A pragmatics of things: Materiality and constraint in fan practices

Benjamin Woo

University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Although, as qualitative consumer research and material culture studies have demonstrated, objects can be rich sources of meaning and stability, they also entail basic limitations on human action. Interviews conducted as part of a study of one city's nerd-culture scene permitted analysis of the constraints that materiality imposes on fan activity. Fans must have access to certain physical objects in order to realize their practices, and collecting, storing, and purging these objects in domestic spaces constitutes a pragmatics that sets limits and exerts pressures on participants.

[0.2] Keywords—Collecting; Consumption; Domestic space; Fan practices; Geeks and nerds; Material culture

Woo, Benjamin. 2014. "A Pragmatics of Things: Materiality and Constraint in Fan Practices." In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In a recent essay on regimes of legitimacy in geek culture, Karra Shimabukuro (2013) establishes her own fannish credibility by inventorying her home. Taken together, her DVDs, comic books and graphic novels, Star Wars action figures, and role-playing game manuals all testify that a geek lives here. We typically talk about a person's fandom as though it were a psychological property—an identity, way of reading, set of tastes, disposition, or affect—but, as Shimabukuro demonstrates, fandom is also objectified in material practices and artifacts.

[1.2] For the past few years I have been studying what I call a nerd-culture scene in a city of roughly 2 million people. I sought out, as starting points, sites and activities conventionally understood as geeky, and from there I followed people and practices where they led me: I spent time hanging out in game shops and comic-book stores and attending community events; spoke with the owners, managers, or organizers of these institutions about their work and their customers; and conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with six ordinary participants in the scene, asking about geek culture, their own fandoms, and the place these activities held in their lives and life histories. In planning this research, I was interested in the forms of community-making that constitute these groups and articulate them together, particularly in light of the pervasive mainstream media rhetoric of geek chic and the triumph of the nerds. However, it became evident that any thick description of this cultural scene would have to account for the role material objects play in it.

[1.3] Some of the practices involved are public and spectacular, like cosplaying at an anime convention, and some are intimate, like playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) with friends or curling up on the couch for a favorite TV show. Some are well established, like sci-fi fandom or the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA; founded in 1966); others are more casual or ephemeral. Some are productive, leading to fan fiction, art, and criticism, and some begin and end with consumption. But all of them require physical objects: costumes or dice, books or computers. Things are the sine qua non of fandom, that without which it remains only potentiality and not a realized capability.

[1.4] Surrounded by particular things, people produce themselves as particular kinds of agents, as people who can do certain kinds of things. This self-production is hardly unique to geek culture. Many fans express their fandom through collecting—or at least acquiring souvenirs and merchandise related to their fandom along the way—and everyone uses and uses up material objects. But this article will explore how participants in geek culture live with their stuff, particularly in domestic spaces. Public and private are often viewed as binary opposites (Goffman 1959), often with the corollary that the latter is the site of our true, authentic self. I think these spaces are more contiguous than conflictual. Indeed, they are mutually constitutive. Although we may feel pressure to modify our behavior in the presence of others, the practices and projects that make others significant are the products of private commitments. Conversely, how we act under public scrutiny can become habitual. Thus, the domestic object-world, as an objectification of tastes formed in a social world, is sedimented from a whole series of transactions with others. But this is hardly an automatic process.

[1.5] The creation and maintenance of domestic space and the objects within it require work. To cope with the constraints of materiality, fans must (inter alia) research, curate, organize, clean, repair, move, and dispose of objects. To be sure, these everyday practices are only a narrow slice of what people do with objects, but I want to focus on them because they are among the most generic and generalizable. This is also an area where fan activity is contiguous with more mainstream forms of consumption, for we are all in some respect object-oriented.

2. Stories of stuff

[2.1] Material culture studies and consumer research have enriched our understanding of the importance of things. Against accusations of shallow materialism, research into how people relate to objects usually finds depth and complexity (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Holt 2000; McCracken 1990; Miller 1998, 2008, 2010). As Venkatesh and Meamber (2008, 46–47) summarize, such studies "illustrate how individuals collect past meanings, negotiate future meanings, and assemble present meanings of cultural constructs such as family, religion, gender, age, and tradition through their participation in particular consumption behaviors."

[2.2] My interviews with comic-book collectors, SF fans, gamers, otaku, and medieval re-creationists (among others) corroborate these findings. For many, things embodied positive values and memories:

[2.3] Ben: If you had to pick one thing out that you're most attached to in this closet, what would it be?

