Theory

Metaphors we read by: People, process, and fan fiction

Juli J. Parrish

University of Denver, Denver, Colorado, United States

[0.1] Abstract—New metaphors must be adopted for the writing of fan fiction. Henry Jenkins's metaphor of the textual poacher has achieved tacit acceptance and widespread circulation, suggesting that it has become relatively fixed as a description of fan creative practices among fans as well as in scholarship. Challenges to this model and metaphor are important but have not successfully displaced the prominence of the textual poacher. One promising alternative structure is that of Brownian motion, a scientific concept that both Michel de Certeau and Constance Penley have offered as a metaphor for creativity. Whereas textual poaching offers us a vision of fans as nomads, moving through a place and collecting materials, Brownian motion offers us a vision of fan fiction as world building, a process that remakes the place itself. Metaphors such as Brownian motion do not only offer us a different framework for understanding the creative processes that characterize fan fiction writing; they also remind us to focus on those creative processes themselves, as well as on the fans who engage in them.

[0.2] Keywords—Brownian motion; Creative process; Readers; Textual poaching

Parrish, Juli J. 2013. "Metaphors We Read By: People, Process, and Fan Fiction." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 14. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0486.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fan fiction springs from a what-if moment. It takes something a text has offered to us as inevitable—a plot, a character trait, a setting—and unmakes it, thereby opening up a different set of possibilities. What if Oz had not decided to pursue a werewolf education, and instead stayed in Sunnydale with Willow and the rest of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer gang? What if Xena were not a warrior princess but a drug lord living in New York in the 1990s? What if, when Bella dove off the cliff in the second Twilight book, she broke her back and ended up paralyzed from the waist down? What if—to take the classic example—Kirk and Spock were lovers? In fan fiction, asking the question both unmakes one story and makes a new one possible.

[1.2] Consider this familiar premise: a fan visits a vast cultural preserve. She is perceived as a trespasser by the property owners, who have erected fences around their material. To sustain herself on her journey—because she will be moving on—the fan must help herself to the conceptual game and vegetation. This, of course, is the story of the textual poacher, arguably the most influential story told about media fans in the last 20 years. It's a good story, but it's not the only one available to us. In a slightly earlier version of this story, the fan isn't passing through the cultural preserve but instead rebuilding it from the ground up. She uses existing materials to change the design; she reroutes the roads that allow access; she introduces new technologies that offer a different experience to future visitors.

[1.3] These two images of media fans, by Henry Jenkins and Constance Penley, respectively, appeared only a year apart in the early 1990s. These authors drew their central figures from the same theorist, Michel de Certeau. They wrote about fans of the same television program, Star Trek, and the creative practices of those fans. And yet Constance Penley's vision of fandom as Brownian motion was left alone, mentioned only occasionally in subsequent scholarship, while Henry Jenkins's idea of the fan as textual poacher became a powerful and dominant metaphor for the work that fans do. Any number of other metaphors for the notion of the fan have been suggested: minstrel (Hellekson 1997), performer (Lancaster 2001), steward (Davis and Brewer 1997), pilgrim (Aden 1999), apprentice (Borah 2002), gamekeeper (Hills 2002; Bury 2008), puppeteer (Pugh 2005); the list goes on. Many of these metaphors are compelling, offering us a range of ways to conceive of the processes by which fans make meaning. But they have not managed to shift the central idea of the textual poacher, which functions as a definition of fan work and a legitimizing description, and which presents such a coherent and powerful image of the fan as free agent and active transgressor.

[1.4] In this essay, I pose a set of what-ifs. What if we disrupt the concept of the textual poacher as a literal description of who media fans are? What if we use the idea of Brownian motion to help decenter and refocus our metaphorical understanding of what fans do? This essay, of course, is not a work of fiction, and so the move to ask what-if may not offer any real exigency. So let me suggest that we need to reconsider Penley's metaphor and its power to capture an aspect of fan fiction processes—world building—that does not fit easily into received metaphorical constructs about fans. In fact, Brownian motion is an outlier in the history of fan metaphors, not only because the process it shows us is so different from that of textual poaching, but also because it focuses on a process and not on an imagined person. In reconsidering this metaphor now, I suggest that our understanding of the creative work of fan fiction writing would benefit from adopting metaphors that allow us to focus more on process as well as on people.

