Toward a queered and/as affective theory of fandom

JSA Lowe

University of Houston, Houston, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Wittgensteinian propositions are used to investigate whether there is some benefit from thinking about objects of fandom and their vectors via affect theory and queer theory as an inverse analytical approach: fandom as something that is not text specific but rather affect or even body specific.

[0.2] Keywords—Affect theory; Fandom studies; Queer theory

Lowe, JSA. 2020. "Toward a Queered and/as Affective Theory of Fandom." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Literary theorist Michael Snediker (2016) has spoken of himself as possessing, while still young, "that extra sixth gay sense that couldn't not feel all the things that people without the sense just didn't notice, or took for granted, but mostly didn't think about…[things] by which they were not transfixed." Attaching to particular objects in a manner we call fannish offers similarly affectually poignant moments; they pierce and mark the self, as one is implicated by things, to use Snediker's word: objects existing in felt life. Before queer and/or fannish people manage to find each other, we often tend to find textual objects with and against which to resonate.

[1.2] That congruency seems unlikely to be a coincidence. In fact these attachments are intimately related, just as affect theory derives from/alongside theories of queerness, not least by virtue of being similarly concerned with the ontological production of embodiment and selfhood, identity, communities, and politically othered ways of perceiving and experiencing. The parallel genealogies of queer and affect theory may be traced through Eve Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet (1990) through to Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, Vol. 2 (1985), and, I would argue, Elaine Scarry, whose Body in Pain (1985) offers a theory of affect in its close examination of presence and embodiment, particularly as it describes the circumference of attention that both radiates outward from and feeds into a sense of self.

[1.3] Scholar-fans, then, may derive some benefit from thinking about objects of fandom and their carriers in this way: as affect seeking content from the world of things. We might consider this an inverse analytical approach: fandom not as something that is text specific but affect specific or even body specific. The fan as a person—as any person—could be considered as acting as container or vessel for a physically incoherent, unstable, epiphenomenological set of affectual drives.

[1.4] I would therefore like to offer a series of theoretical claims in the form of axioms, in the style of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1922). The Tractatus represents Wittgenstein's first and foundational attempt to anatomize the relationship between sensible reality, concepts, or mental formations about that reality, and the language we use to navigate between the two. Through this series of assertions, I gesture toward a situation vis-à-vis fannish states of being, and toward ways such states are au fond queer and inextricably felt.

2. Axioms

1.1. Queerness is everything that is the case.

[1.1.1] With respect to what we mean by what is the case, Lauren Berlant (2007) suggests, "The case represents a problem-event that has animated some kind of judgment. Any enigma could do—a symptom, a crime, a causal variable, a situation, a stranger, or any irritating obstacle to clarity. […] The case organizes publics, however fleeting" (663–64).

[1.1.2] By its being presented as an object for our inquiry, whatever is the case has self-selected as distinctive or as other. It offers itself for consideration by virtue of displaying a profile, rising as visible above the horizon, or having a difference in texture, standing out from a smooth, featureless background, like a piece of sand inside an oyster or a stone in a shoe; or by presenting itself to our sensorium as stellar and lovely, attracting the gaze with its to-be-looked-at-ness. These are the things that are our case; they are our instances of media, our creations, our signifiers of fannish feeling. I use the possessive pronoun as we lay claim to that which appears to us, in the sense of the Greek verb phainetai—to materialize in the way that a god or an angel appears out of nothingness.

[1.1.3] Those things that are the case are Snediker's (2016) queered things. These things occupy a fluid, fluctuating category of phenomena. They are items, quantities, social relations, and states of perception and/or existence. They might be, as Berlant (2011) notes, "a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept, or scene" (2), or "a scouring love…obsessive appetites, patriotism, a career, all kinds of things" (25). Things is probably as close as we can get to them. They are moving targets; they push away from description and from being pointed at directly, like magnets repelling one another. But for scholars preoccupied with fandoms and fannish attachments, we instantly recognize such "obsessive appetites," defined as they are by Lacanian excess—by unbounded, supererogatory jouissance.

1.2. That which is the case involves a body.

[1.2.1] Anything that is the case must perforce involve what is felt. We can see the Derridean trace of this feltness in the consistency with which analyses of fandom and fan works introduce themselves with precisely such an autoethnographic origin story. Before we attempt to proceed in the first instance, we illuminate the case; we turn toward it; we locate our affectual interest within our own self, a body we know best (or at least a body we believe we know best—that is, we know it from a certain regular set of distances, ones that we tend to believe overlap completely with that self).

