Acafandom and Beyond: Week Two, Part One (Henry Jenkins, Erica Rand, and Karen Hellekson)

The Origins of "Acafan" -- Henry Jenkins I have been "credited" (or "blamed," depending on your perspective) with coining the term, "Acafan." Unfortunately, I don't remember when or how this occurred. Like many rich concepts, the term took shape over time, refined through conversations with students, colleagues, and fans. By the time Textual Poachers was published in 1992, I was moderating a short-lived discussion list called Acafan-L, involving mostly fans working on graduate degrees exchanging what we would today call "metafan" comments. "Acafan," however, does not appear in Textual Poachers which starts with my personal declaration as someone who is both a fan and an academic. I had been a fan for well over a decade, I was newly minted as an academic.

While built on the foundations of the Birmingham School, fan studies emerged in 1992, with the publication of Poachers and Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women, of Constance Penley's key essays on slash, and Lisa Lewis's The Adoring Audience (which included Jolie Jensen, John Fiske, Larry Grossberg, and others). Bacon-Smith may have been the most immersed of all of us into the fan community, yet for methodological and temperamental reasons, she presented herself as "The Ethnographer" who observes but participants only through formal experiments to see how the community practices work. The fan community itself embraced those more willing to signal affiliation, the relationship the term, aca-fan, was intended to capture, and many found Bacon-Smith's self presentation off-putting.

I've always thought some bright graduate student should systematically compare Enterprising Women and Textual Poachers: two ethnographies of more or less the same community, published only a few months apart, but so fundamentally different in approach and attitude, accessing different voices, reaching different conclusions, both capturing (but not adequately predicting) a moment of transition when digital media was reshaping what had long been a print and postal focused subculture. Some of the differences reflect the move from second to third wave feminism and some, shifts in our understanding of the relationship between personal and scholarly experiences.

I do not remember when or under what circumstances we first used the term, "acafan", but I do recall why we felt such a word was necessary.

A small but significant body of pre-existing scholarship about fandom pathologized the enthusiasms and participations so central to our work. Often, fans were depicted as inarticulate, incapable of explaining their motives or actions. This claim of inarticulateness was typically coupled by the scholar's refusal to engage with the community (and thus a rejection of the value of ethnographic methods). Instead, there was a focus on textual or ideological analysis of cult television, often framed around episodes not significant and often despised within the fan canons formed around these same series. Part of what allowed this pathologization of fandom was that the researchers were not implicated in their own analysis and were not accountable to a fan community. Many researchers treated fans less as collaborators than as bugs under a microscope. At the time, many fans and fan practices were behind closed doors, especially in a pre-digital era. For example, one of the first online communities focused on slash specifically prohibited academics and men (so I was doubly out of the picture).

The new "acafen" (fen has been the plural of fan within the science fiction fan culture) sought to distinguish themselves from the previous generation by signaling their own affiliations with and accountability to the communities they were studying. At the same time, many of us were also being accused of being "inauthentic" when speaking as fans, accused of "slumming it" or "going native" when we claimed to be part of the world we were studying, reflecting assumptions about intellectual and cultural capital that separated high culture academics and pop culture fans. We wanted to signal a dual allegiance -- to treat our subcultural knowledge as part of what informed the work we were doing as scholars. We were not simply fans and we were not simply academics - we were acafen.

A later generation would claim our sense of fandom was too rationalized (Matt Hills), not sufficiently focused on issues of passion, desire, pleasure, and affect, and Derek Johnson would question whether we papered over the "fantagonisms" which occured within fandom. Perhaps, but at the time, the fight was to get rid of this taint of irrationality, seeing being a fan as a meaningful rather than trivial pursuit.

As writers like Jolie Jensen noted, this mixture of passion and knowledge was what qualified one to speak about classical music, serious literature, or high art, but because of the legacy of critical studies, being passionate about popular culture was seen as being duped by the culture Industries. Many of us felt that there were things we could not understand about popular culture from the outside looking in.

Tapping our lived experiences, we argued, returned cultural studies to its roots. Take a look, for example, at how Raymond Williams mobilizes his personal experiences as a scholarship student and his working class childhood in "Culture is Ordinary." Think about what he has to say about his youthful embrace of libraries and museums as opposed to the way he got treated when he went to tea shops. Think about how his anger shaped his theories.

