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poster: Andrea Horbinski

[META] Transnational Fan Studies

The most recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures is a special issue focused on a topic that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, namely, Transnational Boys Love Fan Studies. Editors Nagaike Kazumi and Suganuma Katsuhiko have collected an impressive breadth of perspectives, countries, and topics under their rubric, providing a welcome complement to the diversity of fannish interaction across national boundaries that has already begun to characterize BL and fandom online.

I have sometimes felt that trying to talk about BL and slash in the same breath can be more trouble than it’s worth, but reading the articles in this issue, I was struck anew by how BL and slash have in the past few years started to find common ground online, and in particular through the astonishingly polysemic blogging platform of Tumblr. Through Tumblr, for instance, Chinese BL doujinshi artists and slash fans are discovering not only shared fandoms but shared interests, and forging cross-cultural and cross-fandom connections that would not have been possible just a few short years ago. In this issue, Keiko Nishimura documents the fascinating interactions between female BL fans and character bot accounts on Twitter in Japan, but even Twitter remains language-bound in a way that Tumblr, with its strong visual emphasis, often is not.

In such a rapidly changing fannish environment, the advantages of an online, open access journal like Transformative Works and Cultures at studying and disseminating discussion of these topics are clear. Although no academic publishing venue is truly immediate, lacking physical distribution platforms enables TWC to publish articles much more rapidly, and its open access policies mean that fans can read, discuss, and disagree or even argue back with what scholars (many of whom are fans themselves) are saying about them without having to rely on the privilege of a university library connection. And although TWC is by no means unique in this respect, digital production means that editors and contributors may come from around the globe.

Indeed, the current special issue showcases the particular strengths of TWC‘s holistic take on fan cultures and practices, particularly in comparison with a series like Mechademia, the sixth volume of which is reviewed in this issue by Samantha Close (and on which I did production work). Both venues are examples of what can be done when fan scholars, and scholars who are fans, get together and take over the means of publication for themselves without relinquishing the highest academic and editorial standards.

That said, although TWC has full editorial independence, its server space and financial support are provided by the Organization for Transformative Works, which is a 100% member-supported non-profit organization. Although the OTW’s April membership drive is winding down, donations made at any time will go to support all of the OTW’s projects including Transformative Works and Cultures. Neither the Organization nor the journal would be anywhere without fans, so let me close by thanking you.

[META] Rise Up, Pixelated Young Women of the New Age!

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.

[META] Fandom gets physical

I have been trying to write this post for three months. Today, I sat down and typed it all out at once, once and for all, so here goes.

I was angered – though not terribly surprised – to hear about the harassment of Genevieve Valentine by Rene Walling at Readercon this summer, and the decision of the Readercon Board – later reversed – to violate its own policies by only giving Walling a two year suspension, rather than banning him from the con for life. I was disgusted to hear that Walling had later volunteered “incognito” at WorldCon in Chicago. I wasn’t terribly surprised when, while I attended Schoolgirls and Mobilesuits in Minneapolis, I mentioned Walling and his harassment by name to a WorldCon attendee, who responded with total blankness – he hadn’t heard about Walling, and didn’t particularly seem to care. I didn’t need to hear that to suspect that he didn’t spend much time in the parts of fandom on the internet that I frequent, where Walling’s harassment was a popular topic over the summer.

Perhaps I libel that particular person undeservedly; perhaps not. More importantly, although I was angered that Walling’s harassment very nearly went almost unpunished while the safety of Valentine and all other Readercon attendees – and their right not to be harassed – was disregarded, I had another, very specific reason for being angry about the whole thing.

As some readers may know, I spent this summer working with Gail de Kosnik of the UC Berkeley Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies Department on an oral history and data project on fandom on the internet. The lead researchers, of whom I was one, interviewed 53 people about their participation in fandom on the internet, and one thread that I heard come up in a couple of the interviews I conducted was the potential – and, in many people’s case, the actual realization – of conventions as a transformative space. Most of us who do fandom primarily on the internet, as participants and I agreed, is because on the internet it’s possible to create communities and spaces where certain aspects of societal norms are transgressed, suspended, overturned, disregarded. And for many of us, that can be liberatory.

Although I firmly believe – and just this statement can be enough to weird some people out – that the internet is a real place, and what we do on the internet is not isolated from the rest of our “real lives” but an important part of them, since I have become more active in fandom and started attending conventions myself, I have come to realize that conventions can be just as transformative as the internet, if not more so. If the internet allows fans to find a place where they fit in, conventions can be a powerful counterpart to that, by temporarily making that digital place into an actual physical experience. Pants are optional on the internet; they generally aren’t at conventions, and experiencing something as transformative as internet fandom can be for yourself, in your own physical body, can be a wonderful – and sometimes overwhelming – experience.

Having experienced some of that for myself and having heard similar stories from participants, I was doubly angered at the decision of the Readercon Board, because their unwillingness to guarantee the safety of all Readercon attendees meant that for some people, that potential experience was firmly off the table. Readercon would be poorer for their lack of attendance, but so would they, and having never attended Readercon and having no intentions of doing so, ever, I was much more concerned for those people than for the con itself.

