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.
2. Can “fandoms” be thought of as dependent on particular artefacts in the way we usually talk about them? Is it enough to talk of “subcommunities” within a fandom to cover the diversity of attachment and practice? There’s not a Harry Potter fandom – there is a web of Harry Potter fan communities, and it’s a very distorted web as well – frayed at the edges and tangled up with different “fandoms” entirely. I don’t mean there’s no common ground at all – there’s JKR’s “canon” – but it’s not consistently important or utilised.
MH: This ‘subcommunities’ point is vital, I’d say, because it draws attention to the fact that talk of singular fan ‘communities’ is itself a bit of an academic fiction. There may be fan interpretive communities, but again, we’re very much dealing with a multi-dimensional (sub)cultural field cut across by varieties of fan identities and practices. And what counts as ‘canon’ can even be contested more-or-less strongly in some media fandoms. So what we seem to need is a vocabulary that acknowledges fan ‘community’ as meaningful, up to a point, but which doesn’t foreclose the massive variation in fan practices happening under that sort of banner. Bacon-Smith wrote about fan “circles” in Enterprising Women, of course, with these “circles” sometimes being more-or-less loosely interconnected, and that’s one of the values of ethnography – that it can illuminate these processes of (sub)cultural affiliation and dispersion in more adequate detail. And Bacon-Smith’s work also illustrates that this isn’t an issue tied to the growth of online fandoms – it was already there in the pre-Internet days. Perhaps some of the later work in fan studies has been too quick to use ‘community’ as a starting point for scholarship without interrogating the limits and blindspots associated with the very concept, or without trying to think it through more rigorously, or even without paying due attention to the specifics of Bacon-Smith’s work. I’m still finding and reading new books on fandom which seem to start and end with positive assertions of fan ‘community’ support, and to be honest it frustrates me more than a little.
Certainly fandoms can be ‘tangled’ up with and between an intertextual range of objects; fans may follow the different work of certain showrunners, writers, or performers. So to even nominate a fandom as “belonging” to one show or individual can sometimes be problematic. Or fandoms may be co-incident, but of intertextually unrelated artefacts. This was one of the reasons why I tried to carry out a very small-scale autoethnography in Fan Cultures, and I know that some readers have been critical of that (in its execution, I think, rather than in principle). I wanted to try to start teasing out the complexities of how our various fandoms may intersect (or not), and how fandoms could work in concert to realise a cultural identity, or not. For instance, some fandoms may be linked to discourses of gender for the individual fan concerned, whilst others may be disarticulated from gender identity – and this is an empirical question for me, not one we can decide in advance. I’ve read outstanding autoethnographies written by some of my female students, where they analyse how specific fandoms enable their femininity to be realised in ‘resistance’ to cultural norms, whilst other fandoms are culturally-conventionally ‘feminised’, and others seem not to meaningfully intersect with gender discourses, in their cultural experience, perhaps primarily linking to discourses of national identity and Welshness instead. All of which means putting ‘resistance’ into a more fleshed-out context, as well as reflecting on the subject’s ‘repertoire’ or ‘cultural portfolio’ of assorted fandoms.
We have a situation, to my way of thinking, where fan studies shows a potential tendency to reify fan ‘community’ as well as reifying and unhelpfully abstracting singular ‘fandoms’. This may be a matter of convenience; question: “what are you studying?” – answer: “oh, Harry Potter fans”, but it is still a foundational problem. We need to be much more precise about the parameters of our research sometimes, studying specific forums or fan groups, or normative and non-normative fan identities, or fandoms which intertextually (or historically) emerge out of, or morph into, others. I thought about this a little bit in a piece for American Behavioral Scientist in 2005, where I wrote about “cyclical” fandom – that some fans might sequentially move through different fan ‘objects’, nevertheless displaying patterns of taste and distinction in their multiple, diachronic fandoms. Just as we could ethnographically (or autoethnographically) analyse various synchronic fandoms, it may also be worthwhile to diachronically analyse peoples’ self-reflexive ‘projects of fan-self’ (to creatively mangle a bit of Giddens). I make another small start on this in my second book The Pleasures of Horror, where rather than thinking about horror fan ‘communities’ per se, I try to link discourses of fandom to people’s biographical senses of self.
