Gender and Fan Studies (Round Five, Part Two): Geoffrey Long and Catherine Tosenberger

Where the Wind Blows: The Matter of Authorship

Geoffrey: Ah, so we’ve arrived at the point in this academic conversation when we both devolve into real, true fanboy/fangirl engagement — what the hell is up with that Supernatural “prequel” comic anyway? The art is horrible and the writing isn’t much better! I swear to God, I was so stoked when I found the first issue at my comic shop, but when I got it home and cracked it open I was so disappointed that I didn’t even bother to finish reading it. Ugh.

A-hem. Back to the topic at hand…

I think this is one area where my own experience as a storyteller colors my attitude towards hierarchies of canon and authorship. When I tell a story, I’m creating a group of characters, a world in which they’ll exist, and the series of events that will happen to them. I am the author of that story, and these are my creations. If someone else wants to tell a story featuring my characters, it feels like it should be up to me to determine whether or not the events they describe are actually ‘canon’ or not. If I accept those events as canon, I’m also granting that person the right to be considered an author of this narrative — literally ‘authorizing’ them. If I don’t, then I have options. I can sue, in an attempt to make sure that no one else plays with my toys, but I personally firmly believe that this is a bad way to go unless someone’s making money off of my work illegally or that they’re passing off what they’re creating as official canon. A better option is to acknowledge the existence of that story as fan fiction, and recognize that it exists in a sort of orbit around the original creation. This is where things get particularly messy — is it “equally viable as literature”, or is it permanently tainted as a ‘lesser’ creation, since that person didn’t invent that story from whole cloth? How much distance from the original creation is required for something to be considered viable as literature?

Bookstores are filled with accepted literature that openly declare themselves to be reinterpretations of a classic, but there’s still a distinct difference between Margaret Mitchell’s 1939 novel Gone with the Wind, Alexandra Ripley’s 1991 Scarlett, Alice Randall’s 1992 The Wind Done Gone, and a piece of fanfic I might post to my blog tonight featuring Scarlett making out with Darth Vader. Interestingly, while both books hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller lists, Wikipedia includes Ripley’s Scarlett, which is a direct continuation of Gone with the Wind, in the ‘fan fiction’ category and Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, a retelling of the story from the point of view of the slaves, in the ‘parodies’ category. This suggests that the popular perception of both works is as ‘second-tier’ creations, despite the fact that Publisher’s Weekly referred to The Wind Done Gone as “a spirited reimagination of Mitchell’s world, dependent on its predecessor for its context but independent in form and voice”. To my mind, The Wind Done Gone is still lessened somewhat by its not being a wholly independent creation, but it is executed with enough originality and style that it can be considered viable as literature. In other words, it can stand on its own two feet. Scarlett, on the other hand, can’t make the same claim, and therefore suffers from the same drop in perceived validity as most fan fiction.

Were I Margaret Mitchell, I would most likely insist that Scarlett is an unauthorized piece of fanfic and should only be distributed via unofficial channels, but that The Wind Done Gone is different enough that it’s a sort of ‘alternate reality’ spin on my characters. I might still ask for a cut of the profits, since Randall is still using my copyrighted work as a jump-off point, but that it’s a distinct enough creation that it’s unlikely to be confused for my own stuff… Maybe. It’s a fascinating hypothetical. Regarding the Scarlett/Vader slash, I think that such a thing would be hard to take seriously unless it was done very, very, very, very well. (Bonus points to the first reader who posts such a mash-up to YouTube.)

As for how transmedia narratives affect these interpretations, I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I tend to look at transmedia extensions along a primarily timeline-based set of axes, so that negative capability tends to refer to events in characters’ pasts or futures that haven’t been explored by the story yet. To my mind, most slash fiction isn’t meant to be considered in-canon, whereas transmedia narratives use negative capability to hint at events that have happened (or will happen) in-canon. In particular, most slash fiction that I’ve seen doesn’t aim to fill in chronological gaps so much as posit a kind of “What If?” re-interpretation, but I’m not at all comfortable making sweeping claims about this. What do you think?

Catherine: Oh, god, if we’re going to talk about the comics, we’ll be here till next MONTH at least. So I shall wrench myself away and ask, devolve? I’m usually in that headspace of fangirl enthusiasm, only changing my language to reflect the audience and circumstances; or maybe that’s just my excuse for sticking a, well, “discussion” might be overstating it, but a something about “Luscious” Malfoy and his pimp cane into my dissertation. Pimp canes aside, I’m uncomfortable with drawing a strict demarcation between “academic” responses and “fannish” responses, because at least for me, they’re really not all that different — I respond intellectually *and* emotionally *and* libidinally *and* et cetera to things I’m interested in; as I said, the issue is one of language, and the context in which I use that language — I pretty freely mix up stereotypically “academic” and “fannish” modes of discourse in both settings, usually unconsciously. (My academic writing has been criticized for being flippant, but I don’t think that has anything to do with some kind of “inappropriate” leakage of fan discourse; my non-fannish dissertation director has a similar style, which means he doesn’t stop me when I do it.) And I really wonder if we can even talk about fannish discourse as if it’s a coherent thing — there’s the stereotype of pure emotionalism, sure, but intellectual engagement is as much a part of fandom as lustful/geekish squeeing. Fan discourse contains multitudes of acceptable dicourses, and the ratio of analysis to squee (or whatever) is determined by context and the individual fan.

As for issues of authorship and ownership, I am a hardcore reader-response person: if you want interpretive control over something, don’t ever let anyone else see it. I think creators, as creators, get to determine what specific texts count as Official, but beyond that, very little. They create the planet, and get to decide what stuff is officially on the planet, but don’t get to decide what others *think* of that planet, or from imagining all kinds of things about the planet. Once that text goes out into the world, other people get their grubby little minds all over it, and the creator loses interpretive control. As for how much weight I give a creator’s reading of the text — the creator is exceptionally well-informed, but that doesn’t mean that her reading is the only one, or even the “best” one, whatever that means. I’m a storyteller too, and for me, the inevitable ceding of control does cause me anxiety, but it’s also one of the most exciting parts of the whole process.

As for the concept of “lesser” creations, to my mind, you picked some not-very-good examples — never mind Gone With the Wind, there are backs of cereal boxes superior to Scarlett! More seriously, I think it’s interesting that your examples were a sequel and a parody, neither of which are really representative of the bulk of fanfic — fanfic can certainly be a sequel or a parody, but many fans don’t tend to present their work that way.

And you also named them as “interpretations” — what’s fanfic, then? Geraldine Brooks’ March, which just won the Pulitzer, follows the exploits of a minor character in a pre-existing work, which is a classic fanfictional setup. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is villain-rehabilitation that would do a Draco fan proud. But then, I think “Sirius and Remus should totally be doing it” is an interpretation of the Potter texts — whether the author frames it as a reading of Rowling’s canon or as simply a setup for a story.

Also, Scarlett/Vader ain’t slash unless one of them gets a sex change, through whatever means you desire — slash is homoerotic romance. (I totally want to see that YouTube video, though!)

Whether it fills in chronological gaps depends on the writer, the story, the pairing, the fandom, etc. Slash is a HUGE category, and the only narrative constant is that it features a romance between two characters of the same gender. I know misapprehension of slash as practiced by female fans isn’t, like, a generally or exclusive fanboy thing, but Will Brooker said a few days ago that he thinks of slash as being primarily about the writing — his comment was, “By that logic, maybe someone who reads a lot of novels is a novelist; but OK.” And that is in complete opposition to the way a lot of slashers understand themselves — slash is about writing, but it’s also about reading, of the text and of the slash fanfic. Slash fans who don’t write fic are still “slashers,” because they’re still reading the text in a slashy way, and thinking and talking about it, and reading the fanfic. I think the engagement with fanfictional interpretations of the text is what distinguishes a slashy reading from a plain “queer” reading, though the two readings might look identical on the surface. As it happens, I’m both a writer and reader of slash, but I was a slasher before I wrote my first slash story.

