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In other words, if we only cite from those blogs that understand themselves to be clearly in public space, we may ignore both the possibly less guarded (and thus more unmediated?) voices as well as those who do not have the comfort or privilege to push themselves into the public light of the attention economy. Balancing our research to respect those voices without exposing them unnecessarily is one of the central challenges of online researchers.
Fandom is always more complicated than the stories we tell about it, and scholars need to be careful not to create an imaginary feminist idyll. Simply inverting the gaze may keep subject/object relations unquestioned—a concern that has become especially important as queer and trans studies have complicated any naive feminist binaries that may have held sway during early years of media fandom. Likewise, as (authors writing in this issue) De Kosnik and Russo illustrate, an unequivocal embrace of noncommodified fan work remains problematic within a world that requires paying the bills.
I’m in Seoul for the Third Mechademia Conference, which is taking place through Sunday at the Korean Film Archive and at Dongguk University. The theme of the conference is a mouthful: “World Renewal: Counterfactual Histories, Parallel Universes, and Possible Worlds,” but it’s already provided me with lots to think about. The conference is young, but already several speakers have hastened to report on the death of the otaku as a cultural type, which, if it is true, must mark the passing of an era in terms of the study of subcultures in Japan. Reports of the death of the otaku–now being slandered, in the wake of 3/11, as an aetiolated rich boy consumer, and good riddance–may or may not be greatly exaggerated, but any discussion of “otaku” in which they are taken to be wholly synonymous with “fans” necessarily ignores the existence of female fans worldwide and of fujoshi in Japan in particular, who are certainly doing their thing despite their relative neglect by Japan’s public-academic complex, and by academcis outside Japan too. A conference about world renewal necessarily invites thoughts about how best to encourage and to sustain social change, and I have to admit that my thoughts about the kinds of isms that haven’t been discussed so far–so far the only ism anyone wants to touch is capitalism–led me to be distinctly uncomfortable at the fact that at least some of the presentations have rehashed the tired old cliche of a bunch of dudes sitting around talking about the messianic potential of (Japanese?) girls, regardless of the conditions of actual girls and women in Japan, Korea, or anywhere else. Juxtaposing Christophe Thouny’s discussion of Kino from Kino no Tabi as a “traveling shojo” with the anti-domestic violence ad I saw on TV last night produces some uncomfortable disjunctures–provided one makes the juxtaposition, of course. Thomas Lamarre of McGill University was one of the leading organizers for the conference, but can’t be here due to unforeseen circumstances. It seems particularly fitting that he be absent while I invoke his reading of Laputa: Castle in the Sky in The Anime Machine: “Only a girl can save us now.” If there’s one thing that defined the unlamented otaku, it was their idolization, if not outright fetishization, of girl characters in general and the character type that the unrepentant Freudian Saitô Tamaki calls “the battling beauty” in particular. (Similar statements might be made about female media fans and their idolization of white male characters.) The catch, of course, is that a girl can only save us within a story-world that does not (and must not) impinge on the “real” (I use the term advisedly) world outside the story, the world where gender discrimination is a problem for women in virtually every country. It’s no coincidence that Laputa is the ur-text of the otaku aesthetic mode known as sekaikei (“world-type”), whose foremost practitioner is the fan-turned-directer Shinkai Makoto–his favorite movie is avowedly Laputa, and Marc Steinberg made a compelling presentation about the poverty of the sekaikei vision of the world in which it became clear that the influential 2004 anime Densha Otoko, ostensibly based on real events in which an otaku used the power of the internet message board Ni-channeru to woo a girl he met on a train after helping her avoid harassment, was the beginning of the end of otaku. How could it not be, when Densha’s paramour Hermes gets her name from the expensive brand of the tea set she sends him as an initial thank-you gift? Densha, with the help of Ni-chan, learns to be properly social (and consumerist) and gets the girl in the end, in a decidedly non-otaku fashion. The real death-blow, however, was struck by the rise of the nichijôkei (“everyday”) aesthetic in anime and other mixed media properties, beginning–significantly–with the openly otaku Lucky Star in 2007 and reaching its triumph with the hit show K-On!, which follows a group of schoolgirls who start their own band in music club. Steinberg argued persuasively that the nichijôkei shows are predominantly shows about girls that are intended to impinge on and interact with the “real” world outside the text, partly through using the sort of layered, intertextual fannish references–and depiction of its female characters as consumers and fans of media–in a way that was formerly considered to be strictly otaku. (I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that disruptive, threatening figures such as otaku, and media fans worldwide, are continuously being depicted as “just” consumers. The truth is that fans are unruly consumers who don’t just sit down and shut up and buy things, and that as consumers who are more than consumers, fans pose a real threat to the existing regimes of capital, copyright, and intellectual property.) In another sign of their intertextual imbrication with the social and actual daily life, nichijôkei shows are notable for inspiring fan pilgrimages to sites featured in the shows themselves, as well as for the alleged “triviality” of their subject matter. Well, as Joanna Russ noted, things like family and life and love are only trivial because male-dominated society tells us they are, and isn’t that one of the handy-dandy ways to suppress women’s writing, and women’s stories? Nichijôkei shows, in other words, make immanent in the real world the potentiality of their female protagonists’ stories, as opposed to texts like Laputa, in which the transformative potential of their female heroine’s innate mystical connections with whatever is ultimately restricted to the closed system of the story itself. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that K-On! is about girls making music and rocking out together; the other notable recent musical female character, Hatsune Miku, is nothing but immanence verging into the real world, with real and transformative consequences and potential. Miku’s a game-changer, just like Vocaloid software has been, and when she finds her own voice, the world will shake. When the keynote speakers of these kinds of conferences dare to imagine a different kind of alternate world than the future beyond capital that so obsesses most concerned academics, that will be a sign of real social change. In the meantime, otaku are dead; long live fans.
I returned last night from the Flow Conference, which exceeded my high expectations, and, of course, left me with an overwhelming list of book and article recommendations to sift through now that I’m back at home and within walking distance of my university library. The great thing about media studies is that much of this material is available online, and without any particular subscriptions or memberships. For example, just on the online schedule for the conference, you can read over 150 position papers by conference participants on such a wide variety of topics as Twilight anti-fandom, NASA technology and video games, and public television in New Zealand. I made it to five panels throughout the conference, and, at every single one, I learned something memorable from every single panel participant, as well as an audience member or three. It was the most genuinely interactive academic conference I’ve ever attended, and I was delighted to be a part of it.
It’s something I wouldn’t have thought possible ten years ago, and one particular experience from this weekend brought that fact home to me. (It’s also worth noting that the conference did not begin until 2008, so it would not in fact have been possible for me to attend ten years ago.) While preparing for my panel, on the future of queer media studies, I ran into someone I knew from the past, and who I didn’t quite recognize at first. I knew that I knew him, which was confirmed by his personal greeting to me, but I couldn’t quite put together from where. It turned out to have been my very first film professor, Jim Roberts, who was at the conference with his colleagues. I took his evening film history and theory class in the winter of 2001, when I was a junior in high school, and he was teaching at Penn State. He reminded me during our conversation at Flow that I had written a memorable evaluation for him in that class, which made me laugh nervously. I wondered what my sixteen-year-old self could possibly have had to say on a teaching evaluation, and hoped I had not embarrassed myself too much. I remembered the first comment he raised, which was that I had learned from the instructor that you should not begin a sentence with the word “this” when it does not appear to modify any particular noun. Secondly, and I have no recollection of having left this comment, I said that I liked that the instructor “didn’t take the films too seriously,” and that he would fast forward through scenes that didn’t seem to matter, even making funny comments about the extended depictions of people walking down hallways. “I was so happy to be in college,” I exclaimed on hearing this story, marveling at the extent to which I’ve been desensitized to the pleasures of the media studies classroom.
