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.
Fan Academics and the Future of Fan Studies
AK: Overall, our conversation seems to suggest a shared interest in constructing the boundaries of fan studies broadly, but designing and generalizing individual studies narrowly. I’d suggest that imagining the future of fan studies as a collaborative effort between scholars of many subjects potentially offsets some concerns around the possibility of an emerging gender divide in the field, whereby only one type of fan practice could become symbolically central over time, ghettoizing the study of other sub-communities. I think progress on this level will require us to be very deliberate about building a fan studies canon through broad citation. This series of conversations offers visibility to a number of different approaches, and suggests an imperative to contextualize “our fans” within a wide conglomeration of disparate fan practices, none of which deserves reification as uniquely paradigmatic.
As fan studies progresses, I’d also like to see fan academics (and academic fans) push the complexity of the acafan construct. Partly, I’d be interested to see a more thorough engagement with the anthropological literature on native ethnography and identity, as many fan studies scholars come to anthropology as a second, third, or fourth discipline and afford it relatively little prominence in their work.
In addition, while interesting work has been done by examining academic and fan identity as the confluence or opposition of reason and emotion, there remains quite a bit of work to be done in unpacking both terms. Defining and understanding our own fan investments mirror the very work of the field, but I’d also be interested in seeing our academic identities treated with greater transparency. What are our theoretical and disciplinary investments? As mentioned by previous discussants, academic and fan investments develop through a similarly hybrid process of intellectual and emotional affinity, so in some ways analysis of disciplinary and theoretical affiliation finds a natural home in fan studies.
However, as we come to understand how our tastes in fan objects shape our studies of fans, a parallel process of understanding how disciplinary and theoretical beliefs shape our ability to think about fans also suggests itself. Particularly arguments about “resistance” and “value” in fandom elucidate a pattern whereby theorists invest fan studies with their individual arguments about the world. I’m not proposing that such a process is in any way avoidable or even undesirable, merely that acknowledging this process could allow us to begin unbundling the object of our disagreements when we disagree about fans; have we really come into conflict about the sociological or cultural reality of fan activities, or should we understand fan activities as merely one battle ground upon which we restage arguments about capital, gender, sexuality, pedagogy, identity, and citizenship, among other key debates?
DJ: I couldn’t agree more with your overall conclusion. In some respects, I think that the controversy that inspired our ongoing discussion this summer has been in part trepidation about the prospect of the more multivalent fan studies we’re proposing: a concern that amid new approaches to thinking about fandom, existing concerns and political coalitions–especially as they pertain to gender–will be lost, eclipsed by a new, masculinist dominant paradigm. But I don’t know that there has to be any dominant paradigm, and I think that this conversation has intervened in that disagreeable possibility by establishing a greater network of communication between a number of scholarly voices all interested in fans for different political, cultural, and economic reasons. If anything, the range of opinions shared in this conversation evidences to me the difficulty with which any one approach to thinking about fans could now truly monopolize the field.
Moving forward, the challenge facing the kind of fan studies we’re advocating seems to be maintaining broad citation as the field expands. If we push for specificity in dealing with all these different types of fans and fan practices, how do we simultaneously maintain a general connection to one another? If we’re interested in entirely different models of fandom, what is the shared interest and point of commonality upon which we can build scholarly dialogues with one another? For example, I’ll admit that I’m guilty as charged (early on in these debates) of infrequently attending conference panels where fans are examined from more productive, communal, celebratory, and/or extra-industrial paradigms. While I recognize the concern that these panels, particularly when comprised of female researchers, have been systematically marginalized (especially when scheduled against better attended “male” fan panels), the issue of my infrequent attendance has generally been one of perceived relevance. Given the differences in how we approach fans, I’ve often elected to instead attend panels that don’t relate to fans per se, but speak to the formal, industrial, or historical contexts in which I’m trying to place “my fans.”
Having more consciously interrogated this choice through our discussion, I’m now less likely to repeat it. So the challenge that I see is not to engage in the naive project of pursuing a unified theory of fandom, but to invest in the construction of a shared intellectual framework where the relevance between such disparate perspectives as ours can be made much more evident. It hasn’t always been clear to me why I should engage in conversations with scholars who study entirely different kinds of fans for entirely different reasons (besides the utility of comparison), and if studies of your fans and of my fans are to cohere as something called “fan studies,” it’s that why we really have to articulate.
I think that you offer a very promising beginning to this question in asking “why/how do we as humans love things” as a central question throughout different kinds of fandom, but one additional thing I’d like to see us do in continuing to explore acafan identity is to try to specifically interrogate our own love as scholars in the process. At times I feel that fan scholars and scholar fans, while not always celebratory of fan cultures, are loathe to engage with the less savory elements of it. We love things as acafans–be they the media texts that our fandom leads us to study, or the fans themselves that we examine–but we need to make sure those amorous feelings can manifest as “tough love” when appropriate. We need to be tough–critical–not just of the fans and texts we study, but of ourselves, because as acafans, it is often our own tastes and practices that we are examining.
But enough longwinded theorizing! As a bonus, we’ve each exchanged two topics or questions of a more fannish nature and limited our responses to one sentence (creative punctuation allowed).
What has been your most formative fan experience?
DJ: I think that would be not a single event, but the realization later on as an adult that I was always involved in some fan “phase” even as I grew up: my early He-Man phase gave way to a Garfield phase in fourth grade, which gave way to a Darkwing Duck phase in middle school, which gave way to the still-not-over Star Trek phase in eighth grade.
AK: While I experienced a powerful sense of recognition and potential upon finding fan fiction, participating in on-line fannish spaces while living abroad provided my most intense awareness of emotional commitment in being a fan and of the radical promise of global cybercommunity.
Describe one fannish and one academic “character” about whom you’re currently excited.
DJ: I’d say I’m currently most excited about Colonel Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica not just because I’m anxious to explore the implications of him being revealed a Cylon, but also because I know that regardless he’ll still be a one-eyed bad ass; academically, I’d say Edward Castronova, who manages to talk about the formal aspects of designed video game spaces while simultaneously discussing their functions in politics, economics, and governance.
AK: I derive incredible energy from what one reviewer called Lauren Berlant’s “superheroic” ability to swoop across intersectional categories of analysis with ease, while I’m currently fannishly involved in a project to rethink the role of characters of color in fan fiction by re-presenting Mani of Brotherhood of the Wolf.
What are you favorite and least favorite representations of fandom in the media?
AK: This is complex (ack, only one sentence!) because audience has an enormous effect, as when I watched Trekkies 2 at a con and felt such a surge of fannish affection but playing it for my class of freshmen bombed, but I’ll say that I’m annoyed with programs which use villains to portray “bad fan” stereotypes, while I enjoy seeing little signs of fanishness pop up in unexpected places, against type, in the lives of complex characters.
DJ: Speaking of villains: my favorite would be the Evil Trio from Buffy (despite vilifying fans, they always made me laugh) and my least favorite would be the dorm R.A. Moe from Veronica Mars (did the Galactica fan who taught Veronica to say “frak” so adorably have to be a rapist-conspirator?).
What would you do if you weren’t an “acafan”?
AK: I completed a B.A. in psychology (joint with cultural studies) which was supposed to lead to a career in clinical or criminal psychology, but at this point after completing a Ph.D. in American Culture with an emphasis in cultural anthropology I would probably end up doing American ethnography with activists, people on probation, migrant workers, or other border-crossers/border-dwellers – and then there’s always the prospect of the Great American Novel kicking around somewhere inside all of us.
DJ: I’d be a script doctor: I’m not as good at coming up with my own stories as coming up with ideas for how to fix other people’s stories.