Thursday, March 30, 2006

Finished Products

Alrighty - as both my papers are finished I decided to post them both here on the off-chance someone will read them. (And because a friend of mine asked me to.)

The post entitled "Convention of Fools" is my paper reviewing Con no Baka, in which I compare it to Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of Carnival.

"Subversive Acceptance" is my (much) longer paper looking at the theories of Henry Jenkins, the seminal fan studies author, particularly in his book Textual Poachers, and comparing his theories to those of John Fiske.

(The links can be found in the sidebar.)

Both are written in garbled anthropology speak (or as near to it as I can manage), so I apologize to anyone not familiar with the jargon.

If you read them, please please PLEASE post a comment - I would love to hear from you, positive or negative!

Subversive Acceptance: Agency and Hegemony in Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers

The stereotype of the television fan is indeed well-known – overweight and acne-ridden, the fan is a mindless and immature consumer of ridiculous merchandise, and unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Media studies scholar Henry Jenkins, himself a fan, attempts to break down these stereotypes and create a new portrait of the fan in his work Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge: New York, 1992). Using Fiske’s model of resisting hegemony through appropriation of meaning, this paper will attempt to verify Jenkins’ thesis found in Textual Poachers, in which the author contends that fans do not simply watch television, but actively manipulate pop culture texts to suit their alternative interests. As nearly fourteen years have passed since the publication of Jenkins’ book, the recent issues of fan agency and the Internet will be discussed in relation to Textual Poachers and fan studies in general.

In order to develop his thesis of fans as both productive and active, Jenkins devotes the majority of his book to discussing the various types of creations that fans generate. The first chapter of Textual Poachers, entitled “Get a Life!”, aims to dispel the aforementioned stereotypes regarding the fan as commonly seen in the media. In his thesis, Jenkins adapts the work of Michel de Certeau on “poaching” in popular reading, stating that, “Fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass media images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media.” (Jenkins, 1992, p. 23) Through this poaching of images, fans are able obtain to a position of autonomy within the dominant hierarchy. In Chapter Two, Jenkins addresses the role of the texts that are adapted, and specifically how they become deeply important to the fans that use them. He points out that texts become valuable not due entirely to their original attraction, but because of the meanings that become inserted and attached to them. Jenkins then proceeds to outline the three modes of interaction practiced by fans: drawing the text close to lived experience; the role of rereading in bringing the text under the control of the viewer; and the insertion of the programme into social interaction (ibid, p. 53). Chapter Three turns to fan critics, addressing them as “true experts” and “a competing education elite” (p. 86). The in-depth knowledge of a show, Jenkins argues, provides the fan with a cultural authority and the so-called “right” to criticize the producers of the shows if they feel the text is abandoning the fan’s perceptions of it. Jenkins then discusses how a show becomes a part of the fan canon, and outlines the ideal meta-text created by the fan community against which all new episodes are compared.

The fourth chapter looks in-depth at the case of the late 1980s show Beauty and the Beast, which was first wholeheartedly embraced by fans, and then actively rejected due to plot developments in the latter seasons. In particular, this chapter examines fan reactions to programme changes and the responsibility of the producers to remain consistent with the fan’s meta-text. Chapter Five, “Scribbling in the Margins”, brings to light the practice of fanfiction, an interactive and communal process in which the fans rewrite or adapt the original texts to suit their particular needs. Jenkins outlines the ten standard ways in which a show may be altered, which includes expanding the series timeline, bringing minor characters to the forefront, crossing over with another show, and eroticization. The sixth chapter deals with a specific genre of fanfiction, known as “slash”, which posits homosexual affairs between a show’s protagonists, even (or perhaps especially) if they are not depicted as such in the show itself. Jenkins discusses many of the multitudes of theories surrounding slash, including the idea that it is pornography for women, and that it attempts to break free of traditional concepts of masculinity. This particular chapter, more so than any other, appears to be the most important example of a break from popular ideology in the entirety of fan interpretation.

The art of creating fan music videos is the topic of the seventh chapter, where fans set carefully chosen clips from the show to music in order to highlight a specific theme or fan-inserted subtext. Jenkins uses Bakhtin’s theory of hetroglossia to explain how fans force both the show to visibly adopt the meaning they wish upon it. Chapter Eight deals with “filking”, or songs written and performed by fans that deal with either a particular character or with fandom itself. As with fanfiction and music videos, filk is a communal practice used to bring subtext to the forefront, and Jenkins argues that filk has strong connections to folk music and culture. In his conclusion, the author maintains that fans have their own social group with unique receptive, aesthetic, and cultural practices.

