Acafandom and Beyond: Jonathan Gray, Matt Hills, and Alisa Perren (Part Two)

Jonathan Gray:

Perhaps I could start with this issue of definition that all of us touched upon. I think it’s interesting that, albeit in different ways, both Matt (from wholly within the realm of acafandom) and Alisa (feeling outside of it) note that the term may have calcified around a set group of people with a set group of interests. Matt suggests that’s a “misreading,” and that there are many types of acafans. But I guess my question is whether we need to rescue the term, or whether the ideas can run free of it.

A considerable problem with the term is best illustrated by some of Alisa’s understanding of the calcification. Her concern, for instance, that the industry might co-opt acafans is far-fetched if applied to many of those who self-identify most clearly as aca-fans, given that a good number of this community engage in fan practices that the industry doesn’t want to have much to do with, such as writing slash and/or long critiques of the racism or sexism within the text. But some of that community share Alisa’s concern that another group of academic fans are too in love with user-generated content and with servicing The Man. And my sense is that in the media studies community at large, “aca-fan” has simply come to mean “an academic who is also a fan” (for sure, I don’t mean to wag a finger at Alisa for getting the “wrong” definition of aca-fan, as I think her definition is commonly shared by those who don’t call themselves aca-fans), and by this definition, aca-fans are all those with Buffy and Lost journals, yet another Something Popular With Upper Middle Class White Americans and Philosophy book, and squee aplenty, all of which should definitely make us worry about co-option.

This might seem to back up Matt’s point that there are many acafandoms. But they’re still being conflated by a wider community of media studies scholarship as a whole. Thus, we might need to realize that the term has grown up and is associating with a different crowd than we as its parents would prefer. Some of the behaviors and practice of those regarded as aca-fans, moreover, are directly in contrast to the critical mission of aca-fandom. If it originally had a referent assigned to it by Henry and co., then, it now has a whole bunch of other referents attached to it by those who aren’t aca-fans. Hence my belief that the critical mission of aca-fandom could be much better taken up if the term itself is left behind. The term may have become too “polluted.”

Let me turn that into a question, though, to Matt and Alisa, especially since they come from very different standpoints here. Has the term become polluted, and if so can or should it be rescued?

Matt Hills:

I find myself agreeing with much in Jonathan and Alisa’s opening arguments, although all three of us are approaching acafandom from quite different perspectives. With Jonathan, I too would like to see a greater encouragement of reflexivity in all media studies, not just in something called acafan writing. And with Alisa, I absolutely share the concern that acafandom has led to a restricted set of textual objects becoming unhappily canonised in TV Studies, because those happen to be the shows that many academics enjoy watching and writing about. I think that acafandom does have a responsibility to cover shows that go beyond rather limited taste cultures and demographics, as well as covering a wider range of fan practices and activities (as I suggested in my own opening statement). As I said, I think we should be looking to encourage a wider-ranging, more diverse, and ever more critically reflexive acafandom, in relation to both ‘aca’ and ‘fan’ experiences.

Jonathan quite rightly raises one perennial question haunting acafandom – what does the ‘fan’ part actually refer to? If it means having a certain liking for something, then yes, perhaps all scholars are acafans, whether they are studying television or quantum mechanics. Scientists passionate about their specialism would be acafans, on this account. However, this seems like a curiously attenuated definition. Jonathan’s argument seemingly defines acafandom into redundancy – using a massively inclusive definition that doesn’t fully engage with the sociological and discursive history of (media) ‘fandom’.

I do think that defining fandom only as community-oriented is problematic, but even lone media consumers who self-define as fans are still likely to engage with fandom as an imagined community, or a “constellated community” in Rick Altman’s terms. So, for me, fandom retains a degree of social, communal and discursive specificity which means that not all academics would be acafans, as I understand the term.

In fact, if one leans towards at least minimally articulating fandom with community – whether this is inhabited in a participatory sense, or aligned with in an imaginative sense – I think there remains something distinctive about acafandom, since it involves the simultaneous engagement with two (differentiated) interpretive communities focused on the same textual object(s). A critical TV scholar writing about Doctor Who who had no fan affiliation or identity could still “like” and enjoy the TV show they were analysing, but they would have no awareness of the reading protocols, hierarchies, ways of understanding the show’s history and characters etc, that fan culture would bring.

Acafandom is thus interpretatively distinctive, I would say, because it brings communally-shaped and communally-patterned systems of meaning-making into dialogue with similar systems of meaning-generation in the academy, as well as moving between and potentially destabilising the value systems at work in these terrains. If one defines acafandom purely as liking something and then studying it, then these hermeneutic and axiological questions fade away somewhat – rather prematurely, I feel.

Unlike Jonathan, then, I think acafandom remains useful for the ways in which it can identify, and draw on, and reflexively engage with, audience communities and their understandings of texts. My current work on Torchwood, for example, poses a number of challenges to academic textual analysis on the basis of fans’ readings of narrative and character, as well as challenging fan readings which decode the show for textual coherence/continuity. If acafandom was ‘just’ about liking Torchwood then it would lack a focus on how we are likely to read the show as a TV Studies community versus how other communities would and have read the series.

Moving on, and responding to Alisa’s point about possible complicity between acafandom and the TV industry – yes, I find this to be a worrying possibility and a worryng development. After all, I’m the author of a book called Triumph of a Time Lord! But the book works to critically theorise the show’s production, and the ways in which its producers othered fan audiences – even describing them very negatively – while also drawing on specific fan discourses. It is not a celebration of the industry processes involved – it is very much a critical reading which could never have been written as an ‘official’ BBC book. But there are some arenas where ‘acafandom’ seems to increasingly lack critical reflexivity, and where the term seems to have become coterminous with the “Something Popular With Upper Middle Class White Americans and Philosophy” sort of book, as Jonathan says. I think all three of us, as writers working in different but not unconnected strands of TV Studies, are united in seeing this as a thorny issue.

‘Acafandom’ has certainly become multiple, as I’ve argued, but I’m not sure I’d want to use Jonathan’s terminology: I wouldn’t equate multiple acafandoms with a sense of the word having been somehow “polluted” or rendered toxic. The question of multiple acafandoms suggests instead, I think, that we need to argue more carefully and more precisely for what we want acafandom to do. And perhaps to work to make these definitions more available, and more visible, to those ‘outside’ the debate itself, so that wider notions of ‘acafandom’ may themselves become more nuanced.

As Alisa says – what does acafandom include and exclude? Or more than that: what would we like it to include and exclude? The concept – as I would want to use and defend it – needs to be about critical reflexivity in relation to fan and academic communities. That means being reflexive about the canonisation of limited texts, and the (relative) failure to engage with childhood fandoms and fan cultures, and the question of whether industry and production discourses are being reinforced in some acafan work. But it also means being reflexive about fans’ moral economies – and where and how fandom remains inattentive to issues of gendered, classed or age-based forms of cultural power. Reflexivity needs to be embraced as something substantively informing our practices rather than something we write about in passing in forewords and footnotes – reflexive acafandom can be precisely about addressing all the sorts of concerns raised here. And very much not “a cost-effective source of market research for industry”, as Alisa writes. In short, I view acafandom – as I have defined it here, asymptotically – not as the problem, or as something murky and/or conceptually exhausted to be let go of, but as an ongoing way of thinking through the problematics of studying media while being positioned within variant interpretive communities.

Reiterating my response to Jonathan’s final question: I’d say the term has become dispersed but not necessarily polluted. And so perhaps acafandom needs to be re-defined (to re-emphasise its critical edge), rather than being “rescued” per se? Mind you, I wonder whether I’m writing this, in part, as a fan of acafandom: a fanacafan. At which point, and before logical regression takes hold, I’ll hand over to Alisa with a question: if we agree that acafandom does have a responsibility to expand beyond the genre and “quality” texts that it has clustered around, then what (if any) other responsibilities might it also have?

Alisa Perren:

I find it fascinating that, although Matt, Jonathan and I all have similar issues with the current definition – and perception – of acafandom, we deliver very different responses on how to proceed. To put it somewhat crudely, Matt (fanacafan?) thinks we should salvage the term, Jonathan (anti-fanacafan?) wonders if it has outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, I am more ambivalent. I do not feel comfortable arguing to either “dump it” or “save it,” as I do not have the long-standing investment in researching and writing about it that either of you have. The most I can do is speak from the stance of a “casual observer,” illustrating how the term might presently be perceived by those who are less aware of its layered history and meanings.

From this position of casual observer, I appreciate reading each of your explanations about how acafandom can mean – or at least, has previously meant – much more than “one who is an academic who is also a fan.” And Matt does make a strong case for retaining the word, as long as it is deployed with sufficient clarity and reflexivity.

I guess the issue that remains for me is whether the nuances of the term can be made apparent to those who don’t regularly engage with fan studies and conversations about acafandom. Is it a “responsibility” (returning to Matt’s final question) of those writing about acafandom to expand their objects of analysis, but also to make this expanded scope more apparent to “outsiders”? Will a change in perception take place if there is more “outreach” on the part of acafans, a greater effort to illustrate that acafans can and do write about far more than Spock, Spike and Skate?

I want to return to one other point made by Jonathan, which connects to Matt’s discussion of reflexivity. Jonathan notes that many acafans do not serve the interests of industry, but rather “engage in fan practices that the industry doesn’t want to have much to do with.” I certainly did not mean to imply that acafandom was monolithic, or that all acafans (want or try to) service industry desires and imperatives. But it seems to me that the industry gives a voice to those serving their interests, and makes the voices of certain acafans resonate more loudly. What’s more, given the heightened pressure placed on scholars today to procure external funding, the limited funding of this type available to humanistically oriented scholars, and the receptiveness that industry has shown toward those acafans serving their promotional interests, I can’t help but wonder whether these voices will continue to grow louder. To pose an even more cynical question, in an age in which it seems that “no publicity is bad publicity,” aren’t even those that take more critical stances ultimately serving the industry’s larger promotional ends? (Suddenly I have seemed to wander into the land of Adorno and Horkheimer…I will try to step away from the computer now.)

I leave it to Matt and Jonathan (and others!) to chime in here with their own thoughts regarding the responsibilities of acafans – to other acafans, to scholars that don’t self-identify as acafans, and maybe even in relationship to the media industries.

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality, Television Entertainment, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and, with Amanda Lotz, the soon to be released Television Studies. He is also co-editor of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, Battleground: The Media, and Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture.

Matt Hills is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, Wales. He is the author of Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005), How To Do Things With Cultural Theory (Hodder-Arnold, 2005), Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the 21st Century (I.B. Tauris, 2010), and the forthcoming Cultographies: Blade Runner (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2011). Recent book chapters or journal articles include work on the Saw franchise, the TV series Sherlock, and television aesthetics. Matt is currently working on a study of Torchwood.

Alisa Perren is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is co-editor of Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and author of Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s (University of Texas Press, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in a range of print and online publications, including Film Quarterly, Journal of Film and Video, Journal of Popular Film and Television and Flow. She also is Coordinating Editor of In Media Res, a MediaCommons project focused on experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship.

Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Jonathan Gray, Matt Hills, and Alisa Perren (Part One)

Jonathan Gray:

One of my concerns with the term “acafan,” and hence a key source of my reluctance to self-identify as one, is that it suggests a special relationship between one’s object of study and one’s academic practice that obscures the degree to which everyone studying the media has some such relationship.

Simply put, I don’t believe anyone who tries to tell me that their choice of what to study and how to study isn’t deeply informed by their own personal likes and dislikes. Everyone’s critical practice assumes a normative ideal, and while I don’t believe that such ideals are “merely” about what they like and dislike, I also don’t think that like and dislike can ever truly be separated from our critical faculties, thereby meaning that there’s nothing “mere” about like and dislike in the first place.

As such, I think that everyone working with texts is an acafan or proto-acafan of a sort, and an aca-antifan or proto-aca-antifan of a sort. And they very likely move between these positions (if they are even separate positions). Therefore, to claim the role of acafan risks being either redundant (because we all are or might/could be), a denial of one’s anti-acafandom, a disavowal of anti-fandom and/or non-fandom that is as unhealthy as a disavowal of fandom would be, and/or an attempt to create a special elite who are better, self-actualized acafans than everyone else.

I want to see media and textual studies scholars be more reflective on the various motivations behind our research in general, and more accountable to our various publics. That reflection needn’t always be public (in fact, I’d find it remarkably tedious if it was always public), but it should still be taking place. And towards that end, “acafandom” as title risks halting the process, rather than helping it. If reflexivity and accountability are required and expected of this small group called acafans, rather than an expectation of all scholars who work with texts, and if we accept that acafans can’t separate out their fannish identities from their academic ones but imagine that others can, I’m not happy with the work that the tag is doing.

