Thoughts on an ethical approach to archives in fan studies

Dennis Jansen

Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

[0.1] Abstract—Much of fan studies research is concerned with archives, especially online archives created by and for fans. Across the discipline, however, methodologies still lack an element of self-reflection when it comes to the affective, embodied aspects of doing research in those archives. Such a methodology becomes especially crucial when we consider these archives as power structures. In a critique of the way fan studies has dealt with archives as a cultural phenomenon thus far, I work through a theoretical framework that allows for an awareness and consideration of one's embodied experience of digital archives by way of bodily affect and materiality. Analyzed is an autoethnographic account of the difference in materiality (and thus in affect) between two fan-made archives for Bethesda Game Studios' video game franchise The Elder Scrolls (1994–), with suggestions proposed for future efforts in crafting a general fan studies methodology for archival research.

[0.2] Keywords—Affect; Autoethnography; Ethics; Materiality; Methodology

Jansen, Dennis. 2020. "Thoughts on an Ethical Approach to Archives in Fan Studies." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Something she called an archive

[1.1] The line of inquiry that I wish to pursue here can be summarized by a passage from Helen Freshwater's brilliant article "The Allure of the Archive" (2003) wherein she states, "If we must enter the archive, then the deployment of a methodology of ethical self-awareness, as well as the adoption of an alternative approach to the archive, may allay anxieties about its use in research" (754).

[1.2] Following Freshwater's advice, I here address the relatively small amount of methodological reflection in fan studies (cf. Evans and Stasi 2014; Ford 2014), specifically concerning the researching of digital fan-made archives like Archive of Our Own (AO3) and What happens to us, as researchers, as scholar-fans, when we enter these archives, and what does it matter? Before I delve into the why and how of scholarly ethics in the context of fan-made archives, some remarks on archive as a concept are in order.

[1.3] The archive is fraught with contradiction and mystique, paradox and fantasy. It promises the very truth of history. Those who are allowed to enter are confronted with such an impossible wealth of knowledge and information that, especially to the first-time visitor, the archive seems to contain nothing short of every imaginable piece of writing on its topic of choice. This confrontation with the archive's apparent totality can prompt a number of responses: random, sometimes frenzied browsing through whatever appears of interest; directed, goal-oriented scavenging; or acquiring a more overhead perspective by skimming categories, collections, and tags rather than contents. Each gives the visitor a different view of the archive, each allows the archive to present and open itself to the visitor—and to deceive them—in different ways. From the initial moment of entry to the time of departure, the archive wraps around its visitor and squeezes tight, enveloping them in its fragmented version of history and (naïvely? sinisterly?) proclaiming that version to be the only version. The archive is both a physical place and a metaphorical entity at the same time; it is "a place of storage" where documents are stored and subjected to categorization by authoritative agents, and "a system that creates the need for, and meaning of, that space and all it contains" (Henton 2012, 71).

[1.4] The archive is both an expression of and a means to reinforce the hierarchical relationship between the archive's guardians and its users, but also between the archive itself and its envisioned corpus. The creation and maintenance of an archive is thus bound up with the structuring of power dynamics. Which texts and materials are easy to find? Which are prominently displayed and which are relegated to the dark corners at the back of the shelf? How does the archive's artificial creation of history silence or destroy apocryphal accounts of past (or present or future) events? Questions like these have become increasingly prominent over the past decades, most significantly through writings like Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge ([1969] 1972) and Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever (1995), and with the canonization of those texts in Western academia comes, one would hope, at least a healthy and widespread suspicion of the archive's openness and its claims to truth. From a historian's perspective, for instance, Carolyn Steedman (2001) has made it clear that archives "hold no origins, and origins are not what historians search for in them. Rather, they hold everything in medias res, the account caught halfway through, most of it missing, with no end ever in sight. Nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, although things certainly end up there" (1175).

[1.5] Despite this awareness, it is of course still in many scholars' continued interests to conduct research in and on archives. They are expected to approach their archive of choice and its contents with a keen and critical eye, or even to study the archive in itself—a conceptual development that Ann Stoler has identified as the shift "from archive-as-source to archive-as-subject" (2002, 93). This insight reaches far beyond historiography: for example, the recent "archival turn" in media studies (De Kosnik 2016, 273) presents us with questions both old and new in regards to what digital media do to the closely related concepts of archive and memory (e.g., Ernst 2013). Is it correct to term the internet an archive? Is it productive for scholars to understand the internet as an archive, or as not-archive? If the internet is a form of archive, where do we find those structures of power and discourses that twentieth-century continental philosophers have pointed to? What do questions like these mean for the nondigital phenomena and institutions we have given the name "archive" so far?

