Gender and Fan Culture (Round Thirteen, Part Two):Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson

Fans and Consumerism

DJ: Part of the project central to fan studies of rehabilitating the popular and academic image of fandom has often been an attempt to show how inherently different it is from those practices that comply with the economics and politics of consumer culture. To cast fans against consumer culture, we’ve gotten used to talking about them as producers. The texts that are often most important in fan studies are not the texts consumed by fans, but instead those produced by fans themselves and shared within their communities. Of course, these are important texts and I fully support bringing attention to them. However, it seems to me that we are often celebrating fans for being productive, rather than consumptive, and that doesn’t always sit well with me–particularly in terms of gender. If consumption is gendered as feminine (though I don’t think we should always make this assumption), it seems that we might be celebrating female fans for engaging with the media in more masculine ways.

Personally, I’m much more inclined to position fandom in relationship to consumption and consumer culture, not in opposition to them. Not to disparage productive fan activities–I have dealt with these too in my work–but I resist the assumption that productive activities are always “better” and preferable to consumptive ones. Sure, I’ll “question consumption” as the bumper sticker asks, but as a part of that interrogation I’m not going to jump to the implied conclusion that avid consumption of the products provided by corporate culture is always bad.

So I find myself much more aligned with Sara Gwenllian-Jones, who calls for us to consider fandom not in terms of productive communities, but in terms of its relationship to consumer culture and the culture industries. The consumer practices of fandom, she writes, make it less the industry’s nemesis, and more “its adoring offspring.” To a latter-day Adorno, this would evidence fans as compliant dupes feeding a capitalist system. And honestly, this is an important point: I don’t know that we could seriously support the claim that fandom has not been a boon to the industry. But without calling fans cultural dupes, I think that it is advantageous for us to recognize and acknowledge fan participation within the consumer culture offered by the industry, and not just as an alternative culture of its own. Regardless of their own productive activities, fans’ relationship in and to the industry is one of outside consumption. Without a doubt this line between production and consumption has been blurred in many ways–and I’d totally cop to criticisms that I’ve once or twice artificially increased that line’s resolution in my work to make the following point. Even when invited to participate in the industry’s productive activities, fans remain subordinated as consumers due to their unequal economic and cultural power. So I guess I’m not saying consumption is necessarily “good” (i.e. empowering/resistant) either, only that it’s an important dimension to fandom we should simultaneously explore alongside its communal and productive sides.

AK: As in my intent to define “fans” broadly, but study them narrowly, I agree that there is plenty of room within the umbrella of fan studies to look at both “productive” and “consumptive” fan practices, or “creative” and “as is” fans, as I’ve defined them in my own work. I place value in either sort of study; however I’d like to discuss whether one sees the fan activities themselves as valuable as a separate issue.

There’s been some talk about the place of the resistance/incorporation model already in previous weeks of this debate, but I’d like to return to it for a moment. I’m interested in critiquing this sense that productive/creative/community type fan practices inherently deserve greater value because they “resist,” insofar as I’d argue that “resistance” means little without specificity. However, I think that this is fundamentally a question of how academic work intersects with the political and social questions of our lives, because so long as I perceive the world as largely dominated by inequalities, I will also continue to value resistance to (or better yet, transformation of) the systems which reinforce those inequalities.

In practice, to me this entails thinking about fan fiction on several levels, each of which may align differently to different axes of power. Fan fiction resists capital at the level of production by evading professional systems of publication and retaining space for amateur, non-profit storytelling. At the level of content the picture becomes more complex, as fan fiction represents a plethora of ideological positions on any given question from gender roles, to militarism, to eugenics. However, on the whole, that very ideological incoherency also counters or resists the culture industry’s ability to constrain the ideological content of modern storytelling. Depending on one’s relationship to Marxism and the public sphere, these resistances could be valuable, or not. In addition to capital, I find slash valuable as a resistance to heteronormativity, which says nothing about slash’s stance vis-à-vis other axes of power. Yet the mere existence of a genre or mode of writing dedicated to making visible the socially invisible (not just homosexuality, but bisexuality, transpersons, and a variety of ways to reorder the family unit and it’s relationship to the state which might broadly be called queer) strikes me as a useful step in working toward social recognition of sexual variation.

I’d also like to tease consumption and consumerism apart, as a sort of side-door into the questions that you’ve raised here. Although they’re intimately intertwined, I’d like to separate the consumption of narratives, ideas, and images from the question of spending money, because I’m concerned about a potential conflation between interest and devotion on an intellectual level and purchasing decisions. I’m not at all arguing for advertising’s impotence, but I think it’s imperative that we separate fans’ role as consumers of narratives and as consumers of products.

I attended an unfortunate academic talk a couple years ago which purported to study the popularity of characters based upon the sales of their merchandise. While I don’t deny that purchasing decisions have meaning and that it’s important to study the activities of fans who primarily define their practices through consumerism, I’m disturbed by attempts to quantify love in dollars. Poor fans love things too, as do fans who prefer to avoid investing money in fan activities. Keeping in mind the significant secondary market for media products as well as the effects of sharing and copying even before the digital age, if consuming fans could be called dupes of the media industry (not that I would label them as such), they are not homogenously so in purely economic terms.

DJ: I’m not sure I see that argument as a critique of the idea of fan fiction as inherently more resistant and valuable than less “productive” practices (seems more like an endorsement), but you make a convincing argument about the value of fan/slash fiction as a practice outside of capital and heteronormativity. I’m certainly not prepared to make the same case about the kinds of fan practices in which I’m more interested: my concern for media franchising draws me to engagements that tend to be more capital-friendly–at least on the surface. The systems of narratives mixed with games, toys, and other branded products offered by the industry are a far cry from derivative but independent texts and genres produced by audiences for their own collective consumption. If I understand you correctly, it’s not the consumption of the narratives offered by Smallville the television series that has value for you, it’s the collective consumption of the slash fiction produced by fans in response to the series. In my work with franchise systems, however, it’s much more difficult to separate the role of consumers of narrative from that of consumers of products. These franchise systems are designed by capital to transform narrative consumption into sales.

To some, this will further evidence the greater value of fan practices that entirely resist capital. But I’m not entirely convinced. Sure, action figure collectors might be complicit with capital in their amassment of the industry’s products, but that capital-friendly product consumption could yet lead to your narratives of non-normativity (I can’t count how many times the X-Men, Star Trek, and Star Wars toys in my office have been posed in non-heteronormative ways by my playful officemates!). You are right, of course, that certain exclusions accompany these capital-friendly and capital-necessitating practices, and in that respect I’d certainly refuse to celebrate them. But I’m interested in the fact that despite the power of capital, there are yet openings in its consumption systems for the non-normativity you seek. Not necessarily equal to or in excess of those offered by fan fic (I certainly couldn’t say), but the potential nonetheless for some kind of non-normativity unexpected and unwanted by capital. Capital does, as you say, have the ability to constrain ideological content, but it doesn’t have the power to fix it completely. I don’t know that consumption means taking an overdetermined text “as is.”

Further, I think that the question of value could be approached in a couple different ways. Is what makes a fan practice valuable from a socio-cultural standpoint the same as what makes it valuable to us as academics? You make a good point about the visibility accorded non-normative practices by the discussion of it in fan studies, but should fan studies only be concerned with studying the “good” fans? Collectors may be less valuable to a feminist set of research questions concerned with non-hetero communities, for example, but more valuable to more industrial (but perhaps equally feminist) questions about marketing and culture. Depending on our research questions, different fans might have different value to us.

But what really concerns me about the idea of either of us deciding what is valuable about fandom is our status as “acafans.” Despite our de-privileged status as fans in our off hours, we simultaneously enjoy heightened privilege as academics to speak with power about what kind of culture has value. If you’re writing about the kind of fan practices that you engage in, and I’m writing about the kinds of practices I know, and we’re both presenting them as “valuable,” I worry that what we’re doing is self-aggrandizing. Should we, as scholars who are also fans, be in a position to celebrate ourselves? To look at our own cultural tastes and practices and say that they are somehow superior to those of the less enlightened? Perhaps this will sound far too traditional, but I wonder how objective we can be in measuring the value of fandom when objectivity means considering the possibility that our own practices are not really too relevant.

AK: Perhaps I wasn’t clear, but my purpose was precisely to deconstruct the “resistance” monolith so that in any given case one can speak of a particular activity as resistant vis-à-vis one vector of power, but perhaps not another. Your action figure example was precisely what I had in mind as an activity which does not resist capital, but could potentially be enacted as a resistance to heteronormativity (and thus potentially resistant to the culture industry’s ability to control the ideological meaning of their products). Thus, defining action figure collecting as inherently “resistant” (or not), makes little sense to me without further specifying “Resistant to what?” and “Enacted in what manner, under what circumstances?” I’m interested in transforming and multiplying the basis upon which we ask about resistance (and value), rather than abandoning those questions altogether. This is a move toward an intersectional politics, as my frustration with celebrations of a given activity’s “resistance” or “complicity” results from underlying assumptions that power functions only, or most importantly, along one axis of domination.

While I allow that franchises and industry invest in multiplatforming to transform narrative devotion into sales, I’d have to say that isn’t my goal as a citizen, fan, or a consumer of narratives, nor is it my primary interest as an academic. Although I find studies which examine the industry’s efforts to use narrative affection to create sales vital in understanding the modern media environment, from which none of us can completely “escape” or “opt out” as it increasingly saturates everyday life, I’m much more excited by the ways that people creatively evade and challenge systems of capitalist consumerism. Thus, I place value in the studies, but from the perspective of a funky post-structuralist Marxist, not in the aspects of those activities which increase the culture industry’s ability set ideological agendas, or to subordinate more cultural and social space to market imperatives. Non-profit fan activities like fan fiction and vidding certainly cannot exist in a separate realm untainted by capital, as they depend upon mass mediated source narratives. Yet, I find their insistence upon free exchange important and hopeful in an era increasingly dominated by for-profit products fulfilling desires that communal fan-produced forums used to fill.

My study of Smallville as a locus of shared counter-cultural world making focused on the commonality that viewers construct by watching the program “against the grain.” Without looking at fan fiction, I analyze such activities as productive of forms of identity and community, as in the experiences of generations of gay men who began to articulate their closeted identity through superheroes’ secret identities. Thus, my division between “as is” and “creative” fans had less to do with dividing those who consume narratives from those who produce fan products, and more to do with different ways of being in relationship with canon, i.e. viewing canon as mutable on the one hand and viewing it as a closed system on the other.

