The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Lincoln Geraghty & Nicholle Lamerichs (Pt. 2)

Lincoln Geraghty

Affect is the key word here, absolutely Nicolle. Thinking about fandom through this lens can tell us much about what fans get out of texts, characters, objects, performances and communities. Not only in the past and present, but also in the future of fandom you discuss. If we do see a time where AI characters become part of the fan experience then we will most definitely need to understand the affective relationships people share with technology, their VR avatars, even other cyborg fans?! Indeed, much of science fiction film and television has shown us the potential pros and cons of scientific and technological advancements in these areas. But I also agree with what you say about remediations of the past, how old media pops up and reappears in intriguing and diverse ways. These then inspire new forms of fandom and a whole new generation of fans. For sure, new platforms allow for new forms of fan media production – memes, gifs and videos that symbolize the bricolage of texts to which fans relate. They are shared within and between communities we would call fandom but they also resonate on that personal and individualized level you highlight: the micro fandoms, the more personal fandoms. I suppose looking back on those childhood memories of playing with my Star Wars figures in the snowwhat I was really interested in – the affective practice I was participating in – was the imaginary world Star Wars and those toys allowed me to create and enter into.

Fan communities and community fan practices have dominated the field but perhaps what we might also need to consider is how the individual fan, micro fandom, interacts and connects with media texts and the likes of those characters you wanted to get to know better when you were a kid: Janeway and Giles. Fandom is clearly based on varied degrees of imagination: the imaginary worlds of science fiction and fantasy texts, the imagined spaces fans occupy (whether conventions or tourists locations), the different characters that cosplayers imagine and recreate through costume and play. And, of course, every fan will have a different image of the text or character in their minds when they revisit and recreate them. The challenge for scholars will be how to study and understand these very personal and individual relationships fans have with their fan imaginary – what we have with our imaginary. It is certainly a challenge for the big franchises like Marvel and Star Wars to keep up with how fans imagine their associated transmedia worlds and characters. Recent debates about the authenticity and canonicity of The Last Jedi or Star Trek Discovery highlight the troubling phenomenon of popular culture texts being hijacked to defend conservative and often prejudiced views, but they also demonstrate that fandom is emotive, personal andextremely affective.

Again, drawing on some of my own fan experiences, I am fascinated with what motivates people’s individual fandom. Playing what is ostensibly a social mobile game – Pokémon Go(yes, it’s still popular!) – I join a group of fellow players in physical locations to catch rare pocket monsters to add to my virtual collection. But once the moment comes to interact and catch the pokémon in the game I revert to a very individual mode of engagement: I focus on my phone, I’m either successful or fail in achieving my goal, everyone’s experience at that moment is different. Some players catch the shiny Pikachu, or, as in my case, it runs away and I frustratingly miss my chance… again! I can only imagine what it would have been like to be one of the other lucky players who caught it. Then the game becomes social again as we look to find our next target and agree the next course of action. One example shows us just how much fandom is changing like you said: small and personal, located on a different platform (the mobile phone). Technology and affect, the social and the personal, community and the individual.

Nicolle Lamerichs

Fandom studies should indeed pay more attention to affect, both positive and negative. Affect indeed is highly individual, and this individuality poses methodological challenges. To research what is deeply private and interior is difficult, and qualitative methods do not entirely elicit the depth of these emotions.

Affect is not only positive. Today, the rise of (professional) trolling has made us aware of toxic online communities, which display fan behavior and modes of operandi, but are essentially about spread hate. Anti-fandom and negative emotions are entwined with fandom today, and though they are not necessarily the same behavior, this communication requires much more investigation.

The enormous backlash to The Last Jedithat you mention brings many of our themes come together here – negative affect, nostalgia, childhood, rewriting of traditional stories and myths, and the hierarchies between fans and official authors. Personally, I have a complex (affective) relationship with the film as well. I went to see it in cinema three times, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. While I truly hate some parts of the film, I could relate deeply to characters like general Holdo, and wondered about her history and motivations for weeks. I would find it hard to capture the affective trajectory that I go through each time that I see the movie. I keep finding new things in it, but there also parts of it that I find cheap, disgusting, or a cop-out. I could talk about it at length, have seen it multiple times, and it has been on my mind a lot. However, I would not necessarily call myself a fan.  

Researching fan identity, and how we identify ourselves as fans, poses challenges. How do we deal with the highly individual moments that you and I describe? In practice, we move between the negative and positive, between a scala of emotions, and between the social and individual.  Fandom is tricky and multi-faceted. Similar to your Pokémon Go experiences, I love being part of online communities and game communities while doing my own thing. We don’t always feel the need to interact or play with others. Similarly, I could never truly put my experience of The Last Jedi into words, or how deeply I can relate to some of the characters.

Online wars such as the backlash of The Last Jedi seem deeply related to the technologies that we use as well. Social media are low-key and create a sense of openness and transparency. This is where such debates take place, and where hatred is fueled. What might start as an individual opinion becomes highly spreadable, shareable, and amplified. This is also the danger of memes and we saw this in politics (e.g. the USA presidential campaigns) as well. The personal might be the start of something bigger that we hadn’t foreseen and that spreads, not in a good way, but as a disease. 

