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[META] Affective Aesthetics

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.

[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.