Geek Culture: An Annotated Interdisciplinary Bibliography by William L. Svitavsky
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Geek Culture: An Annotated Interdisciplinary Bibliography [printable version]
William L. Svitavsky
In recent years, there have been numerous studies on science fiction fans, role-playing games, comic book fans, and the culture of those strongly interested in computers. When a study profiles a group engaged in one of these activities, it is not unusual for the group's participation in the other activities to be mentioned as well. In popular culture (as opposed to studies of popular culture), this overlap has been recognized all along. Each of these groups has been ridiculed as "geeks" or "nerds", and each has subverted those terms into proud self-identification. In his work on media fandom, Henry Jenkins observes that active audiences are "textual poachers" who move from one text to another, and cannot be accurately defined by their relationship with a single text; it may be useful, then, to study geek culture as a whole rather than to focus exclusively on its component areas of interest. This bibliography is an effort to support such a study of the interrelated "geek" subcultures.
The list of works here is not intended to be a comprehensive collection of all studies of geek culture. Indeed, a comprehensive approach may not be possible if we reject the convenient reference point of single defining interests; in acknowledging a geek culture that consists of a variety of interests, we must recognize that the community may at any point extend to include enthusiasms for other media products or hobbies. To maintain a clear scope while working within such vaguely defined boundaries, this bibliography focuses chiefly on works that give some attention to the diverse interests of geeks. Furthermore, the works described here are included on the merits of their description of the community and its participants rather than analyses of the texts of interest to the community: examinations of science fiction fans rather than criticism of science fiction works, for example. Also excluded are studies of cyberculture such as Mark Dery's Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century that reflect computer technology's impact on society as a whole. Though the knowledge and icons of computer culture have grown ever more prominent in the mainstream, computer geeks remain worth consideration as a separate group. While this bibliography is selective, not all items are chosen for their quality of research; rather, this list is intended to be representative of studies of and attitudes about geek culture.
The approaches of the works cited here are from diverse disciplines, including psychology, communications, popular culture studies, and textual studies. Journalistic works are also included where they represent the most significant treatment of a topic. The scope is confined, however, to systematic studies of geek culture, excluding expressions of that culture intended exclusively for fans. The theoretical frameworks employed in these texts are at least equally diverse, though certain cultural theories, particularly those of Pierre Bourdieu and Michel De Certeau, have been particularly fruitful in application to the geek subculture. This bibliography does not attempt to list the original sources of these theoretical frameworks, but rather focuses on particular applications to the geek activities and interests.
Abyeta, Suzanne and James Forest. "Relationship of Role-Playing Games to Self-Reported Criminal Behaviour." Psychological Reports 69 (3, pt. 2) (1991): 1187-1192.
This is one of numerous studies of role-playing games (including Dungeons and Dragons and other games) that consider popular belief that these games impair players' ability to distinguish between reality and ultimately finds nothing to support the belief. The article cites several previous studies to establish the lack of any empirical evidence for this belief, or for the contrasting belief of role-playing game supporters that the hobby attracts particularly imaginative and intelligent persons. Abyeta and Forest's study expands on previous work by focusing on personality and socioeconomic measures of both role-players and non-role-players, and the subjects' involvement in criminal activity. Their study is based on evaluation of a questionnaire given to 20 male and female students at the University of Manitoba who were involved with role-playing games and 25 male and female psychology students with no experience with the games. The study finds no significant connection between role-playing games and criminal activity. The only significant difference it does identify between role-players and non-role-players is a slightly higher incidence of psychoticism among the non-role-players; this difference is acknowledged as a possible fluke of a small sample size, but also as a topic worthy of future study.
Carroll, James L. and Paul M. Carolin. "Relationship between Game Playing and Personality." Psychological Reports 64 (1989): 705-6.
The scope of this study includes not only fantasy adventure games such as Dungeons and Dragons, but also card games, board games, and videogames. The article cites conflicting previous literature in the discipline, some of which identifies emotional passivity, underachievement, and less interpersonal sensitivity among players of videogames, while others find that game-playing fosters autonomy, logical thinking, and conflict resolution skills. A questionnaire was given to 75 college students and to members of a games club. Like many such studies, this one finds the personalities of game players to be "normal and even mundane."
Carter, Robert and David Lester. "Personalities of Players of Dungeons & Dragons." Psychological Reports 82(1) (1998): 182.
This study further explores a suggestion in previous research (by Douse and McManus, below) that players of fantasy role-playing games are less empathic and more introverted than control groups. Carter and Lester administered the Eysenck Personality Inventory and Beck Depression Inventory to 20 men who played Dungeons and Dragons and compared their scores to control groups of male undergraduates. The scores on all scales resembled those of the control groups.
Dear, William. The Dungeon Master: the Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III. London: Sphere, 1984.
This is a sensationalized account of the much-publicized search for a young computer genius in 1979. The author, William Dear, was the private investigator who conducted the search. Dear initially speculated that the sixteen-year-old's disappearance might be related to his enthusiasm for Dungeons and Dragons; searchers looked for Dallas Egbert in the steam tunnels under the Michigan State University campus on the hypothesis that he was playing a version of D&D there. Facts eventually came to light proving that Egbert's disappearance had nothing to do with D&D, but Dear's often inaccurate account of the boy's involvement with gaming, computers, and science fiction did much to arouse public suspicions of role-playing gamers.
