Due to some serendipitous travel plans, we had the opportunity to meet IRL two weeks ago to kick off the conversation below. It was a pleasure to find that we have quite compatible preoccupations and positions when it comes to fandom and convergence -- good matchmaking, Henry! However, in addition to applying our viewpoints to different specific artifacts, we're coming from different disciplinary orientations, which we'll attempt to detail below. One bent we definitely share is a commitment to political economy, so that will be the primary focus of this installment. And BTW, we chose to compose this post in a wiki page, and we wonder what effect that has, if any, on the shape of the discourse.
Julie Levin Russo: I'm a doctoral candidate in the Department of Modern Culture & Media at Brown University. My interests span the intersections of technologies of representation, sexuality, and politics, and in grad school I've worked on topics such as media epistemology, cyberporn, and "privacy." My dissertation project, entitled "Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Lesbian Fan Communities," focuses on femslash fandom, taking it as an occasion to explore the larger negotiations and stakes of the struggle between unbridled participation and capitalist reincorporation in today's convergent mediasphere. In terms of my methodological approach, I'm situated squarely in post-structuralist theory and the humanities, and my deliberate and perhaps dubious approach to the gender axis is to tacitly assume that queer female labor can serve as an exemplar of broader transformations in media consumption. The body of my diss consists of three localized analyses of series-specific interpretive communities (Battlestar Galactica, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The L Word), discussing each across three intertwined registers: screen texts (television programs, though acknowledging their increasingly fluid borders), metatexts (ancillary online materials disseminated by TPTB), and fan texts (specifically, lesbian readings and writings). As is the custom in my discipline, I don't presume to offer a comprehensive and/or empirical picture of a field of practice, but rather hope to lay out three frameworks for diagnosing the nexus of convergence and desire: technologies of reproduction, politics of representation, and commodification of identity. My structuring question is: what aspects of fan production contradict or challenge systems of domination (capitalist and otherwise)? You can follow my diss as a WIP at my academic LJ -- I'm tremendously indebted to discourse with LiveJournal's community of acafangirls for any insights therein.
As a fan, I'm a bit of an anomaly in that I participate exclusively in the femslash community, which is a minuscule (some would say marginal) enclave within media fandom at large. I'm a devoted writer and organizer, and while I try to maintain plausible deniability in the professional sphere, my fic is not difficult for interested parties to find. Excepting an avid swath of multifannish d(r)abbling, most of my work has been based in Star Trek: Voyager (beginning on a newsgroup/elist in the late 1990's) and Battlestar Galactica (which has essentially taken over my life since mid-2005) -- perhaps a testament to my utter helplessness before the combo of female leaders and female cyborgs. As the first fandom I've been immersed in almost since its inception, BSG femslash has been a particularly rich and rewarding experience for me, including mentoring and infrastructure-building (not to mention my metafannish vlogging and speaking).
Hector Postigo: I'm an assistant professor of new media studies in the Communication Dept. at the University of Utah. My research focuses on new media and society and I'm currently pursuing two lines of research. The first line is a study of social movements and their use of information communication technologies. Recent research in this area has centered on analyzing the digital rights movement's user-centered fair use campaign and the movement's deployment of hacking as a tactic in its extra-institutional repertoire of action. The second line of research focuses on value production on the internet. I was on of the first researchers to study video game fan communities that make valuable modifications to popular PC games (modders) and to study AOL's volunteer communities. My research on both these groups suggests that a large amount of their "invisible" labor contributes to the value produced in digital networks such as the World Wide Web. I've taught courses on the internet and society, information communication technology, and the new economy. Some of my publications can be found here. These are related to modders and their work on video games and AOL volunteers. I come to fan studies primarily as an observer of the productive processes that are the result of various fan community associations. I'm really excited to meld both my macro approach to a political economy of fan work with Julie's ground level understanding of these communities.