2. (A critique of) fan studies in the archive

[2.1] Strongly related to these issues is the topic of my current endeavor: the ethics of engaging with digital, fannish/fan-made archives for research purposes. As a discipline, fan studies is obviously somewhat familiar with ethical quandaries and critical reflections on issues such as scholar-fandom (e.g., Hills 2012; Stein and Busse 2011) and fan privacy and vulnerability (e.g., Busse and Hellekson 2012; Freund and Fielding 2013). It is also no stranger to archival research: aside from Abigail de Kosnik's recent opus on digital cultural memory, Rogue Archives (2016), a variety of texts by authors such as Paul Booth (2016), Matt Hills (2015), Erin Hollis (2012), Timothy Jerome Johnson and Cheryll Lynne Fong (2017), Maria Lindgren Leavenworth (2015, 2016), Alexis Lothian (2011, 2013), Jason Mittell (2009), and Versaphile (2011) have engaged with notions of archive within the discipline. It was in fact De Kosnik who first brought the archival, or better yet archontic, qualities of fan fiction and fandom to our attention (Derecho 2006). However, ethical reflections on this engagement with fannish/fan-made archives and with the archival tendencies of fandom in general remain strikingly lacking. Rogue Archives, for example, has its most explicit—and rather brief—discussion of research ethics in its appendix, and the focus there is solely on considerations of privacy and the required anonymity of some of its research subjects (cf. De Kosnik 2016, 351–54). More significantly, the position of the researcher herself as a scholar is left out almost entirely in this section, as well as in the rest of the book.

[2.2] It seems to me, then, that there are two interconnected gaps to address in our thinking about archives and ethics in fan studies. The first concerns the ideological and power-laden aspects of archives as I have partially outlined them in the previous section. To my mind, Derrida's assertion that "there is no political power without control of the archive" (1995, 11) holds not only in the realm of the State, but also in the realm of fandom. Hills has already noted the relative silence in fan studies on the subject of power relations within fan communities and has argued that the tendency of "wishing away the cultural power of discourses of expertise…fails to illuminate how media fandom iterates forms of expert knowledge" (2015, 361). He proceeds to show how this fan expertise is recorded, reaffirmed, and even anticipated by fan-made encyclopedic databases/wikis like the TARDIS Data Core. Somewhat implicitly, he demonstrates that the archive structures power relations between its guardians and its users.

[2.3] Taking a more institutional approach and focusing more explicitly on the Derridean critique of archive, Lothian addresses the "contradictions and contestations around what fannish and scholarly archives are and should be: what's trivial, what's significant, what legally belongs to whom, and what deserves to be preserved" (2013, 543). In a way, she performs exactly the type of analysis that I am aiming for and is therefore the exception to the observation made by Hills. Lothian investigates what kind of power the archive itself—in this case AO3—has within fandom, what its strategies of inclusion and exclusion are, and in which ways it fails to do justice to the breadth of digital expressions of fandom. In her conclusion, she states forcefully, "The easily archivable and comfortably representable are not the only online practices, fannish or nonfannish, that can work transformatively—they are just the easiest ones to fit within prior structures of activism and scholarship" (Lothian 2013, 553).

[2.4] Even more exceptionally, Lothian offers a brief and tentative glimpse at how we should fill the second gap, the ethics of engaging with fan-made archives. Drawing on Jack Halberstam's comments about subcultural and queer scholarship, she argues, "This position—the scholar as archivist whose work contributes to the subcultural community to which she belongs—is the one that most scholarship on subcultural fandom occupies, although among fandom's often comparatively privileged participants, the shared exclusion from dominant cultural norms Halberstam discusses cannot be assumed. And that commonly held position shapes the archives on which scholars are able and willing to draw" (2013, 549).

[2.5] This talk of positions echoes the well-trodden discussion about scholar-fandom, especially Hills's remarks that scholar-fans often risk explicitly or implicitly speaking for "their own situated fan agency, or indeed…their [own] academic, disciplinary position" instead of for the fandom they are studying (2012, 32). Every scholar relates differently to their object of study, and that relation must be made more explicit more often according to Hills, so that the "limits of academic and fan knowledge" become clearer to both the discipline and its audience (33). For a moment, Lothian (2013) breaks away from these problems by bringing the body of the scholar/fan/archivist into her scope: "If we can assume that bodies do not get left behind when we participate in cultural practices online, we can approach the digital with attention to the sensations communicated in ephemeral moments, the affective elements that exceed even the most diligently recorded archive" (550).

[2.6] However, the moment remains just that—ironically, she leaves bodies behind almost immediately—and already within this small passage there is an implication I find troublesome. While she is surely correct in her assertion that there is a certain affective ephemerality to many fannish practices that digital/online archives cannot capture, to suggest that those archives cannot capture or contain affect and bodily sensations at all is a bridge too far, which is discussed further later in this essay. For instance, one of the recurring themes throughout Rogue Archives is the intertwinement of archive and "repertoire"—that is, "physical, bodily acts of repetition, of human performance" (De Kosnik 2016, 6)—and a variety of examples in the book demonstrate that the body retains its importance in every aspect of digital cultural memory, including the archive.

