Highlights from the “Rethinking Intermediality in the Digital Age” Conference

Earlier this fall, I reported here about my trip to Transylvania to attend a gathering of the International Society for Intermedia Studies, hosted at Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania. I found the interdisciplinary and international mix of speakers invigorating, as they shared reflections of a broad range of historical periods, national contexts, and media platforms and practices. They have since made available videos of the three keynote addresses from this conference, and I wanted to pass them along to you.

Here is my address, “‘All Over the Map’: What Oz The Great and Powerful Can Teach Us About World-Building.” The recent Oz film has been generally dismissed as too much focused on visual spectacle, too little interested in character and story. I take a contrarian perspective, arguing that we need some aesthetic criteria for discussing works where richly realized worlds take center stage and become the key focus of our attention. Here, I situate the Oz film, and its play with intertextuality and world-building, in the much larger history of the Oz franchise, noting that Oz was the first conceived of as more a world than a story and that there have been many stories which sought to allow us to “return” to this world — a theme that goes back to even the earliest Oz films (produced by L. Frank Baum himself). I am now in the process of developing this talk into an essay for publication — one of the tasks I’ve set for myself over the break. But, I thought some of you might enjoy this glimpse at a work still very much in progress.

Marie Laurie Ryan was a second keynote speaker at the conference, and she addressed the concept of transmedia storytelling from a narratological perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed, though nervously anticipated, her critique of my work, which I felt was fair in its challenges and also touched on themes which I have been exploring through my own more recent writing, ubeknowst to her.

And finally, there was Joachim Paech, who dug much more deeply into the concept of the intermedial, from a perspective grounded in continential aesthetic philosophy. People at the conference suggested that the three keynotes were a study in contrast with each of us embodying different academic styles and cultures and each speaking from a place deep within our own national traditions. I will allow you to judge this for yourselves.

This will be my last post for 2013. I am going to take off a few weeks to focus on family, recreation, and writing in that order, but we will be back again after the start of the year with more exciting interviews which I already have ready to go. So, see you on the other side…

“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Three)

As I was reading your discussion of this process of providing “proof” for imaginative narratives, I could not help but think of the roles being performed by contemporary transmedia extensions. For example, see the case that Campfire constructed around the launch of Game of Thrones — (http://campfirenyc.com/work/projects/game-of-thrones/) or these videos relased this summer in relation to Pacific Rim (http://sheridantransmedia2013.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/pacific-rim-viral-site/) and the next Planet of the Apes movie (http://www.firstshowing.net/2013/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-kicks-off-viral-simian-flu-website/).  To what degree are these very contemporary practices a continuation of the techniques that you suggest emerged around the New Romance?


These transmedia extensions are all ways to heighten the immersive reality of imaginary worlds by appeals to our senses and to our reason. (Modernity requires fantasy to be rational at some level; many seek enchantments that don’t reject reason but augment it.) Such practices transform imaginary worlds into virtual worlds that can then inform our thinking about the real world because we have assimilated them corporeally, emotionally, and philosophically.

Why do so many fans collect replicas, first editions, autographs, or other palpable material relating to the imaginary worlds they love? In effect, these are secular reliquaries; they put fans in contact with the intangible mana or charisma of the imaginary world, just as symbols of a favorite sports team, or even a favorite nation, provide many with a sense of identity.

The advantage that imaginary worlds have over some of these other forms of affiliation is that they are explicitly marked as imaginary. European soccer fans can be violent, their conflicts often linked to national identities, but I have yet to see Middle-earth fans get into physical blows with Golden Compass fans. The “virtually real” nature of so many secondary worlds is undercut by acknowledging that they are provisional constructions, and that habit of mind that can be usefully applied to other beliefs we hold in the primary world. Living an “as if” life does not preclude political, spiritual, or ethical commitments, but it does temper arrogance while opening us to a multitude of worlds we might not have considered otherwise.


Some recent writing, yours among them, have linked the concept of imaginary worlds with Tolkien’s notion of Sub-creation, which seems to limit the model to talking about worlds that are largely if not entirely the work of the imagination. Yet, Dudley Andrews has discussed the concept in relation to “Dickens’ London,” you discuss here Doyle’s London, and I’ve made the case for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Each represent an artist’s particular inflections of real cities, but developed in sufficient imaginative detail as to constitute an immersive environment with a character uniquely its own.  What is the case for or against these environments being regarded as “virtual” in the ways you are using the term?

I think all of these “realist” worlds are clearly marked as fictional, and thus can be thought of as “secondary worlds” distinct from the primary world. They too can become “virtual” through social media that permits their audiences to inhabit them communally, for prolonged periods.

In the late nineteenth century, the imaginary worlds that became virtual through reader participation were primarily works of fantasy, because readers were explicitly seeking an escape from literary realism: they wanted new forms of enchantment that were compatible with modern reason but did not replicate the status quo. Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” was an imaginary world, complete with a detailed map, but contemporary readers who wanted to immerse themselves for prolonged periods in an imaginary milieu turned to Haggard, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and other writers of the fantastic, where they could gratify their sense of wonder as well as their reason. (Sherlock Holmes’s “London” is a fantasy world, because it contains Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic character – among others!)

Many middle-class readers and critics, though, thought that this form of immersion in fantasy was irresponsible and regressive. Today’s readers and critics are less likely to dismiss “escapism” in such terms; even those who don’t like fantasy find themselves immersed in the imaginary worlds of Jane Austen and James Joyce, both of which are now virtual with their own fan bases, dedicated social media spaces and, in the case of “Bloomsday,” cosplay every year.


I was struck by Edmund Wilson’s critique of Lovecraft’s realm as “a sort of boy’s game.” First, in what sense are these worlds “games,” that is sets of activities in which readers can participate alongside writers? And if they are games in that sense, then, where do the rules of these games come from? and Second, were the kinds of collective activities you describe emerging around these stories always heavily gendered as masculine which would seem to be part of the implication of calling them “boy’s games”? And finally, there’s implications here of “infantilism” or “latency,” charges that have long been associated with fandom. In your research, was fandom always associated with arrested development?


Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne thought of their imaginary worlds as games, and established rules for them that were taken up by the New Romance and the later marketing genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. (When Hugo Gernsback established Amazing Stories in 1926 – thereby inaugurating the marketing genre of “science fiction” – he constantly cited as his predecessors Poe and Verne, as well as H.G. Wells, and reprinted many of their works.)

Poe argued that imaginary worlds ought to be constructed as meticulously as any hoax, which has become one of the tacit rules for modern imaginary worlds. Verne acknowledged his debt to Poe on this score, continuing the imaginary world Poe created in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1844) in his An Antarctic Mystery (1897).

The notion of including multiple paratexts became firmly established with the New Romance beginning in the 1880s, and the implicit rules for the fannish habitation and extension of imaginary worlds derived from Sherlock Holmes fandom beginning in the 1890s. (Indeed, they called their prolonged and immersive explorations of Conan Doyle’s world the “Great Game.”) Holmes’s fans were the first to write “scholarly” essays about his world as if it were real, and pastiches that augmented the world, making it a living, “virtual” creation.

By the 1930s, these and related rules of the imaginary-world game had become widespread – even science fiction pulp magazines were peppered with paratexts, including learned footnotes in Amazing Stories and Robert Heinlein’s famous “Future History” chart published in Astounding.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a marvelous essay about the Great Game (the term is hers), but on the whole Sherlockian play was masculine, especially in the United States, echoing the homosocial world that Conan Doyle created. (The American Baker Street Irregulars refused to invest women in the society until the 1990s, although there were “scion” societies that did welcome them.) Similarly, science fiction fandom for much of the twentieth century was largely male, and this was true for other subcultures dedicated to comics, horror films, and so on.

There was somewhat more gender parity in the imaginary worlds purveyed by radio in the interwar period. “Little Orphan Annie,” “Captain Midnight,” “Buck Rogers,” “Jack Armstrong,” and other children’s programming provided significant agency for boys and girls in their plot lines and premium campaigns, largely for commercial reasons. Gender hierarchies and imbalances persisted, but at least these worlds were not exclusively male preserves.

The charge of “infantilism” was certainly applied by elites to fans of mass culture for much of the twentieth century. But this charge has a longer history in Western culture. It has usually been associated with any extended immersion in the imagination, which historically has been defined as subordinate to reason and associated with subaltern groups: women, workers, children, so-called “primitives.”

The late-eighteenth century romantics challenged this binary opposition between reason and imagination, and mid-nineteenth century children’s literature also welcomed rather than feared imaginative play. By the late nineteenth century the imagination was being defined by psychologists, philosophers, critics and others as being complementary to reason.

The suspicion of the imagination by elites may have been more prevalent in Protestant than Catholic countries (certainly it was prevalent in Britain and North America, whereas late nineteenth and twentieth century France was practically ground zero for the new celebration of the imagination). Nevertheless, it has continued to play a large role in the negative reception of fantasy, and fandom, until very recently.

Your discussion of Lovecraft suggests that fans from the start saw fantasy, science fiction, and horror as points of entry into conversations about race, ethnicity, and immigration and that readers and writers were often blind to their prejudices even as they celebrated forms of exploration that went beyond the margins of current public sentiment. Much of what you share there could have come from more recent debates amongst fans about the role which race play in contemporary speculative fiction. Can you share more of these debates and their impact on mid-century readers?


 I’m a bit disheartened about the way some of the current debates about race and speculative fiction online have used Lovecraft as a convenient punching bag and go no further. It’s easy to do that – no one can deny that he was a virulent racist for most of his life.

But history shows that he, and other fans, were debating issues of race, imperialism, sexism, and other issues since the onset of public spheres of the imagination. Rather than excoriate figures from the past because their views don’t accord with ours, itself an ahistorical practice, it might be better to examine the conditions that enabled these views to flourish, and to explore how such views were challenged and at times changed by diversely constituted public spheres of the imagination.

In other words, the prehistory of our current use of imaginary worlds and virtual realities has much to say about how we might promote pluralism and an acceptance of difference. To dismiss Lovecraft as simply a “racist” without acknowledging how far he had changed – and the reasons for this change – is to abandon the resources that history gives us for negotiating the present.

I find his story, and that of Tolkien (who did question some of his earlier, unexamined views about race, religion, and the nation) to be hopeful examples about how imaginary worlds can be used as well as enjoyed. Their case-histories provide instructive instances of how imaginary worlds are not simply escapist but inform the real world in many ways, for good and for ill. (This is not to say that all online discussions have been like this. Elizabeth Bear’s contribution to a public sphere of the imagination, Tor.com, is a reminder of how imaginary worlds can be good to think with about the primary world: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/12/why-we-still-write-lovecraft-pastiche.)

Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).

“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Two)

You write about the “ironic imagination” as a way of describing the ways fans are and are not immersed in the fictional worlds you describe. Can you explain what you mean by this concept and how it might address long-standing concerns about naive or unknowing spectatorship?


  Ironic self-reflexivity itself seems to be part of our natural makeup: psychologists find that children develop the capacity to engage in meta-representations from an early age. But the degree to which cultures encourage or discourage ironic self-reflexivity has varied.