Labor and Value in Late Capitalism
HP: I've been working for some time trying to figure out value of modder productions from an economic perspective. I've started with some admittedly simple questions. From my perspective media corporations are motivated by return on revenue first and foremost so when I first started looking at fan production I asked myself 2 questions. 1. Why would anyone want to spend all of their free time making something for which they will get no money for and 2) why would media companies encourage this? Now I admit these are very simplistic questions. #1 assumes that people do things only for money and it also assumes that money is the only reward and that community, reputation, pleasure, and the gift economy have nothing to do with it. # 2 assumes that that the popular culture industry has only one internal logic "make money" but we know that institutions have all kinds of heterogeneity and that nothing is monolithic... The last thing that all this assumes is a very materialist Marxist perspective. #2 presupposes that at some point the media companies surrender control and that that surrender is calculated and that fans become cogs in some sort of post-industrial "social factory." We know that things are way more complex. Fans are active readers and their communities have internal logics, norms, and practices that are oppositional, conspiratorial, and/or neutral to the workings of popular culture and its industry. Fans are both insiders and outsiders in that respect. Regardless, one unwavering fact remains, at least from my experience in video games, fans like to contribute and video game companies for the most part encourage it.
JLR: It seems the first thing you've done is debunk your own questions -- I'm with you so far. In order to launch our conversation from some common theoretical ground, I'd like to refer to Tiziana Terranova's work, which we're both very fond of. Her chapter "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy" was first published in Social Text (2000: Vol. 18, No. 2), revised for her book Network Cultures, and also appears in the downloadable volume The Politics of Information (I'm citing from this version). Her definition of the "digital economy" can offer a useful framework for the issues you raise above (and for fan studies at large):
It is about specific forms of production... but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such... These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion... However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect... Rather than capital 'incorporating' from the outside the authentic fruits of the collective imagination, it seems more reasonable to think of cultural flows as originating within a field that is always already capitalism. (104)
So first of all, she's proposing that we scrap this binary of money/not-money as the benchmark of capitalism. You could say better than I to what degree the entertainment industry has been able to institutionalize this perspective so far, but certainly new rubrics like "engagement marketing" suggest that it's beginning to move in the direction of consciously valuing and promoting activities that aren't directly monetizable. On one hand, we could read this pessimistically: I think a lot of us, myself included, are seduced by the vision of fandom as a "gift economy" or otherwise alternative system of exchange that resists or at least stands partially outside of capitalism. Terronova argues that this fantasy effaces the centrality of such non-waged labor to the post-industrial economy. There's a danger, as you point out, for this position to reduce to "fans are dupes" -- that is, if we're allowing the industry to expropriate the profits of our work, it must be because we're too naive to realize it. But that's an oversimplification ("Free labor," Terranova writes, "is not necessarily exploited labor" ). Both sides (insofar as we can still distinguish fans from TPTB) are interdependent, and both sides are capable of being equally calculating.
And on the other hand, I think there's a more optimistic way to view this interpretation: Terronova indicates that, rather than requiring a practice external to capitalism to constitute opposition (a tall order indeed), there are resistances immanent to the system -- I hope I can clarify this formation below. The key point here is that we're transitioning from a schema where work (waged labor) was considered distinct from leisure to a schema where work (waged or not) and leisure become increasingly coextensive and desire and the rest of the affective spectrum become a central productive force.
I admit to knowing almost nothing about gamers (and other communities of grassroots production outside of media fandom), and we agreed that a comparative study was not the most interesting direction for this dialogue. That said, the unique intensity of the collaboration between modders and game companies is inspiring, but I do think it's telling that this detente occurred within an almost exclusively male zone. The gendering of the permittedness and legitimacy of fan practices has come up many times in this series, and the selective valuation and compensation of affective labor along gender (and other) lines is a dynamic Terranova too acknowledges (as do you in the work you sent along to me). This further complicates the already tangled question you raised in #1 above about why (beyond the reductive "false consciousness" explanation) we (women in particular) continue to participate in this regimen. The more idealistic answer is that it's because the power formation isn't monolithic, and while our work remains complicit in some ways it interrogates and challenges it in others.
