The Fan’s Desire and Technopower

The Fan’s Desire and Technopower

2003-11-09

Whether they fret over Ziggy Stardust or the condition of posthumanity, fans and scholars share, argues Harvey Molloy, a few habits of mind.

The Fan’s Desire

When I teach my course in Writing and Critical Thinking, I try, like every other teacher of composition, to awaken in my students a sense that they should approach their writing as a valuable exploration of an interest, instead of as an obligatory duty that must be performed in order to complete an assignment. As a model of passionate writing, we review a number of fan sites and Web logs on the Web. The fan site provides a model for online research; some of the most useful resources on the Internet are created and maintained by dedicated enthusiasts. Fan sites are the antithesis of the plagiarized essay or the bought term paper. They are written, produced and maintained out of a love of the subject matter; a love that is none other than the philos of philosophy, outside of any hope of immediate gain, and given as gifts to others who share a similar interest. The fan site poses the question of the fan’s love: what does it mean to love one’s subject? To love, say, the gothic novel, or model trains, or a television show such as Babylon 5? How does the fan’s love differ from that of the scholar’s? Does scholarship kill, replace or mature the fan’s love? Is a scholar a disciplined, well-trained fan who belongs to a professional class? In this essay, I want to propose that the fan website may provide a model for student Web research projects, a model that is more suited to the greater public readership afforded by the online publication of student work. My work here is a response to Michael Joyce’s observation that “There seems little doubt that technology reshapes the role of scholar. By scholar I mean what we know as the discipline specialist, prefaced here by the parenthetical but increasingly critical prefix, multi. Without going into too much detail here, I want to suggest that the role of the unidisciplinary specialist is in many ways uniquely tied to print culture and thus imperiled in this `late age of print’ ” (120). The fan site is the first new form of scholarship to appear on the Web and provides us with a guide for how to transform our students into active researchers.

The fan occupies a marginal position in popular culture and is often represented as a socially inept, anti-social, reclusive figure. Henry Jenkins begins his study of fan literature and culture, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, with an account of the notorious Saturday Night Live sketch that aired in the early 90s where William Shatner admonishes a groups of “Trekkies”, described by Jenkins’ as “nerdy guys with glasses and rubber ears, `I Grok Spock’ T-shirts stretched over their bulging stomachs” (9) to “Get a life, will you people? I mean, I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!” (10). Jenkins notes that “If the term `fan’ was originally evoked in a somewhat playful fashion and was often used sympathetically by sports writers, it has never fully escaped its earlier connotations of religious and political zealotry, false beliefs, orgiastic excess, possession, and madness, connotations that seem to be at the heart of many of the representations of fans in contemporary discourse” (12). Popular representations of the fan, such as the movie The Bodyguard, portray an obsessive fanatic who stalks his idol; proof, for Jenkins, that the fan “constitutes a scandalous category in contemporary culture, one alternately the target of ridicule and anxiety, of dread and desire” (15). Clearly, there are similarities here between popular representations of the teenage male fan and those of the `geek’ or `nerd.’ Both figures have a passion for a specialized subject they wish to know, and master, to the last detail; both figures, like the many children diagonosed as suffering from Asperger Syndrome who display an unnatural interest in a specialized topic, are scholars at large outside any academy. The geek is nothing more than a pathologized figure of the scholar whose love is spurned by a dominant peer group as unbalanced and unnatural. We have seen the enemy and he is us.

