“The Cultural Economy of Fandom” by John Fiske

Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Fiske, John. 1992. “The Cutlural Economy of Fandom.” In The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, edited by Lisa A. Lewis, 256. New York: Routledge.

Summary & Implications: What is the author’s project and why is it important now? What’s the narrative about the field that’s emerging from the reading? What narratives are silent? Whose voices are silent?

John Fiske builds upon Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital to put forth the idea of a fan culture that creates a “shadow cultural economy” which involves the appropriation of the products of the larger cultural economy while also providing for the production of its own products and output, which might involve the remixing/rewriting of the original texts (30). The idea is that, because the texts fan cultures are based on aren’t valued by the dominant culture, they are more amenable to this kind of adaptation and reuse, they contain within them space for fans to interact and create more readily than do the “texts” of the dominant culture. Fiske proposes that there is still a strong drive, at least among those who fit in well with the dominant culture (straight white men) to evaluate the fan-attracting texts as the dominant culture does to the dominant texts, hierarchically, meanwhile those less likely to fit in with the dominant culture care less about valuation and hierarchy as tools for interacting with their fan-accessible texts.

Fiske proposes that fans engage in three kinds of “productivity” in response to and conversation with the texts they are a fan of. The first, semiotic productivity, involves the reading and understanding of a text, and isn’t specific to fandom in particular. The second takes the ideas developed in that semiotic reading and turns it into dialogue in the form of enunciative productivity, which is, basically, fan talk. Writing first in 1992, Fiske argues that this fan talk is often limited because there is a relatively small chance of overlapping fandoms within a fan’s immediate vicinity. This will later explode with the popularization of the internet. The final kind of productivity is textual, which sees fans produce their own texts in a complex web of interactions with the original texts and personal desires/creative impulses.

Fiske notes that fans and the dominant culture both revolve around accumulating collections of cultural artifacts, but that fans are generally more interested in the size of the collection whereas the dominant culture is generally more concerned with the monetary value of their collected materials. He notes also that because fan-attached texts aren’t usually valued by the dominant culture, their collections and productions are less likely to be valuable economically.

Fiske holds one way of seeing the difference between the fan and dominant cultures as being almost inalienable: the dominant culture is always going to be uninterested in the fan-attracting texts except as ways of extracting money from fans, while the fans will be uninterested in the official, proscribed use of a fan-attracting text and will instead value it for what they can do with it and how they can undermine it or fundamentally change it.

Fiske also writes that gender is a primary differentiator in the world of fandom, that differences in how fans react or respond to texts will tend to vary with their gender. He notes that race might also be part of this calculation but doesn’t think that it holds as much explanatory or differentiating power as gender and class do. This point is obviously arguable.

Context: Who is this author debating with and why? What is the context of the text’s production and distribution? What historical, cultural, etc. factors affect the way it makes meaning? Does the author seem to be in conversation with other scholars and/or paradigms? Where is this piece of writing centered in the field? What is their intervention in the literature/field? What text is this text in conversation with?

As stated above, Fiske is most interested in augmenting the work of Bourdieu to explicate the difference between the dominant cultural economy and the “shadow” cultural economy of fandoms. This is a valuable contribution, even if it only starts and doesn’t finish this conversation. Its own time of production in the pre-internet era severely limits its base explanatory power, though minor corrections and additions might address some of the new situations created by the internet. The biggest change that has made it less explanatory at this moment in time is the shift in the dominant culture to appropriate and absorb many facets of what was once limited to fan culture. the MCU, Star Wars, and the continued growth of videogames as a huge cultural product has made the relationship between fandoms and the dominant culture much more difficult to sharply distinguish from each other. How might this change in the relationship between the dominant and fan cultures explain the straight-white-male backlashes to diversity in popular (once-fan-based) media?

Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek

Methodology: What is the methodological framework of this text? What methodological moves or questions does the author engage? What is their object of analysis?

Fiske’s task is to take ideas from Bourdieu’s concept of cultural economy and tease out the differences that occur when the texts aren’t those specified as valuable by the dominant culture. He provides examples based on his and other research into different fandoms of how fan economies vary from the dominant economies.

Rhetorical Moves: What are the major rhetorical moves of the author’s arguments?

