Interview with the Audre Lorde of the Rings

TWC Editor

[0.1] Abstract—Interview with Karen Tongson, Christine Balance, and Alexandra Vazquez on their unofficial intellectual collective Audre Lorde of the Rings, Oh! Industry, and their experience in academia.

[0.2] Keywords—Academia; Blog; Mashup

TWC Editor. 2008. Interview with the Audre Lorde of the Rings. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

1. Introduction: Labors of love

[1.1] TWC editor Alexis Lothian conducted an e-mail interview with Karen Tongson, Christine Balance, and Alexandra Vazquez, who are professors at University of Southern California, University of California–Irvine, and Princeton, respectively. All three are cultural studies scholars who take nonobjective feelings about objects of study seriously. For the past year, they have been blogging together at Oh! Industry (, celebrating the musical, televisual, and filmic soundtracks to intellectual and emotional lives lived inside the "machine" of the academy and among "domestic zones" of "living rooms, backyards, garages, in our cars, or even just between our headphones." With a motley group of allies in and out of academia, many of whom have contributed to Oh! Industry (O!I) and who share a perspective informed by U.S. women-of-color feminism, queer theory and activism, and a determination to "never run away from being serious about 'non-serious' things" and to "never hide [their] irreverence towards objects and industries that others take too seriously," they have formed an unofficial intellectual collective they call the Audre Lorde of the Rings (ALOTR).

[1.2] Together and separately, Tongson, Balance, and Vazquez's work on suburban diasporic communities and pop culture, both mainstream and marginal, shows that the critical and political value of fannishness extends well beyond the self-identified subcultural geek communities on which the body of intellectual work gathered under the heading of "fan studies" has tended to focus. They talked to us about the critical and political value of queered and racialized fannish affects, intellectual labor and performance in and out of the academy, and the articulation between academic institutions and online public spheres.

[1.3] The following TWC editorial team members contributed to this interview: Alexis Lothian and Julie Levin Russo.

2. Intersectional fan identities

[2.1] Q: In your project's mission statement (, you term your intellectual collective the "Audre Lorde of the Rings" and yourselves hobbits. What is Oh! Industry, and why did this mashup of cultural references seem an apt way to describe it?

[2.2] KT: Well, I think the mission really captures what we feel O!I is about. To pull a couple of concepts from the mission, the site is our idea of a "virtual slumber party," a coherent (at least sometimes) manifestation of the delicious chaos that ensues when we get together—all the food, all the hot topics (à la the Rosie O'Donnell–era View), all the music, all the memories we share, despite experiencing these cultural moments separately in our pasts, in different spaces and places throughout the world, and in the suburbs of the United States. CBB has, I think, a wonderful phrase to describe our shared Spanish and American postcolonial sensibilities: the 1898 axis.

[2.3] CBB: The 1898 axis is actually more of a collaborative term created by ATV and me during our shared graduate school times. After surviving years of ethnic studies training and (in our pasts) Bay Area living, we recognized the fraught position we occupied as Cuban and Filipino, respectively. Similar to hobbits, actually, the people and cultural forms we write about are often misunderstood as being lazy, lascivious, and mere merrymakers (for more examples, see political cartoons from the Spanish-American War era, google the term Filipina, watch Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club, talk to any U.S. military personnel who has spent time in Olangapo—you get the picture). But rather than take the militant "internal colonialism" approach offered to us as undergraduates, we wanted to find an analytic that allowed us to reimagine the hobbitry as both a contemporary and historical condition. 1898 axis then became a term that invoked a history of not only resistance (during the Spanish-American War) but also of collaboration among intellectuals, artists, and political deviants during that same era. What we often forget is that, even then, there were transnational forms of exchange between individuals (for example, the two Josés—Marti and Rizal), cultures, and nations. Though the hobbits are more familiarly known for their penchant for being provincial homebodies who prefer tending to their own, their story is, at the same time, one of travel, adventure, and an ethical quest to better the world.