HP: I wouldn't say I debunk the questions so much as acknowledge that they are oversimplified approaches to getting at the nature of complex labor relations in this post-industrial world of production. I purposefully cite Terranova's use of the social factory a condition in which cultural production is incorporated into labor relations. Community, friendship, fandom, and their products (intangible and tangible goods that are the outcome of social relations as well as the "sweat of the brow") are commoditized. The question for me when I've looked at Terranova's paper/chapter has always been, "how are "the fruits of the collective imagination...originating within a field that is always already capitalism,''" exactly incorporated? I think that her quote above is grounded in her understanding that "Free labor is not necessarily, exploited labor" (which you cite above). I don't know if these processes were always part of capitalism...honestly I have to think about whether I agree that cultural production is always labor (even if it is not exploited) just because it happens within a capitalist system, ideology, potentiality...I think incorporation is key. It's almost as if everything we do is labor it's just that capitalism hasn't figured out a way to exploit all of it yet. I can see the value of that line of thinking since it helps us draw connections between cultural practices and the furtherance of the capitalist logic but can't we imagine some practice that is not ultimately exploitable? I hope so. In the spirit of drawing some boundaries and pinpointing when a cultural practice becomes exploitable I'll hazard a technological deterministic stance. I'll argue that the internet has created the means for establishing a categorical difference between the way cultural products were (maybe) part of capitalism prior to their ability to be placed on line, to a condition in which they are massively available, massively (re)produced and massively broadcast by a medium that literally creates the structure by which that culture can be exploited. From this perspective it wasn't until distribution of fan content for example, became wide spread that value became practically exploitable (even though the content was always valuable). I think Terranova starts to get at this when she discusses the differences in audience produced content on television versus the user created content on the internet (pg. 94-97 -- I'm using the book).
I also shy away from thinking that we ought to "scrap this binary of money/not-money as the benchmark of capitalism." I've spent long hours trying to discern the process by which all those mods, maps, skins, and other forms of modder generated content for PC video games actually translate into a bottom line. The fact that I don't have a definitive answer partly would validate your point and cause me to think that maybe I should stop thinking along those lines but yet something in me resists. The reason why I think this is because there is a practice on the part of video game companies of encouraging modders. For example, video game companies take risks with their very valuable intellectual property (yes even though it is protected by the all pervasive EULA), and that investment at the very least is perceived to be paying dividends. Perhaps the dividends take the form of hard-core gamer loyalty which ensures future customers for a game, perhaps modder productions prolong the life of the game and ensure fans won't drift away or perhaps by allowing for a creative space that admittedly is very crowded, game companies encourage an "incubator lab" for novel ideas for games. So for example, while number of mods that get "adopted" by the video game company and distributed are few, that small percentage of marketable product is a tolerable return because the company invested a comparatively small amount (an SDK, maybe access to the source code, and so on) to encourage a vibrant development community that takes risks, explores different content and potentially can yield a tested game variant proven to be loved by its community. Given all this I have difficulty believing that game companies are ultimately not dealing in and encouraging a commodity that will ultimately reduce itself to profit. The labor relation is still there it's just inside a host of layers that are unstructured.
JLR: Much of this is very close to how I (or Terranova) would look at it -- "the labor relation is still there it's just inside a host of layers that are unstructured" is a very elegant description of the diffuse nebula of cultural production. But I'd like to note that the entertainment industry is not equal to "capitalism." Capitalism is a set of structural conditions within which both producers and consumers must operate. Though corporations are still motivated in every explicit sense by financial profit, it doesn't necessarily follow that money is the sole operator of the system at large -- and your example bears this out, since most of what modders do falls outside of the company's "tolerable return." So then, as you suggest, once of the crucial ideological processes of capitalism is to make it appear tautologically as if activities that make money are more valuable in legitimate ways than activities that don't. Which is where a whole host of inequalities such as gender enter the picture.
Let me engage your question: "how are 'the fruits of the collective imagination... originating within a field that is always already capitalism,' exactly incorporated?" The first thing I'd point out is that other participants in this series, as well as Terronova herself, have cautioned against modeling the relationship between cultural laborers and the culture industry in terms of "incorporation." Now, I do think there are good reasons to deploy this concept strategically, namely that it highlights the different kinds and degrees of power enjoyed by corporations and fans, and thus offers a clear basis for resisting the troubling trends within this landscape. But another way of looking at it is through the concept of immanence, which is a buzzword in a lot of theorizing about late capitalism (tracing Terranova back through the Italian Autonomists to Deleuze+Guattari). This is a flat rather than stratified model of power and control which suggests that various contradictory positions can be coextensive. So for our example of fan production, the way I'd look at it is not so much that our free labor is "exploited" when it's channelled into the industry's financial economy, but rather that aspects of our free labor are always flowing into the dominant economy while other aspects are always flowing around and in excess of it. So the political project is not so much to protect the autonomy of fan communities from TPTB in a binary sense as to deflect the channelling and increase the excess.
