Television scholar Jason Mittell doesn’t like the television show Mad Men, and he’s written an article about why. It wasn’t news to me; indeed, I’m one of the interlocutors he mentions having argued with about the show on Twitter and elsewhere. I knew Jason was writing this piece and I’ve been eager to read it.
Now that I have done, I’m left with a very different reaction than I thought I’d have. You see, Jason Mittell doesn’t like Mad Men, a show I do like, just as I don’t like Lost and The Wire, shows he likes. The reasons we like and dislike different shows are largely matters of taste, but more than just the immediate reactions that sometimes go by the name of “taste.” You see, I dislike The Wire for some of the same reasons Mittell dislikes Mad Men: boredom, disinterest, a lack of attachment to or concern for the characters, a distaste for “unclean and unpleasant” feelings produced by the show, and a lack of an ability to empathize long enough even to watch the show without looking at the clock. But who cares, really, that two people have different if weirdly conflicting taste in television?
A critic’s job, in part, is to explain and justify his own tastes, and to act as a steward for those tastes on behalf of a constituency of readers. People tend to circle around the critics weÂ respect and, more so, agree with because we come to trust their taste. There are pros and cons to such a tendency, the most obvious downside being that we can avoid stretching our minds by surrounding ourselves with only like-minded ideas.
But for the academic critic, I think the stakes are higher. One can like or dislike something, but we scholars, particularly of popular media, have a special obligation to explain something new about the works we discuss. There are plenty of fans of The Wire and Mad Men and Halo and World of Warcraft out there. The world doesn’t really need any more of them. What it does need is skeptics, and the scholarly role is fundamentally one of skepticism.
Thus, the only thing that disappoints me about Jason’s essay is that I didn’t learn anything new about Mad Men. And I’d like to learn something new about the show, particularly from a skeptical critic.
Now, Mittell might object that such a project wasn’t his charge. He was invited to contribute this essay to a collection on Mad Men to be published by Duke University Press. He was so invited precisely because the editors knew he disliked the show, and wanted to include that perspective in the volume. Makes sense to me.
I think the problem lies in the notion of the “aca-fan,” a concept Henry Jenkins popularized and to which Mittell subscribes. In Jason’s words, the aca-fan is “a hybrid of academic and fan critics that acknowledges and interweaves both intellectual and emotional cultural engagements.” Mittell makes a thoughtful observation about this role:
While media scholars do not solely write about what we like, the prevalence of books focused on “quality television” shows that appeal to academics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and now Mad Men—especially when compared to the lack of similar volumes or essays about more lowbrow or mainstream programs—suggests that taste is often more of a motivating factor for our scholarship than we admit. We should own up to our own fannish (or anti-fannish) tendencies regarding our objects of study, not regarding fan practices as something wholly separate from our academic endeavors by acknowledging how taste structures what we choose to write about.
I’d push it further: the media scholar ought to resist aca-fandom, even as he or she embraces it. The fact that something feels pleasurable or enjoyable or good (or bad) need not be rejected, of course, but it ought to issue an itch, a discomfort. As media scholars, we ought to have self-doubt about the quality and benefit of the work we study. We ought to perform that hesitance often and in public, in order to weave a more complex web around media—not just to praise or blame particular works.
In this regard, I disagree with Jason when he says that “humanities scholars don’t typically brand ourselves as fans of our objects of research.” I think this is just plain wrong, and not just for pop-culture scholars. More often than not, humanists in general get into what they do precisely because they are head-over-heels in love with it, whether “it” be television, videogames, Shakespeare, Martin Heidegger, the medieval chanson de geste, the Greek lyric poem, or whatever else. Specialty humanities conferences are just fan conventions with more strangely-dressed attendees. Humanists are doe-eyed romantics, even as they are also snarly grouches.
Embracing aca-fandom is a bad idea. Not because it’s immoral or crude, but because it’s too great a temptation. Those of us who make an enviable living being champions of media, particularly popular media, must also remain dissatisfied with them. We ought to challenge not only ourselves, our colleagues, and our students—but also the public and the creators of our chosen media. We ought not to be satisfied. That’s the price of getting to make a living studying television, or videogames, or even Shakespeare.
I’ve tried to take this charge seriously, most recently in my attempt to live my distaste for Facebook games in order to understand the pleasures and pains of that form more deliberately. And I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve got everything figured out and Jason doesn’t. But I do find myself disappointed that Mittell wasn’t able to really rip it to Mad Men, to show me and millions more why the show is bad or dangerous or unrefined or incomplete or any of the other things that it’s praised for not being. In this respect, I do appreciate Henry Jenkins’s tendency to relate “new” media to older forms, like vaudeville. We could ask the question, what is Mad Men? Is it a costume drama? A soap opera? A morality play? A very complex and elongated television advertisement? I don’t know, and I know why I don’t: I’m too blindered by my fancy for the show.
Very nice response, and I’m sorry to have disappointed you! I must admit a bit of self-disappointment, as I was unable to find a critical voice to rip away the scales from people’s eyes without emulating Mark Grief’s snark (which would just piss people off rather than help them see the show how I see it).
I do think that my background as a TV scholar frames my hesitation to directly challenge fans – for the longest time, TV was casually condemned as bad object, and specific genres (soaps, talk shows) were singled out as dangerous due to their demographics. I don’t think returning to that rhetoric is helpful, but I do wonder if the desire to respect others’ tastes forces us to not put forth some important ideas.
As for your last question, I did make overt comparisons between Mad Men and soaps and beer commercials – I see it as a tepid melodrama, glossed up with the rhetorical style of advertising, and then fixed in the amber of middlebrow quality. Does that help?
Wonderful response! A really interesting set of questions. If I’d been criticizing Mad Men, I’d certainly have pushed the line Mittell started to take when he compared its hypocrisy to that of Wall-E, but I fear I’d have ended up in predictable territory. I do think that there’s some wonderful, deeply personal, negative scholarship about popular culture artifacts — see Georgina Kleege, bell hooks, and my man Adorno, for example — but it seems difficult to produce in the polite company of the blogosphere.
Aca-fandom can be useful when it comes to highlight the good qualities of a media artifact, since as a fan one gets to know the work at an expert level, and what makes it good, be it a TV show, a videogame or a sport event. The approach does not seem so productive, though, when it comes to criticise something one doesn’t like (haven’t read this specific paper, but experienced that reading other articles).
By erasing critical distance, one can forget to be critical. Even when one starts to study something as a scholar, it is possible fall in love with the subject too, and forget to be more demanding of our subject of study.
Excellent point, Ian.
I hear you on the television stuff. I feel the same way about videogames. I think we’re in the same weird boat, bailing the same water. I suppose my suggestion is that it’s time for all of us to get over those feelings. I don’t think we disagree at all in this regard.
I don’t mean this piece to be a critique of your article so much as a response inspired by it. I think you started to look in some interesting windows, as it were, in the chapter… I just wanted to see what was inside the store.
With respect to your namesake, I don’t think Adorno is the model. Nor Heidegger for that matter. Nor Baudrillard. I don’t think that just decrying the culture industry really gets us very far. Which isn’t to say that we have nothing to learn from Adorno, but that that’s not the critique I’m looking for, personally. As they say on the interwebz, YMMV.
Right, one could argue (as I imply) that a certain measure of aca-fandom is required to get anywhere. This is a much larger topic, but the structure of the academy makes it easy to get lost in that dreamworld, even moreso than popular culture fandom does for “ordinary” fans.
Your call for “the media scholar…to resist aca-fandom, even as he or she embraces it” reminds me of Adorno’s vision of the cultural critic. “The dialectical critic of culture,” Adorno wrote in a 1955 essay, “must both participate in culture and not participate. Only then does he do justice to his object and to himself.”
At first glance, this demand to participate and yet not participate seems impossible, but it’s clear the key is, as you say, skepticism. Or rather, as Adorno puts it, to not succumb to naivete. I don’t think Jason is naive about Mad Men at all, though. The problem seems to be that his skepticism doesn’t have anything to latch onto.
In general though, I have found that the recent slew of critical books on popular television shows are indeed too fannish, too eager to redeem a show—even when the show doesn’t need redemption. I wonder if this eagerness is a holdover from the days of kneejerk defensiveness about studying popular culture.
I suspect (and Jason seems to agree, above) that we’ve all been too scared by kneejerk defensiveness and haven’t done enough to move beyond it.
Given that two of you have pointed to Adorno I suppose I could be wrong, but my experience with Adorno is nothing like the sort of critic I’m advocating, so I’m admittedly confused. To me, Adorno seems to think the nature of cultural participation involves the minimum amount required to justify despising it. But maybe that’s a knee-jerk reaction 🙂
And, oh, as a sidenote, I appreciate the line “Specialty humanities conferences are just fan conventions with more strangely-dressed attendees.” Indeed, indeed. A musicologist friend of mine has attended every Slayage conference since the inaugural Buffy the Vampire Slayer conference in 2004. The first several years were huge, drawing academics and fans alike, both groups often dressed in Buffy-inspired costumes. Every year, however, the conference shrinks, and the attendees in 2010 were mostly media scholars, wearing that strangest of costumes, tweed.
@Ian, I actually agree with you on Adorno. His approach only meshes with my own when I pick and choose a few key lines. Taken in toto, his work is reactionary (and reactionary to a different set of forces than we are dealing with today).
But yes, we need to move beyond the defensiveness. It’s truly disheartening how many critical approaches to videogames still begin with a justification for our object of study (a justification that often boils down to a comparison with the economic impact of the film industry).
Hi Ian and by extension Jason:
Okay, my selfish hope is that you two build this conversation into something I can hand out to cultural studies students on day one, because (what else is new) I feel myself siding with you both.
Like Ian, I have little patience for writers who want to deride what other people enjoy culturally. As a teacher, I’ve spent a fair amount of time telling students who want to write papers about how the Facebook is fake (or a television show is inconsequential, or a celebrity is idiotic) that researching culture begins with a compelling question, and “Why are people losers” is not compelling.
Like Jason, I think we should probably be applying the same standards of inquiry to those who use academia as an excuse to practice drooling fandom. If “why does this suck?”, is judgement masquerading as a question, so too is “why does x rule so hard?” To be fair to Henry’s work, I don’t read his definition of aca-fandom as synonymous with wholesale celebration–not at all. But I do get the point that entire anthologies consisting of “Ten Ways in Which Buffy Constitutes the Overthrow of All that is Problematic with the World” is well, a problem. Maybe we could call this ‘vulgar aca-fandom’ to distinguish it from aca-fandom as Jenkins and others see/practice it?
In my own stuff, I’ve tried to work through this a couple of different ways. The first has been through autobiographical approach–rather than explaining why X sucks (or rules), I try to unpack why I think the object in question resonates that way *for me.* I wound up doing this while researching camgirls–so much of what I was seeing freaked me out, so much of it felt seductive in light of fifteen years reading art literature on transgression, so much of it felt repulsive after twenty years of reading literature on feminism–I felt the only ethical way to proceed was to fully embrace and engage with my ambivalence My fave parts the Mad Men piece are when Jason heads in those directions.
Side note: to be honest, this is one of the best reasons to read blogs of cultural studies folks–to see how their personal ambivalence regarding their objects of inquiry play out before it’s ‘show time’ and print freezes thought forever…
The second way I’ve tried to deal with these issues is through ethnography, talking to other people who view stuff, talking to the people who make stuff, and then (when I can) talking to people about whom the stuff is made.
The third (related) way is through auto-ethnography: dumping myself into the communities I’m writing about and taking responsibility for being ‘part of the problem’ if that’s how I’m defining it. I set a webcam up in my house during the camgirls research. I love how Ian circulates in game communities, advocates in game communities and makes games for those communities.
When I spent a fair amount of time on camera, I discovered that people said things to me they would have NEVER said to my face, in part because I offered myself to the market as an object to be critiqued. As people who have the luxury of critiquing others for a living, it’s probably a good idea to see how it feels from the other side from time to time (also a good reason to have a blog. ) As Mark Twain argued, “You can learn things swinging a cat by the tail you learn no other way.” I think that’s true.
Okay, it occurs I should put this up on my blog and stop hijacking yours. I do want to reiterate that as a fan of both of your work, I’d love it if you could turn this into something more formal down the line 🙂
Ok, whew, that way of reading Adorno feels much more familiar to me.
I think you’re right to point out that my shorthanding of Henry’s aca-fan concept doesn’t do it justice entirely. But, then, at the same time, it sort of does, doesn’t it? I think part of the “problem” is that Henry has such a generally likeable personality, he does a good job making the most of anything. But, yet, that approach doesn’t always extend to those who would adopt the approach. In those cases (as your Buffy example suggests), aca-fandom becomes a crude excuse for making a living out of being a critic of what you already enjoy anyway. Speaking for myself, I think it’s the concept of the “fan” where my beef begins, and that’s a notion that does run down to the very core of Henry’s work. But that’s a topic left for another day.
Thanks for sharing your approaches. I too find the autobiographical approach to be promising, in part because it requires one to make oneself uncomfortable.
I suppose it’s a big world out there and there’s plenty of space for people to write about why they love or hate X whether it’s on blogs or in academic journals. Passing aesthetic judgement is certainly part of the history of literary studies, film studies, art history, etc., but it’s not an activity that I would want to focus much energy upon, either as a writer or reader.
