Sunday, February 19, 2017

Core response (to the Readings of Week 7)

In “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans”, one of Mark Andrejevic’s general conclusions is that “in the interactive era, the binary opposition between complicit passivity and subversive participation needs to be revisited and revised” (43). He convincingly demonstrates the relevance of this claim by showing how creative and often times, very much critical, commentary on TV shows by viewers works in tandem with the goals and interest of the cultural industry and those already in power (exemplified by the user activity on though TwoP bears witness to (and, safe to say, improves) the media savviness and critical thinking skills of its thousands of users, it nevertheless maintains and even actively facilitates the consumption of and brand loyalty to media products (and probably, of related merchandising as well), and, on top of that, offers great opportunities for market research and gathering demographical data, through the (freely given) unpaid labor of the users. I must say it is a bit ironic though that Andrejevic as an academic researcher himself exploits the free labor of his research participants in a rather similar fashion—without at least making a short acknowledgment of this, let alone trying to think further the implications. Indeed, the TWoP users who offered up their free contribution in the form of filling out surveys and even more time-consuming qualitative questionnaires enabled Andrejevic to carry out this project entailed by his paid job and to make career progress. This sort of researcher-participant tension and the (quite sharp) shadow of exploitation are exemplified, among others, by the contrast between proper academic referencing in the article vs the anonymous quotes by the unknown participants. In academic research in general, members of a sample, so to speak, are rarely properly compensated (if at all) for their time and efforts, and even more rarely are they given credit for their intellectual contributions. Such issues form a part of the sort of colonizing dynamics researchers and participants tend to be entangled in, as Ellen Seiter highlights it in "Qualitative Audience Research” (476-7).

Significantly, Andrejevic rightly acknowledges the various benefits of TWoP-like subcultures for its participants, such as the entertainment value of the funny commentary; the heightened pleasure of watching TV due to personal investment and related efforts; the identity management as a critical thinker and/or humorous writer, and relatedly, community "recognition” (36) and a sense of belonging, or potential popularity and even fame in the given context. At the same time, the author points out that "shared production does not necessarily entail shared control” (35, and indeed, the direct effects of viewers’ criticism and suggestions have on producers are hard to track but altogether suspected to be minuscule), and moreover and crucially, this involvement in production is, for the most, based on the exploitation of free labor, thus, this type of "fan activity (...) ends up reinforcing social and material relations” rather than challenging them (43). In accordance with Gitlin (39) and strengthening his assumptions through drawing on Zizek (40), Andrejevic calls attention to the postmodern, "savvy subject’s” being prone to identifying with the insiders/those in power, its investment in performing its identity as a subject in knowing and resistant to manipulation, and its inclination toward irony, defensive cynicism, and a consequential "sense of political inertness” (39).

Andrejevic posits his arguments as going against the assumptions of an early academic reflection on fan culture: "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching” written by Henry Jenkins III in 1988. To repeat, in opposition to Jenkins, Andrejevic asserts that the original texts, far from being "despoiled” (42), are enriched, and not only for the sake of the fans themselves, but for the (material) benefit of the producers—a potential of interactivity and fan culture that has been more and more successfully, actively capitalized on by the industry. (To be fair to Jenkins though, he already hints at the beginnings of industrial incorporation of fan culture on page 491). In any case, I think Jenkins’ early article already does a good job in refraining from completely overidealizing fan cultures, e.g. he acknowledges the subcultural norms and disciplinary attempts, and the tensions and conflicts within fan communities and publics. He also points out the frequency of balancing between subversion and appropriation, and loyalty and conservatism in relation to the original commercial texts. At the same time, I had some doubts about Jenkins' arguments and his way of presenting them. For instance, my impression is that he still overrepresents those segments of fandom that are more or less overtly "oppositional” and straightforwardly politicized, such as pro-/feminist counterreadings and addendums, at the expense of more "yielding”/ escapist/ consumerism-oriented, or, less organized and communal forms of fan practices. It would also be interesting to re-evaluate the gender ratio and gendered patterns of fandom: even if organized fandom was so overwhelmingly female-dominated in the US around 1988 (which I would doubt), I would say male participation has gotten more prominent and/or visible, even though fandom as such keeps being feminized.  With regards to the implicit methods (of the research and private assertions he reviews): his decidedly pro-feminist stance notwithstanding, Jenkins falls back on a sort of regressive gender binarizing that feeds on a(n inadvertently) deceptive way of presenting data. Namely, even if gender differences are shown to be (statistically) significant (i.e. a particular research finds results according to which men are more likely to emphasize narrative over characterization when giving an account of a text, let's say), presenting them without any quantification or exacting qualification whatsoever reinforces the simplistic binary thinking of “women are/do/think x, while men are/do/think y” (let alone a whole range of methodological complications and difficulties that may be especially relevant when gender issues are involved, related to impression management, the reliance on common sense, and more, see e.g., Seiter 468-70) In other words, while the gender difference documented in a given research may be far from general but even potentially infinitesimal (with a far greater within-group variance as opposed to between-group difference), if presented in a flattened binary contrast,  it reiterates a rather totalizing and schematic idea of a gender binary (that has always been, to a high level, illusionary).

Finally, I cannot help but make a comment on how Jenkins seems to commit the same classist type of intellectual "crime” he accuses Newsweek of: while the latter is repudiated by Jenkins for its “patronizing language and smug superiority [towards fandom]” (470), Jenkins himself describes the Newsweek article, in a clearly discrediting way, as “[b]orrowing heavily from pop Freud, ersatz Adorno, and pulp sociology” (ibid). This makes me wonder just to what extent performing “superiority” (intellectually or in any sense of being in power over) might be inescapable when doing work categorized as intellectual, especially when practicing criticism (as in the Jenkins example), or interpreting and, more generally, incorporating others’ work and labor into our own (see the Andrejevic example).

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