‘Oh, Those Russians!’: The (Not So) Mysterious Ways of Russian-language Harry Potter Fandom (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part series from Ksenia Prassolova, who was until just a few weeks ago a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program. Prassolova was in this country on a Fullbright fellowship, pursuing research on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. She has now returned to Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad). In the first section, she described the context in which Russian-language fandom operates including consideration of issues of intellectual property, translation, and the relationship of fandom to other changes in Russian culture in the post-Cold War era. In this next section, she deals directly with various forms of fan creative expression and the picture she paints shows both strong parallels to western fan culture but also significant differences.

For those of you who are just coming to the blog through links on one or another Harry Potter fan site, you might be interested to check out my own thoughts about Harry Potter fan culture from earlier this summer.

“Professor Snape’s Dungeons”

Translation was also one of the channels for fan fiction to find its way into Russian Harry Potter fandom: in 2001 fandom was mostly discussing the available four novels and their Russian versions, but by 2002 it already was busy reading at least two competing translations of Cassandra Claire’s then work in progress, The Draco Trilogy. ‘People’s Translation’ were among the first sites to open a fan fiction section, which hosted both translated fic and the infamous Harry Potter and Phoenix from the Order – written by the author named Constance Ice, this work is considered to be the first honest-to-Merlin Harry Potter fan fiction written in the Russian language (yet some claim that this title belongs to Harry Potter and the Order of the Broom, a parody fic posted by an anonymous author at Harry Potter Research Institute).

Approximately at the same time, a number of Snape fans joined efforts and started an on-line role playing game, which went on for a number of years at a site called ‘Professor Snape’s Dungeons’. The game’s central character, Severus Snape – a brooding, Byronic hero – was mostly busy saving the world at various points in history and all damsels in distress he could find along the way. In the end, Professor Snape (or S.S., as he is referred to throughout the game) ‘rebuilds the Tower of Babylon and finds Light’. This massive on-line project featured not only the text itself, but also some skillful artwork, analytical materials and carefully-collected soundtrack. The project also clearly outgrew itself: in 2003 the game, complete with sounds and fanart, was privately published as a set of 3 multimedia disks, and 2005 marked the appearance of a very impressive velvet-bound volume, Liber Lux et Tenebrae.

The picture below shows the book (part I) in its dust cover, and a random artwork spread; a curious reader will also make out the characters’ names, which, for some reason, were left in English.

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There are three reasons I am mentioning this project here: firstly, it included most of the fandom’s big names of then (and of now); secondly, it set another mark as far as the tradition of publishing fan fiction is concerned; and thirdly, long before the appearance of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince it established a very specific interpretation of the character of Severus Snape – the one that would gradually become all but canonic for a multitude of Russian Snape fans, even though they might have never heard of ‘Professor Snape’s Dungeons’.

The Shock of Slash

By 2003 fandom was already flourishing: it thrived on sites and forums; it was writing and translating fan fiction; it had its own version of the infamous Restricted Section; and it had discovered slash. As many other fannish concepts, the concept of slash came as is: through reading and translating of Western fan fiction and analytical materials. The new genre immediately acquired both dedicated followers and avid haters, and while it would be wrong to say that it split fandom in two, it did cause some distress along the way. Some people never caught up, and the general level of intolerance to slash and queer readings of the source text is still higher in Russian-language fandom than in English-language one. Intolerance in fandom comes from intolerance in society: until 1991, homosexuality had been a criminal offence; no wonder many still consider ‘queer’ offensive, the ban might have been lifted, but little has been done to promote tolerance and understanding. Slash in Russia is not taken for granted and in most cases requires a very open mind set from its readers, but in the end of the day, it does help to change personal attitude to queer people outside fandom, thus performing this huge educational function that might not be central to this genre as it is perceived by English-speaking fans.

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‘Oh, Those Russians!’: The (Not So) Mysterious Ways of Russian-language Harry Potter Fandom (Part One)

In honor of J.K. Rowling’s birthday, I will begin the week by running a two part series about Harry Potter fandom in Russia, written by Ksenia Prassolova, who was until just a few weeks ago a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program. Prassolova was in this country on a Fullbright fellowship, pursuing research on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. She has now returned to Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad), where she is completing her doctorate. It is perhaps fitting that the last time I saw Ksenia, we were both waiting in line together at the MIT COOP bookstore around midnight, waiting for the clerks to pass us our eagerly awaited copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. When I got my copy, I wandered off into the night in a daze and forgot to say goodbye.

My wife and I took our his and hers copies back to Senior Haus with us and climbed into the hammock we have in our backyard, reading by flashlight as late into the night as we could muster, and then waking up at the first daylight to push on through. Our son was nice enough to bring us meals so we could shut out the entire world and just immerse ourselves into Rowling’s world. And I am happy to say that we finished the books before the day was over.

Upon returning to Russia, Ksenia has sent me a long awaited series of blog posts describing what she calls Russian Language Harry Potter fandom. It’s a fascinating account of what cultural theorists like to call glocalization — suggesting that while Harry Potter is read around the world, local conditions of production and reception, including in this case especially issues around copyright and translation, shape how it gets read and in what contexts. Ksenia’s first installment takes us through the history of Lord of the Rings fandom in her country which in many ways set the stage for what happened with the Potter books and then discusses the centrality of translation to sustaining and energizing the fan culture. (Of course, it helps that Ksenia’s primary research background is in translation studies.) Next time, we will get deeper into fan fiction and other forms of fan cultural production in Russia.

‘Oh, Those Russians!’: The (Not So) Mysterious Ways of Russian-language Harry Potter Fandom

by Ksenia Prassolova

The first thing that should be said about Russian fandom is that it exists. It may come as a surprising and as a somewhat baffling statement, but not many people within English-language fandom realize that fandom is an international phenomenon, and even those who do understand the international part would still cling to the “exotic” image of Russia that doesn’t really go together with something as native to the Western grassroots culture as fandom. Truth is, however, that ever since the Iron Curtain fell Russia has been doing its damnedest to catch up with the West: legally, politically, and culturally; new values were both imposed from the top and picked up eagerly by the young people who didn’t exactly want to associate themselves with the Soviet past and had no romantic recollections of it.

Because both the concept of fandom and its practices were borrowed as is, what we now know as ‘Russian fandom’ is not, on a general level, that different from its American counterpart. Demographically, we share the same patterns: people of both sexes and of all ages discuss canon, those who are involved in writing fan fiction are mostly female (according to anecdotal accounts), and those who write slash are almost exclusively female. Most discussions and creative work used to concentrate on several sites and forums, but with mass migration to blogs Russians moved to livejournal.com and diary.ru (a Russian blogging facility). In fact, in Russia we rarely even call our fandom ‘Russian’, we call it ‘Russian-language’, because this implies that fandom is a universal concept that merely varies to a larger or lesser degree from one national ‘incarnation’ to another. Harry Potter fan fiction posted on hogwartsnet.ru is very similar to that posted on fanfiction.net – genres, clichés, slash and all; fanart is scarce, but fanvids created by Russians are pretty similar those created in the West; we do have ship wars just like everybody else and just like everybody else we were eager to find out whether Snape was good or evil.

I would be very far from truthful, though, if I said that there were absolutely no differences between the way fandom works in Russia and the way it works in the English-language community, borrowed concept or no. The differences are firmly in place and are due to a combination of historic, linguistic and cultural factors. In this post I will try to concentrate on the most notable of them. I will be mostly talking about the Harry Potter fandom, since this is the one I have first-hand knowledge of, yet one has to start somewhere, and in ‘our’ beginning there was Tolkien. The beginning, however, didn’t happen until 1975.

Tolkien Apocrypha

Fandom-wise, Lord of the Rings was for Russians what Star Trek was for Americans. It also happened much later, and the gap between the emergence of canon and appearance of consolidated fannish activity around this canon was much wider in case of Lord of the Rings in Russia. This canon that started them all entered the Soviet scene gradually and in a most fascinating way. The first Russian translation of Lord of the Ringswas started in 1975 by A. Gruzberg, a linguist from Perm, and appeared in 1978; the entire trilogy was written by hand and was only available to friends and acquaintances of the translator. Later on it was transported to Leningrad, where it was published in Samizdat in 1981 (source). The first attempt at official translation followed shortly – in 1982 – and was comprised of two books, The Hobbit and The Fellowship, translated by by V. Muravjev and A.Kistjakovsky. This translation was abandoned, and the official Russian version of the trilogy was only published as late as 1990. By the time it happened the trilogy had already acquired a fair number of followers (those responsible for the non-official translations, for one) who would engage in a variety of fannish activities: from song and poetry writing to live action role playing games, which became extremely popular among the fans. In fact, the Hobbit Games of the beginning 1990-s were so well known that ‘being fannish’ is still associated with role-playing and Lord of the Rings in certain circles of fandom.