With regard to academics’ ability to champion their own tastes, I find that I’m not concerned so long as one provides ample explanation for the origins and purpose of assigning value. My tastes, fan practices, theoretical investments, and political orientation all converge in slash, therefore I’ve attempted to explain to what ends (i.e. toward what desirable imagined world) I find slash useful, personally, culturally, and academically.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Thirteen, Part One):Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson

Biographies in Brief

AK: I’ve recently completed my PhD in the American Culture program of the University of Michigan. Combining ten years of cybermediated and embodied ethnography with a variety of cultural studies theory, my dissertation discusses micro and macro socio-political and identitarian implications of slash fan fiction’s construction of a multiple narrative space which sustains the co-presence of numerous possible “good lives.” This work builds on articles in the Journal of American Culture, also on slash fan fiction, and Refractory, on queer subtext and citizenship in Smallville. I’m particularly interested in the representational politics of sex in professional and fan produced works, as well as relationships between modern storytelling, public culture, and social systems.

As a fan I’ve always been firmly grounded in the arts and letters crowd, comprised primarily of fan fiction, vidding, and meta-commentary, to the point that I consider myself a fan of fan authors and artists moreso than a fan of any given professionally published source. Although my academic work specializes in slash and queer readings, I also have a forthcoming piece on heterosexual fan fiction in Harry Potter fandom and participate broadly in numerous fandoms and literary aesthetics. While I discuss my fan activities in my dissertation, I maintain separate on-line personas for my academic and fannish pursuits; in this series of discussions most of my limited participation has taken place on Livejournal in my personal/fan persona.

DJ: As a PhD candidate in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my dissertation combines formal analyses, political economy, fan studies, and media historiography to explore the organization of intellectual properties across platforms and over time as media franchises. What I’m most interested in is how the logic of franchising came to be used by industries and by audiences to organize media production and consumption, and how that use shaped cultural forms and practices. As a scholar, I don’t necessarily place myself within fan studies proper; I certainly draw from and contribute to its discussions, but since the research questions I explore don’t always pertain to fans, I see myself as operating in other fields as well. This has certainly been a gradual development in my work–when I first began grad school I was much more interested in the study of fans for their own sake–but now I tend to ask questions about fans insofar as they are related to industries and texts, not as objects of study or a field in their own right (I’m not saying they can’t be or shouldn’t be; I’m just explaining my orientation towards fans in trying to understand the media franchise).

My status as a fan is also much more reflective of the experiences of Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson–a fan by some people’s definition, but not by others. My tastes and affection for properties like Battlestar Galactica, X-Men, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc grant me fan/geek status in the eyes of some, but according to some definitions of fandom centered on community and creative production circulating in this discussion, I would not so much count as a fan. Aside from one major exception (I co-founded a Star Trek mod for Starcraft back in the late 90s), I don’t participate in organized fandom. Some might say that if I’m a fan, my lack of socialization makes me a “feral” fan–though I don’t like the patronizing implication that I’m somehow in need of civilization by fan community.

Defining Fandom

DJ: That said, I’m not sure I have a better definition of fan practice available to clear up the confusion of my fan/not-fan status. This point, of course, has come up several times before in this ongoing discussion series, but it’s one that I think deserves revisiting. I’m neither satisfied by the idea that fandom has to involve community and creativity (which contradicts my identification as a fan) nor the idea that fandom can be placed within a natural continuum of engagements with media texts ranging from casual to avid consumption (ignoring the forces that shape what “causal” and “avid” mean) nor the idea everyone is in some way a fan (denying the social meanings articulated to the difference of being a “fan”).

Ultimately, my problem with our varying attempts to define fandom is an historical one. While I’ve been skeptical of the idea of fandom as an oppressed minority with a social alterity on the same level as the racially, gendered, or sexually de-privileged, an analogy to race seems rather useful here: whiteness has always existed, but at different points in time it has been defined in varying ways. Fandom, similarly, is a historically-contingent category. Fifteen years ago, for example, a look at the shelves in my living room would have at least strongly implied my status as a fan–who else but a fanatic would have an entire television series collected on video? Today, however, my practices as a media consumer probably don’t come off as bizarre and different. The growth of the television-on-DVD market, for example, has increasingly made a place for episode collections on the shelf of the average consumer who may just find it more economical or convenient to have them at their fingertips. While I don’t mean to suggest a technological determinism, I think it takes a little more nowadays for someone’s consumption practices to raise eyebrows–is slash fiction even as “out there” as it used to be?

In the end, the best definition that I can provide of fandom is that set of tastes and engagements with culture that is at any one point in time articulated to and pathologized as extreme or excessive consumption. Again, though I hesitate to grant fandom the status of oppressed minority (how often are fans the victims of violent hate crimes?), there remains in fandom at least the suggestion of social non-normativity or extremity. In lieu of defining fandom according to a certain set of practices, I’m suggesting that we look at the way fandom has been variably defined by social discourse in different historical moments and cultural contexts.

So in my teaching I’ve recently introduced ideas about interpretation, discussion, community formation and audience activism, and the production of new texts in response to popular culture before making even the smallest use of the term “fan.” That way, my students are introduced to a range of possible engagements with the media, and we can interrogate the ways in which some of those practices are labeled as different or abnormal through the fan category. This helps the students to stop and think about what fandom is–rather than just assume we’re wasting a day talking about weirdos–because it points out to them the ways in which their own tastes and practices could just as easily be categorized as “out there”, depending on where that line is drawn.

AK: After the latest in an endless series of sensationalistic articles about so-called “slash porn,” yes, I’d say that slash is still pretty “out there.” However, I do take your point that definitions of fans must take historical and cultural context into account.

Yet my concern with the way academics define fans has less to do with separating fans from a “mundane” audience and more with the implied identitarian, behavioral, and psychological coherency that the term suggests. This discussion series has nicely highlighted a range of topics within fan studies, which I think implies a certain imperative to ensure that when one speaks of “fans” that the argument which follows could robustly apply to the full range of people and practices that the term purports to represent. Repeatedly I’ve found myself reading works in the academic and journalistic press only to realize that when the author explains that fans do, say, buy, or consume in one or another way, he or she simply isn’t talking about “my fans” at all

I think that your definition of fandom as extreme or excessive consumption offers an analytic lens for thinking about how society constructs and regulates (classed) taste cultures, but doesn’t offer a useful rubric for articulating individuals’ self-identification, normative fan practices, or those beyond the language of media or consumption. Rather, instead of attempting to enclose a master-category within which all fan activities fall, I’m more interested in clearly differentiating and limiting individual studies without allowing any one level of analysis to dominate the whole (for example, your definition would be much closer to my concept of “media fandom” than of “fans” writ large). While it makes sense to talk about the way that society constructs a notion of “the fan” as an out-group, I think it makes considerably less sense to study “fans” at a general level as, apart from a shared negotiation with shared cultural intuitions like the fan stereotype, individual micro-level studies of particular fan communities or practices often bear little relevance to each other and generalize poorly (i.e. knowing how fans in a crowded concert act doesn’t necessarily offer much insight into the way that on-line creative groups or individual collectors function).

I’m suggesting that while determining how dominant discourses define “fans” is possible within a given space and time, the sociological definition of “fans” is unanswerable in the abstract because there exist a multiplicity of localized answers whose specifics vary immensely. Even studying only slash fan fiction, I struggled to represent dialectics between the fluctuating denotation of the term slash and the enormously variable experiences, passions, and identifications at play for each individual involved.

DJ: We both agree, then, that the scholarly enterprise of studying fans should strive for contextualization and multiplicity, rather some unifying theory of fandom. We have to account not only for the way in which ideas, ideologies, and values attached to the idea of fandom change historically, but also the multiplicity of practices and identifications contained within that single, over-determined category. I really like that you’ve responded to my call for greater contextualization with a call for even more, because I too, when reading academic works that engage with the idea of fandom, often feel that the subjects being discussed are not “my fans” either. Recognizing the differences between fans is often difficult because the term “fan” so frequently denotes difference already (from the “mundane” audience, as you put it). Fans are so distinguished from general audiences (and increasingly, from non-fans and anti-fans) that it becomes easy to forget the diversity of practices contained within fandom. So I’d like to see the field of fan studies expand a bit to engage more with the kinds of fan practices we don’t hear about as much.

However, while I agree that my discursive definition of fandom is limited (indeed, still generalizing about a wide range of phenomena), I’m not sure that the social construction of fandom as a category isn’t still somewhat useful in trying to understand individuals’ practices and identifications as fans, since those processes don’t occur outside of social discourse. Identifying and calling one’s self a fan constitutes a negotiation of that cultural category. The category may be a social construct, but it does have real impact.

Your arguments about recognizing different kinds of fans and fan practices raises another important point in this regard: while fans tend to be socially marked as extreme and outside the norm, the significance attached to that difference can vary depending on exactly all the assorted types of fans you bring up. Some of my colleagues, for example, are huge indie rock fans, and claim solidarity with me and my television/video game/comic book fandom. They see parallels in the sense that people overhearing us talk about our different interests on the street might similarly raise eyebrows, but to me, our non-normative practices and taste cultures have very different social and cultural meanings. We’re all outliers relative to social norms, but knowledge of music will grant them access to a different set of cultural capital than my understanding of the differences between a Mark II Viper and a Mark VII. And if I were to build models of the Mark VII, that would be an even different story!

AK: I didn’t intend to imply that talking about normative constructions of “fans” as a social category lacks relevance, rather that negotiation with that term will happen at a personal rather than a macro level, and for me the process of negotiation, and thus the field, includes rejection by people who wouldn’t self-identify as fans or be interpolated by the social category – people for whom we culturally reserve other names, like “connoisseur,” aficionado,” or indeed “scholar,” seem to me equally relevant to fan studies as an academic unit as do more socially recognizable media fans.

Part of my interest, which I haven’t yet explored in my scholarship, lies in thinking about incredibly normative patterns of behavior as fannish, and thinking of normative fan behaviors, and indeed part of convergence seems to involve normalizing and mainstreaming fan activities. However, in addition to a notion of “excess,” I think fan studies offers a way into working through devotion and identity construction (particularly in relation to narratives) themselves. At the heart of fan studies are eternal human questions: Why do we love things? How do we define ourselves and find a place for ourselves within the on-going story of human imagination and society? I recognize that at a certain point opening “fan studies” to broader and broader topics of inquiry threatens to dilute the label beyond recognition, but using fan studies to think across eras, subjects, and disciplines offers considerable promise for interdisciplinary scholarship and a robust place for fan studies within the academy.

