[cyborg sex/fan fiction]~original version
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The "Just Between..." series by G. L. Dartt is an extremely popular and monstrously long serialized lesbian romance found at www.northco.net/~janeway: it currently has 35 chapters, each approaching novella length, and according to a web counter, the latest installment has been accessed by about 3,000 readers since it was posted three weeks before this was written. The erotic couple that is the focus of these stories is not the average fare of sexually explicit fiction, however: the heroines are Captain Kathryn Janeway and the cybernetically enhanced Seven of Nine from the television show Star Trek: Voyager. In the first chapter, "Just Between Us," Janeway is struggling with her attraction to Seven, which she believes is incompatible with her duty to her ship and crew, a moral code which has kept her celibate for five years. Meanwhile, Seven is "researching" a sexuality that is new and strange to her, as she spent most of her life as a drone of the malevolent aliens called the Borg. They are perplexed and curious about lesbianism, which is something of a foreign concept to both of them. Seven decides that the appropriate course of action is to show up naked in Janeway's bed, spread out in all her cyborg glory:
The blonde hair had been loosened from the tight bun the Borg customarily wore, flung across the pillow like the finest gold. The soft grey of her abdominal implant framed the bottom of her full breasts, before spreading across her flat stomach and around her back, an offshoot tracking partway down the left leg which, together with its elegant partner, seemed to run on forever.After a short debate in which bodily desire wins out over propriety, the two women make love for the first time, to the tune of Seven's naive pick up line: "'Captain,' Seven said huskily when Janeway finally ended the kiss. 'I wish to engage in non-reproductive copulation with you.'"
This narrative is part of a tradition called fan fiction: amateur stories about characters lifted from television, movies, or other mass media. To the uninitiated, fan fiction may, at first glance, seem a bizarre, laughably obsessive, inartistic, and highly marginal subcultural quirk. Yet academic critics have argued that fan fiction is an active mode of reception that challenges the culture industry's domination of popular meanings and mythologies, and fan writers have agreed. Judging from the brief example above, fan fiction seems to be a site where a number of complex discourses intersect at an erotic crossroads:
That is, fan fiction is cool and fun and weird: the very idea that people would spend time and energy writing stories about TV characters, much less that these stories are so involved and interesting, that they have lots of sex in them (kinda creepy!), that they have communities built around them--these things are surprising. Neither the layman's or the ethnographer's perspective on fan fiction that I glossed above seems to do justice to this. The recent evolution of fan fiction is also intimately knit with the transformations that new forms of technology and communications, such as the internet, are generating in our culture. It is only a tiny corner of a vast cultural movement, but as such it can serve as a fertile example of what new possibilities are opening up.
the validity of non-heterosexualities the boundaries between human and machine bodies and minds the place of sexuality in a woman's public professional life the virulent controls placed on sexuality by a patriarchy structured around reproduction the taboo against an embodied erotics in much of mass media the prospect that any text (even a corporately owned one) can remain safely contained within authorial borders the economic system of exchange (fan fiction on the internet is freely available) the distinction between a consumer of culture and a producer of it
In my politics, it is important to ask of subcultural phenomena not only how and why they arise and what their internal operations are, but also what changes they may precipitate, in turn, in the mainstream ideologies and conditions they spring out of. I have not yet come across an effective model in cultural studies for theorizing when and how popular resistance has the power to reshape society, and when it is successfully contained by a stable hegemony--often the discipline simply assumes that any space for expressing alternative meanings is subversive. This does not mean, however, that it is time to give up on this question, which is a vital link between academic discourse and political struggles.
In the field of audience studies, there has been a shift from seeing popular audiences as passive receptors of the hypnotizing messages of mass culture, to understanding them as active readers who appropriate materials from mass culture in the process of making meanings that fulfill their own needs and desires. The latter framework, widely considered to be progressive, nevertheless focuses on the one-way street from production to consumption, and still begs the question of how mass media reception influences production and the power relations that sustain it -the question that activates a political reading. It is based on a rigidly binary model of production and consumption as two discrete moments, in which reception can be theorized in isolation, implying that the audience is free to read rebelliously but helplessly denied access to the mechanisms of cultural production. While I don't mean to ignore the very real economic and social dominance of the mass media industry, I do think it is important to contemplate reception from within a more complex, more imaginative model of the production/consumption system. The two modes are composed of and connected by a diffuse web of practices that have both material and ideological components, breeding an environment in which seemingly distant operations may have reciprocal effects. Consumer and producer are contingent positions that different people or groups may occupy at different times, or even simultaneously, and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.
This vision may sound too abstract to be connected with politics, and indeed my analysis isn't political in the sense of dealing with the concrete, observable realities of people's everyday struggles with their oppressors. You won't find here many specific examples of how fans have changed the world. Part of my point is that it's difficult to conceive of such examples because we haven't yet learned to think of political power as within the purview of mass media consumers. I also turn away from empirics in order to suggest that political conflicts often take intangible forms. My work engages these conflicts by creating a framework for how to see (how to imagine, even) what kinds of tactics consumers (that is, all of us) use that have the potential to reshape our culture--no real world politics ever got anywhere without first being able to ask new questions and to imagine things differently.
One of the lessons fan fiction teaches is that mass culture can be much more fertile if you fantasize about it. I am writing about fanfic because it has captivated both my intellect and my desires. It is sexy and playful. And it provides an especially concrete embodiment of the creative processes that are associated with reception, and the way they are evolving along with the development of electronic media. I will discuss audience theorists' conventional interpretations of fan fiction, but I am proposing a different approach. I will argue that in order to effectively address the question of how fans' activities are related to the dominant systems of power in our culture, it is necessary to create a more abstract, more theoretical model. I go on to experiment with a theoretical framework for understanding erotic fan fiction, one which not only allows for more complex ways in which it may be restructuring consumption/production, but also argues that these mutations are intimately bound up with progressive changes in other discourses (such as sexuality). My metaphorics combines the cyborg's boundary disruptions with public renegotiations of sex and desire to encourage new couplings between fans, industries, and academics. I anticipate that this framework can be applied fruitfully both to fan texts themselves, and to the contexts of their production and distribution.
a fanfic FAQ(1)
Fan fiction is generally considered to have been invented within Star Trek fan culture in the 1970's, although it may have existed in some form in earlier decades.(2) It arose at about the same time in several other fandoms, and continued to spread and gain popularity. Until recently, fan fiction was primarily distributed in fan-printed zines. Shows with enthusiastic followings have a number of conventions each year where fans meet to socialize, attend events, and shop for commercial and fan-produced merchandise. These conventions were the main place where people could find out about and subscribe to zines, as well as network with other fans around their creative work. The zines, each of which was under the control of an editor or two, generally contained both stories and artwork, and some had very high production values. Editors and writers were known for cooperating with each other, and those who were experienced often held workshops or panels at conventions.
A few fandoms eschewed the convention scene in favor of "circuit" distribution, a more direct and diffuse system where one fan was in charge of collecting new stories, and if you wanted to read them, you simply sent that person a stamped and addressed envelope.
Although there was considerable enthusiasm and activity around fan fiction among die-hard fans, it was mostly contained within the relatively marginal convention subculture. It is only with the rise of the internet that fan fiction is even beginning to come into a more general popular consciousness.
With the rapid popularization of the internet, fan fiction underwent a dramatic evolution. Whereas its ties to conventions and formalized zines had previously kept its distribution fairly circumscribed, as the internet expanded fan fiction became much more freely accessible. There was an explosion in the number of readers and writers, and in the volume and diversity of stories produced. Fan fiction began to go on-line in the early days of usenet groups, and continues to thrive in the dynamic and passionate cyber-communities of newsgroups, email lists, and chat forums. There are also huge numbers of personal and archival web pages, as well as organizational structures like web rings. Although some print zines still exist, the majority of fan fiction is now produced and distributed in cyberspace. The web is changing the tenor of fan communities, increasing the popularity of fanfic and its recognition by mainstream culture, creating new tensions in the relationship between fans and the culture industry, and demanding new approaches to fandom from academics.
Historically, fan writers were overwhelmingly middle-class white women, demographically. But with the internet boom, fandom's creative base appears to have diversified dramatically. There have not been any studies to date about the current demographics of fan fiction or of particular genres of it, and given the way the internet's technologies allow people to efface fixed bodies in favor of more fluid models of identity, I wonder whether such a study would be useful or advisable. At the very least, a demographic approach to fan fiction today would have to carefully define the connections and breaks between a person's on-line identity (which might only be a name or also include information about gender, race [human or non-], geography, sexual orientation, etc.) and their "real" identity. In cyberspace, people may not only self-identify as, for example, genderless or Vulcan, but be accepted as such by their fan community.
Quantifying the internet precisely is a complicated project, and certainly beyond the scope of this paper. Merely to give an example: fanfiction.net boasts more than 76,000 stories archived, and lists just about every TV series you can think of--and since authors have to register and voluntarily submit their stories, that is probably only a fraction of the fan fiction that exists.
