An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JMS, Babylon 5, and the Net

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Academic Commentary
Title: An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JMS, Babylon 5, and the Net
Commentator: Alan Wexelblat
Date(s): 2002
Medium: print
Fandom: Babylon 5
External Links: a 1997 draft
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An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JMS, Babylon 5, and the Net is a 19-page chapter by Alan Wexelblat in the book "Hop On Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture" (edited by Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc).

The topic was J. Michael Straczynski and how his presence in Internet fan forums affected Babylon 5's fandom and the show itself.

Some Topics Discussed

  • how the presence of JMS on Usenet affected fanworks, fan relationships with each other, fannish politics, discussion, and ultimately, perhaps the show itself
  • ego
  • the Internet and the speed and information dissemination
  • the centrality of the authorial myth to fan interpretation
  • the ability of an author/creator to have real time, back and forth conversations with fans and what that looks like in the formation of a source text (the show)
  • authorial intent, author-reader relations
  • JMS deeply steeped in science fiction community and a savvy consumer who was "acutely aware of the place that Babylon 5 might have in the history of science fiction fandom" and knew that he needed to cultivate an active fanbase
  • JMS's belief that his show was going to be ground-breaking and special
  • JMS's role as an auteur (along the lines of David Lynch and Chris Carter), a stage performer, and that Babylon 5 was a special, groundbreaking show and better than the ones that came before it [1][2]
  • the fans JMS was communicating with were literate, social elite because those were the fans who had the financial requirements for net access and "written text remains the primary means of communication in the new media."
  • the importance of the auteur/authorship, especially in shows that rely on a fanbase, and in turn, encourages fan construction of an author
  • because JMS was so intensely entwined with the show personally and professionally, it was impossible for fans to draw stronger boundaries between the creator and the product
  • The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5, a fan Web site, one of the first
  • Babcom, a website that was created, controlled, and maintained by Warner Bros., the show's producing parent
  • JMS's rewarding, and slapping down, of fans who find clues in the show to his creative vision/storytelling: he wanted to encourage fan interest and curiosity, but ultimately had to maintain his role as the sole source of wisdom, and that fans could not be seen outguessing him
  • JMS's derivative use of previous texts
  • fans turning on each other to "protect" JMS and their access to him on Usenet and elsewhere
  • charges of racism or tokenism in the show
  • JMS's departure from rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5 on November 27, 1995: how it happened, some thoughts on why it happened, the theory that he left Usenet (free and open) to focus his attention on AOL disscussions (controlled, access was for subscribers only)
  • expectations that JMS have a thicker skin and a better control of his remarks
  • "JMS's interpretation of the situation was incredibly paternalistic. JMS seemed to see fans as needing his protection in their discussions, just as they needed his help to keep Babylon 5 on the air in their local community."
  • initially, JMS read Usenet himself in real time, but after August 1994 and a public statement about JMS having to deal with a fan's accusation that JMS had used a story idea of his for the show, a fan group called the "Rangers" "interceded and removed messages that could be construed as story ideas." This was apparently in a version that JMS read, not all messages (?)
  • fans' hurt feelings that after JMS left rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5, other fans left to: "Are the rest of us chopped liver? Are you just looking for a Q&A session? I hope that many of the folks who've posted here will continue to do .so; I enjoy reading much of what is written, and hope that some of you like some of my posts as well.[3]
  • JMS left on November 27, 1995, but returned on December 5, 1995 to read a pre-chewed version "via some (unspecified) mechanism"—perhaps administered by the Rangers

Some Direct Quotes by JMS and Fans Cited in the Article

For starters, I have problem with the auteur term.... I do consider myself the author of the B5 story, the creator of its characters and universe. Insofar as we enter of areas, my position is that of navigator... I point to the spot on the horizon and say, "That's where we're all going." [4]
JMS is King. As to whether he belongs here [in rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5], everybody gets one vote, and JMS gets one more vote than the rest of us put together. Be polite to the King, even though you think he's not as honest as he says.[5]
I'm fairly disinterested in the auteur. I don't think they're best qualified to comprehend the breadth of their work in many ways: I prefer the perspective of the recon balloon to that of the front line.[6]

