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Post-SCMS musings on the value of the word acafan

March 17, 2011


This weekend I attended the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference in New Orleans. Many folks have written up some excellent analyses of the conference experience in its different manifestations. I’d like to focus on a workshop I moderated whose issues have stayed in my thoughts since the conference. The workshop was titled (by me, actually, with perhaps only subconscious feather-ruffling) “Acafandom: The Future of Fan Studies.” (I’ve posted the workshop summary and the participants’ provocations here.)  I was excited about the very existence of this workshop (and the fact that it got accepted into SCMS), because SCMS is traditionally one of the more established and in some ways disciplinarily conservative conferences in the field. I felt that the existence of this workshop meant that acafans had gained a place at the table; but more than that, I felt a workshop tackling the issues of acafandom at an interdisciplinary, wide-reaching conference like SCMS offered an opportunity for a range of scholars to come together across divides within fan studies, to explore distinctions and commonalities and perhaps work out shared questions of ethics, methodology, and interdisciplinarity. I was caught by surprise, perhaps more than I should have been, when the workshop became a debate about the term acafan’s use value and apparent toxicity.

Defining Acafan


I’ll start off as I did in the workshop by sharing my internal definition of acafan, one that I am coming to realize is perhaps more expansive than common perceptions of the term and its connotations. Building on the work of Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills, and also Alexander Doty’s work on the scholar fan, I have understood acafan as a broad and robust term, capable of containing multiple definitions, but all of which speak to an awareness of a blurring of subjectivities and roles, where fannish affect and insight inform academic perspectives and goals and vice versa. My internal working definition of the term (and this is an expansive, shifting definition) encompasses

1) Academics who study a media object of which they are a fan, and thus must look at how their investment changes, shapes, and perhaps limits their insight.

2) (Linked to definition one,) academics who study a media object without subverting or ignoring the evaluative frameworks that inform their focus and appreciation of said work; the debates about whether there is a place for evaluative criticism within media studies come from this dimension of acafan work, as do self-reflexive works of antifan scholarship like my colleague Jason Mittell’s work on why he doesn’t like Mad Men.

3) Academics who study fans and fandom that they don’t necessarily belong to, but still don’t approach as “other.” Acafan work of this type involves tangling with one’s own subjective perception of the fandom in question, as well as one’s own investment or dislike of the text. Much of the recent and emerging work on Twilight fandom such as that of Melissa Click and her fellow Bitten by Twilight co-editors and authors fits within this definition.

4) And finally, academics who study fans and who also locate themselves within those fan communities, and thus must face their dual or multiple positions through auto-ethnography and self-reflexivity, including addressing their mobility and thus possible privilege in the ability to move between the two terrains as insider in both. (See the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures).

Acafandom as Feminist Position


In his provocation at our workshop, Will Brooker offered an inward look at the choices he made in his research and writing of Using the Force. He termed his re-visitation “meta-acafandom,” and I feel this is right on the money. In fact, to me, the very term acafan, with its implicit merger, signposts self-reflexivity. But more than this, to me this self-reflexivity is necessary. It’s a synthesis that we cannot choose to ignore. We cannot afford to retreat to an objective academic position because acafandom threatens to be too subjective or affective. A seemingly objective position is only subjectivity rendered invisible but still implicated.


On twitter, Julie Levin Russo posited that we could replace the term acafan with feminist, at least if we’re thinking in terms of the values of affective scholarship, and while of course the two positions are not interchangeable, I do think they are crucially interrelated. Acafandom demands (or should demand) an integration of personal and professional that is, to me at least, fundamentally feminist. And crucially, it’s a realm of feminist-positioned scholarship that crosses gender boundaries, such as they are, within the field. We see discursive threads of fanboy and fangirl analysis (as muddy and thankfully incomplete as those divides are) but both sides are linked by their integration of multiple subjectivities, their merging of the personal and professional, and their willing engagement with taboo affect that necessarily implicates any sense of pure academic objectivity.

