Interpreting Interpretation: Introduction and Fans (Redo)

Back in the day when I first started up this blog I kicked off my posts with a promise to do an “Interpreting Interpretation” series, where I would analyze stuff related to interpreting media with a focus on anime. Well, it’s been around 6 months since then and I think I need to have another crack at it. 

I’m going to start out by revamping the first post using some of the insight I gathered through the comments and shoring up some of my thoughts. First, I’m going to try and introduce some of the motivation behind why exactly I’m focusing on analyzing analysis, both personal and then more academic. Next, I’ll try and shore up exactly what I mean by “interpretation” and how I want to look at it. Finally, I’ll go through some earlier ideas about fans and try and look at how they interact with the anime they watch.

Motivation

I’ve been quite paranoid about “interpretation” since an English class in high school, where a student attempted to make an argument that the color of the curtains in a room (blue) represented the main character’s mood. Although I didn’t realize it then, I had just been privy to Grade A bullshit. I knew, viscerally, that this was just wrong, but the fact that you could make an argument like this really stuck with me. Ever since, I’ve been extremely cynical and paranoid of just going ahead and trying to interpret things for fear of over-interpreting and imbuing some level of meaning that wasn’t intended to be there.

But what meaning is supposed to be there? Is there some inherent pattern that is meant to be seen, superior to others? And what standards do we use to judge such interpretations? Does what the author intended even matter? Do existing interpretations and commentaries that have been argued in the past hold extra weight or validity? Can they be used to assign additional meaning to a object, or should it be considered by itself? Is the interpretation of an object more important than the object itself? What does interpretation even mean? I mean, we can’t just say every possible related thought, if decently argued, is a valid interpretation, can we…?

Sometimes the curtains are just blue, rather than a subtle foreshadowing of the protagonist’s secret depressive tendencies, as well as symbolic of the way that he hides his inner tumult from the world outside, you know?

The issue gets thorny remarkably quickly. And obviously there must be some line that should be drawn to prevent complete interpretive anarchy (or should there be?). Which is where the more academic reason comes in. The most important element of interpretation is that it frequently tells us more about ourselves and the structures that surround us than it does about the work in question. We see what we want or expect to, rearranging and re-interpreting facts to fit in with some grand narrative we have constructed. Entire movements in the arts — modernism and postmodernism — have been based (kind of) around this kind of question.

I won’t be delving into the motivations and whatnot here though – I’m saving that for a later post, and the issue has been stewing around in my mind since last November (and likely earlier). Here I’ll be focusing on the more practical/personal matters concerning a useful definition and fan participation.

“Interpretation”

So what exactly is “interpretation”? Originally, I thought it’d be quite easy to pint down, and just laid out a general definition:

Interpretation: Associating meaning with something.

Which is the most general form and what many would use in an academic debate on the subject I’m sure. But it’s not too useful here, since we’re focusing on consumable media such as television or literature, most notably anime. Like my attempt to define fandom, I want to make sure this will eliminate associations with something like “Coke tastes good and thus makes me happy, hence I associate happiness with drinking Coke and BOOM INTERPRETATION MOTHERFUCKERS”.  So let’s swap out “something” and put in “images/dialogue/sequences” or maybe something like “modes of communication.” Now, images can be invoked in both visual form as well as in literary passages and is associated with symbolism and all that other good stuff related to interpretation, so let’s go with “images.” I like the sound of that. Plus, now if I’d give the same example it’d hopefully be with a mental image of Coke or an advertisement/picture, which is closer to what I want.

Coke

Also, interpretation isn’t just an event but a process, so let’s throw that in too. This gives us:

Interpretation: The process of associating meaning with images.

It seems we’re on the right track here, assuming we take “images” liberally, and we probably could stop here. But there’s still the vagueness of “meaning” here. As was brought up in the comments on my previous post, this leaves open the question of whether thinking “Cool!” or “Lame…” in response to an explosion counts as interpretation. If we’re going off of the above definition, than yes, it does. In fact, any thought concerning the images in question does, since it can be argued they hold meaning for the consumer (implied “viewer,” but this is more general). This might be fine if we’re hoping to discuss interpretation in a more general/academic context.

