Sunday, 21 December 2008

Mark Jancovich on Horror Studies

Oh the horror

The genre of horror is culturally significant, and should no longer be seen as a political football for left or rightwing viewsComments (…) Mark Jancovich, Monday 26 November 2007 08.30 GMT

When I began to study horror movies, I was motivated partly by my enjoyment of these films, but also by their cultural significance. In the 1980s, when I was a young research student, a series of groups on both the left and the right of the political spectrum were engaged in an attack on both horror and pornography, genres that were said to have dangerous effects on their viewers. These claims were often vague and contradictory, but there was a general sense that these genres were supposed to justify or cause violence against women. In other words, horror and porn movies and the people who watched them were dangerous and needed to be policed.

So the study of horror became a way for myself and others to question these claims and the politics on which they were based, and to begin to understand the strange alliance between sections of both the right and the left on these questions. On the one hand, academics such as Carol Clover showed that slasher films, which were often taken to be the epitome of misogynist horror, actually bore little relation to their characterisation by those who would censor them. If these films often featured a male homicidal maniac, these monstrous figures were hardly presented as the heroes of the piece. On the contrary, the movies were usually distinguished by the presence of a female rather than a male hero, a final girl who dispatched the killer and saved the day.

If Clover and others therefore focused on claims about the films themselves, other academics started to think about the audiences for these films, and demonstrated that they were anything but the mindless zombies often implied. Rather than being unquestioningly controlled by these films, the audiences for horror were often shown to be highly sophisticated and discerning viewers, whose responses were quite different from those often attributed to them.

However, as the study of horror became less disreputable, I also started to become concerned about it. As the field grew, academics started to feel less defensive (which is good) but also began to talk among themselves (which is bad). In the mid-1990s, I therefore found myself at a conference where I had the uncomfortable realisation that my work was no longer contentious. It seemed that most academics felt that there were now so many academics working in the field that we had somehow "won the battle".

But what was the battle? If I have jokingly said that my mission in the late 1980s was to get John Carpenter's Halloween onto a university syllabus, it was certainly far more concerned to oppose those who would censor and control what we could watch and discuss. Unfortunately, it seemed that, for many academics, the fact that we had got horror onto the syllabus proved that we had made it: they seemed to have forgotten that this might not mean that we had convinced anyone in the outside world.

Since then, the study of horror has taken several different directions. First, some academics simply study horror in much the same ways as English departments used to study the Gothic novel: they regard it as an important form of historical significance and aesthetic interest. I have no particular problem with this: I don't think it is scandalous to study horror films seriously, and many are more rewarding than many of the more respectable "classics". However, I also feel that this work ignores some pressing issues.

Second, there are the academics that celebrate the shocking extremes of horror, and suggest that shocking middle-class taste is a goal in itself. The argument seems to go that, if something shocks people, then it must be challenging. This approach I find more irritating. It often simply confirms the superiority of the academic and reverses the values of the censors. In other words, sometimes we might be right to be shocked and appalled by things, and simply ridiculing others for being "uptight" seems to have little real significance.

Furthermore, this kind of work rarely demonstrates any real engagement with the cultural politics of shocking images. If I was originally motivated by the campaigns against horror and pornography in the 1980s, there are now new campaigns against sexual and violent imagery. The government has introduced truly dangerous new legislation (see Section 6 of the proposed bill on the criminalisation of the possession of extreme pornography (pdf)), while a bubbling liberal consensus emerges around the new forms of horror represented by film series such as Saw and Hostel. In short, simply celebrating the shocking hardly engages with the logic of government legislation or more general cultural attitudes developing around horror.

However, there are also two key trends to which I am more sympathetic. The first is best represented by Martin Barker, whose work around audiences and censorship makes a real contribution to policy issues (see his study for the British Board of Film Classification, Audiences and Receptions of Sexual Violence in Contemporary Cinema (pdf)). The second trend is the historical studies of horror such as that of Kevin Heffernan, who has gone beyond a simple history of the films to analyse the ways in which 1950s horror films were crucial to a series of changes within the production, distribution and consumption of cinema in the period.