In approaching the analysis of a cultural object I am not particularly interested in the author’s opinion of whether I should read, watch, or play it. I am not interested in an apology for the cultural value of the object; to be honest, if I wasn’t interested in said object I wouldn’t be reading in the first place. Minimally, my interest in an some investigation of how the object operates–rhetorically, aesthetically, culturally, whatever. For me though, the best academic writing propels me forward and outward from the object in an inventive way toward some new problem or activity. In short, our engagement with the object, as reader or writer, becomes productive of something beyond the continued fascination with the object.
There are, I think, multiple Adornos: the jazz-despising Adorno could be seen as a reactionary, emotionally=engaged opposite to the aca-fan. The Adorno of “Aesthetic Theory,” on the other hand, is more rigorous, more tactically dispassionate, more appropriate.
Maybe this is a re-visit of the gap between Benjamin and Adorno, or more broadly between the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School and the cultural studies practitioners in the style of Stuart Hall. I think the problem is partially that the critical position has been subsumed into a vaguely humanistic critique in American academia. The skeptics of the culture industry are not philosophically rigorous in the way that the Frankfurt school thinkers were, and the categories of critique have become predictable and trite. As we both re-tweeted once, “radical critique: using well-worn methods in familiar ways to obtain the expected result” or such. As such, the most incisive, effective critique of contemporary fan (and geek) culture has instead come from Japan: Hiroki Azuma’s “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.”
Zizek seems to be good at having his cake and eating it too.
I share your dislike of the entire idea of the “fan.” Bluntly, I think it is a defective mode of reception, one that confirms many of the most serious charges leveled by Adorno and Horkheimer. It is an infantilizing relationship with culture. As interested as I am in the changing models of authorship and text that emerge as fannish modes of engagement create cultural brands and properties, I think it is absurd to see this as edifying. I do not want to wait too long for the “another day” of that topic.
@Terri Senft: I wonder if you’re on to something here with the vulgar acafandom. I think the problem with most of the type of show-focused books we like to hate is that a large number–if not all–of the contributors are *not* media scholars/fan scholars. In fact, my home discipline of English brings some of the worst to the table, and I often feel many essays read more like, I usually write on real literature but I love this show so much, so let me share that love and get a line out of it as well…
Because Ian, of course, is correct that academia is already following quite fannish modes (ever been to a Woolf or Faulkner or even Conrad conference???)–and yet that fannishness is required to go hand in hand with cultural and critical theoretical approaches (at the very least, du jour : ), so that it’s not just a temporary affect turned random essay but rather a long-term affection becoming a profession.
The same, I think, can be said for at least some, if not many, media scholars, who love what they study and study what they love. Some of the most insightful criticism comes out of a love for the text, and I do not think that this necessarily means the scholarship suffers. Does a film noir scholar write bad scholarship *because* he loves the genre? I doubt we’d go there. So why make the argument for The Wire, Mad Men, or even Glee? (Why it’s harder to make the argument for Gossip Girl or Battlestar Galactica or The Vampire Diaries is another issue altogether, or maybe not…)
I’m not sure I’m convinced altogether by Jason’s argument, because like you I do feel that the affect, that his personal ability to like the characters and thus the show, remains at the forefront. And that’s important and interesting but in the end it tells me more about Jason than it tells me about Mad Men.
Personally, I am not sure I need to have liking a text and appreciating it go hand in hand. Maybe literature works differently, but there are tons of text I read and teach and appreciate and analyze yet do not *love* in a way that I enjoy the reading experience. May I just point to Ulysses, and I say that as someone who loves working on Joyce. Now, I know that intellectual and textual work may be a quite modernist concept in the end and thus may be dismissable, but if that’s what you want to get rid off with fan studies, then I’m with you all the way.
Yes, I like writing on texts I love, but I can love writing about texts I do not actually enjoy reading but enjoy analyzing. [Aside: I hate Glee with a passion, but I was 3 seconds away from submitting to a Glee panel, because my anti-fan status drives me to talk about it (in a way that Jonathan and Jason have interestingly analyzed!).] So, I’m not sure being a fan or antifan or disinterested needs to hinder good scholarship at all. I *am* sure, however, that we’ve all seen enough TV show fans doing bad scholarship to last us a lifetime…
And now I am wondering whether there’s a need for audiovisual media to create stronger affect than texts? Or whether we’re just trained to read literary texts with no regard to our enjoyment because we’ve been trained from middle school onward?
I find nothing to disagree with in what you say. But, I dunno, it feels a little soulless, doesn’t it? I appreciate the passion of the aca-(anti)fan, and I don’t think we have to rid ourselves of that.
…the critical position has been subsumed into a vaguely humanistic critique in American academia
Can you say more about this? I get that Stuart Hall style cultural studies is waning, particularly in America, but you seem to mean something else here.
And as for Zizek, well, Zizek not only has and eats his cake, he also shits it.
And now I am wondering whether there’s a need for audiovisual media to create stronger affect than texts
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (more on that soon enough) and I think the answer is yes, but also more than just audiovisual media. Scholars need to make more kinds of things.
I’m enjoying the various threads of this conversation, so let me add another. The aca-fan paragraph in my essay was an addition in reaction to the editor (a lit scholar) saying that I should be more careful in claiming that the other scholars writing about the show were fans. I wanted to cite Henry and the aca-fan concept as a way of highlighting how scholars often are fannish even when they don’t wear it on their sleeve (or cosplay headdress). While certainly not everything we write about or teach comes from a place of fan-like affection, enough does that we can’t pretend it’s not part of our academic make-up. But like all positions, there are definitely vulgar variations that should not be used as a stand-in caricature for the whole approach.
And one more thought on Ian’s initial post: do you think making a game to critique Facebook games is comparable to critiquing a high-status quality text venerated by the very people you expect to engage your critique? A better parallel to what I trying to do with my essay would be if you launched a critical game to undercut Portal (or a similarly lauded game), where your players would be predisposed to resist your criticism.
Affect and the Scholar: Jason just linked to Academic Prose: A Brief Rant, and I felt when reading it that it seemed connected to your and Jason’s conversation. I just submitted an brief essay with a friend on using vids as scholarly reflections, which might be what you’re talking about. Likewise feminist and scholars of color have often tried to break the mold of the traditional theory-driven thesis-fronted essay. And yet, as Jason and I have discussed before, the only places you can do that is in his (tenured in a place he likes) or mine (not in the academy and thus court jester free, so to speak). And only once you’ve overcome the long trained academic hierarchical obsession and desire to move up…again and again.
So…I do think that affect in text and scholarship needs to be looked at closely. And fan studies might not be the worst place to start…
Julie Levin Russo
I’m cheering on this riposte to Jason, but I disagree with the premise that his Mad Men essay is representative of aca-fan scholarship. Now, I haven’t read the piece yet, but from what I understand it was an experiment in writing about a show he dislikes. Not passionately hates with an anti-fan sensibility — and that passionate affective engagement is what, to me, animates an aca-fan approach. I think we’d find that Jason’s work on Lost, one of his fannish passions, does illuminate the show and television narrative more broadly in important ways.
As Kristina points out, why do we question the value of passion in media scholarship when, as you point out, it clearly motivates those who focus on more elevated and esoteric topics? Now, if we equate fandom with uncritical adoration (or knee-jerk distaste), that’s certainly an unproductive modality for academic analysis. But in my experience, fans are often the most demanding, argumentative, and ambivalent viewers. The richness of working through our complex relationship to a text and the challenge of articulating the contradictions between the aspects we love and the aspects that are problematic is what an aca-fan orientation can bring to critique, at its best. But I expect it’s fair to say that these positives were missing in this particular case.
I’m not convinced about your analysis of aca-fans. Knowledge can come from advocates as much as prosecutors or impartial observers. More importantly, our entire system is set up by the belief that the most accurate way to get to truth is by having advocates, prosecutors and judges ALL participate in the process and to turn their work over to interested observers for judgment.
We call that system our courts.
I love this! Not only for the insightful post, Ian, but for the conversation thundering through your comments section. It’s a nice peek behind the curtain of media scholarship for those of us who haven’t spent much time backstage.
Conversations like this are bound to get a little clubby in the end, bound to circle the adorno/zizek/buffy drain eventually. I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. If it’s true that scholars need to make more kinds of things, then I wonder how they can make more things that appeal to more people, including (maybe especially) people who don’t look, act, or talk like them. Not saying you need to trash adorno, zizek, or buffy, of course–as Mickey Knox would say, it’s pretty hard to beat the king. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to have this conversation in ways that welcome voices of people from outside of the troupe.
@Mark re: Slayage
I’ve attended all but the first Slayage conference and I have no idea what you’re talking about. I saw no one doing cosplay at any of those 3 academic conferences. Nor was there a discernible drop in attendees or papers from the second conference to the third conference to the fourth conference. I have no idea what the first conference was like, so you might be accurate about that conference in isolation. But to say that there’s been a gradual pattern here is, I think, false.
Interesting note on the addition of the aca-fan bit.
As for your question, I don’t think the form matters. My point was that as a critic, I was choosing to engage with something I dislike under the guise of supporting it entirely.
I read the Academic Prose piece too when Jason linked to it, and I agree that it’s related. One thing is for sure, Jason’s essay does not suffer from that affliction, although a great deal of pop culture scholarship does, as the author of the rant rightly notes.
I don’t think I claimed that Jason’s premise in the Mad Men essay is one of aca-fandom. Rather, I concluded after reading that what interested me most about the piece were the implications for academic fandom.
I have no idea what you are talking about, sorry.
The Adorno Drain sounds like a backalley demon spawning location in Buffy. But yeah, really, I don’t think we need Adorno to have this conversation. As for Zizek, well, Zizek is probably as good as it gets in some respects.
Ian, thanks for opening up such an interesting conversation and for the civil way in which you are engaging with a diverse set of perspectives here. The questions you raise are important ones — and frankly, I like the concept of “vulgar aca-fandom” as a way of describing some of the excesses which an uncritical application of this approach can lead to. My goal in coining the term “Aca-fandom” was to open up space for a particular kind of work which felt sorely lacking to me when I entered the field of media studies in the 1980s, not to preclude other kinds of work which offered equally valuable insights into popular culture.
I don’t think we are actually as far apart as it might seem, Ian. I really like your arguments here for skepticism, though pitting them against fandom runs the risk of making too sharp a separation between mind/body/emotions for my taste.
The strongest case I’ve made for an aca-fan approach comes in the introduction which Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc and I wrote for Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. We made two key claims there — the first was that academics should be honest and reflexive about their own relationship to their objects of study. For me, that has meant being explicit about my own entanglements as a fan but for others, it may mean being explicit about their distaste and their ambivalence towards the objects of study. We argue that popular culture sets itself off from high culture in part through its immediacy — it demands an emotional response from us and we may not simply cut ourselves off from that emotional response and understand the cultural work the text is performing.
The second claim was that the best work expresses what we call “multivalience,” coming at the work from multiple angles, refusing to settle for any simple ideological or emotional response to the work. That’s where your skepticism enters the picture or why I often turn, as you note, to historical comparisons to understand a contemporary text. The position of a critic should not be a comfortable or settled one.
For me, the same is true of a fan. What I see often is that the fans dig deep inside a work which interests them but also ask hard questions. The most intense fan may also be a sharp critic. They demand more from the creators and the characters. And so fan criticism and fan fiction is also a kind of skeptical interogation of the text but one which comes from a different initial starting point. That’s why fan fiction often involves rewriting or reconceptualizing key moments in the text which rub us the wrong way or which fail to satisfy our expectations.
I also question whether traditional academic distance may not often be as lazy, as simple-minded, as the kind of “vulgar aca-fandom” you are critiquing. It seems to me that it often comes from a refusal to engage with texts and the people who consume them. It often starts from an easy dismissal of the value of the work, a disdain for its fans and creators, and a desire to signal one’s distance from anything commercial or popular. It often does not ask the kinds of hard questions you are claiming for the virtue of skepticism.
For me, then, there is no special virtue from either starting place — only the need to be honest about where you are starting from and your own stakes in the analytic process and to be unsettled and multivalient in constantly questioning the texts in which you are engaged. To me, this represents the virtues of the best fan criticism and it represents the virtues of the best outsider criticism.
Apparently it’s difficult to talk about hating tv shows, but easy to talk about hating Adorno! I just pointed to him as a cultural critic who can talk about exactly why he dislikes a television show (see the 1954 essay “How to Look at Television” for a great example), which I thought might be relevant here. I raised hooks and Kleege as more contemporary, less often hated-on examples so as not to be accused of being a one note kind of fangirl (although if you’re going to spend a lifetime on one particular thinker, I don’t think Adorno’s a bad one to choose). But in any case, it’s all a matter of taste and what works for you. Perhaps what you’re all talking about is something a little bit different, and more specific to long-arc serial television drama from the last two decades. In that case, I’d start perhaps by looking at Buffy fans who were frustrated by the distinctly non-feminist turns taken by its spinoff Angel, as an example of people who are trying to be as generous as possible, and are intimately familiar with the authorial logic, as well as many of the actors’ styles, but still find much to complain about. Additionally, many Buffy fans feel we (whoops, outed myself) need to understand Angel as part of our canon, even if we’d rather not devote as much time to it as we did to the former.
Thanks for taking the time to write such an extensive response.
