SCMS 2011 Workshop: Acafandom and the Future of Fan Studies

This past weekend, I attended the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference in New Orleans. It was a dizzying mix of provocative panels, conversations, music, and food. It’s certainly odd to wander a block out of Conference Land (usually a world completely unto itself) and find yourself on Bourbon Street, in the sun, listening to live music and drinking coffee.

One of the sessions I participated in has especially stayed with me now that I’m back in the melting snow of Vermont. I’ve been pondering my post-conference response, and will be sharing it at Antenna, but before I do so, I thought I’d like to post the meat of the workshop here–first, the proposal, and the various provocations that participants wrote up in advance of the workshop and shared as its opening. This workshop included myself as moderator, Will Brooker, Kristina Busse, Melissa Click, and Jonathan Gray–a group I was very excited to bring together to discuss the various pushes, pulls, and pressures of acafan study.

The workshop abstract (written by myself and Kristina Busse): Acafandom and the Future of Fan Studies

This workshop considers the evolving future for fan studies and acafandom within and beyond media studies. Even as fan studies has grown into an academic discipline over the past two decades, its practitioners continue to debate its subject matter, its boundaries, and their own relationship to the subject matter. Moving beyond anthropological case studies and psychological quantitative research, fan studies scholars working in conversation with media studies have added a focus on the acafan who negotiates academic and fannish investments in order to speak as, for, and to both groups. In this workshop, we will explore how issues of personal investment and disciplinarity, of gender and generation inform our methodological choices as well as our research foci. We will interrogate how questions of gender have shaped and continue to shape the field, with attention to the perception of a clear cut distinction between fan boys and fan girls. What is the impact of our negotiation of categorical terms such as not only fangirl and fanboy but also fans, acafans, antifans, and superfans? How have the evolving traditions of acafandom shaped the landscape of what fan practices are studied and what are left invisible? In our increasingly digitized academic public sphere, performances of simultaneous academic and fan identities raise both pragmatic and ideological concerns. We will draw on our own experience as researchers and teachers, and will also engage the perspectives of workshop attendants to investigate the conflict between new models of scholarship in fan studies and traditional academic institutionalism, the impact of greater visibility and engagement of acafans on fandom itself, and the impact of acafandom on convergence culture at large.

And the provocations:

Will Brooker (Kingston University): Balance of the Force

I want to discuss two distinct, perhaps contradictory aspects of aca-fandom: the advantage of foregounding your own fandom as both a way into exploring fan communities and as a case study in itself, and on the other hand, the risk of both self-indulgence and over-indulgence towards the fan communities under examination.

These and similar issues were discussed valuably and provocatively in Flow’s special Aca-Fandom edition of December 2010: by, for instance, Tom Phillips of the University of East Anglia, with his short essay on “embracing the overly-confessional”, and Catherine Coker and Candace Benefiel, of Texas A&M, with their “defence of aca-fans and scholars”.

But in the spirit of both the merits of critical self-examination, and the risks of embarrassing self-indulgence, I am going to use as my primary case study a book I published almost ten years ago, called Using the Force. Perhaps it could start a trend of meta-aca-fandom.

As the title suggests, this book is a study of Star Wars fans in all their diversity and activity – specifically, the first 100 fans who replied to an advertisement I placed on a website in June 2000.

The book opens with an account of my own fandom, including the excitement of the first time I saw Star Wars, my games with action figures, my obsessive transcription of dialogue from a TV screening of the film, and my speculation about the sequels, based on the evidence of trailers and fan club newsletters. I address the reader: “That’s my story, or part of it. You might have a similar one of your own.”

This confessional approach, based around admitting and foregrounding my own fandom, was a continuation of my decision in my previous book, Batman Unmasked, to admit my own investment in the text, highlight my own preferences and prejudices for specific incarnations and interpretations of Batman, and explain how those preferences had been shaped by my experience, and bound up with my personal notions of the city, masculinity and fatherhood. Again, in this earlier work, I admitted an investment that could seem embarrassing, laying myself open and even reprinting (and analysing) a Batman story I wrote when I was seven years old.

