Paper from Console-ing Passions

I just got back from Console-ing Passions in Santa Barbara, a wonderfully inspiring and exciting conference. This is the paper I presented. It connects a lot to the questions I was raising in my last post, I think, as well as being my summary of / intervention in a set of fan meta-conversations with which some people reading will doubtless be very familiar.

This is more or less word for word what I presented, although I’ve cut out the visual punctuation (stills from fanvids and icons) and references to it. As conference paper and blog entry, it’s not intended to be my final word on any of these things.

Televisual Transformation and its Discontents:
Slash Fan Fiction, “Queer Female Space” and Race

The Sci-Fi Channel spinoff show Stargate: Atlantis embodies some of sci-fi TV’s commonest and most problematic racial and sexual politics. It focuses on its white male protagonists and keeps the women, strong as they may be, in the background. It insists that there are no queers in space, holding back from more than the slightest subtextual suggestion of nonheterosexual identity or desire. It maps a colonizing discourse of US militarism onto an Othered galaxy populated by backwards humans properly grateful for rescue from life-sucking aliens. And in terms of race it falls victim to a combination of TV stereotyping and sci-fi cliche, killing off or writing out almost all Earthling characters of color and carefully marking the alienness of the Pegasus Galaxy natives who just happen to be the only major characters played by actors of color.

Stargate: Atlantis has a hugely active online fan community which engages in making art with and from the material the show provides. A significant proportion of fans regularly voice criticisms like mine. Such opinions lead to impassioned blog debates in fan communities, which have initiated many into queer critiques and antiracist ideologies. The metadiscourses and vernacular theorizing which surface in such conversations have much to say about the complex intersections of pleasure and politics which shape fans’ and others’ engagements with popular culture.

Academic and popular writings about fans tend to focus on the radical, conservative, capitalist and/or anarchic qualities of fannish love. Jonathon Gray recently insisted on the importance of viewers’ hate for media productions; but fans’ more ambivalent affects toward their objects are rarely foregrounded in academic analysis. When questions not only of taste but also of racism, sexism and homophobia get involved, the textual and discursive spheres active fans build around and from their objects become very complex.

This paper is an attempt to look at the ambivalences, ambiguities and discomforts engendered by the intersection of the affective and the political in subcultural fandom on LiveJournal. I don’t want to talk about whether fan practices are subversive or dominant, oppositional or capitalist — I’ll start from the assumption that they are both and neither. Instead I will discuss specific subversions, dominations, and oppositions as I home in on practices that show online fan networks’ intersections with feminist, queer and antiracist investments in identity, representation and activist transformation. Internet drama and internet pleasure are world-making practices of the sort that theorists of performance like Jill Dolan and José Muñoz have described. But what kinds of worlds do they make, what happens when worlds collide, and how, if at all, do they attempt to change wider political worlds?

Slash fans’ practices build queered worlds on and from shows in which same-sex desire is banished or permitted to very limited degrees. Love, sex, and lust are drawn over and mapped on to characters, and circulate between discursive and physical bodies in front of TV and and computer screens. Science fiction fans, mostly women, have been sharing homoerotic, sexually explicit stories about media characters since the 70s. In Stargate fandom, the two male leads (John Sheppard and Rodney McKay, played by Joe Flanagan and David Hewlett) elicit huge quantities of fiction and art. Although many, even most slash writers have no interest in politicizing their hobby, subsections of “meta” focused fandom are intensely involved in theorizing themselves. The language of queer politics and queer theory frequently traffics among these fans, whose investments in academic theorizing ranges from professional participation to open hostility.

Kristina Busse, Robin Anne Reid and I have articulated these self-theorizations in an academic context. Some slash fans articulate their erotic sociability as a “queer female space” where shared sexual fantasies create a communal imaginary sphere. We found that slash fandom’s queerness exists in fictive insertions into heteronormative textual spaces which open up queer subject positions; at locations where virtual erotic play in and with a heteronormative text destabilizes it; and in intersubjective zones where sexualized fantasy exchanges trouble norms of gender and desire.

