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?

Trekkies vs. Trekkers vs. Lovers of the canon

While I think Jenkin’s book does present some very interesting points. there are certain areas where I think he’s just plain wrong, or perhaps intentionally manipulating information? The major problem for me comes near the beginning of the book. Jenkins talks about the fact that Start Trek fans are not “Trekkies.” While I most certainly agree that Trekkies are an exaggerated representation of fans, and that most fans are not like those represented, I think it’s naive to say that none of the Star Trek fans are a little extreme. Part of the reason people took such notice of the Star Trek phenomenon was because of the level of fandom. Jenkins then goes on to state, on page 17, that “The fans’ transgression of bourgeois taste and disruption of dominant cultural hierarchies insures that their preferences are seen as abnormal and threatening by those who have a vested interest in the maintenance of these standards…” Jenkins basically argues that the Star Trek fan culture is frowned upon because it does not fit in with the bourgeoise canon, and the rules that go with it. I don’t think this is why people feel strangely towards hardcore Trekkers. Jenkins talks about how the ways in which people interpret and read Star Trek is uncomfortably different from the rules and norms of reading the canon. Um, I don’t think this is the reason people respond so strongly towards Trekkers. In general, when people make fun of them, it is mostly focused on their allowance of the show to take over their lives, and I think this is really what people on some level take issue with. Furthermore, I don’t think this is a bourgeois response, I think it’s something else. It’s not just the bourgeois who mock Star Trek fans, people of all classes seem to find it odd. Furthermore, people who allow canonical works to have such a large impact on their lives are also viewed as strange. The only examples I can think of off the top of my head are not really educational, but they’re from a popular movie/TV show. Firstly, in “10 Things I Hate About You” a character is completely obsessed with Shakespeare. She dresses like him and drags aspects of his works and his life into her daily life. It makes her a freak. In an episode of “Gilmore Girls” there’s a Poe society with a group of obsessed Poe fans who are portrayed as ridiculous. Because they are. For me, fans of any work who take it too seriously and overly incorporate it into their ordinary lives is someone I view as bizarre. I think Jenkins needs to clarify that he is talking about people looking down upon those who enjoy Star Trek in an equal manner to the way in which some enjoy canonical works, and not those Star Trek fans who take it a step further.

Stereotypes about Fans, Poachers, and Nomads

Henry Jenkins provides a nice mix of theoretical framework and popular culture in his book Textual Poachers. In the introduction he explains the way that his book “offers an ethnographic account of a particualr group of media fans, its social institutions and cultural practices, and its troubled relationship to the mass media and consumer capitalism” (p. 1).  Jenkins critiques the idea of maintaining an objective approach (etic) to ethnographic research and explains that there is subjectivity embedded in the so-called “objective” stance. Jenkins further argues that the distinction between the reader and the writer become blurred and the appropiation of the text gives it a different meaning or concept, a kind of ‘life’ of its own.

One of the aspects I liked most about this book is the way Jenkins weaves other theorists and their work in the study of his media culture. I think that one of his main strenghts lies in the way he cites other theorists and yet discusses a topic most of us can identify with, which grants it academic authority. I couldn’t help but wonder if a woman writer such as Radway would have been able to pull this off. I also thought some of the points Jenkins made regarding gender differences were overgeneralizations. Though I’m no expert on Fan subcultures, it seems odd to think that most fans are actually women and that the way that men and women read texts is very different. Though he acknowledges that these gender difference are not innate but social, his statement has some reductionism to it. He states that Bleich’s theories on child development and language acquisition reflect “the boy’s push for authonomy and the girl’s close identification with the mother and desire for affiliation, closeness, and community” (p.112). I do not want to dismiss these cultural or sociological factors of enculturation, but caution to avoid essentializing gender differences.

I really enjoyed reading about the functionality of gossip and the four major classes, being house-tlak, scandal, bitching, and chatting. I have always wondered why we enjoy gossip so much and the way it fulfill some sociological need for people.  Jones explains how “It is in terms of the details of the speakers’ lives and the lives of those around them that a perspective on the world is created” (p.80). Do we see major gender differences in the way we engage in gossip and its function? 

