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Category Archives: academia

I spent July 19-21 at Console-ing Passions in Boston, MA, which describes itself as an “international conference on television, audio, video, new media and feminism.” I have to confess I’m still not sure how I feel about feminism. In fact, I’m still not sure what feminism is. I am, however, sure that whoever feminists are, and whatever it is they stand for, the ones who attend CP do seem to be my people. Certainly, my pet peeves with certain things that appear under the sign of feminism—a lack of intersectional understanding and a surplus of gender essentialism—were not in evidence.

But what made the conference great was more than the fact that the content of the talks was interesting and the theoretical framework wasn’t frustrating. I was trying to tell a colleague about how awesome it is, and she asked “Who did you meet?” expecting me to name famous feminist media studiers. And I really couldn’t, because that wasn’t it.

Granted, having Mia Consalvo (@miaC) ask me a question in my panel and then reference my response (by name) in her panel the following day was a great moment of a senior scholar paying attention to me, which made my day. But my day was made many times, by lots of people, most of whom weren’t (yet) internationally recognized heavy-hitters.

Console-ing Passions, that is, was a space overflowing with productive intellectual exchange in a way that I have not seen at most other conferences. In fact, this feeling was pretty similar to what got me rhapsodizing about AoIR back in October.

By contrast to the anonymity of a huge national or international conference and the needle in the haystack feeling of finding those 50 people you do want to talk to out of the 5000 attendees, CP was full of smart people working on things I found interesting and who were collegial if not downright friendly.

I happened to experience the quality of CP as a conference most directly through the Twitter backchannel—which was, as might be expected, rich and really interactive on a different scale than I’m used to—so that forms the basis of the rest of the post. Rest assured that collegiality and intellectual exchange took place in other forms, too.

Just as an overview, Anthony C. Bleach (@acbleach) made this outstanding interactive map using Martin Hawksey’s (@mhawksey) rad TAGSExplorer tool that I think is a useful visualization of the conference community that formed.

There were lots of people interacting with each other, including things like backchannel cross-talk across panels. I had a great exchange with Amanda Ann Klein (@princesscowboy), who chaired my panel but who at this point in the conference I had not yet met, started by her comment about a panel she was in:


My exact reply is lost now because I deleted it in order to phrase it more clearly and then didn’t get around to posting the revised version before Klein’s response came in, but it said something like “well, popular girls benefit from normative femininity, so I can see it”—and then we had this exchange:




That is a pretty interesting and nuanced conversation with someone who’s essentially a complete stranger, which generally one assumes can’t happen on the Internet, but the CP environment made it possible.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg on the sorts of intellectual exchange that went on. As a counterpoint to my academic telephone complaint, I got to see my ideas travel outward within the space of the conference itself (correctly!) as things I said in my talk were tweeted and retweeted or ideas from previous conversations were generally recirculated:






Though there was one detour into message garbling:















This post isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory that my ideas have been well-received (though I won’t pretend that’s not exciting), but to demonstrate the quality of engagement that CP produced by means of my personal encounter with it. And overall, this experience has suggested to me that I perhaps need to reevaluate my process for selecting conferences.

Because it turns out that small, specific ones (though not so small or specific you don’t learn anything or meet anyone new) make for much better experiences overall.

This week, I’ve been provoked into critiquing the casual ease with which people who, by all indications, ought to understand how to avoid stereotyping reproduce the reduction of groups people to the least common stereotype.

Now, I have myself been nailed for this. I wrote in a response paper for my Ethnic Studies 10AC course that “when I think Asian, I don’t think turban” as part of my discussion of the ways Indians get elided. And I was meaning this as a commentary on other people reducing Sikhs to turbans, but that wasn’t clear, and I got a very snarky comment in the margin from my TA. My fault for not being precise. Bad 17 year old me!

I want to distinguish the objects of my ire here from the Unintentionally Hilarious Figure  version of stereotyping, where people had actually found a pattern among groups of people but then just reported it without the necessary commentary or critique:


(I’m pretty sure this got from the Atlantic to me via @anetv  but Twitter’s extreme non-searchability precludes verifying. I’ll give her credit anyway.)