I learned so much in that first film class I took. I learned that there were a lot of different versions of Dracula, for example. I learned that Hal Hartley was a person who existed in the world, and who said smart things that were worth quoting in my LiveJournal. I remember those. What’s harder to remember is a moment as simple as the fast forward revelation — what I must have seen in that moment was that academic analysis did not have to entail a comprehensive interpretation of every second of a film. Instead, it was a process that necessitated making choices about what seemed really important, and gleefully discounting the parts that didn’t help to build an interesting argument. I had never really gotten that experience from my English classes in high school. I had always assumed that everyone else in the room fully understood, and even cared about, what was going on at all times in the books we read, and that strategic reading, as I would come to know it later, was flawed and lazy.
Looking back to that realization helps me to contextualize the many other realizations that led to my ability to appreciate the Flow conference as deeply as I did. I first had to learn that you could pause and fast forward. I then learned that, if you wrote a compelling enough paper proposal (or were in your instructor’s good graces by virtue of being a high school student), you could write your final paper about the movie Heathers. The next year, when I started college full time, I learned that you could read graphic novels as literature. The next summer, I learned that you could quote Ani DiFranco in your final exam. (On Felicity, the titular character’s best friend Julie experiences a similar thrill when her stodgy-seeming freshman English professor “[gets] her Liz Phair reference.”) In my senior year, I learned that television could constitute a section of an English class at the college level. In my final year of coursework during my PhD program, I learned that you could take an entire seminar on HBO series (okay, and Victorian novels). It’s worth remembering this series of developments, because I still get frustrated when I meet people who simply laugh at the idea of working on television in an academic capacity. It makes us laugh because it is a delight. Reading media texts strategically in order to form academic delights is, in the best of circumstances, a genuine delight. The Flow Conference reminded me of that, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
As fans know, one doesn’t need a university classroom or official institutional approval to read strategically and experience pleasure from it. However, the university is an important space where many people do get access to that kind of reading for the first time, and it’s nice that scholars who continue to work in fields of textual analysis are making more and more of their texts accessible to everyone. There is much more to be done, but I think that the Flow schedule site offers an exemplary model for sharing the most current work in media studies. Check it out!
This is the first in a series of posts on fandom-related thoughts springing from three conferences I’ve attended in the past month, AdaCamp, WIkimania, and Console-ing Passions. All three consolidated into one great fandom and open source idea extravaganza for me. These after-conference posts come royally late, but I think the time elapsed has helped me clarify my thoughts a bit. I’ll be talking mostly about AdaCamp, although I’ll reference Wikimania and Console-ing Passions a couple of times when relevant. A few quick basics. As Staci Tucker summarized at Fembot,
“AdaCamp is an Ada Initiative unconference focused on increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. The invitation-only event gathered professionals, fans, hobbyists, academics, and activists to build community, discuss issues impacting women across open technology, and strategize ways to inspire positive change and build community resources.”
The Fembot post neatly lays out the basics of AdaCamp, who was there, what was discussed, what was eaten, and so on, so I’ll just refer to that one for all those things and dive straight into some personal reflections on fans and fanworks in open movements. (AdaCamp has a policy of not referring to conference attendees by name without permission, so there will be a lot of “someone said”.) What I took away from all three conferences is that more and more people see strong links between fan communities and communities built around open source and other “open” things. Especially at AdaCamp and Console-ing Passions, I had the pleasure of talking about fandom and open source with many great people engaged in either or both of those communities. I agree with them that it would be very beneficial for both fandom and “open” movements to recognize that they’re both creative communities that have very similar principles, goals, and issues, and that they can help each other solve said issues instead of laboriously re-inventing the wheel. Issues include but are not limited to the lack of women in open source, and the precarious legal position of fanworks. I think it’s important that we start talking about this a bit more loudly. First of all – what is “open” stuff, anyway? There’s plenty of nebulous definitions around, and since adding to them isn’t the purpose of this post, I’ll just mention my personal definition and leave it at that. This is a tad confusing since we talk about open “things” a lot, but “openness” is basically a characteristic of a process. It’s the way things are made or accomplished that makes them open or not. The key aspect of all open processes for me is that they empower people to do things for themselves, because the inner workings of said things are visible, and because people have the tools to change said things and share the results with others. Open processes tend to crystallize into movements of people who see a similar philosophy behind all those open processes, but most people who create things using open processes are either unaware of or uninterested in the philosophical side; they just use open processes because they work. It’s certainly not unheard of to see people who identify as members of fandom or some “open” movement to frame fannish activities like fanwork creation as something that fits in with more famous “open stuff” like open source software. Skud does it here, and the Ada Initiative did so by explicitly inviting fans to AdaCamp. I’ve discussed the concept with many fans and academic colleagues, and it even pops up in a couple of academic works. Still, the idea that it may be correct and useful to frame fanworks as a sort of “open source cultural good” definitely isn’t broadly accepted yet. Lists of open stuff tend to include all sorts of creative works and activities, from software to ways in which people organize themselves to do something collectively. However, most lists of open stuff that I’ve seen – like this one – don’t include any sort of “open” cultural work. The Wikipedia article that lists “open” things that function according to a philosophy similar to the one behind open source has a subsection for “arts and recreation”, but it only has a brief mention of copyright getting in the way and no examples of “open” cultural works. That’s a pretty conspicuous blank in those long lists. It suggests that most human activity has an “open” equivalent these days, except for cultural works. That’s not very desirable: if there’s one thing that’s important enough that it should have a parallel movement of people creating the open equivalent of it, it’s cultural creation. And when you think about it, it’s also not very likely that we would somehow manage to invent an open equivalent for every possible activity except cultural creation. There’s just no way we can fail to invent an “open source” way of making cultural works. I’m firmly on board with the idea that we invented that particular process of cultural creation ages ago, and fanworks are one of its most representative results. Before we start picking apart the relationship between fannish stuff and open source in later posts, let’s go back the beginning and consider why fanworks can be considered part of the same “open” movement that also encompasses more well-known “open stuff” like open source software, open access in academia, and large-scale peer production like on Wikipedia. As mentioned earlier, open processes empower people to do things by exposing how those things work and giving individuals the tools to make changes and feed them back into their communities (whereas in the non-open alternative process, individuals are not allowed or able to make changes). Some examples of open processes are very clear-cut. Open source software is the most famous and uncontested example of open stuff for a reason: it’s pretty eye-catching and easy to understand. Nobody needs to be convinced that it’s empowering to be able to change the technology around you. It obviously works, and it obviously results in useful technological tools, and it’s all (mostly) nice and legal. But I’d argue that fanwork is a great example of open stuff, too. It’s just as empowering to be able to change the culture you live with, to be aware that changing that culture is possible, and to have the tools to do it. People in fan communities know that legitimate culture-making isn’t just about making a perfectly “original” thing and laboriously building an audience for it. It’s also about building on what others have made, about analyzing what’s going on in the media everyone’s watching and making it better, and about feeding those improvements back into the community of people who are also watching that “original” product so they can build on your improvements in turn. And just to get the porn thing out of the way at once: “making it better” includes everything from writing critical meta about social issues in a show to creating the sex and relationships-focused content that the source book or film doesn’t provide. For very many people, adding more shipping and more porn about their favorite characters is really, truly one the big thing that makes their favorite media better – more fun, more meaningful, and easier to share and enjoy with others. In the next post, I’ll consider what fan communities might have to offer to open source communities and vice versa.