That said, the question of precisely what the mechanism of these flows are is a fair one (the theoretical abstraction is what drives people nuts, right?). I think you're on the money to point to digital technologies as a crucial site for grappling with this issue more concretely. There's a leveling or disintermediation that happens here which aligns with the horizontal model I described: as you point out, the immaterial, instantaneous, non-rivalrous characteristics of digital media make it more practicable than ever before for the industry to mobilize fan labor in literal and direct ways (i.e. "user-generated content"). On the flipside, though, they also make it more practicable than ever before for fans to "exploit" corporate products directly (i.e. now that TV is going digital, a vast repository of it is available to me, freely and illegally, to use and manipulate as I see fit). I'm agreeing with you that technology and convergence make cultural labor more palpable and its value more immediate. In this context, the local variations in code, interface, and framing matter: one could compare how fan media could and does play out on YouTube vs. imeem vs. blip.tv vs. Revver, for example, because each of these instantiates a different set of possibilities and powers (within the given system -- of course, all of them are still ultimately for-profit services).
Finally, you ask, "can't we imagine some practice that is not ultimately exploitable?" I hope we can too, and I've groused about this before. But I've been forced to admit that the call for some "outside" position isn't ultimately so realistic or useful. I'd counter that the most productive positions at this point are hybrid ones that collude in some ways and resist in others -- and luckily a LOT of us find ourselves in this situation. I'd like to map out the PARTS of practices that aren't exploitable, that remain to gum up the cogs of capitalism.HP: I not sure if I want to abandon the term incorporation even though as you note Terranova and others don't necessarily prefer it (interestingly she uses the term in scare quotes but uses it nonetheless). Maybe my understanding of incorporation is not what others are thinking or maybe there are layers which need to be teased out. I think there is the possibility to draw some boundaries between certain kinds of incorporation so that both a coextensive model and one that give a clear delineation of when/how content becomes effectively part of the labor relation. Ideological incorporation is one way to look at it I think. One can have content that is commoditized yet ideologically is still resistive....but I think the way I'm thinking about is economic incorporation (as in making the cultural production part of some direct/indirect labor relationship...waged or not). So my point is that once means are found to extract profit from a process/product it is incorporated into the relations governed by labor...the logic kicks in...there is no avoiding it really...you produce something...post it on line...I figure a way to squeeze a buck out if it and its part of the system...market alienable...questions of ownership, fair compensation and exploitation all come from this...despite the cautions I wonder whether immanence serves to improve our understanding of the processes that allow/disallow exploitation, incorporation or channeling? To say that "aspects of our free labor are always flowing into the dominant economy while other aspects are always flowing around and in excess of it," sounds theoretically interesting but how does it really work at the moment when it's exploited? If I imagine the field of all that is produced by fans and we feel that most of it is "in excess" or "around" why is that? Is it beyond exploitation? Why? Because of material constraints or content or something else? And I should be clear that when I say exploitation I'm mean a process by which the product becomes market alienable...some one can sell it...I guess for me that is incorporation.
Your point that the very same technologies that facilitate exploitability are also the ones that facilitate participatory culture is right on and I think points to a paradox in the way these technologies are used. On the one hand there is a strong drive to create technologies that lower the barrier to entry into a participatory culture (web 2.0 techs and such) while at the same time there is a drive to develop technologies that prevent or "lock up" the content (such as DRM). In the field of all this technological development, one question I like to ask is: What technologies are users themselves developing to allow for increased participatory culture? It seems that many of the technologies that are immediately associated with increased participatory culture on the Web are developed with market interests in mind. So I like to think of hackers as a great population of user/developers that are both insiders but also outsiders and thus have developed some really useful technology to facilitate participatory culture from the perspective of users not necessarily from the perspective of a market mindset. The anti-DRM technologies like HYMN, JHYMN, QTFairUse and even DeCSS come to mind.
