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

Erica Rand: Karen, I'm really struck by your passage: "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!" I hate to sound so simplistic but is it partly liking to do a different kind of writing? I've recently gotten the chance to reprise a previous sideline of queer sex advice columnist. I just love the different style of it. But I see what you're saying about how for you, fan fiction has a bit of the same function as critique.

Also, is there also something about people's relationship to being "an academic"? Little anecdote: I was just at a workshop on teaching first year seminars and the person leading it did the icebreaker of having us discuss in small groups an incident in college where we first identified as scholars. (Not my idea of an icebreaker, which I think of as more like, "Name a cheesy song you would stay in the car to listen to if it came on the radio.") Anyway, it made me realize that I don't think of myself as a scholar. I think of myself as a nerd because I think superb punctuation is hot and like to watch number patterns emerge on my odometer--although not so much since the numbers don't turn mechanically. But scholars, they work down the hall from me; a crazy disconnect like describing the family weirdness of one's siblings as if one didn't come from the same family.

Karen Hellekson:

I do think that that creating fan texts is an interpretive response: fan fiction, fan vids, and other fan artifacts are really just analysis--exegesis with a point, and a point of view. The kneejerk emotional response (which I articulate here, obviously simplistically, as "it was confusing and I hated it!") can be pretext, but it's just the jumping-off point for exploring the why. It usually isn't particularly valuable by itself. Like or dislike--it doesn't matter which, because either can provoke a response. It is hard to engage intensely with something that leaves you neutral. I usually write academic texts about things that I like or that I find intellectually interesting. I usually write fan fiction about things that bother me or to explain things. My essay here was a chance for me to bind together the affective and scholarly voices.

My relationship to being an academic: it's fraught. I tend to feel insecure about it because I am unaffiliated, and people's reactions (when they see "independent scholar" on my name tag; when it comes up when I'm chatting with a professor-colleague of my husband's at a university party) are often weird, like they're not sure how to deal with me, and then I get flustered and say stupid things and overshare. My job as a freelancer is isolating. This academic thing is a way to get out of the house, to talk about things that really interest me, to engage with fabulous like-minded people, and to have substantive, thought-provoking conversations. If "what I am" is what comes out of my mouth when people ask me about myself, then I'm a consumer of media and a copyeditor in the sciences. My scholarship, including writing articles and books and editing an academic journal, is basically unpaid service that I can't explain in a sentence at parties.

(A cheesy song that I would stay in the car to listen to is Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz." I first thought of myself as a scholar when I delivered a paper as a MA student at KU at the Campbell Conference and was delighted that everyone seemed genuinely interested. It is because of that honest interest, now maintained especially through the Science Fiction Research Association, that I have kept a foot in that academy.)

Henry Jenkins:

Karen raises some important questions about the discipline specificity of the acafan position, which is one of the real value of having such a diverse set of contributors in this exchange. In Literary Studies, fan-scholars have had to overcome the affective fallacy, which has historically rendered our emotional responses to literary texts mute and irrelevant.

By contrast, in film and media studies, almost all writing starts from some kind of theory of spectatorship, whether media is understood as propaganda, art or popular culture. There are times that I think films would not exist if they were not projected to a viewer just as a tree falling in the forest would not make any sound if there was no one around to hear it. Even our formalist theories, or at least the version I was trained in, starts with the issue of defamiliarization, which assumes a viewer who is shocked or startled out of their habitual norms of viewing by some element in the text.

The question is whether your theory of spectatorship starts from the attempt to accurately capture your own emotional response to the work or whether you are, in my book, speculating about someone else's emotional responses. And the danger is that when you start speculating about someone else's feelings, you end up imagining that someone else as more vulnerable, gullible, and susceptible to influence than you see yourself, and that's why media studies was so pathologizing in its construction of fans in the absence of the acafan move. So much of the dread of popular culture from the academic perspective is precisely that it demands our emotional engagement as compared to the more distanced viewership imagined to be the domain of high culture (whether distanciation is imagined as a political position a la Brecht or a class-based posture a la Bourdieu).

You cannot write about soap operas or melodramas without a theory of tears, about horror without a theory of fear and dread, about Hitchcock without a theory of suspense, or comedy without a theory of laughter. And again, work which writes about someone else's feelings is apt to distort the nature of what it is describing in relation to popular culture, to be dismissive and simplistic.