[1.5] My purpose, then, is threefold. I first acknowledge the tacit acceptance and widespread circulation of Jenkins's metaphor of the textual poacher, suggesting that it has become relatively fixed as a description of fan creative practices among fans as well as in scholarship. Next, I consider why challenges to that model and metaphor are important, but have not successfully displaced the prominence of the textual poacher. I then reconsider the idea of Brownian motion, a scientific concept that both de Certeau and Penley have offered as a metaphor for fan creativity, as an alternative construction. Whereas textual poaching offers us a vision of fans as nomads, moving through a place and collecting materials, Brownian motion offers us a vision of fan fiction as nearly invisible world building, a process that remakes places in ways that are difficult to name. Finally, I argue not that the metaphor of Brownian motion should itself become a new orthodoxy, but rather that we acknowledge its potential for modeling constructions of fan fiction writing that allow us to see different aspects of this kind of creative work.

2. The life of the textual poacher

[2.1] The textual poacher has become a character in its own right: in a recent blog post discussing an anniversary edition of Textual Poachers, Jenkins notes that his groundbreaking study of the cultural work of television fans has reached its 20th birthday, and is now "old enough to drink and vote" (2012). Jenkins's now-familiar premise is adapted from Michel de Certeau's work in The Practice of Everyday Life: that media fans are poachers, "readers who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests, as spectators who transform the experience of watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture" (Jenkins 1992, 23). Jenkins takes care to distinguish his model of fan activity from what he calls "the passivity and alienation" of de Certeau's original essay on "Reading as Poaching." De Certeau constructs writing as an activity in time and space, one that can be documented and kept and that achieves a kind of agency, "resist[ing] time by the establishment of a place and multiply[ing] its production through the expansionism of reproduction" (1984, 174). Reading, on the other hand, "takes no measures against the erosion of time…It does not keep what it acquires, or it does so poorly" (174). De Certeau's sense of reading as poaching resides in his notion that readers are travelers—nomads and poachers—who pass through the "private hunting reserve[s]" of texts as through physical territory, taking what they need for sustenance but unable to put down roots or provide their own stock.

[2.2] Jenkins's revision of de Certeau's work is fundamental to his own theory of fan activity. He resists the ultimate separation between reader and writer, suggesting instead that "fan practices blur the distinction between reading and writing" (1992, 155). He argues that fans who engage in speculation, criticism, and fictionalizing are not only active readers but indeed writers, whose "scribbling in the margins" of media texts constitutes an explicit counter-position to de Certeau's claims. De Certeau writes of a reader who, although able to recombine textual fragments in unintended ways, is always under the thrall of the media, which "extend their power over his imagination, that is, over everything he lets emerge from himself into the nets of the texts" (176). Jenkins's poacher is, by contrast, an active agent, making choices about what to take, what to criticize, what to reinvent.

[2.3] In scholarship, it is well established that textual poaching was a game-changing concept. Camille Bacon-Smith published a book-length study of fan fiction writers, including Star Trek fans, in 1992, but academic scholarship has tended to privilege Jenkins's version of fans as well-intentioned transgressors; many scholars, including those who resist Jenkins's model, identify the reading of his book as foundational to their own interest in fan studies (Aden 1999; Lancaster 2001; Hills 2002). Others refer to the term as a way to define the work that fans do (Scodari and Felder 2000; Booth 2010; Condis 2011). Kristina Busse and Jonathan Gray cast Textual Poachers as a point of origin for subsequent work: it is a "discipline defining" book that "began academic fan studies' more earnest attempt to make sense of fan communities, identities, and textual play" (425) (note 1). Sara Gwenllian Jones (2003) writes that, in fact, "it has become something of an orthodoxy for scholars to elevate television fans to the status of modern-day Robin Hoods, folk heroes busily snatching back 'our' popular cultural texts from the greedy global conglomerates who claim to own them" (163). This celebratory construction of the subversive fan has taken hold.

