A Tale of Two Fandoms
by Joel Gn
Now more than a fad involving stolen passwords and defaced webpages, digital dissent has evolved into a curious force seeking to demolish the legibility and presence of authority online. Anonymous, for example, is one such network of hacker-activists (hacktivists) who have claimed responsibility for a series of prominent cyber-attacks on government, religious and corporate websites in the past few years. Some say the activities of Anonymous are an emancipatory manoeuvre against political and social oppression; others accuse them of blatant cyber-terrorism. The polarity of opinion, it should be noted, is less an expression of the hacktivists’ beliefs than it is the result of Anonymous favouring, or perhaps pandering to, the interests of certain groups over others during an attack. Using this argument as a premise, we can perhaps conclude that Anonymous, by virtue of their hacktivism, are nothing but the simulacra of resistance, or a force of de-territorialisation that is nameless, faceless and without structure.
However, some characteristics pertaining to Anonymous convey quite a different story. There is, firstly, the act of hacktivism which claims to be anarchic and decentralised but is nonetheless dependent on the language of computing. And, if complicity with the structure of a language is implicated, then we should ask if this language, or communicative tool used by the hacktivists is in itself distinct from that which it seeks to subvert. In other words, emancipation can be equated with a perceived sense of agency, but there is a tendency to overlook the structure where such an agency is allowed to materialise.
Certainly for the adherents of Anonymous, possessing the technique to re-write a web-page is similar to achieving autonomy over the ones who created it, even if this form of autonomy exposes itself to the contradiction of working with the same language or code necessary for the construction and subsequent deconstruction of a page. As argued by Emit Snake-Beings, it is precisely such technology that endows us with ‘the means of emancipation, whilst perpetually delaying its arrival through the emergence of new and absorbing social paradigms’.
These social paradigms derived from the code of the network constitute the second characteristic, for while agency is explicitly exercised at the level of the individual, the interaction or mode of affect between these individuals occurs in spaces where network activity operates under less visible, but equally significant imperatives. It should be noted that Anonymous did not begin as a series of sporadic, disconnected cyber-attacks, but was conceived through an exchange of ideas on the imageboard site 4chan, a space initially built for fans of Japanese popular culture. Modelled after its Japanese counterpart Futaba Channel or 2chan, 4chan’s boards continue to be populated by topics such as anime, manga and other pop culture references.
In addition, 4chan’s omission of a registration system means users can post anonymously, with the understanding that to be anonymous, is to ‘represent the collective whole of 4chan’. Thus, it is from this mix of collectivism and pop culture that the affections of individuals physically isolated from one another could evolve into a politicised consciousness. The use of Guy Fawkes masks — which is in fact loosely based on the historical figure while copied from Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta — by the members of Anonymous clearly demonstrates how despite its apparent autonomy, all user-generated content remains a repetition of techniques and ideas linked to and manufactured by monopolies that the hacktivists claim to resist. Given how technology enables Anonymous to re-present Guy Fawkes as a meme for its own ideals, it becomes possible to think of Anonymous not as an organised form of digital resistance, but more as a faux pas of fandom.
From V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd, 1982 – 1989
To take the above point a step further, let us consider the creativity and pathology of fandom, for although fans have been typically framed as obsessive consumers subjected to the imperatives of consumer culture, their attitudes and behaviours can also be read as an affective synthesis or quasi-agency delimited by the interaction between the simulacra (e.g. the consumable image of an icon or celebrity) and the social, embodied collective of the community. As a direct consequence of pervasive commercialisation, fandom denotes the movement from passive acceptance to passionate acquisition.
Much like the Latin fanaticus, which describes one who is insanely or divinely inspired, fans are recognised both for their seemingly irrational affection toward the work and their creativity at expanding its possibilities, to the extent that such activities are at odds with regulations protecting the rights of the creators. Be it madness or creativity, the work of the fan is in effect, a love to the death, for in re-mixing the work, the fan inevitably silences the voice of author. Like all acts of meaning, it is through the work of the fan that the text gains life in the midst of the author’s death.
As such, the phenomenon of fandom is more of dynamic emergence than deliberate coercion, insofar as producers and content owners fail to direct or even anticipate the actions of fan communities. The same can be said of Anonymous and their use of Guy Fawkes as a symbol of their ideals, for the image of Fawkes used here corresponds to neither the 17th century resistance fighter nor the masked terrorist in Alan Moore’s Vendetta. Rather — and this is evidently the group’s most de-territorialising and self-dissipative stance — anyone can be Fawkes, as long as she or he takes on the mask in resistance. Fawkes is simulated, but not interpreted, and this entails the production of information at the expense of meaning, as profoundly expressed by Jean Baudrillard:
[Simulation] is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes (2).