While we’re on the subject of definitions, it’s funny how we’re approaching the category of “literature” — you’re saying, “if it meets these aesthetic criteria, it’s viable literature, even if it isn’t ‘original'” while I’m going, “Originality, of the ‘I made it up all by my lonesome!’ sort, is a seriously problematic criterion for ‘viable literature.'” Forgive me if I’m misreading you, but it sounds like you’re positing “lack of original characters” as a defect that can be compensated for by good writing, yes?

My position is completely different — I think the use of other people’s characters, etc. can be a source of artistic strength, and enables writers to engage in particular artistic moves, and create artistic effects, that are difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish in “original” fiction. For example, recursive/archontic/fanfictional lit lends itself to feats of compression that would be impossible in a non-recursive text: a line in a Harry Potter story as seemingly innocuous as “Ginny was keeping a diary again,” conveys, to a clued-in reader, an entire *world* of ominousness that would take a writer of original fiction a much longer time to set up. I quoted Sheenagh Pugh, earlier, who talks about the possibility for “shorthand, allusion, and irony” in fanfictional texts; it’s not like original fiction doesn’t make use of those, but you can use them *differently* when you know your audience knows the text you’re responding to. It’s the most extreme form of intertextuality — all literature refers to other literature, nothing exists in a vacuum — and fully exploits all the possibilities afforded by a knowledgeable audience. What do you think? Aside from the fact that we both need to stop ending our screeds with that phrase?

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Gender and Fan Studies (Round Five, Part One):Geoffrey Long and Catherine Tosenberger

Introducing Our Protagonists

Geoffrey: Hi, I’m Geoffrey Long, and I recently completed my Master’s degree from the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. Back in 2003 I read this article in the Technology Review about something called transmedia storytelling, written by some guy named Henry Jenkins. The piece really resonated with me, so I sent Henry an email to ask him some more about it — never imagining that the resulting conversation would last for over four years and culminate in Henry being the advisor for my Master’s thesis, which wound up being about, surprise surprise, transmedia storytelling.

For anyone who hasn’t read Convergence Culture yet, transmedia storytelling is the crafting of a narrative that spans multiple media types. Chapter one might be told in a book, chapter two might unfold in a film, chapter three might be done as a video game, and so on. Telling a character’s adventures in multiple media is nothing new, but until recently most cross-media storytelling was done either as adaptation or as franchising, and most of these extensions weren’t considered officially in canon. Contemporary transmedia storytellers like the Wachowski Brothers or Joss Whedon are telling stories that were designed from the start as cross-media narratives, and are deliberately taking advantage of the strengths of each media type to enrich each project. The Enter the Matrix video game, for example, wasn’t created just as a cheap grab for more money but as an actual chapter in the larger narrative of The Matrix, and the second and third Matrix films only truly made sense if you’d played the video game.

That’s a complex example, but simpler ones can be just as rewarding: earlier this year Joss Whedon resuscitated his extremely popular Buffyverse with a new ‘Season Eight’ being told in comics. Whedon was excited not only to return to his characters, but to take advantage of the unlimited special effects budget afforded by comics; fans were excited because while there had been Buffy comics before, they hadn’t been written by Whedon and weren’t considered to be official canon.

Obviously, this distinction between canon and non-canon storytelling is an area rich with potential for academics interested in fan fiction and fan culture, but my thesis focused on how stories designed for transmedia expansion differ structurally from ‘stand-alone’ narratives. In my thesis I examined a number of narratives that gave rise to transmedia franchises, from the Jim Henson films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to Star Wars, Firefly, Hellboy, Final Fantasy and so on. What I found is that most of these stories made excellent use of what the poet John Keats’ called ‘negative capability,’ which he defined as the capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. In a narrative context, ‘negative capability’ can mean the reference to characters, events, or places that exist outside of the story, and rely on the imaginations of the audience to fill in the gaps until the author can return to those ‘seeds’ for later extensions. Examples of this include the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and the fall of the Jedi in the original Star Wars trilogy: although Lucas only made passing references to these events, they took root in the minds of fans and created a rich mythology for hundreds of comics, books, games, TV shows, toys, and so on to explore until Lucas returned to tell their story in the prequels. In a way, these types of stories are what Roland Barthes might call more ‘writerly’ texts than more purely ‘readerly’ texts, which don’t leave nearly as much room for fans to flesh out the worlds themselves.

I didn’t really get into it in my thesis, but I’m extremely curious about how fans’ expectations, contributions, and passions concerning these stories can be embraced, not ignored or, as is all too often the case, largely derided, and I’m also curious about what role, if any, gender plays in how fans engage with this type of text. Do women concentrate on the personal history of characters while men focus on the history of the world? Are men more concerned with canon and authorship, while women have a more fluid attitude towards those factors? That sort of thing.

Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine Tosenberger. I have an MA in English (folklore) from Ohio State University, and as of this August, a PhD. in English (children’s literature and folklore) from the University of Florida; just last month, I defended my dissertation on Harry Potter fanfiction on the Internet. I had always been plagued with the desire to know more, more, more about my favorite characters and texts — it’s the reason I went to grad school in the first place — but I didn’t discover actual fanfic until 1999. I was a terribly vanilla Mulder/Scully shipper in those days, and read primarily as a respite from school. When I started my doctoral work, I initially planned to write my dissertation on fairy tales retold for young adults; I was still reading fanfiction — I’d since passed through Homicide: Life on the Street and popslash, and had alighted in Harry Potter — and mentioned this to my dissertation director, who encouraged me to write about fanfic instead.

I’m especially interested in fanfiction’s connections to broader literary discourses, both in general and in specific fandoms; for example, how does Harry Potter‘s status as a text originally published for children affect the types of fanfiction written, and the various responses to that fanfic within the fannish community? I get very excited about the fanfictional idiosyncracies of different fandoms — how fanfictional trends happen, which genres become mainstreamed or marginalized, and so forth. My current fannish obsession, Supernatural, is particularly interesting in this regard, because its two dominant genres — incest narratives and gen fic — are often minority tastes in other fandoms.

Negative Capability

The first thing I’d like to address, Geoff, is your concept of “negative capability” as applied to fanfiction. I think it’s really interesting that you picked a term with such impeccable Western Literary Canon credentials to apply to the activities of fans, because it suggests that fanfiction is not some kind of freakish, marginal activity that bears no relationship to what we think of as “real” literature. That’s something I’m very sympathetic to; while I love and appreciate that fanfic operates out of a specific community context — as I mentioned above, the micro-level development of fanfictional literature within specific fandoms is a big hobbyhorse of mine — but I think it’s very important to recognize fanfiction as something that does not exist in isolation from literature as a whole.

