Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How many parts "popular" and how many parts "science"?


Although Kai does bring up some good points challenging the criticism of Sagan, Penely’s argument seems to be centered on the image of “popular science: and whether or not it can exist. By juxtaposing Hawking and Sagan, a picture begins to develop of two not necessarily conflicting beliefs, but overlapping beliefs about how to treat science, popular culture, and the audience. Kais statement “Sagan only objects to popular science writing when it is grounded in a misunderstanding of modern science and misrepresents scientific facts, a caveat which Penley overlooks when she accuses Sagan of being anti-populist” proves incredible logical. But part of popular SF is getting people interested in science in general. I realize it is perfectly acceptable to hold SF to a higher standard of being accurate, but there appears to be many, many instances in SF of inaccurate or impossible science. Just as NASA appears to make some horrible decisions (like sending an extremely unqualified civilian into space to write a diary?), they are at least trying to be more assessable to the average American. Attempting to make science more assessable o the mainstream American audience proves to be a step in the write direction. Expecting perfection, or at least something close, is not uncommon, sometimes points should be award for trying. An “A” for effort, so to speak.


In /Trek, once Penley begins to get in to the actual details of the production of slash fiction fanzines, the description at first seems to be a revelatory peek into a seemingly unspoiled world. The do-it-yourself attitude and production values are described not as amateurism, but a sort of deliberate subversion of a cultural item that has fixated these people. From behind the rosy picture she paints of these fans’ efforts, one statement began to trouble me: “The fandom has achieved a certain vertical integration-control over every aspect of production, distribution and consumption- that the trust-busted film industry could only dream about.” (105) It troubled me not only in its use of vertical integration to describe the process, a phenomena which can lead to stagnation in a creative industry, but also the connection to the film industry. It seems like the entire benefit of these organizations is their direct opposition to the film industry. It is an industry that, over the last decade especially, has proven to the public time and time again how little it values any actual viewer, in favor of valuing the money they feed in to the industry. Oddly enough, sci fi has been both a beneficiary and a casualty of this attitude, as evidenced by the rise in popularity followed by the subsequent overexposure/beating of a dead horse of the super hero blockbuster. As a popular genre, Sci-fi is particularly susceptible to the abuse and exploitation we saw with the super hero film. Of course, the fact that the industry is the consumers in this case mitigates that. Penley also mentions that some deliberately lessened production values and distribution methods move towards, if not explicitly trying to distance oneself from the industry, then at least trying to keep to their roots. And the fact that it is not only pornographic, but pornographic for a very specific audience, seems to also mitigate avenues for exploitation. But is this enough?

Penley focuses for a long time on the role of technology in preserving the seemingly unspoilt nature of slash fiction. The writers themselves seem to think that keeping production values low will both cut down costs, but also save themselves from an erosion of their community at the hands of technology. To me, it seems like the erosion comes not from the technology, but from the organization itself. In describing the methods of the Professionals Constance mentioned the difficulties of dealing with zine editors “who only publish their friends or who censor certain types of stories.” (109) As even this relatively small production industry begins to gain popularity, as evinced by the attention of authors and other interested outsiders such as Penley, microcosms of the problems that pervade Hollywood still crop up. The slash fiction writers seem to be doomed by the growing popularity and ambition that made them so special in the first place.

Everything I Know About NASA I Learned from TV


I struggled with Penley’s book when I first read it because I felt she never quite drew out the connection she claimed was central to her argument. Providing some comparisons at the beginning, her choice to deal with NASA and Star Trek separately made it harder for me to see where exactly the slash comes in. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the idea of looking at NASA in terms of narrative, and trying to understand how their story has changed over time.

I think part of my initial struggle might come from the fact that, as Alexandra pointed out, I’m looking at NASA (and Star Trek) fourteen years after this book was written. Because I didn’t watch Star Trek when I was young, I’ve always understood it more in terms of other people talking about it. When I saw the newest movie, I got the joke about red shirts, but only because they were referenced in other shows. I know my experience of Star Trek doesn’t apply to the whole class, but I think looking at NASA in terms of this backwards system of understanding might be more relevant. For people with post-Challenger memories, the narrative of NASA often revolves around cultural references. Penley did play out the idea of NASA trying to cast its own narrative to follow Star Trek’s, and I think that has expanded into incorporating other stories.

It’s hard for me to define what NASA means without thinking in terms of popular culture. I know more about the Homer in space episode of The Simpsons than the Teachers in Space program it was apparently loosely based on. NASA continues to tie itself to popular culture occasionally. Examples I could think of off the top of my head were Buzz Aldrin’s self-effacing appearance on 30 Rock and NASA naming a treadmill after Stephen Colbert when write-in votes won him a contest to have a room on the international space station bear his name (they don’t name rooms after living people, apparently). Since the connections don’t seem to be NASA-initiated and since NASA has shown some level of restraint, it’s harder to tell what they’re doing with their narrative. It seems they don’t want to become a joke, but also realize they have to do some joking to remain relevant. But instead of NASA using pop culture, it appears pop culture is using NASA at this point, calling the shots and having some say in its narrative as well.

