The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Tisha Turk & Mark Duffett (Pt. 2)

Tisha Turk

Can you say more about why you describe "issues of performance, personal identity, ideology and subjectivity" as being "out of fashion"?

Mark Duffett

I know there’s a danger in generalizing, and I think fan studies has its own diverse range of scholars and activities. Nevertheless, participatory culture remains, to me, still perhaps the dominant theory in our academic field. It focuses primarily on individual creativity and mentoring, and how such things are established in communities where contributors feel valued. Case studies actualize all that in terms of high ideals - education, democracy, activism - but, ultimately, the focus is on a social process within a technological environment. It is case of tools, skills, communities and feel good results. Fine on the surface, but I think that’s a partial picture of fandom. I don’t see much interest in fans as individuals there, as people beyond their community contributions, as people who operate in the complexity of the social and ethical environments they perpetually negotiate, and their own complexity - not as nodes in communities, but as individuals with complex, multiple identities who constantly make tricky decisions in daily life and the public sphere. I’m not saying nobody has talked about fandom as performance - that would be nonsense: Lucy Bennett’s editorial in the 2015 edition of Transformative Works springs to mind. However, there’s much more to be said about how people publically performance their fandom: understanding when and they they have labelled themselves as fans in specific historical circumstances, for example, because I think that in itself can be conceived of as a kind of individual ethical and political act.

I would go further, as well: I think in some senses the ideas I mention are ‘out of fashion’ across academia, not just in fan studies, as they are a bit out of step with a neoliberal environment where ‘the human’ (and perhaps we should read ‘labour’ there) is gradually being reformulated within a rapid process of social and technology change. In this environment, appreciation of individuals as moral agents now seems to be secondary to processes of public participation which can include collective policing. I’m just thinking of the avalanche of fury on social media unleashed against our colleague Melissa Click; in some ways, you could say that was a ‘participatory culture’ of the worst sort!


 I certainly agree that focusing on fandom as culture or social network leaves out other forms of fannishness; any choice to put something in the foreground puts something else in the background. When we treat fannish creativity as social or communal, we risk downplaying or even erasing the artistic achievements of individual creators, and some of those achievements are pretty spectacular by just about any standard I can think of. Or, if we focus on individual creators of artworks (fic, vids, art, gifsets, costumes, etc.), we may miss the fans who are creating not art but infrastructure—hugely important for many fans’ experience of fandom! And then there’s all the fan activity that isn’t creative in the sense of making-something-new but is still, I would argue, participatory in the sense of engaging with fan-made creations: reading fic, watching vids, commenting on and reblogging fan works of all kinds, and so on.

I’m surprised, though, by your claim that there’s not much interest in fans as individuals. Back in 2007, the editors of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World argued in their introduction that the third wave of fan studies was about, among other things, “the intrapersonal pleasures and motivations among fans”—that the field was “refocusing on the relationship between fans’ selves and their fan objects” (8). In the second edition of the book (2017), they reiterate this characterization of the third wave and even double down on it by calling attention to fan studies research that “has examined the individual psychology of fandom within its wider social context” (8). Do you think this is a mischaracterization of what’s going on in the field?

Personally, I appreciate that Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington acknowledge in the second edition that “the intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions [of fannishness] appear to be complementary” (8). I still think the most sensible statement of this position is Katherine Morrissey’s “Fan/dom: People, practices, and networks” (2013): “Only by studying fans and fandom at multiple levels—looking at fans as individuals, at their collective practices, and at the networks they create—can we more fully understand their positions within today's shifting media environment” [1.4]. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.


