Ensuring the unavoidable leisure shall not cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness
Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to."— in the last 40 years, we’ve seen this dictum deadend in filmmaking, in our stories; not merely content with postmodernism, but replication, reboots upon reboots, etc. Part of this, it seems, is at least the stunting of creativity that comes from capitalism— what is successful? Well, what has sold? Who decides what is sold? Those who profit from them, so what is their incentive to subsidize the arts if the only motive is profit?
The fan-fiction phenomenon is not a new thing; its most popular iteration having something of an origin in the Kirk-Spock fan speculation after the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, it was a fun way for fans to engage with a franchise in a way that let you tell a story using a framework others could understand out of hand, but where you, ultimately, control the narrative— it can be an alternate universe where the only thing it shares with the source is character names or appearances and their dynamics, or who might fit an archetype best for another set of dynamics. An early 2000’s phenomenon online was the creepypasta— basically short fictions intending to be shared in the mode of textfiles, just Internet ephemera intended to creep the unsuspecting reader out (is it real? does it remind you something that is? It’s probably fake, but sounds like something you had a lot of anxiety about?)
This latter format thrived in consenting communities like sub-Reddits where the conceit was that you, at least while on the board, believe this universe to be real and you are part of it, and what you share is intended to be an extension of the original story; kind of a homegrown culture of fictions and community engagement with expanding that fiction’s universe. I read one story that had such an engaged community that it blurred the entire line between fact, fiction, and seemingly the premise puts the question of what reality is on trial in only the way the Internet could; a consenting dive into an alternate reality. The story I read was called 1999; the story of a local access TV station run by a Canadian predator in his cellar, the narrator is lured there as a child, but saved only because the police arrived first. He spends his early 20’s revisiting this saga, uncovering even more disturbing footage from the channelw hich seemed merely boring as a child, but deeply sinister as an adult. The Redditors, in this framework, would contribute anecdotes about having seen more airings of the work of the predator over the years (he was reported missing, living in a drainage pipe nearby the abandoned Cellar), or having had their own run-ins with the man, Mr. Bear, himself.
The fascinating thing, the engrossing thing, is that you google the story, and you find tons of Yahoo Answers, forum posts, etc. unaware of the fictional nature of this form; they either remember something that did happen, or they are convinced did, or was similar enough that the story jogged their curiosity. It is impossible to tell what is real or not, if you don’t know what you’re walking into, in some of the more harrowing stories that don’t rely on the supernatural, in particular.
In the case of a story called Candle Cove (one famous enough that it was the subject of Season 1 of anthology series Channel Zero), I, myself, went through this process. I was tangentially familiar with the story and went I went to go read it, I recalled a similar visual aesthetic, and googled to figure out if this was a real show (as I was, of course, certain the story wasn’t true). I, again of course, found that I was remembering a different show entirely, probably something I watched at 4 am in a hotel room on HBO when I was a child on a family road trip (Crashbox)— this was a shared memory a lot of people had, and someone, apparently clued into the fact that others surely experienced it much the same way through the somewhat illusory mesh of media conglomerative broadcasting, and it’s telling that so many arrived at the same conclusion that they’d seen this show, from something they acknowledge to be a work of fiction.
Some of these range from the completely absurd, like this story about a haunted Sonic the Hedgehog game, which begins with a note given to the first-person narrator that includes a line like, “I can’t do it, he’s after me, and if you don’t destroy this CD, he’ll come after you too, he’s too fast for me….”, to the completely engrossing like the Slenderman phenomenon, which became enough of a cultural touchstone that it became the locus of discourse around a brutal teenage stabbing like Satanism in popular culture had been not long before with the Ricky Kasso murders that would go on to inspire a string of books and films, and even one early millennium radio hit:
My favorite genre of creepypasta is the “Lost Episode”: Not only are you enmeshed in a backstory about how or why you found the tape (your uncle gets you an internship at Viacom! You go to an estate sale and Gary Coleman’s housekeeper sells you a tape of a Diff’rent Strokes haunted episode!) , but then a conceptualization of what the tape contains. A popular one about a lost episode of the Simpsons, Dead Bart, centers around a mentally deteriorating Matt Groening creating an episode where Bart is killed, and then the rest of the episode is spent in abject, uncomfortable despair, while also predicting the deaths of several other celebrities in the real world. Another, typical of the genre, is one reported by an intern on Spongebob Squarepants, where, improbably, the animators, fresh off the success of the feature film, blow off steam by creating an episode where Squidward, Spongebob’s crank neighbor, takes his own life. That sort of thing. I once wrote my own parody of the genre; a lost episode HBO series Arli$$— I turned the real-life libertarianism of Robert Wuhl (who plays Arliss, the superagent to the sports stars of the late-90’s canon) into arch-conservatism to talk a sitting US Senator into a promotional deal with weedwhackers (a running gag on the show). The motivations can be multifarious, but still ultimately enjoyable and use common language and ideas that someone else would potentially know exactly what is happening if they were inclined enough to seek it out.