An understanding of history can enable us to show that campaigns against horror are anything but new, and that they have a rather worrying and unsavoury history. While those who condemn horror and pornography today may feel themselves to be on the side of the angels, an examination of the past quickly dispels any such certainty and may even suggest the opposite.


Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Taste & Fandom - Louisa Stein & Kristina Busse

Taste and Fandom
Posted by Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse on November 17th, 2006

Taste Matters
by: Louisa Stein / San Diego State University

The innovative roundtable structure of the Flow conference facilitated inviting, ongoing conversations. Throughout the conference, I found that ideas raised in earlier panels fruitfully informed and contextualized my engagement with later discussions. For me, the question of taste and evaluation (the topic of my roundtable) emerged as a linchpin in later discussions, particularly those addressing media engagement and the relationship between niche and mainstream audiences. Indeed, I think that incorporating an awareness of taste and evaluation is critical for our analyses of media engagement past and present.

When we try to figure out how our evaluative stance, how our taste fits in with our academic study (be it of TV programs or TV audiences), one dimension of what we're after is how we (as TV scholars and as TV viewers–dare I say fans) fit in relation to mainstream television consumption. During the conference, this question of how we negotiate these different elements of our subjectivity turned to discussion of pedagogy: how can we deal with the fact that in addition to being professors, graduate students, etc., we're also TV viewers with tastes, albeit informed by our academic investments? The taste cultures from which we emerge influence not only what work we choose to do and how we frame that work, but also how we teach TV, what programs we show in class, and what we say about them. Larger questions of how we engage with media and media culture underlie these inward interrogations of the role of taste in our teaching and scholarly work: As TV studies academics, are we a niche? Are we participants in multiple, overlapping (and differing) niches? And how should our positioning affect what we do as TV scholars and teachers of TV?

I fully believe that we have much to gain from integrating our taste into our work and teaching–for our taste will influence us whether we acknowledge it or not. But I would caution against the impulse to equate our taste–not only regarding the programs that we admire, but also the strategies that we admire–with mainstream tastes or with fan tastes. As Kristina Busse points out, such recognitions of similarity can be dangerous; we can lose site of the multiplicity and the specificity of media taste cultures. If we do not closely examine our own position as TV viewers, fans, and participants in online TV cultures, we run the risk of simply equating our own engagement with that of the multiplicities of TV audiences.

At the same time, I would argue that it's crucial that we not overlook the potential connections to be drawn between our media engagement, fannish engagement, and mainstream engagement; if we address the subtleties of our own taste cultures in relation to mainstream and fan taste cultures, the connections and the differences will become more evident. Indeed, in cases like the Lost websites discussed in the “Watching TV Off TV” panel, we do see forms of engagement akin to fannish interactions with TV and the Internet. In response to Kristina Busse's argument in this issue of Flow regarding the specificity of fan behavior, I would suggest that we consider fannish engagement not as something embodied, but as a mode of engagement which transcends self-identification and bodies, and which can be offered and encouraged by the new media interface. These seemingly fannish modes of engagement, interwoven into the interface, may indeed interpellate the Lost website user into fannish behaviors. However, the hailing of fannish modes by online commercial interfaces does not completely level the playing field. There are still differences in community context, cultural values, and yes, taste, which shape media engagement–and these differences surface most lucidly when we assess our own taste investments as well as those of the communities we study.

As scholars studying TV audiences, we often seem to seek out audience communities that appear to us to most closely align with our own taste cultures as academics. I'm not suggesting that we should stop studying the audience cultures that reveal themselves as complex, dynamic, intellectual, and self-reflexive, for the study of these communities is indeed crucial in any assessment of how people engage with media. But our delight in finding our reflection in organic TV communities comes laced with pitfalls. We may rush to dismiss a television program as not having an active audience culture because it doesn't line up with our specific assessment of fan-oriented TV as complex, multilayered, and literary (assessments which match an academic taste-culture.) Compounding this, in seeking out audience communities which seem to resonate with our own taste, we may mistakenly correlate academic and fan cultures, and thus oversimplify fan processes by relegating them to the status of “cult.” In so doing, we risk overlooking interconnections and parallels between fan engagement and (the diversities of) mainstream engagement.