For Western Europeans and North Americans, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not a period especially open to the ironic habitation of fictional worlds. The early Victorians in particular were ambivalent about fiction, which they shackled to religious and utilitarian strictures. In As If, I trace the gradual cultural shift from the Victorians’ stress on “sincerity” and a cohesive “character” to the Edwardians’ greater emphasis on multiple perspectives and a complex “personality” capable of living in multiple “worlds” without cognitive dissonance.

I found that the ironic, self-aware apprehension of representations during this latter period was widespread. Irony has long been identified with the literary modernism of the late nineteenth century, but it was also pervasive in mass culture as well. She, Dracula, and the Sherlock Holmes stories were among the many coyly self-referential texts that helped inculcate an “ironic imagination” in their readers.

Readers were trained to simultaneously believe and disbelieve in imaginary worlds and characters. Friedrich Nietzsche was an influential proponent of the ironic imagination, and Tolkien applied the concept to imaginary worlds directly. He noted that Coleridge was wrong to argue in 1817 that readers inhabited fantastic worlds through the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Instead, they willingly believed in these worlds, while at the same time acknowledging that they were engaged in pretense. Coleridge’s views reflected the “sincere” outlook of the early Victorians; Tolkien’s the “ironic imagination” of the late nineteenth century.

Critics of mass culture, from the fin de siècle to the nineteen-sixties if not beyond, have tended to assume that texts that appeal to the masses are simplistic, conveying univocal messages promoting the ideologies of the culture industry entwined with the state. Examining the texts themselves, and how they were received and repurposed by readers – the “textual poaching” you’ve analyzed in your work – reveals a very different situation. So-called postmodern self-reflexivity was emerging in the nineteenth century through the spread of the ironic imagination; consumers of the new mass culture often approached it in sophisticated ways.

However, it is important to stress that the ironic imagination is usually insufficient on its own to challenge mass culture’s appeal to desire. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, was a lucid exponent of the ironic imagination, but this didn’t prevent him from holding racist opinions without any irony whatsoever for most of his life. Similarly, The German writer Thomas Mann cultivated an ironic imagination, but lost all critical distance with the outbreak of WWI, becoming an ardent nationalist.

Audiences during the fin de siècle were not naive: but irony can be helpless against canny appeals to our desires. Fortunately, another resource arose in the late nineteenth century culture to challenge these emotional appeals: “public spheres of the imagination.” Even Lovecraft benefitted from these at a late point in his life, as he himself acknowledged.


Your term, “public spheres of the imagination,” seems especially evocative as a means of thinking about fan communities and practices. In some ways, we have reduced Habermas’s much richer notion of the public sphere, which included literature and the arts, to a narrower conception of the political. In my own current research, I am focusing on the concept of fan activism and looking at the ways activists/fans are appropriating and remixing elements of fictional worlds to build a new language for social change. Is your suggestion that this blurring between politics and fan culture is not some outgrowth of post-modernity, as some have suggested to me, but may have been part of the project of modernity all along?  In what ways do you see fan discussions as constituting a “public sphere”? What does the “imagination” bring to this process?


So much of what we take to be quintessentially “postmodern” – self-reflexivity, intertextuality, an emphasis on the provisional, contingent, social-constructionist dimensions of human experience – was already in play by the end of the nineteenth century. These qualities are characteristic features of imaginary worlds of the time (works by Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard are wonderfully intertextual, for example). They were emergent rather than dominant forms of expression at the time, but they do suggest that postmodernism was not a break with modernity, as some have argued, but a vital tendency within modernity itself, which assumed a greater momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. (Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern should be modified to We Have Never Been Postmodern).

Readers have appropriated utopias for political purposes, notably Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). But utopias and satires are associated with the primary world – they are not strictly “secondary worlds,” which connotes a greater degree of autonomy from the primary world. One of the fascinating aspects of secondary worlds is how fans nevertheless have used them to discuss, reimagine, and change the primary world.

Fans have been enabled to engage in these communal tasks via “public spheres of the imagination.” These first appeared in the late nineteenth century, in the new letters pages of fiction magazines. Readers were encouraged to discuss imaginary worlds with one another, the editor, and the works’ authors. In the 1920s, some magazines began to include the letter writers’ address, which fostered direct contacts between fans and led to new public spheres of the imagination in the 1930s, such as fanzines, fan clubs, and conventions.

I’ve noted that these venues allowed fans to inhabit imaginary worlds communally and for prolonged periods, transforming them into virtual worlds. But as an unintended consequence, fans also began to relate autonomous imaginary worlds to the real world, using the former as touchstones to discuss the latter.

I distinguish these public spheres from those discussed by Habermas by highlighting the central role played in them by the imagination. Habermas emphasized the importance of rational and egalitarian communications in his Enlightenment-inspired conception. Public spheres of the imagination also promoted rational and egalitarian discussions – at least these were proclaimed ideals – but added to them the alternate realities and “cognitive estrangements,” made possible by the imagination.

To a greater extend than Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, arguably, public spheres of the imagination encourage thinking outside of the box. (Late nineteenth and early twentieth century theorists like Georges Sorel and Ernst Bloch discussed the use of fantasy and the imagination for political and social purposes, but scholars have been largely unaware of how similar ideas were being generated and even put into practice by fans at this time as well.)

Public spheres of the imagination revel in the “cognitive estrangement” that science fiction and fantasy direct toward consensus reality. They are also sites in which individuals try to reconcile utopian aspirations with practical and rational programs. Russian fans of The Lord of the Rings, for example, were inspired by the Hobbits’ opposition to Saruman’s “scouring of the Shire” to actively support Yeltsin’s defiance of the attempted military coup of 1991.

Public spheres of the imagination, especially when they have a diverse constituency, can challenge unexamined assumptions and challenge one-sided convictions; they are a necessary complement to the ironic imagination when it comes to living in virtual worlds of the imagination. Thus members of the “Lovecraft Circle” at times vigorously contested Lovecraft’s political and social views, which were also challenged in the amateur journalism societies to which he belonged. He was forced to reconsider his most cherished beliefs, and over the long term he did modify many of his opinions and prejudices (although his racist views about Blacks never changed). Similarly, Christian fans of Middle-earth have engaged in constructive dialogues with fans from other faiths, or no faith at all, in the public spheres of the imagination dedicated to Tolkien’s imaginary world.

A homogeneous public sphere, however, often preaches to the choir. This was a problem with the Inklings, which Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged to. The group was largely comprised of white, middle class, Christian writers, and tended to reinforce, rather than challenge, many of the fundamental convictions of its members.


Rather than describing the “willing suspension of disbelief,” a common phrase, you argue that these practices are best understood through “the willing activation of pretense.” What mechanisms have emerged to support such a process? How is it tied to the various forms of “documentation” and “mapping” that you describe?


         As I noted, the early Victorians were worried about the irreligious and antisocial potentials of the imagination, and tried to delimit it to religious and utilitarian purposes. Coleridge’s famous phrase, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” reflects this point of view – “disbelief” is taken as the default position, which is then temporarily suspended. This restrictive attitude toward the imagination changed over the course of the century owing to many factors – notably secularist currents of thought and the rise of mass culture, which encouraged the exercise of the imagination and undermined the authority of elites by appealing directly to consumers.

A good example of this change was mid-Victorian children’s literature, which was less moralistic and didactic than earlier tracts delighting in naughty children burning in hell; instead, works like Alice in Wonderland celebrated, even encouraged, imaginative whimsy. Writers of the New Romance were weaned on these books and consciously recalled them as they wrote imaginary worlds for adults as well as children.

By the late nineteenth century, adults were allowed to actively “believe” in imaginary worlds, with the double-minded understanding that they were engaging in pretense. This is a more immersive state of mind than the “willing suspension of disbelief” and allows for imaginary worlds to become virtual worlds.

This immersive, participatory state of mind was also enhanced by the paratexts that were distinguishing features of the New Romance. Detailed maps, glossaries, footnotes, photographs, and so on imparted tremendous realism to the fantastic imaginary worlds described by the text. Paratexts remain a vital dimension of imaginary worlds to this day. (HBO’s “Game of Thrones” opens with a wonderful, three-dimensional map, gesturing to the traditions established by the New Romance.)

Paratexts also encourage fans to speculate about what has been left out of the documents, reconcile contradictions within them, and contribute to the cognitive mapping of the world from the information provided. These participatory activities enhance one own emotional and cognitive investment in the world, thereby escalating the immersive experience, rendering the world not only more “real” but more “alive” or virtual.

An interesting consequence of such virtual world building is that it often reminded fans of the constructed nature of the real world. Nationalism, or any number of other “isms,” became less defensible as unchanging essences distinguishing one group from another. Nations could be seen as “imagined communities,” in Benedict Anderson’s phrase; personal and social identities were increasingly acknowledged to be more fluid, constructed, and performative in nature. Tolkien, for example, created his imaginary world as an essentialist myth for England. Many of his fans, however, actively debated the nature and purpose of nationalism, as well as ethnicity, gender, class and religion. Many fans came to question essentialist outlooks.

Thus, as a result of inhabiting imaginary worlds, and discussing them with others in public spheres of the imagination, we see a move from the passive acceptance of essentialist, “just so” narratives to a greater comfort at embracing provisional and contingent “as if” narratives. Imagining new cosmopolitan worlds and pluralistic identities is one of the benefits of imaginary world building and habitation, or at least it can be. (I also discuss more “essentialist” receptions of Middle-earth by neo-fascists, which highlights the importance of diversely constituted public spheres and openness to debate as prophylactics against such “just so” stories.)


Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).


“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part One)

This is the third in a series of interviews I am conducting with key contemporary thinkers writing about the concept of world-building. Previous instalments in this series featured Mark J. P. Wolfe (Building Imaginary Worlds) and an exchange between Ian Condry (The Soul of Anime) and Marc Steinberg (Anime’s Media Mix). More to Come.

I am embarrassed to say that my copy of Michael Saler’s book, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2012) sat on my book shelf for several years before I got past the cover and the table of contents. What a foolish mistake that was! I’ve found the book to be an invaluable reference point for many discussions I have been having since I really dug deep into this book last summer. At first glance, the book would seem to be a series of case studies looking at early 20th century authors, especially those associated with what we would today call genre fiction, and their readers. His central figures are Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft. This alone would make the book of interest to me and many of you who read this blog, especially given the continued influence of these three key popular writers on our culture. Each not only produced compelling fictional characters and worlds, but also thought deeply about their craft and especially the ways that popular arts might enhance the life of the imagination.

Saler sees these writers as emblematic of a larger shift in the “structure of feelings” within modern culture, identifying the kinds of change in mind-set which needed to take place before adult readers would actively engage in these richly detailed depictions of worlds which exist only in our imaginations. He asks us to think about the “As If” status of these works, which often demand a sense of ironic spectatorship and an openness to play and performance. It is this new kind of cultural relationship between readers and these imagined worlds which paved the way for the emergence of modern fan culture, and this rich cultural and social history takes us along the path by which many of the kinds of speculation, appropriation, and affective investment we associate with today’s fans first emerged.