[2.4] Steve: Oh, it would be my Dungeons & Dragons red box set, the original basic set, because that's what basically started me on the hobby? And that was the set that I actually, I mean, I remember exactly when it was given to me. My cousin, it was given to him, and he was too young to use it and didn't want it, so gave it to me. So, I remember the whole kind of story that went with it. I remember reading it and thinking, "Oh my god, this is the greatest thing since sliced bread." And so, yeah, that I wouldn't part with for anything.

[2.5] Yeah, certainly I've got one—one that's probably still okay but I don't wear it because it's somewhat offensive. It's a shirt from an old online comic called Space Moose…It's actually still in really good condition because I tend not to wear it very often. [laughs]…So I see it in my drawer every once in a while, and then go look up the comics and then read them again. So it's kind of a fun thing just to be nostalgic about. (Wedge)

[2.6] I had a little bag full of things, little tiny items, tokens that I had been given by various people for various performances [as a bard in the SCA]. Every single one of those things, I could remember the person, the performance, the date, the occasion, everything about it because they made it a—a personal memory for me by giving me a token, a physical thing that said, "You touched me and this is for you." (Shiera)

[2.7] But meaning is not the whole story of consumption, and we should resist a crypto-idealism that sneaks the transcendental subject in through the back door of material culture. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, for example, dismiss objects' materiality because they view things as "bits of information" or "signs" (1981, 13–14). Even Miller, who explicitly repudiates a semiotic approach (2010, 13) and stresses the mutual constitution of persons and things, at times recreates a picture of material culture as an adjunct of mind, for there seem to be few limits on what things can be made to mean through personal aesthetics (2008).

[2.8] Although things objectify human intention and agency, they are nonetheless objects, and objects stand in the way. As Boivin (2004, 64) writes, "The material world is not a blank slate upon which may be inscribed any old narrative, it is a physicality which resists and enables." We must account for the ways objects extend our capabilities and constrain our actions. We might think of these as objects' biases (Innis [1951] 2008) or affordances (Gibson [1979] 1986; Norman 1988). Although objects can be put to surprising uses, they have material qualities prior to their human appropriation:

[2.9] Materials possess inherent physical properties that make them more appropriate for certain symbolic and metaphorical uses and less appropriate for others. Whether objects or materials are durable or ephemeral, rare or common, stationary or mobile, heavy or light, soft or hard, or small or large will make them more or less useful in practices associated with creating social difference, marking time, indicating value, signalling ethnicity, memorializing events, or denoting sacred spaces, for example. (Boivin 2004, 65)

[2.10] Design shapes materials into forms better adapted to some people and functions than others, and people cultivate methods of manipulating objects for particular purposes. Thus, what Lisa Gitelman (2004, 203) calls objects' material meanings—the "nexus of cultural practices, economic structures, and perceptual and semiotic habits that make tangible things meaningful"—are not equivalent to individual, subjective meanings. Rather, they are objective products of the interaction between collective human praxis and the physical world.

[2.11] All activity is determined by (among other things) its material expression. As Giddens (1984, 111–12) notes, these constraints are axiomatic to any study of social phenomena: human beings can be in only one place at a time; multiple people and objects cannot occupy the same space simultaneously; and everything has a finite duration. Yet consideration of the relationship between materiality and fandom is relatively underdeveloped, and fan studies is poorer for its neglect.

3. Fan objects

[3.1] Pierre Bourdieu argues that academics' "scholastic disposition" leads us to imagine mind matters more than matter. This attitude arises from intellectuals' relatively privileged social position, which gives us the "freedom from necessity" to develop an intellectualizing orientation toward the world:

[3.2] One could say that the "as if" posture—very close to the "let's pretend" mode of play which enables children to open imaginary worlds—is…what makes possible all intellectual speculations, scientific hypotheses, "thought experiments," "possible worlds" or "imaginary variations." It is what incites people to enter into the play-world of theoretical conjecture and mental experimentation, to raise problems for the pleasure of solving them, and not because they arise in the world, under the pressure of urgency, or to treat language not as an instrument but as an object of contemplation, formal invention or analysis. (Bourdieu 2000, 12–13)

[3.3] Sound familiar? As I discovered, this disposition (if not the social location with which Bourdieu identifies it) is something intellectuals share with many participants in fan cultures.

