What Foucault Can Teach Us About the Schismatic Growth of Comicon Culture

As Emerald City Comicon approaches, we marvel with Michel at its exponential growth.

Just dropping by Emerald City Comicon last year was far more intense than I had imagined. Blocks from the Washington State Convention Center, where it will celebrate its 15th anniversary this weekend, I was swept up in the converging crowd.

Many were in costume as their favorite characters drawn from the broad well of nerd culture that traditionally includes comic books, video games, and anime. Around me was a near-perfect Misty from Pokémon, a lazy Finn from Adventure Time, and many whose unfamiliarity reminded me that my understanding was superficial at best. As I neared the center of the congregation, the crowd became overwhelming. There was a roar from down the block, the roar of some monstrous vehicle followed by the roar of the crowd, clearly impressed.

I pushed that way and found myself staring up at an astounding group of Mad Max cosplayers standing on a replica of Max’s Interceptor. Immortan Joe was as vile and terrifying as the film version, Imperator Furiosa’s prosthetic arm was rendered immaculately, and the War Boys were pale and lumpy (Max was oddly absent). The engine roared again and everyone went wild. In this crush of people, in this overwhelming rush of noise and spectacle, it was easy to get caught up in the mood, to feel ecstatic, to think that nerds had conquered the culture.

At this point a friend alerted me these were professional cosplayers paid to put on a show. It was surprising that a group of enthusiasts like Comicon attendees, whose love of these characters and stories is often heartfelt to the point of awkwardness, could be so easily taken in by this sort of commercialism. But it is the natural result of the explosive growth of interest in these properties and the events catering to them. As they have grown, so has the diversity of attendees. This has many positive effects, but it also has changed the underlying social structures that bind together disparate groups of fans.

Philosopher Michel Foucault identified the dangers that face any group as knowledge of its subject matter grows. His The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) is an attempt to discover the systems of thought that govern any field. Though he addresses most explicitly the scientific community, he extends his ideas to communities whose interests center around fiction.

His basic claim is that groups are defined by sharing a discourse—a set of ideas and points of reference that in turn define what knowledge is for the group. As he puts it, “A discursive practice may form … the basis of which coherent (or incoherent) propositions are built up, more or less exact descriptions developed, verifications carried out, theories deployed. They form the precondition of what is later revealed and which later functions as an item of knowledge or an illusion, an accepted truth or an exposed error.” In other words, the ways groups talk about common topics help determine the conclusions they arrive at and change their understanding of it on the deepest level.

Reading this today brings to mind fan theories, those elaborate constructions that often seek to “solve” stories by imposing their own logic onto them. Fan theorizing has exploded in popularity in recent years as a result of the growth of discourse that encourages a granular, analytical approach that seeks to test and pinpoint plot holes rather than achieve a thematic understanding.

Participants in a discourse are generally unaware of the rules governing it, but conform to them anyway. Because “knowledge is defined by the possibilities of use offered by discourse,” attempts to articulate a thought that falls outside it will be met with skepticism or reproach, however valid it may be from a different point of view. In this way groups formalize their patterns, creating “norms of verification and coherence” that define membership. As these structures are followed and reinforced, the discourse crosses the “threshold of formalization,” the point at which ideas not supported by their framework become nearly incomprehensible to members.

We can see these principles at work among subsets of the larger nerd culture. Comics fans readily accept the idea of “retroactive continuity,” that events that happened in an old comic may be overwritten by a new one presenting a conflicting account. Knowledge for them is a balancing act between the specifics of beloved stories and the accepted truth of the canonical record as it has been amended over time. This unique approach is supported by a discourse among adherents that enforces the principle scrupulously.

The result of all this is a complex system where discourse shapes knowledge, which in turn shapes behaviors and modes of engagement around a particular interest. These communities were once small enough that general interest in its focus was enough to participate. But as they have grown, people have found others who share their ever-more-minute concerns, giving birth to subgroups with their own governing principles. This threatens the general discourse of nerd culture that allows comics, video-game, and anime enthusiasts to share a common understanding and coexist at events like Emerald City Comicon.

That common understanding has become endangered as the event’s attendance has skyrocketed. In its first year, 2003, 2,500 people attended; last year, 88,000. With such growth in only 15 years, fandom’s unspoken rules have been unable to keep pace. As nerd culture broke into the mainstream and assimilated everything it encountered (Mad Max hardly fits into the traditional geek triumvirate), the expectations governing fans’ engagement with the ever-expanding list of included material have become unclear.

ECCC has come under fire in recent years for becoming too crowded and commercialized—a result of the decline of power structures based on knowledge—and for the replacement of old standards by those of a new generation. In its early years, the strict formalization of knowledge created a hierarchy in which all those in attendance were devoted fans, defined by their encyclopedic understanding of their esoteric interests. It was accepted fact that those who knew the most were the top dogs, the arbiters of discourse.

As nerd culture has grown, attendees’ goals have become less clear. What once was a gathering of like-minded individuals looking to share their enthusiasm now draws people who may attend for explicitly commercial reasons—to buy memorabilia or meet the famous guests. These attendees may not share the deep interest in lore and trivia that previously defined fandom and its attendant culture. This represents a major schism in the community—one that commercial interests have been only too eager to exploit, shifting the culture away from its roots of appreciation toward anticipation of what is coming next, pushing nerd culture into uncharted territory.

It remains the major challenge of the Comicon community to adapt its sense of belonging to include both the hardcore fans who sought out original comics and the more casual ones raised on a decade of billion-dollar Marvel movies. Only by finding this sort of inclusivity will nerddom navigate the discomfort it inherited when it emerged from the basement and conquered the world. Emerald City Comicon, Washington State Convention Center, 705 Pike St., emeraldcitycomicon.com. Ticket prices vary. All ages. Thurs., March 2–Sun., March 5.