Toward The Notional Pastime

Hey folks!

Well, clearly, I have failed, once again, to hold up my end of the blogosphere… I don’t know what to say–I know that many of you out there somehow manage to balance work, school, relationships AND online writing–but I just can’t seem to do it!

What I CAN offer, for the nonce, is my impression of where my work on the 60s/70s Marvels fits into contemporary fan culture scholarship. Any comments would be very welcome!

Good afternoon friends!

Toward The Notional Pastime:
And Back Again?

       Audience Studies was born in the crucible of modernist anxiety over the possibility of citizenship (defined as rational, self-possessed participation in discussions of national importance) under the star/satellite of mass communications, and most subsequent work in the field has continued to orbit this fundamental concern. Mid-twentieth century critics tended to assume the incompatibility of subjection to the products of the “culture industry” with enlightened (or, perhaps more accurately, Enlightenment-style) subjectivity, and projects like Adorno’s were, for the most part, exercises in “damage control”. From a Bourdieusian perspective, it is clear that the sociological aims of these scholars were severely undermined by misgivings about popular culture rooted in bourgeois notions about the exalted place of “Art” as a transcendent space. However, most of the empirically-based research which has developed in response to the “effects model” of audience studies has been compromised by an equally bourgeois faith in the autonomy of the self-reporting interview subject (in lieu of the autonomy of Art). Recently, scholars like Henry Jenkins have been moving away from a discourse which results in either the vilification of popular texts or the valorization of their audiences toward a mode of analysis which is sensitive to the absolute interdependence of these two elements. This bodes well for the future of audience studies—which, in order to remain relevant, will have to focus more rigorously upon the ways in which participation in democratic politics and fan fora have converged.

        Audience studies has been haunted, from the first, by the dream of “Art” as a place which offers a transcendent vantage upon what is; and the nightmare that “what is” (not material conditions, but the ideological structures which order those conditions) will instead succeed in operationalizing artistic production to such an extent that it functions solely to help cope with the inevitable stresses manufactured into subjects under the always-imperfect auspices of hegemony. The two halves of this binary correspond very closely to the “public”/”crowd” opposition which structures a great deal of modern political discourse. By this logic, reflective contact with art (if possible, in the privacy of one’s study) is good training for responsible citizenship, a concept which is premised upon the Enlightenment notion of the rational, deliberative subject. To immerse oneself in popular/mass culture, on the other hand, is nothing less than to heed the siren song of “false consciousness”. The Adornian model assumes that a rapt audience is inherently programmable, and hence that rational activity in the arena of mass culture is detectable only at the point of what Stuart Hall calls “encoding”—although the fact is that Adorno’s own work in this field, with notable exceptions like The Stars Down To Earth, dwells on the fact of immersion (and the strategies by which that attention is held), rather than upon the particular messages encoded directly onto the Mass Mind.

        Any cultural theory which seeks to move beyond this “passive audience” model must ground itself, at least to some extent, upon the writings of Michel de Certeau. On the whole, however, the fan culture studies which have come in the wake of the publication of The Practice of Everyday Life have been highly selective in their borrowings from de Certeau’s richly nuanced portrait of contemporary life. A great deal of this post-Adornian scholarship has been unabashedly celebratory in nature, but the most important of these studies—such as, notably, Henry Jenkins’ recent work on “convergence culture”—have attempted to balance their reconstructions of fan subjectivities with an account of how these agents interact with techno-socio-political structures.

        The Practice of Everyday Life intervenes, on several fronts, in a number of modernist and poststructuralist discourses on life under the sign of mass culture. The author harries the “producer/consumer” binary at every turn, demonstrating the ways in which a reified understanding of this divide has limited theorists from Adorno to Bourdieu to Foucault. De Certeau’s project differs drastically from the aforementioned in that his concern is not with subject-formation, but rather with subjectivity itself (understood, in startlingly 19th Century Romantic terms, as the other of scientific/rationalizing discourse).

        De Certeau approaches this topic from a variety of perspectives, but the most influential of these leads him to the image of the “poacher”, a figure which crystallizes his ascription of Barthesian prerogatives to all members of society (and not merely a literary elite), vis a vis the unfolding text of everyday life in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  Beginning with the undeniable fact (which, paradoxically, must be denied by Enlightenment pedagogy—the discipline from which all of the modern social sciences have sprung) that a book cannot “mean” until it is read, de Certeau builds toward the conclusion that no discourse, regardless of its tactics, objects, or political content, can successfully “inform” (in the strong sense of the term) its audience. For de Certeau, a text cannot hit the reader “where s/he lives” (nor can it serve as raw material for a Bourdieusian habitus), for, in a very real sense, texts are where readers live—although that “life” is never assimilated to—or at home within—discourse. In de Certeauian terms: “readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write” (174).