Or think about the ways Angela McRobbie shook up the Birmingham boys club working on subcultures, calling out Dick Hebdidge and others for not owning up to their own relationships to the groups they study, and asserting the importance of her own knowledge as a woman about what took place in adolescent girl's bedrooms rather than in the streets.

And of course, the Birmingham tradition was only one place we could have turned for examples of the subjective turn in cultural analysis. "Writing from a standpoint" was a feminist issue, and Jane Tompkins was asserting the right to tap the language of affect and fantasy, to write in first person, arguing that what she knew about literary texts was being excluded from male-dominated critical practices and institutions. Within anthropology, Renato Rosaldo's book, Culture and Truth, was asserting a potential link between academic distance and the colonialist project of earlier anthropologists. The only way forward, he argued, was for ethnographers to describe their own subjective experiences and to be more accountable to the communities they studied.

For me, perhaps the most important influence, though, was the emergence of queer studies as a theoretical paradigm closely linked to the experience of scholars making decisions about whether or not to come out of the closet in their professional lives. My office at MIT was across the hall from David Halperin, who referenced my discussion of slash in his work in queer historiography; I was deeply informed by his stance as a scholar who openly acknowledged his own desires and sexuality as a source of insight and knowledge. In media studies, I was also inspired by the work of Alex Doty, Erica Rand, and others, who were insisting on the value of "making things perfectly queer" (as Doty's book title suggests). At the same time, Rand's work on Barbie was suggesting the ways we selectively mobilize and retrospectively construct aspects of our own lived experience in order to reconcile them with our current self-perceptions.

Queer politics was being felt within fan culture itself during the early 1990s, with the rise of a global AIDS pandemic and debates about Robert Mapplethorpe's federal funding representing turning points in terms of how slash fans in particular saw themselves and their culture. Many were talking about "coming out" or being "outed" as fans. Reading as a fan was often a queer practice, and many fans joined pride parades and spoke out for gay rights. Queer scholars often signaled their identities through their introductions, feeling that there was an ethical obligation to be honest about how you knew what you knew and what motivated your work. And for me, this commitment spilled over into how I wrote about fandom. I do not mean to see the stakes of queer studies in the age of AIDS as comparable to fans trying to defend the value of their cultural identities but one informed the other. In some cases, they were linked, as when young fans were thrown out of their houses when their parents found their slash zines hidden under their beds or when adult women had to hide their involvement in fandom from husbands who saw their reading and writing of male-male erotica as sexual betrayal.

So, I can't tell you when Acafan was born, but these are the ideas and feelings from which it was born.

Is the term still useful today? I don't know, and that's why I am eager to host such a conversation. I know that the term has become so much a part of my identity through twenty years of use that I am going to be one of the very last to abandon it. "Acafan" should not be abandoned unless we can hold onto what has been gained by its deployment through the years.

Pleasure/Politics; Twirling/Defence -- Erica Rand

For the past five years, I've been trying to work my way out of the problem represented by the prompt: "Have we found a way to talk about pleasure [that] no longer requires self-reflexivity about our politics?" I know how long it's been partly by the date of a 15 December 2007 Dear Abby column that I grabbed from The Portland Press Herald, my local paper, early into my participant-observation project grounded in adult (grown-up vs. xxx) figure skating. "Abby" told the "Woman Search[ing] for Reason to End her Guiltless Affair," that "when something feels good, it is easy to become addicted . . . and then you'll be in for a world of pain." I used the comment in my first essay derived from this research, writing that pleasure had a bit of a bad rep among theorists of pleasure from Barthes (Pleasure of the Text) to Abby. In that context, I think, Abby functioned as a funny anti-model and the pairing with Barthes functioned, implicitly and a bit to the contrary, or so I hoped, as an acafan-type call to find theorizing that matters in sources around us.

I hadn't quite intended the first exactly, however, or lived up to the second. Revision changed things. The first draft I'd submitted began with a personal anecdote positioning myself as a surprised, somewhat rueful compatriot of Abby and Barthes. It concerned discovering that my adamant pro-pleasure stance was not as solid as I had imagined it to be before I took up a project where the brief summary didn't have "I fight oppression" as an obvious subtext. "Migration policing," even "Barbie," serve the purpose in a way that "figure skating" simply does not. In response to feedback from the editor/gatekeeper, which I interpreted to require me to make my theorizing more visible (to him, I thought crankily but not necessarily fairly), I frontloaded words like "neoliberalism" and some theoretical engagements that I'd originally positioned later.

