Fan Theories and the Boundaries of Critical Practice: A response to Jon Negroni’s response to Josh Spiegel

Friends theory tweet

[This post was initially intended as a comment in response to Jon Negroni’s piece on fan theories and film discourse, which in turn was a response to Josh Spiegel’s article claiming that the former are destroying the latter. As usual, however, my long-windedness got the better of me, so I decided to post it on its own.]

Hey Jon.

First, I’d like to point out the irony of using a point-by-point analysis to refute the claim that fan theorists can’t engage in that type of deep-dive examination of a text. Touché.

Second, you might want to check out David Bordwell’s discussion of Room 237, in which he compares the conventional operations of the fan theories of The Shining presented in the documentary with the conventional operations of orthodox journalistic and academic criticism. I won’t rehearse his entire argument since he makes it far better than I ever could, but a few points are worth mentioning.

Bordwell’s basic claim is that fan theorists use many of the “same reasoning routines that we find in consensus critical writing,” namely, that all critical analysis involves “making inferences based on discrete cues we detect in the film” in order to formulate a coherent interpretation. Both orthodox and unorthodox readings pay attention to the text in similar ways, so that the “cues we pick out and what inferences we draw vary a lot, but the process of inference making tends to follow certain conventions.”

Contrary to Spiegel’s claims that they leave the text to one side, like most journalistic and academic analysis many fan theories are “based directly on what’s present in the text,” extrapolating from hidden cues, or patterns of hidden cues, in order to build an interpretive argument. They require quite a bit of attention to the text in question in the same way that a “deep-dive” analysis does. The difference between fan theories and the type of critical analysis Spiegel seems to be advocating for is the type of evidence they rely on, the nature of the cues that trigger their inferences. Fan theories tend to rely on very subtle cues, things that are not obviously available to a watching audience, but have to be hunted for, pulled out of the text, excavated through repeated close viewings. They rely, as Bordwell argues, on cues that are less salient than those that the mainstream reviewer or analyst tends to marshal in defence of an interpretation.

Shining Detail
A tiny detail used in one of the Room 237 theories.

And this is why fan theories can seem outlandish, because “patterns and associations are more plausible if they’re readily detectable” and don’t have to be laboriously pulled from the text. If a reading is based on a tiny detail of mise-en-scene it is harder to credit than one based on an extended series of lines of dialogue or imagistic references according to the conventions of orthodox criticism. Film analysis and fan theories both consistently point back to the text, there is just a tendency in the former to restrict itself to those elements of the text that are both more obvious and more seemingly integral to the narrative or thematic complex of the film.

Spiegel uses the term “vagueness” to describe the logical operations of fan theories. But fan theories are rarely vague. They tend to be quite direct about their interpretive thrust. Claiming that all Pixar movies are connected is not vague, nor is the evidence you use to support it, or the logical operations you use in the process of building that support. Detecting common patterns and associations across a text (or a number of texts in your case) is the same logical operation that a great deal of film analysis is founded on. As Bordwell argues, the “cue-inference method and the use of association to create patterns aiming at referential and implicit meanings are involved in all interpretations, staid or unorthodox.” Where the two part company is in the restrictions they place on both parts of the process, Pixar Postcardwith fan theories not only open to less salient cues, but to greater, more imaginative inferential leaps. An orthodox critic probably wouldn’t rely on a postcard seen momentarily in the background as a piece of evidence (if they even noticed it), nor would they infer a direct connection between Toy Story 3 and Up because of it. But the logical process is the same.

Pixar TheorySome may argue that the minutiae, the small details of single shots in single scenes that you press into the service of creating the Pixar Theory are insufficient grounds on which to build a claim as sweeping as contending that all the studio’s films are connected not just by being made under the same institutional auspices, but by a diegetic thread – a common universe, not just a common company. What these arguments elide is both that the evidentiary threshold for fan theories and journalistic or academic analysis is not the same, and that fan theories are actually participating in a kind of close reading of those textual cues that escape orthodox analysis precisely because they fall below its evidentiary threshold.

The idea that fans celebrate this kind of excess is not new. Jeffrey Sconce has argued that fans of cult cinema revel in textual excess, those elements of a film that seem to not quite fit, to push against the creation of a unified, fictional universe, or, in Kristen Thompson’s formulation, the “non-diegetic aspects of the image.” For Sconce, this is an overtly oppositional fan practice, since excess often presents itself as a failure to build a convincing cinematic world, as a slip in codes of realism, as an anachronism, or anything else that points to the constructed nature of the text, so that fans are celebrating the opposite of what conventional criticism usually values. Paying attention to excess “provides freedom from constraint, an opportunity to approach films with a fresh and slightly defamiliarized perspective,” allowing fans to read “against the grain” of orthodox analysis, challenging its basic assumptions about what constitutes a valuable object of study and how that object should be studied once located.

Sconce and other theorists of cult fan activities have been criticized for suggesting such fan practices are inherently oppositional, since there are any number of counter-examples that suggest fandom is a highly conservative practice. But what’s interesting about the Pixar Theory’s uses of excess is not only that it doesn’t bear the traces of oppositional politics, but that it folds those cinematic cues you cite back into the diegetic impulse, into the attempt to build and sustain an expansive, coherent fictional universe – precisely what excess is meant to diverge from. In some ways Spiegel’s fan fiction analogy is more apt than you give it credit for, because a great deal of fan fiction is founded on a similar operation – taking the gaps in a narrative, or those pieces of information that seem excessive, and using them to build up the fictional world the film initially supplied.

