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[META] Radical Creativity: Fandom and Digital Praxis

I’ve spent most of the last week at a series of digital events – Innovate/Activate 2.0, the Students for Free Culture Summit, the Swinging and Flowing conference on digital inclusion and diversity, and Rita Raley’s talk on tactical media. Looking over my notes, I don’t think I can synthesize all of it into one coherent post on What This Means for Fandom, but there are some common themes that seem to keep coming up.

One thing that’s occurred to me, apropos of Lev Grossman’s now famous description of fans (“The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language”), is that it’s not just that fans talk back to culture, it’s that fans make their own culture. This seems like an obvious fact, but in the age of digital tools and new media, there’s actually a significant expertise differential in terms of technologies and platforms that fans, by and large, scale with great gusto, confidence, and motivation. Thinking back to my own fannish history, for example, I taught myself html at the age of thirteen to post my very first fanfics on back in the time known as the day, and I’ve continued to teach myself a variety of video and web applications and platforms just so the reach of my fannish desire to make things doesn’t exceed my grasp too far. Helen Milner of UK Online Centres, who works to broaden digital equality by connecting first-time users to the internet, mentioned in her presentation today that the most significant barriers to people learning to use the internet are access, motivation, skills and confidence. It’s all of those things that fandom can and does teach, and I’m really not surprised that the only two majority female and female-identified open source projects on the internet, Dreamwidth and the Archive of Our Own, are associated with fandom or are explicitly fannish, respectively. Where else but fandom is there a community that takes it so much for granted that girls and women can learn tech just like men?

Rita Raley, in her talk on tactical media (which she helpfully defined as an “interventionist and critical genre of new media art”), said so many things that seem applicable to fandom that I wonder whether or not there’s an article, or at least a short piece for the Symposium section of TWC, in explicitly comparing the two. One thing that especially stuck with me, as I left campus and went to the grocery store and went home to cook dinner, was Raley’s claim that tactical media teaches that critical reflection is at its most powerful when it does not adopt ostensibly outside spectatorial position, that proximity to the object being critiqued breeds not corruption nor contempt but strong insights. Fan video, in particular, would seem to confirm this insight, as people including Francesca Coppa and Kristina Busse have argued before. Raley also argued that tactical media is a form of radical creativity organized, to some extent, around the notion that “if regimes are perceptible, it becomes possible to work concretely toward structural transformation” and seeking to do just that. Fandom can, at its best, do the same thing, in terms of almost any hierarchy in society – who else has read the one where Tony Stark isn’t rich, and almost everything is different?

Moreover, Raley argued, tactical media art by and large dispenses with the “fantasy of exteriority,” the idea that it’s even possible (let alone desirable) to take some sort of outside, spectatorial position of judgement on the object of critique, and this too seems to me to be a crucial point to bear in mind, not just about fandom but also about digital activism in general. The Friday keynote speaker at Innovate/Activate 2.0 was Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who delivered a rather inspiring talk about the successful anti-SOPA protests earlier this year that nonetheless contained some claims begging for qualification, perhaps most notably his earnestly Silicon Valley faith in the notion that the internet is a meritocracy of ideas in which “all links are created equal.”

There are a lot of people who know better, fans among them, and one of the things that was most valuable to me about I/A 2.0, and talking to my fellow attendees as a committee chair of the OTW, was the renewed sense I had of fandom as one among any number of modes and nodes of online engagement, digital activism, cultural resistance. For example, the OTW is considering strategies to expand its presence and the presence of fan perspectives on fanworks on Wikipedia? (“Disruptive diversity,” one speaker today called this, leveraging digital tools to change dominant narratives.) Maybe we could talk to the Wikimedia Foundation, who are working to increase representation of women among Wikipedia editors and articles. Fandom isn’t isolated, and one consistent theme reiterated by all of the veteran activists at I/A was the fact that, as one speaker put it, “If we organize, we win.” There are a lot of other people who share a lot of fandom’s core concerns, if not our pasttimes, and despite our differences, we’re stronger together.

[META] Writing Sandcastles Versus Playing in Sandboxes: The Writing Life in the Twenty-First Century

Rich Juzwiak recently announced on Gawker that he will no longer write recaps of currently-airing television shows. He will continue to write about television, of course, but he will never again be “a recapping machine,” because it is “thankless work” that leads inevitably to fatigue. To illustrate, he cites the fact that recapper extraordinaire Tracie Potochnik has written over 1,350,000 words about America’s Next Top Model. In another place and time, this word count could constitute multiple novels (War and Peace *2), but in the blogosphere, all is lost to the accelerated time scale of popular culture. Because they were funneled through the recap machine, her words, in Juzwiak’s view, lost value as quickly as they acquired it, thus depriving the writer of time for creative development, as well as the audience from engaging, long-form thoughts about the show. Juzwiak suffered similarly from his years of recapping, and, although he concedes that recaps helped him to build his audience, he laments that he expended so much energy and stress-inducing, time-sensitive labor on this ultimately ephemeral genre of writing.

