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

When I visited England two years ago, as part of my grand European tour, I was struck that there was a new generation of British cultural and media scholars, often the offspring of old friends such as Roberta Pearson, Will Brooker, Matt Hills, Nickianne Moody, Mark Jancovich,  Peter Kramer, and others, who were turning their attention to the study of fans and media audiences. Most of them are not yet well known on this side of the Atlantic, but they are posed to leave their marks, and they are voices we are going to be hearing more from in the years to come.

Mark Duffett was one of the many young scholars I met on this trip, and he’s recently published a significant new book, Understanding Fandom, which is intended as a textbook for fan studies classes. I am using it as one of the core texts for my own graduate seminar this term on fandom, participatory culture, and web 2.0. Duffett sets out to provide a critical overview of some of the core texts which have helped to define the study of fandom; as one of the writers he discusses at some length, I felt that he was asking hard questions about how this work has withstood the tests of time and the challenges of next generation scholarship but he approached them with fairness, nuance, and much greater attention to detail than most other writers bring to this subject. I did not always agree with what he had to say about some of the key issues in the field, but I was glad he was pushing the discussion to the next level, and I am eager to see how others in the field react to his formulations.

Beyond summing up what has already been done, though, he points us in some new directions — as Matt Hills suggests in his introduction to the book — and that’s where I’ve chosen to focus my attention in this interview. I learned a lot from reading his account, especially because he is not necessarily beholding to some of the false distinctions which have held our work hostage for so long. He offers a great illustration, for example, of how ideas drawn from the study of music and celebrity fans might be brought into active conversation with works that deal with cult television and transformative works, and I think what he has to say here about the divide between Fan Studies and Fandom Studies (which has often been both gendered and geographically and disciplinarily rooted) may offer some interesting directions forward for the field.

Mark’s publisher has been nice enough to offer us a free preview of the book.

There are sure to be debates sparked around some of the book’s findings, but this is a book that we all need to engage with as we think through the current state and future direction of fan studies. I know we will be hearing more from Mark and from his contemporaries amongst British fan scholars.

You spend a good chunk of time across the book nuancing and negating some of the negative stereotypes about fans that have concerned fan scholars from the beginnings of this field – among them, the idea of fandom as a religion or the fan as stalker. What justifies the continued emphasis on these negative constructions of fandom, given how much progress has been made within academia in constructing alternative understandings of some of these same phenomenon?

The short answer to that is that entry level students (as opposed to fan studies course graduates) still have to unlearn the stereotypes. Understanding Fandom was commissioned as a textbook, but I hope it’s also a critical discussion of the history of the field. I wanted it to be something that I could pass across to a competent student and say, “Here is what I know about the study of media fandom.” In my fandom seminar class every year I used to ask students to do some initial word association on the term “fan” just to see what was already in their heads. The same words and phrases repeatedly came up – things like “geek,” “cult,” “stalking” and “hysteria.”

Unfortunately, society has not fully given up on depressingly familiar ideas that equate fandom with obsession, extremity and emotional excess. In its six year life span, for instance, Chris Croker’s ‘Leave Britney Alone’ video has had 47 million hits on YouTube. Although the contemporary film and television producers tend to court avid fans as a market place, approaches to marginalized fandoms in the tabloid press have not changed a great deal. Even in the Internet era, they still influence popular understanding.

Judging by Facebook hate pages and other indications, modes of stereotyping that have traditionally been articulated against media fandom as a whole are now being used by specific fan cultures to marginalize those in other fandoms. Unfortunately, too, some of the less nuanced discussion of the academic material is also falling into a trap. Introducing the recent Radio 4 documentary Fan Power in November 2013, for instance, one presenter explained:”This program is about fans or fandoms, and whether being a fan is different now from how it used to be, and whether fandoms can be mobilized for political or social change. It’s not so much about Beliebers and Directioners and their crazy rivalries, but about what happens when fandoms turn their attention away from their idol to the real outside world.”

The introduction recalls the history of debate on media fandom by using a set of binaries: old (implicitly naive or consumerist) and new (savvy and activist) fan cultures, ‘crazy’ pop fanaticism and serious, mobilized fandom, distracted idol worship and the “real outside world.” The documentary’s introduction mirrors a tendency in fan studies, I think, to separate ‘worthy’ aspects (film and TV cult fandom, cultural productivity, text-based and literary interests, real world political activism) from unworthy ones: celebrity following, pop music, distraction, obsession, consumption… The logical extension here is that “outside world” politics matters and fandom is interesting only as its tool.

In the book I distinguished media fandom research – in its broadest sense – from fan studies. Research about fandom exists well beyond cultural studies and not all scholars are sympathetic with the Fiskean conception of fandom. Psychologists like Lynn McCutcheon have hypothesized connections between media fandom, “celebrity worship” and intellectual under-achievement. A student wishing to explore “extreme” fandom might come upon some of this less sympathetic material. I wanted to think about its ideological work from a cultural studies perspective.

I often go back to your discussion at the start of Textual Poachers to expose the stereotypes, but I think that addressing the stereotyping of fandom is something that is too important to only do once. We need to keep addressing the stereotypes, because if we don’t, in unexpected ways they will come back to bite us. To those students unfamiliar with 1990s cultural studies scholarship, the relative lack of recent work on fan stereotypes might seem to imply a critical silence. Perhaps we should consider addressing such estimations of fandom as a continual process.