Above all, I would argue that if we are too quick to dismiss our own situation at the intersection of multiple, specific taste cultures–if we strive to bypass our own tastes in order to jump to a non-evaluative space where all cultural work is equally good–our value assessments are simply made invisible. Only by negotiating (I won't say embracing, because that's for each of us to decide on our own) our own evaluative processes, our taste, and acknowledging how those processes fit within or work in conflict with the subject of our study, can we hope to paint a more nuanced picture of the complexities of media engagement. Of course, that might not be our goal–and that in itself is a matter of taste.

Fandom-is-a-Way-of-Life versus Watercooler Discussion; or,The Geek Hierarchy as Fannish Identity Politics by: Kristina Busse

Henry Jenkins has described fans as early adopters and adapters in terms of media engagement, which goes for technology (e.g., downloading episodes, remixing footage) as much as behavior (e.g., extremely close readings, character analyses). Throughout the panel “Watching Television Off-Television,” the emphasis was on how such behavior has become mainstream: casual media users now can engage with a universe that exceeds the television show via cross-media, cross-platform texts, thus creating a synergistic “overflow” experience. Thus, Jason Mittell offered the examples of Alternate Reality Games and additional online-only available footage, Will Brooker presented various fully immersive web sites that invite viewers into the shows' diegetic spaces, and Henry Jenkins commented on the current ease of streaming or downloading television shows. The mainstreaming of fannish behaviors is thus seen as advantageous even if (or maybe even because?) the industry clearly attempts to create such behavioral patterns in order to sell their products and/or supplementary materials.

The central caveat I'd like to offer is that we not wholly conflate such recreations of fannish behavior with fandom per se. In other words, I am worried that in mainstreaming fannish behavior, the concept of the TV and media fan as a self-defined identity, as part of a more or less well-defined community, may get lost, and that other defining characteristics of the fan may be overlooked. Derek Johnson's position paper for the panel illustrates such a theoretical fusion when he describes how “the hyperseriality of multiplatformed television makes it possible for viewers to enter and consume from a position within the vast, detailed, internally-coherent 'hyperdiegesis' ascribed to niche-oriented cult series.”

My central question is: How alike or different is such a commercially constructed position when compared to the space media fans have traditionally eked out for themselves? If behavior is similar, what ultimately separates “fans” from casual TV viewers who engage fannishly? Or, more specifically, how can we define fans without invoking a category so expansive that it includes all media audiences or one so narrow that it excludes large numbers of individualist fans? How can we create a continuum that acknowledges the more intense emotional and actual engagements of many TV viewers today without erasing the strong community structures which have developed through media fandom?

This gets particularly difficult when we start looking at cases in which casual users work collectively, thus creating virtual communities (as in the case of wikis). Likewise, it becomes difficult to encompass the individualist fans who may exhibit fannish behavior in private yet do not appear (or even consider themselves) part of a television fan community. Cornel Sandvoss, for example, defines fandom as “the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text” (8), thus wholly changing the definition from collective to individual and from activity to emotional investment. (The exemplary scholarly study for the former would be Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers, whereas the latter is possibly best represented by Cornel Sandvoss's Fans.)

I want to suggest that we distinguish between fan and fandom as well as acknowledge that there are different trajectories that combine into levels of fannishness. In other words, an intense emotional investment in a media text that is wholly singular may create a fan but does not make the individual part of a larger fandom, whereas a person enacting fannish behavior may not define him- or herself as a fan. It thus might be useful to consider the overlapping but not interdependent axes of investment and involvement as two factors that can define fannish engagement. Moreover, we need to consider models that can differentiate between people who are fans of a specific text, those that define themselves as fans per se, and those that are members of fandom.