There are many reasons for Lord of the Rings to have become popular when it did in the Soviet Union and – later – the new Russian Federation. It was the only source of its kind available to Russians at that time: while the Soviet readers had enjoyed the long and rich tradition of science-fiction and gathered around what was known as KLFs (Clubs of Science-Fiction Readers), the genre of fantasy was relatively new. With it came new feelings and new attitude to the source text: I am not saying that the possibility of escapism was the only reason Tolkien’s work became popular with Russian readers, but the bread lines of the late 80-s and early 90-s definitely were part of the equation. Apart from role-playing games, the fans of Tolkien would write verses and songs, learn Elven languages, and write what they called ‘apocrypha’: fan fiction that fell under the category of alternative history or alternative universe. By that time fan fiction had already been widely known abroad, and Western fandom started the colonization of the Internet, but international cross-fandom communication was scarce, and the name for this practice was re-invented rather than borrowed. The term ‘fan fiction’ has later been re-introduced into the Russian fandom, and there is now a lot of confusion as to whether ‘apocrypha’ are, in fact, fan fiction or fall into some specific category of fan writing. The debate continues, and no definite conclusion has been reached.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eight, Part Two): Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea

Issue Three: Race, Nation, Sexual Orientation, and Fandom

Derecho: In Round Three, Part One, Robin Reid wrote, “nobody’s mentioning ‘race,’ ethnicity, sexuality, not even as an ‘academic’ project or area of analysis.” I’d like to investigate these topics within fandom from an autobiographical perspective, but I hope that you’ll jump in (and others will, too, in the Comments section) and contribute your own analyses, either autobiographical or not, of these issues.

I’m Filipino-American, first generation (though I usually call it Gen 1.5, b/c we moved to the U.S. when I was three years old), and from the start, my media fandom was informed by (inter)nationalism and race. The Philippines was a colony of the U.S. from 1898 through 1946, and U.S. media has long been extraordinarily popular and influential in Filipino culture. My older siblings were avid fans of Star Trek, The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Wild, Wild West, and other syndicated U.S. TV shows for years before they stepped foot in the U.S. Star Trek was singled out by my family as our totem show, and I’m certain that for young Asian children, engaging deeply with an American TV show about long-distance travel, and a U.S.(S.) starship where there was assumed equality not only between races and sexes, but between humans and aliens, plus the fact that one of the featured characters was Asian (Sulu) and another was Asian-esque (Spock), factored into their enthusiasm for emigrating to America. Popular media was the first way that my three brothers and two sisters understood the U.S., and media continued to guide our decisions (we decided to move to L.A. because of Disneyland, of course) and to inform how we navigated U.S. society and culture. I grew up in a very racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, and pop culture was my go-to resource when encountering difference (when you’re six years old and you eat different foods than the kid next door and you can’t pronounce each other’s last names correctly and you don’t understand the languages that your respective parents speak, all you’ve got is your Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari game, and that counts for a great deal). A lot of recent Filipino and Filipino-American media productions address (directly or indirectly) the huge role that American media plays in Filipino/American life, and U.S. sci-fi/fantasy in particular has deep roots in Fil/Am culture. I am eager to write a substantial piece on how American sci-fi influences the immigrant imaginary, both before and after immigration, because there’s something deeply poetic and simultaneously troubling about how a media text like Star Trek can offer first-generation Americans so much hope and so many advantages, some of which turn out to be real, and some of which turn out to be cruelly illusory.

As for my experiences of race and sexual orientation in fandom: I must say that it’s wonderful to enjoy fanfic that ships non-white/interracial (sometimes non-human/interspecies) pairings, just as it is to enjoy fic about same-sex ships. I’ve never read slash fic (amazing, I know, but true), but I am a fan of some fem-slash, and some of my favorite ships involve non-white characters. And why did I write that “it’s wonderful to enjoy” such fics? Not only because experiencing pleasure from stories (or from anything) is terrific, but because, as a non-white person, I am asked so often to identify with white characters, to feel deeply for them and become attached to their psyches and emotions, that I think it is important for fan producers (whether white or not, whether in fic or vids or any other genre) to play around with diversity, and allow fans ample opportunity to cross-identify, and to find pleasure in those cross-identifications, occasionally in the way that I *have* to all the time. Because fan productions are where marginal characters and marginal or non-canonical pairings can get lots of play, plenty of “airtime,” loads of attention, analysis, interpretation, dissection. And I think when I, a straight woman, find myself identifying with a female character who feels desire for another woman, that (for me) non-normative desire teaches me to be more humane, because I can be more sympathetic with lesbian desire irl. And I think when a white person finds himself or herself identifying with non-white characters, that can teach him or her to be more humane as well. I may be overestimating the power of both desire and identification to change people’s deeply embedded knee-jerk beliefs about people who are not of their race or sexual orientation. But I want to make the point that fan productions are about play and emotional affect, and I think that irrational and subconscious biases about race, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation will more easily dissipated through play and affect than through official channels of education, or through any legal measure that censors speech. Fan productions have the power to liberate people from the prison of their “normal” desires. Fans’ enthusiasm for concentrating on the abnormal and marginalized, their eagerness to develop the minor characters and to explore potential (but as-yet-unrealized) pairings, gives them a special and wonderful power, which I hope more and more fans use. Fan productions will not be sufficient to save the world from irrational prejudice, but they can possibly play a vital role in expanding the worldviews of individual consumers of their works.

McCrea: I come from a mixed-language background grew up in a number of different places – and I’m very much a subscriber to the notion that media fandom creates cross-cultural forms of communication by which people can inter-relate, as I had to negotiate different languages at an early age. To this day, I find a strange affinity with cartoons in languages I cannot understand; what is left is a supersurface of images, sights and experiences that have to be read physically before they can come in culturally. This has translated with a continuing fascination with say, music videos from the Middle East or European community television. All you have is aesthetics, until the language begins to sink in. So it was through these sliding layers of aesthetics that media gender became a bit unstuck for me early on; there was no one image of men or women by which to grow up around and reflect, but many across different culture and countries; there was the weird obsession of the English with the quasi-mythical Jimmy Somerville, the bizarre fixation of the French on Serge Gainsbourg and the Australian adoration of Paul Hogan. Culture was a costume play; nothing could be truly ‘genuine’ because everything seemed so cultural and staged early on. And so fandom was always underwritten by a search for not so much identity, but citizenship. The idea of a nostalgia without a origin-place (as I’ve talked about with reference to Jiwon Ahn’s article on manga and anime) is very dear to me in that sense. This is not to suggest anything as severe as Brian Benben’s character in the 90s show Dream On, who could only relate to the world through semblences to Gilda, Hogan’s Heroes and Gilligan’s Island. Moreso a deference to the situations of fandom in order to know where you were in the first place. Like many teenagers of the time, something clicked in me when I was first exposed to the hyperviolence of Manga Entertainment’s first wave of video releases in the West – an event which is yet to be unpacked properly – although I have just began to read Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination by Anne Allison which looks spectacular in that regard.

I’ve never delved into the world of fan-fiction much, simply because my chosen fandoms probably don’t inspire people to write – I came into science-fiction too late and the spectre of happening across slash fiction always chased me off the proverbial reserve. I spent some time going along to events such as live callback screenings such as those for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Blues Brothers or more recently, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, and found that this kind of hyperkinetic cross-text fandom was closer to how I saw and felt my way through media. Comic fandom is interesting in this regard, because so many of those who regularly read comics consider themselves able to participate, or are actively participating in the culture by writing, drawing, putting out zines, websites – to a large extent, being a comics fan (or say, RPG player) requires a depth participation model. A marginal but highly pertinent practice is Youtube Poop, which is highly condensed, lowest-common-denominator video mashups using lowest possible grade source material (full-motion video clips from bad video games and television spin-offs) until you’re left with something that chases a notion of zero-sum fandom. A show, a feeling, but little else. Its now a cottage genre on Youtube, populated by a cadre of master poopers and a few dozen more wannabees (myself included). What I like about this type of fandom is that the anarchy of media sensations is immediately registerable.

Derecho: Before I riff on your excellent insights, I just want to clarify something about my earlier post. I’d like to state, for the record, that I am well aware that there is a lot of stereotyping, exoticizing and sexualizing of Otherness in fandom and fan productions; of course, as with all cultural creations, many authors infuse their works with bias and prejudice. And we all know that fan texts are not always resistant (as several participants in this discussion have already mentioned), but often reproduce existing social conditions. However, beyond the “many” and “often” are some very interesting opportunities for cross-identification and perspective-shifting in fandom.