Of course, one hopes that such a theory goes beyond your ""It was confusing and I hated it!" and the real test of the acafan perspective is not where it starts, but where it ends up.

Even on the level of its affective grounding, I would argue that the goal is to be more complex and sophisticated in describing our emotional responses and what sparks them within the work (or its context). And that points us towards some of the issues Erica raises, which I want to address more fully next time. For the moment, let me note that for me, a theory of fandom minimally tries to capture both fascination and frustration, both of which seem to be present in the best fan writing, whether fanfic which writes beyond the ending or Meta which challenges the ideological construction of a beloved text. Look at some of the responses I've run in my blog to the ending of Smallville -- the best of which have been critiques of gender politics or simply genre expectations which start from an impassioned and by no means uncritical perspective but which build out a fuller description of what provokes it.

For me, perhaps the most nuanced and challenging acafan posture to achieve is one of ambivalence, which is not at all "wishy-washy" but rather tries to deal with deep and conflicting responses to the work. A hallmark of ambivalence in cultural critique would be Laura Kipnis's extraordinary essay about Hustler -- which offends her and fascinates her and she's trying to work through this conflicted response. I can imagine this being part of what Erica is trying to capture in her work on figure skating (or at least seems to be part of what I am reading from her provocation here).

Karen Hellekson:

I'm struck by Henry's and Erica's remarks about pathologizing and addiction--terms with negative connotations that hint at fan studies' tendency to be perceived as extreme and therefore suspect, both by outsiders and by ourselves as we get our fix. Joli Jenson, in "Fandom as Pathology," sees this insider-outsider debate as central: fandom must be pathologized because "once fans are characterized as deviant, they can be treated as disreputable, even dangerous 'others.'" This othering permits separation in the field of play: "Fans, when insistently characterized as 'them,' can be distinguished from 'people like us' (students, professors and social critics) as well as from (the more reputable) patrons or aficianados or collectors. But these respectable social types could also be defined as 'fans.'" Here Jenson gestures to status and taste. The mode of othering and taste making inherent in the default view Jenson is working against still remain. Those of us who work in media studies must traverse these discontinuities: high and low culture, fan and academic, insider and outsider. Henry's coining of the term acafan is one way to mediate these oppositions.

I'm struck by my own tendency to be drawn to these so-called maligned fields: my literary specialty is science fiction, and no sooner does SF get all mainstreamed and I no longer have to defend myself, when I decide fan studies is tons of fun and I have to start all over again. Luckily there are many wonderful academic organizations where SF and fan studies are welcome, where acafans can go and have substantial conversations under the reassuringly default view that of course these modes of inquiry are valuable and useful. We can't spend all our time justifying ourselves or explaining that we are not pathological; we have to have time to interpret our world too.

Henry's term acafan filled a void: its very creation and then its subsequent deployment suggest that such a word was needed (and as a dealer in words, I very much enjoyed Henry's description of the context of its creation). I like linguist-novelist Suzette Haden Elgin's explanation of neologisms that fill a needed gap: she calls it Encoding, "the making of a name for a chunk of the world that so far as we know has never been chosen for naming before ... and that has not just suddenly been made or found or dumped upon [our] culture. We mean naming a chunk that has been around a long time but has never before impressed anyone as sufficiently important to deserve its own name" (Native Tongue, chap. 2).

The term acafan is thus wonderful, a naming of something that had been whose cultural context was suddenly right to explore the issues--and is still right, and thus this conversation. Although I find the word ultimately self-referential, I appreciate its generative aspects, which deploy from its overt linking of scholarship (aca) and affect (fan).

Erica found her work "an acafan-type call to find theorizing that matters in sources around us." I love this articulation of making meaning from things that we decide are interesting: Wordsworth found meaning in a cloud, whereas we might find it in, well, the cloud. Yet the same modes of interpretation resonate. English still owes perhaps too much to New Criticism in its approaches (valorizing the text), just as media studies still bases critical approaches on the spectator (valorizing the viewer), yet all fields concerned with making meaning rely on the complex interplay between the elements of the rhetorical situation: text, creator, consumer, context. Ultimately that is what the acafan conversation is about: what can we learn about these things when viewed through this particular lens?

