Aca-Fandom and Beyond: Jonathan Gray, Matt Hills, and Alisa Perren (Part One)

Jonathan Gray: One of my concerns with the term "acafan," and hence a key source of my reluctance to self-identify as one, is that it suggests a special relationship between one's object of study and one's academic practice that obscures the degree to which everyone studying the media has some such relationship.

Simply put, I don't believe anyone who tries to tell me that their choice of what to study and how to study isn't deeply informed by their own personal likes and dislikes. Everyone's critical practice assumes a normative ideal, and while I don't believe that such ideals are "merely" about what they like and dislike, I also don't think that like and dislike can ever truly be separated from our critical faculties, thereby meaning that there's nothing "mere" about like and dislike in the first place.

As such, I think that everyone working with texts is an acafan or proto-acafan of a sort, and an aca-antifan or proto-aca-antifan of a sort. And they very likely move between these positions (if they are even separate positions). Therefore, to claim the role of acafan risks being either redundant (because we all are or might/could be), a denial of one's anti-acafandom, a disavowal of anti-fandom and/or non-fandom that is as unhealthy as a disavowal of fandom would be, and/or an attempt to create a special elite who are better, self-actualized acafans than everyone else.

I want to see media and textual studies scholars be more reflective on the various motivations behind our research in general, and more accountable to our various publics. That reflection needn't always be public (in fact, I'd find it remarkably tedious if it was always public), but it should still be taking place. And towards that end, "acafandom" as title risks halting the process, rather than helping it. If reflexivity and accountability are required and expected of this small group called acafans, rather than an expectation of all scholars who work with texts, and if we accept that acafans can't separate out their fannish identities from their academic ones but imagine that others can, I'm not happy with the work that the tag is doing.

But (and hopefully as illustration of my point about reflection) I realize that my position here comes in part from my own personal relationship to fandom and fan studies. I'm saying this as someone who is more invested in media studies than I am in fandom or in any given fan community per se. See, I thought I was a fan until I encountered fan studies and was told by many therein that fandom required a community and production. If that's the case, I've only ever truly been a fan of Star Wars, yet that was as a kid (I still love it, but I don't have the community that I did in my school playground days), and kids don't seem to count as fans either (an aside: why don't we look more at kid fandoms?). I'd still like to argue that one needn't be in a community to be a fan, but perhaps because I don't see myself as speaking for any set community, I therefore don't feel a strong need to fight that fight, and so I'm trying to catch different fish in my research instead. Meanwhile, if I'm of questionable fannishness, I guess I can't be an acafan either.

Yet I don't feel I'm missing much by not being or counting as an acafan, to be honest. When I read the best definitions and defenses of acafandom, by the likes of Henry, Matt (see below), and Louisa Stein, I recognize a great deal and would like to think that I operate with many of the same assumptions. As an instructor at a leading grad program, moreover, I'd like all of my students to think critically of their own practice and their personal engagement and stakes in that practice in what might be seen as an acafannish way ... yet many don't identify as fans, nor do I think they need to.

If there's a mission behind the term "acafan," in other words, I'd rather dis-articulate it from the seeming requirement that one self-identify as a fan and/or count as a fan in other's eyes (especially when I see the bar set too high for who counts), and let that mission take root elsewhere too. Let's instead articulate requirements of reflectivity, accountability, respect for one's subjects, and so forth to media, textual, and audience studies as a whole, and demand that of all.

Matt Hills:

My take on acafandom is that it's impossible to be 'for' or 'against' it, since either stance assumes an overly monolithic definition of what 'it' is that we're in favour of, or not. The greatest difficulty with the label of acafandom is that it misleads us into thinking there's one referent to be championed, critiqued or defended. Instead, I'd like to open up the question of acafandoms, plural, and hence the range of critical practices, identity positions, or bids for authority that the term might blur together. I'm not convinced that acafandom necessarily captures a singular (hybridised) scholarly community, and so this needs careful thought as well.

The question I recently set for myself, then, was to interrogate my own discomfort with specific narratives of acafandom. I'd identify two influential accounts of acafandom: the 'normalising' and the 'levelling'. The former asserts that popular culture is best studied from a position which combines fan knowledge and affect with academic knowledge and affect - in essence, it's the legitimation of acafandom as a generational shift in the academy. By contrast, the 'levelling' account, which I'd also read as generational, asserts that there's no longer any differential between scholarly and fan identities, so these can freely be moved between, hence the work of 'acafandom' is done, and the term is redundant.