[2.4] One way to account for the initial appeal and subsequent popularity of textual poaching is to recall its place within a cultural studies literature that understood popular audiences to be engaged in a complex set of negotiations with powerful cultural institutions. Jenkins was writing alongside and in response to Janice Radway, Stuart Hall, and John Fiske, among others—writers who were theorizing subcultures, lowbrow reading practices, and the role of readers and audiences as active makers of meaning. Jenkins's work continues the argument that the work of individuals participating in and talking about ordinary entertainment was subversive—was, in fact, a larger resistance to and rewriting of the cultural expectations of the audience member, the reader, and the viewer. Jenkins has acknowledged that the idea of textual poaching was "tremendously convenient because it had resonance within the academy, particularly within a leftist academy that wants to identify things as guerilla semiotics, underground, resistant, and so forth, and because once it was fully understood, it had resonance in the fan community which also wanted to see itself in those terms and who could link the metaphor, 'poaching,' to Robin Hood" (1996, 266).

[2.5] Although it has resonated with academics and with fans, the metaphor has been subject to a fair amount of scrutiny and challenge (including from Jenkins himself); and these challenges have been successful in reminding us that textual poaching as a metaphor for fans arose at a particular critical moment and served a very specific set of needs in cultural and audience studies. As fan studies has expanded its scope from the celebration of resistance that characterized early scholarship (Busse and Gray 2011; Coppa 2006; Harrington and Bielby 2007), scholars increasingly recognize that models of resistance are not the only way to understand the work of fandom. Matt Hills in particular has argued, echoing to an extent Jenkins's own comments in a 1996 interview, that the concept of the textual poacher was strategic, "a rhetorical tailoring of fandom in order to act upon particular academic institutional spaces and agendas" (Hills 2002, 10). For Hills, at least, textual poaching as a lens for understanding the complex processes by which fans create meaning cannot transcend its critical moment.

[2.6] And yet it has: this image of the transgressive hero has also circulated widely on the Internet among writers and publishers of fan fiction. It shows up on fan fiction sites, in blogs, in Tumblr feeds, in resource guides, and in dictionaries. In some cases, Textual Poachers is offered as a resource or guide. For example, a "primer on slash" appearing in Apocrypha, a zine for fans of Law and Order, lists Jenkins as one of four resources for further reading about slash fiction (the other three are fan-written and Internet-published) (Crenshaw 1998). In the FAQ section of an Angel and Buffy fan fiction site is the comment that "to learn more about fanfic in the media fandom world, I highly recommend Textual Poachers." Ashera, the author of a "glossary and fan fiction introduction" for Hercules and Xena fan fiction, notes that her website "is very much a 'work in progress' [because she's] still waiting for [her] copy of Textual Poachers in the mail" (Ashera 2001). The "because" here is important, suggesting that this fan understands the book to be not only part of her own education but also a necessary source for a publication offering information about fan fiction. Jenkins's work is used to legitimize this kind of reading and writing.

[2.7] In other cases, the concept of textual poaching seems to serve a more basic definitional purpose. For instance, a Janeway/Seven fan fiction FAQ (for the program Star Trek: Voyager) provides definitions for three basic questions: What is fan fiction? What is slash? And what is textual poaching? Similarly, an X-Men fan fiction site claims, as the first of a list of six things readers should know, that the fiction on this site "is textual poaching." These are significant and not uncommon gestures; these sites do not offer up textual poaching as a metaphor for thinking about what a fan fiction reader or writer does; instead, fan fiction and textual poaching are all but collapsed—interchangeable labels for the same set of activities. A final example should help to clarify this point. Mark Dery writes that the zine Science Friction is a "textbook example of textual poaching—a sort of guerilla semiotics in which consumers-turned-producers perversely rework popular fictions" (1996). Notice here that textual poaching is presented as a transparent, literal term; Dery offers a second metaphor, guerilla semiotics, to gloss the phrase. In these sites and many others, the use of textual poaching as a description of, label for, or definition of what fans do has become a given; the term has established itself in the critical vocabulary of fans and writers across a variety of fandoms. For many of these writers and readers, writing fan fiction is textual poaching.

