On this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I’m talking with Dr. Louisa Stein, an Associate Professor at Middlebury College. We talk about fanvids and even a bit about Yiddish women’s erotic poetry.
Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture
Stein, Keynote Lecture, FSN2017 (audio)
Terms, Concepts & the Rest
National Yiddish Book Center
Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS)
Real Person Fiction (RPF)
Fan Studies Network North America
Scholarship in Sound & Image
LM: Hi and welcome to “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast where we talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. I’m your host, Lori Morimoto.
LM: On this episode of “It’s a Thing!”, I’ll be talking with Dr. Louisa Stein, an Associate Professor at Middlebury College. We’re talking about fanvidding, and we even touch a little on Yiddish women’s erotic poetry. So stick around!
LM: Louisa thank you for joining me today.
LS: It is totally my pleasure, thanks, Lori. I’m so excited to talk with you.
LM: I usually start these by asking people how they got into fan studies, so what’s your origin story?
LS: When I started out in grad school, because it was really in grad school that I discovered fan studies, I went to graduate school very intent on studying early silent film audiences. So, I was already doing audience studies and, I mean, retrospectively it was kind of fan studies, but maybe not the way I came to know it afterwards. But I was really interested in trying to understand what the experiences were of moviegoers during the silent era, and specifically I was interested in Jewish women going to the movies during the silent era. And I had interned as an undergrad at the national Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and I had interned and then I had worked there, and I was learning Yiddish and teaching the mangled Yiddish that I had learned to other interns, right? And translating books of erotic women’s poetry from Yiddish to English with my very poor Yiddish at that point.
So, I was doing archival research with Yiddish newspapers trying to find traces of mentions of going to the movies, or simply sort of what the media culture was like, or what young woman’s experience of media culture would have been like through advertisements and, you know, movie reviews, and it was really like looking for something that wasn’t there. And then trying to read into the fact that it wasn’t there, but then wondering if it just wasn’t there because I didn’t have the linguistic skills to find it.
LS: But because the folks that I was sharing that research with, you know, at conferences and other silent film scholars, they didn’t speak Yiddish either, and so of course they assumed that I knew what I was talking about.
LS: And I felt very sort of concerned about the ethics of that, and what it would mean for people to take what I was saying as like gospel. So, I’m trying to wrangle with all of those questions, and at the same time I’m, you know, this is 1999? And I’m discovering online fandom, specifically in the form of like rec.arts.tv.xena newsgroups, Kate Bush newsgroups, and Buffy, right? And seeing this immense wealth of people sharing what they actually felt like in the language that I could understand. I didn’t have to like guess, read between the lines…
LM: Right, right.
LS: This is… yeah, I’m seeing some irony now in what my current research is looking like. It’s gone full circle. But we’ll get back to that. I was just amazed. Here was this wealth, and I felt like we should take seriously what was being said there, because what a wealth it was compared to like, if people were taking seriously my poor translations and attempts to read between the gaps in these, you know, Yiddish newspapers because it was old and in a foreign language, in an extinct language, why were we not taking seriously what people were sharing now in, you know, in these immense… especially things like [unclear] the newsgroups, you know, very thoughtful posts and elaborate conversations between fans in those newsgroups, and I just, you know. Simultaneously I’m like in graduate school reading all this academic film studies work and film criticism, and that’s all being taken seriously. Why weren’t we taking this seriously?
So, then I was studying, I was just a Masters student studying with Anna McCarthy, and I guess I was sort of sharing my interests. Maybe I wrote a paper on Xena or something. And she handed me her copy of Textual Poachers and that, you know, sort of pushed me into that next phase. That was a huge moment and discovery, to read Textual Poachers and be able to put into context what I was seeing in the newsgroups in a larger history. And so then at some point I just made, right around then I made the choice like, look, I still care about, you know, these historical communities and the sort of young women of past whose perspectives I can’t access, but I’m going to write about what is present and what is here. And so, then I started, you know, formulating my dissertation not on silent cinema or the Yiddish talkies and their reception, but instead on teen fantasy television and its online fandom, you know. And that was at the same time that I began participating in those fandoms more fully myself.
LM: Everybody comes back to Jenkins.
LS: Yes, it is, it is true, you know. And I really do feel that that book is often undercut and dismissed as… I mean Textual Poachers, like the first version of Textual Poachers, as too utopian and simplistic, and I return to it again and again and find that it absolutely is not. It’s nuanced, it never, it doesn’t claim to make larger statements than its particular case studies, and, of course, he’s not writing from 2019. I still feel like that there’s a lot of resonance there and real value.