Romance is perhaps the most common theme of fan fiction, and among romantic stories a sizeable minority contain explicit sex. This is to say (not very scientifically) that there is a lot of "adult" fanfic out there. It tends to be archived separately from the stories that are appropriate for minors, who are an important segment of many fan communities. Stories are generally rated using the codes for film: G-NC-17.
"Slash" refers to stories that depict or presume a romantic and/or sexual relationship between two characters of the same gender (or occasionally to stories about gender-swapping). Slash has been around since the beginnings of fan fiction; it takes its name from the mark in the code for early Kirk-Spock romances in the Star Trek tradition (K/S). It always has been (and remains) a substantial genre of fan fiction. Slash has also been a source of controversy since it was invented, and both the producers of TV shows and more mainstream fans and writers have reacted badly to it in the past, calling it things like "character rape." Although it is unlikely that everyone has come to feel positively about slash, much of this fervor appears to have died down, and, from what I've observed, slash has gained a relatively wide acceptance in fan communities. Slash has also attracted a lot of critical attention from academics (I will discuss their analyses in the next section).
Although fan stories about two men having a relationship have been around for three decades, it is only much more recently that large numbers of lesbian slash stories have been available. This may be because of the internet's role in making fan fiction accessible to a more diverse group of fan readers and writers, or it may have more to do with the historical dearth of strong female characters in the mass media. Either way, slash about women is gaining momentum--its prototypical pair is Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess. Some writers choose to call it by other names such as "subtext fiction," perhaps to distinguish it from the gay male stories that still predominate.
While I am still skeptical of demographics and hierarchies, I will depart from that for a moment to point out that the majority of lesbian slash is probably either rather low-quality pornographic stories by straight men or more involved and better-written romances by queer women (although I am sure that bad stories by women, good stories by men, and even stories by queer men and straight women also exist).
For this paper, I am taking fan fiction about Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine Star Trek: Voyager as my example. This is, first of all, because these are the stories closest to my heart as a fan and fan writer. Given that there is already a sizeable body of theoretical work about male slash, I also thought it would be valuable to work with a female couple. Within Trek fandom, J/7 is the first female pairing to develop a large following, perhaps because the characters have the archetypal qualities of a slash couple: a screen relationship fraught with deep emotional connection and conflict ("subtext"). I find it interesting that most J/7 fic appears to be produced by apparent lesbians who form strong communities on-line (given that, at first glance, Seven seems coded for male sexuality on screen). There are also theoretical synergies to my choice which will become apparent. I should also mention that I am particularly interested in erotic work because I would like to explore the cultural function or disruption that pornographic writing might fulfill in general; fan smut combines these possibilities with the possibilities of fan fiction in unique ways.
All the major analyses of fan fiction are affiliated with the field of reception theory, so a few words are in order about how this branch of cultural studies got to be the way it is. In the 50's and 60's, there were essentially two schools of audience studies, conventionally called "optimistic" and "pessimistic." Pessimistic theorists, who were often identified with the emerging discipline of cultural studies, drew on Marxist, structuralist, and semiotic critical traditions to advance a "hypodermic" model of media consumption: an entirely passive audience is injected with a belief system by texts that are the purveyors of the dominant ideology. Optimistic inquiry was associated with the more mainstream "uses and gratifications" school of media research, which operated within a positivist, quantitative social science convention and viewed audiences as entirely free to receive any meanings from media texts. In the 70's, cultural theorists at the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies began to reject the totalizing model of the passive audience in favor of a more nuanced approach that incorporated some of the assumptions of "uses and gratifications" researchers: Stuart Hall's seminal 1974 essay "Encoding, Decoding" attempted to bridge the two by theorizing reception as a process of active reading that may or may not reproduce the ideologies that are encoded in a media text. At around the same time, David Morley first argued that the antidote to the abstraction of cultural studies debates about whether audiences make dominant or resistant meanings was qualitative empirical research: ethnography (his initial influential book was The Nationwide Audience, 1980). Although reception theory has undergone significant development in the past three decades, most scholars remain committed to more or less ethnographic methodologies.
Ethnography is seen to have several main advantages: it prevents the researcher from making things up about audiences by theorizing in the abstract, and creates the possibility that s/he could "be surprised" by the data collected; and it provides a way of linking the textual moment of reception to "a more historicized insight into the ways in which 'audience activity' is related to social and political structures and processes" (Ang 101) through the researcher's acts of interpretation. While there are deeper critiques of these assumptions that I could make, I will merely point out that, while some studies in the ethnographic vein have been interesting and valuable, others have demonstrated that it is possible to write ethnographies that do not fulfill either of these positive conditions. One of my main frustrations with reception scholars is that they see their work as "political" because it describes the relations of power (e.g. gender, race, class) that provide the context for and shape audience activity. They do not explore the political influence that audience's acts of reception themselves might command.(4)
The first academic acknowledgement of fan fiction was actually closer to traditional feminist criticism than to ethnography: sci-fi writer Joanna Russ's essay about K/S slash "Pornography by women, for women, with love." Motivated by the admittedly titillating question of why middle-aged housewives were writing gay male porn, Russ argues that the women who write K/S do so in order to imagine a utopian alternative to their unsatisfying lives. They envision an intimate relationship of equals, but because it is impossible in our culture to conceive of a heterosexual couple in this way, they make use of two male characters (Kirk and Spock), who can integrate both masculine and feminine characteristics. All subsequent studies of slash that I have encountered have reinscribed and built on this demographically-based reading. While it was a fascinating achievement in its time, this interpretation is now obsolete, since the advent of the internet has brought on an explosion in the diversity of slash writing and writers, and an analysis based on a particular kind of woman writing a particular kind of gay romance is no longer accurate or relevant. The first book about Trek fan fiction, Enterprising Women, by Camille Bacon-Smith, is essentially an ethnography that supports Russ's conclusion, elaborating on the empowering and supportive community women create in slash culture. This approach, while not uninteresting, stops at offering women a coded way of expressing resistance, without asking questions about how this mode of expression might succeed or fail at altering the oppressive material or ideological realities that make it necessary in the first place.
Henry Jenkins and Constance Penley are the two most prolific and recognized writers on fan fiction. Penley's work is unique in its emphasis on technology within a feminist framework: in "Brownian Motion," she makes the case that both the content and the context of slash fiction are a site for "debate [about] the issues of women's relation to the technologies of science, the mind, and the body" (158-9). However, the connections she makes around these issues are unfocused and undertheorized, and she tends to raise an array of interesting questions without effectively answering them. As an example particularly suited to this paper, Penley identifies "the deepest wish of Star Trek fan culture: that the fandom matter, that what the fans do can affect the world in significant ways," and argues that "it is not enough for the critic to identify this wish and be satisfied with designating it as a symptom" (152). Instead of going on to attempt to address the tantalizing issue of whether fans are actually fulfilling their wish, though, she continues with a discussion of how they share the preoccupations and ideologies of Trek (hearkening back to the hypodermic model). While she is not an ethnographer, her tendency toward the descriptive reflects the influence of ethnography on her work.
Jenkins's book Textual Poachers is the most authoritative and most theoretical study of fan fiction and culture to date. Taking this book as an analysis representative of ethnographically oriented reception theory at its most interesting, I would like to look at it closely here. Jenkins's work has been widely influential, the response to it gleefully positive, and I have not come across any other critic who shares my frustrations with it. My disappointment is probably due to the fact that he does come to a number of exciting conclusions, but it seems to me that he doesn't take them far enough, leaving me in the intellectual version of coitus interruptus. I see in his analysis the seeds of a theory that would do justice to the bizarre and intricate configurations of fan fiction, but they are planted in the infertile soil of ethnographic criticism (where they may be able to take root, but not take flight). I think it is important for me to situate my own project in relation to what I see as the weaknesses of Jenkins's work.
In Textual Poachers, Jenkins makes some of the seminal claims about fan fiction: arguing against popular and academic "stereotypes of fans as cultural dupes, social misfits, and mindless consumers," he proposes that "fans actively assert their mastery over the mass-produced texts which provide the raw materials for their own cultural productions and the basis for their social interactions. In the process...they become active participants in the construction and circulation of textual meanings" (23-24). This formulation goes one step beyond understanding popular reception only as resistant reading--Jenkins allows that fan writers are producers (in some sense) of culture. This framework draws on Michel de Certeau's "poaching" metaphor, which conceptualizes reading not as the passive absorption of authorial meaning passed down from positions of dominance, but as "an ongoing struggle for possession of the text and for control over its meanings" (24). But de Certeau's model theorizes only "ways that the subordinate classes elude or escape institutional control" (26), and pessimistically disregards the possibility that their tactics might have any effect on these dominant institutions--readers are poachers, not guerrillas. Jenkins agrees that "fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness...lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence the entertainment industry's decisions" (26).