I wonder if we even have a methodology that does justice to this individuality? You and I resort to our own personal histories, and perhaps this is the only way out. To integrate deep auto-ethnographic reflections, and our own experience from fandom, to identify the gaps. I think we go far by doing even more, and deep, qualitative studies on people’s personal histories in fandom. Oral history can also be a valuable tool in this sense to examine our lived histories as fans.

We need to look forward, but also dive deep into the past, and mine it. Our data bases, our histories, our sources are valuable collections. We live fandom studies in the now, but we need to visit the past and future to truly examine the messy affective process that is being and becoming a fan. This requires innovative methods that are deeply inward and ethnographic, and perhaps a move away from texts. If fandom is personal and intimate, our methods need to adjust accordingly.

Lincoln Geraghty

Oh yes, that reaction to The Last Jedi was messy – and opened up so many avenues for fan scholars to probe at the same time. Oral histories are an intriguing proposition; recording and then analyzing fan interactions with favorite media texts and other fans within the wider community offers us plenty to work with. I suppose the big question would be how to gather that information and then which methods we choose to go about studying them – oh, the memories of those methodology discussions during the PhD! That sort of brings me right back to where I started during my first forays into fan studies, studying Star Trek fan letters. I found the epistolary of fandom fascinating: reading what fans had written, unprompted, about their love of the show – how it inspired them, what they got out of it and when. On one level it was easier to go to the physical letters and analyze what was there. I remember travelling to the Gene Roddenberry archives at UCLA and seeing first-handthe letters fans had written and sent to him in the 1960s. Then working on some valuable personal testimonies from fans and fan clubs proved illuminating as to how they had grown up alongside the series over the decades. Moreover, after attending a big Pasadena Star Trek convention during the PhD research trip it became very apparent to me that to understand fandom and those affective relationships I had to listen to what fans were saying, how they spoke about their personal fandom to others in a public setting. What they were willing to share voluntarily. During one Q&A session with Nichelle Nichols a number of fans were prepared to stand up and share what Star Trek meant to them, how Nichols was a figure of lifelong inspiration. This oral history was clearly very important, told me a lot about affect and emotion in fandom, but not being prepared in this live situation it went unrecorded – documented only through my memory and retelling. But these are the important moments fan scholars should be studying and writing about – I think.

What you say about auto-ethnography and fan personal histories is spot on Nicolle. These are things that interest me when I teach, research and write about fandom. And, of course, it doesn’t just have to be positive or celebratory fan histories. The more conflicting moments of fandom can tell us so much about the affective investment fans put into popular media texts. I’m reminded of another convention moment, this time at San Diego Comic Con. Sitting in a packed Hall H my wife and I were waiting to see the Doctor Who panel and enjoyably listening to some of the panels that came before. Despite warnings to the contrary in the program and during the panels a number of fans got up for the Q&A to request that some of the cast of Supernatural, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who sign something, wish them happy birthday or even give them a hug. Such individualized and personal requests were handled with the typical caution and humor you’d come to expect from media professionals: the cast of Supernatural seem to be the experts in handling the strangest and most obscure requests. I was interested mostly in how fans in the audience reacted to these so-called “selfish” fans who were wasting questions and time on their own personal wishes. Murmurings and whispers I can’t repeat hear displayed a real animosity to fellow fans who were flouting the rules, taking the chance to get just that bit closer to their objects of affection – perhaps beating them to it? How does one record this, quantify this, even study it? Is it toxic or anti fandom, antagonism or rivalry? It certainly seemed like the physical version of what we see online in professional trolling and the internal policing of fan communities. It was evidence of people’s personal fandoms coming into conflict with each other in a public space, a space created meant to bring fans together to celebrate popular culture. How fans end up using and orating those spaces needs further work for sure.

Nicolle Lamerichs

I love it that you include some experiences of fan conventions. I love researching these spaces in different cultures ethnographically, and seeing how different fan localities and cultures make sense of their fandoms. The striking differences that I saw between these cultures (e.g. Germany, Japan, Netherlands) kept surprising me. Indeed, conventions are a beautiful moment to meet our favorite stars, to dress up and embody our fandom, and to engage with our favorite professionals in new ways.

Speaking of The Last Jedi, my latest affective encounter also centred around this.  I just came back from SXSW where Ryan Johnson and Mark Hamill discussed The Director and The Jedi, the documentary about the production process of the film. I lined up early to see them in real life. Their discussions about the character Luke echoed those within the fan community. Who does Luke belong to? How should he be portrayed? Does the director, as an author, really have the final say in this? Both professionals constantly pushed the boundaries in this process. They also spoke about the cast itself – what it meant to them to lose Carrie Fisher. How she herself felt, growing old and being cast in a film again. How she couldn’t cope with seeing herself as an older woman on screen. Of course, I cried.

Closure is important in fandom. Losing Carrie meant a lot to all of us, and it affected us in deep ways. We mourned. Endings are important in fandom – fiction ends and our idols eventually pass away. At some point, we inevitablyhave to say goodbye to our favorite characters and stories. Like Mark Hamill said at the event: ‘We’re never getting the band together again’. Affect does not only mean hate, or love, but it can also relate to these processes of mourning.

I feel like we are only at the start of exploring this intimacy and the encounters in fandom that you and I describe. These are formative, affective moments that shape who we are. New methods open new opportunities for sure, and so does the combination of methods. In my work on cosplay I often interlace interviews, auto-ethnography and analysis of costumes and characters themselves. This helps me dive deep into these histories, and I would say it’s a must.