I really enjoy your ideas of “culture as a costume play” and “nostalgia without an origin-place” b/c they are so counter (and complementary) to analyses like Paddy Scannell’s, Jesús Martin-Barbero’s, John Ellis’s, and John Hartley’s, which all emphasize mass media as the site of national identity. “Television is one of the prime sites upon which a given nation is constructed for its members,” Hartley wrote 30 years ago, and Martin-Barbero (about 20 years ago) wrote about communication technologies allowing “a space of identification,” providing “the experience of encounter and of solidarity” with fellow citizens. Of course, all of these ideas build on Anderson’s notion of imagined communities (so widely accepted that I think the phrase no longer needs quotation marks). But what do we make of the international, cross-language, queer-identification fandoms? We who know fandom know that the idea that U.S. mass culture permeating other national cultures is not a one-way street; many nations’ media are reaching other nations’ audiences and finding fans. Witness the rise of Latin American telenovelas (Ugly Betty, and more to come next season) and BBC comedies and reality shows (Footballers’ Wives, The Office, Pop Idol) being repackaged and “Americanized” – “glocalized,” as Yeidy Rivero and others say – for U.S. networks. I’m intimidated even by the notion of a project that would attempt to quantify how much influence Japanese media has had on American youth culture in the last 20 years (although that project probably does exist and is being carried out successfully as I type this). Does this mean that media production is a new global currency, that “cultural capital” is rivaling other kinds of capital (and cultural capital definitely translates into financial capital, media products being of supreme importance to national export revenues)? And where does this currency market leave countries that are net-importers of media? It’s interesting that the U.S. is no longer holding the only hypodermic needle, but does that mean we should throw out every aspect of the needle model because of that? India, Japan, China, Britain, and Colombia (and other Latin American nations) are now major exporters of media; are these nations affecting other national cultures in the same way that the U.S. did during its long reign of media supremacy? Are Indian or Japanese “values,” dreamscapes, and hero-types becoming more broadly known and aspired-to? It would be very interesting if this were the case. However, I feel like a stronger argument could be made that the master currency is still American, that just as Hollywood Westerns adapted and translated Japanese samurai films and appropriated the values encoded therein, American media continues to filter in the messages from outside that it finds suitable, leaving American sensibilities for the most part unaffected by its touches with foreign productions. Even as I hypothesize a “filtering” process, however, I am not even sure how the mechanics of such “filtering” work. In the selection of which works get wide distribution? In the fact that the kung-fu and Hong Kong action movies that Americans can buy on DVD are the ones that Harvey Weinstein (as educated by Quentin Tarantino) likes? And if so, is that selectiveness so bad (I personally think Tarantino has excellent taste in kung-fu films)? Of course, the fact that much of the world’s media now exists on pirate networks – and is therefore accessible outside of official mass distribution channels – allows those who become hard-core fans of any one national cinema to bypass any filtering done by their “home” nation, and access the types of texts they love much more directly and quickly, in far greater volume. So, once again, fannish interest – the drive of the collector, what Derrida calls “archive fever” – seems to open up spaces and experiences where more global sensibilities (more than average, anyway) can form.

McCrea: Great points, and this is the flipside to the piracy debate. Underneath all of this prevaricating about who owns what, there are genuinely massive shifts in media consumption occuring. As recently as last month, there were 40 people seeding a torrent file of Kenneth Anger films taken from various sources, and I wondered to myself who these 40 people were, on one hand sharing some amazing films with the world, on the other causing the legendary struggle of Anger to get recompense for his work to go on.

Media is a nation. I am a big fan of Hartley and Ellis myself and find myself still referring to them for precisely these passages about nationhood for a key point of technological change – the dawning of the VHS era. I’m lucky enough to have a bundle of old Sight and Sound issues from the late 70s and early 80s in which you can witness stories of technology overwhelm the stories of Britishness. A reader’s letter in the first issue of 1979 mentions that film is ‘an American technology built for the American mind’ and as superstitious as that is, I find myself thinking about media technology’s naturalism and own belonging-ness. One book I can highly recommend on this is the somewhat weird but utterly brilliant The Death of Cinema by Paolo Cherchi Usai, which details how cinema comes to chase an ideal image.

Language is still the viral path along which culture travels; here, Australian television is American television with a side-dish of local content. We even have our own public figures like Mark Philipoussis unable to get a show here shipped over there to make a reality television show to ship back to us as late night dross. And yet, locally made shows still dominate ratings if not the schedule, even if they are glocalised formulas.

Finally, with our friend Quentin, you are right – his film taste isn’t so bad. It is however, somewhat concerning that films needs a ‘Quentin Tarantino presents’ sticker in order to be accessible or readable. The process is as you say, Derrida’s archive fever, where his films (and those of Kevin Smith and the other nerd-gen directors) become nodes of references for films which then feed and harvest the cult energy. A re-release of the Sonny Chiba classic The Streetfighter featured a yellow and black background to capitalise on the popularity of Kill Bill, closing the circle of referentiality. Its here that you see fandom cross position descriptions with the curator and all kinds of re-internationalising take place.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eight, Part One): Abigail Derecho and Christian McCrea

Introductions

Abigail Derecho: I am currently completing a dissertation at Northwestern University in the Comparative Literary Studies department. I am a media studies scholar, specializing in digital culture, and therefore, while most Comp Lit grad students at NU have a home department in a national language/lit (German, French, Slavic, etc.), my home department is Radio/Television/Film. My dissertation is called “Illegitimate Media: Race, Gender, and Censorship in Early Digital Remix,” and it focuses on two of the earliest remix genres and their origins in minority discourse. Digital sampling was innovated by African Americans, and online fan fiction was pioneered by women, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. I examine how both remix genres were subjected to a great deal of censorship, both external and internal, very soon after they appeared, and I tie the censorship of remix to censorship discourses that circulated in U.S. culture and society at the same time that remix was being invented (the crack/gangs/guns panic that fueled anti-rap and other anti-music campaigns, the anti-pornography movement whose arguments were echoed in flame wars around explicitly sexual fan fiction). I will begin a tenure-track position at Columbia College Chicago, in the Cultural Studies program, this fall.

In addition to being an active fan and fan fiction author for many years, for the past two years I have been working on something called “Media Theater.” I have written and produced two multimedia plays that are attempts to combine live performance with new media in ways that foreground how intricately multiple media are incorporated into the everyday lives of millions of people – how we perceive reality, how we form memories, how we learn to love and despise each other. Some of my fan fiction is accessible here. Some of my academic work, and information about my media theater productions, is accessible here. Also, I was fortunate enough to have an essay of mine, “Archontic Literature” (very kindly referenced in an earlier Round of this discussion by Catherine Tosenberger [Catherine, please e-mail me about your theory of "recursive" literature]) included in the terrific collection edited by K. Hellekson and K. Busse, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. I’d like to express my gratitude to Kristina Busse and Henry Jenkins for organizing this important discussion, and for inviting me to take part, and thanks also to all the participants in this discussion (past and future), including those who have posted or will post comments, for making this such a productive and valuable exchange.

Christian McCrea: You may know me from such films as “Virtual Murder” (probably co-starring Micheal Nouri) and “The Second Life of Christian Lefebvre”….ahem. I am also in the twilight phase of a PhD dissertation, duly supervised by the very patient Angela Ndalianis in the Screen Studies department of the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. My PhD is called “Playland: The Sensory Materialism of Computer and Videogames”, which undertakes to form a critical account for the sometimes invisible but always vital relationship between the aesthetics of technologies and the cultural traces left by people using them. Using games as a point of first contact between the two, I am also deeply interested and invested in the cultures of technology, research into fan cultures, the poetics of technology, opportunities afforded by digital art and pranksterism, piracy and information control pressures, etc.

I have recently taken a position at Swinburne University of Technology here in Melbourne Australia, as a Lecturer In Games and Interactivity. The Swinburne Games program is the country’s leading games school, and I will be working to expand the types of work students do into serious and critical games. I have published work on games and other media in a variety of academic fora, and also work as an writer and essayist for sites such as The Escapist, curatorial writer for the Australian Centre of the Moving Image and maintain a website, Wolves Evolve.