Before turning to an examination of Jenkins’ thesis, the issue of his potential bias must be addressed, especially if one considers the powerful influence of this seminal text on future works on fandom. As previously stated, the author is a self-proclaimed fan, and regularly participates in many of the fan practices listed above. The conclusion of Textual Poachers, for instance, contains a passionate defence of fandom against its critics, and the tone of the entire work is quite praising of the people and practices it discusses. Such praise may be construed as an attempt to justify misunderstood fans to the general public and academic community as worthwhile of study and admiration: “If fans are often represented as antisocial, simple-minded, and obsessive, I wanted to show the complexity and diversity of fandom as a subcultural community”, Jenkins states (p. 287). Sentences such as these support Camille Bacon-Smith’s claim that Textual Poachers was written to suit a specific agenda, namely as a response to previous works on the passive nature of audiences (Bacon-Smith, 2000).

Many additional authors have pointed to Jenkins’ problematic stance as both a fan and a scholar on fandom, a topic best covered in the work of Matt Hills (2002, p. 10-13). First, Hills points to the work of R. Burt, who believes that no author with personal connections to fandom should study the topic as they could not possibly maintain the proper academic distance (Hills, 2002, p. 11). Conversely, Alexander Doty states that one must first be a fan before attempting to study their subculture, so that the academic may be able to fully enter into and understand the fan community (ibid, p. 12). Of course, such arguments are not at all new to the field of anthropology, and Hills himself considers the entire debate to be short-sighted, as he points out, “Academics are not resolutely rational, nor are fans resolutely immersed.” (p. 21). Therefore, Jenkins should not be completely discounted simply because he is a fan, but any reader of his work would be advised to keep this factor in mind.

As Jenkins begins with a discussion of fan stereotypes in the popular media, and devotes his book towards proving how these conceptions are fundamentally incorrect, this paper shall also begin the critique of his work by addressing these conceptions. In addition, I shall address the social position of the fan in modern society, which is an issue unfortunately is discussed by Jenkins only in scattered references throughout the book.

In traditional society (and also traditional media studies), television audiences and fans are thought to have no agency whatsoever and are seen as only passive viewers who accept ideas any presented to them. In Jenkins, then, fans are made distinct from other viewers due to their emotional and intellectual commitment and connection to the material. Fans resist the bourgeois cultural hierarchy norms which state that the viewer must remain aesthetically distanced from the text, and instead become deeply invested in television texts and characters. “Rejecting the aesthetic distance Bourdieu suggests is a cornerstone of bourgeois aesthetics, fans enthusiastically embrace favored texts and attempt to integrate media representations into their own social experience…The popular embrace of television can thus be read as a conscious repudiation of high culture or at least of the traditional boundaries between high culture and popular culture.” (Jenkins, p. 18) Fans also practice re-reading (or perhaps more accurately, re-viewing), and this act is said to be central to their pleasure as a fan (Jenkins). According to Roland Barthes, however, re-reading runs counter to the “commercial and ideological habits of our society”, and as such fans are put at odds with the traditional norms of society (Barthes, in Jenkins, p. 67).
Although not mentioned by Jenkins, I would suggest that these two practices of rejecting aesthetic distance and consistent re-viewing of shows are what have led to the development of the fan stereotype as obsessive and unable to separate fantasy and reality. In order to cope with the fans’ refusal to accept bourgeois norms, the stereotype was created to transform fans into an object of pity and mockery, rather than a threat. As the object of this stereotype, fans occupy a subordinate position in the cultural hierarchy, and many feel a profound sense of alienation from society. While no demographic study of this group has been conducted to my knowledge, fans usually have low-status and menial occupations with little chance for advancement or creative freedom (for examples, see Jenkins 1992, Bacon-Smith 1992).

