I made this pact with myself that I wasn’t going to write about NBC’s Hannibal. Not in an academic way, at least. For all of its gore, its elegant violence that can make cruelty taste like art, I didn’t want to engage with it on a critical level because I love it too damn much.
Last month at PCA/ACA, I had the pleasure of hanging out with some very excellent people who are just as damn well fond of slash as I am. And to prove it, these lovely people were willing to read porn in public—at an academic conference, no less! Bless you, my friends.
Our reading was designed as both a celebration of slash and as a very public fuck you to anybody in academia or otherwise who tries to get us to justify why we love and choose to study fanfiction.
Presented under the gleefully George Michael-derivative title of “What’s Your Definition of Dirty, Baby? Taking Pleasure (Together) In Fanfic,” the event itself was so much goddamn fun. In teams of two, we performed excerpts from six fics, each representing a different slash pairing, in an old-school forensics-style more akin to mini-plays than formal literary readings.
(Though I gotta admit: the performance itself was scarier than I’d expected. It was harder reading Dean Winchester’s dirty talk with a straight face [or, uh, something] that I thought it would be.)
More to the point: the thing generated enough happy, pervy energy that we’re going to try and stage a repeat performance at the next PCA/ACA con next year in Seattle.
But this, what follows, is the exigence for this event, the spark that set off the slash: a NSFW rant I composed one afternoon in a fit of fic-fueled fury that came to serve as the opening remarks for our little get together. So consider this some rhetorical ammo for the next time someone looks askance at what you love and what you do: a big ol’ hey, fuck you, too.
A few quick updates on the (seemingly all-Supernatural?) academic front:
1) As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be participating in A Celebration of Supernatural at DePaul University next month. It’s free! and open to the public, so if you’re in or near Chicago, come hang out with us! Here’s the schedule for the event.
2) Me and my friend and colleague JSA Lowe are working on a new project, to be presented at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference in October 2015. We’ve posted a copy of the abstract for our nascent study, if you’d like to take a look:
3) And finally, I’ve posted downloadable copies of my two most recent conference presentations + slides:
- Unbuckle Your Belt: Screening for Seduction in Misha Collins’ TSA America
presented at the PCA/ACA National Conference, April 2105
- I Used to Think Maybe You Loved Me (Now Baby I’m Sure): The Reconstruction of the Supernatural Fangirl (with Shannon Cole)
presented at Society for Media and Cinema Studies Conference, March 2015
Whew. And then there’s that dang (totally not Supernatural) dissertation to finish…
Yesterday, I read Lucy Bennett’s “Tracing Textual Poachers: Reflections on the development of fan studies and digital fandom,” an excellent history-cum-consideration of fan studies, some 20+ years after the publication of Henry Jenkins’ foundational work. In the context of the conversations I was part of recently at SCMS and PCA/ACA, I was particularly struck by Bennett’s discussions of how we as scholars might encourage the continued, conscious evolution of our methodologies, objects and subjects of study, and our own reflective self-positionality as researchers.
This essay, it caused a thunderstorm of sorts in my head.
Me, I’m just a whippersnapper in these parts; hell, I’m at a stage where the phrase “early career researcher” still feels like a stretch. That said, I’ve had my flag planted in fan studies ground for a while now, and I feel settled enough in this happily still-wild territory to draw up a wish list of my own. I’ve been staring at the horizon here long enough to have a sense of the kind of work I’d like to do, the sort of scholarship I’d like to see, in the future.
So here’s my disciplinary wish list for fan studies, things I’d like to see us do moving forward:
There was an interesting discussion on Twitter this AM about how we as academics talk about and share our research process, rather than just the final result.
Often, the messiness of the process that we go through—ok, that we totally make up as we go along, even though we’re not supposed to admit that—is where the good stuff happens.
The weird shit that happens in the trenches, between lines of analysis and unexpected data sources, that’s the stuff that inspires us to keep writing abstracts, keep going to conferences, keep writing essays about subjects we love.
Publication is great, and final products are awesome by virtue of being fucking done. But the process is the cool part.
Ok, let me stop. I have this tendency to talk around whatever’s bothering me, whatever it is I really want to say—a bit ironic, given what I do for a living, but there it is. Let me take a deep breath and try again.
I am very, very tired of my dissertation. Of the research that it’s entailed. Of the writing up that it demands. Of what it represents in terms of my work as a scholar and yet, what it doesn’t.
People have told me: The dissertation doesn’t matter. It just has to be done. The dissertation matters, because its subject may help you get hired. Or not. The dissertation is the culmination of–what, exactly?
I’m writing about a subject that I’m intellectually interested in: how and why Christian women use what I call “rhetorical bleed” as a persuasive tactic in their discourse about female sexuality.
See? There’s even a theoretical component to it, a contribution I’m ostensibly making to the field of rhetoric and writing.
I admire some of the women whose writing I’m examining. They’re doing good work, work that needs to be done, they believe, in the face of the way that the evangelical church tries its damnedest not to discuss female desire, and women’s use of pornography, and the idea that some Christian women feel overwhelmed by those desires. The only advice the evangelical church offers to women generally about sex—as one of the subjects of my research rightly noted—is shame.
