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

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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