[1.2.2] Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (2010) quote theorist Bruno Latour when they note that, when approached as if soluble in affect, "the body becomes less about its nature as bounded substance…[and more] 'as an interface'" (11). The body's permeability to the case is queered, and its primary technology, its simulacrum of an operating system, is language, that conceptual techne that negotiates between world as reality and world as self.

1.3. Felt life is embodied.

[1.3.1] To say felt life is embodied is to say it is experienced from within or by having a body. Gregg and Seigworth (2010) describe affect by the fact of a body experiencing it: "Affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body…in those resonances that circulate about, between and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds" (1). Fandom is highly communicable, thanks to its being thusly embodied, and can be transmitted from person to person, as each fan encounters other carriers of affect who are seeking similar content.

1.4. A body is a dwelling.

[1.4.1] Heidegger (1971) argues, "Dwelling occurs as…preservation. To spare and preserve means: to take under our care, to look after in its presencing. What we take under our care must be kept safe.…Dwelling itself is always a staying with things" (151). What then does it mean to dwell in a body?

[1.4.2] Philosopher Bruce Janz (2017) retranslates this utterance as, "We dwell in a place when we are at peace in that place, when we exist there in freedom which leads us to spare and preserve that place. One dwells in a home, and one preserves and protects that home. It is also the place where, at least at the best of times, the facades are dropped. You can be yourself where you dwell. You don't have to put on a role for a particular occasion." How can we have peace and comfort in a body as a dwelling? Sara Ahmed's (2006) queer phenomenology can help locate us here, both as fans and as researchers: "To be oriented is also to be oriented toward certain objects, those that help us find our way. These are the objects we recognize, such that when we face them, we know which way we are facing" (543). Once oriented, we know where to find home, an experience described by so many fans upon encountering either their beloved object or other people who share that love. I find it no accident that queer people, as they gather together in numbers, feel the same.

2.1. Feeling interpenetrates a body/embodiment and action/change.

[2.1.1] Theorist Brian Massumi (2002) states, "When I think of my body and ask what it does to earn that name…it moves as it feels, and it feels itself moving. Can we think a body without this: an intrinsic connection between movement and sensation?" He goes on to note, "Cultural theory…has tended to bracket [movement/sensation] and their unmediated connection" (1). Between being in a body that senses and being in a world that acts upon us and upon which we act comes what Massumi calls a conceptual displacement: affect. This is the displacement seeking solace and stability within the matrix of fandom.

2.2. The body negotiates perceptibility, perceived, perception, and perceiver.

[2.2.1] Massumi (2002) argues, "The charge of indeterminacy carried by a body is inseparable from it. […] But…far from regaining a concreteness, to think the body in movement thus means accepting the paradox that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body. Of it, but not it. Real, material, but incorporeal. Inseparable, coincident, but disjunct" (5). Can we, are we physically able to, conceive of fandom not as a set of static quantifiers or anything measurable but rather as something biologically living? Fandom might be a liquid or gel, undulating with continual activity, oozing meaning and significance from every cell, in its most basic aspect as human medium or go-between, an animate carrier of culture.

2.3. A fannish experience is both within and without a body.

[2.3.1] Berlant (2006): "What happens in this space of time helps to explain why exuberant attachments keep ticking…like a white noise machine that provides assurance that what seems like threat or static really is, after all, a rhythm people can enter into while they're dithering, tottering, bargaining, testing, or otherwise being worn out by the promises that they have attached to in this world" (23). Fandom as we have studied it and participated in it can be exhausting in its vitality and its quality of flaring up. As with any endeavor, we find both bodily relief and weariness in it.

3.1. A picture of feelings is a fandom.

[3.1.1] Continuing to riff on, not to say mangle, the Tractatus: Wittgenstein's "A logical picture of facts is a thought" (10) rendered fannish. Similarly, almost a corollary:

4.1. A fandom is a movement of objects with feelings.

[4.1.1] This is not the way we are used to defining or describing a fandom. We tend to focus on the spaces and/as groups: the objects, the practices. But what if what is essential appears invisible? What then?

5.1. A fandom is a function of elementary feelings.

[5.1.1] Psychologist Silvan Tomkins, often credited as the originator of affect theory, identified nine emotions over the course of his work; more recently, psychologist Marsha Linehan (2014) isolated eight. Most of us, when asked how we feel, will state our thoughts and beliefs in return, not what we are feeling. We will say, for example, "I feel attacked" or "I feel that things are going well." Colloquially, we accept these as feeling statements, shorthand for biological epiphenomena such as cringing or smiling. It can be no accident that charts of feelings are often arrayed as spectra or wheels, often using primary colors to help differentiate between positive and dispositive feelings. We as fan-scholars may mentally taxonomize fans—as do fans themselves—into groups on the basis of media object, shared interest, or other visible common trait, because Western thought has, since Aristotle and Augustine, prioritized the visible; but affect is what moves us to organize. Elementary feelings—movement toward, movement away from—are what draw bodies into a space in the first place. Affect will seek content.

