The book approaches fantastic world-building as an ideologically ambiguous way of imagining alternatives to global capitalism. By approaching transmedia world-building both as a narrative form and as a growing industry derived from fan culture, it shows on the one hand the limitations inherent in the political economy of popular genre fiction. But at the same time, it also explores the productive ways in which fantastic storyworlds contain a radical energy that can give us new ways of thinking about politics, popular culture, and anticapitalism.
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Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics
Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism
By Dan Hassler-Forest
Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Dan Hassler-Forest
All rights reserved.
Transmedia World-Building and Global Capitalism
"Everything is awesome." Anyone who has seen The LEGO Movie won't be able to hear those words without humming that mind-numbingly stupid but irresistibly catchy tune. The catchphrase is a perfect expression of the film's ambivalently satirical take on the LEGO brand, the movie itself, and the cultural logic of global capitalism. Both critical and celebratory, participatory and exploitative, independent minded and highly commercial, The LEGO Movie is the perfect cultural product for our times, blithely incorporating a vibrant anticapitalist sentiment into a framework that greases the wheels of global capitalism. So blatant is the film's overtly satirical take on consumerism, conformity, and commodity culture that film reviewers have described it as "practically communist," while commentators on Fox News attacked the film for indoctrinating children with anticapitalist values.
As bizarre as it may seem to use the term anticapitalist for an animated film whose most obvious function is to advertise a popular toy brand, The LEGO Movie is an illuminating example of the many contradictions that inform twenty-first-century fantastic fiction and its relationship to capitalism. The ideological nerve it has struck is most visible in the film's early scenes, which depict an urban population that lives in a state of what can only be described as a classically Marxist false consciousness. The narrative revolves around Emmet, a desperately ordinary construction worker who has been successfully integrated into an elaborate system of ideological mind control. Over the course of the film, Emmet is identified as the Chosen One, and his resulting adventures allow him to escape his desperately tedious life in the service of a vaguely North Korean variation on Starbucks capitalism.
In a more playful way than similarly organized dystopias in films such as The Matrix and V for Vendetta, the initial worldview presented in The LEGO Movie seems perfectly aligned with Guy Debord's famous critique of the "Society of the Spectacle": the power of capital has become so overwhelming that it encapsulates all of lived experience. The system's subjects are fully conditioned to take for granted the most monotonous daily routines, while mass media effectively brainwash entire populations. In the film, we are therefore introduced to Emmet as capitalist society's perfectly indoctrinated subject: consuming endlessly repetitive catchphrase-heavy TV comedies, happily purchasing $37 cups of coffee, and spending his working days singing along to insipid but catchy pop songs with lyrics that reassure him over and over again that everything is indeed awesome.
The fact that Emmet soon thereafter comes to lead a team of adventurous rebels is more or less irrelevant, especially because the increasingly incoherent narrative all but falls apart under the strain of its own metatextual irony. Far more interesting is how the film's imaginary world establishes itself not as ideologically neutral but as an environment where anticapitalist sentiment exists side by side with the most blatant promotion of a wide range of commodities and branded entertainment franchises. In this ambiguous context, "Everything Is Awesome" becomes a hilariously unsubtle articulation of neoliberalism's notorious mantra "there is no alternative," signaling that the world we live in is not just the best but also the only possible world. Just as Emmet learns that he can build whatever he can imagine as long as he builds it out of LEGOs, we, too, can do whatever we want, as long as we don't question the fundamental logic of capitalism.
But, at the same time, The LEGO Movie makes it impossible to take any of this seriously: its anticapitalist jabs, its casual sexism, its self-reflexive hyper-commercialism, and the finale's sentimental paternalism are all overshadowed by the film's tone of overwhelming irony. The obviousness of the film's many contradictions and the fun we have with its self-satisfied awesomeness make it an especially vivid illustration of the cultural, ideological, and narrative logic of participatory culture and media convergence. With a cast of characters that includes Batman, Wonder Woman, Gandalf, Albus Dumbledore, Lando Calrissian, and Shaquille O'Neal, the jokes and narrative twists rely heavily on viewers' intimate familiarity with popular franchises and their many transmedia iterations. In this sense, the film's release is a culmination of the decades-long interaction between a wide range of popular narrative franchises and the LEGO brand. By its very design, LEGO is a toy that involves a highly participatory sensibility, with a productive tension (ultimately central to the film's plot) between straightforward assembly, as one follows the instructions to put together an X-Wing or a Quidditch arena, and creative production, as components from different sets are easily combined with others to create entirely new hybrids.