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”
I am behind on a blog post–this blog post, in point of fact. Being behind is nothing new for me; it’s a consequence, in part, of my chronic habit of taking on too many obligations while trying my darndest to also have that thing we are pleased to call, nebulously but certainly, “a life.”
I’ve been pondering that thing called a “work/life balance” and its role in my program and career, particularly as, this summer, I will be embarking on a significant research project focusing on fandom as part of a team headed by Prof. Abigail de Kosnik. Like my friend Prof. Sandra Annett, whose recent post on the subject got me thinking about this, I’ve found that my reading and relaxation habits have changed as I’ve shifted my academic focus more to anime and manga and as my work with the Organization for Transformative Works (I’m a committee chair for the 2012 term) has come to take up more of my attention. I watch much less anime; even as I’ve gotten better and quicker at reading manga, having to sit down with a dictionary at my elbow feels a lot like work. I daydream less about writing fiction, fannish or original, than I do about making vids. True luxury seems to be lying on the couch with a work of fiction, and I read way more manga in translation and English language comics than I ever did before.
Prof. de Kosnik recently remarked to me that in her experience, of any three things you’re fannish about, you can definitely teach classes about two of them in your academic life. I think, though, that as much as I like history, and came to it via my deep interest in narrative, which I think underlies all of my interests to some extent, I don’t really want to think of myself as “fannish” about history. Moving the focus of my professional life over to the “fandom” side of the line seems to me to be courting burnout, which, given my aforementioned tendency to do too many things at once anyway, I also want to avoid.
I suspect this is something every acafan has to negotiate for herself, but for me, I do know that as much as I like writing about fandom, and as much as I believe that it’s important for fans who are academic to write about fandom to the rest of the academy, in the end there’s a degree to which I don’t want to take that analytical step back about every aspect of my fannish life. At some point I just want to do fandom; I want fandom to continue to be a place that, for me, isn’t dominated or constrained by my academic concerns or habits of thought (even as, being a whole person, I do bring those academic habits of thought, certainly, to my fannish activities).
As usual, I don’t know that I have a larger point tying these thoughts together. I’m really excited to participate in Prof. de Kosnik’s research project (about which much more will be said anon; we’re currently waiting for final IRB approval). I’m really excited to start doing research that will have a genuine place in my dissertation project this summer. I’m excited to have a little more free time to, hopefully, read and watch and vid things, anime and manga and cartoons and novels. I’m excited to talk about fandom with some of my good friends on several panels at Wiscon 36 next weekend. But as much as I do believe that fandom is a way of life, and as much as fandom has had a hugely positive impact on my life, it can’t be everything. It isn’t necessary or good for everything I do to be something I’m fannish about, and that’s okay.
Last year, Andrea Horbinski wrote a self-introduction post here that started out like this: There’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in an apartment in Kyoto, Japan, as I write this post. Three and a half years ago, on a Fulbright Fellowship to Doshisha University in Kyoto, faced with a lot of free time and nothing in particular with which to fill it other than reading manga, biking around the city, and searching for interesting things on the internet, I fell (back) into fandom, and thence into the Organization for Transformative Works. I didn’t know it then, but that was a transformative moment for me. I suppose there’s a certain propriety to the fact that I’m sitting in a graduate student office at Doshisha University in Kyoto as I write my own self-introduction post. My road to Doshisha, and into the OTW, was completely separate from and unrelated to Andrea’s, but unfolded so similarly that I almost feel like I can point at her post and just skip my own introduction. She even likes the same titles I do. But I’ll take this opportunity to assert my individuality. I’m Nele Noppe, a Japanologist by trade, currently in the middle of a PhD fellowship at a Belgian university but spending a few years in Japan to learn about doujin culture (doujinshi and related fanworks). My research compares how English-language and Japanese-language fandoms exchange works. More precisely, I’m interested in the architectures and circumstances of those exchanges: what technology is used, what the legal limitations are, what languages are used, what the involvement of non-fans is like, and how all that influences what sort of works are made. I’m endlessly intrigued by what happens when technology, law, and large groups of very determined and enthusiastic people collide. As for the fannish side of things, I grew up on Franco-Belgian comics, but the American Elfquest was my first really active fandom. After buying a Zetsuai 1989/BRONZE mook at a con, I tumbled into yaoi and never looked back. I spent my last years of high school poring over dearly-bought Japanese-language BRONZE and Kizuna tankobon with a tattered kanji dictionary in hand, and enrolled in a Japapanese Studies program as soon as I could. More than half of my fannish life was spent memorizing everything on Aestheticism, roving around the old Anime Web Turnpike, and chatting on Yahoo! mailing lists. LiveJournal, fanfiction.net, and other big fannish hubs only came onto my radar after I wandered into Harry Potter fandom sometime around 2006. Right now, I write, read and draw mostly about Avatar: the Last Airbender, and lurk in a variety of manga fandoms. Avatar is a good fandom to be in right now, and not just because the new series The Legend of Korra rocks and I found a bunch of people who share my tiny OTP. As mentioned above, the clash of technology, fans, and law fascinates me no end, and parts of Avatar fandom have been getting into some pretty interesting clashes lately. Take the neverending string of online leaks from the new series, from clips to whole episodes. At first it seems to have been an insider who was smuggling out clips, but once they stopped, others took over and started tricking Nickelodeon’s website into giving up upcoming episodes early. Unless I’m mistaken, last week’s episode 5 was the first one that managed to air without being preceded by any leaks whatsoever. And of course everything that was leaked or uploaded to the official site was immediately re-uploaded elsewhere so fans outside the US could access it as well. Leaving aside the dubious legality of everything that’s been going on around Korra, what strikes me the most about this ongoing situation is how utterly unprepared Nickelodeon turned out to be to keep the leaks from happening, and people from sharing them around. (Viewer numbers for Korra were fantastic, leaks or no leaks.) Amazon met with a similar fate. The first part of the Avatar tie-in comic The Promise was supposed to be published only this January, but it was circulating online by November last year. Amazon made the issue available for pre-order and enabled the “look inside” feature, which shows every visitor a couple of pages from any book. A bunch of Avatar fans descended on the site, saved the handful of pages each of them could see, and started putting their puzzle pieces together. Nearly the whole comic had been reconstructed on Tumblr before Amazon realized what was going on and put some brakes on “look inside”. (Sales for The Promise were fantastic as well.) This is the sort of creative loophole-exploiting that, to me, is typical of the interesting times we live in. Individuals have technologies at their fingertips that even large companies couldn’t dream of just a few decades ago – and apparently can’t really grasp the significance of even now. The laws that govern the use of those technologies are completely out of sync with what people can actually do, or think they should be allowed to do. And there are a lot of people working together all around the world in order to communicate better and route around whatever hurdles are in their fannish paths. I expect that I’ll spend most of my Symposium posts talking about those things, and often from a transcultural perspective, given my focus on doujin. I’m thrilled to be here and get a chance to learn from you all.
I had the pleasure of participating in the Mutated Text workshop, celebrating “informal informalities, strange writing, and eclectic ties,” yesterday at Berkeley. As usual, going as a historian to anything even vaguely non-traditional — even as a historian whose heart is firmly in the nontraditional — and going as a fan to anything academic is always a bit of a dissonant experience for me, but my fellow participants were an eclectic bunch of brilliant people who instantly put me at ease, at least as an academic uncomfortable with, in the words of co-convener Martha Kenney, how the norms of academic writing “force self-severing and ignore our personal entanglements with our research.”
