Acafandom and Beyond: Concluding Thoughts

Louisa Stein: I feel the need to start off by saying I never wanted or felt we needed a referendum on the term “acafan”; when I initially proposed the “Future of Acafandom” workshop at SCMS, I had in mind that we’d talk about the practices of acafan methodology and pedagogy, and perhaps also the shifting terrain for acafan scholars in graduate school and on the job market. But it became clear in that conversation that the term mattered to people, that the term itself was fractious, and that we couldn’t engage with the concepts inside the term, so to speak, without poking at the term itself. I found myself asking why the term was so fractious; indeed, we originally talked about wanting these conversations to be dialogues rather than the debate structure of the Fan Girl vs. Fan Boy debates, hence the three participants, and yet it seems like we’ve found ourselves back in debate territory. I still don’t feel like I have a full answer to this question: why is the term acafan something people feel so strongly about, or that causes discomfort?

I’ve come away from these conversations, both the in person ones and the blog dialogues, with an increased sense of the power of terms, of the way in which internalized definitions can link ideas and the people thinking through those ideas, but can also prevent dialogue and create miscommunication. So if acafan means one thing to me–and I say so and say it visibly, that doesn’t mean others will embrace my definition over theirs (and indeed, why should they?) and may indeed continue to read my work from within their definition of the term. To make this more concrete: for me acafan is all about emphasizing the necessary synthesis of academic and fan–it’s never been an exclusive term (again, to me), nor a term meant to raise rational academic discourse on fandom above emotional, non-academic fandom (indeed, quite the opposite!) But if acafan signifies these things to others, then those meanings may frame my work if I use the term.

But does that mean that I should give up the term? To me the answer is clearly of course not (I know, I’m sure everyone’s very surprised about this!) because it still has methodological and personal resonance, and still offers the power to connect networks of scholars and fans. But perhaps more centrally, for me it still comes down to the fact that like it or not, the term is here with us, in the present if not the far future.

We can’t just declare language dead–despite my spurious blog post title about “not-hosting the workshop that killed Acafandom.” No single workshop could ever have that power. Spurred by the conversation between Jason, Alex, and Abigail, I googled acafan (why had I never done this before?) and found that in colloquial online use, the term bridges silos and boundaries. Yes, most of the first page of hits are Henry’s blog, with Ian Bogost’s declamation of acafan positioning making an appearance as well. But there’s also fan fiction–a Sherlock Fan Fiction, no less, entitled “The Affair of the Asphyxiated Acafan” (!) And there are blog posts, twitter accounts, a fan lore entry, livejournal posts, delicious bookmarks, podcasts, etc. with varying levels of academic and fannish affiliation. To me there’s a value in all that boundary crossing, and moreover it demonstrates simply that the term has a cultural life, and it’s up to each of us to perform and model it as we see fit, in multiplicity, rather than to proclaim a single definition.

I want to close by building on Alex Doty’s concluding point about the value of acafandom for teaching. For me, this is absolutely key, and a way my individual acafan perspective manifests every day. Depending on the course context, I don’t necessarily spell this out to my students (because again, the label isn’t all or even most of what matters here) but I am most acafan when I model to my students engaged critique and critical engagement. And no, we don’t need the term to define this synthesized position, but the terms serves as a thread connecting my work to my teaching, and reminds me of what I value in media culture as a whole, as a scholar and a teacher, and for that matter as a student of media and fan culture who still has much to learn.

Henry Jenkins: I am not sure what I expected when I opened this particular can of worms. In many ways, I found the resulting exchanges fascinating — especially hearing the diverse ways that contributors positioned themselves in relation to both academia and fandom, the ways that those relationships did or did not inform their work, and the other ways they were taking up some of the issues which for me are central to the use of the aca-fan concept — especially those having to do with our subjective experiences as consumers and participants always implicated in the popular culture we study, one way or another, whether or not we want to admit it.

Progress has been made on some of the issues which spawned the term, but not others. I still hear about students who are hurt and confused when teachers write “too fannish” on their papers, with the implication that they do not demonstrate the appropriate amount of distance and rationality, that they are too emotional invested, and therefore, the chain of assumptions goes, that they are not sufficiently critical. I still get questions which imply these things when I speak outside of circles where Fan Studies has become a long accepted paradigm, as happened to me during a recent talk at Indiana University, where someone in the audience wanted to know in what sense a fan could be a critic.