I was lucky enough to attend AdaCamp DC this summer, and I was struck by something several attendees said: that they’d almost never been in an all-female or majority-female space before in their professional lives. The majority of my offline fandom interactions are gender-equal or majority-female spaces, and it’s an experience I’ve come to cherish. WisCon and Sirens are two wonderful cons that I am happy to attend every year, both to see again the friends I’ve made there and to meet more awesome new people, and also to talk about books and media and fandom and all our other geeky interests. These experiences, these communities, have transformed and strengthened me, and everyone should feel safe enough to have that kind of experience at any con they are interested in attending.

I should make clear that the Readercon Board later reversed its decision and resigned en masse, and that the con com has shown every indication of sticking to its guns, policy-wise. I wish them well, but I also know that it’s well past time for more conventions to adopt harassment policies along the lines of those recommended by the Ada Initiative. You never know who isn’t showing up until they’re made welcome, and if SFF fandom as a whole is to live up to its egalitarian pretensions, its physical instantiations have a responsibility to take responsibility for making those pretensions reality, instead of empty, hypocritical rhetoric.

[META] Thoughts on AnimeExpo

After eleven years of being an anime fan, I finally made it to Anime Expo, the biggest anime convention in the United States, held in Los Angeles, California, this past weekend. I’m a veteran of Otakon, the second-largest anime convention in this country; I’ve actually blogged about that con for this Symposium before. I went to Anime Expo (which this year was co-located with the X Games, for some amusing convention center logistics) to co-present our article “Even a monkey can understand fan activism” in the convention’s academic track with my friend Alex Leavitt. Perhaps inevitably, wandering around AX led me to compare the two, although the last anime con I’ve attended was actually Otakon 2010 two years ago. AX has long had the reputation of being the “industry” con to Otakon’s “fan” atmosphere, and I found that to be largely true – compared to Otakon, there didn’t seem to be quite as much cosplay (though there was a lot of it, and a lot of it very good), and the panels were mostly put on by anime- and manga-related companies and people involved with them, perhaps neatly symbolized by the fact that our badges put us down in the “industry” category and staff kept offering to let us jump the massive queues for panels. One of the people I was hanging out with asked me at one point whether I’d seen anything truly mind-blowing at the con, and I was hard put to it to think of an answer. In the United States as well as in Japan, it seems, this has been something of a fallow year in the production cycle for anime and manga. But the overarching lesson I drew from AX, actually, was the realization that anime/manga fandom doesn’t need the industry. This might sound counter-intuitive, since over the last four to five years the bottom has basically dropped out of both the anime and manga industries in the United States, leaving only a handful of scrappy companies in near-monopoly positions after the exit of some of the scene’s former titans. But this winnowing has left a lot of empty space for innovative partnerships across platforms (such as those Tokyopop has put together to continue publishing Hetalia, or that Fakku.net is putting together to publish hentai manga in print), and it will be interesting, to say the least, to see in what directions these partnerships develop in the future. In particular, I’m glad to see companies beginning to finally harness the full power of digital content delivery tools. (Although I have to admit I thought it was more than a bit rich for Stu Levy of Tokypop to cite “piracy” as one of the causes of his company’s recent near-death experience, since I know for a fact that Tokyopop routinely relied on scanlation groups to pick out new titles to license.) More than that, however, my pilgrimage to AX taught me that anime and manga fandom is not only alive but doing well, well enough that members of a Christian group (I don’t know which one) took it upon themselves to protest outside and pray for the souls of the sinners for the convention’s first three days. In all seriousness, though, when I went to Otakon two years ago I was a little taken aback at how thoroughly it had been transformed into a subcultural convention rather than a convention for just anime and manga. AX has not been transformed to any similar extent, although I did see one or two people cosplaying as raver-style Pikachus, and the number of Homestuck, My Little Ponies, and Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra cosplayers was quite remarkable. This seems to me to reflect not only a broadening of the fanbase of anime and manga, but also the new strength and richness of the American animation scene. I found myself telling someone at a party several weeks ago that I didn’t think that it would have been possible for Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to create the show that they did in A:TLA, which wears its Asian-American storytelling colors with all pride and also is remarkable for the number and variety of its strong female characters (a trend epitomized in the fact that the eponymous protagonist of Korra, the current Avatar, is also a girl), if it weren’t for the success of anime, and realizing that I believed it wholeheartedly. Similarly, I can think of several newer authors of SFF who are obviously anime-influenced (N.K. Jemisin most prominent among them), and I know for a fact that a lot of manga fans have become enthusiastic Homestuck readers. I don’t know that all those bronies would be such enthusiastic Pony fans if shows like Sailor Moon, Utena and Powerpuff Girls hadn’t proven that girls could be awesome a long time ago, either. In a way these developments make me feel better about the disappearance of Japanese-language manga from the AX and Otakon dealers’ rooms of now compared with those of the early ‘Naughts. It’s a lot easier to get manga in multiple languages now than it was then (I can take a bus to Kinokuniya, for example), anyway, and in any event, I’ll gladly trade shifting merchandise availability for the broader influence that anime is beginning to have, and for its broader availability. Now if only Japan could put out some truly stellar shows again. Well, in the meantime, at least there’s Evangelion 3.0.