The biggest rhetorical move is the sharp distinction between the dominant and fan cultures, which holds some value still but has been complicated by changes in both landscapes over the past 30 years. The same has happened with the other rhetorical move Fiske performs as he prioritizes gender over race (or sexuality, or even the complexities of gender) as the dividing line between different kinds of fans. A more thorough investigation of fan cultures would attend to these other dimensions of fans and fandoms.

Engagement & Application: How do I engage this text? How does this apply to my work? Does it support or provide a counterargument or model for strong intro or lit review? In other words, why is this piece of writing useful to me and/or how is it limited (bad writing style, problematic, didn’t consider x, y, and z)? Does it intersect with other items on the list?

I think the idea of looking at fandom through the lens of a cultural economy has its limitations, even as I understand how valuable it might be to my future studies. In the end, I think the economic lens can only go so far in explaining how fans respond to texts and why those responses come in the forms they do. That being said, I think Fiske will likely show up, in some form, in my later work.

Key Terms: What terms are key to the author’s argument, and are they operationalized explicitly or implicitly?

fandom, cultural economy, dominant culture, capitalism, industry, productivity, cultural knowledge, producerly, texts, gender, discrimination, hierarchy, habitus

Significant Quotations: What key quotations from this work would I want to have quick access to?

Fandom is typically associated with cultural forms that the dominant value system denigrates – pop music, romance novels, comics, Hollywood mass-appeal stars (sport, probably because of its appeal to masculinity, is an exception). It is thus associated with the cultural tastes of subordinated formations of the people, particularly with those disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race. (30)

We need to add to Bourdieu’s model gender, race and age as axes of discrimination, and thus to read his account of how culture works to underwrite class differences as symptomatic of its function in other axes of social difference. […] [H]e leaves proletarian culture and the proletariat as an undistinguished homogeneity. This leads him seriously to underestimate the creativity of popular culture and its role in distinguishing between different social formations within the subordinated. He does not allow that there are forms of popular cultural capital produced outside and often against official cultural capital. (32)

Fans discriminate fiercely: the boundaries between what falls within their fandom and what does not are sharply drawn. And this discrimination in the cultural sphere is mapped into distinctions in the social – the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are just as strongly marked and patrolled. (34-5)

Those who are subordinated (by gender, age or class) are more likely to have developed a habitus typical of proletarian culture (that is, one without economic or cultural capital): the less a fan suffers from these structures of domination and subordination, the more likely he or she is to have developed a habitus that accords in some respects with that developed by the official culture, and which will therefore incline to use official criteria on its unofficial texts. It would not be surprising in such a case to find that older fans, male fans, and more highly educated fans tend to use official criteria, whereas younger, female and the less educated ones tend towards popular criteria. (36-7)

Fan productivity is not limited to the production of new texts: it also participates in the construction of the original text and thus turns the commercial narrative or performance into popular culture. Fans are very participatory. […] This melding of the team or performer and the fan into a productive community minimizes differences between artists and audience and turns the text into an event, not an art object. […] The reverence, even adoration, fans feel for their object of fandom since surprisingly easily with the contradictory feeling that they also ‘possess’ that object, it is their popular cultural capital. (40)

Fan texts, then, have to be ‘producerly’, in that they have to be open, to contain gaps, irresolutions, contradictions, which both allow and invite fan productivity. They are insufficient texts that are inadequate to their cultural function of circulating meanings and pleasure until they are worked upon and activated by their fans, who by such activity produce their own popular cultural capital.  (42)

In the same way, the dominant habitus uses information about the artist to enhance or enrich the appreciation of the work, whereas in the popular habitus such knowledge increases the power of the fan to ‘see through’ the production process normally hidden by the text and thus inaccessible to the non-fan […]. This knowledge diminishes the distance between text and everyday life, […] or between star and fan. […] The popular habitus makes such knowledge functional and potentially empowering in the everyday life of the fan. (43)

In capitalist societies popular culture is necessarily produced from the products of capitalism, for that is all the people have to work with. The relationship of popular culture to the culture industries is therefore complex and fascinating, sometimes conflictive, sometimes complicitous or co-operative, but the people are never at the mercy of the industries – they choose to make some of their commodities into popular culture, but reject many more than they adopt. (47-8)

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