I think you’re right that we probably agree in large part. Where we diverge, perhaps is as follows (I hinted at this only briefly in a comment to William Huber above):
I’m not sure if I agree that fandom ought to be celebrated. I want to be careful here: I’m not suggesting that fans of pop culture artifact X (for any X) are wasting their time and ought to read Chaucer instead. Rather, I’m just not sure I agree that intense fans are sharp critics. I think they are pedantically detailed and vehement investigators, but I don’t know that such digging leads to criticism. Let’s take this further: it’s a criticism I would extend to most academics too… many “careful readers” of whatever (Chaucer, even!) aren’t really any better. In that respect, I agree with you that traditional academic distance isn’t a salve (as I begin to suggest above, most “traditional” academics suffer from the same negative fandom that concerns me).
I wonder if you can tell me more about why you feel that fandom is “honest?” I think there are a lot of attributes we could assign to it—earnest passion among them—but I’m not sure that the honesty of fandom is very often directed outwardly, toward the world.
@Ian – one thing I’d point to as evidence for the honesty of fans would be the commitment to ongoing public self-critique, embodied, for example, in the community metafandom.
I’m trying to grasp this but I’m having trouble. Those communities are certainly full of critique, I won’t deny that. But why is that honest? Aren’t they just imprisoning themselves in their tiny worlds of Warcraft or Firefly or whatever—or for that matter, of Homer and Milton?
Aca-fan = advocate
Scholarly “objectivity” = judge
Scholarly hostility = prosecutor
Informed Readers = jury
The reason I point to metafandom is that it aggregates fandom-wide debates about everything from representation to inclusivity and accessibility (of fan-produced artifacts and fan-oriented conventions), from ethics to activism. I think that this level of accountability to each other and the public under the rubric of fandom (which encompasses so many different practices and primary texts) is impressive. Metafandom is the opposite of imprisoning — it works as a barrier against the hierarchies and members-only clubs that sometimes emerge in various sections of fandom.
Have you read this this?
I wonder if Azuma’s observations about the decline of the grand narrative and the rise of animal-like approaches to culture also applies to academics.
Thanks. It would seem foolish to deny outright that knowledge can come from advocates, but it would seem equally foolish to think that the best knowledge would always come from them, particularly as the level of their fervor increases. But I think we’re saying the same thing, so I’m not sure why you disagree?
On Adorno, I won’t deny that there’s much to study there, nor would I fault someone for pursuing it.
As for metafandom, I fear that I’m even more confused. Maybe I am just ignorant as to what this phenomenon entails, and you could further enlighten me?
Saw this entry being tweeted by Henry Jenkins, and really liked it! I agree with you a lot on the dissatisfaction. I’m doing a PhD at the moment and tried doing one case-study on a series I really like, Battlestar Galactica, but after a while I noticed other things. Not that I really wanted to glorify the show, but that I, as a fan, did not like being in that fan community anymore after the series had come to an end. Plus I already knew too much of the show and fandom to see the novelties and the specifities in this particular case as a scholar. So instead I opted for something I’m less of a fan of, Firefly, to negotiate certain aspects of fandom and intermediality. (This still has an active fanbase in The Netherlands, where I work, which is quite interesting since it has been canceled for years).
Anyway, I think that capturing stuff in fan / hater (anti-fan) – which you see a lot in fan studies – doesn’t really work either. There’s also different emotions we media scholars and audiences have towards fiction and even mixed feelings about one show. For instance, I don’t like Mad Men season 2 as much as 1, and I loved certain episodes of 1 a lot more than others. I have mixed feelings toward certain characters, like Peggy, that also influence how I look. We need more room for this as well and in part, it’s also these mixed feelings that we all have when looking at a series, that foster good research niches. Similarly nostalgia/frustration/looking-back-at-something-you-used-to-hate/insecurity can be fruitful.
So I wouldn’t suggest trying to look for something you feel neutral towards or really hate. You need a slight insider’s look towards what you analyze as well. Understand what’s at stake for the audience. It takes some time to find something you have the right relation too, that’s all I’m saying. We shouldn’t be too fast in thinking something is interesting or convenient for an article or chapter but really explore what’s out there as a kind of process already.
Ah, I fear I’m getting too insidery for the general discussion at hand, but I would recommend browsing metafandom’s metafandom‘s recent entries. Altenatively, you could start at its description on fanlore, and then clicking through. All I’m saying is that I think the newsletter serves as an example of the standards to which fandom can hold itself, which is admirable and, potentially, a model for academic media criticism.
The bigger problem I see with aca-fandom is the risk of getting too excited about the idea of the fan, and just appropriating what one wants from fan practices without taking into account that these are usually undertaken with a broader code of ethics in mind (for example, not making money or achieving professional advancement for the critical work produced), which are radically different from the academic’s. I think that we should differentiate between fan works and academic works, although of course, if we ourselves happen to be fans and feel like outing ourselves in our academic work, I think that’s fine, too. I think it just comes down to having a clear sense of purpose in any piece of writing one produces, keeping in mind the publication venue, likely/desired audience, and respectful (however critical) discussion of the primary text and its author/s.
The problem is the premature hybridization of academic and fan, not the potential synergy between the two.
William Huber, above, also points to Azuma, suggesting that the issues we’re discussing here may be uniquely American.
Certainly I agree looking for neutrality is not the answer, if it’s even possible. I think what you say about temporal shifts is instructive, too. A great deal of the seduction of fandom happens in the moment. As McLuhan so often reminds us, we have trouble seeing things clearly in the moment.
To be clear, Ian, I was not claiming that honesty is a virtue exclusively of fans — aca or otherwise. I was saying that the critic, whatever their position, needs to disclose as fully as they can their own relationship to the object of their study. And that requires a certain turn away from abstract distance which too often has been used to mask the investments of the critic and to distance itself from the passions of the popular audience. I don’t think you cover that by simply proclaiming yourself a fan and moving on, which is why I can join you in expressing disappointment in such work by aca-fans which is not especially reflexive. I certainly share Nicolle’s concern that the fan/anti-fan distinction doesn’t fully capture the range of possible emotional and intellectual relations one can have with one’s topic. I’ve often, for example, cited Laura Kipnis’s essay on Hustler, where she describes the mixture of disgust and intellectual curiosity with which she approached her subject, as a model for the kind of nuanced reflection one seeks in this kind of work.
That said, I do agree, though, that Metafan discussions often do illustrate some of these same qualities. I’ve often argued that fandom works from a mixture of fascination and frustration — close reading may come from the fascination, but the skepticism you are advocating is often born from the frustration of someone who remains disappointed in the things they love.
And I do want to make the point that skepticism, as you are describing it, needs to have generosity as well as distance in its mix. Otherwise, the results are going to be just as predictable and uninformative as the kind of aca-fan criticism you are rejecting here.
The disagreement is that we have a difference in degree, I think. You write: “As media scholars, we ought to have self-doubt about the quality and benefit of the work we study…” and “Embracing aca-fandom is a bad idea. Not because it’s immoral or crude, but because it’s too great a temptation. ”
You’re not saying that about scholarly “objectivity” nor about scholarly skepticism/antagonism. Neutral observers aren’t being encouraged to perform self-doubt about their objectivity. Embracing an antagonistic stance is not “too great a temptation.” Only advocates who are honest about their advocacy require such corrective measures.
If all three aspects of an inquiry are vital to its success, equally, then:
a) advocates have nothing in particular to be self-doubting or worried about.
or b) neutral observers and antagonist partisans should equally be concerned with temptation and hubris.
I use the term “honest” because I doubt the truth of neutrality. There is no neutrality, no objective space outside of the subjective perspective, and certainly not in media studies, for goodness sake. Neutrality, after all, is political. And I find that antagonist stances all too often drape themselves in the robes of objectivity as a rhetorical pose; they’re anti-fans in the Comic Book Guy vein. We’re all partisans at the end of the day.
All that should be asked of scholarly partisans of all stripes is that they should be fair. But when you ask aca-fans in particular to be fair, you’re implying that they are the only ones that need that warning due to their nature.
“If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely ‘natural’ again… But one cannot then say that all this ‘makes Man happy.’ One would have to say that post-historical animals of the species Homo sapiens (which will live amidst abundance and complete security) will be content as a result of their artistic, erotic and playful behavior, inasmuch as, by definition, they will be contented with it. But there is ‘more.’ ‘The definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called’ also means the definitive disappearance of human discourse (Logos) in the strict sense.”
Are academics tasked with resisting the collapse of human beings into mere animals who consume, or are they tasked with pushing us to this kind of consummation? If grand narratives die out, then do all we have left is a kind of discourse that is more like animals feeding than it is like anything else? Isn’t this pure what the “fans” are starting to look like?
“‘The definitive annihilation of Man properly so-calledâ?? also means the definitive disappearance of human Discourse (Logos) in the strict sense. Animals of the species Homo sapiens would react by conditioned reflexes to vocal signals or sign â??language,â?? and thus their so-called â??discoursesâ?? would be like what is supposed to be the â??languageâ?? of bees. What would disappear, then, is not only Philosophy or the search for discursive Wisdom, but also that Wisdom itself. For in these post-historical animals, there would no longer be any â??[discursive] understanding of the World and of the self.â??”
Isn’t he describing the lack of self awareness & interiority we see in “fan culture”?
One of the best things about debates with you, Henry, is that they seem always to resolve into concord :). As you know I like to try to keep things difficult, so let me take one more swing:
I wonder if “fan” is able to encompass disappointments beyond the frustrations about something one loves. This is an earnest wonder, not a claim. Even generous skepticism seems like it must betray the love of fans. Can the true “aca-fan” really be a fan, at all?
You write: “Even generous skepticism seems like it must betray the love of fans. Can the true “aca-fan” really be a fan, at all?”
You can love someone with eyes wide open to their flaws as much as their merits. Indeed, love that does not do that is merely infatuation. That’s as true of ideas, of experiences, and of art works as it is of loved ones.
Skepticism, remember, is not an end to itself.
I wonder “fan” is able to encompass disappointments beyond the frustrations about something one loves.
I think adornofangirl tried to show you that exact engagement, a fannish behavior that both loves and hates the texts, criticizes them even as it professes fannish affect, that uses media texts that are clearly central to the fan’s enjoyment to talk about real life issues (on metafandom represented in various *ism debates over recent years).
So my answer as someone who self-professes as an acafan and does so happily and in most of its definitions is a resounding Yes. Of course fans can see the gaps and the problems in the texts they love. In fact, getting back to my Glee anti-fan obsession, I’ve seen more differentiated conversations within my corner of fandom by Gleeks about the problems of the show than I have experienced within academic settings.
Now, I’m mostly in transformative corners of fandom and if we consider one of the standard reasons for such fanworks being that the text is lacking in one way or another, then obviously we are already approaching the source text with a yes, but; with a deep love that nevertheless sees many of its problems. Just to give two examples from Supernatural fandom which is large yet the show is severely problematic: you can look at a vid like Sisabet and Luminosity’s Woman’s Work, delineating the highly offensive representations of women on Supernatural or at Vito Excalibur’s art work in which she envisions the two main characters as non-white (and how that’d immediately change the show). In general, transformative fandom is full of examples by fans that are insightful, critical, and analytical.
So, yes, of course the true acafan can be a fan. Fans criticize because they care (and not just nitpicky details as seem to be the stereotype of fans thrown around above in comments). They care enough about their beloved texts to engage critically and, in the case of transformative fandom, add, amend, and alter that which they find problematic…
@Keith418 and @William Huber
You have convinced me to get Otaku but mostly as someone who teaches Kojeve and publishes in/on fan studies to go to the source of your desire to translate the GRAND NARRATIVE of the Master/Slave dialectic to the entertainment industry.
You have called fans (and acafans) animals and juvenile yet have failed to successfully explain or support those claims. All I’m seeing so far (in both your adherence to Azuma who I hope will make a more differentiated argument) that you’re using a high modernity theoretical framework, the motherload of the grand narratives so to speak, in order to analyze a clearly anti-grand narrative behavior. I’m not sure how effectual that ever can be.
Even though you’re dismissing Frankfurt School, I’ve always felt that Negative Dialectics (yes, yet another altogether different Adorno) offers a more differentiated and complex approach to the modernity/postmodernity debate than those writing before him (among whom I’d place Kojeve) ever could.
Anyway, thank you for recommending what looks like a fascinating text.
I’m ruminating here a bit, and I may have to go beyond rumination to get further into my own thoughts on this matter, but let me try to restate:
I’m wondering if the true critic is allowed to love the object of his or her criticism in the way that the fan does, such that he or she would deserve the title “fan.” For example, David, I think the resonances of “love” you cite are instructive, and I think that they are generally not the sentiments of fans. As for skepticism, I think it might very well be good for its own sake.
And Kristina, I’ll have to study the metafan work more deliberately before I can comment, but the skepticism I have in mind is not necessarily one directed toward the work, but away from it. I realize this is vague, but as I began this comment, I’m ruminating.
Azuma had a whole book to make his arguments.
Part of what I am curious about is not what the fans like, as much as their marked distaste for non genre material – in other words, what is it they reject and don’t like? Why J.K. Rowling over Richard Yates? Why George Lucas over Eric Rohmer? Why do so many people, even academics, feel the need for the tropes of genre instead of what’s grounded in, or confined to, real experience? It may be that only jailers complain about “escapism” but when so many people seem bent on escaping, can’t we ask, and shouldn’t we ask, what’s motivating them?
The opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference. On this score Adorno is a true fan…
Azuma had a whole book to make his arguments.
Yes, he did. But throwing Kojeve quotes at us as if they prove anything is certainly not even beginning to make an argument.