[2.7] As stated before, the same limitation that Lothian eventually runs into continues to plague De Kosnik; for all of her examples of and claims about the bodies of the fans and her interviewees, and their entanglements within (primarily) the fan fiction archives she studies, no attention is paid to her own body. No reflection is offered on what entering and studying online archives means for her specifically, not only for her as a scholar with a particular theoretical background or as a fan of particular media intellectual properties, but also for her as someone who experiences those archives in a bodily fashion—someone who can see and touch, who can read and write, who can think and feel emotions like fear or excitement or comfort or disgust. As long as we do not try to make explicit how these things affect us as researchers and how the archives themselves evoke certain responses or feelings in our bodies, which may well have an impact on how we perform research in the first place, it is difficult to think of any ethical approach to our objects of study as comprehensive.

[2.8] What I propose, then, is that discussions of archives and ethics in fan studies should move beyond predominantly reflecting on issues of privacy, vulnerability, and personal fandom, and start to take into account the affective, embodied relationships that we as scholars form with the digital archives we research. I am aware that adopting this particular strand of autoethnography, like autoethnography in general, has the potential of "focusing too much on the individual feelings, and risk[s] oversight of the larger cultural structures that are interacting with those feelings" (Evans and Stasi 2014, 16). However, it also has precisely the opposite potential, namely of elucidating how those individual feelings arise from and interact with structures that are fraught with ideology and dynamics of power. I choose to be optimistic in this regard, and see autoethnography as especially suitable for uncovering a researcher's biases toward and affective relationships with their object of research. A willingness to remain self-critical and self-aware in every stage of the research process, perhaps with insights from the present work in mind, should at least prevent us from falling into the trap of navel-gazing too often. What is potentially gained is worth the risk: a more conscientious approach to the archives we study; a better understanding of how online fandom works; perhaps even some knowledge about how digital media shape our daily lives.

[2.9] Here I offer a provisional framework through which it becomes possible to become aware of and consider one's embodied experience of digital archives by way of bodily affect and materiality. I take an autoethnographic approach in the last two sections, as I also attempt to make explicit how my own position and my own experience of digital archives impact the way I research and understand them.

3. The power of the archive

[3.1] Freshwater's text prompts us to wonder beyond what the archive does, to also question what it does to us. The passage cited at the beginning of this essay is not solely the result of the concerns about archival power relations I outlined in the introduction: Freshwater calls for ethical self-awareness in the archival researcher because the archive's impossible promise of a return to origins and historical totality leaves traces of near-mythological reverence that even the most critical scholar will find difficult to erase. She argues that "the archive can be a dangerously seductive place. Instead of becoming lost in its dusty, forbidding, textual corridors, it is all too easy to become enchanted" (2003, 734). What makes the archive's spell so effective, says Freshwater, is the allure of "the text's unselfconsciousness and ignorance of its future position as source of investigation"; there is a certain voyeuristic, for some even sexual pleasure in "invading the private realm of the writer" of the archived text (735–36). Moreover, a part of this pleasure derives from an all-familiar impulse, a desire, a "mal d'archive: [we are] in need of archives" (Derrida 1995, 57). That is, when we researchers enter an archive, it is, in a properly Freudian sense, to find the origin of the matter at hand, "to make the past live and suppressed voices speak" (Freshwater 2003, 737).

[3.2] The parallels to research practices and attitudes within fan studies are perhaps more striking than some would care to admit. A key difference is, of course, that most of the voices we extract from fannish archives are not really past in the sense that they are usually still very much alive, a fact which in itself has all kinds of ethical implications. We are not simply delving into a wealth of material that was unwittingly waiting to be found: the creators of those materials are still around, able to actually speak to us, to respond to our work (cf. Booth 2013). Some might even object, because they "would prefer not to be legitimated into a scholarly archive, not to be a source for articles like this one, perhaps not to be archived at all" (Lothian 2013, 549). Quite often, we ourselves are also part of the archives in some way, either as frequent readers, contributors, or as members or co-owners of sites like AO3 (Lothian 2013) and Lostpedia (Mittell 2009). Furthermore, as Lothian also highlights, we are to an extent placing ourselves into the role of archon (Derrida 1995, 10): we give ourselves "the power to interpret the archives," but also the power to include those archives' contents in a different archive, namely our body of scholarly work.

