Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Rhianon Bury and Matt Yockey (Part One)

Rhiannon Bury:

It has been a bit of a challenge putting together this “provocation” in the final weeks of the Acafan and Beyond debate. I hope I have succeeded in responding to the original set of questions without covering too much of the same ground as earlier posts. Let me start by saying that I really am an accidental fan studies scholar. As late as 1995, when I was doing my PhD in Education with a focus on Cultural Studies, I was still heavily invested in the high/low culture binary. I whole heartedly agreed with William Shatner’s “get a life” cri de coeur to fans. I identified strongly as a feminist so my “discovery” of the three David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades (DDEBs) while surfing the web for X-Files information and subsequent engagement with some of the members forced me to interrogate and reevaluate my elitist attitudes. Sixteen years later and an academic career made possible by the kindness and generosity of participatory fans, I do not consider myself an acafan or even a fan-scholar (overlapping but not interchangeable terms).

My reservation is in part a discontent with labels and their effects. As others have already remarked, they serve to homogenize the heterogenous, to constrain and erase difference and to draw boundaries that mark out who is an insider and who is an outsider. To be fair, “acafan” gestures openly to its hybridity and instability as a category but as the discussion over the weeks has made clear, it has historical linkages to a particular set of fan practices that involves the production of secondary texts such as fanfic or vids. Despite fannish interests in a number of primary texts and a number of professional and personal relationships with fanfic writers and vidders, my highest level of non-academic participatory engagement has been reading and posting a few comments on Television Without Pity for Battlestar Galactica (reimagined) and Dexter. As much as I like the idea of making a vid, I just don’t have the creative commitment to follow through.

Drawing on queer studies and activist discourses while recognizing the dangers in doing so, I am mulling over another term that might be a better fit for me and perhaps others: fan-ally and, by extension, an acafan-ally. As previous contributions to the debate have indicated, being an acafan may be a fraught, complicated, even contradictory identification but its legibility and legitimacy must ultimately be determined by those who articulate it. I suspect a good number of those who identify as acafans are also on the margins of academia– as women, as students, and/or as contingent, independent or untenured scholars. “Objective” criticisms and dismissals from those who do not identify as acafans but hold positions of authority can have a silencing effect, even if unintentional.

The other issue I wish to touch on is the issue of self-defined acafans “sitting too close” (Jenkins, 1993). I agree to a point with Nancy Baym’s statement that the inability of acafans to distance themselves critically “is a failure of their academic training, not of their being fans.” Part of this “failure” may be attributable to graduate degrees in the humanites not the social sciences. I had an MA in CompLit and was fortunate to have had a linguistic anthropologist on my thesis committee in addition to taking a qualitative methods course as part of my doctoral coursework.

Working out of a critical paradigm, I strongly believe that the location of the researcher, not just training, affects knowledge production. Being an insider both enables and disables certain forms of knowledge production. The same is true for the outsider. Researchers who put themselves in the frame of the research are not being subjective; they are being responsible knowledge producers.

Matt Yockey:

Responding to these provocations has proven much more challenging than I originally anticipated, perhaps in large part because it requires the kind of candor and reflexivity I’ve tried to dodge in my own work on texts of which I am a fan. The problem for me is my own struggle with identifying as a fan, as if this some sort of monolithic construct. For similar reasons I’ve often resisted the label of academic. The acafan label limits my identity as an academic (I do more than study texts of which I would consider myself a fan) and as a fan (I don’t perform academic analyses of many objects of my fandom, such as the Red Sox, Robyn Hitchcock, or The Rockford Files). Curiously, however, the designation acafan has both emphasized my ambivalence regarding such labels and reconciled some of the problems I’ve had with them.

I don’t explicitly identify as an acafan but the term is important to my sense of self; I keep it as a reminder of my own (perceived) liminality. Yet it also allows me access to certain communities when I choose to, or need to, use it for such a purpose. This was brought home to me by a recent trip to Australia. My trip was purely academic in purpose: I researched a comic book archive at the National Library and presented a paper on Wonder Woman fandom at a conference on the female superhero at a university in Melbourne. In the first instance I found a perfect commingling of my academic and fan selves, as I not only found valuable research information but quickly bonded as a fan with some of the staff members who enthusiastically brought out box after box of comic books and volunteered their own fannish interests to me.

I found a similar rapport at times with my fellow attendees of the conference, where the term “acafan” was never spoken but was certainly realized on every panel about Xena, Buffy, the Powerpuff Girls, etc. As with any conference, I found that my level of engagement with the presentations waxed and waned according to whether the paper was intellectually engaging and/or the topic was of general interest to me. For example, when panelists presented papers on Buffy, I listened attentively (and even took notes and asked questions), but my heart wasn’t really in it because I actively dislike that show (and by admitting this, I know I’ve now alienated 75% of the academics reading this).

The trip confirmed for me why I am both an academic and a fan: because in academia and fandom I can engage with a community that confirms my own sense of self and legitimates my own utopian desires. I suppose the academic side of equation simply intellectualizes the affective fan side of it, for I’m compelled to turn to theorists to explain myself. Cornel Sandvoss, in particular, comes to mind when he writes in Fans: The Mirror of Consumption: “Fandom best compares to the emotional significance of the places we have grown to call ‘home’, to the form of physical, emotional and ideological space that is best described as Heimat” (64).

Sandvoss argues that the fan sense of Heimat as fluid is different from the traditional understanding of home as a stable signifier. I would argue that what attracts me to academia is its potential (much less often realized than in fandom) to confirm a sense of Heimat through an individual, affective response to a text (in the case of the academic, an object of study and/or the theory applied to an analysis of such an object).

I say less often realized because in the “acafan” equation, the academic side is the one that I most frequently find wanting. Academia is as suffused with its own coded jargon, internal hierarchies, and privileged texts as the most pathologized fan community. In fact, I use my fandom to more comfortably take on the role of academic. And I am an acafan because I believe that, at its best, my affiliation with an academic community offers as much potential for utopian transcendence as the fan communities with which I identify.

The (ideally) perpetual intellectual pursuits of academia mirror the ongoing, transformative engagements fans make with texts. Both are motivated (at least for me) by the utopian pursuit of Heimat, an affirmation of my identity through a group affiliation. And Heimat is mobile because I am always searching for the utopian ideal away from home and only by separating myself from home can I then re-imagine home as potentially utopian. It’s my own fort/da game with self located within the fluid structures of academia and fandom. The term acafan has allowed me to bridge the gaps produced within this dynamic and be more comfortable in my own skin(s).

Rhiannon Bury is an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Athabasca University, Canada’s Open University. Her book, Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online was published by Peter Lang in 2005. She is currently analyzing survey and interview data collected for her current research project, Television 2.0: Shifting Patterns of Audience Reception and Participatory Culture. Updates coming soon via www.twitter.com/television2pt0.

Matt Yockey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Toledo. He has published articles in Transformative Works and Cultures, The Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, CineAction, and The Velvet Light Trap. His book on the Batman TV series is forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.

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