Beyond this, he’s interested in the ways that these writers went beyond words on the page to engage with a range of other media production practices in order to deepen the reader’s sense of  immersion. This process of documentation and authentication has strong parallels with the tactics and techniques being explored in contemporary forms of transmedia storytelling, which has similarly placed the act of world-building at the center of the storyteller’s craft.

I am hoping that showcasing this remarkable work via my blog can help call it to the attention of those of us who work on contemporary media and do not yet know how urgently we need to learn what Saler has to tell us about the origins of these practices in the late 19th and early 20th century. Since I rediscovered the book some months ago, I have been shoving it at my students and urging them to read it closely, so let me use this interview to introduce you to a book you need to not only have on your library shelf but to engage with actively. In this three part exchange, Saler explains the changes enabled our modern sense of imaginative play with literary texts.


A key subtitle in your introduction describes a movement “from imaginary to virtual worlds.” Can you define the key terms here and explain why and how this shift has occurred from your perspective? For example, you have a somewhat broader conception of a virtual world than what surfaces most often in discussions of new media and so it seems important to be clear about your terms from the start.

Because I was examining changing orientations to fictional world building from the eighteenth century to the present, I tried to distinguish among three different terms: “imagined world,” “imaginary world,” and “virtual world.” Fiction has always provided “imagined worlds,” but in late nineteenth century Europe and North America we start to see a new form of literary fantasy that established the template for “imaginary worlds” today, many of which have become “virtual worlds.”

These imaginary worlds differed from earlier imagined worlds in two ways. First, they were influenced by literary realism, with its emphasis on highly detailed, empirically “objective” accounts of reality. Realist writers rejected romanticism, which in turn provoked others to resurrect literary romance in the late nineteenth century. The authors of what became known as the “New Romance” objected to the content of literary realism – its disillusioned focus on contemporary social issues – but were indebted to the realists for their style.

The numerous imaginary worlds of the 1880s and 1890s were far more empirically detailed and logically cohesive than their predecessors, adapting the outlook of scientific naturalism in their descriptions of marvelous locales, characters and plots. Contemporaries noted that the New Romance could be distinguished by its combination of the fantastic narratives of earlier gothic and romantic authors with the stylistic objectivity of the realists. (For this reason, I don’t think “late Gothic” is a good term for works such as She or Dracula; “gothic” was not often used by contemporaries to refer to these works, whereas they did invoke the “New Romance.” When we use “late Gothic” to discuss many of the fantastic works of the fin de siècle, we risk losing sight of their distinctive attributes.)

Innovation in printing technologies, such as half-tone lithography, enabled writers of the New Romance to “document” their imaginary worlds with photographs, and they used many other corroborating “paratexts” as well (footnotes, charts, glossaries, chronologies, etc.) Of course, maps and footnotes had been used occasionally by earlier writers – one thinks of the map in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), or the footnotes employed by Sir Walter Scott in his historical romances a century later – but the authors of the New Romance often went out of their way to substantiate their imaginary worlds by including as many of these “paratexts” as possible, outdoing the literary realists at their own game.

H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), for example, is full of documentary illustrations, including photographs of the potsherd that the protagonists use to discover the lost world of Kor, reproductions of its multilingual inscriptions, corroborating footnotes, and so on. As If surveys many other imaginary worlds of the New Romance that provided the reader with similar evidentiary material. These were truly “spectacular texts”; their attempts to reconcile fantasy with scientific objectivity not only distinguished the New Romance from the earlier gothic, romantic, and sensationalist fictions, but also provided the model for subsequent SF and Fantasy imaginary worlds.

In addition to being indebted to realism, the imaginary worlds of the New Romance were also beholden to another literary mode of the time, aestheticism. The aesthetes emphasized the autonomy of their fictional worlds, promoting the idea of “art for art’s sake.” Similarly, writers of the New Romance created autonomous imaginary worlds divorced from the social, moral, and utilitarian impulses of Victorian literature.

Tolkien called these imaginary worlds “secondary worlds,” emphasizing their distinction from the lived reality of the “primary world.” He thought that this characteristic typified fairy tales and other works of fantasy, but the sharp distinction between primary and secondary Worlds was actually historically specific, originating in the late nineteenth century: William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End (1896), for example, was one of the first fantasy worlds that took place in an entirely invented locale. Tolkien was sensitive to the autonomy of Secondary Worlds because he too was attracted to aestheticism, as were many other creators of imaginary worlds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. R. Eddison, and H. P. Lovecraft.

So currents of both realism and aestheticism distinguished the “imaginary worlds” of the late-nineteenth century New Romance from earlier “imagined worlds.” The characteristics of these imaginary worlds – a reconciliation of reason and the imagination; a wealth of paratexts; an emphasis on autonomy or “the world for the world’s sake” – also typify many of today’s imaginary milieus of science fiction and fantasy.

These early imaginary worlds also engendered novel forms of social media that anticipated our current ways of inhabiting secondary worlds and relating them to the primary world. Venues devoted to imaginary worlds, such as letters pages in fiction magazines, fanzines, clubs, and conventions, emerged between the 1890s and the 1930s, allowing fans to “live” in these worlds for prolonged periods of time, often in the company of other fans. This was a new practice; while vogues for imaginary characters and worlds had occurred before (one thinks of the enthusiasm for Richardson’s Pamela, Goethe’s Werther, and Dickens’ Little Nell), they were brief and did not involve the prolonged and communal habitation of the imaginary worlds.

The latter practice transformed literary imaginary worlds into “virtual worlds” that transcended any particular reader, author, or text. Middle-earth, for example, began as a literary imaginary world, and subsequently assumed a life of its own through the ongoing and communal efforts of its fans. They explored and elaborated it, transforming it into a virtual world that could be experienced in an immersive and participatory manner.


You are tackling the development of fantasy literature and fandom from the perspective of a historian. What does your discipline bring to the table that might be different from forms of fan studies that come from media studies or literature scholars?


Conceptions of the “imagination, “reality,” “fantasy,” “fiction,” etc. are all historical; they change over time and across cultures. Imagined worlds have existed since antiquity, but the ways in which they have been understood and used vary tremendously. (For example, Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? demonstrated how the ancient Greeks’ ideas about “myth” and “truth” were sharply different from our own.) Imagined worlds of all sorts must be understood contextually if we are to grasp their cultural appeals, social functions, and potential benefits and dangers.

In As If, I wanted to explore several historical changes in the conception of imagined/imaginary worlds. Why was there a remarkable expansion of imaginary worlds in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Why was this period the first in Western culture in which adults began to live in these fictional worlds communally, persistently, and self-reflexively, ironically “believing” and disbelieving in the fiction at the same time? What were the links between these phenomena and increased references to the “virtual” and the “vicarious”? It became clear that the fin de siècle is critical to our understanding of virtual reality today, because this period witnessed a concerted and self-aware embrace of the imagination, virtuality and artifice.

Indeed, the practice of turning imaginary worlds into virtual worlds began with Sherlock Holmes, the first “virtual reality” character in Western literature. As I mentioned, while there were brief vogues for other fictional characters before, nothing compared to the Holmes phenomenon, in which adults no less than children pretended that his world was real, inhabiting it in a communal fashion for prolonged periods of time.

Holmes fandom was the template for subsequent fan subcultures dedicated to fictional worlds and characters. By exploring the literary prehistory of virtual reality, I hoped to highlight some of the benefits and pitfalls of our current obsession with imaginary world and fictional characters. While the technologies involved in virtual reality today are more sophisticated than in the past, in important respects our approach to virtual worlds echoes the methods that began to be forged in the late nineteenth century.


Michael Saler is Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his BA from Brandeis University and a joint Ph.D. in History and Humanities from Stanford University. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and The Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012), The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: ‘Medieval Modernism’ and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 1999); co-editor, with Joshua Landy, of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age  (Stanford University Press, 2009), and editor, The Fin-De-Siecle World  (Routledge, forthcoming).



On Geeks and White Whales: Some Videos of This Term’s Events

As we are wrapping things down for the term here at USC this week, I wanted to share videos of some of the public events I have helped to organize this past semester. Specifically, I am going to be focusing today on two sets of events — one focused on science fiction and the other on Reading in a Participatory Culture.

As part of my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I have launched a new lecture series, “Geek Speaks.” Each semester, we will host one or more events bringing together top artists and thinkers who work in the areas of games, comics, science fiction, fandom, or cult media. Part of the thinking here is that such programing will increase the Lab’s visibility with students at USC who might have an interest in participating in the Lab’s activities, which include work on digital books, social media, social hacking, and the future of entertainment. For our first program, we focused on The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction. Here’s how we described the event:


From its conception, science fiction was a genre which has encouraged speculation at the limits of known science, sometimes in the name of popular science education, sometimes as a mode of theory formulation and discussion. Across its history, the range of topics that science fiction might address has expanded to include topics in media, communications, gender and sexuality, race, political philosophy, and the social sciences more generally. Increasingly, science fiction concepts and themes are being folded directly into the design process at major companies, as they seek to identify potential products and services and prototype the needs and desires of consumers.

On this semester’s Geek Speaks panel, each of the speakers: Cory Doctorow, Henry Jenkins, and Brian David Johnson, has done work exploring the interplay between speculative fiction and real world communities, and each is also a hardcore fans of the science fiction genre. In this free-wheeling conversation, they will discuss the roles that science fiction has played, for better or worse, in shaping the ways we think about innovation and confront the challenges of designing for the future.

All three of us have a long-standing fascination with science fiction as a literary and media genre and with the role which speculative fiction plays in helping to shape our expectations about the future. Johnson has been a key advocate of science fiction prototyping in his role as the chief Futurist at Intel, and he recently produced a book, Vintage Tomorrows, which explores what designers might learn from the Steampunk movement. I wrote the introduction to the book and Doctorow was one of the key people Johnson’s team interviewed. Doctorow, of course, will be well known to my readers as one of the best contemporary science fiction authors, as someone whose young adult novels have contributed to the civic education of a generation of young geeks, and who has been a key activist fighting for our digital rights through his involvement in the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Below you can see the video of our USC conversation.

Geek Speaks: The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

We billed ourselves as the Three Geeks, inspired in part by the Three Tenors. Johnson has suggested that when we speak together, you get to hear the perspectives of the fan, the futurist, and the activist, each of whom draws inspiration from the power of speculative fiction. In this exchange, we ended up talking a lot about utopian and dystopian conceptions of the future and the work each performs in our reflections about technology and politics.  We had done a similar event (albeit much shorter) at the Tools for Change conference in New York City earlier this year, and the chemistry was so good that we have been seeking out other venues where we can continue the dialogue.  Here’s the video of the earlier NYC version, which ended up being focused much more on the future of publishing.

The second set of events was organized around the release of our new book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the Literature Classroom. This book was inspired by the work of playwright, director, actor and educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater in Rhode Island. Pitts-Wiley had gone into prisons to work with incarcerated youth to get them to read Moby-Dick, no easy task for any reader, by challenging them to reimagine the characters for the 21st century. A 19th century novel about the whaling trade became through their eyes a way of reflecting on the contemporary drug trade and the world of street gangs. Inspired by these exchanges, Pitts-Wiley developed a stage production, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which involved an adult cast doing Melville’s original and a youth cast doing the contemporary remix. This whole process inspired my New Media Literacies team back at MIT and we ended up developing a whole curriculum designed to help students and teachers reflect on the place of remix as an expressive practice, moving back and forth between Herman Melville’s own writing and reading practices (as explored by literary critic Wyn Kelley) and contemporary forms of remixing, including fan fiction writing practices (as explored through my own research).