[3.4] Fans I spoke with generally claimed that their peers were smarter and more creative than mundanes. Rather than evidencing Hills's (2002) intractable dualism between rival subjectivities, their fandom was deeply informed by a very similar scholastic point of view that privileges abstract thinking and the pleasures of diegetic worlds, min-maxing game mechanics, trivia and intertextual references, and so on. The scholastic disposition doesn't imply asceticism, as academic bibliophiles and fannish collectors both demonstrate, but idealism: interpreting the world in intellectualized or aestheticized terms and overemphasizing the agency of the ego cogitans at the expense of structural and material constraints.

[3.5] Thus, fan studies operates under a double whammy: a complicity between the two sides of the aca-fan identity. Academic accounts of fandom render it as "a sort of idealized research seminar" (John Michael, quoted in Hills 2002, 10), even as informants' accounts, which are always already framed by their own lay theories, are made over into concepts for circulation in academic discourse (textual poaching, resistance, transitional objects). Fandom is rationalized from both ends and finally transmuted into an immaterial psychological property.

[3.6] For example, a number of fan studies have taken up the question of object relations under the influence of psychoanalysts like Klein and Winnicott (Harrington and Bielby 1995; Hills 2002; Sandvoss 2005). They seek to understand the origins of fans' commitments to particular devotional objects (TV series or celebrities) and their continuing psychological value as mediators between self and other. It is not at all clear, however, if the objects of psychoanalysis are material objects. Do Superman fans relate to a particular comic book or piece of merchandise, or to an idiosyncratic mental representation of a character or diegetic world? Hills at first seems to be staking a claim for materiality, noting that the Winnitcottian transitional object proper is "an actual physical object" (2002, 106). However, he soon slips into talking about televisual texts as "proper transitional objects" too (108). Sandvoss more consistently distinguishes between the material and mental:

[3.7] Physical objects of fandom such as records, autographs or photos function as second-order transitional objects—the physical transitional objects inside transitional objects—that function as intermediate spaces between the self and the actual (transitional) object of fandom which itself is absent. (2005, 90)

[3.8] Here, the "actual (transitional) object of fandom"—a sports team, pop idol, character, or text—is necessarily absent or inaccessible to the fan. The role of physical (second-order) objects is to stand in for the idea of the object. On this view, things are screens onto which subjects project (and from which they introject) psychic qualities; their materiality doesn't enter the picture in any substantive way.

[3.9] Any study of human behavior must be able, at least in principle, to account for the material dimension of human existence, but fan studies has not done this very well. How might we integrate materiality into our picture of fandom? Like Sandvoss (2005, 6), I think researchers should focus on observable aspects; that is, we should take a practice view of fandom and fannish consumption (see Reckwitz 2002; Schatzki 1996; Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, and von Savigny 2001; Warde 2005). Although it relies on knowledge, skills, beliefs, and other psychological factors, fandom is, above all, something people do. I am concerned not with the mental motors of fandom but with how naive fans funnel their private affections into socially established, recognizable practices. Along the way, they learn to express their tastes using discourses that have been legitimized and forms of fan activity that are more or less conventionalized within the relevant community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). This is obviously a complex process of socialization, but I want to suggest that material goods are part of its scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976).

[3.10] That's because virtually all practices require equipment-goods. Philosopher Russell Keat (2000) uses this term to describe goods that are consumed in order to accomplish some practice. His examples include binoculars for bird-watching and instruments for playing music (144), but one could also name miniatures and model terrain for gaming or costumes, props, and cameras for cosplay. Even the more cerebral pleasures of story and character presuppose books to read them in and screens to watch them on. These objects equip people to create meaning in their lives by enabling them to participate in social practices.

[3.11] Importantly, scaffolding supports a structure by constraining it. While more could be said about the positive, enabling side of objects, I want to twist the stick the other direction and focus on the problems materiality poses for fan practices. When fans don't have them, equipment-goods can be barriers, and when they do, they can become burdens. Their literal and metaphorical costs may be balanced by substantial benefits, but they have to be paid. Given basic pragmatic constraints, how do people acquire, live with, and dispose of fan objects?

