Fan studies: The different and the revisionist

You can’t have PCA without a fan studies panel. Better yet, if you are in anyway interested in fan studies, this is the spot of the week. My first stop was a session titled “Counting and recounting the players in fan culture.”. The three panelists, all from Old Dominion U, discussed fandoms from the perspectives of marketing, transmedia storytelling, and ACA-Fandom.” Of these presentations, I was particularly interested in marketing, and ACA-Fandom.

In terms of marketing, Diane Cooke, from ODU discussed the role of fan communities as marketing tools. This is a fascinating subject for me, as I am most interested in about the intersection between fandoms and corporate cultures. In the textual poachers model, fandom is about establishing a moral economy, which necessarily pits fans and corporate interest. However, I find myself often thinking that it can’t be that simple. Nothing ever is, and this is why I chose to study fans who interact in spaces that are furnished by corporations. Diane Cooke’s presentation addressed a related topic. Based on the work of Peter Morville, she suggested the “Markets are conversations.” Furthermore, the corporate players involved in these conversations are actually tying to be responsive.

Now, that kind of statement would not fly under the transgressive, textual poacher model. “What do you mean corporate players are trying to be responsive? Don’t you realize that whenever they get involved in anything, they wreck it?”

That may be so, but I’m a pragmatist. Fan communities are no longer marginal to the way in which the culture industries operate (BTW… that’s also a Jenkism). Rather, fans are really seen as valuable brand advocates, which is why D. Cooke’s presentation was so engaging for me. Her project was about mapping fan conversations about the release of the Beatles Rock Band game, and it uses a rhizomatic perspective.

Now, if you’re not familiar with rhizomes, or you know them in another context, perhaps, they are a metaphor for complexity. Deleuze and Guattari came up with it, and they used it to explain how we can construct knowledge, and understand complex phenomena. Rhizomes are essentially surface roots, which spread in different directions. The analyst and the critic of culture would be well advised to follow the rhizomes, wherever they may lead. In this sense, rhizomatic theory is different than other philosophical perspectives about knowledge. Rhizomatics is about connections and disruptions, whereas the more traditional way of understanding knowledge is about specialization and deep respect for authority.

What makes rhizomes so well suited for projects that map web-based interaction is precisely this idea of surface, and even unpredictability. In nature, you can’t really predict where a rhizome will go (yes, rhizomes are real. They are actual roots… next time you go to the grocery store and pick up ginger root, you should know that’s a rhizome). In an online environment, you can’t predict what will become a meme, be forgotten, lay dormant and then re-emerge, be taken at face value, or what impact any of it may have. If anything, you can follow a phenomena, and you can map it and describe it, but you can’t expect to fully comprehend it.

“The rhizome is huge, so how can you maintain conversations?” That was one take away from Cooke’s presentation. As she described the process of mapping, you have to be aware of the various stakeholders that are involved in this conversations. You have the official ones, which are essentially the corporations that have incorporated the internet into their marketing efforts (that would be ALL OF THEM), and the consumers, which include fans. Fans will take to the internet, and share information, and official stakeholders are always keeping an eye out.

I don’t mean that in the sense of spying. I mean it in the sense of recognizing the opportunities that fans create for brand extension. In this sense, Cooke described fans in ways reminiscent of Muniz and O’Guinn’s brand communities. They keep up with the developments that pertain the objects of their fandom, and they share information and speculation about these objects.

Cooke’s colleague at Old Dominion University, Danielle Roach, spoke on “Pre-Jenkins ACA-Fandom.” Her work brought in a feminist perspective on ACA-Fandom, by suggesting that feminist scholars who wrote about fandom before Jenkins published textual poachers had been left out of the historiography of fan studies. I wholeheartedly agree with the argument, but I can’t help but wonder if the omission of individuals like Janice Radway is not only due to the declining fortunes of feminism (Roach’s argument), but could also be the result of the ways in which we label and self-identify our work. I mean, did Janice Radway ever say she studied fans?

Still, why aren’t we including much earlier work on fandom as part of the historiography of the discipline? Perhaps is because starting points, or foundational stories if you want, are often arbitrary. However, the ways in which power structures play out and influence academic disciplines should be taken into account. I found that to be Roach’s most valuable contribution, and that was my main take away from her discussion of the historiography of fandom.