The variety and diversity of fan writing on the Web can be plotted on an axis that spans from declarations of enthusiasm to scholarly research. This axis applies regardless of the literary content of subject being studied. The difference has to do with the effort and time invested in researching minutae, gathering material from various sources, and evaluating and commenting on source material. At this point, a valuable distinction between the fan and the amateur enthusiast must be made. Certain sciences, in particular astronomy, have always relied on amateurs to make valuable contributions to the field by observing and documenting new objects, such as comets, that can then be checked by others. The fan is different from the amateur in that the fan studies an oeuvre belonging to a particular person (rock musician, actor, author) or a genre or particular topic (e.g. Arthurian literature). The most rudimentary fan site dedicated to a chosen film star consists of a few photos of the beloved star, a list of the films or TV shows she’s appeared in and links to other fan sites. More detailed and established fan sites become authorities in their chosen field and may receive primary material and information from those involved in creating the original subject material. The Ziggy Stardust Companion, created and maintained by Michael Harvey, includes an exhausting list of memorabilia about one David Bowie album. The site includes original, previously unreleased photos from the cover shoot, given to Harvey by the photographer Mike Rock, as well interviews with Angie Bowie. There are also brief essays discussing the treatment of glam rock in Todd Hayes’ film Velvet Goldmine and an extensive discography and detailed chronology of the Ziggy years. This type of extensive research is similar to the bibliographical research conducted by scholars.

Both scholars and fans write for a small specailized audience comprised of their peers. Their writings are always tokens of membership of belonging to their particular group. All fan sites have, as a matter of course, links to other fan sites. These links are an acknowledgement that the fan knows and acknowledges others in the fan community. Similarly, the use of quotations and an extensive bibliography in a scholarly article is always a token of membership, an acknowledgement of the others who belong to the community of researchers with similar interests to that of the author. Reciprocal linking, where sites link to one another, played a prominent part in the Web’s early years when new sites were keen to attract a readership. Web rings, where sites on a related subject are linked to one another by a recognizable logo, address a readership shared with other members of the ring:

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When students write websites, they write for a shared readership. This readership is markedly different from that of the student essay. The student essay has a somewhat disingenuous relationship to its implied reader. The student writes as if for a general, vague reader - as if the paper was going to be published in a college magazine. Yet all the while both student and teacher know that the essay masquerades as a text written for a mass readership that has only really been written for the teacher. Peer review helps to expand the essay’s audience but the essay’s readership is still, in a sense, an institutional construct. In teaching students to write the traditional essay, we introduce them to a relatively unfamiliar literary genre. As part of their daily lives outside the classroom, students do not generally read, write, or debate academic essays. There is, of course, nothing new or strange in this: the essay has been an unfamiliar genre for many students for many years and expanding the scope of the student’s cultural knowledge remains one of the university’s key duties. The essay puts the student in a somewhat disadvantaged position: it is written for a single reader yet masquerades as a public document, it is relatively unfamiliar to the student, and, most importantly, the skills needed to write an essay are considered to reside in the domain of the personal and the private.

The fan site suggests a new Web pedagogy based on the student’s interest, immediate publication and the imparting of skills that the student can deterritorialize and put to other uses. The new pedagogy is no longer centered on the student paper, but rather on the online website with the immediate audience it offers. The single greatest advantage of Web authoring for student writers is the immediate sense of an audience for their work that the Web provides. Once student papers are placed on the Web and linked to other documents they become part of the course materials to be read by all students. The power of hypertext lies not only in its capacity to accommodate associative thinking but also its entire freeing of the mechanics of publication. Landow reminds us of hypertext’s power to facilitate collaborative learning:

Writing in hypertext, a student makes four kinds of contributions to the course materials, each of which, as we shall see, involves collaborative work: (1) reading, in which the reader plays a more important role in shaping the reading text than does the reader of a book, (2) creating links among documents present on the system, (3) creating text documents and linking them to others, and (4) creating graphic documents and linking them to others (Landow 236).

Students experience this change when they write with a prior knowledge that their work will contribute to a larger communal work such as a class Web. As a writing technology, the linking power of hypertext, where any document can be linked to another, fosters a sense amongst student writers of belonging to a group that performs a set of shared practices. Student projects are written to be read and linked to by other students, family, friends, and anyone else who cares to visit the site. My impression is that students appreciate the power of online publication and see work published on the Web as a public document with a continual presence in contrast to the college paper which they view as an artificial, unfamiliar exercise conducted for a solitary reader (the instructor). Many students continue to work on their websites even after they have moved on to other classes because their work is published online.

