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] Affective Aesthetics