I think your point about the gendered nature of modder and video game company relationship is right on. I think the problem is part of a wider issue in how we talk about what is valuable labor, and who gets to do it and part of a broader class issue as well. The rhetoric of the "professional" for example validates the work of programmers as worthy of a wage but not of amateur programmers (except within less then fairly compensated structures of crowdsourcing for example). When I looked at AOL volunteers I wanted to unpack the ideological baggage associated with the word volunteer and how that constructed the worker in a gendered fashion, disempowering claims for understanding what they were doing as work. I think rewriting texts to challenge and interrogate them is important I'd love to hear more on that from you though. Is the reason that you continue to participate an idealistic project or are there other reasons?JLR: In the case of media fandom, acafans have pointed out that there's a gendered logic to intellectual property law, which functions to limit which instances of cultural labor can be waged. Notions of "originality" favor forms of production that are practiced disproportionately by men (this has come up elsewhere in the series, if I recall). Traditionally "feminine" labor, often associated with consumption and desire, is classed as "derivative" and thus of lesser worth (financial and otherwise). Now, I'm particularly interested in the centrality of desire to capitalism. Yes, one could trace this back to Marx's commodity fetishism; to put it most simply: you have to desire something to want to consume it. I like to call the work we do to make products meaningful to us libidinal labor (my roomie chimes in to say I'm just renaming cathexis). It becomes increasingly important in post-industrial capitalism because commodities themselves are increasingly immaterial ("brands" rather than widgets). Your point that we need to retain some of the financial specificity of terms like "incorporation" and "labor" is well taken, but I'm still not convinced that even this economic register of the "process by which the product becomes market alienable" is clearly bounded these days -- witness the retooling of the Nielsen rubrics in a rather frantic effort to fix engagement in some monetizable metric, for example.
So as for the impetus behind my own activities as a fan, fic ("rewriting texts to challenge and interrogate them," as you graciously put it) just materializes the labor ALL media consumers do. I realize I'm sidestepping the debates about how to taxonomize the diversity of fan activities, here, but I do believe there's a common ground in the axiomatic "active audience" framework. This is the sense in which my fan work sustains the industry (even though they're not profiting from it directly, even though it may be critical in content), because it elaborates and regenerates the desire that gives their texts economic value. But I am an idealist (don't tell my advisors!) and I also trust that there's more to it than that. This is where the question of what's "excessive" comes in. Desire is never going to be fully contained within the capitalist box, and that remainder stresses the ideologies (legal, economic, heteronormative) that hold the system in place -- though I'm not yet prepared to answer your reasonable query as to how, concretely, this operates. I think a lot of us feel like we can assert our ownership over these bright shiny objects by artistically reworking them, and given the instability of ownership right now that's not necessarily a delusion.
We run into a dilemma, though, when trying to prescribe the concrete (re)configuration of the relationship between fans and industry. Despite the fact that fan production is always integrated with capitalism, I do think that the partial disaffiliation of our communities from corporations and commercialism is valuable (as I said, the industry is not equivalent to capitalism writ large). I'm tempted to dub creative fans hermeneutic hackers, because our textual tinkering seems to fit your definition of "insiders but also outsiders [who] have developed some really useful technology to facilitate participatory culture" ;). At the same time, given the inequalities that circumscribe our unwaged activities, there's a certain class privilege implicit in celebrating non-monetary craft and exchange (I'm not the first to bring this up). Anne Kustritz emphasized that poor fans can and do take part in our "gift" economy, but nonetheless I wouldn't want to imply that it's "wrong" to want to be recognized and compensated in the dominant culture's financial terms for one's labor. What I hope is that these paths aren't mutually exclusive, and both can coexist within the diversifying and intensifying network of fan engagement. The choice between being marginalized and being assimilated wouldn't be a pleasant one.
HP: One thing I'd like to bring up before we wrap up this section is the idea of ownership. I think (related to your point over masculinized nature of IP) is that the very rhetoric of ownership seems to have a logic which privileges one gender over an other. The most obvious case is the differential privileges that historically have existed in the law which permitted men to be property owners over things and people. More subtley is the idea that "man" needs property to become a full human being which is rooted in Locke's arguments for property which can be (a bit simplistically I admit) reduced to "I own therefore I am." Thus by this logic all structure (legal, economic, social) that permits ownership helps fulfill the mandate to be a full human being. This of course is troublesome for gift economies and free things (like love, care-giving, libidinal labor or passionate labor as I've heard it called before etc).JLR: Word! I'd love to delve further into the ideological underpinnings of humanistic notions like "originality" on which IP law rests, but I think that's beyond the scope of this blog post. So onwards...