 I guess when we are talking about individuals, we are also inevitably talking about them socially, but I think the frames we use to do that - studies of transformative works, participatory culture, community or event case studies, studies of paratexts or spaces, heritage, perhaps psychoanalysis or discourse analysis - could be augmented a bit by more attention to the ethical approaches of actual fans as individuals situated historically and the ideological worlds in which they operate. Of course, yes, understanding fandom is a both/and thing already, and given that is the case, we are always, to some extent, looking at the one thing within the other: the collective in the individual, the public in the private. If we generalize, we miss the actuality of history, and if we examine things that are too personal, there is a danger that we get lost in individual idiosyncrasy (worst of all, our own!). However, there is something stopping that potentially myopic disappearance into the personal. A while ago I was in Moscow, and I began thinking about all those stories of fan interest in western music artists ‘liberating’ those behind the iron curtain. I am sure for many of those citizens, individually for some and in communities for others, enjoying the music of western artists did feel like a liberating experience, a freedom that began in the mind. Such moments suggest that finding a fannish connection can be political, but I would go further: what they indicate is that it is always political, that it applies when we in the west are drawn to more accessible objects.

Even though such objects are easily accessible to us, they are still associated with specific values, and finding ourselves connected to them is always, in that sense, a political act (albeit one that might not be conscious). My claim about fans as individuals was more about therefore understanding them as specific people with values who have participated in public activity in ongoing, living cultures, not necessarily addressing their psychology or community roles. While there is work on fan community leaders, often in relation to specific political issues, there’s less research on celebrities, for example, as prominent individuals with the public sphere who have professed their fandom, sometimes independently of working within a particular fan community. I’ll give a quick example: a while back I did a conference paper on Cornel West’s love of Curtis Mayfield and how he used that to mobilize black college audiences in advance of his protest at Ferguson. To me, that was about him using his personal fan interest in public to make an ethical move, which was not the same as seeing him as someone directly linked to a particular fan community.

I will try and explain the difference:

In the sort of fan cultures I first analysed, Elvis fans in the 1990s, what unified people was not being part of community. The thing that was primary for them was being part of a ‘fan base’ - an imagined collectivity like a notional army, almost: not necessarily an imagined or real community, though it could manifest like that at particular junctures. What located anyone in a music fan base was recognition that they had reached a degree of conviction about the greatness of a particular performer, and they also knew that other individuals had, too. Individuals would have a notional awareness that they were therefore part of a fan base, and for some that would be it. When others entered fan communities, using knowledge that they were part of the same fan base as their ticket, they could have a kind of shock in terms of encountering the specificity of other fans. Some individuals made the leap from fan base to fan community, while others pursued their fan interests alone, or were marginalized by those communities. The communities came with additional ethical tenets too. Due to our methodologies, something we have often missed as fan scholars, I think, is attention to the fans who decide not to be part of such communities, and we have therefore missed something about what being a fan can be about.

When I was younger, I was a huge fan of the post-punk group Magazine, and that was about a decade after they split, and my fandom consisted mostly of collecting records, not talking to other fans or making things. I was pursuing an interest with no strong idea that there were any other fans out there at that point, and I am not sure I would have been especially interested in talking with them either; it was about exploring a personal connection with a group’s artistic work for me. The Elvis fans that I encountered were much more sociable as fans than I had been, but my methodology was orientated to finding fans through existing communities (fan clubs). These fan communities were not necessarily based on their creative contributions either, though such contributions were sometimes apparent.


Yeah, I recognize what you’re talking about here—both the experience of being a music fan and the methodology problem. I’m not a particularly social music fan; I am sometimes a visible fan in that I wear t-shirts and go to concerts when I can, but, as I suggested earlier, my ways of being a music fan are mostly private; they have to do with my personal connections to what I love, not my connections to other people who love the same thing. I’ve never been in an official fan club; I can’t even be bothered to follow most of the musicians I like on Twitter. This type of fan is harder to see and to study; how would a researcher even find us?

When I’ve taught classes on fandom, I’ve learned a lot about what “being a fan” means to my students. Some of them are very much integrated into online fandom and enjoy interacting with other fans whom they would not have met without fandom; others don’t feel a need for those social connections. Many of them are somewhere in the middle: their expressions of fannishness about things they share with friends get integrated into those existing social relationships: going to Marvel movies in a group, making up Percy Jackson stories together, baking and decorating a Harry Potter-themed cake for a friend’s birthday.


