Guilty Pleasures/Innocent Pleasures: Porous Texts and Utopian Entertainment
by Tim Palmer — UNC Wilmington
December 02, 2016 – 12:56
As many of the essays here point out, the relationship between fans and source texts is a complex one, often mediated and described in pejorative terms. Among Aubrey Luxx Mishou’s observations, for instance, stigma and shame often attend the condition of fan-supplication; public derision potentially awaits the pariah whose life revolves around an overly obsessive embrace of “their” pop culture text. Inferiority, as a fan sensibility, might even be seen to be fundamental, the nature of the beast. In his classic analysis, critiquing Michel de Certeau, Henry Jenkins outlines the influential notion of textual poaching, offering up fan-respondents as infiltrating spaces owned by others, engaged in illicit and illegal acquisitions, people operating “from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness” (27). Even when fundamentally re-characterizing audiences as being active rather than passive, Jenkins’s notion of “the complexity and diversity of fandom as a subcultural community” (283) might seem still to project the agency of textual respondents as furtive, second-class, slightly on the defensive, apt to be clandestine, certainly far removed from the corridors of power.
And yet, on the other hand, as Cait Coker helpfully points out, there does seem something endemic, even humanistic, about the recurrent habitual work of textual re-appropriation. Our deep-seated need, or compulsion, to reply to the texts that nourish us – audience reception as a kind of call-and-response dynamic – originates historically way before the time of internet shaming and online trolling. Enjoyment begets participation: reading and consuming texts, whether literary or audio-visual, is just the start of a process: our passions stirred, we must respond, reply, remake, reinvent, whatever the social costs.
Why might we not take a step further, then, and reformulate fandom, and fan-response, in more positive, productive, even utopian terms? The “memorable messages” invoked in our Media Commons leading question, might even prompt us to think of fans’ heightened engagement as a kind of symbiotic or even transcendent relationship with source texts. Recall another classic piece of scholarship, Richard Dyer’s “Entertainment and Utopia” essay, which argues that classical textual systems (drawn principally from the song-and-dance numbers of Hollywood musicals) configure a utopian sensibility on-screen. Carefully mediating real-world pain, transforming it into pleasure, the utopian musical text compartmentalizes and “solves” problems with transformative conditions, whose allure, for viewers, is resplendent. Dazzlingly rendered within the classical musical number, but widely applicable in mass entertainment texts elsewhere, Dyer’s principal categories of utopian textual transformation are:
Scarcity(poverty, income inequality) vs. Abundance (equal wealth)
Exhaustion(work as grind, urban pressures) vs. Energy (work as play)
Dreariness(monotony, predictability) vs. Intensity (excitement, affectivity)
Manipulation(social constraints, roles) vs. Transparency(open spontaneity)
Fragmentation(isolation, disempowerment) vs. Community (collective action)
Obviously we can see the resonance of Dyer’s quintet in classical media, from Footlight Parade (1933) to Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but applying these same entertainment tenets to contemporary fan culture, and its permeation of certain mother lode case studies, might help us recast the fan equation in more proactive, positive, and perhaps representative ways. No longer a poacher, surreptitiously filching someone else’s work, the fan-respondent exists in a reciprocal quasi-partnership with a source text or canon; their work, in especially advanced conditions, is an engaged act of cohabitation, a passionate heightened committed connoisseurship. Flocking to the most productive text-sites, when conceived of in these ways, the fan-respondent expands the ecosystem, augments and surpasses the limits of their (textual) point of origin, engages the lively communal beliefs of like-minded peers, flaunts their own empowering media literacy, even their own artistic supremacy.
Conceiving of fan culture as – potentially – utopian in this way can nuance our appreciation of appreciation. Online BitTorrent sites are one particularly rampant source of such activities, whose cinephilic labors can become entirely transformative, positioning these devotees as ancillary authors, bypassing copyright laws by reconfiguring texts – rebooting and remixing them themselves, well outside traditional commercial media outlets. Subtitling is one especially remarkable avenue of activity here. Regularly now, BitTorrent communities sponsor linguistic and technical experts to create their own new translations of esoteric texts, to be able to see (and screen for others on re-authored DVDs) international cult texts, whether contemporary video art from Nigeria, French avant-garde works (with newly rendered intertitles) from the 1920s, or classic studio movies from Mexico, Italy, Japan, and even farther afield. (The same practice also reverses itself, in which beloved classical Hollywood texts, never before commercially subtitled, receive the same treatment for non-English-language viewers around the world.) These pundit-archivists thereby improve upon an original work, enhancing its value and circulation, turning an inert established piece of media into a porous text, with a new digital afterlife, reconfigured and reactivated for a reinvented, broader, limitless online audience.
But the practice of porous media texts is not limited to foreign fare, specialist obscure esoterica. We can trace such practices right to the heart of the international collective mainstream. Take Star Wars (1977-), which seems arguably the richest case study of the porous media text. In what is perhaps the ultimate example of the (pejoratively labeled) “fan edit,” Petr "Harmy" Harmáček, a teacher-turned-self-taught-media-restorer from the Czech Republic, spent five years compiling 16mm dupe prints, digital scans, television broadcasts, and old laserdiscs of the original Star Wars trilogy, reconstructing the films as originally released in the pre-home media era. Working with a team of online aficionados, most of whom were anonymous members of the OriginalTrilogy.com website, Harmy’s DeSpecialized movies galvanized legions of respondents, from Wired magazine to hordes of BitTorrent seeders and leechers. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHfLX_TMduY) Who is to say which is more culturally significant, more inspiring to multitudes: the advent of the new Disney-era Star Wars sequels and spin-offs, from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) to Star Wars: Rogue One (2016), or Harmy’s legally grey-area DeSpecialized original trilogy variants?
In such ways, among such circles, fan culture can become nothing less than a utopian celebration of technical literacy, applied cine-mediaphilia: the triumph of the amateur over the professional. Porous texts like these, moreover, create both on- and off-screen a proliferating diegetic space, a private universe, that encourages inhabitation, an ever-expanding network narrative with no end in sight.
Dyer, Richard. Only Entertainment (London: Taylor & Francis, 2002)
Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (London: Routledge, 1992).