The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Whitney Phillips & Ross Garner (Pt. 1)


My introduction to fan studies was sideways to begin with, which probably explains my subsequent trajectory in and around the field. It started with the Insane Clown Posse, because of course it did. At the time, around 2010, I was working on my dissertation, which focused on the emergence and evolution of subcultural trolling. (Stop sign: this work, upon which my 2015 book was ultimately based, focused on a particular understanding of a particular kind of trolling; see here and here for some of that history. The trolling thread will pick up again later, so bear with me. For now I’m just waving my arms around to indicate that I am not talking about GamerGate, or the alt-right, or Donald Trump. But I’ll get there.)

These trolls were like most communities, whether online or off, in that they had a recognizable argot, drew from a host of behavioral norms and traditions, and policed the boundaries of what made someone a “good” community member. What trolls did that was more unusual was to affect an explicitly disdainful, antagonistic stance towards many of the things that were, simultaneously, resonant and popular within the community. It wasn’t just that trolls bonded over their shared hate for certain people, places, and texts. The trolls played with those things, and actively enjoyed them—while just as actively undermining, maligning, and in many cases trying to destroy them. That was already pretty weird.


The next layer of weirdness came when one of my research participants casually described trolling as a kind of fandom. I asked him to explain, and he said, well, look at the reaction to the Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” video. I talk more about trolls’ reaction to “Miracles” in this Spreadable Media contributor essay. The takeaway is that trolls loved “Miracles” and spent countless hours creating countless GIFs and memes and other remixed media because they hated everything the Insane Clown Posse stood for, most especially the band’s fans, known as Juggalos. For my research participant, the overlap between sincerely loathing something, attacking those who actually liked it, and also being joyfully obsessed with that thing (because, again, you hate it so much you can’t stop laughing) was a given.

A troll gave me the idea, in other words, and because I didn’t quite know what to think about the line between fannish love and fannish hate, decided to drop my anchor.

I have since written one journal article and two book chapters on the subject (though none of these pieces address trolling specifically, I had a seperate line of inquiry going for all that). The first was published by Transformative Works and Cultures in 2013. It employs, and complicates, notions of camp, anti-fandom, and the Japanese term kuso (which translates roughly as “haha awesome this is terrible”) to explore the emotional appeal of bad content. Its primary case study is the 1990 masterclass hell thesis Troll 2, a film that, for starters, is not a sequel, and does not feature any trolls. It was in this essay that I first floated the idea that conservatism, manifested through social and economic privilege—not counterhegemonic engagement, as might be expected—is what characterizes “so-bad-it’s-good” fandom. After all, without knowing what the rules of “good” cinema are (the result of cultural exposure, media resources, and leisure time), and furthermore, without caring about those rules (the result of placing faith in institutional norms), one would have no reason to have any reaction, let alone an uproarious reaction, when those rules are broken.

I developed these ideas further in two subsequent book chapters. The first, included in Melissa Click’s edited volume Dislike, Hate, and Anti-fandom in the Digital Age (forthcoming 2018), explores fan responses to the exploifreakment TLC reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (I began writing the chapter in 2013, right after I published the kuso article). As I argue, while audience responses to the show were often outright antagonistic and seemed to align with explicit, even textbook, cases of anti-fandom, they were simultaneously affirmative and hegemonic; not only did these responses align with the network’s branding strategy, they replicated normative assumptions about how “normal” (coded to mean “white middle class”) women in American should look, speak, and behave. Again, you needed to have internalized the rules in order to find it funny, charming, or much more basically, noticeable when the rules were, in the case of Honey Boo Boo, ripped to pieces and fed to a glitz pig. The “anti-fan” framework wasn’t just inaccurate in describing this engagement, I asserted. It foreclosed broader discussions about the cultural circumstances out of which the text, and the community who loved to hate the text, emerged. I advocated, instead, for a framework that would actively embrace the slippage between normal and aberational, derisive and complementary, and of course between “normal” fans and fan with fangs. A kind of ambi-fandom.  