Issue One: Covering Women

Derecho: I’d like to address gender bias in the media industry, in “mainstream fan” writing about media, and in academic writing about media. I’ll give an example of bias in each of these fields:

1) I saw Live Free or Die Hard recently. As a “die hard” fan of the first film in the series, I thought LFoDH was a thoughtful and exciting return to the elements that made Die Hard a classic. Leaving the theater, though, I realized that one of the key aspects of the film that made it pleasurable for me was the character Lucy – John McClane’s now-grown daughter – who, whlie serving as a key plot point (the usual “damsel in distress”), did not have very much screen time. Another part of the film I liked was the new character Matt Farrell, the hacker-geek who becomes McClane’s sidekick. And I read several critics’ reviews pointing out that Matt is basically the fans’ stand-in. Matt expresses the awe, fear, and affection for McClane that the audience feels, and for the most part he is “tagging along for the ride,” just like the audience does. Matt also gets to have a little hint of a romantic spark with Lucy McClane, who is basically a younger female version of her father. So I thought, Huh, Matt is a stand-in for all fans, male and female, b/c both men and women fans are techies, like Matt (much of fandom taking place on the Internet), and both men and women fans love McClane and want to go along for the ride. But only male fans get to see themselves up on that screen in the persona/avatar of Matt Farrell, and they get to see their stand-in “get” (romantically) a McClane of his own (we women used to have Holly, John’s wife, to identify with, but since Die Hard 3, she’s been literally out of the picture). Women fans, otoh, have to do the usual queer identification, seeing our desires acted out by a young male character. And/or, we can see ourselves in Lucy, whose persona and story we would have to greatly develop/augment using our own imaginations (by ourselves, in conversation with other fans, or in fanfic) due to her underdevelopment in the film. Either way, women fans don’t get very much consideration in this, or most, action films. It’s clear that our dollars, our attention, and our interest are being courted, and that Lucy, Matt, and their incipient romantic involvement, are, at least in part, aimed at us. But while male audience members get huge chunks of meaty text thrown at them, stuff they can relate to and easily identify with, stuff that reminds them of their own libidinal desires and fantasies and offers them vicarious fulfillment of these wants and needs, women in the audience get scraps. We make the most out of these scraps — that’s what imagination and fan productions are for — but the studios, for the most part, doesn’t think to throw us more than these.

What troubles me about this long-standing situation is that women definitely go to, and love, action movies. Have we had an alternative in any given summer since Jaws and Star Wars? Either we love action blockbusters, or we don’t go to the movies. So when I think about how women make the most of the few female characters and their supporting-role status in action films, I think we’re doing a lot of work, and doing a great job creating a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of very little. All the female fan concentration on Arwen and Eowyn in the LoTR films, on Linda Hamilton’s buff and awesome (but still supporting) character Sarah Connor in T2, on Rogue and Mystique and other X-Women, on Trinity in The Matrix, is about making the most of the tiny shout-outs to female audiences that big action movies – the biggest-grossing, and thus most important (for the industry) products generated by the motion picture industry today – give to their women and girl fans. Of course, lots of women don’t care about whether there are well-written and significant women characters in a movie, they don’t need that to have fun at a film. They are the lucky ones, since the movie industry is therefore giving them what they want and all they need. But the rest of us are grateful for the Alien series, for Keira Knightley’s character in the PoTC movies, for Princess Leia, who is central to the plot of SW and always proactive (unlike her wimpy mother). If Disney, of all studios, knows enough about girl and women audience members to allow a character like Elizabeth Swann to develop and mature over the course of a trilogy, if Disney can allow a black woman to be a powerful goddess and can stand to have two women pirate captains (and one of them Chinese) in the council of pirates, then other studios and other producers can try just as hard. Jason Mittell, in Round One, Part One of this discussion, summarized what he called “the old saw about children’s programming”: “girls will consume work pitched at both genders, while the boys only concern themselves with boy-stuff.” If this is true, then girls are by far the more valuable consumers of media (since they will be good customers of twice the volume of stuff as boys), and media corporations should take the wishes, proclivities, taste cultures, and interests of their best consumers into account.

2) In the latest issue of WIRED (July 2007), Optimus Prime, my favorite character from my favorite cartoon ever, Transformers, is on the cover. Here are some excerpts from the article about the new Transformers movie: “They started as toys for boys,” “Boys ages 5 to 11 — and it *was* boys — faithfully tuned in week after week to watch the saga of these doughty bots,” “For nearly two decades…sons of Prime waited for Papa Bot,” “Thus [with Transformers] began the cyber-outsourcing of masculine heroism, a process that would eventually, inextricably, link Y chromosome to Xbox,” “man-children of a certain age look to this Transformers movie…for redemption, as men.” So, I, a hard-core fan of Transformers ever since I was a little girl, am excluded over and over again by this article. It’s not just this one article or writer that concerns me, it’s the way this environment of geeky, technologically-themed, toy-oriented pleasure is often assumed to be a 100% masculine domain. I don’t think the statement “Girls like robot characters” would surprise anyone. Girls like all kinds of characters; they play video games; they watch sci-fi/action/adventure movies and TV, they read comic books. And then they grow up to be women media-studies scholars ;) . But the mainstream press, written by non-academic fans, consistently associates certain media – and I don’t just mean films, here, but technology of all sorts, from Blackberries to C++ to robots – with masculinity. What is sad about this is how much potential mass media has for serving as common ground between people of differing genders, races, ages, nationalities, sexual orientations, geographic locations, political affiliations. When I read, in the Transformers WIRED article, the writer’s opinion that “Prime practically step-parented the latchkey kids of the mid-80s,” I related to that. I remember that feeling of being home alone, just me and the TV, and those awesome giant robots, and how Optimus Prime taught me so much about what was right and wrong, what was courage and what was cowardice, when to show mercy and when to be strong. I thought, If I met that writer, he and I would have a lot to talk about, since we have some deep and important childhood experiences in common. But when the writer went on to define Prime as exclusively a role model for young boys, I stopped having that thought of common ground and mutually resonant experiences. Mass media fandom can and should be the grounds for discussions in which many, many people (masses of people, in fact) can participate. But there are gender-based, race-based, nationality-based, and sexuality-based assumptions and stereotypes that permeate media journalism which cuts such possibilities short.

3) Some recent media scholarship also shows these biases. Last year, a well-respected media studies professor from a prestigious U.S. university visited Northwestern, and I heard his paper on how a critically acclaimed television serial drama resembled an intricate and complex game, because certain plot elements repeated every season (though in different guises), and because the viewer had to keep track of everything that had happened in the past in order to fully comprehend each new episode. I asked him how his “game theory” regarding this television show differed from the basic structure of daytime drama (soap opera). He had no answer for me. Why? Because he had not considered that the aspects that he most enjoyed of an Emmy-winning, “quality” primetime cable television program were actually appropriated from cultural productions that have much less cultural capital in the world of media studies: soap operas. I very much agree with C. Lee Harrington’s statement in Round Six, Part One: “I’m a huge fan of serialized primetime shows such as Lost, Heroes, 24, etc., but tend to roll my eyes at journalistic (and sometimes academic) accounts of how textually complicated they are….They are, of course, but multiply that complexity by 50 years and you might begin to approach Guiding Light!!” I would like to see, in accordance with some of Kristina’s arguments in her review of MiT5, more male media studies scholars engaging with media analyses of women’s genres and women’s styles of media consumption/engagement/participation. Of course, many men in media studies do this already. But currently, male scholars can still ignore huge areas of women-oriented media scholarship without thinking or blinking – their ignorance is still very normal.

And to bring this back to the first example of gender bias I gave, that practiced by movie studios and media corporations: Daytime drama has undergone a serious decline in ratings over the past decade, and I attribute this mostly to network executives’ lack of investment in, and lack of knowledge of, the soap genre. As a result, soap fans (of which I am one) have engaged in more heated battles, meaning mail/e-mail campaigns, phone campaigns, and massive flame wars online, over the last 10 years, than I have ever seen in any other fandoms. Soap fans fight TPTB (producers, writers, network execs) for story changes, and they fight with each other because they feel that no one is really getting the quality or kinds of storytelling that they want, so fan groups that have different interests are mutually regarded as “competition” for the networks’ attention. So far, the networks haven’t responded to fans’ demands for improved (i.e., better-written) stories and for more respect for show history. The soaps continue to go down in quality, and viewers continue to tune out. Meanwhile, all of prime time has co-opted the technique of seriality which daytime dramas spent decades developing and enriching – all reality shows are soaps, most prime-time dramas are soaps or have some serial elements, and many prime-time sitcoms (Friends, Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother) have multi-episode, sometimes multi-season story arcs. Millions of women fans spent years and years contributing to writers’ knowledge of how to make seriality work. Their input and feedback, manifested in a multitude of activities from their mere viewership to their fannish activities, helped to build up that store of knowledge, helped to program those data banks. Not only do those fans get zero credit, but the soap-y shows that women now watch on prime-time – Prison Break, 24 – are much more geared towards male audiences and male interests than towards women audiences and women interests. Again (see my above point), it isn’t that women can’t or don’t enjoy male-oriented programming. But women fans lost good soap operas, which were dramas dedicated to women’s enjoyment, and we did not gain the equivalent in serial prime time.

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Reconsidering the AFI’s 100 Films: The Missing Half of the Equation

Many of you probably watched the American Film Institute’s special several weeks ago during which they celebrated a hundred great American films. (Never mind that several of the films were by any definition I came up with actually British productions — a mistake which the organization got called upon the last time they constructed such a list — suggesting that if it is in the English language, Hollywood will lay claim to it and if it isn’t, it has no business being part of the American film scene!) The list included many films which most of us would agree belong up there with the greats — including some personal favorites of mine, such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather, to cite just a few from the top levels of the list.