In Understanding Popular Culture (Routledge: London, 1989), John Fiske asserts that in a capitalist system all people are subordinated and disempowered. Jenkins, however, feels that fans are even more disenfranchised than the normal person, and Camille Bacon-Smith (1992) agrees. Michel de Certeau also finds audiences to be weak in the face of the system, but also capable of resistance in form of “poaching”, and it is this idea that forms Jenkins’ primary argument. Fans practice de Certeau’s nomadic poaching in every creation as they move across the texts and confiscate the meanings and subtexts that appeal to their distinct aesthetic, and discard or re-write any remainder. Such a view is validated in Fiske, who admits that while all are forced to practice consumerism in order to live in modern capitalism, “…every act of consumption is an act of cultural production, for consumption is always the production of meaning.” (Fiske, 1989, p. 35) By watching television and purchasing merchandise fans are clearly participating in capitalism, but Fiske argues that there are cultural meanings in television shows that can be adopted by the viewer to suit their specific needs.

This adoption and adaptation of meaning is the key method by which viewers become fans, and these new meanings form the basis of the alternative community which fans inhabit. “Fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media.” (Jenkins, p. 23) While fans may base their culture on the texts of popular culture, Jenkins shows that they are not slaves of these texts. The original show may be extensively reworked if it does not conform to the fan’s desires. Jenkins’ thoughts on fan production of meaning are echoed in Fiske’s idea of cultural economy, where meanings that bring pleasure to the audience are of value, rather than economic profit, and the viewer is the producer of these pleasurable meanings (Fiske, p. 27). Fiske also believes that while the texts are originally created as commodities, they remain incomplete until incorporated into the lives of the viewer (p. 123), and it is their popular meanings and implementation in everyday life that is most important. This is precisely what is practiced by Jenkins’ fans as they develop fanfiction, filksongs, and music videos.

Jenkins reasons that fans create their own culture from readily available commercial materials because there are no other resources available to such a disenfranchised group. Interestingly, the texts which fans adopt as sources have several commonalities – specifically, they are intellectually challenging, take place in elaborately constructed worlds, and address many controversial issues – but may not be extremely popular outside of fan circles. By choosing such unconventional texts as their main focus, fans declare themselves as separate from dominant popular culture, and also resist the cultural hegemony of mass media. This distinction between types of texts is also found in Fiske in his comparison of “readerly” and “writerly” texts, based on the work of Roland Barthes. While the readerly text is undemanding, easy to understand, and invites a passive and receptive reader, a writerly text “…challenges the reader constantly to rewrite it… It foregrounds its own textual constructedness and invites the reader to participate in the construction of meaning.” (Fiske, p. 103) Fiske creates the additional category of “producerly” texts for the realm of television, which are those texts with readerly accessibility but also writerly openness (p. 104). While he may not use the same verbiage, Jenkins is clearly referring this concept of writerly and producerly texts in his outline of shows usually chosen by fans. Fiske also seems to invite the very act of fanfiction when he discusses the television show Dallas, which contains extremely complex elements that are only brought to the surface, and not developed in any detail. “But that is precisely its strength,” Fiske says. “It is a text full of gaps, [and] it provokes producerly viewers to write in their meanings, to construct their culture from it,” (p. 122) and this is exactly what fans do with their chosen shows.

Fiske hypothesizes that this appropriation and insertion of meaning, shown in Jenkins to be practiced by fans, is the method by which the subordinated may implement resistance to hegemonic forces. Though not focused on by Jenkins, fans plainly resist hegemony through their refusal to accept traditional beliefs, institutional authority, commonly accepted readings of texts and also bourgeois conventions of aesthetic distance. “Fandom’s very existence represents a critique of conventional norms of consumer culture”. (Jenkins, p. 283) In addition, fandom grants its members an alternate source of status, “unacknowledged by the dominant social and economic systems but personally rewarding nevertheless.” (p. 159) Cultural capital in the fan community is accumulated not through economic or political means, but primarily through knowledge of the fan canon and productive contribution in the form of fanfiction, music videos, costumes, and other such cultural products.

