Friday, February 12, 2016

Cultural Omnipotence and the Aca-fan [Core post 2]

In his book Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture, Richard Burt criticizes Henry Jenkins' work, accusing him (and fan studies more generally) of making “attempts to recuperate popular culture fandom by interpreting fan discourses as expressions of dissident subcultures” (Burt 14). He argues that, “In conflating the critic and fan, cultural critics fantasize that the academic can cross over and adopt the extra-academic, popular position, indeed, can occupy all the positions even though they may be contradictory” (Burt 15).

While Burt’s overall argument is rather more nuanced and goes on to suggest a number of interesting things about the nature of the popular, the political, and the critical, I want to address only the above point for the purpose of this post: are aca-fans trying to engage in a fantasy of cultural omnipotence, as Jenkins' hyphen suggests? In laying claim to multiple positions relative to texts, are they trying not to destroy the conservative hierarchy that privileges academic criticism over popular readings, but to ultimately expand their own critical authority to cover all possible territory? Do they want to have their cake and eat it, too?

For those of us who assume dual identities as academics and fans, this question is worthy of serious consideration and reconsideration. For me, no matter how many times I (re)approach it, I always seem to reject it on the same basis: the claim that academic and fannish identities are somehow mutually exclusive does not resonate with my personal experience, because, like Jenkins, I identified as a fan long before I identified as an academic. In fact, I would challenge the notion that scholars and fans engage in dramatically different relationships to texts to begin with.

To suggest that academics always read with critical distance, or, as Jenkins says, “in conformity with established critical protocols” (472), is to deny the dynamism inherent in the shifting act of reading. If, in accordance with postmodern sentiment, we accept the instability of texts (both in terms of possessing fixed meaning, and in terms of everyone (or no one) having the interpretive authority to identify that meaning), then there is no reason to assume that all or most academics approach texts in a uniform manner, or that “scholarship” or “criticism” are activities with their own fixed meanings that are understood and agreed upon by all. If texts are unstable, the act of reading is variable, changes with each iteration (even when the words on the page do not), and should not be generalized or understood as a totality. Neither, then, should “criticism” be understood as such.

Academics are also textual “poachers”, in some sense, because everyone is. De Certeau’s suggestion need not apply only to fan interpretations: to read is to poach. What is reading, if not a series of “advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text” (Jenkins 471)? In the case of scholars, the material appropriated from the text may be that which best serves the “established critical protocols” demanded by particular production needs--perhaps that of peer-reviewed scholarly publication, for example, which certainly has specific codes and conventions demanded by one’s participation that are distinct from other forums (I will hardly deny the difference between a post on tumblr and a “formal” paper as texts, for example, though I maintain the reading processes that produce them may not be so different). The key word, however, is perhaps. For, despite an apparent critical purpose that we may be tempted to extrapolate from the “end results” of the reading process (be it a casual online discussion or book publication), who can say with certainty how and why others read, or claim to understand what that singularly subjective engagement is like? (This question is not necessarily rhetorical--please do chip in with your thoughts!)

For myself, though I am the same person whether I am in the realm of the popular or the academic, I could not claim to be the same reader. Not because these two spaces are fundamentally different, but because I am simply always a different reader. I’m a different reader now than I was yesterday, five minutes ago, or each time I re-read parts of articles while writing this post. My identity as a reader is as unstable as the meanings of the texts I read.

It’s not a question of trying to occupy multiple fixed, disparate spaces; such an “occupation” is itself ambiguous and impossible to maintain when it depends on something as unstable as text. You can’t aim to have your cake and eat it too if you know its very nature as cake is in flux (as is your eating process). Fans of the game Portal understand:

And yet,

Addt'l works cited:

Burt, Richard. Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. Print.

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