Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fan Cultures: Part Two

As I approached reading Part II of Matt Hills’s Fan Cultures, “Theorising Cult Media,” I decided to give myself a theme to play with in relationship to Hills’s scholarship: Star Wars fans.  Naturally, this fandom is part of my projected six modules of fandom (also involving fans of Doctor Who, comic books, zombie narratives, tween genre novels, and anime) I would write about for my theoretical dissertation if I were locked in a comfortable room for an elongated period with unlimited access to books, periodicals, DVDs, and the Internet – all necessary components for a good scholarly (and ludic) assessment of fan cultures and their relationship to academia and the greater cultural sphere!

In Chapter 5 of Fan Cultures, “Fandom between Cult and Culture,” Hills examines the relationship between fan cultures “to notions of religious devotion” (117). Linking fan cultures to religiosity is a problematic process as the two cultures of fandom and religion indeed surround themselves with iconic figures and objects of devotion in both connective yet divergent ways. With a regard to the liminal space occurring between the two cultural sites, Hills discusses the role of the “auteur” as a form of devotional figure: “Cults…operate through the creation of interpersonal relationships, especially those of a powerfully affective and hence ‘significant’ nature. One could observe that the ‘auteur’ provides this locus of ‘charisma’ and coherence in terms of the media cult, and although the construction of such a figure varies according to specific media, this does seem to be a near-universal figure of the media cult” (126).

Utilizing Star Wars creator George Lucas as my media cult auteur, I could trace and discuss his affective relationship with his fans. Around the time of the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Lucas experienced a positive relationship with fandom. Coupled with the fact he was already a respected director based upon his early, non-Star Wars films, THX1138 and American Graffiti, one could posit him as an accomplished filmmaker. After 1983, he retreated from filmmaking to concentrate on building up his various media companies. By the time he returned to the Star Wars universe with the Original Trilogy (OT) Special Editions (1997) and the Prequel Trilogy (PT) (1999-2005), he experienced a well-publicized ambivalent relationship with fans as their opinion was deeply divided upon the value and meaning of these films. Some fans felt betrayed by Lucas’s tinkering with certain sequences in the OT while others dismissed his depiction of a younger Anakin Skywalker and the Jedi Knight Order in the PT. For these fans, Lucas has become a failed auteur, hence a fallen cult leader for their fandom. Lucas, in turn, via his further alterations of the OT with the subsequent DVD (2004) and Blu-Ray (2011) releases, has embraced an antagonistic relationship with “purist” Star Wars fans as he enacts his agency as an auteur interested in continually pursuing a superior vision for his artistic vision. Most likely, Lucas’s affective relationship with Star Wars fandom will continue as he serves as a creative consultant for the upcoming Disney-produced new trilogy of films (Episodes VII-IX) and promised spin-off movies. This communicative process (or lack thereof) between Lucas and fans, however, will manifest itself in message boards, blogs, and Lucas’s official responses via interviews and media appearances, providing significant fodder for a scholarly examination of a media cultic auteur-fandom generated discourse.
While Lucas exists as a subject for scrutiny and criticism from the media and fandom alike, his fans, regardless of their support or dismissal of his auteur choices, have grown in stature to become an object of study in themselves. On this process, Hills comments in Chapter 8, “Cult Bodies: Between the Self and Other,” that “The contemporary cult fan, then, is no less subject to those very process of objectification and spectacular ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ which have traditionally been examined as a feature of stardom or iconicity. The costumier or impersonator does not only imitate a specific cult icon or character taken from a cult text: he or she embodies the process of stardom and textuality, self-reflectively presenting the body-as-commodity” (170). When the media reports on Star Wars fandom by featuring cos-players on display at the mammoth Star Wars Celebration Conventions held in Orlando or at the annual Comic-Con International occurring in San Diego, such fans are simultaneously afforded their fifteen minutes of Warholian fame and subjected to ridicule from casual television viewers and cynical Internet message-board posters. Ironically, then, their costumed, embodied expressions of their Star Wars fandom are experiencing the same sense of media (and academic) scrutiny as they perform upon Lucas himself. As a result, my potential scholarship on this issue, like the exceptional empirical work of Hills, Henry Jenkins, John Fiske, and other cultural studies theorists, must appropriately navigate and articulate this affective tension taking place between my famous auteur object of study, Lucas, and his oftentimes equally prominent fans…

