10 May 2011

all roads lead to otakon- pilgrimage and anthropology of the anime convention

The title of this section was actually written on one of the surveys. When asking around and speaking with attendees about why they attend certain cons, more often than not they would state that friends would insist that they come, often hyping the conventions as a be all and end all of the fandom experience. “You have to go to Otakon, at least once, just to see it.” one wrote, insisting that even though she disliked Otakon as an event, there was a certain power to attending that every fan needed to experience at least once. The same has been said of Anime Expo in California, and even Anime Boston, as the convention has grown from humble beginnings into the mega-event it is now.

As Michael Jindra wrote in his article “Star Trek Fandom as a Religous Experience,” fandom has often been linked with the same emotions and aesthetics as a religious community, with fandom conventions taking on a sort of “pilgrimage” status among the events. While this might seem a bit of an exaggeration, given the fact that fandom itself is not a recognized “sacred” experience or community, it would also be a fallacy to overlook the characteristics fandom shares with religious experiences, particularly where conventions are concerned.

The anthropologist Victor Turner did some of the earliest work related to the role pilgrimages play within social and sacred context. The thesis of his arguments revolves around the idea of pilgrimages as a form of communitas, or collective liminality, that is separate and distinct from the literal idea of the limin as presented in rites of passage. (1974). The “traditional limin,” if it could be called such, reflected the idea of seclusion and education for novices in a culture, a sort of “in-between” status above childhood but below adulthood. With regards to pilgrimages, Turner cites that the participants are often seeking to find a way to both remove themselves from the mundane world, but to also take part in an emotional or sacred event that both declares them as outside of a particular society, and also emphasizes the ideas that they are part of a liminal group with a shared experience. (1974, 196; 1978, 250). In this regard, pilgrimages are a driving force behind community creation, and the insistence that those who participate are separate from other, more “secular” aspects of life and community. It further allows for people from many walks of life, who ordinarily would never come into contact with each other, the chance to meet, exchange ideas, and return feeling fulfilled. (1974, 178)

Turner was, of course, writing from the point of view of the sacred ceremony and ritual behaviour, though he also made certain to point out that there was a strong component of the same communitas present within the “non-liturgical features” of the pilgrimage, despite the fact that the religious leaders condemned these aspects as not being religious in nature. (1978, 37) Commerce at markets or fairs, “sightseeing” and other forms of collective experience are very common in sacred pilgrimages, and often evoke a powerful emotional response from attendees, leading to, as Turner describes it, the creation of an “anti-structure” that is rooted in the idea of communitas, ascribed liminality, shared experience, and above all, “infused with voluntariness, though by no means independent of structural obligatoriness.” (1974, 182)

Throughout his writings, these themes of communitas and shared experience, based on a mostly symbolic system, are prevalent. He ascribes them to both the sacred and secular notions of the pilgrimage itself. Another central theme to emerge is the idea of “authenticity,” or the need for personal growth and discovery, that is often invariably tied to such pilgrimage ideas. Dean MacCannell, when writing about tourism in his 1999 book “The Tourist,” stressed this idea of tourism as a form of modern pilgrimage, in which “mass leisure” was a defining part of the quest for “authenticity,” and drove the selection of sites. (in Badon and Roseman, 2004, 6) This need to develop and “authentic self” is present in the forming of communitas at the pilgrimage, and one of the driving forces behind the attendees “conscious removal from the constraints of society” (Badon 2004, 3). If early pilgrimages served the function of adding depth to the lives of those undertaking them, this then, is the same, driving desire behind why tourism is powerful today, and how certain events can foster the same ideas of collective belonging, authenticity and satisfaction, despite being devoid of what is thought as traditionally sacred ideas. This “break in the routine that defines and relieves the ordinary” (Graburn 1977, 22-23) is both necessary and highly ritualized, and serves as much psychologically as temporally. (See also Badon 2004, referencing Geertz: “Hence, touristic travel in search of authenticity of self-renewal falls under the rubric of the sacred, collapsing the distinction between the secular voyaging and pilgrimages.”)

So how do anime convention fit into this idea of pilgrimages? Well, first off, it should be noted that Ian Reader and Tony Walter (1993) put forth the notion that pilgrimages themselves need not be sacred events. Indeed, the idea that communitas is fostered by emotional triggers firmly puts them within the range of sacred events, as Badon and Roseman also already noted the shared similarities when discussing Emile Durkheim’s views on divinity: “In any case, interpretations of travel as religious in character hinge upon the meanings attached to the world ‘religious.’...Durkheim [holds] the notions of divinity and the sacred arise from and symbolize social collectivity. It is not surprising that collective experiences like...Star Trek conventions...generate ‘religious’ emotions.” (Badon 2004, 2). These views fall in line with Jindra’s assertions that fans get the same depth out of fan conventions as any pilgrim would.

