Acafandom and Beyond: Week One, Part One (Anne Kustritz, Louisa Stein, and Sam Ford)

This is the first installment of our summer-long discussion of “Acafandom and Beyond.” Many readers ask me what “Acafan” means in the title of this blog. This conversation will be a chance to dig deeper into this concept and explore its relationship to more general concerns of the place of subjectivity and self-reflexivity in cultural critique. In the first segment of each week, we will be reading opening statements from the three invited participants.

Anne Kustritz: My interest in aca-fan identity derives from two main concerns. First, I envision the aca-fan construct as the demarcation of a site of cultural and political struggle and an opportunity for solidarity; yet it often seems to be represented as a coherent or even essentialized standpoint or identity (and identity politics). Secondly, the issues I imagine as most central to theorization of aca-fan identity have also been elucidated significantly in the works of post-structuralist, post-modern, feminist, queer, post-colonial, and native ethnography/ethnology, and those conversations would significantly enrich our dialogue.

It seems to me that arguments about or discussions of aca-fan identity often work at cross-purposes because they reveal the lack of a shared object and method: that is, the material incoherency/heterogeneity of both the “fan” and the “studies” of fan studies; basic disagreement about the organization and definition of these terms means that scholars (and fans) discussing aca-fan identity lack a shared vocabulary. The stakes involved in embracing, repudiating, or entirely avoiding the aca-fan construct remain localized within particular geographical and institutional spaces. Thus, the conversation looks almost entirely different depending upon which fans one studies, using which methods. For example, in my own work I’ve tried to make a distinction between “creative” and “as is” fans who either treat the canon as open to fan transformation, or a closed system to be interpreted and commented upon but not altered. In past aca-fan discussions I’ve also come to see the critical importance of studying enculturated versus unincorporated fans as a locus of disagreement, i.e. those fans who participate in communities and define themselves through that participation, and those who act within a less fixed network, or none at all.

Both of these distinctions as well as numerous others repeatedly unseat our attempts to determine who is a fan, and thus what may be gained or lost by identifying as such. Subsequently, the methods one uses to study “their” type of fans also structures beliefs about the aca-fan concept, particularly between those who see fans as primarily a textual phenomena and those who see fans as a primarily socio-cultural phenomena, as well as those who balance the two perspectives. Even then, significant disagreement still persists over whether fans primarily pose artistic, psychological, cultural, legal, or political questions. Our investments in who defines a fan, how they should be studied, and why we study fans all become ventriloquized in discussions about the value and nature of aca-fan identification. In other words, a little self-reflexivity about our thoughts on self-reflexivity might be in order.

Secondly, our discussion of aca-fan identity occurs in the wake of two decades of debate in cultural anthropology about the trials and tribulations of studying a group to which one belongs, as well as over a century of thought on the unique political, ethical, and psychological implications of studying people. While it may seem strange to turn to anthropology, especially to those who study unincorporated, “as is” fans, it would behoove us to take these conversations into account and allow them to enrich our dialogue. We need not invent this wheel. Just as a sample, post-structuralist anthropology, particularly the works of James Clifford, warn against allowing our observations of some behavior of one group of people to construct a coherent, ahistorical, or essencialized notion of “culture” – or “fans.” Rather, it is through the act of naming and narrating both our participants and ourselves as fans that these scattered activities seem homogenous and inherently meaningful.

Ruth Behar’s work, thought by many to mark the beginning of cultural anthropology’s self-reflexive turn, deeply probes the layers of hierarchy and difference at play when the life story of a researcher comes into contact with the on-going life stories of her group of interest. She notes that while self-narratives of the heroic, self-determined researcher feel reassuring, it is more honest and affords deeper human connections with participants and readers to acknowledge our fallibility and partiality while engaging in what she terms “vulnerable observation.”

Similarly, many critical ethnographers, including Gelya Frank, Gayle Rubin, and Kamala Visweswaran, argue that doing work within our own communities does not resolve the inherited colonial and class based baggage inherent in “studying down,” but rather often intensifies them because one begins to study the very system of hierarchy within which one’s own life remains entangled.

Scholars like Julie Taylor who use ethnographic methods at the disciplinary margins challenge us to reconceptualize the value of academic work by refusing to mystify its necessary partiality, limitations, and personal/somatic origins, instead celebrating the inescapable fact that academic work comes from unique subjectivities. Thus Taylor describes her work as “her tango,” and makes the specific enunciation (rather than inherent nature) of Argentine tango danced by herself and her participants as inflected by the widespread terror of the dirty war and the gendered terror of sexual abuse the very focus and strengths of her study. In general, critical cultural anthropologists, ethnographers, and ethnologists offer a long literature problematizing the culture concept, probing the construction of researchers’ identities both “in the field,” and at home, as well as while doing “homework,” and imagining a type of scholarship not based on the false empiricisms of absolute, essential, or ahistorical knowledge.

