A Lego Theory of Academia & Fandom
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Lego Bricks

Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.

I am talking to a man about a piece of writing. He is concerned about the possibility that this piece of writing is perhaps not the final word on the matter. Perhaps someone with more power and authority than the author of this piece of writing will have a different interpretation of the thing on which the piece of writing is based. How will it account for that? It won’t, I tell him. This piece of writing is simply one possible take. Other people having different takes, and sharing them, and talking through their differences, is the point of the exercise. Nothing is final; everything is communal.

Academia, or fandom?

It’s academia! Your hint was that I rarely, rarely talk to men about fanworks unless they are already in fandom, in which case they do not need me to explain how fundamentally iterative transformative fanworks are meant to be.

One of the most consistent dings on fanfiction is the fact that it derives from a source text, the implication being that a piece of art can’t be worthwhile without that new-car smell. Fanfiction’s champions tend to argue for its legitimacy by citing undeniably canonical works from the history of literature: The Aeneid is a fic of the Iliad. Samuel Richardson corresponded with and encouraged a woman writing fic of his work. Byzantine literary culture had a whole genre around assemblage. For my own list in fan studies, I’m perpetually seeking out scholarship that expands the genealogies of fannish history as far back into the mists of time and into as many spheres and disciplines as humanly possible.

None of this is false or invalid, but as an academic gatekeeper for fan studies (among other things), I’d love for the legitimacy of transformative works to be proved by an avenue that doesn’t reinforce the concept of single authorship. The myth of the solitary genius rarely holds much water, examined too closely, but fanfiction’s very being calls it into question. Moreover, the insistence that thingswithwings is doing something quite similar to Virgil—while true!—elides one of the most central facts of transformative fandom: its emphasis on community and the shared ownership of the stories being told.

Flight from Troy

Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.

The best parallel isn’t literature at all but academia, which at its best is both derivative and communal in many of the same ways as transformative fandom. Derivation from work that has come before is central to the scholarly project. A piece of scholarship that fails to acknowledge its fellow scholars won’t get past peer review. Its ability to be in conversation with its community isn’t just a strength; it’s a necessity.

The concept that a text—or a history—is never closed, but is inherently multiple, is one of my favorite things about both academia and fandom. As a scholarly publisher, LSU Press strives to promote work that advances the conversation and pushes other scholars to think in a new way about the disciplines we think we know. You could make the argument that the humanities have no canon, only a series of ever-evolving headcanons taken up and discarded by the fannish community. Or you could say that the canon is reality, and there are no showrunners, just a series of BNFs (published scholars) periodically upsetting the applecart by tracking down brand new canon for all the fans to chew on. Medieval history has thoroughly upset the segment of fandom that yearns to nostalgically retcon Europe in the Middle Ages as an all-white space; Civil War historians are in the process of jossing the fanon of Robert E. Lee as a man of conscience who opposed slavery.

Fandom and academia share a communal ability to keep poking at a text, whether that text is the ever-growing oeuvre of the Russo brothers or the history of European colonization of North America. There is no single story, no final version with which everyone can be contented. Instead there is space to work/play with everything that has come before, in the hopes of finding out some new insight, some new version of the story that resonates differently or creates new connections. Anytime my press is considering a book we ask, “How does this add to the conversation? What makes this matter?”

The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

At the risk of throwing my metaphor-hat into an overcrowded metaphor-ring, I like to think of creating like playing in a vast pool of Lego bricks, where every Lego is an idea, and the things you and your pals can make with them are infinite. (My parents were very broke when I was growing up, and they did not like to step on Legos. I have played with Legos maybe once in my life ever, so please bear with me if I do not accurately describe the Lego-playing experience.)

The cult of originality likes to insist that their baller Lego fighter jet was created in complete isolation from community; they insist their jet has no component parts, no matter how clearly Peter Wimsey is descended from Bertie Wooster. At most they will concede that once they saw a Lego submarine with a similar kind of propeller as the propellers on their fighter jet. By contrast, fanfiction and academia show their work, and their participation in a community of thinkers, as an ineluctable part of the process. The square yellow brick is Hélène Cixous. The long thin red brick is a square from a Bingo Challenge. The builder loves like their own child possesses an affective engagement with their creation, while simultaneously hoping for it to be hacked up and reconstituted by other members of the community.

The wonderful thing is that nobody is ever alone with their Lego sets. Fundamentally, academia and fandom are both about community. They’re about many minds coming together to produce new ideas and help each other with new creations. To hell with the solitary genius. We stand on the shoulders of giant (Lego tower)s.

Image Credits:
1. Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.
2. Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.
3. The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

Please feel free to comment.

Five Ways I’ve Defined Fan Studies
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

SDCC Marvel Group Shot

A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.

When you make a career in fan studies, I’ve learned that you must get used to defining it quickly at parties (and conferences, sob). Four years after reading my first fic and twentyish months after arranging for fan studies to be (part of) my job, I still haven’t perfected my elevator pitch, in part because I like the field so much it’s hard to be succinct. But here’s what I’ve got.

