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.


Fans and Public Sphere Theory

AK: Both of us, perhaps uniquely, seek to utilize public sphere theory in analyzing fan communities and practices. However, we do so from rather different perspectives and to different ends.

My interest in the public sphere builds largely upon feminist and queer critiques of Habermas by theorists like Nancy Fraser, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner. In my work I’m interested as much in the ways that the law and other institutions define “publicness” as I am in considering how people come to act as “a public.” As I’m particularly invested in understanding representations of sex, Berlant and Warner’s work on sex in public has been useful as a starting point for thinking about the process by which individual body parts, bodily acts, and desires may each become public through a number of different strategies, and through contact with a number of different institutions. Overall, I’m interested in how identities, thoughts, and concepts become publicly intelligible, knowable, and imaginable.

With regard to fan communities, my article on Smallville deals with the creation of a counterpublic based upon shared, subtextual interpretive lenses. In a prelude to my current work, the article dealt with writers’ and producers’ official attempts to structure fan investment into a kind of glorified, normative homophobia, while fans who invest instead in queer readings have the opportunity to construct a shared, counter-cultural identity.

My dissertation examines slash fan fiction communities as a spatial practice which secures a territory in which people may enact unpredictable encounters with the otherwise publicly unknowable and unspeakable. The publicness of slash fan fiction communities serves as a key consideration in my understanding of the socio-political implications of their ability to speak sex, bodies, and unique conjunctions between inter-personal investments and citizenship.

DJ: Like you, I’d consider myself as someone who launches from a rejection of Habermas–particularly, his insistence on publicity and public discourse existing in the realm of the rational and non-affective. Instead of endorsing Habermas’ claims that commercial culture brought an end to the public sphere, I’m interested in the ways that media culture may have introduced competing models of publicness. I’d say my theoretical touchstones come much more from the work of people like Joke Hermes, who directly challenge Habermasian notions about what should count as political. I’m particularly inspired by Hermes’ model of cultural citizenship, wherein our roles as citizens with rational political and economic interests are tied to our cultural lives as media spectators structured by the more irrational pull of affect. In addition to considering politics by mediated, affective means, I take to heart Couldry’s recognition of the validity of “outs,” wherein people disengage from politics because its processes do not serve them. Thus, I don’t want to reduce media consumption to publicness and politics when it may often be an alternative to those social forces.

While I reject Habermas’ conclusions, I think you’d be right to say I haven’t given up all of his concerns. What really interests me with fandom in regards to the public sphere is the idea of debate and institutional oversight over the (political) realms in which fans have affective, pleasurable interest. So one thing I’ve explored is the way in which fans of a television program like 24, for example, develop interests as cultural citizens not just in real life national policy, but also post-national interests in the production of the series and in the alternate reality of the world being constructed by the series. Fans act as cultural citizens in the real world, the industrial sphere, and the fictional world. In consuming the series, fans critique the power exerted by real-life American institutions at the same time that they debate the institutional authority of both the producers who bring them the show and of story world characters and institutions like Jack Bauer and CTU. Should America torture terrorists? Should the producers ameliorate their representations of Muslim Americans? Is David Palmer weak on national security? Fans debate all these points, acting as publics in surveillance of institutional authority along a multiplicity of oscillating but interrelated cultural realms in which they are passionately interested. Again, very Habermasian concerns, but I pursue them in an arena of playful consumer culture (to the point of taking up citizenship concerns in a fictional narrative world) that stands in opposition to Habermasian ideals of public rationality (but perhaps not entirely incompatible with his more forgotten notion of the literary public sphere).

AK: I’d be interested to know how you conceptualize some media consumption as a way to opt out of politics. Although I’m dedicated to using public sphere theory to talk about fan communities, it strikes me that reifying artificial separations between politics and the everyday or privileging “formal” politics may be a potential danger of such analyses. While I realize that many academics place Foucault and Habermas in opposition, I employ them in tandem, so that I’m just as interested in repressive and ideological or micro and macro forms of politics (perhaps we emphasize different ends of this continuum). Therefore, I don’t recognize any ability to “opt out” of politics, merely ways of moving between different forms or styles of politics. Warner and the feminist movement exemplify this strain of public sphere theory by enacting rival forms of publicness, and attempting to theorize the politics of privacy.

Within the fan communities I’ve studied I found that although some enthusiastically discuss slash as political, many deem “overtly political” fan fiction poor storytelling, or assume that their intention to enjoy fan activities without an overt political motive makes the community apolitical. However, in my work I’ve repeatedly argued that regardless of individual intentions, politics operate by implication in all human actions and interactions. The decision to believe one has “opted out” is itself a political decision on a “formal” level, whereby the refusal to vote or participate in caucuses or the like allows fewer people to control the political process, but on a cultural level as well as public and private expressions of detachment from “formal politics” affect the way that other people feel and think about political processes. In slash I’ve discussed the presence of the community in public as political because it offers passersby tools for thinking about sexuality and ways of relating, which may then be applied to both the macro-political realm of lobbying for legal change and the micro-political realm of everyday discussions and self-presentation.

