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

There has been ongoing tension in recent years over researchers who are interested in understanding the personal motivations of individual fans (who may have no strong social connections with other fans) and those who are studying fandom as a specific subcultural community with its own traditions, norms, and hierarchies. How do you negotiate this conflict in writing your account?

With respect, I think that the question begins from a false polarity. It is not so much that we have personal fandom on one side and the fan community on the other. Rather, we share in a conceptual separation of the private and public sphere that was never fully sustained in an age of electronic media and is even harder to discern in the digital era. If we can start to understand that the public constitutes, invades or invalidates the private – and also that versions of the private can exist in public – then I think we can get much further in this discussion.

In relation to fandom, reconsidering the validity of the full distinction means devising and embracing concepts that conjoin or embrace both spheres. Our traditional tools have been limited there. Psychoanalysis and psychology offer quite powerful explanations of individual behavior that often, I think, start to break down when we make collective generalizations. Equally, the transformative works tradition offered a way out of previous intellectual dilemmas, but it did not come with a strong conception of why individual people become fans (except, perhaps, as a kind of communitarian, ethical act).

If we ignore commonly circulating (public) assumptions that audience members take up, in some ways I think that fandom still appears to begin as a ‘private,’ personal interest – a kind of autonomous statement of personal conviction – but it can then become the basis of public collective activity. The question for researchers is how to think in ways that reduce the distinctions between private and public to order to approximate real life.

As a label, fandom broadly began as a way to define groups of people who built their identities around media consumption. Because fandom is, socially, about our passions and declarations of subjective interest, it has become a way to personally express oneself. Unfortunately, it has also become a term of abuse for our shared fascination with the products of commercial culture.

However, I don’t think that all humans are born fans. My humanity is more essential than my fandom, but what does that mean? I’d locate my fandom as a human response to a social and economic system that hijacks, reconfigures and transforms human relationships. What that means is that there’s no need – other than image management – to (re)locate fans as creative, political, active or social; all human beings have those qualities.

Rather than thinking about how we might redeem fandom socially by seeing fans as redeeming texts, I’d rather locate fandom as a set of human, social relationships emergent in an industrialized era of electronic mediation: an era where we electronic traces of others can prompt our emotional experiences. From that perspective, fandom is a form of human chemistry pursued within a context where it inevitably gets alienated, amplified and shaped or directed.

There is a danger that in talking about ‘human chemistry’ we are liable to essentialize arbitrarily posited needs. However, I think there are some absolute basics that we can talk about, like the idea that generally we like company and want to feel socially-valued as people, or that we appreciate great creativity. These are universal needs that happen to be expressed within fandom.

I’d therefore see the genesis of fandom – sympathetically – as an ideological process. Rather than suggesting that fandom is something that begins completely in private, it is important to remember that we all carry notions of the audience as a collective entity. When we watch someone on screen, we know that others are watching them too. In the case of live studio audiences, we can see actually them, but they are always implicitly there.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think that the Internet age has fully ended this kind of collectivization; by lowering the barriers of entry to public debate it may have allowed many of us find a low level of celebrity, but it has also created important new indices of mass popularity (YouTube hits, Twitter followers, etc). As a personally recognized, individual conviction, fandom begins within this context of our individual understanding of the wider audience. So, even if we consume and become fans in private, we are always in the matrix of something much more communal.

Indeed, when we are convinced by a performance, we are likely to know that others are convinced too. We recognize our connection with a dedicated fraction of the audience and locate ourselves as part of “the fandom” or “the fanbase.” This means, conceptually, that we don’t fully begin in private and go public. Instead, we always have assumptions about the public and our relationship to it.

Beyond thinking carefully about our prior understanding of audiencehood and concurrent notions of the fanbase, there are several other ways that I attempt to conceptualize that unified private-public fannish self in the book. One is the notion of a “knowing field,” which I’d locate as a kind of phenomenology of participation in the fanbase. This idea posits fannish conviction as a shared inner territory of emotional certainty: suggesting “knowing” almost in the carnal or mystical sense, rather than simply holding a stock of appropriate knowledge.