[LINK] Transformative Works and Fan Activism

Frequently when academic journal articles are written about timely research topics, the authors are unable to update their audience regarding more recent developments. In the current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, guest edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, Alex Leavitt and I wrote about the Metropolitan Tokyo Youth Ordinance (also known as Bill 156), (“Even a monkey can understand fan activism: Political speech, artistic expression, and a public for the Japanese dôjin community”). The bill could potentially curtail artistic expression in the name of keeping fictional characters under the age of consent (hence the bill’s popular nickname, the “Nonexistent Crimes Bill”) out of “harmful situations.”

In our article we looked at fan activism against the bill, which passed at the end of 2010 and went into effect in summer 2011, after our article had gone to press. Developments since then have been somewhat mixed.

Although creators feared that the highly ambiguous language of the bill would allow government censors virtual impunity, a recent high-profile ruling found that a scene depicting incest between two young characters did not violate the bill’s provisions, because it was subject to previous standards rather than to those introduced by Bill 156. Although this was hailed as a victory, there have also been reports of publishers self-censoring manga content even before the bill’s provisions went into effect, and that manga series have been cancelled outright in response to it. Still, some publishers, like Kadokawa Shoten, have spoken out against Ishihara’s remarks.

From here on, it’s unclear what path fannish activism will and should take. Although 80% of Tokyo residents were reported in early 2011 to oppose the bill soon after its passage, an anticipated boycott of the Tokyo International Anime Fair by manga publishers and the ensuing publicity largely fizzled after the 2011 Tokyo Anime Fest was cancelled due to the March 2011 earthquake. At roughly the same time, a suit alleging that Bill 156 was unconstitutional was denied by the Japanese courts, a decision that has been appealed.

Individual creators, however, have continued to engage in various forms of protest. Akamatsu Ken, the creator of such well-known manga as Negima! and Love Hina and more recently founded of manga download website J-Comi, is now offering the infamously banned-under-Bill-156 comedy manga Oku-sama wa shôgakusei (My wife is an elementary school student) on the premium section of the comic site.

Official concerns about the potentially socially destabilizing power of manga were also evident in the minutes of a meeting of Miyazaki prefecture’s Youth Healthy Development Council last fall, in which members characterized boys’ love and womens’ comics as “dangerous,” saying that “if there are more depictions where women lead [in sexual encounters], it will encourage the tendency toward homosexuality.” These manga would not normally fall under the provisions of Bill 156 in Tokyo, but the idea that fiction can provide a space to explore alternatives–and that imagining alternatives to the status quo are a powerful part of what motivates activism–certainly lies at the heart of the potential of fannish activism, as Jenkins and Shreshthova acknowledge in their introduction. Fandom is fundamentally participatory, and politics increasingly (though it always had) hinges on participation. As Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova argue in this issue, there is much more work to be done in analyzing these networks and connections; as several articles acknowledge, that participation does not necessarily guarantee success.

Overall, the contents of the Transformative Works and Fan Activism issue tell a story that is broadly similar to the story of Bill 156 and the efforts against it: mixed but hopeful, and suggestive. Regarding fandom’s activist potential, I always think about what Gandalf says about the Ents: when they wake up, they will find that they are strong. What separates devoted fans from those who just casually enjoy something is action, and activism means taking that next step, from consumer engagement with media to civic engagement around it.

–with Alex Leavitt

[META] What I Write About When I Don’t Want to be Writing

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.

[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 theforce.net 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] Promising Monsters: Mutated Text 2012

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.

[META] Know What It Is, or, Remix to the Rescue?

“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.

[META] Madge, in Thy Orisons…

I’ve been known to have dreams about fictional characters, but it’s not every day that I find myself viewing the most mainstream social event of the United States calendar and thinking, “Wait, I’ve seen this vid!” I’m talking, of course, about Madonna’s Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show, in which her opening performance of “Vogue” was a clear take-off on the classic vid of the same title by Luminosity.

You can view a TV rip of Madonna’s entire performance (which also featured LMFAO, Cee Lo Green, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A.) on YouTube, and Luminosity’s vid on blip.tv, which is a queer feminist critique of the movie 300, which was itself based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Honestly, for most of the halftime show I was mostly just staring open-mouthed at the screen; Madonna is nothing else if not a consummate performer, and she hit this one out of the park.

Watching the halftime show and Luminosity’s vid back to back, however, produces some interesting–and uncomfortable–conjunctions. Namely, both fandom and the larger pop culture which it critiques and draws upon have some similar problems.

In her notes to reposting the vid on blip.tv, Francesca Coppa notes that Luminosity “conflates the battlefield and the dance floor, subjecting the men to a female and queer gaze and setting Madonna up as this world’s reigning pagan goddess.” Very true, and at least one blogger, Obsidian Wings, picked up on the camp aspects of Madonna’s reappropriation of the “Vogue” vid’s aesthetic almost immediately: contrary to the lyrics, it does matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, as the vid makes clear. What I’m interested in, however, are the ways in which song, vid, and halftime show all make similar maneuvers, particularly around those issues of gender and of race.

The original “Vogue” song of course refers to a style of dance invented in Harlem and appropriated by Madonna for the song and its music video. The story of most pop music in the 20th century is of course the story of white musicians appropriating black performers’ styles and innovations and repackaging them for a “mainstream” (read: white) audience, and the tried-and-true strategy only continues in the 21st century, from Justin Bieber to–especially in the third song of the Super Bowl set, “Gimme All Your Luvin’”–Madonna herself, whose performance prominently deployed the more au courant star power of performers of color, including Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., in service to the blonde Queen’s latest reinvention. M.I.A. in particular earned censure–not least from Madonna herself–for giving the middle finger to the national television cameras during her verse.

