Why Study Fan Archives: An Interview with Abigail De Kosnik (Part One)

 

Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age introduced a new generation of fan scholars and their work: as a cohort, these women were deeply embedded in the fan communities about which they wrote (“aca-fans”), they had come of age with digital media, they combined ethnographic and textual modes of analysis, they were as interested in how fan fiction was produced as they were in why it was produced, and they introduced a range of new theoretical paradigms.

Abigail De Kosnik wrote one of the essays from that collection that I return to most often in my own writing and teaching, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to know her as a friend and thinking partner in the years since the book appeared.

While other fans (academic and otherwise) had suggested connections between fan fiction and various literary texts that appropriate and remix characters from existing works, De Kosnik’s “Archontic Literature” framing was the first to systematically explore those connections, linking the study of fandom to larger conversations about how writers relate to cultural and historical archives, a topic she returns to in her current book to stunning effect. While other writers have explored a range of fannish practices, including, most influentially, fan fiction writing, fan video practices, and now, in recent years, fan activism, Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom, which MIT Press published this week,  focuses on fan archiving practices as central to the evolution of digital cultural practices more generally.

Here, she combines oral history, recovering some key chapters in the evolution of online fandom, with a rich theoretical exploration, one that is particularly drawn to metaphors from performance studies.  I can only describe Rogue Archives as a tour de force. The book dramatically expands the range of theoretical texts and traditions that fandom studies might draw on for contextualizing the production, circulation, archiving, and consumption of fan fiction; De Kosnik makes understanding fandom’s labor in preserving its cultural memory central to many core debates about digital culture.

She writes here, among other things, about the archive and the repertoire, the instability and ephemerality of digital memory, ongoing debates about canons and alternative ways of constructing cultural traditions, the performative and bodily dimensions of fan fiction, different kinds of fan performances, debates about free and immaterial labor, fandom’s transition from print-based to digital practices, alternative temporalities of media consumption, and notions of authorship in fandom. She yokes these various strands  via the two different meanings of archive she proposes – in terms of the material practices through which fan fiction is preserved and rendered accessible to a larger group of readers and the archive as the set of previous texts which readers and writers draw upon in processing new stories. This is going to be a very important book, not simply for fandom studies, but across a range of other disciplines that she draws reconceptualizes in the pursuit of her project.

What follows is the first of three installments of an interview with De Kosnik about the book and its contributions to our understanding of fandom, archives, digital culture, and popular memory.

Through the years, fandom studies has investigated a wide range of fan practices ­­ fan fiction, fan vidding, Wizard Rock, Cosplay, Memes, etc. but there has been relatively little focus on fan archiving practices, which to some may seem like a largely technical issue. So, why study fan archives? What do these practices tell us about fandom? What might the study of fan archiving practices contribute to information science more generally? In what ways are fan archives illustrative of other memory practices within digital culture?

Fan fiction archives were among the first high ­volume, high­ traffic Internet archives to be built. Plenty of people were using the nascent Internet and World Wide Web (in the early ’90s) to construct enormous archives of information that were free and open online, but fan fiction archives were, as far as I can te ll, the most active of these early digital archives ­­ because fan fiction was being written and uploaded (or sent in to archive administrators) at a fast and furious rate.

Fan fiction archives can teach information science about what it means to try to preserve culture in the moment of its unfolding, cultural forms at their peak production levels. Information science understands a lot about preserving cultural objects that are old, that have taken on great significance in the time since their release, but preserving digital culture means archiving texts, images, video, and motion graphics a s they are circulating, when they’re the most relevant, not when they are already relegated to “the past.”

Fan fiction archives led the way in the effort to try to effectively store, and make available, digital cultural works as they were being generated. What archivists of both physical and digital objects share is a need to keep and maintain those objects because they are important, and they are in constant threat of being lost. And digital objects are even more prone to sudden disappearance than physical ones ­­ a hosting company can decide not to host your fan fiction works anymore, or an archivist can “flounce” from their archive and simply shut it down, or a social media platform can opt to delete fanfic stories without notifying anyone, or servers can simply crash.

