Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Does worldbuilding have value? Or is it a subcultural "disease"?

This morning I read an article entitled "The disease of geek pride - worldbuilding and cultural appropriation." Frankly, I found the article interesting and yet ultimately unsatisfying. The author flamboyantly criticizes the worldbuilders of the geek culture as people who simply want to create "a bunch of useless made-up trivia" and invest them with special value whose validity is restricted to the geek culture itself. The author does mention that worldbuilding to serve a story idea or thought experiment has value, but resumes criticism when it comes to those worlds they've seen where cultures are "appropriated," i.e. used with less than full knowledge and treated as exotic, etc.

All right, yes, indeed. Some of these points are worth looking at a second time.

Worldbuilding, the author argues, " not culture, because it doesn’t contribute anything to any culture at large and generally relevant not even to all of SFF nerds, but to a select group: the specific fandom of a specific author or franchise." I understand this as saying that the cultures of worlds created by geeks don't contribute anything to real world cultures. This is a problem for me. Sure, thousands of worlds may be created that never make any impact on the larger culture of America or the real world as a whole. On the other hand, it's clear from looking at the enormous global popularity of certain worlds, like those of Rowling or Roddenberry or Lucas or Tolkien, that fictional worlds can and do have an influence on the larger culture. Their words get integrated into our language. Words coined by authors can be used by people who no longer even understand the story or the world in which they originated. The stamp of literature, both popular and classic, remains in our imaginations and in our language. The fact that this does not happen with all worlds ever created by anyone is unsurprising. In the world of inventions, or of songwriters, many inventions or songs fly by without notice, but some become so important they leave a lasting mark in the larger culture.

The author further argues that what's important to the worldbuilders they criticize is quantity over quality. Essentially, that a geek worldbuilder is more interested in every single last thought that Tolkien has had on a subject than in the quality of what was created. I've certainly heard people wax lyrical on Tolkien's virtues. I admire the man immensely, myself, because he was treading a path that no one else had, creating a work of art in the form of a language and animating it with culture and story. Sure, we can question his work in various ways, and ask how it might be more well-integrated, or better serve a particular cultural purpose, but essentially it is a work of art, and an extremely innovative one for its time. The question of how someone becomes inspired to create works of art has always interested me, and reading widely of that person's works, even of their notes, seems like something that might give some insight. The possibility that there might be any valuable motivation behind the avid consumption of a worldbuilder's works, thoughts, and notes is not considered by the author of the article.

Then there's the question of quality in the worlds created in this special group of worldbuilders. The author says, "it’s mostly gibberish, in long it’s identikit claptrap put together from a patchwork of sources that are themselves derivative. It’s a derivation of a derivation." The funny thing about this one is, it reminds me of the kind of thing I used to put together when I was first experimenting with worldbuilding. The first secret alphabets I ever used, which were substitution codes for our own alphabet. The first secret languages I created, which were substitution codes for English. And the names, oh, the names I made, all of which had accents on them! I wasn't so big into apostrophes, but I think you take my point: I was a learner. And indeed, I still consider myself a learner. Learners begin with imitation, and work their way up. Sometimes they get farther than others. But when you think about it, everything we ever do or say is derivative. I always thought of academic papers more as chorus performances where I was the conductor, using other people's words like instruments, bringing out some notes and keeping others more quiet, and then putting my own little flourishes on top. There is a process involved, of discovery and pushing further into what can be accomplished in worldbuilding. Still, though, I think it's important to keep thinking of it as an art form, because some people doodle with pencils, and others take pencils and create masterpieces. This doesn't mean that picking up a pencil and doodling (for hours, even!) is an activity to be scorned.

Apparently, though, geek culture itself is scorn-worthy. I wonder about this, honestly. Geek culture does get a lot of criticism from people entirely outside the sf/f area. And I can see the author's point that it makes little sense to claim (apparently stridently) that one's own canon of great works is better than The Great Works that have been recognized by history and by academia. "Better", though, is a very vague word. If it's a question of value within the subculture, of points gained by mention of one thing or another in conversation with a peer, I know I'd prefer to mention a part of the in-group canon rather than something outside. And in response to outsiders telling me that my preferred art form has no value, I don't doubt I'd get a bit defensive. Yes, I'd probably try not to mention works of outside literature that I haven't read as part of my argument, but still.

Cultural myopia is easy to criticize, but really it's the default state. It's hard to "see" one's own culture, to hear one's own accent, without having experienced others first. And since culture comes on multiple nested levels, one can argue that we'll ever entirely escape. This is why Sheila Finch and I have often argued that actual communication with aliens is unlikely to be achievable. The fundamental assumptions that we have about communication are so embedded in our cultures, and in our own world, that we struggle to see outside the bubble. Let me make clear: the outside view is always worth striving for, but it's a case of bubbles within bubbles - and depending on the social context, expressing an in-group membership has far more social value than an external viewpoint.

The author of the article also argues that people should strive for a viewpoint that is not limited by cultural frame. When taking on the question of cultural appropriation, they argue that "the root cause is geek culture, geek pride (and also the white western hegemony, but that is a given): the tendency to latch onto “cool” stuff without delving any further than that." I'll agree here. Delve further. Look for the meta-view, and at the same time, strive for the details. But then the article goes into criticizing authors for not getting their cultures right. Honestly, I'm in two minds about this one. One side says, "If you're not going to get it right, don't do it at all." The other side says, "If you don't do it at all, you're losing an opportunity." Are we going to argue that an author should never try to portray a country that he or she does not know as a native? Will we argue that an author should never try to portray a character who does not belong to his or her own culture (or subulture)? Why, then we'd be pushing people toward an even more culturally myopic form of storytelling than ever. When Paolo Bacigalupi states in an afterword that the culture he's portraying is a futuristic imagining of Thailand rather than Thailand itself, that to me suggests he's doing something like what ethnographic researchers do - which is to say, including in their work some indication of the cultural perspective out of which it came, so that readers can understand clearly what kind of limitations the research might have as a result. I'm not saying that there is no urge to seize on the cool without thinking about what lies beneath, but part of what happens when you include elements of an unfamiliar culture is that you can make people curious to learn more. Yes, the portrayal of the Other is problematic - that's been said by many more people than me. Yes, we should strive for more depth. To my mind, though, if we want those things, we shouldn't heap insults on those people who are taking steps into this arena. Perhaps some are only looking for shiny things, as this author implies. But some are being daring, opening a door into a world that few have yet experienced, giving them an opportunity to ask more should they choose to (and we'd hope they would choose to, but we can't make them). Doing their best to bring something of the real, with respect, into a fictional work, and opening themselves to derision of their artistic creation and efforts.

There is another culture being indirectly referred to here, in fact, and that is the culture being enacted by the writer of the article (and, yes, by this author). That is the culture of internet criticism. I suppose internet criticism is part of the larger culture of criticism (literary, pop cultural, etc.). There is a distinctive stream in criticism - more strongly in internet criticism, I think, but also in criticism as a whole - that glories in the spice of language, and in particular relies on the use of flamboyant language and insult to spice up a rhetorical argument. The author of the article I've cited here is engaging actively in that subculture, and here's an example:

"Prepare to drown in a deluge of mindless praise for Tolkien’s Finnish copypasta, the maps, the letters, the unpublishable writing that gets published anyway because the Tolkien Estate is hungry for cash, the minutiae in the appendices and basically, the verbal vomit of his “legendarium” (and this word will crop up a lot: when you see it, run)."

I think that we've all been done a service when someone engages a valuable question, as this author has. However, I had to fight through a deluge of aspersions such as "mindless," "vomit" and "diarrhea" in order to get to the value there was in the article. And furthermore, the author's advance declarations of not caring if someone "throws a fit" in response call into question their desire for any reasonable engagement with these arguments.

I hope that we can see beyond the subculture, and do better than that.