LM: Yeah, absolutely. Do you ever think of going back to the silent star spectatorship thing and kind of looking at it again?
LS: I do, or revisiting my… I wrote a big undergraduate thesis, and I wish I could go back and like turn that into a book. I was very, I was a very much an overachiever as a college student. But, you know, I feel like all those same issues would kick back off.
LS: I do feel more like I have to think about how my own cultural identity figures in to who I am and what my work is, and that maybe I’ve sort of pushed that aside quite completely, and that’s become an issue for me in recent years. But… especially as I do work that thinks about like transcultural positioning.
LS: But, you know, so I may. Not right now, I guess, but it’s still sitting there on my shelf.
LM: Yeah, that is really interesting. So, that actually that brings me to my second question. You mentioned getting into online fandom, and you said, you mentioned Xena and Buffy and… I know, what was the other one?
LS: Kate Bush!
LM: Right! Kate Bush. So, I know that you have been something of a convention goer, and I’m wondering when did that start and in what way? Was it fandom? Was it through academia or kind of both, or…?
LS: So, the first convention that I ever went to was VividCon, which is the convention for fan vidding, which ended last year sadly.
LM: When was that, that you first started going?
LS: I am not sure of the exact year. I wanted to remember this before our conversation today, because I had a feeling you would ask me. It was maybe in 2008? I mean I started vidding… well, I started vidding twice. Once as a graduate student with Windows Movie Maker, and there were some painful aspect ratio creations that happened out of that, which I’m sad actually, ‘cause I hid them for myself, and now I truly can’t find them to watch them again. I started again in 2010 once I got my first job and a Mac, because I found that, you know, the software – I got Final Cut Express and it was so much easier. And so…
LM: Yes, it is so much easier.
LS: It was. I mean Final- and it’s funny because Premiere, I use Premiere or Final Cut Pro Express. They’re all very similar logics. So, I started teaching myself how do you do that in 2010, right after I moved to San Diego for my first job at San Diego State University. And, and so, it was really that. The participating in the vidding community. And this was a time where it was, VividCon was in very high demand and you had to like stay up late to be able to get a registration spot. And actually I stayed up with, it was at SCMS, so there was a definite merger of academic and fan worlds here, with a friend.
LS: And we stayed up late in like the hotel lobby, because that was the only place where there was internet, to register for that first VividCon.
LS: And I registered under my vidder name, and then when I got there Tisha Turk and there were some other academic vidders there, were putting, had put together a panel on academia and vidding-
LM: Oh, interesting.
LS: -and they asked me to come sit on the panel. And it was about the presence of academics at this convention, and in the vidding world in general, and like the conversations between academia and vidding, and academia and fandom. And so, at that very first VividCon, I just like went up there and sort of had to present myself as both of those dimensions, my academic self and my vidder self, and I remember-
LM: What was the response?
LS: I mean, it was, overall very welcoming and I was one of like five people up there in the same position. So, it shouldn’t have been as nerve-wracking for me as it was, but it was not something I had expected or was quite ready to fully embrace, I think?
LS: You know, at the time there was still some ambivalence and uncertainty about having like those blurred lines, or having academics within fan communities and within the vidding communities. I think that has fallen away so, so much over the years. But, so yeah, if this was back in 2007 or eight or nine, I guess… sorry, nine.
LM: Okay so, from there, since you, since you started vidding on your own, what was what was the attraction to it? I mean, I guess I’m asking because for me, except for a Real Video sort of slideshowy thing that I did, I don’t know, like 2002 or something? I don’t know. I didn’t really watch vids. I didn’t really know that much about them. I just knew that I had this song that I wanted to use to express something, which eventually was sort of the impetus for learning how to vid. But you know, I didn’t really know anything about them. How did you come into contact with vids? And, and what was it that made you decide, you know, I want to do this too?
LS: Well, I think vidding was always in my blood, like it is my medium and I have pretty solid evidence for this. I mean, the same way folks are… there’s that term “feral fans,” where you do fannish things when you’re young without knowing that they’re fannish things, like you write fanfiction without knowing its fanfiction.
LM: Yeah. Oh, is that what that means?
LS: That was that me. Yeah, I believe so.