Instead, what I’m interested in is the ways that knowledgeable people, generating a name or an image, are using extremely loaded iconography that reproduces stereotypes when they don’t have to. They’re starting from scratch—with the acknowledgement that “scratch” is “the ideas already swirling around in culture around the objects they’re describing”—and yet they deploy these stereotyped ideas, seemingly without sufficient thinking-through.

This first came to my attention when I was forwarded a call for papers: From Veiling to Blogging: Women and Media in the Middle East. This was a goodly while ago now, but it sat there in my inbox until quite recently. The subject is not my area of expertise, so I wasn’t going to submit and should probably have just deleted it. But every time I came to it, I just got mad and tempted to fire off a reply to the listserv about it. I didn’t, because I burn enough bridges on a day-to-day basis without resorting to nuclear tactics, but it was really frustrating.

What was particularly problematic about it was that the people doing the special issue should have known better. The general public discourse around this may well be still about “white people saving brown women from brown men”—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak specified men doing the saving in the case of sati, but the way some feminists have picked up the veil and run with it makes it an equal opportunity formula—but academics should really know better, because “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is as old as I am.

And indeed the organizers did, in fact, know better, because the actual text of the CFP started out by framing the special issue as a critique of precisely the way that “Middle Eastern women have traditionally been viewed as weak and submissive, passively accepting male authority and leadership rather than seeking to be a leader in their own right” as well as how “women of the Middle East have been portrayed as helpless creatures who are often hidden behind the veil, quietly waiting to be liberated.”

It’s therefore baffling to me why on earth they’d frame the topic as “from veiling to blogging.” Why imply that’s a chronological shift in “women and media in the Middle East” rather than (as they probably intended) in the thinking on women and media in that region? Why redeploy the veil at all, given the enormous risks of re-instantiating the very discourse they’re attempting to dispute?

The second entry in the “wow, you didn’t think that through” file, and the one that solidified my determination to write this blog post, comes from reading the article Minimalist posters explain complex philosophical concepts with basic shapes, which I got from @mikemonello

So there I am, scrolling down, not finding the geometric shapes particularly illuminating—the black and white X for Nihilism, sure, but many of the other Venn diagram-looking ones didn’t strike me as the “surprisingly simple and accessible package” the article’s introduction had promised—when I get to Hedonism and come to a screeching halt.


Really? A pink triangle for Hedonism? What decade is this that we’re still reinforcing the idea that gay sex is about irresponsible pleasure-seeking and gay folks have a worldview in which, as the poster-makers describe Hedonism, “Pleasure is the only intrinsic good. Actions can be evaluated in terms of how much pleasure they produce”?  I mean, yes, clearly that’s the world Rick Santorum and other far-right ideologues live in, but the rest of us get that homos are no more or less irresponsible in their pleasure-seeking than anyone else.

If these are people who have enough grasp on philosophy to make posters summarizing it, they should be no strangers to sophisticated thinking. And they should therefore have enough intelligence and sense of the world to think of something considerably less reductive. Like the veiling example, some people may not know better, but these people should.

And I guess that’s the issue. How will the general public know any better if we who do aren’t more careful in how we communicate, to each other (the CFP) and to people in general (the posters)?

This week’s post is a recap of an event in which I participated on Monday, April 2. It’s housed over at the blog of the organization that hosted the event, the venerable Unit for Criticism at the University of Illinois.

So please do head over there and check it out: Hack This Post! Contesting Technological Neutrality at Technology in Theory and Practice


You remember the game of Telephone from your childhood: kids whisper a message from ear to ear along a group of people, and when it gets to the end of the chain the last person says it out loud, hilariously garbled.

I had not, until this academic year as I’m starting to be less of an apprentice and more of an academic-proper, appreciated how much being in my line of work is quite a lot like being permanently engaged in Telephone.

I first saw it when I went to the Association of Internet Researchers conference this October. As any good Internet or media conference does in this day and age, AoIR had a hashtag (#ir12) and extensive livetweeting. And, I’ll admit that when I followed that stream, I paid particularly close attention to the tweets about my presentation—don’t pretend y’all don’t do that too.

