Nekocon 11: commercialization and citizen criticism

I’m not much of a con-goer; conventions are expensive, and, having committed myself to the path of the college-dweller, I shall surely be forever poor. But in my infinite kindness, I saw fit to ferry my brother (better known around here as Otouto-kun) and his friend to and from Nekocon, the convention of our eastern Virginia homeland. In my infinite insanity wisdom, I began to compare my designated driver position to that of an Aquan gondolier — I would serve as an existential messenger, ferrying the hopes and dreams of my passengers into unexplored waters.

It, um, didn’t quite work out that way. All I really did was spend too much money (and anyway, my canzone needs a little work). But the conventional goings-on did, at least, prompt me to give thought to a few subjects that might be relevant to your interests.

Let me preface by saying that, though it may yet be piddling compared to Otakon and Expo, Nekocon has become quite healthy. My first experience with the convention was in 2002, when it spanned most of the first floor of a medium-sized hotel — a far cry from its most recent venue. For reference, this was the front one-third of the line on day one at about 5:00 pm:

I’ve long since accepted that lines are an integral part of our venerable subculture. I’ll even admit that the sight of a long line gets me a little excited. But after a while, I do get tired of actually waiting in them.

The first thing I did was spend money. After that I spent more money, and, though I restrained myself, I’m out what equates to a good bit of money in my poverty-ridden existence. To me, conventions amount to paying admission for the privilege (the incorrigible desire, in other words) of spending too much money, and the eleventh Nekocon was no exception. Most of my acquisitions are as follows:

I only left out two items: the irresistibly-titled Anime Intersections: Tradition and Innovation in Theme and Technique, and a shirt with a misspelling on it that, in a supreme moment of failure as an English major, I didn’t notice until after I’d bought it. At least I found decent deals on the stuff — the Lain box was particularly cheap, I think, and the manga wasn’t bad, though my Barnes and Noble membership saves me a good bit of money in that area anyway.

Let’s talk about money expenditure for a moment. In our community (yours and mine, that is), there are as many opinions on the subject of commercialization as there are fans of anime, and when the unending fansub debate factors in, what we’ve got is a clusterfuck in the truest sense of the word. I’ll grant that, as a fiction writer, I’m initially inclined to feel that a concern with profit brings a taint to art, confounding both the writing process and the artistic experience with unnecessary concerns. But wait: what concerns are truly necessary? It’s not as if commercialization imposes issues upon art that don’t already exist in our money-centric society. Can we even attribute an artistic concern with necessity? If our reading of a text wasn’t affected by the cost of the text itself (as it no doubt is), wouldn’t we still be privy to similar situations in which monetary cost altered our opinion of a thing, and wouldn’t we bring those concerns to whatever we read?

I’m not saying commercialization is a good thing; I’m all for giving traditional publishing the big middle finger with online fiction and such. All I’m saying is that commercialization is an uncertain thing, and that we can’t necessarily write it off as the prime evil of our kind. If we do, it may be safe to say that we’re trying to prescribe what art should and shouldn’t be, to which Jacques Derrida would no doubt reply, “This would be to finalize literature, to assign it a meaning, a program and a regulating ideal, whereas it could also have other essential functions, or even have no function, no usefulness outside itself,” right before he got all deconstructive on our asses (and you don’t want that, trust me)1.

I won’t throw any more Derrida at you (for now), I promise. Unwise spending aside, conventions also demonstrate a concept I’ve become quite fond of lately: citizen criticism. Think citizen journalism with art, or reader-response minus academia. It’s what ghostlightning might call “fanalysis,” seated firmly in the idea that there can be no existential objectivity where art is concerned, and the belief that every reader’s opinion adds to the ever-growing meaning of a work, and I suspect that it happens whether people intend it to or not. Consider cosplay:

Caramelldansen aside, what functions do assuming the role of a fictional character serve? Is the attempt to “be” a character, however cursory, a very intimate and involved manner of investigation into characterization? Are these people just starved for attention? Is this more the domain of sociological cultural studies than criticism — and, on that note, can we safely assume that the two share concerns such as this? I don’t know, but I suspect these kinds of questions aren’t futile.

On a slightly less philosophical note, the most interesting situation I found myself in all weekend involved my nearly bending a hentai doujin, in which case I would’ve had to buy it. I wasn’t browsing for myself, mind you. Really.