Rather than simply opposing the mainstream, fans extend Fiske’s theory of resistance and create an entire alternate community based on these notions of cultural capital and the ideals represented therein. Fandoms often serve as “a vehicle for marginalized sub-cultural groups (women, the young, gays, and so on) to pry open a space for their own cultural concerns within dominant representations”. (Benshoff, in Harris and Alexander, 1998, p. 209) Sandvoss (2005) sees a temporary subversion of the existing social order made manifest in the fan community, and Harris and Alexander (1998) believe that the genre of slash fanfiction was created in order to more accurately express the fan’s own social vision of egalitarianism. The purpose of the fan community is best described by Jenkins himself in another of his works:
“Fans view this community in conscious opposition to
the ‘mundane’ world inhabited by non-fans, attempting
to construct social structures more accepting of individual
difference, more accommodating of particular interests,
and more democratic and communal in their operation.
Entering into fandom means abandoning pre-existing social
status and seeking acceptance and recognition in terms of
what you contribute to this new community.”
(Jenkins, in Lewis, 1992, p. 213)

Jenkins is a great advocate of fan society, and believes, along with Camille Bacon-Smith (1992 & 2000) and that it provides a much-needed network of support for those normally outside traditional society. Throughout Textual Poachers, Jenkins examines the highly communal aspects of fandom, and maintains that almost all fannish practices occur communally, whether among small groups of close friends or the thousands of attendees at fan conventions held across the United States. He claims that exchanging videos is the central activity of fandom, and that it creates massive, cross-country networks and binds the community together. The advent of the Internet, however, is changing fandom just as it is changing almost every aspect of modern life. Despite the fact that the Internet has facilitated the expansion of fandom across the world, it may be argued that fans have become more isolated than ever before as there is very little actual contact between members outside of the virtual arena. Instead of sharing favourite shows in person through the exchange of tapes, new episodes are digitally captured by one person and then uploaded onto a server. Other fans can simply download the file for themselves without ever contacting the original provider, or indeed any other fan with an interest in the same show. Fan music videos and fanfiction are distributed anonymously over large networks, again without any actual interaction. As stated by Shawn Wilbur, “Virtual community is the illusion of a community where there are no real people and no real communication.” (Wilbur, in Bell and Kennedy, 2000, p. 50)

This viewpoint is challenged by the work of several author, most notably Rhiannon Bury, whose recent book Cyberspaces of their Own: Female Fandoms Online specifically addressed the issue of the fan community and the Internet. Bury insists that fandom is not an imagined community in which members do not necessarily communicate, but an interactive community whose members do regularly correspond. Kevin Robins sees the Internet as a utopian space, the “ideal and universal form of human association and collectivity” and believes that it fosters solidarity, mutualism, and unity (Robins in Bell and Kennedy, p. 86). He also declares that virtual interaction helps people adjust and adapt to the increasing isolation of contemporary society (p. 87), a statement that sounds startlingly like Jenkins, Fiske, and Bacon-Smith’s rationale for the existence of a fan community in the first place – another example of “making do” in an unsatisfying system.

We may now turn to the fascinating article by Elana Shefrin (2004), which may act as a bridge between the issue of the Internet, and that of the possibility for mass resistance through fandom. Specifically, Shefrin analyzes the relationship of media creators Peter Jackson and George Lucas and their fans. Jackson actively sought input from the online fan community during the pre-production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while Lucas attempted to forcibly prevent fan interpretations and even thought to prosecute fanfiction authors for copyright infringement in the interim between sets of Star Wars films. The nature of the fan-producer relationship, Shefrin argues, is able to affect the outcomes of desired criticism and even box-office profit: Lord of the Rings was hailed as a marvel of filmmaking and new Star Wars films were much maligned by fans and did not financially succeed on the scale hoped for. Rather than increasing isolation, then, the Internet is able to facilitate a participatory democracy between the previously disparate producers and consumers (Shefrin, 2004).

Smith’s work on “e-zines” (online fan magazines and fanfiction collections) also supports the idea that the Internet is able to foster fandom: “E-zines operated by fan cultures… serve as noteworthy examples of how distance-transcending communities can be developed, grown and maintained on the Web.” (Smith, 1999, p. 88) These non-profit online groups seek to expand the community and even allow fans to make changes to the canon works by organizing online campaigns. Indeed, these e-zines may be the next evolution of the hand-produced and distributed fanzines discussed in Textual Poachers.

Through these examples we may see the potential for activism in fandom. When fans actually attempt to do so, they are remarkably successful at bringing about the changes they desire. Shefrin and Smith clearly show the utilization of the new medium of the Internet for just such a purpose. Jenkins also notes the ability of fans to rescue favoured shows from cancellation, as illustrated in his case-study of the fans that rallied around the late 1980s series Beauty and the Beast and managed to save it from cancellation (Jenkins, ch. 4). Unfortunately, fans seem only willing to actively press for change in issues that directly affect the production of their texts or the continuation of their favoured characters or plots. Fans do not organize for social, economic, or political change, even when their battles with networks have economic (producers versus consumers) and political (female fans versus male network executives) dimensions (Jenkins).

