The latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” is now available for your reading pleasure. There’s so much great content here to peruse, much of it offering context for ongoing debates among fan activists, many of which speak to still-unfolding current events. Just last week, for example, Andrea Horbinski and Alex Leavitt updated readers on the latest developments surrounding the Metropolitan Tokyo Youth Ordinance, whose implications they had explored at length in their article. The piece I first clicked on when I accessed the issue, however, was on an issue closer to my immediate context and long-term concerns: Jonathan Gray’s moving Symposium piece, “Of snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish play at the Wisconsin protests.” This piece describes the morale-boosting role played by fannish signs and chants at protests, and argues for their incalculable contribution to the large-scale registering of political dissatisfaction.
The topic of activism is inherently emotional, which is part of why I think that its union with transformative works is so illuminating. Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova begin their editorial introduction to the issue with two quotations that speak to this point, one by Liesbet van Zoonen, from her book Entertaining the Citizen, and one from Stephen Duncombe’s own Symposium piece on More’s Utopia, and his own relationship to that concept, such as it has emerged in his own experiences with fandom and activism. There is a clear thread that ties each piece in this issue to the rest, as well as tying the issue as a whole to a long series of debates, online and off-, about those most seriously critical, and thus, seriously hopeful energies within fandom, and how these intersect with those same energies in activist movements, often within the same subjects. From my own standpoint in the Midwestern United States, no single recent event has filled me with as much hope, and then disappointed me so strongly, as the fannishly-inflected 2011 Wisconsin protests against Scott Walker and his union-busting legislation, which, sadly, did not in the end lead to his replacement.
That aside, I think that Gray’s piece archives much of what was exciting about the 2011 protests, which moved so many people, and were so misrepresented by the mainstream media, first by not being represented at all, and then, worse, being mischaracterized as “riots,” as Gray describes:
As the protests continued and as they drew national media attention, for many protesters, and for the organizers especially, it became important to ensure that the protests remained peaceful and upbeat, countering Fox News’ images. The fannish signs aided this mission, offering reasons to smile and laugh amidst the anger and angst, and often inspiring discussions between fellow fans.
Gray is, of course, careful not to reduce the protests to a momentary fannish community-building exercise, although he is just as careful not to subordinate fannish caontributions to countable actions such as petition signatures, absolutely. Instead he inhabits the ground of the short-form social archivist, who witnessed positive social and political actions bolstered by fannish energy and tactics, and wishes to record it alongside the ultimately disappointing political verdict on Walker.
Gray’s piece exemplifies what I love about the Symposium section of Transformative Works and Cultures. The author guidelines for the Symposium section read as follows:
Parallel to academia’s tradition of compact essays, often published as letters, fandom has its own vibrant history of criticism, some of which has been collected at the Symposium archive. In the spirit of this history, TWC’s Symposium is a section of concise, thematically contained essays. These short pieces provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures. Symposium submissions undergo editorial review. (1,500–2,500 words)
And indeed, in just over 2000 words, as well as photographs of six different fannish signs seen at the Wisconsin protests, he articulates a material intersection of fandom and activism, and one that will likely ring true, both for those of us who anxiously followed the protests as they happened, and for those who take pleasure in memes well-executed. He fleshes out the experience of the protests with memorable details, some of which speak to us quickly and generally, like his description of the protests’ occurrence “in the middle of a characteristically long Wisconsin winter,” while other descriptions speak to perceptions specific to the fan activist’s worldview. I love the idea that, “when the Capitol Square was covered in snow, it seemed distinctly Hothlike,” because it’s that level of observation that invites the reader into the process of forging lasting connections between different spheres of her life.
From Gray’s piece, the reader might move on to Aswin Punathambekar’s essay, “On the ordinariness of participatory culture,” which offers a different national context for the intersection of fandom and activism, namely, the Indian context, as well as a different kind of activism, namely how, in response to Indian Idol 3, “people in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya had cast aside decades-old separatist identities to mobilize support for Amit Paul, one of the finalists.” The issues at stake here are very different than those in Wisconsin, but Punathambekar’s argument in fact shares much with Gray’s, although he uses a slightly different critical vocabulary. Punathambekar summarizes his argument as such:
We need to develop accounts of participatory culture that take the sociable and everyday dimensions of participation in and around popular culture more seriously while remaining attuned to the possibility that such participation might, in rare instances, intersect with broader civic and political issues and movements. Using Indian Idol 3 as a case, I want to suggest that sociability should be as fundamental to our analyses of participatory culture as civic/political engagement.
Like Gray, Punathambekar argues that we should make sure to value those moments of sociability that are often subordinated to specific political activity, as they share much with the energy that is needed to enact large-scale change and, ultimately, to create better societies. Both authors’ arguments are at home in the Symposium section, because it is a space in which this subtlety of individual and social experience can be articulated, and preserved alongside more long-form academic analyses of phenomena within fandom.
We are actively seeking Symposium submissions for upcoming issues, and all readers of this post, this blog, Transformative Works and Cultures, and other sources of fandom analysis to consider submitting. Thank you!