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The Getting of Wisdom or Orientation MIT Style

Sorry that the blog is getting very little of my attention this week. Yesterday is one of a small handful of days I have missed posting since I launched this blog sixteen months ago. But I have been very much in the business of orienting new students this week. This process takes over my life both at home (I am a housemaster in Senior House, an MIT dorm where we have no frosh and their parents arriving this week) and at the office (I am co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program).

On the home front, Senior House welcomes new students by dropping thousands of bouncy balls from the roof of our building while “Go Ask Alice” blares from the sound system and strobe lights flash in their faces. It can be a vaguely out of body experience but it captures the unexpected quality of life in this dorm. I put a fair amount of time this weekend getting to know some of the new students and more importantly trying to calm down their anxious parents. One of the neighboring dorm has a pair of cutting shears at their front desk where students check in with the note, “use these to cut the cord.” I know how painful it was for us to drive away and leave our son in a strange city for the first time, so I have great sympathy for such parents, but we also stress in our dorm that we as housemasters are not a second set of parents, that students are responsible for making their own decisions, and that most of the policies in the house originate from the community of student residents and are not imposed top down by administrators. One of our primary jobs is to try to insure that students have the space to make their own decisions, including make their own mistakes, within what has historically been a highly libertarian dorm culture.

Today, the new CMS graduate students arrive for a two day orientation process, designed to introduce them to both the academic and research side of the program. Today’s focus is on the academic side. Each of our students is asked to use a medium or media of their choice to prepare a brief introduction of themselves to their fellow classmates. We very much want their first experience in the program to be one which bridges between theory and practices and encourages them to reflect on both the nature of identity (how to express who they are to someone who doesn’t know them) and the nature of medium (how to creatively deploy the affordances of media to express some aspect of themselves). Students come with a wide array of different skills and experiences with media. Past presentations have included comic books, story boards, animated films, remix videos, chalk talks, costumed performances, power point presentations, sound mashups, and everything in between.

Another highlight of today’s events will be our book discussion. Each year, we choose a recent book in the field of media studies (or a sampler of recent articles) which we ask all of the students to read over the summer. The books are selected because they embody key themes or topics which shape our instructional and research efforts for the coming year. The books become a shared reference point for our community — in the weeks leading up to the student’s arrival and in the weeks that follow.

This year, we selected Charles R. Acland (ed.), Residual Media. If you read my work earlier this summer on retrofuturism and Dean Motter, you will know that I have already found this book to be a useful intellectual resource myself. As a program which deals so often in the space of New Media, we felt this book set the right tone for our students. The new focus on Residual Media gives us a more layered and dynamic picture of the process of media change, helping us to focus on the ways that the emergence of new media impacts the entire ecology of existing media technologies and practices. When one medium becomes new, it typically means that another medium becomes… well, old. The writers in this collection draw on a range of different theoretical models for thinking about the concept of residual media and for offering models for understanding the process of media in transition (including McLuhan, Williams, Innis, Benjamin, and others). We like the broadly comparative approach the contributors take — many of them discussing the range of media in place at a particular historical juncture — as well as the mix of very different media discussed across the different contributions. The Comparative Media Studies emphasizes an approach which thinks across media, across historical periods, across disciplines, and across national borders, and we see Acland and his contributors to be very much exploring this same space.

In case you are interested, previous year’s books have included Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media, Hamid Nafficy’s Home, Exile, Homeland, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins’s Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, Marie-Laurie Ryan’s Narrative Across Media:The Languages of Storytelling, and Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Each of these books makes a valuable contribution to the development of comparative perspectives in media studies. Taken as a whole, this list would represent a pretty good starter set of readings in our field.

Tomorrow, we will take our students on a tour of the various CMS research initiatives, before settling down for extended meetings within the research teams.

Orientation isn’t all hard work, though: our students will also enjoy a retro evening at a local 50s themed bowling ally tonight and tomorrow we are getting a tour of Boston’s newly finished Institute for Contemporary Art. I have to race off now to actually attend these sessions but I hope you’ve enjoyed this window into our orientation process. (It’s the only thing I have on my mind this week in any case so I couldn’t think of anything else to write about).

Two New Aca-Fen Blogs

The Blogging Bug seems to be taking root across the Aca-Fan universe. Today, I want to give a shout out to two recently launched blogs, both created by participants in this summer’s Gender and Fan Culture conversations, both dealing with topics which will be of interest to a fair cross section of my readers.

The first is Graphic Engine, which describes itself as a blog about “special effects, videogames, film and television.” Graphic Engine reflects the ruminations and speculations of Bob Rehak, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Swarthmore College. I have known Rehak since he was a masters student at the University of North Carolina doing work on avatars, first person shooters, and psychoanalysis. He recently finished up a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University, where his research centered around special effects. I had the pleasure of featuring some of his work on special effects, the Star Trek blueprints, and early fan culture as part of a panel I put together on Convergence and Science Fiction for last year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. (This panel also featured Beth Coleman on Machinima and A Scatter Darkly; Geoffrey Long on transmedia storytelling, negative capability, and the Hensons; and Robert Kozinets on Star Trek fan cinema and branding cultures). We’ve long known that there was a male technically oriented fandom around Star Trek whose history parallels that of the female fanzine community; I touched on some aspects of this fan culture in my chapter on Star Trek at MIT in Science Fiction Audiences, but Rehak’s work really takes us deep inside that world.

The Star Trek research is part of a much larger reconsideration of the social and cultural history of special effects. His new blog seems first and foremost about the cultural dimensions of special effects — including attention to the effects industry and its fans, as well as to the economic, technical, and aesthetic factors that shape the place of special effects in the contemporary media landscape. Consider, for example, this passage from an early post about watching the recent Harry Potter film in 3D IMAX:

I already knew that, as with Superman Returns, only a portion of Phoenix would be 3D. What surprised me was how explicitly this was made clear to spectators, both as a matter of publicity and in ad-hoc fashion. Warnings were taped on the ticket window: ONLY THE LAST 20 MINUTES OF HARRY POTTER ARE IN 3D. The man who tore my ticket told me the same thing, in a rote voice, as he handed me the yellow plastic glasses. As the lights went down, a recorded announcement reiterated the point a third time, except in a tone of awe and promise: “When you see the flashing icon at the bottom of the screen, put on your glasses, and prepare to enter the spectacular world of Harry Potter in an amazing action climax” was the gist of it.

All this tutoring, not just in the timing of the glasses, but the proper level of anticipation! Calibrating the audience’s reactions, indeed their perceptions, stoking the excitement while warning us not to get too excited. It went hand-in-hand with the promos for the Imax format itself, playing before the film and describing the awesome fidelity and sensory intensification we were about to experience. It seemed odd that we needed such schooling; aren’t 3D and giant-screen technologies about removing layers of mediation?

But of course that’s naïve; the most basic theory of cinematic spectacle reminds us that special effects (and Imax 3D, like sound, color, widescreen, and other threshold bumps, is a kind of meta-special-effect, an envelope or delivery system for smaller, more textually specific clusters of effects) function both as enhancements of illusion’s power and as a reminder of the technology involved in bringing the illusion to us. At the movies, we’re perfectly capable of believing in what we see while also believing in (and celebrating) its constructed nature; this is as true of special effects as it is of the editing that strings together a story, or our perception of Albus Dumbledore as being simultaneously the headmaster of Hogwarts and a performance (of subtle strength, in this case) by Michael Gambon.

This early piece turns out to be simply the prelude to a series of posts which explores how Harry Potter (the book series) is being “transcoded” into a film franchise. Here, for example, he builds on some comments that Jason Mittell has made about the ways Deathly Hollows throws down a challenge to filmmakers:

One now reads Harry Potter with the movies in mind, accompanying the print with at least sporadic visual associations distilled from the films’ contents. Many sequences in Deathly Hallows struck me as excessively cinematic, tilted toward some future storyboard: one minor instance comes early in the book, when characters encounter a roomful of colorful paper airplanes that are really interoffice memos in the Ministry of Magic. Maybe because I had just seen Order of the Phoenix, which memorably gives form to the Ministry and its darting airborne memos, the book’s scene immediately “read” in cinematic terms. But would I have had this sensation even without seeing any of the movies? Is it possible that Rowling is just that good, that descriptive, a writer?

I’m not saying any of this is a bad thing; indeed, I’m excited to witness the gigantic syncopated rhythms of a vastly profitable and popular media system that coordinates its printed and filmic incarnations with the grace of those balletic paper airplanes. But I do think we need to carefully dissect the processes involved in the transcoding – in the visualization – and suggest that special visual effects are a central place to begin the investigation.

He has promised a forthcoming entry focused on how the cover art and chapter illustrations of Mary GrandPre “both set a visual agenda for the stories and mutate in step with the movies’ casting decisions and production design.” As a Potter fan, I look forward to reading more of Rehak’s thoughts on the franchise, alongside other interesting posts which describe his encounter with the Enterprise model at the Smithsonian Institute, his thoughts about the career of makeup artist William Tuttle (who recently passed away), or reactions to Laura Mulvey’s essay, “The Culmsy Sublime.” Along the way, he includes some thoughts on the aesthetics and psychology of computer game design and on his preparations for teaching a film history class.

Stranger 109 explores the intersections of “gaming, culture, and technology,” with a strong focus on the Machinima movement. Robert Jones, a Ph.D candidate at New York University, has launched the blog as an extension of his dissertation research. Jones describes his research project this way:

My research spans over numerous topics in the videogame world. As a cultural critic, I approach the ways in which games function in our daily lives: socially, politically and economically. My dissertation focuses specifically on how all these aspects converge on the videogame subculture known as Machinima. As an extension of both hacking and modding culture, machinima presents a unique form of transformative play and a new way of understanding gamers as cultural producers. With the expansion of what has become known as Web 2.0 Culture, we increasingly live in a world defined by tool sets that enable consumer production. As a decade old phenomenon, machinima’s appropriation of videogame engines as filmmaking tool sets represents a precursor to this trend that offers a rich historical insight ripe for investigation. In addition, I am also very interested in how the videogame medium functions as a potential tool of political communication in either its traditional interactive game or machinima forms.