Therefore, I find it important to start by stating that I study enculturated, creative fans using an interdisciplinary array of mixed methods including critical theory and ethnography. My feelings about the aca-fan concept are thereby conditioned by my training in both cultural studies and critical cultural anthropology. I am wary of allowing the aca-fan construction to imply any homogeneity of culture or identity construction among either fans or academics, and instead find it most useful as the description of a site of struggle between the dominant constructions of each, pointing toward many disciplines’ remaining investments in “objectivity,” and the social stereotype of “the fan” as masculine yet emasculated, overly emotional yet analytic and socially inept, educated yet enraptured with the detritus of the popular.

Although I emphasize the heterogeneity of experience and investment among the group and my own idiosyncratic place therein, I identify as a slash fan and an aca-fan because these are labels of solidarity for me. Like queer, these offer an opportunity to claim and stand with a set of socially marked investments in sex, sociality, research practice, and classed cultural tastes.

Louisa Stein This August I will be going to my first fan convention. It’s a very specific fan con, not one that is focused on any particular series, but rather a con that brings together practitioners and appreciators of the practice of fan remix video known as vidding. The con is called Vividcon, and for three days fans and vidders gather to screen vids, discuss vids, assess vids, critique vids, and dance to vids.

Vividcon represents a turning point for me, as does the writing of this piece. I have always found negotiating my fan and academic personae to be a fraught process. As a result I have steered away from directly sharing my fannish narratives or experiences in academic contexts and vice versa. Indeed, for a long time I maintained not one or two but four online journaling spaces, including an academic blog, a fannish journal, a personal journal, and an acafannish journal. In recent years I’ve begun to question whether this level of split personality management might be the healthiest thing, and so I’ve worked to bring together these different dimensions of my cultural participation.

Vividcon will be the first embodied experiential union of these two sets of perspective, both of which I claim as mine. Not that I’m going to go in waving academic credentials–indeed, I am as worried about negative fan response to the “aca” part as I am about academics to the “fan” part (a worry that is perhaps exaggerated, as I am certainly not the only academic attending the conference, and there is in fact a workshop being held on academic work on vidding).

But regardless of my own uneasiness, if I’m going to Vividcon, I am going as myself, and that means as a fan, a vidder, and an academic, in no particular order. These positions may seem distinct and contradictory, but when I poke at them I find they are not; I produce both as an academic and as a vidder, but in one case I create with words alone, the other with music and image. And crucially, in both cases I engage in dialogue with others who similarly care about thinking in sustained ways about media, media culture, and media reception.

The term “acafan” in all its messiness suggests an unexpected and in many cases uneasy (and from some perspectives, unwanted) combination. The aca side conveys notions of academic knowledge–knowledge of and by the academy–knowledge hashed out in peer reviewed journals and modes of thought schooled in classrooms and conferences, sustained, rigorous, tested knowledge. The fan side brings (overtly) to the table investment, fantasy, unabashed emotion, focus and devotion, abashed emotion, consumer willingness, consumer un-willingness, consumer anger, mainstream engagement with popular culture, non-mainstream engagement in popular culture, de-centered authorship, online peer culture, visible female authorship, queer engagement.

My dual allegiance to both sides has forced me to realize from the start that this uneasy synthesis of perspectives is part of my position as a media scholar and as a media lover and as a fan. In the end I believe this dynamic of productive tension or uneveness isn’t relevant only to people who identify as fans and academics, but to academics who study culture more broadly.

Maybe acafan is an imperfect and now loaded term, but any term that gets at this dual, conflicted union will accumulate baggage because of the nature of the concept, and this one has a specific history and history of scholarship that I would be loathe to erase in an attempt to get away from problems that are, from another perspective, core strengths, contradictions and all.

The concept and term “acafan” do not in themselves offer an answer: far from it. Rather they lead us always to key questions: how do I balance investment and critical analysis, how do we usefully acknowledge our particular positioning in relation to a given text or community, and what insights come from a given situated position (be it casual observer, lurker, personal fan, fan-creator, community participant, antifan)? I (and I am sure I am not alone in this) face these questions as part of an ongoing process, and the questions change along with the community contexts, media texts, and my investment. Thus to me “acafan” is not a category of scholar or a defined community, nor even a fixed position, but rather a descriptor of an ongoing, ever shifting critical and personal process.