Yet, several groups have raised significant questions about what’s missing from this — any film made by a female director.

Before you argue that women simply didn’t direct any of the best 100 films made in this country, you might consider that the final selection was made for a ballot of 400 titles out of which the American Film Institute included only four films directed by women (Penny Marshall’s Big, Amy Heckering’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation). As Mediascape’s

Erin Hill and Brian Hu ask, “Does that mean that women are inferior directors? Hardly. Does that mean that women have been kept out of the director’s chair? Yes and no.” Hill and Hu helped to poll a group of several dozen film scholars and filmmakers to see if they could come up with a list of 100 great American films directed by women, hoping that such a list would help us to better understand the roles women directors have played across the history of the American cinema.

As they have done so, the first accommodation they needed to make was to extend the AFI’s focus on feature-length mainstream fiction films to include a much broader range of genres and formats, reflecting the reality that women have historically been forced to work on the margins of the mainstream industry but have made innovative contributions to independent, experimental and documentary film production, for example. Even where we consider feature length fictional films, women have most often operated on the margins — working on B-films (as in the case of Ida Lupino) or exploitation films (as in the case of Stephanie Rothman). Only as we get to the most recent films on the list do we get to large budget Hollywood productions (and that’s why all three of the films which the AFI included by female directors have come out in the last two decades.) Here’s a subset of the films which they identified (listed in chronological order):

* MABEL’S BUSY DAY (Mabel Normand, 1914)

* THE BLOT (Lois Weber, 1921)

* DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (Dorothy Arzner, 1940)

* MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid, 1943)

* OUTRAGE (Ida Lupino, 1950)

* THE COOL WORLD (Shirley Clarke, 1964)

* BAD GIRLS GO TO HELL (Doris Wishman, 1965)

* A NEW LEAF (Elaine May, 1971)

* TERMINAL ISLAND (Stephanie Rothman, 1973)

* HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976)

* NEWS FROM HOME (Chantal Ackerman, 1977)

* GIRLFRIENDS (Claudia Weill, 1978)

* THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION (Penelope Spheeris, 1981)

* DESERT HEARTS (Donna Deitch, 1985)

* DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (Susan Seidelman, 1985)

* WORKING GIRLS (Lizzie Borden, 1986)

* NEAR DARK (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

* SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NAM (Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989)

* A PLACE CALLED LOVELY (Sadie Benning, 1991)

* DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (Julie Dash, 1991)

* LITTLE MAN TATE (Jodie Foster, 1991)

* MISSISSIPPI MASALA (Mira Nair, 1991)

* A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (Penny Marshall, 1992)

* MI VIDA LOCA (Allison Anders, 1993)

* GO FISH (Rose Troche, 1994)

* CLUELESS (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

* WATERMELON WOMAN (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

* PRIVATE PARTS (Betty Thomas, 1997)

* FRIDA (Julie Taymor, 2002)

* AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003)

* MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

* SHERRYBABY (Laurie Collyer, 2006)

* MARIE ANTOINETTE (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

You can see the rest of the list here. Several other patterns emerge: the list of women filmmakers also includes a much higher number of filmmakers of color and openly queer filmmakers than the list the American Film Institute produced for mass market consumption. (The AFI list, after all, is part of a special promotion designed to encourage people to rent and buy dvds of the selected films and only films currently available in dvd format are eligible for consideration. Many of these films, especially the earlier ones, have not yet gone into this kind of broader distribution.) Roughly a quarter of the selected films have been made since 1999, suggesting just how recently women have been able to exert a powerful and consistent presence in mainstream and independent cinema.

As someone who has written about Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire, Terminal Island, Working Girls), for example, in an essay included in my new book, The Wow Climax, I found her inclusion on the list raised some provocative questions for me. Here’s how I sum up what’s interesting about Rothman’s work:

Rothman’s politics are nowhere more utopian than when they deal with the erotic material that is at the heart of the exploitation film and this may explain why she chose to continue to work within these genres, even when she gained control over the mode of production at Dimension Pictures, the studio she co-founded with her writer-producer husband Charles Swartz. Rothman’s engagement with the exploitation genres was a tactical one; she agrees to follow certain formulas and produce certain images, in order to gain access to systems of production, distribution, and exhibition. Working within the popular cinema, she will reach a broader audience than a political avant-garde filmmaker; Terminal Island can be found at my local Blockbuster, while Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames can not. The exploitation cinema demands that she work with certain exploitable elements, yet she finds ways to redefine those images to speak to alternative pleasures and politics. At the same time, the exploitation cinema holds progressive potentials, facilitating stories with strong female protagonists, stories of exploitation and resistance, victimization and empowerment. Rothman borrows these stories from Roger Corman and from the broader generic history of New World and she seeks to render these stories meaningful to women. She does not fully control the promotion and reception of her films; she can not fully prevent those images and stories from being used in a reactionary fashion. Yet, for these very reasons, their radical potential takes on new importance. The people who go to see Born in Flames probably already have a solid commitment to feminism; the people who go to see Terminal Island probably do not. If most of her feminist politics falls on deaf ears, some of it probably gets heard, and in being heard, creates an opening for change where none existed before.

The vexing complexities of this situation may account for why Pam Cook’s persistent attempts to claim Rothman for feminism have not had the impact of her similar arguments on behalf of Dorothy Arzner. Arzner’s oppositional and marginal position as a lesbian woman operating within the classical Hollywood system could be taken for granted. Arzner’s radical difference, her disruption of the codes of classical cinema and her exposure of the mechanisms of female spectacle, can be read against a shared understanding of the classical Hollywood cinema as allowing only limited space for female expression. Rothman’s “counter-cinema,” on the other hand, occurs against the backdrop of a producer (Corman) and studio (New World) already associated with leftist politics and within genres already seen as outside dominant film practice. The exploitation cinema, paradoxically, displayed the most reactionary and patriarchal tendencies of the commercial cinema and at the same time, an already partially realized radical potential. Rothman can be seen, then, as working both within and in opposition to the exploitation film, a complex set of “negotiations” which allow no simple labeling of her films. Her cinema is “partially corrupt.” This is its curse and that is its power.

Can we then reduce this “complex set of negotiations” between genre, studio, audience, and filmmaker to the standards of classic entertainment which define our expectations about what belongs on a list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time? I am not certain.

The AFI list calls out for beloved films, yet it is hard to say that Rothman’s work is beloved even among those of us who are its most enthusiastic supporters. She didn’t seek to be loved; she sought to challenge and disrupt the conventions of the genres within which she worked.

The AFI List calls out for polished work but Rothman was given neither the time or the budget to achieve polished work: her exploitation films are ragged, bearing the marks of the painful compromises which shaped their production.

The AFI list calls out for accomplished works, but Rothman’s films often have to be judged based on their potentials because she wasn’t allowed to fully achieve what she set out to accomplish.

The AFI list prioritizes certain genres which are seen as prestigious and important but Rothman was never got to work in those genres.

The AFI list calls for films which had a wide impact on American culture but Rothman’s films never received the distribution and promotion they would need to have a wide impact. The same can be said for many of the other filmmakers on this list.

All of this may sound like special pleading in the context of our usual list-making activities — and perhaps it is — but it is also a reflection of the struggles women filmmakers have faced in order to gain access to the means of production and distribution their male counterparts have taken for granted. All of these lists probably need to read alongside a copy of Joanna Russ’s “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” which spells out the diverse reasons critics have deployed to argue that women’s creative work doesn’t measure up to the standards of literary excellence which define the canon. But before you dismiss those critics, give yourself a gut check to see how you reacted to some of the films listed above. That immediate response — “they don’t belong here” — suggests the need to reassess the criteria we deploy to evaluate “great films” and whether those “standards” are appropriate for accounting for the full range of interesting and important work in the history of the American cinema.

Another list was prepared by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, attempting to identify films by male and female directors that they felt should have been included on the AFI ballot. Their list is much more mainstream than the one prepared by Mediascape, seeking films by women filmmakers which would hold up under the same criteria as those which put the male directors on the original AFI list. If the Mediascape list has circulated almost entirely within an academic film context, the Alliance list has succeeded in getting national media attention, directing much needed interest onto the place of female directors in the history of American cinema. Both list raise questions that need to be considered if we are going to put the AFI List in its full context.

Manufacturing Dissent: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with Stephen Duncombe, author of the new book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. What follows is the second installment. I am being pressed for time this morning but hope to add a few comments to this post later today about last night’s debate.

You only briefly touch upon the rise of news comedy shows like The Daily Showand The Colbert Report. Do you see such programs as a positive force in American democracy? How do you respond to those who feel that the blurring

between news and politics trivializes the political process? What role does

comedy play in the kinds of popular politics you are advocating?