Endnotes

1Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992: 38.

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11 Comments

  1. Thanks for the hat tip! I’ve never been to a convention myself, as those here in the Philippines are filled with really young folk (I’m sprinting towards a geriatric 32nd birthday soon) who are really into the anime I don’t particularly care for (Naruto and Bleach). Like many of my fellow Filipinos, I somehow think that it’s better in the West (outside Japan itself) but I really should attend one here soon and maybe I can disabuse myself of the notion.

    Do you dislike Derrida? I find him quite liberating myself.

    Reply
  2. From my own limited observations I’d think the meaning of cosplaying depends to a large extent on what, if any, group the individual travels with. Not just the fact of going to a convention, but whether they’re in a couple, a group, or with a society. Not that I’ve really thought over the issue.

    And more importantly,
    You’d have had to buy that naughty doujin, but would you have had to keep it?

    Reply
  3. Pontifus

     /  14 November 2008

    @ghostlightning

    Excepting the really big ones, conventions here are generally filled with a younger crowd, too, and our younglings also have a penchant for Naruto and Bleach cosplay. The main downside of an event the size of Nekocon, as far as I’m concerned, is the lack of anyone to talk to about shows like Aria and Manabi Straight, or even currently airing shows, in most cases. Ah well…maybe someday, at Super FaniCon…

    I do like Derrida; deconstruction tends to be in line with my way of thinking (or, well, vice-versa, since deconstruction existed before I did). But that doesn’t mean Derrida isn’t a chore to read sometimes.

    @coburn

    What I wonder, though (and this may be irrelevant to what you were saying), is whether the meanings or functions of cosplay are in all cases a matter of intent. I figure cosplay might be a sort of character exploration, whether cosplayers think of it as such or not. Reading Genshiken gets me thinking about this stuff, I suppose.

    I guess I wouldn’t have had to keep the doujin. The worst thing about it was that it was a short book, probably in the range of 12-24 pages, that cost $20.

    Reply
  4. I was about to leap to my populist platform upon your recitation of the starving artist’s pledge against commercialization, but you saved it. I will go on the record as saying that I am a fiction writer, and there is, in my opinion, no such thing as pure art. Art is meant to be consumed. ; D

    By the way, my Gothic novel professor leant me a book on Gothic fiction, which includes an essay called “Aftergothic.” He leant it to me because it talks about the Gothic in video games. And he also gave me some recommendations of critics to read and then apply to gaming — he said he felt Iser wouldn’t be a good match. I’m going to have to e-mail him, as he just told me the critics, and we were changing rooms, so I couldn’t write them down, but I’ll let you know how that turns out.

    Reply
  5. Woo! I know what you mean about being a chore to read. A lot of times I had to rely on books on Derrida just to understand the source. But yes, deconstruction is a method of freedom for me. Almost love at first sight. Good luck with Super FaniCon!

    Reply
  6. I can’t speak on cosplay or conventions (a cast-iron fear of embarrassment keeps me away from both) but I’m, broadly speaking, a fan of commercialisation. I think I’ve argued before that in certain circumstances it’s a positive thing: there’s a big difference between trying to get a war story animated and trying to get a war story with mecha in it that might sell toy robot models animated.

    That said, my ideal system of support for artists would be a patronage structure, provided of course that I was the one dispensing the patronage.

    Reply
  7. @IKnight: Have you ever heard Neal Stephenson’s distinction between the two different modes of fiction? He called them “Beowulf” and “Dante” fiction, and the difference between the two is patronage. “Beowulf” fiction is meant to entertain, and the supposedly great themes will come naturally, because they’re entertaining. “Dante” fiction has a patron somewhere — now it’s usually the universities — and the writer is required, to please the patron, to slot the fiction into a tradition somewhere. Hence Virgil showing up to lead Dante around in the Inferno. In modern times, in my opinion, patronage makes fiction very samey. : )

    Reply
  8. As far as cosplay goes, I’ve never really found myself wanting to engage in that activity, but from talking to those who do, reasons vary a lot as you might expect. Some do it because it offers them a sort of outlet, and having dropped by some sites where roleplaying goes on, it offers them an opportunity to act like a character in a real life setting while being in an environment that generally tolerates that sort of thing. Others do it because they are part of a group and cosplaying allows them to be with that “in-group” and finally, you have people who do it just for the attention.

