Intensities interviews Henry Jenkins @ Console-ing Passions

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Intensities interviews Henry Jenkins @ Console-ing Passions
Interviewer: Matt Hills
Interviewee: Henry Jenkins
Date(s): July 7, 2001
Medium: online
Fandom(s):
External Links: online here
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Intensities interviews Henry Jenkins @ Console-ing Passions is an extensive (almost 23,000 words!) 2001 interview with Henry Jenkins. It was conducted by Matt Hills.

Matt Hills talks almost as much as Jenkins.

"Console-ing Passions" was a conference held at the University of Bristol.

Some Topics Discussed

Official Interview Sections

  • (I) From textual poachers to media convergence: producers, texts, consumers
  • (II) On the politics of fan studies
  • (III) Fan studies: The Next Generation?
  • (IV) Fandom and/as religion? The power of the metaphor ...
  • (V) Moving towards an 'affective semiotics' ...
  • (VI) Uneasy relations? Fan studies, psychoanalysis and theories of popular culture
  • (VII) Fan ethnographies: encountering the 'real' or decentring academic expertise?
  • (VIII) Textbook versions of fan studies ...

Some Excerpts

When I first starting saying at academics gatherings, ‘I’m a fan’, I felt a bit like Davy Crockett waltzing into the US senate dressed in buckskin [laughs] - “I’m a real frontiersman”. There’s a sense in which I’m embodying this community that I’m writing about, but it’s nevertheless the case that it becomes a myth the minute you assert it in a particular space; it’s a mythic identity as well as a lived identity, and its shock value comes from the assertion of something that was unspeakable at a certain point in time.
I think to some degree what’s happening is a media industry being forced by an interactive age to become more accountable and more responsive to its audience than previously. We could read this as a case of audience resistance being co-opted into the commercial economy, or we could say the commercial economy is making certain adjustments to negotiate a space for an audience it wants to hold on to, at the risk of losing it altogether into the audience-produced text. I would tend to be more optimistic, as always – always an optimist! – so I tend to say that really some of what’s happening is new kinds of accountability or responsiveness of the commercial text to the fans. Having said that, I think it still matters what is in the commercial product and what is in the grass roots or fan-produced product. It’s important to hold on to some distinction because I think most fans operate with a distinction between the authority granted a textual producer and the tentativeness with which fan interpretation or fan fiction is greeted. There are occasions where that tentativeness gives way to moral outrage, in which fans will position their own views over that of the commercial producer. Those are interesting ruptures in the relationship, but I would say that much of the time there is a tendency to say ‘it may be true if it’s in a fan text, it is true if it’s in a commercial text’.
When you see things like that it’s very hard to look on fans as a ‘powerless elite’, to use John Tulloch’s term, because they have actually created models for alternative story-telling that have fed back in a variety of ways to the commercially available text which has had to respond to their fantasies in order to stay on the air. So Xena, for example, pulls toward a slash reading of Xena and Gabrielle and makes it virtually explicit in the text. You can’t watch the series without thinking of the producers playing this elaborate game in which they provide material they know will become raw material for slash stories on the web or the resources for fan debate and interpretation. And that is built in. And to some degree, the play with programme history and character back-story on these shows assumes an informational infrastructure that’s provided by fans creating websites to talk about this stuff, such as web-based episode guides that are more thorough than the commercially-available ones. Independently, people are archiving the episodes, watching them more than once, being able to refer back to earlier moments, and informing each other about what the back-story is at any given moment of the text. The result is a televisual text much denser in narrative opportunities for fans than before; it has been designed to accommodate fan-fiction reading, not treat fan-fiction reading as some sort of opposition imposed on the text from the outside.
Star Trek fandom was born out of a traumatic break in the ranks of sf fandom. Literary sf fandom could not deal with the gender shift in its own population, and Trek fandom was born. If you look at it historically, it’s at the moment that women writing literary sf are gaining critical mass and visibility; they’re starting to go to science fiction cons and they’re not comfortable there because it’s been a boy’s club for thirty or forty years. There’s a lot of hostility to those women, a lot of argument that Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin aren’t writing real science fiction. The ‘hard/soft’ sf split takes place, and it’s at that moment that Star Trek emerges as a series that offers a foothold for female fans to insert themselves into the science fiction realm, because there are at least professional women in the series. However flawed it may seem to us today, there was an assertion of professional competency there that women gravitated to. If you look at the early organisers of the Star Trek letter-writing campaign they’re always women, like Bjo Trimble, who themselves had been literary science fiction fans but felt in some sense expelled from that realm.

There’s always been a division in fandom between those fans who value their proximity to the official producers and stars and those fans who value their distance. Both sides are there. If what your fandom is about is saying ‘I know Gene Roddenberry or J. Michael Straczynski personally’, which is a zero-sum - you can be closer or further away than someone else – then your fandom means one thing. If your fandom is ‘I can create my own fantasies without regard to what the producers or stars want me to think’, then this depends on distancing yourself from the official. You’re staking a claim for the meaning of the text, but with no certainty over the authority that will be granted to you or whether your work will be taken seriously.

[snipped]

I think there’s a continuum; it’s not an either/or. Many fans do feel drawn towards at least seeing the person in the flesh; there are some fans whose total interest is in access, and there are some fans who have total disdain for this, who won’t go to a commercially run con and who couldn’t care less about getting an autograph from a performer. And most fans probably fall somewhere in between, where it’s nice if you see the celebrity, but that’s not what their life hinges on. Their own creative fantasies generated by the text, and in reaction to the text, are more important to them.