But (and hopefully as illustration of my point about reflection) I realize that my position here comes in part from my own personal relationship to fandom and fan studies. I’m saying this as someone who is more invested in media studies than I am in fandom or in any given fan community per se. See, I thought I was a fan until I encountered fan studies and was told by many therein that fandom required a community and production. If that’s the case, I’ve only ever truly been a fan of Star Wars, yet that was as a kid (I still love it, but I don’t have the community that I did in my school playground days), and kids don’t seem to count as fans either (an aside: why don’t we look more at kid fandoms?). I’d still like to argue that one needn’t be in a community to be a fan, but perhaps because I don’t see myself as speaking for any set community, I therefore don’t feel a strong need to fight that fight, and so I’m trying to catch different fish in my research instead. Meanwhile, if I’m of questionable fannishness, I guess I can’t be an acafan either.

Yet I don’t feel I’m missing much by not being or counting as an acafan, to be honest. When I read the best definitions and defenses of acafandom, by the likes of Henry, Matt (see below), and Louisa Stein, I recognize a great deal and would like to think that I operate with many of the same assumptions. As an instructor at a leading grad program, moreover, I’d like all of my students to think critically of their own practice and their personal engagement and stakes in that practice in what might be seen as an acafannish way … yet many don’t identify as fans, nor do I think they need to.

If there’s a mission behind the term “acafan,” in other words, I’d rather dis-articulate it from the seeming requirement that one self-identify as a fan and/or count as a fan in other’s eyes (especially when I see the bar set too high for who counts), and let that mission take root elsewhere too. Let’s instead articulate requirements of reflectivity, accountability, respect for one’s subjects, and so forth to media, textual, and audience studies as a whole, and demand that of all.


Matt Hills:

My take on acafandom is that it’s impossible to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ it, since either stance assumes an overly monolithic definition of what ‘it’ is that we’re in favour of, or not. The greatest difficulty with the label of acafandom is that it misleads us into thinking there’s one referent to be championed, critiqued or defended. Instead, I’d like to open up the question of acafandoms, plural, and hence the range of critical practices, identity positions, or bids for authority that the term might blur together. I’m not convinced that acafandom necessarily captures a singular (hybridised) scholarly community, and so this needs careful thought as well.

The question I recently set for myself, then, was to interrogate my own discomfort with specific narratives of acafandom. I’d identify two influential accounts of acafandom: the ‘normalising’ and the ‘levelling’. The former asserts that popular culture is best studied from a position which combines fan knowledge and affect with academic knowledge and affect – in essence, it’s the legitimation of acafandom as a generational shift in the academy. By contrast, the ‘levelling’ account, which I’d also read as generational, asserts that there’s no longer any differential between scholarly and fan identities, so these can freely be moved between, hence the work of ‘acafandom’ is done, and the term is redundant.

Neither of these narratives gets to the heart of the matter, for me, which is this: what critical distance can scholar-fandom take from both ‘academic’ and ‘fan’ identities? In the ‘normalising’ (first generation) narrative – which was still present in my own Fan Cultures (2002) – acafans are presumed to be better scholars than academics without fan knowledge and engagement. There is a lack of critical distance here from fandom; forms of scholarship are critiqued, but fandom is assumed to provide ‘the answer’ to rejuvenating academic authority. First-generation acafandom is, in a sense, too close to fandom.

And in the ‘levelling’ narrative it seems to me that there is a loss of critical distance from academia and fandom; if ‘the battle’ has been won, then academia no longer requires critique or renovation, and institutional praxis doesn’t call for questioning in relation to how culture is studied. Equally, fan praxis can unproblematically form the basis for academic work. Second-generation acafandom seems, therefore, to presume a happy world where institutional limits to knowledge-formation have winked out of existence.

Against these narratives, I want to argue for acafandom which strives for “proper distance” (Silverstone 2007) from all its constituencies. My rendering of “proper distance” implies critical and multi-dimensional reflexivity. I think scholar-fandom remains important to the extent that it is able to engage critically with the contemporary limits of what can be said in academic and fan communities. The notion of moral economy is thus useful – or rather, the interference pattern created by intersecting, multiple moral economies.

Acafandom goes awry if it assumes that it can speak for a fandom. In this case, the fan community that the scholar ‘belongs’ to is mediated and re-presented in academic literature. Likewise, acafans may speak for sections of a fandom, mediating and re-presenting a specific (gendered, or classed, or aged, or nationally delimited) incarnation of that fandom. Instead of displaying critical distance from the scholar’s own fan experience, this experience instead forms the basis for their academic work. The issue here isn’t that this is somehow “subjective”, but rather that it leads to specific taste cultures, and fan cultures, being rendered canonical in fan studies. Why so many studies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who? (But relatively few on Torchwood, and almost none on The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children’s TV show).

By speaking for their own fandoms, rather than exploring fandoms surrounding a wider and disparate range of cultural artefacts, acafans participate in a drastically skewed account of pop culture passions. I include my own work on Doctor Who (2010) within this critique – this work demonstrates a problematic acafandom rather than one which attains ‘proper distance’. And by speaking for their own fan practices, rather than exploring a range of fan activities, acafans similarly skew accounts: cosplay remains under-represented in scholarship, and replica prop-making even more so, yet I regularly encounter work on vidding and, yes, fanfic (usually written by acafans who vid and create fanfic. For some reason the prop-makers have been less interested in theorizing their material cultures). So, proper distance asks the question of what it would look like if we hybridised fandom and academia without simply mirroring, or reproducing, our own pre-existent fan tastes, cultures, and practices.

And I think acafandom goes awry when it assumes that it can speak for a settled academic constituency, e.g. critical theory/sociology/psychosocial studies. When Textual Poachers sought to hybridise scholarly and fan identity positions it did so as part of a challenge to powerful academic norms. If acafandom assumes that it is speaking for a set of academic norms then it comfortably inhabits that moral economy, and fails to challenge discursive, institutional limits. My work on Doctor Who does, for example, pose questions to academia, e.g. the role of experiencing an ongoing text versus the role of mastering a (finished) text as a body of knowledge.

But there continue to be discursive limits operating in academic contexts – it feels, to me, as if Cornel Sandvoss’s Fans (2005), despite being an outstanding study, speaks for critical sociology and its moral economy when it addresses fandom as self-mirroring. There is an institutional delimitation at work here, I feel, rather than a ‘proper distance’ being taken from this academic community. (In a sense, my own work in fan studies and Sandvoss’s act as two sides of a torn dialectic, since I have tended to fail to operate with ‘proper distance’ from my own fan cultures and practices).

We also need to stop thinking spatially about acafandom as if it is the intersecting portion in a Venn diagram, and consider acafandom temporally instead. What varied (personal, disciplinary) histories and traces does the term mask? Acafans can exist within academic disciplines, or they can be in motion between disciplines, mobilising fandom to challenge their parent discipline, or even to temporarily (or definitively) move beyond it. Acafandom may look obsolete, or unnecessary, to those raised intellectually in cultural studies and TV studies, whereas it may be revelatory to those wanting to write about videogames, TV, or pop music in, say, philosophy departments. I

t’s thus surely important to consider the ‘aca’ of acafandom in context; is this contextualised acafandom issuing a challenge to disciplinary norms and discourses, definitively breaching them, or engaging in transdisciplinary traffic? The potential acafandom of a book like Doctor Who and Philosophy may read – and performatively act – very differently to that of Triumph of a Time Lord, for instance. Some acafandoms may even offend or aggravate us as acafan readers, where the version of academia being engaged with is alien or othered (e.g. writing about TV as an acafan without doing any reading whatsoever in TV studies).

Acafandom cannot secure one communal identity since it is partly fractured by academic disciplines, as well as by different fandoms. In my experience, acafans within the same academic discipline can find some common ground despite tackling different fan objects, whereas those who share a fandom but not a discipline often still find themselves speaking uneasily across discursive frames. We shouldn’t narcissistically mistake acafandom as the property of media/cultural studies alone: it will likely look very different from the standpoint of philosophy, an English Lit department, or even within game studies and fields newer than media studies.

In short, I would argue that acafandom has not yet (often) existed in terms of a simultaneous ‘proper distance’ from both fandom and academia. This is an ideal, always still to come, rather than finished and outmoded. So-called acafans, myself among them, have usually either spoken for a fan culture (critiquing academia), or they have spoken for an academic community (critiquing fandom). Acafandom demonstrating “proper distance” is an asymptote rather than a fixed category or a tidy concept. Perhaps we should be striving to do acafandom better, rather than giving up on it.

Alisa Perren:

While I appreciate being asked to participate in this conversation about aca-fandom, I come to this conversation feeling a bit like an outsider. This is in part because my own scholarship has focused much more on media production and distribution practices, rather than on fandom. But this feeling of “being an outsider” is not simply based on my different scholarly emphases. Rather, it also stems from that fact that my interests in popular culture seem to differ from many of those who write and speak from the position of aca-fans. This is not to say that I have a problem with the term of aca-fandom per se. But it does lead me to ask what this label includes – and excludes – and what these boundaries might suggest.

Put simply: to what extent has aca-fandom legitimated the study of certain tastes over others? I have no problem with people choosing to study texts or creative figures that they feel passionate about – passion drives much of the best scholarship. The problem, it seems to me, is that expansion of the “aca-fan” identity has led to a heightened emphasis on the same body of texts (in the case of television, this includes genre shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica and Lost).

I like many of these shows. I like to talk about many of these shows. But I don’t like the degree to which these shows seem to dominate conversations about fandom (and, increasingly, television/media studies) at the expense of conversations about so many other shows. What does it mean that these particular media products are the objects of so much discussion, while shows like Law & Order and The Good Wife (two personal favorites of mine) are far less likely to be examined at panels devoted to aca-fandom? Does “aca-fandom” have a responsibility to expand its scope beyond the genre or “quality” texts that it has tended to radiate toward?

This last question raises a related issue, one that is particularly pertinent to me as a scholar who studies the media industries: Namely, how might aca-fandom be used to serve industry imperatives – and is this something about which we should be concerned? Those working in media organizations, of course, have little interest in interacting with scholars that question their practices or products. Access has always been difficult to gain, especially for those scholars who present themselves as being critical of the organizations or their practices. Within this context, from the perspective of industry, aca-fans represent the ideal (humanistically-oriented) scholars. They are eager for access, and willing to share their knowledge with executives and production staff. The issue then becomes whether aca-fans simply become a cost-effective source of market research for industry, in much the same way that fans can (and have) also been exploited on occasion.

I pose these questions in part to question what’s at stake in the evolving industry-aca-fan relationship. But I am also posing these questions because they are meaningful to me, personally. I take pleasure in researching and talking about the operations of the media industries. I enjoy going to sites like Variety, Movie City News and Deadline and reading the latest news and gossip. Indeed, if I were to self-identify as an “aca-fan,” I would most likely be an aca-fan of industry discourse. Is such an identification possible, given how the term has evolved thus far? And if it is, what are the implications or stakes involved in adopting such a label?

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality, Television Entertainment, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and, with Amanda Lotz, the soon to be released Television Studies. He is also co-editor of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, Battleground: The Media, and Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture.

Matt Hills is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, Wales. He is the author of Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005), How To Do Things With Cultural Theory (Hodder-Arnold, 2005), Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the 21st Century (I.B. Tauris, 2010), and the forthcoming Cultographies: Blade Runner (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2011). Recent book chapters or journal articles include work on the Saw franchise, the TV series Sherlock, and television aesthetics. Matt is currently working on a study of Torchwood.

Alisa Perren is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is co-editor of Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and author of Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s (University of Texas Press, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in a range of print and online publications, including Film Quarterly, Journal of Film and Video, Journal of Popular Film and Television and Flow. She also is Coordinating Editor of In Media Res, a MediaCommons project focused on experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship.

“Does This Technology Serve Human Purposes?”: A “Necessary Conversation” with Sherry Turkle (Part Three)

As you describe the many kinds of anxieties, uncertainties, disappointments, and frustrations which surround technology in everyday life, it sounds like many people are unhappy with current configurations and most have harsh judgments of the uses of new media by others in their friends and family, yet few people are breaking out of the patterns you describe. Why not?

I think that we are at a point of inflection. Our lives are enmeshed with our new technologies of connection and ever more so. We now have more experience of what this means for us as individuals, for our relationships with our families, with our parents, with our children, with our friends, with our neighbors. We are coming to a greater understanding of what this means for us as politically, both in our own country and globally.

It has taken time for people to understand where life with this new kind of technology has brought them. Things came to them one gadget at a time. A phone, a navigation system, a way to listen to music, a new way to read books, books “on tape” became something else . . . . and now we catch up to the idea that positioning and navigation translate into surveillance and that using social media as though it were a neutral “utility” ignores important issues about privacy and ownership of personal data.

I don’t think that we grownups who “gave” this new communications regime to our children thought it through on several of its critical dimensions. What is intimacy without privacy? What is democracy without privacy? These are not easy questions. But they are starting to be questions that people are thinking about. They begin to have concrete meaning as people come to a new kind of life and have enough experience to take its measure.

On the simplest level, when I talk to parents who realize that it makes them anxious to walk to the corner candystore with their child without taking their cell phone, who cannot go to the playground with their child without bringing their e-mail enabled device, who text in the car while driving with their children in the back seat, it seems clear to me that we are not at a point of stable equilibrium. These people are not happy.