[2.8] The metaphor has persisted over the last two decades, even as we have increasingly complicated our understanding of who fans are and what fans do, and how they negotiate multiple fictional universes and diverse digital spaces. And this persistence is meaningful, not only for what textual poaching is but also for what it is not. In the next section, I look more closely at what it is not by considering the parallel metaphor, created at roughly the same time but without the cultural cachet. In fan fiction, this would be the what-if moment, where we take a secondary character and rewrite the story to give this character a larger role. How does the story change when we move a different figure into the center? What becomes possible that wasn't possible before?

3. Random fandom: Penley and Brownian motion

[3.1] Although it was published the year before Textual Poachers, Penley's essay "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology" is likely less familiar to readers. This essay, part of Penley and Andrew Ross's collection Technoculture, describes in some detail the slash fan fiction produced, edited, and circulated by female Star Trek fans. Penley ascribes to these fans great critical and creative agency: "no one," she would tell a European Journal of Cultural Studies interviewer later, "is more critical of mass cultural producers' failure of the imagination" (2012, 371). As Jenkins would do the following year, Penley described and celebrated the ways in which female fans resisted and rewrote storylines presented to them on television. Drawing on de Certeau's work in The Practice of Everyday Life, Penley suggested that slash fiction writers were engaged in a process of Brownian motion, a kind of creative guerilla action in which fans rewrite the relationships in the television they watch.

[3.2] For Penley, Star Trek fandom is composed primarily of women who function not just as viewers but as writers, readers, and fanzine producers, and whose work demonstrates an interest in remaking relationships, technologies, and worlds. In fact, both Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, in their separate work on fans, emphasize both the revision of relationships between men and women, and the power relations that female fans often enact. Penley describes and quotes from pieces of fan fiction that feature Kirk and Spock in various romantic entanglements, suggesting that this work is most meaningful when considered within a dual tradition of science fiction and erotica or pornography written by women. Drawing on the work of female science fiction writers like Joanna Russ, who in 1985 described slash fiction as "pornography by women, for women, with love" (quoted in Penley 1992, 138), Penley argues that science fiction itself is implicitly concerned with sexual relationships. Science fiction, "seemingly the most sexless of genres, is in fact engrossed with questions of sexual difference and sexual relations, which it repeatedly addresses alongside questions of other kinds of differences and relations" (138). Just as science fiction recombines humans, aliens, time travelers, and robots in unexpected ways, so does slash fiction combine familiar characters—in this case Kirk and Spock—in new kinds of relationships.

[3.3] Providing literary contexts for Star Trek slash fiction, then, is part of Penley's project. Just as important to her work is her insistence on slash fiction "and the writing practices that it supports…[as] a bracing instance of the strength of the popular wish to think through and debate the issues of women's relation to the technologies of science, the mind, and the body" (1991, 158–59). It is important not to overlook the gendered aspect of Penley's argument here; she notes that Star Trek slash fiction focuses more on technologies of the body than of the spaceship. Slash writers are more likely to focus on men having babies than on, say, the intricacies of warp drive; more likely to write about emotional turmoil than intergalactic battle. In other words, as she writes in her 1997 book NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America, "slash writing devotes as much time to inner space as to outer space" (148). Emotional ties, friendships and romantic entanglements, family and community structures—these become the machinery of slash writing for Penley.

[3.4] This work does not happen, of course, in a cultural vacuum. Penley, like Jenkins the following year, explicitly draws her vision of the work of slash fiction writers from de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life. She draws on de Certeau's model of the resistant consumer, who must engage in tactics to find meaningful cultural experiences, seeming to agree with de Certeau that the writing of slash fiction is a tactic, a gesture of those not in power (as compared with a strategy, a gesture of those in power). But where de Certeau suggests that tactics are essentially ephemeral actions on the part of the weak, not leaving the tactician any lasting product, Penley finds that tactics can result in permanent cultural products: literally, fanzines, but also a new and ongoing understanding of complex sets of relationships among genders and technologies. The writing and circulating of slash fiction is a subversive cultural act, one in which these female fans are "not just reading, viewing, or consuming in tactical ways that offer fleeting moments of resistance or pleasure while watching TV, scanning the tabloids, or selecting from the supermarket shelves…They are producing not just intermittent, cobbled-together acts, but real products (albeit ones taking off from already-existing heterogeneous elements)" (1991, 139). In other words, as Jenkins and before him Fiske and de Certeau argue, consumers are producers.

