photo: Niecieden, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

F as in Fan

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

Fan creativity began with short stories, but already in the 1980s montage films, created on the basis of official, professional productions, played an important role in fandom output

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We have already written about amateurs, now it is time to take fans under scrutiny. What is the difference between them? John Fiske, an important figure in contemporary cultural studies (and today a keen fan of antiques, now outside the academy), wrote in his Cultural Economy of Fandom:

All popular audiences engage in varying degrees of semiotic productivity, producing meanings and pleasures that pertain to their social situation out of the products of the culture industries. But fans often turn this semiotic productivity into some form of textual production…

Among all consumers of culture, fans are distinguished by a strong, symbiotic relationship with the cultural products. A relationship that forces many of them to create (although there are of course fans who live their love of culture in a more passive manner). It is a unique sort of creativity, being intertwined with works fans have originally became familiar with as cultural consumers. So what makes fans stand out among the consumers of culture is the activism, and what makes them stand out among amateur authors is their passionate attitude towards the products of (popular and commercial) culture.

Fan creativity began with short stories, but already in the 1980s montage films, created on the basis of official, professional productions, played an important role in fandom output. Science-fiction fandom played a crucial role in the development of “fan culture”, although some scholars believe that the first fan productions were the doll-world short stories written and even published by young women from the late 19th century onwards. Of course, the division between male SF and female doll stories is misleading because the largest, besides usually man-made parodies, subcategory of SF fandom creativity is the so called slash fiction, made usually by women, which reveals hidden homosexual relationships between the original’s protagonists. The slash (“/”) separates two characters involved in an ulterior relationship – such as the canonical Kirk/Spock pair in Star Trek.

In the pre-internet era, most of those written works and films were distributed almost exclusively among fellow fans and on a relatively small scale. As such, they were invisible for non-fans. What happened when the visibility dramatically improved?

The cultural status of fans changed. Negative connotations – pertaining to sports fans (who have been provoking riots since at least the ancient Rome’s chariot races) as well as to pimply teenagers (preferring discussions about the superiority of Star Trek over Star Wars or vice versa over the so called “real life”) – are today accompanied by many more sympathetic associations. In times when we identify with our hobbies more often than with work, almost every one is a fan of something. And from there it is just a short step to fandom.

But one-sided romanticisation is out of the question. The fan is another figure in which the contradictions of the digital era meet. On the one hand, he is the most loyal customer, as well as playing a key role in whisper marketing. Moreover, fans often serve as a source of new ideas or even of new talent, for authors. At the same time, they regularly violate copyright law and deprive producers of control over their products, treating favourite plots or characters as the property of fans rather than of media companies. They love to twist contexts and find hidden meanings, or even add their own.

A good example here is George Lucas whose Star Wars have been like a powerful fandom electromagnet. On the one hand, Lucas for years blocked through his lawyers the distribution of fan productions while, on the other, himself scouting for talented fans and recruiting them to work for him. That was the case with Kevin Rubio, the author of Troops, a fan-made parody, set in the world of Star Wars, of the Cops TV series. But even Lucas was unable to stop fans and their activity. When Mike J. Nichols (a great Star Wars fan, of course) presented Phantom Edit, a remake of The Phantom Menace (the series’ first episode), critics agreed it was a much better cut than the original.

Fiske’s student, Henry Jenkins, who calls himself an “aca-fan” (meaning academic-fan or scholar-fan), regards fans as the avant-garde of contemporary culture. It is them who have popularised the classic today technique of remixing; it is them who actively participate in culture, promoting an attitude based not on passive consumption but on recycling and the distribution of new content. From this perspective, any quotation, borrowing, sample, cover, remix or adaptation can be perceived as an expression of fans’ love for other people’s work.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak