Symposium

An archive of one's own: Subcultural creativity and the politics of conservation

Alexis Lothian

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—In response to a rapidly changing scene of intellectual property in digital media, activist fans have mobilized to develop a communal, nonprofit group to provide fans with an "archive of their own", protecting fan works from deletion by server hosts who believe those works to be in breach of copyright. In 2008, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) incorporated as a nonprofit, and the Archive of Our Own went live in 2009. I am a paid-up member of the OTW—and publishing in the journal it sponsors, after being part of the editorial team for the first five issues—because I believe in the artistic and cultural importance of fan works and I want them to be preserved. But I also believe we must look critically at the meaning-making projects that are encompassed within the OTW's goal of legitimatizing and preserving fan works for the future.

[0.2] Keywords—Archives; Fan community; OTW

Lothian, Alexis. 2011. "An Archive of One's Own: Subcultural Creativity and the Politics of Conservation." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0267.

1. Archives

[1.1] The online world of creative media fandom is a series of archives. Fan writers, vidders, artists, and critics build their subcultural sphere by sharing and storing texts and interpretations. Abigail Derecho describes fan fiction as a literature of archives, relating its production of new stories around old texts to Jacques Derrida's description in Archive Fever of the archive as "always expanding and never closed," where every addition to the archive alters what the archive itself constitutes (Derecho 2006, 61). Derrida also reminds us that questions of archives are always questions of archons, of who controls the structures through which meaning is created and maintained (Derrida 1996, 1). Archives and archiving are always already political. As some online fan practices become part of mainstream media's marketing machine, while others find themselves without a server space to call their own, members of fan subcultures who are particularly invested in the critical properties of their production have sought representation for their community by consciously intervening in archive politics. In response to a rapidly changing scene of intellectual property in digital media, activist fans have mobilized to develop a communal, nonprofit group to provide fans with an "archive of their own" (http://archiveofourown.org), protecting fan works from deletion by server hosts who believe those works to be in breach of copyright.

Screenshot, AO3 front page

Figure 1. Screenshot of "Archive of Our Own" front page, April 30, 2010. [View larger image.]

[1.2] As fans planned the Archive of Our Own, they formed an organization to defend their unauthorized uses of media content. In 2008, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) (http://transformativeworks.org) incorporated as a nonprofit, and the Archive of Our Own went live in 2009. I am a paid-up member of the OTW—and publishing in the journal it sponsors, after being part of the editorial team for the first five issues—because I believe in the artistic and cultural importance of fan works and I want them to be preserved. But I also believe we must look critically at the meaning-making projects that are encompassed within the OTW's goal of legitimatizing and preserving fan works for the future.

[1.3] Derecho finds that archontic writing in general and fan fiction in particular appeal to subordinated groups looking to create "ethical projects" that "oppose outdated notions of hierarchy and property" (Derecho 2006, 61). Media corporations are, unsurprisingly, rather attached to such outdated notions, and in recent years have sought to blur the distinctions between subcultural fan activity and the archontic supplements created for media properties by their producers. Fans have been enlarging corporate media's archives for generations, creating fiction and visual art based in the fictional worlds of TV shows, books, and movies. But they have often built their antiprofit world using Web services owned by companies who seek to profit from every byte of data archived on their servers, companies to whom subcultural norms are irrelevant (note 1). Fans' archontic production has been seen by corporations less as a danger, like digital piracy, than as a resource to be exploited—"user-generated content" that enables the selling of advertising space. While fans bring the content, corporations keep the revenue.

2. Ownership

[2.1] The Archive of Our Own emerged as an archontic struggle in the face of corporate media's wish to capitalize on its undercommons. It seeks to protect fan works by giving them a reliable place within the changing world of publishing and property. The politics of this archive are explicitly concerned with legitimizing "transformative" uses under US law, clarifying the uncertain legal place of fan works for the sake of their makers' legal safety. The OTW wishes to halt its archival subculture's reliance on the incidental and unreliable archiving of most online information, which can so easily disappear or be appropriated, and provide a "deposit library" for fan works. The OTW insists that its storage will provide cultural memory that "lasts for a very long time," "preserving fanworks for the future" by producing an organized and searchable memory for the community, solidifying its history and meanings (OTW FAQ, http://transformativeworks.org/faq-277).

[2.2] Derrida writes that "every archive…is at once institutive and conservative. Revolutionary and traditional" (1996, 7). The OTW's archive project wears both functions on its sleeve, seeking to build "a future in which all fannish works are recognized as legal and transformative, and accepted as a legitimate creative activity," by pursuing aggressively traditional strategies of permanence and legitimation ("What We Believe," http://transformativeworks.org/about/believe). The OTW tries to protect fan communities by insisting that they are subcultural groupings constituted in support of capital, that "there shouldn't be trouble, because fans are loyal customers." ("Does the OTW Represent All of Fandom?," http://transformativeworks.org/node/82). For all its valorization of fandom's noncapitalist culture, the OTW is keen to point out how the fan works it archives will continue to help others profit.

[2.3] Volunteers have designed and coded an open-source software archive tailored lovingly to store and distribute a collected body of fans' art and knowledge, offering an alternative or supplement to the distributed, chaotic archive culture in which the Internet and online fandom tend to exist. The organization takes a political stance in favor of recognizing digital storage as a form of cultural memory. It seeks to preserve its community and culture as a grassroots print archive might, honoring fan culture's pre-Internet history. But, as Derrida writes, what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way: the OTW may serve its purpose admirably, but it will inevitably fail to account for some aspects of the culture it wants to serve.

