The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Whitney Phillips & Ross Garner (Pt.2)


For the reader, the way we approached this exchange was to write our opening statements independently, without any discussion beforehand about what kinds of threads or points of overlap we might want to explore. This could have gone badly. However here there’s an overarching, immediate connection: focus on the politically-situated body. You can break this down further to talk about the role affect plays in fan engagement, as well as the ways nostalgia can be as politically problematic as it can be illuminating.

It only seems appropriate to dive deeper into this discussion by going personal-theoretically  meta. For me, interest in embodied experience and affect was spurred, first, by theories of feminist epistemology (particularly the work of Sandra Harding)—in a nutshell, that what we see and what we know, or what we think we know, depends on our intersecting raced, gendered, and classed identities, and just as importantly, where we’re standing in relation to hegemonic power. This basic point dovetails nicely with another foundational framework for my work (especially my early work), explored in Barthes’ beautiful and strange reflection on photography, Camera Lucida. Our eyes (and by extension, our hearts) aren’t an accident, Barthes argues. Instead they are fundamentally shaped by culture (I could get into a quibble here about how far Barthes is himself willing to take his conclusion, particularly regarding the allegedly insular punctum, and how far I think it can and should be taken, but that’s a different conversation).

My interest in situated bodies and their situated ways of seeing was further crystalized by and through the work of Ryan Milner (who I ultimately got to write that book about internet ambivalence with; I feel very fortunate to say say that I was a fan of Milner’s before I’d written anything with him). In his very excellent book on the subject, Milner lays out a number of social logics that animate the spread of memetic media, including reappropriation, collectivism, spread, multimodality, and resonance. The last, resonance, is the most critical logic to this conversation—the fact that something broadly connects with somebody, compelling them to share, remix, or variously play with whatever media object (media not restricted to the digital, either; music also counts, artistic genre also counts, swearing also counts, on and on). This connection could be good, it could be bad, it could be ironic, it could be sincere, or anything in between. What matters is that the personal connection is there. In a world overwhelmed by ambivalence, she says, using her best movie trailer narration voice, resonance is something we can actually know. Because otherwise, why would anyone bother watch or smash or recreate or rail against anything?

The idea that something resonates is a pretty straightforward (and immediately verifiable) claim. What becomes very revealing very quickly is the situated experiences that give rise to that resonance; the fact that a body, in the world, has experiences that are, in complex and overlapping ways, both chosen by the person and imposed by their broader circumstances such that certain objects are rendered attractive, certain objects are rendered repellant, and certain objects are simply not noticed. Trying to understand how bodies dictate —or at least power forward and direct— fannish sight becomes, then, the object of highest analytic value—one that is complicated in significant ways, and sometimes outright thwarted, by the limitations imposed by online spaces and tools. But that’s getting off the tracks a bit.

This basic point, though, that we have to look at where someone is coming from—economically, politically, spatially—to fully understand or appreciate their fannish engagement, is something you echo throughout your response, both in terms of your own experiences as a fan and in your call for further research within the field. You’ve already thoughtfully explained how your own personal experiences helped turn your eye towards this line of inquiry (another example of the situated knower at work)— and now I’m wondering if there were any other theories or framings that spurred it on and/or affirmed your hunch? And/or, are there specific theoretical entry points—including particular autoethnographic accounts you particularly like—you think could be integrated into Fan Studies that aren’t currently being used?



These are really provocative thoughts and it’s exciting to be engaging in this dialogue. I’m wondering if we can push them further to develop an account of the structural relations linking ambivalence online, subject positioning and nostalgia. To do this, I’m going to continue the theoretical meta-dive and address the different ‘post-‘s’ which underpin where we’re both coming from.

I agree with the feminist episteme that you’ve mentioned and would layer this with the importance of post-colonialist discourses in autoethnography. Given autoethnography’s roots in anthropology as a method for deconstructing the assumed superiority granted to (typically white Western male) researchers, this necessitates that we demonstrate reflexivity towards our location within, and relationship to, hegemonic power structures. Such an approach has produced fascinating accounts of why popular culture objects resonate across contexts of migration (Knijnik 2015) or gender (Monaco 2010). Crucially, though, autoethnography’s de-centring of the self highlights its fragmentary nature – a point that resonates with your comments concerning a lack of stable meaning online and ambivalence.

