Philosophy as Fan Labor?

It isn’t that I mind academic detachment. After all, I was impressed and shaken by Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us”:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

I even remember some of the poem decades after I encountered it in high school.

Still, I do mind being in total ignorance of a vast kind of creative output. In case you share the ignorance and would like not to, try the Wikipedia entry on Fan Labor:

Fan labor is a term used to refer to the productive creative activities engaged in by fans, primarily those of various media properties or musical groups.[1][2] These activities can include creation of written works (fictional, fan fictional and review literature), visual or computer-assisted art, music, or applied arts and costuming.

Although fans invest significant time creating their products, and fan-created products are “often crafted with production values as high as any in the official culture,”[3] most fans provide their creative works as amateurs, for others to enjoy without requiring or requesting monetary compensation. Fans respect their gift economy culture and are often also fearful that charging other fans for products of their creativity will somehow fundamentally change the fan-fan relationship, as well as attract unwanted legal attention from copyright holders. The skills that fans hone through their fan works may be marketable, and some fans find employment through their fan works.

Of course, I should think we’re all aware of instances of fan labor; even much of philosophy could be counted as fan labor, I suppose. But the really vast output was somehow shielded from my ken. That stopped when I started to follow the links on Rachel Smith Corbleigh’s comments on Magic’s post here.

Now, is philosophy as it is done today often fan labor? If we borrow terms from descriptions of Fan Fiction, then surely a case can be made. The journals are full of articles that pick up a theme in someone else’s work and modify or expand (or both) them.

To see philosophy in this way might trivialize the whole idea of fan labor. Or it might give us some different ways of thinking about the disciplines. For example, what in philosophy might be the analogue of good fan fiction?

13 thoughts on “Philosophy as Fan Labor?

  1. Hahah, it’s funny you bring this up, because I spent a lot of my adolescence partaking in internet fan culture (specifically the Harry Potter fandom). So I know a little bit about fan labor.

    There are a couple of aspects of fan culture that immediately seem to have analogues in philosophy to me:

    1. Both philosophy and fandom have a canon, though it’s a little different in philosophy. In fandom, canon is the established, created by the creator work that the fandom is concerned with. But the lines of what is canon and what is not get a little blurry with some fandoms that have very large universes and works that take place in those universes but don’t necessarily concern the main characters/weren’t created by the main creators. Prime examples of this are the Star Wars expanded universe and a lot of the non-TV Doctor Who media. Debates about expanding the canon in philosophy are a little like debates in fandom about what should and shouldn’t be counted as canon from these broader universes.

    2. Alternate Universe fanfiction is where you take your characters out of their universe in canon and plop them down in another setting/universe. An example of this is the Lion King, which you could say is a Hamlet AU with lions. To me, taking historical figures in philosophy and applying what they have to say to things they would have never encountered in their day (taking anyone who died prior to to the 1980’s and making them talk about the internet, for example) is like a philosophy AU.

  2. Stephanie, thanks! Worth thinking about. I suppose there are also similar disputes about what is an acceptable extension. The new Sherlock Holmes series which places him in various centuries does not get everyone’s approval. Maybe similarly, versions of Hume can cause some unhappiness, as with Aristotle, etc., etc.

  3. Kristie Dotson has an extended treatment of the idea of Philosophy as Fan Fiction, which is really excellently developed. I heard her present a paper on this at the Canadian Philosophical Association in Canada, and it was her argument, if I remember correctly, that most philosophical writing is fanfic, especially the sort of the “what Kant would do about [ethics topic]” variety. Okay, I’m projecting on that last part, but her point was, a lot of the feverish study of what a previous Great Philosophy might say/do based on his texts and world-construction is just straight-up fanfic. It was awesome. Her presentation reminded me very strongly of the first time I saw the documentary, Trekkies, and it hit me that all professional philosophers are basically Trekkies. Jeez, we even have cons and show up more or less in uniform.

  4. Gosh, things can move so quickly these days.
    I think that in some ways current responses to current philosophy is even more fanfic. Some/most-recent historians are well aware of turning hist of phil into fiction. I don’t see a comparabl awareness re contemporary philosophy.

  5. I am a retired philosophy faculty person and one of my primary critiques of philosophy has always been what I called the “parasitic” nature of much of philosophy produced today. I longed for and sometimes wrote what I called “original” philosophical thought. *I am not sure if this maps onto “fandom” as generally understood.* In my view, one explanation for this characteristic of contemporary philosophy is that many journals require it for publication. When I have submitted more or less original thought, the journal required I “rehearse” the arguments that came before on whatever topic I was addressing, whether or not there were prior works on the same topic. I eventually gave up on trying to publish what I thought of as new and creative ideas. Not all journals are like this, of course, but the prestigious ones, the ones that glide the way to tenure, for the most part, sure seem to be aspects of “fandom.”

  6. Eli, thanks for the reference.
    As I said to Kate, good historians of science tend to avoid so using historical figures, though I have seen some very important exceptions to this regarding ‘representation’ which is used in a sense very indebted to 20th century thought, I’ve argued many times. Still, you can find essayson Aquinas on representation in this modern sense, etc.

    I agree there’s an important question of honesty here.

  7. Thanks! I’ve been tracking this sort of thing whenever I see it, this way that people turn dead thinkers into weird sock-puppet things. A few more examples:

    -Deploying the idea of Aquinas as some kind of all-knowing genie who would be able to tell a child what airplanes are for (despite the fact that, obviously, Aquinas died well before there was such a thing as an airplane, let alone an airline industry, etc.)
    -Referring to Plato’s “unstinted energy…the wild nomadic play of his fancy [and] the joy which he found in life in all its unredeemed and adventurous complexity,” as if any living person was Plato’s personal friend

    You get the idea. This also happens in politics whenever people evoke “the Founding Fathers” in order to explain their position on, say, global warming or the regulation of automatic weapons or whatever. In that case, as in the philosophical case, there’s no way that we could possibly know what those specific dead people would’ve thought. Insofar as that sort of argument gets made at all, it can only work by first mythologizing the dead person/people in question and then extending (or, at least, attempting to extend) the canon of that myth – which, basically, makes it fanfiction, albeit of a somewhat unusual and unintentional sort.

  8. Arguably ancient Socratic dialogues, by Plato and others, are themselves a form of Socrates fan-fiction (and it’s hard to read ancient epistolography, such as the Letters of the Socratics, as anything else). The genre has a long history in philosophical writing, so perhaps not unreasonable for contemporary philosophers to continue with it.

  9. There are a lot of good points being made.

    It would be good to come up with a list of criteria by which to clarify this all. I suppose it would be good to start with a definition of ‘fan fiction’.

    Turning to google….

  10. Cultural Studies scholars and literary crit scholars have been working this out for a while.

  11. Kate, that is really interesting. Perhaps cultural appropriation as fanfiction. It is interesting that that difference in labels reverses – it seems to me – any suggestions of superiority in power (or whatever) of the appropriator.

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