The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Lincoln Geraghty & Nicolle Lamerichs (Pt. 1)

Lincoln Geraghty

If I were to recall my first fan memories then two things stand out: place and object. I remember living in Calgary, old enough for kindergarten, and playing with my brand new Empire Strikes Back action figureson the front porch. Recreating the Battle of Hoth in the piled up snow made it seem more real to me. The fact that everything I owned had theStar Wars logo, from bedspread to lunchbox,showed I lived and breathed the franchise from an early age. From Star Wars I remember moving to Star Trek, by way of numerous 1980s science fiction films and television series. “My” Doctor was Peter Davison, I had the wallpaper to prove it, and if I wasn’t watching the latest video rental with my dad I was playing with Transformers in my bedroom (saying that, my first robot was Wheeljack). So, being brought up following the somewhat “traditional” childhood path through blockbuster franchises and mass-produced toy lines, it is perhaps no surprise that I am still fascinated by the appeal of popular media entertainment. I remember watching the original Star Trek movies at the cinema (Kirk, Spock and the old gang) and, after seeing The Next Generation on VHS, being bowled over finding out that a whole new crew occupied the USS Enterprise. There was something clearly going on here – making Star Trek for a whole new audience? Who was that audience? What was at the heart of its continued popularity? These sorts of questions (and not just about Star Trek)have framed my interest in fandom and work in fan studies ever since: through the Masters and PhD, and still now as I try (desperately!) to get on with my next book.

Star Trek was the subject of my first foray into the discipline, focusing particularly on the relationship between text and fan. Of course, Henry Jenkins’ work in this area loomed large over what I was attempting to do at the time. I wanted to understand the emotional connection fans were saying they had with the series, what they got out of it and how fiction had a real impact on their daily reality. This is not to say others have neglected the idea of emotion in fandom. What I felt at the time was that perhaps studies of fans and popular media up to that point had not really taken into account my kind of fandom – the sort that characterized those first memories of really liking something, following it, playing with it, watching it. Living with Star Trek was my attempt to grasp how fans “feel” about their favorite text. Coming to the end of that process it became very apparent that in trying to locate where emotion sat in fandom I had to understand the importance of memory, history and the personal. After all, these were the things that were central to my fan identity: memories of childhood experiences with popular media franchises, a history of moving from one text to another, the impact this all had on my life growing up, going to university, deciding on my career path.It didn’t take much of a push to choose the focus for my next research project: fans ascollectors.

I always say to my students, particularly those who are struggling to get into a subject, pick something you like and write about it – in the end, that’s what I did. Cult Collectors wasbuilt on the foundations laid in my PhD and first book. Collecting and the objects fans value as symbols of their long term relationship with popular media texts seemed appropriate and worthy things to study. They give us real insight into notions of fan memory, history and nostalgia. Fans commemorate, curate and create value in today’s ever growing and diverse media culturetherefore I would argue that to truly account for such actions we need to study what fans do and where and when they do this. This is in contrast to the prevalence of important fan scholarship on the how and the why: the former characterized by – and I know I’m being far too simplistic – poaching practices such as fan fiction; and the latter – for the sake of generalizing – in order to subvert or claim ownership of the original text. The work I did in Cult Collectors, and continued ever since, is centered on those three often overlookedfactors. “What” doesn’t just simply mean what media text they follow (eg. Star Wars or Star Trek), for me it’s more about what objects become symbolic markers for that affective relationship (the merchandise, mass produced souvenirs, rare collectables). “Where” involves investigating the places and spaces where fandom takes place: online, at conventions, in familiar locations and fantastic tourist destinations. “When”is about that sense of personal history that certainly informs my sense of fan identity and was clearly so important to the fans I discussed in both Living with Star Trek and Cult Collectors. Narratives of becoming, histories of mainstream and niche media texts, individual and collective memories of fans within a wider community, these are irretrievably connected with feelings and emotions. Fandom wouldn’t be so beloved if they weren’t.

Fan studies is in such a productive period it seems at the moment. National and international conferences, numerous journals devoted to the field; books, edited collections and articles track the most recent and urgent developments in fandom. The ever-expanding means of modern communication (social media and networked platforms) and grassroots creativity (memes, mods and mmorpgs) that inspire such scholarship are clearly important and need studying. Fans are major contributors to the mainstream production of multimillion dollar entertainment franchises, as well as continuing to exist on the periphery as niche subcultures of taste and distinction. However, I would stress the need to look back to the past – just as much as fan scholars are looking forward to the future. Fan histories and histories of fandom still remain unwritten and undervalued. There are more similarities than differences in how fans have engaged with media and participated in the practices associated with being a fan. Moreover, the historical aspects of what, where and when fans engaged with their objects of affection require more attention. While we must look to answer increasingly complex questions about fandom – to investigate the tensions between political and industrial appropriations of fan identities and texts, the transnational and transcultural flow of fandom, toxic fan practices and neglected issues of race, gender and representation – recognizing there is a history to all of them is fundamental. More often than not, as my work over the years has attempted to show, fan histories are personal, evocative and always self-creating.Being a fan is akin to telling a story, if we want to understand that story we need to start at the beginning and resist skipping to the end.