Friday, December 7, 2012

Fan Cultures: Part One


This week I read Part I, “Approaching Fan Cultures,” of Matt Hills’s book, Fan Cultures, (Routeledge 1992), which serves as a sobering reminder that my evolution as a fan cultures scholar will involve  a longer process of educational gestation than I initially imagined. The beauty – and edge – of Hills’ approach to his subject matter is that he has not only mastered the art of academic prose, whether he is applying cultural studies or psychological rhetoric, but he is also deftly measuring theorist against theorist in an engaging yet critically decisive way.  For instance, he discusses how theorists Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith are at opposing poles when it comes to critiquing fan cultures, as Jenkins thinks Bacon-Smith takes a negative approach to fandom while Bacon-Smith believes her opponent offers too much of a positive view on fans. In response to their contradictory views, Hills argues that they both Jenkins and Bacon-Smith seem “to embody two sides of the same coin” as “both refuse to let go of one-sided views of fandom….And, oddly enough, the ‘reality’ of fandom that each seeks to capture in broadly ethnographic terms may exist between their respective moral positions” (70). What impresses me about this moment in Hills’s writing is that he is not siding with either Jenkins or Bacon-Smith, theorists who were academic stars in cultural studies at the time of Fan Cultures’ publication; instead, he is mediating a critical conversation point, a neutral zone of scholarly harmony, so to speak, where both theorists can find common ground.

I was likewise impressed when he earlier defended the work of Theodor Adorno, a critically maligned Frankfurt School theorist, in Chapter 1, “Fan Cultures between Consumerism and ‘Resistance.’” Whereas scholars, including Jenkins, had been dismissing Adorno’s theories as too simplistic, Hills defends the man’s work, saying the following in regard to Adorno’s entry in Minima Moralia titled “Toy Shop”: “the playing child is not entirely resigned to, and caught up in, the capitalist world. The child is able to side with ‘use value’ against ‘exchange-value,’ using his or her toys in seemingly ‘purposeless ways’ unanticipated by the toymaker. The child’s play rehearses the ‘right’ (i.e. better/utopian) life in which the evils of ‘exchange-value’ are temporarily done away with. (33). On a personal level, Hills’s brave argument in Adorno’s favor reminds me to always choose to defend a favored particular theorist even if colleagues or greater academia view my position on that individual as passé. On a more immediate level, I can now, thanks to Hills’ act of critical reclamation, apply Adorno’s application of Marxist theory to my own future work on fan cultures modules.

As an example, taking comic-book fandom as my object of study, I can explore how a fan’s entry point into comic-book collecting begins with a box of dog-eared comics given to him or her by a parent. The young child will then enjoy the comics for their use-value (in other words, as Hills writes, “what we can actually use a cultural object for [30]”) of pure entertainment. As the child grows into a teenager and adult and chooses to continue with his comic-book collecting, his approach to his (or her) collecting habit will evolve. Hills comments on this process of a life-long commitment to a particular fandom in Chapter 4, “Between ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Reality’”: “Texts which are more likely to be retained would seem to be those which appeal from the very beginning to both children and adults, either through a form of double-coding or through an emphasis on sociological dislocation/fantasy which can support both child and adult engagements” (109-110). When it comes to comic-book collectors, factors such as economic need or personal financial success will often determine whether he (or she) will either sell off valuable objects from his collection or invest in more expensive items. This is where “exchange value” (in Hills’ definition, the “‘exchangeable’ value that an object has when mediated through money” [30]) comes into play. From my aca-fan perspective, playing hundreds or thousands of dollars for a particular comic book issue or piece of original art seems rather extravagant. In all honesty, I collect comics on a limited budget and more for their escapist, stress-relieving entertainment value. But, as much as I realize that an autoethnographic exploration (an act of humbling self-assessment which Hills champions in the first half of his book) of my own biases toward comic book fandom is necessary for me to have a more sincere approach to my scholarship on the issue, I realize I must also objectively approach the differing collecting habits of my fellow fans.  Thus, if I were to discuss the AMC reality-based TV show Comic-Book Men in my projected dissertation, I could explore how the oftentimes heated haggling occurring between the staff of comic store Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash and the people who come in the shop to sell valuable comic books, toys, and original comic-book art serves as a nexus point in which the cultural forces of childhood nostalgia, machismo, and subcultural capital, along with the plain economics of supply-demand, investment, and profit, coalesce in an act of play. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Understanding Popular Culture: Part Two

For my second week of reading Understanding Popular Culture, I found myself inundated with theory after theory in the final two–thirds of John Fiske’s text. Since the first three chapters of this work were more contemporary in tone at the time of Fiske’s writing, I was surprised by the historical mood of Chapter 4: “Offensive Bodies and Carnival Pleasures.” While charting the evolution of sports and recreation in England – and the public reaction to them – Fiske adopts a tone akin to Foucault in The History of Torture, as he provides both a historical overview of his subject matter and an application of theory. Utilizing the work of historians Robert Malcolmson, Gareth Stedman-Jones, and Hugh Cunningham, Fiske argues how British sports such as football and cricket were able to be appropriated by the English middle-class and made respectable (65).

