Acafandom and Beyond: Jonathan Gray, Matt Hills, and Alisa Perren (Part Two)

Jonathan Gray: Perhaps I could start with this issue of definition that all of us touched upon. I think it's interesting that, albeit in different ways, both Matt (from wholly within the realm of acafandom) and Alisa (feeling outside of it) note that the term may have calcified around a set group of people with a set group of interests. Matt suggests that's a "misreading," and that there are many types of acafans. But I guess my question is whether we need to rescue the term, or whether the ideas can run free of it.

A considerable problem with the term is best illustrated by some of Alisa's understanding of the calcification. Her concern, for instance, that the industry might co-opt acafans is far-fetched if applied to many of those who self-identify most clearly as aca-fans, given that a good number of this community engage in fan practices that the industry doesn't want to have much to do with, such as writing slash and/or long critiques of the racism or sexism within the text. But some of that community share Alisa's concern that another group of academic fans are too in love with user-generated content and with servicing The Man. And my sense is that in the media studies community at large, "aca-fan" has simply come to mean "an academic who is also a fan" (for sure, I don't mean to wag a finger at Alisa for getting the "wrong" definition of aca-fan, as I think her definition is commonly shared by those who don't call themselves aca-fans), and by this definition, aca-fans are all those with Buffy and Lost journals, yet another Something Popular With Upper Middle Class White Americans and Philosophy book, and squee aplenty, all of which should definitely make us worry about co-option.

This might seem to back up Matt's point that there are many acafandoms. But they're still being conflated by a wider community of media studies scholarship as a whole. Thus, we might need to realize that the term has grown up and is associating with a different crowd than we as its parents would prefer. Some of the behaviors and practice of those regarded as aca-fans, moreover, are directly in contrast to the critical mission of aca-fandom. If it originally had a referent assigned to it by Henry and co., then, it now has a whole bunch of other referents attached to it by those who aren't aca-fans. Hence my belief that the critical mission of aca-fandom could be much better taken up if the term itself is left behind. The term may have become too "polluted."

Let me turn that into a question, though, to Matt and Alisa, especially since they come from very different standpoints here. Has the term become polluted, and if so can or should it be rescued?

Matt Hills:

I find myself agreeing with much in Jonathan and Alisa's opening arguments, although all three of us are approaching acafandom from quite different perspectives. With Jonathan, I too would like to see a greater encouragement of reflexivity in all media studies, not just in something called acafan writing. And with Alisa, I absolutely share the concern that acafandom has led to a restricted set of textual objects becoming unhappily canonised in TV Studies, because those happen to be the shows that many academics enjoy watching and writing about. I think that acafandom does have a responsibility to cover shows that go beyond rather limited taste cultures and demographics, as well as covering a wider range of fan practices and activities (as I suggested in my own opening statement). As I said, I think we should be looking to encourage a wider-ranging, more diverse, and ever more critically reflexive acafandom, in relation to both 'aca' and 'fan' experiences.

Jonathan quite rightly raises one perennial question haunting acafandom - what does the 'fan' part actually refer to? If it means having a certain liking for something, then yes, perhaps all scholars are acafans, whether they are studying television or quantum mechanics. Scientists passionate about their specialism would be acafans, on this account. However, this seems like a curiously attenuated definition. Jonathan's argument seemingly defines acafandom into redundancy - using a massively inclusive definition that doesn't fully engage with the sociological and discursive history of (media) 'fandom'.

I do think that defining fandom only as community-oriented is problematic, but even lone media consumers who self-define as fans are still likely to engage with fandom as an imagined community, or a "constellated community" in Rick Altman's terms. So, for me, fandom retains a degree of social, communal and discursive specificity which means that not all academics would be acafans, as I understand the term.

In fact, if one leans towards at least minimally articulating fandom with community - whether this is inhabited in a participatory sense, or aligned with in an imaginative sense - I think there remains something distinctive about acafandom, since it involves the simultaneous engagement with two (differentiated) interpretive communities focused on the same textual object(s). A critical TV scholar writing about Doctor Who who had no fan affiliation or identity could still "like" and enjoy the TV show they were analysing, but they would have no awareness of the reading protocols, hierarchies, ways of understanding the show's history and characters etc, that fan culture would bring.

Acafandom is thus interpretatively distinctive, I would say, because it brings communally-shaped and communally-patterned systems of meaning-making into dialogue with similar systems of meaning-generation in the academy, as well as moving between and potentially destabilising the value systems at work in these terrains. If one defines acafandom purely as liking something and then studying it, then these hermeneutic and axiological questions fade away somewhat - rather prematurely, I feel.

Unlike Jonathan, then, I think acafandom remains useful for the ways in which it can identify, and draw on, and reflexively engage with, audience communities and their understandings of texts. My current work on Torchwood, for example, poses a number of challenges to academic textual analysis on the basis of fans' readings of narrative and character, as well as challenging fan readings which decode the show for textual coherence/continuity. If acafandom was 'just' about liking Torchwood then it would lack a focus on how we are likely to read the show as a TV Studies community versus how other communities would and have read the series.

