Gender and Fan Culture (Round Seven, Part Two): Kristina Busse and Cornel Sandvoss


Kristina: Moreover, I worry that it'll be impossible to talk about the subcultural phenomenon that I would define as fandom if that term is already used for a much broader, less intense engagement.

Cornel: I would argue the answer already lies in what you are saying here though: if we want to talk about subcultural phenomena, let's call them precisely that: subcultures. On many occasions fan cultures and subcultures correspond, even become interchangeable, but there are clearly also fans and aspects of fandom that do not fit into a subcultural mold. So I fail to see the benefit in equating subculture and fan cultures a priori.

Kristina: I do understand that the psychological engagement with a text can be very intense, even in the absence of others to share that particular affect, that obsessional focus. Moreover, both community interaction and this affect exist on a continuum (changing between different people and even within a person over time). And I understand that it is important to study the individual and how emotional investment in a text gets created, played out, shared. I think it's important to look at the range of fannish engagement and affect, but why can't we do so with the community rather than the individual at the center? If I look at the lonely fan reading/watching/enjoying their text, I think of them as fannish because they're participating in an imagined community of other fans. [The best example in my area would be lurkers, who do not actively interact and are thus not part of the community per se, but who very clearly often think of themselves as part of the community--I guess we could think of it as parasocial relations with other fans?]

Cornel: If we speak about psychological categories such as affect, pleasure and fantasy, these are of course by definition constituted on the level of the individual. This doesn't mean that there cannot at least potentially be a communal context to the constitution of fan pleasures but ultimately it is manifested on an intrapersonal not interpersonal level.

Kristina: I don't want to sound like I want to forego the study of the individual fan in favor of a sole focus on the community, because that's not really what I'm saying here. What I'm worried about in terms of research focus is actually the fan academic parallel to what I'm worried about in terms of definitions of fandom: focusing on the more mainstream, more palatable fan may risk the erasure/ignoring of the less easily acceptable or explainable one.

Cornel: I understand and share your concern, but I just wonder what's more palatable here. Within the context of media and cultural studies, the study of the 'mainstream" (whatever that exactly may be) seems to me in fact much rarer and more adventurous as it appears to be often irreconcilable with dominant paradigms and ideological positions in the field. Where, for example, are those studies of Britney Spears fans, those of Hello and other celebrity gossip magazines or of Hollyoaks (a painful teen soap on British Channel 4 that lends itself rather less to forms of cultural appreciation than say, Dawson's Creek)? Or to hammer home the point, studies of fans of the various call-in quiz channels that have mushroomed in Europe in the past five years?

Kristina: Likewise, I fear that studies of the individual fan and his affect may eclipse those of fan communities, especially when the former may focus on male fans and the latter on females; especially when the affect in the former is individual and personal and in the latter is collective and communal (and, in collectivities that form around responses not valued by the dominant culture, may quite often become political as a result); especially when the former is done by male academics with status in the academy and the latter by females more likely to not have that status.

Cornel: I really don't see the need to compare or benefit in thinking about one eclipsing the other - this would imply a strange scarcity of spaces of academic debate. And I don't think this reflects any sort of structural and gendered power differences with higher education. I think we are hard pressed to find many people engaged in fan studies with any particular status in the academy in any case. And I know you are not suggesting it, but just to be categorical about this: I think it would more than insulting if anyone suggested that male scholars in our fields would disregard the work by female colleagues. Of course there are academic fashions which come and go in circles but I would suggest that we can't explain them in terms of gender, nor is work on fan communities being marginalized. On the contrary, I think following Henry's work, it still very much shapes the canon of the field.

Kristina: I'm only beginning to look into the role of affect and its potential political agency, but my friend Alexis Lothian, with whom I just finished writing an essay (together with Robin Reid) on slash as "queer female space," has been influencing my thinking on the social and political implications of shared/sharing affect. She argues, for example, "that communal articulations of affect, where reactions are shared and discussed, might be locations where the political implications of affect can get hashed out." In that vein, we are rethinking, for example, how "squee"--all too often seen as infantilizing--can actually be a site for embracing one's emotional responses, especially for women who've always prided themselves in their analytic abilities, maturity, etc. Especially when looking at fandom as a space for articulation of non-mainstream ideas and emotions, the role of affect intersects with the political. And I wonder whether it can be so on a purely personal level or whether subcultural characteristics are already communal and community-focused.