    1) “No, not that kind of fans.”

Sometimes people go “Fans? Like, pfft-pfft-pfft, fans?” or make spinny hand gestures at me, which usually means they knew exactly what kind of fans I was talking about and find it ridiculous that there’s a discipline for that. Fan studies scholarship often begins by defending its right to exist, and while I wish that authors didn’t need to issue such disclaimers, I can’t deny that the field comes in for its share of neglect and derision.

A recurring theme in much of fan studies is the outsider status of the communities under study—they’re women, they’re nonbinary, their tastes are weird and fringey, they’re getting queer sex all over your faves. They’re under attack from the lawyers of wealthy creators because nobody’s gay in Star Wars; they’ve been offered a place at the table, as long as they play by the rules (they won’t) and it doesn’t turn into a PR disaster for the company (it will).

As fandom moves out of the margins—as fan writers grow up and gain access to the keys of the media kingdom—it becomes harder to make the case for fannish marginality as a cornerstone of fan studies. The lines between canon and affirmational fandom and transformational fandom, never all that firm to begin with, are collapsing all over the place.

    2) “It’s the study of how people interact with things they like.”

This is my best, most common response, because it encompasses a wide range of fannish activities, from literary criticism to cosplay, and the other person does not need to ask follow-up questions in order to feel they have understood my answer. But I’m also unhappily aware that things they like is an imperfect descriptor. I like the Captain America movie trilogy enough to want more time with those characters, yet not so much that I wouldn’t prefer to spend my weekends reading fics about Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (do not @ me). If there’s one thing transformative fandom knows how to do, it’s love a thing while wanting it to be better.

Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”

Even so, this response gets at the scope of what fan studies is becoming. The differences between types of fandom don’t hold up to much scrutiny if you take the patriarchy out of the equation. (Which, can we just do that? Would it be okay to just topple it already?) As Kavita Mudan Finn and Jessica McCall note,

In a world of undead authors and readers unsure of their own critical authority, fanfiction provides a unique avenue in which to actively undercut the positivism of traditional approaches to interpretation. [ ((Finn, Kavita Mudan and Jessica McCall. “Exit, Pursued by a Fan: Shakespeare, Fandom, and the Lure of the Alternate Universe.” Critical Survey 28, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 27–38.))]

The difference between a solid meta and a piece of literary criticism is gender, class, money, access; but both arise from the writer’s desire to engage with, grapple with, a piece of work that they like and find interesting.

    3) “It examines how people participate in the things they care about, and especially how they resist and rework those things.”

Or, the slightly more detailed version of #2. I like to follow this up with the example of pro football fans’ responses to NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem (including Eric Reid, who’s out of LSU!). I use this example because I’m from South Louisiana and we have a brand to maintain; because it’s a situation that a lot of people know a little about; and because I like to shake up the idea (that other disciplines have) that fan studies only cares about girly stuff. Or to put it the other way around, I like to get my girly-stuff-fan-studies cooties all over everything else.

Kaepernick kneeling

Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.

As with all my other answers, this one dissatisfies me. I am interested in fandom-as-resistance, but I am also aware that fannish resistance in one area is no protection against fannish prejudice in another. [ (( Do yourself a favor and follow Stitch’s Media Mix for consistently insightful critiques of fandom racism.))] To return to the Captain America example, just toddle over to AO3 dot org and you will find a wealth, a cornucopia, of fic that reimagines Captain America as queer. But if you desire to read stories starring Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (yeah, I’m doubling down on this), you will find yourself wading through a lot, a lot, of stories in which Sam Wilson is only there to provide emotional support to the white Avengers.

    4) “It’s a subdiscipline of [insert field here].”

No matter what I put inside those brackets, I can’t help feeling that I’ve told a filthy lie. At the recent Fan Studies Network–North America conference, discussion turned to making more space for fan studies within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Well and good as far as it goes, but a literary fandom scholar pointed out that they live under the umbrella of English departments, and don’t have access to SCMS events and resources. Liking things is not confined to a single academic field, not media studies or communications or literary studies, which makes it tricky to find a disciplinary definition for fan studies.

I suspect, though, that the discipline’s liminal status within the academy has given it some of the same strengths that outsiderhood has given to fandom. While literature and film and cultural studies gatekeepers weren’t watching, students who grew up in fandom crept into their departments and started chipping away at the distinctions between the serious (bell hooks, Theodor Adorno) and the decidedly unserious (Johnlock conspiracy theories, Teen Wolf ABO fanfic). Standing within fan studies and surveying the terrain, it seems impossible that fan studies won’t have its hooks into every university department in a few years’ time.

Because the true answer I want to give, when someone asks me to define fan studies, is one that I’ve never actually used:

    5) “It’s the field that’s going to remake the Humanities.”

Image Credits:
1. A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.
2. Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”
3. Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.

Dispatch from the Inaugural Fan Studies Network – North America Conference
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Dr. Paul Booth's popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference.

A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University.