        A corollary of de Certeau’s insistence upon “the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of [all] readers (or television viewers)” (172) is an emphasis upon style (in Foucault as in the everyday reader/interpreter/critic) as the irreducible trace of a subjectivity which resists rationalization—and it is this emphasis which lies at the root of almost all subsequent fan culture studies. Lisa Lewis’ introduction to The Adoring Audience very clearly acknowledges this debt:

The collection of essays as a whole is designed to give fans the recognition and respect they deserve as cultural producers and creative respondents to the social milieu (6).

However, as is perhaps implicit in this brief passage (and as is certainly proved by the overall tenor of the essays in the collection) the fruits of this empowerment project have tended to conflate unilateral expression with meaningful political action, without very much analysis of the ways in which these responses actually interface with the “social milieu” (a tendency shared by the “romantic” chapters of de Certeau’s bi-phasic work itself).

        In fact, despite their protestations to the contrary, most of the essays in The Adoring Audience could easily be characterized as apolitical (if we define political writing as that which intervenes explicitly in contemporary power arrangements). Exemplary, in this regard, is Joli Jenson’s “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization”. Jenson begins by stating that:

The literature on fandom is haunted by images of deviance. The fan is consistently characterized (referencing the term’s origins) as a potential fanatic. This means that fandom is seen as excessive, bordering on deranged behavior. This essay explores how and why the concept of fan involves images of social and psychological pathology (9).

The imperative here, as Jenson admits later, is to convince the reader that fans are “just like us” (“students, professors and social critics”). However, in order to achieve this aim, she must downplay the modernist critique of society to such an extent that one is left with the impression that, really, there is nothing wrong with contemporary social arrangements. Fandom is described as just another way (no different from “aficionadohood” OR scholarly endeavor?) of coping with inevitable modern stresses which aren’t seen as eradicable, or even particularly troubling in themselves. Jenson’s sole interest, at least in this essay, is to illustrate (and to deplore) the hierarchization of these coping mechanisms—with fandom’s place at the bottom of the totem pole blamed upon a very simplistically-defined “elitism”. It is very hard to see what an essay like this contributes to the project of social critique, other than a host of dressed-up mantras such as these:

I believe what it means to be a fan should be explored in relation to the larger question of what it means to desire, cherish, long, admire, envy, celebrate, protect, ally with others. Fandom is an aspect of how we make sense of the world, in relation to mass media, and in relation to historical, social, and cultural location. Thinking well about fans can help us to think more fully and respectfully about what it means today to be alive and to be human (27).

The tone here is, to a certain extent, explained by reference to the often misanthropic language of the literature to which Jenson is responding. However, this does not alter the fact that nothing much is gained, and a great deal is potentially lost, when scholarship becomes so concerned with ushering in an “Era of Good Feelings”.

        This being the case, it is fortunate that British Cultural Studies developed a more thoroughly sociological approach to “audience studies from the bottom up” during the same period (the seventies and eighties). The empirical turn in media studies—away from a “naïve effects” model of audience influence (and away from Jensonian populism), toward the audience itself—restored a sense of the contestability of culture to the scholarship, although this achievement was compromised, at least to some extent, by its methodological dependence upon yet  another species of naïveté. Scholars such as David Morley, Janice Radway, and Jackie Stace (all heavily indebted to Raymond Williams and, especially, Stuart Hall) have contributed mightily to our understanding of the concrete circumstances in which mass cultural products hit their fans. However, as each of these writers has acknowledged, the attempt to read media texts out of their old place of privilege in the analysis has only tended to throw the spotlight onto another type of text—namely, the interviews and monographs designed/produced by the researchers themselves. It is important to note, therefore, that Raymond Williams’ (whose work set the stage for the discipline’s ethnographic turn) early warning that “there are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses” (20) remains an important rudder for scholars who wish to avoid running aground upon a too-easily identifiable (or quantifiable) mass subject.

