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-Ã -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-Ã -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.