One of my continuing research projects involves an exploration as to why so many people enjoy the realm of the fantastic in popular culture. To be sure, many people enjoy these things for little more than entertainment, but for many others I believe it goes much further. My thinking on this matter has been informed in part by a helpful book by Roger C. Aden titled Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages (The University of Alabama Press, 1999).
To understand the significance and depth of fantastic worlds for those that enjoy them consider Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus, and Roger Aden’s suggestion that imaginative narratives in various forms serve as a means of escaping the habitus and engaging in a symbolic pilgrimage into promised lands. Bourdieu described the habitus as “our collective, cultural sense of place that is forged through the reproduction of history. In other words, our sense of where we are, culturally speaking, depends largely on where we’ve been.”Aden goes on to say that not only does our daily experience of the routine and mundane tend to confirm our sense of habitus, but also that the repetition of narratives or stories within western cultures reinforces such perceptions. But human beings are not satisfied with the mundane and desire something more. Imaginative stories “allow opportunities to transcend habitus, making possible the envisioning of – and symbolic escape to – alternative social worlds.” Aden goes further in his argument, stating that such experiences may be construed as “symbolic pilgrimages, those purposeful, playful, repeated journeys in which we imagine ourselves leaving the material world of habitus to enter the symbolic world of promised lands.” These pilgrimages are different than those expressed without recourse to imaginative narratives in that they “occur in the metaphorical terrain of culture rather than in its material manifestation,” although they can indeed move from merely symbolic to material pilgrimages, as in the case of Star Trek conventions where scholars have argued that this functions for some as a form of literal and sacred pilgrimage.
The escape from the habitus through fantastic narratives takes place in a number of ways. At times fantastic narratives not only reflect the imaginative ideal in escape and critique of the habitus, perhaps even resembling a utopian construct, but also reflect back on the habitus and can themselves serve as forms of narrative that simultaneously reinforce and critique the habitus itself. In consideration of this theory in regards to the fantastic it must be remembered that there is a mulifaceted relationship between the fantastic narratives and the habitus, and keeping this factor in mind helps to avoid the frequent critique of mere escapism often leveled against those who enjoy this voyage of the imagination.
Aden supports his argument with a number of illustrations of imaginative stories that function in this way, from the television program The X-Files to the motion picture The Field of Dreams. The impact of fantastic narratives like these upon those experiencing escape from the habitus can be quite profound, as exemplified by Aden’s quotation of a source referring to “devoted” and “avid” television fans whose experience with their favorite programs becomes “a major source of self-definition, [and] a kind of quasi-religious experience.” The Western world is currently undergoing a period of re-enchantment in response to the secularizing process of modernity, and I suggest that at times the realms of the fantastic, however expressed, whether through literature, television, motion pictures, virtual worlds, and video games, are playing a major part in providing forums for the re-enchanted imagination in this process. This may help to explain some of the appeal, and its depth, of the fantastic in peoples’ lives.