It is here that community- versus self-definitions of identity come into play. Politics of inclusion and exclusion are central to concerns over normativity and representability; such issues surface in the identity debates of queer theory and critical race theory but also play out in the subcultural identity politics of fandom. Making the definition too inclusive makes any term as useless as defining it too narrowly: if any TV viewer who visits a website has become a fan, how can we intelligently differentiate those for whom fandom is a central component of their everyday lives, affecting personal interactions and their very identities? Likewise, if we only define fans as convention-goers whose entire social network has been drawn from the fannish community, we exclude the emotional and intellectual engagement of large numbers of viewers for whom a given show may have immense impact on their lives.

I'd argue that defining a spectrum of fannish engagement might be more useful than trying to define “proper fans.” As someone who studies participants within specific fan communities, I feel we need to be aware what point of the spectrum we are studying. For example, Jonathan Gray argues that we need to consider positions of non- and anti-fans. His work serves as an example of a more widely differentiated approach to studying media audiences which could help to refine notions of fandom rather than simply universalize the concept. At the same time, we need to address our own subject positions as fans and academics and examine our investment in defining ourselves and others as fans. Commercially encouraged modes of engagement that employ modes of fannish identity do not create instafans; moreover, the types of engagement often vary, not only with intensity but also with creativity. In the end, I feel it is important to realize that playing a computer game or looking around a website may not be wholly the same as participating in a fannish gift exchange or contributing to a shared fictional universe.

Notes: The Geek Hierarchy can be found here.

Works Cited:
Gray, Jonathan. New Audiences, New Textualities: Anti-Fans and Non-Fans. International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (2003): 64–81.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Sandvoss, Cornel. Fans: The Mirror of Consumption. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

“Watching Television Off-Television.” Roundtable Discussion. Flow Conference. Oct. 26-29, 2006, Univ of Texas, Austin.

Book review at Participations


Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss & C. Lee Harrington (Eds.):
Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World
New York and London: New York University Press (2007) ISBN: 978-0814731826 (paperback), pp. 432

Particip@tions Volume 5, Issue 2 (November 2008)

A Review by Rebecca Williams

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World is an edited collection of essays on the links between fandom, community, and identity within modern mediated society. Containing twenty-six essays and spanning over 400 pages, the book offers a broad contribution to what it identifies as the ‘third wave’ of fan studies. Within this context, the collection aims to contribute to the field by addressing fandom’s’ growing cultural currency and the increased theoretical and conceptual diversity of fan studies. It also seeks to rationalise the continued academic investigation of fans, arguing that fan studies enables us to understand how we relate to those around us and to the media texts which increasingly have an impact in our everyday lives. It is this emphasis on the everyday which the collection seeks to accentuate, along with its insistence that fandom is linked to industrial modernity as a specific form of social and economic organisation. As the editors outline in the introduction, “studying fan culture allows us to explore some of the key mechanisms through which we interact with the mediated world at the heart of our social, political, and cultural realities and identities” (p. 10).

The collection is well-structured and follows a logical path through six sections, beginning with consideration of cultural judgement and the textual object of fandom which has been neglected in much prior work. The second section considers fans of high culture before sections three and four move into the realm of space and place, with the former examining ideas of media spaces and the latter focusing on the local, regional and global contexts of fandom. Section five considers the historical, social and technological contexts of fandom, refuting the notion that fandom is an ahistorical phenomenon and, finally, section six investigates what Jonathan Gray (2003) has elsewhere termed ‘anti-fandom’, considering how feelings of hate, dislike and distaste might intersect with fandom.

