So I played Dragonball Xenoverse and it has given me some emotions I want to talk about.
Around the time that Xenoverse was released, Austin Walker wrote an excellent piece of reflective criticism about Dragonball1 that I feel like I relate to. If you’re pressed for time or attention I recommend you skip this article and just go read him because you’ll likely get more out of his work anyway. But if you’re still around, I’m going to talk a bit about (sub)culture(s) and value because Dragonball Xenoverse is a great big silly player-insert fantasy that seems exactly tailored to people who are attached Dragonball in a particular way; it’s an instance of a phenomenon that seems to be popping up a lot these days.
When Dragonball Z was released to North American audiences I belonged to the demographic it was apparently aimed at. I thought the fights were cool. I found the drama compelling. I liked that there were aliens, time travellers, animal-people, robots, and a system of transformations that always offered a higher echelon of being just when it was needed. It was absurd and overwrought and always on the nose. And remember how long it took to charge attacks? So long, right!
Power levels were numerically measurable, magic laser attacks had special names and consistencies that would only break when things got suuuper real (about once every thirty episodes or so). There was a logic to it but you had to have been there. Still, cultural engaging requires more than showing up, it’s as much about recognising the common identifying quality as it is consuming its products and rituals. Ineffable knowledge of membership can’t be catalogued, only felt: you can still know who “gets it” or not but it’s not the sort of thing that you can easily put in a laundry list. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s study of taste2 is a rare beast of quantitative statistics and abstract theory working together. His analysis is as much measurement as it is postulating and I think that it works on both levels. To Bourdieu the formation of taste polices the borders of who is a part of a culture and to what extent. Ultimately, taste works to establish class and segment people through ritual and knowledges. Everything can be reduced to labour time and for a person to have taste and therefore belong they must have put enough labour and time into a body of objects to hone their knowledge of a thing’s history, conventions and functions. Maybe an anecdote will help.
Once upon a time, I was at a thrift store buying a stack of books on the cheap. I was real proud of finding such an impressive catalogue of normally really pricey titles: until, that is, I got to the cash register and the teller waved my through with a dismissive “I wish I had that much time.” I was a bit annoyed but they were right. Reading “the classics” is work. It’s a lot of work to recognise what a metaphor is, how fiction deploys rhetoric on a theoretical level to create meaning. Reading dense prose is a skill that requires practice and there is power in living the kind of life where that skill can be mobilised. The time it takes to recognise and appreciate how these works come to mean things—the time it takes to develop taste—is not something everybody has access to. The cashier was right: it takes time and effort to get to know books, to understand and appreciate what is tasteful and what is tasteless.
Many people—likely including the cashier at that thrift shop—don’t have time to read because they are required to sell their labour elsewhere, leaving less time to develop the toolkit required to read, say, a modernist novel. Having time to develop reading practices requires a certain level of material power, but it also produces power as a gateway into certain classes. Bourdieu calls the kind of power that comes from possessing taste cultural capital.
Talking about class is tightly knit into how we distinguish class because economic conditions are at least as much a symptom of classing groups of people as they are a cause. In the 1994 film Legends of the Fall starring Brad Pitt as American hero and epitomised white saviour has a line that really demonstrates how knowledge classifies. Anthony Hopkins as saintly patriarch sits with his servants and offers to home-school their daughter, an aboriginal girl of undeclared but generally “native” origins. The father asks “what is she going to do with all this education?” to which Hopkins responds “live a more enriched and fulfilling life!” The point is that certain enrichments and fulfillments are valued over others. That this young native girl literally living in the service of an educated military dude is offered his version of an enriched and fulfilled life is not a neutral statement. We’re to admire Hopkins’s gesture because it comes embedded with a number of classed assumptions: upward mobility, ownership of private property, exposure to texts and rituals unsuitable for working class/rural/nonwhite people.
Extensive knowledge about literature is a privilege, and Legends of the Fall insists that the ideal person of privilege is a kindly dignified sort who freely distributes his vision of taste even to the plebs. Then Brad Pitt ends up nailing the chick his dad sequestered in this ranch and…y’know what, I’m far enough off track now: it’s a weird shitty movie. But it does illustrate a certain vision of value and culture. We can joke about an arts degree being useless but all forms of knowledge are useless until a person finds a use for them. Being in a position to find a use for knowing about art demonstrates a level of political power out of reach for people who need to know how to assuage the store manager or how to get by in winter without a permanent address.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it there is power in having the available labour time to dedicate to forming taste the investment isn’t wasted; it offers a language for belonging with different classes. It is the stuff that you must take for granted to get by in your day to day. This is not just limited to classic literature although it does provide a pretty straightforward example of a form creating and expressing class. There’s a reason why the entire body of literature in English worships a handful of figures, why certain stories are valued at the expense of others, why some cultures are wilfully destroyed. It might not seem like there is a lot of personal power in knowing the the difference between a sonnet and a villanelle but on a social level there is power in naturalising certain narratives over others.
