Aca-Fandom and Beyond: John Edward Campbell, Lee Harrington, and Catherine Tossenberger (Part One)

Lee Harrington: Very interesting discussion thus far……I think my own experience and perspective most closely aligns with that of Nancy Baym’s. I do not find myself struggling to reconcile any competing expectations or ethical codes in, as Nancy puts it, being a fan studying fandom within academia. I appreciated Henry’s backstory of where the term “acafan” came from. Even though I began writing about fans in the same time period he refers to, I came out of a very different disciplinary background (sociology) and training (sociology of emotions). Even though some of the early sociological pathologizing of media fans is exactly the body of scholarship that an acafan positioning responded to (bad grammar, sorry, it’s summer), the type of tension or dissonance inherent in the term does not reflect my own experience.

I am also, I suspect, a different kind of fan that most participants in this blog series. I’m definitely an “as-is” (not transformative) fan and for the most part my fandom is experienced privately not publicly — a distinction Denise Bielby and I first emphasized in Soap Fans (1995, thanks for the shoutout, Sam) and which I think remains overlooked in fan studies, admittedly due to the methodological challenges private fandom presents. My first fan event was a General Hospital fan club luncheon in the late 1980s which Denise and I went to in LA….that was a huge impetus for our soap book because I was STUNNED by the public display of emotion in the room, the naked joy fans expressed at mingling with the actors on GH. Not me and “my” fandom at all, then or now.

So the near-20 years of research I’ve done on fans and fan texts (mostly the former) has been fascinating because I’m talking with people whose emotional experiences are comparable to mine in many ways but who share it in ways I rarely do. That doesn’t mean I approach more expressive fans as “other” in my research – at least I hope I don’t. For me, the emotional experience is the shared common core of fandom rather than its expression.

So if acafan is an identity, I don’t claim it and haven’t felt the need or pressure to do so. If it’s an activity I don’t think I engage in it the way it’s discussed in this blog series, though I need to think through that assertion some more. I’ve never written from within my own fandom (my own fan pleasures), nor have I seen the need to either personally or professionally. The research ethics I adhere to stem from my disciplinary training and my qualitative research approach, not my fandom (not that it’s an automatic either/or, I’m just naming the source).

If acafan is a community I’m kind of a half-assed member, though that’s true of my membership in mainstream sociology as well (and forget about the sociology of emotions and its community, I feel terrible for my dissertation advisor who invested four years of his life in me and I promptly took a 45-degree turn and never looked back). If anything, I agree with Sam’s suggestion that acafandom now signals potential spaces of collaboration. That works for me.

I’m unsure of the usefulness of the term at this point in fan studies. I can see how it might be politically risky for some scholars to claim (e.g. untenured in a tenurable position, and/or in traditional social science disciplines, and/or by those trying to present/publish in traditional disciplinary outlets) while useful as an identity marker or authorial positioning in other contexts. If it (still?) has a hip-factor to it, I’m not sure. It can also (and has, I think) be used to justify some really sloppy naval-gazing, as Henry pointed out, and in that regard is akin to autoethnography at its ick-iest. I recognize and value the methodological rigor/ethics that the term implies for some scholars…..but it has also been used to justify some pretty crappy work.

John Edward Campbell: Although I appreciate that the term “acafan” was, in part, a strategic reaction to an older, and often elitist, approach to the study of media audiences (an approach that had largely fallen from favor by the time I entered graduate school), it remains a descriptor I hesitate embracing. My reservations surrounding the term are informed by my experiences as a gay man who has studied sexual minority communities. Given that in an earlier statement Henry Jenkins noted the influence queer theory had on his thinking about the relationship of media scholars to media fans, the work of Michel Foucault is useful in articulating my concerns surrounding some of the current conceptions of “fandom” in academia.

In his discussion of the construction of the “homosexual,” Foucault is careful to distinguish behavior from identity. Only recently in Western history did engaging in a particular type of behavior (sexual interactions with members of the same sex) become the basis of an entire identity (the homosexual as a separate species of person). For Foucault, the social construction of the homosexual is an example of the generative aspect of power (or what he refers to as “biopower”). Indeed, the construction of various classifications of human beings based on their (sexual) behavior, granted significant social, political, and economic capital to the fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, and medicine, as well as to those individuals who proclaimed themselves “experts” in studying such types of people.

