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

Conversation

Jason:

In reading over Alex and Gail’s excellent provocations, I find myself reading fairly fannishly – not because I’m an admirer of their work (although I certainly am), but because even though they each present arguments that might seem to contradict my own stated position, I highlight and (to evoke our host) poach the moments and examples that confirm my own ideas. In Alex’s post, I see evidence of the usefulness of writing what you believe and feel without a label – he might be framed as an acafan fore-parent, but the work that inspired so many of us didn’t need that label to forge a model.

And his post points to another example of a slippery term that has had much more semiotic utility than either acafan or postmodern: queer. As we all know, this was not a term coined for academic convenience or trendiness, but rather a reclamation of an already powerful signifier that has come to define a field in seemingly (for a sideline observer like myself) coherent, pragmatic and politically efficacious ways. The semantic history of queer proves that terms can matter, but suggests that we should also engage with terms that already matter and fight the important fights, rather than coining and squabbling over new ones.

Both Gail and Alex’s posts highlight the role of affect in writing about culture, and the importance of owning up to our personal engagements. But while Alex chose to “inject the I” into his work through both political and emotional investments, Gail chooses to speak Vulcan over Klingon, tempering affect while foregrounding her taste and identity. I’m sure that adherents of the term acafan would allow for both styles of fannishness under its rubric, but that points to challenges of the concept: either you must delineate the category in a way that excludes some significant modes of engagement, or you create a large umbrella that loses its explanatory power. I’m left unsure why labelling either of their approaches, or those of the many others who have participated in this series, as “acafan” helps us understand or justify the resulting work.

So I’m left with a question for both of my esteemed co-provocateurs: what would be different for the type of work you do without the term acafan to categorize it?

Gail:

Oh, quite simply, I think of myself as an “acafan” because Henry employed that term. He could have called it “lorax” and I would have said, “Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do with my work, with my career. I’m trying to be a lorax!” As Alex is the fore-parent of so much great cultural studies and queer studies work, so Henry is the fore-parent of so much great work in fan studies. (Thus it is so great to have these two strands of genealogy touch points through this conversation, though of course their work has always been relevant to each other’s.) I came into fan studies through the Henry route, and so Henry’s terminology is mine.

But actually I would like to take up the question of using “queer” as a possible descriptor for “acafan.” I know that’s not literally what you suggested, Jason, but I have often wondered about drawing a connection between the two terms. On the one hand, “acafan” “queers” both academic and fan, Henry has explicitly referenced the origins of his early fan studies work in the emergent queer studies movement, fans generally use terms like “outed,” there is something real at stake for those of us who are academics who “come out” as fans, and one of Henry’s landmark contributions was showing that it could be done with respect to popular media, that one could and maybe MUST “out” oneself in academic work as a fan.

On the other hand, earlier in this discussion, John Edward Campbell asked “those who identify as ‘acafans’ to be a bit more reflexive about comparisons of fans to sexual minorities,” emphasizing rightly that the dangers for people who “out” themselves as sexual minorities are far more acute and severe than for people who “out” themselves as fans.

If either of you has any thoughts on the intersections of “queer” and “acafan,” as two terms that could be brought to bear on one another or may support or serve one another, or as two terms that are and must remain very distinct and separate, I would be really interested in them.

Alex:

I’ll begin with Gail’s provocation about how she tries to have her academic work speak critically about fandom and things she is a fan of rather than have her speaking as a fan, and how this particular positioning as an acafan (one I think most acafans take on) runs the risk of reinforcing “the old equivalences” of fan with “irrationality” and “overemotionalism” and academic with “rationality” and critical “distance.” I agree with you, Gail, that this positioning may be a matter of “tone,” and I will add “degree,” rather than a wholesale denial or repression of emotion, but I have always been frustrated by how deploying this position always seems to demand we “control” our expressions of enthusiasm because they are, somehow, antithetical to the intellectual work we do. Is it really be impossible to conceive of a piece of work that veers between Photoplay and “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and that is taken seriously in the academy?