So, before going out and buying the book I looked around at what Azuma seems to be saying. And imagine my surprise coming upon this: I hope to liberate university knowledge from high culture. In order to achieve this goal, I selected â??otakuâ? because I believed they might become the intellectuals of the next generation.
But then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. In Kojeve, it is only the slave (the animal!) who creates in the Hegelian universe: And since it was he [the Slave] who changed the World, it is he who changes himself, whereas the Master changes only through the Slave. Therefore, the historical process, the historical becoming of the human being, is the product of the working Slave and not of the warlike Master. (52). Moreover, it is only the slave who has the ability to overthrow the master in the dialectic Aufhebung.
But really, our conversations shows the ludicrousness of throwing Lacan and Zizek, Hegel and Kojeve, and yes, Azuma onto this conversations.
It would be much more interesting to see what y’all find lacking in the fannishly inspired academic work (or how such work would be more insightful when there’s no affect toward the text). We may all be sitting on the shoulder of giants, but I’m too much of a postmodernist to not believe that it is *we* who continue and reify that very canon to which we defer.
I didn’t throw the quotes in to prove anything, but more to illustrate the place he was coming from. They could all be wrong about all of this. I’m just curious about what they have to say.
Bless you Ian for posting this — and for unpacking the taste/criticism problem so gracefully. Aca – demics have to work a little harder in my opinion thumbs up, thumbs down. Post
Julie Levin Russo
Ah, I reread and I can see how Jason’s essay raises rather than illustrates your criticisms. Still, in accounting for why his Mad Men article is dissatisfying *despite* taking the skeptical position you advocate, you write that “I think the problem lies in the notion of the ‘aca-fan.'” I interpret your argument thus: acafandom = the assumption that our job as scholars is only to explain why we like or dislike something, not to draw out a more sweeping critique. Am I wrong? I also found myself disappointed that Jason explicitly did not take up an anti-fan position in order “to really rip it to Mad Men, to show me and millions more why the show is bad or dangerous or unrefined or incomplete.” And maybe that *is* because he took an acafan sensibility to mean that he should avoid tearing down other fans’ love? I disagree with that rendering too. And Mad Men is a show I personally enjoy watching, while also finding it deeply problematic aesthetically in ways Jason is only willing to hint at.
Anyway, it’s a very interesting discussion! It looks like the impasse is differing definitions of fandom, and since there diverse kinds of fans in the world perhaps everyone is right.
Well, I don’t know if it’s an impasse. I mean, this is a blog. We’re having a conversation. Ideas are appearing and tousling about. I’m not really looking for definitive answers.
You’re not wrong that my concern with aca-fandom surrounds its assumption that pleasure and displeasure ought to form the molten core of criticism. But I suppose I’d also like to be saying something more penetrating, namely that scholars of a form shouldn’t even be allowed to “like” and “dislike” their objects of study. Or at least, that when we find ourselves doing so, we ought to take a big step back, rather than giving in to those sensations and “respecting” them.
The suggestion that scholars shouldn’t be allowed to like/dislike is interesting. I assume though you have something in mind more complex than the old-style anthropological vision of a detached, neutral observer simply documenting the cultures he/she runs across?
One move I do like about the aca-fan approach with respect to that issue is that it makes more of an attempt to understand cultures on their own terms, giving the academic an interior rather than exterior view (which modern anthropology also tries). One can watch, say, a BBS documentary made by an aficionado of BBSs and think, “yes, this is a reasonable slice of what BBSs really were”. But with the less fan-oriented approaches to cultural studies, I often read something about a community I participated in (whether tech-related or music genres or whatever) and think: wow, this person doesn’t really get it at all.
Based on how you approach things, of course it sounds like you have in mind someone who does really get what it’s like to be a full participant in some culture or community: that the academic studying modern uses of the Atari, say, should actually have an account on atariage and understand why anyone would read ROM disassemblies. So it sounds like it’s a more limited aspect of self-engagement that you propose to hold back?
I think you’re right that an “inside” understanding of something is important. But with that inside comes the risk, if you want, of being consumed by it. Of becoming the BBS nerd or the Firefly fanhuman. So one wants to be inside but then to step outside sometimes, deliberately, so as not to choke on the smoke, or something.
The Atari is a good example, maybe. I feel like my interest in the Atari was driven by a deep curiosity about its nature, why it was so popular and yet so simple, and why it had been largely ignored in game studies. Nick and I were open to questions about how it got to be the way it is that weren’t slaved to our love for the system or its games. If I’d aca-fan’d it, would the same curiosities have been piqued? Or would I just have been overwhelmed by the awesome of meeting David Crane?
I’m curious, Ian, how it is you justify your advocacy writing for various gaming projects. such as Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, while drawing a line at aca-fandom? What is it that makes your CRUCIAL advocacy for an important work different from an aca-fan’s advocacy for an important work?
Without your interventions, things would have turned out very, very differently for Danny. I’m very grateful that you intervened, and our culture is better because you did. But while you were very clearly talking about broader issues, you were also trying to get people to take up your interpretation of the game and its cultural worth.
I’m genuinely curious here, as I teach both your Kinko’s game and Danny’s game, among others, in my section on serious games at Emerson College. What’s the difference in your mind?
Hmm, wow. I suppose, I don’t see any relationship between scholars writing about the awesomeness or overratedness of immensely popular television shows with massive fanbases and promotional junkets, and my writing about (and essentially unleashing onto the world, as you imply) a completely unknown game that I deemed too important to let lie in obscurity. I never felt like I was a “fan” of SCMRPG, and in fact I wonder if we could even imagine the idea of SCMRPG “fandom” in the way we think about Portal fandom or Firefly fandom.
I’m not suggesting that scholars shouldn’t like (or dislike) things! I’m suggesting that we shouldn’t indulge those likes and dislikes as our scholarly output. At the risk of becoming defensive here, “liking” SCMRPG was a hugely risky endeavor for me. I was an untenured professor supporting the existence of a videogame about the most memorable high school slaughter in American history, because I felt that it held important lessons for the medium at large. I got hate mail and death threats for doing that. I was accused of corruption and the heads of national family organizations made public enjoinders for me to be fired. Is that fandom?
Just because it came close to martyrdom doesn’t make it not fandom.
Aca-fans run different risks, but they are risks. I’m the head of the adjunct union at Emerson, but I wasn’t when I pitched my Buffy course or agreed to be in Danny’s movie. Pitching a Buffy the Vampire Slayer class was not without risks; nor was being in Danny’s movie. Nor was teaching his video game to freshmen.
I actually wrote about student reaction to the very notion of taking that show seriously for my very first article for Slayage. Indeed, I talked about the critical derision of Levine and Schneider, the New York Post, and three students of mine in the lede to that article. One called me a perv in Live Journal for even talking about the series. Fortunately, my department chair, even as a fairly traditional film scholar, supported my endeavors. He really got what I was doing and the students did as well. Students really get Danny’s work and yours too. Emerson’s great for allowing space for all these approaches.
My point, though, was that I really don’t understand where you’re drawing the line between activisms. My taking Buffy seriously or taking Super Columbine Massacre RPG! seriously may not be the same as taking Mad Men seriously … but I’m not really convinced that TV Studies is all that institutionalized in academia. Just because Mad Men has CULTURAL power don’t think it has power in academia. It’s not foreign or difficult or old. For all too many tenure committees, curriculum committees, and conference organizers, TV is something you talk about the cultural IMPACT, not take seriously as an art form… just like video games. How many dedicated graduate programs are there for TV studies vs. literature or film studies? TV and gaming studies really ought to be outsider allies given the forces allied against them. As Roger Ebert illustrates, immensely popular is no defense against attack; it can invite attack, actually.
Gaming studies and TV studies are the future of narrative studies. Gaming studies is all about agency and identification and implication. TV studies is all about the long form, because you can do things in TV that you can’t do in a novel or a film. We literally are just discovering what 100+ hours of narrative does to authors, audiences and texts, just as your discipline is discovering what doing rather than reading does.
Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about your last post to me was this statement: “I wonder if we could even imagine the idea of SCMRPG “fandom”…” Yes, we can. You were a fan: the first articulate one, in fact. The posters defending the game against “God’s Servant” and others were fans. I admire you BECAUSE you were a fan of the game when nobody else was.
The problem is that you have a particular definition of fandom that may not be accurate. Your definition worries about fans as “An ardent devotee; an enthusiast”. But that’s not accurate, not after the enabling technologies of the VCR, DVD player and the internet. Fans are much more analytical now. Fandom connotes a certain level of commitment, interest, and knowledge. Discussion, argument and dialogue seem to be essential. Casual consumers fit that definition now, not fans. Fandom connotes informed interest.
My favorite example is Red Sox fans, since I’m in Boston. Red Sox fans can tell you about the history of racism and how it held back the team for decades. They can tell you about analytical approaches to understanding baseball, as Theo Epstein and the godfather of sabermetrics Bill James won them their first World Series since 1918. They can tell you why OBP matters and why RBIs don’t, why ERA doesn’t predict itself, but K rate and ground ball rate does. They believe in sports literacy precisely because it gives them a fighting chance against the Yankees. I’m sure that the Atlanta Braves have a part of their fandom that’s similarly literate in baseball knowledge as well, perhaps in scouting reports rather than statistical analysis. That’s modern fandom: literate, tolerant of debate, and passionate.
Are we really going to say that the Lostpedia should be treated with deep skepticism because it’s created by fans, scholar-fans and aca-fans? ARe we really going to be suspicious of Henry Jenkins because he’s out of the closet, while other academics profit by being in one?
I don’t think the attacks are entirely unjustified. We ought to have to prove the worth of studying television and videogames and whatnot. I think sometimes we (the collective we) succeed at that, and sometimes we fail, and mostly we fail because we just use these media as platforms to exercise a favorite theory or a familiar practice. I think a lot of pop culture criticism is just plain bad, created to advance scholarly esoterics rather than to critique art or even to document the cultural impact of these media—but I’d say the same of literary scholarship too. I don’t see why we academics who study popular culture deserve any special empathy or reprieve for doing so—but, again, I’d say the same of medievalists too. Scholars ought to have good answers for why what they do is important and relevant, for purposes beyond securing their careers as scholars, and for reasons other than allowing them to make a living indulging a love for a particular medium.
Your example of the Red Sox is instructive, because its unfamiliar enough territory for both of us to be somewhat neutral. The fans you describe are knowledgeable. They harbor detailed information about their team, and they can relate that information in the interests of explaining phenomena in the present and past. If that’s the case, why do we need baseball scholars? Do we need them at all? Is it just so they can go record the knowledge of the fans and publish it in esoteric journals and anthologies that nobody will ever read? The scholarly study of something ought to go beyond what “mere fans” do. Don’t read that last statement as a denigration of fans, but just the opposite, as an indictment of scholars. What do we do that fans don’t, or can’t, or don’t want to do? Scholarship should be hard, and we should have to work for it. Otherwise, why do we have the degrees and the jobs and the responsibilities we do?
I reject the name “fan” for my relationship with Danny’s game. I am not a fan, perhaps of anything. Or at least, that is my goal as a scholar. As a human being, I’ll indulge, but I need to be able to distinguish. In Danny’s case, the game was all work, even if I engaged with it on a personal level, even if it interfered with my private life. I don’t think of it as martyrdom, but as my job, and a job I feel gratified to have had the resolve to execute. I could have done better.
I don’t think it matters if fans are more committed or analytical (although probably they are more pedantic rather than more analytical). For me a fan is someone who is blinded by devotion, mad with it, unable to see outside of or beyond it, to the point of obsession. And I don’t want to embrace that frame for criticism. Quite the opposite.
I get the sense that you think I’m against fandom and want to reject the work of fans as prurience or folly. That’s not the case (although I’ll admit that I find some examples of fandom to verge on perversity, but that accusation could be made against scholarship too). Rather, I’m against adopting fandom as a sufficient condition for scholarly activity, where scholarship is a sort of fan++ affair, in which the aca-fan dolls up his or her fandom in tweed and struts it about the ivory tower. What you say about fandom offers a great reason to deem it insufficient: if the fans are already doing some of the critical work, then what is the critic adding, beyond acting as the sage agent of the establishment who justifies the indulgences of the people as Valid Cultural Creativity?
I don’t have an opinion about the Lostpedia, but I think we ought to be skeptical of the way, say, Lost does a sort of credit default swap on narrative coherence. I don’t think we should be skeptical of Henry Jenkins, but I think he should be skeptical of, say, Harry Potter, asking what kids gain and lose when they spend their childhoods in JK Rowling’s world rather than in many others (Henry and I have talked about this extensively over the years). It’s not the production of fans that ought to incite skepticism, but the practice of fandom among scholars as the sufficient condition of their personal and professional lives that should give us pause.
I’ve really enjoyed some of the discussion here, espec. with regards where fandom, aca-fandom, anti-aca-fandom, and criticism cohabit or collide. Indeed, some of your comments immediately above this one (at least as I enter this comment, they are) challenge us to think about what *more* or *different* a critic brings to the table, if anything.
But I think the discussion is held back somewhat by your crude caricature of what fandom is:
For me a fan is someone who is blinded by devotion, mad with it, unable to see outside of or beyond it, to the point of obsession. And I don’t want to embrace that frame for criticism.
