Participatory Culture and Science Fiction: An English Major’s Perspective

In one of my many, many other lives I am an academic, and one of my academic foci is on participatory culture – the interchange that takes place between culture, academe, the professional world and those who of their own initiative consume, consider, and create.

Despite the fondest wishes of marketers everywhere, culture is not something that can be transmitted by private consumption. In order for culture and its products to mean anything, they have to be converted via community into a conversation between viewers, where different interpretations are created, communicated, turned around and upside down, and eventually synthesized.

In The Lego Movie, released this year (2014), the climactic confrontation is not a fight of any sort, but a conversation. In it, the hero, Emmet Brickowski (an ordinary construction-worker Lego minifigure) says to the villainous Lord Business (this is not an exact recitation of the dialogue),

“Look at what the people are creating.”

To which Lord Business replies, “They’re ruining all my stuff and making weird stuff out of it!”

“No, they’re making new things – they’re responding to what you made.”

You can’t control what people are going to do with your work. Trying just results in fans going behind your back and doing it anyway. TSR learned this going bankrupt in the 1990s. The record industry is spending billions of dollars every year trying not to learn this now. Lego, on the other hand, was a perfect medium for exploring this message in a movie because Lego is inherently about remixing the cultural artifacts you’re given and making something new out of them.

Intertextuality is a critical component of understanding cultural interchange. Failing to understand the conversational nature of cultural discourse will result in bad scholarship at best.

What Is Intertextuality?

Intertextuality is the conversation between you, the works that have come before you, and the works that will come after you. And it simply happens, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Let’s take Sailor Moon for example. Most obviously, Sailor Moon exists in a conversation with other magical girl shows – starting with Majokko Meg-Chan in 1974, which itself was something of an anime spin-off of Bewitched (1964-72, yes, that Bewitched), and with shows like Cardcaptor Sakura (1997) and later, harder-edged deconstructions like Lyrical Nanoha and Madoka Magica (2004 and 2011, respectively). But because of the contentious, mutually-snarky relationship between Usagi and Mamoru, Sailor Moon also exists in conversation with works like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. Nailing down a single antecedent to any given work is pretty much impossible because no work is monothemed, and you are in a conversation with everything that shares your themes, and everything that shares themes with the works you’re in conversation with… so basically, everything.

And sci-fi is an inherently intertextual culture. From the very beginning of sci-fi and fantasy fandom, there has been reader participation – filk, fanfic and fanart are part of our culture. Nearly 50 years on, sci-fi is still responding to Star Trek, which means that sixty years on, sci-fi is still responding to Forbidden Planet because Gene himself was a fan of Forbidden Planet and wanted the Enterprise to look like a flying saucer because he loved the Star Cruiser C-57D. Not just sci-fi but all of pop culture is still responding to Star Wars, which incorporates the Hero’s Journey, Arthurian myth (with the position of the father and son reversed, no less!), Japanese theatre and cinema, and Flash Gordon in a big flashy ball.

Intertextuality is so important to understanding sci-fi fan culture, and it’s so criminally poorly-understood. It is the underlying principle of everything that we do in fandom culture. And I want to talk about it.

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One Response to Participatory Culture and Science Fiction: An English Major’s Perspective

  1. “Lego, on the other hand, was a perfect medium for exploring this message in a movie because Lego is inherently about remixing the cultural artifacts you’re given and making something new out of them.”

    This is an excellent point. It’s also an incredibly meta point, because the entire plot of The Lego Movie is basically a giant thumb-in-the-eye poke at the more marketing driven, licensing-all-the-franchises Lego of the past few decades, versus the more creativity driven Lego of the decades before which they’re now moving back towards.

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