Nicolle Lamerichs

Place matters to me, but so do affect and characters. Like you, Lincoln, my first experiences of fandom were innately tied a sense of space – my teenage bed room with a poster of Seven of Nine, and local fairs where I hunted for merchandise. As a teenager, I saw digital fan spaces emerge – forums, mail lists, personal sites. This encouraged me to get creative as well. I loved to write fan fiction and to create character shrines created in Geocities of my favorites – from Kathryn Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager) to Rupert Giles (Buffy The Vampire Slayer).

Characters were central to my fan experience, and I still write about them today as a scholar. Transmedia storytelling, to me, is not so much about the stories as it is about the characters that shape them. Fan fiction, cosplay and other fan activities were tools for me to get to know these characters in a more intimate way. As a fan, I loved to think about them, and integrate that in my fan creations: How far will Janeway go to bring her crew home? How is Giles shaped by his past experiences as Ripper?

Fan costuming is one of the phenomena that I love exploring most in my studies. When I think about the state of the art of our discipline, I am often surprised by how little we speak of characters, and our love for them. In my PhD thesis and later studies, I tend to foreground transmediality, playfulness and affect, and I see characters as central in these cultural dynamics. I keep going back to reader-response theories myself to see how audiences make sense of characters in unique and individual ways. It strikes me as odd that we have so many studies on different types of fan activities and places, but very few in-depth studies about how characters are received and interpreted. In my own work, which focuses on reception, and is often ethnographic, I see different perspectives on characters emerge. Characters resonate with fans. 

Our work connects on this affective level, and on the level of materiality.Place matters to the both of us, but this is a rich affective space shared by fans, characters, and objects. In fandom, affect circulates between all of these different actors in a complex network. You are interested in figures such as collectors, and their objects of devotion and memorabilia. I have researched conventions and costumes and fashion. This materiality deservesmore attention, but we are doing the groundwork right here and now.

I agree with you that we need to look more at our own personal histories and identity, but also of fandom histories themselves. Methods such as oral history would be fantastic to include more in our discipline, and I am sure that much could come out of this. (I would just love to write an oral history of cosplay, for instance! Bring it on!)

However, we need to look at the future as well. Within fan studies, I believe that we need to forecast more to stay up to date in a rapidly changing society. Fan studies has always been at the forefront of new media studies and the digital humanities with our iconic studies on users, convergence, remixing and more. It is a position that I sometimes think we are losing. I worry that we are not in touch enough with the rapidly changing creative business and industries. We are in a shift towards a platform economy that is driven by users and fans. Produsage is the new black.

As we know, fandom has already gone mainstream in a highly connected convergence culture, but we will soon reach the next level of convergence culture- one where fandom and disruptive technologies, such as AI, come together in a man-machine blend. AI, for instance, will create a new paradigm for remixing, which will no longer be “fannish” per se. Tools such as Jukedeck and AI Music already generate official remixes and covers of beloved songs. Similarly, the bot that wrote a new Harry Potter chapter called The Handsome One accidentally created a cult pastiche.  Remix will soon not be the domain of fans anymore, but partly that of machines. Mashup will be the new normal. How do we define what makes a fan? Can an AI display fannish behavior?

Our small discipline has always been forward thinking, and we need this now more than ever. Fan studies has been at the forefront of new media studies, but if we don’t look ahead, we lose our pioneering position. We have been stuck in particular discourses of identity, belonging and textuality. What I miss is more reflection on visual culture, affect, materiality. Globalization and transcultural discourses should be key, as you state as well. Our attention should widen to arts and crafts, fashion, collectors, and even individual fandom, challenging as that may be. We should bear in mind that the media space is changing fast. We move from an era of mass media to one of platforms and micro-casting, and I expect that fandom will become personal and smaller soon. 

We need to think through the new technologies that are developed right now. This does not mean that the physical and offline do not matter. Remediation is always there and old media continue to resurface in new and unexpected ways. But it would behove our field to behave a bit more like the iconic Doctor Who. We need to travel backwards as well as forward in time.