“How can we find a way to make an academic conference more like fandom?” FSN-North America organizer Lesley Willard asks me. It is a rhetorical question, but I think the organizing committee have made a good start with their choice of premise. Fandom is infinite and iterative and overwhelming, and the eleventh floor of DePaul University mirrors this. It is organized in a circle (allegedly), yet there are so many doors leading in so many directions that the attendees—including myself, especially myself—are perpetually getting lost. It is so incomprehensible that by the end of the conference, people are still astonished to discover the books ‘n’ coffee room where I am set up. I require a lot of assistance from the organizer whose home university this is, Dr. Paul Booth. He’s a man with a plan—and a popcorn machine.

He tells me, while walking me around in a circle to show me how impossible I will find it to get lost, that he used $200 of refreshment money a few conferences back to buy a department popcorn maker instead. [ (( I am lost as soon as he leaves my side. ))] It is visibly his pride and joy. I conceal my intention to eat yellow bell peppers rather than popcorn while schmoozing with my fellow attendees at the opening reception. In the context of a fan studies conference, schmoozing consists of trying to discover what things one’s interlocutors are fans of—based on subtle context clues like TARDIS pins and Ravenclaw scarves—and then talking about those things noisily until one has to steal away for wine, more bell peppers, or the restroom.

FSN–North America is the brainchild of the scholarly interest group in Fan and Audience Studies at SCMS 2017. Dr. Paul Booth, Dr. Kristina Busse, Dr. Louisa Stein, Dr. Lori Morimoto, and Lesley Willard began talking about how to find a space for fan studies as its own discipline, rather than a minor offshoot of film studies or cultural studies (or any of the many other departments where fan studies scholars make their homes). Creating a North American chapter of the existing Fan Studies Network seemed like a no-brainer, and FSN–Mothership agreed. [ (( “FSN-Mothership” is a colloquial name for the international parent organization, Fan Studies Network.))]

A porg figurine

A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series.

The inaugural conference begins with a keynote speech from Abigail de Kosnik. As I settle into the basement room where the keynote is to be, I write a tweet that says “nothing is worth how early I must think thoughts today” and then delete it, because Abigail de Kosnik will inevitably be worth it. She opens by saying: “The current US political climate is a fan war. The show is the United States of America.”

Everyone is entranced as de Kosnik develops this metaphor; we keep waiting for it to collapse under its own weight, but of course it never does. We badly want her utopian view of “our” side of fandom to be real. When she says, “We’ve never seen a show like the one we want: A show of versioning, of variance, of infinite points of view,” your sleepy, under-caffeinated correspondent dabbed away tears. Despite any reservations the audience may have regarding the capacity of fan studies to reshape the political climate, it is a remarkably energizing start. Virtually nobody I speak to over the course of the conference opens the conversation with anything but “Oh my God, that keynote.”

The other constant is the attendees’s elation at getting to spend time with other fan studies scholars. Though most folks come from supportive departments, I hear a lot of stories about mentors who advised against pursuing fan studies. FSN-NA brought together all the people who decided to pursue it anyway, and they are delighted to be in a room together. Towards the end of the conference, someone suggests including fanfiction-style tags on papers and panels, to help each other find points of connection across subdisciplines. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations is the order of the day. [ ((I had to Google this because I couldn’t remember what the exact phrase was. Infinite variety? Infinite versions? Please nobody revoke my fan studies membership card.))]

The variety of panels is part of the conference’s design. From the very beginning, organizers knew they wanted to offer an expansive vision of the discipline. What began in 1992 with a few books about communities of fans of science fiction television has since grown to encompass everything from comics to sports, from politics to early modern literature.

“The fan studies group always crushes everyone else at live-tweeting SCMS panels,” I am told, not without pride. Which is no surprise; fannish people are old hands at finding ways to make the experience of watching a thing communal. The hashtag for the conference (#FSNNA18) is so active that it starts trending locally, and we acquire a spammer with opinions about recent political events. My schedule of meetings prevents me from attending most of the panels, but I am able to follow along handily. If I’m not sure of the point one tweet from a given panel is making, there is sure to be another one to fill in the gaps.

Fanfiction encouragement

The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations.

On the second day, I make my own small foray into conference-as-fandom: I set up a bag of Halloween candy with an offer to trade candy for fanfiction recommendations. As a method of getting pooped-out introvert academics to chat with me, it is extremely effective. Someone writes down a fic that I later find out is the most-recommended fic for the fandom newsletter The Rec Center. Folks keep coming by my table and meekly suggesting that I may not want the fic recs they have to offer because maybe I don’t care about [insert fandom here]. I show them my iPad, where I have Archive of Our Own open in a browser tab so that I can easily bookmark all the recommendations I am receiving.

“What are you going to do with these?” someone asks me.

I say, “Read them.”

(Of course.)

Image Credits:
1. A departmental popcorn machine at the inaugural Fan Studies Network-North America Conference at Depaul University. (author’s personal collection)
2. A porg figurine from the popular Star Wars film series. (author’s personal collection)
3. The author encourages attendees to share their fanfiction (“fic”) recommendations. (author’s personal collection)

Please feel free to comment.