Rather, fans have a strong tendency to avoid active political issues, such as gay rights. This stance is very surprising, especially if one considers the sheer number of people in the subculture who declare themselves slash fans. Fandom may be a place where the disenfranchised gather, but its members have never been seen to organize to change their station in society on any mass scale. Harris and Alexander (1998) believe that fanfiction is used for utopian escape from everyday life, not as a method of affecting change in those lives. Jenkins also notices this unusual stance: “Female fans are often uncomfortable identifying themselves as feminists…even though their discussion of particular programs is often directed at issues central to feminist debate and analysis” (p. 85) as identifying oneself as a feminist would imply a willingness to actively seek change.

In Fiske, then, we may find our answer. Fiske does argue that resistance to hegemonic forces is the primary function of the creation of unusual meanings and subculture texts, but admits, “The same person can, at different moments, be hegemonically complicit or resistant…” (Fiske, p. 45) The great potential of fandom for change will most likely never be utilized as they do not wish to do so. Fans may “…overcome structural restraints of the culture industry and, quite literally, rewrite popular culture” (Sandvoss, p. 24), but they only seek to have power of interpretation and analysis over their texts, and remain a “powerless elite” (Jenkins, p. 87). Referring to Michel de Certeau once more, I believe that while fans move across the popular culture landscape and actively poach the texts which appeal to their desires as Jenkins quite rightly believes, and while they may use these poached materials to fashion an entire culture to allow themselves agency in a system that rejects them, television fans will never be able to fully break free of the dominant system as long as they continue to base their world on its texts.

List of Sources

Aden, Roger C. Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Bell, David, and Kennedy, Barbara M., editors. The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge, 2000.

Bury, Rhiannon. Cyberspace of their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1991.

Harris, Cheryl and Alexander, Alison, editors. Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity. Cresskill, NY: Hampton Press, 1998.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lewis, Lisa A., editor. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Sandvoss, Cornel. Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Sandvoss, Cornel. “One-Dimensional Fan: Toward an Aesthetic of Fan Texts.” American Behavourial Scientist. Vol. 48, no.7 (March 2005): 882-839.

Shefrin, Elana. “Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Participatory Fandom: Mapping New
Congruencies between the Internet and Media Entertainment Culture.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. Vol. 21, no. 3 (September 2004): 261-281.

Smith, Matthew J. “Strands in the Web: Community-building strategies in online fanzines.” Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 33, no.2 (Fall 1999): 87-99.

"Convention of Fools: The Bakhtinian Carnival and the Anime Fan Community"

In Rabelais and His World, literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) outlined the Venetian Carnival as a shared event in which the strict hierarchy of the medieval world could be temporarily inverted, and all members of society were invited to engage in excessive and theatrical acts well outside the sphere of acceptability for that period. At Carnival, one’s base and flamboyant nature could be exposed to the community without fear of reprisal. In the modern world, Japanese animation conventions function as a “carnivalesque” space in which fans can congregate and invert the traditional behaviour norms and occupy an alternate position in the social hierarchy. Status in the fan world is created through cultural capital, which is accumulated not through economic or political power, but through knowledge of fan texts and Japanese culture, as well as and creative fan production, and does not grant the subject any special privileges. While the communal atmosphere of conventions bespeaks of the equality of all, the convention in its most basic form is fundamentally capitalistic, and does not seek to actually effect any real change to society as the carnivalesque is temporary by nature.

Japanese animation, known colloquially as anime, and its related counterpart manga, or Japanese comic books, have recently gained widespread popularity in Canada and around the world. Anime and manga in first appeared in North America in the late 1980s. Facilitated by globalization and the growth of the internet, a steadily increasing amount of such material from Japan has made its way to Canada and the United States. Anime has become a visible presence on Western television (including the Fox Network’s regular Saturday morning rotation) and manga is now readily available in large chain bookstores across Canada. Many of the more dedicated fans of these Japanese products regularly attend anime conventions. Toronto is hosts two major conventions, which can draw crowds of nearly 10,000 people, primarily high school and college students.