DeRenard, Lisa A. and Linda M. Kline. "Alienation and the Game Dungeons and Dragons." Psychological Reports 66 (3, pt. 2) (1990): 1219-1222.
This is yet another study in response to claims by media and the public regarding Dungeons and Dragons. DeRenard and Kline focus particularly on claims that the game causes its players to become detached and alienated from family, friends, and society. The researchers administered a questionnaire containing the Anomia Scale to 35 members of a campus role-playing club and to 35 psychology students who had never played the game. In most respects, there were no significant differences between the results of the two groups. However, contrary to popular claims, fewer game players reported feelings of meaninglessness than did the control group; DeRenard and Kline hypothesize that the club itself may have given its members a sense of purpose. The study does find that those relatively more involved in Dungeons and Dragons, evaluated as such by the amount of money they spent on game materials, reported more feelings of alienation. The article suggests as a topic of further study whether D&D causes such players to become alienated, or if these persons were alienated prior to playing and chose to play in hopes of finding a sense of purpose.
Douse and McManus's psychological study investigates whether particular personality types can be associated with players of fantasy role-playing games. Thirty-eight players responded to a set of questionnaires: 35 male and 3 female with an average age of 21.5 years. The four standardized personality questionnaires were the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, the Decision-Making Questionnaire, the Empathy Questionnaire, and the Eysenck Personality Inventory. Compared to a control group, players showed significantly lower scores on empathy, were more introverted, were more likely to describe themselves as "scientific", and rated "playing with computers" and "reading" as preferred activities. The players tended to be male with high educational levels. While this study shows a discernible difference in the personality type between gamers and others, that difference is small and can be explained as the sort of difference likely to be found between individuals engaged in any hobby or interest from the population average.
Fine, Gary Alan. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
This work combines an ethnographic study of the community of role-playing gamers (circa the early 1980's) with analysis of the conceptual framework of the games that bring that community together. The elaborate meaning system of gamers, Fine argues, constitutes a "social world", but as a leisure subculture it necessarily admits the existence of other meanings and other ties. In role-playing games, the creation of worlds and cultures is a matter of conscious artifice, but this activity is bound by its own cultural expectations.
Much of the research in this book was conducted through participation; it is clear that Fine (who had not played RPG's prior to this study) understands gaming well enough to have been accepted as part of the subculture, and that he enjoyed his involvement. The study indicates general tendencies among gamers (who most often are male, are well educated, and value nonconformity) and conflicts within their community ranging from age differences and standards of behavior to types of gaming and styles of play. Fine explores how the culture of role-playing games shapes the subsociety of gamers; for example, how the imaginative interaction of gaming resembles a tamed version of physical play, perhaps explaining the activity's appeal more to men than to women.
Inevitably, many of Fine's observations are based in Dungeons and Dragons games, but the study does acknowledge role-playing games as a broader phenomenon, giving particular consideration to the science fiction RPG Traveller and the elaborate world of the fantasy game Empire of the Petal Throne. In a profile of the latter game's creator, M.A.R. Barker, Fine compares him with J.R.R. Tolkien, another fantasy world creator; Barker, like Tolkien, is an academic, a linguist, and (though married) has long associated with a close group of male friends. These traits typify common tendencies and values among role-playing gamers.
Finally, this work analyzes the dynamics of the games themselves by extending several sociological theoretical schemes, most notably Erving Goffman's concept of "frame analysis". Games and gamers function in three different frames: the real world, the structure of game rules, and the imaginative landscape of the game world. In the complexities of gaming's world-making, Fine suggests, there is opportunity to understand how meaning is constructed in many other social contexts.
Leeds, Stuart M. "Personality, Belief in the Paranormal, and Involvement with Satanic Practices among Young Adult Males: Dabblers vs. Gamers." Cultic Studies Journal 12(2) (1995): 148-165.
Leeds comments that previous work has provided "substantial evidence that there is no difference between a gamer's personality and that of the normal population", but this study nevertheless investigates the supposed tie between role-playing games and occult or Satanic practices. Three groups of adult males were given questionnaires: 66 fantasy role-playing gamers, 26 satanic dabblers, and a control group of 125. The questionnaires were used to measure psychoticism, extraversion, neuroticism, degree of involvement in gaming or satanic practices, and belief in the paranormal. Leeds found no significant differences between gamers and the control group, while the satanic dabblers showed marked differences in psychoticism, extraversion, and belief in the paranormal. Thirty-six percent of the gamers did report that playing Dungeons and Dragons had increased their curiosity about the occult, but none of the dabblers indicated any increase in their occult interests due to gaming. Like most published scholarly work on gaming, this article offers little insight into gamers beyond a repeated vindication from popular media accusations.
Simon, Armando. "Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Game of Dungeons & Dragons." Psychology in the Schools 24(4) (1987): 329-332.
