Gender and Fan Culture (Round Eighteen, Part One): Julie Levin Russo and Hector Postigo

Introductions Due to some serendipitous travel plans, we had the opportunity to meet IRL two weeks ago to kick off the conversation below. It was a pleasure to find that we have quite compatible preoccupations and positions when it comes to fandom and convergence -- good matchmaking, Henry! However, in addition to applying our viewpoints to different specific artifacts, we're coming from different disciplinary orientations, which we'll attempt to detail below. One bent we definitely share is a commitment to political economy, so that will be the primary focus of this installment. And BTW, we chose to compose this post in a wiki page, and we wonder what effect that has, if any, on the shape of the discourse.

Julie Levin Russo: I'm a doctoral candidate in the Department of Modern Culture & Media at Brown University. My interests span the intersections of technologies of representation, sexuality, and politics, and in grad school I've worked on topics such as media epistemology, cyberporn, and "privacy." My dissertation project, entitled "Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Lesbian Fan Communities," focuses on femslash fandom, taking it as an occasion to explore the larger negotiations and stakes of the struggle between unbridled participation and capitalist reincorporation in today's convergent mediasphere. In terms of my methodological approach, I'm situated squarely in post-structuralist theory and the humanities, and my deliberate and perhaps dubious approach to the gender axis is to tacitly assume that queer female labor can serve as an exemplar of broader transformations in media consumption. The body of my diss consists of three localized analyses of series-specific interpretive communities (Battlestar Galactica, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The L Word), discussing each across three intertwined registers: screen texts (television programs, though acknowledging their increasingly fluid borders), metatexts (ancillary online materials disseminated by TPTB), and fan texts (specifically, lesbian readings and writings). As is the custom in my discipline, I don't presume to offer a comprehensive and/or empirical picture of a field of practice, but rather hope to lay out three frameworks for diagnosing the nexus of convergence and desire: technologies of reproduction, politics of representation, and commodification of identity. My structuring question is: what aspects of fan production contradict or challenge systems of domination (capitalist and otherwise)? You can follow my diss as a WIP at my academic LJ -- I'm tremendously indebted to discourse with LiveJournal's community of acafangirls for any insights therein.

As a fan, I'm a bit of an anomaly in that I participate exclusively in the femslash community, which is a minuscule (some would say marginal) enclave within media fandom at large. I'm a devoted writer and organizer, and while I try to maintain plausible deniability in the professional sphere, my fic is not difficult for interested parties to find. Excepting an avid swath of multifannish d(r)abbling, most of my work has been based in Star Trek: Voyager (beginning on a newsgroup/elist in the late 1990's) and Battlestar Galactica (which has essentially taken over my life since mid-2005) -- perhaps a testament to my utter helplessness before the combo of female leaders and female cyborgs. As the first fandom I've been immersed in almost since its inception, BSG femslash has been a particularly rich and rewarding experience for me, including mentoring and infrastructure-building (not to mention my metafannish vlogging and speaking).

Hector Postigo: I'm an assistant professor of new media studies in the Communication Dept. at the University of Utah. My research focuses on new media and society and I'm currently pursuing two lines of research. The first line is a study of social movements and their use of information communication technologies. Recent research in this area has centered on analyzing the digital rights movement's user-centered fair use campaign and the movement's deployment of hacking as a tactic in its extra-institutional repertoire of action. The second line of research focuses on value production on the internet. I was on of the first researchers to study video game fan communities that make valuable modifications to popular PC games (modders) and to study AOL's volunteer communities. My research on both these groups suggests that a large amount of their "invisible" labor contributes to the value produced in digital networks such as the World Wide Web. I've taught courses on the internet and society, information communication technology, and the new economy. Some of my publications can be found here. These are related to modders and their work on video games and AOL volunteers. I come to fan studies primarily as an observer of the productive processes that are the result of various fan community associations. I'm really excited to meld both my macro approach to a political economy of fan work with Julie's ground level understanding of these communities.