As I’ve learned just since my last post, part of the constraints I sometimes feel in academic writing are assuredly unique to my chosen discipline, and perhaps even to my own subfield — certainly my colleagues in Chinese history express a positive paranoia about using the “I” in text that, thankfully, my department head (a professor of premodern Japan) has never felt. English and critical theory, a friend of mine assured me after last time (“I agree with your general argument but I disagree with you on every particular!”), are perfectly comfortable with the personal interpolating into the scholarly. More power to you, my friends!
Part of what we talked about at the workshop yesterday, however — and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a practicing feminist sff writer (Naamen Tilahun, in this case) try to explain the concept of “meta” to a roomful of academics and casual genre readers — put me in the mind of Alex Jenkins’ last post, and her thoughts on the place of love for one’s work, and enthusiasm, in work. I commiserated with enough people at the workshop to know that the constraints people feel in academic work are real enough, even as we see more and more academic works that, as Mel Chen put it later in the day, “resist those constraints.”
Possibly even more than on the question of enthusiasm and being personal, however, I left convinced that one vital feature of fandom, and part of why, as Alex Jenkins argues, it is such an important alternative sphere of pop culture criticism and enjoyment, is that fandom is much more process-oriented than academia may ever be. From the question of works in progress [WIPs] to vidders trading tips and gripes about software and vidding workflow, fandom offers an extraordinarily transparent view on the way the creative process works. I mean “creative” here in its broadest sense, because anyone who doesn’t think that scholarly writing is creative has clearly never cudgeled their brains to pull out the better sentence, thesis, structure, conclusion that you just know is in there somewhere, if you could only find it. Whereas academics frequently feel alienated from each other while working (especially, I daresay, during that dreaded period of time in which one writes a dissertation), fandom has a lot of mechanisms to make people feel that they’re not alone — indeed, I think part of why we as fans love fandom is that it shows us that we’re not alone in our improper informalities and eclectic enthusiasms. Even if no one else has ever heard of your tiny fandom, just about everyone can understand your undying love for it.
I think the other thing is that fandom is also much better at tolerating failure. Your WIP may break off mid-chapter, and people will still read and even recommend it. Your vid or your AMV may not be all that it was in your head, but people will watch it and love it anyway. Dead ends and loops and wandering pathways are a part of what it’s about — iteration and reiteration and obsessive reworking and rereading of trope, character, plot elements. We as fans eat it up with a spoon, whereas as scholars we’re supposed to get it right, right out of the gate, every time.
Co-organizer Margaret Rhee, in her opening remarks, expressed the hope that the workshop could offer participants a supportive space for experimental writing, and it certainly did that; for that alone, to know that I’m the only one who’s willing to follow her passion where it leads, both in terms of form as much as of content, Mutated Text was awesome. And it’s that aspect of fandom, ultimately, that the academy could most stand to emulate.
“But with it–” began Will.
Iorek didn’t let him finish, but went on, “With it you can do strange things. What you don’t know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too.”
“How can that be?” said Will.
“The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing. Can you see the sharpest edge of that knife?”
“No,” said, Will, for it was true: the edge diminished to a thinness so fine that the eye could not reach it.
“Then how can you know everything it does?”
“I can’t. But I must still use it, and do what I can to help good things come about. If I did nothing, I’d be worse than useless. I’d be guilty.”
–Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (181)
The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 9, is dedicated to “Fan/Remix Video,” an awkward mashup that does much to delineate the uncomfortable position in which I found myself while reading many of the — invariably quite interesting — articles. For me this discomfort was summed up neatly in particular in Kim Middleton’s article “Remix video and the crisis of the humanities”, in which at one point she notes that
To consume, critique, discuss, produce, circulate, subvert, or comply with corporate control—each of these, and sometimes all at once, comprise remix video’s contribution to the practice of living with and through the digital. In its history of practice, remix culture interrogates the transformation of human experience through a sophisticated approach to the texts that project our cultural desires, assumptions, and expectations. Access to digital technologies—whether via LiveJournal, iMovie, or YouTube—allows fans and amateurs to express and share their analysis of, and investment in, canonical texts. In other words, if Tryon’s analysis holds true, then remix video functions as a particularly popular and powerful engagement with cognitive and cultural work that parallels the formative humanities/digital humanities agenda. (3.3)
Note that the magic word “fans” appears only in the penultimate sentence (and that this quotation is only about half of a longer paragraph). Middleton goes on to note — rightly, I think! — that “as modes of thinking about texts, remix practices quite clearly represent competencies endemic to humanities discourse, and ubiquitous in the parlance of its crisis and loss” (3.8), but I am unconvinced by her ultimate conclusion that “It may well be worth the creative effort, however, to recognize a common set of practices, skills, and values that underpin a spectrum of enthusiastic, sophisticated efforts in these two fields [remix video and the humanities] and begin to imagine activities and texts that provide shared opportunities to promote and engage potential participants in the modes of thinking that bring us pleasure and frame the ideas and processes that matter to us, as a collective investment in the creation of an amenable cultural future” (4.3).
Yes, it may well be worth the effort. I can’t agree, however, that any such effort would succeed, for the simple reason that Middleton (and, I must admit, the vast majority of the academy) can’t quite seem to acknowledge that “vernacular remix” is a product not just of critical sensibility and deep cultural knowledge but also of unbridled, passionate enthusiasm. Fans are fannish, in a way that is frequently deeply embarrassing to non-fans, and in the academy that sort of deep emotional engagement with your subject is, at least in my experience, always just a little bit suspect.
I don’t mean to imply that academics aren’t passionate about what they do, or that self-defined “fans” are the only people who make remix video (if anything, the opposite is true, on both counts). But I do think that the humanities aren’t going to survive the onslaught of neoliberal rationalization and downsizing programs without articulating their value not just in terms of cognitive benefits but also of affect, of emotion and sentiment and what the humanities make people feel about them and why that is deeply valuable, in a non-quantifiable way, too. Similarly, I find the disavowal of emotional engagement on the part of many prominent “remix video” makers, such as Elisa Kreisinger, to be disingenuous at best: in particular, Kreisinger’s sharp distinctions between “remixers” and “fans” seem, from the fannish perspective, totally baseless in that everything she says about “remixers” applies, mutatis mutandis, to fans too. The only real difference between the two groups that I can see is that fans are unabashedly enthusiastic about their subject, and that fans and fan vids are far less mainstream-acceptable.
Middleton rather bluntly declares that “remix culture will not save The Illiad” (4.3), but allow me to suggest that fandom just might–what, after all, is the ancient epic cycle that the Illiad began but a poly-cultural, polyglot, centuries-long shared world fandom? (Even the Odyssey, supposedly a landmark of ancient Greek, “Western” culture, draws on and speaks to a roughly contemporaneous Hittite epic tradition.) But for fandom and the humanities to assist each other against the onslaught of their detractors and critics, each will have to know what the other is, to understand and to acknowledge the real dimensions of the other’s affective engagement and critical sensibility, as well as the limitations and benefits of the same. Denying who we are and why we care to do what we do, as whole people, as academics and as fans, will never lead to anything productive.
Guest post by Tom Phillips and Lucy Bennett
As young researchers, we are frequently told to place an emphasis on networking. It is certainly true that making connections with others can help boost your career, whether in terms of finding a co-author for a research project, or simply knowing someone at an institution that will let you know of any vacancies.
In addition to the more traditional mode of meeting others at conferences, networking websites such as Academia.edu have also proved useful, giving an overview of scholars’ academic profiles.
However, what we felt was lacking in terms of having a relatively informal space in which to bounce around ideas. The “traditional” mailing lists are useful in terms of disseminating information, but creating a dialogue via these formats is often not welcomed – mailboxes can become full of conversations about subject matters considered irrelevant by some.