This rather abrupt halt in the optimistic flow of Jenkins's ideas exposes some of the contradictions in his account: if readers (not to mention fan writers) can produce meaning, but it is still only members of the culture industry who have power as Producers, there is some confusion over what exactly production is, or at least how it should be evaluated. That is, it is not clear whether he wants to ultimately adhere to economic definitions of consumption and production that privilege the commercial, or whether he is proposing that fan activities could radically redefine these terms: this is a theoretical question he never gets around to asking. Jenkins oscillates between legitimizing the activities of fan communities by describing them as similar to the structures of the commercial mass media, and lauding fans for organizing themselves according to kinder, gentler models--for example, two nearby quotes: "Much as science fiction conventions provide a market for commercially produced goods...[they] are also a marketplace for fan-produced artworks" (47); "fandom...blurs the boundaries between producers and consumers, spectators and participants, the commercial and the homecrafted" (45). This ambivalence about how to value productive activity implies an uncertainty about what form of social power fans do (or don't) have, a question Jenkins avoids wrestling with by remaining primarily in the realm of the descriptive.
Jenkins seems to admit to fantasies that fan fiction's expressions of resistance might have political consequences, writing that fans' "activities pose important questions about the ability of media producers to constrain the creation and circulation of meanings" (23), and that "fans have found the very forces that reinforce patriarchal authority to contain tools by which to critique that authority" (284). But he is consistently unable to follow up these suggestive statements by asking questions about how reception and related processes actually go on to affect these dominant institutions and relations. Rather than attempting to connect fan culture to a sense of radical politics in a larger social and conceptual scale, he contents himself with discussing at length the communities fans generate in their immediate vicinity. Jenkins does strongly emphasize that "Fandom constitutes a base for consumer activism" (278), but he understands this only in its most narrowly literal formulation, as bids by television fans to influence programming decisions. I can easily imagine far more revolutionary influences fans might want to have on the mass media system, including reshaping the power relations that determine who is in a position to make that programming and targeting the dominant ideologies that programming tends to express. By leaving no route open to theorize fans' interactions with these deeper underpinnings of their "lived relations," Jenkins is effectively constructing reception as a process whose effects are contained within the fan community. Although he lays an important critical foundation for an understanding of fan fiction, he ends up (in contrast to the usual spin on his work) painting a very disempowering picture of the mass media consumer. That is, it is extremely difficult, if you accept the terms of his analysis, to ask questions about the impact that fans' textual work might have within the network of social and economic relations that generate the media in the first place: its political impact.
In Jenkins's mode of reading, fan fiction is always subordinate to its parent (father?) text; he writes that "Because popular narratives often fail to satisfy, fans must struggle with them, to try to articulate to themselves and others unrealized possibilities within the original works. Because the texts continue to fascinate, fans cannot dismiss them from their attention but rather must try to find ways to salvage them for their interests" (23). In other words, it is fans' torturous enthrallment to an inadequate mass media that constrains them to add their own ancillary narratives to it. But it is equally possible to read the interpenetration of TV and fan texts as a sign that fans are appropriating the signifiers of mass culture in the service of their independent narrative and social needs--or to avoid rankings altogether, and begin by thinking of TV shows and fan writing as related manifestations of equally legitimate forms of desire. There is also a hierarchy of sex in Jenkins's work: in his opinion (one he shares with other fanfic theorists),
While character sexuality constitutes one of the most striking characteristics of slash, and most slash fans concede that erotic pleasure is central to their interest in the genre, it seems false to define this genre exclusively in terms of its representation of sexuality. Slash is not so much a genre about sex as it is a genre about the limitations of traditional masculinity and about reconfiguring male identity. (191)Rather than offering something else ("male identity," no less) to take precedence over and draw attention away from the smut that readers reluctantly "concede" is important to them, I would like to propose that sexual explicitness can, in itself, be a primary, privileged realm of significance.
cyborg sex / public sex
Reception researchers originally turned away from the critical traditions that were the purview of literary theory (and then cultural studies) because they found theoretical models to be too abstract and streamlined to reflect the complexities of lived relations. For example, David Morley writes that "the 'speculative' approach...in which the theorist simply attempts to imagine the possible implications of spectator positioning by the text...can, at times, lead to inappropriate 'universalizations' of analysis which turn out to be premised on particular assumptions" (25). While I would not suggest that a theoretical methodology (as opposed to interpretations of concrete observations) is the only useful approach to mass media reception, the categorical rejection of theory seems unproductive and extravagant. Ethnography is supported by its own assumptions and has its own pitfalls, after all. I have argued that Jenkins, for example, ends up basing his analysis of fan fiction on a model of reception that doesn't situate consumption within a larger cultural mechanics, and that this narrow lens makes it impossible for him to propose that mass culture consumers have more than a highly circumscribed and vague political empowerment. This is partially a result, I think, of his dedication to dealing only with what is concrete and demonstrable. I am certainly indebted, in my work, to claims that critics like Jenkins have made: by arguing that fan fiction is a powerfully productive site of resistant expression, they lay the groundwork for a political reading, and I take up their analytic structure of examining the discursive attributes of fan texts and the contexts of their production and distribution in relation to each other. In this paper, however, I am approaching my object of study in a different way. I would like to delineate a theoretical framework (custom-tailored to J/7 fan fiction) that will allow me to read the metaphorical meanings and relations imaginable beyond its literal and observable features. I turn to two specific moments in feminist and queer theory, Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto" and Berlant and Warner's "Sex in Public," to specify how modes of sexual expression are intimately coupled with the patriarchal capitalist system (including consumption and production). In my view, constructing theoretical connections like these is a necessary precursor to completing the circuit of reception: that is, to interrogating how the resistant meanings that can be a by-product of mass media consumption may or may not contribute to political change.
In her influential 1985 essay "A Cyborg Manifesto," Haraway theorizes that we are on the cusp of a global social transformation with as great a significance as the industrial revolution. This is the shift from what she calls "hierarchical dominations" to an "informatics of domination," a technological culture which breaks down the stable boundaries which formerly constituted the "human" until "Any objects or persons can be reasonably thought of in terms of disassembly and reassembly; no 'natural' architectures constrain system design" (283). This is a world where (for example) information, communication, miniaturization, instrumentality, optimization, pluralism (rather than essence, nature, opposition, labor) are the privileged terms. In her view, any effective politics must not only address itself to science and technology, but appropriate this new domain's positionalities and tactics. To this end, she imagines the figure of the cyborg as an embodiment of this site of resistance. Exactly what a cyborg is remains in the realm of speculation, but it is certainly a being that destabilizes all the traditional boundaries of meaning (organic/technological, material/fictional, public/private, male/female), and takes pleasure in this unresolved state of undefinition and contradiction; a being without origin or end or physical form; a being that recognizes the inseparability of ideologies and social realities; a being of uncomfortably close and productive couplings and of radical play. Most importantly, what the idea of the cyborg does is suggest the possibility that the same transmutations, fragmentations, and systematizations that enable this terrifying new domination simultaneously give rise to the most fertile ground for its subversion, that one can be within ideologies (as one always is) and still not reproduce them.
It is Haraway's position on sex and reproduction that I want to read most closely. In her formulation, part of the frightening and subversive promise of the cyborg is the transformation of "sex" into "genetic engineering" (282), replication, non- (or post-) sexual reproduction. She tacitly recognizes the germ of social change in this demystifying shift: "Sexual reproduction is one kind of reproductive strategy among many, with costs and benefits as a function of the system environment. Ideologies of sexual reproduction can no longer reasonably call on notions of sex and sex role as organic aspects in natural objects like organisms and families" (282). But throughout her essay, she conflates pre-cyborg sex and reproduction in a way that actually obfuscates the sexual alternative that she is proposing. She tantalizingly mentions "Cyborg 'sex'" but is able to define it only in opposition to "organic reproduction" (272). And in her "caricature" of Marxism and radical feminism, she draws connections between the two by outlining the different but complimentary ways they make analogies between sex, reproduction, and labor (280-81), without questioning the logic by which they conflate these terms. In another paragraph, she begins by claiming that "The new technologies affect the social relations of both sexuality and of reproduction," but moves immediately to cyborg-infiltrated "ties of sexuality and instrumentality," without ever untangling these pre-cyborg relations around reproductive sex (288). Falling into the trap of the very ideology she criticizes, what she fails to see is that by envisioning only non-sexual reproduction as an alternative to sexual reproduction, she collapses sex into reproduction, and leaves out half the picture--namely, the possibility of non-reproductive sex. What is missing is a true cyborg sex, that would bring together both replication and bodily pleasure in a way that could fatally compromise the allure of patriarchal reproductive sexuality.