I have a lot of sympathy (at least in comparison to some of the harsher commenters) for Juzwiak’s perspective, but I think that his disappointment offers an opportunity to explore and celebrate why fandom sustains such an important alternative sphere of popular culture criticism, including the transformational as an essential complement to the affirmational. That energy to transform is, as far as I can tell, exactly what Juzwiak is longing for when he laments that recaps are rarely crafted to the point where they can sustain their value for more than the sad few hours in which viewers will hungrily be seeking them out. I read his complaint that Potochnik could have written War and Peace twice over in the words it took her to recap ANTM as a genuine desire for writing to take form and communicate something deeper than sharp observations and topical humor. Writing can mean, and not only when it’s written by Nineteenth-Century Russian men, and, as Juzwiak himself makes clear, not only when it is a novel. He notes that there is high quality long-form television writing, for example, but that recaps, even while experimental and enjoyable, are unlikely to contribute to its flourishing.

So why not just seek out good long-form television writing? For me, it’s because the War and Peace comparison betrays transformational desires, and so, I think it’s worth taking a look at the writing landscape of transformational media fandom, in order to see if its participants offer a way out of Juzwiak’s resentment at his years spent on “sandcastles.” At the beginning of last month, lunabee34 posted a thoughtful essay on her feelings of fatigue in fandom, entitled “Fannish Trajectories: Isolation, a Sense of Disconnection from Fandom, and How We Deal.” Her piece, like Juzwiak’s, speaks of her declining energy to produce a certain kind of writing (here, fanworks) at the pace she once did. Already in the titles, though, a clear difference in focus emerges between the two authors. The Juzwiak piece, “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again,” focuses on an individual “I,” and makes a claim for “never.” In “Fannish Trajectories,” however, the focus is on “we,” we who also sometimes lose steam for articulating our every thought on our favorite television shows, but we who experience this loss as temporary and social, more than we do as evidence that our mode of participation has failed us. (I should make clear that I identify strongly with the “we” of lunabee34′s piece, although it’s just as likely that any given fan will not.)

Juzwiak’s claim gains strength from its definitive refusal: Recaps are not a shortcut to serious engagement with popular culture. lunabee34′s claim gains strength rather from its openness to the many different possibilities of engagement with fandom over time. The reality is that, as RL responsibilities take away from the free time required to participate actively in transformational media fandom, one must set individual boundaries in order to maximize one’s time with her fan community. Both Juzwiak and lunabee34 rely on writing IRL. Juzwiak is a professional blogger, and lunabee34 is an English professor. Both write in a variety of genres on what I assume is a daily basis, and therefore, there’s much the two share in their descriptions of writerly fatigue. Writing recaps for a show can get old. Writing conference papers can get old. One of my favorite aspects of the blogosphere and the LJ/DW fandom sphere is the way in which they provide space for reflection on the writing life, both when it’s a narrative of fatigue that leads to a drop-off in a certain kind of production, and when it’s a celebration of inspiration, the kind that leads to War and Peace-length fanfic. (Confession: I have never read a War and Peace-length work of fanfiction.)

But there is a difference, and it’s important. One of the major problems with recaps is that they guarantee page views, which, in the world of for-proft blogging, constitute the difference between profitable and not. In fandom, we have the privilege of saying no to an episode, a show after it kills off the character we were watching for anyway, even a whole medium. We can switch entirely from television to comics without leaving fandom. We can switch from writing drabbles to writing multi-media analyses of individual episodes of television shows from the 1970s. Sure, entertaining and beloved writers will always be burdened by requests for more, but in fandom, they are welcome to change their tune at any moment. It’s simple but true that the machine-like quality that Juzwiak describes as being acquired by the recapper is more threatening in professional writing than in fandom. It doesn’t mean that fandom is low stakes, of course. Every day, people are writing their novels, and many of them, the most talented and serious, inhabiting the most-beloved sourcetexts, can be confident that they will have readers both right away and in the future. But even if they don’t, they knew what they were getting into when they added the “for fun” disclaimer at the top of the page. “Fun” is a broad enough term to account for the incredible range of pleasures fanworks can offer us, but it keeps them free from the thing that will undoubtedly make them not fun at some point — money.

[LINK] Signal boosting: Check Out the Acafan Convo!

One of the organizing concepts of the Symposium Blog is the intersection of academic and fannish modes of analysis. Sometimes, these converge in a single acafan (an identification I myself am perfectly comfortable with, as I spend equal portions of my time on my academic and fannish work), and other times, they refer rather to the possible terrain of an argument, a feeling of accountability to the very different, but equally intellectually exciting “rules of engagement” in the academic sphere and in fandom. The term “acafan” is controversial because, like “queer,” it is in flux, and has different meanings within and outside the academy, as well as within and outside fandom.

This summer, Henry Jenkins is hosting a series of conversations called “Acafandom and Beyond,” which bring together some of the “people from Game Studies, Critical Race Theory, Performance Studies, Queer Studies, and Gender Studies, who are confronting similar issues surrounding the role of subjectivity and cultural criticism,” which are at the heart of the acafan debates.