Neither of these narratives gets to the heart of the matter, for me, which is this: what critical distance can scholar-fandom take from both 'academic' and 'fan' identities? In the 'normalising' (first generation) narrative - which was still present in my own Fan Cultures (2002) - acafans are presumed to be better scholars than academics without fan knowledge and engagement. There is a lack of critical distance here from fandom; forms of scholarship are critiqued, but fandom is assumed to provide 'the answer' to rejuvenating academic authority. First-generation acafandom is, in a sense, too close to fandom.

And in the 'levelling' narrative it seems to me that there is a loss of critical distance from academia and fandom; if 'the battle' has been won, then academia no longer requires critique or renovation, and institutional praxis doesn't call for questioning in relation to how culture is studied. Equally, fan praxis can unproblematically form the basis for academic work. Second-generation acafandom seems, therefore, to presume a happy world where institutional limits to knowledge-formation have winked out of existence.

Against these narratives, I want to argue for acafandom which strives for "proper distance" (Silverstone 2007) from all its constituencies. My rendering of "proper distance" implies critical and multi-dimensional reflexivity. I think scholar-fandom remains important to the extent that it is able to engage critically with the contemporary limits of what can be said in academic and fan communities. The notion of moral economy is thus useful - or rather, the interference pattern created by intersecting, multiple moral economies.

Acafandom goes awry if it assumes that it can speak for a fandom. In this case, the fan community that the scholar 'belongs' to is mediated and re-presented in academic literature. Likewise, acafans may speak for sections of a fandom, mediating and re-presenting a specific (gendered, or classed, or aged, or nationally delimited) incarnation of that fandom. Instead of displaying critical distance from the scholar's own fan experience, this experience instead forms the basis for their academic work. The issue here isn't that this is somehow "subjective", but rather that it leads to specific taste cultures, and fan cultures, being rendered canonical in fan studies. Why so many studies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who? (But relatively few on Torchwood, and almost none on The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children's TV show).

By speaking for their own fandoms, rather than exploring fandoms surrounding a wider and disparate range of cultural artefacts, acafans participate in a drastically skewed account of pop culture passions. I include my own work on Doctor Who (2010) within this critique - this work demonstrates a problematic acafandom rather than one which attains 'proper distance'. And by speaking for their own fan practices, rather than exploring a range of fan activities, acafans similarly skew accounts: cosplay remains under-represented in scholarship, and replica prop-making even more so, yet I regularly encounter work on vidding and, yes, fanfic (usually written by acafans who vid and create fanfic. For some reason the prop-makers have been less interested in theorizing their material cultures). So, proper distance asks the question of what it would look like if we hybridised fandom and academia without simply mirroring, or reproducing, our own pre-existent fan tastes, cultures, and practices.

And I think acafandom goes awry when it assumes that it can speak for a settled academic constituency, e.g. critical theory/sociology/psychosocial studies. When Textual Poachers sought to hybridise scholarly and fan identity positions it did so as part of a challenge to powerful academic norms. If acafandom assumes that it is speaking for a set of academic norms then it comfortably inhabits that moral economy, and fails to challenge discursive, institutional limits. My work on Doctor Who does, for example, pose questions to academia, e.g. the role of experiencing an ongoing text versus the role of mastering a (finished) text as a body of knowledge.

But there continue to be discursive limits operating in academic contexts - it feels, to me, as if Cornel Sandvoss's Fans (2005), despite being an outstanding study, speaks for critical sociology and its moral economy when it addresses fandom as self-mirroring. There is an institutional delimitation at work here, I feel, rather than a 'proper distance' being taken from this academic community. (In a sense, my own work in fan studies and Sandvoss's act as two sides of a torn dialectic, since I have tended to fail to operate with 'proper distance' from my own fan cultures and practices).

We also need to stop thinking spatially about acafandom as if it is the intersecting portion in a Venn diagram, and consider acafandom temporally instead. What varied (personal, disciplinary) histories and traces does the term mask? Acafans can exist within academic disciplines, or they can be in motion between disciplines, mobilising fandom to challenge their parent discipline, or even to temporarily (or definitively) move beyond it. Acafandom may look obsolete, or unnecessary, to those raised intellectually in cultural studies and TV studies, whereas it may be revelatory to those wanting to write about videogames, TV, or pop music in, say, philosophy departments. I

t's thus surely important to consider the 'aca' of acafandom in context; is this contextualised acafandom issuing a challenge to disciplinary norms and discourses, definitively breaching them, or engaging in transdisciplinary traffic? The potential acafandom of a book like Doctor Who and Philosophy may read - and performatively act - very differently to that of Triumph of a Time Lord, for instance. Some acafandoms may even offend or aggravate us as acafan readers, where the version of academia being engaged with is alien or othered (e.g. writing about TV as an acafan without doing any reading whatsoever in TV studies).