In creating the Fan Studies Network, we wanted to cultivate a space in which scholars of fandom could easily find others with the same research interests, and could also converse in a non-judgemental way. To this end, we are encouraging all those who sign up to the mailing list to introduce themselves and their research. This should have the effect of allowing a sense of community – all other subscribers know that only interested parties will be seeing their messages. It also allows people to talk about their research, and in the process hopefully make new contacts.
We welcome scholars to join the network by signing up to our Jiscmail mailing list: FanStudies@jiscmail.ac.uk. You can also visit our website, which features CFPs and events of interest at
fanstudies.wordpress.com, and our Twitter account @FanStudies.
With the assistance of the team members who help us run FSN – Bethan Jones (Cardiff University), Richard McCulloch (UEA), and Rebecca Williams (University of Glamorgan) – we aim to host an event within the next year.
As a project in its infancy, we would welcome any feedback or suggestions from blog readers.
Most fans know how it feels to contemplate sharing their fandom with the outside world. You dwell, you ponder, you cogitate and you finally decide that you are not gonna hide, dammit! You are gonna fly your geek flag, because this is important to you and you have nothing to be ashamed of. (Or maybe you decide for very good reasons not to reveal yourself, but let’s assume otherwise for the purposes of the moment).
So you “come out” to someone. You tell them about your love. You explain all the ways that you express your love and you brace yourself for judgment. You are ready with your arguments: You do know the difference between fantasy and reality. You do have a life. You are a contributing member of society and it isn’t just a tv show/movie/book/game, it brings you meaning and pleasure and friendship. It allows you to express parts of yourself that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise.
Except, to your surprise, the judgment doesn’t come. You get vague, puzzled expressions and shrugs but little more, and you leave the encounter feeling oddly disappointed and maybe just a tad uncomfortable, as though you just tried to write a really cracky crossover fic and the characters just refused to exist in each other’s worlds.
Bringing fandom into the classroom is a lot like this – except entirely different.
I write on this topic today in the genuine hope that other acafen might have wisdom to impart. You see, I just finished teaching an introductory level course called Media and Society. On the whole, it was a great experience. The students were engaged and talkative. They were full of opinions, so I imagined that when we got to the section on fandom there would be a plethora of exciting conversation. Some might react, others would challenge the reactions…. or if not, I would intervene gently but firmly. Perhaps some would admit to being fans themselves, even talk about their own transformative works. We would debate whether or not fans are harmless, folksy innovators or the dupes of capitalism. If nothings else, we would have fun. I brought to class some great examples of fan vids, fan films, machinima, fan art. I told them about slash, yaoi, hurt/comfort, and I waited for the questions.
The party was a bust. Just as with my more generic revelation fantasies, I got silence and blank faces. There were the occasional giggles and expressions of shock but otherwise the galvanizing encounter that I had expected did not materialize. (I did have a bunch of athletes in the class who quite willingly owned up to being sports fans, but in this sport-centric society who would feel the need to hide it?) At the very least I expected the subject of slash to inspire curiosity or outrage – but no. The void I that I contemplated in response to slash was particularly gaping.
The way I see it, there are four possible explanations for this.
One: I was too obvious and the students didn’t want to risk getting on my bad side. Now, I did not make a secret of the fact that I am myself a fan, but I did not name outright my fandom, nor did I tell them that I have written fanfic and slash. Still, they may have been able to figure it out. I did show an excerpt from an episode of Supernatural and followed it up later with a Supernatural fanvid. But this only made sense, didn’t it? I had discovered early on that I could make no assumptions about them having seen any show or film, regardless of its popularity, and if I was going to show a vid then they ideally needed some context for it. It’s not like it was all-Supernatural-all-the-time. In fact, I thought I had done a good job of being not-too-overly-enthusiastic when I mentioned the show, using it as just one (very apt) example of what Sharon Marie Ross has called “participatory viewing”.
However, it is entirely possible that I was not as inscrutable as I had hoped.
Two: I was not obvious enough. In my desire to not seem too partial, to have a balanced dialogue about fandom, perhaps I undersold fandom. I did not express how I adore the unquenchable, idiosyncratic, joyful creativity of fans. I did not manage to make my students understand the depth of feeling that we fans invest in our loved objects, how strange yet ordinary that emotion, how necessary and yet how secret. And even though I touched on the gender divide in fandom, I did not adequately convey my wonder at women all over the world turning media to our own purposes the way that we do. I did not advance any arguments about slash being more than just gay sex. Perhaps I should have told them how slash is so much more than dirty stories, how it is an entire woman’s genre built from our desires and fantasies – exciting, mundane, cute, sentimental, passionate, sometime violent.
Maybe I failed in all this because still, after everything, there is something about fandom that is embarrassing to me. I don’t care if people know that I read and write sexy man-on-man stories but I do mind people knowing about all the sentiment. There is something squirmful about the fact that I need a fix of emotional goop every day. Even if I know cognitively that there is nothing wrong with it, I still find it hard to face the discomfited sniggers when displaying a piece of fan art that depicts excessive tenderness between two naked male characters.
Third: Fandom is no big deal. Maybe these kids are just too accustomed to the idea that people are entitled to their pleasure as some inalienable right. Maybe they secretly think “Yeah, total geek…but hey, to each his own” along with “I like my shows/games/movies too. I’m not going to wear a costume though…I’m not a fan like that.” Maybe they figure there’s nothing much to argue about and that, again, would be my failure.
Fourth: Now I’m going to make a confession. I’m exaggerating a bit. My students did ask some questions. There was even a group of four or so who stayed after class one day (I had just shown the first 30 minutes of Trekkies), to argue about the meaningfulness of fandom relationships and the ethical implications of spending thousands of dollars on collectibles. It was an energetic, intellectually satisfying discussion that we never had the chance to resume. I had hoped to pick it up in class but the same students didn’t seem interested anymore. So I was disappointed, and that just may be my problem. It is possible that the “fan” in “acafan” will never be able to find the experience of teaching fandom satisfying, either because her students are not fans and don’t quite get it, or because her students are fans and they do get it but, like her, they aren’t willing to expose their quivering, emotional, fannish self. Perhaps there must always be a limit on how much of the fannish experience she can reveal, not because there is anything inherently wrong about what she does and feels and believes but because it will simply never translate into the classroom.
Am I once again being the idealist, comparing my imagined experience with reality and finding reality wanting? And wouldn’t that just be typical of me.