In the context of the purity movement, that push within contemporary evangelicalism for young people (esp. women) to remain physically and mentally “pure” about sex until marriage, the shame thing is particularly unhelpful. So you feel bad about experiencing sexual desire, about exploring that desire through masturbation and porn–where are you supposed to go to talk about those feelings, exactly, when the church’s response tends to be: well, you shouldn’t have done that in the first place. End of discussion.
So some of these women have started talking about these issues amongst themselves. In my diss, I’m examining how this organization talks about these ideas in public spaces, including their website, monthly podcast, and book. At the same time, I’m steering clear of the members’ only online message boards where the organization’s members talk with one another about their personal struggles; that’s their business, and not fodder for academic research, to my mind.
I like these women. I care about this project. And yet I am having a devil of a time caring enough to write my dissertation.
Maybe it’s that the reality of the job situation has slowly started to sink in: the chances of me getting a FT teaching gig, already slim, are fading fast. On the one hand, this makes me quite sad. I’ve spent the past four years figuring out what I’m really fucking good at—teaching people how to effectively express their ideas on paper—and now I have to accept that I probably will not be able to apply that skill in the academic realm.
I haven’t gotten any callbacks, as it were, on 31 applications, with 6 rejections already in hand and more no doubt to come. Maybe it’s because my diss is about women, desire, Christianity (gasp!), and porn. Maybe it’s because most of my publications deal in fan studies—rhetoric, performance studies, and fan stuff, but still, it’s not Rhetoric.
Maybe it’s because all of my cover letters have been riddled with errors, or because my font choices are offensive, or because I’ve applied for the wrong kind of gigs. Or none of the bloody above.
I don’t know.
Regardless, I will soon have to fend for myself in the world, and I need to find employment. Full stop. So I’ve begun looking outside of academia, back to the business and non-profit world I thought I’d wanted to leave behind.
I’m a good writer, damn it. And an even better writing teacher, or tutor. I love research, most of the time, and I’m pretty good at that, too. These are marketable skills, surely. I just need to figure out how to do that, exactly.
There’s part of me, too, that feels a bit like a failure for not landing an aca-gig. I know there are some people in my life—in my goddamn department—who cannot freaking wait to say I told you so. If only you’d listened to me and not written about fan studies or sex or Christianity, you’d have done so much better.
On the one hand, I want to say: fuck them. Because they WERE wrong on that front. The best part of grad school has been the research, believe it or not, and all the conferences and amazing colleagues and pub opportunities that have resulted from it.
On the other, though, part of me wants to slink away like Scarlet tries to in Gone With The Wind after she’s caught in Ashley’s arms. It’s the day of Ashley’s birthday party, to which everyone in their circle has been invited, and Scarlet’s mortified to be the talk of the town in the worst possible way. Her instinct is to hide at home and not go to the damn party.
But Rhett won’t let her! No, he insists that she wear her most stunning gown and freaking march down there to Melanie’s and show her face to the woman she betrayed and to the community that think she’s trash.
And she does, dear Scarlet. And she kills it. Even though Rhett makes her walk in by herself and even though the looks she gets from those assembled—from everyone but Melanie, of course—are beyond venomous.
So, like Scarlet, I’d much rather hide at home for the next two months. To bang out this crappy diss in misery and shuffle out of here in May with my head hung low. I’ve failed, people, by the predominate measure in PhD land and I hate it and it fucking sucks.
But I won’t.
I don’t have a Rhett in my life to goad me into it, or a killer ruby-red gown to wear, but I’m going to put myself out there in our department. I’m not going to dig a hole, as awesome as that sounds right now, and camp out until May. I’m going to show my face and talk to people and show my fellow students that, no matter what the faculty tells you, life goes on even if you don’t get a single academic job interview.
Ok, a quick trip down disciplinary history lane:
As Geoffrey Sirc and others have noted, composition had a choice to make back in the 1960s, when it began to behave (and thus be recognized as) a discipline: a) to fashion itself as an integral part of the university’s mechanics, thus ensuring its survival; or b), to keep on keeping on as its own weird, inscrutable thing, one whose value the university itself was likely to recognize.
In his book English Composition as a Happening, Sirc talks about this in terms of theater: composition could either become a scripted drama or remain more akin to a “happening,” a particular kind of immersive, often improvisational theater in the 60s and 70s that valued the unexpected rather than the preordained. As an audience member, you were never quite sure what to expect from happening, which were often staged in industrial spaces 180 degrees from a traditional proscenium stage and called upon each member of the audience to move independently throughout the play space. The expectation was that each individual would have a distinct experience with the play and its actors; no two encounters with the text were the same.
Of course, as Sirc bemoans, composition moved away from the spirit of the happening and towards formalization within the official structure of the university. As a discipline, composition valued its own legibility and viability over what Sirc constructs as its original, free-spirited ways–and this, for him, marks a tremendous loss of possibility and opportunity. Composition, he seems to suggest, chose to be boring. And that sucks.