“blinded” by devotion?? So if the ghost of Gene Roddenberry told Henry Jenkins to kill a man, he would? Sorry for the extreme case, but that’s what blind devotion is. Or if Trek‘s on the other side of the road, Henry will run across traffic to sate his “obsession”, “mad with it” as he supposedly is? You’re offering an image of the fan as the woman in Misery, and sure, some fans have a screw loose, but that’s not characteristic of fandom, no more than violence is characteristic of any ethnic group who happens to have a violent person in it, and no more than being “infantile” or “animalistic” is, as two other commenters oh so charmingly offered.
There’s an extremely wide range of fandom, as a series of discussions at Henry’s blog a couple of years back illustrated. But I’ve yet to meet a fan (except on TV or film) who has “blind devotion” or “obsession.” I think of Luminosity and Sisabet’s excellent vid “Women’s Work,” that’s clearly by *fans*, but that gauges at Supernatural‘s, and by extension, horror’s erotics of torturing women. No blind devotion there. Or even something as mundane as Television Without Pity regularly shows fans who may enjoy watching something but who are hardly uncritical, “blind,” “obsessed.” I’d share your concern that we not go full swing and suggest that fandom is ever *inherently* critical, but it’s no more inherently *non-critical*. Love can be done badly, yes, but just as stalking is not characteristic of romantic love, neither are madness, obsession, or blind devotion characteristic of fandom.
Indeed, if I offer Henry as example above (sorry, Henry!), it’s with a point, since you know him. Earlier, you noted:
I think part of the “problem” is that Henry has such a generally likeable personality
… but him being a nice, likeable, non-loony guy is only a “problem” if we expect fans to be “mad with” their “obsession” to the point of radical unsociability. I don’t want to overdo this unkindly, since to be very fair to you, your images of fandom are at times much more nuanced than the quote I offer above, and as Henry noted I think you’re actually reasonably close in your positions for a lot of what you’re saying. But it seems hard to analyze the role of the aca-fan in criticism if we risk slipping into caricature of what the “fan” in that construction means/is.
The caricature here seems to be yours. Obviously I’m not talking about lunatics turning into sociopaths because of hidden messages at the end of television show credit sequences played backwards. Give me a break.
I think it comes down to this: some academic fans of fandom don’t like what I’m saying about fandom, and so are suggesting that I’m “getting it wrong.” This is a pretty common academic move, isn’t it? (“Yes, but if you’d read more of the late Heidegger, you’d see…”). I’m making a suggestion about how I think it best to approach the scholarship of media, popular or un-. I’m offering a plausible and really a very standard understanding of fandom as a part of it, namely that the fan is directed inward, toward the self and the work, and that this is an untenable temptation for the scholar, one to be steered around. The fan is obsessed… that’s the whole idea of fanaticism. The fan is not detached. The fan’s very identity is intermingled with the work. This is not the obsession of homicide nor of addiction, but it is obsession. The “critical” fan is still only critical about the work, and works in the interest of preserving and extending it. You can reject my claim that fandom isn’t a good scholarly frame if you’d like, that’s fine. But what’s the point of trying to prove me wrong on the grounds that I’m not embracing an understanding of fandom that I clearly think is troubling?
If anything—and really I hesitate even to say this—I’m beginning to wonder if the object of the aca-fan is not Lost or Firefly, but rather fandom itself. Why is there such an urgency to defend it?
I’m beginning to wonder if the object of the aca-fan is not Lost or Firefly, but rather fandom itself. Why is there such an urgency to defend it?
FWIW, I think this is exactly what acafandom is. The term is not used by most afaik about academics who like or dislike a show but about academics discussing fan works and fan communities. So for me Jason isn’t an acafan when he writes about MM or does an intricate analysis of Lost, but he is one when he discusses Lostpedia or antifans.
The term has been popularized in Hill’s introduction to Fan Cultures in an opposition to the fan scholar, the fan who writes in depth analytic essays but is not primarily a media studies academic.
So, yes, of course we would defend FANDOM, because loving or hating a show may make us a fan, but being a fan of something and merely writing about it does not constitute acafandom I’d argue (at least in the narrower sense).
And as for what you ARE criticizing, the obsession, the fascination, the single focus. Have you MET academic? Isn’t that our calling card? I’d say I have seen more uncritical devotion and cathexis related to theorists and literary authors than most media scholars have to their chosen text. Spending a lifetime studying anything and anyone can only be seen as obsessive, wouldn’t you say? But that’s what careers are built on. And let’s not even go into theorist blindly devoted to Lacan et al. Most media scholars are too much of fannish butterflies, I think, to get that much into living, breathing obsession.
Also, I think the late Heidegger argument is a tad disingenuous given that noone supporting and defending the ‘passion does not bad scholarship make’ side has pulled that card. Au contraire!
So, I think we might all need to step back and define what acafan even means to all of us. And, more importantly, what aspect of overinvested you are talking about when you think it hinders good scholarship. Because I don’t actually disagree. I think there is a lot of bad and defensive work that gets done. But I’m not sure the fault is on the fannish affect side as much as on the conflation of like with good maybe.
To me that is where your criticism really hits, but I’m not sure it’s fair to make that a function of the acafan identity as much as a function of certain approaches to the text maybe? After all, as I’ve argued several times now and Jonathan and Julie as well, there are plenty of acafans who engage with their fandom or the texts they love while at the some time remaining critical.
If the degree of commitment, community, familiarity and intensity varies for everyone affectively entangled with a show (etc), fan is an overly generic term. If fan refers to particular practices of engagement (eg ones using the word fan, or whatever is your standard, Ian’s notion of inward turned energy), there could be a position that acknowledges its ambivalent entanglement and names a special tendency of a work or corpus (eg buffy), yet is not fannish. This seems like a productive challenge to fans, and to fandom as a dominant mapping of audiences/consumers/etc.
William and Ian maybe are imagining a rival for fans. This rival is not committed to a text and has a different set of references than the one corpus or metafandom. It seems to me like this is actually the more normal relation to tv or games or books.
For me, the question is about an overextension of the fan paradigm that gives limited justification or purpose to writing on pop culture.
one more comment as I’m going back through the conversation.
But I suppose I’d also like to be saying something more penetrating, namely that scholars of a form shouldn’t even be allowed to “like” and “dislike” their objects of study. Or at least, that when we find ourselves doing so, we ought to take a big step back, rather than giving in to those sensations and “respecting” them.
I think this is at the heart of what you’re arguing and the acafan debate kind of obfuscated things a bit. Because I actually agree and disagree here: I disagree that we shouldn’t feel like that but I agree that it shouldn’t be the BASIS of our scholarship.
Said differently, my training has been very much about ANALYSIS not EVALUATION. The first thing we are taught (and teach) in lit classes is that ‘Huck Finn is a great book’ or ‘Shakespeare was a brilliant playwright’ are *not* analytical statements and shouldn’t be in an essay.
But I feel you may be baby bathwatering: I can be totally fascinated and love reading a text and STILL make an insightful argument. Will I be more prone to treat it positively? Sure. Will I be more prone to treat a text I strongly dislike negatively? Probably.
And yet, the (positive or negative) affect for a given text is merely the beginning. Moreover, I feel we’re simplifying the modes of affect. There are plenty of texts I do not actually enjoy but even as I’m reading/watching, I am fascinated by them. That’s another form of affect. And one that may indeed yield some insightful scholarship. Heck, I’m often in love with a text BECAUSE I can see its academic potential.
Affect is not all about lusting after a character or identifying with one. There are so many ways we can cathect a text and become emotionally entangled and I’d argue that most humanities scholarship has at least *some* initial moment of falling for a topic, a text, an author. It’s when that’s the extent of our scholarship that there is a problem…
But Kristina, I’ve been completely upfront from the very start that I think most academics are overly fanatical about their objects of study. So pointing out that I haven’t taken that into account misunderstands my argument, which is meant to extend far beyond television scholars. I think the difference with media scholarship is precisely that the talk about fandom has so permeated it as a meta-discourse that it’s become fused to the practice of study itself. That feels like just the sort of danger I have in mind to question.
Chuk’s idea of a “rival to fandom” is perhaps a good frame to build upon.
Ian and Chuk,
Why try to create a ‘rival’? Why not, y’know, actually just use the definitions of the word as it is being used in academic and fannish discourses? A definition which isn’t the focused narrow negative one that Ian would like to hone in on.
The fan comes from fanatic argument is about as useful for this conversation as saying but queer means weird and gay means happy. Language changes, and there’s a not insubstantial body of writing on fans that has clearly shifted from the fanatic definition.
You say the talk about fandom has so permeated it as a meta-discourse that it’s become fused to the practice of study itself and I don’t necessarily disagree. But I find defining all fans as scarily obsessive and one directional to be as problematic as defining all scholarship by acafans as falling into that rubric.
Again, I think your (and my) issues with Jason’s essay are *not* that he’s an acafan. To me it is “the practice of study itself” more than the fannish (or acafannish) identification. I’m a little disheartened that you continue to avoid the insightful criticism of and commentary on media studies that I feel is lying just below the surface of your argument by circling around definitional issues.
So, let’s just say: Cornel’s fan is anyone deeply enjoying anything. My fan is someone who not only shows deep affect for a show but also engages in some form of emotional interaction (even if just in her head) with other fans. Your fan is someone fanatically obsessing about something at the expense of rational engagement or criticism.
I think the question now becomes how these three fan versions can be supportive or detrimental to academic work. Right?
Kristina, why not just admit that we disagree? The complex and deep-seated justifications that media studies have developed for “fandom” may hold water for you, but they don’t for me. I think your understanding of “fan” is overly generous. You think mine is not generous enough (although really, you still haven’t captured my position in your attempt to summarize it, but nevermind that for now). It seems clear that we simply disagree. Isn’t that result interesting enough? Why must one of us “get it wrong?”
In that sense, I agree with half of your final point: the question is what we ought to do with these and other ideas of fandom. But I think you’re implying that we can reconcile them, and I’m not so sure that’s the case.
Like Humpty Dumpty, you are certainly free to use words in whatever way you wish, but if you wish to engage in a conversation, you may also want to notice that others are not using words the same way you are. I strongly object to the use of the term, “obsession,” to characterize the cultural perspective of fans in more or less the same way that I would object to characterizing someone who defends violent video games as “sick” and “twisted”. It is a term which is necessarily pathologizing, even in the limiting sense that you seem to want to use it here, and it evokes a long history of ways of framing fandom which are dismissive and patronizing.
There has been a sustained critique over more than 20 years of this particular discourse and the ideological and cultural work which it performs. But I am willing to accept this as your perspective and disagree with you, as you suggest above, except that you seem to then want to apply your definition of how fans think to your critique of the Aca-Fan perspective.
You justly protest if people on this forum oversimplify or distort what you are saying. Well, I feel pretty much the same way when I see you act as if your particular conception of the “fan” has anything to do with the forms of aca-fan criticism I have advocated. When I use the concept, I am not advocating a mode of critical engagement which is obsessive or uncritical. I may well be advocating a mode of engagement which is engaged, empassioned, invested, interested, active, subjective, affective, participatory, attentive, and so forth. I am advocating a mode of criticism which acknowledges and explores our emotional connections to popular culture and the way it functions as a resource in our everyday life, which examines the ways that we construct meaning and form communities in and through our shared cultural interests. For me, that concept can be applied to work which examines fan culture and fan social structures ethnographically but it can also be a starting point for cultural criticism, analysis, and yes, evaluation. It can include advocacy but should not simply be advocacy just as I think more critical perspectives have an obligation to move beyond critique.
Keep in mind: I am not saying that aca-fan approaches are the only valid approach. When I first framed this concept, I was responding to a climate in academia which was openly hostile to anything that smacked of “fandom” and as a consequence sought to mask hostility under the guise of objectivity. My position has always been to call for transparency and self-reflection about our own investments in our objects of study. And as I said earlier in this conversation, that includes being clear about where your criticism comes from. If there is a value to skepticism, its value comes in constantly testing one’s own perspective.
So, I would love to see the emergence of a “rival to fandom,” another set of critical practices which reflected different emotional and social relations to popular culture. I’d love to see you define what that other perspective looks like. I will value it in so far as it lives up to the virtues of good criticism as we have defined it in this conversation and I will remain a skeptic which questions whether it is being honest about its own stakes in its objects of study.
But, but, but Henry… the fan is an obsessive, even your fan, especially your fan! That’s precisely the power you want to harness in the fan, even if you insist on calling her “empassioned” instead! There is a pathology to fandom, just as there is to scholarship! It’s the side effect and the cure all at once! The fan is fueled by a kind of madness, just like the scholar is, a drive toward something nagging, a refusal to let go. In scholarship we call it by the horrendous malapropism “rigor” and it’s just as bad.
Aren’t we really talking about the same thing, even if I’m just deliberately choosing not to round the corners, to shift the frame into the netherland of “passion” and “commitment” instead of the equally valid “fixation” and “preoccupation?” It seems too easy to me to poke at the term “obsession” and invoke some slippery slope of cultural danger or academic puritanism. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to demand more than that of our station, more than “either you’re a friend or an enemy of the media and the people?”
You know I have respect and fondness for your work even if we sometimes disagree (when we do, it’s in interesting ways, I think). You see that I cited it as a “good” example of pop media criticism in the original post, material we have long forgotten by now, I suppose. But, don’t you think things have turned too far in the other direction? Don’t you look at the myriad Sing-Along Journals and the dozens of horrendous edited collections you must be asked to review and blurb constantly, don’t you find yourself looking at these and other materials and thinking, wait, this isn’t careful, active, affective, attentive thinking anymore, at all, this is some sort of… well, some sort of perversion? An indulgence, or even obsession? Not all of it, of course, but really, haven’t we all become a little too comfy-cozy on our sofas in our dens? Hasn’t the time come to re-evaluate our station?