By visualizing new, non-reproductive modes of sexuality, the work of Berlant and Warner can contribute the other half of this formulation. Their core project in "Sex in Public" is to denaturalize the constructed private space of heterosexual intimacy which is a foundation of the oppressive economic, racial, and sexual relations of our culture, and to agitate for the formation of (queer) sexual counterpublics as an effective means of resistance. Drawing on the work of Habermas and Foucault, they offer a fuller elaboration of how reproductive sex is typically constitutive of hierarchical (i.e. pre-cyborg) dominations. To summarize: a necessary part of the transition to modernity (in particular, to capitalism) was the fabrication of an idea of personhood which depended upon the relations of the heterosexual couple within the domestic space. This was supposedly a bounded realm where autonomous subjects could be created, only to go out from it into a fully separate public economic world, and then return to it as a safe haven. Sex was privatized (made a personal, private part of identity) so that it could, as supposedly the most intimate relation of all, provide a nucleus for this zone insulated from public instability and upheaval. Understanding personhood and national belonging as conditions with their source in private heterosexual domesticity also makes it possible to gloss over the way citizens are implicated in national systems of injustice. But the shield of privacy with which sex seems so naturally to be protected is in fact completely illusory: intimacy has always been publicly mediated, both because it can be defined only in opposition to the economy and the state, and because it seems to require constant legislative interventions to maintain its integrity. In the everyday operation of this ideological strategy, the myth of private intimacy is entangled with a vast array of social practices which may seem to have nothing to do with sex, including "paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future, teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos..." (359-60). Collectively, these practices endow the idea of the heterosexual couple with a "sense of rightness" that Berlant and Warner call "heteronormativity," a tacit domination that is dispersed throughout culture, and which preserves the ideological functions of privatized sex.
Berlant and Warner argue that the potential to change our social system lies in freeing sex and intimacy from their "obnoxiously cramped" position as the linchpin of economic and cultural dominations. Turning to queer sexual subcultures that already exist as their model for how to generate other sexual possibilities, they point out that "Making a queer world has required the development of kinds of intimacy that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation" (362). By "public" sex, Berlant and Warner mean not so much sex that is out in the open as sexual relationships that don't pretend they have no connection to any social context, that can be a foundation for new communities that may then become dissenting political bodies, "public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity" (364). In this formulation (in contrast to Haraway's), it is new, non-reproductive modes of sexuality that carry the possibility of breaking down the heteronormative model. Put together, these theorists offer a vision of a fully transgressive cyborg sex, which combines a public erotics (non reproductive sex) with futuristic boundary subversions like replication (non-sexual reproduction) into a compelling threat to the ideological stability of patriarchal capitalism. This imaginative model of a site for political resistance offers a structural response to the interpenetration of an extensive network of different dominations. As such, it provides one ground from which to begin to ask questions about how the resistant meanings encoded in fan written texts, as well as their modes of production and distribution, are engaged in shaping larger political realities. .
NEW VOY "reading treksmut" J/7 [NC-17] 1/1(5)
Seven: "I am an individual."This ironic exchange is from "Dark Frontier," one of Voyager's most popular episodes. The struggle it depicts between human and machine is inflected as a lesbian love triangle: Captain Kathryn Janeway and the Borg Queen, Voyager's ultimate arch-rivals, vie for control of Seven of Nine's mind and body:
Borg Queen: "You are only repeating their words. You sound like a mindless automaton."
Borg Queen (to Seven): "They've taken you apart and recreated you in their own image. But at the core, you are still mine."The Borg are TV's favorite personification of the apocalyptic potential of Haraway's cyborg. They were introduced in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation and starred in the film Star Trek: First Contact, and their appearances on Voyager have continued to elaborate and personalize their mythology.(6) The Borg are one of Trek's most malignant and powerful alien races, and it is the ways they capitalize on core anxieties of our rapidly technologizing civilization that generates their terror and fascination.(7) They are a "collective" of trillions of cyborg "drones," where all thoughts are shared in an unbounded flow of information, and individual choice and agency are replaced by single-minded efficiency and perfection. The ultimate totalitarian imperialists, their only goal and activity is expanding their domination of more and more worlds and races, without humanist distractions like morality and democracy. They reproduce by "assimilation," penetrating (usually the necks of) organic life forms with two spidery "tubules" in the wrist which inject microscopic machines ("nanoprobes") that convert their victims into cyborgs from the inside out, claiming not only their bodies but also their "distinctiveness," their knowledge and memories. This public and communal process maintains a perverse version of sexual and familial imagery (drawing heavily on vampiric connotations of polluted blood), but this obliquely sexualized reproduction is destructive of life/individuality rather than generative of it, and irrevocably bypasses private genital intimacy--it is notable, however, that assimilation is not purely replication (making copies) OR procreation (giving birth to offspring).
Janeway: "She's one of us."
The infinite, impersonal communion of the mostly male-appearing Borg(8) is ordered by and focused in a single female figure: the Queen (as of an insect colony). Both maternal and sexual (just look at her! [the Borg Queen fights with Seven while her assimilated father looks on]), the Queen exists as a decapitated cyborg head suspended in the collective's command center like a computer's processor, the metaphoric unitary mind and identity of the civilization ("disembodiment is the epitome of perfection" she says in "Unimatrix Zero"). But she has a robotic body that she can couple with when it is convenient, and a distinct personality. Through the Borg, and in particular through the figure of the Queen (for example, her statements quoted above, which turn typical criticisms of the Borg on humans), Star Trek gives air time to tensions within and alternatives to its almost relentless liberal humanism. Characters like Captain Janeway dogmatically maintain that losing one's individuality to live as a Borg drone is a fate far worse than death, but the show (and the Queen explicitly) also suggests the pleasure of being Borg: the satisfaction of perfect efficiency, unmarred by personal quibbles (order supplanting chaos); omnipotence and immortality; utterly complete closeness to and sharing with one's family and the larger community (never being alone, continual "borgasm" [Dery]); a fortified, modular cyborg body that can both penetrate and be penetrated (Fuchs)...
When the character of Seven of Nine (a former Borg) was introduced at the beginning of Star Trek: Voyager's fourth season (1997), the move was widely spoken of as a transparent ploy to increase the show's popularity in the coveted 18-24 year-old male ratings bracket--this from a series that had originally made TV history by instating the first woman in Trek who was captain for longer than a cameo. But in spite of her Barbie-doll body and skin-tight outfit, Seven does not fit easily into satisfying stereotypes of the female sex object. A word about her fictional origins is in order: a former human (Annika Hansen) assimilated at age 6, she was assigned as the Borg liaison to Captain Janeway for certain negotiations. During a daring escape, Janeway severed Seven's link to the collective, effectively deassimilating her by force, and insisted that she be re-humanized against her will [Janeway comforts Seven in the brig during her deassimilation]. Most of her cybernetic implants were rejected by her body and removed (a fascinating medical discourse), and she has taken on a basically human (if somewhat topheavy) appearance. Permanent reminders of her Borg past and cyborg present remain, however, in metallic ornaments visible on her face and hand (and who knows where else!). Her transition to "individuality" in speech, behavior, affect, and thought have been much more gradual and incomplete than her physical transformation. In contrast to your typical bimbo (even of the action hero variety) she is extremely intelligent and physically powerful, talks almost as if she were a robot, is for the most part logical and emotionless (as well as arrogant), and is relentlessly desexualized (her naivete, social incompetence, and self-assuredness have been enough to cow most men who have shown an interest). Seven is, ultimately, a complex "grab bag of signifiers": she combines codes of the porn star, the independent woman, the cyborg/alien, the fetish slave, even the geek, into a site where almost all the conflicts of Voyager, and all conflict with the Captain, can be localized.(9)
In Seven's journey toward "humanity" Captain Janeway quickly took on the role of primary mentor. In the show's explicit narrative, this is generally justified as a result of Janeway's sense of responsibility to Seven, or as a manifestation of her maternal instincts. The two women have developed an intense and conspicuous bond, however, an emotionally potent and often highly contentious relationship that is not necessarily contained by the superimposed teacher-student reading. This is what many lesbian fans of Voyager identify as "subtext": narrative and visual structures that, while on the most literal level disavowing any erotic content, nevertheless invite a lesbian interpretation [Janeway tries to assist Seven with social skills at a party]. Except in a few exceptional cases, the idea that mass media texts have queer narratives running just under the surface tends to be met with skepticism in the mainstream, and seen as something that is made up (rather desperately, if justifiably) by deprived queer viewers. But, in his influential study Making Things Perfectly Queer, Alexander Doty suggests that "within cultural production and reception, queer erotics are already part of culture's erotic center, both as a necessary construct by which to define the heterosexual and the straight (as 'not queer'), and as a position that can be and is occupied in various ways by otherwise heterosexual and straight-identifying people" (3-4). It is only "conventional heterocentrist paradigms, which always already have decided that expressions of queerness are sub-textual, sub-cultural, alternative readings" (xii), that make slashy interpretations seem like a stretch. The assumption that only fully sanctioned ideologies are palatable to a mass audience (and therefore are the only messages in mass texts) is based on a denial that queers constitute a substantial minority of consumers who it is in the studios' interest to captivate, that people who are not queer can experience unconscious pleasure from identifying with queer erotics, and that there are multiple and equally legitimate ways to read the presented by a text. The show Xena: Warrior Princess is the quintessential example of a case where producers knowingly negotiated the tension between lesbian subtext and social limits on content, succeeding with both lesbians and a more general audience. On Voyager, Janeway (like Seven) has her own sexual hangups. She points out constantly that her professional duties as Captain require that she sublimate her personal needs for fulfilling emotional and sexual relationships: a timely rendition of the working woman's conflict between public and private spheres.(10) Janeway's closeness to Seven is both a counterpoint to her self-enforced celibacy and a political struggle: her mania for maintaining traditional Western values in the hostile elsewhere that is the Delta Quadrant (where her ship is stranded) seems to express itself in her obsession with de-Borgifying Seven. This intersection between intimate relationships and questions of the human and the public is often manifested in J/7 fan fiction, which hones in on the way Voyager quietly sets these relations up as lesbian (by endowing Janeway and Seven's relationship with such ambience). In this sense, there are other ways of reading Seven's porn-star coded body than as man-bait.