Writing about queer counterpublics, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner describe the work of “elaborat[ing] new worlds of culture and social relations in which gender and sexuality can be lived, including forms of intimate association, vocabularies of affect, styles of embodiment, erotic practices, and relations of care and pedagogy”. In reframing what counts as sex and blurring these erotic practices with intimate sociabilities, slash fan culture (at its most utopian) is capable of doing all these things. Based on shared fantasy expressed through the exchange of words and images, these online worlds are framed by relations of cathexis to specific cultural objects and bounded by those objects’ accessibility and appeal. In these ways of thinking about practices of fan fantasy, the transformation of TV develops into a worldmaking force that seems to have little to do with the representational politics of the show whose subtext provides its jumping-off point. Those representational politics are never irrelevant, though.

Fans often purposefully transform what they perceive to be their show’s crucial lacks. In Stargate fandom, fictions explore the effect of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell regulations on the possibility of queerness on Atlantis, and speculate about the deeper alterities of the show’s sketched-out “alien” cultures. In some ways, we might read these rewritings as worldmaking practices in the model of the art José Muñoz analyses in Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. He finds in minoritarian subjects’ politicized appropriations of majority culture a way to “disassemble that sphere of publicity and use its parts to build an alternative reality” (196). But is it meaningful to think of fandom as in any sense “minoritarian”? And what violence might such thinking do to the perspectives of those who are minoritized within fan cultures?

Muñoz’s framework of disidentification emphasizes readings of the sort Stuart Hall has called oppositional: explicit and political refusals of the dominant narrative. Slash fans are far more likely to de-emphasize politics and focus on pleasure. The transformation of TV worlds that have no access to queerness into online worlds that are soaking in it has no necessary relation to the privileges and oppressions that are the conditions of possibility for mainstream TV’s lacks. Online queer participation may or may not extend into the offline world, and even there it can mean many different things. This relationship and its politics are cyclically debated in the fannish blogosphere, with the worlds of radical queer politics, liberal gay politics and various iterations of academic queer theory in contention with one another.

Joanna Russ famously wrote that the “what if’ of slash fanfiction was “what if I were free”: if women were free to transform worlds according to their own desire. Conflicts over the meaning of slash fiction and the worlds it builds are vital reminders that “freedom” of desire, interpretation, and interaction doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Fannish participation relies on certain material and social requirements, and for some (though not for all) these include a willingnessm more easily accessed by those with greater privilege, to bracket problematic “real life” concerns. While some fans emphasize “queer female space” as a utopian zone of shared subversive pleasure, those who draw attention to dynamics of misogyny, racism or antisemitism in fiction, discussion or the source texts around which they revolve may be seen as raining on everyone’s parade. When pleasure is privileged to this extent, any critique which is perceived as endangering that pleasure can be squashed all too easily. The utopian network can end up exclusionary, revolutionizing the lives of only a chosen few.

Placed in this context, fandom’s queer female space might share many of the problematic aspects of queer and feminist politics which do not foreground intersectional critique. Jasbir Puar critiques “queer exceptionalism” in her work on terrorist bodies and what she calls homonationalism, writing about how “‘freedom from norms’ becomes a regulatory queer ideal” that serves to abjectify bodies of color who are queered in less pleasurable ways (22). Fandom’s queered pleasures may risk functioning similarly. Making the white protagonists fuck might subvert the show’s homophobic narratives and yet rewrite or exacerbate other dangerous norms.

In the case of Stargate, that may mean slashed characters’ bodies and by extension the politics of their writers can be more easily folded into the US nationalist, pro-military slant of the show. That’s not to say that this is what all slash does or what all Stargate fans do; many other readings are of course possible. But a theory of the love- and lust-saturated queer worldmaking of slash fandom shouldn’t erase the failures of that transformation, or the extent to which it can participate in building a self-theorized “queer female” world from which some bodies (those not white, not pretty, not normative enough) are erased. The uncomfortable relationalities that have circulated around race in Stargate fandom on LiveJournal offer some alternative, less easily celebrated worldmaking practices.