[3.3] We are motivated in this effort by various causes, all of them equally valid, but also equally full of implications for how we conduct our research. We may believe in the importance of fandom for understanding digital media cultures in general (e.g., De Kosnik 2016; Jenkins 2014). We may wish to legitimize fan fiction and other fannish practices in the eyes of the mainstream or of academia (e.g., Lindgren Leavenworth 2015; Price and Robinson 2017). We may very well simply be interested in ensuring that these forms of creative expression are not lost to the void by censure, whimsy, or bit rot (e.g., Swalwell, Stuckey, and Ndalianis 2017). The people whose works are being uploaded to the internet and preserved in the archives we study often have deeply personal connections to the source material (and to their own materials, too), and they are frequently unwilling to share those passions with the world. No wonder, then, that Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson identify the unmasking of a fan's identity to be the "worst fannish sin" (2012, 38). Traversing and publishing the archive requires an attitude of care and attentiveness. It invites and incites a particular kind of affection for the material—which is usually already present in those of us who would fit the description of scholar-fan.

[3.4] In both the process and the output of our work we should therefore naturally try to do these fans, these suppressed voices, justice and situate them in their proper context (whatever that may be). Freshwater, speaking specifically of an archive related to theatrical production, does issue a word of caution: "Indeed, all archivization of live performance is problematized by its subject's time-based nature. No amount of video, documentary recording, or personal testimony can capture the ephemerality of performance. Something will always be lost in translation" (2003, 754). The same holds for archives of fannish performances. The archived outputs of fan practices, usually texts, images, and videos, are not necessarily time-based, but each work still emerges in a specific time and place, and this holds doubly for those more ephemeral and difficult to archive practices that Lothian speaks of. At the same time, we should not ignore the context in which we find the work—that is, the archival structure itself.

[3.5] It is surely also important here to recognize the role that the fans themselves play in the creation of this structure: the archivists are generally fans, and the archive is often made to reflect certain hierarchies and power dynamics between community members with different levels of fannish prestige or expert knowledge (cf. Hills 2015). These interpersonal relations fall beyond the current scope of this essay, but elsewhere I have written more extensively about how they can come to be reflected in the structure of fan-made archives and may serve to marginalize certain fannish voices (cf. Jansen 2018; forthcoming).

[3.6] Returning to the relevance of archival structure to academic research, the paratextual elements with which the archive tends to surround its corpus are especially of note, as Lindgren Leavenworth argues: "An increased awareness of how fan fictions are archived and made searchable, how categorisations, labelling and descriptions frame individual texts, and how the paratextual communication operates, illuminates new forms of authorship and allows different ways of conducting digital research around this" (2016, 68).

[3.7] This form of presentation in an archive may make it difficult to discern the original context of any fan-produced material, which in turn might cause the researcher to forget that there even is a story to the work's genesis to begin with, or that this story may not be accurately represented by the archive. This might, for example, occur if an archive has moved to a different domain: the content that was already present before the move is now dated as having been added to the archive on the day of the move (or even later), making it troublesome to trace the original time it was uploaded to the website. Even to the inquisitive-minded, it is much easier to see the archive as authoritative and infallible, or simply to not be bothered with looking up the original date. After all, the expectation when entering an archive is that this work of gathering metadata has already been done for us, and much of the time we only stumble upon such mistakes by accident anyway. It could even be argued that the archive is an invisible infrastructure until it noticeably breaks down or we become aware of its malfunctioning (cf. Bowker and Star 1999, 35).

4. Archive, affect, ethics

[4.1] I highlight these issues to further demonstrate the ethical imperative for thinking about how we physically interact with digital archives, and how those archives themselves affect the way we interact with them. Researchers with archival experience in other fields, like Susan Yee (2007) and Tina Campt (2012), will gladly admit to a deeply affective and intimate relationship with the archive and the materials they have worked with. Campt, who writes about an archive of photographs of Black folks, addresses that archive as "an ensemble of photographic practices that help us understand the cultural and affective work of certain sets of images" (Campt 2012, 136). She notes that what drew her to studying these images was not just what she was seeing but also what she was hearing while she went through the photographs: "a playful yet insistent hum that I found difficult, and, frankly, a mistake to ignore" (134). The archive can address all of our senses, it seems. Yee, studying the works of world-renowned architect Le Corbusier, describes her affection for archival materials especially lovingly:

[4.2] All I could think about was that this was Le Corbusier's original drawing. It was meticulously hand-drawn, but the drawing was dirty. There were marks on it, smudges, fingerprints, the marks of other hands, and now I added mine. I felt close to Le Corbusier as I walked around and around the drawing, looking at the parts that I wanted to replicate to bring home with me, touching the drawing as I walked. The paper was very thin. (2007, 33)

[4.3] Much of this relationship is built up as one spends more and more time in the archive, by means of parsing through its contents, experiencing the texture of its materials by moving one's hands across the paper and one's eyes across the text, and gradually coming to a sense of knowing the people whose words have been selected for preservation and presentation. A theorist of affect and emotion like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would draw attention to "a particular intimacy…between textures and emotions" (2003, 17)—that is, between haptic sense (meaning: active, exploratory touch) and affective response. These haptic and embodied elements, though almost unnoticeably self-evident in libraries and other classical archives (cf. Robinson 2010), may become somewhat difficult to envision when the archive in question is experienced on a computer screen, its contents traversed with one hand on a mouse or trackpad. Somewhat difficult, but not impossible.