I love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. As someone on the Left it is refreshing to see a progressive viewpoint expressed (even if only expressed ironically) in a way that makes me laugh and gives me pleasure. I also think that Stewart and Colbert’s use of humor can be deeply subversive: they use ridicule to show how ridiculous “serious politics” is, much in the same way that Jonathan Swift’s “modest” proposal in 1729 made the “rational” case for solving the problem of the poor in Ireland by eating them. The political process is already a joke, these guys are merely recognizing it for what it is.

In doing this they hold out the possibility of something else, that is, they create an opening for a discussion on what sort of a political process wouldn’t be a joke. In doing this they’re setting the stage for a very democratic sort of dialogue: one that asks questions rather than simply asserts the definitive truth. However, it’s still unclear that ironic joking leads to the sort of popular response I’m hypothesizing above. It can, just as easily, lead into a resigned acceptance that all politics are just a joke and the best we can hope for it to get a good laugh out of it all. To paraphrase the philosopher Walter Benjamin: we can learn to find pleasure in our own destruction.

However, I think we need to take Stewart at his word: he’s just an entertainer. It’s really up to the rest of us to answer the questions he poses. Sometimes I think we ask too much of culture: we expect it to solve our political problems for us. I don’t think it can do this. It can create openings, give us insight, provide us with tools, but the rest is a political process that counts on all of us.

You contrast the ways that FDR spoke to the American public with the ways that George W. Bush addresses us during his weekly radio-casts. What do you see as

the primary differences? Most contemporary politicians who attempt to

“explain” complex policy issues in the way FDR did get accused of being

“wonks.” What steps do you think could be taken to create a new political

rhetoric which embraces the ideal of an informed public but doesn?t come

across as patronizing or pedantic?

The brilliance of FDR is that he and his New Deal administration, like King and his fellow organizers, recognized the necessity of spectacle in politics. Because of this they worked hard to re-imagine spectacle in a way that could fit progressive, democratic ends. The 1920s were an era much like our own in its worship of celebrity: a mediated world of movie stars on the silver screen and sports heroes in the new photo-tabloids. But instead of merely condemning this state of affairs, New Deal artists and administrators re-imagined it, using photographs sponsored by the Farm Securities Agency and murals painted by artists of the Works Progress Administration to recognize and display a different sort of American: the dust bowl farmer, the southern share cropper, the factory worker, the rootless migrant. By creating these counter-spectacles they tried to turn the public gaze from stars to everyday (albeit romanticized) people, essentially redefining “The People” in the popular imagination. Make no mistake, this was a deeply political move, as valorizing everyday people was essential for garnering political support for New Deal political and economic programs.

Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” also put the lie to the myth that spectacle has to run against reason. Over thirty times during his presidency FDR addressed the American public on the radio. He would always begin these speeches with a warm “My friends.” But what followed this simple greeting was a sophisticated explanation of the crises the country faced: the banking collapse, currency concerns, the judiciary, world war. This was propaganda. The speeches were scripted by playwrights who dramatized the case for the president’s politics, and FDR spoke to people’s fears and desires in a folksy, personalized language, but these fireside chats also took for granted that citizens could be reasoning beings with the ability to understand complex issues. In other words FDR believed that rationality and emotion could exist side by side.

I wish contemporary politicians would learn from this. Instead, we get the “man of reason” like John Kerry, or the “man of fantasy” aka George W. Bush. Politicians need to understand – in a way that I think many producers of pop culture already do – that you can speak to reason and fantasy simultaneously. It’s an Enlightenment myth that truth is self-evident: that all you need to do is lay out the facts of your argument and immediately people will acknowledge and embrace it. What FDR and King understood is that the truth needs help. It needs stories told about it, works of art made of it, it needs to use symbols and be embedded in myths that people find meaningful. It needs to be yelled from the mountaintops. The truth needs help, but helping it along doesn’t mean abandoning it.

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Manufacturing Dissent: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe (Part One)

Tonight, at 7 p.m. est, CNN will host a debate among the Democratic candidates for the presidency, aired live from South Carolina. There have already been several previous debates during which American citizens could get an early look at Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and the other contenders for the nomination. What makes this debate interesting is that average citizens were invited to submit their questions for the debate via YouTube. Last week, I appeared on Talk of the Nation with David Bohrman, the guy from CNN who has been given the task to select the questions that actually reach the air, and Joshua Levy, a political blogger (TechPresident.com). We learned that there had been, at that point, more than 1500 questions submitted and that the CNN staff was shifting through them to decide which ones should be asked the candidates.

You might want to take some time today to sample the kinds of questions submitted in their raw form. They reflect two of the dominant modes of production for YouTube. On the one hand, there are straight to camera confessionals – often deadly serious, frequently deeply personal, made by people who embody the issues they are discussing. These videos reflect the ways that Americans are taught, via television, to speak to presidential candidates and more often than not, they reflect the same agenda that has shaped previous debates. The CNN spokesperson did say that there were certain topics, Darfur for example, which cropped up much more often among viewers than among professional journalists. But, for the most part, these questions reflect the prevailing tone and style of American political discourse. The second set are parodies and satires — often bitingly irreverent, borrowing the language of popular culture to challenge the pomposity of the debate format. Sometimes, they spoof the very idea that citizens should be made to embody their questions — as in this video where a guy dressed like a Viking asks a question about immigration or consider this question from a LA based “celebrity”. Sometimes, they make fun of what kinds of questions deserved discussion in this format — as in this video about alien invasions. Sometimes, they make use of borrowed footage — as in this JibJab style segment featuring a George W. impersonator.

It is going to be interesting, then, to see what kinds of selections the network makes amongst all of this material: will they naturally go towards those that adopt the discourses of respectful citizens and identity politics? Will they ask more or less the same questions that we’ve heard in the previous debates, only this time spoken through the mouths of YouTube fans? Or will some of the more wacky segments make their way into the air? And if they do, how will the candidates react and how will the pundits respond? As I wrote last week, we are seeing a consistent insertion of the discourse of participatory culture into the political process this campaign season in an attempt to reach voters who would normally tune out debates and that’s what makes this particular set of exchanges so interesting.

To help us get into the spirit of the YouTube debate, I am featuring today an interview with Stephen Duncombe, the author of an important new book about the relationship between participatory culture and participatory democracy which I have mentioned here several times already — Dream:Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. I have incorporated this paragraph from Duncombe’s book in a number of talks I’ve given over the last few months and it is suggestive of the provocative nature of his argument:

Progressives should have learned to build a politics that embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which gives these fantasies form – a politics that employs symbols and associations, a politics that tells good stories. In brief, we should have learned to manufacture dissent…. Given the progressive ideals of egalitarianism and a politics that values the input of everyone, our dreamscapes will not be created by media-savvy experts of the left and then handed down to the rest of us to watch, consume, and believe. Instead, our spectacles will be participatory: dreams that the public can mold and shape themselves. They will be active: spectacles that work only if the people help create them. They will be open-ended: setting stages to ask questions and leaving silences to formulate answers. And they will be transparent: dreams that one knows are dreams but which still have power to attract and inspire. And, finally, the spectacles we create will not cover over or replace reality and truth but perform and amplify it.

Duncombe’s previous books, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture and The Cultural Resistance Reader, have been important contributions to our understanding of contemporary cultural politics, albeit aimed at academic readers primarily. Duncombe himself has been active in a number of key political movements in New York City, where he teaches, and describes some of those experiences in Dream. With this book, he has produced a text which will be read well beyond the academic realm and could provide us with a handbook for understanding why this current campaign is making such vivid and interesting use of a rhetoric informed by our experiences with participatory culture. Check out his website for more information on the book.

Throughout the book, you embrace a politics based on spectacle. How do you

define spectacle? What do you see as the defining characteristics of

progressive spectacle and how would it differ from more conservative forms of

spectacle?

I guess I’d define spectacle as a dream performed, or perhaps, a fantasy on display. Spectacle animates an abstraction and realizes what reality often times cannot represent. But I also like to use the term in a broader way: to describe a way of making an argument, not through appeals to reason and fact (though these certainly can, and should, be part of spectacle) but through stories and myth, imagination and fantasy. This definition covers what I call ethical spectacles, but also describes spectacles with less scruples: those engineered by the Nazis at Nuremberg, conjured up by creative directors on Madison Avenue or staged by Andrew Lloyd Webber on Broadway. So what separates my “ethical” spectacles from these? It’s a complicated question and I spend about a third of my book exploring it, but if I had to sum up the core value of an ethical spectacle in one word it would be this: democracy.