4. While the getting's good

[4.1] Material goods are prerequisites for participation in most fan practices. This perhaps lends credence to portrayals of geeks as voracious consumers of gadgets and collectibles. I certainly found ample evidence of collecting during my study. As Kurt, the president of the City Gaming Network, put it, "Where does geek culture congregate and what does it congregate over? It congregates in stores and places of business, and it congregates over collections and collectibles and status that's driven by possessions and material goods." Unsurprisingly, then, most participants named economic costs as one of the primary limitations on their participation in fan practices. When equipment-goods become too expensive or difficult to acquire, participation withers:

[4.2] Mr. Fox: It was actually a really terrible comic shop. It was just the only one in town.

[4.3] Ben: Okay. Beggars can't be choosers, right?

[4.4] Mr. Fox: Yeah, and then it went out of business and beggars couldn't choose anything…

[4.5] Ben: What happened to your comic—

[4.6] Mr. Fox: Stop reading them. If you can't get them, you can't get them, so you stop reading.

[4.7] Some practices can be pursued relatively cheaply. Others, like comics and collectible games, were described as particularly expensive, although expensiveness is gauged according to personal financial circumstances, perceived value for money, and a belief in producers' capacity to render purchases compulsory. But costs generally increase with participation; there was no theoretical upper limit to how much money could be devoted to products, events, and travel.

[4.8] Many people I spoke with or observed complained about the cost of certain goods, but only Kurt, who was also an independent game designer, articulated an oppositional critique of the geek-culture industry's consumerism. Indeed, even expensive hobbies weren't necessarily understood as materialistic, as a game and comic-book store's manager reminded me when discussing his own experiences with Magic: The Gathering:

[4.9] I had to get over this idea that it's this sort of pit of doom that you just dump your wallet into. It's not the case. You know, you spend a good amount of money on it—it's a collectible card game—and you keep spending money, you never stop, but it's a lot of fun…There's just so many different aspects of the game that are intellectually or socially enticing and exciting that there's always something for everybody.

[4.10] If we think of the cost of these goods as the price of admission to a social world, the caricatures seem much less apt (as they are and do for mass consumers, as well [Miller 1998]). People may maximize utility and shop for pleasure, but they also acquire goods to gain access to communities that matter to them. That these communities were often focused on places of business like comic and game shops introduced a certain tension that had to be managed by retailers and customers alike (Woo 2012).

[4.11] Pursuing their ends in the face of economic constraints, interviewees described a number of ways to reduce or avoid costs. SF fans patronized libraries and used book stores. Borrowing, lending, and trading amongst peers loomed especially large in informants' accounts of how things enter their lives. In addition to distributing costs across a social network, swapping was also a way to recommend and learn of new things. For example, Shiera was part of a multi-city book-lending scheme amongst her friends. As with Malinowski's ([1922] 2002) account of the Kula ring, exchanging objects anchors relationships, at the levels of both individual friendships and the larger community of practice. Because objects must come from somewhere, private consumption is never really individualized, and these complementary systems of exchange interweave moral and political economies.

5. The weight of things

[5.1] Objects extend our capabilities. In a real, immediate sense, they equip us to be fans: you can't play in the SCA without a period costume, participate in a war-gaming tournament without an army of miniatures, or successfully engage comic-book fandom without some access to comics and graphic novels. But, once acquired, all these things must be cleaned, maintained, and organized. At the most basic level, remembering Giddens's time-geographic axioms, they take up space in our homes.

[5.2] A recurring theme in my interviews was the external (i.e., outside the home) storage of objects, whether in rented storage spaces or a parental home. The latter was unsurprising among members of a university anime and gaming club, who complained that their Magic cards and Warhammer figurines were still at mom and dad's. But even Steve, who had a home and family of his own, recalled the "whole whack of stuff" that remained at his parents'. However, external storage was only a special case of the more general problem of moving collections. Although Wedge considered comic books the collectible par excellence, their material qualities made them difficult to keep in the long run:

[5.3] I sold all of my comics, or most of my comics, when I moved…because it was a lot of comics. I had 4,000 comics or something. Like, ten boxes, ten of those big long boxes. They're hard to move. They get wrecked when they get moved…I still love the stories, and I still love the artwork, but I kind of quit cold turkey, sort of. [laughs] Like it was costing a reasonable amount of money and taking up a lot of space and I was moving around for—I think I moved to university, which is probably when I ended up…stopping.