[3.5] To name the process by which consumption becomes production, Penley borrows the term Brownian motion, which de Certeau defines as the "tactical maneuvers of the relatively powerless when attempting to resist, negotiate, or transform the system and products of the relatively powerful" (Penley 1991, 139). For de Certeau, the future will be "a scene of Brownian movements of invisible and innumerable tactics" (1984, 40). In this formulation, Brownian motion is associated with tactics, with power structures; this is not surprising, considering John Fiske's observation that "running through [de Certeau's] work is a series of metaphors of conflict—particularly ones of strategy and tactics, of guerilla warfare, of poaching, of guileful ruses and tricks. Underlying all of them is the assumption that the powerful are cumbersome, unimaginative, and overorganized, whereas the weak are creative, nimble, and flexible" (1989, 26). But it is important to note that de Certeau does not actually gloss the term Brownian movement in any way, and Penley, who uses the more general term motion, similarly offers no definition. Perhaps she assumes that her readers are familiar with the actual scientific process meant by the term, or perhaps she is less interested in considering its associations, preferring to let it stand as a description of the tactical maneuvers of de Certeau's consumer against powerful cultural institutions.

[3.6] Either way, Brownian motion does bring with it a very specific set of associations and processes. Briefly, it has two primary meanings: the apparently random movement of particles suspended in a fluid; or a mathematical model that is used to describe those movements. Brownian motion has applications in nanotechnology, market analysis, and flood and drought prediction, to name just a few areas where it is useful to have a model that can represent changes in an unpredictable system over time. Images that attempt to capture Brownian motion in action, like the one shown in figure 1, tend to feature many small circles, often with arrows showing their movement trajectories, surrounding a larger circle; the idea is that the small circles may bump into the large circle, but not in a way that effects any real change.

Figure 1. Brownian motion, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0). [View larger image.]

[3.7] From even this most basic and unscientific attempt to describe Brownian motion, a potential connection to de Certeau becomes clear. For de Certeau, "tactics are a tool of the weak," and similarly, the scientific community recognizes an assumption that "Brownian motion is much too weak and much too slow to have major (if any) consequences in the macro world" (Holden and Kelly 2005). Presumably, this—or something like this—is how de Certeau would have envisioned the connection, as a relevant but ultimately unproductive process in which weak agents bump up against a more powerful agent in a way that does not change anything. This process takes place around us all the time, but it is simply much too small for us to see.

[3.8] Recent scientific research, however, suggests that Brownian motion is more important than we might suspect. For example, it is apparently a major factor in nanotechnology, which relies on minute movements in place of larger, more visible ones to aid in the process of assembly at the biomolecular level. Since Brownian motion is already happening, nanotechnologists can find ways to use that process: "The fundamental advantage of Brownian assembly is that motion is provided in essence for free" (Holden and Kelley 2005). This idea helps to refocus our attention on what is important when considering the metaphoric potential of Brownian motion. It's not the ineffective bumping of those little particles that matters. Rather, it is the motion overall, a process that can be used at the micro level to make things happen on a macro level. It is the motion, and not the molecules, that counts.

[3.9] It is significant that this metaphor, with its focus on a specific kind of motion, did not make the same kind of inroads as did that of the textual poacher. It cannot only be because the textual poacher suited the transgressive sensibility of cultural studies work on fans in the early 1990s; after all, Penley also draws on de Certeau, and on his focus on tactics and strategies and consumers. Considering that both metaphors draw heavily on that work, it is tempting to speculate about why Jenkins's rereading of de Certeau, and not Penley's, took hold. Why did the textual poacher, and not Brownian motion, become the term by which we understood fans in the first place?

[3.10] To be sure, there are notable differences: Penley wrote one chapter in a collection she edited, while Jenkins wrote an entire book. (Penley did publish a book in 1997 with material on this topic, NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America, but this is not a book that is frequently referenced in studies of fan fiction.) Penley's title broadcasts the gender-specific nature of her argument; Jenkins's did not, although his arguments similarly focused primarily on women as viewers, readers, and writers. Penley was ostensibly addressing the writing of slash fiction; and while Jenkins did this as well, he situated that work in a broader spectrum of fan art, writing, criticism, and response. All these factors likely mattered.