The result was that, for the first time, I got to see my meaning escape my control as it happened. For someone who operates from somewhere in the Active Audience realm and is very committed to the idea that the author does not decide her own meaning, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was decidedly uncomfortable to have it happen to my own statements.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to record the tweets in their entirety as they happened, but fortunately Fabio Giglietto of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo put together a Storify collection for the conference that features some of the discussion about my talk. It went something like this:

After my clarification, which was retweeted by @drst (whose real identity I know but she seems to not have it attached to her account), this reply came back:

This was, of course, a joking response, but it shows why it is that my statement, reduced to “fans are livestock” rather than “livestock is a useful metaphor,” was odd to people who got it second hand. Fans aren’t really livestock in a lot of senses—nutritional uses being one of them—but when it got retold the way it did people potentially got the idea that I’d said something far wackier than in fact I did.

Something similar happened after my article, Doing Fandom, (Mis)doing Whiteness: Heteronormativity, Racialization, and the Discursive Construction of Fandom appeared in Transformative Works and Cultures in November, though I didn’t see it until I Googled myself on a lark in January.

In TWC’s Symposium blog, Lisa Schmidt wrote an entirely appreciative post responding to my piece (called it “a really wonderful essay” and everything) in which—as in the AoIR example—she picked up on one of my points and did something with it that I didn’t intend.

Schmidt said: “The pressure of ‘normal’ is intense and maddening, which is why Stanfill’s section on fandom as a kind of queerness or sexual deviance resonated so powerfully for me. Supposedly fandom is becoming increasingly accepted by the mainstream yet, in many contexts, it remains a dirty little secret. It is a kind of closet, even for some who are in long-term relationships with persons of the opposite sex.”

Okay—so far that’s fine—”sexual deviance” isn’t that deviant from what I was trying to say, “closet” is right. But then things take a turn for the dead author: “More than ever, I feel that fandom, even when not explicitly having anything to do with anything sexual, is queer.”

This was the alarm-bells or record-scratch moment, because I was actually very careful NOT to say that fans were queer. In earlier drafts I had said so, but by this point I felt like it didn’t really capture what I was after. Instead, the terminology I was using was “nonheteronormative.”

The real trouble for my ability to control what people think I’ve said comes when people responded to Schmidt, for though she says “Of course, this is not really the point of Stanfill’s article,” this still becomes what is picked up on in the comments to her post.

User Havoc replied:

I feel like making everything queer dilutes the problems that actual queer folk can go through. Fans don’t need laws changed to be married to fans of the opposite gender, so long as they meet the gender binary. I feel that to list all fans as queer is appropriative of actual queer identity.

Yes, let’s avoid the idea of whiteness as the norm for fans (and elsewhere). But let’s also try not to appropriate one group’s struggles and make them universal to fandom, because LGBTQ struggles aren’t fandom struggles (unless they’re intersectional and both a fan and LGBTQ), and it’s not fair to those who identify as LGBTQ.

And Dana Sterling added: “I tend to agree with havoc about feeling like using queerness in this way in regard to fandom borders on appropriative.”

It was these responses that really distressed me. First, there was the suggestion that sexuality is only “LGBTQ” people’s problem (the phrase “unless they’re intersectional,” the identification of struggles as the essential property of “actual queer folk”). Then there was the reduction of sexuality-based inequality to the denial of state-sanctioned marriage. Moreover, I am heartily sick of reducing queerness to pain.

However, the biggest source of frustration for me was largely because all of these positions I find so problematic are actually incompatible with what the article is trying to do.

Queer, as an analytical apparatus, doesn’t actually describe the way fans work in culture, and so I didn’t use it. It also carried the danger of exactly the interpretation of fandom-as-oppressed-sexual-minority that these retellings and responses produced, something I would never want to argue because it’s patently absurd—though not because I’m worried about “appropriating” any oppression supposedly endemic to queers.