The New Web Pedagogy

Over the last ten years, the theoretical groundwork for a new Web pedagogy has been laid by George Landow, Greg Ulmer, Jay Bolter, Stuart Moulthrop, and Nancy Kaplan. These authors, although they do not form a cohesive school, all explore a new practice for teaching composition that is suited to the unique capabilities afforded by hypertext. A number of common traits and arguments run through their works. All of these authors in some ways extend McLuhan’s theory that changes in media technology bring about fundamental changes in our cognitive processes. We are moving from predominately print culture to a more visually mediated electronic culture in which the image is re-ascendant as a mode of knowledge. The college essay is a pedagogical tool created by a print culture that is no longer suited to a new visual culture where modes of cognition may be undergoing profound change.

The new Web pedagogy employs images, typography, montage and design arts. The traditional essay remains, within an increasingly visual culture, a `word only’ literary form. Yet with new digital technologies, visual literacy is becoming increasingly important as the printed page is no longer the sole medium for delivering text. Digital technology transforms reading and authorship as pictures, images, videos as well as words and sounds are delivered via the Internet or CD-ROM. Web authors require a diverse number of new skills including the ability to structure information according to the type of experience they wish the user to have of the site (site architecture or experience design), a knowledge of how to incorporate and compose with different media (collage), and skills in graphic design (page layout, typography). I agree with Jay Bolter that “the status of graphics and visual literacy may well be the great open question facing education in the coming years” (12). Given the increased role and power of images, why is visual literacy rarely dealt with in composition programs? I suspect that in many classes the use of graphics, illustrations and design is often viewed by teachers with suspicion, as if to be concerned with the design of the final document - outside of a prescribed format - is to somehow devalue or cheapen the writing itself by making it look attractive. Why then are graphics and illustrations so distrusted in the humanities, much more so than in the sciences? This suspicion is not simply a reaction to the emerging digital technologies that threaten the supremacy of the printed book and the written word but is also a distrust of marketing practices that harness the persuasive, base, irrational and sensual powers of the image. Within the humanities Web authorship forces us as teachers to confront the persuasive image as the banished evil twin of rhetoric. If Bolter is right, as I believe he is, that the status of graphics and visual literacy is the great open question facing education, then we need to ensure that the teaching of visual persuasion and graphic design is not left solely within the domain of marketing departments. Our current attitude towards the image is akin to leaving the teaching of composition solely in the hands of the gurus of copywriting.

Web pedagogy transforms writing into design activity. The aim of such writing is to uncover and explore something we rarely encounter outside of the process of writing and to persuade others that what we have written has value and is seriously playing what Foucault names as `the games of truth.’ Web authoring adds a whole series of design stages into the composition process including design, production, online publication and `debugging’. In his How We Write: Writing as Creative Design Mike Sharples argues:

To view writing as a design activity is a great liberation. Writing can be compared to other creative design activities such as architecture and graphic design. Solving problems is one aspect of this broader process. Activities such as sketching and doodling are not distractions from the task of writing, but are an integral part of it. A writer need no longer be portrayed as a solitary thinker grappling with ideas, but as a member of a design team situated in a rich environment of colleagues, resources and design tools. (10).

My experience is that Web authoring extends the editing and revision phases of composition and expands the potential audience for a student’s work. While HTML is a paltry form of hypertext, these features are as significant as hypertext’s capacity - as Landow has argued - to encourage students to make connections and to contribute to a shared body of knowledge (226).

Web pedagogy accepts that a Web page can contain several links and the reader’s experience of the text depends upon which links are presented - so the experience of reading the text varies for different readers (Bolter 5). Student Web authors need to decide whether the Web document they are writing will contain many links and be a rich hypertext or whether it will be an HTML published version of a print essay that contains few links and develops its argument in a singular linear fashion. Most online essays limit the use of links to a table of contents with links to the relevant sections and links within the text to relevant footnotes. In contrast to the online essay, a rich hypertext needs to employ the rhetorical devices - such as motif, image, myth and personal narrative that are the key devices of Ulmer’s `mystory’ - that exploit the associative potential of hypertext. Landow argues that the foundation of hypertext rhetoric is the structured journey in which the reader clicks on a link to travel from one lexia to another. In this journey of numerous departures and arrivals they discover - and help to create - the connections, associations and arguments of the text (124 - 126). Student authors working in hypertext need to consider the types of journeys they wish their reader to experience and to compose their lexias and links accordingly.

Do these multiple journeys then mean that a hypertext is devoid of a thesis? For Bolter “hypertext undermines the rhetorical foundation for the teaching of writing–that is, the need for a unified point of view and a coherent thesis” (10). As teachers, we need to make our students aware of these differences and to provide them with appropriate skills to write and interpret hypertext, we need, as Landow argues (an argument Bolter acknowledges a few sentences after he makes his point about the undermining power of hypertext), to provide them with a rhetoric suited to hypertext, a rhetoric of arrivals and departures. While I agree with Bolter that hypertext has the capacity to shake the very foundations of the writing school, I would add that the extent to which the thesis disappears and becomes lost in the funhouse is a decision to be made by the student author. Any reader of hypertext can tell the difference between a chaotic bundle of random links between unrelated lexias and a carefully orchestrated work that takes the reader through an entertaining and meaningful journey. In hypertext, the thesis is that which governs the content of the lexias and the placement of links. A rich hypertext takes the reader on multiple journeys that explore and develop ideas through association, the juxtaposition of rhetorical modes such as argument and narrative, and recurring motifs. There is no reason why the thesis, as a central idea to be developed and explored, cannot be a guiding principle of a non-fiction hypertext written by a single author. As a guiding principle, it no longer functions as a signpost explaining the nature and purpose of the singular route the reader will take as she journeys through the text to its conclusion. Rather, the thesis now becomes the pole star that orientates the reader on her multiple journeys as she explores the hypertext’s numerous permutations. In a traditional essay, the author develops the thesis for the reader whereas in a rich hypertext the author creates paths that invite the reader to discover the thesis for herself.

Web pedagogy changes many elements of the student/teacher relationship. Michael Joyce reminds us that hypertext positions the teacher as a multidisciplinary rather than unidisciplinary specialist who excels at making connections between diverse fields of knowledge. For Joyce “The teacher as this kind of multidiscipline specialist has the important role of constructing an actual culture with her student” (121). The teacher is now a `learning manager’ who works to create a culture within the classroom and within cyberspace where students talk and learn with each other. As a learning manager, the teacher belongs to a managerial class whose role is always to curb or redirect the student’s desire from the instantly gratifying and satisfying. The teacher cajoles or tricks the student to work harder by pointing out another set of refinements or moves that can be achieved. This cajoling or pushing the student is at odds with fan practices where the drive to create the ultimate fan site can sometimes spurn the fan work to compile ever more encyclopedic entries on the chosen subject. Jenkins, who uses de Certeau’s notion of reading as poaching, which he defines as “an impertinent raid on the literary preserve that takes away only those things that are useful or pleasurable to the reader” (24) reminds us that pleasure, and only pleasure, remains the goal of fan endeavors. Do we wish our students, as readers, only to take from a text that which they find pleasurable? The answer, here, is surely “yes” but a “yes” that wants to return to the text in order to find further delights (compulsive re-reading and research as a trait of fan activity). When teaching, I include certain fan sites as examples of `best practice’ for online research. After showing a class Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), I created a link from the class website to Augusto Cesar B. Areal’s excellent Metropolis website.

