Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Ashley Hinck & Liana Gamber-Thompson (Part II)


Liana, thanks for that opening statement. One thing that I particularly love about our opening statements is the way in which they point to the wide variation inherent in the intersections between fandom, politics, and participatory politics. Combined, you and I cover a lot of ground. Sometimes I worry that people see fandom, politics, and participatory politics as one-off case studies or a flukes. I worry that they wonder, “Yeah the Harry Potter Alliance is doing interesting stuff, but surely they must be the only one combining fandom and politics in this way. This is just too weird--too unusual.” And yet if we combine your work with mine, wow, there are a lot of examples of fandom intersecting with politics. And those examples are wide-ranging. It’s not just the Harry Potter Alliance and the nerdfighters. It ranges across political ideologies (progressive vs. conservative), across sexuality (nerdfighters), race (DREAMERs), fan cultures (geek culture like Star Wars and sport culture like Husker football), age (youth like the Harry Potter Alliance as well as adults like Adult LEGO fans), and tactics (electoral politics, activism, and creative expression). And I think that illustrates how important the intersection between fandom, politics, and participatory politics is. It’s not something we can ignore if we want to understand the contemporary landscape of citizenship, civic engagement, and politics.


Yes, I love your point about how these combined case studies show the breadth of examples we have of politics and fandom intersecting at many points along the political spectrum. The other cases you list here (sports fandoms for instance) also illustrate the varied nature of fandom itself. I think “fandom” often becomes shorthand for science fiction fandom or “geek culture,” but as someone who is invested in the intersection of music fandom and politics, I’m quick to point out how important it is to explore fan culture outside of the canon. I love cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon’s work, for example, which illustrates this point well and shows that the demographic contours of fandoms can often turn stereotypes on their heads (she’s written about black girls’ and women’s involvement in/centrality to rock n’ roll). Henry’s recent three-part interview with Nancy Baym on music fans and relational labor is also a must read. I could talk all day about how there are so many corners of fandom that need to be further explored, but maybe this would be a good time to talk more about how we define politics. I’d be really interested to know more about how you gauge what “counts” as political or as participatory politics in your own work. What are your lodestars for thinking about how fandom gets translated into civic action?


Those are really useful points about how we define, conceptualize, and shorthand fandom. I just added Maureen Mahon’s book to my reading list! Thanks for the suggestion. =) As for how I define and conceptualize politics, I find Rob Asen’s conceptualization of citizenship really useful for me. It defines citizenship as a process of public engagement--a particular mode. This emphasizes the communication aspects of any intersection between fandom and politics (important for rhetoric scholars like me). I leave questions of trends, correlations, and demographics to the political scientists and other social scientists. My own disciplinary and methodological tools are tied to viewing communication as public texts in a very humanities way. What about you? How do you conceptualize politics in your own work? And I wonder if that’s tied to your discipline at all?


That’s a fascinating touchstone for thinking about politics; coming from Sociology, Asen’s work isn’t something I’ve engaged with much, but it’s nevertheless really useful to think of citizenship through the lens of discourse theory and to frame it as something that’s dynamic, unruly, and even playful (and, of course, that’s shaped by communication). In Sociology, I think we often get caught up in “base/superstructure” or “politics/culture” binaries which I think often miss the iterative, ever-shifting nature of citizenship.

In terms of how my disciplinary background influences my overall approach to politics, I would say that I’m always thinking about how social structures bump up against our everyday lived experiences; this includes facets of our lives that often feel like individual choices, such as taste cultures and even how and why we take up political action.

Positionality is also always on my mind. That is, how does my perspective as a white, cisgender, middle-class woman impact how I conduct research and the suppositions I have about what counts as political? When I was in grad school, that notion was widely accepted in my progressive bubble, but I quickly realized that any effort not to remain “objective” in social science research more broadly was often maligned as some kind of relic of ‘70s-style consciousness-raising. I think that notion has really shifted again, though (and for the better!), with more persistent narratives around identity coming into public discourse, academic and otherwise.

One area where I think sociologists have been especially useful in picking up where more humanistic readings of politics leave off is in its interpretations of how the enactment of citizenship can reflect and reify social inequality (Evelyn Nakano Glenn, for instance, has an incredibly vast body of work that grapples with the tension between the American Creed of everyone being “equal” under the eyes of the law and our simultaneous obsession with excluding whole groups of people--now more relevant than ever!).