When it comes to wrestling, thankfully – and this is where Fiske’s discussion becomes timely for me – strategies of class-control are ineffectual. Fiske writes, “Wrestling…is quite a different matter – here the middle-class ethos has failed to control the professional sport to the extent that it becomes doubtful if the bourgeois word sport is even remotely appropriate. In wrestling, probably more than in any other ‘sport,’ the disorderly popular pleasures are given free and public expression” (65). As the author then discusses the resisting “grotesque” bodies of wrestlers, with an application of Bakhtin thrown in to aid his argument, he states, “The grotesque is properly part of the vernacular of the oppressed” (72). This comment, which articulates why wrestling fans loves their disproportionately-musculatured heroes, instead of traditional square-jawed paragons of masculinity, led me, in a linear-way, to wonder why fans of the fictitious living dead choose to dress up like their decaying heroes and take zombie strolls. On the one hand, this carnivalesque public expression of zombie fandom is undeniably egalitarian – as the issues of sex, race, or bodily appearance becomes transformed and obviated by makeup showing varying degrees of physical decrepitude. Thus, the grotesque simulation of death becomes the resisting and destabilizing force against traditional notions of bodily health and beauty. The majority of these zombie strollers, on the other hand, are predominately middle-class, judging from the locations – towns and malls – where they stage the spectacle of their “walks.” Nonetheless, in an age of economic uncertainty, such expressions of resistance mimic anxieties concerning a post-apocalyptic scenario where all social institutions – perhaps all normal definitions of existence itself – have evolved into a distorted, deathly mockery of middle-class life.

In Chapter 6, “Popular Texts,” Fiske likewise lends me a finer understanding of how television opens itself up to the rigor of critical interpretation once reserved for a novel: “The reader of a novel is often told in great detail of the interior feelings and motivations of a character: The viewer of television has to infer all of these from a raised eyebrow, a downturn of the corner of a mouth, or the inflection of the voice as it speaks the cliché. By ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling,’ by sketching rather than drawing completely, popular texts open themselves up to a variety of social relevances” (98). Last week, I mentioned that I am currently working on a paper articulating Steven Moffat’s development of the character of River Song and fan reaction to her evolving characterization. Moffat is adept at conveying the depth of emotional feeling taking place between the Doctor and River, but the fans still feel a sense of ownership toward the characters, particularly River, as they closely watch and, hence, rewrite, or appropriate Moffat’s text when it lets them down and goes in a direction beyond their set of expectations. With Fiske’s above comment in mind, then, I can better approach fan interpretations of River in zines and user-generated tribute videos on YouTube.

In the future, for my theoretical dissertation, which I hinted at in my last blog, I potentially wish to explore anime fandom. Like my comments concerning zombie strollers, this is relatively new critical territory for me, but, if I simply posited myself as a Doctor Who or Star Wars theorist, how ultimately effective would I be as a scholar and teacher? Going outside my traditional objects of studies – and embracing more feminized fandoms such as anime – will thereby help me to achieve a wider, gendered overview of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror fandoms. Since anime is an animated form – or cartoon – it can visually transcend the limitations of reality. This thought leads me back to Fiske, who, in Chapter 6’s “Popular Discrimination,” discusses Bob Hodges and David Tripp’s studies on modalities, in that television news is a “high” (or more real) modality for children whereas “cartoons… are of low modalilty [as] they work on the conditional mood, and say, ‘The world would be like this if…’”  (123). When I thus behold the elegant and romanticized cartoon visuals of the anime series Chobits, the beautiful and action-oriented imagery of InuYasha, and the eclectic, kinesthetically shifting anime styles for FLCL, I understand why Japanese and American children, teens, and adult fans of these narratives love escaping to worlds where the infinite possibilities of if are constantly in play. 