This is one of the earlier studies to consider the claims that Dungeons and Dragons is harmful to its players, and to disprove those claims. Sixty-eight D&D players volunteered for this study; they were tested with Cattell's 16 PF Test (Form C) with particular attention to Factor C, which measures emotional stability. The results indicated a healthy psychological profile for the group as a whole; the only score that was remarkable at all was a measure of "Experimenting" indicating a relatively high level of liberality and free-thinking among the group.
Simon, Armando. "Emotional Stability Pertaining to the Vampire: the Masquerade." Psychological Reports 83(2) (1998): 732-4.
Years after Simon's study of D&D players, the role-playing game Vampire: the Masquerade had become popular and was attracting the same accusations to which D&D has been subject. Simon carried out a study similar to that of his earlier one with 24 Vampire players: 8 women and 16 men, ranging from age 18 to 46. The results were entirely mundane, with even the "Experimenting" measure unremarkable this time. It is significant that this article exists at all; after more than a decade of studies in this vein, the preponderance of studies not supporting the popular suspicions of role-playing games have failed to stop those accusations.
Toles-Patkin, T. "Rational Coordination in the Dungeon." Journal of Popular Culture 20, 1 (1986): 1-14.
Toles-Patkin provides in this article one of the most wide-ranging yet concise academic considerations of Dungeons and Dragons. It begins with a history of role-playing games' origin in war games and of the creation of D&D by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, then explains the basics of play for those unfamiliar with the game. Toles-Patkin then applies the socialization theories of George Herbert Mead and Brian Sutton-Smith to D&D, observing that new players proceed through identifiable steps in their learning of game skills and their relationship to the roles they adopt in playing. The author next explores the social meaning of D&D using the framework of Clifford Geertz's "deep play" as well as Donald Ball and John Loy's analysis of sport as a communal effort that can extend into other areas of life. Toles-Patkin dismisses accusations against the game of being too violent or compulsive, noting that the cooperation required of D&D players promotes the social value of working together for the common good. Finally, the article examines D&D's heavy reliance on information and its initial popularity among those who had contact with information technologies: computer scientists, engineers, and scientists. Though the mystical setting of the game could offer an outlet for any feelings of ambivalence about technology, at root D&D is structured for easy coordination of differing psychological orientations into logically consistent social organizations, reflecting and supporting a rationalistic and instrumental world view.
Borsook, Paulina. Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000.
This book, unapologetically liberal in perspective, explores and critiques the popularity of libertarian thought among those in the computer industry. It is journalistic in approach; many of the author's insights are gleaned from her experience as a writer for Wired magazine. Borsook subcategorizes "technolibertarianism" into political and philosophical outlooks; respectively, a political belief fearful of government interference in both personal and economic affairs, and an underlying view which resists interpersonal ties and holds money to be the best measure of superiority.
Borsook finds the roots of this political movement in the personal shortcomings of geeks. Where the free market philosophy of bionomics fails to value the unprofitable aspects of art and culture, she finds nerds resentful of artists and irrational behaviors they cannot understand. In the political activism of "cypherpunks" crusading to defend privacy from an intrusive government, she sees posturing emulation of heroes from Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and other fictions beloved by geeks. Sexual adventurism (including polyamory, sadomasochism, fetishism, and other variants) is popular among computer geeks while marriage and reproduction rates are strikingly low; Borsook interprets these phenomena as geeks challenged by conventional social ambiguities, resisting personal attachments or devising new, more explicitly rule-based approaches to relationships. This book's critique of geek culture is sharp and unrelenting.
Kelly, Kevin. "The Third Culture." Science 279(5353): 992-993.
The possibility of a "Third Culture" was first considered in the second edition of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures, published in 1964; Snow observed a split between intellectuals in the humanities and scientists, and imagined a culture where literary scholars and scientists could converse. Snow's terminology has recently been borrowed, reinterpreted, and repopularized by John Brockman, a literary agent to scientists with a Web site devoted to the topic (www.edge.org/3rd_culture/index.html). Kelly describes this "Third Culture" as the culture of nerds, a pop culture based in technology where creation rather than creativity is the preferred mode of action. The purpose of "nerdism", he asserts, is to create novelties as a means to truth and experience.
Kendall, Lori. "'Oh No! I'm a Nerd!': Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum." Gender & Society 14 (2) (2000): 256-274.
This article repeats some material from Kendall's earlier article "The Nerd Within" (below) but further develops a consideration of identity in the BlueSky online forum in terms of relationship to hegemenonic ideals of masculinity and whiteness. Kendall asserts that, contrary to avowals in various media, online social exchanges are like all other social exchanges in that they are simultaneously gendered, raced, and classed. BlueSky's participants, predominantly white and male, tend to possess characteristics associated with the nerd stereotype: fascination with technology, interest in science fiction, and social ineptitude. Their interactions reiterate concepts of masculinity and whiteness, but do so in a way that distances the participants from hegemonic ideals of masculinity and white identity. They make ironic jokes about men, women, and sexuality, mocking the portrayal of women as sex objects while carrying out that portrayal. Many identify themselves as "nice guys" unsuccessful with women, whom they see as desiring more abusive men. This pattern of behavior distances the BlueSky participants from both other men and most women. The group treats racial identity with similar complexity. One Chinese-American defines himself as white based on his mainstream American life, while other participants seek to distance themselves from white society. Ultimately, Kendall argues, these frequent reiterations of gender and racial identity leave intact underlying assumptions of white male dominance.