That is, the point of this long digression into the television text is not only to provide a context for the fiction to follow, but to acknowledge that the show is already doing some of the work. Mass culture is hegemonic, and as such it is not an ideological monolith: its meanings are constantly contested in a dynamic dialogue with their resistant or marginal counterparts. I do not intend to claim that fan writers are creating something subversive out of nothing in simple opposition to the dominant TV text. While there are certainly pairings and styles that are far more independent of screen subtext than J/7, fan fiction is by definition a genre of poaching, as it were, which means that there must be something attractive in the lord's preserve that fans want to get their hands on. Fan texts are also not immune to mainstream ideology: a romance in which Seven becomes fully human and ends up marrying Janeway, for example, is hardly a bastion of radicalism. What is interesting about fan fiction is not that it is inherently revolutionary, but that it makes manifest the complex conversations that take place between consumers and the mass media outside the expected boundaries of television, and the technologies and communities that provide relatively independent environments for fan interpretations.
Many fan writers say that what they do is fix things that are wrong with the shows they love, or pick up and carry out possibilities that are unavailable to television. In the case of erotic fan fiction, one thing fans seem to indignantly assert is lacking in the mass media is public characters and discourses that are meaningfully embodied and erotic. Whereas prime time TV's social space must be purged of nudity and sex, which are relegated to private realms, fan writers create alternative communities where they can demand that their shared mythologies narrate people as having sexual anatomy, desire and gratification. Slash makes the additional demand that queer sexuality and relationships be publicly celebrated. In the thousands of J/7 stories published on the internet, it is typical for there to be some acknowledgement of the contemporary strangeness of lesbian relationships in mainstream culture: becoming involved with a woman may be new and unexpected, or require research beforehand (in Seven's case). However, I have never read a story where one of the characters had to agonize over coming out--in fact, in this imaginary future, lesbianism seems to be a fairly commonplace act more often than an identity. A debate about how a romantic relationship can fit into Janeway's role as captain is another common trope. And J/7 always deals in some way with Seven's Borg hybridity, as a character trait and as a bodily characteristic, and also, tacitly or explicitly, with Janeway's relationship to Seven's pre-human self. Janeway often ends up affirming that Seven is sexually desirable in spite or because of her visibly cybernetic body. As a genre, J/7 smut wrestles with both queer sexual modes and the boundaries of the human, merging these two post-reproductive sites into a single erotic narrative. That said, J/7 stories exhibit an impressive diversity of styles: they range in length from vignettes of a few pages to novel-size series; they may conform to the codes of romance or be dark SM fantasies that capitalize on Janeway and Seven's on-screen power dynamics. They seem to be posted on the net by small and overlapping virtual communities (perhaps made up mostly of queer women) who give artistic encouragement to each other. I offer a closer reading of one story, "Freeing Kathryn," by Paulann Hughes, as a more detailed and specific taste of some of the possibilities of active consumption that fan fiction can exemplify. No one story is typical of J/7 fiction, but this one combines several recurring elements, and strikes a balance between romance and more original narrative structures.
The plot of "Freeing Kathryn," revolves around a subtly enumerated interrogation of how and why Janeway and Seven's sexual relationship should be made public knowledge. For Seven, Janeway's struggle to reconcile her needs as a captain and as a woman is connected to Seven's own acceptance on Voyager as a former Borg. At the beginning of the story, the two women are already lovers, but only in stolen moments on the sly, and this "had left Seven feeling as though there was no difference between being the queen's drone and being Kathryn Janeway's partner." She worries that "the ambitious Starfleet Captain would feel humiliated to have others know she had copulated with a Borg." Seven can no longer deal with their stilted, secret liaison, but Janeway is certain that her duty to the ship compels her to rigidly compartmentalize her life into personal and public zones: "She gave Seven every private minute she could spare...Whatever was left of her when she was done being Captain belonged to Seven...It was the reminder of what the four pips on her collar had cost her." When another woman falls in love with Seven (an alien hybrid also, incidentally) it precipitates a crisis, and Janeway realizes she must "'make it clear that Seven is taken'" if she wants to maintain a monogamous romance with her. She orchestrates an elaborate scene in the mess hall that puts her erotic bond with Seven on display:
she said, loud enough to regain the attention of those who had politely stopped staring at her, 'The Commander has been kind enough to give me the day off to spend with you, Darling, so, I'm not on duty. So you can dispense with the rank and call me Kathryn.' Then she added for the benefit of those whose chins hadn't yet hit their tables, 'Like you do when we're alone'...and gave her a kiss that was intended to appear anything but chaste.It is only after this public performance that the couple can retire to the privacy of the holodeck for the day-long tryst they'd been denying themselves. Even as this romance fails to challenge the heteronormative understanding of relationships as aimed toward a monogamous 'marriage,' it works against these dominations in more interesting ways, elaborating a world where a professional woman can (or must) have a public lesbian sexuality. In this way, it dramatically reconceives sexuality, heterosexuality, and most importantly, humanity.
Because one more thing must happen before Janeway and Seven's love is truly consummated: Seven's Borg half must be productively consolidated with their newly integrated sex life. Seven's most threatening Borg apparatus turns into a sex toy, forcing Janeway to confront the boundary anxieties that are holding her back:
She sat, transfixed, as Seven used her left hand, her Borg hand, to caress and excite herself...she marveled that something so inhuman as that hand could move with such purposeful tenderness. But then, when she saw Seven extend and insert her assimilation tubules into her opening, it terrified her and she grabbed her lover's hand, forcing her to stop.Fittingly, Seven's analytical defense of why their sex should be opened up to cyborg possibilities is rendered incoherent by her desire itself: "'Let me... show you... It is what I want. The tubules will add to the ways... the ways in which I am able to stimulate... ... Kathryn... My Borg... hand is more flexible and stronger than... the other... therefore I am able...'" This desire infects Janeway, and overcomes her inhibitions: "She knew she was being selfish, stealing Seven's release for herself, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't stop it. She had to be the recipient of that hand's potential... 'Show me,' she begged and Seven, instantly, obliged her." It is this moment of cyborg sexual synthesis, specifically, that 'frees' Janeway to have a happy, healthy relationship, the Borg hand that represents all the potential of their newly public love:
She laced her fingers with Seven's Borg ones and drew that hand to her lips. She placed small but satisfying kisses on each finger, each implant. "Darling? Why haven't you ever used this hand on me before?"So their narrative can end with a rousing affirmation of duality and hybridity (in the form of Seven's cyborg name--half of it human, from before her assimilation).(11)
Seven could not prevent herself from smiling. As brilliant as the more experienced woman was, she had made a habit of missing the obvious. "You never allowed it, Kathryn."
"Oh," she said. "Well, that was dumb."
"Indeed." She removed her hand from Kathryn's and edged it toward her partner's thighs. "Shall I demonstrate its other uses?"
"Do you know why I never pushed you about letting me call you 'Annika'?"This story paints a picture of a new mode of intimacy in which two transformations are considered inseparable from each other: the transformation of publicity into a space open to sexual and homosexual experience and the transformation of sex into a pleasurable site for embracing the cyborg's subversions. What is exciting about all J/7 smut is that it must, by definition and even inadvertently, deal with non-reproductive sex and bodies, simultaneously the lesbian kind and the cyborg kind ["Prelude," a binary painting by Tenderware]. I am aware that J/7 is the only pairing so perfectly suited to a discussion of cyborg sex and public sex--I constructed my theoretical framework with J/7 in mind. Just because J/7 is the most obvious example, however, does not exclude the possibility that other fan fiction or other consumers are having the same conversations in less literal terms, or alternately, that their activities could be approached within a different framework that would also open them to political engagement.
"Because I forbid you from doing so?"