So my qualified optimism about change comes from my sense that the people to whom I have been talking are not happy and are genuinely searching for new ways of living with new technology. I hear more and more about “Internet Sabbaths” during which families disconnect for a day or a weekend. Some families modify the Sabbath and declare two hours a day as off-the-grid family time.

There is no option in which we give up on our new devices. They are our partners in the human adventure. What we have to do is find a way to live with them that is healthier. A digital diet that is better for our health and the health of our families. It took a long time for Americans to learn that a diet high in sugar and processed foods was not healthy. It is going to take a long time for people to develop strategies, individually and collectively, to live with our new technologies in the most healthy way. But the stakes are high and we can get this right.

Your book describes a world where technological demands often supersede human needs, yet you are insistent that you are not anti-technology. So, what do you see as the gains which new media have brought into the culture?

In the domain of communications technology, one of the things that excites me the most is when technologies of the virtual enhance our experiences of and in the physical real. So, ironically, one of the earliest uses of the Internet as a social media, how MeetUps were used in the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, remains an inspiration to me. People “met” online for a political purpose and then “met up” in the physical world. They did not fool themselves into thinking that political action consisted of just giving money online or visiting a website and leaving a “thumbs up” sign on it.

MeetUp continues in this tradition as do many other online groups that organize in the virtual and connect in the physical. We have seen this play out on the most dramatic scale in political life where despots may be challenged by groups brought together by social networking in all of its many forms.

I am often asked this question: “You are so critical of social networking. But what about Egypt” My criticism of social networking boils down to the necessity for us not to redefine the social as what the social network can do. The social encompasses a great deal more. This is not to put the social network down, it is simply to put it in its place. So there is no conflict between the magnificence of what the social network can do for the overthrow of tyrants and how it can get in the way of the development of teenagers who need to engage with each other face to face.

On a personal note, I recently attended a reunion of my fifth grade class. This was the fifth grade class from PS 216 Brooklyn. This fifth grade class would have never had a chance of meeting had it not been for Facebook. One person from the class had been connected with several others and then searched Facebook for a few more names she remembered. Those people remembered a few more names. Within six months, our fifth grade class was on the roof terrace of the Peninsula Hotel in New York. It was a small miracle. It was a gift, a profound gift. Yet in the annals of the social network, my story is banal.

You suggest that we are using new media to deal with the anxiety of separation. Is this separation anxiety itself a product of our reliance on technology or is it a reflection of, say, the increases of divorce and mobility in American culture over the past several generations? Are there ways in which the use of social media is a rational response to those social and cultural disruptions, allowing for old friends to remain in contact despite geographic distances or for separated parents to remain active parts of their children’s lives?

I think it is easy to make distinctions in this domain. A parent who uses social media to keep up with a child living away from home or a child who uses social media to keep up with a parent in a different city – one recognizes and respects these cases when one sees them. My concern is with very different kinds of cases. Parents who cannot tolerate their eight year old child not having a cell phone. Children who have developed a style of relating that I characterize as “I text therefore I am” or “I share therefore I am.”

To put it too simply, things have moved from a style of relating where one thinks: “I have a feeling, I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.” In other words, the act of sharing a nascent feeling becomes part of the constitution of the feeling.

The problem is that when we use other people in this way, as needed elements on the path toward our having our feelings, we can move toward a misuse of others. We are not relating to them as others but as what psychologists call “part objects.” We are using them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.

This takes the notion of an “other directed” self to a higher power. Our technology supports a culture of narcissism digital-style. It is a kind of self that does not tolerate being alone. And yet, psychology teaches us that if you do not teach your children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely. We are forgetting this lesson in our culture of hyper-connection. These kinds of anxieties of connection are different from the “rational responses” to staying in touch to far-flung family and friends.

In your discussion of Chatroulette, you talk about “nexting,” while elsewhere, you describe “stalking”. First can you explain the two concepts and then tell us what you see as the relations between them? Is the indifference to others implied by Nexting the flip side of the kinds of obsessive interest in other people’s business online represented by stalking?

What both nexting and stalking have in common is the objectification of people who we meet on screens. We do not consider them in their humanity. They have a profound similarity. And this, too, is one of the major themes of Alone Together: we are at a moment of temptation. It is to treat machines as if they were people and to treat people as if they were machines.

In what ways has the persistence of information online forced you to revise earlier arguments about the potential to protean plays with identity? It seems these days, on the internet, everyone knows you are dog and many know what dog food you eat.

Henry, this is beautifully put. My earlier enthusiasm for identity play on the Internet, for what Amy Bruckman called the Internet experience as “identity workshop” relied heavily on the work of psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Erikson wrote about the developmental need for a moratorium or “time out” during adolescence, a kind of play space in which one had a chance to experiment with identity. In the mid-1990s, I wrote about the Internet as a space where anonymity was possible and where one could experiment with aspects of self in a safe environment.

Today, adolescents grow up with a sense of wearing their online selves on their backs “like a turtle” for the rest of their lives. The internet is forever. And anonymity on the Internet seems a dream of another century, another technology. People still use game and virtual world avatars and social network personae for identity play. But the expectation of a parallel, distinct, and anonymous virtual life is no longer a clear starting expectation.

It cannot be. Many of these experiences begin by registering with a credit card.

You are skeptical of the value of the term, addiction, to describe some of the kinds of behavoir you criticise in the book. What do you see as the limits of addiction as a way of understanding what’s going on here?

No matter how much the metaphor of addiction may seem to fit our circumstance, we can ill afford the luxury of using it. It does not serve us well. To end addiction, you have to discard the substance. And we know that we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We are not going to “get rid” of social networking. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children. Addiction–with its one solution that we know we won’t use–makes us feel hopeless, passive.

We will find new paths, but a first step will surely be to not consider ourselves passive victims of a bad substance, but to acknowledge that in our use of networked technology, we have incurred some costs that we don’t want to pay. We are not in trouble because of invention but because we think it will solve everything. As we consider all this, we will not find a “solution” or a simple answer. But we cannot assume that the life technology makes easy is how we want to live. There is time to make the corrections.

You describe your book as an attempt to start a conversation. What has been your sense so far of the conversation which it has generated? What have people misunderstood about your book?

I wrote Alone Together to mark a time of opportunity. So for example, the essence of my critique of the metaphor of Internet “addiction” is that it closes down conversation, because it suggests a solution that no one is going to take. Addictive substances need to be discarded. We are not going to discard connectivity technology.

We need to form a more empowering partnership with it, one that shows (for example) greater respect for our needs for privacy, solitude, times of non-interruption. In some areas the need for empowerment has reached a state of great urgency, for example, in the area of privacy. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, has declared privacy to be “no longer a social norm.”

In Alone Together, I question such assumptions. Privacy may not be convenient for social networking technology, but it seems to me essential to intimacy and democracy. This is one of the conversations I wanted to contribute to. Others include conversations about child development, connectivity, autonomy, and narcissism. I think one of the most important sentences of my book is “If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely.” I want people to talk about this when they give their eight year olds smart phones.

And yet much of the reaction to Alone Together criticizes me as though I have told the world to “unplug.” As though I have accused technology of causing a new epidemic of mental illness. And as though I have said that technology is making us less human. I have been portrayed as an anti-technology crusader. Reviewers analyze why someone like me, someone who was once on the cover of Wired magazine, could now, not “like” technology. Commentators talk as though technology and I were dating and I, capriciously, have decided to cheat on him.

This rhetoric points to a serious problem. Technology is not there for us to like or not like. Our job is to shape it to our human purposes. When you say a technology has problems that need to be addressed, people are quick to interpret you as saying that it offers nothing. In Alone Together I write of “necessary conversations” that lie ahead. I wrote the book in the hope of sparking some of them. I’m glad that people are talking. But sometimes it can be hard to know if you are in a conversation if people are shouting.

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Professor Turkle is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution (Basic Books, 1978; MIT Press paper, 1981; second revised edition, Guilford Press, 1992); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984; Touchstone paper, 1985; second revised edition, MIT Press, 2005); Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1995; Touchstone paper, 1997); and Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT Press, 2009). She is the editor of three books about things and thinking, all published by the MIT Press: Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007); Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008); and The Inner History of Devices (2008). Professor Turkle’s most recent book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published by Basic Books in January 2011.

“Does This Technology Serve Human Purposes?”: A “Necessary Conversation” with Sherry Turkle (Part Two)

In many ways, both of us have been profoundly shaped by our time amongst MIT Students. And you wrote very explicitly about MIT hacker culture in The Second Self. What do you see as the strengths and limitations of MIT as a testing ground for your ideas?

I don’t see MIT as a testing ground for my ideas. I would say rather that MIT is the place where my ideas are most challenged because there is a tendency at MIT to want to see human purposes and technological affordances as being one. Technology has purposes; technology is made by people. Technology and people are at one in their purpose.

From my point of view, every technology offers an opportunity for people do ask: “Does this technology serve human purposes?” and this is a wonderful thing because it enables us to ask again what these purposes are. We are well positioned to create technology whose purposes are not in our best interests. And then, it is time to make the corrections.

So, from this point of view, I find that my favorite sentence in my books is “Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think that the Internet is all grown up.” From my point of view, this is a distortion of perspective, one that is very common at MIT. From my point of view, we are in early days and it is time to make the corrections.

Perhaps the greatest ongoing difference of opinion I have had with close colleagues at MIT has been about the meaning and prospect of sociable robots. I take a very strong position in Alone Together that nanny-bots and elder-care bots who pretend affection are seductive. And that my research shows that we are vulnerable to them. We are alone with them, yet we feel a faux-intimacy with them.

Indeed, the arc of the book is that with robots, we are alone and feel a new intimacy. In our new mobile connectivity, we are together with each other, and yet experience new solitudes.

I worked on my studies of sociable robots with colleagues at MIT who are some of the most brilliant and creative developers of sociable robotics. We had deeply-felt, serious conversations about the purposes and possibilities of these machines. Some think that their ultimate significance will be profoundly humanistic. I’m listening, but I am not convinced. Conversations with robots about love, sex, children, the arc of a life – in other words, about human meaning – to me, this has no meaning. These are things that the robot has not experienced. These are not appropriate topics for conversations with robots. So, being at MIT has kept me more aware than I would ever have been about the broad differences of opinion in what the purposes of machines can be.

I took you to task, ever so mildly, in my blog a while back about some of your comments about MIT students and multitasking in the Digital Nations documentary. You can see what I said here. I wanted to offer you a chance to respond to my arguments.

I most often run into our disagreement about multi-tasking in the context of parents who say, “Well, is it so bad if I text while my kid is in the kitchen with me; my mom used to do the dishes while I hung around?” Or, “My dad used the read the newspaper when we watched sports on TV; what’s the difference between that and my doing my email while I watch sports with my son on Sunday?”

Having interviewed the children who feel abandoned by their parents, who feel almost desperate for parental attention, has led me to do a lot of thinking about the kinds of attention that digital devices require. We don’t give them the kind of attention we gave to doodling or to a newspaper or for that matter, to cooking or watching TV. We are drawn in in quite a different way. This is made apparent when I interview teenagers who say things like “When I was little I used to watch Sunday football with my dad and we would talk. Now, he is on his BlackBerry and he is in the ‘Zone.’ I can’t interrupt him.” Or, stories, many stories of daughters who come into the kitchen to hang out with their mothers and find them texting and cannot make eye contact with them and who are shushed away. I observe parents and children in the playground with children desperately trying to get their parents attention; parents are absorbed in their devices and cannot “multi-task” attention for their kids.

So, I think that the narratives we use to think about our students multi-tasking in class needs to be informed by the nature of what it is to absorb oneself in digital media. Beyond this, I am persuaded by the research that suggests that when we multi-task, our performance degrades for each task we multi-task, even as we receive a neurochemical reward for our multi-tasking. So, through no fault of our own, our biology has us feeling better and better even as we do worse and worse.

I do think that smitten by what computers enable us to do, we have allowed multi-tasking to seem like a twenty-first century alchemy. I think that classrooms, will soon be in the position of being the places where uni-tasking is taught, places where students learn to concentrate and where, additionally, they learn to cultivate the capacity for solitude.

I think that the two learning skills that are in the most jeopardy in our hyper-connected world are the ability to concentrate on one thing and the capacity for the kind of solitude that replenishes and restores.

I am going to be running a summer-long conversation on this blog about the value of the autobiographical voice in cultural criticism. You have now edited a series of books where people share autobiographical reflections on what you call evocative objects. Can you explain what you mean by evocative objects and what you think is the contributions of these kinds of reflections?

Evocative objects are objects that cause us to reflect on ourselves or on other things. Put otherwise, they give us materials that help us to do this in new and richer ways. Objects can be evocative for many different reasons. Some of these reasons have been widely studied. So, for example, objects that are “betwixt and between” standard categories are classically evocative because they cause us to reflect on the categories themselves. This is why computational objects, standing between mind and not-mind, between the world of the animate and not animate, have been so evocative as objects-to-think-with.