There is so much machinima being produced today that it is helpful to have someone like Jones spotlight interesting and innovative work and provide interviews with important creators working in this space. Jones takes seriously the potentials of games as a medium, as is suggested by his recent discussion of Danny Ladonne’s controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG:

Despite gaming’s new found acceptance within mainstream culture, it has yet to find a place of legitimacy as a means of serious expression. Whereas Bowling for Columbine was championed by many as an important reflection on the Littleton tragedy, SCMRPG was seen as trivializing the event. So the content of the game becomes completely irrelevant simply because it occurs within the context of a game. And this poses the biggest hurdle for games as political expression. If you have not had a chance to play through the game, I would recommend doing so. Play it not because it is enjoyable (because it most certainly is not), but because Ladonne consructs a text that forces the player to consider other possible explanations than Klebold and Harris were simply monsters. Whereas most of the negative responses suggest that the game celebrates the tragedy, playing through reveals a thoughtful engagement of what should only be considered as a complex issue.

Jones has adopted a stance which allows him to document and defend the ambitions of machinima and serious games producers alike, while also raising questions about the sometimes dubious creative decisions shaping the mainstream games industry. We see this later perspective in a very interesting recent post supporting the charges of racism which have been leveled against a recently released trailer for Resident Evil 5, depicting a white man’s encounter with a primitive African tribe. So often, such debates pit cultural critics who know about the history of racial representations with fan defenders who know and respect genre conventions. But, because Jones writes as a fan, he knows how to use genre history to sharpen and nuance the criticisms leveled against the preview:

As one of the most well-respected franchises within the genre of Survival Horror, Resident Evil takes its roots in the cinematic tradition of the zombie films pioneered by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Released in 1968, the film provided a rather poignant critique of the racial tensions in the United States. Often overlooked as “monster movies,” the racial allegories that played out in Romero’s films called attention to the issues of black representation in film at the time. The films were unique in their use of African-American protagonists who become the heroes of the films, saving white people from the “white” zombies. Metaphorically, becoming a zombie embodies the internalization of racist ideologies. Part of the commentary made by Romero here is that as a single individual, racism is not too hard to fight. As with the zombies, the strength lies in numbers. So for Romero, the infection that one zombie passes onto its victims and transforms them into zombies demonstrates the danger of racism and how it works.

Fastforward 40 years and the racial landscape in the United States has improved tremendously; however, as Resident Evil 5‘s trailer and mixed response would indicate, we are far from any sort of Colors of Benetton racial utopia. Platt’s main issue with the trailer is a valid one. It clearly recreates racial stereotypes of Africans as savage peoples who need to be saved from themselves by White men. So the tragic twist in this latest iteration of Resident Evil is that while the franchise borrows from a film genre rooted in social critiques of racism, it devolves into an even older genre of film notorious for its horrific depiction of Blackness as savage and Whiteness as rational: the colonial adventure films. Simba (1955), which depicts the Mau-Mau rebellion that took place in Kenya, embodies this genre and the way it portrays blacks as the dangerous ‘other,’ while valorizing the colonial attempt to provide salvation to these savage people. The images from the game seem to at least echo this from what I have seen.

While it may be unfair to pass judgement on RE5 based solely on the trailer, the issue of representation of African-Americans in gaming has been one that has gone long unexamined. So when fanboys attack Platt’s concerns by saying that no one had any problem with the previous RE‘s because the zombies were largely white, they are missing the larger media history in which this game sits. Because African-Americans have largely been relegated to secondary roles in film, with considerably fewer roles in total, the few representations they do get often portray them in limited capacities, often depicted as the cause of the problem as in the case of Simba. Whites, on the other hand, benefit from a myriad of representations and are not necessarily hurt by any single negative depiction.

But what concerns me more about the RE5 trailer is that it fits within most of the games that we see come out each week in that we are once again provided a white hero to play, which to me is the biggest way that gaming further perpetuates the racial intolerance we continue to suffer from. As an African-American man, you get to be either an athlete or gangster in the vast majority of games. So like film once had to overcome the racial barrier, so too does gaming. Much of this comes out of the lack of material representation of people of color on the level of development. Since the average game designer is a white male of 32 years of age, the lack of racial diversity in playable characters is no surprise. Only once we had more Black directors did we see a change in the film landscape. As gaming continues to grow and become even more a part of Black culture can we even hope this trend will change.

I am constantly on the look out for other aca-fen blogs. Let us know what you are reading or writing these days.

Gender and Fan Culture (Round Twelve, Part Two): Catherine Driscoll and Matt Hills

And Matt’s Half-dozen Questions:

1. To what extent are other cultural differences as significant as gender when thinking about the forces that act on fandom and fan studies? Should we be debating class identities and fandom here, for example?

CD: It seems clear to me that the significance of gender as a factor in fan experiences, fan identities, fan practices and fan communities depends a great deal on what we’re discussing. For example, gender is crucial to a HPslash fan’s experiences, identities, practices and communities in a way that’s not necessarily true for a YouTube/MySpace-member who’s a fan of The Decemberists. I’m not saying gender is ever irrelevant or even unimportant, but there are clearly degrees of importance. Or intensities, if you like. I think when we talk about “fandom” without acknowledging those differences we do it a disservice. Moreover, identity categories are far from the only factors that affect fandom. Taste, education and various types of literacy, for example, might be more important terms for thinking about what intensities matter to being part of some fandoms or fan communities than gender or class (and no I don’t think taste, education and literacy can be reduced to class any more than to gender).

So I’m for being careful about what sort of fan practice we’re talking about before we set up gender as the/a prime structuring principle. But even when gender is obviously crucial I still worry about being too structuralist about it. Let’s say I belong to a particular HPslash-centric fan subcommunity – what and how gender matters to me, to what I produce, to that subcommunity, to its place in that fandom and relation to other fandoms is still a slippery and changeable thing. Gender will always be important, but not always in the same way, even just for me. Moreover, gender won’t be important as something produced in “the world” and then responded to by me, my subcommunity, my fandom, but will be something we are helping to produce in not at all homogenous ways. If someone called me to account for exactly why I think gender is such an interesting way to approach fan communities it would be for the shifting slippery ways gender is produced by fan communities – sometimes as the grounds for their existence in the first place but in many other ways too. I could use the word dialectic here, as long as I get to mess with what it means.

When it comes to “fan studies” I think the question of how gender matters is very different and I think it’s a serious mistake to confuse the two. Of course gender is a factor in all academic hierarchies, but I don’t think the gendering of the academic hierarchy within fan studies is noticeably different than in most other areas of cultural/media studies. There are areas of “fan studies” where being a woman or being invested in gender as a conceptual tool are an advantage, and areas where they are not. I’m inclined to think it matters most as a methodological issue. Just trying to imagine how different my experience would be as a researcher if I presented myself as a man in any fandom I’ve studied is a little mind-boggling, not because of any enormous difference in how my work would be received – though I don’t doubt there would be some difference, most of which would also come down to questions of method – but because of how I would be interacting with those fans. The fandoms I’ve studied have been dominated by women and intensely aware of and reflective on that dominance, so my being and presenting myself as a woman is a crucial element of how my research proceeds.

I think certain tendencies for women studying fan cultures may be becoming entrenched as primarily of interest to women and primarily about women, but I don’t actually think those were shaped by the state of academic life per se but by the way the existing scholarship on fandoms/fans has been circulated. It seems almost a default now that working with fanfiction is to work in a particular type of “women’s studies” that has always been perceived as academic work primarily done by women, and always positioned as slightly marginal because overly invested in its own identity politics. It’s interesting to see the old debates about “women’s studies” being played out in fan studies along lines that aren’t all that radically different to how they used to be played out in “literary studies”. I think that debate can still be interesting, but if we let the line between that discussion and the one about how gender matters to fans become too blurred then I think we lose the value of both.

MH: I agree that it remains important to think carefully and to an extent separately about the gendering in/of specific fandoms and the gendering in/of ‘fan studies’, insofar as this exists (since, as you point out, some of the work being done about fandom may often occur within or in relation to different academic subcommunities). And I feel that it would be (is?) a very real problem if certain types of work are becoming identified as primarily about, or primarily of interest to, women. Fanfic, whether it is slash or not, is something that has historically been of interest to those studying types of media fandom. My sense from lecturing and teaching on the subject is that actually, despite some mainstreaming of fan practices, the activity of creating fanfic – and most especially slash – is still viewed as somehow ‘odd’ or disreputable by both right-leaning and left-leaning students. It remains, in cultural common-sense or the cultural imaginary, something that students typically view with disdain, even those who are active fans in a variety of other ways. And this devaluing of fanfic is partly linked to gender lines – to the disparaging of feminised cultural sites and spaces – but it is also linked to what might be termed reactionary views on intellectual property, and to possibly even more ingrained concepts of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’ (as well as reactionary views of sexuality in some instances). To assume that any and all of these issues are primarily of interest only to women seems peculiar in the extreme. These are surely feminist-inflected (though not only that) concerns for any version of cultural studies and theory that remains interested in issues of cultural power – and for me, even if this is a ‘game of greys’ – I really liked your phrase to encapsulate that – then it’s still a serious game, and it’s still important to try to ascertain the different shades of grey involved.

I also agree that the importance of gender can’t just be taken for granted, or assumed in advance, and hence that this remains an empirical question for fandoms and practitioners of fan studies. I guess my question was really trying to put a whole set of other cultural differences on the agenda, because one of my feelings about this debate has been, and still is, that where academic communities are potentially divided by a form of cultural difference (i.e. gender) then that difference can tend to become highly visible. Hence this whole ‘boy’/’girl’ thing. But at the same time, where other cultural differences may not be as prevalent as lines of division or tension within academia (I’d hazard the guess – and this is purely speculation – that the vast majority of those writing ‘fan studies’ are broadly “middle-class”) then this academic sameness produces analytical silence. Why aren’t we all up in arms about issues linked to class? That’s really my question. Is it because we live in classless societies? Is it hell. And I’m still reading texts on fandom which mutter about a lack of work on ethnicity and fandom too – why? Relative cultural sameness in the academy producing yet more silence? Probably. Getting worked up about one specific axis of cultural difference – and I am absolutely not denying the importance of thinking about gendered differences – may nevertheless be an indirect and unintended outcome of the cultural identities at stake for those taking part in the debate. May be Henry and others will organise blog debates on ‘fandom and class’ or ‘fandom and ethnicity’ next time out, who knows. My sense is that along with the variant intensities (nice word!) of gender, we still need to dwell with equal time, energy, and intellect on other axes of difference and cultural identity.

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Gender and Fan Culture (Round Twelve, Part One): Catherine Driscoll and Matt Hills

I think the format of these exchanges calls for us both to introduce ourselves to the blog’s readers. So, we are Catherine Driscoll and Matt Hills, paired up for the purposes of this debate by Henry’s magical ‘fan studies and gender’ discussion-partnering machine. Here’s a bit more information about each of us, and how we came to be interested in fan studies:

CD: I’m currently Chair of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. I first became interested in fan cultures while writing my first book, Girls (Columbia UP, 2002), which discussed scholarly and popular images of girls as fans and fans as girls. Since then I’ve written essays on fanfiction for Helleksen & Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006) and Jane Glaubman’s forthcoming collection on the Harry Potter fandom. While my forthcoming Modernist Cultural Studies (University Press of Florida, 2008) is more interested in the practices and ideas that made fan cultures possible than in fans themselves, Broadcast Yourself: Presence, Intimacy and Community Online – which I’m co-writing with Melissa Gregg at the University of Queensland – uses online fan practices as a key example for thinking about online culture today.

MH: I’m currently a Reader in Media & Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, and my first published book was Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002). This was based on my 1999 doctorate from Sussex University, which in turn came about in part because I’d been a fan of various media texts, especially Doctor Who, since the age of about three.

Most things I’ve done since the PhD have had some relationship to fandom and fan studies, especially my books The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum 2005) and How To Do Things With Cultural Theory (Hodder-Arnold 2005). I’m working on a number of books at present, and the next to be delivered will be Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century (Tauris, 2008).

***

So, having set out that very brief bit of context, we’ve decided to offer ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’ by virtue of each of us posing six questions that we wanted to ask of fandom and/or fan studies at this moment in time. These questions were deliberately designed to be as open as possible, and to spark discussion. They don’t always refer directly to issues of gender, though they frequently give rise to reflections on that theme. Having each set six questions, we then let the other respond to them before taking the opportunity, in turn, to enter into a dialogue on the thoughts and arguments that had been thrown up. It would be fair to say that each of us has some hesitancy about being fully ‘committed’ in print, and for all posterity, to what we say here, and each of us wrote this material and responded to it under time pressures. But no doubt these things will have been true for almost all participants in this series, so in the final analysis, we can hardly claim any special indulgences or allowances.

Catherine’s Six Questions:

1. What is at stake in the way that fan studies either directly or by default returns to assessing degrees of resistance (or, by inference, conformity)? The words for this may change, such as talking about fan creativity rather than resistance per se, but there continues to be a fan studies investment in laying claim to something that amounts to social value in hierarchical oppositional terms where the opposite of creative/resistant/whatever seems taken for granted. Are we still thinking Culture Industry, or is it something else?

MH: My sense is that this has started to shift a bit, as both my own Fan Cultures and Cornel Sandvoss’s Fans have critiqued the ‘resistance’ paradigm, and of course Abercrombie and Longhurst were doing that long before either of us, in Audiences. And as Henry likes to point out from time to time, he was hardly without ambivalence in relation to what’s been termed the ‘Incorporation/Resistance Paradigm’. I think that this mode of thinking is very ingrained though, as it has formed a key part of cultural studies’ sense of its own distinctive project and identity, the fact that it (and supposedly it alone) was able to read for ‘resistance’, or assess the cultural politics of primary texts and audiences’ responsive, tertiary texts. Christine Scodari, for example, has strongly argued that fan studies should still very much be about this assessment and valorization of specific fan practices, viewing my position in Fan Cultures as an abdication of cultural studies’ and fan studies’ ‘proper’ responsibilities, I think. It is as if challenging the IRP is sometimes assumed to mean throwing out the baby, bathwater, and probably the whole bath with them.

But I continue to think that we need to find ways out of the “Culture Industry = Badness; Some ‘resistant’ fan activities = Goodness” binary. Because it does still seem to occasionally be about finding strangely clear lines of division – what I’d call a ‘moral dualism’ – as if post-structuralism never ever happened. Alan McKee’s work has charted one useful pathway, to my way of thinking, by refusing to treat ‘the Culture Industry’ as that evil, old monolith, and instead starting from the idea that industry producers can have cultural politics and cultural theories too. And that these aren’t just markers of ‘academic’ cultural distinction and identity versus ‘the Industry’.

In any case, changes within ‘the Culture Industry’ itself, moving in the direction of convergence and digital interactivity, mean that some of our views of ‘resistance’ really need further updating and revision. Will Brooker wrote about this some time ago in a piece in IJCS reflecting on Dawson’s Creek fans, whose online fan activities could sometimes be interpreted as being almost ‘programmed’, pre-structured or directly facilitated by ‘the Industry’. But even if this means that some fan activities blur together ‘resistant’ and ‘conformist’ elements, I suppose there’s still a reinscription of that binary “proper resistance” versus “co-opted resistance” lurking somewhere. It is such a tough pattern of thought to shift.

May be thinking about ‘the Culture Industry’ and thinking about fan ‘resistance’ (or not) shouldn’t be so closely articulated. Uncoupling or de-articulating them might open a few more interesting pathways of scholarly thought: do some groups of fans ‘resist’ some of the normative identities linked to ‘what it means to be a fan’, for instance, within their own communities? Some fan communities may be de-Politicized, and others may not be, such that ‘resistance’ might be directed at targets other than ‘the Culture Industry’. There may even be forms of fan ‘resistance’ to the ‘textual poaching’ of academics – with not all of this resistance to multiple Others being clearly progressive or reactionary. The real problem with articulating ‘resistance’ and ‘Culture Industry’ paradigms, for me, is that we end up with not only very one-dimensional and thin depictions of cultural heroes and villains, but also that we end up with equally one-dimensional representations of cultural power, rather than perceiving ‘resistance’ as happening internally, within both ‘the Industry’ and ‘fan communities’, and even ‘in’ the academy in a variety of ways. I tried to develop this sort of decentred Certeauian and multiple approach in an article for Social Semiotics in 2005, in fact, in a meta-theoretical sort of vein.

CD: Yes it’s true that many people have now paid attention to the problems involved in assessing fan activities and identities in terms of resistance, and yet I feel as if resistance has been mostly displaced by less political synonyms for the same opposition. I guess that means that I agree there’s something ingrained and thus very hard to shift about such a pattern of thought. Cultural studies does have a longstanding attachment to seeing something other than “the mass” in “the popular”. But as it gets taken up in the terrain of fan studies (and cultural studies work on fans is pretty much as old as cultural studies itself) I feel as if “resistance” has remained such an attractive distraction from paying attention to the diversity of what goes on amongst fans that I’m constantly tripping over new forms of it.

Yes, I think the answer is to have something other than an oppositional understanding whereby we just reverse which side of the binary is good and which is bad, but I don’t just want to play a game of greys either, where such an opposition is reinforced but there’s good and bad to be found on either side. Nor do I want to reinforce that opposition by showing how the (still separated) sides speak to one another. Instead, I would like to pay attention to the ways in which fans don’t need to have a project or even a focused antagonism or call to arms in order to do something interesting. In which their relation to cultural forms is not perceived through an opposition between producers and consumers/users. That obviously misrepresents a range of important things, but in order to try and shake off the ingrained response I feel it’s a worthwhile experiment.

I like many of your questions here, therefore, it’s just that I don’t see them being asked very often except as an aside to more expected discussions of resistance. So in my experiment I’d like to do away with any and all talk of resistance or subversion when thinking about fans – just to see what happens. Nina Busse and I once had an exchange about fandom being “not_subversive” that even resulted in a community with that name, but it was mainly a place marker for academic conversation rather than a fan community. Since then I’ve tried just abandoning the resistance/conformity questions when talking about HP fanfiction communities and was a little surprised to find that fan audiences seem to understand and appreciate that a lot more than academic ones. Some fan communities have an investment in being “subversive”, but even when they do they’re marking that out as something that differs from most fans. I’m not saying fans are “conformist”, or more conformist. I’m saying the question is not at all to the point at this time.

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The New Mr. Spock?

I am being forced to relive the 1960s as journalists seek ways to describe my work. Last year, Howard Rhinegold dubbed me “the 21st century McLuhan,” a comment my publishers felt compelled to put on the front cover of Convergence Culture. And I’ve been hit again and again ever since with questions about my relationship to McLuhan.

Short answer: McLuhan and I differ in our conceptual starting points. McLuhan starts from the communications technology to explain its potential impact on society (his famous “the medium is the message”) where-as I tend to start from the culture and focus on how social agents redefine technologies through their uses. McLuhan was important to me, however, in so far as he paved the way for comparative perspectives on media (moving us beyond medium specific debates which had limited the discussion in my opinion) and in that regard, he ranks alongside Harold Innis and Ithiel DeSola Pool in terms of being a founding figure in Comparative Media Studies.

McLuhan also provides me with a role model: he was someone who was willing to talk with media corporations and policy makers alike in his efforts to shape his culture; he was deeply invested in the concept of media literacy; he was a public intellectual who saw the value of engaging with the news media and with the public in an attempt to make his ideas more widely accessible; he was the head of a center which brought together intellectuals across many different disciplines; and he was someone who constantly experimented with new media platforms, including newsletters, records, video, and photographi collages, in his effort to spread his ideas more widely. These are all goals I try to embrace in my own work, though so far, I haven’t been interviewed in Playboy, been the subject of jokes of Laugh-In, or made a cameo appearance in a Woody Allen movie. :-)

This past week, the analogy shifted with Stephanie Olsen from ZDNet News calling me “The Internet’s New Dr. Spock.” I was initially bemused by the comparison, especially since most of what I had said during the interview about Spock had ended up on the cutting room floor. But I was even more amused by the fact that several people out there responding to the interview have confused Dr. Benjamin Spock, the leading child advice writer of the 20th century, with Mr. Spock, the Vulcan first officer on board the Enterprise on the classic Star Trek series. Talk about generational differences in perspective!

Here are some comments from the Talk Back section following the article:

….Doctor Spock?

I thought it was Mister Spock and Doctor McCoy??

***********************************************************************

Aye, Aye Scotty!

Reader post by: Commander_Spock

Story: The Internet’s new Dr. Spock?

Prepare To Beam Us Up For This Debate!

On Board Enterprise Warp.

Commander_Spock

Of course humans are not the only ones to make such confusions. The ad words that cropped up spontaneously on one site which mirrored the article pointed consumers towards a range of Star Trek related products, including, no joke, rubber Spock ears.