Labor and Value in Late Capitalism

HP: I've been working for some time trying to figure out value of modder productions from an economic perspective. I've started with some admittedly simple questions. From my perspective media corporations are motivated by return on revenue first and foremost so when I first started looking at fan production I asked myself 2 questions. 1. Why would anyone want to spend all of their free time making something for which they will get no money for and 2) why would media companies encourage this? Now I admit these are very simplistic questions. #1 assumes that people do things only for money and it also assumes that money is the only reward and that community, reputation, pleasure, and the gift economy have nothing to do with it. # 2 assumes that that the popular culture industry has only one internal logic "make money" but we know that institutions have all kinds of heterogeneity and that nothing is monolithic... The last thing that all this assumes is a very materialist Marxist perspective. #2 presupposes that at some point the media companies surrender control and that that surrender is calculated and that fans become cogs in some sort of post-industrial "social factory." We know that things are way more complex. Fans are active readers and their communities have internal logics, norms, and practices that are oppositional, conspiratorial, and/or neutral to the workings of popular culture and its industry. Fans are both insiders and outsiders in that respect. Regardless, one unwavering fact remains, at least from my experience in video games, fans like to contribute and video game companies for the most part encourage it.


JLR: It seems the first thing you've done is debunk your own questions -- I'm with you so far. In order to launch our conversation from some common theoretical ground, I'd like to refer to Tiziana Terranova's work, which we're both very fond of. Her chapter "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy" was first published in Social Text (2000: Vol. 18, No. 2), revised for her book Network Cultures, and also appears in the downloadable volume The Politics of Information (I'm citing from this version). Her definition of the "digital economy" can offer a useful framework for the issues you raise above (and for fan studies at large):

It is about specific forms of production... but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such... These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion... However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect... Rather than capital 'incorporating' from the outside the authentic fruits of the collective imagination, it seems more reasonable to think of cultural flows as originating within a field that is always already capitalism. (104)

So first of all, she's proposing that we scrap this binary of money/not-money as the benchmark of capitalism. You could say better than I to what degree the entertainment industry has been able to institutionalize this perspective so far, but certainly new rubrics like "engagement marketing" suggest that it's beginning to move in the direction of consciously valuing and promoting activities that aren't directly monetizable. On one hand, we could read this pessimistically: I think a lot of us, myself included, are seduced by the vision of fandom as a "gift economy" or otherwise alternative system of exchange that resists or at least stands partially outside of capitalism. Terronova argues that this fantasy effaces the centrality of such non-waged labor to the post-industrial economy. There's a danger, as you point out, for this position to reduce to "fans are dupes" -- that is, if we're allowing the industry to expropriate the profits of our work, it must be because we're too naive to realize it. But that's an oversimplification ("Free labor," Terranova writes, "is not necessarily exploited labor" [112]). Both sides (insofar as we can still distinguish fans from TPTB) are interdependent, and both sides are capable of being equally calculating.

And on the other hand, I think there's a more optimistic way to view this interpretation: Terronova indicates that, rather than requiring a practice external to capitalism to constitute opposition (a tall order indeed), there are resistances immanent to the system -- I hope I can clarify this formation below. The key point here is that we're transitioning from a schema where work (waged labor) was considered distinct from leisure to a schema where work (waged or not) and leisure become increasingly coextensive and desire and the rest of the affective spectrum become a central productive force.

I admit to knowing almost nothing about gamers (and other communities of grassroots production outside of media fandom), and we agreed that a comparative study was not the most interesting direction for this dialogue. That said, the unique intensity of the collaboration between modders and game companies is inspiring, but I do think it's telling that this detente occurred within an almost exclusively male zone. The gendering of the permittedness and legitimacy of fan practices has come up many times in this series, and the selective valuation and compensation of affective labor along gender (and other) lines is a dynamic Terranova too acknowledges (as do you in the work you sent along to me). This further complicates the already tangled question you raised in #1 above about why (beyond the reductive "false consciousness" explanation) we (women in particular) continue to participate in this regimen. The more idealistic answer is that it's because the power formation isn't monolithic, and while our work remains complicit in some ways it interrogates and challenges it in others.

