I added a week on music to my Gender in the Media syllabus this past semester because I am still deciding whether or not I want my next project to be about music, and I chose the “Communities of Sound: Queering South Asian Popular Music in the Diaspora” chapter from Gayatri Gopnath‘s Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures because Cornershop‘s Brimful of Asha is one of my favorite songs ever (albeit in the Norman Cook remix).
In rereading the piece in order to teach, Gopinath’s discussion of the queer counterpublic produced through South Asian gay men’s public audiencing of Sufi devotional music—in which men could publicly dance together in a way that both participated in Sufi tradition and produced space for gay subjectivity—stood out to me.
Particularly, it was Gopinath’s reference to Michael Warner‘s definition of publics as coming into being through texts that resonated. So, since I had Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics on the shelf waiting to be read (Amazon helpfully informs me that I bought it in January 2011, so it’s been a good long time gathering dust), I decided to check out the chapter of the same name to see what kind of leverage the production of publics by texts could give me.
And it seems to me that the production and circulation of fan texts—and therefore of fandom as a (counter)public –does work in much the way Warner describes, and that thinking through it in his terms illuminates some important aspects of fandom. In this, I’m also drawing on an exchange I had recently about fandom and authorship with fellow grad student Judith Fathallah of Cardiff University, who found me through this very blog.
Fandom, as a public, comes into being through being addressed as readers/audiences for fan texts. Like all publics, that is, this is not an address to individual readers or interlocutors, but to an imagined body. But it’s not just any body that is hailed (and yes, I know that Warner specifically distinguishes his view from Althusser’s interpellation, but I think they’re more similar than he concedes if he is less literal about the police example), but rather people with particular characteristics.
On one hand, the demarcation of not just any body is because fandom is a counterpublic—or, at least, particular kinds of fandom exist as a counterpublic, while others are subpublics. The larger public that is addressed by things like political rhetoric or the news has a pretense of being comprised of all people, though it’s not really universal but rather a particular sort of imagined rational-critical human with the predictable unmarked, imagined-as-default conditions of whiteness, heterosexuality, maleness, middle-classness, etc.
A subpublic is comprised of people not operating within those assumptions while being hailed, but not imagined to be distinct from “the” public—Warner’s example is readers of Field and Stream magazine; in the fan context we might think of fanboys (a plug for Suzanne Scott‘s excellent work on fanboys)
A counterpublic, on the other hand, cannot make such claims to universality, and indeed does not seek to. Counterpublics are produced with a sharp division from that larger public in a context of subordination; for our purposes that’s fangirls or girl fans or fans engaging in feminized practices like fiction and vidding.
On the other hand, but relatedly, while not calling on an imagined universal population, fandom is projecting a subpopulation with particular characteristics. Fan fiction, for example, is produced for an imagined audience of people who know not only the “source” text or texts, but—more importantly—people who understand what fan fiction is as a genre. This can be seen from the ways in which people tend not to do the work of explaining how to interpret these things.
When people write, they are writing with the understanding that the group of people who ultimately read them will understand that they are reworking popular cultural texts within a set of conventions. The same assumption would be true for fan vids or meta (essays). And through addressing an imagined public with those specifications, that writing performatively calls one into being: Fandom is the group of people who understand what I am doing in this fan text. The circularity is not accidental but integral.
This is not necessarily always a true assumption, any more than the imagined perfectly rational deciding reader of political discourse ever actually exists. Any given individual or community is going to have a different place they draw the lines of what constitutes appropriate deployment of the conventions that produce fandom: How much sex and what kind? How “alternative universe” is too far removed? Real person fiction or not? Etc. But the text speaks to an audience that shares its assumptions and then actual people negotiate the extent to which this hail means them.
The public of fandom is produced through an ongoing circulation of these texts binding people together. It’s performatively constituted each time a text makes a claim to the existence of this particular counterpublic. The continualness is key, as fandom, like all publics, must be continually reconstituted through being addressed. (And, as we know from other forms of performativity like Judith Butler‘s discussion of gender, that characteristic of iteration is where change happens, for better or worse, which is why I get so concerned when industry is the one doing the hailing.)