Something I know we can agree on, too, is that politics has many faces beyond “traditional” mechanisms of change, such as voting (interestingly, I found that the young libertarians in my By Any Media Necessary case study identified as categorical non-voters but were hugely engaged in/knowledgeable about politics). In the social sciences, there is actually a lot of rich scholarship on varying forms of political action, despite my earlier griping about binarism (James C. Scott’s ethnographic work from the ‘70’s on “everyday forms of resistance” in Weapons of the Weak still totally holds up, IMO), yet this idea that participatory forms of politics or fan-based citizenship, for instance--or even just engaging in civics online--is somehow not as legitimate as voting or street protests still persists in both academic circles and popular culture.

When we were working on By Any Media Necessary, we were trying to challenge Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that digital activism (way back when we were first encountering the notion of Twitter revolutions; it seems like eons ago!) was less risky (and less valuable) than tradition forms of protest like lunch counter sit-ins. One good example that subverts Gladwell’s narrative is from my work with Arely Zimmerman on DREAMer activists, who often “came out” as undocumented online in videos uploaded to Youtube--who weren’t, in many cases, putting their physical bodies on the line--but who were actually putting themselves at tremendous risk, with one possible outcome being deportation. 

It seems like I’m reflecting on disciplinary boundaries here as much as on definitions of politics. While you get at this some in your introductory statement, I’d be interested to hear more about how your training as a rhetorician informs your interpretations of citizenship, political engagement, or even inequality.


Oooh! I love thinking of citizenship as iterative! That’s so interesting!

You mentioned that sometimes “participatory forms of politics or fan-based citizenship, for instance--or even just engaging in civics online--is somehow not as legitimate as voting or street protests still persists in both academic circles and popular culture.” I feel that in communication too. It seems to be connected to two assumptions (or maybe perceptions). One assumption is that fans are not serious (the titles of my papers sometimes elicit nervous laughter at communication conferences). The other assumption is that political actions online are only surface level--despite the great work of folks in our field (Ethan Zuckeman’s lecture comes to mind here and certainly, like you just mentioned, your book with Henry categorically disproves any concerns about surface level activism). And yet, in the broader communication discipline, I sometimes encounter a weird kind of burden of proof--there’s an assumption that political action online is surface level unless otherwise demonstrated.

Sometimes, it’s hard to simultaneously argue that we should take politics that is blended with fandom seriously, while also admitting that it might support inequality or that some cases might be ineffective. I tried to do that a little bit in my own work, but that mostly fell on the “cases that were ineffective side. In my book, I looked at one case that could have tapped into fans as an audience but failed to do so. They had everything set up, but ended up directing the critique at the fan object, which, as you can expect, turned fans away. I looked at another case that anchored their appeals completely in fandom at the expense of any connection to public culture. I think these cases are useful in showing the places where politics blended with fandom may fall short (or if we’re feeling gutsy, we might say “fail”).

I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts on the relationship between participatory culture/fannish politics and inequality. I try to think about the ways in which some fan-citizens get to be read as citizens or fans and how that might affect their enactment of fan-based citizenship or participatory politics. And I try to think about the implications of fan-based citizenship enacted by predominantly white fandoms. But it’s a tough question that I’d need to figure out how to dive in deeper into.

Amy Brandzel’s 2016 book Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative asks some of those questions. She argues that citizenship is a mechanism of inequality and dehumanization. She calls for a shift away from it. I think your question about how we conceptualize citizenship and its relationship to inequality is a really smart one. In rhetoric, we tend to see citizenship as good and productive--it’s part of our disciplinary story going back to Aristotle. Work like Brandzel’s calls us to reconsider those questions.


I haven’t read Brandzel’s book, but while we’re trading reading list recommendations, I’ll certainly be putting it on mine! It seems especially timely as I still process the news about the terrorist attack (rooted in white supremacy) on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 50 people were killed. The growing number of these attacks brings into relief the fact that, for many immigrants and native groups alike, the “protection” of citizenship is anything but.