Similarly, as much as it skewers the hypermasculine gender presentation of the movie 300, Luminosity’s vid doesn’t (can’t?) do much to problematize the exceedingly questionable racialization of the Persian Wars that Frank Miller’s graphic novel exults in–the good guys are the manly Spartans, and the bad guys(?) are the effeminate Persians. (To say nothing of Miller’s extraordinarily biased presentation of history, as David Brin notes in this post.) They may all get down on the dance floor, but unlike what the song says, it does make a difference if you’re black or white.

My point here is not so much that all of this is anything new (it’s not), but rather that viewing the vid and the halftime show together provides a textbook example of the ways in which fandom (and any pop culture critique based in pop culture itself), and vidding in particular, is limited by its working, in some senses, with found objects. Fandom is unquestionably a fascinating space of critique, remixing, and reinvention, but ultimately pure remixing, no matter how creative, makes it very difficult to introduce radically new elements, or to go beyond what you’re given to work with.

Of course, introducing radical new elements, as uncomfortable and difficult as it is and has been for fandom, may not be what strikes a pop cultural chord in the larger sphere at all. Madonna has shown herself constantly willing to reinvent herself over the course of her career, and the idea of infinitely revising a concept around a central core is of course intimately familiar to fans in general and to writers of fanfic especially. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that this performance in particular was Madonna’s latest reintroduction to global pop cultural relevance, after the lackluster performance of her previous album, her divorce from Guy Ritchie, and above all the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga to the pop music firmament had somewhat dented the Queen’s crown. But her new album MDNA hits stores in the States March 26, and concert dates for her upcoming world tour are already selling out. Long live the Queen.

[META] Living in a Den of Thieves (Notes Towards a Post on Big Content)

Two weeks ago, in the wake of the hacker collective Anonymous shutting down U.S. government and Big Content websites in avowed revenge for the U.S. Attorney General’s taking down the upload service MegaUpload, I asked my Twitter followers (only half in jest) whether I would one day be writing an article about the Internet War of 2012. The consensus was “Quite possibly!” but even a cursory glance over the last two weeks or so of events around the Internet and the public domain reveal that the conflict between those who are advocating for more open laws and formats around content, and those who want to lock content down and throw away the key on “pirates,” is about more than one upload service, or even more than one frighteningly broad piece of “anti-online piracy” legislation (and no, that link isn’t talking about SOPA/PIPA).

Fandom intersects with all of these events in a number of large and complex ways, and as a global phenomenon, it’s no surprise that fans in different parts of the world have had different reactions to various recent developments. Just among my digital acquaintances, reactions to MegaUpload, for instance, have ranged from the general sentiment that its operators’ alleged violations were so flagrant that they deserved to be indicted, to noting the detrimental effect the demise of file-sharing sites has on emerging economies in particular, since people working in emerging economies literally cannot afford to legitimately buy the media that Big Content sells.

The rise of “intellectual property” rights over the past century or so is part and parcel of the neoliberalization first of so-called advanced industrial societies, and then the rest of the world; the shredding of social safety nets globally; the commercialization of scholarship and the reduction of the value of all knowledge to the price it is projected to fetch in the so-called “free market”; the patent-ization of scientific research part and parcel with increased corporate profiteering therefrom. IPR are used systematically to disenfranchise and disempower vulnerable groups at all levels of societies globally, and then, the disenfranchisement complete, to sell that content back to those groups at immense profit–but only at fair market price, of course.

As a historian, I’m painfully aware that today’s current, very stringent global intellectual property regime is very much a recent and contingent phenomenon, and as a classicist and a fan, I was particularly dismayed to see the U.S. Supreme Court rule in favor of copyright maximalists in Golan v. Holder, finding that works could be legally re-copyrighted and removed from the public domain. It would be foolish, as a historian, to claim that fandom predates the age of mechanical reproduction and the rise of seriality in storytelling, but one doesn’t have to be much of a literature scholar to see that creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that creative works have always been inspired by one another. If Vergil had had to pay money to Homer’s estate to use characters from The Illiad, there probably would have been no Aeneid, and that loss wouldn’t just have diminished ancient Greek and Latin poetry.

I mentioned my work for the Organization for Transformative Works to a mutual acquaintance (the business manager of a well-known fantasy author) recently, and it was almost comical how my interlocutor’s defenses rose the instant I uttered the words “fair use.” I understand, and absolutely support, the desire and right of creators to make money from their own creative works, but one of the things that I think tends to get lost in these discussions is the fact that overall creators aren’t being very well served by Big Content. In the first place it’s a myth, as someone on my Twitter feed observed, that content is only created by “professionals”; and in the second place, Big Content is not in the business of giving creators money: as an industry, it’s in the business of making money for itself. Advocates for SOPA/PIPA and ACTA like to position themselves as defending the rights of creators, but the current intellectual property regime is set up to favor corporations. Furthermore, the global scope of that regime, and the way in which restrictive additions in one part of the world tend to be taken up by the rest of its participants (Golan v. Holder was held up as an instance of bringing U.S. law into line with global practice, and actions in the MegaUpload case were taken as far away from the States as Hong Kong and New Zealand) only increase the margin of that favorability.

