It’s been interesting this week to watch Academic Twitter chew over Nicholas Kristoff’s assertion in the NYT last week that, gosh darn it, academics are just too tied up in their ivory towers and their wanky, inaccessible writing to make any damn difference in the world these days. If only (he wrote) scholars would spend more time on Twitter and other social media platforms producing texts that real people can understand and less time chasing our own academic tails, the world might–just might–be a better place.
While it’s true that there are a host of telling presumptions about academia’s relationship with the “real world” that are at work in Kristoff’s column [you can read some excellent work on that front here and here], I’m most interested in Kristoff’s implicit assumption that for academic work to “matter” to the general public, it has to affect social or political policy.
This strikes me because a lot of scholars in my own unruly discipline–that of rhetoric and writing studies–feel the same way.
For many rhetoric and writing scholars, the notion that “rhetoric is action—past, present, and future” is fundamental to their understanding of the purpose of their work (Kirsch and Royster 653). Implicit in classical discussions of rhetoric is its potential, when wielded by a skilled orator, to facilitate change. As Susan Jarratt observes, the sophists–a motley collection of Pre-Socratic teachers and speakers who practiced rhetoric before the discipline itself existed–embraced this potential; they “concentrated on the power of language in shaping human group behavior explicitly,” and regarded rhetoric “as an instrument of social action in the polis” (10). Little wonder, then, that Aristotle was wary of rhetoric’s potential to do of “great harm,” of what he saw as the ills that could “be done by unjustly using such power of words” (36).
Although this fear of the “unjust” use of rhetoric persists in contemporary popular culture where, as David Coogan and John Ackerman argue, “doing rhetoric is akin to menacing our fellow citizens with lies and misdirection,” for many rhetoricians, the ability of their work to affect what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “positive modification” within the social realm continues to be central to their understanding of rhetoric’s purpose [emphasis original] (Coogan and Ackerman 2; Bitzer 6).
But the precise terms of such modification–what “counts” as social change, both in terms of content and scale–is a matter of debate.
These are the stories we like to tell about ourselves:
First and foremost, that our lives form a story, that they can be contained within the boundaries of what we recognize as a coherent narrative.
One problem with this assumption–one that is, I think, so deeply ingrained in us so as to be almost invisible–is that it sets up a very real trap: what do we do, then, what are we supposed to think, when our lives as we know them in any given moment fail to meet the requirements of a story? Of the story we think we’re writing, day by day? Of the story we’re certain we should be creating, we are, we must?
Recently, two of my friends have run headlong into this problem and found themselves struggling to find a way around it. These two friends, it’s worth noting, are at very different points in their lives, and hold very different places in mine: the first is an ex, with many years of co-authorship under his belt when it comes to our lives together; and the second a friend, a co-writer, whom I’ve never met in person but with whom I create texts.
Two people. One plot point in common. Same problem.
Both of these friends find themselves at a point where the stories they feel they should be writing day-to-day are not manifesting themselves in lived experience; both feel some guilt, I think, for not matching their lives to the rough drafts they’ve held in their minds for a long, long time.
This post is a metatextual exorcism: me trying to get the stupid out, as my directing teacher used to say, in re: my research project about the rhetorical tactics of the Overlord. It’s also an excuse for lots of pictures of Misha, so. If that turns you off, you know, I’d suggest you check for a pulse.
Ok, so. Here’s why it’s been hard for me to wax academic about Misha Collins:
It was easier for me to [gleefully] objectify the dude than it was to take him seriously.
Like, bro: I could write some smoking hot RPS about you without breaking a sweat, but put on a Random Acts video and I went all Crayola.
Fangirling over his body? Fine. Fangirling over what he actually did with that body in real life?
Encomium on the Overlord: The Sophistic Fandom of Misha Collins PDF download
So here it is: the freaking Misha paper I won’t shut up about. I presented this in March 2013 at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association’s national conference. And for all of my bitching, this thing was great fun-–eventually, finally–-to write and even more to deliver.
If you’ve ever been curious as to what the hell I do with Supernatural as a student of rhetoric: here’s exhibit A.
From his first appearance in the television show Supernatural, Misha Collins—and by extension Castiel, the fiercely loyal angel he portrays—has been a favorite among many fans. In the midst of the show’s uniquely intimate and occasionally contentious relationship with its fans, Collins has crafted a distinct fandom of his own: first via the performative Twitter antics of a persona called “the Overlord”—a grandiose troublemaker with his eye on world domination—and then through the creation of two distinct yet intertwined organizations: a non-profit called Random Acts, founded in 2010, and the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen [or GISHWHES], founded in 2011.
In this essay, I explore some of Collins’ engagements with his fans [his minions] through the lens of sophistic rhetoric—a form of discursive engagement both older and more playful than that of Plato or Socrates. Reading Collins’ rhetorical performances through a sophistic lens illuminates the productive potential of crafting fan engagement as a series of provocations, ones that invite Collins’ fans to, as rhetorician John Poulakos puts it, “abandon the shelter of their prudential heaven and opt for that which exists ‘by favor of human imagination and effort’” (45).
Ultimately, the sophistic fandom of Misha Collins offers his minions two ways of performing the possible, of translating the Overlord’s antithetical approach to stardom into a distinctly different way of being in the world, one that transforms kindness into an act of gleeful deviance.
In my field, we spend a lot of time arguing over our own utility.
My field, we call ourselves by a lot of names: writing studies, rhetoric, composition studies, technical communication, etc.
The grad program I’m in straddles a few of these denotations and calls itself: “Rhetoric and Writing.”
Yeah. See what they did there?
For me, rhetoric is the study of what people do with language, with words, whether in speech or writing. If words are the weapon, rhetoric’s the study of how we wield it. As such, a rhetorical examination can include an analysis of performance (how we say it), of the construction (how we put it together), and/or of the effects of those choices (what does the text do for/to/with its readers?).
My program, then, takes a very particular spin on these question through its focus on “rhetoric and society”; that is, many of the faculty are interested in what rhetoric can and does do outside of the university. In the real world, as it were.
So there’s this big fanwanky battle in rhetoric and composition over how, when, and even if we as academics should intercede in societal problems, be it at the community, state, or national level.
My friend and collaborator fanspired kicked a lovely and complicated question at me yesterday, and as a) the answer to her question is sort of fundamental to this blog; and b) my response spun out into a 20-page dissertation, I decided to post my response here.
I’m puzzled about the relationship between these two [feminism and slash], given that we’re reading a genre of porn that specifically excludes us…Why do feminists read/write male/male slash?
I can answer that question only in terms of my own thinking and experiences. There’s been much written on this subject, and I suspect that there are probably as many answers to your question as there are feminists in slash fandom. Know, then, that my response pivots around my own beliefs, and makes no attempt to speak for feminists in slash as a whole.
The simplest answer, for me, is that such practices are a means through which, by which, to resist the way that female sexual desire and expression is coded, understood, and controlled within the dominant discourse.
In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins, scholar of fan practices in general and one of the first to write about slash practice specifically, puts it this way:
“Slash confronts the most repressive forms of sexual identity and provides utopian alternatives to current configurations of gender; slash does not, however, provide a politically stable or even consistently coherent response to these concerns.” (189-190).
As a feminist, I see slash practices as active, resistant, and women-centered.
Active in that writing and reading slash fiction allows women [and some men] to re-author their own sexuality outside of the constraints of heternormativity. Hell, I’d argue that having to select any kind of label for one’s sexual identity, be it hetero or gay or bi or whatever, is more constraining than constructive. Indeed, the Kinsey scale suggests to me that there are very few of us who fit neatly and with no ragged edges into any of these categories.
I think sexual identity for many people isn’t “stable” or consistant over the course of our entire lives, although the dominant discourse is loathe to acknowledge or explore this idea–in part, I think, because these identities are too freaking complicated and individual to be easily narrativized. It’s much easier to say: you’re gay or you’re straight. Maybe bi. But that’s it! More than three and it gets confusing, damn it.
So, for me, reading and writing slash gives me a chance to run around in many different kinds of sexual expressions, performances of desire, and sex acts outside of the binaries that dominate Western discourse around sexuality: gay and straight/male and female. In doing so, I can actively write, rewrite, and write again my own sexual identity, rather than serving as a passive receptor of male [eh] sexual desire, as the dominant discourse tells me I do every damn day. Indeed, the dd still tells us, I’d argue, that, as women, we “should” be good and wait for the men to come to us; that we should be content, as John Berger might say, to be the object of the gaze, rather than its master.