It worked on him and, consequently, for me, especially after a series of conference paper and article rejections suggesting that either the work was terrible or that pleasure was indeed still a discredited topic as I'd heard. (I couldn't even interest the p.r. people at my own institution, formerly so interested in my work.) But the capitulation had some negative effects. Most important to me at the time was that even though the primary theory-engagement-demonstrator I used was pretty juicy--Kiss and Tell's Her Tongue on My Theory (Press Gang, 1994), one of my favorite texts--the beginning became far less reader-friendly. Even my academic skater friends commented "your article was so interesting--after I got through the first few pages." I wished I had fought more for the pleasure of my own text. The article lives in my own head as not quite the one I would have written and I shrank from inviting people to read it, fearing that it would turn them away from reading more.

By the time I finished the to-copyediting book manuscript on the topic (shameless ad in the bio below), I saw Abby's advice differently. I'm no fan of applying the label "addiction" to anything pleasurable that one does a lot. Why is a lot of pleasure a problem? What and whom does medicalizing stigmatization benefit? But I came to see the interconnections between love, money, and time that give so many adult figure skaters--including me--the ingredients for a classic addiction narrative. As I put it in the manuscript,

It can come upon you the way that bumming a cigarette at a party can turn into a pack-a-day habit: bit by bit before your very eyes, yet before you know it and while you half-deliberately missed what was happening. It begins, perhaps, with a group lesson every week, that you attend if nothing else is up. A few years later, skating has shunted other activities to the side, involving cash, prioritizing, and sacrifices that would have seemed unimaginable at first. Maybe they seem lunatic still. But the bar for sanity, or justifiable lunacy, has surely risen. So has the bar for satisfaction. You need more to have enough. You scheme to get it. Maybe you cut your expenses by getting in on the delivery. Perceived wants become perceived needs. You can't quit, or moderate, even when you know you're hurting yourself (or others). Shame and guilt--about having, spending, wanting--dampen, or fuel, the thrills.

There's something to learn from how well the analogy works that isn't "(say) you need to go to rehab if you sext outside of marriage." I'm still thinking through about what.

I'm also still trying to think through attaching "politics of" to "pleasure." I want to study political matters about pleasure, but came to think that describing my topic as the "politics of pleasure" was especially a way to butch it up, aligning with bad histories of gendered dichotomizing. Pleasure/politics; art/science; sex/war; twirling/defense (as in offense-defense); the first term in each has been denigrated in numerous contexts for allegedly feminine attributes. Plus, there's the creepy aura of alibi a la cause-related marketing (Product (RED)): notice all the white people around you and buy permission to skate your life away.

From that angle, the "politics of pleasure" seems like an excuse for no self-reflexivity about one's politics. Plus, here is one of many ways that immersing myself in figure skating brought me to rethink my relation to a political position I really believe(d): put simply, people should not have to rely on the Oprah-style largesse, parodied in Bring it On, for fun or survival. Yes but who am I to toss out someone else's pleasure with a disdainful "ugh, neoliberal" because a 501 (c) 3 is buying them figure skating lessons in Harlem?

Five years into it, I'm still rolling around with it, now mixed with a bit of self-absorbed sadness and panic: fieldwork is done, now what?

Affect and Interpretation-- Karen Hellekson

As a scholar trained in the field of English, which is all about interpretation and not so much about affect, I tend to be unconcerned about how people feel about ideas or texts. Back in the distant mists of time, when I taught, I was annoyed by student writing that dealt with emotion alone as though it were a valid response to a text. A response like, "It was confusing and I hated it!" to a complex novel is not in any way useful, despite what students clearly seem to think. Get to the formal aspects that made you feel that way! I exhorted them. What about the text made you hate it? What characters, what situations, what textual choices, what aspects of the authorial voice? If you must valorize your emotional response, use it as a doorway into interpretation!