LM: I had no idea. You see it sometimes…
LS: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what that’s for. Yeah. So, you’re kind of out there in the wilds doing your fan of thing not knowing that it’s part of larger traditions or that other people do this. And, indeed, I totally also wrote fanfiction when I was young, not realizing that it was fanfiction. Well, it was like R- it was like Real Person Fiction. But with, I think it’s more co- you hear more commonly that people are writing fanfiction without realizing that it’s a thing, right? But you don’t really hear that people create vids without realizing it’s a thing very often. But when I was in camp in sixth grade, I made these, like so are they lithographs when you, you make a carving and then a print and multiple prints with different colors?
LS: So, I did that in camp, and then I some for some reason, this was not the assignment at all, I turned it into a video which I set to “The Sound of Silence,” and I edited it to that in sixth grade. So obviously I wasn’t working with popular media, other than the music, popular visuals, but I was editing visuals, found visuals in a sense, I had created them, but not for this purpose.
LS: To, and setting it to popular music. At a time, you know, we had a whole VHS set up and everything. This was pre-digital editing.
LM: Yeah, yeah.
LS: And then in college I took Film Production, in which I edited home movies. Well, what I did was I played VHS tapes of films from of my family from the 1930s and my mother, my parents’-
LM: Oh my God!
LS: -wedding film from the 1960s. Then I sort of played it back on a VCR and slowed it down and paused it, and had all these kind of crazy effects of that-
LS: No, no, no, filmed it onto 16mm film. So I was editing together 16mm film and also including translations of that erotic Yiddish women’s poetry I was talking about, and then I set it all to Kate Bush, who I know I’ve also mentioned was quite dear to me at the time. So that, you know, it was very sort of experimental vidding, though I, again, had no clue that that was a thing, you know. And yeah, that, I look back at that as a very, like it was absolutely vidding. You know, I was reworking found-footage, layering effects, such as they were, albeit by like literally cutting and pasting film together.
LS: You know, and then, and then all reassembling it all in the end, you know, as a visual articulation of what I heard in Kate Bush. So, it was very much driven by the visuals. It was also very personal, and it was driven by the music.
LM: So, do you think, you know, I’m thinking back to your keynote lecture at Fan Studies Network Conference a few years ago, where you showed an intensely personal vid which got a terrific response. And I know you were nervous about it, but it really, it really worked well. So, do you think in general that your own sort of, I don’t know if the word would be aesthetic or just approach to vidding tends to really engage with the personal?
LS: I think it’s something that I’ve returned to again and again, I don’t think it necessarily defines all of the, at this point, many vids that I’ve made, but it’s certainly like a recurring preoccupation.
LS: And I think more than maybe the personal in a sort of autobiographical sense, the personal in an emotional and affective sense? And certainly the first vids that I saw when I realized that this was a thing, right? Like fan studies, it’s a thing! Vidding, it’s a thing! I had that that moment of seeing that, were very affective vids, vids that really made you feel something through their audiovisual union. They were less, you know, these very accessible analyses where you came away cerebrally thinking about your interpretation, and more these like gut punches. And those so, and especially like Sisabet’s early vids were the what made me want to vid. What made me need to vid to be able to create something like that, express that synthesis of the image that you care about and the music that you care about into like what you feel, and then to share that and hope that others will feel that through that synthesis. So, I think that that is a truism I would say across all of my vid work.
LM: You mentioned earlier that fanfiction has gotten a lot of attention. When we think of fanworks we do tend to sort of gravitate towards fanfiction, and there’s a lot of really powerful scholarship – Tisha Turk, you mentioned earlier, Francesca Coppa – there is that body of work. What is it, do you think, that has kept scholarship on fan vidding submerged, I guess, relative not just to fanfiction, but also relative it seems like, and correct me if I’m wrong, to scholarship on video remix?
LS: Francesca Coppa has a book coming out on this that I’ve been privileged to see an early version of. She makes the argument, not just in that book but in her work prior, that because fan vidding has primarily been female-authored practice and one in which its, the creators, participants feared, for multiple reasons, to be found out, both because it was seen as trivial or trite or taboo, and also illegal or pirating-
LM: Yeah, right.
LS: -that it was, for a long time vidders hid what they did behind passwords or, and pseudonyms, and still in many cases do, at least you know, use pseudonyms. So that there still is a sort of sense that this is a thing you do on the side. You’re not going to link it with your professional identity. Whereas the remix community has been more male-dominated and more direct in its commercial dimensions, not perceived as copyright, embraced by things like the video game industry rather than fearful of being persecuted with lawsuits.