Moving on, and responding to Alisa's point about possible complicity between acafandom and the TV industry - yes, I find this to be a worrying possibility and a worryng development. After all, I'm the author of a book called Triumph of a Time Lord! But the book works to critically theorise the show's production, and the ways in which its producers othered fan audiences - even describing them very negatively - while also drawing on specific fan discourses. It is not a celebration of the industry processes involved - it is very much a critical reading which could never have been written as an 'official' BBC book. But there are some arenas where 'acafandom' seems to increasingly lack critical reflexivity, and where the term seems to have become coterminous with the "Something Popular With Upper Middle Class White Americans and Philosophy" sort of book, as Jonathan says. I think all three of us, as writers working in different but not unconnected strands of TV Studies, are united in seeing this as a thorny issue.

'Acafandom' has certainly become multiple, as I've argued, but I'm not sure I'd want to use Jonathan's terminology: I wouldn't equate multiple acafandoms with a sense of the word having been somehow "polluted" or rendered toxic. The question of multiple acafandoms suggests instead, I think, that we need to argue more carefully and more precisely for what we want acafandom to do. And perhaps to work to make these definitions more available, and more visible, to those 'outside' the debate itself, so that wider notions of 'acafandom' may themselves become more nuanced.

As Alisa says - what does acafandom include and exclude? Or more than that: what would we like it to include and exclude? The concept - as I would want to use and defend it - needs to be about critical reflexivity in relation to fan and academic communities. That means being reflexive about the canonisation of limited texts, and the (relative) failure to engage with childhood fandoms and fan cultures, and the question of whether industry and production discourses are being reinforced in some acafan work. But it also means being reflexive about fans' moral economies - and where and how fandom remains inattentive to issues of gendered, classed or age-based forms of cultural power. Reflexivity needs to be embraced as something substantively informing our practices rather than something we write about in passing in forewords and footnotes - reflexive acafandom can be precisely about addressing all the sorts of concerns raised here. And very much not "a cost-effective source of market research for industry", as Alisa writes. In short, I view acafandom - as I have defined it here, asymptotically - not as the problem, or as something murky and/or conceptually exhausted to be let go of, but as an ongoing way of thinking through the problematics of studying media while being positioned within variant interpretive communities.

Reiterating my response to Jonathan's final question: I'd say the term has become dispersed but not necessarily polluted. And so perhaps acafandom needs to be re-defined (to re-emphasise its critical edge), rather than being "rescued" per se? Mind you, I wonder whether I'm writing this, in part, as a fan of acafandom: a fanacafan. At which point, and before logical regression takes hold, I'll hand over to Alisa with a question: if we agree that acafandom does have a responsibility to expand beyond the genre and "quality" texts that it has clustered around, then what (if any) other responsibilities might it also have?

Alisa Perren:

I find it fascinating that, although Matt, Jonathan and I all have similar issues with the current definition - and perception - of acafandom, we deliver very different responses on how to proceed. To put it somewhat crudely, Matt (fanacafan?) thinks we should salvage the term, Jonathan (anti-fanacafan?) wonders if it has outlived its usefulness. Meanwhile, I am more ambivalent. I do not feel comfortable arguing to either "dump it" or "save it," as I do not have the long-standing investment in researching and writing about it that either of you have. The most I can do is speak from the stance of a "casual observer," illustrating how the term might presently be perceived by those who are less aware of its layered history and meanings.

From this position of casual observer, I appreciate reading each of your explanations about how acafandom can mean - or at least, has previously meant - much more than "one who is an academic who is also a fan." And Matt does make a strong case for retaining the word, as long as it is deployed with sufficient clarity and reflexivity.

I guess the issue that remains for me is whether the nuances of the term can be made apparent to those who don't regularly engage with fan studies and conversations about acafandom. Is it a "responsibility" (returning to Matt's final question) of those writing about acafandom to expand their objects of analysis, but also to make this expanded scope more apparent to "outsiders"? Will a change in perception take place if there is more "outreach" on the part of acafans, a greater effort to illustrate that acafans can and do write about far more than Spock, Spike and Skate?

I want to return to one other point made by Jonathan, which connects to Matt's discussion of reflexivity. Jonathan notes that many acafans do not serve the interests of industry, but rather "engage in fan practices that the industry doesn't want to have much to do with." I certainly did not mean to imply that acafandom was monolithic, or that all acafans (want or try to) service industry desires and imperatives. But it seems to me that the industry gives a voice to those serving their interests, and makes the voices of certain acafans resonate more loudly. What's more, given the heightened pressure placed on scholars today to procure external funding, the limited funding of this type available to humanistically oriented scholars, and the receptiveness that industry has shown toward those acafans serving their promotional interests, I can't help but wonder whether these voices will continue to grow louder. To pose an even more cynical question, in an age in which it seems that "no publicity is bad publicity," aren't even those that take more critical stances ultimately serving the industry's larger promotional ends? (Suddenly I have seemed to wander into the land of Adorno and Horkheimer...I will try to step away from the computer now.)

I leave it to Matt and Jonathan (and others!) to chime in here with their own thoughts regarding the responsibilities of acafans - to other acafans, to scholars that don't self-identify as acafans, and maybe even in relationship to the media industries.

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.