Leonard Nemoy struggled his whole career with people who confused Dr. and Mr. Spock, a confusion which normally resulted in an arch of his eyebrow. As it happens, I have written extensively both about Mr. Spock, through my work on Star Trek fans, and about Dr. Spock, through an essay I published in the Children’s Culture Reader.

For the purposes of identification as this discussion continues, this is a photograph of Mr. Spock from Star Trek:

4134-25.jpg

And this is a photograph of Dr. Spock, the child rearing expert and anti-war protester:

dr_benjamin_spock.jpg

As it happens, there is a NEW Mr. Spock, as Entertainment Weekly reported a few weeks ago: Zachary Quinto, the actor who plays Sylar on Heroes, was recently cast to play the young Mr. Spock in the next Star Trek film which is being produced by J. J. Abrams.

heroes_l.jpg

I have been having fun imagining what readers thought Stephanie Olsen meant when she compared me to Mr. Spock: Is it some kind of comment about my logical mind, my (hardly) stoic attitudes, my commitment to “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” the fact that every seven years I go into Pon Farr, my lust for Jim Kirk, or some other aspect of the television character’s personality which escapes me. Of course, I always fancy my job as going where no humanist has gone before, so there may be some resemblence to THAT Spock after all! :-)

It occurs to me reading such comments that it would be useful to spend a moment explaining who Dr. Spock was for a generation which may have grown up without his sage guidance or seems to have no clue who he was.

Wikipedia provides a pretty good summary of Benjamin Spock’s life and work:

Benjamin McLane Spock (May 2, 1903 – March 15, 1998) was an American pediatrician whose book Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, is one of the biggest best-sellers of all time. Its revolutionary message to mothers was that “you know more than you think you do.” Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children’s needs and family dynamics. His ideas about childcare influenced several generations of parents to be more flexible and affectionate with their children, and to treat them as individuals, whereas the previous conventional wisdom had been that child rearing should focus on building discipline, and that, e.g., babies should not be “spoiled” by picking them up when they cried.

I wrote an extensive discussion of Spock’s work for my book, The Children’s Culture Reader, and that essay is reproduced on line for anyone who’d like to read it. Essentially, this article argues that Spock was one of a generation of post-war children’s advocates who began to reassess the power relations between adults and children and who also helped the society come to grips with Freud’s discoveries about infantile sexuality. I argue in the essay that this post-war parenting advice prefigures and predates later discussions of adult sexuality in important ways:

The recognition of children’s sexuality as a positive, rather than as a negative, force led to a close examination of how parents should respond to and facilitate children’s erotic awakenings. Children, so often, in our culture become the bearers of our own utopian fantasies for a better world. In this case, the world which was being envisioned was a world without erotic inhibitions, a world which was open to sexual pleasure and free from guilt and negative self-images.

By looking closely at children, their bodies and their desires, permissiveness developed an ideology about sexuality which helped to prepare the way for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. First, sex was rendered “wholesome,” natural, biologically necessary, and in the process, old superstitions and moral prohibitions were pushed aside. Second, sex was stripped of its ties to procreation, with the child’s masturbatory exploration of its own body and its pursuit of pleasure assuming positive values in and of themselves. Third, healthy sensuality extended to the entire body and not simply the genitals. The child’s polymorphous eroticism was to be retained in adult life as a new and more vivid form of sexual experience. Fourth, pleasure was seen as beneficial, necessary, and the body was depicted as knowing its own needs. The body doesn’t lie; if it feels good, it can’t be bad. Fifth, all aspects of life, especially learning and creativity, assumed an erotic dimension, as practices of re-direction and sublimation transformed sexual energies into other kinds of activities, and the desire to explore the world was understood as primarily sensual in origins. We know through our senses, and as a result, we should awaken our senses to the broadest possible range of experiences. Sexual frustration and perversion were seen as resulting from boredom and understimulation. Sixth, sexual openness within the domestic sphere was viewed as positive, including some “healthy” interplay between parents and children, yet sex was, by its design, a private act, which should be performed behind closed doors and held in check by public expectations. Morally charged concepts, such as “sin” or “guilt,” were gradually displaced by socially-directed concepts, such as “privacy” and “propriety.” Most of these conceptions of eroticism would become core tenants of the self-help books or liberation literature of the sexual revolution; they would become the common wisdom of a generation which sought to expand the place of recreational sex within American life and to prolong the period of childhood sexual experimentation into a richer, fuller erotic life as adults.

So, what does this have to do with my work on youth and digital media? Not a lot. I am a media scholar, not a pediatrician or child pyschologist. But for the baby boom generation, Spock functions as short hand for all advice literature for parents. In practice, Spock himself was deeply distrustful of mass media even though he himself used the media very effectively to get his advice out to parents. Subsequent children’s advice writers have tended to say very little about media or reduce their advice to parents to what I call the “just say no to Nintendo” position. That is, good parenting comes through restricting access to media: keep it out of the children’s bedrooms; limit the number of hours.

I would argue, however, that parents have a constructive role to play in actively shaping young people’s relations to media, helping them learn skills which will allow them to meaningfully participate in the new media landscape and develop a healthy, ethical, creative, and intellectually engaged pattern of media use. As I wrote in Technology Review several years ago, media literacy begins at home and parents have an active role to play in insuring that children acquire the core social skills and cultural competencies needed to become full participants in the emerging media culture.

It is not even clear that there could be a Spock of the Internet Age. Spock’s books emerged within the context of a consensus culture; they were being read at a period of mass migration in which the dominance of the extended family was breaking down as children moved away from their hometowns as they started their own families and thus needed a different form of advice than their parents had required. Spock’s books were read by almost everyone in the society where-as today’s market for advice literature is increasingly fragmented, responding to a multicultural society with many different definitions of what a family is and what values should shape the interactions between parents and children.

But if we look at what Spock said in his books, we might construct some core principles of what advice to parents would look like:

1. Spock felt that parents should remain calm and trust common sense to get them through most problems. In the case of the Internet, parents would do better to try to find analogies between what occurs online and other more traditional forms of activities. So, in what ways is hanging out in MySpace like the teen haunts of previous generations? In what ways is joining a guild in a multiplayer game like signing up for sports? In what ways is Live Journal like writing for the school newspaper? And so forth. These analogies would only get us so far but starting from an idea of radical difference may cause parents to freak out about every aspect of their teen’s online lives rather than focusing on real points of conflict or weighing risks and benefits of certain activities.

2. Spock worked hard to insure popular access to the latest thinking of academic experts. We’ve already argued that he was a popularizer of Freud and psychoanalysis; he also helped to bridge between cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead and the American public. He wanted to insure that parenting was governed by reason and reliable information rather than having parents strike out blindly. He wanted parents to see their jobs in a larger social and cultural context and that’s something which could help contemporary parents find the right solutions for their own families.

3. Spock taught parents to respect their children and see them as citizens within a democratic society rather than subjects of a totalitarian regime. Permissive child rearing doctrines then and now got a bad reputation because people imagined children as becoming tyrants and parents as reluctant to set limits. But Spock, in fact, shifted back and forth over time in his advice trying to counter both the authoritarian impulses of parenting in the immediate post-war period and the excesses of totally permissive parenting which came in its wake. Respecting children, listening to their point of view, but also providing leadership and governance within the family was at the heart of the social ballance he advocated. And that ballance is totally off at the moment where the internet is concerned. Some parents remain ignorant and indifferent of what their children are doing online, while others employ all kinds of surveillance tools to snoop on their kids. The key is, as I said in the interview, to watch their backs and not snoop over their shoulders. Parents need to engage children and youth in a process of reflecting on their own ethical choices and educating them about the risks they face as they move into this unfamiliar space. And that means adopting an informed perspective on the online world rather than acting in ignorance or fear. Spock’s advice literature helped another generation learn what it needed to know in order to confront the social transitions of the post-war society. A new Spock would need to give them the information they require to manage the cultural, economic, and technological transitions of our own era.

To borrow a line from Leonard Nimoy, I am not Spock. I suspect there never will be another Dr. Spock given the fragmentation of our culture. But we can all learn things from Spock’s legacy which would help parents deal with some of the challenges they face right now.

The Power of “Collegial Pedagogy”: An Interview with Youth Radio (Part Two)

What kinds of skills and knowledge are young people acquiring through their involvement with the production of youth radio?

Response from Ayesha Walker, Online Project Associate. If you want to check out some of Walker’s work for Youth Radio, try “Bathing Ape”, Marketplace

and “From Blacksburg to Bay Area.”

I unconfidently discovered radio my sophomore year of high school at El Cerrito’s KECG station. I was determined to break through my introverted shell and find comfort behind

the microphone. Somehow in my senior year I was elected Director of Communications,

hosting my very own radio crew, playing my voice through every speaker in El Cerrito

high school. By the time my senior year came around, I fatefully stumbled across Youth

Radio. I studied all of the features and fell in love with web, photography and journalism.

As the new generation of technology users, today’s young people are trained here at

Youth Radio in exactly what we need and want: proficiency through technologically

advanced equipment in media production. Therefore we advance in the skills that already

belong to us.

We learn to magnify our personality with confidence, creatively generating authentic

work through the components that YR offers:

News and commentaries: young people write stories for local and national radio,

iTunes, and our own website

Music: young people learn to produce their own music through industry standard

computer software and also program music shows featuring a range of artists and styles

for terrestrial and web radio

Web: young people learn to produce and design youthradio.org

Video: young people learn to create videos for outlets ranging from PBS to

Current TV to YouTube

After learning what we want, we learn what to do with the skills we’ve acquired through the program. We either move up or move out. Young people evolve into an essential part of staff, guiding other young people in the right direction. Or we find work outside Youth Radio, sometimes even outside converged media, using the professional skills gained here.

Youth Radio has helped shape the minds and personalities of many young people around the Bay Area, making the road to success much more visible.

Throughout my time here at Youth Radio, I’ve worked on a mob of commentaries. But there’s one in particular I’m most proud of is called “Hood Sweet Hood.” It hasn’t aired on an outlet yet, but I’m proud of it because I feel I had the chance to clarify a few things that take place in the hood that most people outside of the ghetto wouldn’t understand.

At Youth Radio, I’ve learned to swallow my people-fearing ways and express myself. I’ve learned to write creatively to a broad audience. By helping to maintain and produce youthradio.org, I’ve learned to take professional quality photographs, to network, and most importantly, to have fun. I’ve learned to think more deeply about my actions, whether it’s buying from large corporations or just plain recycling. I’ve learned to speak properly on air. I’ve learned interviewing tactics–not from a book, even though I love books with all my mind, but from experience, which is the best teacher a student could ever have. Youth Radio has allowed me to sit in and help plan its future and my own.