All of this makes me think of another of Henry’s longstanding complaints -if he doesn’t mind me using that word – about the reception of Textual Poachers. Just as the book was reduced to being a totemic representative of the ‘IRP’ when it was actually more complex, so too was it frequently viewed as being ‘about Star Trek fans’, when it was actually about fans of intertextual networks of TV shows (what we’d probably now call ‘cult TV’ fans). So may be this ‘reading for singular fan communities’ is actually more of a problem in the interpretive reception and promulgation of fan studies than an issue ‘in’ fan studies itself (though I’m not very keen on the boundary line I seem to be rhetorically creating here). It is a matter of how readers get a handle on the subject – with many academics, who may not be specialists in the subject of media fandom, using the notion of fandom common-sensically to mean ‘fans of X’. It’s a short-hand, a map of the territory, which occasionally seems in danger of becoming the territory in-and-of itself. It’s a tendency which empirical and theoretical approaches to media fandom themselves need to ‘resist’ (another kind of contextualised ‘resistance’), I would argue. We need to insist on the fragmentary nature of fan ‘communities’, divided by their axes of (sub)cultural power, and on the usefulness of not reifying fandoms as ‘singular’, instead working to try to see them much more “in the round”, as it were.
So I’m completely sympathetic to this question, really. Does it mean that ‘fans’ are ‘not dependent’ on particular artefacts? Perhaps. Perhaps media fandom has enough of a cultural history by this point in time, that it would make sense to view some ‘fans’ less in terms of their objects of fandom, and more so in terms of their fan-cultural competencies, which are the skills of doing ‘being a fan’, and which can be transferred across texts. Again, it strikes me that the concepts of a longer-term ‘fan career’ or ‘fan socialisation’ may be of value (with all the disclaimers and qualifications one would want to bring to those terms). Garry Crawford’s work on sports fans has developed an intriguing model that media fan studies could benefit from applying, in my opinion (I make some use of it in my third book, How To Do Things With Cultural Theory). Rather than fandom being ‘about’ specific fan objects, it could then be viewed as a way of using, or relating to, objects. But that’s already there in the literature in fan studies, to a very strong extent, I suppose.
CD: Two sentences in I wanted to interject and say *no, not subcultural*, but I’m glad I had to wait and let you make your point. (I’m pleasantly surprised to find that’s a real plus about this format.) I do want to talk about subcommunities, but not as if they are subcultural. I’d love to find some other prefix like nested (but less derivative) or intersecting (but less two dimensional). As it is, subcommunities seems most recognisable for now. I do like the word community, both because it begins with the twin recognitions of shared space and shared interests and because there’s a long history of debating what communities are and how they work that I think fan studies still has a lot to learn from. But I entirely agree “fan community” is in no way a synonym for “fandom” and that’s its value even if it comes with a lot of baggage.
You’re right too about the shortcomings of thinking about fan studies as dealing with specific fandoms rather than fans/fandoms in general, but that’s a very slippery set of problems. On the one hand a fandom is not, in fact, a fandom; on the other, erasing the crucial differences between fandoms that give rise to both variation and change in fan practices is not something fan studies can afford. Hence, I think we’re stuck with sub- until we find some less misleading term for the network of communities and other modes of assembly that attach to an apparently singular object.
I think your “some fans” that are “cyclical” fans in fact comprises an extremely substantial set of “fans”. I can’t think of a single field in which fans don’t do that in very significant numbers–not even football fans and certainly not academic fans. With media fans I think that’s actually the overwhelmingly dominant norm.
3. Why does fan fiction seem to be such a dividing line in fan studies – as if to do “fan studies” with fan fiction means something quite different than to do fan studies that, for example, talk to TV audiences about their investments and interpretations of a show? It does seem to me that some of the conversations on Henry’s blog have marked that distinction out and, in turn, gendered it.
MH: I agree that this seems to have become one of the structuring binaries in the debate. I find it slightly strange, to be honest, and I’m not at all convinced that it is as powerfully gendered as some seem to think. Now, it could be fairly said that in my work I’ve not looked at fanfic. Does that mean that my work is unequivocally gendered as ‘masculinist’? Or as not being about ‘fan communities’ (with all the misgivings I have about the easy use of that term)?