Well, I call bullshit.
Slash, for me, is also a form of resistance. The dominant discourse instructs us that what we should want, as women, is nice, safe, straight, vanilla sex with a man –unless we want to sleep with other women in front of/for the pleasure of men. That’s ok, too, but only if we recognize that what we really want at the end of the day is to be on the receiving end of a dick. Because, yeah.
Now, some would say (to me, at the last conference I went to) that writing/reading M/M slash is NOT a practice of resistance because it’s essentially women lusting after men. That is, the dominant discourse tells us we should desire beautiful men, and thus engaging in slash wherein we deify the male body is, in effect, doing exactly what the patriarchy wants.
This scholar then reminded the audience and I that the producers of SPN have learned to aim their program at women, in so far as having the boys in various states of undress and using the pretty as a selling point (all true). Therefore, she posited, by agreeing that yes, these men are hot (and trading on that in our fic), we’re giving into the dominant discourse, rather than scorning its advances.
Again, I call bullshit.
To embrace the pretty, to happily consume this, this, and this, and then to use that pretty to our own devices–to write/read Sam and Dean or Dean and Cas or Sam and Dean and Cas into hot sex–is, I think, pretty fucking feminist in nature.
Slavoj Zizek–who is an idiot on a lot of things, in my opinion–wisely suggested that the purest form of resistance against the dominant ideology is to embrace the ideology with open arms. So, ok PTB, you want to keep our eyeballs on SPN by dropping images like this into our laps? Awesome. We’re gonna take those–thank you–and do with them what we will: some of which you’ll be ok with, because it’ll make you money, and some of which you’ll have no fucking control over, no matter how meta you try to get on us, baby.
As feminst scholar Constance Penley puts it in NASA/TREK, her brilliant examination of Kirk/Spock slash:
“slash fans do more than ‘make do’; theymake“ (106).
Penley also notes Joanna Russ’ notion that slash writing is, essentially,
pornography by women, for women, with love (qtd. 103).
This is the last key piece of the puzzle, for me. Slash fiction is a space that dominated by women. Period. At some level, we’re women writing for, and to, other women. Sometimes, we’re an audience of one. Other times, the stories that we shape and kick out into the world are consumed by women whom we will never meet–but who will use our stories in their own way, make and remake them, hate them or love them, say “that’s not my Sam and Dean!” or “oh, god, that’s what my boys look like, too.”
This isn’t to say that a discursive space that’s dominated by women is inherently feminist in nature. It’s not. But, for me, spaces like the Sam/Dean Slash Archive or Archive of Our Own or any of the thousands of relevant LiveJournal pages allow for conversation and exchange between women that the dominant discourse discourages if not outright denies. We can talk, in these spaces, about sex and desire and character and narrative and incest and wingfic and curtains and emotion and trauma in ways that we can’t do in our everyday lives. If anything, SPN has become a feminized space because the characters are vehicles that make such conversations possible, even desirable, and provide the means through which, by which, we as women (primarily) can have them.
It’s not just about female appropriation of the male form–the most frequent academic criticism I’ve read and heard against slash. Hell, we might have a little penis envy, but so what? Reading and writing slash fic lets us try on the cock for awhile, put it to its best (most enthusiastic?) possible usage, and then reap the benefits of that textual world as only women can.
So you’re right, fanspired: on the surface, slash fic can look misogynistic. It’s women playing with men, navigating, negotiating, exploring, fuck, enjoying their sexuality via the male body. But I’d argue that the lack of gender constraints, the opportunity to resist the dominant discourse’s expectations of female sexuality, and the highly feminized communities that slash offers make reading and writing slash conducive to feminist participation, study, and interpretation.
As my boy Henry Jenkins points out:
“not all of slash is feminist; yet one cannot totally ignore the progressive potential of thisexchange.” (221)
As a feminist, it’s that “progressive potential,” the opportunity to repeat with difference, as Judith Butler might say, that keeps me coming back–yes–to slash.
I’ve spent a lot of quality time with Becky Rosen lately. And this is a piece that’s come out of our communion.