As Joli Jensen points out, there’s a strong tendency to posit texts which acquire fandoms as *lacking* in some way, and the activities of fans as supplements to texts that are fundamentally inadequate, which has a great deal to do not only with the hierarchizing of genre, but also acts as a commentary on the types of people — fans — perceived to engage in such activities. Jensen talks about the “aficionado”/”fan” divide, not just in terms of the texts fixated upon — “aficionados” choose texts of high cultural capital to devote their energies to, while fans scrape the bottom of the barrel — but also the manner in which each group responds to the chosen text: aficionados respect the authority of the original author, while fans get rowdy and stake their own claims on the text and characters. What Jensen doesn’t say is that there is an enormous amount of literary precedent for exactly that kind of claim-staking, for texts both high and low. And that claim-staking isn’t just limited to texts that “belong” to everyone, such as the Odyssey or Arthurian legends, but also to texts produced after modern ideas of authorial ownership come into being — for example, David Brewer talks about the roughly eighty gazillion “unauthorized sequels” produced, in the eighteenth century, to works such as Gulliver’s Travelsand The Beggar’s Opera, and explicitly links those to modern fanfiction. You can also add all those 19th-century “alternative” Alice in Wonderlands; every Sherlock Holmes pastiche ever produced; Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; Maguire’s Wicked; Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife; Rawles’s My Jim; Randall’s The Wind Done Gone; Brooks’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning March; and on and on and on.

Anyway, I think that concept of negative capability is an interesting way into some of these issues, since it talks about “gaps” in texts not in terms of *lack* — with all the value judgments that implies — but in terms of *possibilities*. It doesn’t pathologize fans as deviants interacting in bizarre and unhealthy ways with inadequate texts, but articulates fans as belonging to a tradition of artistic innovation through explorations of pre-existing texts, both high and low. I think the insistence that fandom is an activity marked by its focus upon “inadequate” texts reifies the ghettoization of genre fiction, cuts off fanfiction from broader literary concerns, and renders fannish activities surrounding “highbrow” texts (such as Jane Austen’s works) invisible.

Gender plays a *huge* part in these hierarchies, of course; most fanfiction is written by women, and if one paints the fanfictional impulse as somehow divorced from literature as a whole, it plays into misogynistic genre hierarchies; it’s no accident that romance, which is written by and for women, is the most vilified of mainstream genres. I think fanfictional writing has enormous liberatory potential, not just for women, but also for queer folk, young people, and any anyone not plugged into the cultural elite; but I also think that exploiting the negative capability of texts needs to be understood as something that isn’t *new*, but can be harnessed in new ways.

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At a time when schools still emphasize the autonomous learner and most kinds of research collaboration get classified as cheating, the Wikipedia movement emphasizes a new kind of knowledge production Pierre Levy has described as collective intelligence. As Levy notes, collective intelligence exploits the potential of network culture to allow many different minds operating in many different contexts to work together to solve problems that are more challenging than any of them could master as individuals. In such a world, he tells us, nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any member knows is available to the group as a whole at a moment’s notice.

Indeed, such groups are strongly motivated to seek out problems that are sufficiently challenging that they can engage as many members as possible:

“Members of a thinking community search, inscribe, connect, consult, explore…Not only does the cosmopedia make available to the collective intellect all of the pertinent knowledge available to it at a given moment, but it also serves as a site of collective discussion, negotiation, and development….Unanswered questions will create tension with cosmopedic space, indicating regions where invention and innovation are required.”

What holds a knowledge community together is not the possession of knowledge — which can be relatively static — but the social process of acquiring knowledge — which is dynamic and participatory, continually testing and reaffirming the group’s social ties. The Wikipedians bond by working together to fill gaps in their collective knowledge.

Wikipedian Kevin Driscoll proposes a suggestive analogy for thinking about such collaboration:

“The only thing that i can think of in my life that’s similar in an “off-the-internet” kind of way is sometimes when you go to the beach there will be a bunch of people making a sand castle. And you can just come over and start making another part of the sand castle and then join them together. And then somebody sees like “wow those guys are making a huge sand castle.” And then they get involved and then the thing gets so big, you might not even ask the other peoples’ names. You still built the thing together. And nobody owns that sand castle. You all built it together. You’re all proud of it. And you all get the benefit of each other’s work so you’re all really relying on each other. And Wikipedia is like that sand castle except no ocean is going to wash Wikipedia away.”

Part of what young people can learn through contributing to, or even consuming, Wikipedia is what it is like to work together within a knowledge culture.

It might be helpful to trace some of the ways that this idea of a knowledge-generating culture contrasts with what Peter Walsh has called the Expert paradigm:

1. The expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which can be mastered by an individual. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence are open-ended and profoundly interdisciplinary.

2. In the expert paradigm, there are some people who know things and others who don’t. A collective intelligence assumes that each person has something to contribute, even if they will only be called upon on an ad hoc basis.

3. The expert paradigm uses rules about how you access and process information, rules which are established through traditional disciplines. Within the collective intelligence model, each participant applies their own rules, works the data through their own processes, some of which are more convincing than others, but none of which are wrong at face value. Debates about rules are part of the process by which knowledge gets generated.

4. Experts are credentialized; they have gone through some kind of ritual which designates them as among those who have mastered a particular domain, most often through formal education. While participants in a collective intelligence often feel the need to demonstrate how they know what they know, this is not based on a hierarchical system and knowledge that comes from real life experience may be highly valued.

(These ideas are developed more fully in the Survivor chapter of Convergence Culture.)

Learning how to weigh different claims about expertise should be part of Hobbe’s “informed skepticism.” We might, for example, ask young people to talk through the differences in the kinds of expertise displayed by a couch and a ballplayer, a librarian and a researcher, an actor and a director, a mechanic and a race car driver, an architect and a construction worker, or a biologist and a nurse. Some of these people gained their expertise from formal education, other through practical experience; they know different things because they play different roles in a shared process; and having all of these people contribute to the production of knowledge is likely to result in richer and more valuable insights than weighing one’s perspective above the others. At the moment, I am playing the part of an expert in writing this article. Perhaps some individual readers see themselves as having greater expertise than I do and at least some cases, they may be right. But there’s no question that there is more knowledge in the combined readership of this article than I have at the time I am writing it. The Wikipedia movement is allowing people with very different backgrounds to work together to share what they know with each other.

Of course, Wikipedia is simply one of a broad range of online activities that involve the collaborative and coordinated production and circulation of knowledge. For example, alternative reality games — large-scale informational scavenger hunts — are being designed so that they occupy the interests of several hundred players working together: any given problem might require a mix of skills and knowledge drawn across different disciplines and domains. Writers

like Steven Johnson and Jason Mittell have shown that television narratives are becoming increasingly complex, involving many different characters and subplots, as they are being consumed in very active and collaborative ways by online fan communities.

Games researcher T.L. Taylor has shown how the guild structure of a massively multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft may encourage people with very different skills to work together to meet challenges that are designed for this kind of coordinated activity; the community may develop its own mods and toolkits that help them to monitor and organize such large-scale activities. Similar tools, institutions, and practices have emerged around Wikipedia as the community has sought to flag problems to be addressed and identify people with the skills and knowledge needed to solve them. The Wikipedians we interviewed stressed the broad range of skills needed for the project to succeed.

Participating in the Wikipedia community helps young people to think about their own roles as researchers and writers in new ways. On the one hand, they are encouraged to take an inventory of what they know and what they can contribute. The school expects every student to master the same content, while Wikipedia allows students to think about their own particular skills, knowledge, and experience. Wikipedia invites youth to imagine what it might mean to consider themselves as experts on some small corner of the universe. As they collect and communicate what they know, they are forced to think of themselves writing to a public. This is no longer about finding the right answer to get a grade on an asignment but producing credible information that others can count upon when they deploy it in some other real world context.