[4.4] Those of us who enter digital archives are simply not living the same kinds of textures and situations. We are not surrounded by books, nor are we breathing the fever-inducing dust of old manuscripts (cf. Steedman 2001); at most, we have a notebook at hand next to our keyboards. We do not—generally, at least—have to leave our homes or countries to gain access to these archives, unless we are already traveling for an unrelated reason and are willing to connect to public Wi-Fi in the name of scholarly inquiry. Our fingers feel familiar plastic instead of foreign paper; our eyes regard texts and images on a flat, backlit screen. We can manipulate what we see by copying and pasting content into word processors, or even by directly altering and erasing content if the archive in question allows it. We can move from one place within the archive to another instantly, at the same lightning speed as we can move from one archive to a different one altogether—if the Wi-Fi is fast enough, that is. It is worth asking, What do these sensations and experiences do to the way we research and subsequently report on that research?

[4.5] To be clear, this is no longer solely about the textual-semiotic contents of the archive; instead, I am shifting the emphasis to the materiality and texture of the archive as such. In theories of affect and the body, materiality will generally simply refer to the "being material" of an object or entity, such as the "lived materiality" of the human body (Leys 2011, 440). It is often invoked as a resistance against the tendency in cultural analysis to focus exclusively on the linguistic and semiotic aspects of the human experience, which also applies to much of fan studies, and to combat the supposed disconnection of signs from matter brought about by (post)modernism and (post)structuralism.

[4.6] This systematic ignorance of bodies, whether human or nonhuman, analogue or digital, has had lasting consequences throughout all fields of media studies. Anna Munster (2006), for example, highlights and critiques the notion that we leave our bodies behind when we engage with digital/virtual technologies. Similar arguments come up in critical race scholarship on digital media, where people like Wendy Chun (2012) and Lisa Nakamura (2008) have shown that the utopia of an internet where no one is constrained by their bodily features—and the cultural attitudes around those—was an impossible fiction from the very beginning. The body was always already there, and we are finally paying attention to it again.

[4.7] And it is not just our human bodies that are there; the digital objects we engage with and research are bodies, too. They are as material as we are, although certainly in different ways. Katherine Hayles (2004), speaking of electronic hypertexts, argues that "a view that insists that texts are immaterial…impedes the development of theoretical frameworks capable of understanding electronic literature as media-specific practices that require new modes of analysis and criticism" (71). In response to this view, she reconceptualizes materiality as "the interplay between a text's physical characteristics and its signifying strategies" (72). She elaborates further:

[4.8] In this view of materiality, it is not merely an inert collection of physical properties but a dynamic quality that emerges from the interplay between the text as a physical artifact, its conceptual content, and the interpretive activities of readers and writers. Materiality thus cannot be specified in advance; rather, it occupies a borderland—or better, performs as connective tissue—joining the physical and mental, the artifact and the user. (72, emphasis in original)

[4.9] The question I asked a few paragraphs ago may be rephrased: How does the archive's materiality, in its interaction with the researcher's lived materiality, affect researchers and their research? The explicit connection between affect theory and archive studies is a fairly recent one, as the aforementioned ignorance of bodies, quite often rooted in a "modernist construction" of objective science and "gendered notions of knowledge production" (Cifor 2016, 11–12), has been predominant in many humanistic discourses for decades now. Feminist and queer cultural scholars generally understand affect as "a force that creates a relationship (conscious or otherwise) between a body (individual or collective) and the world" (Cifor 2016, 10). Affect thus precedes and shapes one's subjective, embodied experience of the world, and theorizing this pre-experiential force in such terms opens up a space to think critically about the sensible links between bodies and discourses. Oftentimes, the concept is explicitly connected to feelings of love, affection, and, of course, to fandom (cf. Chin and Morimoto 2013). After all, one of the primary goals of the research done in fan studies is to understand the affective relations fans build up with their (media) object of choice and how they express that affection through fan fiction, fan art, and cosplay. Such relations are clearly visible in what Paul Long and colleagues call "affective archives" (2017, 61). Their examples are public archives of popular music, but similarly overt affective relations can be found in Campt's (2012) study of a black photographer's archive and in Marika Cifor's "affective archival encounter" (2015, 645) with a trans activist's hair in a trans archive. Each of these cases elucidates how deeply personal, embodied encounters relate to broader social discourses.