To coincide with the book’s release, we decided to bring Pitts-Wiley to USC and introduce his work and its underlying vision to Los Angeles. This effort was inspired by one of our Annenberg graduate students, Alexandrina Agloro, who has gotten to know Ricardo while working on an educational ARG at Brown University. Our plan was to bring Ricardo to LA and get him to work with local high school (Los Angeles High School for the Arts, Gertz-Ressler High School, and YouthBuild Boyle Heights) and college (USC) students to mount a production of Moby-Dick: Then and Now.

As we were planning the event, we discovered that the Los Angeles Public Library was running a whole series of events celebrating Moby-Dick and its author. They were nice enough to fly out my collaborator Wyn Kelley to join Ricardo and I for an event at the start of this project. You can hear the audio of that exchange here. AS part of their efforts, the LA Public Libraries commissioned a documentary film, My Moby-Dick, which included reflections on the novel by a range of well-known Los Angeles residents, including the techno musician Moby (who took his name from the novel), the food critic Jonathan Gold, the comedian Buck Henry, my USC colleague Howard Rodman, and yours truly, among many others. The film was screened as part of a theatrical extravaganza which included live performances by a range of local actors and musicians, including Stacey Keach, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Charlayne Woodard, Rinde Eckert, and Alan Mandell. Below is the opening segment from that documentary, some of which was produced by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame.

My Moby Dick – In the Beginning from Library Foundation of LA on Vimeo.

Ricardo was able to cast the play using local youth actors in under a week, leaving him less than a week to rehearse his staged reading. I was able to sit in on some of the rehearsals and watch him shape performances from a multi-racial cast. And we were proud to see so many people from South Central Los Angeles turn out for the performance to support their sons, daughters, students, and classmates. The video below will show you what the audience got to see — a dynamic performance of the play, followed with my discussion with Pitts-Wiley about the process which brought it to the Annenberg Auditorium.


Participatory Poland (Part Seven): Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and From Poland to America

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and from Poland to America

Aleksandra Mochocka

Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz


In the beginning, there was (almost) nothing. Put simply, the communist economy neither encouraged, nor enabled the mass production of well-made and visually appealing lingerie. With no incentive from the market forces, and no technology to support the process, nobody seemed to be specifically interested in manufacturing bras in Poland after the WWII and before the collapse of the communist regime.

Then the cornucopia began: with the advent of free economy, bras of all colours and prints gradually flooded the market, or market places literally, as private entrepreneurs started to import lingerie from foreign wholesalers, including cheap Chinese no-name bras. Yet only a limited number of women were able to find a bra that would fit their needs. And by “needs” I do not mean the personal taste in colour or style, but first and foremost – the need of a particular, individual woman to feel comfortable wearing her bra, regardless of her body’s type/size and other characteristic.

In short, the phenomenon of bra-craze can be seen as an example of de Certeau’s (1988) “strategies” and “tactics”. For de Certeau, strategies are a part of the system that upholds the balance of power; representing organisational structures, the producers calculate the most efficient strategies available from the position of power (xix). Subjected to the strategies, the consumers are far from being passive, as they develop cunning tactics to regain some of the power by subterfuge. On one hand, there have been the marketing strategies of manufacturers/wholesalers/retailers, and the official channels of bra distribution; on the other hand, sharing know-how and pieces of advice on the Internet, the community of women has developed some inventive solutions in response (and as a form of self-defence). The process has nearly gone full circle, with manufactures introducing more and more diversified size options, and commercial bra fitting services being offered even by the companies which have very little to do with the original idea of breast-friendly bras, and still selling a limited range of bras. Braffiting has become a profitable business.

The brafitting movement in Poland, or stanikomania (which translates to bra-mania or bra-craze) could be perceived as a participatory culture phenomenon related to the construction of femininity and the body image issues. The advent of the braffiting lobby was closely connected with the grassroots Internet communication (discussion boards and blogs); initially, the whole idea was to share know-how and find some alternative buyer tactics to select a bra to fit a body, regardless of its shape or size, instead of adjusting the body to fit a bra. Some activists may have had adequate professional background (e.g. in IT, marketing or gender studies) and more professionally oriented  aims, but for the majority of users it was a fan activity, with a low threshold of involvement thanks to the Internet technologies.

If we consider the characteristics of participatory culture as suggested by Jenkins et al. (2009), bra-craze seems to be a perfect example; apart from the above mentioned “low barriers to […] engagement,” there is also the “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others” (for example, direct encouragements to share one’s experiences, or blog functionalities facilitating uploading photos and comments) as well as “informal mentorship” (sharing knowledge as the main aim of the movement); the participants strongly “believe that their contributions matter” (accounts of successful conversions or illuminations of bra-illiterate women initiated by the bra-maniacs abound on the forums and blogs) and last but not least, that everyone can (yet do not have to) participate (p. 7).

Before this revolution (and this is a term bra-maniacs actually use), women would often feel ashamed of their “irregular” bodies for which there were no comfortable or attractive bras. One’s breasts were deemed too big, or too small, or too narrow, or too perky, or too bulky, or too saggy to fit in the bra. The bra was the ultimate measure of one’s body, the Cinderella’s shoe style. (By no means is the problem exclusive to post-communist economies; consider Victoria’s Secret bras – beautiful designs in a dramatically limited size range, excluding most of the female demographic.)

The bra-mania has been (and still remains) primarily Internet-based; sharing information and connecting those who know how-to with those who seek knowledge, women of the bra-maniac may be perceived as a neotribe, to use Maffesoli’s (1996) term. Bra-mania seems to share the “efflorescence and effervescence of neotribalism which, in various forms, refuses to identify with any political project whatsoever, to subscribe to any sort of finality, and whose sole raison d’être is a preoccupation with the collective present” (p. 75). The common experience of looking for and successfully finding a comfortable (and beautiful) bra against the odds of free market economy and producers’ strategies is the unifying factor here, and the bra-maniacs feel that they belong together.

They also feel significantly empowered, although their activities are centred around buying/consuming a product, a commodity designed to re-shape their bodies into socially accepted (and expected) gendered forms. Is this postfeminism in action?

Certainly, the bra-maniacs are not the ones to burn their bras (a bra-maniac can have an impressive collection of several bras, and some bra-maniacs sleep in their bras, finding it beneficial for the condition of their breasts). There has been the action and there have already been the results, as with the opportunities created by on-line shopping and the growing pressure of the lobbyists, more and more retailers and manufacturers started to change the approach to their products, offering a wider selection of different size options and designs. Brafitting has become mainstream, and Polish companies, such as Ewa Michalak or BiuBiu, have started to enter the US market.


The miserable life of the “unconverted”

Until the mid 2000s, most Polish manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers felt more comfortable offering only four or five different cup sizes (A, B, C, D, and sometimes E) combined with only four to five band sizes, which gave circa twenty-odd options to choose from (Kulpa 2011). (To illustrate the point, imagine that shoes are offered in two size options only, say 7 and 8.) Obviously, women would have felt comfortable in bras that do not flatten the breasts, or slip away, or pinch, or cut into the flesh, making the breast painfully bulge over the rim of the cups. Sadly, with twenty-something bra sizes on the market, most women had to satisfy themselves with lingerie that might look attractive (and/or be cheap), but was far from good when it came to the comfort of use.

Remember the shoe analogy?Imagine walking in shoes two sizes too small for your feet. It is going to hurt, right? Obviously, if you were looking for new shoes, nobody would persuade you to buy such a pair. However, if you were a woman looking for a new bra, most shopping assistants would persuade you to buy a bra that hurts you and distorts your body, humiliating and shaming you on the way (the bra is perfect – if it fails to fit, it is your fault).

The reason why is as simple as that: the retailer fails to have the proper size range in stock, as there should be at least as many as 60 to 80 different bra size options available if an average woman is to be served (Kulpa 2011). With a limited size range, you would have to select one of the twenty options, instead of selecting one out of eighty. Chance is, you bra is going to be uncomfortable. And that was the situation in Poland well into the 2000s.

Nevertheless, around the middle of the decade there were some socio-economic and technological changes. From 2006 Polish people could emigrate to Great Britain freely, and many took their chances. Internet shopping became more and more popular, and British currency had a convenient exchange rate. There had already been British lingerie brands, such as Panache (http://www.panache-lingerie.com/gb/ ), that offered bras in the sizes unheard of in Poland. The access to such bras inspired women to develop some very specific know-how. In July 2005 a user known as Butter77 started an Internet forum, called Lobby Biuściastych (The Buxom Ladies Lobby) http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/f,32203,Lobby_Biusciastych_.html, now hosted on gazeta.pl site (as of today, there are 268585 posts and counting). Soon some of the most active participants of the forum started their own sites, the most famous being Stanikomania (http://stanikomania.blox.pl/html ) run by Kasica (Katarzyna Kulpa), which started in January 2007, and Balkonetka (March 2008)  (http://balkonetka.pl/# ), run by Mauzonka (Julia K. Szopa). Answering the question about the Lobby Biuściastych origins, Butters77 (2007) explains that

the story how it started is quite simple and related to practical issues mostly:) As far as I remember, I used to have problems buying a bra for fuller breasts, specifically: a bra with big cups and tight underbust band. It was verging on a miracle to find one in a Polish store. What was offered to me was the regular option (that is ‘small breasts == tight band’ or “huge breasts = huge band’).

I rebelled and thought, that if there big cups existed, it had to be possible to attach them to a band smaller than 80. I miraculously managed to find a couple of exceptions, which made me believe that it is right to advertise such exceptions.

[…] the forum was meant to be a place for the bigger-breast women where they could exchange information concerning lingerie manufacturers, recommend tested fashions, help to find the proper size etc.. And first of all – where they could discourage themselves from yielding to harmful market standards. Joining in over time, other “lobbyists” provided invaluable help in developing this idea. (translation mine; http://broszka.pl/alfabet-nie-konczy-sie-na-d,ap )

The idea of rebellion was hanging in the air: the consumers realised that they can be prosumers, directly influencing the market. The bra-mania movement has grown upon the principles of prosumerism, collective intelligence, and participation.

What was the doctrine of the newly minted bra-craze movement? You cannot tell what the “volume” of the cup is, unless you know the combination of the cup size (e.g. F) and the band size (e.g. 70). As follows, there is no such a thing as a uniform “A” cup or “D” cup. Labelling a woman as a “D cup wearer” means nothing, because 60D is a totally different size than, for example, 110D (as explained here http://stanikomania.blox.pl/2010/01/Ta-slynna-miseczka-D.html ).

