Culturally mapping universes: Fan production as ethnographic fragments

Jen Gunnels

New York Review of Science Fiction, New York, New York, United States

Carrie J. Cole

School of Theatre, Film and Television, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Ethnography has played a large role in fan studies; thus, any mention of ethnography in conjunction with fan studies is unsurprising. Ethnography's use of performance studies and the subsequent emphasis on embodied practice, however, creates new intersections between ethnography and the fan. Thus far, the fan has been relegated to the position of ethnographic subject. We argue here that the fan can be viewed as an ethnographer proper, mining ethnographic fragments from the source material in order to explore and explain the workings of a fictive culture within a fictive universe. The nature of fan production when viewed in such a manner is highly dramaturgical in nature. To account for this within the ethnographic framework, we use the term ethnodramaturg to describe how the fan works within a fictive universe to study and create dramatic story lines based within that world. Performatively, the fan enacts the ethnographer's in-betweenness. Both fan and ethnographer are not of the culture and yet not not of the culture they explore and attempt to explain. In ethnography, this means the subject is simultaneously observed and created through the use of ethnographic objects, or fragments. These fragments are then displayed or dramatically deployed independently of that source. Fan-produced media, having been excised from the source material, can be viewed as ethnographic fragments. Fans, as ethnodramaturgs, carve out discrete objects of the fictive world for study and link them together in a performative story line.

[0.2] Keywords—Boal; Dramaturgy; Ethnography; Fan production

Gunnels, Jen, and Carrie J. Cole. 2011. "Culturally Mapping Universes: Fan Production as Ethnographic Fragments." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0241.

[1] Ethnography has played a large role in fan studies, as seen in the work of Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, to name but two. Thus, the mention of ethnography in conjunction with fan studies is nothing particularly new. However, ethnography's use of performance studies and the subsequent emphasis on embodied practice creates new intersections between ethnography and the fan, opening potential avenues of inquiry. Rather than view the fan as an ethnographic subject, it is possible to examine the fan as an ethnographer proper, mining ethnographic fragments from the source material to explore and explain the workings of a fictive culture within a fictive universe. Further, because of the dramatic nature of fans' ethnographic fragments and their dramaturgical assembly, the fan could be termed an ethnodramaturg as she works within a fictive universe to study and create dramatic story lines based within that world.

[2] Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in her essay "Objects of Ethnography," examines how "the ethnographic object raises issues of artifactual integrity and autonomy" (1991, 386). It is worthwhile to quote her definition of the ethnographic object at length:

[3] Objects become ethnographic by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers. Such objects are ethnographic not because they were found…but by virtue of the manner in which they have been detached, for disciplines make their objects and in the process make themselves. (387, emphasis added)

[4] Fans detach pieces from the source material and make them into fan products, running the gamut from characters and situations for works of fan fiction to fetishizing and recreating specific objects. Each new generation of fans adds to the interpretation and reinterpretation of both the source material, by carrying off new fragments, and the fragments of prior generations, in how they reconstitute them. Detaching the material from the source further realizes the fictional culture, as well as marking the activity as fannish. Here, the observation and creation of the subject is challenged by dramaturgical fluidity, based on how the fan, as ethnographer, constructs the dramaturgy of both the media and fictional universe out of the objects and subjects she privileges.

[5] Fans, as ethnodramaturgs, not only carve out discrete objects of the fictive world for study, but also link them together in a performative story line. Fan media, created using a dramatic structure, reflects and makes sense of ethnographic social drama through the new story lines. The material repeats, reiterates, and reexplores itself as a result of differing foci on the source material as well as cultural changes on the part of the fan. The fan as ethnodramaturg simultaneously functions as a producer and a consumer of the culture and its fragments, without necessarily delineating a difference between those experiences. Ethnographically, this means that the subject is simultaneously observed and created through the use of ethnographic objects, or fragments. These fragments are then displayed or dramatically deployed independently of that source. Fan-produced media, having been excised from the source material, can be viewed as ethnographic fragments. Fans excise characters for use in fan fiction, placing them in imagined scenes, or for cosplay. In addition, vidders will excerpt frames and scenes from the source material to tell a different story or to set them to a specific song meant to evoke a particular reading of the selected action.