In other cases, fan theories will call on the same type of salient cues that an orthodox critic might cite in their analysis but press those cues into the service of creating an entirely unorthodox, “against the grain” reading, and this seems to be the root of Spiegel’s disdain.

His objection isn’t only to the process or to the kinds of evidence fan theories use, but to the nature of the deductive leap, that fan theories place no boundaries on the type of inferences they’re willing to make, which seems to him to mean that there is no logic involved at all; Fan theories are too capricious in the associations they make, too ready to dismiss rational inference-making despite dressing their arguments in the rhetoric of logic. I agree that there is a strange opposition in some fan theories between a rigorous evidentiary argument, the felt need to supply a great deal of support for their claims (yours is probably the most exemplary in this case), and occasionally outlandish conclusions. For Spiegel, this seems to be a form of false advertising – the process seems logical but results in the illogical. It’s a series of vague, imaginative leaps, passed off as a logical argument that is attempting to convince us of a fundamental truth and it must be exposed as merely the rantings of an obsessive with too much time on their hands (a fairly common image of the irrational fan, which is a whole other kettle of fish that I could call him out on) dressed in analyst’s clothing. You’re pulling the wool over our eyes and must be stopped! Shame on you Negroni! Shame!

In addition to giving far too little credit to film fans, who are really quite capable of making the distinction between conventional analysis and fan theories, fans rarely make truth claims in their theories. They engage in readings of texts, but rarely claim that those readings are the correct, singular meaning of the text, or that it was the meaning that the filmmakers intended (but that most people haven’t been astute enough to have noticed). Fan theories are rarely responded to by the filmmakers (with a “Thank God someone finally noticed this!” or “That’s complete bullshit!”), because filmmakers and audiences alike quite rightly realize that fan theories are exercises in imaginative extrapolations, not attempts to convince their readers of the singular rightness of their approach.

I don’t entirely blame Spiegel. While academic and journalistic analyses put restrictions on their inference-making, they nonetheless often rely on inferences that seem logical but are not adequately supported. His complaint that fan theories leave out anything that might counter their arguments, and that they don’t think critically “about the built-in imperfections of even their favorite films,” is a problem in academic criticism as well, in which counter-examples are also often elided in favour of prototype films, and theories inherited from seminal figures go unquestioned despite their built-in imperfections. I take issue with academics that straightforwardly make claims for the underlying Oedipal trajectory of a narrative using a “cue-inference” logical process that stretches a series of small cues in a text into a coherent reading in a way I don’t take issue with you because you’re not playing the same interpretive game.

I make something of a hobby of holding film theorists to account for the evidentiary basis of their arguments and have repeatedly stressed the mantra “start with the text” in a critical environment that tends to rush too quickly into interpretation, into the attempt to find meaning, before looking closely at what the text they’re trying to read is actually doing. I understand the frustrations involved with engaging in an academic film discourse that tends to pay too little attention to the text in question in favour of the theories used to interpret it. But that objection is not fairly made when it comes to fan theories, since they don’t belong to the institutions of academic or journalistic analysis and are therefore not subject to their constraints.

While you are quite right to suggest that Spiegel offers little evidence to support his claims that fan theories have come to dominate popular film discourse in the process of bemoaning the lack of evidence fan theorists employ, what troubles me most is the underlying assumption that some responses to film are of more value than others because they engage in some sort of elevated discourse or set of logical procedures. I have made the argument against this position before and therefore will not repeat it here, save to say that Spiegel adheres to a common conception of artistic and discursive value when he suggests that analysis should focus on “themes,” on what films can tells us about ourselves, about the world around us, or about the institution of cinema itself, and therefore on a reflectionist thesis whose inferential leaps are often (if to a lesser degree than fan theories) lacking in a solid evidentiary base. I rarely address these kinds of questions, but can hardly be accused of not engaging in the type of “deep-dive exploration into one aspect of a film” Spiegel calls for. I did write an entire post on a single editing figure in Marvel’s Daredevil after all.

I understand the impulse to put boundaries around the definition of critical activity, around what it means to analyse, and putting boundaries around a concept often means finding a counter to your ideal, a rhetorical foil that makes defining what analysis is easier by defining what it isn’t. Fan theories seem to play that role for Spiegel. But those boundaries can exclude the type of cogent, reasoned arguments Spiegel seems to favour simply because they don’t confine to whatever the current definition of what constitutes proper analysis happens to be, as much as they can exclude the seemingly silly in order to valorize the apparently serious.

To suggest that fan theories are destroying film discourse is to implicitly devalue one form of engagement with film in favour of another. While the operation is a familiar one, since there will always be struggles over what constitutes correct speech in debates in which being allowed to speak (or speak loudest) conveys a certain degree of power on the critic, I find the suggestion that the exclusion of a particular voice from any discussion would improve it rather curious.

Fan theories offer a different mode of interpretive engagement, using similar reasoning but subscribing to different constraints on that reasoning. Because they make claims that could have no place in mainstream criticism, and inferential leaps that would be dismissed in academic analytical practice, they actually expand the parameters of film discourse. And those parameters could be expanded even further if Spiegel were to consider what fan theories actually do – how they make use of the texts they read, what kinds of cues they consider valuable compared to orthodox criticism, how they engage in or revise other fan practices – rather than dismissing them outright. Start with the text.

As Bordwell more succinctly puts it, “fans like to think and talk about their love, and anything that gives them the occasion is welcome, no matter what any establishment thinks.”

References:

David Bordwell, “All play and no work? ROOM 237,” Observations on film art, April 7, 2013, http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2013/04/07/all-play-and-no-work-room-237/

jeffrey Sconce, “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style,” in Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik eds. The Cult Film Reader (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2008), 100-118.

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