Like much of the rest of the world, I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 last weekend. The Harry Potter books, and fandom, hold a very special place in my heart, and the seventh book in particular holds a very special place in my reading experience as well: namely, it’s the only book I can recall in years that, while reading, I deliberately forbade myself from flipping to the back of and reading the ending. Just about every other book I read, especially fiction, after about twenty pages I find myself turning to the ending and reading the final chapter or so. I’ve gathered from people’s reactions that this is something of an odd reading practice. The only other person I’ve met who does make a habit of it, actually, is a professor in my department, and we had a satisfying moment of solidarity when we discovered that we both read the endings of books before reading the rest of the book. I’m frequently asked why I read this way, and I often answer that, for me, the plot of a book is often the least interesting aspect. Did I suspect that Harry would (eventually) vanquish the Dark Lord when I started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997? Yeah, I had an inkling. Whether or not there are only seven stories in the world, there are certainly a limited number of plots; for me, how the author gets there–language, characterization, style, subject matter, setting–is usually far more important than the actual ending itself. My professor, however, told me that I should be taking the same approach to academic works that I do to fiction: namely, reading the introduction and the conclusion before the actual core of the book, to see whether an author actually fulfills the claims they make. This is certainly good advice; I’m constantly surprised at how many scholars’ introductions and conclusions don’t quite match what their books actually say. But, as is perhaps inevitable, the entire conversation got me to thinking about fanfiction. To wit, part of the pleasure of fanfiction in general–and Harry Potter fanfiction in particular, because there are oceans and oceans of Harry Potter fic out there, as befits a rich, sprawling, transcendently popular canon–is how much we as readers and writers already have in common when we come to the text: we’ve read the books, we’ve seen the movies, we’ve sampled the Chocolate Frogs and Every Flavor Beans and we’ve listened to our wizard rock. So we’re free to focus our attention on other things: characterization in light of whatever canonical aspect has been transformed, whether the fic is critiquing or celebrating a particular aspect of the text, the hotness of any included sex scenes. No matter how many brilliant fics I read, I’m never unhappy to read another fic covering the exact same emotional territory or scenario, for the pleasure of getting a new spin on a concept I love. All this being said, I’m glad I didn’t spoil myself for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when I first read it, though I hardly wept any less in the theater than I did at the resurrection stone scene in the book. Just as in fanfiction, one of the pleasures of the Potter films has always been the simultaneous impossibility and possibility of spoiling them. We walked into the movie theater already knowing the plot every time, and yet how the filmmakers would transform the books into movies remained a mystery. And even in this final film, which only covers the last half of the final Potter book, my friends and I were quite happy to be unspoiled about just how the filmmakers would interpret everything. (We were, on the whole, quite satisfied.) I’ve come to believe that this same fascination–not what but how, not actual events so much as means, causes, and consequences, hidden realities within familiar stories–is part of why I enjoy studying history. History too offers us a closed, finite narrative that most of us are familiar with at some level of detail; it’s the historian’s job to dig in to the inner workings of that narrative and explicate how events took the shape they did, to excavate forgotten, actual and possible pasts while illuminating possible futures. Lacking a Time-Turner, a Pensieve, or a position in the Department of Mysteries, more often than not for my own research I’m following Hermione Granger’s lead to the library, but even magic takes effort and study. We in fandom know well that canon is only one possible version of any given story; similarly, just because the past worked out the way it did doesn’t lend that past any authority beyond that of the actual. Both are crying out to be disassembled, remixed, and transformed.
It’s at moments like this that I realize how much I have to learn about fandom, its far-reaching impact on global popular culture forms, and its awesome and endless variety. With that in mind, I heartily encourage fans, fan scholars, and acafans with the relevant expertise to think seriously about submitting a piece of writing to this upcoming special issue of the academic journal Transformative Works and Cultures. The editors have put together a welcoming and intellectually exciting set of questions to inspire contributions from a range of disciplinary and fannish perspectives. I can’t wait to see how the issue takes shape. But enough about me, onto the editors’ CFP: Transnational Boys’ Love Fan Studies Edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, Oita University ‘BL’ (Boys’ Love), a genre of male homosexual narratives (consisting of graphic manga, novels, animations, games, films, and so forth) written by and for women, has recently been acknowledged, by Japanese and non-Japanese scholars alike, as a significant component of Japanese popular culture. The aesthetic and style of Japanese BL have also been taken up, deployed and transformed by female fans transnationally. The current thrust of transnational BL practices certainly raises a number of important issues relating to socio/cultural constructs of BL localization and globalization. A historiographic approach to Japanese BL studies clearly shows that Japanese BL originally developed through fans’ amateur aniparo (anime-parody) writing, in which the male characters in popular animations (as well as manga and other genres) are recast in homosexual pairings. From the outset, then, BL was a fan-oriented activity, established on the basis of a fervent, female-oriented fan community which has produced, circulated, and consumed dōjinshi (amateur coterie magazines) and other materials in this genre. The Tokyo Comic Market, the biggest fan-dōjinshi event in Japan, is held twice a year and attracts more than half a million participants in each event. A large portion of these Comic Market participants consists of BL fans, who have become a dominant force in the development of such dōjinshi activities. As well, Japanese female BL fans have recently received a great deal of public attention in relation to the popularized concept of fujoshi, which literally means rotten women and connotes the presumed “perversions” of women who fantasize about male-male eroticism. A specialized body of academic analysis concerns the formation of Japanese BL fujoshi, detailing their consumptive and productive activities, both as individual fans and as members of specific fan communities. Such scholarly endeavors would certainly be enriched by further research concerning the activities of transnational BL fans. This research would examine BL fans, fan communities, fandom, and fan fiction in each of the regions where BL (or BL-like) activities have originated and developed. For example, several critics (e.g. Antonia Levi 2010) have previously described the arrival of BL in the West, but this is surely premised on the existence of local fan communities and practices. Further, Matthew Thorn (2005) has investigated the similarities between Japanese BL fans and North American female slash fans and found, in both cases, that these fans “come out” only among fellow fans, showing that women’s pleasure in such “unhealthy” materials still possesses some degree of public stigma. On the other hand, Ting Liu (2009) has examined the development of BL fan communities in China and Hong Kong, along with the gradually shifting cultural perceptions which surround them, demonstrating the ways in which BL fan activity problematizes established gender formations in these regions. Thus, transnational BL fan studies can and should also be incorporated into the broader socio/political critical frameworks offered by studies concerning economy, gender/sexuality, race/class, and others. In order to develop transnational BL fan studies further, we are therefore seeking contributors working in this field, in particular those engaged in the exploration of non-Japanese and non-North American contexts (e.g. Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, and others). We welcome submissions dealing with, but not limited to, the following topics: Case-studies and ethnographic examinations of BL fans, specifically examining fans’ sex/gender, age, occupation, class, race/ethnicity, et cetera. Local ethnographies relating to BL fans’ production, distribution, and use of these materials. Discussions concerning the ways in which broadly framed socio/political issues or forms of consciousness (e.g. gender/sexuality formations, authorities’ interference, censorship, and so forth) impact fans’ BL activities. Media and social responses to fans’ involvement in BL activities. Commercial aspects of BL and fans’ contribution to the development of BL economics. The integration of research on BL fans into a wider discussion of social theory, differing cultural discourses, and globalization. Discussions concerning the ways in which BL fans’ forms of production, distribution, and consumption might challenge traditional notions of Author, Reader, and Text. Theoretical overviews reflecting traditional/contemporary ideas of fandom, fans, fan communities, and fans’ means of communications, demonstrating how these ideas specifically relate to BL fans. Explorations of the ways in which BL participants are motivated to become involved in other fan-oriented activities (e.g. cosplay; female fans’ cross-dressing as male BL characters). Submission guidelines TWC accommodates academic articles of varying scope as well as other forms that embrace the technical possibilities of the Web and test the limits of the genre of academic writing. Contributors are encouraged to include embedded links, images, and videos in their articles or to propose submissions in alternative formats that might comprise interviews, collaborations, or video/multimedia works. We are also seeking reviews of relevant books, events, courses, platforms, or projects. Theory: Often interdisciplinary essays with a conceptual focus and a theoretical frame that offer expansive interventions in the field. Peer review. Length: 5,000–8,000 words plus a 100–250-word abstract. Praxis: Analyses of particular cases that may apply a specific theory or framework to an artifact; explicate fan practice or formations; or perform a detailed reading of a text. Peer review. Length: 4,000–7,000 words plus a 100–250-word abstract. Symposium: Short pieces that provide insight into current developments and debates. Editorial review. Length: 1,500–2,500 words. Submissions are accepted online only. Please visit TWC’s Web Site) for complete submission guidelines, or e-mail the TWC Editor (editor AT transformativeworks.org). Contact We strongly encourage potential contributors to contact the guest editors with any inquiries or proposals: Kazumi Nagaike, nagaike AT oita-u.ac.jp Katsuhiko Suganuma, suganuma AT oita-u.ac.jp Due dates Contributions for blind peer review (Theory and Praxis essays) are due by March 1, 2012. Contributions that undergo editorial review (Symposium, Interview, Review) are due by April 1, 2012.