On the contrary, I’d say that the whole notion of doing an autoethnography is strongly indebted to broadly feminist perspectives, while my critique of ‘fan community’ work has revolved around wanting to analyse fan communities as Bourdieuian hierarchies and overlapping/decentred social structures – it hasn’t been based on any straightforward “individual” fan versus “fan community” binary. I certainly do argue that we should theorise ‘fans’ who wouldn’t tend to be part of socially-organised fandom (fan ‘communities’, as they’ve been called), but for me this has never been an either/or.
In fact, I saw it very much as a corrective to the prior tendencies of fan studies, which at the point when I wrote Fan Cultures (and did the doctoral work it was based on) were very much not managing to theorise ‘lone fans’, or fans operating outside of what I would still argue tends to be a more narrow – or specific – strata of fandom where the practice of writing fanfic is a central activity. For me, again, this was not an either/or; it was, in intention, a more inclusive model of fandom – not accepting that the ‘real’ fans or the ‘resistant’ fans or the ‘creative’ fans were necessarily always to be found in more visible, subcultural spaces (though some might be there; yet again, an empirical question). But I never argued that work shouldn’t be done on these types of fans – I simply didn’t do it myself because many others appeared to be doing it, and doing it very well. There was no need for me to address the same set of concerns and topics in my own work – to duplicate labour, if you like – when instead of that, I could seek to argue for an expansion of the range of empirical and theoretical approaches to media fandom. Expansion and co-existence. Not an either/or!
So, although I’ve not directly written about fanfic (though I have written some, badly, many years ago now, for a Doctor Who Appreciation Society fanzine), it continues to be something that I teach on, am interested in, and appreciate reading others’ work on. It isn’t something I feel obliged or compelled to write about, because other fan activities interest me – activities which when I wrote Fan Cultures hardly seemed to exist in the literature, such as fans’ use of cult(ural) geography, and practices of fan tourism. I think that to argue (or even to imply) that everyone should be studying ‘X’ or ‘Y’ in fan studies is a bit of a problem. It’s probably a version of what I termed the ‘fallacy of internality’ in Fan Cultures – the notion that each individual scholar’s work has to ‘say everything’, whereas it’s really more important that scholarship as a whole covers the widest possible range of relevant material, so that we can read Sandvoss on neutrosemy, or Bacon-Smith on fan circles, or Jenkins on convergence, or Driscoll on fanfic; we don’t all need to be saying everything (or even, necessarily, defining ‘fandom’ in the same way; or arguing that fandom is ‘really’ about community or individuality).
So the argument that there’s a gendering of work on fanfic, or that ‘lone’ fans versus ‘community’ fans translates into a gendered binary, for me that seems a bit muddled. Henry Jenkins and Will Brooker have done major work on forms of fanfic, along with Constance Penley and Camille Bacon-Smith. My own work is absolutely about fan community, and the uses and limits of that concept, even though I have chosen not to write about fanfic to date – because I wanted to widen the fan debate. But even if that narrative is overly selective, it still strikes me that to perceive these as gendered lines of division may be to take the contingent a little too quickly for a structured/structuring social fact. Numerically-speaking, more female scholars may write about fanfic (though even certain kinds of fanfic have been over-represented in the field), and some (some, not all) fanfic-centred communities may be gendered as feminine. We can take all of that as read, if you like. I can’t see that it follows from this that the presence or absence of work on ‘community’ or ‘fanfic’ in any scholar’s work is solely or determinatively gendered as feminine/masculine. This seems to be a monolithic reading – at best, a kind of structuralist-feminist conclusion, perhaps – which disallows the actual complexities of gender linked to a range of writers’ work in fan studies. One problem with structuralist readings of all kinds is surely how they fix meaning in relation to key ideological binaries, then not considering how these binaries may be more-or-less fluid, deconstructed, or even internally incoherent within each of the terms in a binary.