[4.10] As I have hopefully sufficiently demonstrated, affect and hierarchy are inseparable, and both feature heavily in the archives we visit as researchers. However, in the past, prominent scholars of affect such as Brian Massumi have disconnected ideology and affect entirely (cf. Leys 2011), which raises skepticism on my part—and, naturally, also on the part of the feminist and queer scholars who emphasize that "affects are key to the ways in which power is constituted, circulated and mobilized" (Cifor 2016, 10). We see that the impossible promise of the archive is never far, even (or especially?) in online archives. This goes well beyond, although it still includes, the rhetoric of preservation and conservation that pervades their discourse (cf. Lothian 2013). The archival ideology is deeply and inevitably embedded in the structure itself and therefore in its materiality. In this sense, affect cannot entirely precede ideology because that which facilitates and creates affect is already ideology laden. When we are in the archive, we cannot escape our being affected by it—we can only become aware and accept our responsibility.

5. How archives affect (the researcher)

[5.1] In this last section, I want to turn to autoethnography and describe my own experience with research in online fan-made archives, which I conducted in late 2017 and early 2018, to illustrate one way that the theories and insights put forward in the preceding paragraphs may be put to use. I presumably have provided enough clarification as to why (the researcher's) bodily affect is an important part of discussions about ethics and methodology in fan studies archival research, but how these considerations should be put into practice may remain somewhat vague. I do not provide any definitive strategies for application—my intention is mostly to provoke further thought and critical self-reflection about how the materiality of online fan-made archives shapes our affective, embodied experience of/in it, and how we can negotiate this personal experience in an ethically responsible manner.

[5.2] I am using examples closely related to my own research interest in what I call "fan-made paratextual archives" (Jansen 2018, 2) for Bethesda Game Studios franchise The Elder Scrolls (1994–), a series of epic fantasy role-playing video games set in the Tolkienesque realm of Tamriel. The archives in question are most prominently "narrative databases" where instead of "representing [the] 'plot' [of The Elder Scrolls] through causality, fans represent it spatially, using the inherent hypertextuality of the web to create connections between narrative elements" (Booth 2016, 85). They also host a variety of texts and materials from the game worlds themselves, most prominently in-game books and transcribed dialogues from nonplayer characters in addition to active fan forums and sections explicitly dedicated to a type of fan-scholarly narrative fan fiction—hence the emphasis on their paratextuality. I have termed the fannish practices of gathering, categorization, and interpretation, which collectively lead to the establishment and maintenance of these paratextual archives, "archontic fandom" (Jansen 2018, 2). In this context, the explicit connection to Derrida's "archontic principle" (1995, 10) serves to highlight the establishment and reinforcement of power relations that come with the construction of any archive, fannish or otherwise.

[5.3] The specific websites I have analyzed in the past are the Imperial Library ( and the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages (UESP;; the former runs on the Drupal content management system (CMS), and the latter is found on MediaWiki. Already in their choice of CMS can we clearly see the roots of fundamental differences in how these websites operate as archives and in what ways their users are able to engage with them, but there are many other choices made by the websites' administrators that have equally significant effects. Thus, these different materialities provide a useful way to demonstrate the role affect plays in my personal experience and interpretation of each archive.

[5.4] Generally speaking, the archive—or rather, the user interface of that archive—appears on a screen and immediately confronts me with a broad scope of possible entries. Within one or two clicks, I can make all the subcategories of the archive's corpus reveal themselves to me; the online archive opens easily and somewhat overwhelmingly at first. Especially on UESP (figure 1), which follows the wiki format, I find my eyes shooting rapidly between hyperlinks (highlighted as blue text) instead of reading the text itself, implicitly aware of the wealth of knowledge hidden behind each one. A single blue-tinted word contains, in theory, hundreds more within it, and each of those words can potentially contain equally as many. As a consequence, I am never fully present on the current page but always already considering my next move, fully prepared to interrupt and dismiss the text in favor of another at the blink of an eye and the click of a mouse button.

Color screenshot of a beige website page with three columns. The page title is The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages. The center column section head is Latest News, with a series of articles and images underneath. On the left side of the page is a sidebar of links to parts of the site. On the right are the stacked sections with images: Current Featured Article, Current Featured Image, and Did You Know… with trivia links.

Figure 1. The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages' home page.

[5.5] Occasionally, I will hover my cursor over an interesting-looking link to see if the page it refers to matches the word(s) it is embedded in—another distraction from the text itself, but one that does provide insight into how the archive has been structured. This tendency toward distraction has been noted to be a rather common feature in "web reading," which often includes practices such as "hyperlinks that draw attention away from the linear flow of an article, very short forms such as tweets that encourage distracted forms of reading, small habitual actions such as clicking and navigating that increase the cognitive load, and, most pervasively, the enormous amount of material to be read, leading to the desire to skim everything because there is far too much material to pay close attention to anything for very long" (Hayles 2012, 63).