This is no doubt part of what we mean when we talk about the pedagogical value of the term, that it allows certain kinds of work to be done, that it allows students and teachers another way of addressing these issues, that it allows students, especially those who may not have mentors involved in fan studies, an identity to rally behind and a means of justifying the work they want to do. For that reason, if for no other, we should hold up a banner for the acafans. It’s so easy to feel isolated, the odd one out in those circumstances, and if acafan may offer too easy an affiliation as some have suggested, that is still better than no affiliation at all.

The post that has had me struggling the most with my own assumptions was John Campbell’s critique of the essentialism implicit in refering to oneself as a fan rather than as “a fan of.” We come at this question from such a different place, yet with such shared values, that this one got under my skin and I am still scratching at it. Most early writings about fans sought to essentialize them by defining them in terms of their singular relations to particular texts. So, a “Trekkie” (rarely a Trekker for such writers) was someone who loved Star Trek. There was no sense that they might be interested in other texts, that their biography might connect across a range of fan communities, that fan culture might have a tradition that extends beyond the single text, and so forth. In Textual Poachers, I stressed that fans were nomadic, that they “traveled across” texts much as De Certeau describes readers as “traveling across” lands they have not cultivated. The nomadic dimensions of fandom keep getting dropped from accounts of the book in favor of the concept of poaching — titles do shape readings, after all — but it is key to imagining the reader as structuring their relationships with texts and each other through choices made about which materials to borrow.

To me, going back to the “fan of” formulation means ascribing too much authority to the text, not enough authority to communities. I get John’s points that there is no essential fan, that we are never just fans, that fans are not alike, etc., and these are useful correctives to our current use of the term. But, for me, when I speak of fan, I am thinking of being a fan as a subcultural identity, one defined through loose affiliations and shared traditions, as well as by shared debates and tensions, which run through the history of fan practices. There is not just one fan community, but most fan communities, in some ways, tap into the shared traditions of fan culture as they are defining themselves in relation to particular texts in particular social and technological contexts. I am not sure I have fully resolved the issues John raises (and I would welcome his response), but in many ways, this was one of the posts that most pushed the conversation forward.

In terms of my disappointments, I think the biggest one was that we did not make more progress in exploring in productive rather than dismissive ways the relationship between the identity of the acafan and that of the gamer-as-scholar. Most of the gamers here seemed to come into the conversation with very strong defense mechanisms against really entertaining that parallel and often with certain stereotypes about what it meant to be a fan. Some of those defense mechanisms emerged from the experience of stigmatization which surrounds the concept of being a gamer, stigmatizations which in some ways parallel those surrounding the fan, except that the gamer stereotype is often hypermasculine while the fan stereotype is so often feminized.

I had been struck by the essays in Drew Davidson’s Well Played series, where gamers describe very specific play experiences which they had with specific titles: the argument is that there is no game text, only game experiences, and thus, criticism of games needs to preserve the process of playing them. As you do so, the player’s own experiences are brought forward and with them, the player’s own subjectivity, their identity, their history as players. I see strong parallels here with the trajectory of fan studies and the identity of the aca-fan. And I think the two movements have much that they can learn from each other. So, why do fans and gamers end up talking past each other, as I think has generally occurred here?

Drew, I would really love to get your reflections on this dynamic which occurred not only here but also in the discussion in Ian Bogost’s blog which helped to inspire this one. Having tried and failed to bring the two groups together through this series of exchanges, I want to use my parting shots here as, well, a parting shot to push one more time to see if we can explore the similarities and differences between these two forms of cultural criticism and academic identity.

Drew Davidson: This has been an interesting experience, particularly since I wasn’t deeply familiar with the term “acafan.” And during the round of discussions in which I participated, I think all three of us were concerned about a lack in this regard, which we worried we had kept our conversation scratching at the surface of the ideas involved. And to be honest, due to lack of time, I followed the other rounds obliquely at best. That said, even at a high level I believe we all felt a resonance between the idea of being a fan and being a gamer, maybe the sense of defensiveness came from struggling to articulate the connections, but I don’t think any of us felt overtly defensive (looking back I can see how it reads that way though).

Thinking of Henry’s question, I think it comes from this lack. As with any academic field, acafan has developed a deep and rich set of issues and terminology that in some ways can become a barrier to newbies. Similarly, gamers-as-scholars are developing as a field (and it’s an area where newbies would feel barriers in the terminology as well as playing ability). And so, I agree with Henry in that there is an opportunity to learn a lot from each other (and regret that it seems like we were part of the sense of talking past each other).