The contradiction between these two coexisting perspectives is remarkably similar to the relationship between canonical storyworlds in fantastic fiction and the creative fan cultures that have nourished and sustained them. Fandom is hardly ever limited to a single franchise or storyworld, typically spreading out across genres and media, as evidenced by the organization of fan conventions: Star Trek fans, for instance, will most commonly not only know and enjoy other sf narratives across numerous media but also be familiar with other related genres like fantasy and horror. What most forms of sf and fantasy fandom have in common is an interest in world-building as a limitless and continuously expanding narrative environment.
Matt Hills has described this kind of infinitely expansive storyworld as a hyperdiegesis: "a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered," offering the dual attractions of ontological security and endlessly deferred narrative. The ongoing expansion of these storyworlds is primarily the result of fan culture's own creative and transformative activity, especially since fantastic storyworlds offer "creators and fan-bases coherent ways of suturing together gaps or contradictions in narrative when they occur." But what fans also add creatively is a continuous hybridization of these storyworlds: just as children can have Dora the Explorer team up with Spider-Man to defeat an evil Papa Smurf, fan culture thrives on the imaginative work of crossovers, mashups, and creative appropriation. The many forms of mashup culture that have emerged over the past two decades attest to this continuous hybridization of fan texts and collaborative creative production.
This tension between internally coherent storyworlds and the fandom's radically heterogeneous creative work is central to any understanding of what I define in this book as transmedia world-building. While most other studies have chosen one perspective, focusing either on the construction of complex, coherent storyworlds or on fan cultures' creative appropriation of popular culture, I see this internal contradiction as an expression of the two faces of global capitalism:
On one face, Empire spreads globally its network of hierarchies and divisions that maintain order through new mechanisms of control and constant conflict. Globalization, however, is also the creation of new circuits of cooperation and collaboration that stretch across nations and continents and allow an unlimited number of encounters. This second face of globalization is not a matter of everyone in the world becoming the same; rather it provides the possibility that, while remaining different, we discover the commonality that enables us to communicate and act together.
The discovery of this commonality is central to the imaginative and collaborative work of transmedia world-building. Even as popular storyworlds are constantly being appropriated by capitalism's incontrovertible logic of accumulation, and as audiences' creative work is transformed into immaterial labor at the service of media corporations, there remains a valuable radical potential that is clearly worth salvaging. By emphasizing the radical spirit of collectivity that underlies so many fantastic storyworlds, I will attempt to make sense of the central contradictions of transmedia world-building by relating them back to Hardt and Negri's influential work on global capitalism. But before I explain in more detail this theoretical connection between fantastic storyworlds and politics, I will first unpack a few central terms, beginning with transmedia world-building.
MEDIA CONVERGENCE AND TRANSMEDIA WORLD-BUILDING
The most commonly used definition of the term transmedia storytelling was introduced by Henry Jenkins, who described it as a single narrative that is spread out across multiple media, "with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole." Later debates about the term have expanded its range somewhat from Jenkins's original definition, adding in further important factors such as branding, adaptation, extension, seriality, and radical intertextuality. Some have even rejected the term due to its implicit focus on narrative coherence, preferring instead a more traditional industrial term like media franchising. Without entering into a semantic discussion of the exact limitations of the term and to what degree any given transmedia narrative is fully consistent across any given number of textual formations, I use the term in combination with world-building to indicate commercial franchises that develop complex fantastic storyworlds across a variety of media. Transmedia world-building thereby articulates a fundamental element of convergence culture: boundaries between media have blurred to the point at which it makes little sense to foreground fundamental distinctions between contemporary media. Instead, the term helpfully foregrounds the fact that our immersion in imaginary storyworlds takes place not within but across media.
My use of the term transmedia world-building is therefore primarily meant to emphasize a few key points about the cultural logic of fantastic storyworlds in the context of media convergence:
1. Transmedia world-building takes place across media.
2. Transmedia world-building involves audience participation.
3. Transmedia world-building is a process that defers narrative closure.
As a complex set of layered and interlinked cultural, social, and industrial practices, transmedia world-building in sf and fantasy first emerged across a range of distinct subcultures that found forms of meaning through the appropriation and collaborative development of imaginary worlds.