[2.4] KT: What this means in terms of the lexicon we imagine sharing is that we spend a lot of our time playing with words and ideas to work out, simultaneously, the affinities and frustrations produced by these shared colonial legacies. In terms of what ALOTR itself actually refers to in its ideal sense—we were all especially frustrated about a bad professional encounter, and a particularly antifeminist one, and we channeled that anger into a conversation about old-school women-of-color feminism and about the lack of appreciation for collective endeavors in this profession. That immediately brought us to a mad-respect chatfest about Audre Lorde, then to The Lord of the Rings and to the concept of a motley fellowship, of our motley crew (which included more than the three of us).

[2.5] As this idea of the ALOTR kept resurfacing in our conversations, we got to thinking about what the fellowship means, about what hobbitry means, and about how we all carry hobbitry in our hearts. The entire Fellowship of the Ring ultimately carries hobbitry in their hearts, regardless of their individual origins (as dwarf, elf, man, etc.). Hobbits are a simple lot who are pure of heart, and who love drink, food, and playing barefoot. But they also bear the tremendous burden of transporting the Ring and resisting its allure of power for the sake of power. What they don't have in physical strength or pulchritude they make up for with their tenacity in spirit and purity of heart. And I think we identified with Frodo's temptations as well as his burdens, understanding also how significant friendship is, first and foremost, during such arduous endeavors. We understand how easy it is (especially in the academy) to be tempted by the dark powers of the Ring—by the allure of power itself. But we hope and aspire constantly to thwart those darker elements: the covetousness, the useless skirmishes for control, the selfishness. Friendship, fellowship, mutual encouragement, are what make us happier as well as stronger doing what we do.

[2.6] ATV: Actually, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas once made a very compelling argument that Cubans were the true-to-life forces behind Tolkien's hobbits. Beyond what KT has already brilliantly spelled out, I think that the ALOTR helps to mark a woman-of-color feminism as it intersects with the experience of awkward nerdiness. It's part of what has made us unapologetic intellectuals. There's something of a Dungeons and Dragons substance beneath our exteriors we've never been able to quite shake. As such, we've needed to develop our own code language (like pig latin, patois, and Spanglish before it) to stave off the bullies we now face. Cubans and Pinoys have much in common, but one of our greatest shared talents is the imposition of nicknames on people and things with droll accuracy. So you might say, these discursive moves are just part of the ways we roll.

3. Pop culture's affective communities

[3.1] Q: What motivated the formation of Oh! Industry and the ALOTR? Who are you writing for and against?

[3.2] KT: O!I is what I like to describe as a "pop culture Web zine," or a digest of sorts. At least that's my official explanation for its function as a kind of e-repository for some of our other passions (and passionate labors) related to, but not necessarily valued or acknowledged in, the academy itself.

[3.3] CBB: The wordplay of the ALOTR pretty much falls in line with what the queer Pinoy scholar, Martin Manalansan, would call a swardspeak-easy approach to language and popular culture that all three of us recognized we shared. Song or movie titles and characters can sometimes invoke a feeling, experience, or moment better than our own words. Part of this linguistic play is a type of improvisational and performative take on what Alex harkens back to in her vamp during the O!I mission as the "notes we've passed between each other." Part of it is an extension of the code-switching survival techniques we have developed both inside and outside the academy. And finally, part of it is about a certain affective relationship we've developed over time with objects, places, and people through the lingua franca of U.S. popular culture. As a scholar of popular cultural forms, I take seriously the social contexts in which these forms take shape and are consumed. Even more importantly, I recognize that our relationship to films, music, television, and popular figures holds the productive potential to change our way of looking at our world or even imagine new ones.

[3.4] KT: In some way, we were accomplishing some of our best, most "real" work during downtimes at conferences when we weren't presenting (or in the presence of) more ostensibly "polished" academic presentations, and instead having conversations about pop culture and big ideas. I guess we wanted to capture that sense of whimsy as well as naughtiness. Overall, I think we wanted a venue to get these ideas off our chests, or at least to try and figure out a space for our writing that would capture some of our more oblique, popular inspirations. And to acknowledge that these "oblique" forms are central to our intellectual process––not simply props or objects for the typical displays of mastery, ownership, and wankery in the academy and beyond.

[3.5] ATV: For me, O!I is a place where we're able to put a few things to words. It's that experience of listening to the same song over and over again, except that it happens outside of headphones and in good company. It's about working through a few questions that we wish would get asked of us. It is also the kind of disciplinary mechanism that you might want and need for writing.