[6] Fandom's basis in and emphasis on participation allows for the activity marking fannish practice as ethnographic in nature. Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of modern ethnography, recommended full participation as well as the traditional position of observer to fully understand the culture being studied (Conquergood 1991, 180). Following this principle, ethnographer and performance theorist Dwight Conquergood reiterates: "Recognition of the bodily nature of fieldwork privileges the processes of communication that constitute the 'doing' of ethnography: speaking, listening, and acting together" (181). Fan enterprises mirror these activities, as Jenkins (1992, 2008), Fiske (1987), Hellekson and Busse (2006), and others have documented. Further, fan participation can be viewed as ethnographic fieldwork—an immersion in the field for a given period, absorbing the culture through direct participation (180). Fans, like ethnographers, familiarize themselves with the fictional culture through participation, which for the fan would include reading and/or viewing original source material as well as ancillary materials, ranging from other fan-produced media to secondary materials such as spin-off novels and games. This could be extended to include a mastery of a specific element from a franchise, such as the trend for sparring with lightsabers as a form of exercise (Lee 2009) or knowing the rules for, or actually playing, Klingon wuQ. Francesca Coppa, in her essay "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance," says, "Readers come to fan fiction with extratextual knowledge, mostly of characters' bodies and voices" (2006, 235). Imbibing of the source material constitutes fieldwork that results in an understanding of the characters' cultures as "natives" of the fictional universe under scrutiny. The fan learns not only about the characters but also about the scope of the fictional world, by watching the material available and reading/observing the material of other fans. In certain forms of fannish interaction, the world is more important than any one character. Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Star Trek offer examples of this. While the main characters are important, they are primarily a means to understand the world the fan wishes to inhabit, understand, explore, and reinterpret (note 1).

[7] Performance theorist Richard Schechner's oft-cited performance theory on restored behavior contains the well-known phrase "not me not not me" (1985, 110–12). Borrowing from Winnicott's idea of the "transitional object," Schechner bends it to performative use. Specifically, he meshes the ideas of Van Gennep, Turner, and Bateson relating to liminality, or "transitional phenomena," to specifically relate them to what occurs in a performance space. The actor is not himself—he plays a character—and yet the actor does not cease to be his original self. He is both and neither simultaneously. While formulated for performative circumstances, this has applications beyond the liminality of the stage.

[8] Performatively, the fan enacts the ethnographer's in-betweenness. As Schechner notes of ethnographic fieldwork,

[9] The situation precipitated by the fieldworker's presence is a theatrical one: he is there to see, and he is seen…He is not a performer and not not a performer, not a spectator and not not a spectator. He is between two roles just as he is between two cultures…The field worker is always in a "not…not not" situation. (108)

[10] While the above applies to a physical presence on the part of the ethnographer, this can apply to a virtual presence as well—as shown in ethnographic studies of online communities and groups—in particular, that of fans. This idea can be taken further by viewing the creation of fan products through a fan's participation in the fictional universe of her choice as ethnographic in nature. In doing so, fans, like ethnographers, produce ethnographic objects for study and display. Both fan and ethnographer are not of the culture and yet not not of the culture they explore and attempt to explain. At the same time, the double negative of Schechner's theoretical frame belies the generative nature of the ethnodramaturgical endeavor. The in-betweenness of the fan as ethnodramaturg, the "not not," can also invoke the improvisational yes and mode, which accepts the given circumstances of the culture or fictive universe, while reconstructing and redeploying the ethnographic fragments to suit other purposes. This fundamental tenet of improvisation is employed across a number of fields, and its basic charge in any application is "that each player will create a more interesting scene when they reflect each other's ideas rather than force their own" (Leep 2008, 15). In excising specific fragments from the fictive world, the fan as ethnodramaturg in essence improvises an alternate narrative.

[11] The in-between state of the ethnographer and fan can also be engaged as a representation of the simultaneous dramaturgy of Augusto Boal, in which "the spectator feels that they can intervene in the action" and "all can be changed, and at a moment's notice" (Boal 1985, 134). Boal developed his theatre techniques against the backdrop of social and economic upheaval in Brazil during the 1960s. During his persecution, exile, and eventual return to Brazil, Boal formulated his Theatre of the Oppressed, a technique whereby the spectator is transformed into a participant (or "spect-actor") in the performance to both subvert and reimagine the hegemonic construct of the culture. Feeling that traditional theatre actively oppressed the spectator, Boal believed that encouraging the spectator to participate improvisationally in the decisions and direction of the performance would result in her social liberation.