 

You use the phrase, “media fandom,” in the book’s title. For you, this term includes fans of performers and celebrities, as well as fans of fictional texts. Indeed, some of the best contributions here come when you juxtapose work that has been done on what are often seen as radically different kinds of fans and find points of commonality between them. What do you think academics writing about fans of popular music, say, and academics writing about fans of “telefantasy” have to learn from each other? Why do you think these topics have been seen as separate for so long?

I will address your second question first, because it is a little easier to answer…

Perhaps we have also been concerned that different kinds of fan have been associated with each media form. I am reminded here of my colleague Phil Tagg’s claim that colleagues can be charged with ‘driving a disciplinary vehicle without a license’ if they dabble in a different field. Ironically, media studies and cultural studies have long offered a number of bridging concepts – consumption, genre, style, textuality, performance, affect – but these often seemed to contextualize fandom rather than fully explain it.

The separation of topics has partly been a matter of disciplinary specialisation. Television studies was relatively dominant in the cultural studies discussion about fandom. Many scholars in that area saw no need to look outside their own field. Popular music studies, on the other hand, rarely ventured to explore dedicated music audiences at all (specifically as fans), and either tended to focus either on texts (musicology) or sociological contexts (subcultural studies, scenes). It was not until the late 1990s that scholars like Dan Cavicchi started to explore music fandom. Fan studies did not have such a wide interdisciplinary reputation back then.

The way that fan studies focused on its object has gradually extended its reputation beyond television studies. In light of this there has been more ‘cross town traffic’: pop studies writers like myself picking up or working within the fan studies paradigm, and fan studies scholars – like Matt Hills and Cornel Sandvoss – refusing to draw narrow lines around the type of media fandom that they will investigate. I don’t actually think that the latest generation of researchers is as aware of those older distinctions, because fan studies has now begun to form its own vibrant and rapidly expanding research field.

To address the question of what researchers of different fan objects have to learn from each other…

Telefantasy research developed fan studies as a means to pay attention to fan activity, in the transformative works sense, and could therefore disrupt notions of “the pop fan” as one atom of a seduced mass. The problem for popular music research before the Internet was that in the public sphere fans were most visible in spaces associated with consumption and the mass audience: record shops, live concerts. Rock fans were respected, but the idea of pop traditionally linked music fandom to a feminized mainstream. Attention to your work has encouraged music researchers to think carefully about ethical dimensions when studying fandom and has offered us a framework within which to examine fan practices.

There is a textual focus in much of the television studies work. So I hope what some of the research on popular music fandom can offer telefantasy scholars in return is a focus on certain kinds of fandom as cultural fields organized around celebrity and affect. Popular music research always had to contend, in some ways, I think, with a disappearing object: relatively ephemeral, immaterial nature of emotionally engaging music. That was true at the level of the text itself – music’s meanings not being quite amenable to the usual modes of linguistic or representational analysis.

Yes, some music fans have textual objects (the song, the album, the genre), but there are many others who have become fascinated with a particular individual or group (the star, the band); in some senses the distinction itself is debatable because musical texts and their makers have inevitably become confused, raising questions of authorship and authenticity.

Celebrity-following is not unique to popular music, but rather popular music has often become associated with celebrity-following in the public sphere. Consequently, things that have sometimes been marginalized in the discussion of textual fandom, are right on the surface in popular music and require attention.

Take Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen’s (2012) recent book on Supernatural fandom, for example. Precisely because they are exploring the interests of sections of the Supernatural fan community, Zubernis and Larsen focus as much or more on the consequences of female fans’ lustful identifications with the show’s lead actors as they do on show itself.

Their work reminds me of Susan Fast’s (2001) discussion of the way in which female fans perceived the lead singer of Led Zeppelin as an erotic object, or more recent work on boy band audiences. The commodification of romantic allure and sex appeal is a common theme across very different media forms. An interchange between different fields of fan research might help us better understand similar places that, in many ways, form common empirical ground.

In a wider sense, I think that we may be able to productively destabilize assumptions that come from our respective ‘home’ disciplines. This friendly destabilization could take the form of recognizing commonalities in fandom itself as a shared object. On one level, diverse fandoms operate within common social contexts and are have sometimes been marginalized in similar ways. Very different fandoms have been associated with, for example, the public performance of emotion and conviction.

On another level, different fandoms share common discourses and practices. Fans of very different objects can behave in surprisingly similar ways. Traditionally the similarities included things like collecting, canonization, displaying commitment and creating fanzines.

The realm of digital media offered a new context of convergence within which previously unrelated fandoms have shared common platforms and approaches: forums, fanfic writing, spoiling, video uploading, mash-ups, activism, nostalgia / archiving / heritage. Perhaps we should not be thinking in terms of media forms (say, TV serial or pop fandom) but in terms of different clusters of cultural capital: people liking similar cultural fields like, say, horror cinema and heavy metal.

Matt Hill’s notion of ‘inter-fandom’ is interesting in that respect. His concept is not about one kind of fandom, or even recognizing something common to different types, but instead about asking how – as media fans – we move between associated cultural fields to our efforts to display particular forms of cultural capital.

 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.