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.

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