Monthly Archives: November 2009

Relative Taste

I’m having a really hard time with the idea that taste is merely relative. Of course, I agree with Bourdieu that our taste is shaped from an early age and is shaped by a various forms of knowledge. However, despite acknowledging rationally that there is no real foundation for a hierarchy of taste and culture, my gut instinct is that the idea of pure relativity in terms of taste is false. ( I have the same problem with supposed relativity of morals.)
In Jenkins’ Textual Poachers it almost seems that in the cultural studies shift to looking at the individual’s method of relating to and using an object has gone too far. Jenkins argues that “Fan culture muddies” the boundaries between legitimate and non-legitimate culture (or taste) by “treating popular texts as if they merited the same degree of attention as canonical texts.” However it seems clear to me that the fact that fans of star trek are interacting with star trek in the same way academics interact with Dostoevsky does not immediately mean that both Dostoevsky and Star Trek are on equal playing fields. It seems to be that there is a huge discrepancy between knowing and interpreting Dostoevsky’s work because it fascinatingly and imaginatively grapples with huge problems, such as the role of the Catholic Church, the problem of evil, man’s relationship to freedom, etc. etc. and knowing and interpreting a particular chick flick because it fascinatingly and imaginatively grapples with problems of finding and and seducing a goofy, nearly useless husband. (Wow this is really going off a deep and mushy end, but even if you look at food, it seems very hard to argue that something such as Warheads cannot be seen as anything other that worse taste than fresh bread. Bread provides nutrition in a way that warheads don’t and Crime and Punishments provides more nourishment for the “soul” than a chick flick ever could… I know some of you are going to rip me apart for this. In my defense I haven’t been sleeping lately.) Although, to kind of argue against my own point, Jenkins also seems to suggest that fans are not messing with the legitimized hierarchy of taste with the recognition that culture should not be hierarchical. Rather they are “muddying” the boundaries because they believe that the work which they are a fan of is superior to other works. Jenkins gives the example of a fan of Beauty and the Beast who paints a history of TV shows which is dominated by particular works that stand out from the crowd of broadcasts that are “characterized by their ‘poor writing, ridiculous conflicts offering no moral or ethical choices, predictable and cardboard characterizations……’”(17).
I’m not sure what to make of this…

Gender and Fandom

I really enjoyed Jenkins section on “Emotional Realism and Gendered Readers.” He defines emotional realism through Ien Ang as way to describe how viewers relate to the situations in television shows as “symbolic representations of more general living experiences.” The ways that viewers can emotionally invest in television shows, especially when they feel they have created an emotional attachment to a certain character, points to an increase in television fandom.

Jenkins discusses how emotional realism can be applied to gendered readings of a text. Women engaged with the text (television show) emotionally, investing in the relationships, while the men focused more on the writing of the story and external structure of the narrative. The example of Star Trek and Twin Peaks was used to show how women identified with the character development of ST while the male viewers of TP used the Internet to discuss the overall mystery of the murder on the show. Jenkins also points out that the female fans used a discussion of the show to fuel a gossip session where they related events in the show to their own lives; this type of discussion was completely absent from the male dominated message boards on the internet.

I was interested in how Jenkins took this discussion further to analyze how women have a more nuanced readings of texts because they are forced to circumnavigate a predominantly male driven field. Female viewers dissect the character development of shows so that they can rewrite the shows in some way that can serve their own entertainment interests. This was also applied to the ways that women will watch male gendered shows with other male viewers, such as cop shows, action movies, and science fiction shows, and be able rewrite the show in a way that gives them pleasure. By contrast, men rarely do this with female gendered shows such as soap operas and melodramas. Therefore, although the production of television may be male dominated, women have found ways to empower themselves as viewers by learning nuanced viewing techniques, which give them ability to re-appropriate texts in a way that is not seen with the male population. Males are taught to just de-value the female centered shows. Jenkins acknowledges that this only harms both populations. He quotes Segal and says, “Every trespass onto masculine fiction terrain by girls must have reinforced the awareness of their own inferiority in society’s view.”

This discussion goes back to the ways that from birth we are put into specific gender roles, brought on by gender stereotypes that are embedded into childhood rearing practices. I am not sure what Jenkins would advocate. Would he want to see more shows with gender neutrality? Or a balance of shows offered to each gender? Does marketing to a specific gender only reinforce gender stereotypes instead of opening up a discussion of gender? Or, does only focusing on gender neutral shows leave out issues that might appeal to one sex or the other?

Expecto Fanfictionum!

If anyone is dorky enough to desire further information/fun reading on fanfiction, check these out:
Here you can read about the countless genres contained under FF’s umbrella. The categories are kind of mindblowing in their variety and application to different original source materials.

“The Draco Trilogy” – Cassandra Claire
This is a fanfiction based on Harry Potter. It’s also more than 2,500 pages long. Seriously. It’s considered one of the most legitimate Harry Potter fanworks out there and has been reproduced in print and in downloadable PDF form online. It’s super entertaining and very inventive, sticking faithfully with JK Rowling’s writing style. It’s no longer available online but, um…I have it on a flash drive.

