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“Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”
– Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality: An Introduction: Volume I, page 93.
The concept of power, and how we interpret power, is inherent to the ways in which we analyze and dissect our social groupings and the interactions that are produced from such. The question of whether power is a fabricated concept, constructed in order to justify our behaviors, or an intrinsic one basic and inevitable to our nature is at the forefront of the question of what is power. Here I will endeavor to show that the Foucauldian concept of power -- that is to say that power is a strategic reaction to complex circumstances -- is both accurate and applicable to not only institutionalized structures such as schools or prisons but also to voluntary, informal social groupings such as online forum participation.
Introduction and Definition of Terms
For the purposes of this argument I will be focusing exclusively on online fan participation, particular using a social blogging network called LiveJournal (hereafter referred to by its common abbreviation LJ). A fan, short for the word “fanatic” and having its roots in the Latin term “fanaticus,” refers to a person who shows an unusual amount of attention or devotion to a specific subject or material. It came into common use as a word to describe the energetic spectators of professional sports but quickly grew to have a broader and more inclusive meaning (Jenkins 12). Here, for example, I will be discussing primarily television fans that use online forums to discuss, analyze, and dissect the source material, i.e. the television show(s), that they are fans of. This collection of fans, whom refer to themselves as “fandom” because of the collectivist or cohesive connotation of the suffix “-dom,” gather in self-created/self-defined areas where they have the freedom away from criticizing eyes to engage in their deconstruction of both visual and written texts. One such location is on LJ, a social networking blog which is markedly cohesive to this sort of gathering because of its fluid and modifiable format.
A blog is a website or collection of pages on a website in which one or more persons post entries (“Blog”); short for web log, so-called typical blogs, such as WordPress or Blogger, are designed to work exclusively in a poster-commentor format. That is, persons with authorization post entries to the blog, and those who do not have authorization to post entries respond in a section set aside for comments. This is similar to the ListServs and mailing lists of the internet’s earlier days and creates an artificial but effective separation between those with access, and therefore “authority” of subject, and those without and thus limited capacity to respond. New wave blogging, called social network blogging, attempts to reconcile this appeal to authority by giving everyone access to create their own blogs with the additional capacity to create communities and regulate those.
Unlike with traditional blogs which require personal, sometimes costly, hosting space, no personal hosting is necessary for social network blogging; however, in return the network, e.g. LJ, has ultimate authority over content. LJ in particular is a free site, with optional upgrading that does not change access levels to the blogs themselves but does give the “paid user” additional perks such as more storage space, and is available for use to anyone over the age of thirteen or those under with parental permission (LiveJournal, FAQ). Such social networking blogs are typically separated into two sections: personal journals, which operate so that only a single person has access to post in them --similar to traditional blogs excepting that anyone can create such a journal -- and communities, where people can join and post at will unless measures are put into place to limit who can join or what level of access they have once they do join.
Furthermore, LJ has the additional capacity to define levels of access to personal and community journals through “friends” access. “Friends,” inaccurately named such to create a more personal feel, are subscribers to a particular journal and do not have access to post entries but do have access to post comments. Members of communities generally have access to do both, though “watchers” of communities generally can only be the latter. Any entry in a community or journal can be “friends locked” so that only people listed as your friend – i.e. people the journal creator has “friended” themselves and not merely people who have “friended” them – or community members may view or comment on the post. This is commonly referred to as “flocking,” a collapse of “friends locking” and the people whose journals you subscribe to is generally called your “flist” for “friends list.”
In LJ fandom, these settings are used to direct conversation and limit the access of who can and cannot see an entry so as to avoid conflict (vernacularly referred to as “wank”) and “trolling.” This is one of the ways in which persons create a structure of interaction from the pre-existing format LJ provides but only one way of many.
Foucauldian Politics: Creating Docile Bodies
As should be apparent there are some agreed upon terms and standards which fans adhere to in their interactions; they call themselves fans, they identify themselves as part of “fandom,” on LJ they identify themselves as “users” and structure their interactions through “flists” and communities which are devoted to particular subjects. In Discipline & Punish, Foucault outlines the physical characteristics necessary to create docile -- or efficient (“Discipline” 138) -- bodies. In absence of these physical characteristics, because there is an absence of physical form in online interaction, Foucault’s interpretations are still applicable.