She laughed, "Well, there was that, but, it's more because I realized some time ago that Annika is someone I never knew. That you, the woman I love and have always intended to spend my life loving, are Seven of Nine. Not Borg. Not human. But the best of both."
In my formulation, a theory's political engagement is a matter of its facility to ask specific questions not only about what surprising ideas pop culture articulates, but about whether these articulations are a significant force in the ongoing renegotiations of the material and ideological structures that dominate our culture. It is interesting that J/7 fan fiction expresses alternative formations of desire that call oppressive conceptions of privacy and humanity into question, but it is not clear whether the power to express a resistant viewpoint is a politically effective power in a hegemony. The more interesting potential of this potent elaboration of sexual, social, and bodily alternatives lies in its relations with dominant ideological and material contexts--in particular with systems of production and consumption. Reception theory's model of these systems as a circuit, with linear paths running between discrete nodes of activity, unnecessarily simplifies the kinds of relations that may exist between disparate sites in culture. Only a more diffuse, more malleable model of consumption and production as two of a number of processes that are happening simultaneously and that have complex relationships to each other within a larger mechanics (a web, perhaps) can fully activate the question of how consumers are participating in hegemonic power struggles. To interface this with my theoretical specifics: we must begin to think about consumption from the perspective of the cyborg, who sees positions as contingent, contradictory, unstable, and intangible, and defines culture as connectivity, simultaneity, impurity, and information. And from a queer perspective which calls into question the appropriate distinctions between and substance of the private and the public.
The conventional understanding of the economic structure of mass media is fairly nuanced and complex, and it is actually not accurate to assume that the TV studio is the producer, the program the product, and the viewer the consumer. Media commodities circulate on several different levels, which entail corresponding role reversals. First, independent contractors produce a program and sell it (as a commodity) to distributors. In the hands of the distributors (media corporations), the program becomes a producer: it is responsible for delivering an audience (the commodity) that the station can sell to advertisers. The audience's role as a commodity is dependent on the more abstract realm of the cultural economy, in which viewers produce meanings and pleasures from television texts (reception)--that is, these meanings and pleasures are one of the main reasons people watch TV.(12) Although, for the sake of simplicity, I will continue to call audiences "consumers," I wanted to point out that it is not only in speculative, metaphorical terms that this demarcation is complex and unstable. I am going to go on to explore both the concrete traces of fan fiction's interactions with the culture industry's dominations and their more figurative components. And I would still like to keep open the option that, while I'm offering fan fiction as a tangible trace of meaning-making, less concrete effects of audience activity may be dispersed in similar ways.
Simply by existing, fan fiction is implicitly making certain claims about the boundaries between producers and consumers of mass media: that is, it suggests that media products don't always meet the needs or satisfy the desires of consumers, and are therefore subject to continuing work by consumers which destabilizes their textual perimeters and contests producers' "ownership" of them. This idea is standard fare in analyses of fan fiction, and in work on active audience reception in general. To take this conflict literally is to describe the legal disputes and tacit negotiations that are a sort of conversation between corporations and fans (and not always a polite one). What critics don't often point out, in their descriptions of the legal discourses that are always implicated in the shape of fan culture, is the commonsense weirdness of intellectual property law. As subjects in a culture in which these concepts have been very effectively naturalized, we never step back to ask: how can an idea or a sign or a character, something which is essentially pure meaning, and certainly completely immaterial, be fixed as property, to be used (whatever that means) by only one individual or company or associated with only one official reading? How can the boundaries of this kind of property even be defined in concrete legal terms, in whose interest does such a definition operate, and does it have internal fissures which are ready-made points of opposition? In other words, the law is not a monolith which fans' activities are situated in simple resistance to, it is as much a piecemeal, contingent, paradoxical, constantly renegotiated tangle as the fan texts.
Rosemary J. Coombe gives an excellent elaboration of this in The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties, arguing that trademark law is constructed by overlooking the fact of reception: it assumes any meaning that accrues to a sign like a logo or character to be the product of a company's creative and promotional efforts, and not of the activities of the consumers who interpret it. Therefore, the corporation is entitled to be the sole beneficiary of all those meanings; consumers have no rights over them. However impossible it sounds in terms of the way messages actually circulate, "The law freezes the play of signification by legitimating authorship, deeming meaning to be value properly redounding to those who 'own' the signature or proper name, without regard to the contributions or interests of those others in whose lives it figures" (8). This may be viewed either (pessimistically) as disempowering consumers in favor of those with more economic clout, or (optimistically) as putting corporate authority in a rather sticky situation: Coombe points out that
the law creates the cultural spaces of postmodernism in which mass-media images are authorized and become available for the authorial practices of others. It produces fixed, stable identities authored by the celebrity subject, but simultaneously creates the possibility of places of transgression in which the signifier's fixity and the celebrity's authority may be contested and resisted. (125)
In a brief discussion of fan fiction, Coombe makes an engaging case for the political productiveness of the form by focusing on the "complex moral economy in which [fans] legitimize their unorthodox appropriation of the texts" (125). She describes fans as engaging in a conscious ethical dialogue and struggle with the norms embodied by the law--a political practice. With Coombe's framework in mind, it is not surprising that the stakes of this engagement are heightened by the fact that the legal precedents surrounding fan fiction are vague and uneasy. Part of the explanation for this may be that fans have few legal resources in comparison with media conglomerates, so when the corporations take issue with their activities, they often choose to go further underground rather than to stand and fight. But, between the First Amendment and the aforementioned ambiguousness of the distinction between "derivative materials and branded properties" and "independent 'creative work,'"(13) the corporations may not be sure the law will come down on their side. They are also forced into compromise by the paradox of their position as producers: they need to guard their sole possession of their lucrative commodities as a source of revenue, but for the same reason they need the goodwill of fans. They can't afford to indiscriminately alienate the people who spend the most time and money on their products (the most obvious form of authority that consumers have), and so they must choose their battles carefully.
Whatever the reason, the periodic border wars that have been staged by the studios as attempts to place constraints on the propagation of fan fiction have most often taken the form of corporate muscle-flexing through legal threats and "cease and desist" letters. In a typical case cited in the New York Times this year (2000), Fox sent a warning to a Simpsons fan who had sounds, images, and video from the show on his web site--he removed the material and was forced to move (not disappear) by his web server, but not without a flurry of on-line protest. Different studios have also taken harder or softer lines toward fan production, and exercised different strategies. Jenkins cites an incident in the early '80's in which Lucasfilm Ltd. tried crying defamation instead of trademark violation: a representative wrote "we are going to insist on no pornography. This may mean no fanzines if that measure is what's necessary to stop the few from darkening the reputation our company is so proud of" (31). In other words, a corporation might decide that it is only particular kinds of meaning-making, such as (homo)sexual readings, that it won't countenance (although in practice this has not been a popular tactic). The implied compromise that has been reached through all this legalistic wrangling is that fan writing is tolerated provided it is strictly not-for-profit, and this stipulation is likely to stand (in the New York Times, Amy Harmon quotes a 20th Century Fox spokesman as saying "as long as somebody's not out there trying to make money with it, I don't think anybody wants to shut them down"). The point: in spite of (presumably) having dominant social forces on their side, the studios have been relatively unsuccessful at setting precedents that contain the proliferation of resistant fan interpretations. Their impotence might be due to a calculation that these subcultural readings are ultimately unthreatening to corporate hegemony, or it might demonstrate the incipient political power fans have in the multiaccentual terrain of representation (or both).
Fans do engage very consciously with the legal inflections of conceptions of production and products that hover over their activities. As a nod to the provisions of intellectual property law, all fan stories carry a disclaimer that states that "Star Trek, Star Trek Voyager, and the characters in this story are the property of Paramount" (to give a serviceable, if spartan, example from an actual J/7 story). The degree to which fan writers are aware of the dominations that circumscribe their work is evident in the more creative disclaimers that are quite common; here is the most elaborate example I've seen, by T. Dancinghands:(14)
The Lord's DisclaimerThis ingenious spoof satirically highlights the fan's supposed subservience to the power of the corporation by appropriating the ultimate dominant discourse, Christianity--and by doing so suggests that this fan isn't feeling so subservient. Or rather, it expresses a fannish tension between the real frustration of depending on the media industry, which is indeed very powerful, for cultural raw materials, and this smug sense that fan activities have special powers of their own. My personal favorite disclaimer is the concise pun "The law is Paramount" (I have also seen Paramount referred to as "Paraborg" in disclaimers). "Adult" fanfic is also often accompanied by a disclaimer or warning about sex (or other potentially disturbing material), usually describing the specific kind(s) of sex that occur in the story--its legal raison d'etre is restrictions on underage access to pornography. A typical warning might run:
Our Paramount/Viacom, who art in Hollywood,
Copyrighted be thy name.
Thy profits come,
Thy royalties be honored,
In Asia as they are in the "Free World".
Give us this week our piece of cannon, [sic]
And forgive us our fanfics,
As we forgive the real klunkers you occasionally produce.