Technology and Control
HP: One of the things we talked about during our meeting in Providence was how new media technologies, especially the internet, can potentiate changing conditions and relations vis a vis consumers and producers? I’ve sort of touched on this a bit above with my comments about how the web allows for mass broadcast of previously isolated products. So I think user production and fan contributions and their value (i.e their exploitability) are a function of the medium. Fan fiction for example, has been around for some time and their communities have been able to coalesce and remain together over time thanks to zines and fan cons and other social/communication enterprises. I think that the web adds an element of mass broadcast to fan production such that we are talking about fan products as content; as part of the commoditized information flowing out of the pipe. So I don’t think we can any longer ignore to explore the political economy of fandom. One of the interesting points that comes of all this is the question of control. If all this production is entering into some sort of relation with capital how is it controlled? The relations we discussed above are social relations but they happen through a technology so we could ask ourselves to what extent does the technology of the internet shape/is shaped by the productive relationships?
JLR: I'm so glad you asked! Control is a fruitful concept for articulating the economy with technology because, as the story of late capitalism goes, a new configuration of control is now coming to the fore: one which is just as horizontal, localized, and networked as the field of production on which it operates. Rather than enforcing prohibitions, it organizes possibilities and enables free movement within them -- often mobilizing technology to do so. In Protocol, Alex Galloway suggests that today we commonly experience hybrid grids of control, and offers the anatomy of the internet an as example: it combines the top-down architecture of DNS with the distributed architecture of TCP/IP. I often notice an analogous strategy at work in proprietary fan-driven content initiatives, where the confining threat of legal muscle is overlaid on a structured platform for creative license, striking a compromise that (when it's successful) is tolerable to both sides. What's clear is that, at this point, if we're looking out for hierarchical, centralized diagrams of power, we're going to sail right over the terrain of struggle. Web 2.0 is seductive in its user-centric mentality, but in exchange for the convenience and scale of social media we accept (literally, by ticking the box on the TOS) its given parameters, both technological and economic. Recently fandom is beginning to wise up to this dynamic and work towards building an infrastructure that is user designed, owned, and operated.
HP: I like the idea of alternative infrastructures that resist the commercial iterations of things like Web 2.0 driven social enterprises. I wonder to what degree power in this system of sociability/production/distribution is dependent on technological know-how. Will only those that can design infrastructure be able to challenge protocol with a counter-protocol? I would take a lesson from Langdon Winner and say that not all of us have to be technologist but it’s in all our best interests to be concerned with the technological structures that consistently arise around us. We walk around in a state of what he calls “technological somnambulism” where before we know it we are moving through systems (social and technological) that were not democratically designed nor designed with the interest of democracy in mind. To what degree is this happening in participatory culture...to what degree has protocol taken shape around us without our input and without consideration to the values that users/fans/etc hold dear?
To get to the question of gender and technology it seems that these are not only pressing questions for participatory culture but also questions about how technologies embody gendered/sexist assumptions of what it means to produce in the digital world. Pointing to the troubling trend, when a technologies or professions become populated by women the economic rewards for the work decrease...the idea may be related to class too as for example when we say that a technology “is so easy to use anybody can do it” what we mean is that it’s lost its elite status because not only college educated white men can use it but also everyone else of any class, educational background, and gender. In the logic of supply and demand of course this would dictate that the supply is increased and thus the value is decreased but I don’t think this maps out in the area of cultural productions where conversations, reconstructions, and networks create value...in these cases the fact that anybody can do actually adds value but the elitist rhetoric holds it back when viewed from a market perspective.
JLR: Interestingly, this gendered revaluation can also move in the opposite direction: some occupations, such as film editing and computer programming, were initially understood as repetitive, detail-oriented labor that was thus feminized and performed primarily by women, and then later masculinized into elite technical skills. And while one sentence isn't much of a corrective to the white- and US-centric slant of this project, I'd like to note that there's a global dimension of inequality here too, as devalued forms of work are often relegated to the world's as well as the nation's "second-class" citizens.
