Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eighteen, Part Two): Julie Levin Russo and Hector Postigo

Technology and Control

HP: One of the things we talked about during our meeting in Providence was how new media technologies, especially the internet, can potentiate changing conditions and relations vis a vis consumers and producers? I’ve sort of touched on this a bit above with my comments about how the web allows for mass broadcast of previously isolated products. So I think user production and fan contributions and their value (i.e their exploitability) are a function of the medium. Fan fiction for example, has been around for some time and their communities have been able to coalesce and remain together over time thanks to zines and fan cons and other social/communication enterprises. I think that the web adds an element of mass broadcast to fan production such that we are talking about fan products as content; as part of the commoditized information flowing out of the pipe. So I don’t think we can any longer ignore the political economy of fandom. One of the interesting points that comes of all this is the question of control. If all this production is entering into some sort of relation with capital how is it controlled? The relations we discussed above are social relations but they happen through a technology so we could ask ourselves to what extent does the technology of the internet shape/is shaped by the productive relationships?

JLR: I’m so glad you asked! Control is a fruitful concept for articulating the economy with technology because, as the story of late capitalism goes, a new configuration of control is now coming to the fore: one which is just as horizontal, localized, and networked as the field of production on which it operates. Rather than enforcing prohibitions, it organizes possibilities and enables free movement within them — often mobilizing technology to do so. In Protocol, Alex Galloway suggests that today we commonly experience hybrid grids of control, and offers the anatomy of the internet an as example: it combines the top-down architecture of DNS with the distributed architecture of TCP/IP. I often notice an analogous strategy at work in proprietary fan-driven content initiatives, where the confining threat of legal muscle is overlaid on a structured platform for creative license, striking a compromise that (when it’s successful) is tolerable to both sides. What’s clear is that, at this point, if we’re looking out for hierarchical, centralized diagrams of power, we’re going to sail right over the terrain of struggle. Web 2.0 is seductive in its user-centric mentality, but in exchange for the convenience and scale of social media we accept (literally, by ticking the box on the TOS) its given parameters, both technological and economic. Recently fandom is beginning to wise up to this dynamic and work towards building an infrastructure that is user designed, owned, and operated.

HP: I like the idea of alternative infrastructures that resist the commercial iterations of things like Web 2.0 driven social enterprises. I wonder to what degree power in this system of sociability/production/distribution is dependent on technological know-how. Will only those that can design infrastructure be able to challenge protocol with a counter-protocol? I would take a lesson from Langdon Winner and say that not all of us have to be technologist but it’s in all our best interests to be concerned with the technological structures that consistently arise around us. We walk around in a state of what he calls “technological somnambulism” where before we know it we are moving through systems (social and technological) that were not democratically designed nor designed with the interest of democracy in mind. To what degree is this happening in participatory culture…to what degree has protocol taken shape around us without our input and without consideration to the values that users/fans/etc hold dear?

To get to the question of gender and technology it seems that these are not only pressing questions for participatory culture but also questions about how technologies embody gendered/sexist assumptions of what it means to produce in the digital world. Pointing to the troubling trend, when a technologies or professions become populated by women the economic rewards for the work decrease…the idea may be related to class too as for example when we say that a technology “is so easy to use anybody can do it” what we mean is that it’s lost its elite status because not only college educated white men can use it but also everyone else of any class, educational background, and gender. In the logic of supply and demand of course this would dictate that the supply is increased and thus the value is decreased but I don’t think this maps out in the area of cultural productions where conversations, reconstructions, and networks create value…in these cases the fact that anybody can do actually adds value but the elitist rhetoric holds it back when viewed from a market perspective.

JLR: Interestingly, this gendered revaluation can also move in the opposite direction: some occupations, such as film editing and computer programming, were initially understood as repetitive, detail-oriented labor that was thus feminized and performed primarily by women, and then later masculinized into elite technical skills. And while one sentence isn’t much of a corrective to the white- and US-centric slant of this project, I’d like to note that there’s a global dimension of inequality here too, as devalued forms of work are often relegated to the world’s as well as the nation’s “second-class” citizens.