And lead us not into litigation,
But deliver us from cancellations.
For thine is the franchise, and the trade marks, and the merchandising,
For ever and ever
This story contains graphic depictions of sexual intercourse between two women. If you are under eighteen, easily offended, homophobic, pea brained, or otherwise hung up, seek out thy entertainment elsewhere cause this just ain't your bag. (Reverend Jim)As in this example, these disclaimers also can provide a brief commentary on the social environment that the story's fantasies of queer relations are situated in. In this way the legal strictures circumscribing pornography provide fans with an opportunity to explicitly identify their resistance. Disclaimers are like a legal magic forcefield (won with at least the grudging consent of the media industry) that frees fans to interpretively run amok without compromising their resistant messages. On the other hand, disclaimers do mark real relations of inequality in which fans are on the losing side. The rhetoric of disclaimers suggests that fan writers have both these experiences in mind.
Disclaimers demonstrate the disjuncture between what is considered significant in the dominant discourse and in fan discourse: for the studios, production is apparently only meaningful (that is, threatening to their containment of their property) if it generates money; "amateur" writing is allowed to proliferate freely. For fan writers, it is precisely the freedom to create texts outside of and in response to capitalist management of narrative that is valued. It is not clear whether this corporate tunnel-vision that conflates products and profit is a sign that fan production simply can't hope to operate anywhere near the same level of influence as economics, or whether it is actually an oversight, and therefore a potential ground for the political activities of fans to germinate. The studios' tolerance of fan fiction is always provisional, and they do show an interest in controlling the expansion of (versus simply policing) the perimeters of their texts. For years, there have been professionally written novels published by the studios that elaborate on and spin off of television storylines. And Paramount/Viacom is now holding an annual Star Trek fan fiction contest, and publishing anthologies of the winning stories--royalties are even paid to the authors.
Jenkins implies that even though the copyright compromise protects the studios' status as producers (in economic terms), it leaves space for fans to challenge their power to dictate the meanings received from TV texts. I would argue that the challenge fan fiction poses to dominant models of textual production is actually far more sweeping. By narrating around, over, in between, and parallel to television, it attacks any attempt to see texts as discrete and bounded events that can be packaged as products. As manifested in fanfic, textual meaning is a fluid practice that invites communal participation in public forums. The relative lack of legal restrictions on fan fiction is evidence for fans' contention that characters and stories are public property, and demonstrates the difficulty of officially legitimizing one meaning over another. Even more importantly, fans activities' challenge the definition, as well as the borders, of products. Fan writers turn the production of new texts into an integral part of the process of mass culture consumption, compromising the rigid dichotomy a capitalist model maintains between the two activities, and representing production and consumption as interrelated, even similar operations. And by harnessing the valuation of their creative enterprises to things other than money, fans propose alternate understandings of what it is to be a consumer or a producer. Parallel to my earlier example of how erotic fan fiction can stage a redefinition of relationships and categories within dominant texts by imagining new sexual modes, fanfic refigures on a meta-level the mass media system it participates in.
All of this was, for the most part, moot when fan fiction was distributed in paper zines. With modes of reproduction and distribution that were shackled to the physical, the radical possibilities of fan production could circulate in only very limited ways. The internet is changing everything. In the New York Times this fall (2000), Ann Powers wrote:
the Internet has changed the relationship between the entertainment industry and its audience. Fandom has always pumped the heart of popular culture, but never before has it come so close to its motor functions...these new possibilities have...threatened to obliterate the space between fans as consumers and the industry that profits from their interest.It's as if the net is the consummate actualization of the incipient structural transformations that fan fiction embodies.
In "Selling Wine Without Bottles," John Perry Barlow conveniently explores the consequences the world wide web may have for intellectual property law. He points out that we are well on our way to converting to an economy where information itself is the primary, privileged commodity. At the same time, the nature of information is being radically transformed: it is becoming fully digitized, made up only of electrons, able to travel at the speed of light and change hands without ever becoming physical. And it is incredibly easy to produce and reproduce in a way that books, or even radio or TV programs, never were. This is, Barlow argues, a crisis for the organization of property, and corporations are the ones falling behind. Their strategy seems to be to ignore the fact that virtual property is fundamentally different from information that has physical traces, while aggressively expanding existing law to manhandle it into submission. Barlow thinks this simply won't work: "we are sailing into the future on a sinking ship...Intellectual property law cannot be patched, retrofitted, or expanded to contain the gasses of digitized expression any more than real estate law might be revised to cover the allocation of broadcasting spectrum" (149). Even more provocatively, "Most of the people who actually create soft property--the programmers, hackers, and Net surfers--already know this" (149)--it's regular folks who have the upper hand. Popular practice has already overrun the boundaries of unenforceable laws: take, for example, the almost universal habit of software piracy. As Barlow presciently quips, "Notions of property, value, ownership, and the nature of wealth itself are changing more fundamentally than at any time since the Sumerians first poked cuneiform into wet clay and called it stored grain" (153).
As this example suggests, the internet is like nothing anybody has ever seen before. Along with other recently developed technologies, it is transfiguring culture so acutely and so rapidly that we are experiencing a pervasive sense of emergence without being able to pin down what exactly is being engendered. Right now, the net feels like a maelstrom of competing discourses and interests, and it's anybody's guess who is going to come out on top. Theorists, for their part, have advanced many ideas but few conclusions. Sadie Plant writes that, unlike any other dominant social form in cultural memory, "[the Net can] be described as a parallel, distributed system which not only functions without centralized control but has also developed as a consequence of localized, piecemeal activities which build the system from the bottom up" (206). Mark Poster quotes cyber-guru John Katz as saying "technology is breaking down the notion of few-to-many communications. Some communicators will always be more powerful than others, but the big idea behind cyber-tales is that for the first time the many are talking to the many" (194-5). Poster adds "the information superhighway opens qualitatively new political opportunities because it creates new loci of speech" (187).
I would argue that both the theoretical metaphors I explored earlier interface fruitfully with cyberspace: the net is pregnant with cyborgean forces, in both their progressive and totalitarian forms. It puts humans into new relationships with technology that call into question the boundaries of identity and the body and fundamentally restructure the fabric of relations both locally and globally. And it is telling that perhaps the net's biggest industry, both commercial and cottage, (as well as its biggest controversy) is porn. The new and different opportunities the internet provides for social organization have made sex publicly available and fantasy publicly expressible in unprecedented ways, potentially lining up with Berlant and Warner's call for erotically engaged counterpublics. I am concerned here only with what these new formations mean for fan fiction: I am suggesting that they are a powerful and comprehensive realization of the possibilities for radically restructuring systems of domination that were already nascent in fans' creative activities. And I am suggesting that, at this stage in the emergence of internet culture, hegemonic forces don't necessarily have these possibilities under control.
Weighing in before the Times, J. Brown wrote, in a 1997 on-line column:
There are good reasons for the studios to worry: Before the Internet was a media force, studios had a long-time habit of looking the other way when it came to fan fiction, because those hand-copied print zines that published it didn't get much exposure. But on the Web, where anyone can conceivably publish to millions of people, fan fiction has entered a new dimension.In focusing on the internet's prospects for popular distribution, Brown acknowledges that the possibilities are not just a matter of quantity. The internet has indeed stimulated the rapid proliferation of fan fiction and other kinds of public fan response and dialogue. But what makes it so conducive to this growth is that its modes of structuring the exchange of information are a radical departure from economic models. Before the internet, fan fiction was either distributed under a more cooperative version of the capitalist m.o.--editors selected stories for inclusion in zines which were then sold (at cost), maintaining a fairly stable distinction between writers and readers--or it was shared privately among small groups of women. Scholars have already made much of how fan activities problematize the rigid separation between producers and consumers, but the internet allows this subversion to be realized more concretely and completely than in their analyses. Fan writers are readers simultaneously, and it becomes impossible to differentiate the two categories when their other individual forms of participation (posting to newsgroups and lists, making web pages, linking to other pages, providing inspiration and feedback, discussing the show) and the public arenas that are the context for this participation are effectively the same. With the net as a resource, any writer with computer access can self-publish instantaneously, to practically the entire fan fiction audience, for free: a powerful triple reconstitution of the system of fan production.
The web's facility for organizing vast amounts of information into smaller thematic pockets permits both flexibility and communalism: if you can find one J/7 web site, you can probably find them all by exploring authors' lists of links (because authors keep track of and communicate with each other). And if you don't have your own web site, you can join a newsgroup or discussion list and post your stories there, or have them collected at an archive page--another effect of the persistence of new public forms of community organization. The internet's cultural cachet, as well as its properties of wide circulation, has contributed to the expansion of fan fiction's readership beyond a show's die-hard fanatics (one of Harmon's interviewees commented "You're getting a lot of the people who wouldn't be caught dead near a convention...It's different if you do it on the web"). The increase in numbers has allowed fanfic to diversify and specialize (to admit much more lesbian fic, for example), while the web allows a network of connections to be maintained through general interest newsgroups, pages, archives, and link pages. Last but not least, all this abundance can flourish independent of monetary constraints: relatively unobtrusive pop-ups and banner ads are supporting a free internet where fan production can be structured as a new realm of public pleasures that are individual and communal, generous and limitless, fully bypassing a system based on the exchange of money between producers and consumers. While internet distribution is not quite comparable in scope to reaching a mass audience, it does achieve a flexibility and freedom that compromises dominant conceptions of the nature of consumption and production.
