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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Issue 6, people! Check it out!

[META] Transformative Works, Transformative History
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4 thoughts on “[META] Transformative Works, Transformative History

  • 17/03/2011 at 23:17

    Wow, thank you so much for this thoughtful engagement with my piece; I feel very honored, and you’re getting exactly to the way I’ve been thinking.

    I do agree that it’s useful, indeed amazing, to have organizations like the OTW. In fact, I started thinking through these ideas just as OTW was forming, and now it is well established it’s clearer than ever to me how much we need it. I just also think it’s absolutely crucial to be aware of what a nonprofit can’t do as well as what it can. The longer version of this piece, which I hope to eventually revise into a full length article (maybe even bringing the discussion of fandom wank’s ephemera up to date to include anon memes…), gets more into the politics, thinking a lot about institutional acafandom and the “sub” in subculture.

    • 18/03/2011 at 21:33

      Thanks for stopping by! Can’t wait to see the longer piece :o)

  • 18/03/2011 at 04:28

    the tendency of historians … to privilege the producers’ interpretations of their own work over those interpretations, regardless of how loving or critical, put forth by fans

    I’m so pleased that you’re reading! I think, though, that here you are giving historians too much credit. By and large those who work with media materials at all – from 18th-c lithographs through material from the internet – don’t even understand that they are using producers’ interpretations of these materials. We don’t always understand that we are interpreting at all. We think we’re just looking at the movie and writing down what it obviously says. In other words, we are making our own interpretations and not in any conscious or deliberate or theoretically informed way. Sometimes this happens out of necessity: there’s only so much close reading you can do when you’re trying to look at twenty years’ worth of a daily 62-page comic book (this has happened to me.) Sometimes this happens because of a deliberately naive empiricism: I’ve often heard colleagues say, “I’m a historian, we don’t do theory.” (And I have some sympathy for this position, myself.) It is entirely possible to write useful history of, say, the Cold War, based in 1950s U.S. film and television, without ever once consulting either the intentions of the people who made the TV shows or the experiences of the shows’ viewers. It’s just that other kinds of historical analysis are possible if you do consider the experiences and interpretations of fans and fan communities. That’s what we’re arguing for, here, I think.

    there are plenty of social historians who are deeply attentive to the history of interpretive communities and “schools of thought,” although in my personal experience, these are as likely to be found in an English or Sociology department as they are in a History department

    Can I say “yes, but” to this? The scholars you describe as “social historians” do exist, and I’ve learned a lot from them, but they’re not social historians. I’m thinking of anthropologists like Heather Levi and Eduardo Archetti, and sociologists like Isabel Pinedo and Nestor Garcia Canclini, and literary scholars like Constance Penley, and geographers like Edward Soja. All these scholars, and Benjamin too, are required reading for my grad students in cultural history (and cultural history is what you may have meant, rather than social history,; social history is related but quite distinct.) But none of these scholars are historians, even when they work with materials from the past.

    It’s not just that they lack the specific training that historians get – advanced training for historians is actually pretty slapdash in a lot of ways – but that they are not asking the kinds of questions about the past that historians ask. They aren’t interested in demonstrating and explaining large-scale change over time, which is what historians do. It’s all we do, when you get right down to it: we try to explain change over time. People who do that are historians; people who look at the past for other reasons are … people who work in sociology and English departments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    • 18/03/2011 at 21:41

      Thanks for your great comment — it’s so interesting to me how we make these disciplinary distinctions. Which makes sense, because, not only do I come from the notoriously omnivorous English department, I’m also a self-described theory fangirl :).

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