[3.11] It was also this: readers, both fans and academics, respond to the personhood of the textual poacher. We understand who a poacher is; we can enter into that metaphor with relative ease. We see this person as a real person, a Robin Hood who walks and moves, who acts and is acted upon, a person who takes cultural goods, changes their form, and redistributes them. It is much more difficult to name the figure who stands at the center of Brownian motion; it does not occur to us to refer to a Brownian mover. In the next section, I discuss why this is meaningful.

4. Fans in space: How metaphors matter

[4.1] Jenkins writes in the preface to an essay in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers that "we should change our theory every five thousand miles just like we change oil in our cars" (2006, 134). He expresses some regret that younger generations of scholars seem committed to decades-old critical lenses like textual poaching. And he evokes a metaphor for our own endeavors: As academics, fans, writers in search of new ways of thinking, we drive. We maintain our cars, and we drive down the road. We are, in this metaphor, people moving through space.

[4.2] For Jenkins, at least, even our new theories maintain this basic construction. When he writes in a 2012 blog post that he suspects that the widespread appeal of poaching has eclipsed other, more expansive, parts of his argument, he keeps our focus on a person:

[4.3] In Textual Poachers, I stressed that fans were nomadic, that they "traveled across" texts much as de Certeau describes readers as "travelling across" lands they have not cultivated. The nomadic dimensions of fandom keep getting dropped from accounts of the book in favor of poaching—titles do shape readings, after all—but it is key to imagining the reader as structuring their relationships with texts and each other through choices made about which materials to borrow.

[4.4] Jenkins is right to note that titles shape readings; in this case, it is significant that the title of his first book was Textual Poachers and not Textual Poaching. The focus on the agents, as opposed to the processes, of fan activity was an essential part of his vision of fandom, and has been echoed even in attempts to offer new metaphors. The gamekeeper (Hills 2002; Bury 2008), the puppeteer (Pugh 2005), the cyberslayer (Consalvo 2003), the pilgrim (Aden 1999): these are all, like poachers, metaphors for people, metaphors that name a kind of person who occupies a certain space in the world.

[4.5] It is this notion of space and, in Jenkins's case, the traversing of space, to which I turn now. As Jenkins points out in his blog post, there are "nomadic dimensions" to fans. They are not poachers who stay in one spot, repeatedly taking from the same textual preserve; they are instead roamers, nomads who move around and across and through textual spaces. Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse echo this idea when they write about the ways in which "many media fans move from one source text to another" (2009, 194).

[4.6] This is not to say that the metaphor of textual poaching prevents us from seeing a process at all; as Kris Markman and John Overholt remind us, "textual poaching is a processual model of fandom; it emphasizes meaning making and interpretation" (2011, 68). But the process it shows us is inseparable from our notion of the specific activities of the textual poacher. It is difficult to talk about meaning making and interpretation without drawing on notions of poaching, of nomadism, of a fan whose primary strategies involve taking, reusing, and moving among sources and spaces.

[4.7] In other words, we cannot avoid the poacher, and to a greater extent, the person, in our fan fiction metaphors. Bronwen Thomas speculates that one reason that media and cultural studies continue to focus on the actions, methods, and identities of fans themselves is an assumption that "fans cannot be abstracted from the sorts of texts they write, but must be analyzed as socially situated practices and activities" (2011, 2–3). Certainly, much work on fans takes a sociological or anthropological view, seeking to understand fan creative processes through the lens of the actions of fans.