        David Morley’s seminal study of The ‘Nationwide’ Audience demonstrated both the strengths and the weaknesses of the new methodology. Heavily-reliant upon Stuart Hall’s (at that time) newly-minted “encoding/decoding” model, Morley’s explicitly class-based analysis showed that British viewers’ acceptance of the (inferred) “preferred reading” of the evening magazine show’s presentation of the news (namely, that all of the country’s citizens were “suffering together” through an economic recession) depended very strongly upon their perceived stake in the political status quo. This achievement was not negligible. Morley’s study offered definitive proof that audiences could not simply be coerced by the media into accepting a worldview which ensures their continued subjugation.

        On the other hand, when viewed outside of the context of the discipline (i.e. apart from its corrective impact upon the media effects debate), the weaknesses of The ‘Nationwide’ Audience become obvious (even to its author). In the first place, Morley has no trouble accounting for the divergent (“dominant”, “negotiated”, oppositional”) readings offered by his subjects, because their responses accord perfectly with his pre-understanding of social stratification in late modern capitalist states. There is no hint in the book that Morley is surprised by his findings, nor does he seem to expect his readers to be—the whole point of the work is to demonstrate that the class-based self-understandings of his respondents did/can resist the hegemonic pressures of a Nationwide program which manifestly does not speak for all of the nation’s citizens.

        Morley acknowledges his role in structuring these audience responses (and even, at least to a degree, in structuring the audience itself) in his “The ‘Nationwide’ Audience: A Critical Postscript” (1992, 119-130). The most important aspect of this discussion centers upon the vexed concept of the “preferred reading”:

Is the preferred reading a property of the text per se? Or is it something that can be generated from the text (by a “skilled reading”?) via certain specifiable procedures? Or is the preferred reading that reading which the analyst is predicting that most members of the audience will produce from the text? In short, is the preferred reading a property of the text, the analyst, of the audience? (122)

Morley cautions that there are no definitive answers to these questions—a situation which threatens to destabilize any inquiry which relies upon the preferred reading (or some variant) as an interpretive key. However, Morley also contends that audience studies would lose its socio-political bite if it absolved itself of the responsibility to investigate the workings of hegemonic processes (a responsibility which would seem to require some decision on the part of the researcher as to what the status quo is), and calls for a model which strives to make up for deficiencies in our understanding of the moment of “encoding” by paying increased attention to the multifarious (and intersubjective) vagaries of cultural “decoding”.

        Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing each build upon Morley’s work by importing his research methods (and, more crucially, his assumptions about audiences) into very different reception-contexts. These two authors demonstrate the extent to which the “media effects” model had continued to influence Morley by forcing him to engage with his subjects at the level of the explicit content of the cultural texts in question. Radway and Stacey, by contrast, urge their respondents to dwell upon the concrete moment of reception, at the expense of the textual messages received. Both authors marshal (with varying degrees of cogency) the responses/reminiscences of their subjects in support of the argument that female readers/spectators counter-intuitively achieve a moment of liberatory equipoise by straddling the patriarchally encoded realms of the actual (home/family life/expectations) and the ideal (romance and comfort on the big screen or the printed page), thus sustaining a utopian (and potentially politically enabling) feminism which does not seem to be (in fact, could not possibly be) present in either of these realms. Radway (and, to a much lesser extent, Stacey) does evince a great deal of skepticism on the matter of whether the women’s self-observed empowerment can be channeled into more socially-observable forms of empowerment, and even expresses the fear that such utopian “escapes” could, in fact, be politically debilitating (in effect, acknowledging the common-sense definition of “escapism”).

        Such (understandable) wariness concerning the subject’s ability to self-report (and, ultimately, to self-authorize) has forced empirical audience studies out of its naïve phase. This is not to say that ethnographic methods have been discredited, or that the pendulum has swung back toward literary critical or psychoanalytical models of the relationship between media and audiences. It is merely to say that no account of the ways in which these two elements (if they are, in fact, separable things) intersect is today in the ascendant.

        Regardless of the terminology they’ve employed, or the success of their endeavors, scholars have always approached popular culture with a view toward understanding its role in political life. Frankfurt school theorists began with the assumption that the phenomenon was short-circuiting class consciousness (and even good citizenship), and struggled to come up with a program for counteracting this effect. De Certeau added complexity to the discourse by theorizing the ways in which audiences might be capable (without critical guidance!) of resisting the ideological imperatives contained within the products of the Culture Industry”. This led to a proliferation of empirical studies conducted in the hopes of measuring (and explaining) whether (and how) fans’ commitments to various forms of media constituted a help (and herein lay a note of optimism not found in De Certeau) or a hindrance to genuine popular enfranchisement.