Other evocative objects partake of elements of what Winnicott called “transitional objects.” These are objects that blur the boundaries between self and not-self, object that we experience as being in a special, blurred, sometimes fused relation to self. Here, too computational objects have had a special role to play. From the very beginning, people experienced a kind of “mind meld” when using software, saying things such as “When I use Microsoft Word I see my ideas form someplace between my mind and the screen.” Now, in talking about always-on-them digital devices, there is an ever greater sense of the device being part of the body.

Evocative objects provide a special window onto life experience, one that is grounded and cannot avoid issues of depth psychology. Science studies, sociology, anthropology have each in their own way welcomed the study of objects but have been hostile to depth psychology. When one pays careful attention to evocative objects, one “hears” psychodynamic issues, one “hears” family history, one “hears” a close attention to personal narrative and the texture of a life in all of its peculiarity and deeply woven interconnections with others. In science studies, studying objects and life narrative has the additional virtue of making the point, which seems to need making for every new generation of students, that technologies are not “just” tools, that our relationships with objects are profoundly interconnected to how we make meaning out of lives and think through who we are as people.

You describe both children and the elderly being drawn to robots as companions. In your discussion of social networking sites, you seem to accept the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants, implying that generational differences matter in response to those technologies. Do these same differences matter in talking about human relations with robots?

There are of course important differences in how people who grew up with a given technology appropriate it in contrast to those who adopted it in adulthood. But what most fascinates me these days are common vulnerabilities of grownups and younger people, both in the area of communications technology and in the area of sociable robotics. I did many interviews with people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are willing to entertain the idea of a robot that might love them, care for them. But certainly, the sensibility of the “robotic moment,” the idea that we are ready for robots that might care for us is most apparent among the young.

Their science fiction and imaginative toy and game worlds suggest to them that robots may soon be in a position to teach people how to love; they have a way of thinking about the nature of aliveness that considers objects with a new pragmatism. That is, previous generations talked about computational objects as “sort of alive” or “kind of alive.” This new generation talks of computational objects as “alive enough” to do certain jobs. Robots are thus considered “alive enough” for the job of care and companionship, at the limit, alive for affection.

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Professor Turkle is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution (Basic Books, 1978; MIT Press paper, 1981; second revised edition, Guilford Press, 1992); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984; Touchstone paper, 1985; second revised edition, MIT Press, 2005); Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1995; Touchstone paper, 1997); and Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT Press, 2009). She is the editor of three books about things and thinking, all published by the MIT Press: Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007); Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008); and The Inner History of Devices (2008). Professor Turkle’s most recent book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published by Basic Books in January 2011.

‘Does This Technology Serve Human Purposes?”: A “Necessary Conversation” with Sherry Turkle (Part One)

After more than twenty years of living in the heart of the machine, I have concluded that there are two ways of doing humanities at MIT (perhaps anywhere): the first is entrenched and embattled, defending the traditions, from a broom closet, trying to civilize those who see virtue in the technological and who undervalue the cultural; the second is engaged, confronting the technological and demanding that it serve human needs, asking core questions about the nature of our species, and exploring how the cultural and the psychological reasserts itself through those media which we make, in Marshall McLuhan’s terms, into extensions of ourselves. There is at MIT no greater advocate for humanistic engagement than Sherry Turkle, whose work on technologies as “second selves,” as “evocative objects,” as intimate tools and “relational artifacts”, the central theme of her work.

It has been my joy and honor to consider Turkle my friend for more than two decades. Our paths crossed too rarely in the years I was in Cambridge, but each time they did, I left the conversation changed by her insights about core questions which shaped both of our work. Here is a video recording of our most recent in-person exchange, a public dialogue about solitude and participation in the digital age, which we conducted at the Scratch conference hosted by our mutual friend, Mitch Resnick, at the MIT Media Lab. It will be clear there that our shifting alignments, sometimes agreeing, but often coming at the world a bit askew to each other, brought out some fresh thinking from both of us.

MIT Tech TV

Sherry Turkle shared with me some years ago the insight that we are both victims of the public’s desire for simple answers. No matter what Sherry says, which is often layered and sometimes paradoxical, about the complexity of human’s relations with technology, there will be those who see her as too pessimistic and no matter what I say, people are going to see me as too celebratory. In both cases, at the heart of our work is the desire to “complicate” our understanding of technological change through a focus on core human experiences.

I was reminded of her statement when I saw the response to her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. Critics and supporters alike tended to read the book as a diatribe against new media and as thus a turning of her back on the work of many at MIT who stress the ways new tools are expanding rather than constraining human potentials. Many wrote to ask me what I thought of the book, often with the expectation that we were fundamentally at odds with each other.

I should have known better, but I found myself entering the book on the defensive, looking for points of disagreement, and there are certainly some of those as the following exchange will suggest. But, as I read, I found myself struggling to answer the challenges she posed, and finding the book anything but simplistic and one-sided. She is demanding that we all enter a new phase of the “conversation,” one which accepts that technological changes are fundamental and unlikely to reverse course, but one which demands that we shape technologies to core human needs and goals rather than the other way around.

This is the great theme which runs across the remarkable interview I am sharing with you this week, resurfacing again and again as she presses beyond simple one-sided perspectives and forces us to address our fundamental “vulnerability” to technological shifts. Do not enter into this interview expecting to disagree with Turkle or to simply reaffirm your own comfortable and well rehearsed arguments. Rather, use her comments to reshape your thinking and to redirect your energies to some of the core struggles of our times. What you will find throughout this discussion is a powerful intellect engaging with the shifting borders between the human and the mechanical, between psychology and technology, and between pessimism and skepticism. As always, I learn so much from reading Turkle’s work, even where, or perhaps especially where, we disagree. But, again, I would stress, we disagree far less often than many, ourselves among them, might imagine.

I was struck by one of the very first sentences in the book: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” Can you dissect that evocative phrase a bit for me? In what forms does the proposal take and how do we signal whether or not we accept?

From the earliest days that I came to MIT, struck by the intensity of people’s emotional engagement with their objects – and most especially with their computational objects – there were many people, and especially many colleagues, who were highly skeptical of my endeavor. And yet, I am inspired by Winston Churchill’s words, who said, before McCluhan rephrased: “We make our buildings, and in turn, our buildings make and shape us.” We make our technologies, and our technologies make and shape us. The technologies I study, the technologies of communication, are identity technologies. I think of them as intimate machines. They are not only, as the computer has always been, mirrors of our mind; they are now the places where the shape and dimensions of our relationship are sculpted.

I think of the technological devices as having an inner history. That inner history is how they shape our relationships with them and our relationships with each other. Another way to think of this is in terms of technological affordance and human vulnerability. Technologies have certain psychological affordances, they make certain psychological offers. We are vulnerable to many of these. There is an intricate play between what technology offers and what we, vulnerable, often struggle to refuse.

There would have been a time when technology was understood as the opposite of intimate — as something cold, impersonal, mechanical, and industrial. In a sense your three books have mapped the process by which we have come to embrace technology as intimate. What factors has led to this shift in our relationships to technology?

I think there are two ways of answering your question. The first is to say that technology has never been cold, impersonal, and industrial. We simply chose to understand it that way. Technology has always had a role in shaping the inner life, the intimate life. The telephone – surely a shaping force in the making and shaping of self. The telegram, the letter, the book.

As a teenager living in Paris in the 1960s, I remember the telephone being shunned as too “impersonal” – for significant apologies, a request for a meeting, an assignation – it was explained to me that one sent a pneumatique. All the post offices of Paris were connected with pneumatic tubes. One wrote a letter in a sealed envelope. It was picked up at one’s apartment and brought to the post, put in the tube, sent to the post office closest to the destinataire’s address and hand delivered. The pneumatique had the touch of the hand on the correspondence. This, too, was intimate technology. There was nothing cold about the letter.

Nor was there anything cold about how industrial technologies such as cars and trains shaped our sensibilities, our sense of self, of our sensuality, our possibilities. If we have succumbed to an ideology of technological neutrality that is something that needs to be studied as an independent phenomenon; it is not to be taken as a given.

But there is another way of approaching this question. And that is to say that I do believe that information technology and the digital revolution has changed something fundamental in our way of seeing the world. There is something new in our current circumstance. The computer is a mind machine, not only because it has its own very primitive psychology but because it causes us to reflect upon our own.

From the very beginning, people saw the computer as a “second self” – an extension and reflection of self. The computer seemed much like the psychologist’s inkblot test: the computer as Rorschach, a projection of personal concerns. Indeed, I got the title of my first book on the computer culture from a thirteen year old who said, after an experience with computers: “When you work with a computer, you put a little piece of your mind into the computer’s mind and you come to see yourself differently.” A second self. So, one might say that in a context where I believe that all technologies shape and make us, the computer takes this vocation to a higher power. Or perhaps, one might say, this vocation is a centerpiece of its identity. I think of it as an intimate machine.

This vocation has been heightened in the age of always-on/always-on-you communications devices, which of course are the focus of my current work. They move from being tools or perhaps prosthetics to giving people the sense of being near-cyborg. The devices seem like a phantom limb, so much are they are part of us.

Your discussion of our shifting relations to Robots remains focused primarily on the actual technological devices and the roles they play in our lived experience. Yet surely our shifting understanding of the robotic has also been shaped in profound ways by the cultural imagination. After all, the very term, Robot, emerges from a work of science fiction — Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (1920) and surely our relations with actual robots have been shaped by science fiction representations from Asimov’s I Robot and Robbie the Robot and Gort to C3P0 and R2D2. So, what relationship might we posit between the creative imagination and our shifting relations to the robots in our physical surroundings?

This is a very important question for me. I have been tracking the flowering of a genre – there are of course antecedents – but now we have a flowering – of the robot who teaches people to love, and more than this, and crucially, teaches people how to be human. For me, the prototype here is WALL-E. The people have forgotten their sensuality, their capacity for love, their capacity for interconnectedness. It is a robot designed for industrial cleanup who rediscovers all of this, who falls in love and who, transcendent in this capacity, is in a position to teach it to humanity. In fact he saves humanity not just in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense as well.

In Alone Together, I talk about our having reached a “robotic moment.” This is not because we have robots who are capable of loving us, but because so many of the people I interviewed say that they are prepared to be loved by a robot. There is no question that imaginative literature and film have been part of this shift. We used to look to machines for physical help. Now we feel we are missing things on an emotional and spiritual dimension and we look to the machine world.

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Professor Turkle is the author of Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud’s French Revolution (Basic Books, 1978; MIT Press paper, 1981; second revised edition, Guilford Press, 1992); The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon and Schuster, 1984; Touchstone paper, 1985; second revised edition, MIT Press, 2005); Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, 1995; Touchstone paper, 1997); and Simulation and Its Discontents (MIT Press, 2009). She is the editor of three books about things and thinking, all published by the MIT Press: Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (2007); Falling for Science: Objects in Mind (2008); and The Inner History of Devices (2008). Professor Turkle’s most recent book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, published by Basic Books in January 2011.

Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Alex Juhasz, Jay Bushman, and Derek Johnson (Part Two)

On August 9th, strewn across three time zones, Jay Bushman, Alex Juhasz, and Derek Kompare picked up where their previous segment ended, and pondered the implications of the concept of fandom via Skype chat.

Derek Kompare (10:04 am):

My point at the end of our last conversation was to come in on this idea that there’s more (much more) to the equation than “producers” and “fans.” You and Jay were explicating some of these complex roles.

Alex Juhasz (10:07 am):

Where do you see yourself and your work along this spectrum?

Derek Kompare (10:09 am):

I came into this career via fandom (literally, as a fan of SF media, alternative music, etc.), but I see myself now as studying the broader formations of culture. That is, what larger structures and forces produce the entire concept of “media,” “media consumption,” and (yes) “fandom.”

Alex Juhasz (10:10 am):

As a fan whose moved on, up, out, deeper, over (which word or is there another?) how did you find the tone and content of our earlier conversation, given that neither Jay nor I identify as either fan or acafan?

Derek Kompare (10:14 am):

I wouldn’t say I’ve moved so much in any direction (I’m wary of discourses of transcendence; we’re all already “dirty”!), but just have a more ambivalent relationship to it all. I still love being a fan, and the idea of fandom, but I’m more critical of the PRACTICES of fandom (and the relationships they entail). You and Jay hit on this massive blind spot in a lot of acafan discourse: what about people and forms that DON’T immediately identify with these terms? What does acafan do for them? I’d argue, not much! And thus we need a more useful concept.

Alex Juhasz (10:18 am):

I think that Jay and I agreed that: a situated, engaged practice (as makers or scholars) within a community of which one is a member or player that is facilitated by technology and is interested in a subjective, affective analysis of these activities links us both to acafandom even though the objects and feelings we both engage with might differ from those stereotypically connected to this sub-field.

Also, we both used the word “play” a lot, as Henry noted in his comments to us on our first exchange. “Play” helped me to name the life-affirming, community-producing, self-empowerment that can come from collective, situated, cultural production (including analysis). Of course this is also “serious”–when I am engaging with others in these lived and felt practice against, say, an illicit war or a deadly virus; or when my methods include the use of “theory” or perhaps the production of avant-garde and thus “hi-brow” texts.