On the weekend of November 25 – 27, 2005, a new convention was held at the Doubletree International Plaza Hotel in Toronto called “Con no Baka”, literally translated as “Convention of Fools”. The carnivalesque elements inherent in conventions become immediately apparent not only from this title, but from the mascot of the event: a girl drawn in the anime style wearing the outfit of a medieval court jester, a figure common in Carnival (Fig. 1). Upon entering the hotel, a noticeable change was apparent in the body language and speech of the attendees, compared to those on the street outside. The majority of the participants in the event spoke extremely animatedly with grandiose gestures and in unusually loud voices, and also employed a normally unacceptable level of profanity, yelling, and screaming. A much higher level of physical contact was evident as the fans interacted in a seemingly violent but friendly way. For example, a common sight during the opening hours of the convention was the “glomp”, a powerful and crushing embrace delivered from a running start designed to knock the recipient over, but also to show extreme affection. This excessive action could be enacted on both strangers and acquaintances alike without repercussion. Upon inquiry, several fans recognized that such behaviour was acceptable only within the convention, and that they would never act in such a way anywhere else: “At con[vention]s you can do things that are far outside of general social restrictions, and regular people don’t have the same kind of outlet”, one attendee stated. Such free intermingling of bodies is indicative of the Bakhtinian Carnival, as is the obviously extreme body language and interaction (Clark and Holquist, 1984).

One of the most common features of the anime convention is known as “costume play”, usually abbreviated to “cosplay”, where fans spend a great deal of effort and expense to create and wear elaborate costumes of characters from their favourite anime or manga. Cosplays can consist of brightly coloured wigs, detailed props, and can be quite revealing, as well as drastically different from anything one might seen the average person. The fans wearing the most outrageous and daring outfits are the stars of the convention, and receive much attention from admirers throughout the course of the weekend (Fig. 2). Such costumes are an excellent illustration of the celebration of the body and of the fluid concept of identity found in the carnivalesque (Wills in Hirschkop and Shepherd, 1989). A woman visiting the hotel for an unrelated event compared the scene before her to Halloween, another recognizably carnivalesque event. The transgression of social norms and reversal of status so fundamental to Carnival may be seen in “crossplay” (cross-dress cosplay), another type of costuming common at conventions in which men and women adopt the costumes and mannerisms of a character from the opposite sex (Fig. 3). Prizes were awarded to those with the strangest apparel as well as the best “crossplayer”, and several panel discussions were held on the methods and execution of cosplay, enculturating newer fans into the practice.

As described by Clair Wills, carnivalesque events are renowned for their openness and for publicizing what would normally be considered private and not acceptable for conversation, depiction, or enactment (Wills in Hirschkop and Shepherd). At Con no Baka, young females could be found in hallways and panel rooms openly discussing and sharing yaoi, or graphic male-male homosexual pornography, without any care for who might happen to overhear or disapprove. Other examples of tabooed or delicate issues of sexuality were proudly displayed throughout the hotel, including gay and lesbian interaction and bondage. The staff at both the booths representing Gaylaxicon (the international science fiction/fantasy convention for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered fans) and Toronto Trek (the oldest and most established convention in Ontario) agreed that the community found at conventions is a great deal more accepting of all forms of sexual orientation. The mere existence of an event like Gaylaxicon speaks of the high ratio of fans in the community who ascribe to what would traditionally be considered an “unconventional” lifestyle.

Outside of the convention, the majority of fans at Con no Baka attend middle or high school or a post-secondary institution and work unrewarding part-time jobs, thus occupying positions with very low social, economic, or political status or influence. Due to this fact, the carnivalesque dissolution of distinctions of class and displacement of social force would indeed be very appealing to such a disenfranchised group. One teenage fan proudly declared, “Here, we have the power”. In the carnivalesque convention space, standard economic or political status has absolutely no meaning, and those formerly marginalized groups move to the forefront and control the events that occur (Bakhtin, 1984). As argued by communication theorist Henry Jenkins (1992), a new hierarchy appears in the fan world, and finds the most creative fan producers as the highest in status. The most admired members of the fan community at Con no Baka were the authors of successful “fanfiction” (fan published stories based on the characters or plot of an anime or manga), the highly skilled cosplayers, and the creators of the most technically challenging and aesthetically pleasing anime music videos (or AMVs). Jenkins recognized this role of fanfiction in his studies on science fiction fan culture: “…fan publishing constitutes an alternate source of status, unacknowledged by the dominant social and economic systems but personally rewarding nevertheless” (Jenkins, p. 159). Individuality and inventiveness were the main factors in gaining power in the fan hierarchy, as one cosplayer pointed out: “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, only how creative your costume is.”