Fiske’s concluding chapter, “Politics,” works well in telling me that the term mass culture is a misnomer as “such a process, if it existed…would be anticultural and unpopular; it would be the antithesis of culture understood as the production and circulation of meanings and pleasures, and of the popular as an intransigent, oppositional, and scandalous set of forces” (141). This tension between the forces of production and the consumers who purchase or reject brands and goods should indeed be celebrated. Oppositional binaries, as Fiske reminds us in his conclusion to Understanding Popular Culture, are also the chaotic sort of energy that should channel scholarship: “New knowledge is not an evolutionary improvement on what precedes it; rather, new knowledges enter adversarial relationships with older, more established ones, challenging their position in the power play of understandings, and in such confrontations new insights can be provoked” (153). With Fiske’s inspiration truth now in hand, I can more confidently forge ahead in my evolution as a fan cultures scholar!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Understanding Popular Culture: Part One

In approaching reading John Fiske’s seminal cultural studies text, Understanding Popular Culture (Second Edition, Routledge 2010), I regard it, like editor Lisa A. Lewis’s The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (Routledge 1992), as a historical document (as all theory becomes in representing the avant-garde ideas of their respective eras). At the same time, I ask myself how Fiske’s theories resonate with our current culture. After all, the true touchstone of testing the timelessness, the universal truth, of a theorist’s mettle, can be achieved by applying his or her ideas beyond the era of their historical context. Fortunately, Fiske’s ideas, for me, have withstood the passage of time…
Fiske, like his equally brilliant protégé, Henry Jenkins, indeed wishes to enlighten students and general readers about the market and societal forces shaping our spending habits and identity formation. Taken to a greater level, if we do not have the so-called “elitist” intellectuals looking out for the every-person, who will step into the gap to help us to better grasp, and, in turn, manipulate and appropriate the corporations, political action committees, and media conglomerates trying to control our lives?
Jenkins leads off this this text with “Why Fiske Still Matters,” which offers his overview of his mentor’s contribution to cultural studies. Railing against Fiske’s various critics, Jenkins writes, “If Fiske’s formulations have been described as over-simplistic, then what do we make of his critics’s own simplification of his work?” (xviii). This line particularly impresses me since Jenkins is correct in emphasizing how critics are often ironically guilty of generalizing the theories of a scholar whom they wish to pigeonhole as a simple, or loose, thinker in order to make themselves look smarter. With his next line, Jenkins continues to speak the truth: “In a sense, it is always easier for academics to be pessimistic and much harder to create work which maintains the hope of cultural and political transformation” (xviii). It’s true that Fiske will begin his arguments with basic concepts (e.g., American cultural and economic positions on jeans in Understanding Popular Culture’s first chapter, “The Jeaning of America”), but his discussions gradually build in intensity within his succeeding chapters as he comments on grander societal issues, while incorporating such theorists as Stuart Hall, Umberto Eco, and Michel De Certeau. Seeing Fiske, who begat Jenkins, refer to and incorporate these pantheon of his fellow theorists motivates me into mentally charting the theoretical framework of my future dissertation.

I’m a visual thinker, so I conceptualize my forthcoming dissertation in the form of modules whose ideas are formed by an acetate-layering of thought. On one layer, I will structure my basic arguments concerning my subject matter and specific examples as the theoretical engines moving my claims into deeper areas of thought. For the next layer, I can lay in contemporary media theorists as Jenkins, Matt Hills, and Scott McCloud. Then, I can add a layer for Claude Lévi-Straus, Roland Barthes, and Mikhail Bakhtin, and another for Karl Marx, Joseph Campbell, and possibly Plato. In other words, the history of critical theory, which informs current “cutting edge” readings of  media manifestations of narrative in the form of cinema, television, web vids, and comic books, must be with me in a multilayered way at all times during my critical discussions, which must also anticipate, echo, and complement one another’s arguments.

"Reading Fiske and Understanding the Popular,” the second introductory chapter to Understanding Popular Culture, presents a roundtable conversation taking place amongst Kevin Glynn, Jonathan Gray, and Pamela Wilson. During the course of these three scholars praising the legacy of retiree Fiske’s theories, I was particularly intrigued by Gray’s comments on Neil Postman’s text, Amusing Ourselves to Death: “I was kind of drawn in till I got to the chapter about Sesame Street. Postman’s suppositions about children of Sesame Street weren’t just unempirical – they were bizarre in their assumption of a pervasive deficit disorder that supposedly afflicted my generation cohort, even though I’d known many that cohort who enjoyed 1000 page novels” (xlv).  Of course, Fiske’s writings pushed Gray into a finer theoretical conception of how media texts and their viewers interact. As for me, I now hold a different view on Amusing Ourselves to Death, as I can agree with Postman in that some people have a brief, Sesame-Street attention span (and perhaps they would have regardless of watching children’s television) while others can  watch rapidly-edited newscasts and read complex works of literature. Gray’s reconceptualizing of Postman likewise reminds me not to religiously accept any theorist’s views in my doctoral studies, but to perform a perceptional shift upon their concepts whenever necessary. Getting back to Jenkins’s comment on pessimistic intellectuals, I must simultaneously temper my impish impulse to offer a negative reading of scholarly theories in order to make myself look more intelligent.