On the other hand, participants are encouraged to see themselves as members of a knowledge community and to trust their collaborators to fill in information they don’t know and challenge their claims about the world. Composition theorist Kenneth A. Brufee has emphasized the power of collaborative writing to change how young people think about the relationship between readers and writers:

“Most of us are not in the habit of thinking about writing nonfoundationally as a collaborative process, a distanced or displaced conversation among peers in which we construct knowledge. We tend to think of writing foundationally as a private, solitary, ‘expressive’ act in which language is a conduit from solitary mind to solitary mind….When each solitary reader in the socially unrelated aggregate reads what we write, what happens, we suppose, is that another mind ‘absorbs’ the thoughts we express in writing. Our goal is to distinguish our own distinct, individual point of view from other people’s points of view and demonstrate our individual authority….Once we understand writing in a nonfoundational way as a social, collaborative, constructive conversational act, however, what we think we are doing when we write changes dramatically. The individualist, expressive, contentious, foundational story we have been telling ourselves about writing seems motivated by socially dubious (perhaps even socially immature) self-aggrandizement…. We use a language that is neither a private means of expression nor a transparent, objective medium of exchange, but a community construct. It constitutes, defines, and maintains the knowledge community that fashions it. We write either to maintain our membership in communities we are already members of, to invite and help other people to join communities we are members of, or to make ourselves acceptable to communities we are not yet members of. “

Contributing to the Wikipedia might encourage students to adopt the very different kinds of rhetorical goals and mindset Brufee claims emerges through collaborative writing activities.

Again and again, the Wikipedians we interviewed for our documentary made reference to certain shared principles that shapes the group’s activities and offers a framework for adjudicating disputes. Rather than arguing each point, the group agrees to work together to insure that all points of view get heard. This is what Wikipedians call adopting a “neutral point of view“, which is understood here as a goal or ideal shaping the writing process as much or more than it is seen as a property that can be achieved by any given entry.

This focus on neutrality takes on special importance when we consider the global context within which the Wikipedia operates. While Wikipedia projects are being created within a broad array of different languages, many of which are dominated by a single national context, all of these groups want to insure that their perspectives are fairly represented in the most widely consulted English language edition. So, we might consider the very different way than a topic like the Winter War, the Russian invasion of Finland during the Second World War, gets represented in Russian and Finnish history textbooks as opposed to the challenges of producing an account acceptable to Russians, Finns, Germans, Americans, and everyone else within the shared space of the English language Wikipedia. Mastering the protocols concerning “neutrality,” then, might provide young people with good skills at navigating across the cultural differences that they will encounter elsewhere in the digital domain. Network culture is bring people together who would never have interacted face to face given geographic distances but who now must work together to achieve shared goals.

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The following is based on the keynote lecture which I presented on Monday at the National Media Education Conference in Saint Louis. A more polished version of this talk will eventually appear in the media literacy journal, The Journal of Media Literacy, but I am offering this in a rawer, less processed form now in hopes of getting some more feedback from my readers and also of making this available to the conference attendees. Watch for a notice here later this summer when the exemplar about Wikipedia goes on line.

n Fall 2006, Vermont’s Middlebury College found itself the center of a national controversy when its history department took a public stand against students referencing Wikipedia in their research papers. The ban had been inspired by one faculty member’s discovery that a large number of his students were making the same factual error (dealing with the role of Jesuits during the Shimabara Rebellion in 17th century Japan) which could be traced back to a bit of misinformation found in one entry of the online encyclopedia. Despite the publicity that surrounded it, the statement was scarcely a condemnation of Wikipedia: “Whereas Wikipedia is extraordinarily convenient and, for some general purposes, extremely useful, it nonetheless suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation.” Students were asked to take responsibility for the reliability and credibility of the information they used in their papers; Students were told not to use Wikipedia as a scholarly source.

Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, publicly supported the Middlebury History Department’s decision: “Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested — students shouldn’t be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn’t be citing Encyclopaedia Britannica, either. If they had put out a statement not to read Wikipedia at all, I would be laughing. They might as well say don’t listen to rock’n’roll either.” Despite Wales’s statement, Middlebury’s announced policy inspired a series of national editorials:leading journalists and scholars weighed in on the perceived merits of the Wikipedia and on the credibility of online information more generally. The Middlebury History faculty were cast as poster children in the backlash against Web 2.0 and its claims about the “wisdom of crowds.”

Wales’s analogy between Wikipedia and “Rock’n’Roll” suggests that the Wikipedia debate has also become emblematic of the divide separating the generation that grew up in a world where digital and mobile technologies are commonplace from their parents, teachers, and school administrators for whom many of these technologies still feel alien. As Jonathan Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, wrote in an op-ed piece published on the eve of this conference,

“The real gap between tomorrow’s digital haves and have-nots will be a lag in competence and confidence in the fast-paced variegated digital universe building and breeding outside schoolhouse walls…. Today’s digital youth are in the process of creating a new kind of literacy; this evolving skill extends beyond the traditions of reading and writing into a community of expression and problem- solving that not only is changing their world but ours, too… In this new media age, the ability to negotiate and evaluate information online, to recognize manipulation and propaganda and to assimilate ethical values is becoming as basic to education as reading and writing.”

Responding to these challenges, the MacArthur Foundation has committed 50 million dollars over the next five years to support research which will help us understand the informal learning which takes place as children interact within the new media landscape and how we might draw on the best practices that emerge from these new participatory cultures as we redesign school and after-school programs. I was part of a team of MIT based researchers which drafted a white paper that accompanied the MacArthur announcement and sought to identify some of the core social skills and cultural competencies that young people need to acquire if they are going to be full participants in this new media environment. And I am the principle investigator for Project nml, a MacArthur funded effort to develop resources to support the teaching of these skills through in school and after school programs. As it happens, we are just now completing a documentary about the Wikipedia movement and an accompanying curricular guide. This documentary is one of a number of short films produced for online distribution through the Project nml exemplar library.

Here, I will draw on the interviews and research behind the documentary to explore what Wikipedia (and the debate around it) might tell us about the new media literacies. Through looking more closely at what young people need to know about Wikipedia, I hope to suggest some of the continuities (and differences) between this emerging work on New Media Literacies and the kinds of concerns that have occupied the Media Literacy community over the past few decades.


According to a recent study from the Pew Center for Internet & American Life, more than half of all teens have generated media content and roughly a third of teens online have shared content they produced with others. In many cases, these teens are actively involved in what we are calling participatory cultures. A participatory culture is one where there are relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, where there is strong support for creating and sharing what you create with others, where there is some kind of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced gets passed along to newbies and novices, where members feel that their contributions matter, where members feel some degree of social connection with each other at least to the degree to which they care what other people think about what they have created.

A growing body of scholarship suggests potential benefits of these emergent forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude towards intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship. Access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which kids will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter schools and workplaces.

Not all of these skills are dramatically new — they are extensions on or elaborations of aspects of traditional research methods, text-based literacies, and critical analysis that have long been valued within formal education. In some cases, these skills have taken on new importance as young people move into emerging media institutions and practices. In some cases, these new technologies have enabled shifts in how we as a society produced, dissect, and circulate information. Those interested in reviewing the full framework should download the report.

While some have argued that these new media skills represent the different mindsets of “digital natives and digital immigrants”, that analogy breaks down for us on several levels. First, the participatory cultures we are describing are ones where teens and adults interact but with less fixed and hierarchical relations than found in formal education. It is a space where youth and adults learn from each other, but it would be wrong to see young people as creating these new institutions and practices totally outside of engagement with adults. Second, the “digital natives” analogy implies that these skills are uniformly possessed by all members of this generation; instead, young people have unequal access to the technologies and cultural practices out of which these skills are emerging and so we are facing a growing participation gap in terms of familiarity with basic tools or core cultural competencies.