Derek Kompare (10:29 am):

Is “life-affirming, community-producing, self-empowerment” always “play”? Is emotional affect always reducible to “fandom”? While I can certainly see the appeal and rationality of this conception on several planes (politically, emotionally, even physically), I worry that it risks cleaving away things that are NOT “play” and affect that is NOT “fandom.”

To put on the curmudgeonly pol econ hat (which I hate wearing, but it’s still in my closet): these terms also merge quite nicely with 21st century capitalism, in which consumption and pleasure are symbiotic. As much as I hate to go there, these discourses (including the ever-controversial “gamification”) give me pause.

What about “citizenship”? What about “love”? What about following a particular religious faith? These things could be described as “fandom,” but to me that’s selling them way short, and reducing their possibilities to mere market transactions.

Alex Juhasz (10:39 am):

Given that I am not a fan, I heartily agree. I suppose I was trying to generous (to you, and other acafans in this dialogue). I study and make alternative culture in some (probably already regulated and predictable) defiance to corporate capitalism. Hence, I want to make from scratch, and using different vocabularies and systems, the culture I want to see given that I can’t leave the one I am in and the languages and products it uses are often familiar and therefore useful. And when I do this with others against a war or about AIDS, mourning, and death, I do start from anger, or love, or a highly-educated analysis but in the activity itself we all live outside corporate capitalism’s will to mollify us with its stuff. That’s why I’m curious about how you make sense of your own fandom of corporate things.

Derek Kompare (10:47 am):

The genius of corporate culture is that its output can be so, so attractive and compelling. I don’t just mean “seductive” in a conspiratorial way: I mean genuinely intriguing. The people who make the culture that comes out under corporate labels (e.g., DC Comics writers, JJ Abrams, Lady Gaga, the Dallas Mavericks) are artists in the broad sense of the word: talented people creating engaging material. I see that creative work, per se (i.e., the actual creative labor, regardless of content), as no different than any other cultural work, including oppositional work such as what Alex is involved with. So my fandom starts from the recognition of this talent.

However, since it is corporate culture, it gets complicated very quickly, and can never be totally separate from that. Of course what we all do (including the scholarly life) can never be completely separate from corporate culture anyway…

Alex Juhasz (10:50 am):

Understood. But without the means behind whatever talent we do or do not have, alternative producers and fans make objects which somehow pale, therefore putting the focus on process rather than product.

And of course, alternative production is entirely situated within capitalism, we simply try to find crevices where we can name different rules of engagement and different values (as is true for academia as well).

[Jay jumped in when he could due to his schedule]

Jay Bushman (10:53 am):

At the risk of a tangent, I liked the mention of religion above. My parents like to say that my religion growing up was “Jedi,” so immersed was I in Star Wars fandom. On a functional level, it’s not that ridiculous — I’d guess that more people of my age group in the US had their morals and ethics shaped by the idea of the Force than the idea of the Holy Ghost. We joke sometimes that the Bible was the original piece of transmedia.

Alex Juhasz (10:54 am):

I just used the word “values.” No tangent.

Derek Kompare (10:56 am):

The Jedi example is a great one of the complexity of corporate culture. Many people might find it blasphemous to link the Bible and Star Wars, but the affect is clearly there. Again, “fandom” risks bracketing it all off into a kind of happy/fun, harmless space, when there’s always more to it (not only in terms of, say, corporate capitalism, but also, in this example, spiritual investment).

Alex Juhasz (10:59 am):

How does Henry’s suggestion of the word “serious” help here?

Jay Bushman (11:00 am):

The corporate culture question is also at the root of the whole transmedia terminology debate. Lurking behind all the questions about marketing vs. storytelling vs. franchising is the split between large corporate entities and small indie producers. The example of The Matrix that Henry is fond of using to describe transmedia is far away from anything transmedia that I’ve been involved with.

I’ve always found “serious” an odd and unsatisfying term — as if something cannot be fun and engaging and also be important at the same time.

Alex Juhasz (11:03 am):

Because you make smaller, indie things, yes? Do they also need to make money?

Jay Bushman (11:04 am):

Up until 6 months ago, I was a completely indie producer, and my projects were intentionally designed to not have a revenue generating requirement. I’m swimming in different waters now, and it has been an educational process.

Derek Kompare (11:05 am):

Agreed on “serious.” We’re limited by language here, which puts “serious” and “fun” on a binary, rather than on a scale, or (better) a wide plane.

Jay Bushman (11:05 am):

Re: Serious — I view Moby-Dick as a comedy. But hey, what do I know?

Alex Juhasz (11:06 am):

I’ve never made anything that needs to make money because I am a Professor and am supported in this way, or I get grants or donations or I make things for super cheap. But there’s no outside capitalism: just quickly evaporating places within it (like Academia).

Derek Kompare (11:09 am):

The things we make are still commodities, though, at least in part. They may not make money directly, but they are broadly “marketable” (i.e., as lines in a vita or resume, works to build up our name recognition, etc.). Kind of a tangent, but even art and academia are part of the whole system, as it’s always been.

Jay Bushman (11:09 am):

I worked corporate jobs for years to support myself, while making my projects on the side. But there’s a limit to the scope and scale that can be produced that way.

Alex Juhasz (11:10 am):

And aca’s get paid by the University while fans do the same work (play?) and do not.

Derek Kompare (11:11 am):

Those “limits” are certainly fascinating, though. Every medium has those places, which often result in really interesting stuff (as well as a lot of crap!). As SF writer Paul Cornell said, there’s no shame in producing work that only a handful of people understand or appreciate.

Great point about support systems, Alex. Again, another very valid reason to have reservations about “acafan.”

Alex Juhasz (11:12 am):

Virality goes against most of what I believe in, and yet its pull is a religion of its own.

I want to start a new religion of anti-virality, non-spreadability, and local joy, but who am I kidding!

Derek Kompare (11:13 am):

“Non-spreadability”! I love it!

Alex Juhasz (11:14 am):

It was fun and serious too. Nice meeting you both.

Jay Bushman (11:14 am):

Nice to meet you too, Alex!

Derek Kompare (11:14 am):

Great to meet both of you as well!

Jay Bushman is a transmedia story designer. Writing under the name “The Loose-Fish Project,” he’s produced a series of Twitter-based interactive story events around subjects including Star Wars, H.P. Lovecraft and famous ghosts. Jay is also the author of The Good Captain, a Twitter-based adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” and Spoon River Metblog, a modernization of “Spoon River Anthology” in the form of a group blog. His essay “Cloudmaker Days: A Memoir of the A.I. Game” appeared in Well Played 2.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning from ETC Press. Jay is currently a writer/designer at Fourth Wall Studios and the co-coordinator of Transmedia Los Angeles.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College. She makes and studies committed media practices that contribute to political change and individual and community growth. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1995), Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, co-edited with Jesse Lerner (Minnesota, 2005), and Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics, She has published extensively on documentary film and video. Dr. Juhasz is also the producer of educational videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy. She recently completed the feature documentaries SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age (2008), Video Remains (2005), and Dear Gabe (2003) as well as Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (1998) and the shorts, RELEASED: 5 Short Videos about Women and Film (2000) and Naming Prairie (2001), a Sundance Film Festival, 2002, official selection. She is the producer of the feature films, The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about YouTube: www.aljean.wordpress.com. Her born-digital on-line “video-book” about YouTube, Learning from YouTube, is available from MIT Press (Winter 2011).

An annual attendee of both the SCMS conference and the San Diego Comic-Con, Derek Kompare is an Associate Professor in the Division of Film and Media Arts at Southern Methodist University. His research and writing is primarily focused on how media forms develop, and can be found in the books Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television (2005) and CSI (2010), several anthology and journal articles, and online at Antenna, Flow, In Media Res and (occasionally) his own blog.

Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Alex Juhasz, Jay Bushman, and Derek Kompare (Part One)

Friday August 5, 2011

Alex Juhasz 9:50 AM (via MS Word):

For about an hour and a half on Monday August 1, Jay Bushman and I had a typed conversation over Skype while Derek Kompare drove thousands of miles and was off line. Through previous email exchanges, we had learned that we had almost nothing in common with each other, and had little interest in acafandom. It is from there that we began the “conversation” that follows. As we typed, I also read from a novel, played Internet scrabble, worked on my YouTube art show, PerpiTube: Repurposing Social Media Spaces, and monitored my children who were playing Minecraft and Sims.

Monday August 1, 2011

Alex Juhasz 4:27 PM (via Sykpe):

Jay. Hi. My thought is we try to have an asycnch conversation about the issues for Henry’s blog, and then use it as our submission. Given people’s vacation schedule, this may be a bit complicated, but it’s worth a go, just to shake up their format a bit, if nothing else.

Jay Bushman 4:27 PM:

Works for me. Perhaps a good place for us to start would be off of this provocation:

“How might the debates about the acafan concept relate to other debates in connected fields of popular culture studies, such as discussions about the emergence of the ‘new games journalism’ as a means of capturing the subjective experience of players?”

I work in what you could describe as the professional transmedia community, and the ongoing debate over the definition of “transmedia” is absolutely related to self-identity and a need to justify the right sort of hybridization–a strange attraction to purity for such a multi-disciplinary field!

The phrase “subjective experience of the players” caught my eye. I’ve been arguing that the output of the various competing factions vying for control of the term transmedia, when viewed from the perspective of audience/player experience, actually have very little in common.

Alex Juhasz 4:40 PM:

Although I don’t play or study games, my kids do (12, 12, and 13. Don’t ask! blended pomo family…) and I have lots to say about my own subjective if vicarious experience of everything from Sims, to Minecraft, to Mario: a strange attraction/repulsion. I also don’t study or play with mainstream culture. So fandom (and acafandom) are way outside my sitelines, except again for the vicarious experiences of my children, and various life partners (all of whom watch a lot of TV). That said, self-identity and subjective experience have both been really important to my work as a feminist scholar of alternative culture (that is what I do like to watch, and play, and make, in the forms of films, documentaries, and lately YouTube videos and websites).

Jay Bushman 4:43 PM:

I live in Los Angeles, where “academic” usually means something different than what it does in the rest of the world. I’m called “academic” because I want to produce new media versions of classic texts like Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice and Moby-Dick.

Alex Juhasz 4:52 PM:

Do you have any fancy degrees? I’m an academic, I think, in large part because I have a Ph.D. That said, my method is often “artistic,” in that I choose to make things as my critical, studied process and project. Also, given my interest in things “alternative,” my work is thought to be in some sort of opposition to the “classic texts” you are committed to. Although, of course, like most highly educated people, I have a soft spot in my heart for many of the greats, which also puts me at odds with a lot of what I think acafandom is supposed to be about: finding highs in mainstream culture’s lows.

Jay Bushman 4:55 PM:

“a lot of what I think acafandom is supposed to be about: finding highs in mainstream culture’s lows.” – I like that description. It reminds me of one of my favorite plays, Wallace Shawn’s “The Designated Mourner.” A major theme of the play examines real and perceived differences between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture.

I have an MFA in Film and Video production. I’m now working as a writer and designer at Fourth Wall Studios, where the boundaries between narrative design and game design are blurry. I wrote an essay about my experience playing the first Alternate Reality Game for the ETC, which is why, I think, I was invited to participate

Alex Juhasz 4:57 PM:

And speaking of games: I LOVE the board and card kind. I also am addicted to Facebook Scrabble. But none of the immersive kind at all. That for me is a book.

I feel like fault lines of the conversation are already hi/low, immersive/narrative, fan/artist or perhaps fan/maker? Does that sound right? How are experience and narrative related in your work? BTW I write a lot about the processes of making activist/art work within communities (as important as the text).

Jay Bushman 5:08 PM:

My work tends to be split along two very different lines. One would be the digital narrative with the emphasis taken almost completely off of interactivity. Things like twitter novels, serial blog fiction, stories where the different delivery mechanisms are used to convey different characteristics of the story. Matching medium to material. For example, I wrote a sci-fi adaptation of the Melville short story “Benito Cereno” that was written for and distributed via Twitter. “Benito Cereno” is all about the faulty perceptions of its unreliable narrator, and twitter was a great medium to use to force the reader to adopt the narrator’s descriptions of events.

The other fork is hugely interactive, with very little narrative–basically collaborative realtime story events using Twitter (and other social media to a lesser extent). For instance, every year during the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, TX, I run a Star Wars-based story event. And on Halloween, I usually run some sort of spooky/horror themed experience – I’ve done ghosts and Lovecraft so far, and am in the planning stages for next October.

The idea is to devise a simple ruleset with a light narrative throughline, and get participants to create their own stories within that world. I ripped off a description that I heard Douglas Rushkoff use to describe this – Throughline and Magic Circle – where the throughline represents tradition narrative structure, surrounded my a magic circle of interactivity and participation.

Alex Juhasz 5:18 PM:

So interactive/narrative is another split.

As an activist/artists/academic of alternative culture I think of the living, doing and making of things as immersive and interactive. I use narrative to structure and re-present representations of the activities and actions that are important to me in the living and doing of them. However, my new work is about the living and doing of online experience, which, I think of as already representation, and which I do not use narrative to structure. Hmm.

