Fan Cultures: Studying Fan Studies

Cover of Fan Cultures Title: Fan Cultures

Author: Matt Hills

Year of Publication: 2002

LC Call Number: HM646 .H55

I apologize for the generalizing nature of this post; I had to turn in the book last week, so I can’t have it near me while I write, as I usually would.  It isn’t quite the right book to write about from memory, either, as it’s quite dense!

Despite its inviting cover image, Fan Cultures is a heavy, theoretical book in which Hills questions some of the prior work on fan culture while proposing different ways forward.  If the reader is up for very dense academic writing, this is actually a good way of becoming more familiar with the academic dialogue around fandom.  Hills is very interested in deconstructing what he calls the “moral dualisms” that have sprung up in the study of fans.  For this reason, each chapter is titled according to a contrast between perceptions of fandom: “Between consumerism and resistance,”  “Between knowledge and justification,” etc.  So if there is a group that sees fans, unsympathetically, as particularly enthusiastic consumers, and an aca-fan contingent which sees fan production as a site of resistance, Hills shows how each group is flattening the diversity of fan communities, privileging one group of fans over another, and reifying the concepts that they discuss. He argues for a dialectical view in which both ends of this continuum are acknowledged.  He argues pretty vigorously and attacks essentially everyone who has worked on this. This is one of the things that I like most about academic culture, actually; he can write a book about everything that is wrong with fan studies today, and Henry Jenkins, who is the king of fan studies and whose work Hills critiques in several places as defensive and naïve (while obviously still acknowledging it as important), still writes a blurb for this book.

This approach has interesting consequences. One of the moral dualisms that he is most interested in breaking  down is that between fans and academics. There’s been a lot of work on the similarities between the two groups;  although I am relatively early in my foray into fan culture research, I’ve definitely come across it. However, Hills notes that this work tends to set up a contrast between fan cultures and academic culture that either privileges academia as rational, dispassionate, and more legitimate, or to construct fans as rebellious and cool.  In either case, it allows academia to go mostly unexamined, granting it the subject position.  As I say, this gets a bit dense and theoretical. Hills suggests taking on a more sophisticated point of view in which it is acknowledged that, shockingly, academics have emotions and strong preferences and opinions; he recognizes that there is a risk of losing credibility for this but argues holding prestige based on supposed neutrality is, actually, harmful to social science research.  In a way, although there’s a critique of the likes of Henry Jenkins for building up fans as an idealized, democratic community and ignoring other aspects of fandom, this argument is a logical extension of the defense of fans mounted by such scholars, who were struggling for the legitimacy of fan cultures.  According to Hills, we need to consider not only fan-scholars (fans whose practices are similar to those of academic), but also scholar-fans (scholars who are also fans), to break down some of these distinctions.

Hills spends the first half of the book engaged in this sort of deconstruction.  He covers all the bases: the pathologizing narratives to which fans are often subject, the scholarly characterization of fans as creative and collaborative, and the problems/benefits of making fans experts on their own experiences and communities. Again, he walks through all these dichotomies in a way that illustrates what the important inquiries in this field are, which is valuable to me as something of a novice here.  By the second half of the book, he begins to demonstrate alternate ways of approaching fan scholarship.

His most important contribution in this book, or at least the one that I found most intriguing, was his use of the fan autoethnography. This is the logical outcome of his argument about scholar-fans;  he is studying, specifically, himself, and attempting to do so without justifying his choices and while at the same time understanding all the sociological factors that led into his decisions. This seems like quite an extraordinary thing to do; he’s gone into some detail about how fan accounts of their own fandoms both can and cannot be trusted, showing how there are some aspects that fans cannot really articulate and other places where they feel they must justify themselves, but he has also been adamant that self-reflection is important, because nobody else is examining academics.  So, he makes a timeline of his own fandoms and how they’ve overlapped with each other, and attempts to account for it with reference to his social position over the course of his life, including his gender, his social class, his race, and so on.  It’s probably his least dense/most engaging chapter, and I think it is an interesting and healthy exercise.  It may be a useful thing to ask students to do, even though they will not be able to achieve Hills’s rigor, because it gives them an opportunity to look at their fandom from a perspective other than “I like this” or “this is good.” Once this is done, it becomes possible to look at other fandoms with less prejudices, as well.

He covers some other important questions of fan studies as well. There were two other sections that I found especially interesting. One had to do with the texts that seem to attract cult fans; is there such a thing as a cult text? Hills identifies several aspects of a text that may help to put it in this category;  following another critic, he defines this as a “family resemblance” but it reminded me more of a DSM diagnosis—the text should have some of the characteristics from this list, but may not show all of them.  Of course, being Hills, he declines to say that the cult status of a text is based fully on the characteristics of the text and not the way that the audience uses it; for Hills, it’s always both.  In any case, the characteristics he came up with were interesting; leaving space for fan production seemed especially important, but there were several of them.  I may have to revisit this text at some point.  The other  section of the book that I found intriguing detailed Hills’s visit to Vancouver as an X-Files fan; the city of Vancouver seemed to provide little in the way of support for media tourism, but the savvy X-Files fan can find subtle reminders of the show’s presence in the city. Seeking them out like clues, the fan re-enacts the experience of watching the show.  It’s an interesting meditation on the relationship between a media product and the way that the fandom of that particular property is enacted, and I’d like to compare it to other forms of media tourism. I’m also vaguely reminded of my own visit to Hawaii; I didn’t go there as a LOST fan per se (I am a LOST fan, but when I went to Hawaii, I really just wanted to hike around and look at volcanoes and nenes and things), but I nevertheless found myself keeping an eye out for things that reminded me of LOST. The two shows are similar in their use of mysterious clues for the viewer and the protagonists to attempt to puzzle out, and so things that look like clues have a similar effect. Of course, Hills assumes it’s already been established that we lead a mediated existence, so he doesn’t present this as some kind of staggering insight—but it’s interesting how a place appears to take on characteristics from media.

Anyway, this certainly wasn’t an easy read, and I certainly can’t share it with my students, but I think I got a lot out of it and will be applying Hills’s ideas to a lot of what I read in the future.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Fan Cultures: Studying Fan Studies

  1. Thanks for your review and for introducing me to a new author and subject. I liked some of your points; such as the way places get related to shows for fans. I am afraid, however, that Hill reminds me of much that I love and hate about academia and the direction of recent research. Certainly I want to know the perspective of authors and what has shaped them, but sometimes books become too narcissistic. sometimes I care more about a subject than about its author and the personal qualities of academic debates.

  2. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Hills is narcissistic. He writes about his own experiences, not because he thinks he is important, but because he wants to break down the artificial barrier between academics and the people they study, and he wants to remove academia from the privileged, invisible subject position.

    His attacks on other authors are also far from personal; in fact, I suspect these people are all friends in real life. But I guess you know how that works.

  3. Pingback: Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Study ALL the Fans! Use ALL the Methodologies! | onereadleaf

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