HP: I wouldn't say I debunk the questions so much as acknowledge that they are oversimplified approaches to getting at the nature of complex labor relations in this post-industrial world of production. I purposefully cite Terranova's use of the social factory a condition in which cultural production is incorporated into labor relations. Community, friendship, fandom, and their products (intangible and tangible goods that are the outcome of social relations as well as the "sweat of the brow") are commoditized. The question for me when I've looked at Terranova's paper/chapter has always been, "how are "the fruits of the collective imagination...originating within a field that is always already capitalism,''" exactly incorporated? I think that her quote above is grounded in her understanding that "Free labor is not necessarily, exploited labor" (which you cite above). I don't know if these processes were always part of capitalism...honestly I have to think about whether I agree that cultural production is always labor (even if it is not exploited) just because it happens within a capitalist system, ideology, potentiality...I think incorporation is key. It's almost as if everything we do is labor it's just that capitalism hasn't figured out a way to exploit all of it yet. I can see the value of that line of thinking since it helps us draw connections between cultural practices and the furtherance of the capitalist logic but can't we imagine some practice that is not ultimately exploitable? I hope so. In the spirit of drawing some boundaries and pinpointing when a cultural practice becomes exploitable I'll hazard a technological deterministic stance. I'll argue that the internet has created the means for establishing a categorical difference between the way cultural products were (maybe) part of capitalism prior to their ability to be placed on line, to a condition in which they are massively available, massively (re)produced and massively broadcast by a medium that literally creates the structure by which that culture can be exploited. From this perspective it wasn't until distribution of fan content for example, became wide spread that value became practically exploitable (even though the content was always valuable). I think Terranova starts to get at this when she discusses the differences in audience produced content on television versus the user created content on the internet (pg. 94-97 -- I'm using the book).

I also shy away from thinking that we ought to "scrap this binary of money/not-money as the benchmark of capitalism." I've spent long hours trying to discern the process by which all those mods, maps, skins, and other forms of modder generated content for PC video games actually translate into a bottom line. The fact that I don't have a definitive answer partly would validate your point and cause me to think that maybe I should stop thinking along those lines but yet something in me resists. The reason why I think this is because there is a practice on the part of video game companies of encouraging modders. For example, video game companies take risks with their very valuable intellectual property (yes even though it is protected by the all pervasive EULA), and that investment at the very least is perceived to be paying dividends. Perhaps the dividends take the form of hard-core gamer loyalty which ensures future customers for a game, perhaps modder productions prolong the life of the game and ensure fans won't drift away or perhaps by allowing for a creative space that admittedly is very crowded, game companies encourage an "incubator lab" for novel ideas for games. So for example, while number of mods that get "adopted" by the video game company and distributed are few, that small percentage of marketable product is a tolerable return because the company invested a comparatively small amount (an SDK, maybe access to the source code, and so on) to encourage a vibrant development community that takes risks, explores different content and potentially can yield a tested game variant proven to be loved by its community. Given all this I have difficulty believing that game companies are ultimately not dealing in and encouraging a commodity that will ultimately reduce itself to profit. The labor relation is still there it's just inside a host of layers that are unstructured.

JLR: Much of this is very close to how I (or Terranova) would look at it -- "the labor relation is still there it's just inside a host of layers that are unstructured" is a very elegant description of the diffuse nebula of cultural production. But I'd like to note that the entertainment industry is not equal to "capitalism." Capitalism is a set of structural conditions within which both producers and consumers must operate. Though corporations are still motivated in every explicit sense by financial profit, it doesn't necessarily follow that money is the sole operator of the system at large -- and your example bears this out, since most of what modders do falls outside of the company's "tolerable return." So then, as you suggest, once of the crucial ideological processes of capitalism is to make it appear tautologically as if activities that make money are more valuable in legitimate ways than activities that don't. Which is where a whole host of inequalities such as gender enter the picture.

Let me engage your question: "how are 'the fruits of the collective imagination... originating within a field that is always already capitalism,' exactly incorporated?" The first thing I'd point out is that other participants in this series, as well as Terronova herself, have cautioned against modeling the relationship between cultural laborers and the culture industry in terms of "incorporation." Now, I do think there are good reasons to deploy this concept strategically, namely that it highlights the different kinds and degrees of power enjoyed by corporations and fans, and thus offers a clear basis for resisting the troubling trends within this landscape. But another way of looking at it is through the concept of immanence, which is a buzzword in a lot of theorizing about late capitalism (tracing Terranova back through the Italian Autonomists to Deleuze+Guattari). This is a flat rather than stratified model of power and control which suggests that various contradictory positions can be coextensive. So for our example of fan production, the way I'd look at it is not so much that our free labor is "exploited" when it's channelled into the industry's financial economy, but rather that aspects of our free labor are always flowing into the dominant economy while other aspects are always flowing around and in excess of it. So the political project is not so much to protect the autonomy of fan communities from TPTB in a binary sense as to deflect the channelling and increase the excess.

