Looking at post-con depression through a lens of literary theory

20 May 2016 |

When I first heard about the concept of post-con depression, the idea made a lot of sense. We have a massive community of people who meet each other over sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and various furry art hubs. These groups of people travel across or fly over states, countries or in some cases continents and oceans to see these online friends possibly once a year for a weekend, if that.

That’s already bittersweet.

But when you consider going to a big con – and presently attending is an amalgam of so many internet personalities you had conversed with or seen – it feels less like a get-together of friends and more like a supernatural event. Maybe like that scene in the film Big Fish where all the people Edward Bloom had met in his life showed up to attend his funeral, juxtaposing themselves as they exist now with the ghost of the narrative that surrounded them. Except less macabre. Alternatively, it could be compared to something like a World’s Fair for a very specific group of people.

And this convention I attended was indeed very fair-like. In the dealer’s den there were booths for everything from harnesses and tails to scarves and soap, plus artwork, books, jewelry, and custom renaissance fair outfits. There were board game expositions with groups of friends playing together. I attended and participated in panels with some of the brightest creative minds, young and old, that I had met.

Come Saturday, I saw all of the props and displays getting taken apart, and that was my first inkling of inexplicable dread, like a small voice in my head that said 'this ephemeral extravaganza is going to phase out of existence entirely, and what was will never be again'. That voice was no long a whisper when Sunday morning came, and I could see a sizable chunk of the crowd had already gone, having stole away in the night. I regretted not going to the Saturday dance. When I was younger, I used to be very much into British and Irish folklore, so the thought of pixie rings popped into my head: where people could not stop dancing if they joined in the revelry of the faeries, and having partaken in their food and their music meant the people could no longer return to the mortal world.

It certainly didn’t help that this convention was Rainfurrest 2015.

That being said, I most certainly don’t have precognition, so my hairs would have stood on end similarly for any big con with a support group for writers. At one point on a Saturday, I remarked to a friend: “you know, everybody we run into seems to be wearing ears and a tail at the very least, and I’m starting to want one. But then I realize I’d have nowhere else to wear it.”

And that moment was the light bulb going off in my head– that decisive moment where you can feel that a subculture is truly a subculture and is leaving an anthropological impression in the world. I thought of Foucault’s literary theory of Panopticism.

For those not familiar, Michel Foucault was a French philosopher made famous for his ideas of power and control and how they construct and interact with our social worlds. One of his ideas was that of the social Panopticon, based on an institutional building invented by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century where a single guard would sit at the center of a spherical building, the surrounding walls holding the prisoners in their cells, making all cells in the institution visible to the guard at a time. Despite this being impossible, prisoners could still feel the gaze of the sentinel, and it was enough to prevent bad behavior. Inmates would start policing their own behavior as well as the behaviors of other prisoners, because it could not be discerned whether the guard was looking at them at any time or not. Foucault presents the argument that all of society acts as this guard, including ourselves, while at the same time we each act as the prisoner. We self-police based on the gazes we give and receive, and what we consider “bad” behavior changes as the guard changes.

Fashion is a very subtle form of this self-policing, and it can be exacerbated to extremes in environments like high school and freshman college dorms. For example, as a personal experience, when I was in high school I noticed that everybody wore jeans, while I didn’t care for them. I made it a point to not wear jeans. I wore nylon shorts, and khakis, and any form of legging that I could find that didn’t include denim. I never talked about this, but it was noticed. Many young women would look at my legs and raise their eyebrows. At one point I was nicknamed “professor” because I didn’t wear jeans.

By the beginning of my senior year, I started wearing jeans. I had warmed up to them, though I can’t say if this was more due to a change of taste or sheer peer pressure. Either way, my wearing jeans was noticed. I was given croons of approval. I was invited to more social outings. There was a noticeable difference in how I was seen and treated, and more than a few people told me I was, no kidding, now hot.

We know that the societal pressures of fashion are real. While the high school example is an extreme, I felt the same pressure from not wearing ears, a tail, or a costume over the course of a single weekend at a furry con, and that is nuts. That the furry con and subculture has a strong enough ethos to give me subconscious pressure about not wearing something is significant to me. It blurs the lines between culture and subculture in a way that gives me a small headache.

It gave me a new outlook on what post-con depression could be: not just the distress from parting with friends who you talk to every day, but self-doubt about the permanence and place of your subculture. It elicits questions like: “Was the furry of today going to be the furry of tomorrow?”, “Are all of the other cons like this?”, “Is it gone already and is it never coming back?”, “Should I have danced that last Saturday night, and will I regret not doing so for the rest of my life?”

I would bet these sentiments exist in other conventions where contribution, creativity and ingenuity is at the crux of the particular subculture, but there is so much in furry tied to identity and presentation of the self that I’m not sure it would be entirely the same at any other nerd convention.

We love our friends, and we miss them, too, but we also have this lingering thought of “the fair has left the town, but it has been here before me and will go on without me. When it comes back, if it comes back, will I still be able to recognize it? Will I want to be back?”

That is a lot to grapple with.