Kendall, Lori. "'The Nerd Within': Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity Among Computer-Using Men." Journal of Men's Studies 7(3) (1999): 353-69.
Through analysis of media sources and interaction with an online community of self-described "nerds," Kendall develops a profile of nerd identity, and posits this identity as an alternative masculinity. The nerd identity, she suggests, has implications regarding race, gender, sexuality, and class.
Kendall participated and observed in BlueSky, an interactive, text-only online forum known as a "MUD". MUD originally stood for Multi-User Dungeon, an online form of Dungeons & Dragons type games, but BlueSky at this point was primarily a social meeting place. The majority of BlueSky participants were middle-class, while, young, male and heterosexual. Kendall develops of basic profile - based on a self-understanding within the subculture - of nerds. Most (but not all) nerds are male. They do well in school, especially in math and science; they have high IQ's and value knowledge, but are socially inept. They collect objects associated with knowledge, are active science fiction fans, and are prone to dress badly and sometimes have poor personal hygiene. Kendall then examines the nerd's relationship to "hegemonic masculinity", a norm of identity that guarantees the dominant position of men in relation to women. The nerd, she argues, includes both aspects that are hyper-masculine (intellect and lack of "feminine" social skills) and those that are feminized (lack of sports ability and of sexual relationships with women.) She concludes that the nerd is one of many subordinated masculinities, but is also complicit with hegemonic masculinity. As the derogatory term nerd is now gaining some respect and status, Kendall suggests that hegemonic masculinity is now incorporating some aspects of the nerd identity, particularly in regard to computers. Kendall draws further understanding of nerds from the film Revenge of the Nerds and its sequels. In the model of oppressed nerds portrayed in those films, she finds a straight white male group that stands in for other oppressed groups, waylaying critiques of hegemonic masculinity without greatly expanding it.
Kendall's understanding of nerds is one of the most well-developed academic treatments of the group thus far, considering many of the group's traits and interests and examining the group's relationship to greater society. There may be some flaw here, however, in her combining the BlueSky community's self-understanding with the Revenge of the Nerds-stereotyped characters as a consistent text of nerdiness; she pays little attention to the potential differences between identity and stereotype.
Bacon-Smith, Camille and Tyrone Yarbrough. "Batman: the Ethnography." The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media. Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio, eds. New York: Routledge Press, 1991.
Bacon-Smith and Yabrough analyze the response to Tim Burton's Batman movie among both general audiences and comic book fans, detailing the composition and interpretive processes of the two groups, and in particular the importance that the character of Batman holds for them. Through ethnographic observation and interviews at a theater, a comics shop, and a comics convention, this article explains the contrasting responses of comics fans and non-fans through their different interpretive contexts. Many comic book fans were disappointed by the movie's failure to continue the narrative world they already knew. Yet they also wanted to like the film, both because Batman was already important to them and because they felt that the acceptance of Batman by mainstream audiences reflected, to some extent, acceptance of comic book fans.
Barker, Martin. "Seeing How Far You Can See: On Being a 'Fan' of 2000 AD." Reading Audiences: Young People and the Media. Ed. David Buckingham. New York: Manchester University Press, 1993. 159-183.
2000 AD is a science fiction anthology series prominent among British comic books since the late 1970s. Its most popular and enduring character is Judge Dredd, a totalitarian law enforcer who resides in an ambivalently presented urban future.
Barker studied 2000 AD readers through a questionnaire answered by 250 respondents (226 male, 20 female, 4 with gender unspecified) and through subsequent recorded interviews with selected individuals whose responses were typical of recurrent patterns he identified. Readers were asked questions including whether they would classify themselves as fans or casual readers, which other comics they read, what other interests they had (many were involved in computer- and role-playing games), how they would describe their own politics, how they perceived Judge Dredd's politics and morality, and how they perceived 2000 AD writers' politics and morality. His interviewees included a sixteen-year-old boy living with his mother and sister in a small mining town, an eighteen-year-old university student living with his family in a middle-class suburb, and a 25 year old working-class woman, yet Barker finds the commonality of their responses to key questions as significant as their differences. Rejecting the model of potentially infinite contextually-determined decodings of a text, he suggests that decoding can be broken down into at least three layers: reading for the literal sense of a text, textually-demanded interpretation, and evaluation of the results of these readings in relation to the reader's social position. The readers who responded to his questionnaires, he surmises, differ mainly in the conclusions they reach concerning the text, not in how they read the texts initially.
Barker favors a return to class perspective in audience research, focusing on issues of the organization and control of production. This stands in marked contrast to predominant practices and theories concerned primarily with audience resistance to or negotiation of textual meanings; the predominant approach tends to validate female interpretive pleasures while invalidating those of males. Men's pleasures in texts, he argues, are not necessarily evidence of their textual subordination. 2000 AD and Judge Dredd gain much of their appeal through ambivalent portrayals of the future which appeal to readers with incompatible orientations, juxtaposing a conservative fear of change with masculine heroic fantasies and with left-wing radical suspicion of the police.
Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001.