Technopower

The new Web pedagogy further recognizes that as a communication technology, the Web is far from neutral, as Swiss and Herman note, the Web as perhaps ” the cultural technology of our time, is invested with plenty of utopian and dystopian mythic narratives” (2). Swiss and Herman’s point poses a question for us as educators, namely, how are we to situate our pedagogy in regard to these utopian and dystopian narratives? This question is extremely pressing especially for those of us who teach `Web authoring skills’. What kind of stories should we tell our students about Web authoring, as a writing and design practice, and the Web as a cultural technology? And how should we ask them to reflect on the practice of Web authoring?

My response to these questions is twofold: we need to inform students about the history of hypertext and then discuss technopower as a concept for understanding the dynamics of change on the Web. First, I inform my students about the history of hypertext as a writing technology and introduce them to other hypertext authoring systems such as Storyspace. The first resistance to hypertext’s power to challenge established hierarchies of order lies in the limited capabilities of HTML. The promise of hypertext offers more than the ease of publication and access afforded by HTML. Writing back in 1993, Michael Joyce casually refers to the transformative powers of hypertext: “Hypertext readers not only choose the order of what they read but, in doing so, also alter its form by their choices. Also all hypertext systems allow `readers’ to add their own material, or links, to hypertexts” (Joyce 19-20). HTML simply fails to deliver this transformative power. It is a `dumbed down’ hypertext that re-establishes, rather than subverts, the roles of reader and writer. On the cyber-savanna of the early 1990s, an emerging intelligent species of hypertext was overrun by a lesser intelligent, though wildly reproductive, species that soon dominated the entire landscape. Although Storyspace survives, for now HTML has eaten everything and serves as the model by which all other hypertextual systems are judged. This success lies in the Web’s sheer broadcasting power. Like a television programme or radio station, you can access a static Web page at any time but you can’t readily change it or add to it.

The Web, far less than Moos, discussion forums and chat rooms is primarily monologic in structure rather than dialogic. To be sure, the Web does constitute a totally unprecedented revolution in terms of publishing and broadcasting. Members of Western democracies with sufficient funds can now publish what they wish as much and as often as they want. This failure of the Web, for all of the Webphoria in its early days, has enormous implications for the maintaining of authority and systems of power. As David Tetzlaff reminds us: “The Web comes to us amid a lot of hype about interactivity and user involvment, but compared to the Old Net, it’s actually a movement in the other direction. The Old Net was focused on highly interactive forms, with personal involvement on both ends, while the Web is basically a form of electronic publishing that has more in common with traditional mass media forms than it has differences” (100).

The development of fan sites is an example of the transition from Old Net to New, a transition that can be understood by considering the play of technopower in shaping social relations on the Internet. Tim Jordan explains that “When we adopt the perspective of the social in cyberspace, we lose sight of individuals and their powers and bring into focus impersonal powers based on particular technopowers that constitute the very possibility that cyberspace exists in the first place” (113). Technopower is here to be understood as a fusion of technology and values: “Technopower has (in)human values, knowledge and technology welded together in ways that make them inextricable” (110). Fan sites emerge within cyberspace as part of a conflict between Internet managers and users: “The analysis of cyberpower points to cyberspace having been constituted out of conflicts around the rights of individual users, the grassroots, or the authority of software coders, corporate managers, systems operators and hardware designers, the elite, over the nature of virtual life” (214). Added to this conflict is the tension between fans, corporations and publishing cartels over the use and distribution of primary materials such as images, audio clips, logos and even fictional characters. Fan sites are also often the sites of a contest over who owns mass culture and what fans’ rights are as writers and artists once they exceed the role of consumers of cultural products and become active creators or media hackers. In this way fan sites are more directly engaged with the cultures of the Web, by participating and adding to those cultures, than the student paper.