Excerpts

What we know of an author changes our relationship to that authors texts. What if we not only knew about an author but could talk to hint during his process of creating a work? What if he not only listened, but participated—talking about the work, about himself, and about his readers—and it all happened at the speed of the Internet? How would the power of the author shape the reader community and vice versa? New-media theorists such as Howard Rheingold have argued that the internet democratizes discussion.' I would like to present a different point of view, one that illustrates the constrictive power that an active author can have on a reader community. Specifically, I analyze the relationship between an auteur and a fan community in the process of an ongoing dialog of mutual- and self-construction. In this case, the auteur is J. Michael Straczynski—JMS, as his fans call him and as he signs himself—the creator of the science fiction television series Babylon 5; the fan community is comprised of viewers of the show who use the internet to gather information about the show and/or communicate with similarly enabled fans.
I look-particularly at the means by which the author is constructed through interactions in these new media. This construction happens through three major processes. The first is conventional: the author is constructed by fans through the text created by the writer, where the primary interaction medium between author and fan is the text. The .second is that the author is constructed by him.self, through self-revelation in the manner of a .speech-maker. This is a new process that is greatly facilitated by the new media. Finally, the writer and the fans jointly construct an author by means of dialog in the new media. I believe that the dialog participants work from partially shared models of what the author should be and relate their interpretations to this model, which they co-construct. This last process is the most interesting be cause it is one which has not been so pervasively available to authors before the widespread use of the Internet. The Internet allows near-real-time interaction between discussion participants and thereby speeds up a process that is critical to fans' reading of a complex, episodically unfolding text such as Babylon 5, a text subject to a large number of constructions and interpretations. In the past this process was carried out in fanzines and other print or broadcast media, which have not generally been so fast or so widespread as the Internet. In other media, various intermediaries usually intercede. Interviews, press releases, information kits, and so on all place human and physical barriers between the author and the fans. Even when authors spoke directly to their fans, such as the Beatles' releasing Christmas records to their fan club members, there was little interaction and few means of direct feedback from readers to author. The new media provide interaction and feedback opportunities that could change the entire character of the relationship.
 :Obviously, I can't say anything officially here saying "Go write fanfic to your heart s content." Because I then would (correctly) stick my head on a pike in the middle of downtown Hollywood. However, let me be absolutely clear in this: 1 have never said, "Don't write it." All that I have EVER said is, "Don't put it in a place where 1 can see it or stumble over it." [7] This quotation is interesting because it seems to promote two models at one time. On the one hand, there is the model of JMS as the creator of the Babylon 5 universe, inviting others in to play with his creation, to share in the authorship as it were. On the other hand, there is the assertion that PTEN would lose something by the act of fan fic tion being created. What is that loss? Since no fan can create television broadcasts, fan fiction cannot compete economically with the original text. In stead, the model of loss that seems to lie unspoken behind this assumption is that fan fiction would represent a challenge to authorial control over the text, and this is not permissible for an auteur. If JMS were to encourage fan fiction actively, it would be tantamount to suggesting that not only are alternative interpretations of the main text possible, but that the direction and tone of the text could be determined by someone else, or that sources other than the officially sanctioned one could produce desirable material. Thus, the potentially dangerous (permissive) first model has to be counterposed with the second (restrictive) model.
JMS also seems to be concerned lest his master work be seen as more common or less original than he sees it. This leads us back to Foucault and his description of how the attachment of an author's name to a work gives it value. JMS might have responded, for example, by pointing out that no work of art is completely original; for example, Shakespeare's plots were often drawn from the common oral stories of his time and from the commedia dell'arte. However, JMS holds a model of ownership, one in which the story is a possession that remains solely his, by virtue of the (undisputed) long hours and hard effort he has put into creating the Babylon 5 scripts and show. As the creator of this unique work, he elevates himself to auteur status. Clearly he is not only pointing toward the horizon; he is claiming to have made the; horizon exist. It is the job of the readers to see only that authorized story and to focus their efforts on recovering authorial meaning.