So if I wouldn’t want to take a strongly structuralist view of the supposed gendering of fan studies, I think a more post-structuralist view of the same may be useful. There are certainly discourses of masculinity appropriated in and by my academic self (which is only one cultural fraction of my self-identity). What I choose to write about – the fan objects I reflect on – are partly linked to cultural discourses of masculinity (which may not always be “hegemonic” masculinity, but may be in some contexts and in some ways). Writers in fan studies, I feel, almost invariably perform their gender in certain ways whilst ostensibly analysing specific fandoms or aspects of fan activity. But the little poststructuralist voice that speaks to me wants to say, “yes, but that doesn’t produce monolithically gendered arguments, does it?” So, I can be interested in fanfic, and I might have written it atrociously, even while I haven’t academically analysed it, for reasons that, as a cultural agent, I would argue were not discursively articulated with my performance of gender, but were instead about appropriating academic-communal discourses of ‘originality’ of topic or argument. (I wouldn’t view this as strongly gendered, but I’m well aware this could be debated further).
Taking a poststructuralist stance on gender in/of fan studies, I think it is absolutely important for writers to seek to be self-reflexive, and to carefully consider why they are writing about what they are, and in the way that they are. It was this set of poststructuralist concerns that led me to attempt to write about fandoms I was not a participant in, as I felt that otherwise I was in danger of reproducing, within my academic work, aspects of my pre-academic cultural identity – my gendering, but also my classed identity. I was contributing to a ‘canonisation’ of certain fan tastes over others, and hence was implicitly helping to silence a range of fan voices rather than working to include a greater range and diversity of fandom within the multiple projects of fan studies.
So, as well as writing more about Doctor Who fans (because again, this wasn’t an either/or; a virtue or a vice), I consciously decided to write pieces about Dawson’s Creek fans (for the BFI collection Teen TV) and fans of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (for the OUP book ITV Cultures), as well as then contributing a self-reflexive piece about academics’ fan tastes to the 2007 NYU book Fandom. For me, the question isn’t whether or not I’m writing about fanfic or ‘community’ per se; it’s a question of which fandoms I’m writing about, and which precise fan activities within those fandoms, and why, and how, and ultimately whether or not that leads to a reproduction of one, narrow view of what it means to be a fan. And some of my work has done that, I would say; some of my work has definitely reproduced gendered norms and tastes within contemporary culture. Not only or necessarily or inevitably in relation to gendered fan-consumer tastes, but also in relation to levels of cultural capital. I just can’t see this as something that’s structurally a given, or happening behind the backs of the cultural agents who contribute to fan studies; it’s something that can be reflected on, addressed, and which can also tend to be far more complex than simply being read off from specific presences/absences in somebody’s work.
The question that I’ve increasingly been asking of my own work is this: does it broaden what we can theorise in relation to ‘fandom’? This could mean trying to think about ‘cyclical fandom’ or multiple fandoms, or the divisions within fan communities, or fandom and autobiographical senses of self, or ‘theory fandom’ rather than fandom linked only to popular culture, or fandoms which have been under-explored in the literature, or types of fan who have been under-represented, or types of fan activity which have been less frequently investigated. Fan Cultures wanted to resist ‘decisionist’ narratives of resistant/complicit, good/bad in favour of suspending those moral dualisms. Given that the complete suspension of any and all moral dualisms whatsoever is probably a sense-making impossibility, and that therefore any such call or claim could only ever become self-contradictory (Scodari pointed his out quite neatly in her review of the book), I’d say that an inclusive ethic has become slightly more my concern as time’s gone by: to strive to include views, versions, aspects, and empirical activities of fandom that have otherwise been excluded (sometimes by myself) in favour of the discursive and cultural reproductions of academia and its specific tastes/paradigms/schools. And I would also recognise, in line with my earlier work, that this cannot be singularly achieved; hence I would auto-critique some of my own work, and would fully expect others to find it limited in specific ways, or ‘disappointing’ to the extent that I don’t evade the limitations of my own performative cultural identities.
CD: I’m entirely in favour – I’m sure I don’t even need to say it by now – with paying attention to the specific fan practices that interest you. And so of course studying Doctor Who doesn’t mean studying Doctor Who fan fiction. But I suppose it does leave a couple of questions unanswered.
First, where does one have to make a reference to the breadth of fan practices that make up a fandom? Can one write about Doctor Who without ever considering how significant fan fiction communities have been or are now within that field? At what point and in what way does that limitation on one’s fandom “sample” need to be acknowledged? Fan fiction is more important to some fandoms than others, thinking in terms of numbers, in terms of perceived fan culture, and in terms of media visibility. I suspect this problem of acknowledging the limitations of one’s slice of fandom is quite easily addressed.