        However, with this empirical turn came a turn away from the “big questions” mid-20th century critics had been asking, because an interviewer is very unlikely to ask her/his subjects (whom s/he has sworn to respect), point blank, whether they are “dupes”. Moreover, many of these books, notably Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing, fail to convey any real sense of the drama of hegemonic contestation. More recently, certain scholars have attempted to circle back toward the crux of the matter, by a variety of alternate routes.

        Roger C. Aden’s Popular Stories and Promised Lands seeks to tease out the explicitly political implications of the escapism/Utopian-refusal link posited by Radway and Stacey. The book’s key conceptual contribution, the “symbolic pilgrimage” of fandom, draws upon an impressive variety of disciplines, notably cultural geography, anthropology, and Bourdieusian sociology. Aden’s argument depends upon the somewhat simplistic notion that human life, in its essence (always a dangerous word!), is a search for “places that matter”. A corollary of this assumption is that, in a modern landscape devoid, for all intents and purposes, of ”meaning” (in an ultimate sense, akin to “the sacred”), these sites must be constructed through imaginative investment in the fictional worlds made available by the media. Aden goes on to claim that this has always been the case. It is a variation upon the “religion/pop culture is the opiate of the masses” critique, with the twist that Aden is interested in demonstrating the ways in which that opium (perhaps a more sociable drug/metaphor is in order—ecstasy?) might help to foster the development of community/political blocs.

        Aden’s reasoning that the “escape” into popular culture necessarily entails a certain transcendence of the habitus (he makes explicit use of Bourdieu’s terminology throughout the book) parallels the arguments put forth by Radway and Stacey (although Radway, at least, is far more cautious in making these claims). Together, these authors (among many others writing during the same time period) present a plausible reversal of the traditional understanding of “escapism”—although it is equally plausible that habitus encompasses the “escape”. However, Aden makes very different use of the link between escapist immersion and Utopian refusal of the status quo than his predecessors had. For Aden, the resort to popular culture is not merely a symbolic withdrawal—it is a “symbolic pilgrimage”. The distinction lies in the explicitly social character Aden ascribes to the movement. In this endeavor, he relies heavily upon anthropologist Victor Turner’s work on pilgrimages—especially upon the concept of communitas (defined as “a special sense of togetherness that exists outside the habitus”, Aden, 82):

 Unlike many modernist definitions of ritual that treat it as simply reinforcing established patterns of behavior and beliefs, then, Turner, envisions the ritual associated with pilgrimage also as a purposeful challenge to those established patterns. Pilgrimage is undertaken as a purposeful escape from an unsatisfactory habitus, and it provides like-minded individuals with an opportunity to the communitas they find lacking (Aden, 84).

Aden then examines the various fandoms/interpretive communities/sites of communitas surrounding Dilbert, The X-Files, Sports Illustrated, and Field of Dreams in an effort to prove that these configurations of otherwise heterogeneous (under the dominant culture’s classificatory regime) people, empowered as much by their differing interpretations of the media in question as by their shared interest in/enjoyment of it, can serve as (mobile) sites of resistance to the status quo/any homogenizing force. He is not entirely successful in that endeavor, and the greatest defect of the book is its absolute disinclination to consider the particular opportunities/limitations offered by the content of each of the affectively galvanizing texts in question.

        Liesbet Van Zoonen’s Entertaining the Citizen suffers from a very similar weakness, although she approaches the relationship between the populace and the mechanisms of the dominant structure from the opposite direction—asking whether popular culture might not offer a model for the re-energization of participatory democracy. She argues that rationalist objections to the ways in which political life has been “debased” by “soap operazation” do more to impede the development of engaged citizens than the conditions they deplore. Anticipating objections, Van Zoonen clarifies that she is not talking about turning Presidential campaigns into American Idol contests, but rather about seizing upon the “fundamental and helpful similarities between the active fans of participatory multimedia entertainment and the committed citizen that [pundits] look for” (145). She goes on to envision a political culture (possibly inspired by—and, if not, certainly parallel to—Jenkinsian “monitory citizenship”) that would properly channel the natural enthusiasm of its people by making use of the narrative techniques of serial narratives and the anything-but-uncritical interpretive communities they entertain.