This study examines both the fans and the texts of comic books published by Milestone Media. Milestone was formed in the early 1990s by four young black creators, and its comics have featured a variety of African-American and other ethnic heroes. Brown's study combines participant-observation, textual analysis, and interviews to identify the importance of these minority heroes. Unlike much scholarship on audiences, there is a special effort here to include solitary fans as well as more socially active participants; Brown borrows a useful distinction between "fanship" and "fandom" from C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby's work on soap opera audiences. Brown's work also traces the history of black comic book superheroes back to their first appearances in the 1970s in a style inspired by "Blaxploitation" films; while these heroes now seem dated to readers and problematic to scholars, this study elucidates their historical significance and the relevance of that history to contemporary fans and creators.
Brown presents a useful analysis of the comic book audience with regard to race, including interviews and observations both with black readers and with other fans. However, while he acknowledges that there are many adult comics fans and a small minority of female fans, the audience members Brown concerns himself in this work are almost exclusively young boys. For Brown, the development of Milestone's "new heroes" is primarily the development of a new understanding of masculinity, and particularly black masculinity; mainstream masculinity, he asserts, is not a stable, consistent position. Past studies of fans have centered on the interpretive practices of female audience members, but Brown suggests that men, too, are not always complicit with a text's hegemonic messages - especially when race is a factor. The cultural economy of comics fandom can bolster a sense of self-worth in young readers who struggle to project an acceptable masculine persona, struggling against the stereotype of a nerdy fanboy. But while black superheroes of the past, like black men in general, have been characterized as hypermasculine swaggerers with physical endowments overshadowing their mental abilities, the more thoughtful and complex heroes presented by Milestone Media demonstrate alternative masculinities. Brown acknowledges that there are other comic books presenting alternative masculinities, but most of these books are targeted toward older readers. Milestone is significant in its presentation of new understandings of masculinity and race to an audience predominated by boys.
This study's narrow scope, examining the publications of a company which had all but vanished from the comic book market by the time the book was published, may limit its continued relevance. Nevertheless, it offers an insightful approach and demonstrates a general awareness of fan culture even as it examines a subset of readership for a particular body of texts at a particular time.
Brown, Jeffrey A. "Comic Book Fandom and Cultural Capital." Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1997): 13-31.
Brown finds in comic book fandom a perfect example of a "shadow cultural economy" as described in John Fiske's "The Cultural Economy of Fandom" (The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and the Popular Media. Lisa A. Lewis, ed. New York : Routledge, 1992. 30-49), which in turn draws from Bourdieu's 1984 metaphor of culture as an economic system with twin poles of cultural and economic capital.
Brown describes the structure and nature of the comic book fan community, and emphasizes that devoted fans tend to participate in several fan communities at once. In greater society, most people still perceive comics as childish and simple, and deride comic book readers as nerds. Brown examines this process in the history of Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose accusations of comics as a cause of juvenile delinquency led to Senate subcommittee hearings and the formation of the Comics Code self-regulation standard for the industry. This hostility, Brown contends, arises because fan cultures challenge the tastes the bourgeouis have established and naturalized through the control of institutions such as universities, museums, and art galleries. Comic book fandom offends society by applying standards of appreciation and intense scrutiny to popular texts that the dominant class reserves for elite texts. Comic book culture has a canon of its own, and increasingly considers authors and artists as markers of canonical value.
Comic book fandom is unique among fandoms because it is centered on physical, possessable texts; comics fans are collectors. Knowledge is the symbolic capital of the cultural economy of comic fandom, but the comic book itself represents a physical "currency" as the the focal point of the community and a marker of status. Brown describes fandom as a complex intensification of more general aspects of popular culture, and in the complex world of comic book fans finds an unintentional parody of high culture. Nevertheless, he holds that comics fans achieve within their community the social prestige and self-esteem that accompanies cultural capital without surrendering to the hegemonic rules of the dominant culture.
Parsons, Patrick. "Batman and his Audience: The Dialectic of Culture." The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media. Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio, eds. New York: Routledge Press, 1991.
By the early 1990's, Batman texts were quite diverse, ranging from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - a relatively sophisticated, grim story of psychosis and cultural deterioration - to the popular Tim Burton movie, to merchandise including children's pajamas and lunch boxes. Parsons finds in this diversity a "distributed curve of meanings", and explores the nature of the audience for Batman and for super-heroes in general.
The exploration begins with a statistically detailed historical overview. Parsons traces a slow, steady decline in the size of comic book heroes' audience, along with an increasing sophistication among those readers. Initially popular, especially among children and soldiers in the 1940's, comic book heroes aroused public suspicion in the 1950's, best represented by Dr. Frederic Wertham. The advent of television cut directly into comics readership, observes Parsons, citing a 1960 study of two Canadian towns, one with television and one without. In the 1960's, the fan movement brought new interest in super-heroes along with an older readership. The establishment of the direct distribution system of comics shops furthered this tendency. Finally, Parsons profiles the comics readership of the early 1990's: a smaller group than in past decades, considerably older (with a mean age of 18), often college-educated, overwhelmingly male, and frequently with an academic or professional interest in math, engineering, or science and an accompanying interest in non-comic science fiction and fantasy literature. Nevertheless, Batman and similar icons continue to hold the interest of children and the broader culture, primarily through licensed merchandise and other media; these forms offer meanings that contrast drastically with the characters as portrayed in the comic books. Parsons describes this process as one of interaction between two curves of cultural meaning, one embedded in the audience and one embedded in the narrative.
