I am disturbed, frequently, by what seems like a growing cultural tendency to teach children that their fantasies are real, to insist to them that they should will a belief of fantasy into being when the natural process of life begins to erode that faith. Because Superman isn’t real, and neither is Dr. Who, and while fantasy and escapism are a wonderful part of both childhood and adulthood, it’s necessary for everyone to understand that what you’re escaping from is reality, and that you always eventually have to go back and confront things there. I think that’s a very important lesson for children of all ages to absorb, because perhaps the most important lesson of childhood is that life isn’t fair, and you’ll spend a lot of it unhappy, and you don’t get what you want in life.
But I’m whistling past the graveyard, here. Because the fact of the matter is that our culture industry, and pretty much all of our other industries, are moving us relentlessly into a space where you are encouraged to crawl deeper and deeper into the most important fantasy world, the world of what you know you already like. It’s not just the widely-lamented franchising mania, which has spilled from movies into TV, video games, and now infected the books and comics that were often the original inspiration for the franchises in the first place. It’s not just the degree to which the old parodies of movie merchandising are now less intense than the reality. (Thanks for making me hate Chewbacca, by the way.) It’s the creation of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.
I read someone online somewhere once, I think maybe on Tumblr, stating that he reads The Hobbit, the three Lord of the Rings books, and the Silmarillion, and then just starts over with The Hobbit again. Over and over again. The other day was “Batman Day.” Batman Day. Not to be confused with two separate holidays to honor Star Wars, by which I mean to buy Star Wars stuff.
Like LEGO? Like the small world of pop sci fi, comic book, and related genres that dominate our current cultural conversation? Good news: you can now not just play with LEGOs based on those properties, you can play with them all together, and in both physical and digital forms, at the same time. Like a TV show that got cancelled? Good news: a remake or reboot or sequel or prequel is coming, featuring all of the original cast, plus a bunch of zany celebrity cameos. Everybody wants to be in on the joke; nobody wants to spoil the party. Certainly, a concern such as whether there’s actually any narrative or artistic justification for such new material shouldn’t get in the way of everybody’s good time. Like video games? Not only can you play video games, and read and engage with an absolutely vast amount of subsidiary media about video games, you can now join huge communities watching other people play video games during those rare leisure hours when you aren’t yourself playing video games. Like beer? Not only can you enjoy an immense variety of different kinds of beers, you can make liking beer the singular aspect of your personality. You are actively encouraged to be The Beer Guy. Like the current sound of pop music? More good news: every aspect of the current production of pop music is designed with the explicit goal of making more of the same sound, with conformity the unapologetic vehicle of success, and where literal formulas are not just not denigrated, but openly celebrated. If you don’t like current pop music, what’s wrong with you? Some kind of awful, pointy-headed elitist?
The internet’s favorite: This Thing You Like Plus This Other Thing You Like. Look, it’s the Avengers done up like Harry Potter! The Muppets and the Ghostbusters, together at last. Great.
The algorithms are on your side. We’re creating more and more systems to allow you to consume nothing that you don’t already like, funneling your prior preferences into ever-more-accurate recommendation engines, impossibly intricate machine learning systems that exist to prevent you from ever being exposed to something that you might not like, something that might challenge your prior aesthetic preferences.
But more important than any of this: not only is what you already like the only thing you ever have to like, what you already like is moral. As I said, it’s not just the people who are selling you the actual commodities that fit your taste. It’s our culture industry selling you the reassurance that your already-existing taste is always perfect. Once assumed to have a responsibility to expand the artistic preferences of their readers, to challenge them once in awhile, now the role of the critic seems to be to reassure audiences that anyone who challenges their preexisting tastes is a political undesirable, surely guilty of problematic thinking. We churn out an endless supply of essays lamenting the pressure we feel to eat our pop culture vegetables, despite the fact that no one can point to anybody actually pressuring the rest of us to do so. And always, always, the use of politics, antiracism and feminism instrumentalized to celebrate our taste. Somebody you know prefers experimental fiction to romance novels? They’re probably sexist. Somebody doesn’t like Rihanna? Definitely racist. You have a small army of pop culture commentators from which you can sample, all playing out this basic theme, that your taste is both aesthetically superior and politically purer, the better to forbid the idea that legitimate, conflicting tastes exist. Like Taylor Swift? I have good news: not only are you able to enjoy Taylor Swift’s music, at any time, in a variety of media, along with millions of others of her adoring fans, including most of the world’s prominent music critics, you can do so knowing that the only reason someone might not like her as much as you — the only reason — is because they are a bad, bad person.
And yet you can still complain about disrespect! Because we’ve invented, out of thin air, this illusory group of elitists who prefer “high culture,” sneering fops who wear top hats to the opera and love only classical music except when they love Bob Dylan, and who function like the red-clad monsters from The Village, their ability to keep us all in our safe provincial hamlet not remotely constrained by the fact that they don’t exist.
Should all of this still prove insufficient for your desires, rest easy in the knowledge that the cult of fan service is relentlessly pushing artists to stop getting in the way of your vision. The combination of endless rating systems and review-aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes will bring enough of the economic pressure, while the legions on Twitter, buffeting artists every day with increasingly-entitled demands for getting what they want, will make it clear to people who create this stuff that they had better get on board if they want to maintain any kind of public presence at all. In time, the term “fan fiction” will become unnecessary; that will be the only kind.
If we giggle at the image of the VR-wearing adult, sucked entirely into his or her own world, blind and uncaring towards everyone else in the broader social space, it’s nervous laughter. Because whether or not average people end up strapping goggles to their faces for significant portions of their day, not just at home but on the subway or at a bar (which I witnessed myself recently at a bar near Purdue), the trend is clear: the weight of capitalism and culture is pressing you to withdraw deeper into your preexisting preferences, deeper into yourself. Whether or not we get the full VR experience, it seems we’re all going to be diving into our own worlds, and paying for the privilege. I lament all the things that people might like but will never discover, secure in the right(eous)ness of what they already like, but I suppose that’s not my business. Snob that I am, I do maintain a basic belief that while it’s never shameful to love something, even to love something obsessively, it’s always shameful to love only one thing, or only one kind of thing. But that’s not even on the table, right now. The real question is, how much further do we have to go before we eliminate that one last impediment to our real bliss, our awareness of the existence of other people?