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In their 2009 piece Empire@Play: Virtual Games and Global Capitalism, Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter argue that “digital piracy is a classic example of the criminalized social struggles that have always accompanied enclosures of common resources.”

An Act of Enclosure!By Aliesin at fr.wikipedia [Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons]

This idea of enclosing what used to be common caught my attention. There may or may not actually be a historical relationship between enclosure and poaching (and the Wikipedia article seems to not mention it), but they seem related conceptually. Lands and resources that used to be communal become single-owner, and when people continue to respond to them as if they are communal this is theft or poaching.

My brain said “poaching!”—of course—because of fans. I will be the first to admit that the relationship is not immediately apparent, but that’s just the way my thought process works these days. Bear with me, and I’ll force some sense out of this.

Over the twentieth century, storytelling got enclosed into mass culture (this may have started earlier, but I think I’m within reason to say it became ascendant then). Fans, then, as Henry Jenkins explained in his now-famous metaphor, were Textual Poachers taking storytelling back, making it communal again in a new folk culture in conversation with mass culture.

Those people weren’t exactly criminalized—though they did break intellectual property laws with varying degrees of frequency—but they were definitely considered to doing something non-normative. “Normal” people interacted with culture in a way that respected the fact that it was “owned” by media companies; fans were taking something that didn’t belong to them.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s and beyond, and we get a different structure. Fans aren’t taking things that don’t belong to them, but are instead being given more and more by the people who own stuff. They are being invited to engage.

Many scholars have identified this as doing away with the enclosure of the mass media era altogether. Culture is now once again circulating in a communal way as media companies and fans enter into a symbiotic relationship rather than an antagonistic one.

But I think there’s still more mileage to get out of the enclosure metaphor, and that it can explain this era also—albeit differently. My contention is that fan culture has, over the last few years, been subject to an ongoing process to build out the enclosure to contain it

Fan culture, like the broader folk culture before it, has traditionally been shared. It was never, of course, some utopian space anymore than there were nothing but happy peasants in ye olden times; there was conflict and inequality. But like a common piece of land, everybody had a stake in maintaining it. It was, in some sense, public.

Contemporary media organization practices around fandom, on the other hand, are a form of privatization. The invitation to fans to participate at official sites or enter official contests or have official relationships with the media companies is a production of enclosures.

Fans may or may not agree to be enclosed. They may or may not find that enclosure cramps their style. But privatized, enclosed fandom is different in at a fundamental level no matter how much it is or is not experientially different.

And what’s more is that—even if the enclosed fans themselves find that they can continue their previous practices or even find their fan experience improved—enclosure structurally produces criminalized, thieving populations.

Sometimes that’s literal, like the piracy example that started this thought process. But more often, more insidiously, and therefore to my mind more importantly, the issue is one of not doing what “normal” people do. Some people always get excluded when new norms get created, and when the new norm is more expansive but still doesn’t contain them, they become not just outside the norm but deviant and wrong.

That construction of “right” and “wrong” fans, of “seat at the table” fans from “howling at the gates” fans, is a structural outcome of enclosure, privatization, and normalization. And we’ve got to pay attention to its existence as well as who ends up in what category, as “normal” and as “deviant.”


  1. Mel!

    Thank you for sending me this. I love your writing here and its great to see you play with the idea. So, following up on our exchange at SCMS, I’ll offer a few thoughts. I don’t work on fans, so I can’t pretend to know the nuances of Jenkins and Co., but I do think the idea of enclosing and re-enclosing the commons is an important one that links to a lot of other big ideas.

    1) I love the idea of building out the enclosure because it immediately forces you to analyze what exactly the enclosure is made of, who’s in and who’s out, and why. But our productive spaces move with us now, right? The commons isn’t just a field you walk to, but something you carry in your pocket. When Deleuze talks about the move from societies of discipline to societies of control, he says the latter looks less like an enclosed prison or hospital and more like a sieve with variable mesh or a keycard that gives you access to different parts of the city, but whose privileges change constantly without your knowing. So it might be worth thinking about how we build our own enclosures, carry them with us, or otherwise have the conditions of cultural production become so mobile and flexible that all we can worry about is whether we’ve committed enough free labor to be more unique, more individual, more hip than the person next to us. The medium is key here, right? An iPhone or an Xbox or Facebook are much more enclosed, channelled spaces than a general purpose PC or a Usenet group, which could be used for lots of different things depending on the skills of the user population.

    2) The increasing privatization and enclosure of public cultural commons parallels privatization and enclosure in other areas of formerly public life: political discourse, education, healthcare, prison, some aspects of childcare. With this line of critique–what the autonomist feminists call the social factory, the space where all acts of social reproduction are shaped towards exchange value, even if they’re not waged–we start to see how fan labor is of a kind with other kinds of labor. And I feel it’s helpful to recognize that what’s happening to fans shares some structural similarities with workfare recipients laboring amidst increasing surveillance of their lifestyle habits or with the push for open source academia that will supposedly save us in the face of diminishing state investment; not so that we can construct an exploitation pyramid and say one group is worse off then another, but to trace the social relations between groups that keeps this particular stage of capitalism going. Laborers of very different sorts–many of whom do not consider themselves ‘workers’, even though they’re contributing value–are being enclosed in value-producing, but stigmatizing spaces like those you describe.

    Combining these two broad critiques (the individuation of control, and the breadth of the social factory) is I think what left me unsatisfied with your idea of fan consent at SCMS. Giving consent doesn’t make control go away, nor does it equalize the social relations between capitalist and worker. Marx wants us to go into (ugh I just said ‘Marx wants us…’) the hidden abode of production and see what work looks like precisely because the wage relationship (I do this work for this many dollars) looks like an exchange between consenting individuals on the outside, contrary to the actual relations in the factory. Consent is also an individualized metaphor that I think plays right into the work of the social factory, which is always about recruiting broad swathes of free or cheap labor through an appeal to individualized interests. What might community consent look like? Or might we pursue other avenues where we still get our pleasure but refuse to make it productive?

    I hope we keep running into each other. This is an exciting project. Be well, and best of luck with everything!


    • Hi Dan! Sorry it took me so long to reply to your very thoughtful comment

      Re: Enclosures, I think you’re absolutely right that not being physical places changes things, and also right to call attention to medium (or, I would say, platform). The concerted effort to move fan activity onto Facebook and Twitter, where it can be seen and counted, both sets my Foucault sense tingling and is a way that shapes what fans can do, or what makes sense to fans to do, quite differently being “wild” in their own communities.

      I also agree that privatizing fandom is one piece in a much larger structure of privatization, though I do feel like the other parts of it have already been described so well that my job is to fill in this missing piece regarding fandom!

      And I definitely don’t think consent is the answer. But I do think it has to be the question.

      That is, fans giving consent doesn’t make the structure not exploitative or not problematic, but asking whether they are puts the lie to the idea that this is freely chosen. That moment of recognition, of “Wait, nobody ever asked us!” is what I want, in the context of the “people can participate now and so everything is okay” discourse. Because that’s what I’m pushing back on, I have to start with the question of consent even if ultimately it can’t stop there.

  2. I love that idea that “it has to be the question.” I just finished Kathi Weeks’ THE PROBLEM WITH WORK and she talks a lot about the power of making demands, both as a specific political proscription and an argument that another world is possible.

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  1. […] want to work through connections, so that’s what I want to do here. I’ve written before about privatizing fandom and enclosing the commons, but Rose’s piece gave me a new angle on the commons that I think is useful for the work […]

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