Service industry work and a lot of likewise feminised work turns regular social interactions like smiling, listening, joking, recognising codes of courtesy and other forms of “customer service” into a form of labour. A cashier doesn’t just lack the “free time” (an oxymoron in capitalism as society runs on exchanging time for wages) to read but their employment hinges on being able to behave pleasantly toward customers: anything that does not facilitate that skill set can be a personal liability. There’s a whole book on this idea of emotional labour called The Managed Heart3 by Arlie Russel Hoshchild if you’re interested (and have the time available to you to read a book).
But these practices are not just about books. Learning the communal priorities of tech, finance, sports or any other given culture offers a language to speak inside that class. These languages are expressed in dress, accent, geography, architecture, health, diet; anything a person dedicates their labour time toward belonging—and just importantly what is considered inappropriate for a person to labour toward—develops their taste according to their class. Again, there is no intrinsic value to knowledge: we ask arts majors “what are you going to do with that?” because we assume the sale of their labour is the most important result of their experience; we happen to exist in a general framework that values knowledge only as it offers upward mobility.
Which labour practices are “natural” or “realistic” to provide upward mobility is not necessarily universal, even if their guiding narratives extend across class. The idea that hard work comes with rewards assume the work required to learn how to code is a more valuable investment of labour time than the work it takes to pick cobalt out of the earth. In any case, belonging requires a tacit acceptance of some modes of communication over others. Think of it this way: when we accept that Shakespeare is the eternal bard because his work aptly speaks to something universal of the human condition.
None of his characters ever stop to go to the bathroom, they don’t lose their trains of thought, hell the whole language is artificially organised into a steady rhythm. There is nothing “realistic” about any text; we make meaning out of codifying information into narratives and mediating ourselves through text. Art are texts, jobs are texts, people are texts. Everything is mediated and there are no pure aesthetics without politics. So a Shakespeare is an aesthetic representation of something recognisable by our own subjectivities. Recognisable, that is, so long as we have been adequately trained by our environment to recognise it. While you’re reading this you can maintain a clear boundary between who you are and who I am while also connecting an imaginary bridge between our brains through these words. Language is the original series of tubes.
You can understand how meaning is created through the way words are connected because a big part of the work that goes into literacy is recognising how sentences are structured, how blog essays organise information differently than…I dunno, like a receipt or something. Having some control on how information is meant to be distributed and what ways are to be considered natural for the form has some pretty big implications for what issues get to be discussed, how they’re understood, whether or not they’re taken seriously and who gets to have a say in the conversation. But also having the labour time to learn how to speak the language gets you a seat at the table: it lets you recognise which authorities influence discourse and gives you a few chips to play with.
That authority can be, say, literature departments in English-speaking universities, or it can be the an opening box office weekend but there is always an authority that gets to establish and enforce the terms of belonging. Right about now a chorus breaks out and announces that all taste is entirely subjective and everything that has ever been said across all time and place is totally equal in value and influence. But it can’t be that taste is subjective because each subject would have unique taste; every possible text would have an equally random chance of finding readership. But if you’ve ever seen a Disney film then you know that popularity can and often is projected, anticipated, and manufactured.
One subject’s subjectivity pales compared with the authority that classifies media into hierarchies of value. The next time you’re having a casual conversation with a loved one try to make the case that Justin Bieber is more important to the development of rock and roll than (depending on the age of your interlocutor) Frank Sinatra/The Beatles/Led Zeppelin/Nirvana (make sure you use the word “development”, they’ll love that). You don’t get to value Justin Bieber unconditionally, especially if you’re classified by age and gender in that moment. There is a system of value that determines which texts and which meanings are privileged and how much labour is required to participate in that privilege.
Okay. Let’s stretch and take a breather. Here’s a funny video.4 Why is it funny? Why are we supposed to laugh at this? The speaker in the video offers a brief summary of Hamlet and then gives a short reading of the text. The speaker has clearly read Hamlet. The speaker, Greg Edwards playing the character Sparky Sweets, PhD., relays a succinct overview and quick analysis of an established piece of literature while (plot twist!) being black and using racialized slang. The joke of the ongoing series, Thug Notes, is that a lowbrow figure understands and enjoys high brow art.
Incidentally the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are rooted in phrenology,5 the study of intelligence based on the size and shapes of a person’s skull. Intelligence is thus determined by the size of a person’s forehead. Those sporting a higher “brow” (such as, not-coincidentally, the Anglo-Saxon white dudes who came up with this metric) were thought to have bigger brain space for appreciating complicated thinky shit. So highbrow art is a literally imposed hierarchy in which the lowbrow media of European colonies are actively destroyed. Shakespeare is immortalized in writing and oral traditions are terminated—despite Shakespeare’s plays also being preserved and distributed orally during his life and only being written down after his death.