Fans, of course, get intense about what they are fannish about. To use a cliche that Tolkien has already masterfully embroidered upon in his fable “Leaf by Niggle”, fans intentionally and gleefully lose sight of the forest in favor of the trees, or even one tree, or even a single leaf.
And yet it’s sometimes extremely educational and even inspiring to try to get a view of the forest — even, when possible, a bird’s eye view. Or a Time Machine view.
This is what Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein urge in their detailed tour of historical fandoms in the last issue of Transformative Works and Cultures,, which they guest edited. Their opening editorial is humorously called “I’m Buffy, and You’re History”, and they give a tour of fan communities, broadly defined and extending back through time much further than I’m usually accustomed to thinking about.
This issue wanted to focus on fan communities before network TV and certainly before the internet, and the articles focus on things like female fans of British movie stars and the people who wrote fan letters to Willa Cather. And yet Reagin and Rubenstein want to show there is a historical continuity between these groups and Star Wars or Doctor Who buffs.
They write, “This special issue of TWC represents, as far as we know, the very first published collection of historical studies of fan communities and activities…. When we discuss ‘fans,’ we are referring to people who were active participants in popular culture, often decades earlier than is often acknowledged in modern fan studies.”
The questions they are interested in are fascinating: “How did changes in the material conditions of leisure, entertainment, and play relate to changes in ordinary people’s worldviews? What difference did the rise of mass media make in everyday life? How did changes in seemingly trivial everyday practices connect to larger social and cultural transformations? What was the relationship between participation in leisure activities and participation in politics? How did communities of fans contribute to historical change?”
I know I’ve been very prone to try to use fandom as a refuge from the stresses and challenges of “real life,” but they remind me that fandom and fan activities are definitely part of real life, part of history, and furthermore, worthy of study: “[A]cademic historians can offer … research and narratives that enable fans to connect their own particular fandom’s story to much broader changes over time, locating themselves and their communities in a global history of culture. We can trace important social, legal, and economic changes that set the stage for the emergence of fan communities and show how fans participated in and had an impact on broader cultural change.”
Sometimes, fannish metadiscussions trace these changes in detail — I’ve read and even been part of many fascinating and inspiring discussions about how fans, in grappling and rewriting our canons, can advance agendas of social change.
And so, Rubenstein and Reagin point out, “Historians are interested in the ways that communities develop over time. We study individuals’ struggles for survival and their efforts at making more interesting, exciting, or satisfying lives for themselves, because we understand that these efforts can add up to or reflect transformative changes in the world. ”
Their introductory editorial briefly discusses things like the impact of copyright law, mass media, professional sports and the cultural appropriation that happens in a century like the 19th, which was full of immigration and global migrations.
And they urge researchers and fan scholars to look beyond the 20th century and especially the focus on internet fandom: “This sometimes narrow focus has led scholars to ignore well-organized fan communities that indeed contested cultural authority, especially if these originated outside of the United States and Western Europe.”
So in the end, what might we learn from a birds-eye view of fandom? “We’re confident that this [historical type of] work will offer fans a broader context for their own communities and can demonstrate that fan communities have always contributed to cultural and social change. Participatory culture is, in fact, a deeply rooted phenomenon—more than today’s fans might realize—and historically grounded research can uncover how fans’ participation helped shape the world we live in.”
The most recent issue of “Transformative Works and Cultures” featured a fascinating interview with Paula Smith, the fan writer and editor who coined the term “Mary Sue” in 1973. Anyone who writes fan fiction that includes original characters in any form runs into this term sooner or later. And probably all fan fiction writers spend way too much time worrying if their original female characters are somehow slipping perilously toward this stereotype! Mary Sue’s are female characters in fan fiction who, Smith says, are “wish-fulfillment characters whose presence in any universe warps it way the heck out of reality. But we don’t notice that when it involves men.” These characters are way too perfect, take over the story inappropriately, and are often author-insertion characters. Smith says: “A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader.” Cynthia Walker interviewed Smith, and asked many fantastic questions. One that leaped out to me was their elaboration of why fandom and its source materials tolerate male wish-fulfilment and self-insertion characters way more readily than female characters of the same type. “Q: Why, then, do Superman and James Bond succeed, while we tend to pull back from the female version? “PS: Because the world we live in is not just a patriarchy; it’s a puerarchy—what gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there’s a turning point in men’s lives. There’s a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings.” I love how smartly and briefly Smith put that! Besides the very clear-eyed and historical look at Mary Sue and Gary Stu, in fan fiction and in our source material, the interview is a wonderful tour of the early years of Star Trek fandom and media fandom generally. That’s one of the chief things I love about this journal — its attention to our fannish history. So much to learn, and so much to be proud of here!
This weekend, I’m in Boston, enjoying the seventh (and my first) Media in Transition conference at MIT. For me, the best part so far has been meeting some people I know from the OTW and other digital spaces — it’s nice to see digital connections materialize IRL, and it’s always so exciting to talk to people who you know share a fundamentally fannish sensibility, even if you’re not sure what other investments you may share. I haven’t gotten the chance to attend the other kind of con before, but I’m definitely interested in doing so someday, and seeing what it’s like to know that everyone around you is a fan.
I mean, it’s common enough to say that it’s easiest to bond with people over media texts — “seen any good movies lately” comes just after “my, this weather!” in my personal small talk repertoire. But then, you know, there’s the whole dance around “but do you love it like I love it?” and the whole affair has the potential to get really awkward. When you’re accustomed to really high-context engagements around media texts, the low-context “yeah, I used to watch Smallville in high school” requires a significant recalibration of the conversational mode.
You’ll notice I’m not talking about the paper I delivered, which was about The Guild — I was pleased with the paper, and pleasantly surprised by the extent to which shared themes ended up emerging out of the Women and Media Change panel of which it was a part, but it was sadly not an opportunity to fangirl. It was a productive challenge for me to explain what I think is so important about The Guild to an audience of academics who not only hadn’t seen it, but were in completely different academic fields, and it’s exactly the kind of experience that will help me to produce better work on the series. But I would have gone home somewhat disappointed if I hadn’t met a fellow graduate student in the elevator who, as he prepares to write a dissertation on webseries, was up for talking about The Guild as a storyworld, as a creative achievement in its own right, and as an innovative transmedia narrative. An innovative transmedia narrative about awesome people, played by awesome actors, full of potential for much future awesomeness.
But then, when I think about these events together, I realize that perhaps there’s not so much that differentiates the engagements made possible by fandom and the engagements made possible by the academic world. In both spaces, I have the privilege to be part of an evolving intellectual community, to sit quietly with my notebook in hand while others curate brilliant arguments and beautiful artworks, about which I can either comment extensively, or simply sit back and appreciate. And in both spaces, to be perfectly honest, there’s much that I simply can’t intellectually access, because I have too much trouble understanding the stakes or connections held as significant by unfamiliar subfields or fannish factions. But overall, those moments of non-encounter are important, too, because they help me to value my own fannish and academic happy places, and be comfortable with the fact that there are so many networks in place that welcome participation by those who are not yet experts. I’ll stop before tying it up with a Carrie Bradshaw “and aren’t we all in transition?” (Apparently I won’t.)
As of this week, Fanlore is out of its beta testing phase.
This is an online encyclopedia, a wiki, which is one of the projects of the Organization for Transformative Works. It’s intended to document the history of fan communities and fan cultures. Right now, its main page says it contains more than 13,000 articles edited by more than 2,800 volunteer users.