That’s what a “rival to fandom” might correct. It might ask us to intervene in popular culture rather than to indulge in it. It might ask us to ask ourselves if transparency and self-reflection is enough, if earnest and deliberate prefaces really justify our conclusions. It might force us to look beyond our comfort zones and to seek out discomfort instead of carefully dressing up our comfort so it feels “rigorous.” It might do many other things—this is a blog, not a treatise, and I’m experimenting.
But c’mon, Humpty Dumpty? Really?
Above all, know that I have deep admiration and affection for you and your work. When we disagree, as happens with some frequency, we both learn something through the process. And that’s why I was pleased to see you initiate such an exchange and why I am little disappointed to see it get bogged down over the issue of fan “obsession,” a dispute which seems to be emptying the conversation of people who could have engaged productively in an exchange about the value of subjectivity in criticism or about the potentials for the new kind of criticism you are advocating in your closing paragraphs above.
To me, “obsession” is a word which by its very nature closes conversations. There are real things at stake for fans who get called “obsessive” just as there are real things at stake for gamers who get called “sick” and “twisted.” Whatever the academic politics around these words, they have consequences in people’s lives when they are deployed by the folks in charge of powerful institutions. So, while fans will engage in the game of “shocking the mundanes” or may celebrate the “scandel” of being a fan, it is never without risk. I can’t make that history disappear when I hear the word “obsession” applied to my community. This is not simply a matter of semantics.
You don’t need to fall back on inflamatory stereotypes to keep the discussion flowing here. People are ready to engage in a more serious discussion of the nature of criticism. You can embrace the term (though it didn’t seem to be used here as a compliment); I can not and on that we will simply have to disagree.
That said, I do share your frustration with unexamined orthodoxies of all kinds. Yes, I find myself frustrated, disappointed, and most of all, bored by some of the kinds of books you are describing, but I find myself even more frustrated and bored by the glib dismissals of popular culture which still come through on such a regular basis. I would welcome criticism that shook things up a bit more, which broke out of some of the molds. On that, we can certainly agree. And I would love to move out of a world where everyone was staked out as either an enemy or a friend of popular culture. Like you, I use my blog to experiment, to try new modes of writing, many of which I would not call “scholarly,” to open up important conversations.
But you do need to understand that for me, being a fan describes something fundamental about how I see the world, about how I understand the operations of culture. In some ways, it may be closer to what being a game designer brings to your work. You approach games with certain knowledge and experiences which help inform your critical practice. These things allow you to answer certain questions and address certain kinds of readers. You can’t turn that experience off when you sit down to write. And indeed, you draw on being a game designer as part of your critical practice, just as I draw on my involvement and access to the fan community as a way of expanding the public conversation around popular culture. You share common perspectives with other game designers (about the value of design if nothing else) even as you may have heated disputes with them within the terms of game design as a critical practice.
But you are not just a designer and I am not just a fan which is why it is important to add “aca” to the mix for me. I value the knowledge that comes from being an academic and I value the tension between being a fan and being an academic because it keeps me unsettled in ways which are generative for my work.
For me, this is a good starting point from which to build new modes of criticism, but not if one becomes complacent in your position. And so, yes, it’s great to get an outside perspective which challenges our work. So, rather than focusing on the kinds of criticism you dismiss, what do you see as the qualities and virtues of the new kind of criticism you are trying to build?
@David, Sorry if I mischaracterized the Slayage conferences. As I noted, I was getting this picture of the shift in attendees secondhand, so I’m at the mercy of this person’s perception of the conference.
I do want to highlight another point you make in a later comment, that “just because it came close to martyrdom [for Ian to write on SCMRPG’s behalf] doesn’t make it not fandom.”
In other words, you’re suggesting that defending something to the point of martyrdom makes one a fan. I really don’t think any of us believe that, right? Scholars, critics, reviewers, journalists, judges, teachers, and so on must often be advocates for art, music, literature, or games that they themselves might not “enjoy” or find pleasurable. You might even say that’s our job.
Hmm, the defensiveness about “obsession” is something I’ve encountered a lot in a particular kind of fandom (mostly tv/movies/comics), but seems somewhat alien to me, as someone who’s been very active in other kinds of fan cultures for years (mostly music). To a large extent, the fan cultures I’ve been in did recognize a potential for obsession, and were quite self-conscious about trying to avoid it— not to be that kind of fan. The two main negative examples of fans that seem pretty widely accepted as “bad” in cultures I’ve been in are: 1) the fawning “omg he signed my arm” sort, like the stereotypical throngs meeting The Beatles or Elvis; and 2) the scenester, who’s turned being a fan into a kind of fashion and social club, mostly detached from any sort of real interest in the music the scene is supposedly about.
From that perspective, I’ve never been particularly offended by a bit of self-deprecation about the extent to which we may or may not cross that line. For example, one rough equivalent to Lostpedia I’ve worked on is “The Answer”, an encyclopedia/trivia compendium for the punk band Bad Religion, which has no qualms about announcing on its front page that some of its contents are “downright pathetic”.
I mean, I ran an Offspring fan site, mailing list, and IRC channel for about 10 years, which certainly took up a good deal of time and could hardly be said to not be engaged or passionate, and yet I would balk at some of the kinds of embracing at fandom I see in the TV/movie world as any kind of model for academic study. We made some effort to keep it vaguely respectable: even if it sometimes degenerated into minutiae, at least it was discussion about upcoming or prior music, lyrical interpretation, discography and history of rare releases, relation to other bands’ music, or whatever, but not when the singer’s birthday is and can we get him a cake, or who is so-and-so dating, or “hey everyone what’s your favorite song”. I think, even at the height of my engagement with Offspring “fandom”, I would’ve been horrified if someone had organized an OffspringCon where we sang karaoke and had look-alike contests or something!
I guess I’m sympathetic to the idea of being-a-fan being a good starting point for academic criticism of areas of popular culture. I could see something like joydiv.org as a perfectly fine starting point for studying Joy Division, say. And the best academic investigations of BBSs I’ve seen are from self-confessed BBS fans. But it seems the examples that come up most frequently are a somewhat different sort of fandom, the more full-throated sort of fan-ness that organizes around Cons and has no self-deprecating / self-policing worries about degenerating into obsession or scenester-ism, or maybe even celebrates it. Admittedly, perhaps I just don’t get the tv/movies fan thing, making it a case of an alien culture that doesn’t map onto the fan cultures I do understand. (I did go to DragonCon once, and it didn’t reduce the extent to which I was weirded out.)
The fan is obsessed… that’s the whole idea of fanaticism
Only if, as Kristina points out, we allow etymology to dictate what all words mean in the here and now. After all, I doubt it was a fan who originally determined that the word “fanatic” was a good fit for him or her. It was a name applied in derision, likely with as much care and attention as names like “infidel,” “queer,” and “barbarian” command when applied to other groups or individuals. So even if fans eventually took the word and tried to repurpose it, that doesn’t mean fans are fanatical.
And no, I don’t think you’re ascribing subliminal masters to fans, but when you talk of people being “mad with” something, “blind” with devotion, and “obsessed,” you are characterizing a large number of people in the world with significant mental deficiency, unable to use reason (madness), unable to see what’s in front of them (blindness), unable to see past a singular fetish (obsession). And I’m saying it’s impossible to generalize what all fans are, regardless of what the OED says that word meant two centuries ago, and regardless of what some people who use the term without studying it believe it means. I’m sure many Americans think “Democrat” means communist, but political scientists, I’d hope, could look beyond that and not realize it makes it so. Fan doesn’t mean fanatical, and as media scholars we should be able to realize that.
So if “fan” is what you think it means (mad, blind, obsession), then your criticism of “fans” simply doesn’t apply to about 99.99% of fans, since your definition doesn’t apply to them. Which in turn means it can’t apply to aca-fans. Which is why I think the definition of fan really matters in this discussion.
Two quick things, since you’re engaging with other issues now. (I apologize for the delay, as I was finishing a 48 page paper. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
1. “if the fans are already doing some of the critical work, then what is the critic adding…”
Baseball: The advancement in fan knowledge is not dependent on fans, but rather a complex process in which scholars play an important part. Sabermetrics starts it all by critiquing the received knowledge of the field, being rejected by old school writers (journalists), then genrating new ideas in articles and publishing books (Bill James) and web sites (Baseball Prospectus) and organizations (Society for American Baseball Research) in return. Fans slowly start to pick up that knowledge, as it leads to more information about something that interests them (baseball) and a competitive advantage (socially and in fantasy baseball leagues). That knowledge gets picked up by some elements of the industry simultaneously, who reap a competitive advantage (Moneyball for the As and Sox). That leads to incentives for new research.
If you take out the scholars, you don’t advance knowledge in the field against the slings and arrows of the status quo. The process never restarts or restarts in a proprietary form (such as in the proprietary research of baseball teams never released to the fandom). Moreover, there’s still a great deal of work to do: how can pitcher arm injuries be prevented and how do we measure defensive skill are two imperatives right now. Knowing the world is a never-ending activity. There’s just so much of it, even in its smallest corners.
Why do we need (baseball) scholars? Because the pursuit of truth demands them. Because it reshapes a billion dollar industry. Because it helps me talk with my friends. Because it does interest readers. In the specific case of baseball scholarship into athletic medicine, because it might save a kid from getting arm surgery.
I really don’t get where this is coming from, actually. The idea that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things should be heartening, not dismaying. I’m as proud to be an American with the success of Lost as a fellow scholar was of his nation’s citizens when it came to Life on Mars. Just because the average person is becoming more media-literate is not cause for questioning “why we have the degrees and jobs and responsibilities we do”. It’s cause for celebration. It’s a challenge to do more interesting work. And those scholarly journals no one ever reads are read by the people who then disseminate the knowledge to their students. And even if no one read them: that’s the sign of a free marketplace of ideas, which is a very good thing indeed.
2. “I’m against adopting fandom as a sufficient condition for scholarly activity, where scholarship is a sort of fan++ affair, in which the aca-fan dolls up his or her fandom in tweed and struts it about the ivory tower.”
You’re going to have to use examples to pin your argument down here. The idea of pro-am collaboration and crowd sourcing is pretty solid in astronomy, SETI@home, and modding communities, so I really don’t get why pro-am in the humanities is threatening. To use a metaphor, just because I can hammer a nail doesn’t make professional carpenters pompous fakes with expensive credentials. The existence of independent scholars doesn’t threaten the worth of being a dependent scholar in the slightest.
Sure, everyone has their “Why do you study THAT?” moments. I’m sure that you, as serious video game designer face a lot of that, just like I do. Information-rich environments lead to that phenomenon. Nobody’s in favor of bad scholarship, but I don’t think that’s a particular feature of media studies.
I guess I’d rather my scholars learn from second wave feminism and disability studies and position themselves honestly with regard to the text. That doesn’t really matter much when the scholar’s using the media program to talk about Marxism, or structuralism. But when it’s a New Criticism or reader-response approach? I think the identity of the scholar and snapshot of his engagement status is crucial to reading his or her work in those approaches.
The major area of disagreement between us here seems to be that you think it’s possible to be unbiased and objective. I feel that fairness is what’s possible, especially if the critic is honest with his readers about his approach. I’m fine with scholars taking the RHETORICAL strategy of being judges or prosecutors of the work, like you wanted Mittell to be. But I’m fine with it only if they are similarly honest that it’s a RHETORICAL strategy, not the truth from on high.
It’s all just readings.
3. “Why defend fandom itself?” Ian, fandom studies with Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith discovered something ground-breaking in the late 80s: viewers are not passive dupes. They found widespread proof that some viewers read against the grain, appropriate and recontextualize, critique, celebrate and create. Viewers developed an expertise. They found it at fan conventions for Star Trek, interviewing viewers of Dr. Who and observing the Twin Peaks listserv. As a result of proving that active reading techniques were not restricted to the elites or industry professionals, we better understood what actually happens when people watch a film or TV program. And creators, eventually, learned that they could create far more challenging fare. (It wasn’t just the advent of the net, the DVD changing the economic incentives to most repeatable programming, and the rise of cable changing who networks sought as audiences.)
The very idea that TV and film don’t need to talk down to you is profoundly influenced by fandom studies. I’ll let the real heavy hitters talk about that point, as I’m just starting down this path.
Reading conversations like this make me glad that I create media for a living.
“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”
FROM Episode 4F12, Season 8
First aired Feb 09, 1997
Homer and June make an appearance at The Android’s Dungeon, which is full of nerds (including Doug, Benjamin and Gary from Homer Goes To College).
Hi. Question for Ms. Bellamy. In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a… (sniggering) magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.
Uh, well, uh…
I’ll field that one. Let me ask you a question. Why would a man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?
(embarrassed) I withdraw my question. (eats a chocolate bar)
Ah, excuse me Mr. Simpson. On the Itchy & Scratchy CD-ROM, is there a way to get out of the dungeon without using the wizard key?
What the hell are you talking about?
You’re a lifesaver, Homer, I can’t deal with these hardcore fans!