The internet has changed that world quite a lot, I think. The word “fandom” has come to stand for a community of fans (“the fandom”) rather than a personal interest (“my fandom”). People talk of participating in “Taylor Swift fandom” rather than being part of “Taylor Swift’s fan base,” but it’s more complicated insofar that fans retain collective nicknames (here “Swifties”) which, in effect, reference a kind of shared identity through collective difference. You could argue that net users are already participants anyway in some sense, even as observers. Such people are always already part of an in general community online, say on Twitter, so that entering that fan community means something less qualitatively distinct than before. Aya Esther Hayashi’s recent thesis on musicking in participatory fandom is also interesting here, in suggesting that community participation is itself a kind of ethical or rhetoric frame from which particular fans online now may depart.


The terminology that scholars use for fans—and that fans use about ourselves—interests me too. I do use “fandom” to mean a group of people sharing a set of interests or occupying a shared affinity space. (I know many people use the term “community,” and I’ve certainly experienced fandom as a community at times, but I tend to agree with James Gee that “the word ‘community’ carries a rather romantic connotation” that isn’t always appropriate for fandom or other affinity spaces.) For me, the terms “fannish” and “fannishness”—which I’ve used several times in this conversation already!—are important precisely because they don’t imply anything about groups, networks, or participation.

Fan studies scholars sometimes talk past each other on this point, I think. I was quite surprised, when I read Gray et al’s introduction to the new edition of Fandom, to see them describing Francesca Coppa’s “Fuck Yeah, Fandom is Beautiful” as “seeking to enforce a narrow definition of fandom and opposing broader sets of questions about

a wider set of fans” (8). To me—I can’t speak for Coppa—those are very different things, and the writers misrepresented her argument by conflating them. I’m not interested in policing the definition of “fan” or the legitimacy of any fannish practice; anyone who wants to self-define as a fan is a fan, as far as I’m concerned, which means that there are lots of ways of being a fan, or being fannish, or performing fannishness, or however one wants to describe it—and I’m all for scholars finding ways to study those fans and their many forms of fannishness! At the same time, I think it makes sense to acknowledge that one of those forms of fannishness is the social form—the set of practices—called fandom, and that’s what the scholars of the first wave set out to study. 

So maybe that is “enforcing a narrow definition of fandom,” but to me that only makes sense; it is a narrower term. Everyone in fandom is a fan, but not all fans are, or want to be, in fandom. Studying fans who aren’t “in fandom” is a totally legitimate thing to do, but it is a different thing than studying fandom—which was, I thought, Coppa’s point. (I continue to think that the Fandom anthology should be titled Fans, which would make much more sense.) My perspective on this issue is informed by my own experience: As someone whose fannishness has taken many different forms, I prefer terminology that acknowledges those differences to terminology that erases them.


Your chosen ‘sensible statement’ mentions “today’s shifting media environment.” To what extent do you think it would be fair to say we have a kind of presentist bias in fan studies, that it fixes us on a kind of ‘now time’ of fandom? What duties do we have to the present?


I suppose there might be a presentist bias, though I admit I haven’t thought about it in those terms before. If as a field we do have that bias, then perhaps one of our duties to the present is to keep records of past fannish interests, identities, experiences, practices, and communities—to not only record what’s going on now but preserve what we know about where we came from. Certainly the field has scholars who have done and are doing historical and archival work. I’m not a historian myself, either by temperament or by training, so I’m very grateful to those who are—including the people who contribute historical material to Fanlore.

My own research interests have to do with processes—how do fans, and specifically vidders and vidwatchers, do the things we do?—and part of what I’m interested in is how those processes are affected by shifts in the media environment, including technological changes; but I’m also interested in which processes aren’t affected, or are less affected, by those shifts. What’s contingent on the environment, and what seems to be more durable?


Those are complex questions. When I’ve been to the Fan Studies Network UK conferences, the field, with some exceptions, seems to be largely composed of young, female scholars analysing their online fandoms. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and I agree that part of what fan studies can do is to create its own historical record by reporting from the present on an ongoing basis. However, I find myself a bit tangential to that for a couple of reasons.