[4.8] Most other metaphors for fans, in fact, derive from the figure of the person moving through space in this very specific way, a point that Paul Booth makes in Digital Fandom. Booth suggests that in the "many traditional fan studies" that "have used implicit examples of de Certeau's notion of 'textual poaching' as the basis for analyzing fan practices", the fan is constructed as one who "operates within and from the space of the producer" (2010, 155). Booth seems to see this as a limitation of such work, offering a gently competing reading of de Certeau that focuses, in the context of MySpace users, on the way that fans are not just operating within producer spaces but are in fact acting upon them. Booth writes that "instead of tactically reading the source text to 'appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests,' these fans rewrite the space of the producers itself" (155). Booth offers this rereading in the service of an argument that MySpace forces a rethinking of what he calls a traditional divide between fan and character, but it has relevance here as well, as a precedent of sorts for shifting focus from the fan within a space to the process of making that space.

[4.9] De Certeau—an antecedent for so many ways of thinking about fans—does in fact offer us such a focus on space. In "Spatial Stories," de Certeau differentiates between spaces and places. A place, he says, is "an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability", whereas a space "is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it" (1984, 117). Offering an analogy with urban planning—the network of streets and sidewalks are a place, and the actions of pedestrians turn that network into a space—de Certeau suggests that "space is a practiced place" (117). De Certeau goes on to argue that stories do this transformative work. "Stories thus carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places" (118), he writes, but he is less specific about just how the labor manifests or how the transformation happens.

[4.10] Lakoff and Johnson remind us that a "metaphor highlights certain features while suppressing others" (1980, 129); in the case of fan metaphors, what often gets highlighted is fans as people—and to some degree, the actions they take as fans. What gets eclipsed—it's not invisible, but it's harder to see—are the processes in which those people engage. Indeed, it is difficult to identify with a process, or with a space—and to the extent that a significant subset of our conversations about fans have been concerned with how fans as thinkers, writers, and readers are different from or the same as academics as thinkers, writers, and readers (Hills 2002; Harrington and Bielby 2007; Jenkins 2011), it is entirely logical that we would need an image of that fan to picture, to identify with, and to resist. And there is no figure in Brownian motion that allows us that focus. In the absence of a figure, perhaps Brownian motion allows us to see something else.

5. Harnessing Brownian motion: Fan fiction and creative process

[5.1] Our choice of metaphors reflects an effort to keep fans at the center, and there are good reasons for this: removing fans from consideration may be dangerous. What do we risk when we remove fans from the process, when we find metaphors that center our attention not on the fan but on some other aspect of the work of writing fan fiction? We may lose a sense of agency, autonomy, creative freedom—the idea that it is fans who choose to take on creative work and who carry it out independently of media and Internet franchises that might wish to capitalize on their efforts. We may end up dehumanizing or depopulating the landscape of fan fiction.

[5.2] But we might as easily ask the converse questions: What do we risk when we keep fans at the center of our discussions? What aspects of fan work do we miss when our metaphoric discourse leads us consistently back to fans themselves, and when we picture those fans as people moving through space? My suggestion is that we miss understanding creative processes that do not easily fit with the image of poachers and nomads. The process of making fan fiction that emerges through these specific people-centered metaphors is one focused on the taking—the moment when the poacher takes the rabbit or when the nomad moves from point A to point B. This is in some ways the very heart of fan fiction writing, of course, since all fan fiction depends on a relationship with a source text. Without the act of taking, and then perhaps moving among several other texts, it is not fan fiction.

[5.3] But what happens next? This is the question that I suggest our collective work is only beginning to answer. What is the nature of the creative work, the invention, the revising that is so necessary to good fan fiction? What is the work that happens under the guise of the what-if question, and what are the other questions that are asked as part of the process? There is value in identifying, naming, and discussing the creative processes that characterize fan fiction writing and fan texts, and this is work that we are only beginning to do. So far, it is work that happens mostly as a result of close reading of specific fandoms and the fiction that they produce, but there is room for a larger inquiry into the creative work of writing fan texts: what sorts of invention are happening in addition to the borrowing of source material?

[5.4] In asking these kinds of questions, it is easier to see the potential value of certain metaphors: Brownian motion and other metaphors that focus not on acts of borrowing or stealing or recombining, but on some other actions, perhaps appearing as random strategies and gestures. The concept of Brownian motion itself, decoupled from its associations with tactics and power structures, offers us a glimpse of a nearly invisible chemical process, an apparently random set of movements that on their own seem to amount to little but can be harnessed to produce and predict. Nathan Rambukkana suggests that the metaphor of Brownian motion might be understood as having to do with creative chaos, "a chaos of non-pre-determined action and reaction that is not the antithesis of order but rather the raw stuff that order is built out of" (2007, ¶38). While Brownian motion can be harnessed—an action that implies an agent to do the harnessing—it is already happening on its own. We might look more closely at how it is happening.