But we’re not. Such interpretations do impact how we perceive and enjoy a product. However, they don’t tie in with what is traditionally associated with interpretation, which is finding deeper/alternate meaning — some underlying message, narrative, or theme — associated with the work. And analyzing this type of interpretation is more useful, since it is much more prevalent in high-brow fandom (e.g. essentially the entire anisphere) and I think is a distinguishing factor between different types of fandom, which I’ll argue later. So let’s add on “deeper/underlying” to the definition and emphasize this is in contrast to the surface level. This gives us two possible definitions:

Interpretation:
(1) The process of associating meaning with images.
(2) The process of associating deeper/underlying meaning with images beyond those that are readily apparent.

What does “readily apparent” mean? Luckily, it doesn’t actually matter here! The only important thing is that it takes time and effort to “dig deeper” and “uncover” alternate meanings as well as overarching messages and themes in (2) above and beyond the amount necessarily required in (1). Obviously it doesn’t necessitate it, but I’m choosing to focus on effort here because it’s deeply connected to the common perception of “interpretation” and is especially prevalent in anime fandom (I mean, blogging about anime happens for a reason). Given these factors, I think these two definitions should be suitable for our purpose going forward.

Fandom

Fans, according to Pontifus, mainly comes in three flavors: focused fans, discerning fans, and omnifans. While I encourage everyone to read his wonderful post, here’s a quick “from memory” summary of what he posits:

The focused fan interprets in the way most relevant to him, picking an interpretation that has the most meaning for him without considering (or quickly discarding) most others.

The discerning fan seems much more like a literary critic – he tries to comb through all possible interpretations and then, based on some metric, declares one superior to the rest and dismisses them.

The omnifan is the discerning fan who just ultimately refuses to pass the final judgement, leaving all interpretations valid and refusing to judge them by some arbitrary standard. Shance has written a follow-up article from the omnifan’s perspective, which details a bit more about the omnifan’s dilemma.

Pontifus’s final summary diagram is priceless:

fanlove

Similar to his terminology, I’ll refer to them as focuseddiscerning, and omnivoric. Now, these categories only are really useful in the context of our second definition (2). If we go off (1), we could have a conversation like this:

Focused fan: “Man that was a sickass explosion.”

Discerning fan: “I mean, it definitely had some great special effects. It didn’t really seem to fit the scene, but since this is Iron Man I don’t think that really matters too much. Plus, I enjoyed the scene overall.”

Omnifan: “I think you could see it both ways, so I won’t really judge.”

Focused fan: “You guys are thinking about this too much. It’s Iron Man! Just enjoy the show!”

And that fits, right? Right. But I don’t really see this type of thing on its own too much. More likely, it’s something like “The explosion was pretty cool – besides being badass, it really helped propel the action forward and establish an atmosphere of danger and suspense”, which is assigning deeper/underlying meaning to the explosion. Same goes with almost everything – interpretation is rarely ever on its own in terms of pure aesthetics without trying to tie in with some deeper meaning.

Thus, really these fans should be defined in terms of (2). They’d more likely be associated with discussion of the meanings behind a show like TTGL. The focused fan might simply find that the “your drill will pierce the heavens” rhetoric really speaks to him and finds the show is really all about hard work and trying your best. The discerning fan might call in outside historical references implying that TTGL is homage to more traditional mecha shows instead, and see the focused fan’s viewpoint as being distorted and shallow. The omnifan accepts both viewpoints as possible and doesn’t pick a side.

Now, obviously these are all just categories which you can either empathize more or less with. You can be a discerning omnifan who refuses to dismiss all interpretations but favors one for reasons similar to that of the focused fan. They’re all sliding scales.