Acafandom cannot secure one communal identity since it is partly fractured by academic disciplines, as well as by different fandoms. In my experience, acafans within the same academic discipline can find some common ground despite tackling different fan objects, whereas those who share a fandom but not a discipline often still find themselves speaking uneasily across discursive frames. We shouldn't narcissistically mistake acafandom as the property of media/cultural studies alone: it will likely look very different from the standpoint of philosophy, an English Lit department, or even within game studies and fields newer than media studies.

In short, I would argue that acafandom has not yet (often) existed in terms of a simultaneous 'proper distance' from both fandom and academia. This is an ideal, always still to come, rather than finished and outmoded. So-called acafans, myself among them, have usually either spoken for a fan culture (critiquing academia), or they have spoken for an academic community (critiquing fandom). Acafandom demonstrating "proper distance" is an asymptote rather than a fixed category or a tidy concept. Perhaps we should be striving to do acafandom better, rather than giving up on it.

Alisa Perren:

While I appreciate being asked to participate in this conversation about aca-fandom, I come to this conversation feeling a bit like an outsider. This is in part because my own scholarship has focused much more on media production and distribution practices, rather than on fandom. But this feeling of "being an outsider" is not simply based on my different scholarly emphases. Rather, it also stems from that fact that my interests in popular culture seem to differ from many of those who write and speak from the position of aca-fans. This is not to say that I have a problem with the term of aca-fandom per se. But it does lead me to ask what this label includes - and excludes - and what these boundaries might suggest.

Put simply: to what extent has aca-fandom legitimated the study of certain tastes over others? I have no problem with people choosing to study texts or creative figures that they feel passionate about - passion drives much of the best scholarship. The problem, it seems to me, is that expansion of the "aca-fan" identity has led to a heightened emphasis on the same body of texts (in the case of television, this includes genre shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica and Lost).

I like many of these shows. I like to talk about many of these shows. But I don't like the degree to which these shows seem to dominate conversations about fandom (and, increasingly, television/media studies) at the expense of conversations about so many other shows. What does it mean that these particular media products are the objects of so much discussion, while shows like Law & Order and The Good Wife (two personal favorites of mine) are far less likely to be examined at panels devoted to aca-fandom? Does "aca-fandom" have a responsibility to expand its scope beyond the genre or "quality" texts that it has tended to radiate toward?

This last question raises a related issue, one that is particularly pertinent to me as a scholar who studies the media industries: Namely, how might aca-fandom be used to serve industry imperatives - and is this something about which we should be concerned? Those working in media organizations, of course, have little interest in interacting with scholars that question their practices or products. Access has always been difficult to gain, especially for those scholars who present themselves as being critical of the organizations or their practices. Within this context, from the perspective of industry, aca-fans represent the ideal (humanistically-oriented) scholars. They are eager for access, and willing to share their knowledge with executives and production staff. The issue then becomes whether aca-fans simply become a cost-effective source of market research for industry, in much the same way that fans can (and have) also been exploited on occasion.

I pose these questions in part to question what's at stake in the evolving industry-aca-fan relationship. But I am also posing these questions because they are meaningful to me, personally. I take pleasure in researching and talking about the operations of the media industries. I enjoy going to sites like Variety, Movie City News and Deadline and reading the latest news and gossip. Indeed, if I were to self-identify as an "aca-fan," I would most likely be an aca-fan of industry discourse. Is such an identification possible, given how the term has evolved thus far? And if it is, what are the implications or stakes involved in adopting such a label?

Jonathan Gray is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality, Television Entertainment, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, and, with Amanda Lotz, the soon to be released Television Studies. He is also co-editor of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, Battleground: The Media, and Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture.

Matt Hills is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, Wales. He is the author of Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005), How To Do Things With Cultural Theory (Hodder-Arnold, 2005), Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the 21st Century (I.B. Tauris, 2010), and the forthcoming Cultographies: Blade Runner (Wallflower/Columbia University Press, 2011). Recent book chapters or journal articles include work on the Saw franchise, the TV series Sherlock, and television aesthetics. Matt is currently working on a study of Torchwood.

Alisa Perren is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is co-editor of Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) and author of Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s (University of Texas Press, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in a range of print and online publications, including Film Quarterly, Journal of Film and Video, Journal of Popular Film and Television and Flow. She also is Coordinating Editor of In Media Res, a MediaCommons project focused on experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship.