Reviews

'Rogue Archives': Fan Fiction and Cultural Memory

Featuring "archive elves" and "digital marionettes", Rogue Archives offers a joyful memorialization of fan productions.


Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom

Publisher: The MIT Press
ISBN: 9780262034661/9780262336758
Author: Abigail De Kosnik
Price: $45.00/$32.00
Format: Hardcover/
Length: 440 pages
Publication date: 2016-09
Amazon

Rogue Archives examines the way that digital media has spawned a new breed of archivists who preserve the cultural history of the Internet. Fan fiction is De Kosnik’s chosen genre of digital production. Her pirate archivists have democratized cultural memory through their anticanonical archiving styles and they teach us lessons about how to defend against ubiquitous digital loss. The book explores, among others, the volunteer “labor” of internet archivists; the privileged status of women and queer users of fan archives, and social justice fandom. If it refuses to look into the darker corners of media fandom or the mutating hegemony of the culture industries, the payoff is that it offers a joyful memorialization of fan productions.

The book is a tour de force archival history of fan archives and archiving, that problematizes the very concept of the archive. De Kosnik’s “archive” has two meanings: the set of previous texts that fans remix to produce new stories and the material practices by which fanfic is preserved and made available to readers. She reminds us that for-profit sites, like Tumblr andFanFictNet are not archives. They delete freely and have no commitment to the preservation of fans’ texts. Importantly, building on Diana Taylor’s conceptualization of the archive and the repertoire in her 2003 book, The Archive and the Repertoire, De Kosnik looks at how fan archives adhere to the logic of performance more than print, with notions of “embodiment” and “event” taking center stage.

Rogue Archives is a book about new media, but it's so densely packed that you cannot binge (Henry Jenkins’ three-part interview with De Kosnik, “Why Study Fan Archives”, offers a fabulous overview). From beginning to end, Rogue Archives is overflowing with references to cultural critics, from Bakhtin through McLuhan to Williams, and to theorists of digital culture. Almost every page contains memorable terms that De Kosnik appropriates to define fan practices. We encounter “archive elves” and “digital marionettes”, to which De Kosnik adds her own “archontic production” (revised from its previous iteration as “archontic literature” in an earlier essay in Hellekson and Busse’s 2006 collection, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet).

Rogue Archives flirts with the risk of tumbling down the rabbit hole of meaningless name checking and jargon, but De Kosnik does not falter. She moves elegantly across disciplines (including oral history, design studies, performance studies, law, information science), always making connections and drawing analogies between them. The book’s citations weave the contributions of others into its texture at every point. As with the conversations that structure fandoms, key fandom scholars emerge as prime interlocuters -- notably Henry Jenkins, Karen Hellekson, Francesca Coppa, Kristina Busse. In this way, Rogue Archives performs the participatory culture that it documents. Ultimately, the plethora of terms strengthens it as a resource, an archive in its own right. Indeed, for teaching purposes, I’d have liked a glossary at the end (to supplement the “Glossary of Key Terms” at the beginning).

The book’s focus on written texts might seem like a retro choice in an era defined by its visual culture. The annual “fandom fantasia” that concludes my sophomore media studies course is always dominated by vids, fan art, and performance pieces, with very few student groups electing to write fan fiction. As ever, however, De Kosnik disarms potential criticism. Thus, she examines cosplay and racebending fancasting in photosets as some of the ways in which fans embody their favorite characters. As she points out, even non-visual texts require us to produce mental theater, to bring characters to life in our imaginations. The boundaries between the written and the visual, the textual and the performative, are always porous.

She also takes up the perennial discussion of the alleged poor quality of fan fiction. The stories are disposable, produced for niche subcultures, so why preserve them? De Kosnik argues convincingly that fan archivists preserve as much as possible because what they are saving are cultural communities, not just individual stories. In addition, different discourses of value than literary excellence animate fan writers, readers, and archivists. What matters is the cultural and affective work a particular story does for a particular reader at a specific moment.

My favorite section (chapter 6) focuses on a holistic reading of an X-Files fic, “Night Giving Off Flames”. As she works through the story’s previously ignored paratexts, De Kosnik reveals “the interdependencies and flows of information between fan authors and readers,” for this is an “Improv” fic written to satisfy specific prompts from an active audience. It turns out that many stories in De Kosnik’s personal archives were written in response to similar writing challenges. Engagingly, she documents her “Gutenberg Mistake” in her original failure to see the collective nature of the compositions. Her digital literacy, or “electracy”, turns out to be less developed than her print competence.


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Though it's not a point that she makes, the sophistication of “Night” challenges any easy derogation of fanfic quality. Days after reading about it, I can’t forget the detailed textual knowledge the story demonstrates and I’m haunted by its moving redaction of the Mulder/Scully relationship.

If the book is in many ways De Kosnik’s autobiography, as well as a history of fan archiving, it also charts the history of my own engagement with fandom and with digital culture, and uses my own repertoire of references (the Borg is my go-to metaphor for assimilation). It’s easy for me to love it. The book's real value, however, will be for fans and readers who were born in the digital age. De Kosnik recaps and narrativizes the print/net divide. In so doing, she historicizes the present -- showing how today’s cultural forms, practices and modes of participation remix older models. She offers a memorable parable about reconciliation via consideration of Star Trek “femslash” fiction. Janeway/Seven stories symbolically cross technological and generational lines. They, like the book itself, work to bridge the generational divide between older and younger fans.

The book’s “Conclusion” shifts gear to consider fan data. I’m not convinced that readers will really have been pondering the size of rogue archives, as De Kosnik posits. The chapter has a tacked-on feel, like a quantitative ghetto at the end of a qualitative ethnographic project. That said, there are some interesting figures that put fan fiction into a broader media perspective. Thus, “At 5.4 million, FF.net’s number of stories dwarfs Netflix’s library of 60,000 television episodes and movies available for streaming,” leading De Kosnik to designate it “a mass media channel.” Digital scrapers show that while FF.net dominates in terms of overall numbers, the fan-built and fan-run AO3 (Archive of Our Own) sees higher rates of productivity in authors (11.4 works per author v. 4.5) and greater diversity in content (48 percent more fandoms than FF.net). AO3 emerges as a “safer stage” for online production. De Kosnik makes the metrics meaningful.

However, the book’s alternative endings are more satisfying (ch. 7 and break 7). Here De Kosnik explores the analogies between free culture, free software, and fan communities and celebrates copyleft, collaborative creativity, and versioning. Her allusions to Creative Commons licenses made me reflect on whether an established academic press was the best platform for the book itself. For Rogue Archives not only deals with emergent cultures in terms of content, its form is also hybrid.

As De Kosnik explains in the Introduction, the book comprises academic-style chapters and experimental “breaks”. Drawing on hip-hop culture, the breaks are “the get down parts”. The dialogic structure gives visible form to the text’s self-reflexivity and to the ongoing conversations with other critics and fans that subtend it. I constantly found myself wanting a space where I could R&R beyond the limitations of a traditional book, something like Jason Mittell’s Media Commons version of Complex TV -- I still turn to its engaging mix of voices even though I own the published text. But readers and fans will surely find other participatory communities to respond to Rogue Archives' thoughtful prompts.

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