Take, for example, his first step in creating efficient social interactions, that of distributing properly. He states that sometimes enclosure is required, that is to say a particular place much be set off for use in a particular sort of action and the participants must come to associate these places with those actions (“Discipline” 141). Quite obviously, LJ is just such a place and the communities on LJ, which are created and separated by their purposes , are by their nature enclosed spaces, as required membership would imply. Foucault goes on to give an example of the art of distribution as he means it: "There were the military barracks: the army, that vagabond mass, has to be held in place; looting and violence must be prevented; the fears of the local inhabitants must be calmed; conflicts with the civil authorities must be avoided; desertion must be stopped, expenditure controlled (“Discipline”142).”
At first glance this has no obvious connection to online, voluntary fannish participation, if for no other reason than the military is a definite organization of trained bodies which specific physical purposes. Yet, a closer examination of the statement lends to interesting and surprisingly accurate parallels. Take the first part, “the army, that vagabond mass, has to be held in place;” here, Foucault is outlining the first in the necessary steps to create order and thus, by his definition, discipline in an involuntary body . However, it is equally true that fandom is, in itself, held in place by its own self-defined boundaries.
A current example of this is the discussion about fanfiction writing versus pro-writing and the way it impacts women. Fanfiction is a type of story which uses characters and/or settings from the source material and then creates non-canonical (non-existent in the source material/canon) stories in reference. Pro-writing is the fannish word for professional authors, whether they write derivative works or not. Fanfiction, in order to remain in the grey area of copyright law, cannot be done for profit, unlike pro-writing. Given the majority of pro-writers are male and the vast majority of fanfiction writers are female, there is an obvious gender disparity in who is able to make profit from their writing. Recently, this has lead to the question of legitimacy of fanfiction, gender issues, and whether fanfiction writers are sabotaging themselves within the fannish community. The links to these discussions, which take place primarily on personal journals, have been collected in “issues” of a multi-fandom newsletter called Metafandom (Metafandom, User Info). In this particular example, the first discussion entry can be found at Cupidsbow’s personal journal under the entry titled “Women/Writing 1: How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor (Cupidsbow, “Makes Us Poor”)”. Unlike many discussions there is a clear originating point in this one, i.e. Cupidsbow’s entry, from which the remaining discussion comes from .
Much of the conflict about the point Cupidsbow raises, i.e. that by writing fanfiction and by the fact fanfiction has no professional legitimacy fanfiction authors are put into a circumstance where their art is judged as inferior when it should not be (Cupidsbow, “Makes Us Poor”), is around the question of whether a “hobby” such as writing fanfiction should have professional legitimacy. In one response to Cupidsbow, Crankynick argues in a post titled “Why fanfic makes us stupid” that it should not have professional legitimacy because in order to do so copyright law would have to be, essentially, invalidated and thus there would be no protection offered to the very authors fanwriters base their works from – and, as such, less incentive for professional authors to produce given the lesser economic return they would receive (Crankynick, “Makes Us Stupid”). In yet another, more supportive response Celisnebula states: “My first response, as I read cupidbow’s essay, was … [f]an fiction couldn’t keep women poor because it’s only a hobby. However … [b]y using the qualifier of only, as in it’s only fan fiction, or it’s only a hobby, I’ve already devalued the efforts of anyone who has written fan fiction. (Celisnebula, “Untitled”).” There are perhaps a dozen other responses to either the originating post or the responses to the originating post, all of which discuss the boundaries that fanfiction and the fans that write fanfiction do and should inhabit.
Next, Foucault states “looting and violence must be prevented; the fears of the local inhabitants must be calmed,” and this has both more immediate and more simplistic equivalencies in fandom. Fandom, along with most interaction discussion-interaction, suffers from a particular type of action called “trolling.” Trolling, named as much for the mythical creature as the baiting technique used in fishing, references the behavior of some individuals of purposefully causing conflict and strife in a discussion. “Trolls” typically comment with inflammatory and personally insulting statements that are designed to engage the original poster, or other commentors, in a “flame war” (Urban Dictionary). They engage in the online equivalent of violence, as the term “flame war” implies in its very name, and as such most communities have a rule against “flaming” (the act of engaging in a flame war) and “trolling” (the act of instigating one). It is also sometimes referred to as “bashing,” as in “character bashing” or “bashing other posters.”