        The most problematic aspect of this stylish argument is that, once again, and despite the explicitly political focus of Van Zoonen’s book, the mode of participation she envisions for her active audience is inherently accommodationist in character. The program of political revitalization she discusses shares many features with Florentine Republican theory—a fact which she acknowledges during the course of her defense against anticipated charges of “populism”:

…from Bourdieu’s proposition that the political field is structurally inclined to withdraw into an ever-smaller group of expert representatives, it follows that a populist reaction is an inevitable counterforce to the structural contraction of the political field. De Haan connects populism to the classical republican ideology of the Italian city-states, which proclaimed an inexorable cycle of politics, in which professionalization is followed by a popular reaction, a change of power, and—inevitably—a new cycle of professionalization, reaction, and change… One of the Hollywood presentations of politics as a story of an individual hero out on a quest to replace a self-serving political elite—think of Dave and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington—is thus not simply a product of the individualism that is thought to sell best to audiences, but also the outcome of an unshakable tradition in political history and theory (147-48).

This is all well and good, but it is the furthest thing from true ideological critique. Ideas, in fact, have no place in this type of political discourse—which filters all debate through the lens of “moral integrity” and “corruption”, the assumption being that ideals are agreed upon, in principle. The best Van Zoonen can offer is that the convergence of politics and popular culture will enable a wider array of people on the “outs” (who may not vote for Presidents, but have considerable expertise in decoding soap opera narratives) to observe and speak out against flagrant abuses of power

        This conservative (or, non-radical) turn in audience studies has its empirical correlative in Eric Smoodin’s Regarding Frank Capra. The book dwells rigorously upon a definite body of texts (films by the celebrated director) and the specific range of responses they elicited from across a broad spectrum of American and international publics. This is, in part, a function of a very specific opportunity (the preservation of an immense trove of audience-response documents dealing with these films), and Smoodin makes it clear, through a brief history of Film Studies which laments that discipline’s estrangement from its sociological roots, that he has no particular interest in subjecting these movies (or the responses to them) to nuanced, humanities-style analysis. At least on the surface, Capra’s films are nothing if not supercharged with a sense of the importance of  the debates concerning American citizenship that they depict, and Smoodin structures the book around the ways in which “the cinema came to be seen by many average viewers as contributing directly to regional or national discussions about political issues” (140). He argues that, at least during the period in question (the thirties and forties), audiences did, in fact, crave emotionally gratifying mass culture which spoke directly to the perceived questions of the day—a move toward precisely the kinetic blurring of entertainment and citizenship that Van Zoonen recommends. However, Smoodin then complicates matters by juxtaposing this discussion with an adjacent chapter which centers upon the use made of these films by government agencies for the purpose of motivating or “rehabilitating” its soldiers and prisoners. On this point, at least, there can be very little doubt—the context in which a film is viewed can drastically alter an auditor’s relation to it. The reader is left to wonder what becomes of the supposedly liberatory function of politicized cinema, if the national status quo itself is viewed, as many social critics do see it, as a vast ideological prison.

        The fact that Smoodin can do very little to address this centrally-important question is a function of the methodological limitations of his book (a weakness shared with most of the empirically- and theoretically-oriented works surveyed this semester)—an overemphasis upon the individual auditor, and upon the private thoughts/writings of same, made public long after the fact. Given the resources at hand, he certainly had no choice but to approach (and to theorize) his subjects in this way; and yet, with the search for communitas (or some form of politically enabling notion of fandom) in mind, it behooves us to reorient our focus toward fans’ awareness of other fans (rather than of stars, characters, or interviewers). Smoodin quotes, approvingly, Jackie Stacey’s appraisal of audience research’s “shift from [a methodology concerned with] the textually produced spectator … to the spectator as text” (Smoodin, 11). I would argue, rather, that it should never be forgotten that cultural industries do produce the sites upon which fans interact, and that the conditions of these interactions are, to a very large extent, determined by those industries.

        Henry Jenkins, whose early work—“Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten”, for example—was very much in the Adoring Audience mode, has moved increasingly, with his theories of “convergence”, in the direction of addressing this gap in the scholarship (although he, too, may not sufficiently account for the industrial stewardship of fan culture). Whereas, in the eighties and early nineties, critics like John Fiske (and Jenkins himself) worked to establish, in Bourdieusian fashion, the culturally conservative function of the delegitimization of fandom, Jenkins’ most recent project explores the potential that these formerly shunned networks might have to revitalize an intellectually gutted democratic political culture. Unlike Van Zoonen, Jenkins is interested in the possibility that new ideas, rather than simply new enthusiasm, might bleed out of fandom into the political realm proper. For the Jenkins of Convergence Culture, it is no longer enough to point out that fans perform essentially the same types of exegetical operations that literary theorists do—it is a question of assessing the impact of all of these types of discussions upon political, social, and technological world of today.

