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.