Now that fandom has finally gotten a momentary fair shake from the mainstream, I’d say that it’s high time to return to the complex questions that self-reflexive fans are so good at asking, like: the role of passion in serious debate, the importance of complex media engagement, and the intersections of various forms of privilege and taste. It is certainly not the case that one needs to be a practicing academic to engage, either. However, academics who form part of the critical sphere created by the media landscape, especially those who also value fannish as well as institutionalized methodologies, are uniquely equipped to have conversations that fascinate me.

The first installment, an overview, is located on Henry Jenkins’s blog here, and the latest installment, in which participants talk about everything from Comic-Con to foodies, is located here.

Check it out! And feel free to join the conversation on the blog, or on the Dreamwidth mirror site.

[META] Accent Memes, Brit-picking, and Other Perpetually Fascinating Phenomena of Internet Linguistics

Let me get this out of the way right now: I once lived in fear of Anglophilia. This fear has had serious consequences, such as, for example, preventing me from reading the Harry Potter books, and, until a few years ago, watching Buffy (which I knew contained prominent British characters played by American actors, inspiring what I feared would be an awkwardly Anglophilic fanbase). My parents are British, you see, but I have lived my entire life in the United States, and therefore have a solidly USAmerican accent, Central Pennsylvanian to be specific. Starting in early childhood, I experienced the social world of strangers as one utterly fascinated by my parents’ accents, and one saddened by my lack of the same. And so, early on, I developed my Linguistics 101 talking points about the connections between accent, affect, perceived credibility, and social class. Aside from the Linguistics 101 situation, I’ve found that these talking points become relevant in two other situations in which I commonly find myself: when I am meeting new colleagues, for example, a new cohort of graduate students in my program, or when an accent meme goes around among a newly-coalescing group of internet friends. The former situation is not relevant here, but I think the latter one is, if only because it offers a way in to a discussion of internet intimacy, and how it connects to the language politics of fandom. I’ve been through three or four “rounds” of accent memes with various online social circles, and some interesting trends have emerged. Here, I’m talking about accent memes that specifically look for likely points of difference (say, the pronunciation of Mary/marry/merry) among English speakers, rather than, say, the dynamics of a wave of podficcing, which are less predictable depending on the variety of fans involved. Within accent memes proper, I’ve noticed that people seem to produce an attitude toward language that values authenticity and rare speech patterns in ways that would stretch the boundaries of etiquette in a different context. To be clear, I am as guilty as anyone else of this exoticizing impulse, particularly when it’s combined with the inevitable excitement of connecting a person’s textual presence with a new sensory element of their presence, their voice. But it does strike me as somehow strange that it’s so much more common to hear “oh, that accent is so cool” than it would be (I hope) to say “oh, that person’s face/name is so cool.” Certainly, when people post pictures of themselves, there’s an expected chorus of “you’re so cute!” but it feels somehow different. That “somehow” is what drew me to the study of linguistics in college. For a few key historical reasons, English speakers in the U.S. are incredibly confused about what one can and cannot say about language. The most important of these, I think, is the institutional equation of Standard Written/White English with “correct grammar,” and its inherent enforcement of the prescriptive approach to language patterns. Armed with an understanding of SWE versus the deviant, many English speakers in the U.S. create a strict division between the language of education and professional advancement on the one side, and the language of emotion, family, and home on the other. (Obviously I’m generalizing to a ridiculous degree here.) Within internet culture, this distinction can become even more deeply entrenched. Hardly the revitalization of communitarian culture some have proclaimed the internet to be, some spheres of internet culture create their hierarchies entirely based on language use, taking prescriptive mandates more seriously than many English teachers do. But this attention to detail is not without its own insights for social justice vis a vis judgements of linguistic competence. For example, to accompany the exoticization I’ve seen in accent memes, there’s a counter-phenomenon of the Brit-pick. Here the accuracy of non-British fic authors’ representations of British characters’ voices is put to the test by native speakers of particular varieties of British English. I find Brit-picking (and its cousins, such as Yank-wank, which term I’ll have to admit I’ve never seen used) fascinating, especially as it relates to accent meme authenticity. I assume that in the context of concrit, it’s actually quite helpful, but when, as an outside reader, I encounter a comment that says “no British person would say x,” I find it strange. I’m sure it’s true sometimes, but I can’t think of many statements I’d be confident in saying that no native speaker of American English could ever organically utter. I mean, I know I’ve come up with some pretty odd, non-idiomatic sentences while composing this very piece, but I don’t think any of them disqualifies me from my national identity. These issues are all separate, of course, and I’d like to do a post at some point on my perhaps naive confusion as to why so many actors are asked to play characters with dramatically different accents than their own. (Dollhouse offers something of an in-story explanation of this, but that’s a topic for another day.) I’d also like to think more about the space podfic creates for a discussion of the connection between the aesthetic and narrative effects of accents and accent mimicry, and how conversations surrounding podfic differ from the off-the-cuff accent meme responses. But for today, I hope I’ve raised some questions worth thinking further about, related to language and online fandom.