        The two most valuable conceptual tools in Jenkins’ current arsenal are technological convergence itself and the notion of “monitory citizenship”, which is built, in part, upon theorist Pierre Levy’s distinction between “shared knowledge” and “collective intelligence”. As employed by Jenkins,
“collective intelligence [is] the sum total of information held individually by the members of the group that can be accessed in response to a specific question” (CC, 27). The emphasis placed in this passage upon the response to a question, rather than upon the expression of an unsolicited opinion, is indicative of the shift in fan culture studies under Jenkins’ stewardship. This new schema interprets fan involvement as a kind of para-citizenship, rather than as an escape from the crushing experience of liberal-democratic subject formation –and while it may be true that Jenkins’ figure of the “monitory citizen” (259) is far too invested in the culture that s/he is supposed to keep watch over (rather than transform), the model does undeniably establish a way to channel the energy of the reader back into the everyday politics of the state (to an extent that de Certeau would undoubtedly find compromising).

        What Jenkins’ work lacks is a clearly theorized model of the relationship between cultural industries (as opposed to “producers”—a term which has been democratized, perhaps prematurely, by scholars of the Jenkinsian persuasion) and the people they service. In some ways, the rapid development of the internet has led to a dangerous loss of focus upon this once-crucial aspect of fan culture studies. There is no denying that the proliferation of fan-controlled sites (in effect, digitized fanzines) has ushered in a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year open season for textual poaching. However, the inevitable upshot of this, at least in the American context, has been the eruption of classic “trust busting” and “small producer” discourse into a new arena. A great deal of attention has been paid to the opportunities afforded by the cultural and technological moment, but there has been very little discussion of what it forecloses upon.

        It could be argued that the single most important change wrought by the new media centrifuge has been the decline in the importance of “broadcasting” (in the most expansive possible sense of the term—i.e. the tradition, not only in radio and television, but also in film, publishing, etc. of aiming cultural materials at the widest possible audience). While this has had many very progressive and liberating effects, it has also seriously undercut the chances of any major ideological realignment emerging from the pop cultural arena. The decentering (or, least, the perception of such a process) of media power in America (and the West in general) has had no discernible impact upon the consolidation of socio-economic power, and has cut the members of its increasingly multiplying audiences off from one another in the bargain. Yes, through the help of technology, fans are coming together in more and more intimate ways—but they are also less and less likely to know anything about the kinds of entertainment their next-door neighbors are interested in.

        The proof that this is not a favorable sign for those who cherish progressive/radical political aims can be observed in a myriad of ways, from the decline in government scrutiny of most media (why bother, when there’s no one to preach to but the choir?) to an increasing paucity of icons which “mean something” to a huge cross-section of the populace. The fact that a phenomenon like the “Red Scare” is not conceivable under contemporary conditions may seem like a good thing, but it could in fact be a sign that the (Culture) Industrial State Apparatus has so successfully secured itself (and not, as Adorno or Althusser might have feared, through nakedly propagandistic consolidation—i.e. a “Big Brother Channel”—but rather through a dizzying display of diversification) that “subversives” cannot affect it. Guerrilla fighters have discovered that the easiest way to avoid to defeat is to forego the luxury of a command center. However, as Carl Schmidt prophesied in The Theory of the Partisan, their opponents also have the option to adopt this approach—and this is perhaps the best way to understand what has been occurring on the battlefield of cultural production. If this is indeed the case, then Jenkins’ state-of-the-art observations, as accurate and cogent as they appear to be, may be missing some very significant aspects of the landscape.  

        How best to regain a clearer sense of the total picture? Jack Z. Bratich has persuasively argued that a constructivist approach to cultural studies, characterized by its understanding of the distinction between “audience power” (which is constitutive of power relations—being the force which hegemonic forces develop in response to) and empirically constituted audiences (which are always already discursively produced), might offer a very flexible conceptual arsenal to a discipline which should, by now, be alive to the dangers of overestimating the autonomy of both texts and their audiences. The idea that all acts of cultural production/interpretation occur upon the sufferance of hegemonic power (to act outside of that structure would be to forgo interpretation/communication altogether) is an important one, and a valuable legacy of the older media studies which should not be abandoned with the more outmoded ideas these critics cherished about the power of “Art” to grant access to a transcendent never-land beyond ideology.