Many scholars working under the rubric of LGBT studies and queer theory have interrogated this essentialist understanding of (homo)sexuality. Although these scholars approached the issue from diverse disciplines – Judith Butler from philosophy, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick from literature, Kath Weston from anthropology, and Larry Gross from communication to name but a few – they found related ontological and epistemological problems in claims of there being a fixed (essential) identity based on sexual behavior.

In critical gay scholarship, the researcher acknowledges the constructed nature of (homo)sexuality even as she or he sets out to study the practices of those that society has categorized as sexual minorities. Thus, the self-reflexive gay scholar rejects the claim of “insider” status. Indeed, such a claim necessitates the question: Inside what exactly? A heterogeneous, fragmented, amalgamation of disparate groups whose only true commonality is an exclusion from mainstream society?

Such scholarship is quick to point out that the “LGBT community” is more an imagined community (in Benedict Anderson’s sense of the term) than a tangible reality. There are social collectives of individuals who may share sexual sensibilities, but there is no singular “gay community” to which all sexual minorities belong by virtue of their sexuality. (Obviously, speaking of “the LGBT community” is politically useful in both fighting for fundamental civil rights and for gay scholars who must justify their research for the sake of tenure and promotion.)

Thus, it would be deeply problematic if I claimed in my work to either studying “the gay community” or “my community.” The former assertion would reify something that exists only in the abstract and deny the diverse and often contradictory experiences of those individuals identified as belonging to a sexual minority. The latter assertion would reduce my subjects and I to our sexual identity alone, ignoring both the porous nature of gay social collectives and the complicated ways sexuality intersects with other axes of identity (e.g. gender, race, class, ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc.). It would also position me as some form of champion or spokesperson for a particular community.

Although such a gesture is understandable if I were an activist, it’s cavalier at best for a social scientist. Indeed, I have read the work of other gay-identified scholars who have referred to sexual minorities as “their people” (or in one case, “their tribe”) and my immediate response was: Who the hell does this person think they are? Besides our sexuality, we have absolutely nothing in common and I doubt we’d even be friends. It is for this reason that any scholar must be painfully careful when they claim to speak for a particular community.

So what has this to do with fans? When a researcher transitions from talking about “fans of” to simply “fans,” a shift occurs that parallels Foucault’s discussion of the homosexual. This seemingly minor discursive change transforms “fan” from signifying a type of behavior in relation to a particular cultural artifact to signifying a type of person. For instance, I am a fan of a great many media texts - Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson is God!), Harry Potter (I went to see the final movie twice in its opening weekend), True Blood (or as I call it, televised crack!), 30 Rock, Fringe, Dexter, and Disney theme parks (OK, I know the last one is not a media text) – but I am not a fan.

In the former use of the term (fan of) any individual may potentially experience a powerful emotional connection to some cultural text or practice. Given that one of the ways we construct identity in our society is through which cultural artifacts and practices provide us pleasure, we could argue every individual has a fan status much the same way every individual has a sexual status. (Keep in mind that in early academic studies of human sexuality, it was suggested that only non-heterosexuals had a sexuality much like early discussions of gender suggested only women were gendered.) Social hierarchy becomes apparent not in the pleasure an individual experiences, but rather in what cultural artifacts and practices are deemed worthy of such pleasure.

Of course, an essentialist view of “fans” as a type of person has significant professional advantages for the researcher. Such a view allows the researcher to speak about “fans” and the “fan community” in uncomplicated terms, as if these human beings have a fixed and singular identity as well as a distinct set of practices not shared by the rest of humanity. (When scholars speak of “transformative” fans, I can’t help wondering if that includes everyone who takes existing media content and reworks it into an original creation. If so, that would include all of the students in our program who, for various course assignments, create mashups, machinima, and various other original creations using existing media content.) An essentialist understanding of “fans” also allows the researcher to claim “insider” status, granting the scholar special knowledge about this species of human being. Most notably, an essentialist view allows the researcher to position the “fan” as a type of minority, granting the scholar a certain moral authority to speak on behalf of an oppressed group of people.