Sliding scales relative to what though? What if all of them are essentially nonexistent, AKA you just don’t care about this “deeper and meaningful” stuff? I’d like to argue that this is a fourth category of fan, the apathetic fan, which encompasses the fans who simply consume and don’t attempt to interpret in a deep, meaningful way. These are essentially fans who stick at (1) and don’t try and move down to (2), and I believe (along with focused fans) actually constitute a decent majority of anime viewers who simply watch as a form of entertainment. This would be a baseline against which the three previous categories could be compared against.

I really apologize for the terrible MS Paint work, but I think this gets the point across.

I really apologize for the terrible MS Paint work, but I think this gets the point across.

Obviously some classifications above  — discerning and omnivoric — seem to be a bit more “high level” than others  — focused and apathetic — and Pontifus’s post (and the subsequent comments) do in fact deal with this. However, I’d like to make the case that it ultimately depends on your perspective and what you want to actually get out of interpretation. Do you interpret to try and figure out life lessons or simply for academic interest? The answer might determine what type of fan category you fall into and/or identify with, and neither one (nor any other) really should be seen as “superior” to each other. So I’m an omnifan about the motivations associated with what type of fan you are that are associated with the type of interpretative methods you might employ and the interpretations you might be inclined to find, and that’s about as meta as I’ll go. Anyways, I’ll discuss this issue more in detail later, but for now here are two examples illustrating what I mean, taken from my first post:

1. A relatively young chap discovers anime through some type of means (let’s say Toonami, for nostalgia, although it’s recently come back on the air). Being young, he watches shows simply for enjoyment and doesn’t try to distill some deeper meaning or possible “life lessons,” whatever that means [apathetic]. As he matures, he begins to try and piece together themes, events, etc. in shows, and uses his personal experiences to make sense of them [focused]. He eventually seeks out discussion and a community – where to his surprise he discovers that other people have interpreted things differently! He realizes that there are lots of possible interpretations and accepts that they are all just as valid as his own [omnivoric]. However, after extensive discussion, he finds the notion of all interpretations acceptable difficult to swallow, and believes that there should be an interpretation that is generally superior to the rest, and can be shown to be superior [discerning]. He vacillates between the last two categories extensively [omnivoric or discerning].

An example of this type of reasoning can be seen in Eva. While a focused fan (or possibly an omnifan) could easily be taken in by the Christian symbolism present in the show, according to Evangelion Assistant Director Kazuya Tsurumaki it actually had no meaning at all:

“There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice.”

So the discerning fan who possibly had done a bit of research finds that this interpretation is inferior to others. Note though, this does make the assumption that original intent can influence the validity of possible interpretations, a very “discerning fan”-esque thought, and a bit of a circular argument…

An example of this type of reasoning can be seen in Eva. While a focused fan (or possibly an omnifan) could easily be taken in by the Christian symbolism present in the show, according to Evangelion Assistant Director Kazuya Tsurumaki it actually had no meaning at all: "There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice." And so the discerning fan who possibly had done a bit of research finds that this interpretation is inferior to others. However, this does make the assumption that original intent can influence the validity of interpretations.

2. An experienced consumer of literature, let’s say an omnivoric one, discovers anime, and right from the get-go proceeds to interpret and validate shows [omnivoric]. However, he finds that if he is simply looking for these shows to deal with issues and possibly teach valuable life lessons, and so proceeds to look for superior interpretations that he finds most interesting/relevant [discerning]. However, he realizes that trying to interpret shows based on the opinions of others to such an extent is a lot of wasted effort if you’re only looking for personal fulfillment, and so he picks the most personally relevant interpretation and takes it to heart, largely ignoring other possibilities [focused]. After most of his issues have been sorted out, he finds that the act of interpreting shows detracts from his enjoyment, and begins to simply watch them for their entertainment value [apathetic]. However, discussing his with friends naturally leads him to still interpret shows to a certain extent in order to continue to engage in discussion, and helps him again find pleasure in watching/interpreting shows [any type of fan].