In that book, I located my approach within a then-recent academic tradition, or trend: I suggested that “it has become common – even fashionable – for academic writers to declare their own cultural ‘positionality’ in relation to the texts they are addressing” (p.4). I positioned myself, in turn, in relation to previous cultural studies research from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, on gay readings (Andy Medhurst on Batman), masculinity (Fred Pfeil) and research from a feminist and class perspective (Janice Radway, Paul Willis). This passage in Batman Unmasked was itself discussed in later work such as Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures (2002), as an example of the fan-academic position epitomised by Henry Jenkins, and the associated debates around fan subjectivity in balance with academic objectivity.

But in Using the Force, I explained my choice to foreground my own fandom not in terms of these debates, but in terms of my relationship with my respondents: their expectations, the respect and trust we established, and my need not to betray that trust.

As I point out in the book, science fiction fans are wary of being ridiculed, and aware that they can be easily mocked; Henry Jenkins opens Textual Poachers (1992) with a similar point about the stereotypical depiction of “Trekkies”.

The individuals who corresponded with me about Star Wars shared a great deal of personal information. On one level, their admissions of obsessive fandom were potentially embarrassing, and the correspondents, who for the most part offered me their full name and location, were aware that they were risking exposure to ridicule in print. More than one admitted, for instance, that he was still a “Star Wars geek” despite having a job and girlfriend. But others offered even more sensitive confessions. One explained that Star Wars had “saved my life… as a teen, my mother died young, and my stepfather was abusive…” (p.11) and another spoke of how Star Wars replaced his drug addiction. (p.10)

My correspondents had, therefore, trusted me with extremely personal details, and my priority was to repay that trust. Making my own potentially-embarrassing confession was motivated by that need to repay the bargain, to confirm that I was (at least partly) an insider, one of them.

However, with hindsight I feel that this obligation to respect my correspondents’ voices and views, and my own insider position, tipped the balance of the book too far in one direction. In discussing my own experiences of Star Wars, for instance, I didn’t locate my fan-academic position in relation to the scholarly debates Hills identifies, but in terms fans would understand and appreciate. This tendency to engage with original primary texts and fan testimonies before (or instead of) contextualising them in terms of secondary theory and academic reading underlies the entire book.

It was important to me that the book should be enjoyed by, and be entirely comprehensible to, the people who had helped me write it; but as a result, it is less traditionally scholarly and academic than some of my other work, and less theoretically rigorous than the work of my peers in recent fan studies.

There are other instances where my debt to and need to respect the fan communities may have restricted me, or shaped my research in a certain direction. With the chapter on slash fiction – where I was careful to use pseudonyms, to protect the privacy of those who kept their erotic story-writing separate from their professional career – I sent the draft chapter to my correspondents, and invited their comments. Inevitably, I was less critical and objective than I would have been, had I chosen not to let the fans read the chapter before publication.

The same is true of the chapters based around face-to-face interviews. I appreciated the effort my respondents made to meet me, and particularly welcomed the hospitality of a young man called Mark Williams and his friends, who invited me to watch a Star Wars film with them in Chatham, Kent, and to transcribe their running commentary.

With hindsight, I feel that the fannish bond I quickly formed with those respondents, coupled with my need to have them accept me as an insider, weakens the book at certain points. Including my own responses in the transcribed record of watching The Empire Strikes Back now strikes me as self-indulgent, and some of the passages in the book’s epilogue, where I return to Mark’s house and am treated almost as a friend, are unnecessary.

In this last chapter, published in the softcover in 2003, I offered the interviewees the chance to respond to the published book (which had appeared in hardcover the previous year). One of them reacts indignantly to my analysis of his comments, and embraces the opportunity to tell my readers he is not gay (p.265). While this was an interesting and original experiment, and laudable in a way, I now feel that these passages offer a platform for at best trivial, and at worst sexist, homophobic and thoughtlessly racist remarks, and that they add little to the book in their current form. With hindsight, I feel that the material could have been analysed with more critical distance and objectivity; it is valuable primary data, but the comments, and the prejudices they suggest, should have been examined in terms of the respondents’ age, class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity.