One of the theories threaded throughout the first three chapters of Understanding Popular Culture is that consumers are not mindless, that corporations must read the constantly shifting barometer of their tastes and desires in order to produce goods and entertainment that will engage their time and spending habits. This arrangement is not exactly reciprocal since the people (i.e., consumers), as Fiske establishes, do not self-sufficiently produce their own goods as would a folk culture (22). Nonetheless, the relationship between producer and consumer does enact a type of cultural dialogue. Fiske also argues that the “politics of popular culture is micropolitics,” the pleasures of which produce “meanings that are relevant and functional” (46).  In Fiske’s words, “The meanings I make from a text are pleasurable when I feel that they are my meanings and that they relate to my everyday life in a practical, direct way” (46).

Taken to another level, that of the lens of fandoms, Fiske’s explanation of micropolitics can be applied to my understanding of why, for instance, Star Wars fans who grew up with the original theory hail it as “classic” while vilifying creator George Lucas for producing the prequel trilogy, which did not meaningfully relate to the majority of their adult selves’ lives. I can also relate micropolitics to a paper that I am currently composing on writer production (via Steven Moffatt) and fan reaction to River Song, a popular recurring character featured on the current iteration of Doctor Who. When Moffat is successfully writing River to the fans’ satisfaction, meaning she is sufficiently mysterious and empowered in her first few stories with the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, the fans are pleased. However, in her subsequent appearances, as her chronologically rearranged origin is revealed and her agency as a strong heroine is diminished, fans criticize her characterization. Conceivably, with Fiske’s theory of micropolitics in mind, fans, particularly females, experience a sense of diminishing returns in reference to the pleasure of deriving meaning or identity identification with a formerly strong female character who is in the process of being (to borrow a comic-book term) depowered



Thursday, November 1, 2012

Time Incorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives: Vol. 3: Writings on the New Series: Part Two

In “Allons-y, Part 6 of Time Incorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives: Vol. 3: Writings on the New Series (Mad Norwegian Press 2011), writer Lloyd Rose celebrates John Simm’s Master in “Re-Mastered.” From reading online message boards, I often see fans slagging off Simm’s interpretation of the Master, which I have always held to be diabolically brilliant. Rose’s positive reading of Simm’s interpretation of the Master thus reinforces my defense and adoration for his performance. He also points out the act of creative synergy taking place between writer Russell T Davies and Simm: “Forget whatever’s going on between the Master and the Doctor. This is the real story, the romance between writer and actor, a fusion of shared exploration and delight” (180). As I said in my second blog on Convergence Culture, academic criticism for an object of study does not always have to be critical. In the case of fan criticism toward an object of affection, this truth doubly holds its weight. And for me, who wishes to hone his skill as a fan cultures scholar, this rule is triply true, as I need to remember to fairly assess fans even if I do not agree with their critical views or obsessive love for their sacred idols and stories.

For Part 7: “The 21st Century is When It All Happens,” which centers on the two Doctor Who spinoff series, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, I have mixed feelings. It is not that the articles presented in this section of the book are not interesting; I just wish they could have been organized into a separate volume of Time Unincorporated dealing with ancillary series as the collection to this point contained a certain sense of momentum in commenting on the mother show. Nonetheless, I was quite impressed by Helen Kang’s contribution to this volume, “Death, Corpses and Un-Death in Torchwood.”  Taking Owen Harper’s death and subsequent “living dead” resurrection as a sentient, walking corpse in the second series of Torchwood as her cue, Kang intriguingly weaves in Michel Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic, particularly his ideas concerning pathological anatomy, where a corpse tells the story of the deceased individual’s life (206). 

What I like about Kang’s approach is that she’s writing for Torchwood fans, but also for the academic crowd, a strategy which my co-author Marc Schuster and I similarly employed for our ruminations on Doctor Who in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: The Discerning Fan’s Guide to Doctor Who (McFarland 2007). Now that I am older, a little wiser, and heading toward my comprehensive exams and dissertation in the next few years for a Ph.D. in Literature and Criticism, I am reminded that this attitude is still a valid one, as it achieves a twofold success in appealing to the erudite fan and serious scholar alike. Thus, regardless of whether or not I’m talking about feminist Doctor Who fans, aging comic-book readers, people who join in group zombie strolls, tween science-fiction readers, devoted Star Wars lovers, or cross-cultural anime fandom, I can still incorporate the theories of such thinkers as Marx, Haraway, Bourdieu, and any other so-called “heavy” intellectual when I am writing with a multilayered audience in mind.

