It’s early on a Saturday morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and scholars wander around with free coffee in their hands to one of a dozen panels in one of many sessions in the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference. Topics range from The Grateful Dead to Motor Culture to Film and History. I attend one on Sci-Fi and Fantasy during this session.
The two papers presented are on Jim Henson’s fantasy films (such as Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie) and the television program Ancient Aliens. The second speaker states that he loves Ancient Aliens, and though he refrains from using the phrase “guilty pleasure,” it’s clear from his analysis that he agrees with none of the theories put forward on the program. Instead, he critiques the faulty logic and Euro-centric rhetoric while simultaneously praising the show for trying to subvert the idea that hard-fixed academia is the only source of knowledge. The speaker also points out that the show is outside his academic field. His paper is simply an attempt to make sense of something he loves, and that the whole conference is about people making sense of things they love.
I find that sentiment reassuring. It proves to me something I’d suspected, that pleasure and criticism are not mutually exclusive. Speakers stepped out of their fields of immediate interest to talk about their favorite movies, books, TV shows, music, and the pop culture they love, not to ridicule it but to analyze it.
Almost entirely absent from the conference is a kind of academic elitism that I’ve encountered more and more lately, a hierarchy placing scholars above fans. Obviously, scholars do not need to enjoy everything we analyze (I’m looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper), and maybe we do not need to analyze everything we enjoy (though for an academic, that is very hard to do). Nevertheless, there are many academics who believe that the ability to criticize makes them superior to others.
The conference proved fans and academics can inhabit the same space equally. There were very few moments when scholars looked down on anybody for enjoying pop culture. There was no status involved in the academia; it was communal, friendly, positive, constructive, and creative, qualities I’ve found myself missing in academia lately.
Being critical does not make me better than others. It may give me a more nuanced perspective, but more accurately, I think, it gives me a differently nuanced perspective. With few exceptions, nobody is better than anybody for anything; the rigid hierarchies I’ve encountered so often separating students from faculty, graduate from undergraduate, critic from fan, are unnecessary and unhealthy. I’m pleased to have found a space where fans and critics are on equal footing, where people can be both at the same time. I’m glad to find a place where the egotism that drives much of academia is suspended, and criticism and enjoyment work hand-in-hand.