Thursday, March 30, 2006

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.

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