One cause for optimism in the localized case of media fandom is that it's always been full of geeks -- women with highly-developed expertise in digital technologies -- and thus surfed the first wave of innovation throughout its decades-long history (thanks to Francesca Coppa for reminding us of this). Moreover, fandom is collaborative, so it's not necessary for us to be cultivating a counter-protocol on an individual basis when we collectively have a resevoir of competences to share. In any case, these are all good examples of the myriad ways technology intersects and intertwines with power, gesturing toward the merits of exploring, within our academic work, the particularities of its role in fan practice and fan/industry relations.
Ownership and Desire
HP: From the small clip I saw of you work it looks like you are looking at the content produced by fans and how readings of a text (TV show) inform fan production and how that production does or does not mesh with what we assume are the goals of the industry. In my experience with video games, I have not played close attention to content just its volume (i.e. how much of it there actual is). I would posit that the substance of the content (what it is actually is about) is in the aggregate less of a concern to media companies than the whole productive field. Which is to say that so long as the whole of the content has substance that can help meet the demands of selling that product then the media companies do (or should) live with the content that in substance is not “mainstream” that from a bottom line perspective this content does one of two things for the content owners. #1 Nothing or #2 something profitable. #2 is interesting to me because it says that in some way all content is profitable and this is why. Of all the content that is produced by fans some will be quite good, some may even bring some attention to the original work which then helps the media companies, some will be bad (poor quality which does nothing for the company) some will have readings that the company may object to. If the whole field of fan production is seen as a testing ground, a free market-research domain, then companies can’t really loose. If they notice that everyone seems to like a particular reading then that is an intimation that perhaps that reading ought to be explored, packaged, resold. I think this claim runs into trouble when there are critical messages in fan created content such that they critique the media company where it would be believed that the content will actually be bad for the bottom line. This is all well and good for content owners but what about the fans. It seems problematic especially if the critical force of some content rests in part on marginal status.
JLR: In terms of content, I think there are some legitimate concerns among fans about the suppression of work that falls at the more extreme end of the continuum of "non-mainstream" readings. In these exceptional cases, there can be a #3: something perceived as detrimental to the value of the property or service. One recent and very visible example is LiveJournal's mass suspension of journals and communities accused of hosting "pornographic" works about underage Harry Potter characters, supposedly in violation of LJ's TOS. I'd argue that this is an instance where the substance of fan creations threatened the ideological underpinnings of the dominant system, albeit an oblique threat filtered through a series of legal and institutional mediations. The specter of such a crackdown hovers over the rich cosmos of derivative smut, the majority of which is currently situated within commercial social media platforms with official bans on "inappropriate content" (which they can interpret and enforce at will).
I wouldn't claim, though, that fan activities resist commodification simply by virtue of being slashy or critical -- the commercial media are becoming ever-more adept at self-reflexively absorbing such orientations. For the most part I agree with you that the salient conditions are structural and largely independent of the content of fanworks. I hope it doesn't sound like I'm saying that femslash challenges capitalism because it's about lesbians! However, I do think we can view queer fan production as form and not just as content. The widespread notion of "subtext" implies an open, plural, and dehierarchized model of textuality wherein diffuse and collective creative labor isn't easily contained by top-down intention and authority. I realize I'm risking a dubious move here, collapsing embodied queer sexuality into metaphorically queer textuality, but I'm committed to making this metaphor work convincingly in my project. Given the centrality of the mechanics of desire to the economic system, I don't think it's a coincidence that the representation of desire becomes particularly unruly. Considering that the value of media properties inheres in the libidinal labor of their consumers, corporate "ownership" is held in place primarily by the external fiat of intellectual property law. I think this is a foundational contradiction that fandom can productively stress.