[12] Boal's terminology in the above—words like transformed, witness, and encouraging—fails to provide a sense of agency for the fan. However, these terms may be applicable in discussing the producers of original "official" material, that raw ingredient of fan production. They acknowledge an intention for the fan to be transformed and encouraged, not on her own terms but on those of the producers of the shows. Examining the fan as an ethnographer proper, as an ethnodramaturg, realigns the terminology, granting agency to the fan. Ethnographers and their practices in the field, as Quetzil Castañeda observed, can be applicable here. The fieldwork, which for the fan would equate with viewing or reading, is not the end result:

[13] The experience and interaction of fieldwork is a potentiality that corresponds not to the right then and there but to the subsequent re-constitution of information and experience as knowledge in writing, text, and representation that circulates for other audiences of readers and viewers detached from the specific time and space of the fieldwork. (Boal 2006, 82)

[14] Fans "transform" into ethnodramaturgs. Their ethnographic refashioning of the fieldwork becomes ethnographic artifacts, triggering agency in the act of choosing what to bring back, manipulate, and display.

[15] Boal's simultaneous dramaturgy focuses on integrating the extratextual information of characters and events with those defined within a culture—but at the point of integration, that very culture/universe is reshaped and redefined—reimmersing the audience-participant in a culture that she not only recognizes but owns. For Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed positions theatre and performance as a central and active mechanism for cultural participation by those who have been marginalized. The ideal audience member within his methodology functions as both an observer of and participant within the drama, as "all must act, all must be protagonists in the necessary transformation of society" (Boal 1985, x). Boal's fundamental premise rests on the notion that as soon as the audience participates, the drama changes and is changed, and the performative event becomes exponentially greater as a result of the simultaneity of the structuring of that event by actors and audience. Viewing fan production and media in this way, especially given the dramatic structure and presentation of the fragments, their constitution and reconstitution over periods of time and between cultures can be seen as both ethnographic activity and dramaturgical content.

[16] As fragments carried off from the original source material, fan production, ranging from written material to video productions to cosplay, can be viewed either in situ or in context or even, in certain cases, both. In situ objects, typically displayed or arranged as large groupings, reinforce the reality of the subject they represent. "The notion of in situ entails metonymy and mimesis: the object is a part that stands in a contiguous relation to an absent whole that may or may not be recreated" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblet 1991, 388). Fan fiction could possibly be viewed as in situ due to the sheer volume of material, but for the most part, in situ is best represented through fetishized objects, such as light sabers or Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver. This kind of object is not a neutral one because "those who construct the display also constitute the subject" (389). The deployment of the individual objects, meant to stand in for an ethnographic whole, reconstructs the cultural viewpoint of the ethnographer and the way in which she or he envisions the culture in question. Fetishized objects are most prevalent and observable within cosplay. The choice of object, the individual's perception of the object, and its relation to both the individual and the fictional world, all make ethnographic statements about the perception of the source material and sometimes the current state of fannish focus (note 2).

[17] More often, fan productions tend toward placing ethnographic fragments in context. In-context displays rely on the arrangement and explication of discrete ethnographic objects. This may take the form of museum labels, charts, guided tours, lectures, or even performances. Objects may also be contextualized in reference to other objects, "often in relation to a classification or schematic arrangement of some kind, based on typologies of form or proposed historical relationships" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblet 1991, 390). In this case, the deployment of objects and their categorization and/or focus are under the cognitive control of the ethnographer. Fan fiction serves this purpose when viewed as supplements, as Coppa notes, to the source text and to one another. The "episode fix" and "missing scene" contextualize character behavior, and the repetitive nature of some fan fiction provides further contextualization, or interrogations of other fan interpretations, for the chosen fragment of source material. Contextualization is perhaps best exemplified by Web sites such as Wookiepedia, Gateworld, and BSG Wiki. These three sites contain encyclopedic material fleshing out the history of that universe, specific characters' histories, and flora and fauna, as well as outlining cultural practices and belief systems. This information comes from the source material, plus other "canonical" content from quasiauthorized sources such as spin-off or serial novels. Some material included on these sites receives only a passing mention in the canon. For example, the BSG Wiki has an entry for the First Cylon War. Citing the episodes making peripheral mention of the event, the remaining information contains background on the war's aftermath, which in turn contextualizes these brief mentions within the reimagined series ("Cylon War," 2010).