Pustz, Matthew J. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi, 1999.
This work, as Pustz writes, "begins an analysis of comic book culture." The book explores the relatively impermeable boundaries which define comics fandom as a community, and suggests that such closed communities allow voices to be heard which might have been inaudible were all cultural texts to speak a common language. Pustz also speculates on the direction of future scholarship regarding comics fandom.
The greater part of the book is devoted to documenting from a scholarly standpoint the history of comics reading communities, the spectrum of comics fans from "mainstream" to "alternative" interests, the workings of comic book literacy as a means of cultural definition, and the conventions, Web pages, and shops which operate as sites of comic book culture. Much of this will be of limited value to scholars already familiar with comic book fans, but it establishes a solid foundation for understanding the phenomenon. Pustz draws from a wide range of sources including interviews, scholarly research and theory, fanzines, and popular culture publications.
Schelly, Bill. The Golden Age of Comic Fandom. Seattle, WA: Hamster Press, 1999.
This work details the history of comics fandom from the 1960's to the 1970's, a period in which comics reading developed from a disreputable pursuit to a complex subculture which reshaped commercial comics publishing. Schelly traces comics fandom from origins in science fiction fandom, though many practices of comics fans arose independently even where they parallel other fandoms. Much of the history is devoted to Jerry Bails, a comics fan and math professor who was the central organizing figure of early comics fandom. Schelly himself was a prominent early fan, and provides detailed descriptions of the key events in the evolution of comics fandom, including the establishment of fanzines, fans growing involvement with comics professionals, the organization of the first comics conventions, the development of comic book collecting and consequent escalation of prices, and fans' gradual growth of expectations from the comic book form. While The Golden Age of Comic Fandom lacks the theoretical depth of an academic text, it is well documented and offers a more thorough history than existing academic treatments of comics fans.
Wertham, Frederic. Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart Press, 1954.
Notorious among comic book fans, this book was part of psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's long campaign against comic books as a cause of juvenile delinquency. This work attacks comics on virtually every ground imaginable, declaring them to cause violence, immorality, and illiteracy. More often than not, Wertham's attacks seem like rationalization of an irrational hatred of the medium. Much of his argument is anecdotal, citing juvenile delinquents who read comic books as proof that comic books cause delinquency. The work consistently ignores contextual distinctions between villains and heroes, and between realistic and fantastic genres, citing every violent action, no matter what its resolution, as a crime that children will emulate.
In recent years, some academics have come to Wertham's partial defense as textual theories have increased recognition of the subtle effects of text on an audience. This work's objections to racist stereotypes are particularly sympathetic, and his objections to violence in the media are not unlike the controversy that continues today over video games, film, and television. In any event, this book is worth consideration as a significant part of the history of comic book culture, and as one of the first studies of comic book readers as a group.
Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
This ethnography, contemporary with Jenkins' Textual Poachers, covers much the same subject matter: the predominantly female fandom which creates fan fiction, video, and art based on commercial television series such as Star Trek, Blake's 7, and Beauty and the Beast. However, where Jenkins investigates this culture primarily as an example of how an audience can wield power, Bacon-Smith examines this fandom as a community of women, applying a range of feminist theory to the writing and customs of those involved.
Bacon-Smith emphasizes that fan creation is a subversive activity, depending not only on the violation of copyright but also on the bending of popular culture artifacts to suit purposes never intended by the commercial sources of those artifacts. Through her analyses of story types and specific texts, she demonstrates that fan fiction positions men as Other. The ethnographer recognizes incongruity in the fact that this is done through stories featuring male heroes engaged in traditionally masculine modes of action, even resisting the use of strong female characters when they are available; she suggests that the fan community draws women who engage the active masculine cultural model and seek ways of integrating its strengths into a female lifestyle.
Enterprising Women provides, even more extensively than Textual Poachers, delineation and examples of the established genres of fan fiction. "Mary Sue" stories feature implausibly beautiful, bright, and respected young heroines sacrificing themselves to single-handedly save the day. "K/S" or "slash" stories feature homoerotic romances between series protagonists (e.g. Kirk and Spock.) "Hurt/Comfort" stories subject the heroes (in graphic detail) to extraordinary pain and suffering; surprisingly, the ethnographer posits that this most difficult form may lie at the heart of women's involvement in fandom, expressing an often inexpressible suffering and proclaiming the power of healing.
This work's focus on fandom as a female community brings to light dimensions of the culture not considered in Textual Poachers or elsewhere. However, it begs the question why there should be many interests and practices in common between this fandom and the activities of male fans of the same source materials; both Bacon-Smith and Jenkins tend to generalize about a "fandom" that excludes many self-identified fans. Bacon-Smith's more recent Science Fiction Culture offers a broader scope, but there remains much to explore in both the commonalities and the differences between fandoms.
Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Science Fiction Culture examines the world of the overlapping genres science fiction, fantasy, and horror as a community of both creators and audience in which those roles are frequently interchanged.
