.  The gap between fandom and actual critical savvy is uncannily similar to the gap between right-onitude per se and actual critical political education.  The fan mindset can (notice I say can) leave one hungry for the tools of proper critical analysis but does not itself supply them.  Similarly, right-onitude (however well intentioned and sincere) can leave one hungry for the desire to think politically but does not itself supply the actual critical understanding one needs in order to do so sensibly or usefully.

Between the desire and the reality falls the shadow.

(And I’m not being patronising because I have in the past fallen into most of these traps myself, and still occasionally do today.)

Meanwhile (yet again), the fan's attitude to a commodity they don't like, but to which they are attached by fan loyalty (those long-cherished internal needs we were talking about earlier), is eerily like the attitude of passive reformism to politics itself.  'The political' is that which exists within a band as narrow as the identity of a show.  You could even look at 'the News' as the show that is being followed.  As the fan saying goes "if you don't like the show at the moment, wait a bit and it'll change".  At most, the angry fan might engage in 'activism' like starting tumblrs with names like 'pleasefiremoffat' etc.  Because firing the current guy and getting a new guy instead will solve all the problems.  But when it comes to the right-on critique of Moffat (which has some points to make, don't get me wrong) too often what is missed is that Moffat is just a new development in a long-standing systemic issue. 

The fan loyalty, even when it is a twisted and angry loyalty to iterations of a franchise that you don't like, is itself probably a sign of commodity fetishism triumphing over actual critical engagement.  You are religiously following the logo (to paraphrase my friend Josh Marsfelder) because you are treating the commodity like an entity to which you owe allegiance, rather then critically following texts because - for whatever reason - you want to. 

(I like to think that I do it differently, but then I like to think lots of things.) 

Ultimately, of course, discontent with the narrative commodity you enjoy (or to which you have ingrained loyalty, or which you have fetishized) is far less an issue than discontent with society.  You can put up with a show being rubbish or reactionary (as long as you don't fail to speak up when it publically makes a political misstep, with that judgement being based on good faith critical engagement and some knowledge of how texts work).  But we're severely mistaken if we think we can put up with society being so royally fucked up for much longer.  The danger is that otherwise potentially useful right-on people might think that the critique of a particular set of texts (often based on a shoddy and crusading form of particularist politics) is a substitute for the critique of capitalist society as a unified juggernaut of exploitation and oppression - just as some people think that if Moffat would only STFU then modern TV would be pretty much peaches.

The mistake is waiting to be made in the powerless mire that so many people feel - not without some justification - that they are stuck in.


Dan Rudd 6 years, 2 months ago

Have you been spying on me? Sure, my name's not John Z Fan, but that's a pretty good description of what I often do, I'm ashamed to say ;)

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Matthew Celestis 6 years, 2 months ago

That's a really interesting thought.

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devilyoudont 6 years, 2 months ago

I've been thinking about this idea of powerlessness corrupting since yesterday and I feel like it is really hugely widely applicable. I grew up in poverty in north philadelphia and like there is definitely, if not a corruption, a degradation caused by powerlessness.

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Josh Marsfelder 6 years, 2 months ago

FWIW This is why I'm drawn to the concept of redemptive readings in media studies, if not beholden to them. I think in the long term it would be beneficial if we could help show people how (in particular) big, populist texts *can* be mobilized for social good and social progress, because pop culture is one of the few things that does tend, more often than not, to unite people through shared experiences.

While it's important to point out when shows slip up, it's perhaps even more important to demonstrate to people, where and when possible, how they can serve as vehicles to communicate radical and revolutionary ideas. There will always be an upper limit on this, of course, since all Soda Pop Art is ultimately the product of capitalism, but it gives us a common reference point to discuss these sorts of ideas and concepts with people who wouldn't necessarily be exposed to them otherwise.

No, it's not direct working class political action, but art is important. Everybody reads or watches TV or goes to the movies or plays video games. Art can inspire people and change their lives. Why not use that to reach them? That's what it's for.

(And thanks for the shout-out, BTW :-) )

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