    For me personally, cons are a great place to pick up some rare items like figurines, good fanart, or artbooks that I otherwise would not be able to purchase either online or where I’d have to go through playasia or yesasia if I wanted to acquire them.

    Reply
  9. Pontifus

     /  15 November 2008

    @Cuchlann

    Not to worry; I’m slow to fully accept or condemn anything. I like to think that means I’m sensible, but it probably just means I’m irresolute. Keep me updated on what revelations come of your professor’s help.

    @IKnight

    I’m pretty easily embarrassed, but that’s balanced out by my having very little shame left. I’m not even opposed to doing cosplay, as long as it’s fairly simple, looks decent enough, and I’m not the only one in my group doing it.

    I like to think that, in an ideal world, commercialization of art would result in a sort of democratic patronage system, in which our money went a long way in determining what kinds of things were published, and, perhaps through creative use of the internet, even somewhat unpopular things with few fans could be kept afloat in some form or another at little cost. I’m sure that’s not how it always works out in the real world, though.

    @zzeroparticle

    I think an ethnography of a hardcore cosplay group would be interesting. I wonder if any anime bloggers are anthropologists…

    Yeah, the main draw of cons for me is the ubiquitous dealer’s room. When you aren’t being taken for all you’re worth, you can get some nice deals on things.

    Reply
  10. @ cuchlann: I hadn’t come across that idea, no, but I tracked it down with a bit of Googling (in an interview with Stephenson on Slashdot – not sure if that’s where he first proposed the idea, or not). I suspect that while Beowulf may have been performed to entertain ‘lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians’, as he puts it, said intoxicated people were still very much the ones on top in their society. But that’s nitpicking – from what I know about contemporary literature (not a lot) his distinction is pretty accurate.

    I’m not sure ‘samey’ is necessarily a bad thing, looking at it from the patron’s perspective: in this hypothetical world where every anime studio was at my beck and call, I wouldn’t be bothered that they were all producing similar epic mecha sagas. That’d be the point. I’d also say it’s good to see writers being forced to slot their fiction into a tradition, if the tradition’s worth preserving, and you can’t get many more suitable candidates for preservation than what Virgil represents.

    All of that said, when I do voluntariliy read modern literature it’s almost always firmly in what Stephenson calls the Beowulf camp. I realised a couple of months ago that Raymond Chandler may actually be my favourite novelist.

    @ Pontifus: I’ve heard it suggested that the internet makes it easier for niche/cult things to turn a profit – this is the Long Tail, I think – but it’s probably too early to tell, or something. Situations where the artist’s potential consumers stump up the cash to support the artist while he or she works, rather than just buying the finished product, are fascinating but I can’t think of an example I’ve encountered online off the top of my head.

    Reply
  11. @IKnight: Well, the thing about tradition is that a writer slots the work into it no matter what. Usually — and especially with modern writers — trying to do that to please an audience of professorial peers always seems to end up too heavy-handed. It’s like too much product placement in a movie, it distracts from the story because the author/director’s motives outshine the characters and the plot. My philosophy is that a creator of any kind of art will always be consuming that art, and the tradition will show through — people can’t create in a vacuum.

    And actually, in ancient Norse culture, the skalds were pretty high in the class structure. Like in the Irish tradition, where a person was never supposed to turn a bard away, because the bard could ruin the person’s livelihood by making fun of them. Contrast that with today’s society, where no one pays attention any longer. : p

    And eventually you would be bothered. The greatest steak in the world gets old the fiftieth night you have it for dinner in a row. ; )

    Henry Jenkins has written quite a bit about the Long Tail, both in his books and his blog, you might want to check that out (if you haven’t already).

    @Pontifus: I will indeed. I already have some ideas concerning how a game forces the player to do things for the sake of continuing the story — such as following wide streaks of blood on an empty road — that they would never do in real life. Basically, the player can’t disconnect, sit back, and yell at the protagonist that they’re being stupid (like in cinema Gothic, such as a Friday the 13th movie), because they’re the ones doing the “stupid” things. And that makes it creepier, because the gamer still knows it’s a bad idea.

    Reply

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