In understanding how fans express their appreciation – or the converse – for producer / head writers Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, one should look at how these two men approach writing Doctor Who. Scott Clarke tackles this subject in “A Tale of Two Writers” in Part 8 of this volume, “Wibbly-Wobbly…”  With one line, Clarke’s adroitly articulates Davies and Moffat’s divergent mythology-arc structuring of their Doctor Who seasons: “To be completely stark: a Davies arc is a portent of doom in the background of escalating character crisis; a Moffat arc is like an elaborate mousetrap that the characters have to react to and find their way out of” (233). In interviews, both writers often discuss growing up with Doctor Who and practicing a lifelong love of the series, in front of the television as a fan and behind the writer’s desk as a professional. Their respective mythology-arc strategies form a synthesis of their Doctor Who viewing experiences and their understanding about modern television, which has resulted in successful new televised adventures for a certain two-hearted alien and his antiquated time machine. 

Part 9, “Bowties are Cool,” repeats what Part 1 of this volume accomplished: It presents fan-love for the incumbent Time Lord, in this case, Matt Smith, who plays the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor. Graeme Burke’s contribution to this section, “Dear Matt Smith,” is one specific standout since it proffers a fan’s perspective on the act of assuming the venerated role of the Doctor to Mr. Smith, who, at the time of Burke’s article, would not debut on BBC screens as the Eleventh Doctor for over a year.  Burke wisely warns Smith that Doctor Who fans will dissect every aspect of the show’s production, which involves casting, characters, storylines, and even the briefest of interviews. He adds to Smith, “With that passion – and the principle holds true for fans of football, baseball, and theatre – fans can develop an incredible sense of enthusiasm, that we are personally owed something by you” (273). Although Burke proceeds to tell Smith to just apply his best acting to the role of the Doctor, the darker vision of his words remains with me.  This shadowy and sometimes disturbing underbelly of Doctor Who – and practically any other type of fandom – is not the most appealing variety of subject matter, but it is one I must address in the future as I explore different modules of fan communities. I guess what I am saying is that, in returning to the subject of obsessive fans, I am going to have to take both a clinical and empathetic intellectual stance in delving into their oftentimes complicated, troubled, and contradictory mindsets…

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Time Incorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives: Vol. 3: Writings on the New Series: Part One

With their three-volume Time Incorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives series, Mad Norwegian Press has been collecting past Doctor Who fanzine articles and presenting them in book format to a larger audience. Like License Denied (Virgin 1997) and Shooty Dog Thing (Hirst Books 2010) before it (which I reviewed in my two most recent blogs), these books serve a worthy purpose in exposing Doctor Who fandom to a critical discussion of the show by their peers. This last week, then, I have been reading Time Incorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives: Vol. 3: Writings on the New Series (Mad Norwegian Press 2011), a work in which the editors, Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?, comment in their foreword, “There is something about the print form that encourages careful writing and discerning writing” (15). For me, the editors’ words are not disparaging blogs such as this one, which I hope evinces a certain amount of quality in commenting on Doctor Who and its fans. But, honestly, when we know something is going to be published on the processed remains of trees, we strive to add a degree of finesse to the finished draft of our musings!
Comedy is definitely one of the requisite ingredients for composing a zine article, as fans should never take Doctor Who too seriously, reaching the point where their physical or mental health is at risk. This spirit of a respectable soupçon of humor in approaching the show is on display when Burk and Smith? remark on the visceral 2005 trailer for Doctor Who Series One: “The Doctor…tells us the viewer will meet ghosts from the past, aliens from the future, the day the Earth is consumed by flame – although he neglects to mention the farting aliens, the space pig or the burping wheelie bin” (37). The editors are dead on target with their tongue-in-cheek assessment of Series One, which is equally brilliant and problematic as it revives the series for a new generation of viewers. This honest approach continues in the several essays that comprise Part 1, “It’s Back!” and Part 2, “Trip of a Lifetime,” in which the authors praise Christopher Eccleston’s short-lived tenure as the Ninth Doctor, the effectiveness of the new series’ second episode, “The End of the World” in setting up the emotional, character-based writing for the show, and producer/head-writer Russell T Davies’s genius approach in stripping Doctor Who down to its core, essential elements: a Doctor, a companion, a TARDIS, and alien threats (most significantly, the Daleks).