I’ve been working with Becky since last November, when I watched episode 7.8, “It’s Time For A Wedding!” for the first time.
My first reaction to what I saw as the episode’s, uh, problems? Was to write my first S/D story, “Hot Blooded.”
My second? Was to start work on this piece, which has moved from a presentation [of which this is version 2.0] to a lengthier academic essay.
The reaction that I’ve received to this work at the two conferences at which I’ve presented it has been generally positive, but it’s also stirred up some hornets’ nests for some folks, which is kind of awesome.
This presentation relies pretty heavily on images [which is part of why I’m so fond of it, I think]; if you wish, you can download the associated slide show here.
While Supernatural doesn’t belong to me, this work does. And, as Becky might say, everything may be a fic of everything else, but don’t try to slash this slasher, to represent this work as your own.
He’s Best When He’s Bound and Gagged: Deleting Female Desire in “Season 7: It’s Time For A Wedding!”
Soon after its premiere in 2005, the television show Supernatural—the story of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who’ve committed their lives to protecting people from supernatural creatures—spawned an online fandom dedicated to “slashing” Sam and Dean; that is, to writing stories in which the brothers are portrayed as lovers. Indeed, over the course of seven seasons, the existence of these narratives—affectionately dubbed “Wincest” by the show’s fans—has become a defining feature of Supernatural‘s primarily female fandom.
By introducing a meta-textual version of the show—a series of books also called Supernatural—into the primary narrative, the program’s producers have allowed Sam and Dean [and, by extension, the producers themselves] to comment upon the productive and consumptive practices of Wincest fans. However, the subsequent introduction of the character of Becky Rosen—dedicated Wincest writer and devoted fan of the Supernatural book series—has allowed the producers to take this commentary one step further: to illustrate the monstrous potential of the female fan, particularly one who actively engages in the construction, consumption, and distribution of Wincest narrative.
In this paper, I will argue that a central image in Becky’s most recent appearance in season seven, episode eight exemplifies the danger that the show’s producers see her [and the female fans for whom she stands, in their minds] posing to the show’s carefully maintained masculine order: the image (slide 1) of a semi-clothed Sam bound to a bed, his body and the text which it represents at the mercy of his female captor. The transgressive nature of this image lies in its reversal of what Laura Mulvey calls “the symbolic order” of gender in the visual, one in which “the silent image of woman [is] still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” That is, the threat that Becky poses to Sam, to Supernatural, lies in her status as a woman and as a fan writer, as a figure who can upend the central narrative by affixing the masculine to her “rightful” place as the signifier of meaning while claiming the role of producer for herself. Continue reading “He’s Best When He’s Bound and Gagged”→
Here’s something I learned at the conference I attended last week:
Wincest is disgusting, to some people.
Let me set the scene.
As my brother wisely observed, I go to conferences to road test my academic material. To put it up in front of an audience and see what works, what doesn’t; a trait, he says, I learned in improv, where it’s all about doing, reading audience reaction, and revising the work the next time you go on stage.
[I hadn’t made that connection, myself. He’s a smart one.]
What I’ve realized, though, is that there’s a productive tension between the need need to put a piece of academic writing on its feet and the need for it to be, you know, something good enough [ugh] for me to stand behind.
At some level, I’d love it if every conference presentation resulted in all comers telling me what a fucking genius I am, showering me with publication offers, and buying me drinks.
At another, I recognize that the unexpectedly rich engagement [weird, lively, sorta intense conversation] that occurred during my panel’s question and answer session was WAY the fuck more valuable. Even if no drinks were purchased on my behalf.
To wit: one of the lessons I took from the panel.
Wincest is disgusting, to some people.
So one of the academics on my panel now writes about sex and science fiction, but is, in her other scholarship, also involved with neuroscience and psychology. In my paper, I talked [much more briefly than in others] about the rise [ahem] of the Wincest narrative and its distinctive presence in Supernatural‘s primarily female fandom. In response to some audience comments on the paper [more about that in a moment], this presenter stated that she found Wincest to be disgusting and disturbing because, as she noted, child/child incest occurs more frequently in the US than adult/child incest. At the time, my sleep-deprived brain didn’t know what to make of this statement, other than: dude, Wincest is hot. Which I thought but did not say.
