Gender and Fan Culture (Round Sixteen, Part One): Deborah Kaplan and Alan McKee

Introductions

DK: I’m Deborah Kaplan, and I’m not actually working as an academic; for the last several years I’ve been employed in university digital libraries and digital archives. More than most in this conversation, I exemplify the insider/outsider, amateur/professional divide with which Karen opened the first-round and which Kristina later discussed as well. I’m one of the few in this detente without a Ph.D. or on track to get one. I have a Master of Arts from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College (as well as a Master of Science in Library and Information Science from the same institution, but I think of that as a professional degree more than an academic degree). I’ve published and presented on children’s literature, fan studies, and media studies, and I’ve taught children’s literature both to undergraduates and to Ph.D. candidates. Like Karen, I’ve found that not having an affiliation to place on paper submissions has resulted in confusion, and at conferences, I have found that having a name tag which says “independent scholar” leads to other academics being sweetly and patronizingly (and I’m sure well-meaningly) supportive. For this reason, I’ve started putting the names of my university employers as my affiliation, even though, as a librarian, I get no institutional support for my scholarship.

AM: And I’m Alan McKee. I’m a fully traditional academic – PhD, series of tenured academic positions at Universities, publications with University Presses. I’m not proud of that, although I do love having a regular income. And I appreciate exactly what Deborah is talking about – there’s an authority and security that comes with being credentialed, and speaking from a tenured academic position. It means you don’t have to fight so hard to have your voice heard – in the media as much as in intellectual circles. I believe that many very intelligent people don’t work in the university sector, and many stupid people do. My research interests involve popular media, particularly television. The thrust of my work is bringing vernacular thinking into intellectual debates. Although we are finally getting female and Black voices in cultural theory, I’m particularly interested in the way that working class voices are still excluded, by means of a methodological inequality. We approach Art, Literature and Philosophy through the methodology of exegesis – let’s explore the ideas presented here. And we approach soap operas, romance novels and pop music through ideological criticism – what are the hidden relations of power? I’d like to swap those around. Learn useful insights about how culture works from romance novels – and deconstruct Adorno for his hidden, ugly prejudices …

My latest book was Beautiful Things in Popular Culture – a collection of essays by connoisseurs of various areas of popular culture describing ‘the best’ example in their area of expertise, and using that as a way into discussing the vernacular aesthetic systems by which consumers make such judgments – ‘the best Batman comic’; ‘the best basketball player’; ‘the best action console game’, etc.

Lowbrow culture

DK: Reading Beautiful Things shone an interesting light on many of my own experiences with consumption. I consume vast amounts of highly denigrated popular culture: children’s and young adult literature, fan fiction, science fiction and fantasy, chick lit, science fiction television, romance novels, comics. Really, aside from the fact that I don’t watch reality television, my consumption patterns are (like many people’s) heavily lowbrow. With the exception of a few authors, I don’t read highbrow literature for pleasure, and even those highbrow authors I do read are often denigrated by the establishment for writing women’s literature, or are slotted carefully into the multicultural space available on a reading list (Jeanette Winterson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Kazuo Ishiguro). When I was a child I watched PBS and A&E with my parents; now I’m fond of PBS pretty much only as the network that brought me Doctor Who throughout my childhood. I don’t listen to NPR; I listen to folk or classic rock or pop stations.

And yet I am constantly being told my tastes are too highbrow. When I discuss romances academically, I’ve been told by some that because I primarily read romances by a particular group of highly educated, highly literate, occasionally-to-highly subversive romance novelists (Jennie Cruisie, Julia Quinn, Suzanne Robinson), my experiences of the genre are incomplete. As a reviewer and a children’s literature scholar, I’ve been told that the books I recommend (Peeps, Queen of Attolia, Flora Segunda) are highbrow and high-quality but not what children actually read, since they would definitely prefer to read Captain Underpants (this, incidentally, is demonstratably untrue; young readers are extremely discerning about what they read but the measures they used to decide what is, in your words (or your mother’s, in Beautiful Things), “shit” and what is not are their own and cross highbrow/lowbrow boundaries easily).

