Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fanboys and Scholars (and Twenty-sided dice)

Jeff at Quid Nomen Illius? has a really good post on the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on the current conquest of popular culture by fantasy (and props for Jeff on his excellent post titles: "Bree-yark" for this one, and a very obscure Jethro Tull reference on the next).

I was one of those kids influenced by D&D, and if I'd been a bit older or younger, I would probably have had a happy career as a game designer: I was too young to be really caught up in the first wave of paper-and-dice D&D (I was mostly interested in it in 6th-8th grade; I don't think I played at all in high school), but a little too old to really get into on-line gaming and high quality computer RPGs. But I wrote a lot of "modules" for D&D, always with a very Tolkienian aspect, plumbing Unfinished Tales for details, sketching out details of weaponry or costume, and making my own weathered-looking maps (I once got into huge trouble because I'd been using my mother's iron to heat lemon-juice-impregnated paper in order to age it: I didn't clear the iron afterwards, and thus some piece of clothing ended up with a large lemon-juice stain on it).

I think all of that give me at least a little fanboy cred when I use the term (despite a reader on The One Ring's amusement). I don't think fanboys are (any more) stalkers or hopelessly in love with movie characters (and I know not all self-identified fangirls are either), but they (we) are obsessive about aspects of our chosen afficion. I haven't had time to do the research, but I'm relatively certain that fanboy/girl are originally pejorative terms (which would fit Squire's interpretation of the word), but they have now been taken up by those inside a subculture as self-identifying labels (and "fanboy" is equivalent to Japanese "otaku," which seems to mean "person who still lives in his parents' house and is obsessed with gaming/anime/manga").

[I'm getting tired of typing fanboy/girl, so I'll use "otaku" from now on].

I think that being an otaku is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for being a good scholar. Scott Nokes here says much the same thing, arguing that scholarship starts in otaku-ish appreciation (I'd add, 'and obsession over detail') and then progresses, through the addition of theory (and I'd add, 'method') and formal communication, to scholarship. I'm not entirely comfortably with the way Scott treats 'theory' here, but I think he's basically right, and his point could be justified historically: literary studies, particularly medievalism, grew out of the practices of gentleman scholars and antiquaries who were collecting manuscripts and trying to understand them and, essentially, writing fan newsletters about Old English texts instead of computer games.

All kinds of scholarship (not just literary work) require the focus of the otaku, the obsessive ability to spend twenty years studying one genus of dragonfly or, like Darwin, work for hours just about every day for a decade dissecting and classifying barnacles.

From these obsessions we generate new insights into the natural and human worlds and, since we've seen the enormous payoff from 18th-century and Victorian gentleman scientists and their journals, we have, as a culture, tried to copy them in the humanities, with many great results (and probably a lot of wasted time as well).

But the social structures built by those early, gentleman otaku--the departments of English, the journals, the lecture circuits--provide real-life benefits (salaries, tenure, publicity, security) that people who are not otaku also covet. And thus, I think, the evolution of problems in scholarship that are usually put under the umbrella of "professionalization." People no longer publish strictly from love of the subject and a desire to inform (though obviously that's important) but also to get financial rewards, respect, power and influence (and it's not like the original Victorian gentlemen were immune to such temptations, either).

Well, if you are attracted to academia because you want to be free to pursue your obsession, you're going to have a very different focus than if you are attracted to academia because you want summers "off," job security, and some initials after your name. Academia is, for many (obviously for me) a very, very appealing life.

But (and here comes the unproveable assertion) if you didn't go into academia because you were an otaku about your subject, then you begin to resent the obsessive work required to be good at it. And you do things like continually re-publish your dissertation (my pet peeve right now) with minor variants ("The bleeding saint in Andreas," "The bleeding saint in Judith," "The bleeding saint in Elene," "The subtextual figure of the bleeding saint in Beowulf" ... you get the idea). Or you stop writing after you get tenure. Or you become bitter and miserable about your students.

But, thankfully, a fairly high percentage of the scholars I know are, in one way or another, otaku. I know a Hawthorne otaku, a Poe otaku, a Louisa May Alcott otaku, a Victorian ghost story otaku. They have (to switch cultures) enthusiasmos or (to switch again) afficion, and it shows in their teaching and their scholarship and their happiness.

I think attempts to bring too much "method" or "theory" to literature can interfere with enthusiasmos, and likewise literary scholars' ill-starred forays into political interpretations undercuts their own afficion (because once you move into politics, you are accepting the idea that there is something that is more important to you than your subject).

Being a fanboy/girl or otaku isn't quite socially mainstream, and being a literary scholar shouldn't be, either: you are doing something that is very weird, and to do it well, you have to be a little weird yourself. You have to get carried away, you have to have a little too much enthusiasm for your obsession than is completely normal.

"a little too much enthusiasm for your obsession than is completely normal" -- sound familiar?


Sharon Ferguson said...

When a student of anthropology in the late 80s, there was a professor who was "otaku" for pre-human archaeological sites in western Saudi Arabia - ostensibly because he was fascinated by the work of his contemporaries, Louis Leakey and others. No other archaeological period interested him. Only a student with the same focus could induce him to speak more than the usual courtesies. In his view, there was no "real" archaeology unless it had to do with pre-human artifacts.

It was always talked about by other professors how archaeologists/anthropologists were "jacks of all trades, masters of none" but it became very clear to anyone who spent more time than the required classtime that each professor had a passion about one singular time-period or discipline. As for myself, I was an enthusiastic and budding Egyptologist amidst Pre-human/Meso-American/Primatology experts and students.

Suffice it to say, I have found people who were NOT curious/obsessed/interested in one particular focus or another to be people without much to say for themselves, dull and shallow even (but not in too many cases).

In short - dittos!

Emma Goldman said...

I think there are two things going on: Part of it is the ability to get deeply interested in anything and part is the interest in some topic--or, arguably, set of topics. Take my own case (though I am by no means the only person with this set of traits and experiences). There are some things (ideas, philosophers/ies, texts, etc.) that interest me and probably always will, but, when not able to continue practicing that interest in an academic environment, I've turned the ability to focus on an area of interest to new areas of interest. In my mind, continuing to stay exclusively with the old areas when I had no real venue for practicing my interest, e.g., by writing academic articles or books that might actually be published, would have been a waste of time and energy, insofar as part of the fun of the otaku practice is in sharing it with others.