A very important idea was also that all the lettering and numbering should be used only to sort out bra sizes, not to label or categorise women, as in the notorious “she is a flat-chested A” style. Moreover, it was emphasised that the bra band should uphold up to 80% of breasts weight and fairly tight. The cups should be large enough, with the underwire sitting on the ribcage. And now comes the ingenious part: women were recommended to ask for the bra which had a 5 to 10 cm smaller band than they would have been offered usually, and the cup size three or four times bigger. It was the clever trick, a consumer tactic: the better bras had been already there, yet dedicated for other women, and the trick was to claim their use (for example, if a size 85B bra would be unstable and flatten the breasts, the idea was to ask – against the shop assistant’s recommendation – for a 75D bra, with bigger cups and a tighter fit; the band, being elastic, would expand). It was strictly the question of know-how, not the question of a new product on the market, but along with this tactic went the demand for more size options.


The “conversion” or the “enlightenment”

The women posting on the Lobby Biuściastych forum would often compare finding a proper bra to a transforming experience (there is a thread called “How I profited from changing my bra size to the one I should wear” – some accounts are deeply personal and passionate http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,75213023,,Co_mi_dala_zmiana_rozmiaru_stanika_na_wlasciwy_.html?v=2 ). In the lingo of the Lobby the terms such as  “enlightenment”, “conversion” or “de-bra-fing” (my attempt at translating the Polish coinage ostanikowanie) are used. Women would write about the physical and psychological comfort they have gained.

To quote a young woman I’ve personally asked  about her experience with professional brafitting service (made possible because of the years of bra-maniacs‘ lobbying), it is “like getting her breasts back”. Lots of “converts” compare their experience to an epiphany of a kind, dividing their lives into “before the conversion” and “after the conversion” phases. It is only partially tongue in cheek. Jumping and running have suddenly become possible without that embarrassing threat of letting one’s breasts loose. There is no longer the pain in the back. Small-breasted women suddenly discover that they “have breasts”. Nearly everyone feels “slimmer”. All feel more attractive.

The scope of this text does not allow for a profound analysis of these aspects. It should be noted, however, that they are open for discussion. The lobbyists would often stress the fact that, as a rule, their primary aim is not to dress up or adjust to fit in with male expectations (though the voices about getting a better bra to get the breasts in the better shape to be more sexually attractive are not uncommon). To quote the founder of Balkonetka.pl, Julia K. Szopa (2009):

the pro-bust communities are not only about helping one another to find a well-fitted and good-looking bras, although this is their main function. The mission they have is to change the way women think about themselves: from “I’m a freak, there is nothing I can wear, I’m a loser” to “I’m a fine woman, expecting that the world would allow me to feel good with my breasts!”. (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2009/1/9/biusciaste-spolecznosc-wcale-nie-marginalna )

However, this claim might be worth reconsidering in the light of theories developed by Susan Bordo (2003), Carole Spitzak (1990) or Vickie Shields (2002), to name just a few scholars focused on the gendered body image. Are the lobbyists doing it for themselves or rather to themselves for the sake of the male gaze?

Another issue is the body image and the conversion and subversion of the cultural norms regulating its “proper” formula. Women with the so-called bigger breasts are still expected to have them reduced or concealed, but the lobbyists’ actions have contributed to a change in the approach. Big breasts on an “everyday normal woman”, previously considered an indecency and meant to be hidden (flattened with an uncomfortable bad-fitted bra or even with a special reducing bra), could be supported with a high-end wiring and netting and exposed as a pair of apple-shaped, full on top balls separated by a tempting valley (to use some bra-maniac lingo).

However, careful not to exclude the small breast women as they are, the lobbyists tend to attribute positive value to bigger/fuller breasts, somehow reinforcing the big breast ideal. One way or another (small breasted or big breasted), many lobbyists discovered that they did not need plastic surgery to feel satisfied with their bodies, the question of how plastic surgery (breast augmentation or reduction) is perceived by the women belonging to the movement constitutes another intriguing issue for some further studies.

The lobbyists have not limited themselves to producing posts, blog entries and You Tube videos. They proliferated and proselytised, attracting the attention of media (a short review of the movement and its reception by a sociologist Marta Klimowicz, 2009, http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html ). Where there is an Internet article devoted to bras, or a bra advertisement, with an option to leave a comment or “like/dislike” it, bra-maniacs go for it. A brand offering its limited size range bras, however beautiful visually they could be, can expect a very strong feedback. Moreover, from the early years on, there have been regular “real-life” meetings, bra exchanges and bra-fitting events, as well as charity/community work. One of the latest examples of such affirmative actions is the workshop organised by a lobby member nicked Bra-dreamer in a mental care home for intellectually challenged women in Warsaw (http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,146441486,147671905,Re_projekt_biustonoszowy_prosba_i_propozycja.html).


Bust-friendly brands

As Szopa (2008) has it, “in the 1990s one was virtually unable to buy a 65J size bra in Poland” (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2008/3/16/ale-o-co-chodzi-z-tym-uswiadomieniem ). The situation has changed dramatically. In the stores and on-line stores founded by the lobbyists one can find a plethora of bras, but the demand influenced some other stores as well. New brands have been launched successfully and old ones offer a wider variety of sizes. A Polish brand worth mentioning in this context is Ewa Michalak (http://www.ewa-michalak.pl/ ), offering bras in sizes from 60A to 105HH; the models used in Michalak’s footage have different body types and their pictures are not digitally enhanced, the idea being that the customer has the right to see the product presented by a “real” person. Another branch of merchandise has surfaced: namely, breast-friendly clothing, represented by BiuBiu (http://www.biubiu.pl/ ) and Urkye (http://urkye.pl/ ).

Brafitting has been transformed into business, too. Some of the activists started their consultation businesses, and there has been the obvious corporate reaction. At present, almost every bra store offers some kind of brafitting services, though in some cases the quality of the fitting could still be dubious. Brafitting has become a catch-phrase, sometimes with no real reference to the original bra-maniac ideals.

As more and more Polish brands produce bras in size options unavailable in the USA, American customers decide to buy their bras here. Some of them have already turned to blogging and write the reviews of Michalak or OnlyHer bras; to name only: Voluptous and Beautiful http://voluptuouslythin.wordpress.com/, Miss Underpinnings http://www.missunderpinnings.com/ or Thin and Curvy http://www.thinandcurvy.com/ . Finally, collaborating with the founder of Bratabase, the founder of Balkonetka, Julia K. Szopa, has just launched the Wellfitting.com platform.



Bordo, Susan (2003). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkely, California: University of California Press.


de Certeau, Michel (1988). Practice of Everyday Life. vol 1. Berkely, California: University of California Press.


Jenkins, Henry et al. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF  Accessed 2013.10.31


Klimowicz, Marta (2009). http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html Accessed 2013.10.30


Kulpa, Katarzyna (2011). “Dyskretny urok biustonosza.”  http://lawendowydom.com.pl/dyskretny-urok-biustonosza/ Accessed 2013.10.30


Maffesoli, Michel (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.


Shields, Vickie R. (2002). Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Spitzak, Carole (1990). Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany: State University of New york Press.


Aleksandra Mochocka is a Literature and Non-digital game researcher with a Ph. D. in Literature, working at the Faculty of English Studies at the Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. A member of the Polish sf&f fandom, she has translated D&D books and co-authored several RPG-related articles. She is a founding member of the Games Research Association of Poland and a historical reenactor. She has published articles on science fiction theory, Orson Scott Card, table-top role playing games (e.g. “The Evaluation of Elusiveness”, in States of Play. Nordic Larp Around the World, Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura, 2012), alternate reality games, and interactivity and intermediality in codex books. Her recent research has been focused on the relationship between literature and games (e.g. board games), as well as on texts (e.g. product reviews) produced by prosumers.

Participatory Poland (Part Six): Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.

Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom

Katarzyna “Hitohai” Wasylak
Karkonosze College in Jelenia Góra

In 2012, a manga convention Animatsuri in Warsaw featured a discussion panel entitled “True Fans Are No More.” The subject referred to the nostalgic commentaries frequently reiterated by middle-aged fans recalling the “olden days” when manga and anime market was hardly existent in Poland. The life of manga fans in the late 90s was filled with quests: to obtain VHS cassettes with Japanese animation, to get any manga in any language, to bring the existence of manga and anime to broader awareness, to create positive publicity for their hobby, to generate more fans and build a nation-wide network, to improve the availability of manga in their country, and finally, to find a partner who would accept their weird hobby. There were many hardships awaiting the fans: hostility experienced from the society and other fandoms, conflicts within their own fandom, expenses connected with importing manga merchandise, etc.

Since the data about the beginnings of manga in Poland I managed to gather may be incomplete, I will start with the first official record of the event at which Japanese comics and animation were presented to the Poles under the names “manga” and “anime.” The story begins in the early 90s, with Robert “Mr. Root” Korzeniowski visiting a computer fair in London, where he stumbled upon the anime Akira. In the year 1994, at the Amiga computers’ fans convention in Warsaw, Mr. Root organized a section “Manga Room” with the purpose of familiarizing the Polish audiences with manga and anime. Soon, Korzeniowski introduced a column under the same title in a computer game magazine Secret Service. Simultaneously, Paweł ”Mr Jedi” Musiałkowski started the section “Mangazyn” in the computer magazine PC Shareware. In 1997, “Manga Room” developed into an independent magazine about manga and anime Animegaido (closed down in 1998), and Mr Jedi became an editor-in-chief of  Kawaii (1997-2005).

Although Polish channels had been already airing anime series (targeted mainly to children) like The Adventures of Maya the Bee, Yattaman, Princess Sarah, Battle Commander Daimos, or Captain Tsubasa, the first broadcast of the Sailor Moon series on public TV in 1994-1995 turned out to be a breakthrough for the popularity of manga and anime in Poland. Encouraged by Sailor Scouts’ success, J.P.Fantastica Publishing released Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon series in 1997, which constituted a significant step forward, given that till then, the only manga published in Polish was Riyoko Ikeda’s Ten no Hate Made; (Until the Borders of Sky – Poland’s Secret Story). As I have mentioned, the year 1997 also marked the launch of the first magazine devoted entirely to manga, anime, and Japanese culture—Kawaii. Apart from my personal experience as a fan and other fans’ accounts, in this paper I will draw heavily on the readers’ letters section of Kawaii in the attempt to give a brief outline of Polish manga fandom in the transitory period when fans still did not rely so strongly on the Internet to communicate and collect information.

Supernanny versus Pop Cosmopolitanism

In “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Media Convergence” (2006) Henry Jenkins refers to pop cosmopolitanism as “the ways that the transcultural flows of popular culture inspires new forms of global consciousness and cultural competency” (156). In the process, the texts of culture “are decontextualized and recontextualized at the sites of consumption,” which may result in “unpredictable and contradictory meanings” being ascribed to them (154). These mechanisms played a critical role for the perception of anime and manga shortly after they were introduced in Poland, as their medium itself was already connoted with particular meanings. Thus, many manga fans would be disgusted at the thought that Japanese animation for children or erotic hentai videos are called anime, just like, say, Mamoru Oshii’s masterpiece Ghost in the Shell. It becomes apparent from the letters published in Kawaii that for the majority of fans, manga and anime were primarily characterized by a deeply spiritual quality, while their entertaining aspect was seen as secondary or denied altogether, as being too vulgar.