[5.6] We might also say that the hyperlinked structure of UESP encourages "hyper reading" (Hayles 2012, 61), whereas the Imperial Library (figure 2) facilitates more traditional close reading. That is, the Library provides far fewer distractions of this nature through its sparse use of hyperlinks and more subdued red-and-gray color scheme, and thus allows for a more intimate engagement with its individual texts on their own terms. Within the text itself, there is nothing else to draw my thoughts to future actions. Somehow, the Library is quiet. Far more often than on UESP, I find my right hand moving from my mouse to the arrow keys on my keyboard when I need to scroll down the page. The Library encourages no other action than reading. This difference is quite significant: when I read texts on UESP, I am seemingly broadening my knowledge, whereas the same act in the Library feels more like deepening my knowledge.

Color screenshot of a simple gray and red website page with a single column and a left sidebar. The page title is The Imperial Library. The two subheads of the main column are Welcome, and Dictionaries and Loremaster's Archive. On the left side of the page is the sidebar of links to parts of the site underneath the title, Library.

Figure 2. The Imperial Library's home page.

[5.7] Let me take one particular text as an example to demonstrate even more concretely what the effects of these different materialities might be: an in-universe book archived on these websites by fans of the Elder Scrolls game series known as "Where Were You When the Dragon Broke?" In the Imperial Library (figure 3), the book is presented without any additions to the text itself: I am reading this work in relative isolation from the rest of the archive, although the archive is always available to me as a toolbar in the left part of my screen. I can consider the words carefully, there is space to pause, to think, and continue reading—especially if I choose to activate the "printer-friendly version," which displays the book as plain text on a white background and leaves behind any visible connection to the archive itself. The text stands as a unique work, it claims authority over its subject matter, and any further information regarding its contents I will have to search for myself. That is, if I even know where to look: paratextual elements like tags and prefaces can help guide my reading experience, but they might also not align with my interests at all and leave me lost in the archival maze.

Color screenshot of a gray and red website page with the title, The Imperial Library. The page header reads, Where were you when the Dragon Broke? Beneath is a column of text. On the left side of the page is a sidebar of links to parts of the site underneath the title, Library.

Figure 3. "Where Were You…?" as found in the Imperial Library (

[5.8] The same book on UESP is crowded with blue words and phrases (figure 4); almost every single sentence contains one or more hyperlinks. The archive makes itself visible and tangible to me not only by surrounding the text but also by invading it, imposing itself upon me, tempting me with an opportunity to journey on through its digital corridors at every possible turn. Rather than a single text, "Where Were You…?" becomes a collection of portals, more valuable to me for the amount of potential avenues of travel than for the power of its prose or the mythological implications of its contents. When I am on UESP, I am frequently reminded of a teacher who keeps interrupting my autonomous workflow to explain concepts that I did not even know I needed. One-tenth of those interruptions are potentially useful to me; the rest are just interruptions.

Color screenshot of a beige website page with the title, The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages. The center section title is, Lore:Where Were You…Dragon Broke. The center column of text has the title, Where Were You When the Dragon Broke? by Various, A brief description and multiple accounts of the Dragon Break. The text below features character names and titles, each with a paragraph of story. Many words throughout the story are hyperlinked.

Figure 4. "Where Were You…?" as found on the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages (

[5.9] Another consequence of the difference in CMS is that the Imperial Library features far less "registrational interactivity" (Lister et al. 2009, 23) on the part of its users. Most significantly, there is no opportunity for users to edit articles freely as there would be on a wiki like UESP. The Library partially sacrifices interactivity and the radical "forever in flux" nature of other online paratextual archives (De Kosnik 2016, 275) for a more robust system that rather seems to approach the Derridean archival structure as "a 'house' whose contents are under 'arrest'" (274), governed by reasonable and knowledgeable individual fans. De Kosnik states that digital media objects such as online archives in general "contain multiple affordances for archive building" and that "many online archives…are explicitly dedicated to the preservation of…the manifold variants that proliferate in the wake of the releases of source texts" (276).

[5.10] Of course, those same affordances—especially registrational interactivity—also allow for more fleeting content by facilitating the continuous revision and deletion of such fan-written texts, both by their authors and by others. Not only that, but the conversation around this process is kept much closer to the text on UESP than in the Library: on any given page, I can access the history tab and then the discussion tab, which will sometimes contain dozens of entries about what should or should not be on the page. Quite often, these discussions concern segments of the page that are now gone entirely or have been assimilated into different sections. Not infrequently will such visits to the discussion tab lead me to look for the mentioned passages within the text—they suddenly seem more interesting for the sheer fact that someone else mentioned them.

