Acafandom and Beyond: Alex Doty, Abigail De Kosnik, and Jason Mittell (Part One)

Alexander Doty:

Reading through the posts, I realized that some of my earlier work is considered part of the pre-history of acafan(dom). It is not really self-reflexively working at the intersection of scholarship and fandom, but it gestures towards this space by making a case for lesbian and gay and queer reception of mainstream film and popular culture as an intense and conflicted “fannish” site for articulating marginalized identities and communities, as well as a site within which to challenge notions of (fixed) identity and (unified) community.

This early work suggests that LGQ film and popular culture enthusiasms were also almost always what might now be called acafan-like as they simultaneously negotiated pleasures while generating critiques from positions that were at once inside and outside the dominant culture that produced these film and media products. As the sometimes “gay,” sometimes “queer,” sometimes “femme,” sometimes “butch” scholar and fan considering all this, I was also articulating an approach to film and popular culture that I hoped to deploy in my own writing.

Inspired by Robin Wood’s “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic,” I wanted my academic work to more clearly and consistently reveal my “personal-is-the-political” gay/queer investments in film and popular culture. As I moved in this direction, I discovered that the addition of “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer” or “bisexual” to even legitimated academic approaches to film and popular culture–such as auteurism, genre studies, film history, etc.–resulted in this work often being considered unscholarly and unsubstantiated “wish fulfillment” or “fantasy. In effect, a gay reading of any film or TV show that didn’t represent gay men in “obvious,” denotative ways was a subcultural fan reading to many in the academy. Things are somewhat different now, though I find that the academy still frequently asks LGBTQ film and media acafans to go the extra mile in order to overcome resistance to what might be perceived of as doubly fannish positions.

I suppose I got so tired of attempting to inject aspects of the autobiographical (-as- political) into my scholarly writing only to have it rejected or patronized, that I returned to my English Department roots and hid behind close textual readings that were theoretically, culturally, and historically informed, but largely devoid of any obvious sense of personal investment or enthusiasm–unless you sensed it in the sometimes breathless and colorful prose stylings, or, read my first book’s introduction. A (re)turning point for me involved Henry Jenkins and one of the other co-editors of Hop on Pop, Jane Shattuc, who said my lesbian reading of The Wizard of Oz was all well and good, but where was I in all this? That is, what brought this particular gay fan and queer academic to this particular lesbian understanding of the film?

Forced to fess up, I examined my personal and professional “archives” and discovered that a longtime sense of fluid gender and sexuality, combined with annual (or bi-annual) viewings of The Wizard of Oz since childhood, combined with teaching the film in various contexts, combined with lesbian feminism, combined with queer theory, combined with a particular drag performance I attended involving “Judy Garland” and lesbian fans, led me to see the film as a lesbian coming of age (if not coming out) story.

In short, my whole life had led me to that piece on The Wizard of Oz. Only by drawing together aspects of autobiography, fandom, pedagogy, and academic training could I express (and, for some, justify) my “queer reception” love for the film, while also recognizing its ideological lapses–largely centered on the butch Elmira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West, I might add.

So, while I have previously used the term “scholar-fan” to describe the kind work I do–or that I prefer to do–I am now ready to drop the hyphen that separates these two terms, take up “acafan,” and deal with the tensions and negotiations that might arise from this hybrid term (though I did notice that Henry’s blog does use the hyphenated “aca-fan” in its title–what gives Henry?). Yes, being and acafan and doing acafan work can be somewhat “elitist” as some have pointed out, but it can also be a site for meaningfully mingling the academy and “the streets.” I know I never felt that my life was more consistently integrated than when the queer film/media scholarship and teaching I was doing as a post-doc at Cornell were being fed by actions I participated in as a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation–and vice-versa. When is the next time that my Nancy Sinatra fandom will express itself as part of a City Hall protest done to the tune of “These Boots are Made For Walking,” or when most of my students will be integrating their activist art and video-making into term projects that deploy “high theory” and cultural studies approaches to contextualize and analyze their work?

P.S. I apologize for this Me-centered opening statement. My plan was to go over all the posts before our groups’ entries and cherry pick ideas with which to engage. But after landing on comments that positioned some folks in my academic cohort as the foremothers and forefathers of the acafan, I got nostalgic–and you got this aca-autobiographical opening statement. I hope you can forgive it as a form of Grandpa Simpson-like ramblings about the (not-always-so-good) old days. I will resist further Memory Lane wanderings in our subsequent conversation.

Abigail De Kosnik:

Firstly, I would like to say that I am an “acafan” of many of the participants in this wonderful debate (is that correct usage of the term?), and my enthusiasm for the work of Alexander Doty is one of the longest-lasting fandoms of my life. Alex’s scholarship – the kinds of interventions that he describes in his “provocation” above – were key inspirations for me to seek out training in cultural studies, queer studies, and media studies, none of which were taught in any deep or concerted way when I was an undergraduate at Stanford in the 1990s. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement at being assigned to his group! Along with Jason Mittell, whom I consider a friend and colleague, and whose work I also think of as foundational to my media studies training. What luck!

