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[META] Transformative Works, Transformative History

The latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures has arrived, and it’s a special issue about “Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” edited by Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein. There’s a lot of great material to sift through, so I’ll focus on the ideas that struck closest to home for me, particularly those articulated by Alexis Lothian in her symposium piece, “An archive of one’s own: Subcultural creativity and the politics of conservation.” But before I get to Lothian’s thought-provoking meditation on the politics of archiving fanworks, I will situate it within one of the major research questions posed by Reagin and Rubenstein in their introduction to the issue.

In this introduction, the authors explore the various points of connection between academic historical study and fan studies, noting that the two disciplines have not yet taken full advantage of the conversation made possible by their shared investments. Most importantly, they note that, rather than taking recognizably fannish subcultures and their associated practices seriously as exemplifying a particular mode of engagement with the phenomena of media history,

“historians have tended to analyze audiences and consumers as though they exemplified historical processes unrelated to media…it can be difficult to uncover what audience members or fans themselves thought, while many sources document the ideas, emotions, and intentions of the producers of commercial entertainments. “(4.2-4.4; emphasis mine)

In other words, historians have often used media artifacts and the traces left by their producers and fans as undifferentiated evidence of larger socio-historical phenomena, rather than zeroing in on what attentive fans may always have known, which I will summarize in quick shorthand as the intellectual pleasure of engaging with media artifacts on their own terms, and within dynamic interpretive communities, which in turn establish their own meta-level investments separate from the media artifact. Of course, this is by no means true of all historians — there are plenty of social historians who are deeply attentive to the history of interpretive communities and “schools of thought,” although in my personal experience, these are as likely to be found in an English or Sociology department as they are in a History department.

As to the second part of the quotation, about the tendency of historians and academics in general to privilege the producers’ interpretations of their own work over those interpretations, regardless of how loving or critical, put forth by fans, this reveals a more unfortunate power dynamic replicated by mainstream historical narratives of the relationship between media artifacts and social movements and worlds. And in order to address this power dynamic, the authors turn to the great thinker Walter Benjamin, who theorized a more intimate connection between media artifacts and the specific historical moments in which they are produced and are read (paying particular attention to the fact that these moments are not the same, that is, that media artifacts age according to a logic all their own, distinct from mainstream historical logic).

Lothian, in her symposium piece, takes on the French thinker Jacques Derrida, whose ideas were deeply influenced by Benjamin, especially when it comes to taking reading seriously, and thus, by extension, taking the archival act seriously. While Benjamin’s work speaks explicitly to questions people have about the first half of the Twentieth Century, especially regarding how film came to dominate visual culture, Derrida’s more recent work speaks even more closely to the New Media landscape fans now inhabit, making his work more relevant for pressing questions about the emerging shape of the contemporary archives of fanworks. While Benjamin’s politics remain difficult to translate onto the contemporary sphere, Derrida’s assessment of the power imbalances made visible by emerging archival practices speak closely to the concerns articulated by Lothian in her piece.

Lothian’s piece nicely delineates the ways in which fans are currently disempowered by media owners and U.S. law (ways likely familiar to anyone reading this post), and then goes on to speak to the specific and strategic value of the Archive of Our Own and the Organization for Transformative Works. Particularly in a historical moment in which the institutions that chronicle and archive our cultural moment, especially libraries, are under attack, it seems to me to be an awfully good idea to take control of our own desire to organize and collect those fanworks that we have produced and loved and learned from. But I also admire Lothian’s insistence on registering what may be lost in the process, according to the current logic of the archive.

This is the kind of rhetorical move of which Benjamin is fond — to take note of, and pay attention to, what seems to be fading, or shifting away from the center, precisely at the moment that it loses its power. Lothian’s discussion of Fandom Wank, and the way in which it represents what would be difficult to archive under the AO3′s current system, is really interesting in this regard — it reminds me of various homages to Geocities and Friendster, although perhaps it’s better compared to current conversations surrounding 4chan as the lingering anti-Facebook part of the internet, insisting on the ephemeral as a much-needed antidote to the implicit ban on anonymity from that site.

I want to emphasize the political undercurrent of Lothian’s argument at the end of the piece, where she states that “if we want to take seriously the possibility that ephemeral conflict and online sex might function to undermine dominant sexual, gendered, racialized, and economic ways of being, both on- and off-line, we cannot restrict fannish politics to the easily archivable.” Again, the difference Lothian carves out between strategic political action at the de facto “public face” of fandom and the messier, recognizably queer, politics of and within specific fan communities, is crucial to this argument. I know that I am invested in preserving the genuinely transformative energy of these more interpersonal kinds of politics, but I also think that there is a real need for nonprofit organizations like the OTW to balance the increasingly commercial rest of the internet.