On the other hand, the sarcastic term “Chinese cartoons” was typically used by non-fans to refer to anime in general. This confusion of medium and content, as well as the expectations about their fixed relationship (animation and comics are supposed to tell stories for children), constituted the source of constant humiliation for the fans (teenagers and grown-ups watching childish cartoons?), and aroused suspicion or even hostility toward manga and anime among non-fans.

In 2003, when manga market was in its first bloom, and it seemed that for a while nobody wanted to burn manga fans on stakes, one of Polish popular channels aired an episode of a journalistic show which stirred a controversy that came to history as “Bulma’s naked buttocks” case. In the program, a psychologist Dorota Zawadzka (nowadays known as “Supernanny”) relates how, to her shock and terror, she discovered “pedophile pornography” (Dragon Ball, Volume 1) in her teenage son’s comics collection. Apart from surreal special sound effects that accompanied numerous close-ups on the page where the heroine (Bulma) for a moment exposes herself in front of an old man (Keme Senin), the program featured the scene where children (approximately four years old) gathered to “read” the scandalous manga. While it is true that this episode of Dragon Ball may qualify as obscene, fans would not read it as pornography but as a comic device generally characteristic of Asian culture which, unlike Polish one, embraces more distanced and humorous approach to sexual innuendos. What is even more important, fans, as competent comics readers, would not offer such manga to a child, acting on the assumption a false assumption that all comic books are for children.

A large number of manga fans of the 90s connected their passion for manga and anime with the fascination for Japanese culture in general. Almost everyone dreamt about going to Japan and many of us knew more about Japanese art and literature than about Polish cultural heritage. This phenomenon was criticized in a letter from Halue, a half-Japanese, half-Polish fan living in Poland. The girl appealed to the readers that they should get to know and appreciate their own culture first, and only with such a basis may they take another step as Japanese culture’s aficionados (Kawaii 38:79). Another reader, who had been training karate for many years, warned other fans about the hardships of regular training, apparently to spare them disappointment in case they wanted to start training inspired only by their love for anime or Japanese culture (Kawaii 41:77). The same intention inclined Doppi-zoku to write an article about the Japanese Studies in Poland. The author confirmed that the professors in the Japanese Department were gravely prejudiced against manga fans and suggested that Kawaii readers should think twice before choosing Japanese as their major (Kawaii 36:83).

All these texts were written in good faith, however, they also reveal the background premise about the impracticality of fans’ knowledge and their inability to put the strategies they employed for hunting down the desired information to a better use. In this regard, manga fans’ pop cosmopolitan potential for enhancing their new cultural competences seems to be acknowledged only on the emotional level. Many fans wrote about how their identification with clever manga characters motivated them to be diligent at school. There are also numerous stories about fans who decided to learn a foreign language because of their love for anime series that was not available in Polish, or it was aired in Poland, but dubbed in a foreign language. This, however, leads to a question about the stability of such motivation—would they persevere in studying a foreign tongue after their favourite mangas had been finally translated into Polish?

Here, a broader social context comes into perspective. It is highly probable that if such fans decided to engage in fandom activities that involved, for instance, creating funsubs or scanlations, they would enter the network in which their knowledge would become currency and in order to upgrade their status in fans’ community or simply to share with others, they would continue to improve their skills. After all, perseverance is one of the most distinguished characteristics of a “true fan.”

True Fans, Otakus, and Obsession as a Beautiful Disease

In her MA dissertation Fans Practices as Symptoms of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. (2012), Agata Sutkowska aptly notices that being a “true fan” is not supposed to be only about pleasure. This is evidenced in Kawaii readers’ reflections on how they define themselves as fans. According to these commentaries, “true fans” would not “abandon” their interest in particular anime even after its broadcast was terminated. Instead they would relentlessly pursue knowledge about new anime and mangas and devote most of their time to their hobby, more often than not sacrificing their social life and, as some claim, even sanity.

Sutkowska compares the construction of the “true fan’s” identity with the image of the “true Pole” cherished especially in the right wing environment. According to the author, they both rely on stereotypical behaviors, have no clear boundaries, and are predominantly ideological. Being called a “true fan” enhances one’s symbolic capital and saying that somebody is not a true fan becomes a form of offence (34). Finally, a “true fan” likes to display, rather than share, his/her knowledge and they often invest it with emotional and moral values. Thus such individuals are prone to confuse other fans’ flawed knowledge with flawed character in general. To give an example, an embittered fan Vanka relates that a “true fan” told her not to “disgrace manga” after he tricked her into calling a comics manga (Kawaii 33:79).

Although it is not clear from the fans’ letters how they discriminate between a “true fan” and an otaku, it seems that while the former term is used more often to refer to more active and conspicuous fans, “otaku” refers to these as well as to the socially withdrawn manga fanatics. The term “otaku” was popularized by Kawaii readers and at first bore a positive connotation, meaning a genuine fan, a nerd, or a geek. Nevertheless, after the publication of the article about Otaku no Video, which explained how this word is understood in the Japanese society, fans started to redefine it accordingly, as was reflected in many readers asking why at first being otaku was a source of pride and later—of shame (Kawaii 14: 12-15).

The discussion was heated up by many personal narratives appearing in the readers’ section—self-declared otakus defended their decision to escape from the “bleak reality” into the emotionally and intellectually fascinating world of beauty and the sublime. In response, apart from the messages expressing solidarity with these solitary dreamers, many letters were sent by the readers who wanted to help the “lost souls” to find balance between their hobby and social life, whereas some readers simply accused the “otakus” of cowardice and asked them to get a grip of their lives. In turn, the “otakus” were outraged by such a patronizing attitude—one of them suggested that being an otaku may be seen as a disease, but this would be a beautiful and harmless disease (Kawaii 28:80).

The metaphor for deep fascination with manga and anime as a disease had been relatively common among the readers. Some of them confessed that since they kept their hobby a secret, they felt as if they were hiding some embarrassing condition; others embraced their obsession with manga as a kind of mental illness. In the latter case, however, the fans often declared they did not want to be cured since their “disease” defined who they were.

The discourse adopted by the fans bears a strong resemblance to the one used in the nineteenth century to metaphorize tuberculosis or to talk about madness a century later, as demonstrated by Susan Sontag in “Illness as Metaphor” (1978). Firstly, the otakus’ “illness” was presented as not only mental but also spiritual condition that appeared “more soulful” (17) than depression or simply a social withdrawal syndrome. While for both obsessive manga fans and the Romantics “[s]ickness was a way of making people “interesting”” (30), by comparison, “[h]ealth [became] banal, even vulgar” (26). Many “true otakus” pointed out to the “normal” fans that the latter compromised their ideals with unsatisfactory life, which was also the argument for their otakus’ superiority over the “normals.” According to Sontag

Not TB but insanity is the current [20th century] vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence. The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness. Once that illness was TB; now it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment. (36)

The fan that calls herself Tsubasa Ozora gained a lot of publicity in the readers corner by confessing about her extreme identification with the manga character, Tsubasa, not in terms of imitation, but rather with regard to incorporation or mysterious union—she claimed to love him so much that she imagined they were one. Although the fan stated clearly that at the same time she led a regular life and had caring (and real) friends, some readers speculated about her suicide (she never committed), and others felt alarmed by this case of self-transcendence, wondering whether or not she destroyed her own self in this process of extreme identification.

On the one hand, it is also true for manga fans that “the calamity of disease clears the way for insight into lifelong self-deceptions and failures of character” (Illness 42). Many “otakus” admitted to their extremely poor social skills and the fear of social situations that also contributed to their withdrawal into the realm of fantasy. On the other hand, as was pointed out to them by fellow fans, they often used their “disease” to draw attention to themselves and, at the same time, to excuse themselves from undertaking any action to improve their situation and ease their suffering. This takes us to another important factor shaping Polish manga fandom at the turn of the century—the martyrdom of fans.

Martyrdom of Manga Fans and Neon Genesis Evangelization

Equally common as the metaphorization of “otakuism” as a disease was the use of religious references to talk about the experience of being a Polish manga fan. As mentioned before, for many fans manga and anime already belonged to the sphere of sacrum (therefore, again, hentai could have been scorned by many of them as being profane). A fan A. d’A writes about “the holy war” he had been unwillingly taking part in as an RPG enthusiast and later on, a manga fan. He goes so far as to suggest that manga and anime are becoming perceived in the Polish society as a “religiously incorrect” hobby and tells other fans to prepare for possible future problems that this negative attention may entail (Kawaii 31:81).

His letter is one among numerous accounts given by (predominantly teenage) manga fans describing their suffering from intolerance experienced from family members, peers, teachers, or even shop assistants, because of their passion. There are several letters describing rather extreme reactions of fans’ parents who destroyed their children’s manga collections and attempted to force them to give up their “deviant” hobby. Other fans share their stories about being abandoned by peers who would sneer at their “childish” interests. There are also several stories about manga fans being discriminated at school for writing about or presenting on their “unworthy” hobby.Of course, these narratives are counterbalanced with plenty of inspirational stories told by the readers whose passion for Japanese pop culture had been encouraged by parents and teachers.

On the whole, however, manga and anime was undeniably receiving a lot of bad publicity in Poland in the late 90s and early 2000s. This incited a lively discussion about how to change the situation. Apart from organizing manga conventions, fans started congregating at “manga meetings” organized locally in many cities and smaller towns. Kawaii readers encouraged their fellows not to be ashamed of their hobby and stop hiding it. A lot of attention was devoted to the question about the ways in which manga and anime could be popularized among non-fans. Many agreed that the priority in preventing the numerous acts of discrimination should be educating non-fans about what manga and anime in fact are.

This was followed by what I would call “evangelization” initiative among Polish manga fans whose goal was to get through to their parents and peers by showing them how the fascination with exotic culture and Japanese art can be connected with their more “regular” interests. This also turned the fans’ attention to a broader cultural context of manga and their responsibility as representatives of the fandom. In this regard, many readers criticized the individuals who would damage the image of a manga fan by acting silly or odd (the appeal was particularly addressed the “otakus,” especially after “the Otaku Murderer” case had been covered by Polish media). The fans that succeeded in their mission would triumphantly describe their success, to which they would often refer as “converting” the non-fans.

In 2003 most of the editors in charge of Kawaii resigned from their function and started a new magazine about manga and anime—which, unfortunately, was closed down after a year. In her paper “Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland” (2006), Anna Czaplińska suggests that one of the reasons for Kawaii’s shutdown might have been that the magazine lost its previous function: the gradual infiltration of manga and anime into mainstream media, as the unrestrained access to the Internet gave the fans more independence in building social and information networks (21). It is not to say, however, that at present there are no print magazines about manga and anime. On the contrary, fans can buy magazines like Otaku, Kyaa, or Arigato in bigger bookstores and on the Internet. Nevertheless, the role of Kawaii for the development of Polish manga and anime fandom cannot be overemphasized. By offering its readers regularly featured sections devoted not only to anime and manga but also to Japanese music and traditions, drawing workshops, Japanese language lessons, and readers’ opinions and drawings, the magazine significantly aided the development of the fans’ pop-cosmopolitan awareness in rather isolationist environment.