There is much to admire in this extensive and wide-ranging collection. The introduction offers a critical over-view of the various eras and phases of fan studies, locating the collection within this history of prior developments and debates. The book should also be applauded for attempting to remedy some of the omissions of prior work and to open up the field of fan studies to a broader range of fan objects, practices and cultural contexts. For instance, the book’s intention to move away from more typical fan objects (Trekkers, sports, soap) towards examining high culture (fans of which have commonly been seen as aficionados (see Jensen 1992)) is deftly executed through a section devoted to fans of news programmes (Gray), critical theory (McKee), Bach and Sherlock Holmes (Pearson) and Chekhov (Tulloch). Similarly, the collection seeks to de-Westernise fan studies and consider the international dimension of contemporary fandom by featuring pieces on the possibility of a global fan studies (Harrington and Bielby) and three case studies of Asian film fandom. Contributors also diverge from the perception of fandom as ahistorical and consider its historical context and fandom as subject to the specificity of shifting contemporary cultural practices. This is examined through exploration of topics such as 19th-century music (Cavicchi), sport and gender (Gosling), gaming (Crawford and Rutter) and online music (McCourt and Burkart).

All the contributors demonstrate a commitment to removing fandom from the realm of the ‘other’ who is in opposition to mainstream society and they instead consider fandom as an integral aspect of everyday life. There is also a healthy dose of the metacritical in many of the pieces and a willingness by the theorists to reflect analytically and self-reflexively on the field and its assumptions, contradictions and dualisms. The book is also notable for the debt it pays to previous theories and work on fandom, both the older ‘grand narratives’ (e.g. in a section which is indebted to Bourdieuian inspired fan studies work on aesthetics and cultural value) but also newer developments (e.g. Brooker’s re-evaluation of Roger C. Aden’s (1999) work on fandom as a form of ‘symbolic pilgrimage’).

Of course no collection is flawless and the editors themselves acknowledge that omissions are inevitable. For example there is no specific chapter devoted to discussion of race (nor, I would add, fandom and sexuality or age) nor analysis of genres such as comic books, telenovelas or teen fandoms. Indeed, most readers could identify their own favourite fan object or theoretical approach which they would like to see covered. However, given the breadth and depth of the book it seems churlish to castigate the book for these apparent absences. Overall, my main point of contention is that some in-depth consideration of the methodological debates within fan studies would have been instructive. Also, despite the editors conceding in the introduction that different types of fandom are accorded varying levels of cultural value (e.g. sports fans are acceptable, Harry Potter ‘fanatics’ are ridiculed), I wish to sound a note of caution regarding the cultural acceptability of certain types of fandom. Whilst, as the contributors argue, fandom is certainly proliferating in modern society, the stigma and pathologising of certain types of fans and fan practices does continue. For instance, Matt Hills (2007) has recently drawn attention to the derision faced by Michael Jackson fans who seek to impersonate him or those who display overt emotivism towards their fan object; a ridicule perpetuated by the very mass media that are often presumed to have embraced and co-opted fandom. Although fandom may be expanding to include new contexts, genres, and activities we must continue to acknowledge that certain types of fandom remain stigmatised and that not all types of fan practice are treated equally.

Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World is a welcome addition to the fan studies canon. The broad range of topics covered means that the book can be negotiated in various ways by readers with different interests and backgrounds. Ultimately, the collection does not seek to close down debate around fandom or to provide a single ‘grand narrative’ of theoretical approaches to fan studies. Rather, it poses more questions and opens up contestation and critique. Nowhere is this clearer than in the polemic afterword provided by Henry Jenkins in which he posits that the proliferation of fandom within contemporary mediated society may render the term ‘fan’ and, indeed, fan studies meaningless. Whether Jenkins’ conjecture is sustainable is open to argument but his conclusion, along with the other contributions, will hopefully inspire those within the field to continue deliberating and researching the theoretical and conceptual concerns which lie at the heart of fan studies. In conclusion, this collection should be a key text in the study of fandom but will appeal equally to those interested in audiences, identity, and media more broadly.


Aden, Roger C. (1999) Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages, Alabama: University of Alabama Press.

Gray, Jonathan (2003) ‘New audiences, new textualities: anti-fans and non-fans’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 6 (1): 64-81.

Hills, Matt (2007) ‘Michael Jackson Fans on Trial? "Documenting" Emotivism and Fandom in Wacko About Jacko’, Social Semiotics, 17 (4): 459-477.

Jensen, Joli (1992) ‘Fandom as pathology: The consequences of characterisation’ in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, London: Routledge.