Jay Bushman 5:40 PM:

Well, one of the neat things about online/interactive storytelling is that you can throw out a handful of almost random data points, and the audience will tie them together into a narrative for you. Although sometimes, that doesn’t work out the way you’d want.

Alex Juhasz 5:47 PM:

Audience/user, another faultline? Can you give an example that worked, and one that failed?

Jay Bushman 5:51 PM:

There’s a somewhat well-known story from the A.I. ARG (aka The Beast.) Where the same piece of stock photography was accidentally used to depict two different characters – a successful executive, and robot geisha. The players immediately found the mistake, but decided to turn the error into a conspiracy theory about how the executive was secretly a robot in disguise. The game designers took this player-created theory and ran with it, incorporating it into the story. That one is both a failure and a success: failure of execution in the regular game leading to a remarkable, opportunistic success.

Alex Juhasz 6:06 PM:

Interesting. The work I make has neither players, nor fans. Teaching has students. Documentaries have viewers. Websites have users. And collaboratives have doers. When we make, we play, for sure. Mistakes usually happen because we lack budgets, then jump great hoops for coherence (i.e. $20K collaborative lesbian feature, The Owls, 2010, that had no coverage and half the story left unshot after grueling five day shoot, and yet still a narrative feature got made, and even got micro-distribution: First Run Features.) We played to make it work with our tiny budget and for our tiny microcommunity of makers, and slightly larger group of “fans” or maybe “friends.”

Gotta make dinner for the kids. Any way that we might share this with Derek, let him voice in, make something of it, finish it off, and be done (and yes, this had been play: thanks!)

Friday, August 5, 3:40 PM

Derek Kompare (via MS Word)

I apologize for missing this intriguing discussion; as Alex said, I was driving with family across the US southwest. Rather than retcon myself into the above, I’ll briefly respond to what I consider the most significant point.

As the member of this triad who most identifies with the usual conception of “acafan,” it was refreshing to see how the term looks from its outside. As Alex and Jay suggest, we all have hybrid identities that affect our work and our play. But the modes and mediums we use in either are also parts of those identities. A “game” thus means different things to Jay, Alex, Alex’s kids, Jay’s “players,” etc.

There are many ways of “doing” culture. Moreover, there are many ways of explaining how culture is done. My main issue with the term “acafan” is that, while it has certainly loosened the boundaries between those ways, it has itself established new expectations and restrictions. As Alex and Jay’s work respectively shows, cultural engagement is not always about “academics and/or fans,” and it’s time we started to acknowledge that more.

Jay Bushman is a transmedia story designer. Writing under the name “The Loose-Fish Project,” he’s produced a series of Twitter-based interactive story events around subjects including Star Wars, H.P. Lovecraft and famous ghosts. Jay is also the author of The Good Captain, a Twitter-based adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” and Spoon River Metblog, a modernization of “Spoon River Anthology” in the form of a group blog. His essay “Cloudmaker Days: A Memoir of the A.I. Game” appeared in Well Played 2.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning from ETC Press. Jay is currently a writer/designer at Fourth Wall Studios and the co-coordinator of Transmedia Los Angeles.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College. She makes and studies committed media practices that contribute to political change and individual and community growth. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1995), Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (University of Minnesota Press, 2001), F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, co-edited with Jesse Lerner (Minnesota, 2005), and Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics, She has published extensively on documentary film and video. Dr. Juhasz is also the producer of educational videotapes on feminist issues from AIDS to teen pregnancy. She recently completed the feature documentaries SCALE: Measuring Might in the Media Age (2008), Video Remains (2005), and Dear Gabe (2003) as well as Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (1998) and the shorts, RELEASED: 5 Short Videos about Women and Film (2000) and Naming Prairie (2001), a Sundance Film Festival, 2002, official selection. She is the producer of the feature films, The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997) and The Owls (Dunye, 2010). Her current work is on and about YouTube: www.aljean.wordpress.com. Her born-digital on-line “video-book” about YouTube, Learning from YouTube, is available from MIT Press (Winter 2011).

An annual attendee of both the SCMS conference and the San Diego Comic-Con, Derek Kompare is an Associate Professor in the Division of Film and Media Arts at Southern Methodist University. His research and writing is primarily focused on how media forms develop, and can be found in the books Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television (2005) and CSI (2010), several anthology and journal articles, and online at Antenna, Flow, In Media Res and (occasionally) his own blog.

Back to School Special: Syllabus for Science Fiction AS Media Theory

As I’ve done in previous terms, I am sharing here the syllabus for my graduate seminar this fall. The focus is on science fiction AS media theory: i.e. we are looking primarily at science fiction texts (mostly literary) as ways of thinking through the implications of media change and we are looking at media theories for the implicit utopian or dystopian claims they make and for the ways they have drawn on metaphors from science fiction. I have taught science fiction as literature before — at MIT — but this represents a new approach for me in terms of how I engage with SF texts in the classroom.

Science Fiction as Media Theory

This class explores the ways that science fiction–sometimes known as speculative fiction–has historically functioned as a form of vernacular theory about media technologies, practices, and institutions. As recent writings about “design fictions” illustrate, these speculations have in turn inspired the developers and of new technologies as well as those who create content for such platforms, helping to frame our expectations about the nature of media change. And, increasingly, media theorists–raised in a culture where science fiction has been a pervasive influence–are drawing on its metaphors as they speculate about virtual worlds, cyborg feminism, post-humanism, and afro-futurism, among a range of other topics.

This seminar will explore the multiple intersections between science fiction and media theory, reading literary and filmic fictions as theoretical speculations and classic and contemporary theory as forms of science fiction. The scope of the course ranges from technological Utopian writers from the early 20th century to contemporary imaginings of digital futures and steampunk pasts. Not simply a course on science fiction as a genre, this seminar will invite us to explore what kinds of cultural work science fiction performs and how it has contributed to larger debates about communication and culture.

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • describe the historic relationship between speculative fiction and media theory
  • explain key movements in science fiction, such as technological utopianism, cyberpunk, steampunk, and discuss their relationship to larger theories of media change.
  • trace the roots of contemporary media theories of cyborg feminism, afrofuturism, and trans/post-humanism, back through science fiction films and literature
  • develop their own critical account of how ideas about media and technology have been shaped by the discourses associated with science fiction.

Required Books:

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants

Pat Cadigan, Mindplayers

Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Vernor Vinge, Rainbow’s End

Nalo Hopkinson and Upphinder Mehan (eds.), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy

Dexter Palmer, The Dream of Perpetual Motion

All other readings can be found on the class Blackboard site.

Assignments:

1. Blackboard Posts: Each week, students will post a reaction to the readings via the class blackboard site. The reaction might be a comment, a question, a provocation, and often will be a complex mixture of all of the above. It can be informal and need not be more than a few paragraphs, but it should show the student’s thinking process in response to the topics and materials being encountered that week. This is the primary mechanism by which I will be monitoring your mastery of the core concepts of the class. You need not respond to every reading each week, but there should be signs there of close reading and critical engagement. (30 percent)

2. Media Analysis Paper: Applying the concepts of science fiction as a “design platform” that we will encounter in the first class session, students will choose a film, television series, or game which they feel offers a particularly vivid embodiment of a science fiction concept and provide an analysis which considers the thinking behind this representation of future media or technology, the ways this concept gets deployed through the story and the values which become associated with it, and how this concept may be deployed as a springboard for creative thinking about the development of future media tools, platforms, or processes. Along the way, students might consider the differences between embodying these concepts in an audio-visual media as opposed to the ways they might be dealt with in a literary text. The result should be a short but impactful essay (roughly 5-7 pages). (20 percent)

3. Theory Analysis Paper: A key theme in our discussions has been the idea that science fiction functions much like theory to speculate about the implications of current social, economic, political, cultural, or technological practices and to envision potential outcomes of current trends. In this paper, students will reverse their lens and examine theory as a form of speculative fiction. Students will select a work of media theory and discuss what they see as its vision for the future (whether implicit or explicit). What does it have to say about the nature of media change? Does it see people as moving towards a utopian or dystopian future? What, if any, explicit use does it make of metaphors drawn from science fiction as it constructs its vision for the future? What kinds of response does it seek from its readers to the problems or potentials that it has identified? Students shall produce a short, impactful essay (5-7 pages) which demonstrates close reading of the theoretical text and an ability to push analysis beyond what’s explicitly on the page. (20 Percent)

4. Final Paper: Students, in consultation with the professor, will develop a distinctive project which emerges from the intersection between their research interests and the course content. The result can either be a creative project or a paper, though either should show the ability to construct an argument and mobilize evidence in support of their core claims and should show a grasp of the basic conceptual framework of the course. Students will be asked to give a short class presentation, sharing their project and its implications with their classmates, as part of the process of developing and refining their ideas. (30 Percent)

Wednesday, August 24th

Week 1: Science Fiction as Design Fiction

Readings:

* Brian David Johnson, Science Fiction Prototyping: Designing the Future with Science Fiction (Morgan and Claypool, 2011)

* Philip K. Dick, “The Minority Report,” Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick (New York: Random House, 2002), pp. 227-264.

The students will watch Minority Report prior to the first class session.

Guest Speaker: John Underkoffler, technical advisor to Minority Report; Brian David Johnson, author of Science Fiction Prototyping

Rec. for Further Reading:

  • Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, “‘Resistance is Futile:’ Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing,” forthcoming.
  • Bruce Sterling, “Design Fiction,” Interactions, May-June 2009.
  • Mark Pesce, “Magic Mirror: Science Fiction as a Software Development Platform,” Media in Transition conference, 1999.
  • David Stork, “The Best-Informed Dream: HAL and the Vision of 2001,” Hal’s Legacy: 2001′s Computer as Dream and Reality, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

Wednesday, August 31st

Week Two: Technological Utopianism

  • Howard P. Segal, “The Vocabulary of Technological Utopianism” and “American Visions of Technological Utopia,” Technological Utopianism in American Culture (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), pp. 10-44.
  • Sina Nafai, “Underworld: An Interview with Rosalind Williams,” Cabinet, Summer 2008, http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/30/najafi.php.
  • Edward Bellamy, Excerpt from Looking Backward, Chapter 1-12, pp. 3-72.
  • Katharine Burdekin, excerpt from Proud Man.

Wednesday, September 7th

Week Three The Origins of Science Fiction

  • Andrew Ross, “Getting Out of the Gernsbeck Continuum,” Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 100-135
  • John W. Campbell, “Twilight;” (40-63) Lester del Rey, “Helen O’Loy;” (62-73) and Theodore Sturgeon, “Microscopic God,” (115-142) in Robert Silverberg (ed.), Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1, (New York, NY: Orb Books, 2005).
  • Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think” (pp. 35-48); Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” (pp. 49-64); Nobert Wiener, “Men, Machines, and the World About” (pp. 65-72), in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (ed.),The New Media Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

Recommended for Further Reading:

John Huntington, “The Myth of Genius: The Fantasy of Apolitical Power” (pp. 44-59) and “An Economy of Reason: The Motives of the Technocratic Hero” (pp. 69-79) in Rationalizing Genius: Ideological Strategies in the Classic American Science Fiction Short Story (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989).

Wednesday, September 14th

Week Four: Postwar Dystopias

  • Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, “Mass Communications, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action,” (pp. 18-30) and Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry Reconsidered” (pp.31-37) in Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (ed.), Media Studies: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000).
  • George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.” http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm
  • George Orwell, 1984, Chapter One. http://www.george-orwell.org/1984/0.html
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, pp. 1-44, 117-131
  • Ray Bradbury, Fairenheit 451.

Wednesday, September 21st

Week Five The Space Merchants and American Advertising

  • Vance Packard, excerpt from The Hidden Persuaders (New York: Ig, 2007), pp. 31-64.
  • Jules Henry, “Advertising as a Philosophical System,” Culture Against Man (New York: Vintage, 1965), pp. 45-99.
  • Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (New York: St. Martins, 1958)
  • Frederik Pohl, “Tunnel Under the World” (pp.1-34) and “Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus” (pp.62-85), The Best of Frederik Pohl (New York: Sidgewick and Johnson, 1977)
  • Henry Kuttner, “The Twonky,” The Best of Henry Kutner (New York: Ballantine, 1975), pp.167-189.

Wednesday, September 28th (Henry out of town)

Week Six Cordwainer Smith and Psychological Warfare

  • Paul M.A. Linebarger, excerpt from Psychological Warfare (xxx), pp. 43-92.
  • Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain” (pp.65-95); “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”(pp. 223-286); “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (pp.401-417) “A Planet Named Shayol,” (pp. 419-448); “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” (pp.xx) The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (Boston: Boston Science Fiction Association, 1993)

Wednesday, October 5th

Week Seven Altered States

  • Alvin Toffler, “Diversity” from Future Shock (New York: Bantam, 1984), pp. 283-322.
  • Betty Friedan, “The Problem That Has No Name”(pp.57-78) and “The Crisis in Women’s Identity” (pp.123-136) The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001).
  • James Tiptree Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See,” (pp.255-279) and John Varley, “Lollipop and Tar Baby,” (pp. 357-374) in Brian Atteby and Ursula K. Le Guin (eds.) The Norton Book of Science Fiction (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), pp. 255-279.
  • Octavia Butler, “Blood Child,” Blood Child and Other Stories (Seven Stories Press, 2005), pp.3-30.
  • Pamela Zoline, “Heat Death of the Universe” in Pamela Sargent (ed.) The New Women of Wonder (New York: Vintage, 1978), pp. 100-119.
  • Kate Wilhelm, “Baby, You Were Great,” in Pamela Sargent (ed.) Women of Wonder (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 139-158.