Finally, that section, a clear example of Foucault’s discussion on the distribution of bodies, states, “conflicts with the civil authorities must be avoided; desertion must be stopped, expenditure controlled,” and this too has equivalencies. All communities on LJ are moderated by one or more persons with the ability to ban, i.e. revoke the posting and commenting access of a user, or moderate, i.e. view the entries from a particular user before allowing them to be posted to the community at large, any given user’s actions. In some cases, communities are set up so that a moderator must approve one for posting access in the first place. The key in interacting here, however, is that because any user can create a basically identical community and possibly draw away subscribers/users from the original community, a moderator must be careful to deal with conflict calmly and reasonably. Otherwise, the community may be replaced.
An example of this is the community Iconrants, which is a community devoted to being a place where “makers and admirers [of icons] can get pet peeves and rants off their chests.” Icons are 100x100pixel images that are used in entries and comments for user expression; making icons, sometimes called avatars in other forums, are a major part of fandom and the primary form of fanart (art based off a source material) on LJ. Iconrants, because of its nature as a ranting community, has an extensive set of rules (Iconrants, Userinfo) and a clear policy about what will happen to those who violate such rules. Briefly after its conception in August of 2005 there was a contention between the moderators of Iconrants and a few members due to “wank” about elite icon communities (communities which require icon makers to be of a certain skill level, judged by those community’s moderators, in order to post there) and the contending users broke off to create their own, ultimately failed, icon ranting community.
A moderator of Iconrants responded by first putting a 48 hour moratorium on the subject and then, when it came up again, banning all the non-moderator participants (Misskeriface, “Iconrants Weekend Wank”) . Additionally, anyone who joined the new ranting community would be permanently banned from iconrants, a fact which has held up to this day. Essentially, by banning all participants in the new community as well as anyone who furthered the wank on the existing community, the moderators at iconrants exercised their civil authority and ended all protest either through expulsion or creation of silence. As well, they did so with the minimum amount of energy necessary; instead of moderating each post they merely enacted a wholesale and simple to enforce policy. However, if the fledging community for icon ranting had been successful instead of failing as it did, I would be discussing that community today and not iconrants. Thus is the nature of politics on LJ.
This is merely one example of how Foucault’s description of idealized discipline and how such discipline is enacted matches up with the behavior of fans. Once one ventures from the topic of discipline, or, in this case, self-discipline or intra-group discipline, and into the topic of training and punishment, the equivalencies become that much more pronounced.
The Means of Correct Training: The Creation of Silence in Fannish Activities
Like with the section on Docile Bodies, in the section labeled “Means of Correct Training” Foucault makes an argument towards four actions being undertaken in order to correctly train the student, the soldier, the hospital patient, etc. and explains how those were created and then enacted in the past. Of particular focus to him were the concepts of observation and surveillance because those actions allow for behavioral enforcement without the use of excessive or unnecessary force (“Discipline” 177). These concepts have a distinctive relation to online media fandom, especially on a forum such as LJ, given the search-friendly and difficult to completely bury nature of the so-called information highway.
There is an old adage that once something is put out on the internet it can never be destroyed and that adage proves true despite precautionary measures like flocking and reactionary measures like deletion of an entry. Due to the capacity every computer has to take screenshots, i.e. real-time images of what is being displayed on a computer screen, and then redistribute those images there is no such thing as completely secured. For hypothetical example, one might flock an entry bashing another journal user and only allow five people access to that entry, but one of those persons could take a screenshot and post that screenshot in public or secretly give that screenshot to the person being bashed. Thus, any statement made is open to criticism by both one’s peers and random passersby.
This is further convoluted by the presence of fandom wide or multi-fandom communities which collect links on purpose. Above I discuss a series of links collected on Metafandom. Like most fannish newsletters,” Metafandom has a policy not to link flocked entries regardless of content (Metafandom, User Info). This is for two reasons: one, it respects the desired privacy implied by flocking a post and, two, posts which are flocked and therefore not widely accessible do not engender fandom discussion as is Metafandom’s mission statement. The vast majority of the single fandom, i.e. focusing on one television show such as sga_newsletter does for the Stargate: Atlantis fandom (sga_newsletter, User Info), newsletters employ the same policy for the same reasons. This has not halted the discussion as to whether that is enough or should these collection communities seek permission to post the links in the first place. Metafandom’s User Info specifically states “Metafandom links to public posts and does not notify people as a rule. Content published openly on the internet is available to all those with internet access. We do not link to flocked (friends locked) entries).” Yet it is a regular occurrence for a user’s post to be linked to metafandom and for that user to be surprised at the sudden influx of people, primarily strangers (i.e. not on the user’s friends-list), commenting on that particular entry.