[5.4] This sentiment was echoed by many other participants for whom the need to dispose of collections when moving—including moving in with a significant other—was proverbial. These stories remind us that objects' useful or pleasurable qualities are bundled with other, less convenient ones such as extension, weight, and fragility (Keane 2005).

[5.5] Around the time I conducted fieldwork, a number of reality television shows about people whose lives are dominated by junk were popular (see Lepselter 2011), rendering hoarding a ready-to-hand name for the dark side of collecting. Diana used it playfully to tease her partner Steve about his attachment to games and books, but it represented a real fear for others. Shiera tried to be a ruthless curator for personal reasons ("My mom, I think, is on the verge of being a real hoarder, and I just never want to go through it") and because of a general tendency she observed among fans:

[5.6] That's based on having visited a lot of fans' homes…There's an aesthetic of messiness…Your average home, social services would take those people's kids away! [laughs] They really would! You have to maintain a certain amount—and I'm dusty…and I'm messy, but I try to stay on top of it…I have lived with people who do that. I have to lock them out of my room, or they'd carry the entropy with them.

[5.7] I want to adopt Shiera's phrase "an aesthetic of messiness," drawing on Miller's (2008, 293) sense of an aesthetic as the "overall organisational principle" in people's lives. Of my informants, Barry probably best typifies the aesthetic of messiness.

[5.8] Barry is a bachelor in his fifties who lives in a basement apartment. He is a practicing Catholic, active in the Knights of Columbus and also in the SCA, where he plays a Benedictine monk. Like the fictitious Doctor Mercurius, Barry espouses the virtues of simplicity and thrift. He doesn't lack for possessions but tries to economize by seeking used goods and making do with improvised solutions to meet his needs. The lion's share of the objects in his home relate to fandom: projects and awards from the SCA, VHS tapes, gaming trophies, and, most importantly, books. Virtually every wall—and every window—of his apartment is covered in shelves of reference books, RPG manuals, and science fiction novels. And those aren't even all of them:

[5.9] Barry: This is about half my books in this whole place. The other half is in storage, which is tragic.

[5.10] Ben: It must have been hard to make that decision—which ones go in and which ones stay out.

[5.11] Barry: It's actually not making a decision. It's the half that was on the outside that I took here, and then I left the other half. So, I have some really good books that I want to get at, but I don't know where they are exactly, and I'm paying $300 a month, and…oh, dear. Yeah, that's part of the chaos that is my life.

[5.12] Warren, a comic-book store owner whose shop evinced a similar accumulation of things (but whose home I never saw), said his store was so "full" because "I've always enjoyed being surrounded by things that I like." Barry could easily have said the same, and I think it's the best way to understand his aesthetic.

[5.13] Miller (2010, 87) asserts that people with strong social relationships are more likely to have mastery over the object world, and vice versa. I don't know if I would describe Barry's apartment as mastered—during my visit, he kept pointing out objects he intended to organize better or get rid of. And, given his frequent references to conflicts arising from misunderstandings or unintentional slights, perhaps he hadn't mastered social relationships either (if such a thing is even possible). But fandom is certainly the key to the many objects and relationships that are part of his life. Barry's fannish commitments could be read in his clutter, while fan activities—from Tolkien meet-ups to cons, from the SCA to an amateur writers' group—were primary sources of social interaction. If Mary Douglas ([1966] 2002, 44) is correct that dirt (or mess) is only "matter out of place," then the aesthetic of messiness represents a refusal to separate fandom from what Barry referred to as "real life, so-called." Rather than discriminate between them, he piled them on top of one another, allowing his fandom to surround him waking and sleeping. Similarly, Warren conflated fannish and economic logics in his store, amassing products that he believed in, even when unsold stock strained the store's physical capacity.

[5.14] Like Barry, Mr. Fox and Solo lived alone. Shiera's children lived with her part of the time, though she clearly made the decisions about how things were arranged in their apartment. But not everyone has the same freedom to shape their space. Diana and Steve both identified as geeks, while Wedge and his wife had different tastes. Despite this difference, both homes ended up similarly zoned, with certain areas given over to the storage or display of fan-oriented objects. Zoning was a negotiation:

[5.15] I'm not a collector. Not at all…Pretty much if it's six months old, you're a hoarder. [laughs] Almost. Like, I just get rid of everything. (Diana)

[5.16] Basically, what happens is it just fills up and then I get more boxes and try to organize it and make it fit until Diana freaks out, and then we do a purge. (Steve)

[5.17] Ben: Seems like a lot of people have that cycle of gradually accumulating things, and then, as you say, a move or some other life circumstance, or just a feeling that they're getting too much stuff—

[5.18] Wedge: Sometimes predicated on…external forces, like a wife. [laughs] Yeah, 'cause I certainly wouldn't have got rid of as much stuff as I did. Any of the time, probably.