Rather than Barthes, I would argue that in this context (and beyond) Fan Studies needs a more thorough integration of an alternative post-structuralist thinker, Michel Foucault, and his arguments concerning power, knowledge and subject positions. It’s Foucault’s arguments in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) and Discipline and Punish (1977) which are most useful here – specifically his points regarding how knowledge is communicated through discourse and how discourse works upon individuals to produce identity positions. This account moves away from considering power as a monolithic bloc (in the Marxist and neo-Marxist understanding of its manifestations – see also Sandvoss 2005) to instead recognise the diffuse nature of power and its multiple manifestations across institutional, organizational or, by extension, technological contexts.


Oh I agree with all of this! And actually that connects to my primary quibble with Barthes’ claim that the punctum—basically the thing about a photograph that “pricks” one’s psyche with deep emotional resonance—is fundamentally personal, fundamentally idiosyncratic, and/therefore fundamentally separable from culture. This, Barthes argues, is in contrast to the studium, which is all the cultural stuff that one likes (or even just notices) because of it’s culturally familiar. A vague, slippery, irresponsible interest in the things one finds familiar and therefore “all right,” is how he frames it (85). Basically he’s saying that studium-level sight is situated historically, politically, and more broadly culturally, but the punctum is not; through punctum-level sight, Barthes says, ‘I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own’ (1981: 51).

As right as Barthes might be about the studium, his perspective on the punctum is, of course, nonsense. Ryan Milner and I underscore this point (both what Barthes gets right about the studium and wrong about the punctum) in another piece on what we describe as the political punctum (included in this edited volume). It couples Barthes’ reflections on photography, Stuart Hall’s (1973) foundational discussion of textual encoding and decoding, and Harding’s (1992) articulation of feminist standpoint theory to explore and culturally contexualize the spread of memetic media—with the #YesAllWomen and “Not All Men” memes (which themselves emerged from/were further amplified by their connection to 2014’s misogyny-fueled mass shooting in Santa Barbara) employed as the primary case study. Regardless of what Barthes believes to be the case about his own eyes (and by extension his own fannish sight), you cannot fully understand punctum-level “I love it!” responses, or any kind of response, even vague, slippery, irresponsible “eh that’s fine” responses, without talking about existing power structures—even as these response may, simultaneously, be highly personal and idiosyncratic.  


I totally agree with your critique of Barthes here and I think we can agree that focusing on issues of power allows researchers to locate subjective identities within broader cultural structures. Developing this stance in relation to your arguments about meaning and ambivalence online, I wonder if this can help us to better understand the online behaviours you’re discussing. Ambivalence is often positioned as a consequence of contemporary postmodern society due to the collapse of metanarratives (following Lyotard 1984). Such accounts are, I would argue, too general and ‘top heavy’ in their understanding of power but combining ambivalence as a contemporary social characteristic with Foucault’s understanding of subject positions may provide useful insights.

For example, in a digital culture we are confronted not only with a fragmentary self-identity offline but also the disparity between online and offline self-performances. What’s more, there’s the possibility that our online performances alter from platform to platform as our Facebook profile might be different to that performed on Twitter or Tumblr. Recognizing this further destabilizes contemporary subjectivity as individuals are required to continually shift position between offline, online, and platform specific selves. The resulting ambivalence this can generate in understanding ‘our self’ generates the need for strategies to negotiate these environments. In other words, the anxieties of knowing ‘who I am’ are multiplied within digital culture and across social media.

It’s here that I think nostalgia comes in and how/why we might need to address it. Although it’s an account I’m complicating in my forthcoming monograph, nostalgia is frequently understood at the social level as a response to feelings of anxiety and ambivalence. That is, when faced with uncertain times and responses, social groups fall back on romanticised constructions of ‘what they know’. This understanding of nostalgia connects with Anthony Giddens’s (1991) arguments concerning ontological security within late modern societies where, when faced with the uncertainty of globally-dispersed systems of power and trust, individuals and groups find a sense of security in having what they know about the world reaffirmed.