In March 2007, several Stargate fans angrily complained about another fan fiction writer’s problematic representation of Ronon Dex, the dreadlocked Pegasus Galaxy inhabitant played by biracial Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, as subservient to the white main characters of a story. In response, posts and debates detailing concerns about the interrelationship of privilege, TV stereotyping, and fannish pleasure spiralled across Stargate’s interconnected fan networks. These were far from new concerns, having led fans of color to create several online communities dedicated to challenging the racial politics of TV and fandom. In this quote, which I won’t read aloud, Darkrose, a frequent voice in such conversations, summarized the frustration of ongoing and repetitive conflicts about race in fanfiction, which mirror arguments over so-called political correctness and oversensitivity in many other contexts:

I might have been more diplomatic about asking the author of this particular fic why she chose to put Ronon in that role in her fic. Then again, I might not have, depending on how tired I was of constantly having to explain myself and educate people who genuinely don’t understand why the fact that the small number of non-white characters in most fandoms don’t get nearly as much attention from fan writers as even the most minor white characters might possibly make some of us uncomfortable. (Darkrose)

On this occasion the discussions had a particularly broad reach, variously emerging as flamewars, intense discussions of race and class privilege, and challenges to fans’ desires to see their televisual transformations and queer female spaces as exempting them from potentially offending. The racially problematic dynamics underlying the show’s presentation of a happy multicultural team were discussed by several commenters along with the significance of fannish transformation, of the queerness and femaleness of the spaces fans create around their shows, and of the challenges of acknowledging and combating racism within them.

Fanfiction is the least fucked up, racist, sexist thing in this patriarchy. And the fanfic is certainly less racist than the show itself, which I’m sure you still are watching. (Jessant)

I’m so sorry my experiences in life being treated as the Other harsh your fandom buzz, but I don’t get the privilege to say it’s just a show and merrily flit on to the next hot white male. (Moxie Brown)

You simply do not get to be all proud of your bad liberal, pro-gay, political self, your porn-positive, feminist self when using big buzz words like “subtext” and “subverting the dominant paradigm” and then turn around and look puzzled and scratch your head when people ask why other dominant paradigms in the media are carried over into fandom. (Telesilla)

One commenter wrote that fandom is the “least fucked up, racist, sexist thing in this patriarchy,” especially in comparison to the show itself. For this commenter, perhaps by virtue of its queer female spaces, fandom as creativity is always already outside the patriarchal, racist paradigms of mainstream TV — and yet watching mainstream TV automatically embeds one in supporting said paradigms. Yet for others, the transformation of TV politics is not only possible but ethically imperative for fan writers. This interpretation rests on the worldmaking potential of fandom which is so powerfully expressed by proponents of fandom as queer female space, but brings it into an intersectional sphere where the utopian tendencies of fandom’s self-description require serious autocritique if they can be taken seriously. Being pro-gay, porn-positive and situated amid queer interactive worlds built by desire is meaningless if the “fandom buzz” is eliminated for white fans by the recognition of dominant paradigms that privilege them.

This debate over race in Stargate fandom became a reference point for LiveJournal fandom’s continuing dealings with racism. In the wake of these explosive discussions, critiques of the dominant paradigm began to appear much more frequently in fandom’s newsletters and RSS feeds. The fans who did not take kindly to complaints over Ronon and the introduction of critical race theory to their hobby have been neither eliminated nor silenced, of course, and their perspectives probably still outnumber those I have cited here. But fiction and image “festivals” and “carnivals” to celebrate characters of color have multiplied. More voices have been added to those critiquing fans’ problematic utopianisms and blind spots.

One implication of these conversations about race seems to be that more intense demands are made of fannish metadiscourse: that it live up to its self-image by making something more of its source material than the source makes of itself. In the wake of this discussion and others like it, Peggy McIntosh’s famous white privilege checklist and antiracist blogs have become required reading for significant sections of fan subculture. Some fans have publicly moved from defensive to critical positions; Amireal traced her own progression from “Of course racism is bad! Sesame street and my parents taught me that!” through being “made fun of” for racist assumptions and being unable to “parse” writings on privilege and white supremacy, to eventually understand[ing] “more than the basic principle” of critiques made in fandom’s race debates. Such conversations are not as sexy as sharing porn, but they do perform their own kind of world building, challenging the positivity and political irrelevance of the affects most would associate with being a fan and tempering the focus on pleasure. So should this be understood as progress? Is internet drama changing the world?