[18] Both in situ and in context fan fragments cover a huge variety of media, ranging from written material to video productions to cosplay. The sheer volume of fan material, especially for the more popular universes such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica, make it difficult to view all of it (note 3). Even if a researcher broke it down into the examination of one media form and one genre within that form, it would still encompass an ungainly amount of material. Moreover, the differences in media and form make comparison difficult. Oleg Grabar makes an observation concerning an Islamic art installation at the Metropolitan that is applicable here. He found that many objects within the large collection were "remarkably alike in technique, size, shape, style, and decorative theme…It is as though there are no masterpieces, no monument which emerges as being so superior to others within a comparable series that a qualitative or developmental sequence can easily be built up" (2006, 15). That is not to say all fan material is created equal. Some fans artists have achieved a higher level of status than others. However, exactly how is the reputation achieved? Is it determined via number of hits or by writing style? Is it based on the level of "authenticity" or adherence to canon manifest in the work? Such means of evaluation seem arbitrary at best (note 4). Even with the acknowledgment that some fan material has a higher level of quality, given the sheer volume of fan-produced media in any one franchise, these are better seen as exemplars of a type as opposed to an aesthetic.

[19] Grabar further noted that any differences were "generally of degree rather than of kind; they almost always involve details of workmanship and composition rather than 'nobility' of subject or power of expression" (15). The differences within fan media can be viewed as ones of degree rather than kind, an ethnographic manifestation of Coppa's observation concerning the prevalence of recurring themes and subjects within fan fiction (236–38). Each fragment acts as a supplement to the whole, creating multiple interdependent dramaturgies of the fictive universe for the fan to enact. In a brief browsing of Gateworld, one Stargate site among many, we found 46 hurt/comfort stories, 316 covering missing scenes, and 915 involving a multitude of various romantic pairings. A number of these were cross-referenced with other subgenres of fan fiction, and several dealt with similar or identical subject matter using the same characters.

[20] Examining fan production from an ethnodramaturgic standpoint allows for these vast, disparate quantities of media and activities to be grouped together. Playing Boba Fett or a storm trooper or writing about them is a difference of degree rather than kind when examined performatively. A fan still has to know the character and the universe in order to embody them physically or through a written text, as Coppa has elegantly pointed out. Viewed ethnographically, the material has equal weight in the presentation of the "culture" if one ignores the privileging of written text over embodied text. For example, the 501st Legion: Vader's Fist is a charitable organization whose members make appearances as Imperial characters and bounty hunters. According to their charter, there are only three requirements for membership, but one is based on knowledgeable merit and accurate fan production of an object. The potential member must own "a Legion-approved costume representing villainous or malevolent characters from the Star Wars films or its expanded universe sources" ("Legion Charter" 2009, Article VIIA). The charter stipulates that a costume representing a canonical character must be "accurate" and "authentic-looking." They cannot contain any decoration or design not found on the original source material, in this case the costume (Article VIIC).

[21] The requirements listed above place a premium on a high level of research into both the persona and culture the member wishes to represent. Performance ethnography advocates the same attention to detail. Doing so brings a set of checks and balances to the objectivity, in part by recognizing that the ethnographer does, in fact, interpret what she experiences and that this interpretation is what is communicated. In addition, performance ethnography serves to offer a way to express the bodily knowing/experiencing of a culture, as opposed to the traditional and privileged text of the monograph. Both Anna Deavere Smith and ethnographer/performer Joni Jones/Omi Osun Olomo practice this in their own work. In particular, Smith's work, "documentary theatre," seeks a bodily understanding of the people involved in such complex events as the 1992 LA riots (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 [2003]) and the 1991 Crown Heights Riot (Fires in the Mirror [1992]) by utilizing elements of journalism, ethnography, and traditional performance (for an example of her work, see Smith 2007). As in cosplay, the ethnographer wishes to express both a level of authenticity and her ethnographic experience/encounter with the culture/character.

