On (Not) Hosting the Session that Killed the Term “Acafan”
Do we need the term acafandom? This is the question that sprung out of the workshop at SCMS entitled “Acafandom and the Future of Fan Studies.” It wasn’t at all the question I intended to have us ask when putting together the workshop. I had coordinated the workshop because I felt it was far past time that we gathered at SCMS to address the complexities faced by diverse scholars who blend affect and academia, who study fan communities or fan texts that they have strong feelings about. This workshop seemed to me an important symbolic milestone: throughout my academic career I’ve negotiated institutional prejudices against fan studies and the integration of affect into academia. For SCMS to accept this session struck me as important progress. I was also thrilled that the divide between fangirl panels and fanboy panels felt at so many conferences was finally beginning to recede, and that we had a panel that would look to larger issues.
So when the larger issue turned out to be the toxicity of the word acafandom? I was not thrilled. Even before the workshop, I realized that not all was well (or at least that all was not as I had anticipated). Encouraging all four participants to write and exchange provocations (which you can read here), I was faced with Jonathan’s Gray’s call to abolish the term acafan altogether. More unsettling to me, the workshop quickly turned to the term and its apparent toxicity. I joked that I did not want to have created the workshop that killed the term acafandom, and this joke (while getting the largest laugh I’ve ever received at a conference) quickly found an afterlife on twitter, where fellow scholars seconded and thirded the motion to kill acafandom. And for those not present, this wasn’t a hostile crowd. In fact, many if not most of the audience were friends and fellow fan studies scholars–acafans, I would have even said.
So what has happened to this term, coined only a decade ago, that has since been used to assert a complicated subject position that a) rejects the pretense of objective outside observation and b) acknowledges the role of affect in academic work? In particular, my definition may be broader than many: I take a wide definition both of the academic and the fan side, i.e., acafan includes academics studying fannish objects or cultures and fan can define a wide variety of audience engagements.
I understand and in many ways share the concerns and ambivalences of my fellow workshop participants. I’ve addressed those concerns at greater length at my blog. But in shorter form (well, slightly shorter form) here I want to assert not only the value of the word acafan but the reason we cannot afford to just walk away from the word. I do not think we should throw out a term simply because it has become complicated. In fact, I want to suggest that its loaded nature is one of the key reasons we should continue to engage the term, to probe its internal contradictions and the discomforts those contradictions trigger.
But mostly, I don’t feel we really have the option to walk away from the word. Acafan, taken any which you want, means a merger of fan and academic. If we step away from it we’re disavowing the reality and responsibility of our dual (or multiple) subjectivities as scholars and participants in media culture. I don’t believe that acafandom should be a subdiscipline—but I do believe it is a state of engagement with media and media studies, one that’s necessarily unstable and messy and that requires that we engage in a constant self-reflexive conversation with our object of study. As I argue more fully at my blog, the acafan position is to me inherently feminist. This does not mean that it’s focused on issues of gender only, but rather that acafandom necessarily merges the professional and the personal in ways that remain taboo. The word acafan describes a position that crosses boundaries but unites self-reflexive scholars willing to engage with affect. Letting go of the word acafandom means potentially isolating ourselves as scholars and reinscribing the need to hide from the norms of so-called “objective” academia. Holding on to the term gives us a connective web through which we can hopefully access larger insights found in the messy overlap between objective and subjective knowledge.