This underlies my reservations about the title “acafan.” Not only does it largely rest on an essentialist understanding of “fan,” it also allows some scholars to position themselves as arbiters of who does and does not constitute a “true” fan. When I read some fan studies, I have the distinct impression that if I don’t don a Star Trek uniform, attend Sci-Fi conventions, invest a significant amount of my time memorizing minutia surrounding each episode and reading fan fiction, then I cannot claim to be a Star Trek fan. Apparently, enjoying the series, collecting some Star Trek memorabilia, and discussing the series with friends who also enjoy the show is not enough to be a “fan.”

I find this as problematic as suggesting that if a man doesn’t march in gay pride parades, watch Project Runway, listen to Cher and Madonna, have a rainbow sticker on his car, and quote lines from Will & Grace (“Oh look, better people.”), then they are not a “true” gay man.

(I would not be entirely surprised if someone reading my words would think to himself or herself: He’s not a fan. He doesn’t understand. He’s an outsider. Of course, I would then have to ask, outside what exactly? Where precisely is the demarcation between fan and non-fan? And who gets to set the demarcation point?)

Yes, I don’t identify myself as an “acafan.” Rather, I find it more useful (and more in line with post-structuralist theory and queer theory) to deconstruct the notion that others do not have a fan-like relationship to some cultural artifact or practice. In other words, just as a queer theorist is quick to point out that straight people also have a sexuality, and that this sexuality is as constructed as the sexuality of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals, I find it useful to point out that critics of media fans themselves experience pleasurable relationships to cultural texts. For instance, could we not argue that scholars who both study and enjoy the works of Joyce are “acafans”? Are they not studying something they feel passionate about? Do they not go to social gatherings attended by others who share their passions? Do they not invest considerable time and energy writing and discussing and critiquing cultural texts in which they are deeply emotionally invested? Are they not fans?

Catherine Tosenberger: In a lot of ways, my identity as an acafan — and I do find the label the most accurate description of my own understanding of my position as academic and fan — is pretty typical, if by “typical” you mean I’m a media fan who engages in transformational practices and has hooked up my understanding of those practices to my academic work.

Where it gets a little funky, for me, is that I never had the same kind of problems reconciling academic/fannish pursuits that many have reported, and never felt the same need to… justify myself? Not really. Part of that, of course, is the fact that I’m of a scholarly generation that benefited from Henry’s and other’s initial articulation of the concept of the acafan, so I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. But also, my academic work is in the fields of children’s/YA literature and folklore, fields which are directly concerned with audience and community; fandom studies, and my own acafannish identity, meshed very easily with the existing conversations going on in those fields.

As Karen Hellekson mentioned, there’s often this perception that literary critics primarily do some kind of New Critical “text is all” scholarship — we sit around talking about similes and metaphors and sometimes phallic symbols, and we only ever talk about audiences in terms of representation in texts. This isn’t entirely the case, but it is true that some disciplines are more audience-focused than others, and that those disciplines that are very audience-focused have tended to occupy a kind of marginal position within literary studies. Folklore, of course, straddles the boundary between humanities and social sciences, depending upon what you’re studying, how you’re studying it, and where you’re studying — folklore programs have historically often been attached either to literature or anthropology departments, which of course affects how the field is approached.

With children’s/YA literature, the issues of audience become even more intense: it’s the only literary genre that is defined in terms of its audience, rather than by the form or content of the text itself. But as Jacqueline Rose famously pointed out, children’s literature is produced by and for adults, and it has to satisfy adult desires and fantasies about what children are, and what they’re supposed to want, before it ever gets into the hands of a kid. So adults reading and studying children’s lit are in the weird position of being both the outsider audience AND the insider audience: we’re not the designated audience, but we are the ones that the text has to satisfy. And those ideas about the “proper” audience is completely overrun with fantasies, often Romantic, often nostalgic, about children and what they know and what they should know, what they want and what they should want.

