The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Tisha Turk & Mark Duffett (Pt. 1)

Tisha Turk

Henry asked us to start by talking about our backgrounds in fandom and fan studies, so I’ll start by saying: I’ve been fannish my whole life, but until my mid-twenties I was fannish in essentially private ways. I re-read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings until my copies fell apart, wallpapered my college dorm rooms with R.E.M. posters, and clipped magazine photos of and feature stories about other favorite musicians. Because I was a pretentious English major, I actively avoided watching TV until my final year of college, when I started watching with housemates while we practiced knitting.

It wasn’t until early 2000, when I was halfway through grad school, that I found online media fandom. I got serious about X-Files and started lurking on online forums; shortly after that I started watching other shows as well, and within a couple of years I was not only reading episode recaps and fan analysis but also writing my own posts, watching vids, and, eventually, making my own vids.

I originally started vidding because it seemed so similar to the textual analysis and close reading that were my favorite parts of being a grad student, and yet at the same time it was so different because of the different medium. Text was my day job; expressing myself with video and music instead of words felt like a breath of fresh air.

I kept vidding because of the people I met. I became close friends with a group of women who had begun watching and making vids around the same time that I did: we posted on the same mailing lists, read each other’s LiveJournals, watched each others’ vids and, eventually, drafts of vids. These women thought about vids in some of the same ways I did, but many of them approached vidding in ways that would never have occurred to me. I loved learning from them; I loved the discussions we had about our aesthetic values and creative processes. That mutual support and sense of community, which ended up extending way beyond fandom, were and are hugely important to me. It’s largely because of those women that vids and vidding and vidders, as much as any particular show, became my fandom. I’m a fan of us—our talent, our creativity, our artworld.

Almost ten years after I started vidding, I started writing about vids and vidding for academic audiences. That academic work grew out of an impulse that’s central to transformational fandom, the same kind of impulse that gave us the AO3, the Organization for Transformative Works, the journal Transformative Works and Cultures: if we want a thing that doesn’t exist, we make it ourselves. I looked at what was being written about vids, and it seemed to me that there were some important ideas and experiences missing from the conversation. So I started to think about what I might be able to bring to the party.

Most recently, I’ve contributed to two fan studies anthologies. For the Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, Francesca Coppa and Alexis Lothian and I had a conversation about vidding in relation to the film industry, feminism, whiteness, creativity, fair use, queerness, cultural critique, and female pleasure. And for the Companion to Fandom and Fan Studies that Paul Booth edited, I branched out a bit and wrote about interdisciplinarity in fan studies—or, really, the lack of interdisciplinarity in fan studies. As someone with a PhD in English literature, a lasting affection for narrative theory, and a job that draws mostly on my background in composition studies, I get tired of approaches to fan studies that treat the field as a subset of media studies. I mean, obviously media studies has a lot to offer fan studies, but—spoiler alert—there are other approaches to thinking about fans, fannishness, fandom, and fan works.

So, as I think about what I want for fan studies going forward, disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity—including what interdisciplinarity might look like in our classrooms—are very much on my mind; my own thinking about the topic is a work in progress, and I’d love to learn more about how other fan studies folks are grappling with this issue. I also take seriously the arguments of Rukmini Pande and Rebecca Wanzo that fan studies scholars need to do more thinking about race and especially about whiteness (what a contrast to all the attention we’ve given to gender!); their work has encouraged me to think about how whiteness structures fandom and fan studies and helped me start examining how investments in whiteness play out in ‘ship vids and fan responses to them.

The other thing I find myself thinking about is how fast fandom is changing. This is an ongoing phenomenon for fans and researchers alike—one that presents both opportunities and potential difficulties. I suspect it’s not coincidental that the great flowering of fan studies scholarship about the corner of fandom that I know best happened during the LiveJournal era: a great many fans were more or less in one place and more or less in public for a significant chunk of time. Fannish activity is much more scattered now. (That in itself isn’t new, obviously; before widespread broadband access, fandom was often a weekend-only world, as Henry and others have described.) There are so many points of access, so many platforms, so many ways to engage. That’s not a criticism; I think it’s good that more people have more ways to do fandom and express fannishness, and I think it’s exciting that annotation and recirculation are easier than ever. But it does create challenges for scholars. There’s so much fannish activity out there that it can be hard for us (and academic publishing timelines) to keep up!

Mark Duffett

My personal voyage into the study of fandom began in 1995, when I embarked on a PhD on at the University of Wales. I wanted to understand the mysteries of music fandom and chose to explore the Elvis fan culture. At that point, my knowledge of popular music research and cultural studies was still emerging. Coming from a basically pre-internet background in human geography, I had no idea that fan studies existed. So in my own work I started by thinking about gender. When I realized that Elvis’s popularity was so central to his fans’ perceptions, I knew I also had to consider power. Partially influenced by Fred Vermorel’s book Starlust (1985), I began to ask why fans with diverse connections to the same icon behaved in similar ways. I thought about stardom, the fans’ sense of collectivity, and the way that they shared a kind of mythology about Elvis (particularly that he was exploited by the music industry). My early research was very empirical. I struggled to match it to theory, until 2009, when I found a close fit to Durkheim’s notion of totemism. That was quite embarrassing, as I had previously argued that fandom was not a religion, and I would still maintain that. Durkheim’s work applies to totems in a wider sense, and I maintain it can offer significant insights into celebrity fandom as a shared, ideological, psychosocial process. In 1999, I began teaching at the University of Chester. Matt Hills suggested that I write a textbook of fan studies, which Bloomsbury released in 2013 as Understanding Fandom. This critical survey summarized some areas of fan studies, sold over 1000 copies in its first year, and was adopted by Henry Jenkins and others in the field. In a sense, it made my name in the fan studies, when previously my work was positioned more like a minor adjunct to popular music studies. Career highlights since then have included being invited to speak at a conference in Moscow on participatory culture, and giving the keynote, later this year at the UK Fan Studies Network conference. In a friendly sense, however, I remain a bit critical of the transformative work and participatory culture paradigm; I greet it with “fascination and frustration” not least because I think it offers a kind of partial picture when fan studies could and should be so much more. In my own work, that has meant an interest in media representations of fandom, and more recently celebrity professions of fandom in the public sphere. What has it meant historically for a particular person to get up and identify as a fan in public? Obviously the question has different resonances in different eras and contexts, but it opens up on to issues of performance, personal identity, ideology and subjectivity—issues that can be marginalized, in some ways, I think, when one looks primarily at communities of practice. So I guess I am proudly out of fashion, in both an academic and fannish sense.