On (Not) Hosting the Session that Killed the Term “Acafan”

March 18, 2011
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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.


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8 Responses to “ On (Not) Hosting the Session that Killed the Term “Acafan” ”

  1. Christopher Cwynar on March 18, 2011 at 6:33 PM

    This is an interesting post and I appreciate the defense of ‘acafan’ term. I wasn’t at the workshop in question, but I have lately found myself sympathizing with those who would do away with the term (full disclosure: I do not identify as an ‘acafan’, or engage in scholarship in this area, so I do not have so much at stake here). While I think that the study of fandom (and the affective dimensions of media use) is an important pursuit, I fear that this term has come to obliterate the vital questions and subtle nuances involved in that endeavor. It is too easily turned against itself by those who wish to dismiss it and this seems prone to obscure the useful contributions made by those who would operate under this banner. Rather than work to reclaim and defend the ‘acafan’ label, we might instead analyze the debate surrounding it in order to better understand the values and discourses involved in these contestations. This would seem to fit in quite nicely with broader efforts to understand the cultural and discursive baggage associated with ‘fandom’.

    I must also admit that I am a bit troubled by the dichotomy that you have presented involving the pretense of objectivity and fandom on the other side. While I take your point about objectivity, I think that this a middle ground between the individual who aspires to take an (unattainable) objective position and the one who openly embraces a particular relationship within the object itself (or the processes and practices surrounding it). This middle ground would involve acknowledging and understanding one’s position in relation to the subject matter and the scholarship produced on it. I am sure that many ‘acafans’ are already engaging in practices that are akin to this, but the ‘fan’ label surely inspires doubts among many both within and outside of the academy. It feels like a celebration of subjectivity – like the other side of the ‘objectivity pretense’ coin. Now, this says more about the dominant value systems and power structures within the academy (and society) than it does about ‘acafandom’, but it does once again highlight the discursive baggage weighing down the term. With all of this mind, it certainly seems reasonable to at least consider setting it aside in favor of something that would better encapsulate this range of activities – reducing the acafan/study of fandom confusion – and better facilitate discussions with those outside of the area.

  2. Louisa Stein on March 19, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    Hi Christopher–Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I think you cut right to the heart of key issues. While truth be told I have little particular investment in the word “acafan” in itself, and actually never quite liked the sound of it, I do have an investment in the way it has been used and the history of its use, in the history of scholarship that it traces out. When I use the term to describe myself, I do so partially to link myself to other scholars who have strived to and continue to strive to integrate affect into scholarship or to consider with careful self-reflexivity their own role in the study of media and media communities.

    I am loathe to have us all back away slowly (or quickly!) from a term because it has come to have too much baggage. (In the past few days, I’ve also heard the terms “crusty” and “loaded” used to describe what ails the term acafandom.) But I think you’re very right to suggest that at the least we need to more self-consciously consider our usage of the term and to probe at the baggage it brings with it and our relation to that baggage. If this consideration allows us to “analyze the debate surrounding it in order to better understand the values and discourses involved in these contestations,” as you say, then I would be at least partially satisfied! What I don’t want is us to end up unintentionally reifying the taboos against fandom as they are manifesting around the word acafandom, in an attempt to make the work of fan studies more palatable or integrated into the field.

    On your last point–I didn’t mean to set up a dichotomy between a pretense of objectivity on one side, and total embrace of subjectivity on the other. Rather, I feel that the concept behind if not the actual term acafan could fruitfully offer a blueprint to a range of positions of affect and context, and I think there’s room for all–from a self-reflexive consideration of ambivalence towards a text or community under study to an equally self-reflexive consideration of one’s allegiance or positive investment in a community or media text. I still struggle with why self-reflexivity and an awareness of affect and/or respect for contextual, local value systems (as, for example, I see modeled in Textual Poachers) somehow so often gets read as simply, problematically celebratory.

    Thanks again for your (obviously quite thought-provoking!) comment.