Bacon-Smith begins by analyzing the structure of the SF community. This structure has borrowed practices from business organizations and the press and aesthetic notions from art, music, theater, and ritual, but has combined them into a complex and coherent culture which has in turn influenced other areas of culture.
Both the genre and the fan culture, the author suggests, have roots in isolation: literary-technological writers of the 1920's and 30's pulp magazines came from the falling middle class and created a ghettoized literature; this literature appealed to many who felt a similar sense of isolation, and these fans constructed a cultural niche around SF. The author outlines both the commonalities that define science fiction fandom and the tensions and schisms within the community, focusing on participants in organized clubs, amateur publications, and conventions. (There is little commentary on solitary readers who may share a similar mindset but participate less formally.) Bacon-Smith suggests that science fiction fandom is a possible prototype of the world as it will be in coming decades; it is a culture that has been chosen, not determined geographically.
The second portion of the book examines the cultural developments brought on by changes in the demographic composition of the SF community: the increased prominence of women, gays and lesbians, and cybergoth youth culture. Though science fiction fans have long claimed tolerance and open-mindedness among their virtues, Bacon-Smith delineates the ways in which white male fans have resisted the incursion of others. SF fandom began with pulp era stories of technological heroism; while women were accepted and even welcomed by male fans all along if they identified themselves with this male agenda, by the late 1960's many women wishing to participate had different interests and tastes, having been drawn into fandom by non-scientific fantasy (e.g. Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons) or non-print media (e.g. Star Trek). Having brought change into the culture, these women faced a backlash from traditionalist male fans in the 1980's. Similarly, lesbian and gay fans have historically found tolerance in fandom, but had little voice until the New Wave movement of the 1960's. Bacon-Smith reports that, ironically, many gay fans now find it more difficult to admit their interest in science fiction to the gay community than to announce their gayness to fellow fans; as an identity-defining culture itself, science fiction fandom has represented a threat to the increasingly politicized gay community. The acceptance of gays in science fiction remains incomplete; though science fiction publishers had recognized lesbians and gays as an important target audience by the 1990's and a number of openly lesbian writers have achieved relatively wide appeal, there remain few male SF writers who have openly proclaimed their sexuality. The third group which Science Fiction Culture examines in depth are the cybergoths, self-styled "hacker vampires" with a dark romantic outlook who combine their interest in computers and Cyberpunk fiction with fetishist fashion culture (with or without the sexual practices the fashions imply). Older fans are resistant once again to a new generation, taken aback by the goths' transgressive sexuality (apparent or actual), genre and media interests, and even their smoking habits.
Finally, this book examines the institutions of production in science fiction culture, applying the theories of Howard Becker and Pierre Bourdieu to a culture where participants frequently shift roles from consumer to producer and back again. Bourdieu defines a constrast between autonomous artists, who create for themselves and for others sharing their esoteric tastes, and heteronomous artists, who seek wealth by creating to meet the approval of the consumer field. Bacon-Smith argues that, while SF genre fiction would seem to be a heteronomous pursuit, it actually covers a spectrum from mass-market materials to eclectic elite texts, with professionals on both end of the spectrum vying for respectability. Science Fiction Culture concludes with a warning; as the publishing industry is increasingly dominated by international corporate concerns, mass-market science fiction is becoming farther and farther removed from the innovation of autonomous artists and from the complex sensibilities of fan culture.
Berger, Albert I. "Science Fiction Fans in Socio-Economic Perspective: Factors in the Social Consciousness of a Genre." Science Fiction Studies 4 (3) (1977): 232-246.
While this issue of Science Fiction Studies features a number of articles on "The Sociology of Science Fiction," most of these studies explore science fiction's role within society as a whole. Only Berger and Fleming significantly document the characteristics of the science fiction fan community. Berger presents demographic data on science fiction fans gleaned from 282 questionnaires returned (out of 3000 distributed) at the 1973 World Science Fiction Convention in Toronto. The article includes statistics on fan activity, gender, age, education, income, occupation, residence, and reading habits. Much of this data is compared with information from previous surveys implemented by editors of science fiction magazines. Berger's study shows that the fan community (of the time) has more education than average and is more heavily involved in professional and technical employment, confirming to some degree the community's self-perception. Even if this self-perception is somewhat exaggerated, the responses to Berger's questionnaire indicate that science fiction community members identify with and aspire to relatively high status positions within middle class society. This identification is not, for the most part, with the "corporate elite," but rather with the elite's "paid managerial staff." Berger suggests that an understanding of this class identity sheds light on the limits and contradictions within the social criticism presented in the science fiction genre.
Fleming suggests that to understand fully the evolution of science fiction, we must study the subculture in which that literature evolved. This context both influences how authors write and mediates the experience of readers.