Fandom, to try to knit the two halves of this post into a coherent union, is very much somewhere in the vast creative territory between outright plagiarism–which no one, I think, would support or condone–and the avowed creative debt of explicit borrowing and that position has only become more difficult to maintain in recent years. The OTW’s work to extend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemption for vidding that we won in 2010 is an excellent example of how difficult it is to carve out a legal space for fair use fan practices even under current law (I invite you to sign the petition to uphold the right to create remix videos before February 10, 2012, cosponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation). I’m proud of the OTW’s past and continuing work in this area, but the events of the past fortnight are more than sufficient proof that the battlefield is anything but stagnant, and vigilance remains the price of the very limited liberties we now possess.

[META] In Search of the Hybrid Economy

In the current issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, my friend Nele Noppe has a piece on Why we should talk about commodifying fan work. In her article, Noppe reviews much current English-language scholarship that considers the possibility of some kind of legal and legitimate “hybrid” fannish economy emerging, and concludes that, while such an economy may very well emerge at some point, for a variety of reasons, it’s not here yet. In particular, Noppe notes that

A final reason why a viable hybrid economy for fan work is unlikely to emerge soon is that many of the fans who would power it may not be prepared to imagine the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of such a system. Up to now, fans and fan scholars have rarely even speculated about the potential inherent in linking fan work to commodity culture. … The most important question here is not whether fans will at some point be given the option to commodify and monetize their works, but how the fan community in general will deal with new modes of fannish production emerging alongside the traditional gift economy.

It strikes me, however, that the issue here may not be a question of waiting for new modes of fannish production to emerge, but of recognizing the fact that, in many cases, they already have emerged.

Noppe mentions the example of the Japanese dôjinshi market several times in her piece, quite sensibly in light of the fact that the fannish/”amateur” dôjin production sphere is perhaps the pre-eminent example of a hybrid economy. In Japan, fan-created comic books and, in recent years, animation, video games, and other forms of media have not only been wildly successful in the semi-sequestered fannish economy, but have been picked up by professional companies for further production and wider distribution, going on to launch their creators into fully professional careers and spawning mega-hit transmedia franchises that have defined whole eras in the Japanese contents industry. Moreover, despite a lack of explicitly permissive laws, the line between professional and “amateur” or fannish production in Japanese media is often quite fuzzy: professional creators routinely sell fan works of their own professional media creations, or even actual professionally produced elements of their creation such as production stills, at dôjin (“like-minded”) markets, the largest of which is Comiket in Tokyo.

Although the Japanese contents industry undoubtedly possesses the most highly developed “hybrid” economy in the Laurence Lessig-derived sense that Noppe discusses, there are ample signs that the English-language contents industry is already starting to develop in a similar direction, particularly in the world of book publishing. Multiple professional authors working today in YA and SFF avowedly came out of fandom, whether putting their fan fiction-honed writing skills to work on wholly original works or “filing off the serial numbers” and selling works that were originally fannish as entirely “original” novels and stories. Moreover, while it seems that formerly professional authors were reluctant to discuss their roots in fan fiction, more and more authors (not coincidentally, overwhelmingly female) are not only willing to own their fannish roots, but to “cross streams” and jump back into fandom for exchanges such as Yuletide, among other forms of fannish activity.

At the same time, the rise of ebooks and of high-quality self-publishing operations such as Lulu have made it easier than ever for fans to make their content, whether original or fannish or a hybrid of the two (never, as the above discussion should make clear, very clearly separated in the first place), available to others for free, at cost, or for profit with very little extra effort. These developments are transforming not only fandom, but also the contents industry, leading not only to reactionary legislative efforts such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. Congress but also to true innovation in both the fannish and professional contents spheres, some of which Henry Jenkins has discussed in his continuing investigations of professional transmedia storytelling.

So, where is all this going? As a historian, I am professionally allergic to predicting the future, but inasmuch as these developments are happening right now, it seems clear that some kind of rapprochement is in order, not only between fannish and professional content creators, but also between fans and themselves. English-language fandom has historically been highly leery of anything that seems to violate the spirit of the “fannish gift economy,” and with good reason; the non-commercial principles by which fandom has operated are one of the things that set it apart from the mainstream of global cultural economies. But the twenty-first century, for good and for ill, is not the twentieth, and it seems clear that fandom is already in the process of evolving into a different configuration vis-a-vis professionalization and the contents industry. The sooner we recognize that it’s happening, the sooner we can begin to think about and consciously decide how we want to do fandom, and be fans, in light of that fact.

[META] After Henry Jenkins: Transmedia Fandom

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries — a world where anything is possible.

“Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”
– The Matrix (1999)

I had the rare privilege of hearing Prof. Henry Jenkins speak at the UC Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities recently, on the subject of “Transmedia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” It was quite enjoyable, and very interesting, but in the end I found myself in an odd place, acafannishly speaking.