Because the internet is so diffuse, it is impossible to pin down all the positions where J/7 fic might be popping up. But if you're looking for an example of the context in which it is typically created and distributed (in my rather extensive experience), check out a J/7 page found at members.aol.com/Tenderware. Tenderware's page straddles the private/public dichotomy: it has a very personal tone, and refers itself to an intimate network of "friends and family." But it is interfaced with the high-traffic thoroughfares of slash fiction as part of a web ring and through its own web of links. The personal and the civic have an effortless connectivity. In addition to fiction, it offers artwork and articles: an ingeniously intertextual response to some J/7-related comments made by Jeri Ryan (the actor who plays Seven of Nine), and an intelligent FAQ that makes references to Jenkins and other studies of fan fiction. The fic, here, is part of a network of complex practices that constitute the fan's relationship to the media industry--critical understanding and ready defense of fan activities, non-fictional commentary on the show and its meta-texts, deliberate community building, and consciousness of academic perspectives--and these practices are being developed and extended in cyberspace together. Although we could make educated guesses about the real gender, sexual orientation, race, or class attached to the alias "Tenderware" in the physical world, internet environments elude demographics in favor of a freer play with positions and meanings. And in spite of its friendly and wholesome appearance, this web page has plenty of smut, and it is the pleasures of fan smut that its community is organized around.
In The Domain-Matrix, Sue-Ellen Case describes her project as (among other things) "a politics of space with lesbian as the final frontier that cyber-trekkies may imagine" (56). Her Star Trek metaphor marks the progressive pole of what she argues is a fiercely contested struggle over the shape of the future. Theorizing the internet as a new kind of space (i.e. cyberspace) that is radically reconfiguring the architecture of bodies, identity, work, and society, she (like Haraway) maintains that it is far from decided who will be in control of sculpting this nascent realm into its final form. Will dominations based on difference translate successfully, or will cyberspace take on the properties of fluidity, connectedness, and embodiedness that Case metaphorically ascribes to the performing lesbian? In the case of the battle that is tacitly being waged in cyberspace between corporations' and fans' divergent ways of structuring the production and dissemination of meaning, it's too soon to tell who's going to come out victorious. Both sides have staked their ground: the media conglomerates are always expanding their already vast jurisdiction over entertainment, communications, and technology, but the fans are stalwart in their financial clout as consumers and have claimed an extensive internet domain. Harmon quotes a Lucasfilm spokesperson expressing the company's helplessness in the face of fanfic: "What can you do? How can you control it? As we look at it, we appreciate the fans, and what would we do without them?" And the columnist Steve Silberman points out that the media may be in over its head in its efforts to dominate fan discourse on the net: "To attempt to force a community to sprout only in an officially sanctioned garden is to wage war on the very strengths of the medium you're using to get your message across."
My point is that it is too soon to dismiss reception as a practice whose effects are contained in its immediate environment. I have argued that J/7 stories, as an example, are well suited to articulating the anti-authoritarian affinities between the queer and the cyborg (which Case calls two related "unnatural" figures ) in new and exciting ways. Through their practices on the internet, fan writers have developed a culture that makes good on the demands that are inherent in their texts: demands not only for public narratives that are embodied and erotic, but for new ways of making and disseminating such narratives. Fans themselves are the sexy cyborgs they write about: interfaced with computers and the virtual environments that technology gives them access to, their on-line personas resist construction as unitary, embodied, gendered citizens. From this position in the passageways that the cyborg opens up between categories, they create a public community (and not just a textual vision) structured around new sexual and relational possibilities that are produced and consumed in new ways. It is in these connections between the raw material of reception itself and the political context of that reception that the most interesting and valuable questions about mass media consumption lie.
If, as Haraway theorizes, the most powerful mode of opposition operates from within dominations themselves, fan fiction's position in dialogue with mass culture might be an influential strategy rather than simply a sign of fans' enthrallment. Rather than interpreting the interrelatedness of TV shows and fanfic as a sign that fans' meaning-making is circumscribed by their dependence on the material provided by the mass media, I would argue that this deliberate intertextuality is what makes fan fiction (and reception more generally) textually original and politically interesting. The power to appropriate television's signifiers can be seen as expanding rather than impoverishing the language fans have to comment on their culture. To reformulate Jenkins: poaching, the particular move which situates a resistant reading at the very heart of the hegemonic text, is a key tactic because it engages with hegemonies on their own inexhaustible turf. Case aligns this sort of guerrilla warfare with the hacker term voudou, which is cyberpunk for a resistant architecture of cyberspace. One of the defining characteristics of voudou is that it is "a system which takes found objects, the trash or litter that the transcendent system leaves behind, and redeploys them in a useful, hopeful manner" (51-2)--Janeway and Seven are the coffee grounds and locks of hair that treksmutters use to cast their spells over television, and, by extension, to hex the patriarchal capitalist status quo.
I am not making the claim that fan fiction alone has the power to destabilize this hegemony, or even that fans are always satisfied with their power to rework mass narratives. In spite of its growing popularity, fanfic is still a phenomenon most people haven't heard of, and only the privileged in our increasingly stratified economy have access to computers and the incipient transformations of the internet. At this point in our theories of culture, it is often just frustrating to try to answer the question of whether any particular discourse or relation harbors the seeds of fundamental changes, within a dominant ideological system which is capable of very sensitive evolution and expert at incorporating into itself expressions of resistance. I am simply presenting fan fiction as a test case to argue for a new understanding of where radical possibilities might germinate. Without bringing a theoretical framework that admits metaphor and fantasy to a study of popular reception, that reads it as part of a complex and interconnected environment where not only consumption and production, but discourses as diverse as economics and sex, have the potential to affect each other, it is impossible to begin to wonder how mass media consumption might relate to political change. And if we can't imagine that acts of reception might harbor such powers, we certainly can't try to measure them in concrete or empirical or ethnographic ways. Here, I am only activating these questions by envisioning what the structures and strategies that would link consumption to politics might be, and I leave it to others to rework my narrative in their own productive ways. I will suggest that if we are not willing, as theorists, to fantasize about the potentialities and not just the realities of culture as we observe it, we can't hope to be engaged with the struggles that are in play in that culture.
back to cover page * printable text-only version
bibliography * links * acknowledgments
1. FAQ=Frequently Asked Questions. On the internet, information about fandom is often presented in this format.
2. I have heard that there was a series of adult fan comics that had an underground circulation in the 1930's (?), but I have been unable to find any further information. They were called the "Tijuana bibles."
3. "Canon" is the term fans use for the officially sanctioned narrative of a show: the things that have happened or have been referred to on screen (and sometimes in published novels or guides). This distinguishes it from their own narratives, which are often substantially different.
4. The sources for the information in these two paragraphs were primarily Ang, Corner, Morley.
5. This is the way the subject heading would appear on a story posted to a usenet group such as alt.startrek.creative.erotica.
6. For an inside perspective on the Borg, visit the Fisher article for Star Trek's official web site. She writes "Despite the enormous popularity of the Borg with fans, the Star Trek writers have often found them difficult to write for...In order to have dramatic confrontation that showcases Star Trek: Voyager's regular characters, for example, you have to pit them against individuals," and quotes an actor as saying "You can't help but act Borg. The costume sticks to your body and you feel controlled and robotic, like you're encased in something."
7. See Gonzalez for a detailed discussion of the cyborg as "symptom."
8. See Dery for a reading of the Borg as a figure for the erotics of gay male leather culture. He writes: "Anonymous and continuous, the exchange of fluid data among the Borg conjures the fleeting, faceless sex, in bars, bathrooms, and public parks...The man-machines evoke RoboCop as drawn by Tom of Finland"
9. Thanks to Timothy Burke for sharing this perspective--I attribute the quote to him.
10. In her interesting column "Why can't Janeway have sex?" Julia Houston, fan, fan writer, and about.com guide to "Star Trek Fans," writes: "Janeway's celibacy is part of a long-standing problem Star Trek has had with women and sex."
11. In many J/7 stories, Janeway actually makes a point of calling Seven "Annika." This nudge toward Seven's humanization is an example of how stabilizing forces are also at work in fan fiction texts. They are, after all, hybrids.
12. This summary is based on Fiske (312).
13. Quoted from a discussion of this topic in a 1997 New York Times article by Amy Harmon.
14. Posted to the alt.startrek.creative.erotica newsgroup on 8/16/99; also found on the ASCEM web page.