Furthermore, this has incited discussion about fandom as a safe space and whether that is possible (untrue_accounts, “Safe Space”), and whether one has the right not to be criticized on their own journal or about their own personal fantansies (Umbo, “Meta thoughts”). It is important to note here that the editors of Metafandom do so on a completely voluntary basis, they do so as a resource for others and anyone can volunteer to become a Metafandom editor so long as they are willing to contribute the time and effort. Not only are we all thus under observation, if one does not carefully restrict access to their entries, but some of us are, at least, voluntarily sacrificing our free time in order to monitor others and provide the results of this monitoring to the population at large in a way. This is not dissimilar to Foucault’s example of the French orphanage (“Discipline” 177) but without the compulsion behind it.
Additionally, Metafandom is a “nicer” form of this observation. A community called Fandom_Wank, which is dedicated to collecting examples of “wank” or conflict in various fandoms (Fandom_Wank, User Info) and which was banned from LJ for violating privacy rules, possesses a somewhat different function in fandom than Metafandom. Unlike Metafandom, Fandom_Wank has no compunction against linking flocked entries or deleted entries and then providing screenshots of these entries for the general populace to mock and criticize (“Mock”). If anything, they revel in drawing attention to people they (they, here, being anyone who has the desire to join and thus posting access) deem “wank-worthy,” though they do have a policy of non-interference. I.e. they state one is not to follow the wank through the links and then attack the original poster, though they do not enforce this rule by banning or limiting access if someone violates it (Fandom_Wank, User Info).
The presence of these communities creates a flawed but functional panopticon where, with a little searching, nearly anything is accessible to the determined reader and thus open to scrutiny (“Discipline” 201). Fandom itself becomes a function of panopticism (“Discipline” 224), if only unintentionally so because of the value placed on information and free access to information (as well as media, etc). By seeking out as much information as possible, as often as possible, for as many people as possible, fans fulfill a function of self-monitoring and in-group monitoring and then pass off that behavioral tendency to others.
To further complicate matters is the distinction between “Big Name Fans” (BNFs) and “Little Name Fans” (everyone else). BNFs are defined by their notoriety and popularity within fandom. There is much debate over whether this gives them power and influence within their own fandoms. Recently, a post by impertinence set off a series of discussions about just this topic (Impertinence, “Pugnacity in the form…”), nearly all of which defended BNFs as “regular fans” (femmenerd, “Untitled”; esorlehcar, “Untitled”). The implication that BNFs might very well have some particular sort of influence was harshly dealt with in terms of response and alienation (Impertinence, “Pugnacity in the form…” ). As Foucault suggests (“Discipline” 181) rank here is its own reward and, in a way, its own discipline. Fandom creates an artificial, but real within the constraints of the fandom, construct of rank focusing around feedback and the number of persons who has one friended. In turn, those who have this higher rank have a greater level of support.
Finally, the presence of anonymous memes, i.e. posts in which people comment without attaching their names to their comments, is also contested because it removes the accountability from a person’s statements. Jadelennox discusses the ability of non-BNFs to state their opinions and why some might feel the need to resort to hate memes, by saying:
"Anyone who thinks the "little people" in fandom are free to state our opinions and take our lumps just like the BNFs are is absolutely delusional. I've seen the viciousness of the hive vagina […]drive even BNFs underground, but at least the BNFs have the comfort of a cadre of fans and friends who still love them and want to read what they have to say. If a few of the fandom bellwethers turn against me? There'll be nothing I can do but close this LJ and take my fic offline, and nobody will miss it. (Jadelennox, “On Fandom and Anonymity”)"
In a comment to that same post, Kattahj gives a personal anecdote of what has happened to her (Kattahj, “On Fandom and Anonymity”) and how it coincides with the point that Jadelennox has made. She is not the only one to do so. Another poster, Saeva, discusses how while there are no “real life” consequences for the actions done or opinions stated in fandom, for someone who spends a significant amount of their free time interacting in fandom alienation by that fandom or even a small, determined subset of it can be as destructive as social ostrachization would be in person (Saeva, “A Few Thoughts On Social Denial”). Being a “Little Name Fan” is an example of possessing a low, or lower, rank within fandom itself and thus having fewer support systems; in extreme circumstances this can be terribly difficult to overcome if those were greater rank chose to form an attack or so some persons in fandom believe.
