Civic Engagement and Fandom at the American Studies Association in Los Angeles

19Nov

Between 6 and 9 November, I joined colleagues from Leipzig, Dresden, Albany, Wisconsin in Los Angeles to hold a workshop during this year's American Studies Association convention. The conference was titled "The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century."

IMG_8586Our workshop "Fandom and the Public Sphere: Textuality, Affect, and Social Relevance" addressed three distinct case studies of civic engagement via fan communities, i.e. how fan communities' affect-driven activities invite civic engagement and social mobilization.

Kyra Hunting and Ashley Hinck analyzed the interrelation of celebrity activism and fan engagement in Ian Somerhalder's (The Vampire Diaries) foundation on environmentalism and animal rights, arguing that Somerhalder's celebrity status works as an inclusive mechanism to draw people towards civic engagement and political activism who otherwise wouldn't become involved. Alice Hofmann presented her work on Dave Eggers's Zeitoun, a novel depicting the turmoil in New Orleans during and immediately after hurricane Katrina, as well as institutional racist practices in the treatment of people suspected to be looting. She detailed how the charges of domestic violence against the actual person Abdulrahman Zeitoun overshadowed both the book character Zeitoun and the Zeitoun Foundation's post-Katrina charity work in New Orleans. My own presentation explored the negotiation of war experience and general civil-military relationships in milblogs addressing soldiers' deaths and the corresponding funeral and memorial services in Afghanistan and the US. Reading the blog audience's interaction with the authors as "fan" activities, I analyzed the debates on death in war as a deliberate attempt of civil society to uphold its end of the social contract: to provide support, understanding, and guidance for the soldiers whom civil society sent off to fight (and risk their lives) on its behalf.

All three papers presented fan activities as new forms of civic engagement that, while less institutionalized than earlier forms, empowered people to become involved in political activism on an individual level, many of whom would not have been attracted to become involved via traditional channels. As some of the commenters in the workshop's audience remarked, however, this new form of civic engagement, being "thoroughly neoliberalized," carries the risk of remaining restricted to a mere notion of "cozy virtual likemindedness": Affect may serve to get people to do something about a particular social problem, but will Internet-based, individualized activist communities like the ones described here have a significant effect (i.e., impact) to actually implement social and political change?

This interesting question harks back to a debate I had during a conference on historical comparative studies of veteran reintegration in Hamburg in October. Participants in this meeting questioned the effect of the myriad expressions of 'Thank You for Your Service' that I keep finding throughout my blog readings. While acknowledging them as a form of online civic engagement, the Hamburg symposium commenters labeled them the "lowest common denominator for an all-purpose, feel-good gratification that doesn't cost the civilian blog audience anything and that, because it emphasizes emotion intertwined with patriotism, seems to stand above criticism."

In addition to wondering how efficient fan-motivated political and social activism can be (which might also be a project for the social sciences as it suggests quantification for proof, while the presenters emphasized the cultural work of these texts and practices), workshop participants raised the question at which point, if civic engagement increasingly draws on these new modes of social mobilization, "fandom becomes a proxy for democracy?” This intriguing thought should offer diverse angles of observation and analysis for cultural-studies scholars interested in the interrelation of new media technology and cultural/social practices over the next few years.