But these are, I feel like, I mean, A) I’m oversimplifying, and B) it’s Francesca’s argument. So, you know, I just kind of want a gesture to her work on that topic. I think that, A) there is excellent scholarship on vidding, and B) there’s more work coming, and I think we’ll probably see a catch-up, or like a catching-up of scholarship on fan video. But I also think that fan video is harder to explain than fanfiction. That it’s harder to talk about, the same way that film studies, you know, had to struggle to legitimate, like, how do you write analyses about popular media, and how do you explain it visually, and how much description can you give, and how much knowledge can you assume? And these are all issues that are part of film and media and television studies. Fan video has that and, you know, do you have to explain the logics of how fan videos work every single time in order to offer an analysis?
LS: It’s just more to folks who don’t understand it. It’s more opaque of a form than fanfiction is. And so, I think that that’s been challenged in its scholarship.
LM: The emotionality of fan works like fanfiction and fan vidding and stuff, the way that they communicate through affect or, you know, they’re there to provoke an emotional response. It’s not necessarily an intellectual exercise. It can it can also be intellectual but, you know, on the first level, as you were saying earlier in terms of your broader editing work, that emotion that they evoke is so critical. And I wonder if that both makes them harder to talk about, but also harder to want to talk about as an academic, if that makes any sense?
LS: Yeah. I think that maybe the affect combined with the opacity does make it sort of hard to introduce them into academic discourse. It also makes them wonderful teaching tools, and I think it’s precisely because it brings in elements that are usually not present in academic work, like letting students feel and respond, and also like affect in terms of the bodily response, right? So not just emotional, but that sort of affect theory bod- that your body as well is tied to your emotions, right? So, having that experience collectively in a class can be very powerful, or allowing students or encouraging students to create their own and then think through what that means about their relationship to the media text that they’re studying, or the form that they’re studying, I think can cut through that academic distance that may color much of undergraduates’ experience of their studies.
LM: So, I wanted to, and this is sort of an this is a strange question in some ways, or a little bit artificial insofar as we worked on this together, but it really was you. You spearheaded the video show at the Fan Studies Network North America conference both last year and this year, and you really championed including a video show. And I was wondering, first, why you wanted that to be a part of an academic conference on fan studies.
LS: Well, first of all, I definitely like to think about the video show as a collaboration between you and I. I feel quite strongly that it is a collaboration.
LM: Yes, but you did all the work.
LS: That – no, no, okay, but we’re going to let this go-
LS: -so we don’t descend into an argument about this. Okay, so, there are, I- so first of all, and I, you had asked me before what cons I have gone to.
LM: Yeah. Yeah.
LS: And I talked about VividCon, but VividCon’s not the only con that I’ve gone to. Since VividCon, then I also started going to Escapade, which is a older slash fan convention that meets yearly in LA, that’s a sort of multifandom and multiform, right? So, it’s for fanfiction and fan art and fan video and fan meta, all of those forms. And now FanWorks similarly is also looking at fanwork creativity, rather than sort of the texts themselves, across a broad spectrum. And first with VividCon and then definitely with Escapade and also now with FanWorks, I was struck by how not at all different it was in a lot of ways from my experiences of academic conferences, in that at academic conferences and fan cons alike, people come together to talk about the things that they feel and think passionately about, to share their work and share their ideas and fuel new ideas, and have great conversations in panels and in hallways and over dinner and over drinks.
LS: And especially for fan studies, where over the decades we’ve, you know, talked a lot about the value of acknowledging our personal investments, and how they can inform and limit our work, that a fan studies conference in my mind would not be so different from a fan convention. And also, VividCon introduced me to the power of the vid show, what it was like to have that sustained experience of watching 45 minutes to an hour worth of vids, or in the case of VividCon you do that like for several hours in a row, potentially, and what it means to sort of see and watch vids in that context, to have vids and made for that context. And that the emotional experience and the intellectual experience of watching videos not like at home, you know, on your computer in between things, but with other people, and then talking about with them with other people and sort of of the insights that can come out of that.
So, I both, sort of as one of the folks thinking about what the feel of the Fan Studies Network Conference, the North American version, would be, I wanted it to have a con-like feel because the value of the conversations that happen in the hallways, which is something we always used to say about the FLOW Conference, that we wanted to bring that value of the conversations that happen in the hallways into the actual conversations like at the core of the conference, that I wanted that for FSN. And I also wanted to share that experience of watching vids within the fid show context and the conversations that could come out of that, and to see what would that look like, you know, within an academic conference. So, those were sort of my main, the forces driving my wish to see that vid show happen.