The first question I’d pose, then, is whether the ambivalence you’ve observed online – which is frequently underpinned by a nostalgia for an imagined socio-temporal period characterized by fixed employment, gender roles, and textual meaning – relates to the social, cultural, historical and technological structures I’m outlining here; do you think ontological insecurity might be generated by continually-shifting subject positions which are intensified by negotiating between online and offline identities, as well as platform-specific performances?

Secondly, and returning to more immediate Fan Studies debates, do you think that part of the attraction of the ambivalent fan-troll readers (and beyond) you’ve studied online relates to how they appear to provide communities or subcultures where shared, stable meanings circulate? Given the range of readings and perspectives that are accessible online, do groups like the alt-right generate nostalgic spaces for ‘fixed’ interpretations and values like ambivalence, consequently providing ontological security?

Thirdly, returning to the idea of resonance, do you think that a return to Grossberg’s concept of the mattering map is useful? This is something I’ve forwarded in a recent publication (see the aforementioned forthcoming Journal of Fan Studies article; also Proctor 2013) and Grossberg (1992: 58) argues that:

"At different points and places in our lives, we reorder the hierarchical relations among these differences. We redefine our own identity out of the relations among our differences; we reorder their importance, we invest ourselves more in some than in others".

Extending the point connecting nostalgia for shared values, ambivalence, and ontological security, do you think what resonates within these groups is applicable to the idea of mattering maps and how the shared meanings of objects – whether Pepe the Frog or Insane Clown Posse clips – reaffirm shared identities and provide reassurance in the face of multiple perspectives and an ever-fragmenting sense of self?


It’s interesting, the ambivalence you’re describing here—about the fracture of identity online, spurred on by context collapse—butts up against a deeper ambivalence that makes answering your question much more difficult, and sometimes outright impossible, depending on the example. The work Milner and I have done on vernacular online expression (particularly through the lens of mischief, oddity, and humor) does talk about this level of ambivalence; we have a whole chapter on identity play, and within that broad context also explore the kind of nostalgia you’re describing (which we speak to in this exchange, specifically the point about overly romantic conceptions of folklore).

But what adds ambivalence on top of ambivalence is the fact, addressed above, that just because people are doing and saying something online (or offline as well, but particularly in digitally mediated environments where context cues are often minimal), doesn’t mean any of it is sincere; it’s not a leg of the table you can lean on, no matter how much you might want to. This is Poe’s Law in a nutshell, which I mentioned briefly earlier; the fact that sincerity and satire are almost impossible to parse online, particularly once something begins pinballing across social media (here we talk about this process and its implications related to X-Files sparkle hair gifs). In these cases, it’s not just that satirical expression can be mistaken for sincere expression. It’s that expression can be simultaneously sincere and satirical, depending on who might be participating, how the messages might be decoded by cross-pollinated audiences, and what these audiences choose to do in response.

It’s ambivalence all the way down, in other words, which is what makes assessing something like nostalgia—whether employed constructively or destructively, progressively of regressively—so difficult. Something might look like an expression of ontological insecurity. And it may be that, either for the poster themselves or for any number of the people who engage with and further amplify that content. But it may also be a joke (also to the original poster and/or for the people who subsequently engage with it). It may also be a bot (ditto). It may also be a Russian disinformation agent (honestly 2018), or who knows who or what or why. The problem is that, when stepping onto an online platform and observing unfolding behavior, there’s often no way of knowing for sure. Even when you ask participants, who knows if you’re getting the full story, if they even know the full story (individual people aren’t just mysteries to other individual people, individual people are also often mysteries to themselves).  

As for your second question, one of the hallmarks of alt-right shitposting (and really, any other form of targeted online antagonism, even if the specific political message isn’t clear) is that so much of it is done under the banner of irony, or at least the possibility that something could be ironic, which has the exciting bonus of allowing participants to fall back on the “I was just trolling/joking” rhetorical deflection (read: cop-out) if suddenly someone has the audacity to hold them responsible for the things they choose to say and do to others on the internet. So I actually see little use in trying to extrapolate out to what anonymous shitposters “really” mean in terms of nostalgia or anything else by posting dehumanizing messages and generally making things terrible. This isn’t to say that it’s not worth studying, or not possible to study, these communities in depth; it absolutely is. But when confronted by the handiwork of anonymous strangers on the internet, I think the best approach is to cast off discussions of motives entirely, and focus instead on the impact of the behaviors. That’s something we can know, and further, can situate within broader discourses of power—analyses that hold regardless of whether participants cry irony or not. What narrative seeds are recast into the air, and what do those seeds end up growing—that’s what Milner and I advocate focusing on.