[3.6] Alongside KT, I reiterate that O!I is an entity that sprung from finding family in the abjection of academia, rushed along by a few too many of its conferences. Its nascent rumblings could be traced to exchanging faces across the rooms of professional cocktail parties and to years of note-passing. I think it's worth noting that gravity first pulled our triumvirate together during the Experience Music Conference in 2005, an annual event that gathers journalists, academics, and performers together in Seattle. Being ladies in music scholarship is a very specific and difficult and discouraging and, of course, immensely pleasurable kind of experience. The interface between music and critics and criticism, and the snares to be found there, has been a formative site for the battle-scarred heart of O!I. I think the kinds of challenges presented by EMP—namely, the procedures by which we had to take ourselves more seriously as music critics—provided the collective stuff behind our virtual reckoning. We had long been working through some fluster over ways of talking about music—the crazy-making kind that has certain folks making claims to and over things, and their fascinating ability to go unchallenged. The crazy-making was also due to our shared frustration over the lack of hospitality our work has found in certain venues—which is not only about being published in a book but also about being in the room. Together, we urgently needed a way to make productive use of all that frustration. O!I forces us to not spend energy on that anger, but to take said energy and do our own work.

4. Expanding fandom

[4.1] Q: Would you call Oh! Industry a fan site? How do you conceptualize your and your project's relationship to fan cultures?

[4.2] KT: I think in certain respects, O!I is a place for us to express some of our enthusiasms and fanaticisms. But I also think it serves as a venue for us to try other things out and on. To test-drive some of our passing fancies—songs of the moment, as well as of a lifetime. I have always been a believer and proponent in the critical labor of fandom. In fact, I've been teaching a course on "Fan Obsession, Imitation and Expertise" since graduate school, bringing together certain urtexts in philosophy and literature (Nietzsche on Wagner, Ruskin on Turner) and thinking about how these "boy" genealogies carry over into more contemporary incarnations while also being exploded or remade by queers/women/working/people of color. Our insistence on affect, deep engagement, investment in our objects (even if those affects are negative and off-putting), is also related to fandom. I always say I can't deal with works that refuse to feel it or somehow can't feel it. The object, especially the popular object, is not an end in and of itself.

[4.3] I guess overall, I wouldn't necessarily call O!I a fan site despite the fact that fandom is a leitmotif in all of our work. Instead, I hope we offer different variations on fandom, different models of affective and critical engagement.

[4.4] CBB: To pick up on KT's comments, I see my writing within O!I as part of a larger intellectual project that looks at affect and performance. Very often, this has meant looking at the affective charge of performers or live performances but I am also very much interested in looking at audience reception as an affective performance. Through our various modes of relating to live performance, recorded films and music, we develop not only an intimate relationship to these cultural objects but, also, a sphere of belonging with other audience members. I guess "fan culture" would be one way of articulating this collective counterpublic, but I wouldn't want the critical work and our range of emotional responses to get lost purely in the popular connotations of the word fan. At the same time, to echo KT's sentiments, I think we all purposefully choose an unabashed tone and spirit of fandom in our writing and criticism. Unlike other scholarly writing, we precisely want to undo the shame about taking seriously these objects that invoke feelings and inspire our academic work.

[4.5] While other scholars seem rightly to worry about the blogosphere being a "taste-making" project, I myself would err on the side of viewing it as part of a larger trend toward democratization within today's new media and digital technologies. The larger corporations and companies whose hegemony we have been battling for a generation are now the ones struggling to keep up with the mobile criticism and ground-level publicity of blogs, fans, and audiences.

5. Copyright and citation

[5.1] Q: Like TWC, Oh! Industry appropriates images, videos, and other material that might be under copyright to illustrate its points. What is your view of the intellectual property concerns relevant to your work and to online publishing in general? What sort of license have you chosen for your writing?

[5.2] KT: I know one of the things motivating us, as CBB and ATV have alluded to, is using the O!I as a place to start naming (if not necessarily claiming ownership over) our archives. In that sense, the site serves as an informal record of our intellectual property—or not our property per se, but the intellectual property we are all squatting upon as academics. We use the citational ethics we've earnestly imbibed from the academy as a guide for not only how we cite others' works, but also for how we reference the popular music, TV, films that we write about. I think the three of us go out of our way to cite the inspirations for our conceptual leaps and turns, and even some of our slang. Not everyone in the academy or in the journo world is as careful, unfortunately, so we prefer to err on the side of excessive citationality.

