Aca-fandom and Beyond: Karen Tongson, Jayna Brown, and Geraldine Bloustien (Part One)

Earworms, Touchstones, Inversions

Karen Tongson

I’ve got a reason, girl, and it’s Immanuel Kant’s–and I like it

-Scritti Politti, “Boom! There She Was”

I’m convinced the only reason I ever cracked open a copy of Kant’s Critique of Judgment–the “Great Books” edition–is that Green Gartside, the helium-voiced frontman of the 80s British pop band, Scritti Politti, suggestively whispered this remark through my Walkman when I was 13 years old. I hadn’t even realized then that several years prior, Scritti Politti also recorded a single called “Jacques Derrida,” in which the andro-voiced Green declares: “I’m in love with Zhack Derr-eee-dah/Read a page and I know what I need to/Take apart my baby’s heart…”

I open with Scritti Politti not simply to provide some texture to the pop music fandom that manifests in my work, but also because, in many respects, Scritti Politti’s irreverent and cheeky approach to intellectual life offered a nascent template for what evolved into my own improvisational practice of acafandom from middle school onwards. Rather than learning to take apart “my baby’s heart,” I was offered the tools to understand my own through books, music and media-in-the-making.

Though I’d like to think my intellectual curiosity was ignited by more than the dreamy, synth-laden British pop that scooted across the pond all the way into Riverside, California’s chain record stores (vast and enticing to a kid recently immigrated from the Philippines), so much of what I’ve devoted my life to reading, analyzing, writing about, and indeed loving, has been informed by snippets of New Romantic, post-punk songs that name-check everyone from Voltaire to Keats and Yeats. It seems no accident, then, that I began graduate school as a Romanticist, before transitioning into Victorian studies, and finally (though I’d like to hope intellectual incarnations are never “final”) into contemporary queer cultural studies. The latter became a means to make sense of the circuits of affect and encounter that made my intellectual and textual promiscuity possible. The concept of textual promiscuity (which I wrote about in my dissertation on Victorian non-fiction prose), would seem to run counter to certain notions of fandom that, some may argue, overlap with institutional desires for specialization: the sense of “loyalty and devotion” to an object or set of objects and subjects that constitute expertise in a particular genre, era or area.

And yet, I’d like my contribution to our broader conversation about acafandom to rethink the value of errant desires: wayward passions eliciting accusations on a lifetime of schoolyards, from junior high to the university, that one is a “wannabe.” An even baser version of a dilettante. (Case in point: though I was known for being a “Duranie” in the seventh grade, a musically tribalized “metal boy” called me a “wannabe,” because I expressed a fondness for Ozzie Osborne’s “Bark at the Moon” video).

The figure who ultimately inspired me to consider “textual promiscuity” more seriously was, strangely enough, the eminent Victorian (and arguably, Britain’s first “cultural studies” scholar), Matthew Arnold. In “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold suggests we store lines of poetry in our memory and use them as “touchstones” to assess the potential “greatness” of other works. The type of critical evaluation encouraged by the touchstone is one of comparative efficiency. Arnold’s touchstones are what we might now call earworms: catchy expressions and memorable snippets of text that “lodge” themselves in the mind (to use Arnold’s phrasing). These unforgettable lines not only have a good hook, but they’ve been preordained for excellence depending on who has produced them.

According to Arnold, touchstones come from the “great masters” (casually assembled by Arnold himself) and are thus, worthy of comparative application. Strikingly, a resemblance between the touchstone and the object under scrutiny is not a prerequisite for excellence. In fact, dissimilarity and incongruity are among the benefits of juxtaposition afforded by this handy evaluative tool that the critic carries with her in her intellectual kit. Arnold’s touchstones are actually quite random and subjective–his own special set of “fanboy faves.” A passing survey of Arnold’s touchstones in “The Study of Poetry” takes us through sources as predictable as Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, but he also extols lesser-known figures like Brunetto Latini and Christian of Troyes.