But second, as fan communities often construct hierarchies within which fan fiction (sub)communities are sidelined and denigrated as the most fannish (in the sense of obsessive attachment and derivative deployment) of fans, where does not-doing-fan fiction turn into a similar sort of hierarchy? I ask that question already hearing an answer to it, in a way, because fan fiction is in the present tense so central to some parts of fan studies that it seems weird to picture it as marginal. And yet, when I pick up collections like Fandom I feel there’s an obligatory fan fiction inclusion strategy at work, with the generality of fan studies doing something else less… what else if not less marginal?
Overall, no, you don’t and no one should have to work on fan fiction, but perhaps it’s useful to have this place to step back and ask what place does fan fiction have now in the schema of things published in fan studies. It’s both foundational and yet somehow positioned as limited and specialised. For now I’m going to settle for saying that’s… interesting.
4. Does it matter if one is invested in the fandom of the fans one studies? It’s one of those recurring tropes of fan studies that the writer/critic stakes out their terrain in terms of attachment. This doesn’t happen anything like as commonly in, for example, literary studies. Maybe it’s obvious that this is about the role of ethnomethodology and ethnography in fan studies, but even where there are no human subjects to be “ethical” towards it seems to happen and so it strikes me as maybe more interesting than it looks. When people who study “fans” want to distance themselves from “fan studies” I think they’re also making a statement relevant to this.
MH: I think my previous answer starts to hint at my emerging ambivalence about this question of investment or attachment. When I finished my PhD, and shortly thereafter, I was very much of the view that being a scholar-fan (a fan of what one is studying, or of the type one is studying) was a benefit rather than any kind of hindrance. This was undoubtedly partly the influence of Textual Poachers on me, but probably also the influence of dialogues and debates with the likes of Will Brooker’s work. And I certainly have no interest or desire to retreat into what strikes me as a resolutely reactionary position (so, yes, here’s another moral dualism that I cling to) – by which I mean the whole “scholar-fans can’t be properly objective or distanced or critical” argument, which I continue to strongly think is simply arrant, modernist nonsense. Alex Doty dismantled that best, for me, in Flaming Classics, a book that lives up to its name. So, yes, I think it does matter, and very much, that writers are invested in the fandom of the fans they study.
However, I also increasingly think that this isn’t enough in and of itself. Not if it leads to specific investments and attachments being overly reproduced in scholarship, where these tend to be attachments linked to specific taste cultures and levels of cultural capital. S. Elizabeth Bird critiqued this definitively, really, in her recent book on audiences for Routledge – pointing out that ‘cult’ and ‘edgy’ TV was getting lots of academic attention (and we could elaborate on this to suggest that fans of these sorts of shows also get more academic attention… plus they just-so-happen to share levels of cultural capital with many of the scholar-fans producing this work). By contrast, middlebrow TV or resolutely ‘mainstream’ TV, or shows targeting older audiences, weren’t and aren’t getting anywhere near as much academic attention, failing to be lit by the spotlight of scholarly buzz. So there are real limits to this process, I feel, and that’s what my chapter in Fandom ended up being all about.
If we don’t retreat from declarations of attachment – and I don’t think that ethnomethodologically or ethically scholar-fans should; really, more should be made of this in pieces of work where it is relevant – then how do we avoid the pitfalls of cultural reproduction and canonisation? How do we avoid the problem of there being a journal of Buffy studies (cool, teen, hip, cult US TV), but not a journal of Heartbeat studies? (uncool, older, rural, mainstream, Sunday evening British TV). How do we avoid, as a scholarly community, producing a patchy and very skewed account of TV or the media which is perhaps linked less to our genderings and linked much more to our levels of cultural capital, as well as to generational identities?
I’ve already alluded to my own partial and non-solution: that it may be worthwhile for scholar-fans to deliberately seek to work on fandoms and shows that they are not invested in, while nevertheless bringing their knowledge of fandom and their expertise to the table. A variant version of this would be for academia to seek to recruit a wider range of participants and voices working on a wider range of scholar-fan tastes, but I’m verging on wishful thinking or idealism there, so I’ll stick with a smaller-scale attempt at shifting the situation in this instance.