Issue 6, people! Check it out!

[META] Are we too tough on gay TV teens? Who’s we?

This past weekend, Heather Hogan posted a thought-provoking piece to AfterEllen, which prompted me to reflect on conversations I’ve been having about sexuality in/and fandom. Hogan’s piece, but to an even greater extent, the comments on it, helped me to articulate some of the reasons I am protective of my corner of fandom on LJ/DW, because the conversations I’m able to have there, especially when it comes to emotional questions like character hate, are so much more satisfying than those I encounter in the greater blogosphere, academic and popular media-oriented (in which category I would include AfterEllen). When it comes to these intimate questions about media representations of queer lives, especially the character arcs of out queer characters in long-arc television series, I find a fannish vocabulary to be absolutely fundamental to the conversation.

I should, before I say anything else on this subject, admit that I actively avoid industry-connected conversations about series with open canons. One of the more revealing comments on Hogan’s piece admonished AfterEllen’s mission as one of “sucking up to” those in industry, including writers, producers, and actors, because it is owned by Logo, and thus explicitly exists to serve its interests. (Of course, LJ is not free from serving corporate interests, but its fannish content is less explicitly connected to these.) In any case, when I read this comment on AfterEllen, I breathed a sigh of relief, remembering how grateful I am for fandom’s generally accepted etiquette when it comes to a relationship to the industry — particularly in my recent experiences with RPF, I’ve seen how seriously this is taken, but also more generally, there is an enforced and productive distance between fan activities and the creators of sourcetexts, bridged only at specific moments for specific purposes, when desires converge. This is not the case for AfterEllen, or, perhaps not unrelatedly, for the academy (although the academy has a self-deprecating tendency to assume that no one of much importance would be interested, anyway), and therefore, these venues’ critical rhetoric inevitably takes a different shape from the fannish.

Another caveat: I’m glad that the writers at AfterEllen do what they do, and I think that the space they provide for lesbians, bisexuals, and other queer and questioning women (I can’t speak to their record on trans inclusivity, but it’s important to talk about), is incredibly valuable. I admire their interest in actively following as many media franchises as they do, keeping ever-vigilant about the representation of queer identity, sexuality, and experience. This work is very different from the work I most admire in fandom, but the two share much in the way of critical stakes. To put it as plainly as possible, while acknowledging that I’m surely missing a lot of context, what AfterEllen does is critique queer representations as they happen, making sure to take note when established stereotypes have been uncritically put into play, speaking on behalf of an invested queer female audience that longs for complex representations of queer women’s lives in narratives across media. Fandom, as such, does not have this explicit investment. However, (and any kind of statement on fandom as a whole is bound to be controversial, so bear with me), fandom does have a complementary investment in using the most intriguing available sourcetexts from narratives across media to generate critical analysis and artful, transformational fanworks. Because of this investment, fandom is, I think, well-equipped to offer a different angle on the question posed by Hogan’s title, about why we hate on certain fictional characters, and the storyworlds that give them life.

This answer entails a shift in focus best described by Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers: “Fandom celebrates not exceptional texts but rather exceptional readings.” (291) In other words, fandom sees criticism (whether it takes the form of meta, fic, art, vids, whatever) as an active part of the meaning-making process which begins in the sourcetext, and this speaks to the heart of this emotional question about hatred, or, as we might call it, character bashing. Of course, that term is significant (particularly here, where it speaks sharply to other histories of bashing), because it reveals a space where fandom has a somewhat better-established distinction between sourcetext and analysis than non-explicitly fannish media analysis: character bashing is distinct from writer-bashing (although both persist, sadly, in a variety of fandoms), and both of these terms can be strategically deployed or wholeheartedly rejected in favor of the fanwork-creation response mode. In this mode, fanworks can give queer characters the love they deserve, while remaining critical of the under-thought adherence to stereotypes on the part of the writers, which soured our initial readings of the sourcetext.

What I see in fandom, and fandom alone (well, perhaps also in academic feminist and queer criticism, see for example the inimitable Sara Ahmed’s literary analysis in The Promise of Happiness), is an insistence on breathing life into characters insufficiently realized in-story due to an unfortunate fusion of marginal social location and the ignorance of the writers. However, it’s an approach not easily incorporated into more mainstream critical practices. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course — just another reason I’m glad I have a place to go when I want to channel my nerdrage productively.