[22] Grabar further notes that ethnographic fragments are more meaningful as a large grouping than as single fragments. The larger number ties the objects more closely with a living culture than would a single creation. The active fan bases producing vast quantities of fan material, including but not limited to Star Trek and Star Wars, appear to create more fully realized universes than do less active ones. More fan-produced material creates more detail, which in turn creates a more fully realized ethnographic representation of the fictional universe. The emphasis is not necessarily on the size of the fan base but on the volume and variety of materials produced to provide a more comprehensive picture of an expanded universe. Additionally, fan material makes little sense when removed from the living background of the source material, and only when viewed in larger groupings does it become more meaningful as it provides further details of the fictive universe. The fan fiction work "Waltzing's for Dreamers" (afg 2006) requires knowledge of what happens in Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007) episode 7.16 "Death Knell" to understand the context and characters for the missing scene being depicted. The majority of this piece of fan fiction is written as dialogue, providing no background material for the situation or the characters involved. Not knowing the characters or the bracketing, an untutored audience is left with little sense of character, situation, or the universe as a whole from this material.

[23] A large portion of the fan material produced, in particular those dealing with missing or rewritten scenes, can fall ethnographically under the category of social dramas. Ethnographer and anthropologist Victor Turner (1982), in approaching his fieldwork from a performative standpoint, posited that cultures can be read through these moments of heightened emotion, such as litigations, divorce, and marriage, that are either worked out, or not, on the basis of cultural strictures, revealing aspects of the cultural infrastructure. Not only do fans utilize this particular dramatic structure and content, they also choose to examine, explicate, and "repair" scenes that are incomplete in terms of social drama. One example, from Battlestar Galactica (2004–9), involves a fan fiction story based on 3.17 "Maelstrom." In this episode, Kara "Starbuck" Thrace meets her end, and in doing so comes to terms with elements of her past and, ostensibly, her various current relationships. Referencing the recurring image of her mandala, its occurrence acts as a cue for Starbuck to engage in self-revelation. The open-ended, sometimes vague treatment of Starbuck's relationships with other key characters within the original source episode fails to provide satisfactory reactions to both her life and her death. Fan fiction author PTBvisiongrrl (2007), seeking to reconcile the action within the original episode with known character behavior, wrote several brief scenes to explain the dreams and behavior of Starbuck as well as bring a sense of closure to her relationships with Adama and Apollo (see table 1 for comparisons between the official episode and the fan material). She does this by tying the actions of this episode to those previous, by examining the spaces between the scenes shown in the episode, and by providing an extended ending that takes into account the subtextual social roles of the characters involved.

Table 1. Differences between 3.17 "Maelstrom" and fan fiction corrected/missing scenes

Official EpisodeFan Fiction
Begins with Starbuck's dreams and hallucinationsTakes viewer back to previous episodes linked to a sexual encounter with Lee, resulting in pregnancy, as explanation for the dreams.
Meeting with Adama where she gives him a letter for Lee. Foregrounds the father/daughter relationship.
Discussion on the flight deck concerning Starbuck's reservations about flying. Emotional undercurrents. For comparison with fan fic, see Battlestar Galactica 3.17 "Maelstrom."Same scene, but the emotional undercurrents are foregrounded and we see more of the characters' internal states.
Flight with Apollo back to the planet. Starbuck passes out, and we see her vision with Leoben and her mother.Follows the episode scene. The fic skips the dream/vision and moves into Starbuck's inner monologue and a more emotional reaction from Apollo.
Cut between Apollo and CIC with reaction shots.
Apollo's return to the ship and his report to Adama.
Episode ends with Adama smashing the model ship.Apollo hears the ship off screen being smashed.
Adama reveals that he knows about Lee and Kara loving each other. He thinks the marriage to Dee is a mistake. They drink from a special bottle of booze and reminisce. Adama gives the letter to Lee and leaves. Lee reads the letter in which Starbuck explains her feelings and actions concerning him.