It was through this chapter that I began employing ambivalence—that is to say, strong tension between opposites—as a heuristic in my work, a thread I revisited in another fan studies volume, Routledge’s Companion to Media Fandom, edited by Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott (2018). In addition to (even more) explicitly tethering “so-bad-it’s-good” fan engagement to raced, classed, and gendered identity, and to underscoring the conservative elements of apparently subversive fan behavior, I affirmed the value of studying fan participation that is both this thing (community strengthening, pro-social, creative) and that thing (community decimating, anti-social, and destructive), a perspective my co-author Ryan Milner and I spun off into an entirely new book project focused on the weird and mean and in-between of online folk expression, ultimately titled The Ambivalent Internet (Milner and I did a three-part interview about the book for this very blog).

And then Donald Trump ate the media ecosystem, which loops me back to the first section of this post. The “trolls” associated with the white nationalist alt-right also happened to be some of Trump’s most die-hard fans, even as their motivations (for helping spread the Pizzagate conspiracy, for seeding Pepe the Frog as meme of the year, for taking up the campus free speech crusade) may have been obfuscated by Poe’s Law. The subsequent pro-Trump “shitposting” that emanated from 4chan, 8chan, and parts of Reddit and Twitter, along with the cacophony of false and manipulative pro-Trump messages that subsequently careered across and between online collectives, called pointed attention the ambivalence baked into online spaces, communities, and tools.

What had always been true, but became impossible to ignore in 2016, is that online expression is equally capable of empowering and dehumanizing, making chuckle and making furious, and being both vessel for diverse expression and hindrance to diverse expression, often in the same moment, depending on who might be watching and what ends up happening as a result. Furthermore, this expression can be impossible to classify just by observing, as satires of bigotry look the same as actual bigotry, and good-faith mistakes look the same as deliberate fictions, and simply being wrong about something looks the same as networked propaganda—a point that grows increasingly salient, increasingly bewildering, and at times increasingly dangerous as participatory media is intercepted and amplified by additional unpredictable, and often unknowable, audience members.

This shift to ambivalence may seem to take us away, somewhat, from discussions of fan studies proper. But it doesn’t; rather, it speaks to the fact that fan studies, like all disciplines concerned with the expressive communication of everyday people, must take into account—can no longer afford not take into account—that just because something walks like a duck on the internet, and talks like a duck on the internet, does not mean that it is actually a duck on the internet, or anywhere else. Echoing the famed 1990s adage “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” the internet of 2018 is marked by the much more concerning adage that, on the internet, nobody knows anything. At least, not enough to say, just looking at the networked behavior of strangers, this is what that means.


It probably sounds cheesy but my first experiences of studying fandom at undergraduate level were life-changing. Sure, I’d found studying political economy and political communication rewarding but here was a set of debates that spoke to my experiences of living with (and within) popular culture. Reading John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins’s Science Fiction Audiences (1995), where audience discussions of ‘classic’ Doctor Who stories were non-judgementally deconstructed, provided a sense of validation that had previously been missing.

Despite this ‘affirmational’ (more on that term shortly) experience, neither Science Fiction Audiences, Textual Poachers (1992) or Enterprising Women (1992) aligned with how I’d experienced fandom. As others have indicated in this series of blog posts, there was something uncanny about the experiences under analysis in that whilst some practices seemed familiar, others were distinctly unfamiliar. Adding my own experiences to the discussion with a view to contributing towards a fuller representation of ‘fandom’ remains an ongoing motivation for me.

Although unaware of it until recent self-reflection, experiencing fandom through growing up in a small rural town in Devon in the South West of the UK has shaped my scholarly interests in fandom’s relationship to feelings of nostalgia and its spatial dimensions. For example, living in Devon meant an increasing awareness that I was both geographically and, to a certain extent due to my embodied class position, economically detached from the locations where the practices analysed by early Fan Studies literature took place. Simply put, there were no conventions and the closest organized fan groups were approximately 20 miles away. In terms of consuming a fan object, you lived on the hope that the small local retailers were stocking the new singles by obscure Britpop artists (anyone remember Geneva? Thought not), Doctor Who VHS releases, or copies of Star Wars Magazine. ‘Fandom’ was therefore primarily about consumption of mass-produced, but niche-targeted and, in Devon, hard-to-find, media; in terms of sociality, ‘being a fan’ was about negotiating shared tastes within friendship groups rather than meeting other fans and creating things.