In Part 3, “Children of Earth,” Smith?, writing from the POV of a fan disillusioned with David Tennant’s first series as the Doctor in the “The Revolution Has Been Televised,” argues that the show has become a “mainstream success, with scenes where children in the back of cars cheer the Doctor’s success while the parents are comically ignorant” (81). Smith? even appropriates the cultural studies term, “homonormativety,” which articulates how the media mainstreams gay subculture (77), by coining his own term, “Whonormativity” (80). Of course, I’m sure Smith? was eventually pleased with some of the concepts and story arcs of the subsequent seasons of the new series, because, after all, he did go to the trouble of co-editing this very collection with Burk! Another edgy piece is offered in Kate Orman’s considerations of race in Doctor Who with her contribution to this collection, “The Salt and Sweet.” Applying census statistics for the British population (82) and asking if racial stereotype for black characters can be applied to companions Mickey Smith and Martha Jones, Orman brings up problematic questions that remind me how both timely and troubling the show can be for viewers.

A fan of epistolary writing, I found Deborah Stanish and Burk’s back and forth on the subject of NuWho fans in Part 4’s “He Said, She Said,” “Love in the Age of Squee,” quite satisfying. Although I am what one would call an OldWho fan since my fandom started with the classic series, I do embrace the crazy-love the NuWho fans evince for the current series, particularly female fans who are emotionally moved by the characters and stories. From Stanish’s and Burk’s complementary missives, I learned about “shippers.” Stanish even so nicely clarifies the nuances of the term for Burk: “We may all be ‘new fans,’ but only a subset of us are ‘shippers,' and within the shipper group there are the One True Pairing or ‘OTP’ crowd – those who have a favored pairing – and the more general shippers: those who look for the emotional connection between any of the characters” (103). With this clarification of the terminology in mind, I actually have a better understanding of the NuWho fans I encounter who believe Rose Tyler was the Doctor’s one true love, instead of say River Song or Martha Jones, who would have been a great match for the choosy Time Lord if only he had appreciated her intelligence, wit, and beauty!

In the “Power of Cool,” Jack Graeme examines whether or not Doctor Who can now be considered cool. Using the media-fueled example of football as “a norm of masculinity” embodying coolness since it is “big money” (123) and how the “people operating within the fake worlds of advertising, promotion, and media imagery” use the term to “make us buy stuff” (125), Graeme truly delivers a scathing dissection of the term. However, his conclusion on the show’s coolness factor really resonates: “But let’s face it: in its soul, Doctor Who isn’t cool. Cool is about elitism, complacency, profit, media doublespeak, vanity and conformity. Doctor Who, fundamentally, about fighting evil…evil that, very often, involves elitism, complacency, profiteering, media doublespeak, vanity and conformity” (126). Since I view Doctor Who fandom as one embracing all newcomers, regardless of their income, looks, sexuality, or social graces, I wholeheartedly endorse Graeme’s denial that the show is cool.
“Morality Play,” Jonathan Blum’s piece in Part 5, “Hooray,” connects all of the narrative hints of cause-and-effect that Davies seeds throughout his seasons. For instance, he writes that Rose, in “Doomsday,” “isn’t standing there explicitly tracing the threads through time and space which viewers can see, showing that her smart remark to Queen Victoria directly led to the founding of Torchwood, which directly led to Canary Wharf, countless deaths, and her being separated from the Doctor forever” (157). In their introduction to this section of the book, Burk and Smith? claim that, under Davies’s stewardship of the show, Doctor Who, for the first time in its history, had become an “auteur production.” (139). By combining both Blum’s and the editors’ statements, we can see that Davies is a playful auteur indeed as he leaves enough space in his narratives to engage the fans in a sense of play; in other words, he gives them a sense of collaborative authorship as they participate in the viewing and critical reaction to the show.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media: Part Two

Those of us who love literary theory, or possess a reasonable amount of fear in approaching it, can agree that Jacques Lacan is a bona-fide genius. Unfortunately, when fellow scholars abuse his words, extolling the virtues of his theories to the point where they drown out all other critical approaches, the long-winded result can be unsettling. (And I know anyone who has been stuck in a classroom or conference situation with one of these devout Lacanians can attest to this unholy truth!) Nevertheless, when Lacan is done right, a reality that Stephen Hinerman accomplishes in his contribution to The Adoring Audience, “‘I’ll Be Here With You’: Fans, Fantasy, and the Figure of Elvis,” I can believe in the theory of literary theory benefiting scholarship. In a coherent manner, Hinerman situates his discussion of Elvis fans by first defining Freudian psychoanalysis regarding the effects of fantasy urges upon an individual and combining it with Lacan’s mirror theory, which defines the process of a child learning how to integrate the differences occurring in the “I/Not I” binary. When the author subsequently applies these theories to his readings of Elvis fan narratives, I gained a more sympathetic understanding of their mindsets and questionable testimonials of encounters with this rock ‘n roll icon.