In particular, then, I am interested in the way affect functions in conjunction with others, either by sharing one's emotional investment in the text with the community or, even more interesting, I think, the way the community filters, increases, and shapes the text and the fannish affect. (In other words, watching a new episode for me gets affected by my knowledge that I will have others who may also have seen a particular moment and I will be able to share it. Moreover, it is in the analysis and talking and squeeing about it, in the rewriting and the iconing that the text itself becomes *more*, and it is via this shared discussion and shared emotional engagement that the text itself changes.]

Cornel: I don't disagree here....but let's come back to that when looking at texts.


Kristina: One of the most often heard narratives in my corner of fandom (i.e., slash media fandom) is that of coming home. I like the way you've established the notion of Heimat in Fans, but I think I'd like to add that a sense of "coming home" quite often is intimately tied up with other fans (i.e., I feel like coming home often occurs in the finding of likeminded people--even if that community is totally imaginary). Moreover, I'd consider Heimat by definition a thing of some permanence, so that the narratives I've told and heard is by fans who are FIAWOL, who have found their tribe, so to speak and know they won't leave.

In my essay on the topic I linked to above, I connect being a fan to identity politics, and I think it could be useful to look at the debates in other areas that have had to face the theoretical and personal issues connected to identity politics. In the essay, I was mostly concerned with matters of inclusion and exclusion (are you a fan because you say you are/others say you are/what is gained and lost by declaring that identity/ etc.), but here I'm wondering whether the identity construction of being a fan may in and of itself create an affective space of belonging.

And I think it is that space that I may be vigorously protecting here. I fear that by expanding the terminology of fan to include virtually everyone (whether by including all sorts of fannish behavior as Jenkins does or by redefining it to focus on individual behavior so that most passionate textual engagements become "fannish"), the danger may be that 'real' fans are marginalized yet again. In other words, by focusing on what Rebecca Tushnet has called "normal-folks-with-benefits," I see my own more involved and more invested community fully overshadowed (as has happened with vidding vis a vis machinima) or be redefined as outcasts yet again. That latter fear is what I tried to describe in my short paper for Flow:

As media texts are more widely disseminated and construct their audiences in ever more fan-like ways at the same time as fannish activities become both more visible and more legitimate, the distinctions between creators and viewers, between casual viewers and fans is changing. It would be easy to see these changes as having the potential to create an idyllic convergence playground. The fannish community, however, would have to disavow those parts that do not please the owners of the media product (J.K. Rowling, George Lucas). Certain groups of fans can become legit if and only if they follow certain ideas, don't become too rebellious, too pornographic, don't read the text too much against the grain. That seems a price too high to pay. (source)

Cornel: I agree with your instance on fandom as a space worth defending from commercial interest - even if this might be ultimately a futile struggle. However, I would also add that Heimat is an ambivalent term. It is of course not only 'home', but an imagined space, a vision of belonging - ultimately a fantasy, if one that is indispensable in creating a necessary sense of security; and hence it is ultimately a fantasy that therefore, even if constructed in a communal context, is an inherent individual act of imagination. But what matters more - and here I would point to Dave Morley's recent work over the past decade in particular - home and Heimat are also always rooted in forms of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, of creating an (imagined) Other, which is excluded from the space we call home. And it the potential lack of engagement with the textual Other in fandom, which I am interested in Fans: The Mirror of Consumption.


Kristina: The other term that really drives home to me just how different our approaches and goals are is the concept of the *fantext*. In fact, it was upon reading your definition of the fantext and comparing it to mine that it suddenly occurred to me why I felt like we disagreed at a most basic level even though I'd nod along when reading Fans most of the time. I think our object of study is ultimately different, or rather, the focus of what we find central is different: you are interested in the individual and his/her relationship to the text while I'm interested in individuals as members of a community and their relationship to that community.