[5.19] Thus their homes did not look like Shimabukuro's, much less Barry's. With the exception of the computers on which they played World of Warcraft and a shared library of novels, the geeky objects in Diana and Steve's home were relegated to a space they jokingly referred to as the man-closet. In Wedge's, novels and board games were collected together on one shelf in the living room, and the remainder of his gaming supplies—including the character sheet and map from his first D&D session as a child—were filed by the computer of his home office; other objects were in a rented storage space awaiting disposal.

[5.20] To talk about the meanings or values embodied in domestic objects sounds very romantic, but things also make demands on their owners. Their presence in the home was a problem that had to be continually solved.

6. Sweet sorrow?

[6.1] Most people I spoke to were thus perpetually in the middle of a cycle of bingeing on and purging objects, the latter usually motivated by space concerns. Some first tried to reduce the amount of room their things took up by organizing them more efficiently or disposing of bulky packaging, but eventually they would run out of space and have to make choices.

[6.2] Wedge tried to sell old things, freeing up money he could reinvest in the circuit of collecting, and other informants mentioned garage sales and used book stores as places where they disposed of things. Mr. Fox was turned on to comics while hospitalized as a child, and now donates comics and games he's done with to a children's hospital. And just as networks of peers and friends dominated accounts of acquisition, they are likely destinations for goods no longer wanted:

[6.3] When the time comes for them to go on to their new homes, I have new homes for them because I have a lot of friends who are Star Wars fans who would love to have…a collectible of…Boba Fett. He's never been my favorite, so I'm not gonna…hang onto that one too much, even though it's a gift and I'm regifting it, if it's taking up too much room on my shelf, if my shelf starts to get cluttered and I start wanting—no, then it goes. (Shiera)

[6.4] At the best of times, purging is therapeutic, a chance to clear out material and psychic clutter. As Shiera puts it, echoing William Morris's dictum, the things remaining in her home "are things I either use or like aesthetically." It is, however, rarely done entirely whole-heartedly:

[6.5] I think most of the stuff that's in storage is probably stuff that's been purged…It's hard, I've moved it around so much I'm trying to remember what's where. Yeah, I think most of it is stuff that's…been decided on, I'll either not want anymore so I'm just waiting to be able to sell it, or…maybe I want it later, like I can't really give it up yet. (Wedge)

[6.6] Similarly, Diana and Steve explained that he held a veto, allowing him to save things he couldn't bear to part with. Purging is usually a necessary evil, but there are times when the loss of objects is just plain evil. It can be a source of regret and even trauma:

[6.7] The most money I've ever spent on a comic was Iron Fist 14, which is the first appearance of Sabretooth. And I think I spent 150 bucks on that, um…and it took me…that one took me three years to find a copy. Like, I hadn't found—I hadn't even seen a copy of it? until I found that, and it was in really good condition and, uh…I ended up selling it, which was a big mistake. [laughs] To pay rent, probably. (Wedge)

[6.8] My whole library was decimated and my…clothes were all decimated when I had a storage incident. I'd stored a bunch of things in a friend's garage, and it got flooded and mildewed. Everything destroyed. And it's like…you know what, the clothes? I can let that go. The books? A little harder to let those go. The kids' school papers, the photos, those things I can't replace. Thirty-year-old photos were gone, and there was nothing I could do about it. My old Apple computer, which still worked and I still loved, gone, toasted, you know…It's funny because, even now, there will be times when I'll be thinking about…I'll be talking to somebody or I'll be writing about something, and I'll remember, "Oh. I used to have that, and I don't anymore." And it still hits me. It's still—I mean, it's been, uh…eight years since that flood. Eight years, and I still remember certain items and go, "Dammit!" (Shiera)

[6.9] Calling such loss a trauma is an exaggeration, but if Miller and others are correct about just how entwined our subjectivities are with the objects around us, it is not far off. With their loss (even if they are eventually replaced by other things), we also lose certain ways of being that were previously available to us. A certain degree of loyalty or nostalgia may remain, as it does for Wedge and for self-described comic-book fans who don't actually read comics (Burke 2012). But they are no longer equipped to participate in the social world of fandom in any observable way. They are cut off, and fandom carries on without them as participants continue to innovate, building affiliations and alliances, metabolizing new cultural and technological changes, and generating new pleasures from their practices.