And more on this question from Reina Gonzales, Youth Radio graduate and Associate

Producer. To sample Gonzales’s work, see “Military Deserters in Canada.”

I’ve been with Youth Radio since I was fifteen years old in a variety of roles. As a

student, I can say that the biggest impact Youth Radio had on me was that it gave me a

sense of direction. I learned what opportunities were out there for me and was then able

to decide what would bring me the most fulfillment.

As a peer teacher, I was surprised by how supportive and non- judgmental the students

were. In our weekly radio shows, I often saw the students struggle with writing or

on-air nerves, but in working together, they showed a sense of trust and mutual respect.

This was an experience completely opposite to the hostile environment I encountered in

high school.

As a youth reporter, I learned that writing ability on its own isn’t enough to produce

media that matters. I had to develop a more holistic approach to the stories I worked

on–thinking about all the possible ways I could tell them and always trying to consider

different points of view.

As a radio and video producer, I’ve seen students learn to adapt to the always-changing

media landscape by using new technologies and producing their stories across formats.

They also think about new ways to market themselves and their work using social

networks–all of which suggests they’re becoming just as good if not better than their

adult media professional counterparts.

[Read more...]

The Power of “Collegial Pedagogy”: An Interview with Youth Radio (Part One)

When I spoke at the National Media Education Conference in Saint Louis earlier this summer, I was approached by Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep and Ayesha Walker. Soep is the Research Director and Senior Producer f and Walker is an Online Project Associate for an organization called Youth Radio, which defines its mission as: “to promote young people’s intellectual, creative and professional growth through training and access to media and to produce the highest quality original media for local and national outlets.” As it happens, Soep is a regular reader of this blog and as it happens, because I like to listen to NPR and PRI podcasts when I walk every day, I had heard several of the segments her team had produced.

We immediately fell into an intense conversation about authorship in an age of collective intelligence and participatory culture and about what these shifts in the notion of participation and collaboration mean in the context of a program which is trying to “authorize” young people (that is, empower them to become authors.) That conversation convinced me that Soep and her gang had something to teach all of us about youth media production, the nature of radio as a medium, and the shifting construction of authorship in a digital age. And so I immediately asked her if I could do an interview with her and with the people who she is working with for my blog.

This is, in that sense, an unusual interview. Most of my interviews are with specific individuals; this is one of the few times we have done a collaborative interview. The answers which follow come from both youth and adult participants in the Youth Radio program. Such a process is the most appropriate way to capture what Soep calls “collegial pedagogy” — which depends on shifting the power relations between children and adults. (She says more about this concept below so I don’t want to pre-empt her comments.)

I have written here before about my reservations about the “digital natives/digital immigrants” terminology which has gained such circulation in recent years. When I first heard the terms, I thought they were powerful and I have since seen that power many times. They immediately give people a tool to think about something they are experiencing — some kind of generational shift in the ways that young people and adults relate to these emerging technologies. But it is a power we should use selectively since these terms also distort many aspects of the phenomenon that they seek to describe. There are at least three major distortions involved:

1. The terms are ahistorical. They give rise to the myth that this is the FIRST generation where kids have known more about technology than their parents. I hear this claim again and again from people who should know better and it is simply not true. There have been a series of generation gaps surrounding technology across the past century or more and these gaps have had real impacts on the historical development of communications media. We can learn more about the present moment by looking to the past and using language which cuts us off from that larger history is profoundly unhelpful in understanding our present moment.

2. It collapses all young people into a so-called digital generation. David Buckingham, the British researcher, was the first to really help me understand the risks involved here. We could argue, as I did in Technology Review several years ago, after attending one of Buckingham’s conferences, that there are two competing myths — the Columbine Generation (which we hear much less often now, thankfully, which sees young people as at risk because of their “unique” access to technology) and the Digital Generation (which celebrates the positive transformations being brought about by young people’s access to technology). We give up the myth of a Digital Generation at our own risk since it is the most powerful way to counter the Columbine Generation myth. But we also need to recognize the ways that it erases class boundaries in young people’s access to and ability to participate in the new media landscape. The Digital Natives metaphor doesn’t acknowledge either the digital divide (in young people’s access to the technologies) or the participation gap (in young people’s access to the social skills and cultural competencies needed to fully and meaningfully participate in the emerging digital culture.)

3. It ignores the degree that what’s really powerful about most of the new forms of participatory culture of fans, bloggers, and gamers is that such affinity spaces allow young people and adults to interact with each other in new terms. These affinity spaces (to use James Paul Gee’s term) bring together youth and adults who don’t have fixed and hierarchical relationships (students/teachers, children/parents) on the basis of their shared interests. There are all kinds of anxieties about such relationships in the modern era (since any contact between youth and adults who are not members of their families bring with it a fear of child predators) but there is also something very constructive about many of these normal relations between children and adults. Even traditional forms of contact between adults and youth, such as Sunday school outings or Boy Scouts gatherings, have been tainted both by the fear and the reality of child molestation. And in any case, many of the older ways that youth and adults interacted outside of school and family — whether through churches or youth organizations — are facing declines in participation. Moreover, most of the traditional youth organizations were modeled on the same hierarchical relations that shape formal education. In an internet world, where people can meet first without such clear identity markers, young people and adults may at least sometimes interact without age being a major factor. In almost every case, the new participatory cultures are ones which have been built by youth and adults working together. We need to spend more time examining how and where such relationships occur and articulating their value. One of the things which interest me about Youth Radio is that they are pulling such interactions into a public service organization in very conscious ways and that’s at the heart of what they are calling “collegial pedagogy.” And like many related youth media projects, they involve youth speaking directly to adult and youth audiences about things that matter to them, encouraging us to take seriously young people’s perspectives on the world.

The interview which follows not only explains but embodies those relationships. I would also encourage you to check out some of the links to the group’s productions which are sprinkled throughout this interview: it will give you a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved when we take seriously young people’s perspectives on the world and help them get access to the means of cultural production and distribution.

How would you define the mission of Youth Radio? What are you trying to accomplish?

Response from Elisabeth (Lissa) Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer. You can learn more about Soep’s perspective by checking out Lissa’s blog.

Youth Radio is a youth development organization and independent media production company founded by Ellin O’Leary in 1992. Headquartered in Oakland, CA, we’ve got satellite bureaus and youth correspondents working across the U.S. and around the world producing and curating award-winning converged media content. Youth Radio stories and shows reach massive audiences through outlets including National Public Radio (with its 27 million weekly listeners), iTunes, Radio Bilingue, YouTube, and MySpace. Youth Radio promotes young people’s intellectual, creative, and professional growth and citizenship and transforms the public discourse through media production.

Students come to Youth Radio primarily from the nations strapped, heavily tracked, re-segregating public schools. Most are low-income, digitally marginalized youths and young people of color. Our approach links deadline driven, production-based media education with programs that support personal and community health, engage active citizenship, and pave pathways to college and living wage jobs in the media and beyond.

Over the past several years, Youth Radio’s teen reporters have examined the status of free speech in U.S. classrooms in an era of shrinking civil liberties. Our Reflections on Return series has documented the experiences of young troops coming home from the Iraq war. A Cape Town college student grappled with her father’s participation as a police officer in the former apartheid state. One young man documented his experience of deportation, having been released from prison to a country he hadn’t set foot in since he was two years old. A son reflected on his mother’s struggle, and his own, with her AIDS diagnosis. Teens described the horror of running into their moms on MySpace.

Young people produce culture everyday. Through stories such as these, they put cultural production to work for themselves, their communities, and their audiences across our connected, divided world.

What roles do youth play in your production process? What roles do adults play?

Response from Lissa Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer

The answer depends on where young people are in the program. Within the first week of starting an introductory class, students go on the air for a live public affairs radio

show, which goes out via broadcast and online. In this phase of their Youth Radio

experience, they learn mainly from peers how to produce commentaries, news,

roundtables, public service announcements, original beats, music segments, blogs, and

videos. Recent program graduates–most teenagers themselves and some younger than their

own students–serve as the lead instructors, editors, and co-producers. Peer teachers

make the transition from students to educators with scaffolding from adults through

weekly professional development workshops on topics ranging from how to operate a flash

recorder, to how to navigate the uncertain ethics of today’s digital culture.

After the 10-week introductory course work, young people move through another 10 weeks

of more advanced training in specialized areas (e.g., engineering, journalism, music

production, etc.) and eventually into paid internships in every department across the

organization. Here’s where they start to collaborate in a different way with adults.

Take, for example, our professional newsroom. Young people facilitate weekly editorial

meetings where they pitch stories to peers and adult producers. Youth reporters then

work closely with adult media professionals on every stage of developing the story:

finding an angle, identifying characters and scenes, developing interview questions,

gathering “tape” (a term we still use all the time inside our fully digital studios)

and then devising an outline, composing a script, mixing the story, and delivering to an

outlet.

I call our newsroom methodology “collegial pedagogy” (Vivian Chavez and I have

written about this in a Harvard Ed Review article and we’ve got a chapter devoted to

it in our forthcoming book, Drop That Knowledge, with UC Press).

Collegial pedagogy is a deeply interdependent dynamic that’s markedly different from most classroom scenarios. In collegial pedagogy, young people and adults co-create original work

neither could pull off alone, and over which neither stands as final judge, because the

work goes out to an audience no one–young or old–can fully predict or control. The

adult producer could not create the story without young people to identify topics worth

exploring, to host and record peer-to-peer conversations, and to experiment with novel

modes of expression and ways of using words, scene, and sound. At the same time, young

people could not create the story without adults to provide access to resources,

equipment, high- profile outlets, and institutional recognition, and to share the skills

and habits developed through years of experience as media professionals. Young people

offer a key substantive contribution that the adults cannot provide — a certain kind

of access, understanding, experience, or analysis directly relevant to the project at

hand. They contribute insights and challenging perspectives to a mainstream media that

too often ignores the experience and intelligence of youth. And yet adults do not only

oversee or facilitate the learning experience surrounding a given media production

experiment; they actually join in the production process itself.