The first is that as you get older and the fandom or community you focused upon recedes into the rear view mirror of history, then, for some scholars curating something that’s past becomes part of what they do. Perhaps you reach a point where the past becomes more accessible than the present, because the present is a young person’s game and you are no longer as immersed in it.

The second is that in recent years the past has never been quite over and done with. I began by studying a living culture of fandom that thrived by sharing a deceased icon as its focus. It was not exactly, to borrow Rebecca William’s term, a post-object fandom. Elvis had been dead for two decades, but his record release schedule and fan following were very much alive. I was always looking at something that was in some ways nostalgic, but also a living culture, something that was perpetually still developing. I think anyone studying, say, Star Wars fandom would be in a similar predicament.

I also think there is a degree of tail-chasing and unnecessary repetition involved when it comes to the urge to keep reporting contemporary things, especially in an era which uses technological novelty to close down vital resources and possibilities that could be used to create stronger understandings. To put it another way, if you understand that a situation is unprecedented, then you do not look to the past to help explain it, but that seems to be the very time you should look to the past, precisely to ask how we got here, how we might understand it, and what might be done about it. If we are always seeking to keep on top of the new, our expertise becomes based on having lived through and thought about a series of experiences, but that is quite narrow. I suppose the issue for me is that in cultural studies in general, theory is basically a persuasive constituent of political storytelling. As we mature as scholars, I think we have a duty to bring a wider and wider focus to what we are examining, to tell more ambitious stories. That means understanding contexts and make connections that were not as visible as when we first started studying the subject. There are some big, big questions out there, particularly around the implication of fandom in much larger social and cultural processes. I’ll give you an example: How was music fandom for specific acts implicated in the changing geopolitics of the Cold War period? Were there connections during the period between fan cultures and wider contexts? What about the way that race became such a defining domestic issue in American popular music? How did such things related to humanism, and perhaps therefore to America’s global role at the time? Such questions can be hard, at first, to even see, let alone address. Disciplinary boundaries can sometimes obfuscate them. Maybe they can only be partially addressed, through case studies, but I think they lead to greater insights.

I’m interested in your distinction between environmentally contingent and more durable elements. Isn’t that a case of positting something almost transcendent? If so, is that transcendence in the empirical environment or in the space of theory? In other words something durable about how fandom has worked or about how we perceive it?


 I do think that some fannish interests and behaviors transcend this historical moment. Humans have a long history of commenting on things that interest them and creating stories and art about things that are important to them—including other stories and art!—and that impulse to comment and create shows up in many, many different contexts, including fannish contexts. But how that impulse gets expressed by a particular person or group of people depends on a great many social, cultural, historical, economic, geographic, legal, and technological factors, not to mention individual priorities and aesthetic tastes. So I don’t presume going in that “how fandom has worked,” or how fans do what we do, is what’s durable; I think some parts of the how are likely to be quite mutable! But the why, and even in some cases the what—we do have some evidence that those things persist over time.


Yes - I am often struck by the way that fan objects can be different, but fannish motivations or behaviours can be similar.


If we’re talking about fiction, we can go back a pretty long way: Shannon Farley’s scholarship on the history of rewriting provides some interesting insights into the ways in which, for example, rewritings of Homer—starting with Vergil’s Aeneid—both are and aren’t like fan fiction. If we’re talking about vidding, we’ve got a much shorter history to work with and a different set of technological factors; the process of making vids on a computer doesn’t look much like the process of vidding on two VCRs, let alone making a slideshow. The technical elements of the process have changed, to say the least. It’s less obvious what has or hasn’t changed about why fans make and watch vids, how we learn to make and watch vids, how we choose and evaluate the music used in vids, and so on. But I do see continuities.

Those how and why questions are complicated, because there’s never going to be a single monolithic answer to any of them; the short answer is always “it depends”! At the same time, it’s neither accurate nor useful to say “Well, it’s just completely personal and idiosyncratic.” So the point of the research is to look for patterns and then interpret them—which is arguably the definition of research in a nutshell, really.