[META] Fandom: You know who you are

Once I started thinking about fandom in terms of the small group communication theories I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, more and more things from that textbook seemed germane!

As I said, I’ve been teaching this subject to college freshmen and sophomores using the Engleberg and Wynn text. Besides the idea of high-context and low-context cultures that I talked about before, there are some ideas they present about group dynamics that dovetail with some original work I did with two colleagues nearly ten years ago on the subject of community building, in face-to-face environments.

As always, it’s so amazing to see how many of the ideas that come out of face-to-face communication do indeed map coherently onto internet communication and internet fandom. Over and over I’ve been reinforced in my belief that fandom IS just like real life, only we can’t always see each other, and it’s easier to create sockpuppets!

One of the ideas my collaborators and I focused on regarding community, back then, is the fact that there always is a boundary between the community and the people who are not in the community. The boundary may be somewhat permeable or vague, but it’s there. There’s always a way to tell who’s in and who’s out. This dovetails with the Engleberg and Wynn book’s discussion of closed systems versus open systems. Groups (and communities) take in varying degrees of information from outside, depending on their purpose. A corporate board in executive session is a closed system. A city council meeting is open. A friends-locked community on LJ is more closed than someone’s personal journal if that person posts everything public and friends everyone who friends her.

All this got me thinking about how much input fandom allows from outside itself, and the ways that fandom initiates its newbies.

Fandom cred, the idea of “membership”, might depend on knowledge, on skills, on fannish creation, on self-identification, on being part of an audience, on the number of comments one makes — on a lot of things.

And being a newbie, and then watching other newbies, in the LiveJournal and Dreamwidth part of fandom has been a fascinating study of that boundary.

How do you know you’re in? Who gets to evaluate one’s participation in fandom, and the quality and value thereof?

I have more intriguing ideas than answers at this point, but again — I find it fun to use these communication models when thinking about participation in, and internet interactions in, fandom.

[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.

[META] Fandom as a “high context” culture

Stranded cheerfully at home in the snow this week, all university and public school classes cancelled all around me, and thus without my reference books, I’m writing this in brief and from memory, based on a topic that grew out of my Small Group Communication class. We use the Ingleberg and Wynn textbook, and one of the topics in the multiculturalism chapter is the idea of “high context” versus “low context” cultures. This is a useful concept for understanding fandom, and how mystifying it can be for outsiders. I continue to be delighted by the different models of communication and mass communication that I learned for my formal education in journalism, and how they often apply beautifully to fandom. “Low context” cultures, my textbook says the anthropologists tell us, rely on explicit, literal types of communication. They tend to value logical, linear thinking, denotation, and prefer to disregard subtexts, metaphor, and anything that gets in the way of “what you see is what you get.” “High context” cultures, on the other hand, always rely on more than the literal written or verbal words in order to convey the message. History, relationships, subtext, symbolism, connotation — all these things are not extra decoration that can be efficiently stripped away from the message. They are part of the message. I often have to start from scratch with the idea of the importance of “context” in these Small Group Communication classes — the idea that my sister can affectionately call me a bitch, but if a stranger on the street shouts that word at me, I will get angry. Many of my students have never thought about that in any great depth, but it’s pretty easy to understand, given a clear example. They can readily see that intention matters, timing and location matter. That meaning lies not just in the word “bitch,” but who says it, and when, and why. (Something that Dr. Laura apparently failed to learn along the way!) Fandom is an extremely “high context” culture. In fact, it can be almost incomprehensible to someone from outside, because it’s so thickly woven with inside jokes, references to past stories, past fandoms, fandoms next-door, past relationships. To ignore all that and focus only on literal, explicit, written messages is to miss a great deal. “High context” versus “low context” is not a binary, of course. It’s a continuum. But fandom is definitely on the “high” end of the scale. And I light on another binary — the idea of studying fan texts versus fan communities. The connection between them, of course, is context. You can’t fully understand one without the other. So that’s just a kind of a scrap from my “topics to post about” file — more to come later. We should be dug out by next week, but for the moment I’m hunkered down with my immediate family, the dvd’s, the snow shovels and the hoarded supply of hot cocoa, focusing on being a “closed system” and not an “open system,” which is, of course, also a fandom-related post for another day. Let it snow, and stay warm out there, you guys!

[META] Archiving and Its Vicissitudes: Social Networks, Central Archives, and Media Fandom

[FANTEXT AS ARCHIVE] I found media fandom in the nineties, when I looked for more of my favorite show and stumbled onto a fan fiction site. It was the days of mailing lists and Like any anthropological recovery, the artistic products may need to be studied as artistic artifact and as testimony to the social event and community where it originated. Fannish artifacts that are removed from their initial setting require us to be aware of the fact that we may only see traces rather than the entire textual and community engagement.