Due to the spatial limitation of this paper, the transformations shaping Polish manga will become a subject of further research. For now, it must suffice to say that since Kawaii was closed down, Polish manga fandom has undergone a profound change: thriving on new possibilities offered by participatory culture, fans’ involvement resulted in organizing tens of manga conventions (and even a regular “Otaku camp”) featuring high quality cosplay performances, and copious production of fanfiction, fanarts, fanzines, dojinshi, AMVs, manga gadgets, etc.. From two leading publishers, Polish manga market flourished to host over seven manga publishings, including Studio JG which publishes, among others, works by Polish authors. Many fans have been actively participating in world-wide online communities devoted to fan productions; some of them now being internationally acclaimed manga artists. Although this seems to be the realization of the dreams dreamt by the fans of the 90s, however, most of us will never recover from the nostalgia for the times when manga and anime were still underground.



A.d’A. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 31. 2001.81.

Czaplińska, Anna. “Fani mangi i anime w Polsce” (‘Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland’). Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, 2006.

Doppi-zoku. “Japonistyka nienawidzi mangi” (‘Japanese Studies Hate Manga’). Kawaii. Vol. 36. 2002. 83.

Halue. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 38. 2002. 79.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press: 2006.

KnP. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 41. 2003. 77.

Marcin “Tenchi” Świętoniewski. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 28.2000. 79-80.

Nowakowski, Witold, et al. “Otaku no Video.” Kawaii. Vol.14. 1998. 12-15.

Sontag, Susan. “Illness as Metaphor.” New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

Sutkowska, Agata. Fans Practices as Symptomps of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. MA Thesis. University of Warsaw, 2012.

Vanka. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 33. 2001.79.


Katarzyna Wasylak received a PhD in Literature from the University of Wrocław for a thesis Monistic Cosmologies in Modern Mythopeic Fantasy: Rejection of Transcendence in Favor of Immanence in Selected Works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and Nancy Farmer . The main focus of her academic research is philosophy in fantasy literature for Children and Young Adults, manga, and anime. Alongside her academic work, Katarzyna Wasylak has worked as an illustrator and a graphic designer. She has also published several of her own graphic novels.

Participatory Poland (Part Five): You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.


You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom


By Justyna Janik, Joanna Kucharska, Tomasz Z. Majkowski, Joanna Płaszewska, Bartłomiej Schweiger, Piotr Sterczewski, and Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel, Jagiellonian University in Krakow



The analysis presented hereby comes from the recently concluded pilot part of the “Participatory Poland” project. We have carried out a computer-aided qualitative content analysis (applying commonly used guidelines for this kind of research, see Selected Bibliography)on the largest fantasy fandom portal in the country – polter.pl. The analysis included all content published on the site in September 2013. Poltergeist (widely known shortly as Polter) is the largest site of its type, but more importantly, it invites most participation and engagement and of all the fantasy-fandom-related platforms. It also courts the largest number of content created by the users.

Polter became the central hub of fan activity in the early 2000s, after the magazines which had fulfilled such role before – the literary Nowa Fantastyka and the roleplaying games magazine Magia i Miecz – either lost popularity and became more of niche press (NF) or closed down (MiM). Polter fulfills the double role of an informative as well as a social medium,  Some of the texts (mostly news on events and recent releases) are published by the editorial staff, but the portal also allows for user contributions, some of which are  featured on the main site. The blogs section is well developed and provokes lengthy discussions, offering reviews, roleplaying guides and tips, and articles on a variety of subjects connected with the fandom. Blog submissions are purely amateur and do not require the staff’s preliminary approval although they can be modified or deleted in case of violating the site’s guidelines. Polter has also been one of the first fandom platforms, together with Valkiria (which concentrates largely on games) and Fahrenheit (with a literature focus), and definitely one with the goal to cover all fandom matters.

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Caption: 30 years of progress? The first cover of Fantastyka magazine and its 30th anniversary rendition (Nowa Fantastyka magazine)

Historically, and to this day, the majority of SF and fantasy fans have concentrated their attention on literature and pen and paper roleplaying games. While genre films, TV series, computer games and other media usually of great interest to fans worldwide still appear in discussions and activities of Polish SF and fantasy fandom, they remain less popular.

Within the genres of tabletop roleplaying games and SF literature, Polish fandom differs from the majority of Western fandoms with its definitions of canon works. The limited access to and the small number of Western media available (mostly via unofficial means and xerox copying) to fans before the political transformation of 1989 has hugely influenced this state. For instance, the system considered as the classic of the Western roleplaying fandom, Dungeons and Dragons, was adopted in Poland with a significant delay and never reached the top popularity although nowadays it is also considered a classic. Instead, the prototype of all the games and still the major point of reference for most players, is the setting of Warhammer (in the 2000s followed by both editions of World of Darkness).

Similarly, when composing the list of the greatest SF and fantasy classics, a typical Polish fan would create a list different from their American or British counterparts. While the works of the authors considered worldwide as absolute classics (such as J. R. R. Tolkien, R. E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, P. K. Dick) still underline the literary canon, they are accompanied by many works from Eastern European writers (such as the Strugatsky brothers or Kir Bulychov) and, maybe most importantly, Polish works which before ’89 tended to be heavily influenced by the need to write about the political situation under the guise of SF. This trend of science-fiction prose as a vessel for social, political and sometimes philosophical topics was largely established by Stanisław Lem and Janusz A. Zajdel, whose impact on later fiction is recognizable to this day.



Caption: Kir Bulychov as a guest at a convention organised in a college, 1997. Photo: Szymon Sokół


Fantasy cons and fan gatherings have always been the liveblood of Polish fantasy and SF fandom. Unlike many Western conventions, Polish gatherings are not dominated by discussion panels from academics, aca-fen and media creators, but are instead filled with roleplaying sessions (sometimes announced but often spontaneously arranged) or lecture-like presentations often given by fans who do not study or lecture on the subjects professionally. Cons are usually organised by particular, city- or province-based fan organisations, and everyone who works at them does so voluntarily. Local fan organisations use conventions as a tool for promotion, and the quality of the events is seen as the reflection of the club’s rank and the strength of the local fandom. Such connections with a specific local community are often highlighted in cons’ logos that contain visual motifs associated with certain Polish cities.

Conventions are attended by authors and publishers, but the content producers in attendance are usually connected to the realms of books, comics and roleplaying games, with movie and television producers largely absent. It is worth noting that even the largest conventions (attended by above 10,000 fans) are all run by the fans themselves, without the involvement of any professional event planning companies. The authors in attendance are not compensated for their involvement. Commercial booths accompanying the events,  limited to small areas, are not considered a significant feature of a con. The majority of cons are held on  weekends, usually in rented classrooms of public schools, and not in conference centers or fairs venues. However, our analysis suggests that fans often formulate demands for the conventions to be organised in a more “professional” manner – this trend becomes noticeable in our material in the comments sections of the posts on a major event, Polcon, infamously nicknamed by the fans in social media as “Kolejkon” (“Queue-con”) because of its organizational issues. Some fans argue that because participants pay for the entry, a con should be considered and evaluated as a product. A commercial standard is being applied to an event run by unpaid volunteers, which marks a certain change of attitude considering the grassroots origins of Polish conventions.

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Caption:  Polish mermaids are the most beautiful! Local pride expressed in the promotional graphics of Warsaw-based Polcon convention (mermaid is the symbol on Warsaw’s coat of arms). By Sylwia ‘Saarl’ Smerdel


Furthermore, the most active fans are most appreciated by their colleagues and such participation and productivity are important criteria in fandom’s internal stratification. Professional book writers hold the biggest prestige among the community, followed by creators of other media (for instance game designers have a lower status than authors of literature) and active fans (where participation in events and local gatherings is valued higher than online-only activity). These distinctions are also reflected in convention programmes:  institutionally recognized contributors (such as book authors or academics) invited by the organisers have a status of “guests,” whereas those who volunteer to give presentations or run other events are called “programme creators” and have a lower status than “guests.”

Conventions become hosts to most important awards within fandom, starting with the Hugo-inspired literary award Zajdel (or: Nagroda Fandomu Polskiego im. Janusza Zajdla), through such honors as PMM (Puchar Mistrza Mistrzów – the Cup of the Masters’ Master), a competition for the title of the best Game Master, and Quentin,  atrophy given to the author of the best roleplaying scenario. These are not the only honors awarded within the fandom, but they are also best known and as such, most discussed and disputed.

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Caption: A statuette of Janusz Zajdel Polish Fandom Award, a Hugo-based literary prize. Photo: Szymon Sokół


These are just some of the subjects fervently discussed on Polter and became the subject of our analysis in this study. All of the items published in September were copied together with accompanying comments into a program aiding in content analysis. With its help, the posts were sorted according to the site’s division into news, reviews, articles, blog posts, etc. Next, they were coded with a codebook established earlier for the purpose of this research. Coding categories were modified during the course of research in order to make them more suited for the encountered data. The categories were devoted to the forms of communication between the users, especially to the internal links between comments and the references made to various cultural texts. Also, specific categories were established to examine the various criteria of validation used by the fans in relation to commented media or events, textual strategies of justifying their opinions, and discursive ways of forming fans’ identities (inclusion and exclusion of certain content and groups).

It is important to hold in mind the exploratory character of the analysis, the results of which are by no means finite or final, but rather outline the field of study and constitute the basis for the research questions we will be tackling. This initial analysis set out to discover the most interesting content and processes in the contemporary Polish fandom. The following stages of the project will include data from a number of other sites sharing a similar profile. Due to the significantly low number of fandom-devoted portals in Poland, we can include all of them in our analysis. We are also planning to extend our research to some of the most interesting topics arisen during the initial analysis, as well as to turn to researching the participants themselves, that is the fans.

During the researched month, close to five hundred items were posted to Polter. Within those, books get the most coverage among all the media, while?  news about recent releases and reviews form the largest group of content published by the editorial staff. However, our study showed that it is the content connected to games (mostly pen and paper RPGs, but also videogames) that generates most social engagement. Roleplaying games seem to be the center of attention of Polter’s community; fans eagerly comment not only on the news and reviews of player’s guides, add-ons etc., but also on users’ submissions, such as scenarios, reviews thereof and session reports. The extent of these participatory mechanisms can be well observed in the case of Quentin,  the annual contest for the best roleplaying scenario, established in 1999 and hosted by Polter since 2003. All submissions for the contest are published on the website. The scenarios are evaluated by an independent committee and the winning work is posted on Polter, but users’ activity related to the contest entries does not stop after the verdict is announced and many of the texts concerning Quentin are user-created.

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Caption: Quentin award for the author of the best role-playing scenario. Photo: Szymon Sokół


The case of Quentin-related engagement is also an example of another wider trend. Our study showed that most of the interactions within the Polter community, as well as the comments on the works, are positive. Polter users express appreciation more often than dissatisfaction, and the criticism of other users’ content is usually constructive. This leads us to an assumption that mutual support and quality of content published on Polter are important values for this community and that fan identity is created and maintained through positive rather than negative expression (we elaborate on matters of inclusion and exclusion later in the text). This observation somewhat contradicts the widespread stereotype of a malcontent fan who uses online media mostly to express dissatisfaction and engage in conflict; the stereotype also held by the fans themselves, who seem to perceive the community as largely negative.