Most spectacles are anti-democratic. They are about one-way communication flows and predictable responses. “They” engineer the look and feel and message of the spectacle and “we” – the spectators – respond in a predetermined fashion. If this type of spectacle is successful we give our consent or support: we march in lines and vote for the Party or buy a certain brand of toothpaste. But it is always someone else’s dream. Ethical spectacle follows a different formula. It’s a spectacle where the lines between those who create and those who spectate are blurred, one which is dreamt up, executed, and acted upon by its participants. This makes for a sloppy sort of spectacle, one where spectators are also actors, where the mechanics of the staging is obvious to all involved, and where meanings and outcomes are not predetermined, but isn’t this also the definition of democracy?

There’s also another key difference between the spectacle I’m advocating for and that which we are used to experiencing: reality. Most spectacle is using fantasy as a replacement for reality. Think of President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln. This was an attempt (imagineered by an ex-TV producer named Scott Sforza) to replace reality with fantasy: our president is a warrior prince, not a combat dodger; the war in Iraq is won, not just beginning. The approach I’m advocating for deals with reality differently, using spectacle to dramatize the real, not cover it over.

A great example of this is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He went into Birmingham knowing the violent, racist reputation of the chief of police. In fact, he counted on it. And “Bull” Connor acted out his part: jailing school kids, turning fire hoses on picketers, letting dogs loose on peaceful protesters, and so on, creating those iconic images of the civil rights movement, and publicizing to a world media the reality of racism in the United States. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Civil Rights Act passed the next year. It’s also no coincidence that the footage of Top Gun W couldn’t be used by the Republicans a year after the staged landing; the deadly reality of the continuing war had leaked through the staged fantasy. As the presidential namesake of the aircraft carrier that Bush landed on once said: “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Ethical spectacle fools no one. It is at its best when it is obvious what it is: just a spectacle. Like the architecture of Las Vegas or the campy performance of pro wrestling, one can also stage spectacles that don’t pretend to be reality but wear their constructed nature on their sleeve. They are spectacles which present themselves as spectacles. As such, these dreams performed become, in their own way, real. Illusion may be a necessary part of politics but delusion need not be.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seven, Part Two): Kristina Busse and Cornel Sandvoss

COMMUNITY AND INDIVIDUAL CTD.:

Kristina: Moreover, I worry that it’ll be impossible to talk about the subcultural phenomenon that I would define as fandom if that term is already used for a much broader, less intense engagement.

Cornel: I would argue the answer already lies in what you are saying here though: if we want to talk about subcultural phenomena, let’s call them precisely that: subcultures. On many occasions fan cultures and subcultures correspond, even become interchangeable, but there are clearly also fans and aspects of fandom that do not fit into a subcultural mold. So I fail to see the benefit in equating subculture and fan cultures a priori.

Kristina: I do understand that the psychological engagement with a text can be very intense, even in the absence of others to share that particular affect, that obsessional focus. Moreover, both community interaction and this affect exist on a continuum (changing between different people and even within a person over time). And I understand that it is important to study the individual and how emotional investment in a text gets created, played out, shared. I think it’s important to look at the range of fannish engagement and affect, but why can’t we do so with the community rather than the individual at the center? If I look at the lonely fan reading/watching/enjoying their text, I think of them as fannish because they’re participating in an imagined community of other fans. [The best example in my area would be lurkers, who do not actively interact and are thus not part of the community per se, but who very clearly often think of themselves as part of the community--I guess we could think of it as parasocial relations with other fans?]

Cornel: If we speak about psychological categories such as affect, pleasure and fantasy, these are of course by definition constituted on the level of the individual. This doesn’t mean that there cannot at least potentially be a communal context to the constitution of fan pleasures but ultimately it is manifested on an intrapersonal not interpersonal level.

Kristina: I don’t want to sound like I want to forego the study of the individual fan in favor of a sole focus on the community, because that’s not really what I’m saying here. What I’m worried about in terms of research focus is actually the fan academic parallel to what I’m worried about in terms of definitions of fandom: focusing on the more mainstream, more palatable fan may risk the erasure/ignoring of the less easily acceptable or explainable one.

Cornel: I understand and share your concern, but I just wonder what’s more palatable here. Within the context of media and cultural studies, the study of the ‘mainstream” (whatever that exactly may be) seems to me in fact much rarer and more adventurous as it appears to be often irreconcilable with dominant paradigms and ideological positions in the field. Where, for example, are those studies of Britney Spears fans, those of Hello and other celebrity gossip magazines or of Hollyoaks (a painful teen soap on British Channel 4 that lends itself rather less to forms of cultural appreciation than say, Dawson’s Creek)? Or to hammer home the point, studies of fans of the various call-in quiz channels that have mushroomed in Europe in the past five years?

Kristina: Likewise, I fear that studies of the individual fan and his affect may eclipse those of fan communities, especially when the former may focus on male fans and the latter on females; especially when the affect in the former is individual and personal and in the latter is collective and communal (and, in collectivities that form around responses not valued by the dominant culture, may quite often become political as a result); especially when the former is done by male academics with status in the academy and the latter by females more likely to not have that status.

Cornel: I really don’t see the need to compare or benefit in thinking about one eclipsing the other – this would imply a strange scarcity of spaces of academic debate. And I don’t think this reflects any sort of structural and gendered power differences with higher education. I think we are hard pressed to find many people engaged in fan studies with any particular status in the academy in any case. And I know you are not suggesting it, but just to be categorical about this: I think it would more than insulting if anyone suggested that male scholars in our fields would disregard the work by female colleagues. Of course there are academic fashions which come and go in circles but I would suggest that we can’t explain them in terms of gender, nor is work on fan communities being marginalized. On the contrary, I think following Henry’s work, it still very much shapes the canon of the field.

Kristina: I’m only beginning to look into the role of affect and its potential political agency, but my friend Alexis Lothian, with whom I just finished writing an essay (together with Robin Reid) on slash as “queer female space,” has been influencing my thinking on the social and political implications of shared/sharing affect. She argues, for example, “that communal articulations of affect, where reactions are shared and discussed, might be locations where the political implications of affect can get hashed out.” In that vein, we are rethinking, for example, how “squee”–all too often seen as infantilizing–can actually be a site for embracing one’s emotional responses, especially for women who’ve always prided themselves in their analytic abilities, maturity, etc. Especially when looking at fandom as a space for articulation of non-mainstream ideas and emotions, the role of affect intersects with the political. And I wonder whether it can be so on a purely personal level or whether subcultural characteristics are already communal and community-focused.

In particular, then, I am interested in the way affect functions in conjunction with others, either by sharing one’s emotional investment in the text with the community or, even more interesting, I think, the way the community filters, increases, and shapes the text and the fannish affect. (In other words, watching a new episode for me gets affected by my knowledge that I will have others who may also have seen a particular moment and I will be able to share it. Moreover, it is in the analysis and talking and squeeing about it, in the rewriting and the iconing that the text itself becomes *more*, and it is via this shared discussion and shared emotional engagement that the text itself changes.]

Cornel: I don’t disagree here….but let’s come back to that when looking at texts.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seven, Part One): Kristina Busse and Cornell Sandvoss

INTRODUCTION

Kristina:

I have a PhD in English from Tulane University and teach as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Alabama. I have been reading and writing on fan fiction since 1999 and have published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture, including on Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction, popslash, and fandom as queer female space. I coedited with Karen Hellekson, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland 2006) and am currently coauthoring a book-length study with Louisa Stein on fan artifacts and new media. I write about fan fiction and fandom and fan communities incessantly on my fannish LiveJournal.

The fact that I am an independent scholar is, in many ways, central to my work, because I have specific and quite personal reasons to be interested in the line between professional and amateur, fan writing and pro writing, and the way these get defined in various communities. Despite my disciplinary training and record of publication, I am not paid for my work, which makes me an adjunct–in my academic work of teaching as well as research. In a way, then, my academic work functions like fan work: I do not receive any financial recompense nor does its ideal value (line in CV) contribute to my gaining material benefit.

So, I straddle the line between amateur and professional in a keener way than most. Also, my central mode of fannish engagement is through meta, the grass-roots version of academic criticism, where I am seen as an academic outsider by many fans. By contrast, I cannot quite partake in the proper academic channels and thus feel fannish outsider within academia. This ambiguous position makes me keenly aware of the way my academic work replicates the contested relationship to capitalism and professionalism that fan work (and the fans creating it) exemplifies.

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Cornel: Hello, I should briefly introduce myself as well at this point. I have published on fan audiences in a number of articles and three books, A Game of Two Halves (Routledge, 2003) which focuses solely on football (soccer) fandom – a possibly rather alien topic to most readers of this blog, Fans: The Mirror of Consumption (Polity Press, 2005) and more recently had the good fortune to be asked by Jonathan Gray and Lee Harrington to co-edit an anthology previously mentioned here and entitled Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (NYU Press, 2007) which features a wide range of, I think, important contributions by many scholars in the field. In fact Lee, Jonathan and I enjoyed the experience so much that we have gone on to follow in the footsteps of Sharon Mazzarella and Norma Pecora as the editors of Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture. I mention this here as we initially thought that we might attract a greater number of papers dedicated to the study of fans and fan cultures given our own backgrounds, but this hasn’t quite materialised yet. So please see this an invitation to all scholars out there to consider the journal as a potential publication outlet for their research in the field – needless to say, whichever side of this debate they are on (if indeed there are sides…)!