Jason, you really are being a provocateur when you ask if we would really lose anything in terms of how we go about our business without the term “acafan” (or “postmodern”). I suppose I would say “no” and “yes.” No, in the sense that those of us who were/are intent on combining “the personal is the political” type investments in our work would have proceeded (and did proceed) without a concept to work within or under.

But, yes, in the sense that it is handy to have a term like “acafan,” or the earlier “scholar-fan,” to indicate a “performance” option (as you put it, Gail) for scholarship. Once a term like this is established, it can provide some added weight to the struggle to legitimate certain types of scholarly performance. (I know, even while writing out “legitimate” I was cringing, but a girl’s got to eat, so. . .) While, as Jason points out, this term (whether applied to a person or to a product) can mean many things to many people, it does gesture toward a group of people (self-identifying and not) and body of work that has attempted to expand and complicate just what constitutes a “scholar” or a piece of “scholarly” or “academic” work. And I do feel a kinship with these folks and with this project–though I guess don’t really need a term to describe all this, I suppose. How’s that for equivocating?

As to understanding acafandom, the acafan, and acafan production as “queer” somehow, I don’t see why not, for the reasons Gail outlines, primary among them the impulse to critique categories with an eye to deconstructing them. Following this line of thinking, then, the queer goal of acafandom should finally be to trouble the categories of “fan” and “academic” (and academic and fan discourse) so much that we are left with exactly what Jason is calling for–a space that allows “our arguments and ideas to speak for themselves” no matter what their approach, methodology, for form. So, Jason, maybe you can just wait a while for acafandom to do its queer work!

Jason:

I appreciate that both of you equivocate about my question, and even though I’m skeptical of the term, I’m similarly on the fence. Such labels certainly have their uses for community-building, group identification, and signalling a set of sympathies so that others can find like-minded fellow travellers – I imagine that on some social network like Academia.edu, tagging yourself as an acafan could be useful (as would tagging ourselves as Loraxes for that matter!). But as academics in the critical humanities, we need to be careful in how we use our labels, as today’s marker of convenience is tomorrow’s site of political factioning or terminological warfare: when will we see articles positing that we are now in the era of post-acafandom, to be followed by neo-acafandom?

To pull out another term that emerged from the theoretical stew of postmodernism (but I’d argue need not be labeled as such to be useful), what I think is going on around these acafan conversations is a form of strategic essentialism. There is a tactical utility for scholars, especially in vulnerable untenured positions, to be able to grasp onto a term like acafan and highlight how prominent figures in our field like Henry & Alex embrace it – it helps situate ones work & identity within an area of study that has validity and legitimation. But what happens when a hiring or review committee asks “so what does that mean?” I think it’s most useful and honest to be able to embrace labels not just for their pragmatic utility, but because they actually help explain what it is you do and how you do it.

As for the queer question, I get the parallel in terms of issues of visibility and categorical instability, but echoing John Edward Campbell’s point that Gail cited, I fear that it might unintentionally belittle the huge power differentials between being a fan and being a sexual minority. The odds that someone would suffer tangible discrimination or violence for being a fan are so much less than for being queer, and the fandoms that would probably carry the greatest stigma are themselves already queered. In other words, nobody’s going to care that I “outed” myself as a sysop for a Lost fan wiki, but a scholar who writes BDSM slash fanfic has legitimate reasons to keep that aspect of her fandom closeted – but I’d argue that’s less because it’s a fan activity than because it’s a queer type of fandom. Might a strategic use of the term acafandom would help her by validating such activity within an established community? Perhaps, and if so, that’s as good of a justification for the term as I could imagine – although my skepticism about the incoherence of the category remains.

Gail: Jason, you’re such a hater! It’s awesome – I like the “hater” position and use it very frequently myself (cf. Jonathan Gray’s outstanding work on “anti-fans” and “non-fans”). You’re a non-fan of the “acafan” term and an anti-fan of the potential for terms like “post-acafan” (!) and I respect that. I actually don’t use the term “acafan” to refer to myself in any promotion review-type situation, or to define myself or my work to non-acafen, but I do *think* of myself as an acafan and I like that a term exists as a “tag” that other scholars use so that I can find them and their work and understand something about their methodologies and what their goals are.

