“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] Know What It Is, or, Remix to the Rescue?
Tagged on:                                         

4 thoughts on “[META] Know What It Is, or, Remix to the Rescue?

  • 26/03/2012 at 13:56

    You note, “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’ve read more than a few essays over the years tackling this very thing.

    I personally think it’s totally a form of denial. Of course academics are passionate about the things they study. They wouldn’t devote a lifetime to Shakespeare or eels or opera or Patsy Cline if they weren’t.

    It’s a pose — this idea that pure abstract logical consideration is somehow ABOVE or SUPERIOR TO an emotional engagement.

    I guess I’m glad it’s coming around on the guitar again. Because it’s a framing error, to me.

    That’s one neat thing about acafandom in general — it’s not in denial about this, in general. At least compared to the rest of academia. In my experience. Thanks for the post.

  • 26/03/2012 at 18:40

    Good scholarship often shows a deep emotional engagement with its subjects. In Foucault’s account in Surveiller et punir: naissance de la prison of what happened to the homeless boy Béasse, for the first time in this book’s cool, dry prose I saw anger (p. 340). Anger, too in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s article about effeminate male children at risk of “annihilation” by psychiatric repression and gay indifference in the U.S. (“How To Bring Your Kids Up Gay”, Social Text, no. 29 [1991]:18-27). Sedgwick’s reasoning is sophisticated but no less so than the plot of a good boys’ love fan fic, its twists and devices, as it shows its protagonists trying to overcome affective barriers, especially the ones within them, in order to bond. Fans care about the “real” world. Some are activists, as a recent blog post by Courtney Martin in The New York Times documents (“From Young Adult Book Fans to Wizards of Change”, 21 March 2012 ). Martin cites the forthcoming TW&C issue on fan activism.
    I agree that humanities scholarship is under attack in the U.S. and in much of Europe. And I agree that we need to understand each other—and ourselves—better in order to more effectively resist this. What I don’t understand is how fans, scholars and those of us who are both (or neither) are “denying who we are and why we care to do what we do” and how exactly our “affective engagement and critical sensibility” may differ.

  • 27/03/2012 at 22:24

    When you talk about saving the Iliad, though, which Iliad is it that you mean? (A question I would quite happily ask Middleton as well, of course.) Fandom might easily save the text as a fannish object, but I’m not sure it has the power to save it as a subject under critical discussion in the humanities. I tend to think of academia and fandom as very different disciplines with different codes of practice, so that’s probably guiding me here, but saving ‘the Iliad’ is not the same as saving ‘the humanities’ as a field of study and associated critical practice. There seems to me to be a certain amount of blurring in your post here between the humanities as a research area and the texts which constitute the focus of that research, which is also the case in Middleton’s article, but I’m not sure reviving interest in texts (for example) through remix or fandom more generally will ever be enough to promote the idea that studying them is useful (as the sciences are generally touted as being). If that were the case, then there would presumably be a lot of support for the study of popular media, which unlike the Iliad great swathes of the general public are mildly/non-explicitly fannish about (and lesser swathes are fully fannish about) – but as it is that study is even more frowned upon by society than ‘proper’, traditional areas of research.

  • 31/03/2012 at 18:01

    Andrea, I really appreciate yours (and other people’s!) careful reading of my article. To a large extent, I think your critique of the abstraction present in it (and in academia at large) is a necessary one; point taken!!
    I suspect that the frame of the article matters here: that the discourse of crisis in the humanities seems to be, for me, anyway, about the loss of a particular kind of thinking—thus, the specific emphasis on the kinds of thinking that are active in fan works and in remix video, in an attempt to imagine how those functions of thought (analysis, cultural engagement, etc.) live on, but only if people (and academics in particular) are willing to see that in texts that they themselves dismiss or shrug off as solely enthusiastic, or embarrassingly affective. In other words, for me, one significant point of connection is exactly that overlap between these two subcultures (academe and fan): their critical practice and cultural engagement.

    But that’s obvs. not the only point over overlap—as Mark notes above, academic fans abound, whether their fandom is Goethe or Foucault or (ahem) Veronica Mars. They channel that “unbridled, passionate enthusiasm” you describe into the acceptable discourse of their community: scholarly articles, for instance, instead of fan fiction. Lots of academics do snort at fan practices, even as they churn out book after book about what Dostoevsky might have had for breakfast.

    I suppose the point I’d hoped to make, and apparently missed the mark on, is that while noting these overlaps can conceal some pretty significant differences and hierarchies, they also point to a powerful combination: a deep love for, and engagement with, a particular storyworld/set of characters/icon, etc., and an array of ways to build on and deepen that engagement for oneself or a community of others.

    Anyway, I’m increasingly interested in the relationship between analysis and affect, and you’ve given me more to chew on there. Thanks again!

Comments are closed.