Wednesday, October 12th

Week Eight Cyberpunk

  • Bruce Sterling, “Preface;” James Patrick Kelly, “Solstice;” (pp. 66-104) Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, “Mozart in Mirrorshades;” (pp. 223-239) and John Shirley, “Freezone;” (pp. 139- 177) in Bruce Sterling (ed.), Mirrorshades: A Cyberpunk Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Ace Books, 1988).
  • William Gibson, “Johnny Mnemonic,” Burning Chrome (New York: Ace, 1986), pp.1-22.
  • Samuel R. Delaney, “Some Real Mothers: An Interview with Samuel R. Delaney,” in Silent Interviews (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), pp. 164-185.
  • Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., “Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism,” in Larry McCaffrey (ed.) Storming the Reality Studio: A Case Book of Cyberpunk and Post-Modern Fiction (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), pp. 182-193.

Wednesday, October 19th

Week Nine Cyborg Feminism

  • Anne Balsamo, “Signal to Noise: On the Meaning of Cyberpunk Subculture,” in Frank Biocca and Mark R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality (New York, NY: Routledge, 1995), pp. 347-368.
  • All of Balsamo’s online articles can be found here
  • Anne Balsamo, “Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 133-156.
  • Veronica Hollinger, “Something Like a Fiction: Speculative Intersections of Sexuality and Technology” in Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon (eds.), Queer Universes: Sexualities and Science Fiction, (Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press, 2008), pp. 140-160.
  • C.L. Moore, “No Woman Born,” Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth (eds.), Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 261-300.
  • Pat Cadigan, Mindplayers (Orion, 2000).

Recommended Reading:

Donna Harroway, “Cyborgs at Large,” in Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (eds.) Technoculture (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 1-20.

Guest Speaker: Anne Balsamo, USC

Wednesday, October 26th

Week Ten The Space Merchants Revisited

  • Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang, “The Consumer as Explorer” (pp. 68-80) and “The Consumer as Rebel” (pp. 137-151), in The Unmanageable Consumer: Contemporary Consumption and Its Fragmentation (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996).
  • Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (New York: Tor, 2003).
  • George Saunders, “Civil War Land In Bad Decline,” Civil War Land In Bad Decline (Riverhead, 1997), pp. 3-24.
  • Samuel R. Delany, “Aye, And Gomorrah,” Aye, and Gomorrah: Stories, pp.91-101.

Wednesday, November 2nd

Week Eleven Posthumanism and Transhumanism

  • Jussi Parikka, “Insects in the Age of Technology,” in Jussi Parikka (ed.), Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), pp. ix-xxxv.
  • N. Katherine Hayles, “Towards Embodied Virtuality,” in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 1-24.
  • Ray Kurzweil, “The Six Epochs,”(pp.7-34) and “Eich bin ein Singularitarian,” (pp. 369-390) The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, (London, England: Penguin, 2006), pp. 7-34.
  • Vernor Vinge, Rainbow’s End (New York: Tor, 2007)

Wednesday, November 9th

Week Twelve Afrofuturism and the Global Imagination

  • “What is Afro-Futurism?: An Interview with artist/educator D. Denenge Akpem,” Post-Black, March 2010, http://postblackthebook.blogspot.com/2010/03/afro-futurism-interview-with.html.
  • Catherine Rameriz, “Afrofuturism/Chicanafuturism: Fictive Kin,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 33(1), Spring 2008, pp. 185-194. http://americanstudies.ucsc.edu/csramirez/Afrofuturism.pdf
  • Andrea Hairston, “Girots of the Galaxy;” Larissa Lai, “Rachel;” Vandana Singh, “Delhi;” Tamai Kobayashi, “Panopte’s Eye;” Karin Lowachee, “The Forgotten Ones;” Greg Van Eekhout, “Native Aliens;” Celu Amberstone, “Refugees;” devorah major, “Trade Winds;” and Carole McDonnel, “Lingua Franca,” from Nalo Hopkinson and Upphinder Mehan (eds.), So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, (Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004).

Wednesday, November 16th

Week Thirteen Steampunk and Retrofuturism

  • Dexter Palmer, The Dream of Perpetual Motion (New York: St. Martin’s, 2010)
  • Rebecca Onion, “Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice,” Neo-Victorian Studies 1(1), Autumn, 2008, pp. 138-163.
  • Henry Jenkins, “‘The Tomorrow That Never Was’: Retrofuturism in the Comics of Dean Motter,” in Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling (eds.), Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence,(New York, NY: Continuum, 2010), pp. 63-83.

Wednesday, November 30th

Week Fourteen Student Presentations

Aca-fandom and Beyond: Roberta Pearson and Alexis Lothian (Part Two)

Roberta Pearson: You and I differ so radically with regard to what constitutes our acafandom that it’s difficult for me to respond to the substance of your post (not having had experience of the kind of fandom in which you’re involved). I’m going to use what you say to continue to meditate on what we might mean by acafan and whether it’s a useful label.

It’s interesting that you, like many others, have the urge to self-confession. You say that the overlap of fandom and academia in your life has everything to do with personal ethics, particularly through the feminist science fiction convention where you serve as an advocate of transformative fan works. You also say that you’re not at the moment a fan of a particular text but rather as I suggested in my original post a fan of fandom. I’m glad that you’re ‘self-confessing’ this way and also glad that other people here have given into the urge, since it may be these self-confessions that help us to refine the acafan label.

In terms of the matrix of acafandom that I began to develop above, you’d be a non-tenured, transformational fan of fandom, and now I would add with a strong stake in this identity. I’d be a tenured, affirmational fan of particular texts without a particularly strong stake in this identity, except for my continuing connections with Sherlockian friends and my decade long attempt to write my book about Star Trek as television. I think the identity issue might be a key differentiator not only amongst fans but amongst acafans as well. Being an empiricist at heart (although not a raw positivist) I’m tempted to put together a little questionaire for everyone participating in this site to see if we can come up with an acafandom matrix. .

Alexis Lothian: I feel strange about the “fan of fandom” label, although it clearly applies to me. The awkwardness comes from the flexibility of the term ‘fan’ I discussed in my provocation, I think. I’m a transformational fan of fandom too; I certainly wouldn’t want to affirm everything that is included under that term, although I would want to call attention to the hierarchy of values operating in what I would and would not be willing to affirm.

Perhaps the origin of those terms “transformational” and “affirmational” fandom (at least as I understand it) can help make sense of where I stand. They are terms that come from fandom, coined initially by obsession_inc and then taken up by Skud+ response to the feminist convention WisCon, which is the one I’ve been talking about my involvement in. When I talk about acafandom, I’m talking at least partly about acknowledging and doing justice to my own thinking’s debt to fannish theorists and artists outside the academia machine who have given me terms and ideas that help me theorize just as much as the dense analyses and critical explorations of literary and cultural studies do.

I appreciate that you called attention to the “tenured / non tenured” strand in our aca/fannish matrix. Both as someone on the bottom end of that particular greasy pole, a graduate student on the cusp of finishing her PhD and entering the job market, and as someone who is invested in unpacking hierarchies of status and privilege, I think a lot about the materialities underpinning what we can and can’t say about our fandom, our academia.

On the question of tastemaking that you brought up, for me, it goes without saying that Star Trek has as much place in scholarship as Shakespeare, and I see the Shakespeare scholar’s celebration of genius as fannish in just about the same way as the Star Trek geek’s idealization of ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.’ As a scholar, delving into texts for their own sake is less what interests me than the work texts can do in the context of readers and cultures (though I love close textual analysis for what it can uncover and engage in it both in fannish and in academic situations). I would like to think that both Star Trek and Shakespeare fandom can show us important things about what Shakespeare and Trek can be, can create in and for their viewers.

I often work with texts that few members of academic communities are familiar with, whether because they are little-read historical works (let me just pause in this space to recommend Katharine Burdekin’s 1937 feminist dystopia Swastika Night) or because they circulate outside of mainstream literary communities.

I do embrace the capacity to be a tastemaker that academia gives me to some extent in that it allows me to share these amazing works with other people: I’ve been able to put together several vidshows for student audiences to explain the way transformative fan communities have developed a set of literacies and artistic practices for digital video remix. I’m alert to the issues Kristina Busse has often raised, in terms of the ways scholars may be creating a canon that isn’t representative of fan creators’ work as a whole and may indeed go against the way fans want to be represented. But I aim to be quite clear that when I show fanworks, my aim is generally not to show what fandom is (I am grateful to scholars like Tisha Turk for doing the work of explicating fan videos’ rhetorical functioning so that I can focus on my own interests without needing to do that to the same extent) but rather to show what fans’ transformative artistic practices can do.

Roberta Pearson: I know the original definitions of affirmational versus transformational fandom as developed by obsession (if we can call her this for short) although don’t know how the concepts have been developed by Skud so need to go look at that. While I find the distinctions useful, I reject the value judgements inherent in them. As I said in my essay for Kristina and Louisa that I mentioned above, I think that celebrating the latter and intimating that the former are too closely linked with producers returns us to the early days of fan studies when we celebrated semiotic geurrillas and ignored other aspects of fandom. But if the distinction is between fans who engage in interpretation and evaluation of a loved textual object and those who transform that object in some way, without one being seen as superior to the other, than I’m happy to use it not only for fans but for acafans.

I really find this whole fan of fandom thing fascinating since it’s something I’ve just ‘discovered’ while writing that essay I keep referring to. I had thought that fans always had to be anchored to particular texts and that indeed ‘texts’ produced fans (who might then of course go on to produce other texts). This is getting us a bit far from the acafan debate, although perhaps not if we return to my point that we need to theorise fandom before theorising acafandom.

Re your statement about fannish theorists and artists who help you theorise as much as any academic, this seems quite close to people studying contemporary art — as least as I understand it! I have a colleague who works on contemporary Chinese art. He says that many of the artists have imbibed some critical theory from the academy and are now reworking it in their art works. And he’s very interested in the junction between critical theory and critical practice. So this kind of work might be very close to what you and other acafans are doing when working with fan artists. Again, this suggests that we might broaden the term acafan to many humanist disciplines.

RE academic power and privilege, of course even those at the top of the greasy pole can’t entirely escape our fannish affiliations. Many colleagues in various depts have teased me about Star Trek — associating me, of course, with the most stereotyped fans of all, the Trekkies. But as long as I’m publishing on the topic they’re happy because of the national system of research evaluation that we have in the UK. I imagine that a fannish identity might be harder for an ambitious young acafan to disclose in publications or more particularly at job interviews. But that might be more of a problem in the States. Here in the UK, I don’t think it’s such a big deal, but then again I think the US academy is generally more obsessed with identity issues than the UK one.

Alexis Lothian: Skud doesn’t alter obsession_inc’s concepts of affirmational and transformational fandom so much as lay them out in a matrix of examples–it might fit nicely with your interest in the empirical! I think that a value judgment does sometimes seem very present in how those terms are used by those who engage in transformational fandom, but a line in Skud’s post suggests that the intention is much as you have been using them: she writes that “”affirmational” and “transformational” are things you can be both of, either at different times or simultaneously, without disappearing in a puff of illogic.” I think that, if we made your questionnaire (an idea I rather love), we would find that many people appeared simultaneously in several different places on the matrix.

I completely agree that the way I am talking about fans and fanworks is the way many scholars engage with practising artists. In fact, in October of this year I am taking part in a panel at the Los Angeles Queer Studies conference with three other young queer scholars, in which we will all be presenting work on queer digital artistic self-fashioning and talking about projects with regard to which we are both scholars and creators. The work that I will be talking about just happens to be fan production.

As for the UK/US difference in academic structures, I have experience of both and think you’re probably correct regarding identity, but I suspect the differences within each country are at least as wide as the transatlantic gap. And I’ll have to get back to you regarding the fate of the ambitious young acafan in a couple of years…

Alexis Lothian is completing her dissertation in the English department at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on queer time, speculative fiction, and fan communities’ transformative modes of digital analysis and critique. She is a founding member of the editorial team for Transformative Works and Cultures and has presented and published on science fiction literature and film and on fan video, including contributions to dossiers in Cinema Journal and Camera Obscura (forthcoming). Her website is http://queergeektheory.org.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies and Head of the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. She has written about Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Batman and other cultural icons. She has written some Sherlockian scholarship and even produced a Trek fanfic or two for private circulation, but considers herself primarily an ‘affirmational’ fan whose academic interests are more in the industry than in fandom.