In a way, then, the source text has shifted emphasis and moved into originary (in some cases, only catalyst) function whereas fan discourses and interaction are what continues to sustain the fannish investment and affect. And I'm beginning to wonder, if we're somehow looking at two related (and clearly intersecting) groups that nevertheless differ not only in modes of engagement but also objects of affect. A solitary fan, after all, remains attached to the source text itself only. A community may do so as well, but added to that are the investment in other fans, the shared affect with its increased feedback loop (i.e., shared squee tends to be louder).

At the most extreme end, then, is the fan I'm most interested in, who's ultimately more invested in the community than the source, the fan who defines herself as a slash fan rather than a show specific fan, the fan (like me?) who'll take the fanfic rather than the show on the island. It's those fans I've studied in my research on popslash where I've argued that it is the fan-fan interaction and friendships rather than the para-social interaction between fan and celebrity that is central in popslash fandom("I'm Jealous of the Fake Me"). As such, I view the community as a social network that encourages fans to explore their identities, desires, and sexualities, more so in relation with one another than with the star himself.

So, while I'm really interested in what you say about affect, to me the investment in the community must always be acknowledged (even if that community is virtual or the interaction wholly one-sided) alongside the involvement with the source text. [Because I'm not sure one would exist without the other, i.e., I'm not sure if we could conceive of fans if all we ever saw were individuals. Or, said differently, while a specific fan's engagement may only be in accessing web sites, reading spoilers, etc., someone who more than likely *is* more community connected created those web sites, found and shared those spoilers.]

Cornel: I am not sure I follow your conclusion in the last paragraph. I think you are right that we have focused on different segments of the fan spectrum, but I don't, for example, have a sole interest in atomised fans. Moreover, I think whatever the levels of communal engagement are in an individual's fandom, there are communalities that mean that the term 'fan' has conceptual currency across the spectrum and the process of reading, crucially, is one of them. This leads me to one what I see as a central challenge of contemporary fan studies and indeed audience studies as such (and this is a point on which I think we agree): the need to reconceptualise the notion of texts and textual boundaries in mediated communication. Slash and fan fic you mention are of course texts as well, whether we call them paratexts or give them a different term (indeed as you suggest they often replace the urtext as the focus of fans' reading. Jonathan, for example should be credited out for a range of insightful articles and chapters on how we can conceptualise and address (fan) texts in intertextual space of (mass) media consumption and I should mention others here such as Matt Hills, Chris Scodari, etc. In many ways I think reconceptualisng the text as object of fandom in the triangle of individual, its social networks and different media is the real challenge we face - gender of course shapes and informs this triangle but I don't think it is the single outstanding theme at heart of understanding contemporary fandom and fan cultures.

On that note, having opened with an unashamed plug, I will end with yet another one: It would be great to continue these insightful and lively discussions online as well as offline and I would like to use the opportunity to invite individual papers and panel proposals on this and related fields for the next conference of the International Communication Association in Montreal in May 2008 for which I am the programme planer for the Popular Communication Division. The number of sessions available to us will as always depends on the number of division members we have, so to all those who are ICA members already and those considering joining (you get not only cheaper conference registration but an awful lot of journals for your bucks!) please join the Popular Communication division or renew your division membership if you already are a member. Included in the annual fee of $8 is also a free online subscription of Popular Communication. I hope both the division and the journal will provide additional spaces for these debates - helping to makes sure that rather than feeling that different foci and traditions in the field of fan studies need to compete with each other, we create a forum in which different and diverging voices are heard.

Kristina: Thanks, Cornel, for responding in depth to what was, in effect, a monologue on my part (though hopefully engaging with your previous writing). I am very much looking forward to having a dialog with both you and the readers in the blog/LJ comments. I do want to complement your plug with another, however: many of us--be they grad students, independent scholars, or fan scholars not actually affiliated with academia at all--cannot afford conferences. What many of us have and are doing instead is use the Internet and its ability to connect and allow us to have these conversations and debates. In fact, to me these summer debates have been doing exactly that--connecting people, and I hope they'll continue to do so and that these unconnected spaces we've been inhabiting will continue to merge.