Monday, February 17, 2014

On Fan Culture, Alternative Interpretations, Authorial Intent

So I spent this past weekend at Katsucon, and I came back with a few casual, related, but not necessarily connected thoughts on fan culture, fan theories, and criticism, so here goes.

Fan culture is based first of all on the work in centers around, but then, in what I’d say is equal prominence, our reactions to those works. This is why we have conventions like Katsucon or Otakon to go to. It’s about us as fans. Making costumes of our favorite characters to wear around. Drawing our favorite characters, maybe with a personalized twist, and selling the drawing to other fans. Going to panels and talking about our favorite shows, or our least favorite shows, etc. Talking about which characters would work in which other universes they don’t exist in.[1]

And yet, if you start talking about a popular show, game, movie, what have you, there are inevitably a lot of fan theories about what might’ve actually been going on early in the game, and then there’s always someone who can reassure us that “I don’t think that’s what they were going for,” and all of a sudden your theory that Ultemecia is actually the Bad Future version of Rinoa is just dead in the water.

What’s weird there is that what we’re talking about there is authorial intent, but again, this entire culture that we as fans have constructed to contextualize our enjoyment of a work is based on how we feel about it. It’s about Final Fantasy VII and it’s about us, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked about that game with random folk and people didn’t even know who Hironobu Sakaguchi or Yoshinori Kitase even are.

I’m guilty of this too, certainly. In my defense, a lot of these alternative theories about what’s going on in these works tend to be heavily based on what events are actually taking place, and in those cases they tend to actually undermine the things that might be dramatically or thematically interesting.

For example, that theory about FFVII where supposedly Cloud actually killed Aeris by drowning her in lifestream because supposedly Sephiroth stabbing her that way wouldn’t actually work like that? [Except it totally would.]

If we take the events at face value, what we have is this:

1)      Sephiroth is so powerful that he can actually break the rules of the system that you as the player have to abide by. He is the only character who can cause permadeath, to put it simply.
2)      Assuming that the game has gotten us invested in the main cast of characters, we are filled the same anger towards Sephiroth and the same thirst for vengeance.

If you take those away, the moment doesn’t have nearly as much impact. And this is what a lot of alternative reads feel like to me.

But at the very least, invoking authorial intent is at best, a dangerous game to be playing and at worst completely, completely invalid.

Suffice to say that some of the weirder theories have been discredited by the artists outright, but that doesn’t actually kill the legitimacy of the interpretation. Especially since the artist(s) could be completely lying. James Howell taught me that little gem, which is awesome to remember, especially since artists can claim intent over an interpretation of their work that they weren’t actually going for, therefore making them look like total geniuses.

And let’s not forget that if we start invoking authorial intent than intersectional socioeconomic criticism of games is completely dead. You remember how Bioshock: Infinite kinda wanted to be anti-racist but then actually ended up being incredibly, mind-bogglingly racist instead? What if Ken Levine just came out and said “Here is what I was trying to say about race in Bioshock: Infinite,” and we just had to sit and listen to him because, well, he’s the artist, the game and how people view it is his domain?

For what it’s worth, what I’m saying, that we should disregard what the artists say about what they intended to do with their work? It’s not at all radical at this point. New Criticism and Reader Response theory are both decades older than me and totally reject authorial intent.[2]

So there’s that, and then we come back to the part where in particular this fan culture is based around fans. In what way then does it make sense to discuss what an artist’s intent was when we were never really particularly interested in the artist more so than the art itself to begin with?

Now that’s a particularly harsh and reductive interpretation of how fan cultures tend to view works, but I guess I have two points I want this to emerge with.

1)      Authorial Intent is dumb and talking about it is dumb.
2)      In particular the weird fan reads of Final Fantasy VIII I find to be particularly interesting to think about lately, so I’m going to start writing about those interpretations in relation to more straightforward thematic reads of the game, as well as Cameron Kunzleman’s aforementioned short interpretative piece on the game.

            In any case, thanks as always for reading. Hope to be back later this week with those FFVIII articles.

- Austin C. Howe, Maryland, 2014

[1] Definitely the thing that made me smile the most was a drawing of one the MLP:FiM gang chilling with a pony version of Dr. Who
[2] Google “The Death of the Author” for more insight on this.


  1. I do believe that theories which resonate with me have privilege over those who do not. Those interpretations which are dramatically or thematically interesting, while still feeling true and plausable, are those I usually go for. Sometimes I reach for them so much that it feels like wishful thinking even, seeing how something is so close to being awesome, yet failing to realize the potential of the rich texture of the material, since obviously my interpretation feels strained and thus the artist probably never was clear enough about hir intentions concerning aforementioned themes/texturing/juxtapositions.

    In one chapter of "Inception and Philosophy" the author argues that one should use the principle of charity when interpreting a work which has the problem of undetermination of information (which honestly is every work, not only hard-to-grasp pieces such as Inception, although it makes a point out of being such a piece). Meaning - we should assume the artist does not make stupid mistakes, but that the work in itself is complete somehow, a success. The author then argues that the "it was all a dream" theory of Inception makes the most sense, since so many conventions are being repurposed in service of the story, while expecting consistency (due to the principle of charity) gives us reason to prefer the interpretation that treats those "repurposed techniques" (otherwise known as flaws in the movie, bad editing, one-dimensional characters, etc) as something that motivates the narrative, rather than just worn-out movie tricks. The author also reaches out to compare the movie with other movies with the actors of the movies and the the directors other movies etc, and comes to the conclusion that the flaws of the movies probably are there intentionally, and if they weren't, the principle of charity tells us we should act as if they were.

    I think it's an interesting perspective!

    1. I've never actually heard of the principal of charity, but that makes a lot of sense to me.
      In fact, I kinda like it when there are a few minute holes of ambiguity that let's us play around in an interpretative playground. When that happens, you get a game like FFVIII where there are so many possibilities, and a lot of them add genuine depth because they play in to what the game is already about on the surface.