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

In this second installment, the participants engage in back and forth conversation intended to extend upon the ideas contained in their opening statements.

Louisa Stein: Anne and Sam, I’m struck by the harmony in our three separately written pieces. We all seem to recognize the perceived dangers or negative connotations of the term acafan, and yet feel a value in holding on to the term because of its potential as a self-reflexive signpost, a bridge between interconnected disciplines or subject positions, and even perhaps a politicized position.

One question I have is from where this perception emerges that acafan is an essentialized standpoint or identity connected to identity politics? All of our three responses here indicate that that none of us relate to the term acafan in this way, though we are all wary of these associations. Why and where does this negative perception of acafan as a divisive concept take root and how can we counter this narrative? Or is this perception an unavoidable part of the project of acafan work?

Anne Kustritiz:My concern stems from the universalizing tendency behind the aca-fan construct, when one might be tempted to lose sight of aca-fan as a discursive marker and act as though it identifies some kind of shared experience. Several times in the past (and perhaps in this discussion’s future as well) I’ve seen dismissals of the aca-fan concept because it fails to account for that individual’s lived experience, often either because of a mismatch in object (i.e. what kind of fans), discipline, or method. If fandom only refers to participation in active face-to-face communities, many of our colleagues would not qualify. If aca-fan relates only to those who directly interact with fans during the course of their studies, likewise many may see the concept as irrelevant. Partly, this may result from the preponderance of aca-fen from community-oriented fandom who use and reflect on the label, which sometimes makes it seem as though the concept only applies to them (not necessarily by ideology or design, but by sheer numbers).

Particularly for those engaged in literary analysis, aca-fan terminology may seem like an unwelcome imposition of social sciences concerns, and it could be useful to consider how reflections on the researcher’s identity might still offer enrichment for those who see themselves pursuing primarily archival or textual work.

For me, identifying as an aca-fan certainly incorporates a political stance because of my object, method, and disciplinary position: for example, identifying with and as my work identifies me as queer, and copy-left, among other things (which is not to say all slash participants identify as such, but these are strong associations). However, aca-fan describes only one aspect of my fan, scholarly, and other identities and experiences, and it would not mark other scholars in the same way (an aca-fan doing textual analysis of wrestling fans’ twitter accounts would find that telling academic colleagues about personal interest in wrestling and telling wrestling fans about discourse analysis have very different stakes and consequences than my positionality).

Even the suggestion that the term “aca-fan” always offers a relevant and contradictory identification to some extent implies a false universal. In cultural anthropology, for instance, the relevant term would be native anthropology, which does not offer a new or challenging intervention into existing disciplinary practice, but rather adds to an established field of study. Film scholars who also make films or passionately follow film similarly go without notice. However, even in both of these instances, their positionality also shifts if one begins to term them “fans” of urban youth culture, Portuguese jazz bar culture, Hitchcock, or horror. While the experience and passion may remain the same whether we are scholars, buffs, aficionados, or fans, the social positioning alters significantly, thus opening the possibility for solidarity (often with class implications) through fan identification.

Sam Ford: In Soap Fans in 1995, Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby made compelling points about the necessary balance between private and social fandom. I agree with Anne that, just as fan studies has often privileged the fan community over private consumption practices, the term “acafan” has come to hold particular meaning to participants in a community. The implications that being an acafan might have for those doing textual analysis, for instance, is strong.

I primarily study (and am a fan of) areas of entertainment whose cultural value is often missed by anyone who would not consider themselves a fairly ardent “fan” of the genre in question: soap operas and pro wrestling. From the “outside,” both are often considered of no artistic merit, and the trouble that fans of either genre find is that even explaining the artistry of the genre or what makes for “good” vs. “bad” wrestling or “quality soap opera storytelling” is lost on someone outside the genre.

I remember in particular, after the cancellation of As the World Turns, being interviewed by a television critic for a prominent publication about the death of long-running soap operas. I was explaining what was unique about the soap opera storytelling model and what might be lost as daytime soaps go off the air. In the interview, she could detect from my passion and the depth of my knowledge that I did more than “study” soap fans or write “about” the genre: the “fan” side of my “acafan” was showing through. I could instantly tell that her radar went up. As she detected that I liked what she saw as lowbrow and lower-grade programming, she began to completely dismiss all that I had to say. After I finished, she said, “I’ve watched soap operas before, and I didn’t see any of what you saw.”

My point was exactly that: that the language of soap opera and the ability to see what DEFINES “good storytelling” and high quality texts within the soap opera genre can only be seen by someone who understands the genre deeply enough to know its lexicon. And, similarly, for soaps, I’ve written before about the fact that doing textual analysis for that genre (with 260 new episodes a year, for decades) is so complex that it’s hard for those who aren’t intimately familiar for the genre to follow and not see it as totally ridiculous.