Cultural capital in the fan world could also be achieved through knowledge, as fans that are able to speak Japanese or were familiar with the most intimate details of a particular show, author, or actor are deferred to as authorities on issues of debate. The only openly derided members visible at the convention were the newest fans, as they are assumed to have the least knowledge and held the lowest position in the fan hierarchy. Many fans mentioned a group they called the “elitists”, who openly scorn those who mispronounce Japanese words or err in their knowledge of the media, the only open discrimination that was observed to occur during the course of the event.

It must be noted, however, that while knowledge and creative production do grant some fans slightly more status than others, the hierarchy is very vague and there is apparent social mobility. Carnival is utopian and egalitarian in the extreme, and focuses on brotherhood and universalism (Bakhtin). Even if one fan were to gain status based on their creativity, they are not granted any special privileges and have no power over others. Equality and fairness appeared to be of special concern to the fans at the convention, as at panel discussion the moderator would make a special effort to allow younger fans or the soft-spoken to include their thoughts, even if they had not put up their hand. A vendor at the booth for a popular Toronto comic store affirmed that simply being a fan was all that was of importance at a convention, because all fans are “looked down upon equally by others”. Another fan said, “Everyone is united by their shared geekiness… You may have no idea what their name is or where they come from, but … we’re all geeks together”, emphasizing the egalitarianism and communal atmosphere of the convention.

While the freedom of the convention space was esteemed by all that attended Con no Baka, such parity and openness is only temporary. Bakhtin explained Carnival’s reversal and transgression as a provisional release, where the inferior are momentarily elevated to allow the traditional hierarchy to remain intact and continue to prevail over the potentially anarchistic lower orders (Bakhtin in Clark and Holquist, 1984). Although fans from across southern Ontario gather together in a utopian community, conventions only occur for at most three days, and Con no Baka was cancelled after only two due to a dispute with the hotel. Once a fan steps outside the convention space, they re-adopt all the traditional norms they had previously left behind. The dramatic gesticulations and speech are abandoned, costumes are exchanged for street clothes, and each attendee returns to their separate home.

In addition, the communal environment of the convention also masks its fundamentally capitalistic roots. The primary action to take place at Con no Baka was shopping, with the Dealer’s Room as the largest and busiest area of the entire event; it was the first place to visit upon arrival, and the last place to explore before departure. Although many fans pointed to participating in the community or meeting new friends as the most important factor in attending a convention, the overwhelming majority answered that they attended the convention for the shopping. Members of an anime club from New York State underwent a seven-hour bus trip simply to shop at Con no Baka.

For those involved in the anime subculture, the convention is the place in which they are able to freely embrace an alternate society; one in which age, gender, sexual orientation, and other traditional status indicators have no bearing on one’s position. Individuality and creativity were honoured, but fans were also able to enjoy an unprecedented level of equality amongst their peers that they are not able to experience outside of the event. The convention also displayed all the visible markers of a Bakhtinian Carnival, through the spectacle of the body language and speech of the attendees, their costumes, and their interactions with one another. However much the fans valued their openness and equality in direct opposition to the outside world, the events at Con no Baka remained grounded in capitalism and are only temporary, with no power whatsoever to affect any real change on society.


Figure 1: The Con no Baka mascot dressed as a court jester.

Figure 2: One of the award-winning costumes at the convention.

Figure 3: An example of “crossplay”.

Works Cited

Clark, Katerina and Holquist, Michael. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Hirschkop, Ken, and Shepherd, David, eds. Bakhtin and Cultural Theory. New York: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Not dead!

In a perhaps futile attempt to revive this dead blog, I shall post a quote regarding sexual orientation that I found to be quite intriguing:

"Insistence on having a sexual orientation in sex is about defending the status quo, maintaining sexual differences and the sexual hierarchy; whereas resistance to sexual orientation regimentation is more about where we need to be going."

- John Stoltenberg, 1989.

Thoughts, anyone? Agree or disagree? Find this man to be an idiot, or enlightened?