3. Wank

[3.1] At least part of this failure will be because, while fandom may be an archive culture—producing archontic texts and keeping them in multiple archival spaces, which are not usually incorporated as nonprofit—its cultural specificities can't be traced only by looking at the archives designated to be the subculture's public face. The Archive, like the scholarship presented in Transformative Works and Cultures, offers fannish productions a seriousness and a permanence that they have rarely been awarded before. But just as TWC's academia-friendly discourse is not the sum total of fannish knowledge production, neither can the Archive be assumed to record everything of importance. Sometimes ephemeral digital interactions do cultural work as important as that which can more easily be archived for the future. In "Ephemera as Evidence," José Muñoz describes the unquantifiable aftereffects of performances and experiences as "traces, glimmers, residues and specks" that "maintain…experiential politics and urgencies long after those experiences have been lived" (Muñoz 1996, 10). No matter how rooted in cultural communality, an archive framed as a deposit library cannot account for the traces, glimmers, and residues that give the experience of subcultural participation its meanings and its feelings. And so we must also ask: what worlds are made in the digital places the OTW won't be preserving? What alternative archive politics and temporalities does fandom contain?

[3.2] Residues of digital performances might include blog comments, IM messages, and the cached versions of postings taken down by their producers or rights holders; Fandom Wank (http://www.journalfen.net/community/fandom_wank/) is probably fandom's most widely read archive of the ephemeral, collecting unseemly elements of online discourse whose range, from "endless flamewars" and "pseudointellectual definitions" to "self-aggrandizing posturing" and "circular ego-stroking," makes the derivation of the fannish term "wank" from the slang for masturbation quite clear. Fandom Wank shares none of the OTW's political impetus, serious valuation of subculture as community, or desire to make fan culture comprehensible and appealing to the outside world. Yet it too facilitates long-term preservation of fan cultural practices, aggregating histories through an endless succession of in-jokes and links. These ephemeral traces are likely to include fannish creations that are tangential or irrelevant, and sometimes oppositional, to the texts, both initial and archontic, around which they cluster. Yet the flows—the institution, destruction, and resurfacing of digital archives on the fly—produce the experiential politics of online fan culture.

Screenshot, Fandom Wank

Figure 2. Screenshot of Fandom Wank, accessed April 30, 2010.

[3.3] The wank that fannish ephemera enables includes the sexualized exchange of explicit fiction (note 2). It also includes conflicts around gender, race, and sexual politics that demand participants in fandom's assortment of pleasure-focused textual exchanges accept political responsibility for what they create. Fandom's ephemeral archives produce important repertoires of affect and politics, which can never be reduced to stored stories on a static page. Most recently in online fan culture we've seen this in the series of debates that have become known as Racefail (http://fanlore.org/wiki/Racefail_09), in which fannish discursive practices have enabled a wide-ranging critique of science fiction's racial politics (note 3). Aficionados of online argument as radical critique eschew the term wank for their imbroglios; I suggest that the politics of wank and related modes of engagement might just deserve to be taken seriously.

[3.4] Both meanings of wank, connoting sexuality and conflict, are welcomed into the OTW's archive under its claim to "value infinite diversity in infinite combinations…while seeking to avoid the homogenization or centralization of fandom" ("What We Believe," http://transformativeworks.org/about/believe). The organization extends its umbrella to cover distributed models of knowledge production as well, including a wiki (http://fanlore.org). Its disavowal of fan cultures' anarchic tendencies is strategic (and the strategy seems to be working, given how much positive attention fan practices like vidding have had in the media since the OTW's advent), and it is not complete. I would not want to suggest that the OTW change the way it organizes its approach to archiving, for all that ephemeral interactions produce experiences and communities of incalculable value. Not every social form, on or off the Internet, can—or should—be transparently intelligible to an archivist's gaze. But if we want to take seriously the possibility that ephemeral conflict and online sex might function to undermine dominant sexual, gendered, racialized, and economic ways of being, both on- and off-line, we cannot restrict fannish politics to the easily archivable. Legal legitimation obtained through an uncritical embrace of the nonprofit structure may make fandom more socially acceptable. But if the Archive is our only model for fannish politics, we risk losing sight of ephemeral practices that can work transformatively.

4. Notes

1. For analysis of fan culture as a gift culture that runs against the capitalist profit motive, see Hellekson (2009).

2. For further discussion of this, see Lothian, Busse, and Reid (2007).

3. I edited a dialogue among antiracist fan scholars that addresses these issues: "Pattern Recognition" (TWC Editor 2009).

5. Works cited

Derecho, Abigail. 2006. "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 61–78. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hellekson, Karen. 2009. "A Fannish Field of Value." Cinema Journal 48 (4): 113–18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/cj.0.0140.

Lothian, Alexis, Kristina Busse, and Robin Reid. 2007. "Yearning Void and Infinite Potential: Online Slash Fandom as Queer Female Space." English Language Notes 45 (2): 103–12.

Muñoz, José. 1996. "Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts." Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 8 (2): 5–16.

TWC Editor. 2009. "Pattern Recognition: A Dialogue on Racism in Fan Communities." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0172.



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