[snipped]

Within that continuum there are often heated battles, so that someone who’s more on the ‘poacher’ extreme might use the term ‘Meegat’ to refer to the people on the other extreme. Meegat was a character in Blake’s 7 who discovered the mythology that Roj Blake and his crew had created and who worshipped Kerr Avon. Kerr Avon encounters this person who just sucks up to him constantly and treats him as a God and he is so turned off and repulsed by this figure… so that term got picked up in the Blake’s 7 fandom, and a Meegat was someone who just wanted to have access to Paul Darrow or Terry Nation. Each fandom has its own way of talking about that kind of person. But the division is an intensely felt one within the fan community, and I think it’s having to renegotiate itself during this age of more participatory culture generated from the commercial sector.
There are terminology wars that still rage today; the term ‘Trekkie’ did not originate in the Star Trek fan community, it was a term applied by literary sf fans to these women who were now attracted to television, and it was an exercise in cultural hierarchy. A Trekkie is like a ‘groupie’ – the idea of the ‘Trekkie’ is someone who wanted to tear clothes off Leonard Nimoy like female fans wanted to tear clothes off The Beatles. But the female Trek fans immediately said ‘no, we don’t want to do that, we’re interested in a fictional universe and we want to be part of Trek culture, and so we’re Trekkers not Trekkies.’ So that battle erupted in terminology, and the journalistic community gravitated toward the more derogatory term that could be traced back to the literary sf fans. That’s why that term took root, and only recently has a more active vision of fandom displaced it – now we see fewer and fewer articles that use the term ‘Trekkie’, and more and more of them using the word ‘Trekker’.
I think fan studies hasn’t sufficiently acknowledged divisions within fan culture itself. A couple of recent writers, yourself included, have started to push on the notion of fandom as one big happy family, and really look at disputes, disagreements, factions, and hierarchies within fandom – whatever its ideals of itself, which I think are a legitimate thing that I talked about in Textual Poachers. The ‘weekend-only’ sort of notion that I talk about in Poachers is a very real set of ideals, and to some degree fan culture lives up to those ideals. But to ignore the degree to which there are internal disputes or exercises of power within fandom is not to do justice to fandom as a living community, but to turn it instead into some sort of myth for our own utopian imagination. So I think that’s a problem that comes out of writing about popular culture from a political or moralistic stance.

We could have had [fan critiques], but the problem was that institutionally the academy wasn’t ready to accept a non-academic intellectual, and technologically we didn’t have the same level of resources to provoke and support dialogue between communities as we have in the web environment. When I wrote Poachers I did, to some degree, seek fan feedback: I mailed copies of every chapter out to fans and got their feedback, and I have a huge folder of letters filled with often very detailed critiques of Poachers, but there was no public space where that debate could take place. It might happen at a fan club meeting that I wasn’t invited to, but there was otherwise no way, because of the technologies available at the time…

[snipped]

I tried. I did my best. A lot of revisions took place. There was a significant amount of change between a first draft and a second draft as I wrote through and responded to those critiques. What I regret now is that I rendered a lot of that invisible. It would have been much more interesting to integrate the back-and-forth dialogue within the text itself, but there are only a couple of places where I acknowledge that process. Since then I’ve really looked at how to create a dialogic text that reflects a plurality of voices, and ‘Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking’ (1998) was a model of a dialogic text, and yes, I do have a piece in there because I was part of the fan community that I was drawing on, but I don’t label it as somehow distinct from the other fan voices there.

That’s really tricky to know what to do with. There are T-shirts which have the cover of Textual Poachers on them which circulate in the fan economy, and the work of that artist, Jean Kluge, went up in value within the art hierarchy of fandom because it was associated with the book. She became a more valuable fan artist as a result of that. So you can’t go in and totally shed academic authority, which is so ironic to me; I’d been involved in the fan community for a long time, and I was just leaving graduate school when I wrote Textual Poachers. In the academic world I was truly puny; I was not yet a heavy-weight by any stretch of the imagination, so that this book carried the authority it did was a little disarming.

I saw myself as an agent of dialogue. But it’s not just academics who police this dialogue. The fan community has an investment in academic authority on one level, and yet, as you suggest, other fans say ‘sod off, don’t bring this language into our space, you making too much of things that don’t matter’, and there’s a resistance, an anti-intellectualism in some fan circles that equally makes it hard to create that kind of dialogue. We all bring our own baggage to that conversation, which is to say that the identities of the fan-academic or the academic-fan are always problematic ones that have to be sorted through, even though I think there’s more freedom to shed that issue today.
As an academic you speak with a certain degree of authority. I can’t be a normal fan anymore, not because I’ve somehow distanced myself from fandom, but because I’ll walk in the room and the response is different. When passages of your book are used as signature lines on peoples’ emails, and when fan websites describe Henry Jenkins as ‘the guy who dignified fandom’ then these sorts of statements make it very hard for me to speak without it in some sense carrying a level of authority that I’m uncomfortable with. It’s not what I want the relationship to be between fans and academics, but because the press calls on me as a spokesman for the fan community week-in, week-out, my role gets communally reinscribed in journalistic practices, and because Textual Poachers has now been passed from generation to generation of fans, it’s one of the things you read when you want to be integrated into the fan community. They say, ‘you want to be a fan? Read this…’ It’s become a sort of ‘how to’ book.

References