José Esteban Muñoz’s articulation of the “ephemeral trace” offers a useful concept that acknowledges both the artistic as well as the social aspect of most fan products. Ephemeral traces are that which is left behind a performative event, both hinting at and hiding the originating social engagements. Applying this notion to fannish artifacts helps us remain aware that much of the text’s meaning can be tied in with a specific place, time, and community in ways that make it difficult to read (let alone judge) these artifacts.

[COLLABORATIVE PARATEXTS] Not only are the fan texts themselves important archives of the communities which create, disseminate, and read them, most texts are embedded in a complex network of accompanying paratextual information that serve interpretive and evaluative functions but that may change depending on the place where the story is placed. Paratexts have become an important academic concept in fan and media studies as Jonathan Gray’s recent book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts.

Gérard Genette, who originally coined the term paratext, restricts it to those textual traces where “the author or one of his associates accepts responsibility for it.” In contrast, I suggest that within fan studies a more inclusive understanding is necessary. Media fandom’s intertextuality with its varying degrees of collaboration invites an expansion of the paratextual concept: fannish reading practices contribute to the paratextual apparatus insofar as they produce and direct consequent readings of the source text.

As these paratexts shape and affect reading experiences of fan stories, they effectively form a shared, complex interpretive architectural frame for the fan fiction they accompany. These paratexts are a central aspect of the overall fannish response, which shapes how people engage with the television show they’re invested in. Indeed, paratexts play central roles in fan fiction communities, as these communities develop around shared readings and interpretations of television texts. These collective analyses, the debates surrounding them, and the fan-created texts responding to them create a dense textual network that forms a backdrop for fannish readings and writings.

More generally, expanding the notion of paratexts to include surrounding textual materials complicates the clear lines drawn between readers and writers, between creative and analytic writing, between aesthetic and affective responses. Understanding reader comments, textual debates, recommendations, and reviews as paratextual material broadens the scope of the interpretive frame and thus more accurately depicts the way in which fan texts are read. It also reflects the constantly shifting roles of readers and writers within creative fan communities and acknowledges the fact that many fan works are co-inspired if not actually co-created.

[RHIZOMATIC STRUCTURES] LiveJournal and its complex interlinking is a prime example of how the architectural design of archival online spaces affects paratextual material. Whereas archives and mailing lists developed formal guidelines and etiquette surrounding paratextual material, social networking and blogging sites complicate the architecture of autonomous fannish spaces as they merge multiple discourses, such as the personal and the fannish. The rhizomatic structure of Livejournal, for example, often spreads conversations out over various communities and journals, some restricted to only some users, and, at times, other off-LJ web sites. In the aftermath of a story, private emails and IM conversations merge with public feedback and reviews, some of them analytic, others emotionally responsive; some theoretical, others fictional. At its best, then, the rhizomatic structure of fannish interaction decenters meaning production through multi-authored paratextual intertexts.

Different archiving platforms thus can have very different requirements and social norms regarding paratexts, both for author-created paratextual information, such as fandom, rating, pairing, thank yous, or warnings, and reader-created paratextual information, such as comments or recommendations. Thus if we look at paratexts as an important part of the fannish engagement, an archiving platform’s ability to include various forms of paratexts may be needed to replicate the social component of fannish engagement. On the other hand, many archives are created purposefully as long-term repository of the textual artifacts themselves. And yet, it is the ephemerality, the conversations and connections and contextual thoughts that are most in danger of getting lost.

[CONCLUSION] In the end, given the ephemerality of online sites, redundant archiving is important, and central archives that strive for permanence may be a crucial way to archive fandom exchanges—even if all that remains is the ephemeral trace of the fan artifact without the accompanying paratexts. When fans are debating the advantages and disadvantages of dedicated archives as opposed to social networking platforms, the central arguments often tend to revolve around control and accessibility: can the fan delete her stories easily; can she control access; can fans who enter a fandom later on still access stories; will a fan’s departure mean her stories disappear as well; and related concerns.

One issue that rarely gets addressed, however, is the way fan stories may be more paratextual and their understanding more contextually dependent. And while safeguarding the artifacts is an important task and allows fan culture to create an archive of its own artistic history, what may indeed often disappear are the specific contextual circumstances, the paratexts co-created by writers and readers, leaving behind the story itself as an ephemeral trace of the fannish moment which created it and which, in turn, it commemorates.