That said, it brings me back to the sense of a lack of time (the most finite of things). When this whole idea kicked off, there were bigger plans and more people involved, but as the reality of life set in, people dropped out here, got busy there, and a different thing evolved than initially was planned. For our round, we ended up having to squeeze in our discussion as we had wildly divergent schedules, and we weren’t sure what to say really. Regardless, it seems to have inspired all involved to think anew about ideas and assumptions, so I think it’s been an overall success. But it is easy to see how we will now scatter back to our daily schedules and pursuits, and having the time to better make and articulate connections across fields is a real challenge. But one worth striving for.

Just in the way Henry articulated why he was interested in inviting some gamers to join this discussion got me to think in a new light about what we’ve been doing with the Well Played series, and how the act of playing a game, and trying to discuss that act, is full of interesting agency on several levels. And it got me thinking about how I’m an acafan of Henry (and by extension his work), and that’s why I joined in on this conversation (and often is how connections can be made).

Also, Henry’s comments on how John discussed the distinction between being a “fan” and being a “fan of,” got me thinking of how it can be both, particularly in terms of acafan. I think I am an acafan in general (in terms of approach), and I’m an acafan of videogames (in terms of expertise). Like Louisa notes in her closing comments, I think I’m most acafan when I’m engaged and modeling the agency in interactions with students and colleagues. And being an acafan resonates for me as an honest stance through which to consider the media and games that I both study and enjoy.

Kristina Busse: In psychology, there exists the concept of confirmation bias, which describes the informal fallacy whereby more information confirms our entrenched belief rather than expand our minds. This is a quite depressing concept for academics, because mostly our modus operandi dictates that more facts, more opinions, more positions are better and open our minds.

Sadly, I feel a bit like this reading over the acafandom conversations this summer. Personally, I came into this discussion wanting to narrow the term rather than expand it: to me acafans describe actively in the community involved fans who, at the same time, also do academic work on these very communities. Unlike Louisa, for example, I wasn’t deeply invested in the larger concerns of and for the discipline but instead was quite happy to narrow the term and employ different concepts for other aspects of fan studies. The difficulties of the acafan to me were the negotiation of following competing rules of dissimilar community norms; it was the decisions of whether it was worth the CV line to expose one’s friends’ embarrassing debates; it was the constant explanation of fandom to academics and of academia to fans.

And yet we never really seemed to get to these difficult decisions and negotiations: Should we consciously create a canon of academically-approved fanworks that, in turn, will affect the value of these texts within fannish spaces? Do we (ab)use our role as fans when we exploit our fannish connections for academic work? Or do we, in turn, do a service to fandom by telling the better story? And do we compromise our role as academics when we focus on certain things but not others, pick the more accessible story, the more traditionally aesthetic vid, the classically trained artist’s piece? Do we compromise our role by focusing on the good over the bad and ugly? And do we do harm by talking about one show and its fandoms rather than about others? What unconscious fannish and academic biases do we bring to our work, and where do the two cancel one another out and where do they amplify each other?

Those were the questions and moral dilemmas I had hoped we’d address and yet I felt we mostly were stuck in Acafandom 101: Hadn’t we all agreed sometime in the nineties that academics exhibited clear fannish behaviors–that those folks at Faulkner and Hemingway and Woolf conferences clearly were quite affectively invested in their chosen writers? At the same time, hadn’t Hills a decade ago convincingly argued that we can’t facilely project our academic values onto fans, foregrounding the behaviors we recognized and valorized and overlooking those that were less like our own? Finally, did we really need to dismiss fannish behavior and communities in a conversation on acafandom?

The two things that most struck me was the resistance of several of the game scholars to embrace the questions and ideas that they might, in fact, be acafans and the willingness of various queer scholars to interrogate these positions and questions I raised above–even as they clearly weren’t acafans in the more traditional sense.

Which brings me back to the original SCMS conversation and some of the more convincing arguments I heard there: to some, one of the strongest objections to the focus on acafans seemed to be the erasure of other central questions and the danger of studying a limited group of texts at the expense of equally culturally important ones. Then, my personal solution to that was to narrow the term down to the point where not every watercooler convo analysis, not even every user-generated YouTube response would automatically be about fans and, by extension, acafandom would define a subset of fan studies only (which, in turn, would be a subset of media studies only).

