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Sat, Jun. 13th, 2009, 04:54 pm
Transformers and pop culture

Am just reading through this: More Than Meets Few Eyes At All by Micheal Peterson.

This isn't about his column itself (i'm reading it at the moment, and it's exactly what i'm arguing for below), just a couple of things referenced within it inspired me to post. From the blurb for "The Philosophy of Transformers":

"Transformers began with toys and a cartoon series in 1984 and has since grown to include comic books, movies, and video games"

This is kind of an odd sentence, considering that the recent spate of comic books, movies, and video games are all basically marketing tools for each other, released in a deliberately co-ordinated way (the earlier Marvel comics and full-length cartoon movies have a similar pedigree, just in an earlier era). And this has implications, for the wider culture, for the fan response, and for the interpretation of these things (in some cases - e.g. the prematurely released sixth Tomb Raider game (which was notoriously un-finished, because it had to coincide with the marketing for the second movie), it has direct effects on the nature and quality of the piece of pop culture that is produced).

"X began with doodles and flim flams back in nineteen dickety-two, and has since expanded to include flobsops, bangs, and didlywonts." Usually, sentences of this format are intended to make you think, "Wow, this thing started as some piece of art, and then was so inspiring to other artistic creators, that it led to a diaspora of other interpretations!"

But this wasn't inspiring to artistic creators! It might have inspired somebody, if we abolished corporate control over copyright and intellectual property law. But we haven't. So nobody sat down and said, "Oh, wow, i am really compelled to use my video game talents to produce my own interpretation of this world!" They sat down, and said, "Oh wow, my boss just negotiated for the rights to produce something to tie-in with this movie release to push up box office sales - i'd better make-up some crap quick-smart to meet that deadline! And be sure that the characters match the toys Hasbro are producing!" The computer games weren't made by amateur fans! The comic books weren't released by slash authors! Everything was licensed, timed, and controlled by a stultifying commercial attitude to what ought to be public domain fantasy.

A guy called David Willis observes: "perhaps being a marketing gimmick is part of Transformers' longevity. It's free to reinvent itself whenever it feels like it so as to keep itself viable..."

This is another use of language you often see in reference to pop culture: "The text reinvents itself." I'm sure this one sentence doesn't completely sum up the guy's opinions, but the passive-voice language used to describe "cultural texts" nowadays has me a little bit worried. Willis is just providing a convenient example.

My problem with this phrasing is that Transformers didn't "reinvent itself". It was "reinvented"; it is not a subjective actor, it is an object, it is made by subjective actors. Texts have an author, and those authors have motives and influence over the things they create, and a role in the culture that reacts to them. In some cases, texts have authors who have been hired to produce something slick on the whim of some higher up with no particular creative talent (but a lot of monetary talent). These factors have real world effects, and they tell you something about your society, and the people around you! You've got to at least acknowledge this, to be at all capable of comprehending "pop culture." You can't just claim "death of the author" and ignore them (and i have seen/read this being done). Derrida would be spinning in his grave!

What is interesting is that these facts mean that Willis is precisely wrong - Transformers is emphatically not "free to reinvent itself" over time; it's only "reinventable" if you hire a lawyer, talk to the right people, and have the right investors with enough cash.

I'm sure there are some philosophies discernable within Transformers, and they are worth talking about. Or, in that other CRIME AGAINST ENGLISH so often committed in reference to pop culture, there are things there that are worth "engaging with" (i should add: i still tend to to commit this linguistic crime on a regular basis in casual conversation, and i'm sure i've used it in livejournal posts in the past). But you need to have some awareness of the world around "the text" to do that - and, happily, Peterson's article appears to be doing exactly that (read it!). I just don't like the context-free, "post-modern" way that "texts" tend to be advertised, introduced and spoken about; Transformers was just unlucky enough to have given me a couple of superficial examples today while i had my livejournal page open.