Our study paid a significant attention to the strategies of developing fan identity, through interactions and tactics of inclusion and exclusion. A part of this identity is forged through reading and media consumption habits presented publicly. As noted before, the majority of news posted on the website were connected with book releases, despite the fact that the most heated discussions were related to game posts and blogs. While most fans participate in several areas of media consumption and fan activities, SF and fantasy novels are perceived as much more high-brow than gaming. A fandom portal such as Poltergeist, while catering to the needs of all kinds of fans, makes a claim to a professional status by showcasing book releases and publishing book reviews. Similarly, fans attempt to raise their fandom status by disclosing their reading habits; the more books read the better, and the quantity is just as important as the quality of the works.

While the status of ‘having read’ the classics is important to a fan’s social standing and the familiarity with well-known works is desired, fans also have a tendency of distancing themselves from everything and everyone that has ‘sold themselves out’ and became irreversibly commercialised and therefore tainted by the mainstream association, becoming somehow less connected to fandom. This tendency features both in the case of actual commercial properties that have acquired a greater renown and in the case of fandom participants who have forged their fan activities into a source of income. Such cases are often treated with distrust or derision.

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Caption: Growing popularity of steampunk and cosplay: Mad Artistians’ stand at Falkon 2013. Photo: Falkon 2013


Another topic connected with identities included in our research is the ways Polter users conceptualize and discursively create the boundaries of fandom and its subcommunities. While there is a widespread use of the general term “the fandom,” incorporating all fans and topics of SF & fantasy regardless of the division into particular media and subgenres (and the Polter website sections also support this generalizing attitude), the self-identification practices of fans are more nuanced. Several times in the source material we encountered opinions about specific interest groups within the fandom that perceive themselves as autonomous and hardly want to communicate with each other – this was said about fans of LARPs, manga & anime, videogames and comic books. Manga & anime fandom seems to be especially stereotyped and more often than not placed outside the boundaries of SF and fantasy community; mentions of it in the source material often provoke the commenters to talk about “fandoms” (in plural). A similar case of a fandom splintering can be seen in the case of the Western comics fandom, but while the comic books fan seem content with standing apart from ‘the fandom’ of SF and fantasy, manga and anime fans strive for inclusion and recognition, especially on the local level of conventions and events. Their attempts are sometimes met with resistance, such as exclusion of manga and anime subjects from the convention programmes by the organisers. It is worth noting that the manga and anime fandom is relatively younger and much more feminised than the SF and fantasy fandom, and has been introduced in Poland fairly recently in comparison with others (more on this topic in an upcoming part of the report, devoted specifically to the manga & anime fandom).

Our findings also point out that patriotism is a vital component of Polish fans’ identity. This phenomenon can be observed on several levels. The most apparent is that the fans are eager to include, or even ‘adopt’ works or authors who seem even marginally connected to Poland. While in general, works most often consumed and discussed come from abroad rather than from Poland (with the exception of cult writers such as Lem or Sapkowski), the national pride and patriotism seems to be awakened by mentions of Poland and Polish matters in foreign works. This tendency has been illustrated during the analysed period in the instance of the new novel (Forest Ghost) from Graham Masterton, who set his story in Poland. Masterton himself accentuates his Polish connections and his new novel had been published in Poland even before its debut in the UK. Another example of clear national pride is displayed when a Polish work enjoys success abroad (in recent years it has especially been the case with game developers, most notably the creators of The Witcher series) as fans consider themselves to be a part of that success.

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Caption:  Agents of F.I.E.L.D.? Promotional graphics of the expansion Conspirators for the Veto! collectible card game about the Polish noblemen from the 17th century. Spoof of The Avengers movie poster. By Igor Myszkiewicz and Maciej Zasowski

On a more general level, SF & fantasy fans seem to share and reproduce the vision of patriotism grounded in the Polish 19th-century Romanticism, with its focus on national history, the values of chivalry, fight for a just cause and an idealised view of love and femininity. This can be well-observed in the case of fans’ attitude to history. Historical narratives (also those incorporating SF & fantasy elements) are being evaluated with the use of ideologized notions of “scholarly validity” and “historical accuracy,” accompanied by a belief in the possibility of access to the truth about certain events and phenomena. Historical references are used to maintain the national pride (hence the popularity of novels set in the “Sarmatian” period of Polish history regarded as the highest point of national splendour), but also tend to be connected with practices of exclusion – for example, the presence of female warriors (or women in positions of strength in general) is disregarded as historically implausible.

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Caption: Practically Polish. Graham Masterton (on the right) socializing with Polish fans at a convention. Photo: Geekozaur


On the other hand, our study found some instances of views that are more critical to the mainstream Polish views on patriotism. The anticlericalism and pagan inspirations attempt to challenge the usual affirmative approach to Christianity and its cultural role. An informative discussion occurred in the comments on a Polish card game about the Polish military fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whereas the reviewer appreciated a Poland-related theme, there were also opinions criticizing the game for allowing players to choose the Taliban side (and fight against the Polish), and also for depicting colonial violence. The discussion thread shows the clash between the conflicting views on Polish patriotism: the same work can be viewed in terms of continuing the honorable tradition of fighting for freedom or criticised as promoting Polish participation in imperial oppression.

Another aspect of declared patriotism is connected to consumer choices. As stated before, the media discussed and referred to on Polter are predominantly Western, mostly originating from English-speaking countries. However, there is a very distinct declarative tendency to ’support the Polish market‘ (both discursively and financially). The market of Polish SF & fantasy products (especially RPG-related) is perceived as small and constantly endangered by financial hardships. It is worth noting that certain dissatisfaction with the quality of Polish works or editions/translations does not stop these slightly patronizing general appeals to support the local media and creators.

Within the identity-related categories in our study we also established one connected to direct and indirect statements about gender. Though it is by no means a dominant issue for Polter users, it is still possible to notice some general tendencies. In a few instances the site’s participants suggested and tried to diagnose some inherently and inescapably specific ways women engage in certain activities, such as playing pen & paper RPGs or writing books. Female physical attractiveness is commonly perceived as a valuable asset in various contexts, from evaluation of drawn fanarts through comments on female cosplayers on conventions. It is worth noting that we found very few statements about masculinity in the source material; generally, only women are objects of generalizing statements, which suggests that a male fan is recognized as a default member of the community and a female fan is a special phenomenon that requires examination. Historically, Polish SF and fantasy fandom has always been rather male-dominated, with a prevailing belief in the old chestnut that all gaming women are girlfriends of the game masters. However, in the middle of the 2000s, the numbers of female representation in the fandom surged significantly. The last few years brought on the attempts to form a female fan (and especially a female roleplayer) identity. These attempts in turn  sometimes meet with negativity from the more conservative fans trying to neutralise such emancipatory tendencies by generalizing statements along the lines of “fandom is not for women, fandom is for everyone.” At the same time, splinter fandoms of manga and anime or fanfiction writers tend to be much younger and female-dominated, and gender roles are often very different from the ones taken for granted by the majority of the SF and fantasy fans.

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Caption: ‘Mom, can I exterminate already?’ A young female Dalek at a convention. Photo: Szymon Sokół


To sum up, in our exploratory research of Polish science-fiction & fantasy fandom we found the following problems to be the most interesting and worth further examination (possibly with an inclusion of diachronic longitudinal methods and different media outlets):

1) Fans’ attitudes towards national categories and notions of Polish identity. Divergent tendencies were observed in that area: on one hand, most of the fans seem to share conservative, affirmative views on Polish history and identity, with a distinct tone of national pride; they seek and appreciate topics related to Poland in foreign works and declare interest in and care about Polish SF & fantasy media despite being aware of the flaws and limitations of this market. On the other hand, the study showed that fans refer mostly to works of Western origin in their texts, comments and practices, which suggests that there is a constant process of negotiation between joining global cultural trends and maintaining local specificity; also, some more revisionist and critical attitudes towards the dominant discourse of Polish national identity start to appear. Still, references to national categories are vital points in fan discussions, even if treated negatively.

2) Gender views remain on the conservative side, with a prevailing tendency to see the masculine as the default. However, in the recent years a rising trend of female fans and players attempting to define their own identity has appeared. Such attempts are often opposed to on the grounds that they represent ‘special interests’ and are not pertinent to the group as a whole. Some female fans differentiate themselves from the whole of fandom either by adopting a unique style (of playing, of writing, of attire) or by finding niche activities to make their own, i.e.  fanfiction or forms of expression relating to costuming (cosplay, steampunk, etc.), while others openly demand more diversity within the fandom’s mainstream. As the demographics of fandom changed significantly in the past few decades, we can expect the trend of female fans making themselves more visible and aiming for recognition to rise in the future.

3) There are increasing voices calling for a professional approach to previously grassroots initiatives of SF and fantasy conventions. Historically, the events were organised by volunteers and local organisations and were perceived as a communal effort, while nowadays some of the convention-goers point out that the cons should be treated in terms of a commercial product and therefore give the participants the right to demand a much more professional approach. At the same time, other tensions between the amateur and professional realms emerge, presenting contradicting views: the fans want Polish works to succeed locally and internationally, but are distrustful of anything they consider too commercial or mainstream, bringing forth the accusations of “selling out”.

4) Tensions appear also in the area of media consumption. While most fans are ascribing prestige and nobility to literature, especially the more high-brow and canon works, and are eager to boast about their reading history, they tend to engage more with the works of a perceived lesser status, such as pen and paper roleplaying games.

We believe that our exploratory study of Poltergeist community can lead to deeper diagnoses of the specificity  of participatory culture inside the SF & fantasy fandom in Poland and forms a strong starting point for further research.


Selected Bibliography

Cappella J.N. et al. (2009). “Coding Instructions: An Example.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 253-265).Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.


Carvajal, D. (2002). “The Artisan’s Tools. Critical Issues When Teaching and Learning CAQDAS.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/2-02/2-02carvajal-e.htm


Hak T., Bernts T. (2009). “Coder Training: Explicit Instructions and Implicit Socialization.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 220-233). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.


MacQeuun K. et al. (2009). “Codebook Development for Team – Based Qualitative Analysis.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 211-219). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.


Mayring P. (2000). “Qualitative content analysis.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 1(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1089


About the Authors

Justyna Janik: MAs in Comparative Studies of Civilizations and Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, interested in game studies and pop culture theory, especially fan studies;


Joanna Kucharska: MAs in English Literature and American Studies, PhD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, researching audience participation and transmedia


Tomasz Z. Majkowski: Aca-fan, PhD in Literary Criticism, Assistant Professor at Department of Literary Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Polish Studies of Jagiellonian University, interested in pop culture theory, especially fantasy and sci-fi studies, game studies and historical interactions between pop culture and ideologies.


Joanna Płaszewska: Slavic philologist, librarianship and information science student, interested in fanfiction readership and new literacies.


Bartłomiej Schweiger: PhD student in Institute of Sociology on Jagiellonian University, interested in power-knowledge structures embedded in our culture, especially videogames.


Piotr Sterczewski: MA in Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts (Jagiellonian University), interested mostly in ideological aspects of videogames.


Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel: Sociologist and researcher at TNS Poland