I’m not interested in getting bogged down either, although that’s the direction the conversation has turned, it seems. In any event, I’ve learned once more about the particular historical and theoretical sensitivities of fan scholars and scholars of fans. That said, I still think that it’s impossible to separate fandom of any sort from a particular kind of manic passion, and I think it’s worth asking if fan studies folk like you are resistant to that characterization just for the historical and political reasons you mention, or for other ones as well. I think it’s too reductionist to wave a finger against taboos.
…for me, being a fan describes something fundamental about how I see the world, about how I understand the operations of culture. In some ways, it may be closer to what being a game designer brings to your work.
On the one hand, you’re probably right. On the other hand, I think our personalities differ in important ways in this regard. In many respects, I’m a curmudgeon of a thinker. I feel deeply dissatisfied and uncertain about most of my motivations all the time, among them game design. I’m riddled with self-loathing. I don’t think that makes me “more critical” by default, but I do wonder if my orientation toward works isn’t simply different (not better, not worse, just different) as a result.
I value the tension between being a fan and being an academic because it keeps me unsettled in ways which are generative for my work. … what do you see as the qualities and virtues of the new kind of criticism you are trying to build?
That’s a good challenge, and it’s one I’m inclined to think about more deliberately and record in a proper post. But for starters: I’d like to amplify the tension you mention, such that the itch becomes more than just a beard-scratching pause, and more of a true crisis. I think in particular, we ought to look more for the things we resist or ignore, and to ask what they do and how they do them. I find it hard to imagine this approach to be compatible with some varieties of aca-fandom, which would seem to argue the opposite. And I think we ought to return to McLuhan, and ask deep questions about the way media (forms and particular examples) extend our lives, such that our influence as scholars has a shot at really shaping the world before us, rather than just documenting, explaining, celebrating (or decrying) the current trends. One of the approaches that most interests me of late is the one I’m calling carpentry in a forthcoming book, a word that calls for the construction of things as a scholarly practice, in addition to the authoring of endless words of critical texts.
This observation will probably not help move our conversation forward, but I think you’re engaging a tactic Graham Harman calls trumpery. “It would be wrong to consider fandom a mere act of persistence and obsession, a naive notion we dispensed with two decades ago.” The overturning of X into the sophistication of Y. Etymology’s not the issue here, but rather, for me, my strong sense that the power of fandom that you and Henry and others advance relies on a type of infatuation that oscillates rapidly between reasonable and unreasonable polarities. In short, I’m fascinated at the possibility that you can get the fandom without the obsession—not just one kind of fandom, but all of it. I suspect, as Mark N. suggests above, that this sensitivity might be somewhat particular to television studies, but that’s maybe beside the point anyway.
Just because the average person is becoming more media-literate is not cause for questioning “why we have the degrees and jobs and responsibilities we do”. It’s cause for celebration. It’s a challenge to do more interesting work.
Right! That’s exactly what I was saying, or trying to say. Why are we arguing?
The major area of disagreement between us here seems to be that you think it’s possible to be unbiased and objective.
I don’t see where you get this, at all. This just feels like trumpery too. “Either one embraces his personal attachments and therefore becomes a fan or he devolves into crass transcendentalism.” I’m not suggesting that the scholar sits on high outside the world. If you are reaching that conclusion, you might want to read some of recent work I’ve written on the nature of the scholar (1, 2) I’m rather suggesting that we ought not to give in to our passions, but ask whence they arise, how they were brought about, and why they exist. I think we are indulging our identities far too much. That was the thesis of the original post, although we’ve long lost sight of it.
To be clear, every fan I know has a mental construct of the kind of fan they would never want to become. The myth of the “obsessed” fan serves to hold in check certain tendencies but it also gets evoked within power struggles inside the fan community — often as a way of policing what fans interests or practices are accepted. There has been bruising debates around this lines surrounding the presence of Twilight and Glee at Comic-Con, debates which often include both implicit and explicit assumptions about gender. In queer studies, there has been a strong tradition which critiques the mechanisms by which we evaluate what constitute “good” and “bad” forms of sexual expression and which locate the power dynamics behind them. Pierre Bourdieu’s work gives us a starting point for how we might understand the policing of cultural preferences and practices within fandom.
We are often “weirded out” by cultural experiences which are different from our own, but as scholars, I think a first principle should be to examine those prejudices closely. I take as an article of faith that humans do not engage in meaningless activities: I may not understand what those activities mean to the people who are involved but it is my job as a scholar to suspend judgement long enough to understand what makes them meaningful. Starting from the premise that certain kinds of cultural identities are pathological holds a very strong risk of producing writing which dismisses those perspectives without closely examining them, just as writing which starts from a defensive posture runs the risk of dismissing criticisms which should be respected and examined.
I also take as a given that none of these positions are invalid starting points for criticism. The two forms of fan engagement you identify here are not my prime candidates as starting points for good criticism. Yet, I could point you towards critical writing which uses the passion fans feel towards celebrities as a starting point for examining the personal and cultural meaning that celebrities carry for us. The degree to which media fan culture has become a space for grassroots cultural production complicates your notion of the Scenester. I do know people who are more interested in the culture which fans create in and around media than they are in the media properties themselves. Again, that can be a perfectly valid starting point for cultural criticism.
At the end of the day, we can go back to what Ian said at the very beginning — I value criticism if it helps me understand the work, its consumers, its place in the culture, in a new way. I value criticism if it is generative. Just as there can be good criticism which starts from a range of social positions, there can be banal, lazy, boring criticism which starts at any of these positions.
Another excellent comments thread on here.
Just a personal perspective on this. I find that when it comes to the works that I am the biggest fan of, there is usually a kind of almost instant crystallization of the work’s effect on me. On the special occasions when this does happen there is a sense in which I can then return to that work an endless number of times – and yet at the same time can just as easily never return to it, because such works leave a kind of permanent mark, something that from then on I will always have to hand within me. They typically represent both some kind of core of truth that I find myself having little to add to, and in their powerful effect on me, a sense of wonder that I am unable to dissect and all the happier for that very in-dissectability of the work.
In my case, I’m not sure that I could really produce much in the way of sustained aca-fan style writing (as you are admittedly rather vaguely, and perhaps for some, a little narrowly describing here). I have less to say about these favourite works of mine because they already say what I could only hope to say so well, and in doing so leave me with what I think could be described as an empowering sense of speechlessness.
For me then, it is more often the works that in some way go against the grain of my tastes or understanding that open up more fertile ground for me to explore critically (or even through a bit of “carpentry”). In such cases there is typically a sense of the challenge to respond – or in other words, a greater chance of being empowered to speak out. In doing so I will no doubt invoke many of my personal fandoms, but hopefully in a way that is less likely to be entirely in line with and derivative of paths already well worn and well written about.
“This just feels like trumpery too. “Either one embraces his personal attachments and therefore becomes a fan or he devolves into crass transcendentalism.” I’m not suggesting that the scholar sits on high outside the world. If you are reaching that conclusion, you might want to read some of recent work I’ve written on the nature of the scholar (1, 2) I’m rather suggesting that we ought not to give in to our passions, but ask whence they arise, how they were brought about, and why they exist. I think we are indulging our identities far too much. That was the thesis of the original post, although we’ve long lost sight of it.”
We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one, as I feel that you’ve been making the same move, only in reverse, as when you discuss the great temptation of affiliation (rather than skepticism and its temptations) and the virtues of getting outside yourself by rejecting the self (a.k.a. the pursuit of a neutral viewpoint). It would be like: “Either one [rejects] his personal attachments and therefore becomes [not] a fan or he devolves into crass [narcissism].” See: we’re making the same moves. That’s why we agree but don’t agree at the same time.
I just don’t find that your “intuitive” definition of fandom as obsessive, enthusiastic and uncritical fits my experience at all. It doesn’t fit my experiences with dour and melancholic pre-2004 Red Sox fans, of anti-fans (of Glee, of David Lynch), of vidders (Sisabet, Luminosity, T. Jonesy & Killa, lim, and others), of fan communities (of TVTropes, of Enworld’s nuanced critiques mingled with its edition advocates, or of SCMRPG!’s forums with its incursions from the outraged).
Yes, your definition does fit my experience with Glee communities and with Television without Pity. That just means that “fan” is a term that’s large enough to incorporate many different meanings in one term, yours and ours. Fan means both those things and many more.
It would be as if I used the term “gamer” to mean anti-social, passive and uncritical. It might have once meant that in a popular context, but any analysis of Adventure!, Donkey Kong or modders quickly reveals the “common language” definition to be mistaken. Yes, there are gamers who use games to relax in an uncritical and anti-social manner. Minesweeper, anyone? But, similarly, I feel the term “gamer” is bigger than that, and you do too.
And that makes it almost impossible to continue discussing aca-fans, as we are literally not using a key word the same way.
An example: I very much regard you as an aca-fan in the very best sense in the SCMRPG! case, as you not only provided a literate defense of your interest but also acted to encourage new content, the Artistic Statement. I can’t not see you as an aca-fan and you are flummoxed that I do.
We are at this point talking past one another in terminology and making the same rhetorical moves in different directions. That means that we just have different foundational values on this topic. I thank you for a fine means of procrastinating from writing my YouTube lecture and a thought-provoking post. It was a good first experience at your blog.
Thanks for these additional thoughts. While I suspect you’re right that we may just disagree, do know that this conversation has infused my entire weekend with many questions, questions I’m sure will take some time to answer. I’m grateful you decided to come by (and to persist!) and I hope you will do again.
There’s more I can say about “gamer” as a parallel term to “fan”, but I respect that you want (and perhaps need) to close down this part of our conversation, so I’ll leave it for something we can pick up another time.
If a fan is just a person who likes a thing, fans do not have any special insight into a show than other people. I think that fan is a very useful identity (or name for practices) if we are talking about people who are more intense in their interest, more familiar with a show than other people are, more committed in their relationship to the show, and engaged in a community of others who are like them in these ways.
The self-isolating nature of fans is a consequence of these properties, not itself a criteria by which to define or recognize fans. Fans can absolutely meet the criteria of intensity, familiarity, commitment, and community while acknowledging their affective entanglement and their multivalence (Henry mentions these justifications for the acafan approach from Hop on Pop).
I have 4 properties here for fans and 2 justifications for acafans. Someone who watches a show without meeting the 4 properties can still qualify for the 2 justifications. Finally, there are other styles of study that work by justifications that neglect or refuse the 2 given above (entanglement, multivalence): content analysis or political economy could be examples. Reflexivity gives one thing to pay attention to; is this always the best thing to notice in order to produce insightful commentary or analysis?
Not everyone who watches or likes a show is a fan. Alternatives: A person who does not know much about the thing they like, who does not like the thing with consistency, or who has never discussed their feelings about the thing with someone else.
The key point, to me, in the attacks on fans suggested by Ian and William is that fans have a frame of reference that is in some ways limited. Every frame is limited, sure, but to see anyone who likes a show as a fan and then privilege the fan perspective is to block alternatives and obscure the limits of fan engagement. Fans are really really into the things they like, however they do that, a consequence is that a detail in Itchy in Scratchy MEANS something about Scratchy’s bones and the show’s writing staff, rather than showing something about animation, dubbing, what audience’s pay attention to and ignore, the kind of stupid shit that happens in that show, or how the show or network control inconsistencies.
Because of this, I will say that there is a kind of “objectivity” here, insofar as most audiences lack fans’ referential knowledge. Which is the larger population: those who have watched 5 minutes of Babylon 5 of those who are fans? Not-knowing a show is itself a significant relationship to it, though it is less easy to document and probably requires a more occasional engagement with the show. This is objectivity in the sense a music video director would use it: doing a video for a song or band you already love makes the video too personal and too referential, when the goal of a music video is to hype the track. To make something about the song that a lot of people can relate to.
In my argument, it’s helpful to me to imagine that the academic receptivity to fan studies has to do with how it extends close reading and draws on material that is easy to access for study (forums, conferences…)
Can you clarify the sense of objectivity you mean in the penultimate paragraph? I’m not yet understanding completely, although I do have a good sense of where you’re going.
I appreciate you keeping the dialogue open, even when, as you note, it seems there may be little likelihood of agreement on some issues.
But if my move attempts to trump, that’s because I don’t think the issue of whether fans are or aren’t obsessed, mad, and blind with devotion is an issue for “agreement” or “disagreement” — it’s a question for empirical observation. And toward that end, a host of impressive and exacting empirical work conducted within media and cultural studies over the past twenty years or so is in close agreement that fans are not obsessed madmen and women. Jenkins, Hills, Scodari, Harrington and Bielby, Bird, Thomas, Abercrombie and Longhurst, Cavicchi, Brooker, Stein, the many authors in Busse & Hellekson’s edited collection, in Lewis’s collection, and in my own co-edited collection, and even Sandvoss (who is the most critical in many ways of traditional understandings of fandom) are only some of the more recent scholars who’ve spent significant parts of their careers empirically studying fans, and none confirm your definition of fandom. So unless we want to dismiss all their work as simple opinion, or as tainted because conducted by fans (when not all even are fans), or as inadequate in some other profound way, the combined weight stands as a significant barrier to the definition that you’re offering.
I don’t say any of this to be belligerent. I realize you and Henry can push harder against each other since you’re pals, and it’s a danger that the rest of us fall into incivility, which I’d very much like to avoid, since I mean no ill will. But perhaps the vigor with which some fans have resisted your definition might serve as a quick gut-check of how deeply insulting your characterization of fans is. As Henry noted above, the inflammatory stereotypes aren’t necessary, but once uttered, yeah I kinda do want to trump them with empirical observation, because they are just that — inflammatory and hurtful, pathologizing stereotypes.
