You draw heavily here on ideas from reception theory to explain the repertoires which fandom bring to bear on their favorite texts. Reception studies and fandom studies have existed in parallel for many decades now. What do they have to teach each other?
Indeed, reception theory resonated with me early on in my academic career, and I’m specifically interested in reader-response theory. When I was an undergraduate studying cultural studies and literature, the emphasis was always on texts and formal criticism. Somehow we felt that as academics, we had the best reading of texts. Since I had been active in fandom for a long time, that always seemed strange to me.
When my supervisor borrowed a copy of Wolfgang Iser’s Der Akt des Lesens, I was sold. During my various trips to the library, I dove deep into the reception theories of Jonathan Cullen to Monika Fludernik amongst others. Reception theory foregrounds the actual reading practice and how personal consuming media really is. It is always connected to our competences, repertoires and imagination. This theory helps understand how media fans situate their readings and interpret narrative blanks. It enables us to pay attention to each individual person. What I find so valuable about this theory is that it allows us to get specific. There is not one ideal reader or fan in these theories. Rather, each reader or consumer is considered unique in this theory.
What follows is that each interpretation is personal and different and shaped by our history, identity and worldview. This resonates with me. I don’t think there is one formal close-reading possible of any text. Fans see very different things in texts. When I went to the Lion King with friends, some of us were impressed and nostalgic, while others were disgusted by the style, aesthetics and Disney’s business model of constantly remixing their own products. We see different things in texts that are shaped by our culture, political views, and personal taste. That’s also where a fandom can clash heavily, which we have seen in the reception of films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Being on one level with the fans and readers is what I find highly attractive about many reader-response theories. Like other audiences, I rely on my competences. I do not have a position of privilege or a “preferred” reading to offer. I just provide a context. That is not to say that I do not offer close-readings in my work, but I offer them in a humble way, and often by relating a text to other texts, and its culture of production.
Your book can be understood as part of a larger process of fan scholars shifting focus onto the affective dimensions of fan experiences and identities. As a first generation fandom scholar, I often found it difficult to talk about the emotional dimensions of fandom for two reasons: 1) a lack of theoretical resources for discussing affect more generally and 2) an anxiety that a focus on affect would keep alive the image of the fan as irrational in their response to media texts. What has shifted in terms of these two issues which makes an affective turn in fandom studies more possible and desirable?
Those are good points. As for the first, there is such a wealth of affective theory that discusses affect in general terms. You could draw from the philosophical tradition - Descartes, Deleuze and Guattari, Massumi. These are solid readings, but their understanding of affect is very ontological. More practical is feminist work of Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, for instance. Phenomenology could be another entry point, especially if you are interested in the role of the body, with leading thinkers like Sobchack. Finally there is social-constructivist work on affect which is very concrete, and shows how affect is constructed through certain activities. Thinkers like Hennion and Gomart truly inspire in this sense.
By now there is more work on affect emerging in our field and adjacent fields (e.g. queer studies). Some fan scholars might also find their way to affect via fan studies itself, for instance through Grossberg’s work. However, I would always recommend looking beyond fan studies and engaging with different studies on affect from different fields.
As for your second point, this anxiety around stigmatizing fans is still there in many fields. I worked at some departments where my concern with affect and emotional reception was mocked. Depending on what university you work at, you will still see an interest that gravitates towards formal readings and “proper” criticism. Affective reading has been seen as a fallacy in literary studies for a long time. The ideal reader maintains his distance and thereby his critical disposition. Fans themselves however show that affective reading does not exclude criticism. They discuss and evaluate texts, remix, socialize, and immerse themselves in the text deeply. All these practices go hand in hand for them, why should we be any different as academics?
That being said, these ideas of “emotional fans” are sticky ones, also in fandom. Male fans are quite prone to casting themselves in the role of a critic. For instance, when I asked a few male fans about shipping during an interview, I was mocked: ‘Shipping is such a stupid word, and we don’t care about romance.’ For a deeper reading on how affective and transformative fan practices are policed, I recommend Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls. Fans are not stigmatized, emotions are, women are. It’s up to us to feed back into academic and popular discourses and provide a full picture. But just dodging emotions, including the negative and toxic emotions that many fans shape their identity around, is not the way.
Fandom is big and mainstream by now. It is at the forefront of culture, politics and digital communication. Simply making fans look great, distant, and “rational” is not the solution. Neither should we keep augmenting their creativity and activism. We need to tell it as is. Fandom is not beautiful. Fandom involves a lot of disaffect, hate and marginalization. Let’s focus on the lived experience of fans, rather than staying so concerned with justifying our field.
A focus on affect, for example, justifies your emphasis on the centrality of characters to fan engagement with specific texts. You write, “television characters can be understood as embodied vessels of thes desires. The reception of fans and producers shows a love for reintroducing characters and deepening them. That is not surprising. Real emotions, after all, are not triggered by events, but by the characters who endure them, the memorable individuals like Sherlock Holmes whom we learn to know and
love time and time again.” Do characters need to be psychological rounded or realist in order to generate these forms of affective commitments? Or can a character function simply as a trigger for emotional responses? Why does fan fiction tend to push towards an understanding of the hidden motives and psychology of fictional characters as compared with their construction in the source material?
I love that you bring up characters! Indeed, characters are key. Fans identify with them, speculate about them, embody them. Today’s characters are fascinating to study. They come in many forms and media, and are often deeply embedded in different transmedia contexts. In a way these characters are highly “networked”, which I discuss often with my colleague Lukas Wilde from Tubingen University. When different transmedia products seemingly contradict the characters and their development, clashes happen. Think of the debates around how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in The Last Jedi.
I don’t think a character needs to be particularly round to generate affect. The flat characters that we often see in manga and anime fandom (many of which are mascots or tropes) are just as beloved by fans as characters like Hannibal Lecter. Some characters are definitely triggers. Cute characters like Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse might be good examples. Their cuteness generates ideas about youth and childhood, but can even a bit eerie.
Characters feel real to fans. In other words, they have “emotional realism”, which Ien Ang has also written about. Even if a plot line is outrageous, we want characters to make choices that make sense to us. Characters have a sense of realness or “experientality”, to use Monika Fludernik’s concept. They are not actually real, but as readers we like to think about them as if they are real. In fandom, this reality and reasoning of the characters matters. When they behave out of character, or when there is dissonance, fans either distance themselves from the work or psychologize the characters very deeply.
Characters are central to fandom and affective reception. I’d love to bring more character studies to our field, to be honest!
Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.