I am also Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Surrey (UK), but, like Kristina, I am a German exile. I’m not sure this actually matters at all – or rather hope it doesn’t (though that is admittedly a rather German thing to say) other than in two respects: a.) in terms of the conceptual and theoretical foundations which in my case tend to draw fairly heavily on German literary, cultural and social theory such as the Frankfurt School and Constance School and b.) in giving us an outsider perspectives on many of the dominant Anglo-American (and let’s add Australian) discourses in the field. There are of course always differences in personal taste and genre preferences but I am always struck at how certain instances of popular American television are assumed to be universally known and appreciated. I say this not to complain about a lack of intercultural awareness of fan scholars to whom English is their native language, but because it has shaped my interest and journey through the field. Over the years I have read many studies of fan cultures whose central texts I were and sometimes continue to be been unfamiliar with. This may be a rather heretical admission, but I have to out myself as someone who had read Matt Hills’s or John Tulloch’s work on Dr Who, long before I had ever seen a single episode. And just to offend the American crowd here as well, when reading the earlier rounds of this discussion, I had to google ‘Firefly’ – I simply had never seen it. I would like to plea that none of this is ignorance – indeed it would not deter me in the least from enthusiastically reading a study on, say, Firefly fans. But it does mean that my interest in this study and others is not one in particular fan audiences or cultures in and for themselves, but about what these studies tell us about the micro and macro conditions and parameters of (everyday) life in a mediated world and the interplay between structure and agency that takes place within such frames. Anyway, we can return to this kind of Sinnfrage of fan studies later, if you like.

Before we kick start this week’s debate, I should say a word or two about the format, however. Owing to my own unavailability earlier this month (the usual excuses are other publication deadlines, exam boards, etc.) and the fact that Kristina was much more organised in writing up her thoughts an earlier stage (and is currently travelling in Europe) the following takes the shape of Kristina outlining her thoughts on the debate and my post hoc replies. Kristina is thus left with the power of agenda setting whereas I enjoyed the right of the last reply.

MALE AND FEMALE FANNISH BEHAVIOR:

Kristina: I feel on some level like we are the exemplar of what I’ve been shorthanding as the fanboy/fangirl split, and I think it might be useful to both articulate what those differences might be but also to complicate them once we’ve done so. One of the complaints I’ve heard most about trying to divvy up fan studies along gender lines (or even daring to suggest that gender might be an issue!) is that that there are too many exceptions to even try to establish categories or definitions. Moreover, I’ll start by making a quite enormous collapse that we may have to discuss down the line, namely, I sketch behavior onto gender. In a way, when I personally talk about fanboys and fangirls, it’s much less about actual biobodies than it is about certain ways of engaging with source texts and certain ways of theorizing and studying fans. And I may be totally wrong when actually looking at demographics!

But in my home, fannish behavior looks as follows: my husband watches Doctor Who quite passionately. He taped every episode when younger, bought all the tapes, and now owns all the DVDs. Most evenings more or less as long as I’ve known him, he will sit and watch a couple of episodes–in recent years with our kids. When my older one turned 4, he wanted a Doctor Who birthday party, and it was hard to explain to him that the doctor and Buzz Lightyear weren’t quite the same *g* My husband also collects D&D material, less for playing and more as a collector’s item. He certainly is quite invested in these texts, both emotionally and financially, but it is the texts and objects rather than other fans that are the center of his focus. Meanwhile, I started defining myself years ago as “a fan of fans,” i.e., while I have fallen for a number of media texts over the years, most recently, Stargate Atlantis and Supernatural, my primary fannish engagement is the community and its products, my primary investment time and my primary reward friendships and fannish creative and intellectual artifacts. Or, said differently, when I answer the often voiced question of what I’d take on the proverbial island, it’s always the fan creations, never the TV show.

Now, clearly the dynamic in our household is neither universal nor generalizable, but reading Textual Poachers and Fan Fiction and Fan Communities on the one hand and Fan Cultures and Fans on the other, I do begin to wonder whether my family’s gendering is not that unusual after all. Now, fanfiction communities are particularly invested in community and fan-created artifacts, so that using that as my measuring stick might be unfair and methodologically problematic. After all, what about the many communities that are predominantly male? What about the lonely fangirl reading her favorite book over and over again all by herself? And even dividing it into a blunt collecting/analyzing versus creating might leave out entire communities of women who debate technical details and men who create emotionally involved works of art.

Cornel: Yes, I think these are very valid points. I actually struggle with the usefulness of introducing gender here as the key dividing line between fans and fan scholars alike and can only echo Will Brooker’s earlier comments. I think there are two different questions: The first one is whether we can distinguish between types of either male and female fan behaviour or, secondly, between types of male and female approaches to the study of fandom. Both, in my eyes, are unsustainably essentialist suggestions which I outright reject. You already mentioned a few examples as far as fan behaviour is concerned and we could compile an almost endless list here: consider for example Vermorel and Vermorel’s (1985) distinctly private fan fantasies written more often that not by female fans (or indeed fan girls given their age!); conversely, communal consumption contexts are at the heart of many distinctly male fan cultures in, say, sports fandom. Very much the same applies to the academic study of fans and fandom: if there are distinctly male and female approaches these would not correspond with respective foci on individual fans on the one hand and fan communities on the other – let’s not forget that Henry has of course laid the foundations and established the canon in the study of fandom as an interpretive community. Even if there was a correlation between these positions and the gender of particular scholars, it would be a yet greater challenge to argue that this is not a coincidental correlation but grounded in quintessential gender differences.

In the earlier rounds of this discussion, the question of gender and fandom was linked to race by one contributor who remarked that however commendable it may be not wanting to distinguish on the grounds of race, it nevertheless constitutes a very real barrier in people’s lives. This is of course true, and I think the analogy is interesting, but the conclusion is ultimately erroneous. Let’s think this analogy through for and imagine we would suggest that there are forms of ‘white’ and ‘black’ fandom. This would be nothing short of utterly racist! However, this doesn’t mean that race and ethnicity are not one of the many socio-demographic lines that structure given fan cultures, impact upon audiences’ choices of objects of fandom and inform cultural and cultural hierarchies associated with fandom (remember Thornton’s revealing documentation and analysis of the discrimination faced by black adolescent males in 1990s UK club culture). Equally, gender (alongside class and other vectors of social stratification) is one of various important social and cultural parameter that structure fandom, as it is indeed a faultline in the divisions of power in contemporary society and hence naturally constitutes a key concern of fan studies. Yet, this is a far cry from overburdening gender by making it the organising principle of a fundamental and essentialist dichotomy of fan audiences.

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Democracy 2.0 (Director’s Cut, Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part series elaborating on comments I made to Mother Jones as part of their special Democracy 2.0 issue. Today, I take up a few more of the many implications of this interplay between participatory culture and participatory democracy.

Democracy and the Participation Gap

While I remain firm in my belief that, as I explained here some months ago, the rise of participatory culture has the potential to renew participatory democracy, I remain concerned about the participation gap, those who lack the technical access, the cultural competencies, and the sense of empowerment needed to fully participate in this new political culture.

MJ: Are there elements about the use of technology that could make the political process less democratic?

HJ: If the central conversation about the election is only online, rather than through broadcast television, large numbers of people will simply not have access to what the candidates are saying. So, for some people, this campaign is going to be more accessible than ever before. They have access to more information; they can drill deeper; they can maintain regular contact with the campaign; they can interact with other supporters and so forth. For others, who have no access or limited access to the Internet, moving all this activity online suggests that they don’t count, their voices don’t matter. They have no access to the information to make reliable decisions. And it’s not the campaigns who are doing that, so much as broadcast television, which is decreasing the coverage that it provides of the party conventions. It’s local newspapers that are cutting back the number of pages devoted to candidates for office. Those are the things that make the use of new media less democratic, because they are falling back on the presence of the new media to justify cutting back on basic information sources that citizens who don’t have online access would rely on to follow the political process….

Whenever we look towards new and emerging platforms as a resource for democracy, we must at the same time consider who is being left behind. And I do see dangers at a moment when mainstream media is cutting down on its news coverage of the presidential nominating process and much of the information is moving to cable or digital media. The people who are going to have to work hardest to get access to information and participate within the process are going to be those who have historically felt the most disenfranchised in the first place. The move towards digital campaigning may capture the imagination of many young voters but it may also exclude many low income participants.

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