7. Collecting in the cloud

[7.1] Some have proposed digitization as a solution to the problem of materiality. As Gitelman (2004, 200) notes, much ink has been spilt (and many bits flipped) about how "digital technologies make the means of communication 'virtual,' freeing information from the limits of physicality, from tangible things like pages, books, and files." Several interviewees were optimistic about these technologies:

[7.2] Yeah, my ambitions are…I mean, I've got so many books, and…I want to be able to move into a smaller place but still have all the stuff accessible, so translate it all into electronic media. (Barry)

[7.3] It's also—I get guilty about the amount of space things take up. And the amount of stuff that people have. Like, just a little bit of a global consciousness…that I feel like if I can have it in a digital format that's archivable and real and easy to read, then I'd rather have that because it's not taking any space up except on my hard drive, and that's an acceptable place. (Solo)

[7.4] I'm not…I personally am not tied to the…having a book. Some people really like that. They like to have the book and pull it out and read it. I use it as a reference material. I like the idea of PDF books. I wish they were cheaper than…[laughs] than the actual book sometimes? (Wedge)

[7.5] Computer-mediated communication, from Usenet to Tumblr, has indeed transformed how fans organize themselves, but dematerialization is more rhetoric than reality. The dream of paperless fandom is only thinkable with respect to those equipment-goods that can be imagined as content alienable from its medium. And re-mediating an activity or a text simply transforms it into a different object. For example, although Steve happily subscribed to Wizards of the Coast's online service, D&D Insider, so that he didn't need to purchase and store all the rulebooks needed to run his campaign, he retained a strong emotional connection to his print D&D manuals: "Just even to open the copy, it's the artwork, it's the feel of the book, the size, the shape, it's everything that goes along with it." And no one I asked viewed digital games as a substitute for pen-and-paper RPGs; they were qualitatively different experiences. All that is solid does not melt into air so easily after all.

[7.6] The uses of digital media I observed were mostly quotidian and integrated into daily life around old goals and problems. So, more often than not, digital technologies were auxiliaries to, not substitutes for, material practices. They supported the primary practice or generated new, spin-off activities, but their ability to enable communication and interaction with real people—albeit on distinctly mediated terms—was more important than their virtuality. For example, Wedge played Blood Bowl, a miniatures game that mixes tropes from the Warhammer Fantasy game/universe with American football, in a local league. First published by Games Workshop in 1987, the game predates the World Wide Web; however, Wedge's league made heavy use of digital communication technologies. They met monthly in a hotel ballroom to play, but in between game days Wedge spent a lot of time on the league's Web site. On the site, members' win–loss records could be tracked and players could discuss their strategies on the attached forum. These were not separate, digital forms of fandom but fed back directly into their monthly game days.

[7.7] Material practices of acquisition and curation are also required for digital objects. Two of the portraits in Miller's (2008) Comfort of Things, for example, focus on organizing and sorting emails and media files, such as digital photos. Editing metadata, searching for downloads, and leveling up World of Warcraft characters require brains and hands in addition to computers. In point of fact, not even digital information is truly immaterial—although it may seem that way to those privileged with unlimited, high-bandwidth Internet connections and cheap storage media. It lives on computers and servers that need to be powered and kept cool. It must travel through a series of tubes with physical limitations on how much data they can transmit. It is vulnerable to planned obsolescence, catastrophic hard drive failure, and human error. Digitization does not solve the problems of materiality, it only entangles them with another set of devices.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] I close with the following two quotations because I think they encapsulate the powerful and contradictory relationship between human subjectivity and the material world:

[8.2] I'm in the middle of reading, uh, Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and there's this theory posited about things and how you are working against entropy. And you will never win against entropy. No one can. Our little rooms of order, the minute we're gone, they start to decay. In fact, while we're here, they're decaying. And it's just like, that was such a mind-boggling thought because so many people spend so much of their lives and their time and their…energy trying to get more things. And those things are already decaying. It's like when you buy a car, the minute you drive it off the lot it's half it's value? What sense does that make? You know. Human beings are very strange. (Shiera)

[8.3] I don't have as much junk as I used to have. I want more. I want more junk now. (Wedge)

[8.4] From the viewpoint of eternity, Shiera is right that attaching ourselves to impermanent objects is ultimately self-defeating ("you will never win against entropy…those things are already decaying"). But Wedge's endorsement of junk cannot be dismissed either, for in its insistent, repeated use of the first-person pronoun, he captures something of how the "I" is constituted by its things in the here and now.