If it exists, there’s a fanfic or a creepypasta or whatever of it.
All the specifics aside, there’s a good reason for all of this to exist and why it has flourished much like many other online communities have, and I think a somewhat parasocial relationship consumers have to popular media is a good lens for why I think this exercise is a good, powerful one:
I don’t have much to say about The Office that hasn’t been said a million times, but there’s something to be said for why the argument that our coworkers are our family has gained so much traction, and why it’s been an effective tool for exploiting workers— it’s that capitalism has robbed us all of so much that it’s the only way most adults even meet another person they could be friends, the family of one’s choosing, with.
There’s an episode of The Office, where the receptionist, Pam, has an art show, and no one comes except Oscar (the accountant, who, believing Pam not present, is very critical of her work), and Michael, the branch manager, who seemingly has no friends or family besides the people who work for him. He selects a painting of hers of the building they work in, and tells her that he’s proud of her, which brings her to tears. The significance of this scene is pretty straightforward: Pam, the receptionist, wants to be an artist, but no one, least of all her boyfriend, Roy, with whom she has recently re-coupled, is supportive of this ambition. Her boss, Michael Scott, is until this point seemingly neither hostile, nor benign about it— he jokes, but doesn’t give it much thought. Her friend in the office, Jim, is avoiding her. Michael is the only one to attend Pam’s gallery showing, and give her genuine enthusiasm for why they are there, interest in the work, and trying to understand why this was important by understanding why what it depicts was important to them.
For the employees of Dunder-Mifflin, as it is for consumers, our conception of art and creativity, and even interpersonal relationships, has these forms of what productivity and rational consumption should look like. Michael sublimating this exchange into the idea that Pam’s art is enhancing his life and those of the people he works with is not so dissimilar from fan-fiction communities— you take a thing marketed to you, as a consumable product, that someone else produced for you, and you find other people who share that thing, and absent the market interaction of how the show is produced or whatever, you and your friends expand on it, its your common language, your view for understanding this fictional universe. We’ve seen it from the beginning of mass media, from the beginning of storytelling.
It’s not that these people are out of new ideas, the way media makers might very well be, it’s that it’s become harder and harder, in this society, to bond over idleness. “The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.” wrote Bertrand Russell who also said “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”— enjoyment is its own end, and if mass-marketed media makes it easier to communicate with others, and create for the enjoyment of it, while distributing it for the shared enjoyment of your peers, then who’s to say that this time was not well-spent? I think, in a more direct sense, this proves an important point about the viability of content creation outside the channels of institutions, something I’ve written about before:
The critics in defense of institutions are, as you might guess, of this media grifter class I described earlier; they’re paid a lot of money, and their resumes are their identities— because of a presence on platforms signifying X, Y, and Z about their (alleged) politics, you’re meant to assume they’re credible as an extension of that institution, rather than the other way around. This is true of even smaller outlets, but with the approval of even more mainstream influencers in the media; Vox is an example of this. The content can be insightful and good, and still come from a place no more valid than a well-researched post someone makes on Medium or their own blog— the issue is that we’ve outsourced the ability to think critically to media figures moralizing on Twitter as a function of their belief in the objectivity and inherent quality of their paid work on other platforms. This implies something incredible about their internalized elitism; what must they think of freelancers, their profession, and perhaps most tellingly, the public?
Is something objectively good because it stands through the critical process of the professional reviewer? Or because the people who consume it liked it, and the person who created it, in this case online in a community, got the engagement they were seeking with the people for whom it was a created?
My point in connecting [citizen journalism, independent content platforms, direct self-publishing, etc] is to suggest that it is, indeed, with anyone’s power to say a thing, do a thing, publish a thing, and the Web was a tool built using an imperialist Internet to subvert the intention and produce an efficient, accessible means of—you guessed it- disseminating information, and early Internet culture speaks to this deep desire for democratization; we’re at a place where the tools have reached that ambition, and all we can seemingly do, as a society, is wait for the permission from the top to take it as seriously as is appropriate.
Ultimately, to the ruling elites of all manner of institution, you are the right side of an equality sign in the formula for marketing content, not news or analysis, but something uniquely engineered to outrage you for their ends, not because it actually offends you or brings you to action. As Wallace, once again, says in The Pale King, “The assumption that you everyone else is like you. That you are the world. The disease of consumer capitalism. The complacent solipsism.”— this is how institutions wish you to see yourself when they, not your awareness, are threatened by the democratization of building an audience, a platform, anything not sanctioned from the top down.
What could be more empowering than reappropriating the intellectual property of a multi-national corporation and reshaping it in your image as an audience, to tell a story of your choosing, for your own satisfaction? Extend this to the logical closure point about who gets to make news, make art, make anything, and why.
It’s not poverty of imagination on the part of creators and consumers, but poverty of the capacity for natural cultural expansion when gatekept by corporatist intention amongst the media elite.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: