you aren't the shit you like

I am sure that you have encountered, in our superheroes and Star Wars-addled world, the phenomenon of an overall positive review of fandom-style movies or shows that nevertheless prompt a ferocious response for not being positive enough. In the comments or on Twitter the defenders of these products will lambast the writer who dared to express insufficient praise for their beloved franchises. In general even the enthusiastic participants in fandom will admit that their world is one of limitless toxicity, grievance, and controversy. This despite the fact that no group has ever been pandered to more aggressively than they have been by the multibillion dollar companies that sell said product. Why?

Famously, the 20th century saw a collapse in meaning. Between the wars and atrocities that were both horrifying and absurd, the rise of philosophies that rejected traditional schools of understanding, the increasingly diminished role of religion in both public and private life, the rise of a counterculture that was better at critiquing the old than in building the new, even scientific developments like relativity and quantum mechanics that seemed to undermine the basic logic of corporeal experience - it became harder to simply exist with a stable identity that you could trust represented your real essence, or so it would seem. Perhaps the superior grasp of the real of ages past is a phantom, but regardless... there's a reason people today want to return to monke.

Into that chaos of meaning came, of course, capitalism. If you can't generate real meaning and psychological security in your life, Amazon would be more than happy to sell it to you. Conveniently or catastrophically, some of the products the market has been happy to sell you in the past 150 years contain what looks like meaning: stories. Humans have been telling stories for as long as we've had language and selling them for almost as long, but before the mid-19th century or so there were greater social, scientific, and economic barriers for mass entertainment than there are now. And the expansion of narrative art into a multiple times a day, every day phenomenon - the way most people in the United States are never not consuming movies or shows or novels or comics - means that they are addictively absorbing content that contains morals, aesthetics, attitude, the kind of things that feel like meaning. Unfortunately this can have the effect of fooling oneself into think that consuming these representations of meaning is the same thing as having meaning, of feeling one has a meaning-driven life.

Now here we have to be careful. It is of course more than legitimate to derive meaning from art - that is art's first and most important function, the exploration and creation of meaning. (Entertainment is like fifth or sixth.) Narrative art that has no stance on fundamental questions about human life can be fun but will always be shallow. There's nothing wrong whatsoever with being a person that's a Dr. Who fan that learns lessons from that show and whose sense of morals or philosophy or aesthetics are influenced by that show. The problems start when "Dr. Who fan" comes before "person," when they start to think that liking that show is in and of itself a meaningful definition of their whole person. When the morals and lessons of narrative art cease to be fodder for exploration of one's deeper self and instead a proxy for a missing self.

I think a lot of nerds have fallen into the trap of thinking that liking Marvel movies is a personality. They have steeped themselves so fully inside these products that they have come to think of them when they think of themselves. "I love it so much, it must be me." And this is a mistake. Liking Star Wars simply isn't a solid foundation for your personality; the human psyche needs more fundamental codes and commitments to work with. Star Wars isn't in your control, so if you give yourself up to it and someone does something with it that you don't like, your whole world gets rocked. Ask the people who hated The Last Jedi. And these properties, no matter how sophisticated they are, or how beloved they are, just can't contain enough substance to anchor a sense of self.

There's a lesson that I wish all people could learn: you can love something, but it doesn't have to love you back. Star Wars does not give a shit about you and it never, ever will. Star Wars is a division of a massive multinational corporation and both the division and the corporation have one and only one objective, ever, now and in the future: the accumulation of money. It will sell you product to get your money and it will pay people a lot of money to make sure that the product stimulates something inside of you that feels like love. But it's not love. It's pure exploitation. Star Wars thinks you're a mark, and if you get too emotionally invested in it, you are.

Some will no doubt think I am ridiculing these people, that I'm throwing stones at nerds again and calling them stupid. But my intent is the opposite: I'm trying to argue that this tendency causes people instability and pain and they should look elsewhere for meaning. Like I said, this is not really something they've done. Capital sold this lifestyle to you. Disney invests mountains of treasure to get people to care this deeply about the commodities it sells. Never forget that these companies want you to care too much. And it really is hard to live in a time where everything feels unmoored. But, if you'll forgive me, this is not the way.

The social consequences are significant. After all, when you come to so identify with a major commercial franchise that you see your attachment as existential, you can't possibly have perspective. You can't be rational. You can't be mature. Some movie reviewer giving the latest Marvel spectacle an A- isn't expressing slightly less than total admiration, they're slandering Marvel, and since you think you're Marvel movies, they're slandering you. If you think you're Steven Universe then somebody on Tumblr who doesn't like Steven Universe isn't just a guy with a different opinion, or even just wrong. They must be a racist and a homophobe and a pedophile. If you think you're Star Wars, and then a movie comes out that rejects your vision of what Star Wars is supposed to be, then it's not enough to write an unkind review. You have to send death threats to Rian Johnson. You don't dislike the character of Rose Tico. You think Kelly Marie Tran deserves to fear for her physical safety in real life.

I wish I had a pat answer for what to do instead. Grasping for meaning - usually while drenching yourself in irony so that no one knows that that's what you doing, these days - is universal. I will risk offending another very touchy subset of the internet by saying that I think many people turn to social justice politics and their prescriptivist politics, the notion that your demographic identifiers define you, out of motives very similar to the people I've been describing. There are readymade vehicles for acquiring meaning, from Catholicism to New Age philosophy to anarchism, that may very well create the solid ground people are looking for, I don't know. I suspect that the best answer for more people would be to return to an idea that is very out of fashion: that you are what you do. You are your actions, not what you consume, what you say, or what you like.

It's cool to name the bands you like to friends. It's cool to be proud of your record collection. I'm sure it's fun to create lists for Letterboxd. But those things don't really say anything about you. Not really. Millions of people like all the things you like, after all. And trying to build a personality out of the accumulation of these things makes authentic appreciation impossible. I think it's time to look elsewhere, as much as I admit that it would be nice if it worked.