Book review

Fans: The mirror of consumption, by Cornel Sandvoss

Eve Marie Taggart

Atlanta, Georgia, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Theodor Adorno; Camille Bacon-Smith; Deconstructionism; Fandom; Herbert Marcuse

Taggart, Eve Marie. 2008. Fans: The mirror of consumption, by Cornel Sandvoss [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.

Cornel Sandvoss. Fans: The mirror of consumption. Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2005. Hardcover, $59.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0745629728.

[1] Fans are accustomed to being stereotyped, sometimes affectionately (Galaxy Quest), sometimes not (Bimbos of the Death Sun). In her well-known study Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992), Camille Bacon-Smith inadvertently presented an image of the fan as an inadequate, highly neurotic personality. Most fans have at some point witnessed the kind of neurotic behavior she describes, which gave her portrayal a depressing weight.

[2] Viewed through this lens, the early chapters of Cornel Sandvoss's Fans: The Mirror of Consumption are a welcome antidote. Rather than presenting a definitive portrayal of The Fan, he argues that fandom is too varied for any such portrayal to be possible. In reference to Bacon-Smith's portrayal of fans, Sandvoss points out that she based her study on a narrow and specific segment of fandom. Despite the prevalent jokes about fans, this is not a representative sample of fandom. Sandvoss cites numerous sources to prove that fans are a widely diverse group, found in every socioeconomic class and education level. We are not all the dysfunctional victims portrayed by Bacon-Smith; in fact, the majority of us are not.

[3] Sandvoss further bolsters this diversity by not limiting himself to fans of movies and television shows, on which much of fandom scholarship has focused. He demonstrates that sports and music fans demonstrate the same kinds of emotional involvement as television fans do, and they engage in the same kind of "fanalysis," interpreting the object of their fandom according to their own worldview. Sandvoss cites an especially amusing example of this when he quotes two fans of the Chelsea Football Club: one of them sees the team as the embodiment of success, while the other claims that the team has only ever been "almost successful" before sabotaging itself.

[4] Surprisingly, in his conclusion, Sandvoss expresses distress over the very lack of class boundaries he documents in fandom: "Fandom…further cements the status quo by undermining the role of class as a vector of social change." Many fans would argue that their hobby—by definition something they do for fun—should not be expected to be a vector of social change.

[5] The middle third of this study is probably the most interesting to the nonacademic with an interest in fandom. The first third is largely taken up with defining terms and surveying the territory, the final third with deconstructionist analysis, while the middle third has the most discussion about actual fans, their actual thoughts, and their actual activities. Interestingly, Sandvoss discusses fan jargon near his discussion of John Lennon fandom, but misses a jargon convention of that fandom: because Lennon's murderer was motivated by the fame he would acquire by killing someone famous, Lennon fans deprive him of his prize by referring to him only by his initials.

[6] It is in the final third of this book that its greatest weakness is the most glaring. Sandvoss imposes a political interpretation on fandom while acknowledging that the evidence for this interpretation is weak. In his conclusion, he actually says, "It is in the 'little breakages' between fan and object of fandom in the relationship, which leave fans disillusioned and sometimes disenfranchised, that fandom's progressive negative potential lies." Are fans to understand that when we are disappointed that our preferred "ships" do not get together, our dissatisfaction is contributing to eventual world revolution?

[7] Sandvoss seems eager to interpret fandom as a sort of suburban guerilla resistance, the disempowered consumer combating the powerful producers with fan fiction and performances rather than guns. He even describes slash writers in these terms: "The female fans in Bacon-Smith's study are not motivated predominantly by an aspiration for a utopian future. Rather, much as in the case of actual guerilla fighters, their activity is a response to their everyday life struggles and deprivations and the lack of opportunity to counter these within the dominant power system." Slash fan fiction has been subjected to this subversive interpretation especially often, but given the frequency with which slash characters engage in monogamous, saccharine romances and even have weddings, one could just as easily interpret slash fiction as an attempt to "tame" homosexual behavior by bringing it into the patterns of traditional heterosexual relationships. In any case, Sandvoss acknowledges in several places that many fans accept the "hegemonic" interpretation of the characters offered by the owners and creators of the text, such as the implied disapproval of promiscuity in the depiction of the character Lucinda in Beverly Hills 90210 (1990–2000). Sandvoss shows that fandom as ideological resistance is a simplistic interpretation. He admits that the many fans who do not interpret their chosen texts in a manner contrary to that intended by the creators "become themselves factors in maintaining the subsistence of the social status quo." Throughout the book, he goes in the same circle in different ways: proving that fans can be all sorts of people with all sorts of belief systems, then trying to shoehorn fannish activity into his ideas of civil disobedience. He reluctantly concludes by admitting that what fans themselves do and say does not bear out the political interpretation he prefers.