One cause for optimism in the localized case of media fandom is that it’s always been full of geeks — women with highly-developed expertise in digital technologies — and thus surfed the first wave of innovation throughout its decades-long history (thanks to Francesca Coppa for reminding us of this). Moreover, fandom is collaborative, so it’s not necessary for us to be cultivating a counter-protocol on an individual basis when we collectively have a resevoir of competences to share. In any case, these are all good examples of the myriad ways technology intersects and intertwines with power, gesturing toward the merits of exploring, within our academic work, the particularities of its role in fan practice and fan/industry relations.

Ownership and Desire

HP: From the small clip I saw of your work it looks like you are looking at the content produced by fans and how readings of a text (TV show) inform fan production and how that production does or does not mesh with what we assume are the goals of the industry. In my experience with video games, I have not played close attention to content just its volume (i.e. how much of it there actual is). I would posit that the substance of the content (what it is actually is about) is in the aggregate less of a concern to media companies than the whole productive field. Which is to say that so long as the whole of the content has substance that can help meet the demands of selling that product then the media companies do (or should) live with the content that in substance is not “mainstream” that from a bottom line perspective this content does one of two things for the content owners. #1 Nothing or #2 something profitable. #2 is interesting to me because it says that in some way all content is profitable and this is why. Of all the content that is produced by fans some will be quite good, some may even bring some attention to the original work which then helps the media companies, some will be bad (poor quality which does nothing for the company) some will have readings that the company may object to. If the whole field of fan production is seen as a testing ground, a free market-research domain, then companies can’t really loose. If they notice that everyone seems to like a particular reading then that is an intimation that perhaps that reading ought to be explored, packaged, resold. I think this claim runs into trouble when there are critical messages in fan created content such that they critique the media company where it would be believed that the content will actually be bad for the bottom line. This is all well and good for content owners but what about the fans. It seems problematic especially if the critical force of some content rests in part on marginal status.

JLR: In terms of content, I think there are some legitimate concerns among fans about the suppression of work that falls at the more extreme end of the continuum of “non-mainstream” readings. In these exceptional cases, there can be a #3: something perceived as detrimental to the value of the property or service. One recent and very visible example is LiveJournal’s mass suspension of journals and communities accused of hosting “pornographic” works about underage Harry Potter characters, supposedly in violation of LJ’s TOS. I’d argue that this is an instance where the substance of fan creations threatened the ideological underpinnings of the dominant system, albeit an oblique threat filtered through a series of legal and institutional mediations. The specter of such a crackdown hovers over the rich cosmos of derivative smut, the majority of which is currently situated within commercial social media platforms with official bans on “inappropriate content” (which they can interpret and enforce at will).

I wouldn’t claim, though, that fan activities resist commodification simply by virtue of being slashy or critical — the commercial media are becoming ever-more adept at self-reflexively absorbing such orientations. For the most part I agree with you that the salient conditions are structural and largely independent of the content of fanworks. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m saying that femslash challenges capitalism because it’s about lesbians! However, I do think we can view queer fan production as form and not just as content. The widespread notion of “subtext” implies an open, plural, and dehierarchized model of textuality wherein diffuse and collective creative labor isn’t easily contained by top-down intention and authority. I realize I’m risking a dubious move here, collapsing embodied queer sexuality into metaphorically queer textuality, but I’m committed to making this metaphor work convincingly in my project. Given the centrality of the mechanics of desire to the economic system, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the representation of desire becomes particularly unruly. Considering that the value of media properties inheres in the libidinal labor of their consumers, corporate “ownership” is held in place primarily by the external fiat of intellectual property law. I think this is a foundational contradiction that fandom can productively stress.

HP: I find this last paragraph very interesting. It sounds like you are drawing a parallel between the drive to inspire a desire for a given commodity and the “unruly” representations of desire in fan production. (“Given the centrality of the mechanics of desire to the economic system, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the representation of desire becomes particularly unruly”). Equally interesting is the claim that desiring the commodity gives it value (actually the interesting part is the consequences you imply). That this desire (wanting) is labor in itself that justifies a claim of ownership by fan communities (You statement that IP is a fiat that holds owners claims in place leads me to this interpretation…correct me if I’m wrong). I like both of these because they really de-center the rhetoric of IP that has governed western rationale for property ownership: the “mixing of labor” argument put forth by Locke. In your interpretation it is the mixing of desire (ironically constructed by capital to drive consumption) with the raw material of popular culture industry products that legitimizes ownership. You don’t outright say this but I think you imply it. Also the first sentence I quoted above suggests that consumption driven by desire leads in some instances to re-writings inspired by desire. The link between the two can further be stretched to articulate with Jenkins’ recent arguments for a moral economy of fan production and ownership…if we count desire as a valid “mixing of labor” argument (where labor is now desire) then the moral hold on property (which is in part the foundation of IP at least in political philosophical terms) is shaken. NEATO!