Even if we see young people as acquiring some of these skills on their own, outside of formal educational institutions, there’s still a strong role for adults to play in insuring that young people develop a critical vocabulary for thinking about the place of media in their lives and engage in meaningful reflection about the ethical choices they make as media producers and participants in online communities. While the MacArthur researchers take serious youth innovations through media and respect the meaningful role that these experiences play in young people’s social and cultural lives, they also value what teachers, parents, librarians, youth workers, and others bring to the conversation. We want to help these adults respond to the changing circumstances young people face in a period of prolonged and profound media change. It is our belief that these new media literacies need to inform all aspects of the educational curriculum; they represent a paradigm shift in how we teach English, social science, science, math, and the other schoolroom subjects. If these skills are going to reach every American young people, it is going to require the active participation of collaboration of all of those individuals and institutions who impact young people’s moral, intellectual, social, and cultural development.

Our initial report raised three core concerns, which suggest the need for policy and pedagogical interventions:

1. The Participation Gap — the unequal access of youths to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge which will prepare them for full participation in the world of tomorrow.

2. The Transparency Problem — The challenges young people face in learning to see clearly the ways that media shapes our perceptions of the world.

3. The Ethics Challenge — The breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization which might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants.

Educators need to work together to insure that every American young person has access to the skills and experiences needed to become a full participant, has the ability to articulate their understanding of the way that media shapes our perceptions of the world, and has been socialized into the emerging ethical standards which should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities.

This context places new emphasis on the need for schools and afterschool programs to foster what we are calling the new media literacies — a set of cultural competencies and social skills which young people need as they confront the new media landscape. Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy training from individual expression onto community involvement: the new literacies are almost all social skills which have to do with collaboration and networking.Just as earlier efforts at media literacy wanted to help young people to understand their roles as media consumers and producers, we want to help young people better understand their roles as participants in this emerging digital culture.

In the discussion of Wikipedia that follows, I am going to be emphasizing four of the eleven skills we identify in our report:

Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others towards a common goal.

Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information source.

Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize and disseminate information.

Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative sets of norms.

[Read more…]

“Ephemera vs. The Apocalypse”: Retrofuturism After 9/11

The following was written as a postscript to my essay on Retrofuturism and the work of Dean Motter, which was serialized in my blog last week. Some of this material originally appeared in Technology Review but it has been revisited in light of the more recent essay.


A poster for Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of the No Towers describes the book as “Ephemera vs. the Apocalypse,” and that’s as good a description as any of the functions retrofuturism and residual culture have played in the aftermath of 9/11. As Spiegelman writes in the book’s introduction,

“The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the twentieth century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment.”

Comics entered American newspapers at a moment of rapid, profound, and prolonged change: the dawn of the twentieth century was met with an explosion of new technologies, not to mention significant dislocations of the population from the farms to the cities, from the south to the north, and from Europe to America. Comics spoke for the lower classes who had not yet reaped the benefits of those changes and for a middle class that felt disoriented by them. Characters like the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat with their perpetual energy and eternally elastic bodies could neither be contained nor destroyed; their misadventures were being read alongside news reports of people suffering electric shocks from faulty wiring, dying in tenement fires, blown up at moving picture shows, or getting run over by streetcars. These comics helped turn-of-the century Americans laugh at things that otherwise felt hopelessly out of control.

Spiegelman reproduces a selection of early comic strips, including a remarkable Winsor McCay strip, published in September 1907, in which his protagonists are depicted as giants, trampling over buildings in Lower Manhattan, not far from where the twin towers were later built and then destroyed. The McCay cartoon is striking because of the contrast between the artist’s detailed representation of New Yorks architectural wonders and his surrealistic images of giant cigar-chomping clowns climbing skyscrapers. Similarly, the cover of No Towers uses a realistic but shadowy rendering of the World Trade Center as the disturbing backdrop for cartoonish figures raining from the sky.

Spiegelman wants us to read these vintage images of toppling skyscrapers and falling people against the reality of what happened on September 11, transforming slapstick fantasies into chilling prophecy. He has explored this terrain before, depicting the horrors of the Holocaust through images from funny animal comics in Maus. No Towers is not as good as Maus but these images hit such a raw nerve at the time he created them in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that he had trouble finding a U.S. publisher.

If Motter’s books can be seen as offering at least a critique of older imaginings of technological utopianism, more recent works have turned to retrofuturism as a means of healing wounds and restoring a world — and a world view — that was shattered when the Twin Towers fell. We see this project of restoration, for example, in the beautiful sequence at the end of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York which uses digital effects to take us through a series of detailed simulations of the skyline of Manhattan as it evolves across the late 19th and 20th century, culminating in a shot which shows the World Trade Center towering over the island once again. When I saw this sequence in the theaters, audiences cheered to see this digital recreation of these national landmarks.

Something similar underlies the project Grant Morrison undertook in the Manhattan Shield segments of his Seven Soldiers books. Morrison’s book depicts a version of Manhattan that never quite existed, full of buildings that were conceived by the likes of Robert Moses or Frank Lloyd Wright, but never built. Lest anyone doubt the motivation behind this particular act of retrofuturist imaginings, check out Morrison’s interview about these comics in the New York Times:

“I want it to be a more exalted New York, where things that were dreamed of were finally brought into reality….[These architectural wonders] are the kind of thing that would become a tourist haunt or a terrorist target. All of the buildings I’ve included are. They would have been icons of the city.”

If Scorsese’s Gangs of New York has the alibi of historical reconstruction, Morrison’s project is retrofuturist to its core, revisiting the imagined city of the future as a source of historical consciousness through which we can understand our current moment. His monuments are completed so that they can serve as targets for imagined future terrorist attacks

[Read more…]

Want to Work for Comparative Media Studies?

I know that a fair number of Media Literacy teachers and facilitators read this blog. So I wanted to flag for your attention a new position opening up in our programing working as the Project Manager for Project nml.

Official Job Title: Project Manager

Position Title: Comparative Media Studies/ New Media Literacies Project Manager

Payroll Category: Sponsored Research Staff/Administrative

Normal Work Week: 40

Starting Date: August 1, 2007

End Date: June 30, 2009

Salary: 50K- 60K annually full time plus competitive benefits package

Supervision Received: Henry Jenkins, CMS director and Sarah Wolozin, Program Manager

Supervision Excercised: New Media Literacies staff and students

Project: The New Media Literacies (NML) project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is developing a theoretical framework and curriculum for K-12 learners that integrate new media tools into broader educational, expressive and ethical contexts. This four-year project – through collaborations with MacArthur’s “Digital Kids” research project at UC/Berkeley and a community of educators, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, academics and media professionals – will establish how to define new media education, how to implement it, and how to sustain it once the project is completed.

Principal Duties and Responsibilities (Essential Functions): Serve as primary contact and coordinator for the New Media Literacies Project based at MIT Comparative Media Studies, directed by Henry Jenkins (MIT), and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation.

Specific role will be tailored for qualified candidates, but minimum duties include:

— Implement the vision of the Principal Investigator during Phase II of the research project, overseeing current activities, maintaining current collaborations, and forging new partnerships to facilitate upcoming project initiatives;

— Ensure the dissemination of the project’s key ideas and findings through publications, conference presentations, online communities, parent resources, and teacher training programs, and 1-2 NML conferences per year;

— Oversee the development and management of project-related communications, including a new website and other media production in a variety of forms (i.e., written, audio, video, PowerPoint, etc.);

— Guide the research process, ensuring a high level of team coordination to facilitate the process of refining pedagogical models and the continued production of multimedia curricular materials;

— Oversee the processes of prototyping and testing project’s curriculum materials;

–Develop advisory board and serve as primary contact; send out regular communications; ensure participation in project; organize annual or bi-annual meetings with board;

–Together with Comparative Media Studies Program Manager manage all administration for project including but not limited to overseeing and managing budget; resolving legal, contractual, copyright and IP issues; generating necessary reporting for funder, CMS program, and MIT; managing and monitoring all documentation and reporting for the program, including coordination of reports with the Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects and the Office of Foundation Relations; ensuring project is in compliance with CMS program and MIT policy; handling personnel issues including hiring, training, and terminations.