[24] Like the ethnographer in the field inserting herself into the culture, the fan inserts herself into the narrative world of the source material. In an unpublished paper delivered at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in 2009, Anna Wilson discussed the importance of examining fan fiction for its affect, an affect historically traceable through its "tradition of emotional engagement with texts." She points out how fan fiction's tendency to portray moments of extreme emotion correlates to Karl F. Morrison's "partial identification," a moment of simultaneous empathy between audience and art (Morrison 1998). The simultaneous empathy is dramaturgically necessary in the production of texts, both fictive and ethnographic. Coppa's analysis of Schechner's "not me not not me" reveals that in the dramatic structure of fan fiction, the fan portrays dramatic characters through an understanding of them. She is not Starbuck, but she is not not Starbuck either, mirroring the ethnographer's cultural in-betweenness.

[25] However, this does not fully address some of the activity involved in fan media. The participatory nature of dramatic structure and the act of creating ethnographic fragments makes the ethnodramaturg similar to what Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed terms a spect-actor. A spect-actor fills a dual role as both spectator and actor/participant, simultaneously the observer and creator of the performance in progress. For ethnographer Quetzil Castañeda (2006), Boal's performance methodology foregrounds the intersection of the two disciplines (80). As mentioned earlier, the ethnographer, like Boal's spect-actor, is both observer and participant as she "performs" fieldwork. Regardless of discipline, the end result of Theatre of the Oppressed "revolves around creating a provocative and engaging set of interactions with a public in which the different emotions, positions, and ambivalences of the social issue are presented, provoked, revealed, and debated" (77). As in any endeavor, sometimes this happens, and sometimes it doesn't. However, issues—socially relevant or not—are definitely revealed, provoked, and debated within fan works.

[26] Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed developed in reaction to a specific political and cultural moment in mid-20th-century Brazil but has metamorphosed since then, finding intersections of praxis in a number of disciplines. At its earliest inception, the concepts undergirding Boal's work were part of an artistic development in Brazil that "sought to reach a segment of the population traditionally excluded from art discourse by tapping familiar frames of reference or by including members of this population in the process" of creation (Barnitz 2001, 235). In Boal's early work, this act of inclusion manifested in a process that employed the arts to, in part, "define a national cultural identity in both form and content" as well as "to demolish boundaries between artist and viewer" (Britton 2006, 11). Boal developed Theatre of the Oppressed to provide a context for reaching those excluded from the conversation, and to engage them in the creation of both art and identity. As he developed his praxis, Boal sought "to create a space in which [the people's desire for change] can be stimulated and experienced, and where future actions arising from it can be rehearsed" (Boal 1998, 20) much in the same way fans have produced their own space for the creation and rehearsal of the ethnographic fragments they deploy.

[27] As Boal's theoretical and practical work in theatre gained international recognition, it has been adapted and applied to suit a number of socially and politically engaged genres and forms. In general, the object for Theatre of the Oppressed is to transform the audience member into a participant through and as part of the dramatic process, to address local concerns. This is done through four stages: knowing the body, making the body expressive, theatre as language, and theatre as discourse. For the fan, each of these stages is grounded in the collection of ethnographic fragments that are then dramatically structured to add to the understanding of the fictive universe. This process in the creation of fan media appears to be largely unconscious, less distinctly reliant upon specific stages, and much more fluid, thus creating slippage between stages in the methodology.

[28] In reference to the first two stages—knowing and expressing the body—Coppa has already pointed out how the fan, through extratextual knowledge of the source material, comes to know the bodies of the characters, as well as how those bodies are expressive through space and over time. Boal emphasizes much of what fan fiction in particular already seems to accentuate. Bodily knowledge of the characters includes an understanding of their abilities, limitations, and possibilities, while the act of making the body expressive involves the usual expression of character through the body, but includes and advocates the abandonment of "common and habitual forms of expression" (Boal 1985, 126). Again, as fan fiction demonstrates through unconventional subgenres such as slash, fans do abandon the habitual expression of the characters and how they interact within their specific fictive universe.

