Academia and Our Culture

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Academia and Our Culture
Date(s): February 1993 (panel discussion),
Medium: panel discussion
External Links: Escapade 1993: A Blast From the Past (Part One), Archived version
Escapade 1993: A Blast From the Past (Part Two), Archived version
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Academia and Our Culture was a Saturday afternoon panel discussion at Escapade 1993. The panel (officially: Meg R, Henry Jenkins, Constance Penley and Shoshanna) described it in the program book as: "Academia discusses us, and we discuss our response to being discussed."

This discussion occurred shortly after the publication of Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.

Transcript Posted in 2010

The transcript of this discussion was posted in two parts by Henry Jenkins in February 2010 at his blog Confessions of an Acafan.

Jenkins' introduction:
Next week, I will be joining Constance Penley and Shoshanna at Escapade, a long-running Southern California slash convention, for a discussion of fandom and academia. The event marks the 17th anniversary of a public conversation the three of us, along with Meg G. had held at the same convention shortly after my book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture was published. As we have been preparing for this reunion (I’m bummed that Meg is not going to be able to join us), Shoshanna pulled out of some long forgotten trunk the hard copy transcript of that original conversation, which was circulating in fandom for some years, but which has never been published. The conversation represents an interesting snap shot to how the slash fan world was responding to the growing academic attention being pointed in their direction.

The early 1990s had been a bumper period for fan studies since it also saw the publication of some of Penley’s ground-breaking essays on slash and of Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Some have described this moment as the birth of fan studies, though as this discussion makes clear there was a long history of academic writing about fandom and about slash before our work was published. Yet, it is fair to say that our three projects exerted a very strong influence on subsequent academic research on this topic and helped to pave the way for Aca-Fen who have followed us.

This transcript captures the raucous, free-floating character of that original conversation and helps us to situate this moment of fan research in a larger historical context. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I have been teaching my USC seminar on fan culture. In many ways, these books emerged at a key crossroads in American cultural politics — on the one hand, they came just as the Third Wave of American feminism was starting to emerge, defining itself as much around its cultural preferences as around specific policy differences with the previous generation. In some ways, Bacon-Smith’s focus in her book still reflects the Second Wave rhetoric and agenda, no doubt also a product of the fan women with whom she did much of her research, while Penley and I, in different ways, were grasping towards the concepts about gender and sexual politics which would be further articulated in the coming years.

At the same time, there are passing jokes here which remind us that the early Clinton years were a period of increased visibility for issues of sexual identity in American society: while the first generation of slash scholarship had wondered why straight women would read stories about gay men, there are many fans here who are out of the closset [sic] and eager to complicate such a framing of the issue. Shoshana [sic], along with Cynthia Jenkins, was my collaborator on “Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking,” which was one of the first academic essays to acknowledge the strong presence of queers in slash fandom.

And we can see here that fandom itself is still defining its language and practices — note the use here of “songtapes” throughout rather than the term, “vids,” which is apt to be how we would describe these fan-made music videos today.