Erica Rand:

Karen, I love the point you took from my comment about finding theorizing that matters all around us. But actually, I meant something related to what Henry wrote about how important it is to promote avoiding presumptions that professional critics and academics have more rich and complicated interpretations of culture than the people in pronouncements about what something means: means to whom? how do you know? Most obvious when reading student essays about how "society feels" or how raunchy music videos threaten to corrupt one's younger sister (always the sisters, somehow), but, as Henry notes, underlying a lot of work and whole fields, certainly the one I was trained in, art history.

And yes, to respond to Henry's comment just above Karen's, that ambivalence is part of what I'm trying to get to. Except with skating, it's different than I'm used to. Not so much like loving pop songs with sexist lyrics, but in addition to that, a layer of deeply felt contradiction in the practice. For example, in figure skating I've found my own femininity, as I understand it, alternately fed, trashed, and unrecognizable as femininity under figure skating's dominant codes of femininity, partly because queer femme dyke codes don't work with them. (Thus I might stand out as unfeminine for being the only female in our annual recital who chose to wear pants for her solo--gasp--and the pants is what people notice not the sparkly tight low-cut top that reads out differently, I think, if your underlying opposition is femme/butch (where showing/hiding protrusions might be a big gender marker) as opposed to a model locating an ideal in that ballerina(or ballerina/slut) look.

So I keep being slammed, hurt, judged--in a hugely educational, productive way--by being smacked up against standards I don't meet despite finding my pleasures in what I perceive to be living inside their essence. Somehow despite going on and on, in course after course ("legislative, judicial, executive, legislative, judicial, executive, legislative, judicial, executive . . . ." as the sometimes tedium of repeating basics is represented in the movie Election), about gender being complicated, vexed, painful, a story even if not centrally with trans content, being in the middle of it made a big difference. The sports studies version of acafan maybe.

Separate: I want to go back to something I brought up earlier about whether there is an acafan pleasure in adopting modes and voices for different contexts. I bring it up because I'm a bit hooked on this bit of weirdness: This season's Bachelorette is from Maine, and the Portland Press Herald, every Tuesday, has a FRONT PAGE article, at least below the crease, recapping the previous night's show as if it were a sports or news event. Tuesday the 14th, from Ray Routhier's article: 'The Bachelorette': Trip to Thailand helps mend a broken heart: A restaurant owner named Constantine helps Ashley Hebert put Bentley behind her":

The second date in Thailand was a "group date," in which Hebert and 10 men helped renovate an orphanage. On the night of that outing, Hebert was seen with J.P., kissing again. "Kissing J.P. is magical, the best kisses I've had here by far," Hebert said into the camera. "J.P. is one sexy man. That shaved head? Mmmm."

I'm very taken with what we might call this news-o-fan production (maybe without the hyphens when the term catches on). It's not quite the same as the now taken for granted celebrity news as news, because the author seems to be a guy trying on gendered writing and interests in ways that interest me.

Henry Jenkins:

The circumstances which Erica describes above hint at some of the difficulty with binary descriptions of participant-observation or insider ethnography. They sound like they cover more than they do. There are different forms of belonging and participating, different degrees of inside and outside. So, Erica belongs to the group she is studying but for many reasons, does not fit comfortably within their aesthetic and gender norms (or at least as she describes it). Similarly, as we are pulling this acafan discussion together, we relied on multiple kinds of connections with people, in relation to different communities and different scholarly traditions, and then purposefully mixed and matched them, so that we are all part of this conversation, but my bet is that each participant has reasons to feel somewhat inside and somewhat outside the "core" of the community being represented.