[29] Theatre as a language, the third stage, is a practice—one conducted in the present, "not as a finished product displaying images from the past" (Boal 1985, 126). Most important here is the notion of simultaneous dramaturgy—and it is at this point the fan transforms into an ethnodramaturg. Performance scholar Elizabeth Bell aptly describes simultaneous dramaturgy as "a technique designed to involve spectators in a scene without requiring their physical presence onstage" (Bell 2008, 208). Boal often brought spectators to the stage to participate in the social drama being depicted, hence the term spect-actor. More recently, scholars like Bell have emphasized that simultaneous dramaturgy can include virtual participation as well. Fan writing allows for performative expression without physical presence. The fan presence is partially deferred through Schechner's "not me not not me" and placed within the characters utilized in the fan production. In this way, the ethnodramaturg "intervenes directly, 'speaking' through images made with the actors' bodies" (Boal 1985, 126). The fan as an ethnodramaturg, by manipulating the ethnographic objects derived from the source material, actively intervenes in, makes, and acts through the culture of the fictive universe. The final stage in Boal's method, theatre as a discourse, presents the opportunity for the spectator/actor/fan to "discuss certain themes or rehearse certain actions" (Boal 1985, 126). As the Brecht Forum, a Web site dedicated to "working for social justice, equality, and a new culture that puts human needs first," points out, Boal considers the act of dramatizing action as a rehearsal for action:

[30] Role-playing serves as a vehicle for analyzing power, stimulating public debate and searching for solutions…[Participants] are invited to map out: a) the dynamics of power…b) the experience and the fear of powerlessness…and c) rigid patterns of perception that generate miscommunication and conflict, as well as ways of transforming them. The aim of the forum is not to find an ideal solution, but to invent new ways of confronting problems…The experience has been called a "rehearsal for life." (

[31] But what does this perspective gain? Katherine Newman, in "On the Value of Ethnography," expounds on how ethnography's benefits lie "in its capacity to redefine the social landscape, [and] to explode received categories…Ethnography has the capacity to develop different ways of thinking about a social universe" (Becker et al. 2004, 271). Lawrence Grossberg, in "Is There a Fan in the House? The Affective Sensibility of Fandom," echoes these sentiments: "Fans actively constitute places and forms of authority (both for themselves and for others) through the mobilization and organization of affective investments" (1992, 59). Both perspectives coincide with Boal's methodology and end result. "Maybe the theatre in itself is not revolutionary, but these theatrical forms are without a doubt a rehearsal of revolution. The truth of the matter is that the spectator-actor practices a real act even though he does it in a fictional manner…Within its fictitious limits, the experience is a concrete one" (Boal 1985, 141). This connects to the nonfixed, nonfinite nature of fan performance and dramaturgy. What do we gain by thinking of the fan performance as rehearsal instead of production—and therefore fixed and product based—about the object, and not the subject? Simultaneous dramaturgy gives us the room, and flexibility, to acknowledge the subject/object/ethnographer/dramaturg mutability. In particular, it can examine the fluidity of the lines between the productions of fan culture and iterations of source material by official sources.

[32] Ethnography and simultaneous dramaturgy seek to change attitudes and circumstances, to grant agency to those who may feel they have none. To apply this extreme of sociopolitical advocacy to fan productions is a bit of a stretch and a tad absurd. At the same time, Boal's work has metamorphosed from its original political third world beginnings and been adapted to less extreme understandings of advocacy and identity such as within the classroom or middle-class concerns. Yet fan productions do grant agency in their subversion of narrative for their own purposes. Fans, acting as ethnodramaturgs, do change the world. They change, map, and remap the fictive world in which they play.

[33] Other theories and discourses position the fan in relation to the text as textual poachers, historians, and scribes. These very useful and valid approaches, however, only reflect certain relationships fans have to a core text. In addition, the individual products of fandom, separated across several types of media in as many different forms, tend to be viewed as discrete genres. Examining fan activity as performative, as a doing, and expanding upon this performance in a particular fashion, doing/performing as an ethnographer, gives a different understanding of the fan in relation not just to text, but to an ethnographic discourse created via ethnographic fragments (fan productions). Viewed in this way, the fan's relation to the core text is a means and not an end. The focus can be placed on the fragments created from the text, leveling the barriers between these fan-created genres and shifting focus to gain a different perspective on fans.

[34] As ethnodramaturgs, fans learn the rules of the fictional culture; and when they begin to produce fannish materials, creating ethnographic monographs regardless of their media form, it is done in such a way that it both conforms to and diverges from the fictional culture in which they participate. As the fans participate, they transform it into something that speaks to their own life and experience as well as the human condition—as the best ethnography does. Good ethnography is a synthesis, a "thick description," to borrow Clifford Geertz's term, of multiple points of observation. The fan's position as poacher, historian, and scribe all combine to create an ethnographic perspective through gleaning fragments of the material (Geertz 1973).