HP: I find this last paragraph very interesting. It sounds like you are drawing a parallel between the drive to inspire a desire for a given commodity and the “unruly” representations of desire in fan production. (“Given the centrality of the mechanics of desire to the economic system, I don't think it's a coincidence that the representation of desire becomes particularly unruly”). Equally interesting is the claim that desiring the commodity gives it value (actually the interesting part is the consequences you imply). That this desire (wanting) is labor in itself that justifies a claim of ownership by fan communities (You statement that IP is a fiat that holds owners claims in place leads me to this interpretation...correct me if I’m wrong). I like both of these because they really de-center the rhetoric of IP that has governed western rationale for property ownership: the “mixing of labor” argument put forth by Locke. In your interpretation it is the mixing of desire (ironically constructed by capital to drive consumption) with the raw material of popular culture industry products that legitimizes ownership. You don’t outright say this but I think you imply it. Also the first sentence I quoted above suggests that consumption driven by desire leads in some instances to re-writings inspired by desire. The link between the two can further be stretched to articulate with Jenkins' recent arguments for a moral economy of fan production and ownership...if we count desire as a valid “mixing of labor” argument (where labor is now desire) then the moral hold on property (which is in part the foundation of IP at least in political philosophical terms) is shaken. NEATO!
To further think about how your thoughts might de-center other lines of rationalizing about how IP gets legitimized through moral/philosophy rhetoric we might consider the notion that creative works are part of the self. Thus in the European tradition authors’ rights tend to be stronger in terms of the control authors have over their IP because in a sense it is extension of the self. It would seem that desire as a vehicle for extending the self into the production of fan re-writings, for example, would create competing claims about self. In other words, authors’ claims of moral ownership over a particular piece of IP rooted in arguments of the self conflicts with fans’ claims of ownership over a re-writing based on the same arguments. In this sense it would seem that the claims of self from fans would be secondary to the claims of self by original authors. However, the scholarship of legal scholars like James Boyle suggests that in a cultural commons the original author is a myth. This has interesting consequences for any totalizing claims over IP.
JLR: First of all, thank you for this elaboration of my ideas! I'm still in the early stages of trying to articulate this thesis, and it's exciting that you can amplify it in ways that make sense. I'm pretty rusty on Locke and much subsequent political and legal theory, but I think you've captured the contradictions I'm getting at here. I love that you come around to the relation between creativity and selfhood -- of course the IP regime depends on a unified and bounded model of subjectivity wherein "original" artistic production emanates ex nihilo from individual interiority (which, as you mentioned in pt. 1, tends to be inflected as male/white/bourgeois). Working psychoanalytically, I'd go beyond competing selves to argue that any of the selves involved is internally conflicting, fragmented, and intertextual, further compromising the claim of "ownership" over expression.
Nonetheless, intellectual property law is held in place by institutional power (the tangible threat of debilitating lawsuits [Fair Use doctrine has been called "the right to be sued"] and the intensifying alliance between legislative and corporate sectors in extensions of copyright), often very successfully despite this conceptual incoherence (which grows ever more insistent as consumption and production blur together). What I find valuable about analyses of concentrated "moral economies," though, is that they can highlight the equally central role of discourse in this process. Copyright, which undergirds the economics of who can make money from what kinds of artistic labor, can't operate only by force -- its legitimacy requires an ongoing ideological negotiation (this should sound Gramscian). This is one example of how work -- both academic work and fan work -- that engages at the level of discourse is crucial. I hope that this series of "debates" can, at best, be an intervention on that very real terrain.
HP: I agree with your last paragraph. It seems that the discourse has been dominated by rhetoric that dominates IP law and policy. Such things as copyright as incentive, the balance between the public and the authors and the construction of users as pirates all tend to skew how we percieve the limits of use. The problem of course is that these are powerful tropes in US society and so alternative discourse is needed to challenge them. Well I think that wraps it up for me. Thanks go out to Henry for giving us the forum and thank you for engaging in these topics with me. Hopefully we can meet for tea again!
JLR: The communities that we work on and within, modders/hackers and fan producers, have certainly been dynamic channels for alternative economies, discursive and otherwise. So my optimism hasn't been disciplined out of me yet! I'd like to thank you, Henry, and the rest of the participants for this opportunity to ruminate and hold forth on some of the issues I'm passionate about. It's been a pleasure conversing with you, and very fruitful for my own process. Look me up when you're next in town!
[p.s. Is anyone thinking about going to Console-ing Passions, April 24-26 in Santa Barbara? Workshop??]