But, later, revived by food and coffee, what I realized was this:
For my colleague, Wincest is akin to incest, which, in the popular [and legalistic] understanding, is almost always equated to sexual abuse. To the abuse of a power dynamic, of age difference, of emotional maturity, between siblings. Indeed, as this Harvard Law Review article suggests, most state laws that criminalize incest rely solely upon the notion of familial relation; that is, if two people who are “related” [and yes, the definition of this term varies from state to state], then any sex between them can be characterized as illegal–even when it is consensual.
And that’s the key to Wincest, I think. Well, to a lot of it.
Wincest is slash fic, first and foremost, and, in practice, most slash fic is predicated on a relationship between two [male] characters who are equals. Who consider themselves to be equals in real life, if not in the bedroom. At least, that’s what much of the old school, hardcore academic theory [Constance Penley, Henry Jenkins, Mirna Cicioni] on slash argues. And this rings true for me as a reader and writer of slash.
So, to me, the concept of “Wincest” hinges at least in part on this sense of Sam and Dean as equal partners in general. And this sense of equality is linked to consent, to the notion that the boys come together [or, ah, something] because they want to, because it’s what they desire. Now the contrivances that get them there can be legion: magic, demons, booze, somebody’s hurt, somebody wants to fuck, somebody has a sudden moment of emotional clarity–whatever. But this acceptance of who they are, of what they have–even if it’s just for one night, as in some stories–is key, for me. Now they are non-con stories, sure, and many that feature dubious consent. And I hate making universalist or generalizing statements about anything, much less about something as free-range as fan writing.
I think this equation of incest with abuse is what lay at the heart of my colleague’s squick reaction, of her immediate dismissal of Wincest [with which she had not been familiar, it seems] as aberrant, deviant, disgusting.
Which is, to me, fascinating. Because as often as I proclaim myself an evangelical member of the Church of Gay Incest Porn [tm twoskeletons], I think that I’d forgotten what that phrase actually means to most people.**
As a scholar, this was a helpful reminder that what I’m talking about, as much as I like to play at it being a little kinky and weird: actually is kinda kinky and weird, to some. And that resistance, as in this case, can be productive for me, can raise questions, can remind me of the “straight” reading of Wincest to which, through which, my scholarship on this awesomely sexy and transgressive and often really well-written stuff must be negotiated.
In fact, the whole discussion reminded me, eventually, of this terrific panel I attended at the same conference on BDSM and the popular romance novel. One of the presenters discussed the links she sees between the geek/fan community and the kink community; and, in the course of her discussion, she noted that folks in kink are constantly contradicting themselves in the way they talk about their practices. In the same sentence, she pointed out, kink people will say, “Hey, what we do is transgressive and resistant to the heternormative construction of sex. And that is fucking awesome” AND “Hey, what we do isn’t weird. We’re just like everybody else.”
Which kinda feels like where I am with slash fic, at the moment: weird and different and yet really normal, in a way. Whatever “normal” means.
So I’m stuck in between these two bodies of thought, these two ways of seeing Wincest, after this conference. Which feels like a good place to be, for now. A productive one, at least.
**Side note: One audience member who said very nice things to me about my paper after the panel also said: “I don’t really see the Wincest thing”–ok, I thought, fair enough–“but when you showed that picture of Dean at Sam and Becky’s wedding [the one at the top of this post], and you made that joke about how he was upset about Sam marrying anyone but him–I could kind of see that, in his face.”
I chose to see that as a step on the road to Damascus, friends. A baby step towards a casual Google search, towards a visit to the Sam/Dean Slash Archive, perhaps…
So my grad program wants to know: what have I accomplished this year?
First, I made a lot of mistakes.
I spent too much time comparing myself to my colleagues, measuring myself against an imaginary standard that I manufactured in my spare time and spoon-fed with paranoia.
I spent too much time listening to certain people in my life, both in academia and not. Wasted too many brain cells trying to apply logic to things they said that made no sense then, that make no sense now, and that ultimately don’t mean a damn thing.
I didn’t spend as much time on some readings as I should have, spend more time on others than they really deserved.
At conferences, I didn’t go to enough panels. Didn’t talk to enough people.
I put myself down too often.
I forgot to press “save” more than once.
Dicked around too much, in general.