— Keep abreast of developments in media theory, educational design, entertainment, popular and youth cultures, and consumer electronics and bring such knowledge to bear on the development of teaching modules;

— Communicate with corporate, government, educational, and academic leaders who traverse appropriate K-12 and undergraduate market spaces;

— Coordinate regular communications and formal updates for the MacArthur Foundation and other stakeholders;

— Present research findings at conferences and in publications.

Qualifications/Technical Skills: Experience in managing media research projects, developing learning environments, implementing educational innovations in media- and/or technology-rich classroom settings, and producing digital and multi-media projects, conducting quantitative and qualitative research, as well as possessing an understanding of the application of a wide variety of media in learning, especially to develop multiple literacies across media. Ability to communicate with a wide variety of contributors and audiences, including both university instructors, educators, designers, artists, comparative media specialists, and current and future sponsors AND young adults, teens, tweens, and children, is critical. Secondary school and/or college teaching experience, strong research skills and a commitment to publication agenda in education or media studies expected; experience in commercial media and/or product design and development preferred. Proven ability to bridge multiple research disciplines and apply theory to effective practice a must. Minimum of Master’s Degree in education, media studies, instructional technologies, or related fields; Doctoral candidates with ABD status are strongly encouraged to apply.

Send inquiries to Sarah Wolozin,

We will also be looking later this summer for:

Post-Docs to work with the GAMBIT Lab (for games research) and for the Knight Center for Future Civic Media.

A Research Manager for the Knight Center.

An Outreach Coordinator for Project nml.

If any of these sound like they might be a good fit for you, send e-mail to

Gender and Fan Studies (Round Four, Part Two):Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova

Gender and Cult Texts

[KP] Nina suggests that even when men and women (or would that be fanboys and fangirls) watch the same show, they may focus on different aspects. So I will speak of the shows I know… When I watched Firefly I vaguely wondered what slash pairing Mal/Simon would make, but honestly, I stopped looking for clues pretty early into the show and kept enjoying the adventures and witty banter just like the next guy. I certainly want more of this content, but I can’t really bring myself to look into fandom (apart from mildly tapping into it), because I really am pretty satisfied with the source. Moreover, I would rather re-watch the series in a company of friends laughing at jokes we know are there than read a steaming fanfic featuring one of the likely pairings. Does it make me a fanboy of Firefly?

Because I definitely display more stereotypically fangirlish behavior in my reaction to Heroes (even before I finished watching it I already started seeking out lj-based communities, fan sites with fannish content and so on.) My Harry Potter experience started with me being a ‘fanboy’, went through my reluctance to even admit I was one of the ‘fangirls’, and ended up with my engaging more with ‘fangirl’ practices.

[WB] I like Firefly and Serenity too… someone can tell me if that is a “boy” or a “girl” text, and whether having a man-crush on Nathan Fillion makes me some kind of subversive!

[KP] Well, Firefly (and Serenity) is a Sci-Fi western and adventure story, so as a source text is very male-oriented (I am only saying this because it is supposed that boys like guns and adventures, while girls like romance and amassing Barbie merchandise). However, the hints of romance (mostly unresolved) and very engaging male characters portrayed by exceptionally cute actors make it very easy prey for female fans, stereotypically speaking.

[WB] Let’s not fall into the trap (as you suggest, it’s stereotypical) of thinking that the only women who like Firefly and Serenity are “fans”, and more specifically, fan-slashers. What about the women who watch the show but don’t have any interest in or knowledge of slash? I think we should resist any assumption (again, I think it is becoming a stereotype in fan-academia) that women’s only entry into cult texts, or cult texts that are generically male-coded (Western, Science Fiction) is through trying to pair up the main male characters.

[KP] Actually, I didn’t say a word in my previous passage about any male/male pairings or writing slash back into the story.

[WB] Good point – looks like it was me who fell into that trap! I automatically jumped from “female-fans-fancying-cute-actors” to “slash”… my bad. Maybe it says something about how accustomed we are to talking about this visible tip of the fan iceberg – that we only really tend to study the active, creative fans like slashers, not the millions of men and women who just sit there admiring cute actors, maybe discussing it with their friends, but not recording any of it in a concrete form: the watercooler fans, not the Livejournal ones. The advantage of online fandom, for scholars, is that conversation about cult texts becomes so easy to quote, analyse and discuss; ephemeral talk becomes solid text. But there are, again, millions of conversations going on in workplaces and homes about cult texts that never attain that more permanent status, and never enter our radar – because if they don’t take place on the internet, they rarely cross that line between the personal and the public.

That’s one of the striking things about sites like Livejournal for me – the way it places personal thoughts and conversation into a semi-public, semi-permanent arena – and the accessibility of blogs and discussion boards is obviously a gift for fan-scholars. But obviously, if we rely on those easily-accessible forms of fan discourse, we’re also overlooking all the more elusive discussion that goes on every day in the living room or the staff canteen, and perhaps we risk taking the part as representative of the whole. Again, let’s bear in mind that there are a lot of people, male and female, like myself – who enjoyed Serenity and Firefly but don’t create anything about it or engage in any communities about it. A lot of people who value a specific cultural text and for whom that text is an important part of their lives don’t engage in easily-recognisable, visible, traditional fan behaviour.

[Read more…]

Gender and Fan Studies (Round Four, Part One): Will Brooker and Ksenia Prasolova

Fan and Academic Identities

Will Brooker [WB] wrote three books between 1999 and 2004, on stuff he loved as a kid: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon; Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans; and Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture. He is currently head of the Film and Television degree programmes at Kingston University, London. His most recent articles include “A Sort of Homecoming: Fan Viewing and Symbolic Pilgrimage” in Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss, and Lee Harrington’s edited collection Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (New York University Press, 2007), “Everywhere and Nowhere: Vancouver, Fan Pilgrimage and the Urban Imaginary” (forthcoming in the International Journal of Cultural Studies) and “Television Out of Time: Watching Cult Shows On Download”, scheduled to appear in an edited collection on Lost. His interests include cities, superheroes, online communities and television overflow; he also writes fiction.

Ksenia Prasolova [KP] is a visiting student researcher from Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad). With financial support of the Fulbright Program she was able to come to MIT and use Henry Jenkins’ vast expertise (and, to somewhat larger extent, Hayden Library’s and CMS’s vast collection of resources) to concentrate on writing her Ph.D. thesis on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. Apart from Harry Potter, Ksenia is also interested in translation and interpretation, Heroes, and arguing with Kristina Busse. As to her fannish engagement, until very recently Ksenia has been a champion lurker in Harry Potter, Heroes, Firefly and The Sims 2 fandoms.

Finally, Kristina (Nina) Busse was our invisible third interlocutor in the debate, at times performing the curious role of Greek Chorus. She was already talking with both Will and Ksenia when they started talking to one another and somehow she became both conduit and the representative of gender constructions they’d both argue against. In a way, then, the conversation is clearly a continuation of the discussion Will and Kristina had as well as the continuation of many debates Ksenia and Kristina have had about how fan fiction should or should not be studied (literature or cultural artifact), what role gender plays in fan studies (none or a huge role), all the way to the exemplarity or exceptionality of Harry Potter (and luckily the discussion below stayed away from that).

Gender Infiltration

[WB] Just for starters, I should say now that I have some issues with this whole idea of “there’s a war between boys and girls, let’s try to dialog from opposing sides!” I find the notion of a conflict between “boys” and “girls” quite saddening and reductive. I also have reservations about calling any adult a boy or a girl, and the whole stereotypical pink (or red) vs blue color-coding is also kind of problematic to me.