Sam Ford: Over the past few years, the term “acafan” has been picked up for a variety of uses. For academics, it’s been a way to discuss a particular type of fan studies. By that, I mean pieces more qualitative in nature, more informed by in-depth knowledge of a particular fan culture because it’s been written by someone who is a member of that community, and which often use an inductive sort of logic, focusing on the rich details of a particular fan community and then looking at what that case might tell us about fan practices at large.

It’s also become a way to be more up-front about one’s own complicity in what he is writing about (as Anne discusses), encouraging academics to both admit the limitations their “embeddedness” causes but also to be able to draw from the knowledge they have as a participant of some sort in a particular fandom or as a self-professed “fan” of a media property.

But, of course, both “academic” and “fan” are loaded terms. There’s plenty of anti-fandom in academic culture (as Louisa alludes to), which the “acafan” has been a construct to rail against. And there’s plenty of anti-egghead feelings in fan culture, both conceptual (not seeing the value in “overanalyzing” or questioning the “privileged”/heightened position an academic is perceived to be taking on) and based on real experience (for any of us who have ever ran into an “acafan” who believes their fannish opinion “superior” because they are “not just a fan but also an academic.”)

As fan communities face members who see their positions as enlightened because of their “superior” knowledge–and as academic conferences, programs, and journals are flooded with people who see fan studies as a justification to make a living writing about their hobby without worrying so much about any critical intervention or generating compelling insights–it’s perhaps no surprise that the term has “grown” to the point that people are now questioning whether its use has been stretched past usefulness.

Hence, we have this series over the summer here on Henry’s blog: what I hope will be a helpful intervention to figure out what can’t be lost about the position, methodology, and type of writing/discussion implied by the “acafan” construct while hopefully helping weed out ways that the term has come to be used in counterproductive ways.

While I don’t have deep investment in whether the actual term “acafan” is retained, I do have reservations about what could be lost in abandoning the term. As Anne points out, there is a lack of boundaries in fan studies that is both freeing (being able to draw from multiple disciplines/methodologies and encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration) and constraining (a lack of shared vocabulary, etc.) But, even as we celebrate the interdisciplinary nature of fan studies, I think it’s crucial to think about all the areas of what might be considered “fan studies” which our field has not intersected with: sports studies and music/folklore studies, for instance, both of which are areas where many of the academics writing in these areas likely have deep personal/social investments in their objects of study. The “acafan” construct still might act as a means through which we can connect many academics who “fan studies” as a “field” has not yet intersected with.

Even more fundamentally, I fear a dismissal of “acafandom” outright might miss opportunities for collaboration, conversation and debate between fan studies academics and fan communities members who deeply invested in larger discussions about fandom, the politics of affinity communities, etc. I feel that the idea of “acafandom” have come to represent spaces of collaboration where academics studying fandom can learn from fans and vice versa, and I’ve participated in a variety of conversations, online and in-person, that have been strengthened by collaborative discussion between those who study fandom professionally and those who primarily approach fandom through “vernacular theory” (to borrow Thomas McLaughlin’s term).

As someone with a deep investment in “applied humanities” (to use a popular term from my alma mater, MIT), I long to see an academia more inclusive of a diverse range of “non-academic” opinions, just as I long to see the insights of media studies academics reach audiences outside journal readership and media studies conference attendees. For me, acafandom has represented sites for such collaboration, and I feel that fan studies loses significant ground if we accidentally raze spaces for interdisciplinary and academic/fan dialogue in reconsidering our use of the term.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at hjenkins@usc.edu and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.

Anne Kustritz will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at The University of Amsterdam in Media Studies as of fall 2011, after teaching in Women and Gender Studies at the College at Brockport, SUNY. Her work focuses on slash fan fiction, internet ethnography, and queer reproductive politics. Her articles include “Slashing the Romance Narrative” and “Postmodern Eugenics” (forthcoming), and she sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures. Anne is a fan of Michele Foucault, baking, fruit forward red wines, Ani DiFranco, hatha yoga, sustainable agriculture, Ruth Behar, international travel, and fan creative works, among many other things.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercom Strategic Communications, an affiliate with both the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and a fellow with the Futures of Entertainment group. He is also a regular contributor to Fast Company. Sam is co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society (NYU Press, forthcoming) and is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011). He lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with wife Amanda and daughter Emma.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. She has published on audiences and transmedia engagement in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and the Flow TV anthology (Routledge, 2011). Louisa is co-editor of Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. Louisa is also Book Review editor of Transformative Works and Cultures. You can find Louisa on twitter here and on wordpress here..