AM. I don’t get the same comments. My tastes are pretty standard – my favourite Doctor Who stories are usually in the top ten as voted by fans, and my tastes in gay porn are pretty standard (eg, I avoid Genet). This raises an interesting point for me. There’s a useful article by Simon Frith and Jon Savage called, ‘Pearls and swine’ (New Left Review 1993) which chastised academics who did fan studies for pretending to be just like other fans, and called on them to acknowledge that they are different. That never made sense to me. I know that I’m an academic – after many years of resisting the label, I’ve now come out and admitted it to myself and others (although I still don’t put it on my Gaydar profile, as it does put guys off wanting to have sex with you). But for me, the difference this involves from other fans is in terms of the time I am granted to study these issues, the resources I have access to, and the authority my pronouncements are given. I don’t see much evidence that my tastes or my engagements with the texts are that different from those of other people. I don’t like opera, or philosophy, or literary fiction. I don’t have to pretend to like Big Brother. I genuinely embrace it. And I often feel quite inadequate when I look at the amount of work done by non-academic fan scholars, whose knowledge of an area, their understanding of its relationship to wider culture, and the sheer amount of research they do makes my own work look shoddy by comparison.

Fan expertise

DK: As a scholar, I’m also often overwhelmed when I look at the incredibly intelligent responses nonacademic fans give to their favorite source text, whether it’s a television show or a sports event. Certainly there are plenty of responses which aren’t trying to be thoughtful, and I’m not saying every thoughtful post is brilliant. And certainly nonacademic fans often don’t have access to prior discussions about the fields that interest them, but assuming that a fan’s response is going to be less thoughtful than an academic’s is asking for trouble.

AM: Amen to that! I’m always amazed when I hear this argument – ‘But a lot of fan writing is badly researched and badly written and poorly thought out’. Well, yeah. And so is a lot of academic writing (have you ever read any Adorno?). But some academic writing is insightful and full of interesting information and beautifully written. And so is some fan writing. Neither academics nor fans have any monopoly on bad writing about culture.

DK: I remember a couple of years ago a segment of the livejournal fandom (the blog service livejournal.com, in which a female-dominated segment of media fandom has made its home) started asking “is there such a thing as queer heterosexuality” — completely unaware of queer heterosexuality as an emerging, cutting-edge theme in queer theory. Fandom’s thoughts on the topic are often as or more thoughtful than the scholarship I have seen. I’m not saying that every bit of meta-discussion that emerges from fan communities is useful or productive (nor is all of the scholarship which emerges from academic communities, to be fair). But I am saying that at last year’s Popular Culture Association conference, I heard a number of papers on currently popular television shows which were less insightful than many a fannish reaction blog post.

AM: And I recently refereed a paper written by an International Relations scholar about using TV programs to think about politics – interesting and thoughtful, and with no idea that cultural studies had been thinking about this topic for thirty years. And I’m sure that the same is true in reverse of cultural studies scholars who know nothing about the work taking place in other disciplines. Similarly, I think it would do no harm for academics interested in community, identity and politics to have to watch both seasons of the British version of Queer as Folk. If they haven’t seen it I think they’re well behind on thinking about the relationship of ambivalence, passion and love in community formation and politics.

DK: This is reminding me of Peter Walsh’s “Expert Paradigm”. I’m not thinking of it as it’s discussed in Convergence Culture, with traditional expertise held in opposition to the collective intelligence of the Internet — the Wikipedia model, say. Rather, I’m thinking of the Internet’s ability to both expose and hone the expertise of the non-credentialed. Exposure: surely a blog post gives a level of exposure unmatchable by presenting a paper to a room containing 16 overtired academics at an MLA conference. Honing expertise: a community of intelligent, thoughtful individuals sharing their cultural reactions acts like an advanced graduate seminar for the participants. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen teenagers on livejournal posts thoughts on culture or media which I couldn’t have even approximated until graduate school. These communities, these discussion groups comprising teenagers, tenured faculty, professionals, laypeople who just like television — all of their thoughts and responses feed in to this massive intellectual crucible, creating a wonderful, vibrant, dynamic pool of uncredentialed experts.

DK: My first published essay, on the children’s fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, reportedly provoked Jones herself to take the piss for my overly-academic interpretation of her work, and particularly for using the phrase “rooted in fluidity” (which was intentionally self-contradicting, I’ll have you know!). I’m always trying to find a balance in my own scholarship between jargon and accessibility. My bias is towards accessibility but because I write in fields which are heavily denigrated by the academic establishment I always feel an invisible pressure to make my work seem more highbrow. My essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet is probably the most jargon-filled essay I’ve ever written, much to its detriment, because while writing I felt a hypersensitive need to prove myself as a serious scholar. Even within fan studies my work is unusual, in that I focus on texts rather than fans. (I’m not sure who I’m trying to prove myself to; one big advantage of being an outsider in academia is that I don’t have to convince a tenure committee of anything.)