The genealogy ascribed to Arnold’s method for measuring poetic works by comparing them to “expressions of the great masters” is often construed as an elitist one for obvious reasons. Arnold himself sought to dignify English poetry by employing touchstones from classical and continental poetry as standards. And yet the very notion of “lines stuck in the head” has always, for me, carried the potential of something more reparative (to invoke Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work on a practice of reading that contains within it a spirit of intellectual and affective compromise).

Quite obviously, my tendency to use random song lyrics and other earworms from a migrant musical past as the foundation for my own critical labors, especially in my first book, Relocations, bears some resemblance to the touchstone in “The Study of Poetry,” albeit in the crassest sense. Or maybe we should just accept the fact that touchstones have always been conceptually crass; have always had to do with the vicissitudes of affective attachment, and the cultural contexts that make these attachments congeal in ways both problematic and un. It’s a simple point, I realize, that has been repeated (perhaps some may say ad nauseum) within the frameworks of cultural studies, queer studies, feminist studies, critical ethnic studies and other intellectual orientations that have openly parried with the personal. Nevertheless, I think it bears repeating, so that we may reconsider the materials that might comprise the “fannish” archive: one more expansive and historically rangy than we allow ourselves to imagine.

When I taught my first course on fan studies as an English graduate student, I focused not only on the contemporary materials more readily associated with “fan cultures,” but also asked my students to reconsider Ruskin’s writings on Turner, Nietzsche’s writings on Wagner, and Thomas Carlyle’s “Heroes” lectures as fannish texts. Though some may argue such comparisons produce anachronisms (despite the fact that the etymology for “fan” affords such reconsiderations), I believed it was crucial then, and remains crucial now, that we take a longer view on critical enthusiasms.

Though trained within a discipline that Arnoldian concepts like the touchstone and “critical disinterestedness” made possible, I’d like to imagine my own work, and the work performed by others who identify with the practices of aca-fandom, as a mutation of this and other disciplinary lineages. The traffic needn’t always be scaled vertically between high and low, but rather imagined sideways (to invoke Katherine Bond Stockton’s work), askew, and even inverted: the kinds of inversion that lead to Kant via Scritti Politti, or to The Smiths via a precocious passion for Keats, Yeats and Wilde.

Monster Paws Up! Loving the Stuff You Love

Jayna Brown

I’ve never thought of myself as a fan. In fact, I always thought of fandom as the inability to think creatively for the self, as being centrally about consumption. Despite my focus on popular culture in my work, when I thought of fans my thinking became strangely Frankfurt School. Surely, that kind of blind fervor was about the commodification of affective response, the symptom of a modernity that created dependency on the cultural industry for permission to have any emotion or passions. Making pleasure dependent on purchase was canalizing creativity.

Yet the worlds that interest me and make me passionate in my own work are those very worlds at the nexus of commodification and ‘organic’ collective creativity, and what is fascinating to me is how impossible and unnecessary it is to draw the line between the two in the ephemeral, tricky world of popular music and dance. My training in cultural studies taught me to ask certain questions of expressive forms. What is politically at stake? How is it reflective of the specific historical conjuncture in which it was produced? These questions, for me, are a way of ‘loving’ the stuff I love–1930′s musicals, chorus girls, Detroit Techno, Chicago House, Missy Elliott and beyond.

But the center of all this activity for me has been the disco, the club, where the concept of audience and producer blur, where participation is what makes the moment happen and anonymity is charismatic. It is about the space that the collective creates together and fills with an ecstatic state of possibility. Where the body is claimed outside of the wage relation, outside of the demands of work, for another kind of labor. “You better work!” was a phrase from the floor in my time.

Participating in this forum is a fantastic way for me to examine my own investments, and the shifting ground of what shakes me up. It may sound cliché, but I am now inspired by the movements of the next generation now rising up to claim the dance floor. Now, I am heavily invested in watching my fourteen-year-old nephew grow up. From infancy he has been a true performer, with an acute sense of fashion and pose. Over the years I have seen him create some of the wildest costumes: complete with heels, headgear and wigs, choreographing entire shows. He is one of a new generation giving meaning to the term ‘gender non conformity’ which makes the term drag queen, or cross dresser, entirely insufficient. He quite consciously blurs the lines, is fluid in his presentation, aware of the performativity of all gender assignment. Ahead of his years, he also insists on a fluidity of sexual preference.

