Aca-Fen Raise Their Banners High: Transformative Works and Culture

This week, the first issue of a new online, open source journal, Transformative Works and Culture, emerged, offering what promises to be an exciting new space for the work of my fellow aca-fen. The journal hopes to be a site for important new discussions around fan studies and cult media from a range of different disciplinary perspectives and represents the next logical step in the evolution of fan studies as a legitimate academic field. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson serve as the journal’s primary editors.

The first issue includes essays, provocations, interviews, and reviews, featuring some of the smartest young writers working in this terrain, with topics ranging from politics (the relationship between the Obama and Clinton campaigns understood in terms of fan politics), horror, soap operas, digital media, fan labor, intellectual property law, and of course, lots about fan fiction, blogging, and vidding practices.

Think you know what academics have to say about fandom — well, there’s probably at least one essay here certain to provoke surprise, shock, even outrage, and that’s part of the fun. And while they want to provide an academically respectable place for young scholars to publish their work, they also see the site as a point of contact between academic and non-academic fans, anyone who wants to go “meta” about their favorite shows and their followings.

I was honored to be

interviewed in the first issue. Here’s part of what I had to say reflecting back on the “Gender and Fan Culture” conversation we ran on this blog:

What the gender and fan culture debate forced me to think about was that there might be a connection between my new emphasis on the relations between producers and consumers and the more male-heavy, less feminist-focused nature of my new work. I need to be concerned that one group of fans may be gaining visibility and influence while other groups are still being excluded and marginalized. My friend Tara McPherson has noted that in general, gender and race have dropped out of academic discussions of digital media, and we need to find ways to reintegrate them into this work. And so, rising to her challenge, I am working much harder now to try to reengage with issues of gender and sexuality through my work. As I note above, my most recent work is about the exclusions within participatory culture and about the unequal relations between corporations and different kinds of fan communities. I am struggling to reconnect my work on participatory culture with the latest rounds of work in feminist scholarship. Fan scholars should try to acknowledge and address these questions of inequality and exclusion in their work. It’s one reason why I speak so much right now about the participation gap and make the point again and again that a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse or inclusive culture.

Fandom is certainly not exempt from these concerns. For a long time, as a Star Trek fan, I was concerned that we spoke about “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” yet those attending conventions are overwhelming white. I now worry a lot about the generational segregation of fan communities. When my wife goes to Escapade, she hears lots of talk about the graying of fandom and sees far fewer fans who are not middle-aged; when I speak at a Harry Potter con, I am shocked by how young most of the fans are. What does this suggest about the social structures of fandom?

Might something similar be going on with race, where we define what shows count as “fannish” according to a set of criteria that may marginalize or exclude minority participants at a time when the shows watched by most white Americans are rather different from those watched by most minority Americans? Interestingly, reality television has been the point of overlap racially, so it would be interesting to know more about how race operates in the fandoms around reality television. But in most cases, reality fandom is cut off from the fiction-focused fandoms.

Incidentally, gender seems to operate differently within some of these fandoms: younger men and women are interacting more together through Harry Potter or anime fandom than was the case with the highly female-centered fan cultures I observed a decade ago.

We need to be asking hard questions within the fan community about how we define our own borders and how different groups of fans interact. They are also questions we need to ask as academics about how we bridge between different scholarly communities that are studying related topics through different language and that may be breaking down along the lines of gender or race. I hope that OTW and TWC can extend the conversation we started on my blog and build connections to other such discussions taking place in and around fandom. But we are only going to achieve that goal if we embrace the broadest possible understanding of what constitutes fan culture and what models might motivate fan studies research.

Many of those featured here — including Louisa Ellen Stein, Anne Kustritz, Francesca Coppa, Catherine Tosenberger, Sam Ford, and Bob Rehak — were participants in my extended series of dialogues on fan studies last year, but there are many new voices which I had not encountered before as well. Those who read this blog will be pleased to see an interview with

Wu Ming 1 as well as to discover the interesting and provocative collaborative, the Audre Lorde of the Rings.