[5.5] To date, this kind of decentering of the fan as agent is mostly being taken up by scholars and fans whose primary frame of reference is rhetorical or literary, not sociological or communicative. Sheenagh Pugh argues that fan fiction is a genre in itself, for example; and Bronwen Thomas suggests that "close textual analysis" might be more possible and revealing than we might expect (2011, 2). There are surely others. I have, so far, located two metaphors that offer us this sense of fan texts, rather than fans, as central. One is Abigail Derecho's concept of fan fiction as archontic literature, a vast archive that accrues meaning in the new relationships and associations that are created in an ongoing process:

[5.6] In fan fiction, there is an acknowledgment that every text contains infinite possibilities, any of which could be actualized by any writer interested in doing the job…In fan fiction, there is a constant state of flux, of shifting and chaotic relation, between new versions of stories and the originary texts: the fics written about a particular source text ensure the text is never solidified, calcified, or at rest, but is in continuous play, its characters, stories, and meanings all varying through the various fics written about it. (2006, 76–77)

[5.7] In Derecho's construction there are indeed people who are doing the writing, but with the focus shifted to the fan fiction itself, those people are to some degree ancillary. Her focus is the archive, the constantly growing and shifting body of text. (Derecho does not cite de Certeau or the metaphor of Brownian motion, but she easily could have.) She does not invite us to ask what individual writers have poached, or where they have gone, or how they have combined texts in a new way. Instead, she invites us to ask how fan fiction accrues its meanings, how its various trajectories, its multiple ways of answering the question of what-if happen—how, on the page and on the screen, these texts intersect with, interrupt, and imagine stories.

[5.8] The second of these two metaphors comes from Jane Mortimer, whose essay on "Fan Fiction as an Art Form" (n.d.) was archived on the Pure Mutant X fan site in 2004. Mortimer describes the texts of television and fan fiction as a river:

[5.9] In the center we have the river of canon, aka "the show," a broad Mississippi rolling inexorably onward, pushed by money and Hollywood expertise. Off of it, we have a thousand tributaries, a thousand "what ifs," many of them branching off into yet further refinements of alternate reality as each writer examines what's gone before and spins off it…all these possibilities are true.

[5.10] Mortimer does not do away with writers, with fans, completely; they are here, doing the work. But the work itself is the focus: the river, the tributaries, the branching off of narrative possibilities and alternate realities. For Mortimer, as for Derecho, the question of what-if is the question that matters. What are the processes by which this branching off happens?

[5.11] I hope it is clear that I am not, in the end, suggesting that we replace the iconic image of the textual poacher with a story altogether absent of fans. Brownian motion may not suffice as an alternative, with its abstraction and apparent randomness. Asking what-if intends only to add a new story to the ever-growing set of narratives that a fandom amasses. Fan fiction writers who ask what-if do not intend to replace the original text; rather, the story that follows expands the canon, changes the space, and offers us new versions of familiar characters. We have not only the textual poacher, the performer, the pilgrim, but also, perhaps, the scientist or nanotechnologist who can look at the Brownian motion of fan creativity and see something previously unobserved. In fan fiction, the space of the text expands and transforms to make room for this proliferation of characters and the stories that shape them; and writers are working to make this happen in ways that we have not yet fully explored. If we turn away from the game preserve and the nomadic landscape, we can look instead toward the archive, the river, the creative chaotic place where Brownian motion is happening.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I extend sincere thanks to Kelli Custer, Amber Engelson, Angie Sowa, and Kara Taczak, who offered valuable feedback on drafts of this essay.

7. Notes

1. See Harrington and Bielby's construction of an "emergent fan studies canon" (2007, 188), which indicates that Henry Jenkins is the most influential scholar in fan studies, in a class by himself, followed by a second tier that includes a number of prominent writers. Constance Penley appears in a third level of influence.

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