To further think about how your thoughts might de-center other lines of rationalizing about how IP gets legitimized through moral/philosophy rhetoric we might consider the notion that creative works are part of the self. Thus in the European tradition authors’ rights tend to be stronger in terms of the control authors have over their IP because in a sense it is extension of the self. It would seem that desire as a vehicle for extending the self into the production of fan re-writings, for example, would create competing claims about self. In other words, authors’ claims of moral ownership over a particular piece of IP rooted in arguments of the self conflicts with fans’ claims of ownership over a re-writing based on the same arguments. In this sense it would seem that the claims of self from fans would be secondary to the claims of self by original authors. However, the scholarship of legal scholars like James Boyle suggests that in a cultural commons the original author is a myth. This has interesting consequences for any totalizing claims over IP.

JLR: First of all, thank you for this elaboration of my ideas! I’m still in the early stages of trying to articulate this thesis, and it’s exciting that you can amplify it in ways that make sense. I’m pretty rusty on Locke and much subsequent political and legal theory, but I think you’ve captured the contradictions I’m getting at here. I love that you come around to the relation between creativity and selfhood — of course the IP regime depends on a unified and bounded model of subjectivity wherein “original” artistic production emanates ex nihilo from individual interiority (which, as you mentioned in pt. 1, tends to be inflected as male/white/bourgeois). Working psychoanalytically, I’d go beyond competing selves to argue that any of the selves involved is internally conflicting, fragmented, and intertextual, further compromising the claim of “ownership” over expression.

Nonetheless, intellectual property law is held in place by institutional power (the tangible threat of debilitating lawsuits [Fair Use doctrine has been called "the right to be sued"] and the intensifying alliance between legislative and corporate sectors in extensions of copyright), often very successfully despite this conceptual incoherence (which grows ever more insistent as consumption and production blur together). What I find valuable about analyses of concentrated “moral economies,” though, is that they can highlight the equally central role of discourse in this process. Copyright, which undergirds the economics of who can make money from what kinds of artistic labor, can’t operate only by force — its legitimacy requires an ongoing ideological negotiation (this should sound Gramscian). This is one example of how work — both academic work and fan work — that engages at the level of discourse is crucial. I hope that this series of “debates” can, at best, be an intervention on that very real terrain.

HP: I agree with your last paragraph. It seems that the discourse has been dominated by rhetoric that dominates IP law and policy. Such things as copyright as incentive, the balance between the public and the authors and the construction of users as pirates all tend to skew how we percieve the limits of use. The problem of course is that these are powerful tropes in US society and so alternative discourse is needed to challenge them. Well I think that wraps it up for me. Thanks go out to Henry for giving us the forum and thank you for engaging in these topics with me. Hopefully we can meet for tea again!

JLR: The communities that we work on and within, modders/hackers and fan producers, have certainly been dynamic channels for alternative economies, discursive and otherwise. So my optimism hasn’t been disciplined out of me yet! I’d like to thank you, Henry, and the rest of the participants for this opportunity to ruminate and hold forth on some of the issues I’m passionate about. It’s been a pleasure conversing with you, and very fruitful for my own process. Look me up when you’re next in town!


  1. The last section really turned on the light bulbs for me, and pointed towards a critical strategy as the relationships between fans (users, modders, etc.) and the copyright industries continue to change.

    There’s too much spinning out of this to really even begin to address in one comment, but let me hone in on one: the development of alternative tools, spaces, and discourses. This is arguably the most crucial tactic we have to not only stave off corporate and/or undemocratic control, but to create some tangible models for moving completely beyond them for the long term.

    Moreover, despite the seeming growing control that TPTB are having over fan/user domains, there’s plenty of precedents in history for relatively rapid and even abrupt shifts in social and legal ideologies, particularly as they pertain to creative works.

    Great contribution, Hector and Julie!