Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

A cruel angel’s thesis… Cultural production in the age of fan entitlement

I had been thinking about this topic a bit for the past month or so, but watching X-Men: Dark Phoenix last night made me think about jotting some of the ideas down.  Dark Phoenix is not a good movie.  None of the actors seem to want to be in the movie.  Everything is dull.  None of it is good.  It is a confusing mess of a film.

And so, of course, I thought I could write a better movie.  Which, of course, I couldn’t.  My version would be a two-hour exploration of the destructive nature of power unbounded by law and order: the Phoenix being this untapped wellspring of pure power that, when combined with Jean Grey’s righteous anger, becomes a threat to the cosmos and so needs to be removed.  Instead, this version seems unclear about who the main character is, why the characters are doing what they’re doing, and how the problem should be resolved.  Of course, I couldn’t write the better version because everything I write is clunky bullshit, but I like to fantasise that I could, in fact, write a masterpiece.

Is this not the same fantasy that we keep seeing played out in negative fan reactions to things like the Game of Thrones finale?

Fanfiction is at least as old as the Odyssey.  Enamoured with the idea of a secondary character from The Iliad, the Odyssey is a sexy scifi romp to reimagine Odysseus.  Importantly, the entry costs of writing an epic poem are low.  Anybody with enough time and a few centuries of editors could have authored the Odyssey.  Eventually, the costs start to get a little bit higher: producing a theatre production of your version of a famous myth was something that a smaller number of people could do.  By the time of the novel, it’s a vanishingly small number of people who are able to shape stories in the way that they want.

Over the past 50 years, that has slowly turned around.  The rise of fanfiction is entirely due to the bottoming out of production costs for text.  A few hours with Microsoft’s Notepad and a healthy disregard for copyright, and I could write the whatever version of a story I want.  Prepare for some law-heavy shit, guys; all your favourite superheroes have legal issues.

Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled on the topic of fanfiction and whether or not it is ‘legitimate’.  I don’t care.  What I’m really interested in is the control that people have over stories.  By looking at the way that people can take cultural outputs and remix them into what they want to see, we end up with far more interesting questions about what people end up seeing.

And the result is… mostly porn.  Pedestrian‘s Ben McLeah inexplicably did an article on the existence of porn parodies.  With vanishing costs of creating video, these ultra-low budget pornographic movies take characters you know and love and make them… gross?  Grosser?

But that’s all well and good while the costs of video production are low but still exclusionary.  What happens when producing video content becomes cheaper and cheaper, and nerds really are able to make ‘their version’ of the movies and TV that they want to see?

The debate about intellectual property protection is unhelpfully characterised as a battle between industry and artists.  Look at all the cultural output that you’re not allowed to remix, say legal academics; why shouldn’t you be allowed to do to Disney characters what Disney did to folklore in general?

On the other hand, shouldn’t artists be allowed to protect themselves against the ravages of horny nerds who want to appropriate their characters to do things they might find abhorrent or repugnant?  Mind!  Even if you think that they should be allowed to protect themselves, you might not end up with anything that looks like our current intellectual property regime.  We can be way more nuanced about the legal framework once we’ve got a handle on the broad strokes of our intuitions about what should be fair play and what shouldn’t be.

If some of those steps went by a little bit quickly, it was because I was building to the final step: where there is an absolute blurring between what a person imagines and what they are able to produce cheaply.  We have seen the rise of the ‘deep fake’, where people can make videos of celebrities (or, more worryingly, politicians) say whatever they want them to say.  We are seeing the rise of increasingly photorealistic computer modelling, and the general trend has been towards making increasingly powerful art tools available for cheaper and cheaper prices.  I can do chromakey in my bedroom for pennies; this was unimaginable for my parent’s generation.

I really wanted a different direction for Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film.  What happens when I have the technology available to me to make the movie that I want?  What happens when I can make Christian Bale say the lines that I want him to say?   What if I want a white supremacist Batman?  At some point, the older notions about fanfiction, nerd entitlement, and even pornography will be overtaken by raw technological capacity, replaced by other concerns: the rights of actors to control their performances, the rights of creatives to the integrity of their work, and the mass production of content that reinforces toxic social norms that nerds want to watch.

Ordinarily, my posts are about legal issues.  While there is some legal content to the above, I think this is far more worrying as a pure social issue.

But maybe all of this angst is just my conservative prudishness on show.  Why shouldn’t we celebrate the mass redistribution of power away from the traditional gatekeepers in favour of ordinary perverts living in their mother’s basements?  Think of all the great music that’s been made by artists in their bedrooms, like that humdrum electronica stuff that gets played on Triple J a lot, or that other remixed humdrum electronica that gets played on Triple J a lot.  We could have even more humdrum electronica!

I don’t know.  Something about the whole thing feels off, but it is hard to know whether the anxiety is about the role of technology in the debate or the social issues around the use of that technology.  Is it the nerd entitlement that’s the problem, or is it that nerd entitlement will be exacerbated through empowerment?  Even if we are uneasy with these questions, is there anything we can do about them?

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