[35] It would be reductive to dismiss the activity of the ethnodramaturg as mere fantasy, escapism, or identification. Again, these have their place in fan studies and have served to open debate and unpack what, exactly, fans do. Equally, there is a tendency outside the field to misunderstand performance by mistaking it as only encompassing the stage and trained actors. These misperceptions limit potentially useful perceptions in both cases. What and how something is fantasized can often provide insight into the society itself because "dismissing escapism as 'mere fantasy' avoids the vital questions of what is escaped from, why escape is necessary, and what is escaped to" (Fiske 1987, 317). These are questions that can be approached ethnographically. If examined as a question of identification, one would expect fans to gravitate toward a representation in keeping with how they view themselves. This is not necessarily the case. Cosplayers in particular (at both comic cons and Renaissance festivals) may specifically choose to play against their own perceived identities as experimentation (note 5). Viewing identity as performed (Tajfel 1982; Goffman 1959) complicates matters. Performance and acting are not confined to the stage. Everyday cultural interactions and exchanges are performances of culture and self. Taking into account Erving Goffman's "front stage" and "backstage" behaviors, fans may present themselves publicly in one way and privately in another. Performance, in a more formal state, can disrupt this. It does so by offering an element of liminal safety.

[36] Performance, as may be perceived in fan studies, could be formal (cosplay competitions), immersive (LARPs, Renaissance festivals), or projective (via game avatars or literary characters). In each case, because the performance is bounded in some fashion (stage, environmental area, text/virtual space), it may be perceived as relatively safe, because what happens in this world has no lasting real-world consequences. It may be threatened or harmed as part of the ludic aspects of the situation, but these are not permanent to the real body. Experimentation is more likely to occur, and offense less likely to be taken. Backstage private identity roles may be fronted with the understanding that this is play. To that end, the fan carves out a space for play:

[37] All play takes place within a "playground," a space marked off beforehand, either physically or mentally, deliberately or as a matter of course. The ancient Greeks' word for such a space is temenos, the sacred circle. It is a sacred spot cut off and hedged in from the "ordinary" world, a consecrated and hallowed ground within which special rules obtain. (Izzo 1997, 9)

[38] The idea of creating a temenos becomes extremely important because this construction provides a place of both safety and permission in exploring identity. Within this space, the fan can examine volatile or socially unacceptable circumstances or experiment with cultural perceptions and relationships (between individuals, or between individuals and the culture or circumstance). These may or may not have lasting impact on the fictional culture. This depends on the ethnographic authenticity. If the material presented is "true," whether to canon, secondary material, or the perceptions of other fans, it is more likely to enter the continuum of the fictional culture. Ethnographic scholarship goes through a similar filtering process.

[39] All of this brings us back to the ethnodramaturg, Boal, and simultaneous dramaturgy. Ultimately, examining the fan as ethnodramaturg and fan productions as ethnographic fragments can open up a new and different perspective that may add to the "thick description" of past and current fan studies. The field of fan studies, particularly as it relates to performance and performance genres, greatly benefits not only from examining the products and fragments of fan culture, but also from acknowledging the dramaturgical processes in which fans create and produce material. Both contribute to a vital understanding of the fan's engagement with the fictive worlds.


1. This is not indicative or inherent in all fan practices. Some universes do not necessarily prompt this, focusing instead on a profound attachment to characters, as with Twilight or Supernatural.

2. A partial examination of this is made in Gunnels (2009).

3. Larger franchises do tend to be the ones in which the fans focus more upon the world inhabited than the central characters. Even so, given the breadth of fandom, there will be exceptions to this. Again, in such an instance, the question will be one of how much fan media is produced and not how many fans there are.

4. This marks an area in need of further inquiry. Here we are more concerned with the possibilities of moving across genres of fan media in ways that do not necessarily privilege one type over another.

5. See Gunnels (2004). The interviews therein suggest that many participants specifically play against their own identities or the identities that are publicly perceived and/or socially accepted.

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