Technopower has both repressive and generative functions: many corporate lawyers are unsure whether all fan sites should be closed down or whether they should be encouraged as they promote an active fan culture. No fan site serves to diminish sales in the way that Napster hits a record company’s cash revenue stream. In the conflict between managers and users on the Net, some managers are unsure whether the fan should be considered a pest or welcomed ally. With student Web projects, a similar conflict can often be found between the student author and the university authority (professor or Web editor) as questions of ownership, copyright and research are raised when a student project goes live. An abstract question such as `who owns culture?’ becomes immediately relevant when a student wants to cut, paste and manipulate images of the ‘Borg as part of a student project about cyborgs. The common question `Is it OK to put an image on your site?’ is difficult to answer if you’re trying to encourage students to comment on visual culture or to employ images as an integral part of their projects. As well as being linked and networked to other authors and other documents, student projects are enmeshed in technopower as copyright and censorship police question the legitimacy of the student’s work.

Why do individuals, community groups, and fans create websites? The answer, I feel, is something rarely addressed by `formalist’ approaches to composition that focus solely on presenting and developing a thesis. (I know because I also use the formalist approach as well as teaching a rhetoric of associations suited to the multilinear capabilities of hypertext.) People create websites because they are writers who want to publish their works to attract a readership. Publishing a student website makes the student consider the network of power relations between author, publisher, lawyer and reader. As publishers we also take on a certain responsibility for the student projects we place online. We are accountable for what we place online and are also responsible for asking our students to reflect on the personal implications for them of publishing their projects. I once asked a pair of talented students at the National University of Singapore to consider whether they had considered the potential audience for their `cyber hippie manifesto’ that initially included numerous images of marijuana plants and leaves. The project, I reminded them, will be out there, hosted on the University’s server, for all to see. Singapore has strict, highly conservative laws concerning all recreational drug use. Did those images imply that you were possibly `advocating drugs’? How did they feel about those images being online? They hadn’t considered that the images could have been interpreted in that way, and had just associated the plants with hippies. In a flash the images were removed and the project was placed on the server. Looking back on the incident now, I probably erred on the side of caution - nor can I delude myself that I hadn’t been a little worried about the repercussions for myself of putting those images online if someone had found them objectionable. Was it worth it? In the end, I was glad that I had brought the issue up with the students as it brought home again that Web hosting equals digital publishing, 24-7. You can never determine your readership or assume that they are friendly. But unlike most student papers, you can assume that your paper has a readership. I continue to teach my students HTML because I want them to be writers who publish on the Web as well as students who write papers for a course. Now, why do students write papers?

Works Cited

Areal, Augusto Cesar B. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. http://www.persocom.com.br/brasilia/metropo.htm. October 17, 2002.

Bolter, J David. “Hypertext and the Question of Visual Literacy.” Handbook of Literacy and Technology. Eds. D. Reinking, M C. McKenna, L.D. Labbo & R.D. Kieffer. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998. 3 - 13.

Davies, Duncan & Diana and Robin Bathurst. The Telling Image: The Changing Balance Between Pictures and Words in an Electronic Age. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Vol 1. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Penguin, London, 1997.

Harvey, Mike. The Ziggy Stardust Companion. http://www.5years.com. October 17, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. Routledge: London, 1992.

Jordan, Tim. Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet. Routledge: Basic Books, 1999.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Kaplan, Nancy. `Literacy Beyond Books: Reading when All the World’s a Web.’ The World Wide Web and Cultural Theory. Eds. Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss. New York: Routledge, 2000. 207-234.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Sharples, Mike. How We Write: Writing as Creative Design. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Swiss, Thomas and Andrew Herman. “The World Wide Web as Magic, Metaphor, and Power.” The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory. Eds. Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-4.

Tetzlaff, David. “Yo-Ho-Ho and a Server of Warez: Internet Software Piracy and the New Global Information Economy.” The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory. Eds. Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss. New York: Routledge, 2000. 99-126.

Ulmer, Gregory. Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video. New York: Routledge, 1990.