For example, it’s great and all to look at Kamina from TTGL and be like “OMG JESUS FIGURE” and pick apart his relationships with the rest of the cast (and then that Simon resurrection figure), but really he’s just f*ing badass on every level, and sometimes it’s fun just to get carried along for the ride.

I mean, it's great and all to look at Kamina and be like "OMG JESUS FIGURE" and pick apart his relationships with the cast of TTGL, but ultimately he's just f*ing badass on every level, and sometimes it's fun just to carried along for the ride.

In the examples above, we see the fluidity of these classifications, with both parties having legitimate reasons from progressing from one camp into the other. While I feel like the typical anime fan probably has experienced more of the first, that doesn’t make the second any less valid. Actually, the second scenario progresses in reverse because he came to grips with why he tried to interpret things in the first place, as compared to the first scenario where the viewer simply continues to try and “improve” his interpretive style for no obvious reason.

SAO Explosion

Also sometimes it’s hard to defend what we watch, why we enjoy them, or why some events even happen in the first place. I mean, in SAO General *Eugene* (an absolutely terrifying name) gets beaten by Kirito and dies IN A GIGANTIC FIREBALL. For no reason. So one could easily ask himself, “Why am I watching SAO?” For me, it was because I’m a KiritoxAsuna fanboy – there was no deep reason. I just really liked the straightforward relationship and Kirito being a badass. But when you start asking questions like “Why is the show ‘good’?” and “Is it even ideologically consistent?”, you’re left scratching your head in embarrassment. But for the vast majority of viewers who made SAO the uber-popular show that it was, does this type of stuff even matter? Probably not! Whether that’s a good or bad thing…well, I’ll leave it to you to judge, so let me know what you think.

As for the stories above, I come from a mix of the two: although my life story and entrance into anime followed the narrative structure of the first scenario, my interpretive style very much developed from frequent reading and literature classes in high school, which I later applied to anime in the style of the second. I tend to exhibit a mix of the omnivoric and discerning interpretive styles – I believe that there is a superior and defensible interpretation (the ones that form the most coherent explanation containing the most elements from any given work with the least assumptions), but that all interpretations are valid at some level. Usually, my focused fan attributes are related to how much I enjoy a show (e.g. Space Bros), but are left out of my interpretations – I like to judge a show on its own terms, not on mine.

Shance (and Pontifus) did a subsequent analysis of fandom after Pontifus’s article on interpretative strategies. While only tangentially related to this post, I think the final graph they came up with is interesting.

The x-axis indicates the degree of openness of the fandom to outside stimuli, while the y-axis indicates the "affinity" of the fandom in question (with positive meaning more constructive, and negative more destructive - the troll and the mindless rabid fan are good examples of the sentiments expressed I think). See their post and subsequent comments for more details.

How do these four categories of “fandom” fit in with the four categories of “fan” I’ve laid out earlier? They provide possible groups that fans might be a part of. The apathetic fan is most likely associated with the right, being more open about things and watching them more for enjoyment rather than for deeper interpretive meaning, which tends to sift through shows. And likely they’re in the upper-right, smack dab in the middle of the “majority” strip. This matches our tentative speculation that apathetic fans are associated with the more open definition of interpretation (1).

The focused, discerning, and omnifans will probably be more towards the left, since trying to interpret and judge shows in the context of looking for deeper, underlying themes, messages, etc. (2) tends to lead to higher standards and often larger gradients of enjoyment. Now, I doubt that a majority of fans end up in the “negative and elitist” category and pseudo/hardcore trolls, so let’s throw out that portion of the “majority” strip and just say most fans are concentrated in the upper right (this seems like a pretty good guess, if forums and cons are a good measure to judge by). This means that the fans who occupy the left space are not in the majority, which also matches up with speculations concerning the prevalence of the apathetic fan (notice the self-fulfilling prophecy here though). And as for the bottom-right, the “open and negative”? Likely that’s a small subset of the apathetic fan (the same subset that probably enjoys bad movies) or a twisted omnifan. Whether the fan ends up being positive or negative though most likely largely depends on personal taste and seems to be irrespective of fan type.