This is one of my favorite rewards of academia: sometimes the structures and operations and networks that academics create and operate (I am thinking of public performances of academic-ness such as conferences, symposia, and Henry’s blog – Henry’s blog being more consistently entertaining than the former two formats) put you (me) in direct contact with the objects of your (my) fandom. I mean, I remember the first time that Henry Jenkins saw me and remembered my name. I had introduced myself to Henry a couple of times at conferences to say that I was a graduate student who was a huge fan of his, but the first time Henry greeted me by name, I thought, My God, Henry Jenkins KNOWS WHO I AM.

Today, as an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley, I actually *arrange* for fannish encounters with senior scholars on campus under the auspices of academic events. In other words, I totally “acafan” (I’m using that as a verb now) Linda Williams, Judith Butler, and others. I put myself into academic situations where these luminaries are basically forced to read my work and give me feedback. And after I have met another star in my constellation, I have this wonderful moment of “Wow. Judith Butler just gave me notes on my paper.”

But you know, I contain my fannishness. I don’t gush. Or I limit my gush to two sentences, when speaking to my academic idols, and when speaking to my colleagues about my academic idols. And in my scholarly writing, I also attempt to contain “the squee.” In my scholarship, I try not to be too sycophantic to any one theorist, too beholden. My fandoms come across anyway. Everyone knows, after attending one of my seminars or just speaking to me about any of my fields, who “my people” are, whose work I draw upon the most. But I try (not always sure if I succeed, but I do try) to not write with a “fannish” voice, to not let my emotional investments and deeply felt affinities be the starting point of my analyses of cultural phenomena.

I am an acafan with a set of rules, applicable (as far as I am concerned) only to myself. My personal brand of acafandom is one that says, that even announces/proclaims, “I am a fan,” but dispassionately. If a student or colleague or audience member at an academic conference wants to know about my fandoms, I will gladly list them, an entire litany. I have many, many fandoms, of every media format and nearly every historical period and many geographical regions. I will talk films if you want to talk films, I will talk astrolabes if you want to talk astrolabes, I will talk Atari or medieval bestiaries or printings of The Communist Manifesto. My fandoms are innumerable, and I am happy to discuss them. But – at an academic event, or in an academic context – I will speak of my fandoms not from the perspective of a fan, but from the perspective of an academic.

That doesn’t mean that the “academic I” aims to appear devoid of passion, but she (the “academic I”) does aim to appear to be somewhat Spock-like: the rational is what meets you right away, up front; the emotional is there, but buried deep. Spock’s emotions inform his decisions but he tries not to get lost in them, and keeps them out of others’ sight as much as he is able. The feeling, the affective power, of my fandom, fuels all of my academic work – I could not bear to delve deeply enough into any given topic or text without a kind of fannish devotion to, obsession with, it – but I try to keep the knowledge, the information, the analysis, up front, and leave the feeling out, for the most part.

In other words, I conceive of “acafan” as a term that designates a certain professionalism, a certain demeanor (a “seeming”) of critical distance, a certain coolness and calmness in discussing all the many facets and valences of fandom. This does not mean denying, covering, or burying my personal fannish affinities – for those affinities are fact, they exist, and I will gladly state them at every turn – rather, I am speaking here of performance, of attitude, of tone. I think of myself as an “acafan” insofar as I say, everywhere I go, “I am a fan,” but in Vulcan rather than Klingon.

Why my emphasis on tone, attitude, performance? Not only because I am housed in Berkeley’s (Theater, Dance and) Performance Studies Department, but also because frankly, an even tone is what makes it possible for academics to communicate with one another. Keeping open channels of communication – keeping one’s listeners and readers receptive – is so crucial when one is speaking or writing about topics that might be balked at as ridiculous, marginal, or unworthy of academic study. I have taken on this concept of “acafan” for myself completely because of my straddling a number of disciplinary fields, and almost never being a total “insider” to any one academic field. As a media studies person, I am an outsider to performance studies; as a Marxist cultural studies person, I am an outsider to new media studies; and so on. My experience in academia, traveling across many disciplinary borders and constantly visiting academic territories that are more or less foreign territories, has taught me that, if I want to talk about fandom, if I want to talk about texts and topics that are (still) somewhat unsettling to my audiences, that I must at least sound like “one of them” – like “one of us” – which is to say, I must sound/seem/perform like “an academic.”

Once again, this does not mean that I am advocating a shift away from the personalization of theoretical, scholarly writing, in which Alex was a pioneer. In fact, Alex’s work is a fantastic example of how fannish writing can be deeply serious academic work, and be taken seriously, received as significant and meaningful. I also have an essay coming out soon in an anthology (edited by Bill Aspray and Megan Winget of UT-Austin’s School of Information) advocating that, in the digital age, we need more humanities writing that is theoretical and highly personal at the same time – the essay is called “Personal Theory” – because most of our students are learning most of what they know in media (social media/online communication) that emphasizes first-person perspective, that applies the “I” as a lens to almost every subject matter.