It’s always a weird experience for me as a fan to go out and get the unfiltered reactions of non-fans to fandom. The little titillated murmurs that ran through the crowd at the sight of some teen-rated Spike/Angel fanart, or the gobsmacked expressions that greeted the “Buffy Stakes Edward” vid, or the surprised hilarity that the “I am the 1%” superhero macros earned–it’s useful, but also jarring, to remember that my quotidian experience of media, the internet, the world, is often perpendicular to that of people who aren’t fannish. In the Q&A someone asked whether there’s any character or canon that can’t be transformed; rightly, I think, Jenkins answered “no” before proceeding to qualify that answer somewhat in terms of his ideas about what transmedia is, and where it’s going, while I simply considered how, after seeing what people get up to for Yuletide, I’m certain there’s nothing beyond the reach of fandom.

I don’t think there’s a more astute observer of transmedia than Jenkins, at least in English, but the other half of my reaction came from the fact that (as perhaps befits a talk co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for New Media) in the end I found Jenkins, for all that he admittedly stressed the liberating and equalizing potential of transmedia in his talk, dissatisfyingly focused on the corporate rather than the fannish portion of the transmedia equation. In some senses, that focus is all to the good, since I do believe it behooves fans to have a good sense of where the contents industry, so to speak, is headed. But on the other, focusing on industry-produced transmedia totally effaces the fact that fans have been producing transmedia for years, and in many cases, doing it far more radically than any corporation could or will.

To speak concretely, in his talk Jenkins cited DC Comics’ Elseworlds series as, in his view, one of the most radical industry experiment in transmedia storytelling yet: in fannish parlance, Elseworlds is a series of authorized “far” alternate universes, self-contained except for the fact that they feature DC characters. One Elseworld, for example, featured a Soviet Superman; another had him, in a Doctor Who fusion, as the “last son of Gallifrey!” Significantly, as Jenkins pointed out, in the wake of the DC reboot this summer, the Elseworlds line will not continue: even as they embrace transmedia, industry creators are also seeking to control and shape the fannish experience of their canons. (J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore is another excellent example of this trend, as Jenkins discussed.)

Jenkins explicitly noted that, in his view, Elseworlds was “in some ways more transgressive than [the fanworks] we were studying 20 years ago,” which is an interesting observation that certainly speaks to the vastly different levels of personal technology available to fans in the developed world then and now. But Elseworlds is not particularly radical in terms of current fannish practice, and in light of that fact I have to wonder whether corporate and fannish transmedia practices will ever be able to meet, or whether the two are doomed to become increasingly opposed as industrial content starts looking more and more like earlier fannish content while seeking to retain its corporate control. Certainly the fannish freedom to innovate is directly tied to disregard for copyrights, whether under the banner of legal fair use or not: the amount of rights wrangling that must have gone into that Superman/Dr. Who Elseworlds fusion, for example, doesn’t bear thinking about. Conversely, in fandom all someone has to do is think, “Superman/Dr. Who fusion? Awesome!” and start creating it.

In some ways my entire issue is a question of focus: whose changing practice is the more exciting story, fandom or corporations? Which has the greater potential to influence our lives? As for the former, I think both are fascinating; as to the latter, particularly after Jenkins argued persuasively that the global Occupy Wall Street movement must be understood as having a transmedia activist dimension, there’s no way to tell which will ultimately have a greater impact. The quotation that begins this post comes from the end of the first movie in The Matrix franchise, which is Jenkins’ best-known example of a (not entirely successful) transmedia venture outside of Japan (which has been incorporating transmedia into contents industry practice for a long time): Neo could just as well be speaking for fandom to the contents industry as he is speaking for humanity to the machines. The contents industry in general is undoubtedly in a stronger position in broader society than fandom is, and its practices and responses do unquestionably shape fannish landscapes much more than the opposite. But capital may be the only thing, in its ongoing relationship with fandom, on which it has anything like a monopoly. And as corporate content starts looking more fannish, there’s no telling what might happen, to corporate content or to fandom.

[META] OT3s: Disrupting the Intimate Society?

While reading Masamichi Inoue’s fascinating Okinawa and the U.S. Military: Identity Making in the Age of Globalization recently, I came across a reference to Emmanuel Lévinas’ ideas about the nature of love and the “intimate society.” Love, Lévinas argues in Collected Philosophical Papers, is inescapably solipsistic: “to love is to exist as though the lover and the beloved were alone in the world. The intersubjective relationship of love is not the beginning, but the negation of society” (31). The intimate society of love, according to Lévinas, “is dual, a society of me and you. We are just among ourselves. Third parties are excluded” (30). But society in its larger, customary sense, Lévinas declares, “inevitably involves the existence of a third party” (32)–and the tension between the intimate and larger societies can lead to the refusal of the couple, the intimate society, to recognize the harm they or their relationship may do to others in society at large, intentionally or not.

Inoue uses the notion of the disruption of the intimate society of “me and you” by the third, the social, to frame Okinawan activists’ disruption of the intimate society of the United States-Japan security alliance by articulating both global resonances and local consequences in their protests against the U.S. bases and military presence in the archipelago. Being a fan as well as an academic, of course, my own thoughts went immediately to the phenomenon of the OT3.

I had the privilege of attending Con.TXT 2010 in Silver Spring, Maryland last year, which was quite informative in terms of fannish history as well as a lot of fun–a lot of people who’ve been in fandom for decades were in attendance, and were quite willing to talk about their changing experiences of fandom through the years. One of the panels, “Fandom Suddenly Loves the Ladies,” noted in passing that one of the reasons for the apparent recent increase in representation of female characters in fanworks–which still is by no means equitable, merely better–may be the increasing prominence of the OT3, or threesome pairing.