However, from my conversation with Kristina, I’m finding I tend to identify more with the “girl” side of this gendered approach to fandom — if that side means an interest in creativity, confession, autoethnography, autobiography and community — with a particular focus on slash, genfic and films. Those are the things I’m most interested in, in terms of fandom. So if that’s the “girl” angle, it’s fine by me but I think a lot of my work, in that case, challenges the perceived gender boundaries that are supposedly dividing aca-fandom.

[KP] As it was already mentioned in discussion to the related post in Kristina’s blog, ‘fanboys’ and ‘fangirls’, ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ etc. are signifiers of the going-ons in fandom – it is a fact that males tend to side with ‘collecting’, as it is a fact that females tend to side with ‘creative’ in fandom. I am not sure ‘fanboys’ and ‘fangirls’ are the most suitable terms in this case, but those are certainly the most handy ones to refer to a whole set of gendered assumptions and practices that are still very firmly in place. Or are they?

You say that you identify more with the ‘fangirl’ side of approach to fannish scholarship despite being a male, and I would argue that no matter which side you identify with as an individual, it is the fact that you are able to see these sides more or less clearly and label them as gendered that is relevant. I am sure both of us can give examples from our fannish and academic experience of what I would mockingly call ‘gender infiltration’ , but by providing these examples and thus challenging the rigidity of gender divide, wouldn’t we reinforce the very same divide by acknowledging it?

[WB] I identified with what I was being *told* in these ongoing discussions was the “fangirl” side. When I talked about it with Kristina, I was actually quite surprised that the things central to my work on fandom – communities, discussion, slash, films, the way a text bonds people and provides them with a shared culture – are being grouped on the “pink” side. I’ve never thought of myself as being interested in “fangirl” stuff before. I felt it was ironic and amusing that on the evidence of my research, that seems to be the side of the divide I’m on – *according to the terms and territories I’m now being presented with*.

[KP] Somehow the *terms* that are in place, the structure of society, the dominant discourse or something else brought about the curious statistical fact – more women like the ‘creative’ aspect of fandom than men do, more men like the ‘collecting’ aspect of fandom, and both genders are more or less equally involved in canon debates. It would stand to reason that the academics who come from within a certain practice (more likely, female scholars when it comes to fanvids, or male scholars when it comes to comic books) would feel comfortable using autoethnography to discuss the practice, and would probably occupy the stance of ‘impartial observer’ (who cannot help but objectify the study subject-matter) when they need to discuss practices they are not personally engaged in.

[WB] It’s true that you’d probably have to be a long-term comics fan to write reflectively and personally about them, and that as such, you’d probably be male. However, my own experiments with autoethnography (I am using this grand term for it… really I saw it as a kind of personal and reflective creative writing) can be found in my work on Blade Runner‘s city locations, Lewis Carroll’s grave and Vancouver’s streets, as well as the more obviously male-oriented Batman comics and Star Wars films.

Also, though slash seems still to be a predominantly-female activity, before I wrote my chapter about slash, I wrote some slash. I wrote it anonymously and had it discussed on a slash community. It’s not impossible to at least try to seek some experience of and personal engagement with the thing you’re writing about, although this won’t compensate for years of committed immersion. You don’t have to be obliged into an “impartial observer” role about certain topics — you can choose to become more of a participant. But maybe that was a kind of gender infiltration again. I didn’t intend it that way.

[KP] Likewise, Nina keeps on accusing me of not being a “good” fangirl. I’ve tried bunches of shows and disliked most of the ones that came highly recommended–even the ones that seem to have male and female audience appeal, like Buffy.

[WB] Well… what we have here then is me, not a good representative for fanboys because my work is about creativity and community, and Ksenia, not a good representative for fangirls… doesn’t this question whether the categories are of any use? Are Ksenia and I gender infiltrators, or gender traitors? Are we exceptional?

[KP] I’d like to know, myself. While I can clearly see labels and gendered behavior etc. among fans (myself included), I still fail to see how fan scholars display the gendered behavior in their scholarly activities apart from falling into the obvious ‘traps’ of writing about what they know/like best, while their readers are falling into the obvious traps of thinking that the scholar has presented the situation objectively and in its entire diversity. I wonder if the fact that men were almost absent from the academic accounts of Star Trek fandom means that they were actually that absent from fandom itself.

What I have written above is myself – as an academic – describing my fannish behaviors. It is not myself – as an academic – thinking of how my gender influences my work as a scholar who studies fan fiction (I don’t study fandom, not really). While I can talk about myself being a misfit fandom-wise, I am not sure how that applies to my academic practices apart from the fact that I’d love to avoid using any methods that have to do with ethnography or social science.

For instance, there is a part of my dissertation that is about slash, but I only mention in passing that most of the writers are female and that slash is thus the most studied and controversial topic in fan scholarship. What I concentrate on is the kind of literature slash is and how it relates to other genres in general and specifically to other genres in fan fiction. I think this stance has less to do with my gender than with my academic background, which is firmly in humanities… Academically, I am simply not that interested in the social dimension of the phenomenon, although it does not mean that said dimension is not important.

[Read more…]

“The Tomorrow That Never Was”: Retrofuturism in the Comics of Dean Motter (Part Three)

The Burden of Knowledge, The Burden of Dreams


Of course, these architectural wonders make little sense without digging deeper into the social vision that shaped them. Howard Siegel has traced the ways that a certain ideology of technological utopianism shaped the iconography of early science fiction, starting as a form of social critique of dominant economic institutions, but being highjacked and reworked by the 1939 Fair’s corporate sponsors. As Siegel writes,

“Technological utopianism derived from the belief in technology — conceived as more than tools and machines alone — as the means of achieving a ‘perfect’ society in the near future. Such a society, moreover, would not only be the culmination of the introduction of new tools and machines; it would also be modeled on those tools and machines in its institutions, values and culture.”

Technological utopians believed a more perfect society would emerge from a series of breakthroughs in transportation and communication technologies. Siegel explains,

“Connecting all sectors of the technological utopia would be superbly efficient transportation and communication systems, powered almost exclusively by electricity….The specific means of transportation would include automobiles, trains, subways, ships, airplanes, even moving sidewalks. The means of communication would include pneumatic mail tubes, telephones, telegraphs, radios, and mechanically composed newspapers.”

Given this history, it is no accident that Motter refers to one of his cities as “Electropolis” and another as “Terminal City.” Both names suggest the centrality of these imagines of power, transportation, and communication to his vision of the failed utopia. As one comic critics writes, “Terminal City itself is named for the fact that it lies at the crossroads of a number of transport routes…But the city also earns the terminal appellation in another sense, in that becomes the end of the line for characters like Quinn, marooned there with his reputation in tatters, or BB, the construction work she’s seeking having long since dried up.” The books lovingly detail the various transportation options – showing us what it is like to take a joy ride in a flying car, to arrive in the city via airship, or to walk through the lobby of the futuristic railroad station. At the same time, the books are fascinated with the various systems of communication, depicting what were once seen as futuristic breakthroughs, such as television which was introduced to the public at the 1939 Fair, as now obsolete and malfunctioning (depicted here in grainy black and white images). Motter’s Terminal City still produces and consumes newsreel, Electropolis uses flouriscopes to search crime scenes, and Radian City uses a system of pneumatic tubes are used to deliver messages from building to building.

Presiding over Futurama, Democracy, Radiant City, and all of the other cities of the future were an army of engineers, city planners, architects, and designers. As Siegel explains,

“In utopia, efficiency would govern government as thoroughly as it would education and industry….Because technicians rather than politicians would run the utopian government, it would be technical rather than political in nature.”