Constance: Yes, there’s something about… You know, consumers are supposed to be bad enough, but you know, the most passive, degraded consumers are supposed to be women consumers of mass culture. So much of this just seemed wrong to me in every way. And interestingly, even some of the women, some of the feminists who are writing about women in mass culture who are quite sympathetic, still came up with what I thought were really very reductive descriptions of what went on when women were dealing with mass culture. So I got an invitation to IdiCon IV; I guess I’d just been ordering so much stuff that you know, somehow… And I went to that, and one of the things I realized was that I’m a fan of slash fandom. [Laughter] That’s what my fan activity is. I mean, of course I – you know, to read K/S I went back and completely made myself over as a Star Trek fan, because I couldn’t understand any of it, unless I understood the show.
Henry: As Constance suggested, I came to academia via fandom to begin with. I have been a media fan for about fifteen years now, starting back in late high school/early undergraduate days, going to cons, meeting the woman who’s now my wife via fandom, and she started me reading zines, which were very alien to where I as a male fan was coming from. I can remember early conversations where we’d be discussing an error, or problem, in one of the Star Trek episodes, and I would keep saying well, that problem is there because continuity screwed up, and because the director didn’t do his research; I would always refer to the production process to explain the problem. And she would say, well, maybe this is going on in Kirk’s life… [Laughter] And it was very curious to me, as we were dating and getting to know each other, that there was such a profound difference in the way in which we read. And I learned, through her, to really appreciate that style of playing with the text, that openness, that flexibility, and started reading zines, and it really started me– At that time I was planning to be a political scientist. It was not at all what I had planned to do in my life, to go into media studies. But I got so excited about film, about television, by being a fan, by listening to people talk passionately about popular culture and their engagement with it, that I decided that the thing to do was to go to graduate school and study film and television, because that’s where my excitement was, that’s what did it for me; maybe I could become a professional fan in some fashion [Laughter].
Shoshanna: As a fan, I’ve been really fascinated to read a lot of the academic work on fandom because it gives me a new language in which to think about what I’m doing. Sometimes it manages to put into words things that I had not been able to put into words before. Sometimes it tells me things I didn’t know before. Sometimes it tells me things I didn’t know, and I still don’t know after they’ve told me, because I don’t believe them for a minute. [Laughter] But even then, unless it’s just complete garbage, it forces me to sit down and think about what they’re saying, and why it’s wrong, and how it works. Camille Bacon-Smith’s book I have some real problems with–a lot of people are nodding–but the fact that she wrote it, in the language that she did, meant that I could then try to think about it in that language, and come up with, why doesn’t this work, and what’s going on…
Sandy Herrold: I’ve talked to a number of people who have now given Henry’s book, and one gave Camille’s book, to roommates or to friends to try and explain, this is why I do this thing. In one case, this person had been living with their roommate–it was actually their apartment, they had brought in this roommate–for five years. They’d had the house wallpapered with Avon–which is scary, but we won’t go into that [Laughter]–the roommate watched B7 [Blake's 7] with her, and yet she had never mentioned this dark dirty secret pile of slash–which she writes–in the back corner of her bedroom. And finally I said, if I’m coming over to her house, and I’m talking Blake’s 7, I’m gonna mention this. Either make the roommate go away, or you’re out, girl. And she kind of came out to her roommate, and her roommate was disgusted, and she gave her the book… And I think it wasn’t even what you said; it was the mere fact that a real book, with, you know, a perfect bound spine [Laughter] said that it was, you know…shows that it was worthy of being looked at rationally and therefore it must be okay.
M. Fae: One of the things I’d like to comment on is you bringing up the subject of gay male bonding-type things. We’re all talking about the male-bonding aspect of our slash stories, but if you look at the Iron John movement, if you read all the things that these men are doing, all we have to do is say, okay now, this bit where you’re all dancing around naked? Go for it! It’s exactly the same thing that we set up as being, so you have the separate-bedded, “No, we’re real he-men together!” doing precisely what we have our men doing in our stories. Only they don’t go quite as far as we want them to.
Meg: We’ve all got a problem here with media presentation. We’re all familiar with how the media presents fandom–generic fandom, not slash fandom; “those weirdos who get together and put on ears,” you know, and you pick the inarticulate person covered with buttons, weighing six hundred pounds, who can’t make a complete sentence, to be on the eleven o’clock news as the typical fan. While there’s three people with Ph.D.s going, grr… [Laughter] And Constance and Henry have both had media look at what they do, and have published, and are teaching and being paid to teach, and [the media] reduce a body of work to two seconds on the news, a paragraph in the paper, that says, oh my god, what are they doing here, this is ridiculous. And this has happened to the men’s movement as well, you know; anybody that looks at anything presented in the news with a snap judgement, if you really see anything the least bit interesting you know you can’t trust what’s there. You’ve got to go someplace else, because you know what they’ve done. The more and more we move toward the view that it’s got to be real fast and it’s got to be real quick and it’s got to get an image across and move on to fifteen other things in the next second, the less you can trust what hard information you’re getting.