As anyone familiar with Wikipedia, the wildly famous and enormous online encyclopedia knows, the distinctive feature of a wiki is that anyone can choose to log in and edit or add or create. Which can mean that such depositories of knowledge grow rather haphazardly, according to the interests of their users and not according to a plan or a taxonomy.
My college students are always rather puzzled that so many of their instructors don’t let them use Wikipedia as a source for papers, the thought being that the voluntary and amateur nature of the information makes it less reliable. But I have been reading that in general, Wikipedia is now considered by scholars who study it to be rather accurate. Over time, it indeed has been self correcting and stabilizing. Probably in a few years academia will lose its suspicion of Wikipedia and allow it as a source for student papers, just as it would any other encyclopedia.
One feature of Fanlore that definitely distinguishes it from the Wikipedia model is its position on what it calls “plural points of view.”
Fanlore is not and is not intended to be a neutral, objective (whatever that means in this postmodern, post-journalistic age!) compilation and description of fan activities.
This has puzzled and even offended some readers of my acquaintance.
Unlike Wikipedia, which advocates neutrality in its articles (achieved imperfectly and to the best of the authors’ ability, of course), Fanlore “contends that all interpretations or experiences are of interest and should be written down. It’s a ‘live and let live’ policy for ideas….”
At its best, this policy is intended to result in “a fan-positive, balanced synthesis of multiple points of view that fans may have on a single topic. It acknowledges and reflects these potentially dissenting perspectives and does not privilege one fannish viewpoint over any other.”
Because of this, Fanlore depends more, perhaps, than a wiki with a neutral point of view policy, on the participation of many and diverse fans, so that many points of view about a specific fandom will be represented.
It seems to me that it’s a positive in that it sets the bar to participation low, which, hopefully, will mean more writers and contributors. It absolves contributors of the obligation to do a lot of research and try to understand the full scope of the fandom they’re writing about. Contributing writers can include their own personal experience, their point of view, and simply add it to the material that’s already there. No need for bending over backwards to be fair to a ‘ship you hate, or to be unbiased about a particular fandom controversy. Someone from the “other side” of those issues will show up sooner or later to give their position its due, in any given article.
But I confess that, as a reader used to a more traditional, perhaps old-fashioned, belief in objectivity as a goal, this plural point of view approach seemed very strange to me when I first encountered it!
In short, according to the Fanlore explanation, “Fanlore is not a traditional encyclopedia that strives to establish a single account of events (as in “Neutral Point of View”). In addition to bare facts, we acknowledge that the history of fandom is a collection of personal experiences and interpretations, many of them only passed along as part of an oral tradition. Because of this, those multiple experiences and opinions are important, and we want to collect and document them as part of our fact set.”
Congratulations, Fanlore, on reaching this important developmental milestone!
I love fan works. I love the way they exhibit a love for the source text, the way they engage with it actively and often times critically, and the way they create a community of readerly writers and writerly readers in turn. And yet, whenever I move beyond the very narrow confines of the subdiscipline of fan studies, I am shocked yet again how the academy remains entrenched in outmoded value systems. After having spent all my years in grad school in the early nineties assuming that the canon debates were all but decided, the repeated assertion of high brow aesthetics, the establishment of canonical texts, and the dismissal of popular works astound me. Working on fan works, I feel like I’m fighting the debates over the values of popular culture and the arbitrariness of aesthetic evaluation again and again. The latest in a long line of these is a recent chapter in the Scope book Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation, entitled A Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing: Contemporary Found Footage Practice on the Internet by Eli Horwatt. It smartly connects avant garde aesthetics with contemporary digital remix practices, yet when reading I felt there to be a huge gap: where is the discussion of vidding? It can’t be that vids weren’t good enough for the author, because many of the cited pieces were technically and aesthetically less sophisticated than the vids we find within fandom. And yet as I read his taxonomy of “estrangement” and “inversion” I can’t help but fear that the reason vids are absent is because they’re too subtle rather than not subtle enough. Now, of course subtlety is already a conflicted aesthetic judgment but it tends to be one most of us have been taught through secondary school and beyond: complexity and subtlety, the ability to hide thoughts and ideas so as not to jump out at viewers/readers right away but to require “work,” tend to be valued in most contemporary Western contexts. Throughout the piece, Horwatt values aesthetic choices that increase complexity, and even as they may “replicat[e] the grammar of the source material,” he values them for their criticism of the source. And it is here that my suspicion begins as to why vidding is such a prominently excluded genre in this TAXONOMY: after all, an essay that includes Jonathan McIntosh’s Buffy/Edward remix, Brokeback Mountain parody trailers, and Downfall subtitle parodies, should have a place for Killa’s Closer, Lum and Sisabet’s Women’s Work or Obsessive24′s Climbing Up the Walls. The difficulties here are manifold, however. These vids may indeed require an understanding of not only the source text but also the community in which they are created. After all, these vids engage not only with the text but with varied receptions thereof and the conversations surrounding these receptions. On that level, they may be too subtle next to the examples presented. Neither are the examples used all that clear-cut. As much as I appreciate Jonathan’s remix, Buffy vs Edward, I have discussed with him the way he appropriates one text nearly uncritically to make fun of the other; many of the Brokeback Mountain trailers are quite blatantly homophobic (as Julie Levin Russo has convincingly demonstrated); and as a German who continues to understand the original soundtrack of the clip, the Downfall subtitles just aren’t that funny to me. All of which is to say, these cultural artifacts are themselves much more complex and the move of gathering them together as if they weren’t is problematic. And I can’t help but wonder whether it’s even more than that: one of the things that all the examples share is an almost detached ironic distance to the source texts used. They are found materials with little to no emotional resonance beyond what purpose they can serve. But then that’s an argument Henry Jenkins has repeatedly made, here, for example, that parody tends to be male- and industry-preferred whereas the more emotional engagement of fanvids is often dismissed out of hand. Fans, on the other hand, however contentious our relationship to our fannish objects may be, at heart have a strong emotional affective relationship. The three fannish vid examples I cite above all share that love even as they go beyond it and analyze, interpret, and criticize (characters, show runners, and fan audiences in turn). Vidding thus is an art form that is both too subtly critical (because always inflected with fannish passion) and too polished aesthetically (because the aesthetic dimension does matter above and beyond the critical point being made) to, perhaps, fit into a quick overview of YouTube remixes. Still, as both a vibrant subculture of critical interpretive if not outright political remix culture and an sophisticated artistic subculture with its own aesthetic value system, fan vids certainly deserve to be included in any “Taxonomy of Digital Video Remixing.” Ultimately I have no idea why Eli Horwatt chose to write a chapter on remix videos without including either vidding or AMV. Beyond missing out on one of the older contemporary remix practices, he also fails to engage in the quite complex interrelation between love and critique, aesthetic distance and affect, as well as the way fans have long been trailblazing not just remixes but the ability to interrogate and criticize and culturally resist without dismissing the text and their relationship to it or ironically distancing themselves. And indeed, there is a growing scholarship that addresses not only the critical and aesthetic but also the affective components of vidding. The academy has often been accused of unrealistic attempts of objectivity in the humanities in particular but even in the sciences. After English departments in the seventies destroyed the idea of an objectively created value system that can separate great from merely mediocre and bad literature, after anthropology departments realized in the eighties that observers cannot ever remain neutral and always bring their own biases to their field research; after queer theory and gender theory and critical race studies have brought the personal into the academic in the nineties; after affect theory has established itself as a field of study since–it amazed me that vidding may indeed have been overlooked in its merging of love and inquiry, affect and analysis, celebration and criticism.