Overall, then, the project was an exercise in trust. At every stage, I was diligent in foregrounding my own fandom and insider status, and careful to respect my correspondents’ views, to the point of allowing them final edit on some chapters and a right to reply in the softcover edition. As a serious study of Star Wars that dignified fan communities and creativity, and remained appealing and relevant to the groups and individuals it discusses, I feel it was a success. But I think it could have stepped back from the “fan” position and held more towards the “academic”.

Each book is a learning experience, and I learned from this one: I learned that it is possible to stray too far in one direction – not towards the Dark Side, but towards the fan side – and that a little more objective, critical distance may have brought greater balance to Using the Force.

Melissa Click (University of Missouri): Eclipsed Fan-Groups: Why Aca-fans Should Study What We Do Not Love.

Inherent in Jenkins’ term “aca-fan” (or Hill’s term “scholar-fan”) is the belief that our reasons for studying people who have great affection (or intense dislike) for media texts impact the kinds of scholarship we produce. The terms were built to break the boundaries between researcher and researched and make visible scholars’ identifications as fans. Those who use the terms work to create a relatively seamless unification, a hybrid, of its two components.

I value the unity and transparency these terms inspire and believe the work produced by self-proclaimed aca-fen and scholar-fans to be some of the most interesting and important work produced in fan studies, in part because both components of the terms (academic identification and fan identification) are in need of a little shaking up. But looking back over this work, I think that combining fan and academic identity may have negatively impacted our scholarship–we may have put our fan identifications before our academic ones.

I am not the first to suggest that our scholarship may be too self-centered, nor am I the first to argue that our work may be too focused on audiences who are easy to locate and are likely to talk to us. We need to be self-reflexive as we examine the body of work we have produced and one way of making sure we are pushing the boundaries of our field (instead of resting comfortably within them) is to reflect upon how we select the kinds of fans we wish to study.

Do our fannish identities drive the choices we make about what kinds of fans we wish to study? Though there are many good reasons to study fan groups we have an affinity for or participate in, I think that studying those like us (fans we believe to be clever, active, and rational) has become a comfortable choice. Like the fan communities we study, notoriety in our field comes from providing innovative perspectives on the “right” texts. Over time, in fan studies, this has come to mean that we study fans who prefer media texts we prefer.

I won’t assume to know the variety of reasons that drew each of us to study fans, but if we study fans because we want to understand how they make sense of the media texts they favor or reject—to know what draws or repels them and how engagement with those texts shapes the way they view the world, then we must include a wide range of fans and fan practices. I cannot argue that my choices are diverse, but my identification as a feminist scholar has driven my interest in studying female fans who are overlooked—or worse—mocked for their feminized fannish behaviors or for simply taking interest in their fan objects, which are devalued in mainstream culture. My recent work on Twilight has put me in the position of defending maligned fans of a text I think is fun but incredibly problematic—but I believe it’s productive to understand the fans’ relationship to the saga and each other (I’m happy to expand on this in our discussion).

Our field began in defense of fans ridiculed in mainstream culture—but it seems that by selecting the fans we deem most interesting for study, we have begun creating hierarchy anew, leaving fans we deem uninteresting to be derided as too ordinary, too dim-witted to appreciate quality texts, and too uninteresting to be worthy of study. I think we have much to gain by studying these fans and much to lose by ignoring them. As we discuss the future of fan studies, I’d like to explore what may be lost if we turn away from these less desirable fan groups to study only those in which we are personally invested. We need to ask ourselves how identifying as an aca-fan impacts the scholarship we produce, and if we have given our fan identifications too much influence over academic ones.

Kristina Busse (Independent Scholar, co-editor of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures),  The Ethics of Selection: The Role of Canonicity in Acafannish Pedagogy and Publication (also available at her website here).

One of the things this panel clearly has addressed is the role the academics personal taste plays in selection, and how much our own fannish desires, our own affect should influence our choices. What I’d like to talk about then is a related but slightly more ambiguous problem, namely how much our choices should create and reflect internal canon creations. I’m coming here from a position of literature with its tradition of a well established canon that justifies itself (at least initially) via aesthetic value and quality and read that in contrast to my current work in media and fan studies.