Of course, some writers on fandom may want to distance themselves from ‘fan studies’ altogether, as you say. If this means not reading up on the relevant literature, then that strikes me as somewhat foolhardy. If it means approaching fandom from a different disciplinary perspective, or through variant philosophies, then surely this can only work to challenge and strengthen fan studies. I had this sort of feeling while reading Steve Bailey’s recent book on fandom. Though it was published in the same year as Cornel Sandvoss’s Fans, it couldn’t have been more different in terms of its intertextual affiliations (I’ve just recently reviewed the two side-by-side for the journal Popular Communication). Sandvoss’s work is strongly linked to media sociology, and draws on fan studies as an historical area of media/cultural studies; by contrast, Bailey seems to be writing at one remove from the ‘canon’ of fan studies. Though for me this created a danger of ‘reinventing the wheel’, it also allowed Bailey’s work to speak back to fan studies, if you like, and to start from unusual first principles. Types of ‘rogue’ knowledge can be very valuable and useful, once more acting as a kind of corrective to taken-for-granted or ossified assumptions/subject matters. Of course, not all rogue knowledges do this; some just spectacularly miss the point, otherwise there wouldn’t be any value in building up one’s awareness and knowledge of an academic field in the first place!
CD: I very much agree that the attachment to attachment in fan studies has resulted in quite overt negotiations of cultural capital through the fan texts one writes on. It’s Buffy one year, Harry Potter the next; cult and edgy for some fan studies circles, “reclaiming” the massively popular for others.
I think where we might disagree is actually at the level of method. I’ve pretty much arrived at the point where I feel as if what’s needed in fan studies is the kind of long slow careful ethnography that has become quite difficult to do in anthropological studies of lived communities as separate cultures. I want this now partly in order to see the importance of differences in attachment amongst fans – why for some fans a fan community is a way of life and for others it’s some version of a bulletin board that one checks after a particularly good or bad episode. I’m aware that my position on this now has a great deal to do with the fact that I work exclusively with online fan communities and that it’s a position I hold with reference to online culture as a whole and thus fan communities as a piece of that.
So while I can accept the value of rogue knowledges and, at the same time, feel the limitations of scholars who try to reinvent the wheel of fan studies, those questions feel less important to me than avoiding the drive-through mode of fan studies. Perhaps ironically, this does not mean I want more reflection on the position of the ethnographer in relation to fan communities. In fact, I want a lot less of that in order to avoid the self-referentiality that seems to pervade and dominate the field. I feel as if it is possible to do the necessary in terms of ethical clarification without turning one’s ethnographic self into the coolest insider on the block.
5. Fan studies blur really easily into media studies and now new media studies. I know there is work that looks at fandom of “classic authors” etc but I do wonder if the difficulty of talking about my Foucault “fandom” as a fandom is not only about the presumed relationship to mass-produced popular culture that’s set into the idea of “fan” now but also about the way fan studies is so often about studying the means of articulating fandom rather than its content. Academics both don’t much want to look at academic attachments that way and would find themselves with an odd, if perhaps illuminating, focus if they tried. Maybe there’s not a question there. Here’s one – could academic reflection on its own institutionalised scholarly practices of research and citation perhaps learn a lot more than it has yet from fan studies. Something about community hubs and tiers, about canon (and fanon), about flaming and wanks… I could go on. Maybe it still isn’t a question.
MH: Whether it is a question or not, it’s certainly an area that needs more analysis and thought. Alan McKee has written playfully and productively about theory fans in Fandom, and I’ve written on the subject in How To Do Things With Cultural Theory, which I don’t think has filtered into fan studies debates very much yet (and this is just one of the problems with there being an emerging ‘canon’ of fan studies books as well as canonical fandoms – when I look at some bibliographies underpinning articles on fandom, say, I’m rather struck by the impression that Fan Cultures has ended up in there because the writer thought their bibliography ought to be all “present and correct”, and not because they’ve actually engaged with it in any meaningful sense. Similarly, I do wonder whether scholarly resources which might help particular arguments are neglected because they don’t have an obvious ‘fan’ or ‘fandom’ in the title… this may also be partly to do with keyword-database-searching as a research strategy, and increased time pressures and an apparent rise in instrumental rationality… but now I suppose I’m sounding like a specifically gendered ‘grumpy old man’, so may be I’ll shut up).