“Acafan” works well for me as a kind of search term (though I’ve never typed that into Google) – if someone is called an “acafan” or refers to themselves using that term, even in passing, it’s helpful for me to recognize them as someone whose work may have some relevance and importance to my own work.

But just going back to the lorax example quickly, I am also fine with other tags like “fan studies scholar,” “scholar-fan,” “fan theorist,” “fan cultures scholar,” etc. And that circle of terms can widen outward quickly to “cultural studies scholar,” “media studies scholar,” “digital culture theorist,” “Amy Pond who studies online communities,” etc. I just find terminology useful for a quick assessment of whether someone’s essays or books or blog entries or LiveJournal posts or conference papers are worth time and attention – Are they working on projects that are of interest to me, or not? Are they using approaches and frameworks that I might want to learn about, or not?

But I do think that as the acafan approach gets to be more and more common, with new generations of scholars emerging for whom the question of whether or not they should declare their fandoms is not even a question, that the term may become specific to a time frame. “Some scholars and fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sensing commonalities and overlaps in their theoretical and critical work, used the term ‘acafan’ to define themselves. Today, it is well-known that everyone who studies media of any kind is a fan, a non-fan, or an anti-fan, and that anyone who thinks that passion and emotion are not integral to media criticism and analysis is an idiot.” (from the Future Encyclopedia of Media Studies, copyright 2042).

I do hope, though, that if and when “acafan” goes away, that we who were acafen remember that academics and fans can and should talk to one another, that they/we are not that different from one another, that the “meta” done in fandoms and the “studies” done in academia are similar kinds of work. I am especially concerned here about fans’ possible marginalization from future academic discussions, since academics have access to (some) institutional legitimacy and research funds that many fans do not.

Thank you both, Alex and Jason, for weighing in on whether “queer” can or mustn’t be thought of as pertinent to “acafan.” Both of you suggest that much acafan work can do, and is already doing, queer work – and so inspires discomfort and encounters disapprobation because of its queerness, not because of its acafanishness. To me, that means that it is useful to think about “acafan” and “queer” together, and to articulate their relationships, but that in any discussion of the two concepts together, it is crucial not to mistake the social positioning of one for the social positioning of the other.

Alex: Well it looks as if I am bringing up the rear (to coin a phrase). It seems as if where we are leaving “acafan” is understanding it as a concept that might have certain uses for academic fans if not for “civilian” fans (sorry, I was an Army brat) when it is used carefully and strategically–but that it may have a shelf life, so we shouldn’t get too attached to it. I think that between and among them, our provocations and responses have compellingly suggested some of the potential benefits of using “acafan” as well as some of its limitations or problematic aspects.

Reading both of your follow-up comments on “acafandom” and/as “queer,” I realized that I probably sounded a bit flippant in my last response on this. As a queer and an acafan–yes, I will hold onto that label for a while longer though I don’t really need it to do what I do, even though I still think it helps explain what I do to some extent, although Jason is correct in suggesting that sometime you need to define “acafan” for people before talking about your specific acafan work– I agree that while as concepts they can be interestingly compared to each other, this should not suggest that “open” acafans leave themselves open to anything like what “open” queers do–except, possibly, as Jason suggests, when the acafan/acafan work is itself queer.

I like Gail’s encyclopedia entry for “acafan(dom),” especially the final sentiment, which is an interesting reversal of what many undergraduate students think: that analysis and criticism have no place in expressions of (their) fan enthusiasms. That is, they will no longer enjoy (or enjoy less) popular culture texts or personalities once they have certain (academic) critical and analytic tools. Hey, this might be something else the concept and products of acafandom are useful for–showing students that you can simultaneously think critically and emote when you watch a film, listen to a song, contemplate a celebrity, etc. etc. etc. A carefully selected acafan article or two–along with a general discussion of “acafan(dom)”–have done wonders in my undergraduate classes along these lines.

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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