Part of the problem is clearly related to the material as well as to the discipline. When working with more traditional texts, there are two clear advantages: there is no need to justify one’s choices (in fact, there is little need to actually choose!) and there’s no need to summarize. Whether I write on Middle March or Ulysses, on Turn of the Screw or Beloved, not only do I not have to justify my academic object, but i can assume the reader to be familiar with it. when working on fan works, however, I not only may have to explain why I decide to write on a Stargate Atlantis genderswap story rather than one from another fandom, but also why I’d choose this particular story. In effect, the freedoms I am afforded within a much huger field of texts that lack institutional hierarchical evaluation, make it difficult to decide when picking an individual text.

And this is where the problem of canonicity and its associated issue of quality control arises. Personally, I blame one poets–namely T.S.Eliot–more than anyone else in the creation of the idea of the New Critical objectively evaluatable textual artifact and the canon it creates.

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.

We’ve spent decades now overthrowing the concept of a canon (though not necessarily all that successfully), and yet, it is that very canon that still rears its head when we can shorthand and easily reference shared texts. The quality of these texts may not be counted in terms of aesethic value necessarily but in terms of multiple fruitful theoretical approaches or teachability, but the fact remains that we reassert the canon every time we put Huck Finn back on the syllabus, every time we teach the 5 big Romantic poets which leaves us no time for anything else in the early 1800s.

Teaching, of course, isn’t academic research, but what I’m interested in here is the way every choice construes a canon and every repetition reasserts it. And these choices occur in teaching and in research, mutually supporting each other, of course. We teach those texts we can find secondary research for, after all, and we tend to at least start our research on texts we *know*, text’s we’ve been taught. It’s a mutually reinforcing value system.

Fandom texts, on the other hand, create their own mixture of quasi-meritocracy. Popular creators as well as their stories, vids, fan art are linked, shared, and recced, yet tastes vary widely so that most attempts to create lists of even the least contentious descriptors–such as “most influential,” for example–are bound to fail. In fact, knowing a reccer is almost as important as the rec list itself in order to establish whether one’s criteria overlap and whether those fan works would be indeed to one’s liking.

Given such a wide variety and such idiosyncratic choices, it is surprising how small numbers of vids, for example, dominate academic vid shows, class showing, and academic papers. I’m just mentioning Lum and Sisabet’s “Women’s Work” and Lim’s “Us” here, two vids that might indicate that there is indeed a vid canon, after all.

The reason for that has a lot to do with what fans like and what academics like. In fact, these two criteria beautifully intersect in these two vids, making them ideal representatives, so to speak. And yet I see some danger in creating our own academic canon, so to speak, of texts that fit our theoretical frameworks, texts that are sufficiently experimental, queer, political, or whatever else we may decide to focus on. the problem is not that there shouldn’t be an essay on “Women’s Work.” There totally should! The problem is that by showing the vid every single time and namechecking it (as i’m doing right now :), we’re effectively construing a canon, a canon that then gets reflected back on fandom who, of course reads and responds to academic canon formation. Moreover, in so doing, we are on some level ignoring the thousands of vids not as experimental, not as political, not as well edited.

And the question is then whether there really is a problem in that and what political implications that may have. When we choose fan works that fit into our arguments, that make fandom look more creative, more political, more subversive to outsiders because that’s the image we want to give to the world at large, are we ultimately misrepresentating and betraying fandom? When we decide on picking exceptional texts, are we properly studying the fandom? How do we justify picking the three most excellent, most politically progressive genderswap stories while ignoring the dozens of stories that are misspelled and poorly plotted, that are reactionary or rightout offensive?

Of course, it’s more fun writing about stories we like, stories we consider aesthetically and ideologically pleasing. I can spend time with a text I like; I can present my fandom in the best light; and I can get easy permission, because I can show my analysis and not offend the author. i can please academics, fans, and myself in the process. But I’d like to ask what texts and what forms of cultural expression we may ignore in the process, and that we remain vigilant to our vested interests when we decide to choose one text over the many available others.