And I hear you about being mindful of inequality both within fan communities and with regard to who gets to be read as a fan citizen and why, and that’s certainly something I will continue to wrestle with. I think shining a spotlight on non-white fandoms and looking for how narratives of all sorts can be meaningful across a wide range of communities can be a useful start. For instance, Henry and others members of our team have written about how superhero narratives, from Wonder Woman to Black Panther have inspired fans and activists to both imagine a better world and act to smash injustice (sorry, I just feel like smash is the right word when we’re talking about superheroes!). To bring in another example related to participatory politics and immigration/citizenship/belonging, I love how immigration rights activists have leveraged the mythology of Superman toward civic ends by celebrating the fact that “Superman was an Undocumented Immigrant.”

The fact that pop culture representations like these can spark the Civic Imagination--the idea that our collective vision for what a better future could look like can help bridge perceived cultural gaps between diverse communities--should give us hope for fandom and its capacity to enable us, not only to engage politically, but to address inequality as well.

On an even more meta level, I’m also reminded of political philosopher Danielle Allen’s work here; Allen who, as a foil to Brandzel, I think certainly finds hope and value in the political ideals laid out by the founding fathers, makes an interesting argument in her 2014 book, Our Declaration, that it was the founders’ intent for freedom and equality to be mutually reinforcing in the Declaration of Independence (and yeah, she does address the boundaries of these white slave owners’ definitions of equality). Instead, in America, we’ve become so obsessed with the notion of [individual] freedom, that freedom’s reliance on equality for revolution has become obscured. Only by dignifying groups who do not wield power can we elevate these ideals, and perhaps, as scholars, we should make a commitment to do just that.


I love your turn to thinking about how popular culture narratives can be used to address inequality. I think what is implied there is that popular culture narratives can also be marshalled to enhance inequality. That’s troubling to think about, but also essential. As we were getting ready to start this conversation, one question you suggested we might explore was, “What does an “ethical” participatory politics look like? Is there such a thing?” I love the way your question orients us as scholars, critics, and fans. It calls us to think carefully about when participatory politics and intersections between fandom and political action are ethical, emancipatory, and progressive, and even more importantly, in what ways. Not all participatory politics (or fannish politics, fan activism, or fan-based citizenship) will be praiseworthy just because they it sit at the intersection of fandom and politics.

Dan Brower and Rob Asen I think model this kind of orientation really nicely in their book on public modalities. They say, “The critical character of this project does not arise from an inherent quality of a modality per se, since processes of public engagement may advance praiseworthy or censurable ends. Rather the critical character of public modalities arises from the intervention and judgment of the scholar, who discerns the values implicated in particular engagements and judges their progressive or regressive qualities” (p. 21).

Some cases of fandom intersecting with politics might be successful, some might be emancipatory, and some might ethical. I think part of what we, as scholars, can do is work through those complexities. In other words, our work isn’t done when we name something a case of participatory politics or fan-based citizenship or other intersection of participatory politics. Indeed, that is just the beginning of our work as scholars.


I feel like that’s a perfect point to wrap up this discussion, which has been such a pleasure. You so eloquently remind scholars that it’s possible to be rigorous yet not impartial, cautious yet hopeful. And importantly, we can use our own passions and interests to explore the crossroads of fandom and politics while retaining a critical lens.

And though it’s so necessary to leave room for conversations about how participatory politics may, too, reproduce structures of inequality, require more self-reflexivity, and play out in unethical ways, I’m still an optimist. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the weight of what’s happening on the national stage in my everyday lived experiences in a way I never have before; the state of civil discourse (or lack thereof) takes a mental and physical toll. But even--especially--when I leave my academic hat at the door, I’m confident in saying that we, as fans and activists (and fan activists!), can use the texts we love to change the world. Because if what we love can help us imagine a better future, we can use the language of fandom to make it a reality.  


What a beautiful sentiment to end on: exciting and invigorating. Thanks so much for the conversation. This was great! I’m walking away with lots of ideas to chew on and new books to add to my shelf. I’m excited to continue our conversation with folks online through the comments or on Twitter. =)


Ashley Hinck is Assistant Professor, Communication Department, Xavier University

Liana Gamber-Thompson is Digital Project and Operations Manager at EdSurge.