Turning the tables on the object of study

This is cross-posted to my LiveJournal blog here. Conversation welcome at either site.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In my red team/blue team debate with Jason Mittell over at Henry Jenkins’s blog (Part 1 and Part 2), I wrote this:

[1.2] You [JM] asked about the political issues of the acceptance of versus the othering of fandom, and I’d turn that around to ask about the political issues of the acceptance of versus the othering of the critic, and of the critical apparatus she uses, because that’s the reason we’re having this conversation: what’s at stake when the critic makes her decisions about what and how to study? Gender is one of those things. Authority and power are others. We’ve come full circle, therefore: the acafan has been reconstituted and redescribed, just as she constitutes and describes her field of study.

[1.3] I want to revisit this because of the terribly fraught nature of the role of the critic. When it comes to media studies, particularly fan studies, it’s sometimes hard to separate the fan from the academic. One thing Kristina Busse and I tried to do in our book was set out the whole “we’re both fans and academics, we think that’s valuable, and here’s why” thing in the Introduction in such a way that the individual contributors could just skip their ethnography and their credentialing. We reasoned that valuable words would be better spent on the topic at hand—yet of course we had to deal with it, because the topic is so problematic.

[1.4] Of course, I’d argue that fans are hardly unique to things like sports of sci-fi TV shows. It’s just that somehow, a fan and active reader of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) somehow has less cred than, to choose an example I’ve used elsewhere, a fan and active reader of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759). Is it somehow more difficult to get a sense of the culture that created the artwork when we’re actually in the cultural moment? Obviously that’s ridiculous, even given the signal/noise ratio. I just don’t see how it could be. We have a far better sense of the resonance of a text because we coexist with its cultural moment and can see the connections. We don’t need to keep revising a text through interpretation to keep it relevant for our culture, as we do with Shakespeare. But ridiculous as it is, I guess we’re stuck with it: academics who work with Renaissance texts don’t have to waste time explaining themselves, but we do.

2. What’s in it for the academic?

[2.1] Here’s the question I want to ask: what’s in it for the person with the power? Why is it important to the academic that she remain disinterested? What’s in it for her to make the thing studied (the fan) different, to declare herself disinterested? I’d argue that the answer is simple: authority—which is, after all, what is being bolstered by every disclaimer the academic makes. The tradition of a disinterested scholar standing to the side, making relevant and pithy comments, is meant to make the findings all the more rigorous, the findings all the more irrefutable. Lots of things come to you if you have authority, such as publications, which result in jobs and tenure. The entire academic system is set up to reward authority, and it would be foolish to not consider it.

[2.2] But what’s in it for the academic if she instead makes herself the same as the thing studied (the fan)—if she self-identifies as a fan? Community, although likely a community with other acanfas, because fans and acanfans don’t always get along. This commodity also has benefits: the old bat’s network would be one example, although since we’re still constructing it, we haven’t gotten all that much use out of it yet.

3. Why we credential

[3.1] I’m not arguing that people should stop with the autoethnography or the credentialing. It’s useful to the reader to know where the researcher is coming from, and certainly the writer may get something out of self-revelation (as in, “OMG! There are other fandoms besides Harry Potter? And they have different rules?”). The standards set by the academic world won’t be wiped away overnight. However, I think it’s useful to think about what those academic standards are there for and what they’re doing: they’re attempting to enforce rigorous research that will result in firm findings, and the reason it does all that is to create a hierarchy of authority that can be used as a system of reward. I’d also argue that some of this is an inappropriate valorization of the scientific method to other realms of study—basically applying the standards used in the sciences to the humanities.

[3.2] In the medical field, it’s become common for the journals to print every researcher’s honorarium, every share held in a relevant business, every possible conflict of interest, to separate the possibility of personal gain from the research done, presumably so the researcher doesn’t say “it’s the best thing ever!” because the drug company is paying her to, or because she owns the company that is marketing the drug or device. And I doubt that oncologists are completely disinterested when they assess new drug combinations for their patients, now matter how measured the prose when they submit their findings to Annals of Clinical Oncology. Even the formulaic format of the scientific research paper, the so-called IMRAD system of organization (introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion), underlines the standing aside, the disinterest, by reporting the research as a process that follows the scientific method and terminates in an end point. It all seems so neat, but of course in practice, it’s not.

[3.3] Obviously oncology is much different than media fandom. But the strict division between practice and analysis is not always appropriate for some realms of study, and media studies (and fan studies) are among those fields. It isn’t wrong to be intensely interested in what I study—isn’t that why I study it, after all? How unfortunate that “it’s wrong to be too interested” is the subtext that we’re responding to when I begin an essay with, “As an active fan of…” or “Let me admit it: I’m a fan.”