Objective in the sense of the open possibility of other referential frames than that of a fan. There’s two aspects, actually.
First, for fans, elements in a text signify primarily in relation to the corpus, the author’s ouvre, what is known about the conditions of production for the text, or even (in metafandom, if I understand it correctly) relative to other somehow comparable corpuses. Something that happens in one episode of a show are interesting because they mean something about other episodes, about the writers, etc.
Objectivity would mean, relative to that, a relationship of knowledge defined against the subjectivity of a fan position. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to argue that fan’s have a specific subject position here and then use that to make up the matter of “subjectivity” I’m thinking of here.
Another way to describe the whole relationship is to use a distinction Kirschenbaum makes about data on hard drives. There is a formal kind of materiality to the information on hard drives: files with specific formats and headers and folders. This materiality depends on interpretational work done by the OS (and the rest). The other kind of materiality he calls forensic materiality, which is about what data recovery from damaged drives. In this materiality, there are tiny magnetic traces on the drive itself, and even writing 0s to the whole drive won’t completely erase the old layers. In this sense, the drive is a palimpsest. This means that for formal materiality epistemology determines what is knowable, whereas for forensic materiality an epistemology is only one particular tool or technique in an industry where new tools and techniques (and combinations of them etc.) are developing all the time.
The second aspect of objectivity depends on an appeal to the consequentiality of media for those who do not deeply understand them. Hannah Montana somehow matters in my world even though I don’t really understand the phenomenon. Montana BECAUSE I don’t understand it, or don’t understand it very well. It’s in this sense that most street art can seem interesting, even when it’s not, simply by looking like something illegal or drug-addled.
So this sense of objectivity is about non-knowledge, and the first sense is about varieties of relations of knowing that de-privilege epistemology. I assume the speculative realist in you would prefer the first to the second. I see ignorance, numbness, and non-knowledge as on a more equal footing with [the robustness of relations of knowing that make objects more basic than ways we know them].
I agree there are little-informed stereotypes, but these are also similar to views many people who are themselves fans have, which shape their view of the pros and cons of being a fan. It seems that many of the scholars focus on the all-in sorts of fans, the kind who view “fandom” as a positive term, who view being a fan as properly a large part of their lives, something to celebrate, etc. I don’t see much coverage of the fans who are more ambivalent or even largely negative on it, who themselves worry about potential pathology in their own pursuits. I’ve certainly felt a pull of obsession in some of my own being-a-fan at times. But it seems you want to argue that scholars have empirically demonstrated that in fact I have not felt such a pull? Or I was mistaken and what I was feeling the pull of was not obsession, but something positive, like passion? It’s possible, but I doubt I’m wrong on that point, at least as regards my own experiences.
It seems you can’t help but taking sides, since there are inherently conflicting views of the role of fans and the subjective goodness/badness of different aspects. In the cultures I’ve been part of, not wallowing in fandom, and attempting to keep things from turning into a clique, has been an almost definition aspect of what it is we’re about— to have passionate engagement organized around a common object of interest (like a music group) without going over into mere fandom. And it’s not entirely possible to take a live-and-let-live attitude, either, because these groups of fans interact rather than living on separate planets. The more pro-fandom versions of punk and goth fans in particular have had a significant impact on the scenes, which has been quite negative from the perspective of those fans who preferred a different conception— many goth bands got so fed up with the goths that they quit playing that style of music entirely, and many punk bands have taken great pains to try to discourage their fans from becoming followers or turning into some kind of movement, and feel rather unhappy about their limited success in doing so.
Of course, you could dismiss that as mere bigotry, but then I don’t see how that’s any more sensitive to fans than dismissing other kinds of fans as mere obsessives.
What if we wanted to dismiss such work as “wrong,” rather than as “simple opinion?” Or as examples of a position that one can take issue with for philosophical reasons rather than “empirical” ones?
(I’m going to let my gasps at that one lie as dormant as possible, by the way, on the “empirical” bit, because it would just get the hornet’s nest drunk as a sailor, if you’ll allow me the mixed metaphors.)
It’s interesting to me that very few of you (any?) have disagreed with my original claim, namely that Jason Mittell’s essay doesn’t teach us much about Mad Men, even though it is motivated by a self-described television fan’s perspective. What would you say to that?
I agree that there’s a wide range within fandom. Perhaps scholars have tended to focus only on certain types (though there is a much wider range than you seem to suggest. Fan studies began in a defensive mode, but branched into many directions since the mid to late nineties). But if there are some fans with obsessions (the ones you want studied more) and some without, then obsession isn’t a *characteristic* of fandom, only of a certain sub-group. So, no, I’m not saying scholars have proven you don’t feel what you feel; I’m saying that they’ve proven that it’s obsession, madness, blind devotion are not universal characteristics of fans. And no, I don’t take what you’re saying as “bigotry”, since you’re drawing from personal experience and speculating as to the existence of what you feel in yourself in others (which is a totally acceptable way to start the question), but (1) you’re not saying that *all* fans are like that, and (2) I take your comment as expressing a certain degree of curiosity, which in turn means that you’re not suggesting you know what all fans are like, and you’re leaving the question open, rather than claiming to know the uber-answer.
Well I’m sorry that all this work isn’t empirical enough for you, but perhaps you could point to some (better) stuff that backs you up? Or perhaps you could point to a few instances in those books where the authors clearly misinterpret the madness in front of them?
Or, let’s change this up. Imagine I was to say that gamers are clinically unstable, ignorant of reality, and worryingly addicted (a fair enough parallel of madness, obsession, blind with devotion). Enough people honestly believe that, so surely it has some truth, I’d argue. I hope you’d tell me I’m wrong, and maybe, if you were in the mood, you’d point me to work that showed I was wrong. It wouldn’t be a matter of opinion, but something we could actually verify or not. But then I insist that actually I am right. How do I know? Well, I do, that’s all. That seems to be where we’re at with your opinion on fans.
As for what you’re saying about Jason’s blog post, this is where I find your stereotypes deeply regrettable, since they get in the way of what otherwise is an interesting discussion about fandom, disinterest, and the motivations for writing various pieces. I’ve liked the discussion on this matter between you and Henry particularly. But in my comments, I can’t really move beyond the stereotypes of fans you’re presenting, I’ll admit. In a few short days, I’ve learned that many of my friends are mad, diagnosed by yourself; and now I learn that fan studies is unempirical and wrong (all of it?) … all of which is a bit distracting from the points about aca-fandom.
Anyways, I sense an absolute impasse has been reached in our abilities to reconcile images of fandom, so I’ll call it a day at that. Thanks for hosting and for sticking with it, though — whatever else, academia can be fun when it’s not just a bunch of back-patting.
Two points that I started thinking about when you made your first post using music fandom and now see confirmed with your second post.
I find it interesting that you enter a conversation on acafandom by not employing your own passion/research of what I’d assume relates to gaming but rather choose a field in which you clearly can observe your own fannishness removed so to speak from any taint of academic investment.
And that’s not necessarily bad. In fact, one issue that acafen have had to confront again and again is not only the cost of using one’s fannish love and turning it into whatever rewards one gets when doing academic work but also the cost of looking at fandom with an awareness of and lens toward one’s research.
The thing that I think frustrates many of us is the fact that none of these issues are new or underresearched. Ian might accuse me of trumping again or of invoking external authorities, but part of doing academic work is indeed to engage with and build upon work that has been done before. I know very little of game research and gaming fans, but I do know the work that has been done on media fans–by outsiders, insiders, self-reported fans, and self-reported antifans, so to speak.
Which brings me to my next point, namely that noone is denying that you may feel your affect as the pull of obsession. But frankly, reading both your descriptions of you being the good…afficionado, i think Matt Hill tried to coin at some point, distinguishing yourself from the bad (obsessive, overinvested, ruining the music-focused interest, destroying the bands) fans…I couldn’t help but be reminded of the geek hierarchy. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any group of likeminded individuals will find another group they will dismiss as too invested, too involved, ruining our fun.
So, yes, you may indeed have felt embarrassed by those other fans, annoyed by them, you may even have felt the pull of obsession. The question we continue to ask, however, is how and why affect for certain things is acceptable whereas that for others isn’t. Obsession is problematic in any context, and once we divorce the fanatic from the fan and simply look at people who identify strongly with a certain community (whether it be a football team, a television program, a music group, knitting, collecting things, or something else entirely), that’s where we’re mostly looking at.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fanatics, people who ruin their lives and may indeed ruin the enjoyment of others. But to make that the norm rather than the exception is what we seem to be debating here.
And even when you live 24/7 in your WOW world or write Mary Sue erotic fan fiction or quit your job to follow RenFaires around the country–there are always the Furries! /inside humor
Re your original claim: I tried to engage with you repeatedly about Jason’s essay, but you were too focused on his acafan status and academics as fans to even address the issues that to me are really at the center of my problems with Jason’s essay. I am really disappointed with the way this conversation keeps on returning to definitional issues and kneejerk stereotyping–when in its stead, it could have asked some really important questions about the relationship of academics and their objects of study and what methodologies should or should not get employed when discussing objects one feels strongly about (something Jason clearly did not feel about MM, btw!).
Oh, I don’t mind non-empirical work at all. I just found it bemusing that you were invoking empiricism over what amounts to a philosophical issue. But no matter that, I’m afraid you continue to mischaracterize my position (which is undeveloped because, lo, this is a blog comment thread) that “fandom involves obsession” as an attack on you and your friends. Indeed, if anything, it seems that the ad hominem is coming from your side rather than mine. But as you say, we’ve clearly expended the usefulness of this forum for now.
One more thing: you and David both bring up the counterexample of “gamers” as an example of why I’m steering a course down some slippery slope. The problem with this is that I do not embrace the term “gamer,” I don’t defend the concept of “gamers,” and indeed I suspect it represents just the same sort of problems that “fan” does. I’ve written a little bit about this, but I can promise more in a book that I’ve finished this summer and which I hope will be out by spring. In any event, I think once again what we have is a philosophical disagreement, rather than a personal one.
“Obsession is problematic in any context”
I don’t agree with this. Hopefully that’s clear by now.
As for Jason’s essay, I’ve said what I hoped to say about it above, not much of which seems to have ruffled any feathers, but alas nor inspired much debate. If the conversation is turning somewhere else, it’s always possible for the conversants here to change its direction…
Hmm yeah, that’s a good point about using music an example rather than games. Mostly it’s that I have first-hand knowledge of being-a-fan with music, and some (strong-ish) opinions about fan dynamics. I like many games, but I don’t see myself as a “gamer” culturally, and haven’t been part of any game-fan communities.
It’s probably fair to say that there’s some aspect of geek-hierarchy going on (esp. w.r.t. “goths”), but I don’t think that’s the only thing going on. Some isn’t so much a dislike of some kinds of fans existing as a feeling that they’re this colonizing force that will always end up swamping any alternate culture, making fandom cultures the only possible fan cultures.
I think part of it in music is a feeling of a constant struggle to break free from the commercial/entertainment model of “rock ‘n’ roll”, where performers get on stage and perform to legions of fans who love their music. But if the fans keep slipping back into that model—fans who really love this rock-n-roll band—it can be pretty frustrating if your goal is something else, and similarly frustrating for the fans who are also trying to break free from that model. As a result there’s this long tradition of musicians being very uncomfortable with their fan bases and trying to keep them from developing into something like a fandom— sometimes actively trying to disperse them (e.g. by changing genres or quitting), or just explicitly pleading with their fans to stop idolizing them, stop paying so much attention to what they say, etc. There’s this real worry of: are we creating some kind of religion or private army or something?
And from the fan side, what most struck me (and how I got on this tangent) was how much that question is considered offensive/off-limits in tv/movie fandom, but is quite commonplace among music fans: the “are we turning into some kind of cult?” question is something many fans see as actually worth asking, as a real worry to be taken seriously.
Terri Senft on July 29, 2010 4:32 PM wrote:
But I do get the point that entire anthologies consisting of “Ten Ways in Which Buffy Constitutes the Overthrow of All that is Problematic with the World” is well, a problem. Maybe we could call this ‘vulgar aca-fandom’ to distinguish it from aca-fandom as Jenkins and others see/practice it?
This is partly why I dislike â??aca-fandomâ?. The non-academics are considered as beneath the â??perfessorsâ?.
Henry Jenkins on July 31, 2010 9:36 PM wrote:
For me, this is a good starting point from which to build new modes of criticism, but not if one becomes complacent in your position. And so, yes, it’s great to get an outside perspective which challenges our work. So, rather than focusing on the kinds of criticism you dismiss, what do you see as the qualities and virtues of the new kind of criticism you are trying to build?
Whatâ??s wrong with pre-Marxism modes of criticism?
Jonathan Gray on August 1, 2010 1:45 PM wrote:
And no, I don’t think you’re ascribing subliminal masters to fans, but when you talk of people being “mad with” something, “blind” with devotion, and “obsessed,” you are characterizing a large number of people in the world with significant mental deficiency, unable to use reason (madness), unable to see what’s in front of them (blindness), unable to see past a singular fetish (obsession).
Congratulations, youâ??ve just described King Lear.
P.S. Please stay away from Battlestar Galactica. Eventually the topic of how “crappy” the original is comes up.
I think that to receive the home loans from banks you ought to have a great reason. However, one time I’ve got a student loan, because I wanted to buy a car.