Why Do We Need to “Understand” Fans?: A Conversation with Mark Duffett (Part Four)

There remains a strong emphasis within fan studies on issues of gender and sexuality, not to mention generation, yet there is still relatively limited focus on issues of race. One consequence is that the “whiteness” of fandom is often taken for granted, with very few examples here of the practices associated with fans of color. How might we expand current paradigms of fan studies to deal more fully with race or be more inclusive of diverse kinds of fan tastes and interests?

In the book’s conclusion I mention that there is much more work on fandom and race. There is a danger here, though, that we might essentialize “fans of color” and their practices, creating a kind of academic segregation by default. Instead, there are ways to explore fandom and race that might lead the discussion in fruitful directions.

The first is to explore fandom’s multiple implications within what we might reductively call “the colonial project.” After all, it is a type of blindness not to deal with race within its historical context of colonialism, production and labour. It would be a mistake here to see wider issues of identity and consumption as fully falling outside those concerns. Collecting has always been a means of defining identity. What therefore happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when electronic media became the context within which such practices were defined? Fans operated from within the orientalist ideologies that defined the colonial and postcolonial era. I have not seen very much work like this, but I think it would be interesting to explore the orientalism at play within fans’ collections of ‘exotic’ artefacts or ‘exoticized’ media genres.

A second approach might involve examining the implication of fandom within specific racial or ethnic cultures. Blackface, in its later incarnations, is an obvious example here. Researchers like Eric Lott have made clear that it was a mode of performance primarily organized to define whiteness. It continued in its vestigial forms into many of our own lifetimes. To identify as a fan of blackface was necessarily to implicate oneself in racial terms. Equally, we might explore dimensions of racial ownership around things like the chitlin’ circuit. How did fandom function within on-going histories of race relations, as a way to express ethic or racial identities at particular junctures?

A third way of examining race in the context of fandom is to examine moments when race made a difference within particular fan cultures. How are fans of a particular background treated when they constitute a minority with a particular fan culture? What does that say about perceptions of the object or the ethics of the fan community? Should, for example, one’s status as a ‘black Doctor Who fan’ always be a point of discussion? To what extent are people actively using fan cultures for particular objects as ways to build or deny inter-racial alliances? The recent discussion in the journal Transformative Works about racism in cosplay was instructive there.

Also, to what extent it unproductively generalizing and essentialist to explore why particular ethnic groups claim ownership over certain fan objects, some of which at first appear unconnected with their specific cultures? We can generate hypotheses at least, for example that Morrissey’s Chicano fans connect with his Anglo-Irish status as a white ‘outsider,’ but such theories hold absolutely no weight until they are subjected to thorough empirical assessment.

 

A final direction for the study of race and fandom might be to consider the racial implications of fandoms based around racially controversial objects. For example, how do the fans of the vulgar contemporary blackface performer Shirley Q. Liquor see the racial connotations of their object? This kind of research is a rather thorny area; using unsolicited material might give us some traction.


You suggest that academics writing about fandom often have a very static conception, not doing research on how people become fans or for that matter, how specific fandoms emerge. What do you see as some possible steps towards addressing these questions?

The answer to your query has two possible directions: one for collective communities and the other for personal fan passions.

The emergence of specific communities and fandoms is amenable to historical study. A substantial number of younger researchers still see the online world of the present as the main place to research fandom, but I expect to see more of this historicizing work as fan studies further expands as a field. In consequence, we might then be able to start developing a more elaborate understanding of the history of media fandom itself. To set the ball rolling we need a greater historicization of fandoms specifically as living cultures, communities that go through periods of expansion and decline. There has been some interesting recent work on this, including your piece for Boom about the San Diego Comic-Con.

The question of how people become fans is still something of an elephant in the room for fan studies. There may be some scope there for a project comparing ‘becoming a fan’ stories. As I explain my book, however, serious methodological obstacles await anyone who uses such material to explain the emergence of personal fandom. Longitudinal studies of individual fans – even autobiographic or auto-ethnographic ones – always have a reflexive, ex post facto element. People can keep diaries, but fandom is hard to anticipate. Serial or genre fans who predictably move from one object to the next are already fans in a sense, so their personal stories are not the same as those of new fans.

As new fans progress through the process of initiation, they change their perspective and commitment. Self-reporting afterward is not going to create the same data as might be collected ‘live’ at each stage. Asking individuals who already keep diaries to reveal their contents during phases of first initiation would move the question forward, but such individuals were not primed to talk about things that might help to address theoretical concerns. It is quite a thorny issue, but we need to start addressing it to fully understand fandom.

You write at the end of the book, “a master theory of fandom may never be found, but it remains a worthy goal to understand the phenomenon as a special bundle of processes that interact in contingent ways.” How does this push for a more general theory of fandom relate to the push, elsewhere in the book, for ever more particular accounts of specific kinds of fans and fan practices?

The concern that you raise here is in some ways like squaring a circle, because fan studies has expanded so rapidly as a field. Media technology has continually changed. More researchers have become interested. New fandoms and new ways of pursuing fandom have sprung up. Empirical work on fandom has now rather exploded. Beyond this, Understanding Fandom was deliberately rich in detail because I was disappointed by some other media textbooks: volumes that were well organized but rather low on information.

Because the value of some recent work is yet to be decided by history, the world of textbooks moves a bit slower that the field that they discuss. Although articles are referenced in Understanding Fandom and sometimes discussed quite extensively, I focused quite deliberately on the ‘classic’ texts of fan studies. My hope was to get a balance between theory and empirical detail, especially when particular examples could further illuminate theoretical concerns and point a way forward.

The challenge of creating a textbook is to be able to frame the work that has been done, and – ideally – explain a bit about what is missing or offer some fresh perspectives. One of the things that seemed missing to me from fan studies was much discussion about celebrity-following. I hope that the book begins a dialogue that will encourage us to widen our scope a little further, beyond a focus on fan practices and communities to think more carefully about on fan motivations. Of course, ‘textual’ fans follow auteurs and celebrity actors, so celebrity-following is a practice or set of practices, not a separate set of fandoms, but it is a practice that forces us to think about the “why” of fandom, not just the “how.”

The fascinating thing about media fandom, for me, remains that it affectively unites commercial culture, individual subjectivity and collective empowerment. My aim with Understanding Fandom was to explain it in an ethical way that might connect research on practices with a wider spectrum, if you like, of work on representations, identities and processes.

Mark Duffett is a Senior Lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester with research interests spanning fandom and popular music culture. As well as publishing Understanding Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2013), he guest edited a recent special edition of the journal Popular Music and Society, and also edited a Routledge book called Popular Music Fandom(2013) which featured chapters by Cornel Sandvoss, Joli Jensen and Matt Hills. In 2010 he organized an International Symposium on music fandom at Chester and was keynote speaker in 2012 at the MARS music conference in Finland. He is currently writing a book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and co-organizing an April 2014 international conference on rock music and love in Montpellier.