If so-called queer female spaces get too comfortable in the televisual disorientations they practice, then for them to be made uncomfortable, confused out of the unquestioned centrality of whiteness, could be a worldmaking project of its own: one that potentially breaks out of what Sarah Ahmed calls the “lines that accumulate privilege” (179). Critiques of racial privilege in queer worlds, fannish and otherwise, disorient expected relationships to objects and communities, marking the self-consciously subversive as embedded in dominant oppressie structures. In this case, they call attention to the politics of fannish love and encourage the coexistence of critical ambivalence. In fannish idiom, they engage in the harshing of squee as a necessary political intervention.

But it wouldn’t do to create a new quasi-utopian narrative from the dystopianizing of another. We should not forget who is called upon to do the work of this valuable disorientation, and the dangers of framing its progress as an educative and enlightening project. Ahmed remarks that “It is not up to queers to disorientate straights, just as it is not up to bodies of color to do the work of antiracism, although of course disorientation might still happen and we do ‘do’ this work” (177). Fans of color may become the voices whose self-evident oppression does the work of a discomfort made political that may, in the end, be expected only to teach white fans to be better liberal multicultural subjects.

Muñoz writes in Disidentifications of the “burden of liveness” that gets imposed on minority subjects who are expected to “‘perform’ for the amusement of a dominant power bloc” (187). For fans who find themselves in the racial, sexual, cultural, gender or ability minority, that burden of liveness may become a burden of critique, where majority fans on the road to enlightenment feel entitled to be led by the hand through their mistakes. Marginalization of viewers of color may then become a self-perpetuating force as their experience of race-on-TV is made an archetypically critical, serious one by virtue of embodiment rather than inclination.

Critical race cultural studies, like queer studies, have long been suspicious of the ‘positive images’ school of representation and interpretation because of the possibilities and pleasures its policing of stereotype erases. While fans’ perpetuation of racial stereotyping and marginalization must of course be challenged, that should not happen at the expense of other interpretive possibilities. Decentering pleasure and its associated utopianisms risks denying pleasures to some who desire them, and erasing something else: the fact that uncomfortable critiques of representation don’t preclude the comforts of fannish pleasure.

Works Cited
Ahmed, Sarah. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.
Amireal. “It’s like we speak a different language..” 2 Aug 2007. 17 Apr 2008 .
Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 547-66.
Darkrose. “”Are you angry?” “Hell yeah!”.” 30 Mar 2007. 20 Apr 2008 .
Gray, Jonathon. “Antifandom and the Moral Text: Television Without Pity and Textual Dislike,” American Behavioral Scientist 48.7 (2005): 840-58.
Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79. Ed. Dorothy Hobson Stuart Hall, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis. 1980. 128-38.
Jessant. Comment on “Atlantis meta: time to stop and think about things.” 30 Mar 2007. 20 Apr 2008 .
Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse and Robin Reid. “Yearning Void and Infinite Potential: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space,” English Language Notes 45.2 (2007): 103-12.
Moxie Brown. “Because I just can’t help myself….” 29 Mar 2007. 20 Apr 2008 .
Muñoz, José. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.
Russ, Joanna. “Pornography By Women, for Women, With Love.” Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1985. 79-100.
Telesilla. “SGA Meta: As the bowl of petunias said, “Oh no, not again.”.” 30 Mar 2007. 20 Apr 2008 .

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6 thoughts on “Paper from Console-ing Passions

  1. Pingback: WisCon, fanacademia and internet drama « Queer Geek Theory, and Related Wanderings

  2. Rebecca Tushnet

    Hey, I’m trying to track down the fabulous Joanna Russ quote you used, but I can’t find it in the essay you cite, or actually in the entire book. Could you point me in the right direction?