...there is no reward structure in the fan community for oppositional critical analysis, whereas the rewards for friendly analysis are direct and obvious. For those who "guess correctly" there is the vindication of being proven right in later episodes; there is a demonstration of one's superiority to one's fellow fans. In .some cases, there is direct reward in the form of a positive comment from JMS himself such as the one acknowledging the fan who caught the Macbeth parallel. This direct reward can also have the effect of promoting fans to authorlike status: they are recognized for a special act that creates values within the community.
...we see the duality wherein JMS claims not to be promoting himself or his personal views in any character, and yet it takes no great stretch of imagination to see that he is doing precisely what he claims to be avoiding. His point of view seems to be that silence on queer relationships is the same as support, and so characters on the show never utter the word "gay," yet they are claimed to he indifferent to others' sexuality. JMS's choice of when to deny his own points of view and when to promote them acts not only to shape the story told by the text, hut also acts to shape the view of the storyteller constructed by the fans who search for the author.
It is ironic that the group set up to deal with the story ideas "problem" and prevent possible resulting charges of plagiarism is called Rangers; that title is itself appropriated from the works of Tolkien, as the Rangers in Babylon 5 serve much the same function as the Rangers in The Lord of the Rings who, in turn, can be related to American park rangers and to lawmen such as the Texas Rangers.
The public way in which it was broadcast affected every fan in the group; specific miscreants were named as the targets of JMS s wrath but the implication was that the group as a whole was either hostile or passively complicit. In fact, most group members simply ignored abusive postings and went on with their own discussions; one of the important features of Usenet newsgroups is that they can support an almost unlimited number of parallel conversations, and readers can choose which conversations they want to read and to which postings they want to reply.
However, new media present three difficulties for this conventional model of celebrity. First, there is the issue of celebrity itself. JMS still publicly maintains his "innocence" in the face of the cult of personality lie has helped create. He denies the auteur label and may indeed believe that fans do not see him this way, despite all the evidence to the contrary. While fan icons—such as Gene Roddenberry—have previously attained this status, none have done so in such a direct personal spotlight as the new media cast on JMS. Second, the new media encouraged unprecedented closeness and intimacy. JMS has felt free to discuss his religious beliefs, his childhood, his writing technique, his relationships with cast and production company members, and many other details of his life that would likely have remained unexplored without the new media. This degree of intimacy and self-revelation place Usenet vituperation in a different category: much closer to home than slander in a supermarket tabloid. In a way, personal attacks became truly personal because the man against whom they were directed chose to put so much of himself online. Third, there is the sense that the attacks on the auteur poison the fan community as a whole. For better or worse, fans develop and maintain relationships through the new media. They begin by reading each others' postings to the newsgroup and often move to private email exchanges and to face-to-face meetings at fan conventions.
On December 7, 1995, the Lurker site announced that JMS would "rejoin" the newsgroup, via some (unspecified) mechanism similar to that initially rejected by Jarrell. It appears that he received a filtered version of the group, consisting solely of the questions and posts directed specifically to him, presumably from approved posters only. It is hard not to draw a comparison to a medieval king and his food tasters, sampling each dish to be sure poison would not pass the lips of the sovereign.

References

  1. "In the final analysis, I think we've made a little history with this show, . . . had an effect on how SF " Television will he done henceforth, and brought a "screw 'em, let's go for broke" philosophy back to the genre, which (personal opinion) had grown, in TV, a bit on the stuffy side. Bar fights, main characters who lie, bad guys who do good things and good guys who do had things, bathrooms, fasten/rip and lessons in Centauri anatomy, we've broken some of the taboos, and I think that's a positive thing." -- a post by JMS to Genie computer network, August 19, 1994
  2. This statement by JMS has the tone of something Harlan Ellison would say. Coincidentally, Ellison was a creative contributor to Babylon 5.
  3. William Huber, post at Aftermath: Should we all go (Attn:JMS); archive link, December 1, 1995
  4. from An Auteur in the Age of the Internet: JMS, Babylon 5, and the Net (1997)
  5. Alex Rootham: comment on the Usenet post To Theron: You Don't Understand; archive link, December 5, 1995
  6. William Huber, post at Aftermath: Should we all go (Attn:JMS); archive link, December 1, 1995
  7. quote by JMS from "JMS on Story Ideas," a section of the "Babylon 5 Creative site."