The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Edmond Ernest Dit Alban & Hilde Van Den Bluck (Pt. 1)

Edmond Ernest Dit Alban

Hi Hilde! My name is Edmond, last name Ernest dit Alban. I am a PhD candidate at Concordia University and Paris Saint-Denis University where I am currently working on fan sanctuaries in Japan (otaku no seichi). I have no particular background in Fan Studies — I graduated in Japanese studies and entered a Film and Moving Images program afterward. My approach is therefore centered on the observation of “otaku” (let’s say manga, anime and video-game-based) media in Tokyo. I mostly worked on girl’s media circulation, such as Yaoi fanzine, Boy’s Love manga (“Slash” or “shipping” would be adequate translations) and Otome Games (reading video games for girls) in East Ikebukuro. My attempt is to retrieve the spatial practices, imaginaries and structures (a method inspired by Lefebvre’s the production of space) of current otaku culture through the mapping of its urban territories. My advisor Marc Steinberg helped me editing and polishing a first chapter on the subject (forthcoming in A Companion to Fandom and Fan Studies volume edited by Paul Booth) where we try to present both the specificities and history of urban otaku sanctuaries. I do tend to differentiate rural sanctuaries because of their resemblance with Northern American fan sites such as locations figured in shows and movies, a phenomenon resembling fan pilgrimage (Brooker, 2004) (also see Okamoto Takeshi’s work on otaku tourism [2013]). My interest therefore lies in the everyday consumption and dispersion of otaku media and the emergence of pedestrian ecosystems.

But what is a “pedestrian ecosystem” and why should we care about such a thing when looking at fan cultures? I believe that urban otaku sanctuaries possess specific local entanglements in cities because of specific recycling practices. What I call recycling practices is a conjunction of reusing mobile images and content as in “media mix,” the Japanese equivalent to transmedia (see Steinberg, 2012), remix and fanzine cultures with actual media recycling in second-hand shops. On the one hand, Ikebukuro’s space highlights various zones of used shops and barter trade, while on the other hand, the local media amateur and official production is recycling famous character images to build new media commodities. As such, the urban ecosystem of otaku cultures is maintained by a complex ecology sustained by both fan and industrial recycling practices that communicate with one another in the construction of sanctuaries.

However, “moving images” and recycled commodities do not move by themselves. They are transported by consumers through exchanges, or they are altered or sometimes thrown away. In order to make sense of the media circulation of otaku’s feminine culture, I try to historically tie the convergence of fan and official otaku tendencies in sanctuaries through a pedestrian approach by retracing consumer routes and geographies of stores. Insisting on the pedestrian (walking in cities and being utterly be noticeable) aspect of otaku culture both highlights the question of the penetration of fan cultures into our lives, but also the potential communal power it can take over urban space. How can we occupy, shape or redesign cities from fan consumption? How does the industry and the consumer agency collide, negotiate or confront in spatial terms?

As a film scholar, my approach tend to be focused on moving images as techniques of animation that synchronizes images, commodities and bodies into a specific production of space. I interrogate otaku agency (simply put, it is a complex term used by Karen Barad [2007] to describe how objects and subjects can produce new “measurements” and orderings of the world) through its capacity to create new social rhythms. As with most fan cultures, otaku culture has been labeled as a bunch of sick weirdoes since at least the eighties. However, the forces of recycling practices have maintained certain routes of consumption and pilgrimage, resulting in the perpetuation of the temporary occupation of urban infrastructures during conventions, events and festivals. Although it is debatable if the otaku had a political background (I prefer infra-political as it had no clear leader or party affiliated), many native “Acafans” tend to highlight the generational proximity of post-1968 student movements with the emergence of anime and manga subcultures. Therefore, I believe that the agency provided by the techniques of moving images might have helped to build both imaginaries and “real” spaces for these communities. The remaining question then lies in the potential social accountability of such an agency is sociopolitical terms.

Because of this research, I would say that one potential urgent area for the future of Fan Studies could be a comparison of various urban entanglements of fan practices and their political (or infra-political?) stakes. As fan activism becomes a more evident theme for the field, I tend to be uneasy with the lack of spatial occupation of fan cultures in certain regions of the world. After living in Paris and Montreal it has become clear that consumer/fan cultures have rather different infrastructures and spatial entanglements: if most fan experiences are driven by the consumption of series across multiple platforms, none of the cities I have been to tend to have one, or multiple, fan mecca. Japan’s case is obviously not reducible to Tokyo; even in smaller cities the conjoined forces of the industry, fans and local authorities are starting to build sanctuaries and subvention fan performances. Can we turn fan cultures into urban planning? What would that even mean as a social construction? A last example can enlighten these questions. As the public space and social space of fan cultures tend to be more and more eaten alive by digital technologies, where is the space and weight of Netflix’s communities? What agency do they have on their local environment ? The recycling practices of otaku cultures show a deep entanglement within local, trans-local, regional and national routes of fan, images and media circulation. In conclusion, I wonder at the dialectics (tensions in between different agendas) of fan circulation in general and how we could influence the production of social space and cities from fan cultures.

