A Subject by Choice: The Agency of Fans

I wrote this reflection paper back in 2007 to consider how theories about subjectivation occurs in fandom. Which is to say, how fans of something willingly become identified with that thing they are a fan of. Subjectivation would argue that people passively become something through external ideological forces — that they have no say in becoming that something.

I argue that fans have that choice to become associated with that thing they care about — that they willingly become subjects of it and thus subject to it, and that in doing so, they can be influenced by that thing, which is important when you consider how much money and time they are willing to spend on that thing and how ardently they are willing to defend it. If people are willing to become subjects of something, to become fans of it, then they are more willing to spend time, money, and social capital (i.e. risk hurting relationships) on it.

Understanding how fans become subject to their fandom, and how they use their fandom to enforce subjection on others, is important in talking about the power dynamics of fractured fandom. So I have expanded on this original work, and will probably keep doing so to highlight how it applies to my new research ideas.

Upon reading about the relationship between the subject and his/her society via an ideology, my first reaction was: where lies agency? It seemed natural to assume that this subjectivation left the individual a passive receptacle, an agent-free lump of clay to be shaped and animated by the Pygmalion of some ideology. I took this to mean that one’s sense of self is dependent upon being dominated — that only by internalizing the ideology did an identity form, and via this identity did one come into an understanding how to interact with others, the society and world at large. As I favor empowerment and agency of the individual, this understanding upset me; is it true that we never choose by which ideology we will be subjected?

I make no argument against subjectivation occurring. My concern lies with whether or not the subject can have some choice in how s/he is subjected. For someone who studies fan and media cultures and their related identities, which are considered personal choices but have involved their own ideologies and discourses, the incorporation of agency in understanding subjectivation is important for my research. It was upon closer inspection of Althusser, Foucault and Butler that I could see how my prior understanding and my desired conception could be reconciled. Not because any of them directly came out to argue for this agency, but because they were not overtly saying such was not possible. Indeed, the ways in which they describe the tripartite relationship hints at their allowing for this dialogism between the subject and the process of subjection.

It was with Butler that I first found myself hoping to find this argument, as she appeared to be critiquing Althusser for this same passive conception of the subject. Her critique lay with subjectivation paradoxically being something we appear unable to choose and yet fully reliant on in order to understand what is meant by “I”. She argued that while “the customary model” involves power imposing upon us who are unable to resist, it should be remembered that “‘we’ who accept such terms are fundamentally dependent on those terms for ‘our’ existence.” (p. 2). But Butler does not appear satisfied with simply saying that we accept such terms to become a subject, to become someone. Her description of this aspect of the relationship implies a level of agency for the person who is being subjectivated. “If the subject can only assure his/her existence in terms of the law, and the law requires subjection for subjectivation, then, perversely, one may (always already) yield to the law in order to continue to assure one’s own existence.” (p. 112, italics added). The use of the word “yield” implies that the person, in order to become the subject, has made the choice to turn and acknowledge the law. If the person knows beforehand the conditions of the subjection and subjectivation, then the person may choose to act “in anticipation of the law” (p. 115) by accepting the conditions that will then be applied to reassure the person that s/he is someone.

However, this implication for the role of conscious choice was not lost on Althusser.  Althusser’s interpolation itself rests on the assumption that when the police officer calls out the name of the subject, the subject will choose to respond. Naturally, it is not quite so simple, for the ideology inscribes in this moment of recognition a double bind, wherein the subject really has no choice to do anything but turn or else face the consequences.  However, he still rests this social theory upon the person’s acceptance of the belief that s/he must turn.

The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. (p. 167, italics added)[1]

It may be that by engaging in the rituals that are inscribed by the ideology, the person becomes the subject, and the ideology reproduces itself through the subject. And while the ideology may be a system of beliefs that are made material by those rituals, if the person truly, deep down, does not consciously accept those beliefs, then the person would be able to resist the ideology and choose to disregard the call of the police officer — at his/her own risk, be it bodily or otherwise, as Butler pointed out.

Perhaps it is Foucault who offers the best hope for the person’s ability to choose and possibly resist subjectivaton. He broke the conception of an all-encompassing ideology that is applied top-down, from those in control to those who are their subjects, by discussing instead the interplay of domination and submission and the discussion of power as a dynamic between those two poles. He discusses power as circulating, as possibly being available for those who are dominated to become the dominating. Here the person has the ability to employ the power that circulates through the fabrics of society.  However, he cautions over the danger that comes when the person with the power becomes the conduit through which the power is reproduced (p. 214) — that those who had been dominated can become those who dominate. Yet again, is is the person’s choice to move from being in the position of submission to being in the position of domination.  If it is truly desired, the dynamism of power allows for this possibility.

The reason I see this need to allow for agency in choice of which ideology or discourse or discipline will be subjecting the person to be a certain thing is because of my interest in the person as an active media user, and in particular the user who repeatedly uses a specific media and engages in a culture that has formed around this media engagement.  Unless we accept the idea that a person will be automatically subjected into a specific fandom based on some material condition, then selection of media use and decision to self-identify as a fan implies agency. However, upon this acceptance, this conscious choice, the person becomes a subject of that particular fandom. The fan chooses to be a fan, but then to be a fan, the person is subject to the requirements of that fandom to self-identify as a fan.

Each fandom has its own ideology of what are the accepted and expected rituals to enact to be considered a “true fan”. A Star Trek fan, or Trekkie, is expected to know a certain amount of text-specific information, to respond to certain words in certain ways, and to not be afraid of exhibiting this identity. Of course, a person may choose to be identified as a Trekkie, but the more one accepts this identity, as Butler would say, the more one subjects him or herself to the fandom. One cannot be a fan without being subject to the ideologically boundaries of that fandom.

At the same time, a person may have a number of such subject positions because s/he has a number of fan identities: to a particular sports team, to a range of particular media texts, to a particular religion, and so forth. Each subject position requires different rituals to reiterate their subjectivation, but underneath is perhaps the same psychic process: the willingness or the conscious choice to be a subject to that fandom. As long as one is willing to be a fan, then one has to abide by the ideological boundaries or “rules” to be a part of that fandom. Stepping over those boundaries or breaking those rules would be undoing this subjectivation and thus relinquishing one’s identity as a “true fan.”

Or perhaps it is a fear that if one does not accept being a subject, one cannot be assured of one’s place in the world. And for a social creature like humans, not belonging can be a very scary thing. After all, even a Trekkie who pretends to be a Vulcan or a Klingon is still a human at heart. And perhaps this fear is what truly keeps some fans subject to a fandom even when they do not desire such subjectiviation and do not with to live within the fandom’s ideological boundaries. But it can be hard to say “no” to the fandom when one has for so long been subject to it and identified as a “true fan.”

[1] This reference from Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” comes from a different source: Althusser, L.  (1971).  Lenin and Philosophy, and other essays. (translated by B. Brewster).  New York: Monthly Review Press.

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