Much like sacred pilgrimages, anime conventions are travel-oriented events. Coleman and Eisner (1997) cited the experience of travel, and the idea of encountering the new, as what made pilgrimages distinct from other forms of ritual or ritualized behavior. (1997, 206) Indeed, when it comes to anime conventions, the idea of meeting new people, seeing new places and discovering new series are very powerful lures. Just from my own experience, some of the conventions I attended, both as a researcher and as an attendee, were spurred mostly by the idea of going someplace I had never been before. Or, in some cases, visiting places that normally one would not attend. This is especially important when looking at urban-based conventions. Many attendees at Anime Boston take time to explore the city outside the convention, because, as one stated, it is their “one chance to be in Boston all year.” Baltimore, MD, sees one of its largest influxes of tourists during Otakon, a fact for which the city, and many local merchants, are grateful. Would any of these attendees normally visit Baltimore or Boston? The general answer is probably no- they explore the city not because they want to see it, but because it is there.

While the convention is in town, the local convention center/hotel/venue takes on a sort of “semi-sacred” status. Much like Mircea Eliade mentioned in “The Sacred and the Profane,” (1957) these venues are intrinsically mundane, but become sacred through the collective experience of the attendees. They take on sacred aspects when experienced, or when in the presence of, a “religious man,” in this case a fan or congoer, and become a “threshold to the experience of the sacred, a division between the profane reality and the sacred reality.” (1957) This nature of being something separate from the profane world is given to it by the shared emotions and experiences of the community at large, and are linked to that community specifically, for the duration of the event. Or, when looking at Turner, these “pilgrimage centers are frequently found in peripheral locations distinct from centers of political and economic influence, and thus is spatially liminal, but for the pilgrim also represents a threshold, a place and movement ‘in and out of time’ where ‘direct experience of the sacred, invisible or supernatural order can be expected” (1974, 197). The convention lends to the city and venue a sense of “otherness” that carries it through the three or four days that the convention is in effect, with some attendees speaking of the location either borderline-reverentially, or in some cases, remarking on the “energy” present at the event, that dissipates once the convention is over. Speaking again from personal experience, walking into the convention center or hotel once the convention is over has produced, at least for me, a sense of enormity and vacancy, seeing a place that only a few hours earlier was full of activity now being completely empty, it is both haunting and powerful, and a testament to how much “power, energy and life” the attendees give to the space. When the convention is going on, the location of powerful, electric and fluid. When it is over, the space is hollow, all the “sacredness” having been stripped away with the dispersal of the crowds.

Also interesting to note: Turner spoke of these locations as being inherently peripheral, and away from economic or political centers. While some larger cities have cons, like Boston and Baltimore, New York City does NOT have its own fan convention (as Comic-Con is a corporate trade fair held on the very edge of Manhattan), nor does Washington, DC (both Katsucon and AUSA, which bill themselves as “DC-area,” are, in actuality, removed from the city center). Philadelphia had a convention in 2010 (Inochicon, which, as of this writing, seems to be a one-shot event), but the “main con” in the area is held in King-of-Prussia, a full hour outside the city. In these cases, the cities that do have cons associated with them are either “marginal” themselves, and removed from the major economic or political discourse, or their associated cons are removed from the central part of the city, where the actual discourse takes place.

Events at these conventions are designed to strengthen the community, despite the fact that the community, especially of late, seem to be strengthening itself. Part of this comes from the idea of “education,” where fans put forth ideas or lectures rooted in demonstrating how anime is more than just shows, and in turn create their own discourse, and occasionally divisiveness. While the events do seek to unite the community under a common passion for anime and Japanese culture, the conventions often create and fuel rivalries on par with any religious infighting, and even academic discourse. Eade and Sallnow, in their book “The Anthropology of the Christian Pilgrimage,” emphasized the idea that these pilgrimages, in addition to demonstrating and creating communitas and consensus, also bred divisiveness, particularly when differences of opinion/interpretation began to surface (2000, 2-3). Sometimes this was the result of attendees coming into contact with “resident specialists,” who themselves provided a different discourse than the attendees, and sometimes it was rooted simply in the fact that each person sees their sacred idea though their own eyes, and thus has their own interpretation, but in the end it would lead to as much discord as consensus. Anime conventions are no different, as people profess loyalty to a particular series, particular voice actor or even particular con, sometimes going so far as to strike out against attendees who do not share their views. “We’re all otaku, why would you try to snub people,” was a reply one person wrote on their survey in response to why she criticized the convention community. The shared “ethnicity” of being an anime fan, in this case, was held as being more important, and that respect should still apply despite differences of opinion.