[8.5] In fan cultures, participants orient themselves to some object or set of objects. I don't mean the mental objects of psychoanalysis here but real, physical things. Objects allow us to carry out fan practices and thereby provide access to social worlds in which we develop skills and competencies, relationships, and perhaps even a sense of identity or belonging. But this orienting is not merely attitudinal. It takes work: seeking out and acquiring goods, storing them in our homes (or elsewhere), and eventually disposing of them. The value, rarity, size, and durability (among other qualities) of specific objects can make that job easier or more difficult.

[8.6] I have emphasized how things are used in fans' homes because I believe these aspects of fandom are underexamined. However, attention to the material meanings of equipment-goods can also offer insight into fan practices outside of their expression in the domestic sphere. For example, while their content may be very similar, comic-book fans' discussions vary dramatically according to whether they are mediated by fanzines and APAs, the physical space of a comic-book store, or online forums. The temporality of circulation and relation between interlocutors produced by each medium is distinct. Or, to flip things around, the same equipment-goods of books and miniature figurines produce very different experiences when put to different uses in fantasy role-playing games and war games because these contexts generate different relations between people (the cooperation among a party of player characters, and head-to-head combat between two opposing armies). The relationship between practice and material culture provides a valuable line of inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of fan activity.

[8.7] The term material culture is somewhat redundant: in the last instance, since thoughts and ideas are created by brains, expressed by bodies, and recorded by media, there's no such thing as immaterial culture. Moreover, culture is constituted within a nexus of social practices. That means fandom is never simply a matter of individual, private psychology—even in the intimate space of the home. It is always already public and intersubjective, and it cannot be disentangled from the material goods through which it is expressed. But, for a whole host of reasons, we tend to overlook this fact. Horkheimer and Adorno famously defined reification as "a forgetting" ([1944] 2002, 191); addressing the role of material culture in collective memory (or lack thereof), Timcke (2013, 381) notes "that a commodity…makes us perceive the item in terms of abstract qualities that in no way relate to the item itself." As a result, we focus on the pleasures and uses of things rather than the things themselves in their objective, material, and sociohistorically constructed reality.

[8.8] Notwithstanding the new powers afforded by networked computers and the accompanying rhetoric of dematerialization, the material world must be accounted for, because, ultimately, there's nothing but the material world. Fandom may be distinguished by potent, emotionally charged relationships to culture, but it remains a form of human practice that inevitably takes and uses objects. We ought not to concentrate on meaning at the expense of what people are doing—and the goods they use to do it. Understanding the particular material expressions of fans' affective investments, and the affordances and constraints they entail, is part and parcel of understanding fandom.

9. Appendix: Methods and participants

[9.1] This article is based on qualitative field study of an urban nerd-culture scene. It was conducted between September 2009 and October 2011 as part of my doctoral studies and received financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through its doctoral fellowships program. The research design was approved by Simon Fraser University's Office of Research Ethics as a minimal-risk study.

[9.2] The study had two phases: one focused on nine local subcultural institutions—for example, specialty retail stores and fan organizations—and the other on the experiences of six participants in the scene. Phase two interviewees were evenly balanced between men and women, represented three distinct age cohorts, and all self-identified as middle class, although the meaning of this class identity was not consistent between them. While the first group of interviewees included several participants of East Asian descent, all people who volunteered to participate in the second phase were white/Caucasian. Interviews were conducted in person at locations negotiated with the interviewee. They were recorded and fully transcribed for analysis. In the second phase, I also conducted home visits with five out of six informants, enabling me to ask questions about relevant collections and the organization of space in situ. It was in the context of a home visit that I interviewed Steve, the partner of Diana, who was a primary informant.

[9.3] Although there were observational components in larger, public events where I did not announce my presence, interviewees were fully briefed on the study goals and procedures, and signed consent forms were obtained. In order to guarantee participant anonymity, all names are pseudonyms and distinguishing details about the scene have been suppressed.

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