In his provocation for the workshop, Jonathan Gray expressed concern that acafandom creates a perception of special status that fuels what he terms aca-antifandom. He argued that the presence of the term/subfield “acafandom” is borne out of discomfort within cinema and media studies about affect and investment in media in general. He suggested that, whether intentional or not, the term acafandom conveys a retreat to a safe space where all that is necessary is the isolated study of fandom or one’s preferred fan object. His provocation calls upon us to step back from the perceived boundaries of acafandom to contend with the way that the insights of acafandom (or fandom, for that matter,) might be equally applicable and necessary for all of media studies. In the workshop’s discussion, Derek Kompare made a similar call—that scholars doing fan studies need to locate the concerns of fan studies within larger cultural concerns. And both Melissa Click’s and Kristina Busse’s provocations called attention to our responsibilities as scholars to study more than what we love or prefer or align ourselves with.

All of these perspectives speak to perceptions of acafandom as a bounded and limited category and community, but when I think of the use value of the concept of acafan, it is not that of a fiefdom or even subdiscipline—in fact, I’d call for putting the slash or dash (back) in aca/fan, (and yes, now I’ve moved from semantics to attention to punctuation) because the slash reminds us that we’re talking about a constantly in flux synthesis of complex subject positions that inform one another in important ways. I would argue that aca/fan is most vitally understood as a contextual position that we bring to our work as well as to our investment in media texts and/or their communities. And this shift in perception—of acafandom as bordered kingdom to aca/fan as unstable but integrated position–itself speaks to a larger issue in the field. Just as gender papers/panels shouldn’t be segregated in conferences, but rather inform the whole (and I’d say we have a long way to go on this front, but that’s a topic for another post…), so too should acafans model the (feminist) value of affective scholarship and self-reflexive insight.

Finally, I’d like to speak to another concern voiced in the workshop discussion: that acafan has come to have a specific, negative weight not only within academia but within fandom. This is certainly something that troubles me; acafan has in some circles come to signify fans who use their academic knowledge as capital within fan communities. I don’t know that there’s an easy solution to this problem, other than, in our self-aware roles as aca/fans, our modeling respect for the at times conflicting value systems we find ourselves moving between. But I don’t think that abandoning the term acafan because of its negative perceptions will resolve any of these problems at their root. I wouldn’t want to see us distance ourselves from fan affect just because of aca anti-fandom or anti-acafandom. And if we don’t distance ourselves from our dual roles, then whatever terms we use to talk about our position—whatever term we end up using to replace the word acafan—will become the cipher for the same discomforts. If we don’t find a framework to talk about our shared if differing experiences merging academic and affective/fan positions, then we will find ourselves hindered in recognizing larger insights that extend beyond the personal to the diverse collective.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2011 3:48 am

    I’m still perplexed about why these ideas — Jon’s contention that “the insights of acafandom (or fandom, for that matter,) might be equally applicable and necessary for all of media studies” and yours that whatever term we use simply functions as a “cipher” for persistent underlying anxieties about affect across academia — *aren’t* a convincing argument for the term’s obsolescence.

    I don’t think that the project of acafandom (or whatever we want to call it) requires that or any term, and in fact I’m pretty sure it’s become hindered by it.

    But I gather I’ll get to hear more about this soon…

    • lstein permalink*
      June 14, 2011 1:54 pm

      I think I’d echo Sam’s concern that abandoning the term could sacrifice the opportunity for interdisciplinary links and conversations (as in the one we’ve just started at Henry’s blog), and I’d add to that that abandoning the term could potentially silence or sidestep particular issues that perhaps it would be easier to ignore, like the taboo against studying popular media fannish texts that have large female followings. Without the term and a literature around it, I worry that there will continue to be whispered “just don’t write your dissertation on this/leave this off your CV” without interrogating the cultural and disciplinary dynamics behind such policing narratives.

      (Sorry for the late reply!)


  1. Acafandom & Beyond « transmedia
  2. On Autoethnography and Acafandom « Revenge of the Fans

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