The “knowing field” becomes something that, as fans, we enter and/or move across, which I suppose makes it quite similar to Cornel Sandvoss’s notion of Heimat, the difference being that Sandvoss understands Heimat more through its linkage to personal safety or self-esteem. The idea of “knowing field” is more about conviction and does not posit psychological foundations, at least in the same way. You have sometimes located fandom as a kind of equivalent to sexual identity: inner, perhaps essentially felt, based on desire. I’d also see it, perhaps, as a bit like patriotism: a recognition of emotional commitment to something that we also know is shared with others.

A second bridging idea is to think about Durkheim’s notion of totemism: although not all fandom is the same or a secular substitute for religion, I do think that Durkheim’s notion of totemism can explain quite a lot about fannish motivations in relation to the the power associated with celebrities. Totems are foci of collective attention who gesturally return the energy of collective attention back to their individual followers through personal one to one transactions. The idea says quite a lot about notions of fame and human aura. It makes some sense to say that celebrity-following fandoms are an extension of totemism as a human process of attachment organized in a media age.

Another bridging concept I introduce in the book is the idea that we share “imagined memories” to describe socially prized moments of performance. Each imagined memory is based on a thing you wished you had experienced, but never did, like, say, being at Woodstock. It is not exactly a fantasy, because it really did happen to someone else. However, it is not your memory either, because it happened to someone else. By valorization in the media and more precisely in the narrative of history, it is therefore a kind of fantasy that authenticates itself as something like a memory.

The term points to the paucity of phrases like ‘cultural memory’ in describing the mediated past: for a few people these memories are real enough (although, even for them, the memories have been inflected by the subsequent story of the event). Imagined memories only matter because of what came after them and are therefore spaces of emotional investment that are necessarily contradictory. In a sense, then, they are commodity templates: they are both made to matter by stories and characterized by their own rarity value (not everyone has the ‘real’ memory). This is precisely why they become starting points for further commodities (media documentaries, heritage tourism, anniversaries, re-enactments, etc).

Each of those concepts – the “knowing field,” totemism, imagined memories – is deliberately partial and open enough to account for variety; each has its share of flaws, but does attempt to get beyond an artificially separated public and private sphere and to chart a course between personal and collective fandom. They attempt to talk about power, affect and communality without recourse to the usual generalizations.

Throughout, there’s an emphasis on exploring fandom as a “performed” identity rather than as a natural or essential one. What do we gain by this focus? What are some of the ways and contexts through which fan identity gets performed?

I do question essentialism in the book, but I’m not sure that I entirely replace it with performance. Personal fandom is, in my view, something that is neither essential nor, exactly, performed: it is not at the root of one’s very being, but it does begin as something internal.

When I talk about fannish subjectivity, I tend to locate its origin in a form of self-recognition (a kind of “I realized I was a fan…”): an inner recognition of connection and subjective fit rather than an outer attempt to persuade anyone else. However, I know that performative elements come into play once we start to look at social communications. I am therefore partly reporting on what existing writers like Matt Hills have said – performance, after all, is something that shows fans are active.

Beyond that explanation, I also think that we could do with more bridging concepts. The term “performers” is used quite a lot in the book to allow me to keep the register open and not narrow down to specifically speak about fan objects as “actors” or “singers.” Performance is, nevertheless, a powerful perspective precisely because it has the potential to easily make connections between our existing repertoire of ideas.

If used it with understanding, it allows us to begin mediating between issues of textuality, spectacle, identity, communication, empirical situatedness, temporality and history, creativity, agency, style and affect – all of which are relevant, I think, to discussing fandom. How can one discuss cosplay, for instance, without talking about performance?

One of the issues here, though, is that performance studies research has been seen as a separate scholarly tradition emerging from theatre studies and slowly integrating itself with cultural studies approaches. Scholars like Phil Auslander are beginning to integrate that tradition with the study of media cultures.

 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.