Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Christine Bacareza Balance, Jack Halberstam, and Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part Two)

Jack: Christine, I really enjoyed your piece – the compact way you account for the colonial context within which popular culture is absorbed, reviled and then transformed by those very people whom colonialism has reduced to the status of mimics. I also appreciate your effort to refuse the sharp distinction between fan and critic, poetry and prose, song and soundscape. In relation to your observations on “fandom” and “fanaticism,” I would love to hear you say more about excess, about over the top performances that go beyond the reproduction of the same. I also have struggled with that Sedgwickian notion of “reparative” and I wonder how you are using it. I love her take on the paranoid form of reasoning that dominates academic style but I never really believed in the reparative as an alternative…

Sarah: Jack, Christine, I’m also interested in this notion of excess–both in fan activities as well as in constructions of other subjectivities, including gender, race, sexuality. I struggle with how to articulate this in my own work, because accounting for excess (or spaces of ambivalence) is tricky yet vital, as this is where performances of identity, as you say, can go beyond the reproduction of the same. Excess allows us to imagine new spaces of possibility and transformation. . .

Christine: In response to Jack’s post and query and, in allegiance with her opening anecdote, I too have endured such distracting and annoying concert-going experiences (too many to name, in fact). The most recent example: this past June, I attended Janelle Monae and Bruno Mars’ concert at the Gibson Amphitheatre–the only Los Angeles stop on their national “Hooligans in Wonderland” tour–both as a critic (currently writing a review of their performance) and a fan (of both artists). Armed with the critical analytics–histories of labor and musical performance as re-cited in each artist’s performance (Monae and chitlin circuits, Mars and Hawai’i’s tourist economies– that were going to frame my review of the show, I was first slightly peeved by the audience’s (mainly teenage girls and boys and their parents) lukewarm reception of Monae and then fully irritated about two songs into Mars’ set. In a similar fashion to Jack’s Radiohead experience, my seatmate decided to not just sing but, instead, scream the chorus to his hit single, “Billionaire,” sans irony or self-reflexivity. Needless to say, I had to switch seats in order not to inflict fan-on-fan, audience member-on-audience member violence. Indeed, the “fantasy and impossibility” embedded in fandom and being an academic is what makes such a scene difficult. But I try (after physically distancing myself), in such situations, to curb the critical desire to position myself as an omniscient or holier-than-thou audience member, for, it is precisely this stance–one generated and performed by collectors and critics in other settings–which forecloses any possibility of dialogue or conversation.

The “reparative” here becomes a call to stand alongside other fans, rather than above them, no matter how difficult it might be. It signals a type of ethical relationship. For me, the genre of performance–with its qualities of immediacy, ephemerality, improvisation, and liveness–is particularly generative in cultivating what Alexandra Vazquez (by way of Barbara Johnson) identifies as moments of “surprise”–on stage, in the classroom, on the written page, and in everyday life. These days, in my own work, I am finding the analytic of surprise–something unexpected that can incite various affective responses (fear, astonishment, wonder, and even violence)–to be more generative than “excess,” especially when (again) the subjects, objects, and performances I am most interested are being generated by a historical relationship (U.S. empire in the Philippines) otherwise deemed “invisible” in mainstream U.S. popular culture.

I also appreciate Sarah’s comments regarding “the fan as self-brand.” Needless to say, none other than this past weekend’s Comicon gathering brings to the forefront the ways that, as Sarah notes, the “fan is positioned and validated as a kind of product within a circuit of commodity exchange.” With the increasing presence of mainstream popular entertainment industries (such as films, television, video games) at this long-standing fan-centered event, it becomes quite obvious that Hollywood is present to capitalize on its fans–consumer-participants whose a) identities are themselves “products” of particular forms of consumption and b) fandom does the work of publicizing upcoming new releases (mainly, through social networking outlets such as Twitter and Facebook but also by wearing t-shirts featuring their favorite comic book characters or films). At the same time, by dressing up as characters from particular franchises (this year’s favorites: Black Swan, Harry Potter, and the tried-and-true standby, Star Wars), teenage and adult Comicon attendees inhabit and bring to life these particular pop cultural products. Fueled by a “desire for visibility,” I witnessed firsthand how these “dressed up” attendees actually extend and are part of the “long tail” of mainstream franchises in a manner similar to amusement parks, as parents photographed their children posed next to other attendees dressed like Tinker Bell or Wolverine.

But, again, rather than merely maintaining some type of critical arm’s length from the slew of (mainly) teenagers dressed up as characters and huddled together on the convention center floors, I allowed myself to hearken back to my own adolescent yesteryears, to the theatre competitions and showcases that colored my high school weekends. Where and how can we draw the line between dressing up like Lady Macbeth as opposed to Xena the Warrior Princess, Huckelberry Finn instead of Luke Skywalker, Stanley Kowalski rather than an Avatar? I believe that any attempt to draw lines of difference between such examples of “dressing up” recapitulates the age-old divide between “high” and “low” cultures while it prohibits the potential meanings made by both these performers and their audiences.