[3.4] The red team/blue team debate in Jenkins’s blog is one way to try to move from authority to community, to permit joyful credentialing. It’s a good start.

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7 thoughts on “Turning the tables on the object of study

  1. The thing you’re sidestepping in your analogy between Buffy and Tristram Shandy, though , is “the canon,” i.e., the assumption that certain texts are worthy objects not because or in spite of interest but ipso facto. So the 18th century scholar need not justify studying the texts generally perceived “valuable” in the academy, but they might have to when studying “lesser” texts.

    New historicism and cultural studies has opened up a place for its worth, but maybe the fact that we do know our current culture makes it seem less valuable to perform such an inquiry? It’s like the anthropologist who feels they have to leave their own culture to find something worthy of study…

    And of course the corollary problem with canon texts and those that reside outside is how to justify any specific study. Do we pick the best? The most representative? The average? What we like? What we know? I don’t think we’ve fully worked through that problem and its implications yet.

    I like the idea of joyful credentialing–after all, I don’t believe in disinterestedness, so any position has some slant. Why not let it be a positive, joyful one?

  2. Oh, I don’t want to talk about canon too! Of course you’re right, but I chose Buffy precisely because of all the media texts out there, Buffy is among the most credentialed. with a well-regarded journal, lots of books on the topic, lots of classes, lots of scholars, LOTS LOTS LOTS. And I chose Tristram Shandy because it’s a very early novel, so early that it’s not even really a novel. It’s postmodern in its weirdness. And yet we find it relevant so we study it. Many of the novels we now read as classics of literature were best-sellers (a separate genre) in their time, and for a long time, novels were considered the realm of women and frivolous, so it’s interesting to me how it’s been appropriated by the academy as a system of power.

    In history, there’s a movement to reclaim lost texts–reading histories of housewives in France in the 1700s, for example. I see media studies as more analogous to that: finding texts that inform a previously secret, lost, or silent aspect of humanity and making it relevant. In fact, it’s a nice circle: Buffy informs the teen years informs our culture informs media studies. English-meets-media-studies is a way to read texts precisely because they inform our culture so well, so what is it telling us about ourselves?

    I’ll do my next post on canon! I’ve thought a lot about it and definitely am full of opinions.

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  4. I think that authority vs. community is a bit of a false dichotomy. For me, my denial of my “fan cred” was not to create objectivity, critical distance, or deny my own involvement with media – it was specifically to make it clear that I was an outisder to fandom communities, and questioning my own ability to speak about fandom. If anything, I saw it as a denial of authority, not asserting of it.

    In my own analysis of media texts, I embrace my personal taste & pleasure, and even have gotten flak for foregrounding evaluation as a worthy part of the critical enterprise. I love media, and my own enjoyment and taste completely shape my analysis – I’m no innocent bystander! But I generally don’t experience the pleasures & engagements specific to fan communities centered around creativity and community formation – I’m the watercooler fan for the most part. So I guess we need to think of various forms of authority & community in these regards…

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  6. I think part of the problem is the general negative connotations of the word ‘fandom’, especially media fandom. Outside fandom itself, dedicated fans have always been, and still are, regarded as over-invested freaks who need to leave the basement and get more sunshine.

    “I’m a fan of Shakespeare” = normal person who probably goes to the theatre a lot.
    “I’m a football fan” = normal person who loves sports.
    “I’m a Harry Potter fan” = slightly dubious person who really should know better than to read kids’ books at their age.
    “I’m in Harry Potter fandom” = crazy person who blows all their cash on DVDs and getting together with other freaks at ‘conventions’, probably dresses up as a wizard to go queue for books at midnight, and might well be writing child porn on the side.

    No one wants to be one of the crazy ones.

  7. Re. JM’s comment: Jason says: ” I’m no innocent bystander! But I generally don’t experience the pleasures & engagements specific to fan communities centered around creativity and community formation – I’m the watercooler fan for the most part.”

    To this I say, I’m so glad you’re not an innocent bystander, because I really do think that the reason we engage so passionately with these texts is that we really, really love them! I like the “watercooler fan” idea, but I also like Kristina’s point about this: remember also that just by surfing on sites relevant to the TV shows you’re tracking, you’re engaging on the fringes of a well-established community that constructed a bunch of the info you’re seeing. A lot of fan work goes into some of these sites, and drive-by people certainly benefit from it. So you may not be helping, but you’re engaging with the product of a community.

    The fan anticredentialing places you as more of an academic than a fan; and I’m good with that, but I do think you have some fan cred too, just by dint of the work you do. In our conversation, I basically didn’t want to be the (female object) analysand; I wanted us to both be as acafannish as possible because I thought it made most sense for whatn Henry was trying to do.

    Thanks for commenting!

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