Aca-fandom and Beyond: Roberta Pearson and Alexis Lothian (Part One)

Roberta Pearson:

I’m looking forward to Alexis’ ‘provocation’ since our preliminary exchanges indicate that we’re ideal partners, coming at the issue of aca-fannishness from very different perspectives. In fact, it’s the perspective and position of the various posters that I want to address first.

The very title of Henry’s blog together with this debate have so far led most participants to confessions concerning the kinds of acafans they are or are not and why. As Anne Kustritz pointed out, though, there’s a danger here. “The aca-fan concept will be defined by perhaps the most simplistically “confessional” works unless we create a theoretical frame for understanding….” And as Henry said, “my bet is that each participant has reasons to feel somewhat inside and somewhat outside the “core” of the community being represented.” So far we’ve had discussions of myriad fandoms, including skating and Radiohead, with many people positioning themselves somewhat outside the core of the fan communities with which they affiliate. We’ve also had people positioning themselves outside a presumed core of acafans, which implicitly (and not so implicitly in some cases) means an active involvement in a fan community or at least a stake in transformational as opposed to affirmational fandom. I’d like to suggest that we can’t begin to theorise the concept of acafan unless we first return to our theorisations of fan.

Harrington says, “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.” Campbell says that when reading some fan studies, he has 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.””

And now time for a bit of personal confession and positioning. I certainly consider myself a fan, particularly with my core fandoms of Trek and Sherlock Holmes. Re the former, I’ve written a couple of fanfics, just to see how it was done, but the first and only time I went to a con, the sight of people dressed in Starfleet uniforms struck me as either risible or horrifying. Re the latter, I’ve written Sherlockian scholarship, was for a period in my life actively involved in the Sherlockian community and still count some members of that community among my dearest and oldest friends. But with Harrington I’m much more an affirmational than a transformative fan and experience most of my fandom in private; thus by some accounts I’m probably not a fan despite my self-declaration as such. Here we have two possible dimensions of fandom: affirmational versus transformational and private versus public (or perhaps text versus community).

In a recent essay that I wrote for Kristina Busse’s and Louisa Stein’s collection on the BBC Sherlock, I suggested another dimension, distinguishing between those who are fans of a specific text/cultural icon and those who are fans of fandom itself, the shared protocols of fandom on sites such as LiveJournal permitting fans to move easily from one fandom to another. The relationship of these various kinds of fans to texts, to the industries that produce them and to fan communities are distinctly different and worthy of exploration. And until we do this we cannot begin to distinguish among the different kinds of aca-fans.

And of course once we’ve charted the fan bit of the term, we must also chart the aca bit, defining the individual’s relationship to the academy. We can then differentiate for example, between a non-tenure track transformational fan of fandom and a tenured affirmational fan of particular texts or cultural icons (the category into which I would put myself), along with the factors of power and privilege that come with these distinctions.

Continuing with self-positioning, I have to confess (and among this crowd it feels very much like a confession, although one I’ve made before and in print) that I’m a fan of lots of high culture, ranging from Shakespeare to Bach. I would argue that many in the humanities who engage in “serious scholarship” around these cultural icons are also fans. As Henry says here, “as writers like Jolie Jensen noted, this mixture of passion and knowledge was what qualified one to speak about classical music, serious literature, or high art, but because of the legacy of critical studies, being passionate about popular culture was seen as being duped by the culture Industries.” Here’s the classic Bourdieu-ian binary: passionate engagement with popular culture and distanced appreciation of high culture.

Yet as I have argued elsewhere, those who love Bach or Shakespeare are just as passionate as those who love skating or Radio Head, and this extends to those who engage in “serious scholarship.” Above I’ve suggested refining the concept of the aca-fan; here I suggest broadening it to include those within the humanities who research particular texts or icons. Anyone who has been in the company of Shakespeareans for example, recognizes the easy familiarity and in-group conversation of the fan, as people reference various plays and characters. Why should those of us who (also) study popular culture and engage in much the same activities, feel inferior to acafans of high culture?

These high culture acafans have always felt fully confident in their judgments as authorized tastemakers, fully confident that is until the culture wars that enshrined relativism and challenged academic authority. As someone who began her academic career amidst this furore and fully imbibed the concept of cultural relativism, I’ve never felt confident in imposing my own tastes upon my students nor in unproblematically declaring that something I like is ‘good’.

My initial training as a social scientist, which involved the notions of objectivity that others have referenced here, probably also made it harder for me to engage either in aesthetic analysis or aesthetic judgments. From my preliminary exchanges with Francesca Coppa, originally scheduled to be my partner in this debate, I have the impression that the younger generation of academics feels much less reticent about this and happy to grab the tastemaking power that comes with an academic position. And even I am now happier to declare something “good,” or at least to interrogate the factors that might make something “good,” as my co-author and I are doing in a chapter of our book about Star Trek and Television. But does being an acafan always mean that one loves the object that one studies?

And yet another confession – as well as being a fan of texts I’m a fan of the industries that produce them. This industry fandom was practically forced upon me as a fan of Star Trek during its first airing, as news of low ratings and imminent cancellation continually circulated. In order to understand this, my adolescent self had to acquire some grasp of network operations, even if only through the not so reliable medium of TV Guide. Now that production studies has emerged as the dominant paradigm within television studies, I return to worries about objectivity and what it means to study the beloved object and to have access to those who produce it. Can we/should we maintain a critical distance?

I said above that when I first saw someone in Starfleet uniform at a con, I hovered between horror and laughter. The next time I saw someone in Starfleet uniform, was on the Paramount studio lot during the filming of Star Trek Nemesis. When Brent Spiner and Marina Sirtis appeared fully decked out in their characters’ costumes, scholarly objectivity disappeared in a haze of excitement: I was for a moment completely fan without a trace of aca, indeed, living the fan’s perfect daydream. But loving something doesn’t mean always being affirmational: affirmational fans are perfectly capable of insightful criticism.

And fans of course are themselves often insightful industry analysts, for the same reasons that I was forced to be as an adolescent; they want to know what brings their beloved object into being and how long it might survive. I think it’s important that fans, academics and aca-fans all have some knowledge of the industries that produce the texts that generate the majority of fandoms. Therefore, I disagree with Kristina when she says, “As a fan I don’t want to engage directly with actors/writers/directors, and as an academic, I don’t care about that side either. I know it’s an important area, and I’m very happy that we have good and smart people explaining and representing fandom, but to me fandom is mostly about what we as fans do.” However, I do think that acafans who do production studies do need to engage in constant self-reflexivity about their relationships to industry and to producers.

Alexis Lothian:

I couldn’t agree more with Roberta that we need to theorize what it is we mean when we talk about being a “fan” as well as an “acafan.” Without that, we find ourselves talking at cross purposes–though, of course, it’s the very overdetermination of both those terms that keeps them alive and interesting. That said, it is difficult to engage in this conversation without giving in to a certain urge to self-disclosure. Especially because the way I experience the overlap of academia and fandom in my own life has everything to do with personal ethics, with the contexts and standpoints that shape my participation in knowledge production.

For me, fandom is less an identity than a location, a set of networks and connections within which I’m situated. My participation in fan culture mostly means being accountable to a community that I became part of through my love for science fiction and my interest in transformative works and fan video, but it’s been sustained–and friendships formed–more through discussions of feminism, race, queer sex, and capitalism than through exploration of a source text. In fact, I find it difficult to name anything that I am intensively a fan *of* at the moment. Other than to say that I’m a fan of critical fanworks that engage transformatively with the hegemonic politics of the culture industry, which is possibly partly a way of seeking excuses for the extent of the pleasures I take in the aforementioned hegemonic products.

Being a fan is difficult, as Jack Halberstam says in this debate. The things you love betray you and other people just don’t understand. In fact, my own movement away from more object-oriented fandom can probably be traced to the intensity of my disappointment with the end of Battlestar: Galactica, around which I participated in an exciting whirl of collaborative fanwork-making, drawing out queer and antihumanist and other critical interpretations through transformative works. The show’s last half-season (and here I do speak as frustrated fan!) made a mockery of everything that excited my collaborators and I, and even though the fanworks the group created maintained the queer worldmaking we’d been doing around the show in ways I think are fascinating and important, I’ve been less inclined to give myself over to a fannish passion since.

Instead I have been working to celebrate and expand critical forms of fandom through the feminist science fiction convention WisCon, where I’ve been part of a group bringing transformational fanworks into the heart of a convention traditionally focused on literary science fiction with a feminist focus (the kind that tends, alas, not to sell very well or to get mainstream marketing). The convention is not an academic conference, but it shares very many concerns with my academic home of queer studies: thinking critically about politics and pleasure, discovering and creating and building on ways of living, thinking, loving that are outside the mainstream. It owes at least as much to activism (often online activism but certainly not restricted to that) as to the fandom it’s ostensibly organized around. As with anything one is a fan of, I have plenty of frustrations relating to WisCon, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say I’m a fan of this particular fan community. It’s also true that I could occupy the position I do with respect to the WisCon community without necessarily calling myself a fan–to think of myself as a fan marks me as more personally invested, names the position the feminist sf world plays not just in my professional but also in my personal life.

In going to WisCon as a fan, even a fan who has been afforded professional opportunities through it, I tend not to go as an academic. I don’t study fans or fannishness as such, though I have written about fanworks and will continue to do so. It’s more that my participation in fandom has shaped the way I engage with scholarship. My academic work is about what speculative fiction and other forms of artistic speculation can do to create alternative ways of being, different ways of living and thinking futures and worlds. Being part of feminist sf and transformative works fandom lets me see how other people are also thinking about these things. I don’t want only to study fans or to use fans’ ideas to make sense of texts, although those are certainly dynamics that I engage in. I tend to prefer to think about fandom, as about as a set of communities where people are engaging in cultural production, intellectual exchange and concrete worldmaking that participates in the same project as the one I’m working on. Fandom has become central to my intellectual life because of the specific things that happen in the fannish world I live in: the art that gets made, the people who connect, the ways in which normative relationships between pleasures, politics, capital, genders, and sexes get played with and reimagined.

I say “intellectual life” rather than “academic life” with some care. I take seriously Matt Hills’s injunction in the classic Fan Cultures that academics should bear in mind our tendency to valorise the modes of fannish participation that look most like the particular class based institutional worlds that we inhabit, and certainly convention-based US sf fan culture looks sometimes disturbingly similar to the academic conference and publication circuit. But the differences between fandom and academia are profound, and I get very uncomfortable when they are eroded from either side.

Fandom’s structures come about through play, sometimes through desires to make the world a better or more equitable or more entertaining place. Academia’s an industry, and academics working on objects they love or with communities they are a part of don’t get to opt out of the more problematic parts of knowledge production–such as measuring their output for the assessment of research’s quality and impact. If I use my connections to fandom for that purpose, I think it’s vital for me to offer something to fandom itself as well. I could call that research ethics, but as a scholar of literature and cultural production without a substantial background in the social sciences or in critical anthropological literature, I’m happier calling it acafannish manners.

I hope these meditations make it clear why I tend to embrace the term acafan, and how I’ve been able to leverage that term to account for the ethical considerations that are important to me. Other terms might fit as well; Halberstam talks in In a Queer Time and Place about the subcultural archivist who is also a participant, and that also describes how I see my work.

There are plenty of places where my scholarship and my fandom do not overlap, and I think I need that space in order to maintain both rigor in my academic work and pleasure in my fandom. But in the spaces between, acafandom is a helpful shorthand for my affective, ethical, critical, and personal negotiations. Working within queer studies and having lots of connections to critical ethnic studies scholarship, I’ve seen plenty of examples of the way this kind of insider/outsider position plays out for scholars who study communities of which they are members–particularly communities that are excluded and oppressed. Fandom is not an oppressed community, although there are plenty of people and groups within it who are structurally oppressed in various ways. But it is often marginal, overlaps with other marginal groups and practices (especially when it comes to sex and sexuality, I have found) and it can still be unfairly exploited.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to experience the acafannish situation from the opposite side, as it were. A friend of mine, who I know through fannish circles and who is a postgraduate student, recently wrote a paper about vidding. She wanted to interview a vidder and asked me, and I’ve now had the opportunity to read my own opinions about fannish meaning-making as stated by a research informant rather than from the pedestal of scholarly publication. Her piece is excellent and I learned a lot from the way she was analyzing my responses; I suppose this must be an experience with which any academic who is also an artist or cultural producer will be familiar. Yet it was still a strange and vulnerable feeling, one that may well affect the way my academic and fannish projects intersect in future.

Alexis Lothian is completing her dissertation in the English department at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on queer time, speculative fiction, and fan communities’ transformative modes of digital analysis and critique. She is a founding member of the editorial team for Transformative Works and Cultures and has presented and published on science fiction literature and film and on fan video, including contributions to dossiers in Cinema Journal and Camera Obscura (forthcoming). Her website is http://queergeektheory.org.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies and Head of the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. She has written about Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Batman and other cultural icons. She has written some Sherlockian scholarship and even produced a Trek fanfic or two for private circulation, but considers herself primarily an ‘affirmational’ fan whose academic interests are more in the industry than in fandom.