That said, the question of precisely what the mechanism of these flows are is a fair one (the theoretical abstraction is what drives people nuts, right?). I think you're on the money to point to digital technologies as a crucial site for grappling with this issue more concretely. There's a leveling or disintermediation that happens here which aligns with the horizontal model I described: as you point out, the immaterial, instantaneous, non-rivalrous characteristics of digital media make it more practicable than ever before for the industry to mobilize fan labor in literal and direct ways (i.e. "user-generated content"). On the flipside, though, they also make it more practicable than ever before for fans to "exploit" corporate products directly (i.e. now that TV is going digital, a vast repository of it is available to me, freely and illegally, to use and manipulate as I see fit). I'm agreeing with you that technology and convergence make cultural labor more palpable and its value more immediate. In this context, the local variations in code, interface, and framing matter: one could compare how fan media could and does play out on YouTube vs. imeem vs. vs. Revver, for example, because each of these instantiates a different set of possibilities and powers (within the given system -- of course, all of them are still ultimately for-profit services).

Finally, you ask, "can't we imagine some practice that is not ultimately exploitable?" I hope we can too, and I've groused about this before. But I've been forced to admit that the call for some "outside" position isn't ultimately so realistic or useful. I'd counter that the most productive positions at this point are hybrid ones that collude in some ways and resist in others -- and luckily a LOT of us find ourselves in this situation. I'd like to map out the PARTS of practices that aren't exploitable, that remain to gum up the cogs of capitalism.

HP: I not sure if I want to abandon the term incorporation even though as you note Terranova and others don't necessarily prefer it (interestingly she uses the term in scare quotes but uses it nonetheless). Maybe my understanding of incorporation is not what others are thinking or maybe there are layers which need to be teased out. I think there is the possibility to draw some boundaries between certain kinds of incorporation so that both a coextensive model and one that give a clear delineation of when/how content becomes effectively part of the labor relation. Ideological incorporation is one way to look at it I think. One can have content that is commoditized yet ideologically is still resistive....but I think the way I'm thinking about is economic incorporation (as in making the cultural production part of some direct/indirect labor relationship...waged or not). So my point is that once means are found to extract profit from a process/product it is incorporated into the relations governed by labor...the logic kicks in...there is no avoiding it produce it on line...I figure a way to squeeze a buck out if it and its part of the alienable...questions of ownership, fair compensation and exploitation all come from this...despite the cautions I wonder whether immanence serves to improve our understanding of the processes that allow/disallow exploitation, incorporation or channeling? To say that "aspects of our free labor are always flowing into the dominant economy while other aspects are always flowing around and in excess of it," sounds theoretically interesting but how does it really work at the moment when it's exploited? If I imagine the field of all that is produced by fans and we feel that most of it is "in excess" or "around" why is that? Is it beyond exploitation? Why? Because of material constraints or content or something else? And I should be clear that when I say exploitation I'm mean a process by which the product becomes market alienable...some one can sell it...I guess for me that is incorporation.

Your point that the very same technologies that facilitate exploitability are also the ones that facilitate participatory culture is right on and I think points to a paradox in the way these technologies are used. On the one hand there is a strong drive to create technologies that lower the barrier to entry into a participatory culture (web 2.0 techs and such) while at the same time there is a drive to develop technologies that prevent or "lock up" the content (such as DRM). In the field of all this technological development, one question I like to ask is: What technologies are users themselves developing to allow for increased participatory culture? It seems that many of the technologies that are immediately associated with increased participatory culture on the Web are developed with market interests in mind. So I like to think of hackers as a great population of user/developers that are both insiders but also outsiders and thus have developed some really useful technology to facilitate participatory culture from the perspective of users not necessarily from the perspective of a market mindset. The anti-DRM technologies like HYMN, JHYMN, QTFairUse and even DeCSS come to mind.

I think your point about the gendered nature of modder and video game company relationship is right on. I think the problem is part of a wider issue in how we talk about what is valuable labor, and who gets to do it and part of a broader class issue as well. The rhetoric of the "professional" for example validates the work of programmers as worthy of a wage but not of amateur programmers (except within less then fairly compensated structures of crowdsourcing for example). When I looked at AOL volunteers I wanted to unpack the ideological baggage associated with the word volunteer and how that constructed the worker in a gendered fashion, disempowering claims for understanding what they were doing as work. I think rewriting texts to challenge and interrogate them is important I'd love to hear more on that from you though. Is the reason that you continue to participate an idealistic project or are there other reasons?