AM: I’m going the opposite way. Probably my most jargon-ridden piece of writing was an article I published early in my career in Cultural Studies that drew on Baudrillard’s notions of banality and fatality (everybody who knows the current version of me will be wearing shocked expressions right now – philosophy? Moi?). It was a necessary piece of badging (you can’t get into Cultural Studies unless you ‘do’ jargon, preferably with some literary theory, focussed on a philosophical or art object). Now that I’m tenured Associate Professor, I don’t need to do that any more. Now I work on the assumption that if you can’t express at least the basic outline of an idea to first year students using everyday language then you don’t really understand it.

Comments

  1. I’m curious about Alan McKee’s casual remarks on Adorno. What is it precisely that’s the problem? I’m guessing it’s Adorno’s preference for “high art” and rejection of pop culture because of its commoditized nature, of it being an object of consumption rather than an object of art. I would very much appreciate some more comments on the issue, though, seeing as even despite that, Adorno does open ways for thinking about culture (or cultural objects/productions) as determining “reality” as much as the other way around.

    As a philosophy student, I can understand several of the concerns above. Personally, I think there’s something wrong with philosophy when it says a lot that no one (or just those “overtired academics”) will listen. Vernacular culture has to come into intellectual debates just as intellectual debates have to be made accesible to a somewhat general public, not to a jargonized few. Its just as AM says in the end: if you can’t explain it to first year students in everyday language, then what’s the point? By doing that you only get to talk with a bunch of people you already know repeating things you’ve already heard. Kind of stagnating, come to think about it.

  2. Deborah, thanks for invoking me and the other independent, unaffiliated scholars! I also agree that “surely a blog post gives a level of exposure unmatchable by presenting a paper to a room containing 16 overtired academics at an MLA conference.” I’ve been trying out the blogging and not getting much readership, but I’m using the blog to stake my claim and put my ideas out there until I have time to write them up for…er…publication. Or something.

    But blog posts–they’re so very informal. And fans? Some of them are articulate and make great points, sure, but they’re so very unruly.

    Ultimately, I think it becomes all about the authority, the importance of the academy as gatekeeper, the investment scholars have in maintaining authority because it grants them useful privilege, which becomes a token of exchange.

    And Alan, I commend you to Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of anything is crud, be it fan fiction, literature, or academic writing. I sit with you, read gay porn over your shoulder, and eagerly await the day when discourse becomes comprehensible.

  3. Alan McKee says:

    Eduardo – there’s more about this in part 2, but mainly my problem with Adorno is with his lack of knowledge of popular culture, or of the people who consume it. His claims about the inability of the masses to show discrimination in their consumption strikes me as not only rude, but also ill-informed. As you can see, it all makes me very angry …

  4. Alan, certainly after reading part 2 the tension between popular and “high” culture is quite clear. Yet still I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a minute, and continue with Adorno. That is, because his claims are aimed at a very specific cultural context -I hope I don’t step into a Godwin here-, Europe as it gave birth to Nazi totalitarianism and the Holocaust.

    I’m focusing, of course, mainly on Dialectic of Enlightenment. In Adorno’s view, “culture industries” are partly to blame for homogenizing culture and forcing the adoption of the ideals which ultimately led to the spread of totalitarian beliefs. His personal experience gave him solid ground on which to base his arguments.

    This, of course, doesn’t make the problem go away at all. But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the issue after bringing these elements into consideration.

  5. Karen — I admit I like a bit of both. The unruliness of fans allows for speed, passion, unpopular opinions, re-exploration of closed topics, and some wonderful high paced brainstorming. But the organization of the academy applies frameworks: focus, organization, care, prior literature searches, institutional review boards, cited sources, and yes, credentials as a positive. Many of these things are a major pain when actually confronted by a researcher, but a very valuable in terms of the resulting work, improving its quality, trustworthiness, and ethical environment. There are ways in which I absolutely want the academy to be less full of itself, to be less bound to archaic power structures which reinforced its own importance without advancing knowledge. But I still value the academy and frameworks it provides.

    Eduardo — I can’t speak to Alan’s disapproval of Adorno, but I certainly should hope it doesn’t count as an invitation of Godwin to discuss the views of Frankfurt School philosophers! Sometimes conversations come back to Naziism because Naziism is relevant.