But basically, I absolutely agree with you, and have pretty much published along these lines. In Chapter Seven of HTDTWCT, as part of a section ‘Exploring Theory Culture’, I argue that work from fan studies can play a significant part in enabling us to theorise and think about academics’ theory fandoms. I suggest that the reluctance to use this body of work in this way has been partly related to academia’s need – and especially media studies’ need – to culturally position itself as something Other to ‘mere’ fandom, and hence to legitimate itself as properly ‘intellectual’ and ‘critical’. Of course, this cultural ‘resistance’ (again!) to discourses of fandom is also very much linked to the fact that ‘fandom’ is assumed to belong to the realm of pop culture, whereas academia is allegedly the application and understanding of ‘Theory’, itself thought of as an Other to popular culture. So the exnomination of ‘theory fandom’, I end up arguing, is one strategy aimed at authorising scholarly knowledge as being ‘above’ its objects of study. There are multiple Otherings and exclusions which this is based on, and these can be contested and deconstructed, which is what I set out to do. In essence, I take a poststructuralist position in relation to the binary of Theory/fandom, asking what happens if we no longer recognise this as an either/or. This involves extending and revisiting my autoethnography from Fan Cultures so that as well as self-reflexively analysing my pop-cultural investments in Doctor Who, say, I analyse my theory-cultural investments in the psychoanalysis of Donald Woods Winnicott (or, from DW to DWW). Alan McKee was quite right to criticise my first attempt at autoethnography for these particular silences and exclusions.
By recognising that ‘theory fandom’ may be a meaningful term, it is also possible to utilise further insights from poststructuralist feminism, arguing that forms of affect and embodiment have been written out of ‘modernist’ academia, and that even some versions of fan studies which have sought to challenge this (my own earlier work included) have nevertheless recuperated specific binaries of knowledge/affect underpinning academic ‘authority’.
Another extension of fan studies work into unusual and productive areas, and one which aims to challenge the popular culture/high culture binary, is Liesbet Van Zoonen’s Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. There’s no obvious ‘fans’ or ‘fandom’ in this title either, but it really should be essential reading for anyone thinking about the cultural limits to discourses of fandom (which are also forms of cultural power, of course). Van Zoonen asks whether and how ‘fandom’ can be used as a concept to think about processes and practices of democracy. Can one be a ‘Politics fan’ as well as a ‘theory fan’, in other words. It is startling stuff; brilliant scholarship and innovative thought which pushes the reader to think differently about fandom, to broaden its range and scope, and to challenge its cultural definitions and discursive restrictions. I’m very nearly inspired to ‘book envy’ by it.
CD: I’ve read Alan’s piece in Fandom, and yours. I think there certainly is a tendency for the newest work in fan studies to be less considered and less cited, but within cultural studies I’m sure we can see this as an unavoidable disciplinary phase. My students find you more readably relevant than fan studies that’s fifteen years old and so I’m sure the canonical reference points are in transition.
Having said as much I hope it will not be too ungenerous to say that my difficulty with both yours and Alan’s pieces in Fandom is the sense of a clear distinction between “academic” and “fan” that is not in the least undermined by talking about conflicts or negotiations between those two roles.
Let’s take “meta” as an example, by which I’d want to refer to the broad range of ways in which fans self-consciously analyse their objects and their fan communities and circulate that as analysis. Paying attention to how those skills are learned academically, how academics working as fans can not only produce meta but then turn around and produce the same analysis as academic scholarship, and how debate generated by meta mirrors or even challenges academic debate, I think it’s unhelpful to place academics as doing things (including thinking things) that fans do not. As one small example, I couldn’t recall how many references to Foucault have been given to me by fans – sometimes with page numbered quotations, sometimes just as a general sense of things.
But yes absolutely with regard to everything else you’re saying here. I think fandom has a lot to show academics about how they operate without really wanting to think about it too much – and I liked both your and Alan’s pieces in Fandom for just that reason.
6. I’m rambling now, so a shorter attempt at # 6. Fan communities and the way they work are the most interesting part of fan studies to me when I think about fandoms academically. But if we attempt to study fans ethnographically, as communities, do we necessarily throw the objects they are fans of into the background, and does that matter? I guess this is question 2 asked in reverse.
