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!