[5.3] CBB: I wholly agree with KT here. We know a thing or two about the detrimental effects of not being cited properly, so we try our darnedest not to repeat such violence, and if we do make mistakes, we thankfully have such a brilliant readership that has caught them and let us know. In terms of our license in writing, I think that goes beyond just IP laws and into this nation's longer history of property—but I will leave that commentary for other writings.

[5.4] ATV: I think that's right. I'd also add that I think we're paranoid enough to not "infringe" upon property, but that's not to say we don't loiter. But you know, this can be a big problem for folks who work in other languages, on things from other countries. For example: I'm often not able to post the song tracks I want to talk about, especially the Cuban stuff, because they are not streamed, available on iTunes, etc. I could get into the complicated networks of rights and permissions here, which is especially fraught between Cuba and the United States. It's a problem that has been going on for some time; it is always the unasked question. If you can't make an object available because it is illegal, or to do so would be against the law, how must you still talk about it? What are the creative and careful ways that you can talk about something? Describe it? Reference it?

6. Academia and the institution

[6.1] Q: Your blog takes something of a defiant tone toward the academic 'verse. How do you understand O!I's relationship to your institutional day jobs? Do you think it could or should be recognized as part of your professional work? Would you like to see academia's view of popular culture and fandom change?

[6.2] ATV: I think part of surviving and having a good time in the academy means that you have to let go of what is permissible in and to it—what it recognizes and what it finds recognizable. It is kind of liberating when you decide to just do your work, however out there you think it might be. Of course, there are material implications for doing so. Many women who have been doing their work (often when they do it brilliantly) have been denied promotion, a paycheck, a book deal. But to do otherwise—to not do one's work—is no way to live either. In terms of the writing itself, I don't think you would find much disparity between our popular and our academic voices. Some have had a hostile reaction to such blurring, but others have found some relief in it. It is such a tremendous honor when someone approaches us and speaks of finding a newfound sense of permissiveness by what we're trying to do.

[6.3] CBB: To put my back into that question, I think of our tone and demeanor as just as humorous as it is defiant—perhaps leaving the reader with that same feeling after watching a competition scene from You Got Served or after earnestly belting out Heart's "Never" in public (with or without the microphone). For me, O!I really allows us to create a space and continue a project of reparation. Although the reparative process was most recently and eloquently named by Eve Sedgwick, I think we would all agree that women, people of color, and queers have been looking at life with reparative lenses for a long time now. Again, in a O!I swardspeak sort of way, Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" best illustrates the deep contours of this mode of postcolonial and feminist survival. Simultaneously, in institutions and a society that understands minoritarian cultures through injury and suffering, the laughter and pleasures of these survival tales are often not allowed to be visible, let alone celebrated. So I guess O!I becomes not only a "take back the night" move but, also, a reminder that in the face of academe's seriousness, I still remember that it's a living, in that 1980s Ann Jillian and Sheryl Lee Ralph sitcom sort of way.

[6.4] KT: I agree with everything my sistahs say. Especially to any and all references to Ann Jillian and It's a Living. As I mentioned at the very beginning of our chat, O!I serves as a venue for some of our digressions. It also offers a kind of starter kit for each of us, I think. I know that I turn to writing pieces for O!I when I feel I really need to get something off my chest. To do something quickly. To express my interest and passion in something that it might take me longer to write about in a more "official" context. More than anything, O!I offers a place for us to say whatever we want to without worrying about whether or not it will "count." It's tremendously freeing and a great cure for writer's block to have a place to work ideas out, even if they're only seeds of ideas. Sometimes the ideas on O!I even end up more polished or thoughtful than when I sit down to write more officially, with the burden of formality and making it count hanging over me. All this said, doing a site like O!I also requires a lot of prep time and work. Time spent organizing the page, inviting guests, writing posts, etc. In that sense, I believe it should be recognized as part of our professional labor. And as for the latter part of the question, about academia's views toward pop culture and fandom, I can only say yes. I'd have to ramble on forever if I tried to explain why.

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