DJ: Articulating media culture like fandom to the public sphere suggests to me the very opposite of a reification of the boundaries between the realms of formal politics and of the everyday. In any of its various forms, fandom is anything but formal politics (and especially not the kind Habermas prescribes). And while I agree that the decision to opt out of formal politics is itself a political one, I wouldn’t assume that such a choice always leads to or constitutes an ongoing practice of alternative politics and/or publicness. Does disengagement with one style of politics and one type of public automatically compel engagement with another? I don’t dispute your claim that all human activities and interactions are shaped by the political, but I’m not willing to assume that media fandom is an activity that is always publicly political. The choice to opt out can be a choice to explore politics by other everyday means via engagement with an alternative public, but it can also be an exit from participation in any kind of public (formal or otherwise). I could opt out of politics and choose to self-present and discuss other concerns in a fan public, but I could also choose to opt out and spend all my time watching TV alone without participation in a public. While I want to recognize the isolated modes of fandom generally ignored by fan studies, I don’t believe the political dimensions of that solitude are the same as in more collectively public forms where fans actually interact. The difference between public engagement and disengagement, for me, is a difference between political practice and practices shaped by politics.

So while I myself do tend to act as a more isolated fan, what excites me about studying fans in more public forms is the potential for direct–but definitely not formal–political engagement. The potential for alternative public politics in fandom is so great, I think, because of the immense interest that fans hold within particular cultural objects. This is interest not just in the sense of curiosity and excitement, but more importantly in the political-economic sense of investment and ownership. This claim that fans can have over a particular cultural arena–a claim that can be contested by institutional authorities or other competing fan interests–can make it a site of overt political struggle between different factions and interest groups. Perhaps this concern for struggle over and between public interests in some fan interactions is closer in character to formal politics than the more diffused, dispersed, ubiquitous human politics you speak of, but the stakes of the debate are often well outside the bounds of what formal politics would find relevant or permissible. So I’m fascinated by the way in which issues of affect, fantasy, and play can become sites of direct political contention within fan publics in ways they cannot in formal politics.

Comments

  1. I was hoping to chime in to about the datedness of an opposition between production and consumption as a definitional axis of fan activities, but I think that issue has already been pretty brilliantly fleshed out in the lively comments on the livejournal post! I will say that incidentally, Anne, this is a problem I have with your terminology of “as is” vs. “creative” fans — I think you’d agree with me that the distinction is more about techniques of reading and attitudes toward textual openness than about some fans being creative/productive and others not. But it’s not like I have any better terms to suggest! Certainly these discussions have highlighted the many inadequacies of “fanboy” and “fangirl” as shorthand.

    I very much appreciate Anne’s insistence that resistance can be valuable while still being localized and contingent. I guess my pet question, though (setting aside the fact that I think much slash and slash culture offers only a partial challenge even to heteronormativity), is mostly why or how is fandom resistant to capitalism — and I haven’t heard any convincing case that it is (although I am trying to work one out myself). I’m not fully persuaded that our “gift economy” is a meaningful alternative rather than a form of free labor that benefits the entertainment industry. Certainly they’d like to think it’s available to be appropriated as such, with all the “user-generated” products and promotions in the works. So my question is: what aspects of fan production are ultimately incommensurate with that system? I don’t fully have an answer yet, but I am hoping it has something to do with queerness (digital media and intellectual property may figure in as well).

    also, pursuant to THIS thread, I wanted to raise some questions about the mobilization of notions of (counter)publics. “Public” is, of course, a highly overdetermined term, even theoretically, as Anne points out above, and I’m sure in the diss there’s more opportunity to hash out exactly how it can and can’t be applied to fan “communities” (indeed, another overdetermined term!). Berlant and Warner’s “Sex in Public” is one of my favorite essays of all time, and I’m also very tempted to mobilize the notion of a “sex public” to describe the political potential of creative fandom. However, Kristina Busse, for one, has cautioned against the assumption that online cultures are necessarily public. We have the “slash closet” to contend with, as shorthand for a ponderous weight of techniques and attitudes fans use to shield their activities from the public eye, and of social and ideological forces that conspire to enforce these boundaries of privacy. This is one of the reasons that I find the hysteria about the “mainstreaming of fandom” and debates (among vidders, for example) about how deliberately to put fan production out in the open so fascinating and important. As an aside, I think there’s perhaps a stronger case to be made for girlslash fandom (my project) as a counterpublic in a more traditional sense, but the presumed alignment between the gender-sexuality of the characters and of the fans that enables it to be leveraged more directly into politics I think also makes it less resistant to heteronormativity in other dimensions.

    Anyway, I’m wondering if the position we find ourselves in vis a vis the public/private binary isn’t similar to producer/consumer: it’s crucial as a historical and discursive formation, but in the context of post-industrial/digital/control society it has broken down so thoroughly that it’s pretty untenable as a rubric for describing actual practices. Or maybe I wouldn’t go quite that far. But I do think we have to take serious account of the indifference and/or opposition of much of fandom to behaving as something easily recognizable as a “public.” And I’m interested in hearing more about how this could be hashed out — I should really go read the diss!

    [xposted @ fandebate]