  3. Kristina Busse on March 19, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    Louisa, this is a great and thought-provoking response to the panel and our conversations during and after. As you know, I use the term to self-describe yet dislike many of the connotations it has drawn. I actually wonder if a narrowing rather than a widening might not be a better response. I think we should look at all the important fan and audience studies not done by “acafans.” For me the term really means someone exceptionally emotionally invested in the text they discuss. Which would mean that all scholars must investigate their subject position but that acafan does occupy a more limited position. And yes, I see the dangers of exceptionalism that Jonathan was worried about, but it goes in both directions: studying a text I’m strongly invested in makes me both a better and a worse scholar as it inflects my approach and reading. We all need to be self aware of our positions and investments but I think making everyone doing fan studies (or, worse, everyone doing audience studies) into an acafan broadens the term for me to the point where it becomes meaningless.

    So, maybe rather than debating the term, we should work at making affect and self reflexivity a value central to all media studies and divorce the word fan from the proceedings entirely. It’s overdetermined already and acafan even more so. Which doesn’t mean I want to necessarily let go of the term. I’d like to see it used as a self-nomer more than an “objective” descriptor, however.

  4. Louisa Stein on March 20, 2011 at 8:06 AM

    Hi Kristina–Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment! I think we’re more aligned on this than we realized. After all, we do both use the term to self describe! And I don’t mean to force the term on everyone, or to widen it to the point of meaninglessness. I see it more as a useful perspective (and thus useful term, with all of its history and scholarship behind it) that can and should, to different degrees and in different ways, inform a range of scholarship. In the end, what that range is is up to the individuals who find the term useful to describe their position to their work. In fact, the scholar that most influences my thinking on this is Alexander Doty, and he didn’t even use the term “acafan” but rather scholar-fan. But I’d love to see the connecting lines drawn between the type of work Doty is talking about in Flaming Classics and the work that Henry originally mapped out as acafan.

    So yes, I’d vote for flexible self-nomer with perhaps narrower but flexible boundaries, so that we don’t wall ourselves in but don’t walk away from the value of the blended, self-reflexive position.

  5. Colin Burnett on March 20, 2011 at 11:40 AM

    Let me get the confessions out of the way: I am not an “acafan,” nor was I there for the SCMS discussion.

    But I am interested in the history of taste, and therefore in any community or sub-community that might form a feedback loop with production. Acafandom is clearly a candidate. So I’ve enjoyed the discussion, and learned a great deal from it.

    More often than we care to admit, we media and film scholars proceed in an argument without clarifying our premises. So, might I ask a very basic, even simplistic, question– just to be sure we’re all on the same page? What is the matter with “objectivity”? What is the argument that exposes it, and demonstrates the urgent need for an alternative?

    My concern here, of course, is that a student new to the field might adopt anti-objectivism as an “attitude” (for lack of a better term) rather than through a careful examination of the position.

    I’ll leave it to others to define the concept and offer this thought: perhaps the problematic term here is not “acafan” but rather “objectivity.” Quite a lot can be concealed behind the term. It’s a slippery one. So what do we mean by it?

    Another question: would even the most committed acafans say that when they roll up their sleeves and get to work on an article they don’t maintain some kind of reasonable distance from the object of study? And that this is essential because reasonable distance (as I am calling it, although the word matters little) allows the acafan to ascend to an altitude that allows for some perspective on that object of study, or at least allows it to emerge under a whole new angle? It seems to me that we can’t gain perspective on the movies or shows we love or on our own affective responses to art and media without some reasonable distance. We try to balance being “inside” our affective responses and being “outside” them in order to understand them.

    Now, these are all hypothetical examples, so I hope that my point is clear: some reasonable distance seems to be salutary. Even necessary.

    Consider the case of a scientist, Neil Degrasse Tyson. Even though some might claim that as a scientist he’s a prime candidate for “objectivism,” in fact he, too, is an acafan (if I understand the term correctly). He LOVES astrophysics. More than that, he has a passion for understanding his love of astrophysics. And he wants his love to spread to others. When he gets down to work, he’s guided by his passion BUT STILL allows his judgment as a professional in a community of professionals to prevail. He still affords himself the benefits of some reasonable distance.