All this is to say that, for textual analysis in genres like these, being an acafan provides a great wealth of experience and understanding of a genre that those who aren’t dedicated viewers just wouldn’t have. So I certainly believe that we too often, in using the term “acafan,” privilege the social side of “fan” without thinking about the “aca” part.

And part of what we are questioning here, I suppose, is whether “acafan” becomes a label for a scholar’s relative position to an object of study; a mode of engagement with particular methodologies and approaches; or a label for a distinct kind of scholar or a sub-field of work under “fan studies.” Sometimes, there seems to be slippage across these uses.

Louisa Stein: Anne, I want to focus in on a very valuable point in your response that I’d like us to unpack further. You wrote: “Even the suggestion that the term ‘aca-fan’ always offers a relevant and contradictory identification to some extent implies a false universal.”

This strikes me as very significant; I didn’t mean to imply that there’s always a contradiction between the academic and fan positions, but rather that they always exist in relation to each other, but what that relation is is in constant motion, and for me personally my acafan positioning pushes me to constantly probe at that relationship, to expore whether it is one of solidarity or conflict or more likely a mix and match of contradictory and aligned values.

So for example in going to Vividcon, or in my approach to vidding more generally, I come with a strange mesh of aesthetic values as a film scholar who has studied both mainstream and experimental film and as (perhaps resultingly) a fan who appreciates both highly polished vids by the most acclaimed vidders within fandom and vids that circulate in other spheres on youtube and don’t adhere to the same vidding value sets. So to me the one universal that the acafan position brings with it is the need for a constant self reflexivity in regards to considering one’s relation to one’s object. Maybe that’s why acafandom for me can encompass personal fans, anti-fans, community fans, and everything in between.

And this connects with your final comment, Sam, which I think also gets right to the heart of things. You write that “part of what we are questioning here, I suppose, is whether ‘acafan’ becomes a label for a scholar’s relative position to an object of study; a mode of engagement with particular methodologies and approaches; or a label for a distinct kind of scholar or a sub-field of work under ‘fan studies.’ Sometimes, there seems to be slippage across these uses.”

Yes, and yes, and I think that perhaps the problem comes in when that slippage goes unnoticed–or rather, where we move from slippage (which could be productive if it is recognized as such) and conflation. When these three elements become conflated or equated, we do have a vast narrowing of what one might understand as acafan, a narrowing that could easily become quite alienating. So how do we (or can we) rescue the term acafan to mean all three of these elements (among others) in tandem and multiplicity, rather than as a overly-simplified unified front?

Anne Kustritz: I agree that allowing for a variety of life experiences and disciplinary approaches to populate the aca-fan concept is the primary challenge. Partly, this may require that a case be made for what self-reflexivity has to offer, in tandem with the importation or creation of methods for critically evaluating aca-fan self-reflexivity, because as with any mode of writing, some authors will offer more nuanced, sophisticated, and productive analyses than others.

In the first case, this blog conversation will hopefully amplify the diversity of experiences and approaches taken by aca-fen, which will hopefully allow for all of us to be in broader conversation with the field as a whole. In the second instance, the aca-fan concept will be defined by perhaps the most simplistically “confessional” works unless we create a theoretical frame for understanding and evaluating how scholars employ self-reflexivity to separate justifications of the aca-fan concept from the success with which it is employed in various pieces.

Perhaps this addresses Sam’s concern about the relatively unexamined “aca” end of things. As I’ve mentioned, because of my background in cultural anthropology, I tend to draw upon that literature for its specialization in analyzing the researcher-participant relationship, but it would likely behoove us to collectively build a literature of our own specifically on the process of scholarly analysis for aca-fan works. Thus, perhaps instead of questioning whether one ought to be an aca-fan, which as a question of identity and identification seems problematic to police, and instead move toward creating principles for thinking through aca-fan works. Which aspects of an aca-fan text make it more or less successful or useful?

Sam Ford:I think both of your suggestions are key here and get back to one of my concerns of what would be lost if the ideas surrounding “aca-fan” were to be lost: a space for academics from a wide range of traditional disciplines to come together to share work that both study fans/fan communities in a way that shows respect, nuance, and an acknowledgment of autonomy for those fans–and a space that allows for the intersection of academics and fans to converse with one another on high-level concepts surrounding the reception and socialization of texts that draw high levels of engagements from their viewers/listeners/readers/players.

There has been compelling work in the past few years to, for instance, look at the intersections (or lack thereof) in work about sports fandom and media fandom. I think we should always strive to continue expanding the inclusivity of fan studies, and part of that requires–to Anne’s point–drawing together collections of methodologies, “best practices,” etc., of what constitutes using an “aca-fan” methodology or including an “aca-fan” positioning of one’s own relationship to a work. This doesn’t necessarily require too much formalization–treating fan studies as a discipline all its own in ways that puts too much rigidity for an area study which I believe is all the richer because it crosses disciplinary bounds. But I think it does require being able to present grad students, undergrads, fans, and young scholars with ideas of what constitutes an “acafan” mode of engagement.

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..

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