Welcome to the first in what I hope will become a regular feature here. What sources resonate with you? What do you keep returning to? What did you read for the first time and shout an excited “Yes!!!” or a horrified “No!!!” (Because, let’s face it, sometimes the texts that affect us most are the ones we agree with the least.) First up – KT Torrey (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University).
For my money, part of what makes fan studies challenging is the very thing that’s central to our strength: the interdisciplinarity that’s ingrained into the heart of what we do, what we study, and why. That’s a big part of what makes our field so appealing: we are diverse as shit and proud of it.
But that same diversity has made it challenging not only to define precisely what fan studies is (as attempts to create a fan studies Special Interest Group within SCMS illustrate), but also for new researchers to enter conversations already in progress within our field. Sure, there is a growing body of literature clearly defined as coming from “fan studies,” as represented in this excellent (and free to access!) bibliography maintained by Transformative Works and Culture. However, given that most of us come to this work from other disciplines—like Psychology, Literature, Communication, Drama, etc.—much of our research is thus informed by theories, methodologies, and perspectives from our original fields.
As Ludi Price so beautifully put it:
we [in fan studies] have unique powers to share what we know and we should embrace our inherent diversity.
What I’m suggesting then, is that one way making those powers work to our full advantage, is by talking about the sources, the perspectives, and the theories that each of us brings to our field. That is, I think there’s real value in identifying the texts that have proven productive for us as individuals when we’ve brought them to bear on issues around fan cultures, practices, and theories.
So! Think of this post—and those like it that may follow here on the JFS blog—as a contribution to our field’s theoretical potluck: individual servings of sources that your friends and colleagues have found useful. You may see the same text invoked by several different scholars, but for very different reasons. You may encounter sources that you can’t wait to pass on to your neighbor. There may others of which you’re spinach suspicious. Regardless, whether you’re new to fan studies (hey there!) or if you’ve already got a favorite chair, our hope is that you’ll find something in this series, on this table, that you might dig, too.
In this post, then, I’ll be talking about two texts that have been formative to my work: one that for me embodies the uncomfortable pleasures that make this field unique, and one continues to teach me both where and how to look when I study fan cultures.
1) NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley London: Verso, 1997. Print.
This is the work that gave me permission to read slash—hell, to acknowledge its existence!—and then, by extension, to study it.
I found it quite by accident (don’t great love stories start off that way?) in San Francisco, on the shelves of a used bookstore.
For Jason, someone had written on the flyleaf, shyly, and yet in pen:
Despite this semi-romantic beginning, my first engagements with the text were skittish at best. For a long time, I could only really read the first half of the book in which Penley weaves together the Challenger disaster, popular discourse about women in space (and why they don’t belong there), and the cultural position of Star Trek in relation to NASA. Great stuff.
The second half, though, the part about Kirk/Spock slash fans and their relationship to and use of technology? Oh lord. I read it with one hand over my eyes.
It wasn’t just the sexy fanart of K/S naked under a tree. No, I was embarrassed to hear so much about all the permutations of Spock’s (no doubt very nice) cock, and for some time, my squeamishness (my shame?) as a long-time Star Trek fan made me hold that part of the book at arms’ length.
But oh, how times change.
Looking back at NASA/TREK now, what fascinates me is Penley’s position as very much not a fan of Star Trek, and yet she writes about the series’ cultural significance and the practices of some of its fans so beautifully: with care and no small sense of humor. She manages to strike a balance between analysis, observation, and this gorgeous sense of delight at what she finds without oversimplifying (or simply cheerleading) the fans whose culture she’s examining.
Further, Penley’s examination is carefully positioned within a wider cultural context. She approaches K/S fans not as an island of weird but as a side-street in a broader city of fandom. And best of all, Penley is just a fucking good writer. Hers is one of the few critical texts in any field that I’ve read more than once, and with pleasure.
What was most valuable for me as a nascent scholar, though, was that I disagreed with one of Penley’s conclusions: that a key motivation for the female slash writers/readers she studied was their desire to escape the female body, a imaginative and physical space made untenable for them by the “legal, moral, and religious” battles of the twentieth century (126). As she puts it:
Why are the women fans so alienated from their own bodies that they can write erotic fantasies only in relation to a nonfemale body? (125)
The first time I managed to get through this part of the text, Penley’s emphasis on this question didn’t sit right with me; when I read it again later, after I’d started writing fanfic, it seemed even more strange because it just didn’t jive with my own experience. Admittedly, I think this part of Penley’s analysis is in some ways a reflection of the period in which it was conducted–within the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 90s. That said: it still bugged the crap out of me. And I wanted to know why.
So that sense of not-rightness drove my early work in fan studies, not because I wanted to prove Penley “wrong” but because I wanted to understand why the hell this particular conclusion bothered me so much. Ultimately, NASA/TREK remains important to me because of the tension of its pleasures: there is so much in Penley’s analysis that I admire and even adore, and yet—and yet—the book presented me with a problem that I have yet, in my own mind, to fully resolve.
2) “Performing Writing” by Della Pollock from The Ends of Performance. Peggy Phalen and Jill Lane, ed. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 73-103. Print.
Positioned within the ghostly and intemperate field of performance studies, Pollock’s essay is one that, despite my best efforts, I’ve come back to again and again.
What I (now) love about the work—as frustrating as parts of it can be be—is that it’s helped me to articulate the kinds of questions that, as a rhetorician, I’m interested in asking about fanfiction. Reading writing as performance, or as “doing,” to use Pollock’s term, allows one to
discover the pleasure and power of turning, of making not sense or meaning per se but making writing perform: Challenging the boundaries of reflexive textualities . . . shaping, shifting, testing language (75).
That is, the point of Pollock’s essay isn’t to define “performative writing,” or to draw any sort of formal generic boundaries around it. Her project instead is to use the term as
“a way of describing what some good writing does. All good writing isn’t and needn’t be performative” [emphasis original] (75).
Indeed, the term “performative writing” is deliberately squishy, a way of working against what Pollock calls the “homogenization of language in the name of clarity” that she argues has come to mark so much academic writing (77). This sort of “flatness,” she suggests, can negate the “endless meditations and negotiations that compose” what she dubs the “relationship between language and audience”; that is, writing in the name of clarity monkeys with the potential of discourse and limits what it can do (77).
Further, Pollock emphasizes the role of the reader as a “cowriter” in the “circuitries of . . . negotiation” that spin around a text (95). As the relations between producer, consumer, and text continue to become both more muddled and more industrialized, this perspective, I think, has material and practical resonance for fan studies in general and in discussions of fanfiction and fan production in particular.
Pollock’s work, then, has helped me to identify the questions I as a rhetorician want to ask about fanfic. As my beloved Gorgias says, “Speech is a great power,” and I want to know how fanfic can channel and direct that power, and to what ends. In my research, I like to examine the possibilities of fanfic, what it can do: both as individual texts [as I talk about here] and as a wider phenomenon within a particular fandom [as Shannon Cole and I discuss here].
Thus, this essay, despite (because of?) its occasional intractability, has fundamentally shaped my approach to fan studies, particularly around issues of relations between primarily female fans and male-dominated production teams. It’s one of those pieces that’s taught me where in fan studies, in fan cultures, I want to direct my gaze. Even when I don’t cite Della directly, her influence, oh, trust me: she haunts me. She’s there.