I actually stand by that assertion, even as I left students behind when I happily left the academy more than ten years ago. In terms of critical engagement and analysis, feeling may certainly exist--in fact, it must, or where is the love, joy, and interest that compel active engagement? Academics are nothing if not fans, although for people who work in science fiction (like me) or media or fan studies (like all of us posting today), the term fan may have a slightly different articulation than the average Jo, thanks to the formal structures that have sprung up to permit fannish expression, including things like fan fiction and fan conventions and fan online message boards. Suffice it to say that for me, the pleasure of the text seems occult and forbidding, even forbidden. My writing of slash fan fiction must be subsumed under the rubric of interpretation; how else to explain the overwhelming pleasure of the (writing of the derivative) text, without resorting to "it was confusing and I hated it! So I fixed it!"

As someone who thinks that everything ought to have either use or beauty, and preferably both, the term acafan falls short. Positioning oneself in relationship to the text seems delightfully old-fashioned. Why use up an essay's precious words explaining an obvious relationship? Isn't the disinterested scholar a thing of the past? Has postmodernism taught us nothing?

Aca has a snooty connotation: I have been trained to interpret, and I know better than you. Fans are immediately suspicious. Fan has the connotation of unthinking, uncritical adoration. Academics are immediately suspicious.

The portmanteau word so constructed must bear a heavy load, mediating the disinterest of the scholar with the passion of the fan. Further, the term's use does not necessarily benefit. To fans, acafans may be treated with suspicion. To some fans, to become an object of study by someone you thought of as a friend or community member is fun, even flattering; to others, it is threatening, something to be shut down. To academics, it signals a level of immersion that may confer credibility even as it may cause a fear of bias, along, perhaps, with a raised eyebrow.

What unites the academic and the fan is the unbearable pleasure of the text--unbearable yet faced and negotiated, a (pre)text responded to with text. As a practitioner, I prefer to focus on the aca side, but that is the result of my discipline's biases and my training. By such a focus, I think I become a better practitioner because I try not to be partisan. While researching, it helps me negotiate the terrain. I am horrified by certain aspects of the fan world, like incivility and name-calling (in my defense, some of my recent work has been on fan kerfuffles and wank, where incivility can be the order of the day), even as I am struck by fans' thoughtful, decisive analyses (known as meta), performed in a different register than acafannish work--personal, biased, honest in a way that acafannish work tends to dance around because of its use of a dispassionate tone and its choice of publication venue.

I suspect--I know--that aca work and fan work are the same work, performed for different audiences. I perform them both: I write fan fiction to critique the source text in my fan work, but my academic work performs the same function. For me, "It was confusing and I hated it!" is the same thing as "It made me think and I loved it!" The text I generate is the why.

Acafan is a created structure that serves to gesture mostly to itself, a term whose use speaks to a relatively small subset of researchers who recognize the bifurcation inherent in the term and exploit that bifurcation. Its power lies in the academic's power; the fan gains little or nothing from its deployment. Within the realm of fan studies, the term has become a shorthand that indicates a particular approach and stance--one that involves affect, thanks to the fan, and power, thanks to the academic, yet it is deployed at an academic moment (at least in English) where such self-positioning is not considered useful. Its use announces the interweaving of affect and scholarship and signals the topic as fan studies.

The instability between fan and scholar provides endless modalities to play with, gaps to fill, and openings to exploit. To close them is to shut down a conversation that is still generative as it explores notions of authority and affect. For this instability alone, acafan is a useful term; and for me, as I consider the word, flung at my feet, for me to dance with or not, it can be beautiful.


Karen Hellekson ( is a freelance copyeditor who lives in Maine. For her posts, she looked up the words name tag, kneejerk, exegesis, and imbrication. She studied with James Gunn and at the Institute for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures. Involved in face-to-face fandom from 1982 to 1996 and then online fandom since 2001, she writes slash and runs a fan fiction archive.

Henry Jenkins He is the Provost's Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education at the University of Southern California. He has recently completed Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, due out in 2012. His current fannish interests include comics, Disney, silent movies, The Walking Dead, Castle, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who...

Erica Rand teaches in Women and Gender Studies and in Art and Visual Culture at Bates College. Her most recent big project, which brings the aca, the fan, and a lot of ice time to sports studies, currently titled Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash, and Pleasure On and Off the Ice (Duke U. Press), is forthcoming in 2012. She also serves on the editorial boards of Criticism, Radical Teacher and Salacious: A Queer Feminist Sex Magazine (submit, submit, submit) , and shares the Salacious Advisor job, in print and on the blog.