[5.11] In the Library, comments can be left on certain pages, but this is a rare occurrence and never happens on pages that only contain transcribed in-game materials. The conversation is in the forums, in a thread specifically created for pointing out errors and lacunae to the website's administrators, the Librarians. Usually, these interactions are short and civil, and generally unexciting. Never does the Library's structure allow for anything as (mildly) sensational as the debate about racism found on the UESP's discussion page for "Oblivion:Redguard," which in itself also forms a record of an incident of racist trolling on the page that occurred in November 2009 (

[5.12] In contrast to the Library, navigating UESP feels like much more of a fleeting and hasty nature. Paradoxically, as an archive UESP gives off an air of ephemerality. Indeed, it has been suggested that we cannot consider "encyclopedic projects such as Wikis to be archives, since they mostly offer factual information and commentary about cultural texts, and not the texts themselves" (De Kosnik 2016, 76). However—and this is perhaps somewhat controversial—my work includes wikis like UESP into the scope of the notion of archive because I consider the factual write-ups and commentary about the cultural texts they are concerned with part of the narrative universe that is being archived. Those fan-made paratexts are subjected to the archontic principle as much as, if not more than, the official texts (Jansen 2018, 7), which qualifies wikis as archives even regardless of the aforementioned.

[5.13] Moreover, as is often the case with wikis about fictional media franchises (especially video games), UESP also offers the cultural texts themselves just like the more traditionally archive-like Library does, even if it does so in a slightly different form. The Library, for its part, is not an open-source archive, which makes it more like a classical archive than some of its peers: just as a public library would not allow its visitors to spontaneously add books to its collection, or just as a national archival institute would not accept any amateur historian to make a contribution, neither does the Library facilitate unmoderated input from its users. This aforementioned robustness makes for a notably different relationship with the archive. As a visitor and researcher, I can browse as freely and anonymously as I can on UESP, but I cannot interact directly with the material to the extent that I can on UESP. To speak in generalizing terms, if UESP is reflective of an archival paradigm shift toward "participatory archiving" (Cook 2013, 113–16), the Imperial Library shows that the older paradigms of authoritative evidence-based and memory-based archiving (106–9) can still flourish in digital media. If UESP is ephemeral, the Library is intimidating.

[5.14] Although there is still a power structure in place within the UESP community, this hierarchy is much subtler (and much flatter) than in the Library, where my status as a mere visitor is clear at every point. In combination with my own knowledge about the websites' histories—UESP is older, but the Library has a more direct relationship with the developers of The Elder Scrolls—browsing the Library acquires a slight element of reverence. I cannot help but feel that the Library's materiality affects my disposition toward it. I find myself considering the Imperial Library of a higher prestige, in some way more reliable than the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages despite the fact that there is a very high amount of overlap between the two in terms of textual content. Perhaps most telling of this bias is the sheer fact that I am inclined to write about being in the Library but on UESP.

6. Situated (in) archives

[6.1] Although some of my observations are surely generalizable across the Elder Scrolls fan community, my experience of these fan-made archives is not universal. No single experience ever is, and that is precisely the point. When we conduct the kind of (auto)ethnographic research that is prevalent in fan studies, we should not attempt to play what Donna Haraway calls a "god-trick" (1991, 189) and conveniently forget our own situatedness within fandom and culture at large (cf. Hills 2012). Conversely, in accounting for our position we should also take care to not reduce that account to an "I-trick" either, which Gloria Wekker describes as "a rhetorical gesture in which personal announcements about a hegemonic self are made within an identity-political context, without making any attempts to break out of that context" (1996, 64, translation mine).

[6.2] While these critiques were originally aimed at white feminist scholars who wrote about their own positioning at the intersections of gender and race, they are evidently applicable in our current context, too. That is, simply calling attention to our double membership of academia and fandom does not suffice; we should demonstrate what these qualifications mean for our practice and our own approach to our research object of choice, not only recognizing our limitations but also actively working to move beyond them. For instance,

[6.3] I should state that my interest in these matters is mostly driven by my preference for the Elder Scrolls games and their lore, not by any previous deep engagement with the communities on-site or the archives themselves. This position initially posed some problems regarding the accurate portrayal of this fandom: while I personally ascribe certain meanings to the archival structures within which users express their fandom, it is important that these ascriptions should at least be informed by the views of the community itself and do proper justice to the culture they have collectively created. (Jansen 2018, 6)

[6.4] While this balancing of emic and etic interpretations is already one of the most generally familiar concerns underlying ethnographic endeavors in many fields, the specific self-reflexive angle that I have argued for throughout this article would be a valuable addition to any scholar-fan's methodological tool kit when it comes to archival research. At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that we cannot know ourselves entirely, just as any account of the affects of the archive is necessarily going to be incomplete. The thing about both affect and bias is that they are by definition unconscious and difficult to grasp until attention is called to their existence—and they often remain so after they have been exposed. The example I have provided only accounts for the potential affects and biases that I was aware of at the time of writing, while many different ones may still be unknown and likely unknowable to me. We should not let this inevitable incompleteness discourage us from trying, of course. A partial, situated, yet responsible account of fannish archives is better than one that presents itself as completely objective and impartial, or than none at all.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] My sincere thanks to Susanne Knittel for her feedback on a very early version of this text, to Andrea Di Pastena for reading the first full draft, and to my anonymous peer reviewers for their engaging and helpful comments.

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