[8] Indeed, Sandvoss often has difficulty keeping his own ideology out of his analysis. That ideology is made clear by his frequent admiring references to critical theorists Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno. After mentioning the usurious prices sometimes paid by fans to ticket scalpers, he says,

[9] We may take comfort from the fact that this process of reclamation is not without its own pitfalls. It may be in the true spirit of Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market economy that tens of thousands of dollars will have ended up being pocketed by ticket touts…Yet the formation of such a black market economy is clearly not in the interest of the official institutions of the capitalist state.

[10] He takes for granted that the reader needs to be "comforted" after this mention of the black market's practical demonstration of the market principle.

[11] In another, especially glaring example, he explains that he interprets Star Wars as a David and Goliath story. He then expresses surprise that a member of the U.S. Army was partly inspired to enlist by his love of Star Wars. Sandvoss makes it clear that he is thinking of Star Wars in terms of a small, ragtag volunteer army of guerillas fighting against a huge, officially sanctioned, well-organized army of a powerful government. Sandvoss quotes this soldier as explaining that he sees himself as "the rebels fighting against an evil empire with an all-encompassing state and no tolerance for other lifestyles" and valuing his "chance to fight against a tyrannical government and system." But Sandvoss still does not seem to see that to the soldier, the point is good versus evil, (comparatively) limited government versus the "all-encompassing state" found in today's China and the former USSR, and tolerance versus the lack of same found in Islamic fundamentalist states. Sandvoss still cannot shake his "David versus Goliath" interpretation. (He is British, and so may also be unaware of another factor: Despite being citizens of a superpower now, many Americans still identify themselves with their Revolutionary War ancestors, who were a ragtag guerilla army that defeated the well-organized soldiers of what was then the world's greatest power, England.) To his credit, however, after expressing his bafflement, he returns to his central point, that of the wide variety in fandom: "The point, again, is the possibility and actuality of such readings."

[12] Later, he quotes Adorno as saying that life is meaningless, and Sandvoss dismisses fannish creations as "an art or craft form which has nothing to say but the false illusion of a meaningful world." The idea that the world is meaningless is a bit heavy to be suddenly introduced into an analysis of fandom, and he does so without any acknowledgement that some readers might actually believe that the world is not, in fact, meaningless. He goes on to say that other fan scholars he has cited "cannot account for [fannish] enjoyment as being a meaningful engagement with otherness, and thus a premiss of social change if in fact it is self-reflective." This relies on the assumption that fandom should be "a premiss of social change." Admittedly, proving that it should would be outside the scope of this work, but once again, he is taking the reader's agreement with his personal stance on the proper purpose of fandom as a given. He is clearly writing for an academic audience, but is academia so homogenous? Do all academics believe that the world is meaningless and that hobbies ought to fuel social revolution?

[13] Unlike the works of Bacon-Smith or Henry Jenkins, this work is aimed primarily at an academic, not a popular, audience. Dense sentences such as "In other words, by interjecting the object world with our self-reflection, which in turn reflects and expresses the ego's libidinal basis, we counteract surplus repression" make this clear. There is some content that will be of interest to the nonacademic fan, such as the anecdotes of fannish behavior, or the story of how Batwoman and Batgirl were introduced during the 1950s in a less than successful ploy to neutralize the homoerotic perception of Batman and Robin. However, these nuggets of fannish lore are surrounded by postmodern analyses involving Marcuse's narcissism, one-dimensionality, polysemy, and the Frankfurt School, concepts with which many nonacademics will not be conversant.

[14] For the academic with an interest in fandom, this is an indispensable work, despite the author's unconvincing politicization of fandom. Sandvoss succeeds in his intention to "order some of the existing maps of fandom and set them in relation to a map of areas of fandom." His accomplishments more than adequately compensate for the obtrusion of his own ideology: for example, demonstrating that the same texts can be interpreted according to many different perspectives, thus not confining fandom to any particular philosophical stance; and his data showing that fans of sports teams and rock groups interact with their object of fandom much the same way as authors of media-based fandom do.

[15] For fans, we at least owe Sandvoss a debt of gratitude for striking a telling blow to the unflattering stereotypes of fandom.

7. Work cited

Bacon-Smith, Camille. 1992. Enterprising women: Television fandom and the creation of popular myth. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.