This brings us back to your question about resonance. As Milner and I emphasize in our analysis of collective storytelling, people latch onto elements of particular narratives for all kinds of reasons, from love to eh it’s fine to haha awesome this is terrible to everything in between, in the process ensuring that the narratives will live on through further retellings. In many cases, particularly when considering centuries-old narrative tropes (which show up with great frequency in even the most contemporary media), the only thing that can be known for sure is that the narratives resonated at some level with the people doing the sharing. It may not be possible to draw out mattering maps for individual participants (for one thing, you may have no way of knowing who these participants were, just that their recasting of seeds ensured the continued life of a story), but you can draw more broadly cultural mattering maps, which assess how many and what kinds of seeds there are—a point we apply to the preponderance of regressive tropes, from racism to misogyny to classism to ableism, that permeate the most enduring narratives across era and media. Again, this allows you to home in on issues of power and intersectional identity even if you can’t get to the specific articulations of power and intersectional identity in individual participants.

From an analytic, data-collection standpoint, it would be better (of course!) if it were possible to analyze exactly how nostalgia or ontological insecurity factored into individual participants’ motivations and behaviors. Without question, these studium and punctum-level responses factor into people’s media engagement practices, training their eyes in particular ways. But that information is often simply unavailable, especially in anonymous or pseudonymous online environments. And so, sometimes, the best thing you can do is try to map the winds.   


This has been such a rich (if a little intense) discussion and I’ve really enjoyed partaking in it. I’ve got a number of thoughts shooting off in multiple directions (I love the idea of producing cultural mattering maps, and there’s much more to be said about the value attached to constructions of authenticity nowadays) but I’m going to try and keep this focused on a couple of closing thoughts.

Firstly, I’m completely on board with what you’re saying about studying the effects of trolling and ambivalence online. This connects with something I’ve inadvertently and unintentionally encountered whilst researching nostalgia and the Power Rangers franchise for the monograph where one of the lead actresses in a recent series has been subjected to ongoing hate and abuse after splitting up with her rock-star boyfriend (it’s so far led to her posting this YouTube response video; I feel a paper brewing on this in the future). However, as bonkers as it might sound, I think that omitting the intentions and motivations of online trolls risks alienating these people from our discussions. As Cultural Studies scholars, shouldn’t we be trying to work with these (As uncomfortable as this might be)? Although such a stance throws up a minefield of methodological and ethical concerns, is this an area where autoethnography could be useful? I suppose I’m tentatively suggesting a ‘Writing with the Alt-Right’ project where a better understanding of these people’s world-views might be obtained by conducting self-writing projects with such people.*

Secondly, and on a less speculative level, I think what’s emerged from our discussions in terms of Fan Studies is for greater attention to be paid to ‘where fans are situated’ rather than just ‘what fans do’. This would involve thinking about not only how fans are located in relation to, and negotiate, the complex and dispersed manifestations of industrial power that they encounter on a day-to-day basis, but also their positioning in relation to wider social, historical, cultural and technological constructions of power. This might involve ‘going deeper’, as we’ve done here, with a view to teasing out abstract theorizations of fan identities that speak to the current cultural moment.

**Very quick not-enough-space-for-a-full-response response from Whitney: Perhaps, but this assumes, most basically, that the intentions and motivations of these participants would even be possible to discern and assess, which in many cases, simply are not. Second it assumes that these subjects would have any interest in participating in these discussions, or more basically, any interest in not actively trying to thwart critics’ efforts to understand, as is so frequently the case with online antagonists and others looking to disrupt and provoke—a particular hallmark of the irony-poisoned aggressions emanating from the far-right fringe. In short, when you’re talking about good faith participants, I tend to agree, but sincerity is not always something researchers can rely on or even know when they see, and a particular methodology needs to somehow account for—and when needed, to provide workarounds for—that complication.