    Perhaps I am speaking a slightly different language than the rest of you, here. But at bottom, I hope we can all agree that in maintaining a clear sense of the alternatives to acafandom (in this case “objectivity”) we only risk making acafandom stronger– if, of course, in considering those alternatives we don’t come to realize that they show more promise than acafandom in understanding our responses to art and media.

    I say this in the interest of steering clear of red herrings, oversimplifications and buzz words.

    • Louisa Stein on March 22, 2011 at 2:14 PM

      Hi Colin–Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment! The role (and responsibility) of acafandom in the audience/producer or fan/producer feedback loop certainly is a complex topic; I actually contributed a short provocation on the issues of how we position ourselves as acafans in conversation with producers at the Flow conference this past fall. I’m very curious to know–what context are you considering these issues in your own work?

      As for the question of objectivity and “distance,” within media studies especially I believe both to be very tricky concepts. Actually, I think the term distance is useful because it suggests that from wherever you evaluate, you are always in a specific context with a specific value system informing your insight. The scholarship on acafandom and the scholar-fan has emphasized making those contexts visible. In other words, acafan scholarship (as I’ve understood it) subscribes to the notion that objectivity is subjectivity made invisible.

      But how this plays out in research is a tricky thing, and that’s the sort of question I’d like us to be able to talk about, and that I feel the term acafan would help us to talk about. If I am studying, say, remix videos found on youtube, then I would want to take into account both my value systems as media professor and my investment in particular vidding aesthetics within fandom, and contend with the differences between those and the value systems informing youtube remixing/vidding. But do I then inscribe this into my research itself, and if so how? Or is the awareness that frames and perhaps shapes or limits my arguments enough?

  6. Tom Phillips on March 20, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    Hi Louisa, I’ve really enjoyed reading all the acafan thoughts here and from your blog. I too would lean towards an eradication of the term, but not with prejudice. I think passion for one’s research (either positive or negative) is always present, and thus should be measured on a continuum – acafandom is simply a point on that continuum.

    Will Brooker notes his work ‘could have stepped back from the “fan” position and held more towards the “academic”’, and I think he is absolutely right, in that stringent academic analysis is required. However, in abandoning the acafan/scholar-fan/researcher-fan label, I still think one’s personal position to research should be embraced and admitted to, as explicitly highlighting one’s personal (not necessarily “fan”) position helps to contextualise work.

    Although it may be troubling to question the toxicity of the term, I think this kind of self reflexivity is what makes academia exciting! Your proposal for the workshop referred to the fact that fan studies practitioners ‘continue to debate its subject matter, its boundaries, and their own relationship to the subject matter.’ I think this kind of thinking should be embraced more widely, which again signals why “acafan” may not necessarily be a needed term – if more researchers embrace a self-reflexive approach, fan studies’ monopoly of the label may be redundant.

    • Louisa Stein on March 22, 2011 at 2:22 PM

      Will Brooker notes his work ‘could have stepped back from the “fan” position and held more towards the “academic”’, and I think he is absolutely right, in that stringent academic analysis is required. However, in abandoning the acafan/scholar-fan/researcher-fan label, I still think one’s personal position to research should be embraced and admitted to, as explicitly highlighting one’s personal (not necessarily “fan”) position helps to contextualise work.

      Indeed, I very much agree with your sentiment here! But I don’t feel that stringent analysis and a recognition of affect are mutually exclusive. I also would make a distinction between admitting/accepting/contending with one’s personal position and embracing it. I think some of the push back to the term acafan has to do with a perceived “embrace” (again with the emotional taboo) of affect, when I see the acafan position as a necessary acknowledgment, together with a recognition of the insight that can come from invested knowledge.

      And I also share your hope and belief that self-reflexivity could and likely should inform media studies more widely, I don’t believe we’re at the point where we could or should walk away from the acafan term. I feel that to do so would be to shoot ourselves in the foot, taking away language and scholarship that has led us even to this point in the academic debate. And as I think you’re perhaps hinting at here, the term’s toxicity is troubling but also potentially productive, if it leads us to debate the underlying issues at play.

      Thanks very much for your comment!