6.1. The general form of a feeling is the general form of a fandom.

[6.1.1] What if a feeling determines a fandom, not an object, a discursive practice, an individual or a community? What then? We might need to change every aspect of the way in which we discuss all four. Ideally, the consequences might include other approaches or insights besides new taxonomies or ways of organizing objects, fans, fandoms, and/as fannish behaviors or movements.

[6.1.2] Anna Wilson (2016) draws a connection between ancient literature and contemporary pieces of fan fiction by noting that fan fiction cultivates intimacy between the reader and the original source text or canon through a focus on affect: "Affective hermeneutics direct focus toward moments of high emotion in a text that stimulate equally strong feelings in the reader; these heighten a sense of empathy, connection, or intimacy" (¶ 2.4). Affect seeks content; we already have feelings, and we seek out the text we need to amplify them, or to assert them in language that explicates our own state of being and mirrors it back to us.

[6.1.3] Wilson (2016) notes that "fan fiction's primary focus on the emotional life of texts" results in fans' "seeking out certain kinds of emotional experiences" (¶ 2.5). We awaken every day into consciousness, made motile by our bodily drives: toward comfort and replenishment, away from discomfort and antagonism (or leaning into it, as another kind of need). Given tagging systems that enable us to sort our environment, we are metaphorically phototropic, moving toward fannish objects that describe and redefine our emotional biome. They offer an affectual outline within which we can color our state of being.

7.1. Whereof one cannot feel, thereof fandom must be silent.

[7.1.1] Or, to loop back around to the other magnetic pole of these axioms, another way of saying this might be:

[7.1.2] Whereof one cannot fan, thereof queerness must be silent.

[7.1.3] No object exists without fannish affect, without some degree or quality of feeling beyond base attentiveness or noticing. This is a more mysterious ontology than a falling tree's making no sound without someone to hear it. Without a body to have a feeling, without a feeling to affect a body, nothing can be the case.

[7.1.4] No object is queer in the absence of affect; by extension, attention and affect themselves fail to be queer. Anna Wilson points out that if everything is queer, nothing is (pers. comm.); and while we are playing with the concepts of queer theory, we must also keep in mind the realpolitik of queer bodies working to be recognized and protected amid an often violently inhospitable public. When Sedgwick writes about reparative texts in Touching Feeling (2003), the presumption is that there is a schism or a wrongness that can actually be repaired. Both fans who identify as queer and queer people who do not identify as fans often carry out this labor. Just as our ancestors moved stones into shapes like rings or walls—as they made their marks—so we continue this manipulation of our environment in words, code, emoji, pixels, edits, GIFs, and PNGs.

[7.1.5] Rather, then, than looking to fandom to be a photorealistic picture or image of a made thing, some set of attachments rendered tangible (visible, perceptible by a sensorium), a sort of still life containing both media objects and transformed objects—as well as a distinct entity we call a fan-participant doing labor, working to carry content back and forth between two kinds of objects—we might instead look to fandom and consider it as any of these things. These things are queered possibilities of substance: a membrane, a border, a location, a transitory site, a fluctuating scene; a dwelling, an occasion of feelings, an opportunity to feel, a queer feeling, an extension of a body, a group of bodies creating and inscribing their innermost feelings into physical space; a quantity of emotion, an unquantifiable but perceptible rainbow-like spectrum of emotion, a home.

3. Acknowledgments

[3.1] Thanks to Katrin Tiidenberg, Elise Vist, and Anna Wilson for their helpful comments.

4. References

Ahmed, Sara. 2006. "Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology." Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12 (4): 543–74.

Berlant, Lauren. 2006. "Cruel Optimism." Differences 17 (3): 20–36.

Berlant, Lauren. 2007. "On the Case." Critical Inquiry 33 (4): 663–72.

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. 2010. "An Inventory of Shimmers." In The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 1–25. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1971. "Building Dwelling Thinking." In Poetry, Language, and Thought, translated by Albert Hofstadter, 145–61. New York: Harper & Row.

Janz, Bruce. 2017. "Heidegger and Dwelling." Paper presented at the NEH Summer Institute "Space, Place, and the Humanities," Northeastern University, Boston, MA, July 24–28, 2017.

Linehan, Marsha M. 2014. DBT Skills Training Manual. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Snediker, Michael P. 2016. Facebook, January 18, 2016.

Wilson, Anna. 2016. "The Role of Affect in Fan Fiction." In "The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work," edited by Ika Willis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 21.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1961. Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. Translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.