This technocratic vision saw central planning and social engineering as new kinds of expertise which might perfect human nature. This same celebration of efficiency and rationalism ran through the discourse of the 1939 Worlds Fair. Here, again, is the narrator from The World of Tomorrow: “City planners and architects believed they knew what the future had to be like and what ordinary Americans needed to learn to be able to live successfully in it.”

This idea of the perfectability of human nature through the careful design of spaces and artifacts finds its expression through Motter’s protagonist, Mister X and his theory of psychetecture, which the book describes as “a unified theory of civilization.” The real power in Radiant City rest not with the political leaders, corporate executives, or crime bosses but with the seldom seen and cryptically described Consortium from the Ninth Academy, which Motter describes as “a roundtable of architects, engineers, photographers, chemists, and intellects. Big brains like Reinhardt, Eichmann, Von Stace, Riveuax, Rachmah Sheena, Templeton, Harbraun, Radiquiet….more of a cadre than a consortium.” Mister X’s new planned city embodied his belief that good design could enhance the mental health of its residents, but his designs were fatally compromised in their execution.

We first see Mister X upon his return to the city of his dreams, which he is experiencing as a physical space for the first time, despite having worked through every detail on paper. His fascination, however, soon gives way to horror as he realizes what they have done to his master plan: “They changed the original design! They cut down on the building materials, cut corners, used a lot of cheap substitutes! The psychetecture was ruined! God knows what effects the actual city is having on all our minds!” He is determined to either destroy the city or restore its balance.


At times, the book portrays Mister X as an all-knowing figure, someone who moves through secret passageways and tunnels, allowing him to come and go everywhere without being detected.


In a short piece contained in the back of one issue, Dave McKeen writes,

“He looked into each of the city’s eyes, each of its windows and seemed to understand. Where I could see only questions, he saw answers. With each spire and corner, each curve, each cornice he studied. His shoulders became heavier with the burden of knowledge. The burden of dreams.”

And in a dream sequence, Seth depicts Mister X as the very embodiment of the city he designed, his head a cluster of art deco skyscrapers. Read in that way, Mister X becomes a figure not unlike Howard Roark, the architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead who similarly refuses to compromise on his vision even if it means standing up against unyielding public pressure or destroying his own creations.

But the more time we spend with Mister X, the less certain we become about the value of his theories or even about the stability of his mind. Perhaps he, like the other residents, has been driven insane by “the shortage of right angles or prime ciphers,” the imbalanced claustro/agoraphobic Ratio, or the distorted visual ambiguity quotient. Or perhaps it has been madness from the start. As the book continues, Seth’s drawings become looser, more distorted, depicting this world as seen by an unhinged mind. McKeen’s short story captures perfectly the disorienting qualities of the city and the impossibility of grasping it fully and completely within a single intellect:

“The city is one huge melting pot of time. During the day, a hazy structure that we must embrace in order to remain sane. But at night, in our sleep, we glimpse the randomness of it all. A city of pauses, fast forwards, stills, cues, and plays. Or is this again the abstract logic of my dreams.”

In the end, the city escapes human comprehension and drives all those who attempt to grasp its complexities over the precipice. The only way to survive may well be to sleep walk along the rooftops, never adopting a panoramic perspective on the whole.


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“The Tomorrow That Never Was”: Retrofuturism in the Comics of Dean Motter (Part Two)


We can see this focus on historic “stuff” at certain points in Dean Motter’s comics as well. There are some detailed frames created by Seth for some of the Mister X comics which include representations of a whole array of art deco bric-a-brac. Yet, more often, Motter and the artists who illustrate his stories, tap into iconography from older science fiction works as a kind of image bank from which to design their urban landscape. In an interview with the author, Motter commented that he was lucky to have identified artistic collaborators who were themselves fascinated with older images of the future and who therefore could work from specific reference points to older magazine covers or etchings of New York landmarks.







Where Tomorrow Is Today…

One recent book, Daniel H. Wilson’s Where’s My Jetpack: A guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived, might well serve as a guidebook or catalog for the cities depicted across Motter’s books, given this shared pool of retrofuturist icons. Wilson shares with Motter the same disappointment that the future promised by General Electric and Westinghouse never quite came to be:

“The future is now, and we are not impressed. The future was supposed to be a fully automated, atomic-powered, germ-free Utopia – a place where a grown man could wear a velvet spandex unitard and not be laughed at. Our beloved scientists may be building the future, but some key pieces are missing. Where are the ray guns, the flying cars, and the hoverboards that we expected? We can’t wait another minute for the future to arrive. The time has come to hold the golden age of science fiction accountable for its fantastic promises…Today zeppelins the size of ocean liners do not hover over fully enclosed skyscraper cities.. Shiny robot servents do not cook breakfast for colonists on the moon. Worst of all, sleek titanium jetpacks are not ready and waiting on showroom floors …Despite every World’s Fair prediction, every futuristic ride at Disneyland, and the advertisements on the last page of every comic book ever written, we are not living in a techno-utopia.”

Wilson returns to the discourse of popular science, investigating how close we have come to these predictions and what has derailed them along the way, while Motter turns towards science fiction, examining what it might have been like to live in the city of the future and why such a future might have disappointed, even if we had achieved everything Futurama had predicted.


Motter’s books move back and forth between technologies actually achieved in the mid-twentieth century and those only imagined. Consider, for example, this passage from an issue of Electropolis:

“Electra City was built at the very beginning of the Electric Age. It was an exciting, sparkling jewell that symbolized a nation’s dreams of the future. ‘Where Tomorrow is Today and Today’s yesterday.’ That’s how they used to describe it. Sounds goofy now but I would envision its scintillating skyline — shimmering the arcs of the colossal Van Der Graff Towers and gigantic Strickfadden machines, the air traffic flitting about like moths around a streetlight. I still get that impression from time to time but when folks began abandoning the city core, the underworld moved in and that image became obscured by grandiose, short-lived, and usually catastrophic ambitions. It would never be the same.”

Motter wallows in what some have called the electrical sublime but in doing so, he blurs the lines between Van Der Graff generators of the sort one can see today if you visit the Boston Museum of Science and the mocked up mad scientist apparatus, often informed by a similar aesthetic, Kenneth Strickfadden developed for the Universal horror films of the 1930s. These books blur the line between what was, what might have been, and what were simply the figments of some pulp writer’s hyperbolic imagination.

Regardless of the reality behind them, these images of the future all fit together to form a coherent, consistent, and compelling construction of the city; we recognize buildings from one issue to the next, even from one comic series to the next, and each new element introduced adds to the integrity of the whole. These elements may be represented with varying degrees of stylization and abstraction as they pass through the pens of artists with such different styles as Paul Rivoche, Jaime Hernandez, Ty Templeton, Dave McKean, and Seth (just to mention those who contributed to Mister X) but we still feel that they belong in the same fictional universe because so many of these elements can be rooted back in the same historical moment in the evolution of the utopian imagination. Many can be traced back specifically to the 1939 World’s Fair, which was that shining moment when so many of these archtypes stepped off the printed page and gained a material reality: the fair promised its depression era patrons that they would be able to see, hear, taste, and smell the future. As the narrator of The World of Tomorrow explains,

“I think that there are moments where you can see the world turning from what it is into what it will be. For me, the New York World’s Fair is such a moment. It is a compass rose pointing in all directions, toward imaginary future and real past, false future and immutable present, a world of tomorrow contained in the lost American yesterday.”

The Fair itself represented a strategic blurring of temporal relations.

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