Going Back to Gally

DK and Dalek

Aca and fan at Comic-Con. That's me on the right.

This weekend I will be in Los Angeles at the 23rd annual Gallifrey One convention. Gallifrey One, or “Gally” as its attendees call it, is the largest, longest-running Doctor Who convention in the world. I’m finally going back after a six-year absence, during which time the revived series (starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, and, currently, Matt Smith in the title role) has achieved massive global and American success. This in turn has fueled attendance at the con: at my last Gally in 2006, attendance was about 750; this weekend, over 2500 people are expected to turn out.

This is my fourth Gally. I attended the very first one way back in 1990, and did not attend for years due mostly to living in Madison as a grad student of limited means for the remainder of the decade (though I did regularly attend the midwestern DW/SF con of that time, Visions, held down the road in Chicago; the original site, last updated in 2000, is still up). I finally went back in 2005 and 2006, but haven’t been able to justify the time or expense since then, until now.

So, why go back? This is complicated, but cuts to the core of my identity.

While I’ve long loved SF and SF media, I’ve always had a mixed relationship with organized fandom. I’ve known and admired many amazing people actively involved with fandom (some of whom for over twenty years), and shared their passions and interests in person at cons, through newsletters and zines, and online. However, at the same time, I’ve also always been unable to “fully commit” to fandom. In large part, this has been a matter of time, particularly during grad school, and when my children were very young. But overall, I’ve realized this reluctance is more a longstanding result of my scholarly orientation, which, while generally supportive of the political idea of fandom, has not been especially welcoming to its affective expression. The party line in cultural studies has generally gone like this: fandom is great if it’s for or against something substantial (and especially subversively); but fandom for fandom’s sake is kinda embarrassing. Cultural studies’ primary theorist Stuart Hall crystallized this sentiment in his 1981 article “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” which ended with his dismissal of the idea that popular culture mattered beyond the political.

While this view of popular culture, and fandom specifically, has certainly changed in cultural studies over the past three decades, and “fannish” modes of engagement have become arguably dominant across media culture, there remains a whiff of suspicion in academia about active participation in affective cultural engagement, as if you can’t “cross the streams” between the two worlds. Attempts to bridge these gaps, most notably through the concept of the hybrid “academic fan” or “acafan,” have explored intriguing conceptual territory over this period, yet have remained unsatisfying, as the series of discussions at Henry Jenkins’ blog last summer bore out. (bonus: here’s my colleague Suzanne Scott on her own misgivings about the term and fannish identities) I’m uncomfortable with the term “acafan” primarily because it leaves out many other possible perspectives (producer, consumer, citizen, viewer, owner, etc.), reducing the range of viable encounters with media texts to a narrow band of intellectual and/or affective engagement.

Rather than continuing dodging the issue, however, I’ve come around to embracing the contradictions; it’s either that or continued frustration, after all. I am an academic. And a fan. In that order as well, for what it’s worth. Moreover, I am also a producer of media content and media knowledge, a consumer of media products, a media mentor to my children and students, and a citizen of media-facilitated states. There is no one “hat” I, nor anyone else, can decide on. Accordingly, I’m trying to grasp experiencing the world through these multiple conceptions. My growing appreciation for comics has led me to new courses and research projects, but it has also given me a greater understanding of the variety of cultural production, distribution, and consumption in the digital age; fostered an addiction to Wednesdays at Keith’s Comics in Dallas, and inspired me to attend the San Diego Comic-Con every July, as both a scholar (observing the cultural economies of fandom up close) and a fan (standing in line for hours to see Matt Smith and Karen Gillan). When I talk about my experiences at Comic-Con in class, students always ask if I go to enjoy it or study it. I always say, “Yes!”

My return to Gally this week extends this embrace back to my roots with old friends, and my first fandom, Doctor Who. The scholar in me is looking forward to seeing how the con has grown and attracted a new generation and new modes of fandom; the fan in me just wants to hang out, meet friends, and talk about Doctor Who, SF, and whatever else comes up for three days. I see this as not only reconnecting with this milieu, but forging new models of engagement across these streams. Indeed, with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who looming in 2013, I’m hoping to make enough connections to spark a new collaborative project (that’s both “aca” and “fan” in the best ways, but also engaged with broader contextual issues), but more on that later…

I’ll report back on Gally. In the meantime, I challenge all of us to think more about how our streams cross (outside of academia, fandom, and every other box we live in), and how to cross them with others.

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