Jack: Sarah, I think your notion of the fan as brand and as a distribution point for the circulation of popular culture actually dialogues with my worry that the fan becomes a “celebrity subject” in training – in other words, we consume to learn how to produce well and then produce well in order to facilitate more production. At the same time that I am compelled by these critiques of fandom and the sense of fandom as a economic relay point, I still do want to hold on to some kind of resistant notion of fandom, one where the branding changes the meaning of self, consumption, branding, capital in the process of participating in it.

Sarah: Jack–yes! Your idea/worry about “celebrity subject” in training is truly in conversation with my worry about fan as brand (and self-branding in general). But I also hear both you and Christine about holding on to a concept of the fan as a resistant notion, or a resistant subject, or just in terms of the surprise of meaning Christine gestures toward when talking about dressing up and performing as an adolescent (and I appreciate the notion of surprise over excess). For me, the trick is to hold on to both of these notions simultaneously (fandom as economic relay point, and fandom as potentially resistant), without resorting to a commercial v. non-commercial binary. Which is why I think, Jack, that your last statement, about those moments where branding changes the self, consumption, capital in the process of participating within branding, is vital for me in thinking about how meaning circulates in advanced capitalism. how do we utilize the logic of branding for progressive (and I’m not talking about socially responsible corporations here) or resistant ways? Again, I’m not talking about culture jamming or detournement (though both certainly can have their uses in terms of resistance), but making and remaking brands and fans within new parameters of meaning and signification–that is, how branding can surprise you.

Jack: Christine – well, exactly, one wants to stand or sit alongside the annoying fan from an ethical point of view but in actual, material reality, one wants to get as far away as possible!! So, that is exactly why I mistrust the reparative – it is a gesture of the ethical, a way of knowing the right thing to do but it clashes with the instinctive gesture of, in this case, recoil and disconnection. Moments of surprise are similarly wonderful pedagogical opportunities but hard to come by in an age of self-branding, self-marketing and commercial child manipulation! The only cultural productions that have really been continuously surprising to me in recent years have been animated films for children, which I discuss extensively in The Queer Art of Failure, which manage to address the child viewer in non condescending and often non-normative ways…and then of course, the surprise and wonder of the animated landscape gives way to the banality of the tie-in action figure served up with the kid’s happy meal a few hours later. How do we extend the momentary surprise so that it has more affective intensity than the desire for the figure, the dress-up or the happy meal? Sarah – can you give us an example of when branding can surprise?

Sarah: Yes, well, that is the question, isn’t it? I love your question of how we can extend the momentary surprise so that creative and potentially resistant cultural forms don’t end up like happy meals. I don’t have the answer, but one interesting example might be the recent branding of Wikileaks (the Wall St. Journal covered this in February of this year), where Julian Assange’s organization began selling t-shirts, etc that said things like “Free Assange!” and “the truth is not treason.” The profit generated by the t-shirts supposedly went to Assange’s legal fund, or to the maintenance of the site, or somewhere (and of course, the “somewhere” is always the question–the company that made the Wikileaks t-shirts also made Spice Girls t-shirts). To brand something like Wikileaks and its subversive potential is simultaneously a bit of a surprise and entirely predictable. And I’m not sure if it has “more affective intensity than the desire for the figure;” there’s got to be a Julian Assange action figure out there for sale somewhere. I’m thinking, though, that this kind of move within branding represents a sort of bending or distorting of commodity exchange, that could possibly lead to different sorts of affective openings. . .

Christine Bacareza Balance is Assistant Professor in Asian American Studies (UC Irvine). Her research & teaching interests include: Filipino/Filipino American studies, performance studies, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in Women & Performance: a feminist journal, the Journal of Asian American Studies (JAAS), Theatre Journal, and In Media Res (online). One-ninth of the Polynesian power pop band The Jack Lords Orchestra, she is currently writing a book on popular music and performance in Filipino America.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). Her current book project, Authentic TM: Political Possibility in a Brand Culture (New York University Press, forthcoming) examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. A co-edited book, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee, is under contract with New York University Press (forthcoming 2011).

Judith “Jack” Halberstam is Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Gender Studies at USC. Halberstam works in the areas of popular, visual and queer culture with an emphasis on subcultures. Halberstam’s first book, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995), was a study of popular gothic cultures of the 19th and 20th centuries and it stretched from Frankenstein to contemporary horror film. Her 1998 book, Female Masculinity (1998), made a ground breaking argument about non-male masculinity and tracked the impact of female masculinity upon hegemonic genders. Halberstam’s last book, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005), described and theorized queer reconfigurations of time and space in relation to subcultural scenes and the emergence of transgender visibility. This book devotes several chapters to the topic of visual representation of gender ambiguity. Halberstam was also the co-author with Del LaGrace Volcano of a photo/essay book, The Drag King Book (1999), and with Ira Livingston of an anthology, Posthuman Bodies (1995). Halberstam regularly speaks on queer culture, gender studies and popular culture and publishes blogs at bullybloggers.com. Halberstam just finished a book titled The Queer Art of Failure due out 2011 from Duke University Press.

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