Editor Lisa A. Lewis’s chapter, “‘Something More Than Love’: Fan Stories on Film,” offers an interesting reading of a particular sub-genre of cinema appropriate for discussion in her collection: the obsessive fan film. Amongst the films she discusses are I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a movie centered on a group of Beatles fans, and Heartbreak Hotel, in which one Elvis fan manages to kidnap the King. Speaking of Kings, however, Lewis’s discussion of The King of Comedy, a 1983 comedy-thriller (if I can call it that) directed by Martin Scorsese and starring regular collaborator Robert De Niro as comedian Rupert Pupkin, is what clicked for me the most as a reader. Like Scorsese’s underrated and underappreciated thriller After Hours, The King of Comedy offers a psychological study of a lead character whose story unfolds in the urban environs of Manhattan.  In Pupkin’s case, he wishes not only to connect with idol Jerry Langford (played in a delightfully sardonic fashion by Jerry Lewis), but to use Langford’s clout as a talk-show host as a means to achieving fame for himself as well. Lewis writes about Pupkin, “His comedy instruction is a product of a fan’s imitation of the star, but his producerly impulses have advanced him to the point where he has developed his own act” (151).  This comment interests me since many successful actors, writers, and singers started out as a fan of somebody. What, then, separates a talented fan who achieves fame and success from one who genuinely possesses talent but does not find the right “connection” or receives that “lucky break” that so many people who “make it” claim to have experienced?

For Part III of The Adoring Audience, Lewis groups the essays under the title of “Fans and Industry.” Sue Browder, in “Fans as Tastemakers: Viewers for Quality Television,” provides a thorough overview of a well-organized fan organization called Viewers for Quality Television (VQR), weighing how their efforts define what  a “quality TV show” is during the era of 1980s network television against the potential elitist ramifications of these classifications. When it came to reading Robert Sabal’s contribution, “Television Executives Speak about Fan Letters to the Network,” however, I questioned its value as a worthy inclusion in the book as it simply offers a short, curious transcript of a conversation that took place between Sabal and three television industry representatives.

For Part IV, “Production by Fans,” Fred and Judy Vermorel’s chapter, “A Glimpse of the Fan Factory,” is another oddity in Lewis’s collection as the authors present official, unedited examples of fan letters written between 1977 and 1988 to such musical celebrities as Kate Bush, David Bowie, and Barry Manilow. Although the latter fan  missives humored me in their self-aware application of salutary phrases like “In much Manilust as always” and “Much Manilove now & always,” I was left feeling as if I were a voyeur reading the majority of the other letters.  Maybe I can attribute this feeling of guilt due to the fact that these fans’ vulnerable, heartfelt, and, at times, depressingly disturbed expressions to their respective stars were meant to be read by their idols alone, not by the clinical eyes of academics and students who probably could never completely emphasize with their fanatical mindsets.

The closing chapter of The Adoring Audience, “‘Strangers No More, We Sing’: Filking and the Social Construction of the Science Fiction Fan Community,” grants me the feeling I have come full circle in my understanding of Mr. Jenkins’s theoretical evolution, as he was on the eve of his pivotal work, Textual Poachers, being published. I enjoyed reading about his thoughts concerning “filkers,” science-fiction fans who write, compose, and perform (usually at conventions) folk-like songs containing comical lyrics on such subject matter as the original Star Trek crew experiencing a three-day shore leave blow-out and the lamented cancellation of Blake’s 7 and how these songs help add another intimate layer to convention-based fandom. I hit early-Jenkins’s gold, however, with this quote: “Fandom is a ‘scavenger’ culture built from poached fragments of many different media products, woven together into a coherent whole through the meanings the fans bring to these fragments and the uses they make of them, rather than by meanings generated by the primary texts” (232). As someone who has participated in Doctor Who fandom, engaging in or appreciating fan art, costume contests, late-night karaoke performances, and only occasionally entering into casual complicated conversations regarding the show itself (DW’s “primary text”), I can affirm and celebrate the wisdom of Jenkins’s astute observation on my fellow fan-scavengers!