But although the term transmedia is associated by many with digital culture, it is important to remember that it has a much longer history. Fantastic storyworlds first gained prominence, "persistently available and collectively envisaged," in European and American popular culture of the late nineteenth century, as highly detailed and immersive narrative environments were developed by authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, H. P. Lovecraft, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Some of the most enterprising authors of fantastic fiction responded to readers' appetites for immersive storyworlds by embracing multiple media for their world-building: L. Frank Baum's popular world of Oz is a well-known early example of transmedia world-building, carefully integrating text and illustrations to create a seamless whole, and spreading out across other platforms until it encompassed nearly all existing media of its time.
But while transmedia world-building has a long and rich history, it has also clearly gained a much higher relevance and visibility in the twenty-first century. Over the past two decades, a complex and diverse set of mutually reinforcing cultural, technological, economic, and political changes resulted in what we now refer to as convergence culture. The simultaneous processes of globalization and digitization have helped transform transmedia world-building from a cultural activity that existed on the margins of mainstream culture to one of the cornerstones of popular entertainment. What had for decades been a culturally marginalized and ghettoized culture of niche fan communities had undergone a transformation by the late 1990s: media industries no longer viewed fans as eccentric irritants but as loyal and highly valued consumers. And with the rise of digital culture, those very fans were increasingly mobilized as essential "influencers" whose endorsement of a particular product was essential to generating the necessary "buzz" that would help attract a mass audience.
As the activities and interests of fan culture have by now become an essential part of a widely shared popular culture, the industrial organization of our media landscape has shifted as well. The growing power of media conglomerates with control over multiple platforms has altered the relationship between producer and consumer, raising new questions about the tension between global capitalism and the collaborative creative development of imaginary worlds. The benefit of the "mainstreaming" of genre fiction and fan culture is that a much larger audience now engages with fantastic storyworlds that can help question, challenge, and perhaps even change the world we live in. If it is indeed the case, as Fredric Jameson has famously suggested, that it has become easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, then we desperately need fictions that not only offer possible alternatives but also involve us as active participants in their construction. This combination of audience participation and the creative development of imaginary storyworlds is what I describe as the political potential of transmedia world-building in sf and fantasy. If one is willing to embrace the notion that transmedia world-building involves not only the audience's creative transformations of commercial entertainment properties but also the active development of alternate imaginary worlds, its political potential becomes impossible to ignore.
THE POLITICS OF WORLD-BUILDING
Most of the existing scholarship on the imaginary worlds of cross-media storytelling franchises has described them thus far primarily in formalist and/or sociological terms: the exhaustive detail, the elaborate histories, the complex relationships between fans and producers, and the variety of media that make up convergence culture have encouraged many scholars working on such franchises to focus on their forms and the cultural practices that surround them rather than theorize their political implications. Mark J. P. Wolf's Building Imaginary Worlds, the first academic monograph to focus extensively on world-building as a set of cultural practices and textual conventions, discusses it primarily in precisely such terms. Wolf takes as his point of departure J. R. R. Tolkien's concept of "subcreation," which he views as an inseparable combination of process and product resulting in the development of a fictitious "Secondary World." The "secondariness" of this imaginary environment is more a question of degree than absolute separation, depending on the ways in which familiar defaults are transformed into imaginary alternatives:
Fictional worlds can be placed along a spectrum based on the amount of subcreation present, and what we might call the "secondariness" of a story's world then becomes a matter of degree, varying with the strength of the connection to the Primary World.
Wolf's book subsequently offers an overwhelmingly detailed historical overview of many varieties of imaginary worlds with varying levels of subcreation, each of which is to some degree separated in one form or another from the ways in which the "Primary World" is commonly represented. For instance, Baum's world of Oz is an example of an imaginary environment where the presence of talking trees, flying monkeys, and magical slippers indicates a high level of "secondariness" that separates it from a primary reality that is also represented within the text. The imaginary world of the film Blade Runner, by the same token, "is as much a constructed environment as Oz, yet it depicts a Primary World location, set in an alternate version of 2019 ... in which replicants, artificial animals, flying cars, and gigantic buildings not only exist but are common." Wolf's definition of world-building thus relies on a commonsense distinction between what constitutes a "realistic" representation of a diegetic world and a fictional environment that defamiliarizes conventional defaults by altering a number of these coordinates.
Excerpted from Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics by Dan Hassler-Forest. Copyright © 2016 Dan Hassler-Forest. Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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