But it would be disingenuous to state that that is anything but still under debate, whereas there is less debate and more outright contention about a tangentially related issue. In another post by Saeva, titled “In Defence of Being a Meta Fan,” she discusses the concept of taking online fandom quote-unquote “too seriously” and the implications, even insults, brought out by that sort of accusation. This is hardly a new accusation. As Henry Jenkins discusses in his 1992 publication about fandom, “the fan still constitutes a scandalous category in contemporary culture, one alternatively the target of ridicule and anxiety, of dread and desire (15).” But, as he goes on to state, this is not limited to the outside world looking in on fans. “Even within the fan community, these categories are evoked as a way of policing the ranks and justifying one’s own pleasures as less ‘perverse’ than those of others…(19).” This sense of self-regulation and distinction without the interference of a so-called controlling group, i.e. one with definite power based on outside social structure, illustrates Foucault’s “power of the Norm (“Discipline” 184).” These arbitrary and unspoken, but recognizable and evocable standards, create an overwhelming sense of what is allowed and what is condemned within a set of actions, in this case discussion particle elements in a source material or fannish activity. When one violates this unspoken Law (“Discipline” 183) the response is as if the “Law” was, in fact, written.
In many ways fandom not only utilizes the techniques of control which were developed for schooling and training, but even improves on them because of the very fact we, and I include myself here as a fan, participate so voluntarily and with so much enthusiasm. The responses to “Defence” are overwhelmingly empathetic, where others come forth and discuss how they have felt marginalized for taking fandom too seriously. One commentor states her frustration: “I bend over backward to be pleasant and polite to anyone who addresses me whether they are commenting to state agreement or disagreement. [I don’t] think the commenter is wrong - I don't believe in "right" and "wrong" in the field of interpretation. And I'm still an obsessive snob with too much time on my hands. Furthermore, I'm WRONG.” (Karamarie_McKay, “Defence”). Others state that they have always felt intimidated by meta writers because they do seem so much more serious (Elspethdixon, “Defence”).
Yet, fandom response is not only punishment. As Foucault outlines on page 180, it is the combination of gratification and punishment which is so potent. For example, in Saeva’s post (“Defence”) she was gratified by the presence of agreement with her point. In other example, persons who write fanfiction often get positive feedback, i.e. comments which praise the story, poem, or novel being posted. Those who create fan graphics not only have to contend with being ranted about in locations such as Iconrants but also receive positive comments on their work and the added benefit of other people using the icons they create personally. Nearly all actions within fandom have two edges, that of the positive and that of the punitive. This is what allows it to be so efficient as a means of behavioral conditioning and as an exercise in power, as defined by Foucault (“History” 93).
On page 216 of Discipline & Punish, Foucault outlines the psychological strength of discipline and observation in conjunction:
"… one can speak of the formation of a disciplinary society in this movement that stretches from the enclosed disciplines, a sort of social ‘quarantine,’ to an indefinitely generalizable mechanism of ‘panopticism.’ Not because [it] has replaced all the others; but because it has infiltrated all the others, sometimes undermining them, but serving as an intermediary between them, linking them together … and above all making it possible to bring the effects of power to the most minute and distant elements. It assures an infinitesimal distribution of the power relations."
This is the strength that fandom, as a pressure on itself, evidences and one need only to look at the way in which fans discuss their own actions, collected through locations such as Metafandom, to show such. No action, no matter how relatively insignificant it may be, goes without scrutiny in a social grouping where all things are discussed, evaluated, and then re-discussed in an attempt to determine an undeterminable consequent or conclusion. No conclusions can be made due to the fluid nature of fandom, where fandom is defined by a collection of fans, some of who leave each day and others of who join not in their place but out of discovery that such a place exists. Because fandom is open to all willing to join in it, it will forever -- for as long as it continues to persist in existing in its current form -- function as a refinement tool of information accessibility and behavioral modification for those who, very often, find normalcy in a location that the outside, dominant culture states is abnormal (Jenkins, 23).
Fandom illustrates the ways in which power is not an inherent concept in which there are haves and have nots in a pre-determined manner. Instead, as the fan community and all other voluntary, “hobby” communities of this sort show, power is a function of strategy which is either so instinctive or so deeply socialized as to be unnoticed by its enactors that even when not forced upon a group of persons by the dominant hegemony – as with schools or prisons -- it is still present and enacted upon.
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If anyone is interested in the works cited list I would be happy to provide it as well as links to the discussions I reference. Oh, and for practical reasons I refer to myself in the third person in this paper, so I hope that's not confusing. Any comments, questions, discussions are welcomed.