OTW Guest Post: Jessica Hautsch

Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.

Jessica Hautsch earned her PhD from Stony Brook University, where she currently teaches as a lecturer with the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. Her scholarly interests include cognitive science and philosophy, fan studies, and performance studies; her fan interests include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, Black Sails, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Dungeons & Dragons, and early 2000s emo bands.Today, Jessica talks about her article in Transformative Works and Cultures.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

I have always had something of a fannish disposition. I get obsessed with texts, stories, and characters, wanting to know everything about them, to experience more of them. The earliest of my obsessions was The Chronicles of Narnia, which my mother read to my brother and me when we were children. At that point of my life, I did not have the language or terminology to describe my enthusiasm for the stories–the world–of Narnia, but I was a fan. I wanted to know everything about the magical realm through the wardrobe door.

I poured over the maps on the inside covers of my paperbacks and drew some myself. I read and reread the stories, and then wrote my own. I would spend hours in the woods behind my house playing out narratives with my brother and my best friend, Alyssa. We, the Son of Adam and Daughters of Eve, were Narnian royalty. We were fauns and knights. We were talking animals and dryads. I convinced my mom to make me a green robe with a flower crown for Halloween, which I later wore when we played. Yes, I was writing fanfiction and LARPing before I knew what those things were.

But those were activities that I engaged in with only my friend and brother. I didn’t enter the world of online fandom and fanworks until much later in life–when I was in grad school, earning my MA. I had watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer during my adolescence, picking up with the show during its third season when I was twelve, and following it to its conclusion. Then, when I was twenty-two, I was flipping through television channels one evening when I came across a rerun of Buffy. I was instantly obsessed, watching the whole series. Multiple times. And after that, when I still wanted more. I sought out fanfiction. Then I started writing my own. I found Tumblr soon after. And once I knew where to find fans and works, I sought them out for each new piece of media that I fell in love with: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Black Sails, The Witcher, A Court of Thorns and Roses.

What made you first want to examine the variety of visual collages fans create?

I have been on Tumblr for a long time, and I am consistently struck by how fans make use of the site’s affordances to create visual narratives. As a fan, I love pic sets, because they enable diverse narratives, taking and combining images of actors/characters from across a range of texts in a way that gif sets often do not (though, of course, some do!).

Also, while gif sets often focus on characters to build their narratives, pic sets bring in images of objects and locations as well, using them to build atmosphere and story (some animated gif sets also do this, too!). But, while there is a lot of research about animated gif sets and their function in fan communities (notably by Louisa Ellen Stein and Rebecca Williams), there has been little discussion of how fans use still images to construct stories.

My dissertation and forthcoming book takes a cognitive humanist approach to fan studies; I am interested in the complex mental operations through which fans make meaning. As I was doing my reading for exams and writing my prospectus, I kept returning to all of the pic sets that I had reblogged on my Tumblr. Looking at them, I was struck by how, despite the fact that fans often instantly understand what they are looking at, there is so much unconscious mental work that goes into constructing meaning.

When we are looking at pic sets, we take seemingly disconnected images from across a variety of texts, and yet we are able to compress them into a cohesive narrative. I knew I wanted to theorize how we do that.

Are the ways fans construct narratives in this form similar to how fan art or fanfiction represent community?

Yes, there is quite a bit of similarity. I find casting a useful framework for thinking about how fans and fan communities construct an understanding of characters. Casting is one of the ways that fans not only play with characters, but develop a communal consensus about who they are; through casting, they stress, test, and reinforce the limits of characters.

In fanfiction and fanart–like in pic sets–we cast characters into different roles, and the community determines which roles “fit” and which roles don’t (though there is, of course, also pleasure in casting characters against type). In order for a role to make sense for a character, we need to be able to map the traits we associate with a role with those we expect from a character. If we can’t make those connections, it is difficult to understand a character playing that part; they feel miscast.

In some cases, this casting is as a character type (the nerdy guy, the soldier, the politician, etc.), but in other instances, characters are cast as other characters. This casting is obvious in fusion fic and in pic sets that visually retell existing stories with different characters as their leads. But it is also evident in October fics or fanart with characters dressed up as other characters for Halloween. The costume “fits” (or not) because the casting “fits” or not. Again, I see this as a way for the community to construct a consensus about who that character is (and who they aren’t) by mapping intertextual connections between characters.

What would you still like to explore when it comes to pic sets created by fans?

I would love to further explore the relationship between fanfiction and pic sets. There are lots of instances where pic sets are created in response to or in anticipation of fanfiction. Sometimes, they are created by the author; sometimes, they are created by a reader. I am interested in how the pic set frames our understanding of the fic; and how the fic frames our understanding of the pic set.

I am particularly fascinated by examples where we experience a frame shift–where we adjust the cognitive frames into which we slot the images we are seeing, based on the additional information that the other medium provides.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I first discovered OTW through Tumblr. Up until that point, I was reading and posting fic on fanfiction.net. But once a few Tumblr links brought me to AO3, I did not look back. I love the organization and tagging system of AO3–which has become such an integral part of how I find and read fics (for both research and pleasure).

I think that one of the best things about OTW is the protections it offers fans. First, having an archive where writers do not have to worry about fics being purged (a la fanfiction.net). But also the legal protection of fic as a transformative work.

I remember the disclaimers that I used to put in my authors’ notes, in my early days of fic writing, about how I didn’t own the characters I was writing about (because of course I didn’t). That was a convention of that time, because there was still a lot of fear about creators and companies coming after fic writers for copyright violation. Every once in a while I see a younger fan wondering about (or mocking) this practice, and I think that OTW is responsible for that shift.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Hands down, it’s the creativity and generosity of fan creators. My project required me to watch lots of vids, read tons of fic, and look at so many pic sets and gif sets. (It was really a dream come true.) And I am consistently struck by how brilliant and creative fans are.

That is part of the reason that I wanted to approach fandom from the perspective of the cognitive humanities. Despite fandom becoming more mainstream, I still see fanworks being dismissed in various ways (for being silly or smutty or whatever reason). Part of the argument that I am making in my work is that we don’t always see it–because many of these mental operations are occuring unconsciously–but fans are doing really complex cognitive work as they read, write, and integrate these texts. And this complexity should be acknowledged and celebrated.

So, I am blown away by the creativity of fans, but also how generous they are, by the fact that they write and draw and post these amazing works for each other. Another aspect of fandom that I focus on is the community as a cognitive system. But this system only works because fans are generous enough to share their work with the collective that has cohered around a particular text or character or ship. Fans build the community and ecosystem that they think with and through.

We encourage suggestions from fans for future guest posts, so contact us if you have someone in mind! Or you can visit our Pinboard account to catch up on earlier guest posts.

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