JLR: In the case of media fandom, acafans have pointed out that there's a gendered logic to intellectual property law, which functions to limit which instances of cultural labor can be waged. Notions of "originality" favor forms of production that are practiced disproportionately by men (this has come up elsewhere in the series, if I recall). Traditionally "feminine" labor, often associated with consumption and desire, is classed as "derivative" and thus of lesser worth (financial and otherwise). Now, I'm particularly interested in the centrality of desire to capitalism. Yes, one could trace this back to Marx's commodity fetishism; to put it most simply: you have to desire something to want to consume it. I like to call the work we do to make products meaningful to us libidinal labor (my roomie chimes in to say I'm just renaming cathexis). It becomes increasingly important in post-industrial capitalism because commodities themselves are increasingly immaterial ("brands" rather than widgets). Your point that we need to retain some of the financial specificity of terms like "incorporation" and "labor" is well taken, but I'm still not convinced that even this economic register of the "process by which the product becomes market alienable" is clearly bounded these days -- witness the retooling of the Nielsen rubrics in a rather frantic effort to fix engagement in some monetizable metric, for example.

So as for the impetus behind my own activities as a fan, fic ("rewriting texts to challenge and interrogate them," as you graciously put it) just materializes the labor ALL media consumers do. I realize I'm sidestepping the debates about how to taxonomize the diversity of fan activities, here, but I do believe there's a common ground in the axiomatic "active audience" framework. This is the sense in which my fan work sustains the industry (even though they're not profiting from it directly, even though it may be critical in content), because it elaborates and regenerates the desire that gives their texts economic value. But I am an idealist (don't tell my advisors!) and I also trust that there's more to it than that. This is where the question of what's "excessive" comes in. Desire is never going to be fully contained within the capitalist box, and that remainder stresses the ideologies (legal, economic, heteronormative) that hold the system in place -- though I'm not yet prepared to answer your reasonable query as to how, concretely, this operates. I think a lot of us feel like we can assert our ownership over these bright shiny objects by artistically reworking them, and given the instability of ownership right now that's not necessarily a delusion.

We run into a dilemma, though, when trying to prescribe the concrete (re)configuration of the relationship between fans and industry. Despite the fact that fan production is always integrated with capitalism, I do think that the partial disaffiliation of our communities from corporations and commercialism is valuable (as I said, the industry is not equivalent to capitalism writ large). I'm tempted to dub creative fans hermeneutic hackers, because our textual tinkering seems to fit your definition of "insiders but also outsiders [who] have developed some really useful technology to facilitate participatory culture" ;). At the same time, given the inequalities that circumscribe our unwaged activities, there's a certain class privilege implicit in celebrating non-monetary craft and exchange (I'm not the first to bring this up). Anne Kustritz emphasized that poor fans can and do take part in our "gift" economy, but nonetheless I wouldn't want to imply that it's "wrong" to want to be recognized and compensated in the dominant culture's financial terms for one's labor. What I hope is that these paths aren't mutually exclusive, and both can coexist within the diversifying and intensifying network of fan engagement. The choice between being marginalized and being assimilated wouldn't be a pleasant one.

HP: One thing I'd like to bring up before we wrap up this section is the idea of ownership. I think (related to your point over masculinized nature of IP) is that the very rhetoric of ownership seems to have a logic which privileges one gender over an other. The most obvious case is the differential privileges that historically have existed in the law which permitted men to be property owners over things and people. More subtley is the idea that "man" needs property to become a full human being which is rooted in Locke's arguments for property which can be (a bit simplistically I admit) reduced to "I own therefore I am." Thus by this logic all structure (legal, economic, social) that permits ownership helps fulfill the mandate to be a full human being. This of course is troublesome for gift economies and free things (like love, care-giving, libidinal labor or passionate labor as I've heard it called before etc).

JLR: Word! I'd love to delve further into the ideological underpinnings of humanistic notions like "originality" on which IP law rests, but I think that's beyond the scope of this blog post. So onwards...