Here are a few other excerpts from the journal that spoke to some of the topics we’ve been discussing here in recent months:

Francesca Coppa on how Star Trek influenced the origins of fan vidding:

“All of these vids work to heal wounds created by the marginalization, displacement, and fragmentation of female characters like Star Trek‘s Number One, restoring female subjectivity and community by editing together what was put asunder. To be a vidder is to work to reunite the disembodied voice and the desiring body, and to embark on this project is to be part of a distinctive and important tradition of female art.”

Catherine Tosenberger on Supernatural‘s cult status:

Supernatural‘s pedigree gives some clues to its popularity among slash fans. The format of the show links it to classic male-male buddy series such as Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals, both of which have venerable slash fandoms. Moreover, Supernatural shares not only a thematic resemblance but an actor (Jensen Ackles) with its lead-in show, Smallville….In addition, Supernatural is a direct descendant of The X-Files: in addition to similar themes, structures, moods, and styles, the two shows share many writing and production personnel. Supernatural’s most striking inheritance from The X-Files is its focus upon the intense relationship between its two main characters: as critic Whitney Cox (2006) remarks, Supernatural “is fueled past its failings almost entirely by the chemistry between the two principals, the boys who, like Mulder and Scully, generate enough sexual tension to power a small city”. The fact that Sam and Dean are brothers in no way detracts from the slashy vibe. In fact, as brothers, they are given a pass for displays of emotion that masculinity in our culture usually forbids, which intensifies the potential for queer readings. Executive story editor Sera Gamble described her conception of the show as “the epic love story of Sam and Dean” (Borsellino 2006); while she quickly avowed that her comment was made in jest to tease creator Eric Kripke, many fan writers consider her statement to be a perfectly accurate description of the show, and they use their own narratives to explore all the implications of the “epic love story.” These fan-fictional narratives are known as Wincest.”

Rebecca Lucy Busker on how LiveJournal is changing fandom:

LiveJournal … is made up of many interconnected spaces, most of which are focused on individual people. On any given fan’s LiveJournal, she herself is the topic, choosing what to discuss or not discuss. Even LiveJournal communities sometimes serve only as link repositories, taking a reader back to a poster’s individual journal. The impact of this shift has been profound, and in many ways it has served to take the focus off the source and put it on the fan, and in turn, on fandom.

One such impact has been an increasing awareness of multiple fandoms. When LiveJournal was just beginning to overtake mailing lists as a dominant medium, one of the purported benefits was customization of the fannish experience. Simply put, each fan could choose which LiveJournals she did or did not read, and thus which other fans she did or did not read. However, this customization extends only to people, not to topics. Although LiveJournal does allow the creation of custom filters, a given journal can only be on the filter or not. No mechanism for filtering posts on a given topic exists. In concrete terms, a person who reads my journal for my posts about Batman must also see my posts about Supernatural (2005-present), at least for however long it takes her to scroll past them. And that assumes I keep my fandoms in discrete posts. Pressure not to spam one’s friends list with multiple posts (not to mention just our own pressures on time and attention) encourages the posting of several topics in one post. Thus, if I watch Doctor Who (2005-present) and The Middleman (2008) in one night (something more and more likely the age of TiVo and torrents), I might very well comment on both in one post. The fan who wants to see my reaction to the new Who episode will thus at least run her eyes over names like Wendy Watson and Ida.

As a result, fans have an increased peripheral, and sometimes even very specific, knowledge of other fandoms. Indeed, a popular meme that recurs every so often involves posting “what I know about fandoms I am not in.” The results are sometimes humorous, but are also often fairly accurate. There was a time I could perhaps identify one song by *NSync if I heard it on the radio. And yet I knew the names of all the members, I could identify them by sight, and I even knew a few personal details.

If any of this grabs your interest, there’s plenty more where this came from. So, check out Transformative Works and Culture.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the shout out! It’s a strong issue and thanks again for consenting to be interviewed for it. I love to see the bits you picked out of each essay.

    If anyone wants the whole issue in one .pdf, we had a fan transform the text for us here (unauthorized fan transformative work! interested parties, please comment with a thank-you if you download the .pdf; it’s 5107 kB, 126 pages).

    (Finally, your hotlink to the ALOTR interview seems broken.)