I am only sharing my personal incorporation of the subject position of “acafan” in my life, which is to be openly a fan, writing plentifully about fandom, and presenting myself and my work with the most professional affect I can muster. If this reinstates or simply reinforces the old equivalences between fan and irrationality and overemotionalism, and the opposition of fan and academic, and the equivalences between academic and rationality and distance, well then, I suppose I still live in this world, and must do my best to navigate and negotiate it. But if I try not to “seem” a fan when I speak or write in an academic forum, I do aim to argue for fans and fandom – not for their inherent goodness or creativity, but for their interestingness, for their value, for their importance.

Funny, these arguments are of the same bent as the arguments I am currently making for academics in the humanities: they are interesting, they have value, they are important. Fans are not nothing; they are so many things, they are significant. Same with humanities scholars. And as Karen Hellekson said so well earlier in this conversation, academics are nothing if not fans. So ironically, though I really believe that academics and fans are the same, they do not seem the same. Performing “fan” is (still, still) so so different than performing “academic.”

But you should see me when I get home. Or when I am on LiveJournal. Or when I am in a mostly- or all-fan space (online or f2f). In those sites, I squee and squee.

Jason Mittell:

I should begin my “provocation” about the concept of acafandom with a caveat that I don’t feel particularly provoked or provocative about this topic. I do have a take on the debate, but don’t feel like I have much of a stake in it. While I certainly align myself with both of the categories fused in acafan, I don’t feel like the term speaks to or about me.

Instead, I find myself looking on this debate as an outsider, asking pragmatic questions about the terminology and semantic politics: Who uses this term beyond the people participating in this discussion? Does this term do something useful that other more established labels do not? And what would be lost without it? And I’m left with the answers “not sure”, “not really”, and “not much”.

The parallel that comes to mind is the term “postmodern,” a label with much broader academic currency than acafan but that similarly leaves me feeling ambivalent. While most humanists for the past twenty years have probably spent time immersed in various theories of postmodernity, postmodernism, and postmodern conditions, I’m not sure to what end. That’s not to say that great work has not been done under the rubric of postmodernism – it certainly has – but now that it is less liberally applied to every example of contemporary theory or culture, I’m left thinking that the term has probably done more harm than good (except perhaps to the major academic presses in cultural studies, who certainly boosted sales through the strategically applied use of “postmodern” in book titles).

Because there was no academic consensus on what “postmodern” meant (by design, I believe), the label obscured rather than illuminated, marking academic work as “cutting edge” without hinting on what was being cut or doing the cutting. Looking back on seminal scholarship focused on various flavors of postmodernism, I think we could eliminate the fuzzy label and strengthen our understanding of the core arguments and analyses without losing much of intellectual value.

I’d argue the same is true about acafandom. While that term will certainly never have the transdisciplinary currency of postmodernism, I do feel like the time spent debating what it means, what it does, who it includes (and excludes), and why it matters could be better spent doing the scholarly work that each of think matters most. And while that work may very well explore the intersecting identities and practices of academia and fandom, I do not think labeling it acafan research helps situate it in a larger conversation or subfield in a productive way. Instead, I’d contend that avoiding using a term that means such different things to so many of us would allow our arguments and ideas to speak for themselves, rather than being labeled in a way that can be easily dismissed or marginalized (or kneejerk embraced since the author is “part of the club”).

So my ultimate provocation, to which I welcome debate: we should not hide our investments in the structures and identities of either academia or fandom, but we shouldn’t hang our identities on a such a slippery signifier as “acafan.”

Abigail (Gail) De Kosnik is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She has a joint appointment in the Berkeley Center for New Media (http://bcnm-dev.berkeley.edu/) and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (http://tdps.berkeley.edu/). Her current LJ userpics are: The Beatles, Don & Peggy, Starbuck & Apollo (Kara & Lee), Rogue, Blair Waldorf, Torvill & Dean, Lisbon & Jane, Tony & Pepper, Daniel & Betty, and Mal & Zoe. At this time, she’s looking for a good Arya Stark icon.

Alexander Doty is Chair of the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and a Professor in this department and in the Department of Gender Studies. He has written Making Things Perfectly Queer and Flaming Classics, co-edited Out in Culture, and edited two special issues of Camera Obscura on divas. An old fogey, he is currently not active in any web-based fan communities, but in the past he has been known to put his 2-cents up on broadwayworld.com, and to indulge the consumer side of his fandom by buying risque postcards of 1920s stars George O’Brien and Ramon Novarro on Ebay–and, yes, he will end up writing something on at least one of them in order to justify these purchases to his “aca” side.

Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies at Middlebury College, and a Fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen, Germany, for the 2011-12 academic year. As an aca, he’s written Genre & Television (2004), Television & American Culture (2009), Complex TV (in process) and the blog Just TV (ongoing). As a fan, he’s been active in the Lostpedia community, transforms Wilco songs for the mandolin, and calls his fantasy football team The Heisenberg Helmets.

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