SF subculture originated during the 1920s and 1930s in the pulp magazines Amazing, Astounding, and Wonder Stories. These magazines allowed authors both to follow their peers' writing and, in the letters pages, to receive a great deal of feedback from their readers, making SF writing a collective activity. Meanwhile, these magazines' editorials, science articles and other special features laid the foundation for a sense of common identity among the readers. The development of the subculture was hastened by the reaction of others who scorned science fiction readers, driving those readers to band together more tightly and to distinguish themselves more strongly from outsiders. This group has continued to evolve and even to split into subgroups. The SF subculture's sense of identity and marginalization, Fleming notes, has led to something of a "ghetto mentality." While some community members hoping for new respectability have welcomed the involvement of academics, outside critics, and a wider audience, many have resisted these changes, fearing a negative influence by outsiders and doubting their ability to provide informed criticism. Similarly, SF authors seeking respectability elsewhere have often found it difficult to leave the "ghetto."
Significantly, Fleming argues that a sociology of SF should include examination of the extent and nature of people's involvement with SF. From the beginning of the subculture, she asserts, the SF audience has consisted of a minority who seek active involvement with other community members and a majority who read just as much science fiction as the active fans but do not seek direct social contact. Fleming laments that existing surveys and studies have documented something about the vocal minority, but almost nothing about the silent majority. This objection to science fiction audience studies seems as valid now as it was in 1977.
Harris, Cheryl and Alison Alexander, eds. Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture, and Identity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1998.
This collection seeks to move beyond the descriptive nature of earlier studies of fandom to apply theoretical models to fan behavior. Most of the articles are drawn from the field of communications, and while the work includes a range of theoretical approaches, most of the authors draw from the work of Bourdieu and de Certeau.
Several of this collection's studies are particularly notable. Shoshanna Green, Cynthia Jenkins and Henry Jenkins, recognizing fannish thought as a potentially valid mode of criticism, have gathered together explanations of fan fiction reading and writing by the fans themselves in "Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking." Jonathan David Tankel and Keith Murphy's "Collecting Comic Books: A Study of the Fan and Curatorial Consumption" examines comics as collectibles, comics fandom as capital formation, and explains the predominantly male comic book audience as a consequence of the early age at which the curatorial relationship usually begins. Andrea Macdonald's "Uncertain Utopia: Science Fiction Media Fandom & Computer Mediated Communication" analyzes the expression of women media fans through Internet newsgroups and e-mail lists, noting that even within the newsgroups women's talk is often marginalized.
Perhaps the most comprehensive piece in the collection is "Is there a Text in This Audience? Science Fiction and Interpretive Schism" by Thomas R. Lindlof, Kelly Coyle, and Debra Grodin. While many of the articles in this collection (as in fandom scholarship in general) focus on the narrow group of women fan writers, this study acknowledges the science fiction community as demographically heterogeneous and diverse in interpretive approaches. Through statistical analysis of a survey of attitudes and interests, Lindlof et al. find the chief commonality of the subculture as a whole to be an attitude of seriousness toward science fiction rather than sets of strategies or substantive ideas on the material.
Though many of its component essays reflect the emphases established in the earlier works of Jenkins and Bacon-Smith, Theorizing Fandom as a whole succeeds in examining with a shared theoretical framework a broader range of fandom than have previous studies.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge Press, 1992.
This book has been perceived as perhaps the definitive work on fandom. Jenkins focus, however, is on "media fans" in particular: followers of Star Trek, Beauty and the Beast, and other television shows commonly but not exclusively in the science fiction genre. These fans differ somewhat from the stereotypical science fiction fan; most significantly, the group is composed chiefly of women. Appropriately, Jenkins begins this study with an exploration of the stereotypes, tracing depictions of fans from the root word "fanatic" to William Shatner's Saturday Night Live comedic reproach that they should "Get a life!" The vehemence against fans, Jenkins argues, is a reaction to their transgressive practice of treating popular texts with the same degree of attention and appreciation as canonical ones. Society cannot easily dismiss the group as inferior, as many fans many come from the educated middle class, so fandom is dismissed as a perversion of taste.
The book's title derives from Michel de Certeau's concept of literary "poaching"; fans are selective users who visit texts and take meaning from them. They lack the power of production in the cultural economy, but retain autonomy. Moreover, they are "nomads" who cannot be characterized by a single set of reader-text relationships; the culture of fandom extends beyond any one text. Jenkins parts from de Certeau in contending that television viewers are not pure receivers; media fans can "write in the margins" of television texts. Textual Poachers gives considerable attention to the fan fiction written about characters and situations originating in television shows. Fans rewrite texts in numerous ways, developing their own formulae and subgenres - most notably Slash fiction, which erotically pairs male characters such as Kirk and Spock in an expression of what Jenkins terms "male homosocial desire." Similar values are expressed in the creation of fan videos, which edit commercially produced shows into new forms with new meaning.
Finally, Jenkins compares fan fiction to the practice of "filksinging" at science fiction conventions. This singing is a further example of fans as media consumers who also produce and participate, but it draws from a still broader range of media products including science fiction books and films, role-playing games, and even political issues. Men and women participate equally in it (while women form the majority of fan fiction writers), and filking expresses more directly the values and activities of a distinctive social community. Much of the fannish identity is defined in opposition to the "mundanes" who share neither the interests nor the values of SF fans.
Throughout this work, Jenkins refutes earlier assumptions that fans are atypical of the media audience because of their seeming obsessiveness and passivity; Textual Poachers asserts that fans are not aberrations but are part of an enduring cultural phenomenon that demonstrates the possibility of an active - not passive - audience.