However, my awareness that fandom was ‘out there’ (to quote The X-Files) generated and sustained a subjective longing for proximity to such places, whether these be specialist retailers, concert venues or beyond. It’s unsurprising that I have vivid memories of the excitement felt whilst during a childhood family holiday it was announced that the nuclear power station we were visiting on that day had been used to film Doctor Who during the 1970s. Being at this location was a way of momentarily bridging the felt and enduring lack of proximity to a beloved cultural property.Equally, the exhilaration experienced whenever the opportunity to ride the Star Tours attraction at iterations of Disneyland parks arises works in a similar way.

Some readers may take this overview as rambling, but I’m using it to establish where my interests in Fan Studies fall and where, I would argue, more scholarly attention should be directed. One area that fascinates me is developing our understanding of how constructions of nostalgia structure and guide individual fan identities. Some of my publications have engaged these issues by developing our understanding of fan textualities beyond issues of interpretation (Gray 2003) to instead address affect-based constructions of fan objects (Garner 2018a - N.B. this piece will be in Issue 6.1 of Journal of Fandom Studies). This work, as well as other articles (Garner 2016a), has explored how nostalgic discourses constructed in relation to a fan object are either structured by contextual factors or exist in tension with other, production-located (and therefore ‘official’), constructions of nostalgia.

Exploring these questions gives rise to another – what represents an appropriate methodology? Affect is a notoriously difficult concept to theorize and this leads me to frequently deploy, and argue in favour of, autoethnographic methods (Garner forthcoming in a special issue of JOMEC Journal on Transmedia Tourism). Autoethnography – or ethnography of the self – can provide insights including how an individual fans situatedness amongst socio-cultural structures (of gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality etc.) at particular points in time can (re)generate attachments to, and longings for, particular fan objects (Garner 2018). Such arguments sit alongside your points concerning ‘ambi-fandom’, Whitney. Additionally, autoethnography can be deployed for studying fandom’s spatial dimensions by considering how fans connect with everyday sites that have been used for filming (Garner 2016b). As affect is an integral part of fan experiences, but is something experienced primarily at the bodily level, autoethnography provides a toolkit for capturing the affective charges, as well as disappointments (Jones forthcoming, also in the JOMEC Journal special issue), that characterize fandom.

Of course, my assertions come with caveats that prompt reflection: nostalgia is, for example, frequently associated with ideological conservatism and a regressive disposition (both individually and socially). Although these meanings need to be addressed with sensitivity and critique in relation to the political field (Hello Mr Trump, Mr Farage and other proponents of rampant nationalism), I would argue that this need not result in nostalgia’s wholesale academic rejection. Regarding individualized fan identities, understanding fans’ nostalgic attachments to particular objects represents a largely under-theorized element of these situated and constructed performances and more work is needed to develop this understanding (Stevenson 2009 and Harrington and Bielby 2010 have planted useful seeds, however). Rather than taking a reductive, ideologically-focused reading of nostalgia, greater engagement with how nostalgic meanings are constructed in relation to a fan object at specific points during both an individual and shared biography is required.

Secondly, the self accounts arising from autoethnographic inquiry must always be interrogated thoroughly and self-reflexively. Autoethnography should be neither atheoretical, autobiographical writing nor an exercise in covertly valuing certain objects and approaches to performing fandom over others (I see you, distinctions between affirmational and transformational fandom!). It should instead provide a form of analysis that locates subjective experiences of fandom within the range of social, cultural and historical structures that produce the self and shouldn’t shy away from recognizing how aspects such as consumer culture generate individual fan identities, behaviours and emotional reactions.

Additionally, arguing in favour of autoethnography requires that a diverse range of fan-scholars, representing multiple identity positions, need to engage in these practices. With its connotations of self-indulgent naval gazing, autoethnography implies (white male) privilege given that there are still so many forms of fan identity which the discipline has underrepresented to date. However, encouraging fan scholars who embody non-hegemonic subject positions to write on their affective responses and attachments to fan objects can provide insights into how different forms of nostalgia become constructed and negotiated across the spectrum of subjective identities that Fan Studies includes.