Plus, I just I love vid shows. I love the excitement of them, the notion that vids are premiering, the collective experience of watching vids. I show- I often, I screen vid shows, depending on the course, like when appropriate, in my classes and love the like the art of crafting a playlist and guiding-
LS: -your audience through a sort of emotional journey, not of a single vid, but of the vids assembled together.
LS: So, I kind of wanted to do that within the FSN context, as well. One of the motivating factors for the FSN vid show that first year especially was to bring together some of the work or experiments being done in videographic criticism and video essays with the traditions of fan vidding. In my department, my colleagues at Middlebury College, Jason Mittell and Chris Keathley, have been working on and teaching videographic criticism, both in that they’ve been creating their own videographic, works and that they’ve published a book with Catherine Grant, and they’ve been, and they host a workshop where they teach other media studies academics to create videographic criticism. And they use the term “videographic criticism,” rather than “video essay,” to kind of signal a different approach to the video essay that encompasses sort of wider experimentation in its aesthetics. And that also part of the point of it is the process of learning through reworking the material of the source, like, of the visual source. That we learn from doing as well as creating, and that video, the videographic criticism that comes out of that is not necessarily like the didactic version of a, you know, fast-talking video essay that you might imagine from YouTube, although it certainly could include some of that. But it could be something like that leaves more, more open-ended or leaves you more with an emotion or a question, or sort of pondering the relationship between visuals within a source, or between two different sources.
So, I’ve watched that body of work grow and the excitement around it and sort of what it’s offered to media studies in terms of- we were talking earlier about like why vidding isn’t always written about, because it could be hard to describe what vids are doing with words. And similarly, you know, that’s always been a challenge in film and media studies, is how you describe the text, the media text that you’re working with, and then make an analysis, and videographic criticism bypasses that and instead lets you work with the materiality of media.
But of course, as I see all these evolving aesthetics and experimentations, I think about the long history, longer history of vidding aesthetics, and I mean multiple vidding aesthetics, not just the VividCon aesthetics, but also all the other, fan videos and music videos and the, and anime music videos. There’s really a multiplicity of fan video editing histories that have similarly reworked the source text to offer insight, analysis, and like affect. And so, to me it absolutely makes sense and feels almost necessary to bring those into conversation with one another, and so our first call for the FSN vid show was looking for videos that merged the two aesthetics in some ways. And I’ve actually found that that call has been, I mean, just that call more broadly looking for work that does that, has been a little bit of an uphill battle, because I think it requires like literacy and both of those two areas, and that’s, you know, kind of culturally not a thing that happens very often.
LS: And I think it’s too limiting to think of it that way, but I still really want to think about like what they can offer in dialogue to one another, and so I’m hoping that just the more we kind of put them in conversation, like videographic criticism and vids, in conversation with each other, the more maybe there will be sort of a seeping of aesthetics and approaches between the forms.
LM: That’s, yeah, I guess… I like that very much. Okay, well, I usually end this with the same question.
LM: And I will direct it at you. If there was one thing that you could tell somebody who didn’t know much about fan studies, or anything about fan studies, what is it that you would want them to know?
LS: I think I would want them to know that fan studies has been a space where we have really talked through the questions of the value of investments, like the value and limits of investments, subjectivity and objectivity. I think there can be a perspective that fan studies is just an excuse to academically talk about the things that you love, and celebrate that love without thinking critically about it. And I think not only do we think critically about our investments, in the role it plays, but that critical thinking has led to our sort of demolishing assumptions of objectivity and subjectivity. That fandom itself has given us the tools to think beyond whether we’re being objective or subjective, to think about the nuances of our investments and not be caught up if we’re too close.
There was a term that we batted around at a conference, I think maybe it was FLOW or Console-ing Passions a few years ago, of “critical closeness,” this notion that we can and do engage critically with what we’re close to, and that very closeness gives us its own particular critical perspective, rather than criticism and closeness being necessarily opposed.
LS: So, I think that that’s a really valuable thing that fan studies perhaps offers beyond fan studies itself.
LM: Well, thank you for that. And I would like to thank you for joining me today. This has been a really fun conversation.
LS: Thank you so much, Lori, I had a great time. I really appreciate it.
LM: That’s all for this episode of “It’s a Thing!” Next time, I’ll be speaking with Dr. Alfred Martin, an Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa. So I hope you’ll join me!
Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner
To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 18 Nov 2019. “Louisa Stein.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.5. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/2019/11/18/episode-5-louisa-stein