Fan fiction archivists got into the digital preservation game so early that they definitely encountered all of these dangers and more, and have collectively created many defenses against digital loss and disappearance that all archivists can and should learn from.

You open the book with a compelling statement, “memory has gone rogue.” In what sense are the practices you describe throughout the book “rogue”? For example, the recent Paramount/CBS Guidelines for Star Trek fan films have specific stipulations about how fan films can be stored and transmitted (streaming but not in a material format such as video or dvd). What’s at stake in this effort by the studio to dictate fan archiving practices?

I argue that cultural memory has “gone rogue” because so many digital cultural preservation projects are run, not by large state­sponsored museums, libraries, and archives and trained Library and Information Science professionals, but by amateurs, hackers, volunteers, pirates, and fans.

People who have no formal training or professional experience as archivists, but who have some understanding of how networked technology can be used to store digital works and keep them available over long periods of time and are passionate about actualizing this potential, have taken it upon themselves to design, build, and maintain online repositories.

I’m thinking of people like Brewster Kahle, who founded the massive Internet Archive, anonymous pirates who have created some of the most robust, most accessible film libraries in the world (though they are illicit), and media fans, who have sought to preserve their own communities’ vast amounts of cultural production. People like these are leading the fight to preserve culture digitally; their discoveries and best practices are paving the way for future online archival efforts.

Unfortunately, the very media corporations that have the most to gain from digital media being archived and made widely available to future generations (for example: Paramount depends on the Star Trek fandom continuing on forever, which means that it depends on fans being able to access as many Trek texts as possible, both official and fan­made) seem to often be hostile to preservation projects and do not seem to prioritize long­term storage and circulation at all (as in the example that you gave).

Towards the end of my book, I discuss the fact that fans have basically “taken license” with media texts for a long time ­­ in other words, fans aren’t waiting, and never were waiting, for corporations to finally see the wisdom in appending Creative Commons licenses to their products so that finally fans could be “authorized” to transform with attribution and circulate noncommercially. Rather, fans have simply taken whatever license they wished with media products ­­ they’ve remixed them however they’ve wanted, shared them as widely as they wanted to, safeguarded them however they’ve deemed necessary.

Fan creativity only promotes media commodities and keeps interest in them alive, so far from fan archivists doing any harm to media companies by flouting their rules regarding fan works, I think that these volunteer archivists are working hard for the benefit and profit of these companies by inventing effective archival techniques for their fellow fans’ output.

Fan fiction has often been described as transient, disposable, and perhaps most damningly, only of interest within a particular social circle of friends. Even many fans would argue that most of what gets produced is not especially good by traditional standards. So why should we care whether the archive of previous fan works is preserved or not?

I think that it’s likely that every reader of fan fiction has very strong opinions about what makes a fan fiction story “good” or “bad.” But in my view, one of the greatest ethical lessons to be learned from participating in fandom is that one can’t judge the quality of fan works for others. What strikes one reader as a terrible, trope ­ridden, immature fan story may strike another as just the kind of story that they want to read at a given moment in time. Even a story that is full of misspellings and bad grammar can offer a compelling version of characters and their dynamics, or a fascinating plot line, or really lively dialogue.

And I don’t mean to suggest that plot lines have to be fascinating, or dialogue has to be lively ­­ actually, I very much enjoy fanfics that work like mood pieces, or tone poems, in which very little happens and very little is said, and we just get some insight into a character’s state of mind.

In other words, fan fiction archives specifically work to offer fans the greatest possible multiplicity of approaches to, and versions of, media universes, so that every fan may choose which fan stories “work” for them (and different types of stories may “work” at very different points in a fan’s life). Fan fiction archives promote this ethos of acceptance that there is tremendous diversity in cultural tastes and preferences.

Fan fiction archives’ mission is to preserve all fan works for all fans, not to judge which are “worth” saving and which are not worthy. Fan critics can debate which fan works, in any given universe, are the “best,” but fan archivists strive to preserve all of the works, as much as they can ­­ because they value their fandoms as important and significant living cultural communities, and they feel that every corner of their cultures is worth safeguarding.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies.  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).