What I also admire in him is his precocious use of influences, as he consciously draws on movements and artists. At three it was Hello Kitty and Powerpuff Girls; at eight it was Japanese anime and Tim Burton; now, at almost fifteen, drawing on David Bowie, the Runaways and Andy Warhol, he is destined for great things. And he can do cartwheels in seven-inch heels!

I am a fan.

And he, in turn, has turned into a great, even professional fan of Lady Gaga. “There is a difference between monsters and little monsters,” he tells me. “Monsters are like me, we’ve been fans for a long time.” I was at first dismayed to hear this, thinking it surely meant he was sublimating his own creative impulse into worship and mimicry. When I asked him, “isn’t being a fan just about copying your idols?” “No!” he replied, and then patiently explained it to me. “It is a culture, a movement,” he said.

I think she is the first artist to come up with a name for her fans. I think that gave them an identity. But they are not copying her. They are expressing themselves. Her message is that we always have the power to rebirth ourselves. She feeds off our ideas and we feed off hers. We call her mother monster. I admire her because she writes all her own music, co-produces and sings live. I do dance to her songs, and use her choreography, but one of the reasons I copy her is that I am just starting out and most people start out copying others in cover bands and stuff. She is just a stepping-stone in my development. I know there will be others. But no other artist has made me cry, or feel so good about myself.

So now I can see my nephew, monster paws up in eight-inch heeled orange boots, harnessing his own cultural moment and letting it feed him as he develops. If Gaga sets the precedent for an openness to avant garde as well as hyper pop art and the places they intersect, I actually can’t think of a better influence on a young gender non conforming performance artist like my nephew.

As cultural critics we often spend time raising awareness and alarm over the ways in which art and popular culture have participated in producing regimes of oppression. So what I take acafan studies to mean for me is the chance to develop a language to talk about the kinds of cultural formations where we catch a glimpse of a life of pleasure and ease, where we find and feel, as the utopian critic Ernst Bloch would have it, traces of anticipatory illumination. These traces he argues, can be found in the most commercial, “vestigial and contaminated” of sources–lipstick, fashion, advertisements all can harness dreamscapes, even, to quote Tom Moylan, “recoverable traces of radical longing.” I still balk a bit at this idea, when faced with talentless fetish symbols produced in Hollywood, until I remember it is what people do with such products that matters. Here, there are worlds of possibility.

Geraldine (Gerry) Bloustien:

I don’t feel the term acafan really resonated with me as something particularly different from what I have always done and considered as a researcher. My sense of an intersectional identity which incorporates both my European / Jewish migrant cultural background (arriving as a female adult in Australia) together with my education and training as an educator and then as an Anthropologist has made me always very aware and sensitive to occupying / embodying several worlds and cultures all at the same time.

Being aware of this complex layering of identities – as lived, performed, constructed, and embodied – does indeed shape what I see and what I study. I always thought that one’s cultural background and experiences are the key to what people felt inclined, or even urged to investigate.

This was certainly true in my case. Moving from a culture (in the UK) where I felt physically, psychologically and emotionally ‘at home’ to a world where suddenly I was identified and addressed as coming from somewhere else, brought about a severe case of culture shock. I quickly learnt to perform and be both simultaneously within and without two cultures and became fascinated by the ways in which all cultures express and respond to this sense of belonging and longing and I found this resonated with my experience as a fan – in particular genres of music and particularly TV programs that I became obsessed with (yes I can be an obsessive fan!).

For example, I have always loved the very physical way people engage with music. That was my first experience of acafandom, some 20 or more years ago, I think, seeing my own response to music in others and wanting to explore this further. I also wanted to tease out the ways in which the lines between consumer, user and creator were blurred in so much of what I saw, recognised, identified with in my engagement with popular culture – including the way I also enjoyed, immersed myself and wanted to share and discuss my enjoyment in, and knowledge of, my particular ‘scenes’ of popular culture.

