I remember in graduate school catching high holy hell for my love of sampling, of the ways that hip hop artists take from the past and fuse it into something else. (And yes, Virginia, where there's a buck to be made, I wholeheartedly support recording artists, visual artists and writers getting their due.) But there is something about participatory culture, communal creation that keeps grabbing people by the throat, blurring the boundaries, something irresistible.
A while back I read a book that made me think about art as commodity, art as communal property and here are my thoughts about the book and its ideas.
"Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk." --- Henry Jenkins
"Get a life," William Shatner told Star Trek fans. Yet, in Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins makes the case that fans already have a "life," one that gleans from popular culture, then revisions and redrafts its ownership into something akin to new mythology. Further, it is a consumer-driven culture, one outside the control of the corporate universe. I was initially drawn to this book in its exposition, when I read Jenkins' repudiation of fans as cultural dupes, social misfits, mindless TV and movie junkies. Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, author of: Textual Poachers, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, makes a well-argued case than fans are active participants in a burgeoning underground of cultural consumerism as "owners."
These owners are skillfully producing new genres, i.e., fan fic, as well as being a kind of nomadic poacher, constructing mythology, alternative social communities, and cultural representation. Having attended fan conventions, corresponded with fans via websites and Listservs, he offers an insider's perspective. Approaching this as an ethnographic study, Jenkins is able to identify major areas of fan interest (Star Trek, Beauty and the Beast, Alien Nation, etc.)
Given the date of publishing, Jenkins did not have access to the blowup in fandom that occurred after the first two seasons of the X-FIles, when it moved from cult favorite to cultural phenomena, to say nothing of the fandoms surrounding today's cult hits, Battlestar Gallactica, Lost, Heroes.
In addition, he describes the fan community as initially white and female. Although now, more and more men and people of color are swelling the ranks of fanfic, and there seems to be gender and racial parity in the blogging community. Further, according to Jenkins, fan groupings contain more working-class and middle class people than other "art" related constituencies. He goes on to say some more intriguing things.
That the fan community sees itself in opposition to the capitalist control of culture, choosing to create what he terms meta-stories. Meta-stories are the online writing of non-industry people, based on television shows and movies. Through these meta-stories or fan fic, fans clearly express alternative "ownership," and in fact, have begun to impact the original "producers." For example, Jenkins reports that several studios monitor fan websites in order to gauge trends when considering television or movie sequels.
In addition, fic writers push the envelop for what themes their favorite icons now contain. Fic writing has dealt with: alternative endings/or plot extensions of film and televison series, explicit sexuality, queer-oriented alternate plots, gender roles, and the construct of emerging literary genres, etc. And we have only to look at the surge of interfacing today between "hard" network broadcasting, pod casts, film and TV episode downloads with alternate content, to see a major shift in how pop culture, already underway full steam, is experienced.
As a fan (X-Files) and fic writer myself, I found it a useful delineation of a fiercely loyal, now international, subculture of renegade consumers of culture. Everyday people are becoming outlaw storytellers, seizing modern-day archetypes and making them our own.