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