So, the goal is not simply to check a box and say "I am inside the community I study," but rather to use the provocation that "acafan" terminology represents, to dig deeper into where your knowledge comes from and how the work you are doing intersects your professional and personal identity in various ways. I think as we've become more familiar with writing in the first person, which high school and college writing teachers try so hard to discourage, then we have started to toss ourselves into more complex situations, which require more fancy footwork (to choose a metaphor appropriate to the situation that Erica is discussing),

And if there's a risk to the acafan label, it may be that it starts to feel too comfortable as a way of explaining or justifying what is always a much more complicated relationship to our object of study. At the same time, we want to avoid writing which amounts to nothing more than navel gazing. I struggled with this in writing Textual Poachers. It seemed vital to me to "come out" as a fan and yet at the same time, as a male writing about a predominantly female community, I did not want my voice to drown out the community I was studying and claiming that I was a member of the community did not seem adequate to explain my much more complex relationship to this group. I can never belong to that community in a simple way, given the gender composition, but I also do not want to be simply a "fan husband" given my wife's very active participation in this space. It's something I've continued to struggle with through the years and am not convinced I got anywhere near the right balance in my published writing on fan studies.

It seems uncomfortable not to acknowledge our participations and affective investments, these relationships are complex, and the minute we start to talk about them at all, it can start to feel like we are saying too much, either because we are directing attention away from our objects of study and onto us or because we are "oversharing" things which academic culture tells us should be private matters. What was so powerful about the first generation of queer studies folks is that they refused to be invisible, refused to keep quiet, when their silence could be read as complicit within a structure based around patriarchal and heteronormative power. In that circumstances, personal revelation was a vital part of the critique, and that was what I had hoped the acafan concept might help achieve.

Karen Hellekson:

Erica notes that she wants to avoid promoting "presumptions that professional critics and academics have more rich and complicated interpretations of culture than the people in pronouncements about what something means: means to whom? how do you know?" I agree that it doesn't take a professional critic to create valid interpretation. Professional critics have nothing on fans and their meta. Fans talking among themselves have some of the densest and richest text-based and self-referential analyses I've ever seen. I still remember the fabulous conversation about the TV show Leverage at the first Muskrat Jamboree fan con ("Hardison!"), and sitting on a panel about Margaret Atwood at Toronto Trek that had a great Q&A. Both experiences were like attending a really awesome English class, with excited students and detailed text-based analyses. Fan jargon may be different, but the analysis is fundamentally the same. In both worlds, my pronouncements are just as valid as anybody else's.

Science fiction critic Damon Knight, in In Search of Wonder, famously defined SF thus: "Science fiction . . . means what we point to when we say it." Part of this definition refers to the impossibility of adequately defining SF. But an important part of this is the self, pointing and making a declaration. So it is with the fan, and with the scholar: we self-define. Erica's good questions of means to whom? and how do you know? are answerable within the context of the conversation. It means to me and it means the object of study as defined in my text, and it also means to the audience of the text. I know because I studied it and thought about it. It has less to do with credentials and more to do with common agreement of appropriate modes of analysis: supporting ideas with text; placing the text within its context; juxtaposing modes to effect; perhaps constructing a critique within an established mode of theory. Fans and academics have different versions of these strategies, with fan fiction, fan videos, altered artwork, meta, and critical analysis all requiring community-valid construction and support.

I realize that Erica's real point here is that we must question what is at stake when such pronouncements are made. Fans analyze for the love of the source text; they may also analyze for some personal self-valorizing notions of thinkiness, networking, and credibility. (This isn't meant negatively. Many fans perform meta as their primary fannish activity.) Academics analyze basically for cultural capital, to be exchanged for jobs, publications, promotions, tenure. Both fans and academics may have authority, but it has a much-needed tangibility for academics in a way not necessarily relevant for fans. But analysis is not more pure because done for love and not profit; it is not more authoritative when done by a scholar and not a fan.

Henry points out in his Response 2 how the term acafan might be used as a pretext for navigating this binary that can result in an uncomfortable (because excessive) sharing. Yet it is polite to acknowledge your debts (to fans; to spouses). Likewise, it is common, even required in scientific writing, to acknowledge limitations that may affect understanding (as a person of a certain gender; as a person of a certain sexuality). Part of the problem is the difficulty in studying something that you're a part of. It's a Schroedinger's cat kind of thing, where the viewer always affects the thing being viewed, except it works vice versa too. Analysis leads to self-analysis, knowledge of imbrication in taste, class, authority, power, gender, and affect. That is as it should be.

It may be too much for the term acafan to carry such a heavy load, to meld together disparate practices and communities. All we can do is stand where we stand; point to what we point to; and call it like we see it. I think that's enough.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.


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.