Total replication of the image ensures the demise of its significance. In allowing Fawkes to be assumed by anyone or anything (including computer screens), Anonymous deprives itself of any substantial identity; its de-territorialisation works to de-territorialise itself. Meaning, in Baudrillard’s terms, the vicissitudes of the real are inadvertently deterred because they are replaced by simulation. Fawkes is pure information. To repeat information, like how it is factitiously copied electronically, is to empty it of all difference, of all meaning. A parallel argument concerning this repeatability is drawn from the writing of Bernard Stiegler:
Information is not in principle repeatable: its repetition is an exhaustion of its value, as opposed to knowledge which, in principle, must be repeated and can never be exhausted through repetition — but is rather, differenced through it. (137)
Regardless of the group’s cyber-attacks and visible demonstrations, the question of their cause and whether they do indeed address the plight of the disenfranchised continues to linger. Yet, what is left if the movement is simply a resistance without an object, without telos? Would it not be a cause that is lost? Perhaps, the hacktivists of Anonymous should remember the beginnings of 4chan: Behind every fandom, lies its object of affections. And to have such an object means that no fan can claim to be the object, precisely because they are affected by the object’s difference.
It is via this object of difference that we can now consider fandom on its own terms, in the sense that it encompasses groups defined according to a particular object. The pop idol then epitomises this living context, or illusion that holds individuals together in a virtual landscape. At the 2013 YouTube Music Awards (YTMA), fans of the South Korean idol group Girls’ Generation staged a coup of algorithmic proportions when they voted the group’s single ‘I Got a Boy’ as the video of the year, ahead of North American acts such as Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and their more internationally acclaimed counterpart PSY. While the bewilderment that followed can be attributed to the fact that K-pop is still regarded as an Asian and hence relatively niche genre, YTMA is to be differentiated from other award shows and competitions because nominees and winners were selected solely on the basis of web metrics. For a particular nominee to win, fans only had to share the video as many times as they could on selected social networking sites before the results were finalised.
Girls’ Generation in the music video for ‘I Got A Boy’
And unlike Anonymous (who with no little irony made a name without a name), it is these rabid fans, who take visible advantage of the internet’s liberal economic model by making the object a catalyst for their decentralised agency. This is not to say that the object is intrinsically meaningful, but by virtue of its otherness, by being placed at a distance, the image of the pop idol captures and makes space for all attempts to signify it. Concerning the object’s affective capacity, Pierre Lévy posits:
‘The object sustains the virtual: de-territorialised, agent of the reciprocal transition from private to public or local to global, not subject to wear, nonexclusive, it traces a situation, bears with it the field of a problematic, the knot of tensions or psychic landscape of the group…Instead of directing our actions, the object can also collapse into a thing, subject or substance, become reified as prey or territory’ (162).
The effects brought about by such a ‘reciprocal transition’ (i.e. affective movement between object and subject) are two-fold. First, it is the formation and recognition of the viral impulse, for in opposition to the vacuous politics of Anonymous, the win by a South Korean group allowed a music market dominated by North American interests to come to terms with the statement made by the fans’ online participation. The voting outcome challenged the isomorphic assumptions between music producers and their audiences; and demonstrated the need of an intensely-connected community to have their passion seen and heard.
Second, and with more profound implications, are the very words spoken by Girls’ Generation member, Tiffany Hwang, as she received the award on behalf of the group: ‘YouTube is my best friend, is YouTube your best friend?’
Her question, read more as a proposition to the fans, is the acknowledgement of the contradiction that Anonymous in spite of their overt political rhetoric have persistently denied: All de-territorialising acts occur within spaces of control and it is only in their opacity, in their increased concealment that locutions of agency and emancipation are endowed with a more vivid and affective hue. Yet, it is in this play of difference, in the interaction between control and agency, that experience strangely becomes more intense and even intimate.
The tragedy for Anonymous in this case, is not an absence of an object as a metaphor for their cause, but the fatal erasure of the object’s difference, of its potential to affect, for if anyone or anything can be Anonymous, then Anonymous ceases to make any difference, since sameness elicits no difference whatsoever. The only recourse we have is the otherness of the object, for it is when the object is set apart that it can touch and arrest us in its difference. Such is the tale of the pop idol, for she reveals herself to us within a mediated space, a space that is as close to her as it is to us. Now, we see that Tiffany was smiling for her adoring fans, but for whom does Guy Fawkes smile?
4chan. 4chan – FAQ. n.d. Web. 17 November 2013. <http://www.4chan.org/faq#anonymous>.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra & Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.
Lévy, Pierre. Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age. New York: Plenum Press, 1998. Print.
Snake-Beings, Emit. “From Ideology to Algorithm: the Opaque Politics of the Internet.” Transformations: Journal of Media & Culture 23 (2013). Web. <http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_23/article_03.shtml>.
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time 2: Disorientation. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.
About the Author:
Joel Gn is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore. His dissertation will critique the aesthetic of cuteness and its relationship to the configuration of desire within a technological space.