Sh*tty writing – it’s a cultural thing

I watched this video about different cultural styles of writing the other day, and though fairly ridiculous (scenes of brush painting were followed by those of a close-up of a hand writing in Arabic, all nicely accompanied by generic “exotic” music) it made me think twice about my all-too-common rants against the incomprehensible writing styles of the theorists we read.  How much of their styles can be attributed to different cultural conventions for writing, and how much of my own dissatisfaction – well, let’s be honest here, anger verging occasionally on hatred – is due to my training to write in a more direct and explicit “American” style?  And though I do still hold that there is something deeply hypocritically about critiquing the classed nature of taste or the hegemonic function of the traditional intellectual while writing in a way only accessible to those deeply entrenched in academia, I wonder what would be lost if all theorists were as straightforward as I wish I could demand them to be.

Just something that’s been rolling around the brain.  And, if anyone wants to watch Writing Across Borders and be carried away to a magical land where music involves a lot of reed pipes and writing is likened to entering a cultural jungle, I’ve got the hookup…

Jenkins the g

I’m really enjoying Textual Poachers, not only because of its nontraditional subject matter (trekkies! – ah, excuse me – trekkers) and its clear prose (what? You can simultaneously theory-speak and make sense?!), but because of Jenkins refusal to simplify complex, contradictory realities and his ability to anticipate my own misgivings within his text.

Following our discussions of Radway’s Reading the Romance, I’ve been struggling with the proper ways to approach the topic of reading and reception.  Though moves to foreground the consumer seem inherently empowering, an effort to contradict the common image of the mindless, manipulated consumer, there is still the potential for patronizing, pedantic evaluations of consumption.  Jenkins recognizes this in Radway’s work, noting the ways it “cast writers as vanguard intellectuals who might lead the fans toward a more overtly political relationship to popular culture” (6).  According to Jenkins, the way to avoid this tendency to “judge or to instruct but not to converse with the fan community,” is to be a fan yourself, to locate yourself as a participant in the very cultural phenomenon you are describing (6).  We talked one day in class about the distinction between anthropology and cultural studies – that anthropology is the study of cultures other than one’s own, whereas those in cultural studies engage with their own culture – but often the texts we read assume the same academic distance, portraying the author as somehow removed, above, and more capable of grasping the cultural object than those being discussed.  At the same time, though, they are in many ways all of these things – right?  As I said, I’m torn.  Jenkins, however, deals with this skillfully, never assuming the position of instructor or enlightenment-provider.  (As a side note, I wonder if Jenkin’s argument that a scholar must be a part of a community to write about a community is reminiscent of the very argument Said was arguing against in terms of race, gender, or nationality at the end of Culture and Imperialism.  Is it different to say that only fans can write about fans than to say only women can have insight into the experience of women?)

But at the same time that Jenkin’s recognizes the real awareness and agency of fans, he does not fail to recognize that their productions are contradictory, often equally oppositional and hegemonic.  While reading the first portion of Jenkin’s book, I began to wonder what would happen if one of Radway’s readers became a writer.  Would she be as subversive as Jenkin’s fans appear to be – even while writing stories in which patriarchal gender relations are celebrated?  Shouldn’t there be a distinction between a practice that resists hegemony, and the content of that practice, which can reinforce dominant ideology?  Jenkins, however, anticipates this challenge to his argument, presenting a much more nuanced interaction between individual and culture than we have found at other times: “To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors” (34).  Touche, Jenkins, touche.

Fanfiction…THE…final frontier.

I don’t know if a Shatner impression translates well into print. But let me tell you, I know a thing or two about Star Trek fandom. My high-school beau SPOKE KLINGON. And tutored it to other fans. And sent designs for several new spacecraft to the show in high hopes. Not the best relationship, all things considered. When you’re 16, you definitely do not want Lieutenant Uhura to be “the other woman.”

Anyway, Textual Poachers had some excellent insights into the nuances of fandom and the strange space it creates for textual analysis, community participation, and consumption of a narrative. I was struck particularly by one point Jenkins made just before the end of chapter 3, when he discusses “emotional realism.” On page 115, he cites Elizabeth Flynn in a discussion of the careful balance between the fan’s detachment and overinvolvement. The “productive middle ground” from which ST fans read the show is comprised of a distinct “sense of self” and a sense that the world within the show is real and that “characters maintain a life…beyond the screen.” Flynn also argues that too much of one or the other will either result in a lack of strong ties to the show (not helpful in fandom) or emotional intanglement which results in an enslavement by the story and character arcs.

Jenkins argues that ST walks this line perfectly, as its world reflects many of the same issues, processes, and personality types that we actually experience. Fans feel comfortable critiquing the goings-on in the ST universe, and also feel a sense of intimacy with the show because of the easily-made direct comparisons with real life. Truisms from the show (i.e. “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) are  simultaneously applicable to our livable philosophy. When the realism is sullied by a ridiculous character or unrealistic injustice in the ST world, producers and writers come under fire rather than the characters imbued with realism and humanity.