I think I have always been more interested in the idea of fandom, though – people rather than the various texts and that is because I am (again as an Anthropologist) motivated primarily by the phenomenon and multiplicity of lived experiences.

As an academic (an acafan?) it also led me to look for a type of methodology that encouraged and facilitated participation and reciprocity; I wasn’t looking for critical distance! I wanted to find a way of discussing my findings through a multi-vocal, dialogic, emotive narrative and was very impressed and influenced by Michael Taussig (1993) and Marcus and Fischer (1996) in approach and style. This also meant that I wanted to ensure that the non-academics of my study were collaborators, co-researchers and not just respondents.

Of course, increasingly this means we (non academics and academics) are sharing a language, a way of talking about our common interests and shared passions. I think that researching and writing about an area in which one is passionately engaged means one cannot stand outside and look in. You are already inside the culture, the experiential community, a participant observer, and an embedded member of the culture or the scene that one is studying. Everyday life, leisure, work friendship groups blur all the time (Wow! Especially with social networking sites like Facebook, now that I come to think about it. Then issues of privacy and boundaries do become an issue).

Does such an approach and such a field of scholarship get in the way of the critical distance expected of serious scholarship? Hmm! I don’t believe so because firstly, I don’t believe it is possible to be completely critically distant. Secondly, I believe that what one is actually studying is the meeting of cultures. The area of research is never static and it is not immune from our involvement as both fans and researchers within it.

I am, however, constantly struggling to explain and justify my approach, methodologies and even my particular interests in a field of study to colleagues from other disciplines (sometimes while in the middle of collaborative research! Assumptions sometimes become unravelled in the field). I faced this in my recent project and book (Youth, Music and Creative cultures: Playing for Life 2011) and spent sometime discussing this and writing about it there.

So being an acafan for me goes beyond how I see myself now as engaged in areas of scholarship and leisure communities. I suspect the provocations outlined in this task actually underpin most areas of scholarship for most people but they are issues that are often not acknowledged or made overt. This leads me to start thinking again about the second provocation – the question of Acafan as a concept. I think the acafan concept owes much to earlier debates about the nature of “subjective criticism” and also subjective writing; it has been influenced by ‘the poetic turn’ in Anthropology too. It has given the scholar ‘permission’ and legitimacy to be engaged with areas that she loves, especially in areas of popular culture, many of which still seem to be deemed ‘low brow’, trivial and inconsequential.

That leads me to one other aspect before I stop for breath. The particular fields in which I am engaged as a fan do not seem to be considered equal. I have no difficulty being recognised within my own or other institutions, or obtain funding etc. for my research into popular music or film. But my work on (and love of) Buffy or other popular TV programs or my work in 3D virtual worlds, is a totally another matter. So for example, despite there being over 50 different disciplines world wide that have used ideas in the Buffyverse, my research and writing in this field is trivialised and I find in this work I often am expected to defend my own fascination with, involvement in, and the rigour of, the scholarship in this field through established (maybe even inappropriate?) hierarchies of literature.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Her book on race, sexuality, popular culture and the suburbs, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press), is forthcoming in August 2011. She is co-series editor for Postmillennial Pop with Henry Jenkins (NYU Press), and is also co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies (Wiley-Blackwell) with Gustavus Stadler.

Jayna Brown is Associate Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at UC Riverside. Her book, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern was published by Duke University Press in 2008 and has won awards. Her current projects focus on utopias and race in speculative fiction and global pop music and black women and postpunk music in Britain.

Geraldine Bloustien is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Hawke Research Centre, Division of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of South Australia (UniSA). She has published extensively and internationally in the areas of cultural identities, youth cultures and on the complexity of effectively using participatory visual ethnography. Her book publications include Girl Making: A Cross Cultural Ethnography of Growing Up Female (Berghahn 2003), Sonic Synergies: Music, Technology, Community, Identity (Ashgate 2008) and Youth, Music and Creative Cultures: Playing for life (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2011).. Her recent research explores the intersections of community media, music, health and Web 2.0 technologies.

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