Within anime fandom, there are other areas that resemble the notion of a sacred event. Voice actors are often the subject of intense reverence, particularly con favorites Vic Mignogna and Greg Ayres, who together have appeared at hundreds of conventions. Both have a veritable legion of fans, some of whom revere them with a devotion that goes beyond simply respecting their work. While not as famous, another infamous figure of the convention circuit was the late Carl Macek, one of the men responsible for bringing the popular anime “Robotech” over to the United States. While his name might not be familiar to the average attendee, to those who have been a part of the Robotech fandom for years, he is something of a “prophetic” figure, as he introduced many long time fans to the show they love. He also was often reviled by others, who disagreed with his work in overdubbing anime intro English, something that would eventually lead him to label himself as the “Anime Antichrist” in 1990. But then again, not all prophets are loved...

The notion of a fan “canon” is trickier to pinpoint, but there is a case for its existence. While many modern day anime fans have acknowledged that there exists no list of anime “required viewing,” (at least as there was back in the 20th century) there are some shows that are often spoken of in almost reverential tones, and are often used as “badges” denoting how into the fandom some can be. Some of these shows have sparked occasionally intense emotional reactions to their fans, beyond simple cases of liking a particular show, and have even given fans the same type of spiritual depth (and sometimes adding meaning to life) that can be found from reading religious texts. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is one such show, popular with generations of fan, and often the subject of debate. “Cowboy Bebop” is another, as are “Sailor Moon,” “Dragonball Z,” “Gundam,” “Fullmetal Alchemist,” “Akira,” and the recent “Axis Powers Hetalia.” In the case of these shows, which are mentioned time and again on the con floor, basic knowledge of what the show is, and what it is about, are often important for any congoer, as they are often invariably mentioned at some point over the weekend. If an attendee has no knowledge of the show, they are often pointedly told to buy them immediately. Often, though, these shows are spread through cosplay, word of mouth, and again, the reverential nature by which certain refers speak of them. Some have even organized their own clubs, which serve to promote and discuss the nature of the show, the nature of fandoms that have emerged around the show, symbolism present within the show, and how the show can relate to real world situations and events. (I’m looking at you, Risembool Rangers/Miniskirt Army. And don’t you walk away either, Hetalia World Council.)

Panelists can fairly be compared to the idea of the Priest, providing guidance and education...to a point. Panelists are sometimes seen as having reached the “next level” of attendance- rather than simply belonging to the masses, they have taken the step to stand out and craft something that is either educational or entertaining, and as such have marked themselves as willing to take more participation within the fandom. That they are fans themselves is not lost on the attendee either. Rather than being “faceless” or belonging to some professional caste (though they sometimes are), the vast majority of panelists started as fans, remain fans and seek to provide a richer convention experience for those same fans. Rather than see themselves as something apart from the rest of their fandom, they might themselves as possible educators within the fandom...or at the very least, they feel passionately about something and have the desire to spread their passion around.

The same can also be applied to artists- those who create works based on anime characters, or who are proficient with the pen and brush, who contribute to the “expanded content” of the shows themselves, often expanding the shows beyond the scope of what they initially entailed. This idea of user-generated content, while sometimes controversial, is intrinsic to the notion of fandom as an area of creative endeavor, but also towards giving the fans a chance to earn some stock in what they love. Henry Jenkins spoke of this appeal in his landmark 1993 study “Textual Poachers,” and Matt Hills continued the look into fan content in his 2002 “Fan Cultures,” but that is a discussion for another day. Needless to say, the lure of fan0created goods is strong, as is the desire to acquire them.

The same can be said of the merchants in the Dealer’s Room, as they serve the same purpose as the caravans and markets of more traditional pilgrimages. Supplying goods and providing commerce for large groups of people in search of a greater meaning in life is a powerful force, and the vendors know this, and are willing to oblige. The fact that we live in a consumer based society adds to this, but it is justified in the want, and need, of goods for which participation is occasionally centered around.

Then there is the idea put forth by Graburn earlier- that pilgrimages serve to refresh and renew the attendee. This is true, to a point. While many attendees use the convention as a way of keeping contact with the fandom world, and as a means to both reassert ties and refresh the fan-self, at the same time the conventions have been known to cause as much grief as they alleviate. For some it truly is a vacation that serves to “recharge” the attendee and give them a break from “real life,” as many respondents chose to write on their surveys. But for others, it is more an “oasis,” where they go to the con, then dread the return of the “mundane” world. The idea of post-con depression, frequently mentioned on message boards, twitter feeds and even in the form of coping panels at the cons themselves, shows how this is in fact a reality that attendees need to confront and overcome. While this can be biologically inferred as the cessation of an “endorphin rush,” it also presents a very real experience for the attendee in the throes of it, especially if the attendee is dissatisfied with their lives. This leads to Jindra’s argument that the fans will attend as many as they can in order to take full advantage of this “escapism” and its positive emotional state as possible. We are creatures that thrive on community and positive reinforcement. What do conventions provide in droves if not these two central concepts. A conventions without them would be a shallow, hollow thing indeed, and undoubtedly die off very quickly.