I was reminded of Sirc’s argument today when reading through the website of a composition program at a land-grant university in the United States. Since I only came upon this site because of my job search, you’ll forgive me if I don’t identify which one it is (and if I complicate the quotes below a bit to obscure identifying details). That said, what’s of import here is not the university’s location, but the way in which it talks about the values of its composition program.
To wit, the program attempts to “advance [the university’s] mission to pursue academic excellence in the context of writing instruction. Undergraduate composition courses . . . help students [to become more effective] writers and researchers by [offering students]. . . flexible strategies for researching and composing texts.”
On solid ground so far. But then, there’s this: guess who is charged with “advancing” this central element of the university’s mission? Yes, they’ve chosen those who traditionally possess the least amount of teaching experience—grad students who are new to the university themselves.
I have an essay in the most recent issue of the Journal of Fandom Studies. It’s called “Writing with the Winchesters: Metatextual Wincest and the Provisional Practice of Happy Endings.” This baby’s has been a years-long labor of love, smut, and the creative authority of fan writers. Should you choose to read it, I hope you dig it, too.
Here’s the abstract:
Soon after its premiere in 2005, the American television show Supernatural spawned an online fandom dedicated to ‘slashing’ the show’s two protagonists, brothers Sam and Dean Winchester: that is, to writing stories in which the brothers are portrayed as lovers. Over time, the existence of these slash narratives – affectionately dubbed ‘Wincest’ by the show’s fans – has been incorporated into the series’ diagesis. Indeed, in the wake of the programme’s repeated forays into diegetic metatextuality, some Supernatural fan writers have re-incorporated Sam and Dean’s canonized awareness of slash fiction back into Wincest stories themselves – specifically, into the subgenre of metatextual Wincest, stories that recast Sam and Dean as conscious participants in Wincest fan culture. Using Della Pollock’s notion of performative writing as a guide, this essay will explore the distinctive types of encounters between reader, writer, and text that metatextual Wincest stories facilitate. Further, the application of this critical approach to three such narratives – nyoxcity’s ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, Road Rhythm’s ‘This is All Very Meta’, and Fanspired’s ‘Conversations with Head People’ – highlights fan writers’ perception of their own creative authority within the ongoing process of meaning-making that continues to spin around Supernatural. Ultimately, this essay will argue that what makes metatextual Wincest stories distinct is their suggestion that only by working in concert with their fans can Sam and Dean finally write their own version of a happy ending, something ‘the show [itself] eternally defers’ – even if the lasting power of the ever-after they create together remains, in the end, uncertain (Tosenberger 2008, 5.12).
So I went to a conference this weekend, a regional pop culture deal-y up in Baltimore. One of the reoccurring themes of the con was that of “found family”–how ragtag fleets of misfits seem to find each other in cult television shows like Teen Wolf, Doctor Who, and Supernatural.
And, weirdly, it was a theme that also rang through my own experience at the conference, and got me thinking about the distinctions between being a graduate student and being a scholar.
Now see, in my program, there’s been a lot of talk about how, as PhD students, we should act like our professors’ colleagues, rather than as “students.” That is, we should act like the professionals we want to be, rather than the insecure chicklets that we often are. I’m all for this attitude, in theory.
But in practice?
So a new, improved, and gif’d up version of my multimedia essay “Encomium on the Overlord” was published by the online magazine Harlot today. Hurray!
There’s more of me in this piece that I’m strictly comfortable with–way more–but that said: I kind of love it anyway. It ain’t perfect, but I can live with that. And I’m sending it out to several would-be employers as a writing sample, believe it or not.
Here’s the project, in a nutshell:
As a new fan of the CW’s paranormal series Supernatural, I paid little attention to actor Misha Collins outside the omnipresent trenchcoat of his character, Castiel—until a kairotic question from a fellow conference panelist pointed me in the direction of Collins’ Twitter feed. I was struck by Collins’ 140-character shots of performative trolling, Tweets that sang to me in shades, gleeful rhetorical waves, of the sophists, particularly because of the actor’s interest in, and unique definition of, social change.
Building on that sophistic seed, I argue here that Collins’ construction of a megalomaniacal Twitter persona known as the Overlord has afforded him a particular kind of disruptive ethos, one he’s used to persuade his fans to regard both “normalcy” as a social problem and acts of art and public performance as effective means of addressing that ill. Ultimately, I suggest that listening carefully to how Collins’ fan community defines, enacts, and understands “social change”—rather than measuring their rhetoric against a fixed understanding of what such change can and should look like—may allow those of us outside of this community, and others like it, to add to our understand of the “new ways of thinking about citizenship and collaboration” at work within the many, varied, and beautiful spaces of fandom (Jenkins 257).
(Two pubs for this fall down, one to go. Whew.)
So the final, painful push of grad school is on and, to be honest, it kind of sucks.
On the one hand, there’s great promise: I’m almost done!
On the other, there’s great pain: Yeah, but, you’re not done yet and oh hey, how’s that job search going?