As audiences, both young people and traditional figurations of the “folk” were (and are) often characterized as naïve, suggestible, irrational, and whether that’s presented as a bad thing or a Romantically good thing depends on the time, the place, and the speaker. But scholars in both fields have spent a long time interrogating these conceptions of audiences; to link fandom studies, and the conception of the pathologized fan, up to these conversations was the easiest thing in the world — fannishness was so consistently characterized as “adolescent” and/or “uneducated” behavior that the language already existed for questioning those ideas. Plenty of scholars in both fields have mentioned fan fiction in passing as a great space for further study; it’s especially relevant to children’s/YA lit, because, particularly in fandoms like Harry Potter or Glee that have a big audience of young fans, the responses of actual readers/viewers could be seen, which enables a move away from reductive, stereotyped figurations of how some imaginary “typical” young person is supposed to react.

Anne Kustritz talked about the self-reflexive turn in anthropology, which was mirrored in folklore in the 1960s, when Alan Dundes redefined the term “folk group” to mean “any group of people with one linking factor”; this moved folklore theorizing away from privileging outsider statements and theorizing. In children’s/YA lit, of course, this is much trickier across the board, since young people as a group don’t have access to institutional authority that enables this kind of speech. So, for me, coming into the fields of folklore and children’s lit, it wasn’t difficult at all for me to think through issues of representation, and my own positionality, because those questions were already being asked.

And I didn’t have any trouble “selling” myself as a children’s lit academic on those terms, not really. The static I received on the job market was mainly from people who thought children’s lit in general was a useless field — I never had to defend my fannishness, but I, like other genre scholars, had to defend why we should “waste our time” with picture books when there was Samuel Johnson to be read, and so forth. I also got a lot of kneejerk horror from the fact that I was talking about erotic narratives in Harry Potter fandom, but again, mainly from non-children’s lit people; children’s lit scholars are generally down with James Kincaid’s work on youth as an erotic category, and feminist and GLBTQ approaches to YA lit in particular are interested in issues of eroticism.

Erica Rand mentioned that there’s still this wide distrust of pleasure when it comes to talking about culture, and that distrust of pleasure is intensified when we’re talking about young people: kids should be learning, dammit, and they should only be learning about the “proper” things. Pleasure is something illicit even for adults, and vast amounts of cultural energy are expended policing young people’s pleasure — and policing what kind of pleasure adults can take concerning anything having to do with young people. Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer titled their super-important textbook on young people’s texts The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, specifically as a way of interrogating that distrust and policing: given that existing conversation, my acafannishness — my willingness not only to admit to fannish pleasure but to make it part of my work — was actually a factor in what got me hired at Nodelman and Reimer’s school, the University of Winnipeg.

I was massively lucky (and not only because UW had a job opening when I was on the market): I came into two fields where the conversations so relevant to acafannishness had evolved in a parallel way, and people in those fields were willing to listen, and to help me think through my own position.

C. Lee Harrington is Professor of Sociology and Affiliate of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University. She has published on fans and fandom since the early 1990s and is currently exploring aging audiences/fans. Her fan interests as of today include Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, General Hospital, all things cheese-related (since gifted a cheese-of-the-month-club, it’s fantastic!), Las Vegas, and – inexplicably to those who know her – Kate and William.

John Edward Campbell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Broadcasting, Telecommunications, and Mass Media in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University. He teaches media theory, cultural studies, and popular culture. His current book project – Selling Belonging: When Online Communities Become Big Business – examines the cultural and political implications of the commercialization of online communities. His first book – Getting It On Online: Cyberspace and Gay Male Sexuality – represents an ethnographic exploration of the cultural practices of online gay communities.

Catherine Tosenberger is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she is attached to the Centre for Young People’s Texts and Cultures. She teaches children’s and YA literature, folklore, and cultural studies, and has been involved in the Harry Potter, Supernatural, and Glee fandoms. Her publications include articles on the Grimms’ tales, Harry Potter slash, and Supernatural fanfiction.

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