I don’t think I can better illustrate the massive caveat that accompanies this entire post than to link an analysis of the pairings found in Star Trek fic on the Archive of Our Own: overwhelmingly, fan writers are still writing slash (M/M) pairings, with only a relative smattering of het (M/F), femslash (F/F), or other or multi pairings, under which category any OT3s falls. Still, for all that, it does seem that fans lately are more willing to consider writing an OT3 relationship that includes the main female romantic rival to the slash pairing, rather than focusing exclusively on the slash pairings within a fandom.

In fact, OT3s are a prominent feature of fanworks for several popular fandoms, notably the television series White Collar and the new Sherlock Holmes movies. As people at the Con.TXT panel suggested, it’s undeniable that female characters in U.S. media these days tend to be much better written than their counterparts of thirty, forty, fifty years ago, but I don’t think that’s the entire reason for the increasing popularity of the OT3. Fandom’s own social dynamics have to play a role as well.

In its own way, OT3 fic is just as much a rebellion against the narrative conventions of mainstream media as slash is, and I certainly don’t want either to edge out the other in any fandom. But OT3s bring a different perspective to the table, one that critiques heteronormative assumptions from another angle than slash, and I’m quite happy to see that many of these fics do, often unwittingly, add a deeper sociopolitical dimension to the worlds they construct when they add a female character to the male/male pairing. (I’m a historian, I always like my narratives more complicated.) Certainly at its best, OT3 fic does disrupt the solipsistic intimacy of the slash OTP and present an alternate vision of that fandom’s world and characters, one in which the whole is frequently greater than the sum of its parts. That those alternate visions naturally give female characters more prominent roles only makes them more enjoyable, to my mind.

Having said all this, I’ve convinced myself to reread the excellent X-Men: First Class OT3 fic that inspired this entire post in the first place.

[META] First, Know Thyself

Along with the rest of the International Outreach committee, for the past few months I’ve been buried up to my eyeballs in hashing out questions to survey the Organization for Transformative Works’ volunteers and donors, as well as people who aren’t members of the Organization but who may (or may not) use its projects and resources, such as the Archive of Our Own, about their thoughts on the OTW and its projects and their opinions on how we could serve them better. In some ways, the overarching dilemma of our external (non-OTW member) survey is the same facing Transformative Works and Cultures, as K.C. Lynch described in her series of posts over the past two weeks: how do we attract people to the survey? Though the problem of self-selecting participation is less important for our purposes, we want to reach as broad a swath of fans and fandoms around the world as possible, rather than appealing simply to our already-existing userbase. Additionally, unlike TWC, we also face a burden of intentions. In the past few years, there have been several well-publicized surveys of fans and fandom that, for various reasons, were judged to be fatally wrong-headed at best or exploitatively ill-intentioned at worst. The most famous of these surveys went live in 2009, and the surrounding imbroglio became almost instantly immortalized in fandom under the moniker of SurveyFail: two self-appointed, self-aggrandizing ‘researchers’ set up a survey, under false pretenses, asking fans about their sexuality and sexual desire. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam had a set of predetermined conclusions in mind when they posted their survey, rather than letting their respondents’ answers guide them, and they’re continuing to try to profit off their unethical research and badly done “science.” As a consequence of events like SurveyFail, a lot of people in fandom have become understandably gun-shy about answering any questions about their fannish experience, and making sure that we’re only asking the questions we need to ask, and that we’re asking them in the most inclusive way possible, has been a big part of why our OTW survey design work has taken so long. Hopefully the fact that our questions are focused on the OTW’s projects and their features, rather than much more intimate aspects of fannishness, will allay some potential concerns when our surveys do go live. Given the fraught history of surveys in fandom, you might wonder why we are going forward with these surveys at all. The answer is at least two-fold: primarily, because we in the OTW are genuinely curious as to ways we can improve our user experience, and secondarily, because having a snapshot of who we are, as an organization, will be priceless, both so that we can represent ourselves to ourselves and to people outside of fandom. I’ve talked before about the problems of fannish representation outside fannish communities; what’s less obvious but equally important is the necessity of fans knowing who we are as fans, of recognizing ourselves for who we are. Oppressive canards about fans (“Most slashers are straight!” “Most fans of science fiction and fantasy are white!”) do as much harm deployed within fandom as they do outside of it. The only way to lay those ghosts to rest is to prove them wrong, and to talk about the proof (as the previous two links do in demolishing their respective truisms), but to get that proof we have to ask fans about themselves, rather than just assuming. So: who are you?