It can be tricky to work as an adult inside collegial pedagogy, tempting as it often is

to get so swept up in a project that you start to take over. It’s a problem youth

media producer Debra Koffler from the Conscious Youth Media Crew has cleverly termed “adulteration” – a risk that seems inherent in creative collaborations where young

people and adults feel mutual passion, investment, and vulnerability. That’s why

there’s one policy that is absolutely non-negotiable at Youth Radio: young people

always have final editorial say over everything they create. The ultimate goal of

collegial pedagogy, after all, is for young people to develop the technical, creative,

and intellectual capacities they need to step away from adults. In our newsroom, they

increasingly work independently to create high quality products, while maturing into

journalists prepared to partner, from the other side of the pedagogical dynamic, with

students following in their footsteps.

[Read more...]

Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eleven, Part Two): Nancy Baym and Aswin Punathambekar

Articulating Attachment

NB: I think people are often better able to articulate what stories mean to them in terms of the text itself: which characters they identify with (or don’t), what they think about plot turns, etc. With music, it’s very hard to find words to explain one’s connection outside of the role songs played in that moment of one’s autobiography. I have loved music more than stories most of my life but I can explain narrative conventions with some degree of competence and can’t even begin to describe things like the common rhythmic or chord structures in the music that moves me.

AP: This is an interesting point, and I would readily admit that if someone were to ask me why I enjoy A. R. Rahman’s music or why a certain playback singer’s voice moves me, I would have nothing much to say. And as I quickly realized when I began speaking with fans of A. R. Rahman, this question doesn’t move the conversation much. What would get me and other Rahman fans talking is this: tell me about your conversations and experiences interacting with other Rahman fans online. Attachment, in other words, was defined in terms of belonging in a community.

It is very important to recognize that this relates to taste hierarchies and the ambivalent status of film music in Indian public culture. The question of high culture vs. low culture fandom that Jonathan Gray and Roberta Pearson brought up is very relevant here. Given that music directors and playback singers are often trained in classical music and the fact that film songs draw on classical music, fan discussions do revolve around this. In the Rahman fan community, there are fans who are well-versed in the technical (or “formal”?) dimensions of music and go to great lengths to explain them to other fans. Needless to say, this expertise becomes a form of value and these fans quickly become leaders within the community.

In fact, film music’s middlebrow status allows elite youth to claim a fan identity and belong in a fan community partly because it is not associated with lower class, lower caste, and “political” fan communities that form around film stars in south India.

NB: That’s interesting, I don’t see much of this in the music fandoms I spend time in. In fact, I think it’s pretty unusual to see any fans talking about the formal elements that make songs sound as they do. When I read Daniel Levitin’s (author of This Is Your Brain on Music) claim that the appeal of pop music is in the timbre, I had no idea what “timbre” meant, and I’d bet that most pop music fans don’t. Musicians can have those conversations, but fans that aren’t musicians rarely can, and I think this is very different from narrative where fans can not just articulate narrative conventions, but are often using them to write their own fan fictions. There is no music fandom equivalent of fan fiction except fan fiction about musicians, but that’s a total form shift.

But I think it makes perfect sense to extend a fandom approach to “high” culture, and to look at how ‘high culture’ sorts of discussion permeate ‘low culture’ fandoms. On my blog, for instance, I’ve written about wine fandom and how that doesn’t normally get considered “fandom” but that people who are into wine act just like people who are into a TV show or movie — they hold gatherings, they read supplementary materials, they go on pilgrimages to wineries, they wear winery t-shirts and baseball caps, they try to connect with others who are into the same things (there are now at least 3 online wine-based social networking sites). I knew so many people who made pilgrimages to see Wagner’s Ring Trilogy performed in its entirety on consecutive nights by the Chicago Opera.

Communities of Sound

NB: Another way in which the text at stake raises very different questions with music is how the social relationships formed around music differ from those formed around narratives. I love your point above that attachment is “defined in terms of belonging in a community.” Music has ties to location in ways stories don’t — as you know! Where narratives have the fan conventions that bring the hardcores together, music has live performance that is integral to its very being and gets everyone from the hardcores to the curious together in place. This is again a huge contrast to, say, the fan con which is only going to get the hardcores together in space. How does music’s connection to place affect the fandom that forms around it?

AP: I’m really glad you raised the issue of place.

As I said earlier, fandom has been considered an important element of film culture primarily because film stars in south India have been successful at mobilizing fans along linguistic and regional lines.

Given that the Rahman fan community is first and foremost a community realized online, and that fans bring diverse stakes and affiliations to bear on their participation, mobilization along axes of caste or language is, at a basic level, rendered structurally impossible. For example, fans based in Malaysia, for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, share little in common with second-generation Indian-Americans for whom dancing to a remixed Rahman song at a club speaks to a very different set of concerns. Focusing our attention on the realm of film music thus allows us to challenge the romanticization of fan culture as subaltern politics. The realm of film music fandom forces us to acknowledge other ways of being a fan and modes of belonging in fan communities.

Of course, this does pose problems. For instance, members of the Rahman fan community appear unconcerned with questions of class and caste that have been central to fan-based political mobilizations. In the very first interview I conducted, the moderator of the group made it clear that the Rahman fan community shared nothing in common with “rowdy” fan associations and went on to remark: “we’re online, not on the streets!”

NB: I think one has to really stretch the definition of “politics” to argue it’s an important component of the fandoms in which I spend time, but place is core. One of the topics I’ve been intrigued by is the role of online fans and fan communities in taking music out of place. For instance, in the Swedish indie music scene, outside of MySpace (and arguably there to an extent) the work of exporting this cultural product is being taken on by (often unpaid) fans in America, England, France, and other countries. Songs that would never be heard outside of Sweden, and might not even get heard in Sweden, are getting international audiences through mp3 blogs and online webzines devoted to that (and the broader Scandinavian) scene. Online fandom is spreading music well beyond its locations of origin on an unprecedented scale, but their place-based nature remains an important component. In terms of the individualizing function of music fandom, being able to identify with a foreign music scene is great – I could frame myself as a big fan of local music (and I’ve done so at other points in life), but being a Kansan who strongly self-identifies as a Swedish indie fan has a lot more potential to start conversations and allows me a lot more potential to turn local friends on to bands they’d otherwise never hear. And on the other side of that, having an online community of people who are into bands as obscure as these are in America allows me to continuously find new music and to get in-depth expertise on the bands I fall in love with. Many fans in this particular fandom are far more likely to check out a new band if they are Swedish than not, regardless of where they live themselves.

Relationship Building

AP: Relationship building is definitely an interesting issue. Fans of A. R. Rahman have positioned themselves very clearly as a grassroots marketing team. Some of them have business degrees and work as consultants, a large number work in the IT industry, and they’ve taken it upon themselves to figure out new ways of distributing Rahman’s music, tackling digital piracy and p2p sharing, and so on. Rahman, for his part, has acknowledged these fans’ efforts and has begun collaborating with them on a range of projects.

In the Indian mediascape, these new kinds of relationships between fans and producers haven’t received much attention. And it would be fair to say that producers are yet to figure out ways to tap into the vast space of participatory culture that has emerged online. Fans are being courted, but only because their serve as information hubs. As I see it, talent competitions on TV are the only site where fans are able to strike up conversations with music directors, playback singers, lyricists, and others in the industry.

NB: I see a lot of norms about sharing in music fan communities, most of which prohibit fan distribution of anything that can be purchased except in the context of mp3 blogs, which often operate with the tacit approval of labels. But as I say, fans are certainly acting as distributors and publicists.

Another element that’s interesting here is the huge boom in online sites built to create social relationship amongst music listeners in the name of music discovery. There are new “Music 2.0″ sites launching weekly. With music we have sites that are being built from the ground up to track everything people listen to and make personal connections and music recommendations based on that. That ability to track it all and create collective knowledge algorithmically seems to be operating at a whole other level with music. These sites raise so many questions about the roles of shared taste in relationships. Looking at Last.fm, whether or not a person shares musical taste is the core issue in whether or not someone will “friend” someone they don’t already know, but how well does that predict whether they’ll have anything else to talk about?

Boys and Girls

NB: Meanwhile, aren’t we supposed to be representing some sort of gender divide? Or talking about gender?

AP: I should make it clear right away that the stakes here are very different. Given that fandom has been neglected for the most part by academics who have written on media in India, there is, at this point, little concern about who is writing about fandom. Having said that, I would like to point out that paying attention to the domain of music does create an opportunity to talk about gender and participatory culture.

So far, the spotlight has been on fan communities that meet at street corners, at teashops, or outside cinema halls. Participatory culture, then, has been circumscribed as that defined by working-class (often lower caste) male youth in visible, public spaces. Once again, turning our attention to film music presents a way forward. For both commercial and cultural-political reasons, every new medium – radio, state-owned television, satellite television (MTV-India, STAR, etc.) – has drawn on film music and developed innovative programs. These film music-based radio and television programs have had a large fan following, and women’s participation in these sites has been very prominent and visible. I would argue that examining these sites of participatory culture is critical for opening up the discussion on gender and fandom surrounding Indian cinema.

NB: Pop music fandom is so blatantly gendered it barely seems worth laying out just how. Short version: girl fans want to sleep with the bands, boys want to be them. (I wrote a longer piece about this here.)

It seems like gender is being taken in a couple of ways in the discussions in this series thus far. First is a question of authority in the academy — those studying ‘female’ ways of doing fandom feeling excluded by more ‘masculine’ scholars. This is something I just don’t identify with at all, and I suspect there are several reasons. One is that I align myself with interpersonal and online communication as my primary research foci, and see fandom as an important and neglected context in which to explore them. The study of personal communication and relationships is gendered female to begin with, so perhaps my internet-based approach is considered techie and therefore gendered more masculine than the norm. I do feel some frustration at the failure of fandom research to adequately address the interpersonal relationships I think are at the core of fandom. Perhaps that is inherently gendered since looking at the fan/fan relationship gets us back to the study of personal relationships which, as I said is gendered female. But in terms of academic authority, I’ve never felt that my focus on fandom or the way I approach fandom has lessened that.

Gender has also been brought into the question of how people engage texts — to crudely oversimplify the discussion, girls explore nuance and boys create with a more business sensibility? The idea that an interest in the production/economy of fandom is masculine is again something I have trouble identifying with. I see many gender issues in how men and women engage music and with what consequences, but less in how they are conceptualized (though this gets back to the shortage of fandom research in music to begin with — there’s some, just nowhere close to that around TV). Sometimes I wonder if music fandom is itself so very sexist that anything we’d encounter in the academy seems negligible in contrast!