News, With Some Thoughts on Aca-Fandom

Some exciting news has come up in the past few weeks. First, our article on the steampunk doctor has been accepted by Advances in Anthropology, a relatively new, but extremely thought-provoking journal with a broad outlook on the various facets of anthropology, from biological to cultural. We are also revising an article on the expression of guilt in a zombie survival game at the request of a journal, hopefully with news of publication forthcoming as well. It’s really thrilling to see so many projects coming to a close!

In other news, Matthieu J. Guitton and I recently attended the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association conference in Chicago. It was a new opportunity to interact with the people from the Fan Studies area, and to come back with a wealth of new perspectives and ideas. I brought my small contribution to the fascinating discussions that took place in the form of a presentation on the virtual steampunk community of Second Life: more precisely, I discussed how its artefacts can be used to identify it using both visual and lexical aspects, and how it relates to other communities. I was very happy to be able to contribute to this event.

One of the points that were debated at length was the position and role of the aca-fan in studying various fandoms. Obviously, this question is among the most important for fan studies, where most people straddle the line between academia and fandom, and indeed, where fan-turned-academics tend to be the rule rather than the exception. How do you adopt an academic perspective on fandom when you are a fan yourself? Is it possible to reconcile a necessarily subjective fannish perspective with scholarly rigour? Are you speaking to other fans, or to academics? How do you legitimise your position? Is a aca-fan merely a fan putting a varnish of academic theory on fannish activities, a scholar trying to disguise academic activities as a contribution to the fandom, or is it a truly new, hybrid position?

From the discussions that took place at the conference, a few important points emerged. The question of subjectivity was heavily debated. Someone used a pertinent metaphor: you can only approach the unicorn if you’re a virgin. In other words, you can only attain perfect objectivity on a subject if you have nothing to do with it, and can embrace it all from a purely external perspective. But the other side of the metaphor is even more interesting: the unicorn is a legend. You can remain a virgin forever in hope that you might get to touch it one day, but such a goal is illusory. Instead, you might as well ‘live a little’ (i.e. embrace subjectivity) and see what perspectives (imperfect as they will be) this will open to you.

The question of positioning was also debated. Who comes first: the academic or the fan? The participants came from various backgrounds, in which both cases were represented. Some were primarily fans, who had started studying their own fandom from an academic standpoint after a while. Others were primarily academics, who had become fans after having to infiltrate a community in order to study it. One thing was made clear: obviously, you cannot gain the trust of the people you hope to study if you have no knowledge of and interest for the very thing that brought them together. In other words, you cannot hope that fans will let you in on their favourite activities if you observe them from a distance as if they were lab animals. Gaining people’s trust implies showing a basic willingness to learn about their fandom by yourself before you can ask them to help you go further with your studies. It means that you need to be able to at least play the part of a fan for the duration of your observation.

This is particularly interesting, because on some level, it means that if you want to study a community, you first have to contribute to it. Being a fan is not simply being an observer: fans are essentially people who bring something to their community. The contribution can be as minimal as being part of a crowd at a concert (thus turning yourself into a living statement of the artist’s popularity), or as extensive as organising conventions. It can be monetary (buying works or related material), creative (producing fan fiction, fan art, fan vids, etc.), social (interacting with other fans, online or in real life), encyclopaedic (answering questions, creating wikis, managing news sites)… Even in its most basic forms, fandom is seldom an act of pure observation, but is contribution and exchange. Contributing to fandom when one wants to study it might therefore be a matter of ethics: being a simple observer would amount to taking without contributing, in a community where membership is defined by contribution. Becoming part of the fandom one wants to study would then not simply be a matter of convenience, but also an ethical gesture.

Finally, the question of aca-fandom ties into the question of who is addressed, and what language is used. As was mentioned during one panel, an aca-fan (a scholar who also is a fan) is not the same as a fan scholar (a fan who uses academic concepts to write about fandom). Exact terminology still appears to be a matter of debate, but this dichotomy stresses an important point: who you address changes your discourse to a certain extent. Addressing the academic world in scholarly publications implies using a certain language, a number of concepts and references that will ground your discourse in the literature of the discipline. Such constraints do not exist when writing for the fandom, but they are replaced by others: the necessity to be readable, for instance, or the reliance on different references in the form of shared allusions or jokes that will appeal to a collective sense of identity. But the question is more complex: for instance, what of aca-fans writing in academic publications, but who know fully well that they will be read by other aca-fans who may therefore appreciate inside references to the fandom? What of people writing in both kinds of venues? Legitimacy is also a concern: identifying yourself as part of a community (either the scholarly community or a given fandom) is essential to establish your discourse as legitimate. Given that many communities define themselves in part through the exclusion of what is not them (e.g. the academia as opposed to lay discourses), keeping one foot in each community is a difficult exercise. To establish oneself as a legitimate aca-fan, one must posit that fannish discourse is relevant to academia, and that academic discourse is relevant to fandom, an operation that, in some cases, might run contrary to the very identification of each of those two worlds.

Lots of food for thought…

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