Monday, February 20, 2017

CORE POST #2: TV + Audiences (Week 7)

In “‘Star Trek’ Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching,” Henry Jenkins builds upon Michel de Certeau’s idea of “textual poaching” as an active negotiation of mass culture by television fans. For Jenkins, much literary and media scholarship has neglected inquiry into fan bases because fans themselves are deemed “contentious” aesthetic producers. Fans can be crude, wild, and undisciplined viewers who do not install the “aesthetic distance” that separates aesthetic objects from the everyday (471). It is precisely because of the fan’s disregard—although not complete disavowal—of the original program’s intention that fan writing and cultural production transforms mass culture into popular culture. Ultimately, Jenkins argues that fandom can be a rich cultural arena that reconfigures the distribution of flow of cultural texts from producer to consumer. By actively interpreting television shows and producing content from such interpretation, fans have the ability to “escape from the mundane into the marvelous” (474).
Because of the dearth of fan studies scholarship when this article was published, Jenkin’s piece contains a refreshing amount of utopic optimism regarding fandom. His work complicates the Frankfurt school notion of “mass culture” that renders the audience/viewer passive. With the proliferation of fan forums, tumblrs, websites, Instagram accounts, and so forth, the current field of fan studies seems to be particularly rich. Yet, I wonder if some of the theories he posits regarding fan culture and aesthetics locates too much resistance or subversion in fandom. Of course, Jenkins notes that studies of fandom are always specific to the type of programming or genre in which these cultures arise. And further, Jenkin’s very carefully and clearly that fan writing—at least the women’s writing that he analyzes—is a “literature of reform, not of revolt” (485). But, his piece seems to operate on the assumption that fan writing and cultural production is primarily a way to take power back (even incrementally) from the television industry. I wonder how much of this remains true, as television producers in the age of the Internet are very much aware of large fan cultures that exist online. For instance, Ryan Murphy and his team actively scavenge fan sites for each season of American Horror Story. HBO’s The Leftovers made major revisions to their show’s dominant aesthetic and tone in their second season—in part due to die-hard fan criticism. Perhaps the question I am getting at here is: how much has fandom and fan culture become incorporated into the ongoing production of television content?
Marc Andrejevic’s “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans” begins to address this blind spot in Jenkin’s work. Without dismissing Jenkin’s argument that fan activity is a site of active—and perhaps subversive—meaning making and expression, Andrejevic notes, “it is precisely the creative character of viewer activity that makes it more valuable to producers” (43). He accurately describes how so much of TV production can fold fan commentary into its structures as a form of free, domestic, feminized labor—indicative of how postindustrial, late capitalism operates. He reformulates fan cultural production (primarily located on the site “Television Without Pity”) as one of interactivity that is in an exchange with television producers. What’s particularly productive about Andrejevic’s analysis is his use of fan performance to think beyond the simplified binary of active/passive viewer. That is, the fan is aware of being watch by possible producers and other writers and website lurkers. Through the framework of performance, we can understand fan activity to foreground a libidinal economy. And, for Andrejevic, the most accurate form of resistance may be ambivalence, or what he calls “political inertness,” that still believes in social change but remains cynical regarding television industry’s ability to grant such possibilities (39). Perhaps fan activity can only be defined as an active renegotiation and reconfiguration of beliefs, ideas, and values that may or may not challenge the status quo—a more distributed, networked, multi-party, cross-platform version of Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch’s “television as a cultural forum.”

[EDIT: my rush to copy and paste, I left out the last paragraph of my post and ended on an incomplete thought. I just added the final paragraph focusing on Andrejevic.]


  1. There is definitely a huge divide between creator of content and consumer of it. I agree with your observation that Jenkins takes a rather optimistic tone in approaching fan writing as reform not revolt. But I have always found it interesting to see how creators interact with their audiences and how this might affect the content. As to your final question, fandom has certainly become incorporated into television content. In fact it is a huge factor in the promotion of the show SCANDAL. A lot of shows even plant false leads in order to keep the actual content of the show a surprise. I never quite understood why some shows are like this because fans will still watch the show even if they already have an idea of the story. So I guess, my addition to your question is: how will creators of content deal with the increasing prevalence of fandom, fan culture, and social media?

  2. I agree with you and Rachel on the very optimistic tone of Jenkins' piece. Like you were saying, I think that content producers are very aware of what their fans are saying and doing, and even if it is a negative relationship (think "The People vs. George Lucas") there is still this mutual understanding that neither fans or producers are operating in isolation. This is why I find Rachel's question as to how the creators interact with their fans can influence content, particularly interesting. Since this week we are discussing fan writing I think its probably time someone mentioned the particular subgenera of Slash Fiction- Wincest. Wincest is one type of fan writing related to the show Supernatural in which writers imagine a relationship between the two protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester (brothers, hence the incest reference). Supernatural has a particularly rich history of interactions with and acknowledgment of the show's fandom. Throughout the series there have been numerous references to outsiders thinking Sam and Dean being a gay couple, which became somewhat of a running joke. In the episode 418 "The Monster at the End of the Book", the notion of Wincest actually made the leap and officially entered the show's canon along with the fictional book series based on the adventures of Sam and Dean fittingly called "Supernatural" by Carver Edlund (aka the Prophet, Chuck). In the episode, Sam and Dean are accused of LARPing (Live Action Roll Playing- a topic they will explore more when Sam and Dean investigate a ghost at a Supernatural fan convention) and learn about the existence of the book series and the fan community surrounding the series.
    Dean: There's Sam Girls and Dean Girls and...what's a slash fan?
    Sam: As in Sam slash Dean, together.
    Dean: Like together, together? They do know we are brothers, right?
    Sam: Doesn't seem to matter.
    Dean: Well, that's just sick!
    While the series at times pokes fun at the Supernatural fandom through various storylines, the relationship is overall very positive and the show is often enhanced through its meta-textual, self-reflexive look at itself.