Jonathan Gray, (University of Wisconsin): I really don’t care much for the term acafan.

I really don’t care much for the term acafan. I’m all for academics who are fans and vice versa, to be clear, and for academic work about fandom. But the term isn’t a favorite, and in my short time here, I want to say why and to use that as a way of exploring some issues surrounding acafandom and aca-antifandom.

Ultimately, it’s unclear how each half – the aca and the fan – is commenting on the other half. I don’t see many such formulations elsewhere in academia (there are no “industrdemics,” for instance), and so there’s a nasty undertone of claiming special status, all the nastier because it’s not clear whether “special” is seen as good or bad. Is one side an apology for the other, as in, “no, no, don’t worry, I’m not a fan, I’m an aca-fan”? If so, the phrase protests too much – just be an academic, and be a fan, and don’t feel they need to clash. Or is one side modifying the other, suggesting a special type of fandom or academia, above that of the middling masses, as in “I’m not just a lowly fan, I’m an acafan”? Or is there some suggestion that the two are a binary, and the hybrid formulation is meant to suggest a marrying or greying of the two, as with “infotainment”? If so, haven’t we moved beyond the point when they were seen as binaries? Not completely, I know, but still, it ain’t the 1950s, so can’t we abandon the term?

I worry that acafandom risks presenting itself as a little fiefdom within academia proper, in which fandom can be central, and in which the mode of engagement can be wholly fannish. Acafandom as term risks suggesting that one only needs to be those two things, an academic and a fan. But I’m more interested in what else an acafan is, and what else she or he is studying. What are the broad processes that matter far more than Sam and Dean, Jack and Locke? What are the other banners an acafan marches under? I don’t mean to suggest that many acafans aren’t studying such broader processes, but for those who are, why the need to march under the acafan banner?

That question is of course in part rhetorical, with a suggested response that it isn’t needed. But let me also give a practical response. The banner may still have meaning because media and cultural studies is still haunted by a deep skepticism of liking the media. Good, self-respecting academics are all meant to be able to point to things we don’t like and say why. I’ve known more than a fair share of brilliant scholars whose work has been rejected by reviewers based on the vague criticism that it’s “not critical enough,” which usually means it doesn’t see the ills of neoliberalism and capital as the only things truly worth noting in academic work. Those ills need charting, but they only scratch the surface of the depths of commentary we might offer on most media. The haunting, though, comes both from within, from the foundational scholars and theorists who gifted us a critical attack mode. And from outside, as the field can still be too scared of the judgment of others that we’re really just watching stuff we like and writing about it without engaging on a deeper level, and thus there’s often an over-compensation in the form of head-on critique.

Certainly, things in the field have changed with a generation who grew up on media and can’t simply disavow it all and write it off as horrible crap. But to me, acafandom shouldn’t need to exist. As I’ve said, it’s a rather silly word. It exists, however, because of its longstanding, rarely labeled opposite: aca-antifandom. And if acafans have often with great skill analyzed their own consumption positions, the way to get rid of the silly word acafan is for us to account for its opposite with better skill, to really pry into antifandom. The more that we do that, the more we might see the unnamed operating structures that lie behind a great deal of academic practice in media studies, and the less that we may need to hole up in the oases of acafandom should we find ourselves actually quite liking something.

It’s not at all about celebration and turning off the critical mode, to be clear – since I believe a great problem with aca-antifandom is that it’s often entirely uncritical in its inability to look for nuance or to withhold conclusions until after studying the text or audience in question. Rather, it’s about allowing a little more fannishness into media studies proper so that fandom doesn’t seem – to outsiders, newbies, and some weaker scholars – to be a zone for mere celebration. It’s about accepting a wide range of critical practice, and recognizing it as “critical.” And so, if I began seemingly critical of acafandom – which I am – let me end by saying that part of the challenge lies with aca-antifandom and whether it too can finally start being self-reflexive, or whether we’re going to continue thinking of it as the default position, and thereby render acafandom the refuge for those who might want to be allowed to like an episode of this or that show every once in a while.

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