Thug Notes is funny because it demands viewers pay attention to its comedy. It speaks authoritatively in with one language in two dialects. The texts maintain their power but authority is displaced by a critic who is eminently removed from the classed authority of Shakespearean tragedy (read: old white curmudgeons of academia). Shakespearean theatre only in the last century became an artefact reserved for higher classes; there’s plenty of documentation to suggest that Shakespearean theatre and opera—the palpably upper class rituals of today—were once a part of an effort to bridge class lines. Sparky Sweets, the character, demonstrates a great deal of cultural capital in two different currencies. We laugh to make sense of it.
I want to lay this out not because I think erasing history and flattening all textual values to zero would be possible (or even beneficial if it were). I just want to hammer home that there is a lot of history, social-bonding and subjectivity in the things we enjoy. It’s not good or bad and objectivity isn’t real.
So. Dragonball Xenoverse. Dragonball Xenoverse only really works as a game if you watched the show or read the manga. The characters, the logic inside the world of its fiction, even the plot are all taken for granted. To fully enjoy Dragonball Xenoverse you must have dedicated the requisite labour time to understanding who is in the cast, which names match with which faces and voices, the format of the show and everything else before even approaching the messy stuff like the mythos, style, aesthetics, genre, etc. In a way, that it was produced with an anticipated return of cost with the assumption that so much of its foundational knowledge is already there says something about Dragonball‘s capacity to speak to so many people.
Anyway, even if watching Dragonball Z in 1998 with my sister was fun, filing all that stuff into my noggin was work and it took effort which later returns as having easy access to the resources needed to engage with a community of other Dragonball fans. It also puts me in tension with those who have more authority either through a greater investment of labour time into Dragonball or anime in general. People with the adequate level of cultural capital get to decide what a real fan looks like. That’s why you get people freaking out about ladies busting ghosts: the investment of labour time into a cultural artefact is not invented, but the payoffs come only with scarcity when value so frankly hinges on delineating class.
What we have is an economic understanding of cultural engagement. When our identities are formed by the capital—including cultural capital—invested in things that any old person can buy, there’s nothing stopping just anyone from sitting down and throwing a few chips of their own in for a hand or two to decide whether or not an artefact/community is for them or not. That wouldn’t be a big deal if there was something to identify ourselves with besides the media we invest our time in. Dragonball can be a part of your identity because, again, the time a person puts into being a part of something is real and it has a material, personal consequences.
It isn’t that capitalism manufactures false identity or that it won’t deliver on the promise of a good life: the dopamine rush from a shopping spree isn’t imaginary, it really does feel good to participate in the market, it really does feel good to get paid according to the agreed upon terms of a contract. People tolerate capitalism because it really does deliver on that promise for the good life: at least, for some people some of the time. There are complex networks of classes working around one another with varying promises for stabilising or advancing class location but we unanimously approach one another as though classes exist and there are fuzzy but absolute borders between them (not unlike the fuzzy but absolute borders between nations). The issue is that the exchange of labour time for capital dictates all of our relationships to a point where a person can’t even watch a play or an anime without performing a class. The more specialised our media the more alienated our cultures and communities become from one another. When our labour time can only be considered valuable when a specific, contractual exchange is met and that our enjoyment is a pay cheque collected after a required entry exposure to the right seasons the complexities of culture get stuffed into a meat grinder.
Consider even the demand for objective culture, for fair and unbiased reviews that provide a measurable return on investment. The incorporation of Dragonball into myself as a person isn’t just a silly quirk I can bring up in certain conversations. It’s a small and real thing; corporate manufactured drivel, fine, but many years ago I put some of my time into it and now it’s a way I can relate to some other people. Xenoverse is just a playful if grindy opportunity to take a pink-haired robot lady modelled off an old Final Fantasy character. It’s a chance for me to smash colourful dolls together and relive my favourite moment of an alien punching an alien. But the invasion of greater exchange logic transforms the small but real meaning of my experience of Dragonball, both as a piece of history and as a piece of my subjectivity, into something impersonal.
Fanhood, then, is no longer an activity of agents in a community, it’s the contributions of an employee labouring for the promise of belonging. When ladies come in and bust ghosts then my worship of the artefact is in breach of contract. I necessarily need to treat the incoming competition as a hostile buyout of my identity because my invested labour time is depreciated by newcomers. The experience of culture and forming identity are canned in a factory and distributed according to how far one makes it in the bidding. The assumption is that if you show up at the anime/comic/gamer mines, put the hours in then you take what’s yours at the end of the day.
Anyway, I wish that more of the outfits in Xenoverse let me customise the colours but I basically dug it.
1 Walker, Austin. “Afterimage Technique: Growing Up With Dragon Ball.” Clockwork Worlds. February 26 2016.
2 Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Routledge: 1984.
3 Hochild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. UP California: 2012.
4 Edwards, Greg. “Hamlet.” Thug Notes. Aug 13 2013.
5 Popova, Maria. “The Myth of Popular Culture: Why ‘Highbrow’ & ‘Lowbrow’ Don’t Work.” Brain Pickings. August 23 2011.
Further reading: Alexandra, Heather. “Xenoversial Anxiety of a Trans Gamer: The Art of Character Creation in Dragonball Xenoverse.” TransGamer Thoughts. March 3 2015.