In Anticipation of BAM-Con, I am pleased to be hosting a interview with BAM-Con spotlight guest, sociocultural-anthropologist and author of “Pilgrimage, Pageantry and Fan Communities”, Charles Dunbar.
Q: For starters, what are you hoping to do/ speak about at BAMCon?
CD: First and foremost, I’m hoping to have an awesome time. Or rather, anticipating having an awesome time. Conventions for me still hold the same appeal they always have, despite my lecturing and networking: fun, fellowship, escapism and community. I plan to speak a bit on the latter topic, in addition to a number of talks on mythology, the evolution of anime and a few looks into Japanese sacred practice. All the better to educate and inform, in addition to finding the elusive raucous party with which I shall amaze via my 1337 skills and perhaps some card games for horrible people.
Q: Are you hosting anything at BAMCon? If so, what and when?
CD: I have 7 panels over the weekend: Spirits, Wheels and Borrowed Gods, which covers Japanese religion and how anime interprets it; Yokai Nation, which is a look at monster culture in Japanese history; Dead Like Us, which looks at shinigami, afterlife myths and memorial practice; Chocobos Ate My Baby looks at Final Fantasy as a narrative/literary system; Castles, Forests and Bath Houses explores the films of Studio Ghibli and their philosophical roots; 50 Years of Anime Openings looks at anime’s technological evolution through the opening sequences; and We Con, Therefore We Are is a look at the evolution of the congoer and how the fandom dynamic has changed.
Q: How would you define your area of interest- in layman’s terms?
CD: Knowledge otaku. That’s the best way of looking at it: I crave knowledge and information. And when I’ve learned new things, my next goal is to relay that information to others in a meaningful way. This concept isn’t restricted to anime, either: I love military history, economics, bad decisions with sarcastically ironic outcomes, trash television, music and foreign film, and can speak at length about any of these. I approach any topic I speak on with the same mindset: learn the culture and ethic behind the topic, deconstruct the abstract points, then find a way to make that knowledge interesting.
My decision to study anthropology was based on this as well: it is a discipline that thrives on understanding culture, differences and similarities, and excels at presenting that information to laymen. So whether I’m lecturing on Japanese religion, death culture or politics in the Ghibli films, expect (generally) thorough research and information blasted at you from a fire hose.
Q: I noticed that many of your most recent projects are focused on your “ID Project”, a project encouraging people to sort of quantify (or at least describe and take measure of) their state of “being a fan”. Are we living in a new era of refined fandom?
CD: We’re living in an era of evolving fandom. There was a point where fans defined themselves through what they were fans of, and that tended to be a single, encompassing property or medium. Now fans define themselves through community membership, careers, casual interests and “flavor of the month” properties. Fans have become exposed to so many new and exciting ideas of what being a fan is, in addition to challenges to discover how to fit into the rapidly growing and changing fan world.
The ID Project was my way of asking people to think about how their fandom has evolved, and what it means to them. It’s easy to say “I love [x] anime” or “My favorite thing is [y],” but often those same fans have trouble discovering what that really means. There’s a difference between being a fan and being a fan of something, and I wanted to know how fans discovered their fandom, and why that fandom became important in their lives. I wanted people to look inside themselves, beyond the love of one particular thing, and ask how that love has helped them grow as a person.
Fandom isn’t some topical aspect to your personality, in many cases it’s one of the core defining elements of the self. As fans, we need to understand that, and identify its impact. Sometimes that’s obvious. Sometimes it’s not, and when one discovers what the true impact of fandom is, it can be enlightening or scary.
Q: What is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned from your ID Project?
CD: That many of us overlook the true role fandom plays in our lives. That many of us spent long periods of time trying to identify what it meant to be a fan. And, perhaps most telling, many of us judge our own fandom based on the perceptions of the community at large, and other people. While we should be conscious of the “rules of the community,” we should also understand that fandom is personal. I would even go so far as to label it as kin to religious action: it has a different emotional meaning to each person, and that meaning is what gives it both strength and inspires devotion. When we put the views of others before ourselves, we are limiting what fandom can accomplish for our own lives, and focusing too much on “arbitrary” doctrines and rules.
Q: The fact that so many objects of fandom (characters, stories, invented universes) are owned by corporations. Good, bad, or moot?
CD: Moot. Fandom as we know it would exist regardless of who owns creations. Fandom is a response by fans to created works, and builds upon those works based on the fan in question. But its not limited to “corporate control” at all. It’s just that much of fandom revolves around that because the control is what is used to bring the creative work to the forefront. When the corporate entity decides to “limit” or “crack down” on fandom, the fans may go “underground” or launch their own “fan canon,” regardless of what the corporation might deem appropriate. Fandom is deeply personal, and it comes down to the person and how they choose to relate to the property. Remember, “Fifty Shades of Grey” started out as a fandom creation, and became its own work with attached fandom by the end.
Q: Would you say that evolving fandom with its emphasis on community and DIY is a sane response to 1980’s style consumer culture, or is it the sign of an unhealthy economy?
CD: It’s a result OF consumer culture. Some people are content to consume, which is perfectly fine, and pours economic capital into the property and allows it to survive. Those fans are no less fans that the ones who create, and are a necessary part of the fandom.
Some wish to create, which is another aspect of fandom: add their own “mark” to the property, their own interpretation or their own desires for where it goes in the future. Some wish to educate, some wish to craft, some wish to adapt and some wish to support. All of this is part of healthy fandom. The DIY movement, which was a result of fans disillusioned with not just consumer culture, but with mainstream “absorption” of their own culture, highlighted a specific type of fan, who channeled those emotions into creativity, “rebellion,” and a sense of “taking back” what was lost. The hallmark of DIY is “do what you want, and if it doesn’t exist, create it.” That’s a central point to Jenkin’s convergence model, a central tenet of the participatory fan, and the way in which fandom grows beyond its initial “boundaries.” Without that DIY ethic, fandom would be limited to sanctioned properties and fans who only wish to appreciate the content, not make it their own.
Q: Are we living in the era of mashup and pastiche? Does that harm originality? Can anyone be original?
CD: An original take on someone else’s ideas is still original. The “power” behind mashup is rooted in satire, which is itself a powerful aspect of fandom creativity. For some, that is their elected method of originality. It still represents creativity and requires the same effort as creating an original work. It also allows for people unaccustomed to original work to gain a foothold on the mechanics of creativity, in order to write original work. A good example would be Gainax and CLAMP, who were satirists and doujinshi artists before they founded their studios and produced original work. Inverarity, an author on fanfiction.net, wrote five well-received (and in fact “famous”) Harry Potter fan-fiction novels before embarking on her own original stories. Sometimes ambition outpaces skill, or skill requires inspiration. Both of those can be fueled through fandom. In fact, in some cases, going through a fan community can even be beneficial, since the community is often more supportive and willing to assist than “going it alone.”
Q: Should you ever apologize for being a fan of anything?
CD: No. Never feel sorry for your fandom. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should have pride for being a fan of something horrible (or illegal), but if you’re a fan of something, don’t feel bad for it. We all have “guilty pleasures,” and there’s nothing wrong with appreciating them. Don’t let anyone get you down.
Q: If you were a supervillain, what would your power(s) be and which superhero would defeat you?
CD: If I were a super-villain, nobody would realize it until after I had managed to neutralize every single hero and seize complete control. Then I’d probably be beaten by Ned Stark’s bastard, or John Cena.
Q: Complete the following statement: If I see a _________ at BAMCon, I will just ______________.
CD: Complete the following statement: If I see a Minako Arisato (Female MC from Persona 3) at BAMCon, I will just die from “waifu” overload.