Predictably, I am now thinking about LOST. Lost was a straight-up character show in season 1 – the diverse cast was dropped into an insane situation and human relations carried the plot, rather than vice versa. Although the setup was fantastical – a mystical island, cursed numbers, whispers in a remote jungle – the script was grounded in the natural progression of friendships, romance, and dawning survival skills. And we, as viewers, found emotional realism, becoming rabid about dissecting the motives of each character. However, once the hatch was opened and people began to time-travel and rise from the dead, the show’s audience felt violated, even mocked. I know I was, and my compadres online will probably agree – LOST “jumped the shark” once the show moved its center from character development to the supernatural and uncontrollable unfolding of events.

Maybe this “emotional realism” is about a semblance of control over the occurences of the fictional world – as long as the characters are moving events along as a result of their own thoughts and actions, we can deal with suspending disbelief. Once the plot gets out of control, however – meaning, it progresses without the impetus of humans – we feel exploited as a TV demographic, and not as active participants.


Here’s an interview with a more radical copyright infringer, Mark Hosler of Negativland…[youtube][/youtube]

Textual Poachers

I really enjoyed reading Textual Poachers because a lot of the topics bordered on my own research topic (music and copyright). One way in which the two directly connect is in Jenkins’s discussion of copyright law and reappropriation. Jenkins brins up the example of Slaysu, a fanzine that “routinely published feminist-inflected erotica set in various media universes” (31). He analyzes this reappropriation as drawing “on elements from dominant culture in order to produce underground art that explicitly challenges patriarchal assumptions” (31). Although this artwork constitutes a transformation in the original media from which it draws, under our current copyright system, it is illegal because it uses copyright material. Jenkins then quotes Barbara Denison as saying that a corporation trying to control the use of their copyrighted material “has misread both the copyright law and probably the Declaration of Independence” (32). Although Denison is correct that the Constitution does explicitly state that copyright is intended to increase the incentive of struggling artists by giving them control over the work they have produced, she is incorrect in her accusation that the corporations have misread copyright law. In fact, copyright law gives corporations the ability to be authors (“corporate authors”, as it states in the Copyright Act of 1909), and even sets up different guidelines over how long these corporate authors can control a work, giving them ownership of a work they have a contract to for either 95 years after publication or 120 after creation, whichever comes first. As many critics have pointed out, this legislation is dated in a technological age in which it is easier than ever for fans and “amateurs” to take the media that they love and constitute their own art out of it. Larry Lessig, one of these critics, notes that our culture has shifted from a RO (Read/Only) culture, in which fans are more likely to passively consume culture to a RW (Read/Write) culture, in which fans are more likely to remix and transform art that they like. I think the concept of “textual poaching” cuts to the heart of this matter (although I failed to include it in my first draft), and it shows that really, we have always been a RW culture, only that it is now easier than ever for the W aspect of this culture to be published and shared.

Reading the Romance

Sorry this is so late!

I found Radway’s arguments to be very interesting and unlike any other texts that I have read before. Prior to reading Reading the Romance, I never thought of the publishing industry for romance novels as a sophisticated means of churning out formulaic books that are guaranteed to sell. Radway reveals the many conventions that come together to form either a “good” or “bad” romance novel. I think that most consumers do in fact judge a book by its cover and title, but it seems that this practice is performed most often by readers of romance novels. Using data that she gathered from Smithton readers, Radway analyzes the literary conventions that readers would like to see in a romance novel that they are reading. It is not surprising that most readers are looking for a moderately detailed love story and a happy ending but do not want to read about bed hopping or rape. Radway goes on to connect this information to the idea that we live in a patriarchal society, and romance novels only serve to perpetuate the ideology that women are weaker than men. While Radway’s text is a great introduction to this field, I think that her lack of scientific data and limited sample size restrict the scope of her argument. I also found Radway’s section on escapism to be particularly interesting. Radway argues that these women read romance novels as a means of temporarily escaping their lives. However, I would be more interested to know why these women, and all women, want to escape and what they are escaping from. Is it simply a way to get away from the mundane aspects of their lives and go to a faraway place or is it something more complex?

contextual poachers

This phenomenon of reading deeply into what would have previously been perceived as “low culture” (reading the romance as well as this essay) in order to extract elements of academic merit is at times baffling to me. I had to step back from the reading and remind myself exactly what we were talking about (how easy it is to get swept up in the prose). It is very hard for me to see these star trek fans as creating/having any kind of agency due to the fact that at the end of the day they are merely over consuming mass media to the point of it’s logical end. Having said this, I have to add that I did really enjoy The Velveteen Rabbit connection at the beggining of chapter two, I think it really helped me to put the whole thing into a larger perspective rather than focusing my efforts on trying to accept star trek as valid (truthfully my opinions here will always show through, I hate Star Trek). The idea that something becomes “real” or validated through the “loving” of that thing is such a simple yet beautiful understanding of culture (I’m a die hard velveteen rabbit fan, or I used to be…). I think I will make this my credo from now on. Can something be canonized within culture through the hating of it? Could the author have just as easily dissected the culture of furbies or something to that effect?