I recently had a relatively epiphanic week with regard to my dissertation. As I spend more time inhabiting diss-space, such weeks (and the blog posts they generate) may get more frequent, as I suspect that this is a common stage in dissertating, when things suddenly become clear in batches.
First, as already blogged, those Sassen readings helped me realize it may not be so useful to think in terms of the nation.
To explain the second epiphany, I have to back up some distance. It all started because my department is somewhat anarchic. This suits most of us very well, because it gives us a lot of freedom, but it does contribute to a feeling of isolation. Particularly as students complete coursework, we all sort of lose touch with each other, to greater or lesser degree.
(Though, the way a speaker at a departmental reunion this weekend spoke about her cohort as an intellectual sounding-board to this day suggests there are ways around this.)
Consequently, when some university administrator types reviewed us, they said we needed more cohesion. The department administrators looked around at other graduate programs and decided the way to do that was to start a graduate student organization, and they tasked the representatives from each cohort with this. And so, as the unlucky soul elected to represent the 4th years, I found myself in a pub co-hosting a grad student meetup a couple of weeks ago.
This is a long story, but it was necessary to explain how I found myself seated at a table with a bunch of first and second years, who sought out my advice as a more advanced student—and particularly, one familiar with queer theory. Ultimately, it was the question "How is LGBT studies different from queer theory?" that resulted in me understanding my dissertation in a whole new way.
I said, "It's like the difference between ethnic studies and critical race studies"—and got a blank look. I tried again "No, okay, here's a better example: the difference between women's studies and gender studies." That landed more, and I went on to explain how I saw the distinctions between these categories.
Later, it hit me. That's the move I am making in fan studies. The queer studies or critical race studies or gender studies move. (Or, since I just taught Robert McRuer, the disability studies to crip theory move.)
That is, fan studies has, to this point, been operating in a women's studies or ethnic studies or disability studies or LGBT studies mode. It has said, "There are people called fans, who have a particular experience—to some extent, an oppressed experience—and we should document what it's like to be this sort of person."
This work has been and continues to be important, for fans as much as for any of the other categories of people that are researched in this way. This work absolutely should and must be done, because there are, in fact, groups of people out there that we don't know very much about yet and we should know about them if we're going to better our sense of what's going on in the world. I am, emphatically, not disputing that.
But that's not the work that I want to do in my dissertation. I'm out to queer fandom.
Now, I'm not queering fan studies in the way Julie Levin Russo does (Seriously! Can't blog without Julie!) in her insistence that it's important to focus on queer female fandom in Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities.
Perhaps most vitally, like I insisted in my academic telephone piece, I'm not saying all fans are queer in the sense of having same-sex sex or queer in the sense of sexually oppressed, because either of those contentions would be patently absurd, although some fans surely are queer in one or both of those ways. And actually I think it's sometimes productive to think of fandom as a sexual orientation. See my Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom
What I'm doing, instead, is making the move queer theory makes (and critical race theory and gender theory and crip theory all make) to not just take fans as self-evident but rigorously interrogate the process by which this category is produced.
I don't want to look at fans out in the world as just existing, as if they just sprang up, fully-formed, not shaped in their practice by the social sense of what a fan is, as if the ability of anyone to even identify a fan or fannish behavior isn't shaped by the social sense of what a fan is. Because, no matter what Lady GaGa says, neither fans nor queers are "born this way."
Instead, I want to know: What are the processes by which we come to understand that there is such a thing as a fan? And what do we then understand that thing to be? What are the consequences of that construction process and constructed outcome for the norms of media audiencing in the Internet era?
This is a pretty different set of concerns from much of fan studies to this point, but I'm convinced that it's an approach that's vital. Just as looking at gender and race and sexuality and ability as categories has enriched work that looks at women and racial minority people and gays and the disabled, I think that queering fandom can really provide a stronger theoretical base for the LGBT-style work.
Now if only I could coin a catchy name.