Hilde Van Den Bluck

Hi Edmond. My name is Hilde and I am a professor of communication studies at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. My interest in fan studies developed out of my work on local celebrity cultures. In this, I start from the notion of celebrity as a construct that results from ongoing, negotiated relationships between the person wanting to be/remaining famous, as well as media and audiences. As it is impossible to understand one without understanding other actors in the celebrity apparatus, I started to research fans. I define fans broadly, following the idea that fandom is part of everybody’s life. In my work, I try to build bridges between Social Science and Humanities-based approaches, combining empirical rigour with critical interpretation. To pay due respect to the peculiarities involved in fandom, depending on the type of fan-text it is geared to, I focus mostly on celebrity fandom rather than fans of other types of cultural texts, such as games, sport teams, TV shows or, indeed, manga. However, I believe our respective bodies of research can inspire each other.

Following Ferris’ and de Kloet, and van Zoonen’s appeal to pay more attention to local dimensions of fan and celebrity studies, my focus is on local fandom. Indeed, people worldwide use mediated communication to follow and engage with global celebrities’ lives almost in real time, while local communities create their own celebrities. They tend to be of local fame and adored by local fans but unknown internationally. While not highly visible in the global popular culture arena, local fandom has considerable significance and relevance in the lives of millions. I aim at a better understanding of local fandom and how it may differ from fandom in the global celebrity arena.

So far, I have identified three areas that help me in this endeavour. For one, the specifics of local celebrity fandom are related to the characteristics of the local media ecology. In Flanders (the Northern, Dutch speaking part of Belgium I focus on) and in many other places, the local media landscapes tend to lack the peculiarities of tabloid cultures, such as those found in the media ecologies of the US and UK (that produce the majority of global celebrities), presenting local fans with different inroads into the lives of their object of fandom. Closely related is the observation that local fandom is deeply rooted in the cultural specificity of local popular cultures, including the appreciation of various types of celebrities and their fans, reflective of wider held values and norms in the local community.

A final aspect of local fandom – that brings our work closer together – is related to the notion of proximity and geographical locality. A key factor in the relationship between fans and celebrities is the notion of ‘near yet so far’, a distance that the fan is fascinated by yet tries to overcome through mediated communication. The one-sidedness of the para-social relationship, in essence, is built on this: the fan knows ‘everything’ about the celebrity who, from a distance, knows the fan only as part of a statistic (record sales, Instagram followers…). However, my own research suggests that local (more than global) fandom is affected by various forms of (physical) proximity. Local fandom allows for more direct access to other fans and the fan community, using e.g. concerts as a means to maintain social relationships and a social life. Concerts provide a space to meet people, to chat and gossip, about the celebrity and each other, affecting the fandom as well as the dynamics of, and hierarchies in, the fan community. Beyond that, local fandom allows fans to have more (regular) physical proximity to the celebrity who, in turn, often takes time to talk to the fans, sometimes on a monthly or even weekly basis. In these moments, the mediated, para-social, virtual relationship meets the real, unmediated, physical world of the fan, affecting the fan-celebrity relationship. If anything, it allows for the validation of the para-social relationship and of the image that fans have of the celebrity. The para-social relationship in local cases is less virtual and one-sided than in the case of global celebrity and fandom.

While this may seem far removed from your work, it centrally revolves around the situated nature of a local celebrity, allowing for exchanges with the fan text that venture between the para-social and the social, and between the virtual-mediated and the real, creating additional meanings for fans. This, I believe, is a point where our work connects. I certainly found inspiration in the budding research (which you also refer to) that looks at the growing trend of ‘fan tourism’, seen as the result of intensifying fandom, location marketing efforts and the growth in paid or bartered ‘location placement’ in fictional production, as Beeton explains. While I think you move beyond this work by focusing on the dynamics in an urban/pedestrian context and on the potential of fan activism, their approach of thinking of these situated encounters as both a multi-million business and a key example of cultural (activist) encounters, to me, is very productive. Furthermore, some of the work in this field, especially by Reijnders, elaborates on the concept of lieux d’imagination: the assumption that every person develops and maintains a cohesive but constantly adjusted mental concept of places. This includes the natural geography as well as ideas of the material and ideational culture, of values, beliefs, narratives, people and identities projected on the space. As such it takes account of the physical/geographical as well as the ideational, of the double force of economic interest and cultural roles, of the fan as consumer and cultural creator. I think fan studies can further explore this.