Reading Doty and Halberstam in particular, however, I wonder whether an alternative answer might not be to open up acafannishness to the point where indeed every academic is a fan (of sorts) and every fan (on some level) an academic. Borrowing from the amorphously defined and ineluctably changing concept of queerness, I wonder whether acafandom might not be better thought of as a set of parameters that circumscribe descriptors and questions and behaviors and identities while nevertheless avoiding certainties and resolutions. Because these initial questions I raised deserve not one answer but demand repeated revisiting. they are important questions, whether we are deeply embedded in a tightly self-defined and self-described community or analyze YouTube vids we stumble upon.

And maybe that made this conversation both difficult and frustrating. We tried to discuss these issues in the abstract but possibly they can only ever be presented in media res. If I take anything away from these conversations, it is my renewed investment in addressing this self-reflexive meta level of acknowledging and investigating the methodological and ethical concerns of studying fans and fan texts in everything I write. Not only can I not take anything for granted, I shouldn’t assume that yesterday’s procedures and theoretical framework still hold today. Just as fandoms and fans are changing, my own approach as a scholar must continue to interrogate my position and role within the academic and the fannish communities I inhabit.

Karen Tongson: Although I’ve taught introductory courses on fan cultures and fan studies in a general education context since graduate school–making some of the rudimentary, but necessary links between “fans” and “critics” that Kristina rightly insists we move beyond–I’ve never really considered myself a true fan studies scholar. Nor have I really identified as an acafan; at least not until this series of conversations transpired. In part, I think my reticence has to do with my own sense of the tremendous expertise and commitment that attends to “true” acafandom and vigorous involvements in participatory cultures. In other words, I had a sense (as both Louisa and Kristina gestured to) that the terms were narrower, or had reached the point of naming a more specific set of procedures, practices, and archives.

I also think my “primary academic orientation”–if there can be such a thing–as a queer studies scholar, kept me immersed in different conversations about affect and participatory engagements, even though I always felt and understood the tremendous overlap between acafan practices and queer cultures. All this to say that my familiarity with fan studies from the 80s onwards offered a particular lens for me to view queer studies, and vice versa. Yet my own disciplined docility to the concept of “expertise” and commitment to other identificatory practices kept me from assuming the subject position of the acafan in ways that I ultimately understand, through this summer’s conversations, were rather unnecessary. In fact, it wasn’t until I read this same reticence in some of the responses from my own colleagues in queer, ethnic and American studies (I’m thinking in particular of Christine Bacareza Balance’s, Jack Halberstam‘s, Jayna Brown‘s and Sarah Banet-Weiser’s pieces), that I realized how cordoned off many of us have been from the expansive possibilities of acafandom wherein, as Kristina phrased it, “every academic is a fan (of sorts) and every fan (on some level) [is] an academic.”

More than anything, I valued this summer’s conversation, and the invitation to consider in greater depth some of the practices we either rightly or falsely assumed belonged to the rubric of acafandom from an “outsider’s” perspective. It brought to the surface how even certain, more established interdisciplinary fields (like the ones I listed above), are still very bounded, insular and unconsciously averse to the multiplicity of identifications. Acafandom, as I’ve come to understand it through this series generously hosted by Henry on his blog, is not simply a subset of Fan Studies, or Media Studies, but an orientation of sorts–at once methodological and affective–that can inform practices otherwise situated firmly within other disciplinary formations and their imperatives. I’m heartened by the extent to which emerging young scholars like Alexis Lothian and Suzanne Scott understand their work as part and parcel of the formations of both their “home” disciplines and acafandom in ways that shed the residual hang-ups (for lack of a better word) that continue to hold some of us back.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. She has published on audiences and transmedia engagement in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and the Flow TV anthology (Routledge, 2011). Louisa is co-editor of Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. Louisa is also Book Review editor of Transformative Works and Cultures.

Henry Jenkins blogs…here. He is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education at the University of Southern California. He has recently completed Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, due out in 2012. His current fannish interests include comics, Disney, silent movies, The Walking Dead, Castle, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center – Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press.

Kristina Busse

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Her book on race, sexuality, popular culture and the suburbs, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press), is forthcoming in August 2011. She is co-series editor for Postmillennial Pop with Henry Jenkins (NYU Press), and is also co-editor-in-chief of The Journal of Popular Music Studies (Wiley-Blackwell) with Gustavus Stadler.

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