MH: Hmmm, well, I think I’ve done more than my share of rambling in response to your excellent and thought-provoking questions. But I guess there is a possibility of work on community per se putting ‘the text’ (with all the provisos we need around that) into the background. Having said that, I’m not personally convinced that it happens much; writers examining fan communities tend to find that the values, meanings and ‘poachings’ made from fan texts inevitably seep into the performative fan identities constituting that community, whether it’s Star Wars fans appropriating notions of rebellion, or Sopranos fans setting themselves up as the communal ‘counsellor’ or tough-guy. So the text/community opposition may be a weaker analytical division than first appearances would suggest.
I’m not sure that studying communities is “the most interesting part of fan studies” for personally me, though. I recognise that a lot of scholars are doing it well, and developing the theoretical depth of fan studies via community case-study work – I’m thinking here in particular of Rhiannon Bury’s (2005) book and its excellent use of both ‘heterotopia’ (something a PhD student of mine is investigating at the moment in relation to online REM fans) and John Hartley’s work on the audience as ‘invisible fiction’. Academia can be a slow road sometimes, and I’m not sure Bury’s work has fully found the wider readership it deserves, as of yet.
The notion of fan ‘community’ is philosophically and empirically intriguing to me, but I still don’t feel that it goes anywhere near encompassing the diversity of types of fan experience. And bearing in mind Garry Crawford’s timely warnings about the possibility of certain types of fan activity being implicitly (or otherwise) constructed as ‘authentic’ fandom – as ‘real’ fandom versus other implicitly inferior modes – for myself, I’d still rather explore other types of fandom which may be more ‘mainstream’, less subcultural, perhaps less spectacularly visible, and possibly gendered differently to some (not all) of the sometimes feminised spaces of socially-organised fandom. If, as Bury’s study argues (2005:205), “there is no such entity as a fan” (and I argued the very same thing in the opening pages of Fan Cultures), then surely it falls to us to study the entire performative array of how and where discourses of fandom are both mobilised and exnominated? (And where this could far outstrip any sense of primarily studying fan communities, though fan community would be one cultural site where discourses of fandom would be intently performed and debated, and so would absolutely require careful study as part of what I view as a much wider project).
Actually, upon reflection, I think the most interesting part of fan studies for me at the moment is thinking about cultural sites and spaces where fandom could be used more widely as a discourse, but remains typically counterfactual – Politics (Van Zoonen), Theory (Hills; McKee; your questions here), and even social networking or Web 2.0 (see Henry’s Afterword to the Fandom book, which for me just ends up posing the question of why fandom isn’t being used as a discourse by certain cyber-gurus).
Where fandom supposedly ‘isn’t’ is just as crucial a question of culture and power as studying where it self-evidently ‘is.’
CD: Well, I actually don’t have a lot to offer but agreement here. I don’t think it happens much either, and I think the opposite is far more of a problem. Perhaps I was wanting to flag it as something to watch – a possible flaw in what I’m doing now. Because it would be ridiculous if, for example, Doctor Who turned into nothing more than a label for a space in which Doctor Who fans interacted. Looking at that sentence now perhaps it’s not entirely ridiculous at all, but it certainly would miss the influence of the source text on fan practices.
I am most interested in communities when I think about fans, but I’m starting to suspect in the course of our exchange that what I mean by “community” is not necessarily what you do. I’m fascinated by the way in which fandom is experienced as a part of daily life, as an everyday layer of one’s life with its own temporalities and modes of entanglement with everything else. Not as a bounded community, then, but as a set of mutable ideas and varying practices that are taken up by some as “community” and not by others. I want to explore the ways in which fandom is a terrain, a currency and a language for intimate knowledges of other people that comprise the experience of fandom.
Even for people who do no more than log onto discussion forums after a TV episode there’s an everydayness to it and a specific place that the practice and the connections with others formed by it have in the fan’s life. So I don’t mean community in the sense of being a card-carrying Elvis fan club member, but community in the sense of a located community of interest to which people can have very different degrees of attachment. For me, because I otherwise work in communities no one doubts are communities (like country towns), I’m interested in how the patterns of investment and modes of belonging to fan communities are actually quite similar. In particular, of course, I’m interested in how the sense of community experienced through fandom might be shaped by the particularity of online platforms, but I don’t think my questions are irrelevant to other kinds of fan culture.