“Approaching fandom through an explicitly materialist lens may at first seem redundant,” posits Bob Rehak, associate professor of Film & Media Studies, in a recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures. “Haven’t fans always been defined, for better or worse, through their relationships to objects?”
Guest editing the prominent fan studies journal, Rehak cites a Saturday Night Live sketch from nearly 30 years ago, in which William Shatner mocks his paraphernalia-obsessed fans at a Star Trek convention, urging them to “Get a life.” Still, the “things” of fandom are more prominent than ever, he argues, “offering a window into our present while revisiting the past with a freshly object-oriented historicist eye.”
Exploring Comic-Con, video games, blockbuster films, the Batmobile, online fan communities, and much more, the publication “explores the material practices of fandom through craft, commodity, collection, and curation,” says Rehak.
Rehak also blogs at Graphic Engine, designed as a place for academically-oriented discussions of media culture, history, and theory. Below, he discusses how the internet has changed fandom and the Baby Boom’s impact on the media landscape.
Q: The articles in the issue you explore an array of topics. Did any common theme(s) emerge?
A: It was fascinating to see fixtures of my own media passions, such as Star Trek props and the Batmobile, filtered through the contributors’ different theoretical approaches. This sense of rediscovering the familiar is characteristic, I think, of fan studies that deepen and complexify the apparent superficialities of popular culture. I also liked the range of methodologies on display across the articles, from old-school formal analysis to ethnographic tools of interview and observation-participation. As objects enter the picture, the academic conversation becomes gratifyingly rooted: there are, literally, more things to talk about, and those discussions tend to be more historically grounded and alert to contradiction than the totalizing abstractions that once typified conceptions of mass media and their audience of supposedly passive dupes. Twenty years of fan scholarship have done a great deal to concretize and personalize those relationships, but object-oriented studies now promise to move us even further from the reductive idea of the media fan as gullible consumer.
Q: Why does the 1986 SNL sketch you cite continue to resonate?
A: William Shatner has made a career out of walking the line between respecting and mocking Star Trek fans (and himself in the process), and the Saturday Night Live sketch is probably the greatest single example of how to negotiate that tricky tightrope. Its sarcastic tone certainly justifies the pushback it's received from fans and fan scholars, but watching it today, I'm struck by the way it speaks from both sides of its mouth, cruelly caricaturing fans while showing — as I point out in my introduction to the issue — great respect for fandom on the material level. While the prominence of and publicity around today’s Comic-Cons might suggest that fandom has moved closer to the respectable mainstream, fans will never lose their sense of humor about themselves and their activities. Play is a huge part of the pleasure of fandom, and doesn’t obviate the more serious political and personal dimensions of our engagement with popular culture.
Q: In what ways are the “things” of fandom more prominent now?
A: The lesson that the original Star Wars heralded in 1977 was that commercial tie-ins could not only supplement the revenue stream from a fantastic-media blockbuster but give it broad cultural reach while helping to turn it into a franchise. What was once seen as mere junk on a store shelf has, 30 years later, been vigorously reimagined within media studies as a network of "paratexts," each of which constitutes a portal into the imaginary universe of the story. Of course, not every blockbuster movie, TV show, or video game attains that kind of scale and longevity, but as the media industries respond to fan appetites for owning, collecting, displaying, and playing with items related to cherished texts, our world becomes more and more crowded with icons, totems, and souvenirs. These in turn become points of spectacular focus for yet more media attention: think of how the garments, armor, and bodily decoration of cosplayers anchor journalistic coverage and social-media sharing at conventions, or in line for the premiere of the latest Hobbit movie. In the age of the selfie, "thingifying" your fandom becomes a way to announce your affiliations and connect to communities of fellow fans.
Q: In what ways has the internet changed fandom?
A: Modern media fandom has always capitalized on shifts in communication technology, from the days of fan vids edited and shared via the VCR to the use of newsgroups, online forums, and chat rooms for social interaction and critical discussion. Contemporary fan communities and practices are very hard to imagine without the enabling structures of social media and ubiquitous smart devices for capturing and sharing images and audio. That said, what's interesting about materialist approaches is how they connect digital spaces to analog foundations, reminding us that for all their promises of virtual freedom, instantaneous connection, and infinite replication, even the newest of new media still rely on local, specific, solid objects to generate their content. Of course, emerging technologies such as personal fabrication are poised to blur these distinctions even further; only a few years down the road, we may be creating, modifying, and pirating the objects of fans and franchises alike though 3D printing!
Q: What else are you interested in or researching of late?
A: For all my interest in the poetics of contemporary franchises — in transmedia storytelling, for example, which posits fictional worlds that we encounter through numerous, specialized entry points — approaching fandom through its material facets keeps opening up historical questions. These carry me back to the decades following the end of World War II, when the explosive growth of the Baby Boom generation dovetailed with a newly pervasive and spectacular mediascape of comic books, movies, and TV, as well as with the postwar repurposing of manufacturing infrastructure, especially injection-molded plastics. It all comes together in dense networks of interconnected visualization and fabrication practices whose stories I would love to explore in higher resolution: for example, the origins of the U.S. space race in speculative designs and artwork of spaceships, orbital habitats, and planets beyond Earth. This collective "dreaming" of a national future took place as much in objects as illustrations, with toys and model kits materializing rockets, missiles, and flying saucers in bedrooms and garages across America. It's just one example of the relationship between fantastic media and solid objects that feeds into our current scene, and something I'm eager to research further.