I suppose I’m going to have to get used to this—I’m going to continue to publish, and I really want to be that bigshot academic everybody talks about. Unlike the Twitter example, I can’t always go rushing in to correct those misperceptions as they occur. So I guess we’ll have to add “telephone distortion” to the occupational hazards of being an academic like eyestrain, carpal tunnel, and atrophy of the social life.

Though theoretically this blog is a place to preview things I’m working on, it hasn’t ever been so far. However, in a week when no current events or pop culture topics stand out to me (though as Bradley Manning’s Gender Identity Disorder defense broke this morning, too late to blog, I was nevertheless tempted), and I’m going to be traveling on Blog Thursday anyway, I thought I’d give it a go.

I’ve recently finished reading two very smart dissertations, Julie Levin Russo‘s Indiscrete Media: Television/Digital Convergence and Economies of Online Lesbian Fan Communities and Suzanne Scott‘s Revenge of the Fanboy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.

These are scholars I personally know and respect and thinkers after my own heart. So much after my own heart, in fact, that my reading of their dissertations was punctuated by bouts of fear that one or the other of them—or both!—had already written what I wanted to say in mine.

Both are interested in the interface of fandom and industry, like me. They are wary, rather than uncritically enthusiastic, about the impact of digital technology, like me. They are concerned about the role of capital in contemporary fandom, especially as labor—like me. Among the objects in all three dissertations is Battlestar Galactica’s website and video maker. That’s a lot in common.

And, I suppose I could look at it as: If three dissertations, produced across the country (East Coast, West Coast, Midwest), with no more than minimal collegial interaction (like, I had already planned to look at certain issues before I got around to doing this reading, and we haven’t really discussed it—maybe Julie and Suzanne were in closer touch), are doing this work, then maybe that means it’s just time for these questions to be asked.

But I don’t entirely have the luxury of just celebrating the fact that other people have noticed the things I care about. The scholarly project, as currently defined in the U.S. anyway, is to produce something new, that no one has said, and differentiate it from what people have said before. For my dissertation to be seen as valid, then, it has to be different from Julie and Suzanne, so when those moments of “OMG, she wrote my dissertation!” came over me, I would take a moment to figure out how I differed.

Here’s what I came up with.

I am, first, way more of a Foucaultian than either of them. What I find interesting about contemporary practices of “embracing” fandom (or, at least, how I frame it) is the way that the waning of repressive power—saying “no” through cease-and-desists, say—looks like no power at all. But of course it still is power. It’s just productive power—inciting and normalizing certain behaviors and practices, and in so doing producing fandom.

To those whose behavior is incited and within the norm, it looks like a free-for-all, but at the margins—often produced through gender (Scott) and sexuality (Russo)—the seams show. We scholars can see around the edges, then (and so can some fans, to provisionally accept a standpoint, “the oppressed can see the system better” argument that I’m not sure I totally buy).

Recognizing, then, that what’s in that middle, normative space is constructed and partial and benefits industry/capital way more than fans, if the cultural status of fandom has shifted in the internet era, what is it now? How does mainstream American culture make sense of this concept “fan”?

When we see fans on our television or cinema screens, who are they and what do they do? If they’re no longer automatically murderers (which I’ll be the first to admit is an improvement), that doesn’t mean that what they are now doesn’t matter—so what’s the meaning of this concept that we see representationally constructed?

When industry extends a hand to fans, who do they reach out to? What do they invite them to do? What do they think a fan is? And, with the much-vaunted capacity of the internet to make things possible, what actually becomes a possibility? When industry invites fans to come play, what does that consist of? What do official websites afford or not afford, and how is that implicitly an argument about who fans are and what they do?

Rather than looking at specific texts or cultures of fandom, as Russo and Scott do (exceedingly well), my aim is to assess the cultural field of meaning surrounding the idea “fan” by tracing how it gets deployed across the mediascape in fictional and nonfictional representation and by industry in web design and their own conceptualization of the term.

And rather than asking how industry practice matches up (or doesn’t) to existing fandoms, I turn the question a different direction: With this productive power, what is “fan” being produced as?

And that seems different enough, and to produce enough of a different set of knowledge, to be worth doing despite the great things that have already been done.