There is a notion of liminality present within fandom as well. Turner wrote a great deal about the liminal stage, often drawing on the works of Van Gennap to describe the process by which one passes from a lower stage into a higher one. (1967; 1974, 196) This idea of transformation is also present within the fandom community, be it online or at the con. Participation being such a force in fandom, there are many venues that have distinct, though generally unspoken “rules” for participation. For some, it involves periods of experiencing the community without contribution, mirroring Turner’s description of the liminal state as being “invisible.” (1967, 95) This can be true of certain online forums especially, where the “old timers” often are very wary of newcomers, and require a period of “probation” until they are accepted. At the same time, there are moments where contributions are necessary, be it through public discourse, or through some form of community enrichment. This is especially true of the artist alley- some artists mentioned it took them several cons before they were “accepted” into the fold. Building ties with the existing community are important, as the community often will “look out for its own.” (Also especially true of artists- many will share table space with those unfortunate enough to not get their own, or even sell art from other artists who could not attend for whatever reason.)

This idea of liminality in fandom revolves around a single word, often thrown about on message boards and online communities with seemingly reckless abandon: the n00b/newb. Derived from the word “newbie,” and referencing a new member of the community, the word n00b has two main functions. Ostensibly, it is a moniker applied to new members, as everyone on the site was once a “n00b” and had to learn how to be a productive member of the community. In this regard, is simply means the person is learning the ways and rules of the community, in preparation for the future. After this period has passed, however, the connotation of the word changes. If a person has been a member of a community for a period of time and still makes the same mistakes, the word n00b then becomes an insult, referring to how the person “ought to know better,” but still is “acting like a n00b.” While this is sometimes used in jest (“Man, I just made a n00b mistake), often it is meant to call into question the offender’s commitment to being a productive member of the community (“Why are you such a n00b?”). Of course, the connotation of this word is often dictated by how it is said, but when it comes to an online community, where sarcasm and vocal cues are NOT readily noticeable, it can often lead to hard feelings or conflict.

In many ways, these events do mirror the nature of religious pilgrimages. One cannot simply ignore the emotions that anime conventions evoke, nor ignore the commerce, appeal and power that are present within the events as a whole. Regardless of the ties that attendees might have to the source material, what they “get out” of the event in the end is often of the same flavour as what could be called a “traditional” sacred/cultural experience. Fandom, despite whatever detractions can be made about the sacred/secular nature of the experience and community, shares a great deal with religion, right down to the notion of devotion and depth which impact the decision to participate for some. And despite whatever notions one might have of the fan conventions themselves, they are powerful, communal events which enrich the lives of their attendees visibly.


Badon and Roseman- Intersecting Journeys: the Anthropology of Pilgrimage and Tourism, 2004

Coleman and Eisner- Pilgrimage, Past and Present in World Religions, 1997

Eade and Sallnow- The Anthropology of the Christian Pilgrimage, 2000

Eliade- The Sacred and the Profane, 1957

Graburn- The Sacred Journey, 1977

Jindra- Star Trek Fandom As Religious Experience, 1996

Reader and Walter- Pilgrimage in Popular Culture, 1993

Turner- A Forest of Symbols, 1967

Turner- Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, Symbolic Action in Human Society, 1974

Turner and Turner- Image and Culture in Christian Pilgrimages, 1978

And thanks go out to Daryl Surat and Michael Toole, for the illuminating discussion of Carl Macek on 11th of May.

1 comment:

  1. Well, inasmuch that Otakon was my first anime convention ever, I'd say most of the points here were spot on. Although, I can also state that Otakon also had humble beginnings as well (considering I know staffers who have been around since practically "day zero" when it started as a glimmer of an idea in State College, PA). True, I wasn't there for that, but if I were to have been a fly on the wall, I'd say that even if all roads do lead to Otakon, it may be a bit off. Maybe the qualifier would be that all roads do eventually lead to the Baltimore Inner Harbor during a predesignated four-day weekend in which said event was taking place at a premier downtown convention center with upscale hotel attached. Of course, that's a bit of a mouthful anyway, so I think I'll leave it at that...