[META] Telling a Truth about Otakon (and Other Things)

Although I’ve long since learned that thoughtful and well-researched articles of popular journalism about almost any aspect of fandom are the glaring exception to the rule, it was still quite frustrating to see The Washington Post follow suit in a recent article devoted to Otakon 2011, held at the end of July in Baltimore, Maryland. There are many inaccuracies, infelicities and false assumptions in the article, starting with the implicit idea that the likelihood of someone being sexually harassed or assaulted has anything to do with what they’re wearing. (It doesn’t.) As a long time Otakon attendee, I’m honestly surprised to realize that the con, which is 18 years old in 2011 and has grown to be the second-largest anime convention in the United States and the largest on the East Coast, doesn’t have an official anti-harassment policy, particularly since the con bills itself as “family-friendly,” and con staffers are usually quite vigilant about prohibiting behaviors like glomping. But, for the purposes of this blog, perhaps the most tired canard the article deploys is its blithe assertion that

Men have long been the foundation of the genre’s fan base, but they’ve been joined in increasing numbers by teen girls, whose embrace of the medium’s more fantastical side to new levels of stateside popularity. Conventions that were once cult gatherings attended almost exclusively by VHS-trading college-age (and older) males are now overflowing with young females…

Excuse me, WashPo, but female fans of anime and manga have been attending conventions for a long, long time. Rather than a purported recent rapid increase in the number of female anime fans, in the nine years since I started attending Otakon in 2002 I’d say the real demographic shift has been the con’s growing embrace of other subcultures and fandoms beyond anime, manga, and video games — but that’s another post. As I’ve gone from a character goods-obsessed high school student to an official convention panelist, one of the things that has kept me coming back to Otakon, aside from its unabashedly fannish atmosphere, is the rough gender equality among attendees (a marked contrast to many science fiction and fantasy conventions of my experience, I have to say). This experience of mine, moreover, is mirrored in the experience of just about every female fan of anime and manga that I know or can think of. Many of us Stateside started watching anime or reading manga in high school — if not earlier! — and didn’t meet any male fans of anime and manga for a good long while; when we did, the fandom was a rough gender balance, if not majority female. Female fans of anime and manga have even — gasp! –founded and run conventions and written books and articles devoted to those media, and have played crucial parts in their popularization and expansion, all by themselves. All of which is to say nothing of the fanbase of anime and manga in Japan and around the world, of course. Whether or not creators and critics and marketers and journalists realize it, female fans have been reading manga and watching anime since the beginning. Just last week, as I was enthusing about a recent manga based on Tezuka Osamu’s Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) to one of the administrators at my program office here in Kyoto, she commented that in 2003 (Atom’s birthday in-manga) she thought that, having read the manga and seen the anime as a child in the 1960s, she was glad to have been able to see the year of Atom’s birth for herself. These are the sorts of stories and experiences for which popular conceptions of anime and anime fans have no room, and it’s high time to put those misconceptions to rest. It’s long past time, moreover, for harassment to not be a predictable part of the Otakon experience for female attendees, regardless of cosplay or the lack thereof; it’s long past time for Otakon to introduce an unambiguous anti-harassment policy and code of conduct (a la OSCON and O’Reilly Media’s recent announcement). And it’s long past time to acknowledge that girls and women and female-identified people are in your anime and manga fandoms, your cons, and your fannish history, and that we’re not going anywhere, because we’ve been here all along.

[META] Harry Potter, History, and Endings

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.

[ADMIN] A Historian Says Hello

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. But let me back up for a second. Greetings, salutations, and hello! 日本語が話す方に、初めまして!My name is Andrea Horbinski, and I am an academic in training, a historian, and a fan. I’m also a member of the OTW’s International Outreach committee, and I’m very excited to begin blogging for Transformative Works and Cultures‘ Symposium blog! So, let me give you a bit of an extended self-introduction. At the moment I’m a Ph.D. student in modern Japanese history at the University of California, Berkeley, with hopes of writing a history of manga for my dissertation. Manga, you say? You mean Japanese comics? Yes and yes. Watching anime in high school–are there any Revolutionary Girl Utena or Outlaw Star fans around?–got me into Japanese language classes at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where I eventually got my degree in both Classics and Asian Studies. My Fulbright Fellowship after college saw me researching hypernationalist manga in Doshisha’s media studies department, and I’m in the history department at Berkeley now, so as you can tell, I’m someone who believes passionately in the virtues of interdisciplinary approaches! My fannish curriculum vitae, as it were, is also a patchwork. I’ve been watching and reading science fiction and fantasy since about the age of four, but despite putting a few toes into Star Wars fandom when the first of the prequel movies came out, anime was the first thing I self-defined as a fan of, in high school, followed by manga in college. I still think of myself as an anime and manga fan first, but over the past few years I’ve greatly enjoyed expanding my fannish interests beyond anime and manga back into book and media fandoms, and my fannish output beyond AMVs into fanfiction and vids. It would take too long to give you a full list of my abiding fannish obsessions, but I have to mention Star Trek as well as Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings as well as Harry Potter and the Young Wizards, the manga of CLAMP and Urasawa Naoki and Arakawa Hiromu, just to give you a sense of my interests. Some of my current fannish obsessions are CLAMP’s new manga Gate 7, the Narnia books and movies, the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series, Doctor Who and X-Men: First Class, and I’ve been watching the Puella Magi Madoka Magica anime in utter fascination. For me, the passion of fandom is a necessary part of my academic work, and the insights I’ve gained through fandom into a wealth of topics and issues, including history and writing (about) history, are invaluable. I’ll be writing from Kyoto, where I’m studying classical Japanese, for the rest of the summer before heading back to California for another full year of reading, writing, watching and working. I don’t know what exactly I’ll write about yet, but I’m hoping to give back a little of the enriched perspective I’ve gained here on the blog, and I’m very much looking forward to the conversations that will undoubtedly arise from writing and reading here, both online and in person. So, until then!