As promised, we are going to be running a mega-event through my blog this summer — an ongoing conversation among some of the leading scholars of fan cultures and cult media. This conversation has grown out of a perceived disconnect in the ways that male and female scholars are writing about this phenomenon, though I hope that it will evolve into something else — a discussion of fan studies as a field, its theoretical groundings, its methodologies, and its most important insights. There has been an explosion in recent years of exciting new work on fan culture which is coming from an emerging generation of scholars — male and female. I am hoping that this event will help introduce this work to a larger public and that this discussion can be seen as a sign that fan studies is really coming of age.
Here’s how it will work: Every Thursday and Friday, we will introduce a new pair of scholars, who will continue the discussion, seeking to explore commonalities and differences in the ways they approach the work. Jason Mittell and Karen Hellekson have gotten things rolling here with some thoughts about the nature of fannish and academic authority.
Our hope is that this discussion will spill over into other blogs as well and I will try to post as many links to these other discussions as possible. So far, for example, Kristina Busse and Will Brooker have started a public discussion in anticipation of the series which Kristina is running over at her blog.
I am also encouraging other participants to add their thoughts and comments here whenever something in the public discussion sparks their interests. Karen and Jason suggested the use of numbered units to make it easier for people to refer to parts of the exchange.
So, let the fun begin.
by Karen Hellekson & Jason Mittell
1. Academic authority
[1.1] KLH: It seems that every discussion about fan studies somehow has something to do with authority – not only with establishing who has it (apparently not the fans, unless they appropriate it), but indicating the closeness of the relationship with the subject matter (apparently being an academic means you’re inauthentic if you’re a fan, and being a fan means you can’t be a properly dispassionate, disinterested academic). My problem with this led to my coediting, with Kristina Busse, a recent volume of new essFays about fan studies, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, all by academics who are also fans, because I think that this connection is a useful and good thing.
[1.2] Interestingly for this discussion, the academy does not employ me. I’m employed full-time as a copyeditor in the scientific, technical, and medical market – a good fit for me, because I prefer not to teach. My academic credentials include a PhD in English, with an emphasis in science fiction, and I’ve published some books and articles, some of which happen to be about fan studies. I write book reviews about SF titles for Publishers Weekly. However, I’ve found that a lack of an academic connection is terribly disenfranching. The simplest research project is fraught with annoyance and pain as roadblocks are thrown in front of me: it’s ridiculously difficult to get the books and articles I need, thanks to all the limits placed on me by the library; and I don’t have an affiliation to put on my abstract submissions, which results in their being kicked back to me for “completion.”
[1.3] My work in fan studies includes literary and historical readings of fan texts and/or the bits of the Internet given over to fan community. I’m currently interested in notions of authorship; of truth-claims, authority, and analysis; and ideas about constructing and editing reality (as, for example, editing blog posts to alter the historical trace). I’ve also done some work on the idea of fandom as a gift culture. I blog occasionally about my academic-type thoughts.
[1.4] JM: My aca-identity is comparatively traditional – I teach Media Studies at Middlebury College, writing about television primarily in the forms of books (author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture [Routledge, 2004] and a textbook in-the-works called Television & American Culture), articles (essays on TV narrative, genre, discourses about television as a medium), and blog (JustTV, where links to many of my other writings can be found as well). I’m primarily interested in the intersections between television programming, industrial strategies, and viewer practices, and have recently been focusing these interests on the development of new forms of television storytelling emerging in the past decade or so in the United States.
[1.5] Importantly for this discussion, I do not consider myself a scholar of fandom; although occasionally my research does peer into fan practices, such as a new essay on spoiler fans of Lost, my motivating question in such research is not focused on understanding fandom as a distinct set of practices – I’m not the least bit hostile to such scholarship, but it’s just not my primary interest.
2. Fannish authority
[2.1] JM: My fan-identity is a bit more muddy. While I’m an eager consumer of many types of media & popular culture (including TV like Lost, Veronica Mars, BSG, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, etc.; a lot of animation; much music; and a fair number of videogames), I would not self-identify as a fan per se. And to me, this cuts to the heart of the debate framing this discussion – what are the boundaries of being a “fan” and who is invested in the label as an identity? I’m interested in fans as part of my pedagogy, regularly teaching academic work about fandom and showing examples of fan creativity & engagement. I read fan studies, even blurbing the excellent new volume Fandom.
[2.2] But I have no real personal investment in the fan label, or the practices and communities that tend to coalesce around the notion of fandom. For me, fandom centers around three main aspects: fan creativity (paratexts, fanfics, vidding, etc.), fan community (in-person and/or online), and fan self-identification (prominent self-branding through fashion, online profiles, behaviors, etc.). I don’t really engage with any of these (save for wearing a Red Sox cap on bad hair days), so that’s why I don’t conceive of myself as a fan. (I realize that many people would argue that my notion of fandom is too narrow – I invite more discussion about those boundaries as they’re crucial to the debate.)
[2.3] KLH: I myself am an active fan, involved in newsgroups and blogs about my few primary fandoms. I write fan fiction under a pseudonym, and occasionally, I go to fan conventions. Although I’m a longtime fan – I was into Doctor Who first, in 1981, with a live-action fan club – I took some time off and got back into it in a big way in 2002, when I turned to fandom basically as a form of social engagement, because I live in an isolated, fairly rural area. I run a fanfic archive in my primary fandom. Within fandom, I do lots of large project type things – things that involve organizing the time and effort of others, because I can get such projects done. I spend fannish time in actor- and fan-specific newsgroups and in the LiveJournal blogsphere.