Kristina Busse

The Ethics of Selection: The Role of Canonicity in Acafannish Pedagogy and Publication

Acafandom and the Future of Fan Studies Workshop

SCMS (March 2011)

One of the things this panel clearly has addressed is the role the academics personal taste plays in selection, and how much our own fannish desires, our own affect should influence our choices. What I'd like to talk about then is a related but slightly more ambiguous problem, namely how much our choices should create and reflect internal canon creations. I'm coming here from a position of literature with its tradition of a well established canon that justifies itself (at least initially) via aesthetic value and quality and read that in contrast to my current work in media and fan studies.

Part of the problem is clearly related to the material as well as to the discipline. When working with more traditional texts, there are two clear advantages: there is no need to justify one's choices (in fact, there is little need to actually choose!) and there's no need to summarize. Whether I write on Middle March or Ulysses, on Turn of the Screw or Beloved, not only do I not have to justify my academic object, but i can assume the reader to be familiar with it. when working on fan works, however, I not only may have to explain why I decide to write on a Stargate Atlantis genderswap story rather than one from another fandom, but also why I'd choose this particular story. In effect, the freedoms I am afforded within a much huger field of texts that lack institutional hierarchical evaluation, make it difficult to decide when picking an individual text.

And this is where the problem of canonicity and its associated issue of quality control arises. Personally, I blame one poets--namely T.S.Eliot--more than anyone else in the creation of the idea of the New Critical objectively evaluatable textual artifact and the canon it creates.

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.
 

We've spent decades now overthrowing the concept of a canon (though not necessarily all that successfully), and yet, it is that very canon that still rears its head when we can shorthand and easily reference shared texts. The quality of these texts may not be counted in terms of aesethic value necessarily but in terms of multiple fruitful theoretical approaches or teachability, but the fact remains that we reassert the canon every time we put Huck Finn back on the syllabus, every time we teach the 5 big Romantic poets which leaves us no time for anything else in the early 1800s.

Teaching, of course, isn't academic research, but what I'm interested in here is the way every choice construes a canon and every repetition reasserts it. And these choices occur in teaching and in research, mutually supporting each other, of course. We teach those texts we can find secondary research for, after all, and we tend to at least start our research on texts we *know*, text's we've been taught. It's a mutually reinforcing value system.

Fandom texts, on the other hand, create their own mixture of quasi-meritocracy. Popular creators as well as their stories, vids, fan art are linked, shared, and recced, yet tastes vary widely so that most attempts to create lists of even the least contentious descriptors--such as "most influential," for example--are bound to fail. In fact, knowing a reccer is almost as important as the rec list itself in order to establish whether one's criteria overlap and whether those fan works would be indeed to one's liking.

Given such a wide variety and such idiosyncratic choices, it is surprising how small numbers of vids, for example, dominate academic vid shows, class showing, and academic papers. I'm just mentioning Lum and Sisabet's Women's work and Lim's Us here, two vids that might indicate that there is indeed a vid canon, after all.

The reason for that has a lot to do with what fans like and what academics like. In fact, these two criteria beautifully intersect in these two vids, making them ideal representatives, so to speak. And yet I see some danger in creating our own academic canon, so to speak, of texts that fit our theoretical frameworks, texts that are sufficiently experimental, queer, political, or whatever else we may decide to focus on. the problem is not that there shouldn't be an essay on Women's Work. There totally should! The problem is that by showing the vid every single time and namechecking it (as i'm doing right now :), we're effectively construing a canon, a canon that then gets reflected back on fandom who, of course reads and responds to academic canon formation. Moreover, in so doing, we are on some level ignoring the thousands of vids not as experimental, not as political, not as well edited.

And the question is then whether there really is a problem in that and what political implications that may have. When we choose fan works that fit into our arguments, that make fandom look more creative, more political, more subversive to outsiders because that's the image we want to give to the world at large, are we ultimately misrepresentating and betraying fandom? When we decide on picking exceptional texts, are we properly studying the fandom? How do we justify picking the three most excellent, most politically progressive genderswap stories while ignoring the dozens of stories that are misspelled and poorly plotted, that are reactionary or rightout offensive?

Of course, it's more fun writing about stories we like, stories we consider aesthetically and ideologically pleasing. I can spend time with a text I like; I can present my fandom in the best light; and I can get easy permission, because I can show my analysis and not offend the author. i can please academics, fans, and myself in the process. But I'd like to ask what texts and what forms of cultural expression we may ignore in the process, and that we remain vigilant to our vested interests when we decide to choose one text over the many available others.