Monday, April 23, 2012

The Faction Factor

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
 –F. Scott Fitzgerald

What house are you? I’m a Ravenclaw, for sure. I mean, I’ve taken the tests online, and I always get Ravenclaw. It’s not just process of elimination (I’m not particularly brave, I’m not particularly evil, I don’t want to be in anything called Hufflepuff). I identify with not only the house motto about the importance of scholarship, but in a more meta way, I kind of dig the fact that Ravenclaw’s the underdog house. Cho Chang and the diadem aside, you’re basically left with subtext if you want to learn more about the ‘claw.
            The world of Harry Potter has been a big part of my life. My best friend and I ran summer camps for kids for years, and we hosted the release party for the last two books at our local Borders. I got the opportunity to meet a lot of other folks—kids and adults—who identified with the same house as me, as well as a lot of Gryffindors and Slytherins (I have to say it was a pretty big relief to not be the only adult in the room who’d gone online and ordered an embroidered House Badge).
            While the resonance and power of the Harry Potter series transcends any individual element of Rowling’s work, I do think that House-factor added a great deal of appeal. Fans of the series were encouraged to identify not only with Harry or one of the other characters, but to virtually join a house whose traits and ideals matched their own.
            Of course, identifying with fictional worlds is as old as, well, fictional worlds. But perhaps this type of identification is even more seductive in the postmodern world. We live in a hyper-specialized world. Cable and dish television services offer thousands of channels. The internet offers a myriad of niche worlds. Are you a fan of Goth and Golf? There’s a web community for you (I’m not even kidding). Do you love that show on the CW, but you’re really rooting for two characters who will never be together on the show to hook it up? There’s a shipper community for you. With a high-speed connection, you can join fifty communities before breakfast.
But though online communities have their advantages, and are certainly an undeniable part of our present and certainly our future, it’s possible that all these micro-worlds can pull us apart rather than bringing us together. In the old days, when there were three channels and we’d all heard of the same twenty bands, my friends and I could find common ground very easily. Today, if you Venn diagrammed my friends and I, we’d look like pies that were attacked by ninjas. It’s harder to find common ground when the ground’s so cluttered. I used to like music; now I like retro-progressive and electronic.
Maybe all this identifying with small niches leaves us hankering for the communal spirit of a good old fashioned club or a tribe. We want to join a group of like-minded people who all wear the same colors and the same badge. The latest YA novel to tap into this need, I think, is Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve been invited recently to join Team Dauntless, Team Amity, and even Team Abnegation (though if there’s a teenager out there who would willingly identify with the quality of denial of self, I’d like to meet them and ask them how they enjoyed the trip here in the time machine from 1880.) Roth’s book ups the ante on our identification with these factions: unlike in Rowling’s world, where fate (in the form of an insouciant hat) made the final call, teens in Divergent-land have to make their own choice once they come of age. What would you choose? I’m still not brave, and I’m too sarcastic to pass for Amity, so I guess I’d have to sign up with the Erudite again. Roth was wise, I think, to offer the bookworms a virtual home, though again it’s a marginal team (I think its interesting that the protagonist’s team in both series values bravery above all else). Don't we all wish were were braver? 
I predict this series will continue to flourish, as the film invites even more teens (and adults) to identify with a faction. A lot of other novels and series that are very popular now offer a similar chance to join a team (are you Team Edward or Jacob? Peeta or Gale?). In each case, one of these potential love interests is more about the brains, the other, more about the brawn. This binary choice still invites us in to the world of the story, to commune with those who are of like mind (and sometimes rail against those on the other side.)
We teachers know about the power of teams—even rather arbitrary ones. The race for our House Cup back at camp was often quite bloodthirsty. We all want to belong. In this digitized world of Goth Golf, I think we need it even more.

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