Is any camp (both fan and fandom) superior to the other? It all depends on your opinions are about the meaning of interpretation –- about why we bother trying to interpret things in the first place –- which I will try to deal with next time.

Thanks go to Pontifus, Shance, and Misfortunedogged for the initial posts and feedback on my original one.

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16 responses to “Interpreting Interpretation: Introduction and Fans (Redo)

  1. How about the fans that aren’t analytical about their fandom and aren’t concerned with what kind of fan they are? :-)

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  5. “let’s throw out that portion of the “majority” strip and just say most fans are concentrated in the upper right (this seems like a pretty good guess, if forums and cons are a good measure to judge by)”

    I need to say that unfortunately Greek forums fit in the down left corner among with some nostalgiafags the latest years. Just informing you about the reality in my country. But judging from the shipping wars on tumblr this might not be restricted to my personal experience only.

    Great post btw~

    • Thanks!

      Yea – I tried throwing that out because the the “nostalgiafag” anime fans also tend to way overrepresent themselves online relative to what I’d consider the “majority”. But you have a good point – it is a portion of the fandom that likes to make its voice heard, and definitely exists. Sorry to hear the forums in Greece aren’t so great :/.

      • That’s one of the reasons I began my own blog in the first place, after realizing there’s a bigger english community out there. Of course not all fans are like that, but when in every thread you get in you encounter a lot of -ironic- negativity it gets unpleasant.

        In the blogosphere at least you choose the blogs you read :) Yours is great! I shall be returning more often from now on.

  6. I found this very interesting, even if it was a bit over my head at times :-). I think I belong firmly in the apathetic fan category haha. But since I’ve been hanging around the aniblogging land for the last few months, I’ve become a bit more interested in these things. I wasn’t really the best at literature analysis in English classes – my marks were all right, but I never had a firm understanding of what I was writing about. And I can’t pick a theme for shit. But my exams are finishing soon so maybe I’ll have a bit more time on my hands, which brings me to my question. How would you advise a way to get started about having a “deeper” understanding of texts? I doubt I’ll ever be hell good at it (or have the interest), but it would be nice to be able to keep my head above the water instead of sinking into the sodeep depths :-P. Thanks!

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  10. This was a really interesting topic. Although I often times had to rely on my dictionary for German translation, I think I understood most of it and agree to your opinion. (special thanks to Pontifus triangle, with terms even the dict. could not handle ~ Omnivoric for the win)

    In my opinion, there is one single point missing:
    If you’re omnivoric, focused, apathic or discerning is not only determined by the time of your life, you are watching Animes, but also by the type of show, you are watching and the kind of interpretation, you do.
    I recognized that recently, while I was watching 2 Animes at the same time: “Mirai Nikki” and “Lucky Star” (btw. great combo :D)
    While I really tried to find all these hidden references in Lucky Star I still had fun, watching simple slice of life Moe without any other interpretation. At the same I very fast gave up trying to find ANY logic or character motivation in “Mirai Nikki”, shortly, after a lonely old man sent his computer navigated beloved dog-army in a warehouse to kill all the main characters. Yes, this really happened!
    This doesn’t mean, I stopped interpretation at all, but in this anime, it obviously didn’t make any sense. (Although it still was fun finding the douzends of plotholes in this show, more or less by “Interpretation progress (1) Not caring about any sense in this show made it to an incredible awesome Popcorn Material. But I cared about character motivation before and still do it now, like I said, it just didn’t fit here. :-)

    Greetings: Katharsis

    (btw. sorry for wrong spelling and false Grammar, I never get it right)
    I wish an omnivoric Goodbye :D

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