Waited until the last minute to start my work when I sure as hell knew better. Not all the time, but at least one too many.
Didn’t talk enough in some classes. Talked too much in others.
I got up too early, too often.
Didn’t spend enough time with my students’ texts or spent far, far too much.
I drank too much coffee. Ate too much bad food. Didn’t take up smoking.
Didn’t drink enough booze.
I wasted too much time not writing.
But then, I made some good choices, too.
I presented at my first conference and managed to write something, to say something, that sounded like me: funny and sarcastic and smart.
Presented at a second and, when the room wasn’t as friendly, that time, I didn’t beat myself up about it.
I said “thank you” when people praised my writing, my thinking, my teaching. Didn’t question or try to talk my way out of the compliment. Just said “thanks.”
I said “thank you” when someone told me “You can do better,” because she was right.
I was a little too honest a little too often and, man, was it good.
I started watching Supernatural.
I started writing slash fic and, damn, has that changed my life.
People I don’t know, will never know except via the internet, read my writing and liked it and even came back for more, even saw more in my texts than I did, than I can, than I could.
I remembered how to learn strategically, how to get what I need from a text and move on to the next.
I became myself, in my teaching.
I discovered porn studies and critical discourse analysis and feminist film theory.
I submitted abstracts without fear because, hey, the worst they can say is “no.”
[Or is that “yes”?]
I had colleagues ask me to submit panels with them and said “yes” instead of “why?”
I had papers accepted at a hardcore feminist conference, at pop culture fests in the US and in Switzerland, at a grad conference, at a regional MLA deal.
I didn’t listen when some people gave me misguided–if well-intentioned–advice about my academics, my career, my once-and-future “marketability.”
I accepted that other people in my academic life might actually mean it when they offer help, or guidance, or direction. And that these people might be good advocates, for me. That they want to be, if I’ll let them.
I interviewed my academic idol, saw the mask fall, and figured out that I have to hack out my own path as a scholar. Figured out that douchebaggery can trap, can take even the best of us.
I embraced my inner Rage Cat and then learned how to let him go.
I said “yes” more than I said “no.”
I wrote a love(d) letter and got back something, someone that I’d lost.
I stopped waiting for someone to give me permission to do what I want to do in my research and just–did it.
I realized that I might have something to say, after all, and that some people might want to listen.
So my students are working on compare/contrast essays right now. What I’m asking them to do is freaking difficult: find two articles related to their [self-selected] research topic that address the same issue and craft a four-page compare/contrast essay in which they put the two pieces into conversation with each other.
The research part, as usual, is what’s kicked many of them in the ass. And that’s as it should be. Research is HARD. Ok, doing research that uncovers material you can actually use is hard; finding irrelevant crap is easy.
What’s struck me this time is how many students are obsessed with avoiding “bias.” For them, though, “bias” seems to mean having any sort of opinion at all, which, as I try to explain to them, is not humanly possible. There’s a difference, I say, I preach, I suggest, between expressing an uninformed opinion that’s not based on any sort of evidence and in asserting a position in such a way as to ignore any other takes on that issue. In selecting data, in conducting a close reading, in analyzing a text, I tell them, you ARE taking a stance, presenting an argument, but that doesn’t mean that you are biased.
I guess I’m wondering: where does this idea come from, this notion that bias is bad, that “unbiased” is a legitimate and desirable state of being? I’m reminded of a comment that Mike W. Barr made in one of his letter columns in his comic, The Outsiders: “A writer who doesn’t have opinons isn’t writing stories, he’s making pablum” ( The Outsiders 4, Feb., 1986).
Now, granted, Outsiders is a comic and not a newspaper article or research paper, but Barr’s point cuts to the heart of the issue here: writing is done by people. Period. Not by HAL 9000 or Gerty or Jarvis, but by people. Articles like this one, coupled with my students’ attitude towards bias, suggest that there’s a real desire among some in our society to eliminate the tempramental human from the act of writing. To flatten and silence and eliminate all the noise from “academic” texts, all in the name of the great Straw Man: clarity.
Which is complete and utter bollocks.
But it may explain why there’s a market for a computer program that can grade–not assess, or comment on, or respond to, but grade–writing, especially student writing, which is, in my experience, often the most messily and awesomely human of them all.