The part G.A.L. (Get A Life) made me reflect and feel sad about the lonelyness of some people who attempt to find a more rewarding alternative reality. Many of us at one point or another have made fun of the fans of Science Fiction shows and criticized their fanatic behavior towards fiction. I found reflecting on the way that we are all fans of one thing or another sometime in our lives. Jenkins states teh way that fans always know others who unlike them, are ‘really hardcore’ (p. 19).  What does it mean then to be really hardcore? What is hardcore to me, may not be to someone else. Particularly, we can always ‘blame’ someone else for being ‘worst’ than we are.  Overall this book has so many topics to discuss that I really found it very interesting. I’m looking forward to our discussion tomorrow.

Digital poachers and the future of fan production

Jenkins makes a compelling case for the serious study of fan culture as form of “textual poaching,” a site for the active production and manipulation of meaning. Fandom not only produces new meanings from its source material, but also encompasses a variety of material productions. He proposes, “Media fandom gives every sign of becoming a permanent culture, one which has survived and evolved for more than twenty-five years and has produced material artifacts of enduring interest to that community.” (49)

Jenkins’ assessment of the longevity of media fandom has proved correct—some cultures have fallen into obscurity (Doctor Who?) while others have risen to prominence (greetings, Twihards!) but on the whole fan production is just as vital an activity today as it was at the time of Jenkins’ writing, and arguably more so. However, the playing field of mass media has changed significantly since that time, creating new options as well as new problems for fandom. Key here is the central role that digital technologies and the Internet now play to media fandom.

In Intro to Digital Media Studies, which I took last semester with none other than our fearless leader Prof. Fitzpatrick, we discussed the case of Red vs. Blue, a video series based on the Halo video game series. Red vs. Blue is what’s known as machinima, “the use of real-time three-dimensional (3-D) graphics rendering engines to generate computer animation,” typically produced using video game graphics engines. In the case of Red vs. Blue, the producers manipulated Halo characters to create a sort of in-game sitcom, captured video of their “performance,” and added voice-over dialogue. The production team, Rooster Teeth, made the videos available online, and the series quickly became a hit. Clive Thompson writes:

They kept up a weekly production schedule, and after a few months, ”Red vs. Blue” had, like some dystopian version of ”Friends,” become a piece of appointment viewing. Nearly a million people were downloading each episode every Friday, writing mash notes to the creators and asking if they could buy a DVD of the collected episodes. Mainstream media picked up on the phenomenon. The Village Voice described it as ” ‘Clerks’ meets ‘Star Wars,’ ” and the BBC called it ”riotously funny” and said it was ”reminiscent of the anarchic energy of ‘South Park.’ ” Burns realized something strange was going on. He and his crew had created a hit comedy show — entirely inside a video game. (“The X-Box Auteurs”)

Microsoft (who own the rights to Halo) didn’t crack down on the series as an infringement of intellectual property. Rather, they harnessed the enthusiasm surrounding Red vs. Blue to their advantage, commissioning Rooster Teeth to produce in-store advertisements for the game, and even adding features to later versions of the game that would make it easier for fans to produce machinima. Rooster Teeth were later commissioned to produce a machinima series based on The Sims, and later (according to Wikipedia) concert videos for the rock band Barenaked Ladies.

The fan productions Jenkins documents tend to have been produced by and for a specific, small, and close-knit fan community. By contrast, Red vs. Blue reaches a much wider audience—not as wide as the audience for Halo itself, certainly, but wide enough to have spawned its own subset of fan-production fan-producers (for instance, the sub-fans who maintain the Red vs. Blue Wiki.) At the time of Jenkins’ writing, fan production required a great deal of time and effort to put together, and as a basically illegal activity, its distribution channels were limited. Now that the Internet has leveled the playing field in many respects, fan production has become a much more commonplace, visible, and socially acceptable (though admittedly still pretty geeky) activity.

Arguably, fan production has entered the mainstream, and channels of dialogue between fans and producers are more open now than they’ve ever been. But as form of “poaching” that’s still by definition dependent on another creative “landowner,” fan production still faces a unique set of issues that will continue to grow more complex as the activity is integrated into the sphere of mainstream media.

Chick flicks that secretely hate women.

I came across this website that was funny commentary about chick flicks and how the movies “hate” women.