        Another approach to this problem would be to pay attention to the historical development (and possible contemporary demise) of dramatized fan interaction on the stages prepared for this purpose by industrial concerns with pretensions to nationwide service. This is why I believe that the pre-internet comic book industry presents such an important case study in the structuration of fan interaction (with each other, and with texts). It is really only in the Marvel lettercolumns of the sixties and seventies that fans’ writings are presented coevally with the texts upon which they comment—and while it is certainly true that these particular voices were chosen (or, in some cases, even written) by representatives of the industry itself, this fact should not discourage the researcher who is interested in reconstructing the ways in which these texts manifest their equivocity/cultural availability (rather than proving, for whatever reason, that fans are somehow self-authorizing). What interests me about the place of the fan, vis-à-vis these texts, is not the private meanings she or he may formulate at home or in retrospect, but rather the (often very surprising) range of public interpretations authorized by the producers of the text. The questions I want to ask are: what limit-interpretations were media conglomerates comfortable with putting into circulation? Among these opinions, how were those most harmful to “business as usual” (always the prime concern for any cultural producer wishing to perpetuate itself) dealt with in the text or in the paratext? (Or were they dealt with at all?) And, most crucially of all, upon what basis were the disparate readers (represented by their stand-ins—the published letter-writers) of these texts enjoined to build their sense of community? (and what does this tell us about the ways in which this process works at the scale of national citizenship?)

        The study of such figurations of fandom may not tell us anything about the empirically quantifiable consumers of these products, but would presumably reveal a great deal about the ways in which the culture industry aspired, for its own purposes, to encompass a multiplicity of voices/interpretations within a single textual fold. In the right circumstances then, an industrial producer of popular entertainment could (if the content is conducive to it), much against its will, help to enable a potentially significant, even socioculturally transformative, mass discussion (a discussion, moreover, that has manifestly not ever taken place in the explicitly political arena) of the nation’s most central ideas concerning ethics and citizenship, all in the spare time of its audience members.





Aden, Roger C. Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages. Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Alasuutari, Pertti. Rethinking the Media Audience: The New Agenda. London: Sage Publications, 1999.

Bauwel, Sophie van. “’The Public is Dead, Long Live the Public’: Audience Studies and the Complexity of Conceptualisation,” International Journal of Communication 1 (2007), 14-17.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Bratich, Jack Z. “Amassing the Multitude: Revisiting Early Audience Studies,” Communication Theory  15, Issue 3 (Aug2005), 242-265.

Brooker, Will and Deborah Jermyn, eds. The Audience Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.

Cohen, A.P. The Symbolic Construction of Community. London: Routledge, 1985.

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  1. Every day with a Motime Like The Present update is a good day for me!

    I’m looking forward to reading this essay *and* “Darkling I Listen” which I’ve finally ordered. The book isn’t immediately available — I have to wait 1 or 2 weeks — but maybe my order is insofar special as it’s the first of “Darkling…” through


  2. wow that’s exciting news Franz! (to me, at any rate!)

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the essay and on my first book! (I’m not sure what I think of it anymore–but it’s always a thrill to know that people out there are checking it out!)

    And please forgive me for failing to follow up some of the excellent leads/prompts you’ve sent me during this blog’s dormant periods–I almost always READ the links, I just never seem to find the time to think about them in print!

    thanks again!


  3. Terrific essay, Dave! And it strikes many sparks in my head about “preferred readings” and cultural industries — for example I’ve been thinking a lot about newspaper-based book reviewers in particular (and with the opening of Dark Knight, movie reviewers almost as much) as the dark twins of fan communities, not as generators of “preferred reading”, although I’m sure that’s how they’d all like to be considered, but as a self-identifying group allied with both the culture industries and the “fan” communities, and deciding in each review how to manage that double allegiance. Hmm, now that you mention it, maybe it does work just as well for movie reviewers…

    In any case, to me it seems that when culture industries produce (accidentally?) texts that authorize multiple divergent public readings these days, they generally end up with smash successes. Yes? No? Well, as Cathy Jones would say, never mind me, I’m just goofin’ around…

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