The expansion from NASA/Trek to NASA/pop culture has in some ways allowed the organization to reframe its own story, though not necessarily for the better. In thinking about the narrative path NASA has taken since Challenger, and since 1997, I was surprised to realize how little I actually know about the organization. I’d completely forgotten about the Columbia explosion in 2003 – an event I did live through, which killed just as many astronauts as Challenger. But it seems to have had far less of an impact on the general public, perhaps because, as we talked about last week, 9/11 had taken its place as the defining flashbulb memory of a generation two years earlier. The real difference between the tragedies, though, seems to be the narrative that surrounded Columbia. There was no national hype, no pop cultural tie-in. And I couldn’t even remember it.

Talking about the success of Apollo 13, Penley explained that modern NASA narratives seemed to revolve around its moments of crisis. Perhaps it’s a sign of a successful reframing of their story that NASA's more recent failures haven’t taken such a hold in their narrative. But that leaves the problem of what we’re left with. Again, I’m reminded of our discussion last week, specifically Delany's idea that every story also includes the narrative of the things left out. In this case the exclusions seem a lot more important. From what I do know of the Challenger story, the idea of the astronauts dying in the explosion still remains (and when I talked about it with my friends, that’s the story they remembered as well). Though the transition into the space of popular culture has kept NASA somewhat relevant, I’m interested in the cost. Penley focused on the lack of a female voice, and that still remains, but I feel the loss of any real NASA narrative is evident today. They've replaced their focus on tragedy and near tragedy with comedy, and while I’m happy to watch Tina Fey's and Stephen Colbert’s versions of NASA’s story, it would be nice to hear NASA’s perspective again as well.

NASA, Not Much Has Changed


NASA, Future, Exploration, Women, Penley

I must admit, I’ve never been a fan of Slash fan-fiction. I don’t necessarily know if I have a good reason for that aside from a belief in the purity of canon in various fiction universes. Basically, I don’t think I would want people rewriting a world I created and although I know many authors don’t feel that way, I tend to impose my offended nature on them.

That being said, Penley’s NASA/TREK was by far my favorite reading of the week and just a very interesting and educational piece. Taken even just as a history of NASA, it was very engaging and I for one did not know that the challenger command capsule was not instantly incinerated in the explosion.

As I was browsing the internet for current news related to the space program I noticed that yesterday was the first publication of photos from the Messenger spacecraft now in Orbit around Mercury and intended to continue taking pictures and scientific readings for the next. While going through NASA’s website I also noticed that it was just a few weeks ago on March 16th that NASA launched the Women@NASA website.

The website is largely a repository of stories of 32 different women working in various fields throughout NASA and its stated goal is to inspire girls everywhere to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The home page for the site ( is layed out with 32 pictures of Women and clicking on them takes you to a story of what they’ve done and a video of them telling it themselves. The stories are nice, and somewhat inspiring, but I kept being disappointed. I read every single story (they are short) and I kept being like “Oh, cool, she studies water collected by the Mars Rover, but I’m really curious about the stories of the astronauts.” And so I kept thinking I was just about to read an astronauts story.

That’s not to say I don’t understand how integral scientists and engineers are to what NASA does but I have to imagine if I was a young girl dreaming of space, I wouldn’t like this website. I would be like “Wait, I know there are women astronauts, what if I want to actually GO to space. Does NASA not let women fly anymore?”

To get the answer to that you have to click on the small words “More Stories” at the top of the page. This takes you to another part of the women@NASA website. A part that is much less graphically pleasing to the eye and is just a list of photos and short job titles about ¼ the size of each photo on the main page. The first astronaut appears here. Eileen Collins is one of the two remaining women pilots at NASA and I don’t understand why her story (which is longer and much more interesting than those on the front pages) is buried.

The end of her interview asks the question I’m sure a lot of people are asking and she seems to want to find a solution:

“We haven’t hired any women pilots since 1995, and I’m wondering where they are,” Collins said. “I know there are qualified women out there who would love to do this job, and I encourage them to look at this job and to realize that I have had an extremely rewarding career with a lot of flexibility. I’m married. I’ve had two children while I was in the astronaut office. In the 16 years I was here, I’ve flown four missions and had two children, and I’ve been able to do that without too much heartache.”

I began writing this entry expecting to talk about how much NASA has changed since Penley wrote her article. However, what I really found is that the idea of Women going to space is a fading dream, one that NASA doesn’t seem to be trying that hard to revive.

At Odds with Being Vulcan? - Düttman & Identity Politics in K/S

tags: homosexuality, identity, AIDS, alienation, feminism

Broke Trek - (for more silly [and tame] K/S, check out


“So, too, the fans appreciate gay men’s efforts to appreciate masculinity, and feel a sense of solidarity with them insofar as gay men also inhabit bodies that are a legal, moral, and religious battleground.” (Penley 130)

“In other words, when fighting the politics of the state…when denouncing the social stigmatization of the infected, the activist cannot avoid the dangers of an identification, of an equation of AIDS and homosexuality, by having recourse to a sexual ideal that has already been mourned.”  (Alexander García Düttmann’s At Odds With Aids: Things & Talking About a Virus, 54)

In his book, At Odds With Aids*,Düttmann talks about the way in which AIDS brings to the foreground a phenomenon of human identity which has always been true, but which AIDS makes undeniable – the Being-not-one with oneself of human identity. Or, in other words, the way in which human identity is always never complete in and of itself but always marked by other beings and by other spaces. For a person with AIDS, the disease becomes a huge part of that person’s identity – and yet the disease is the mark of another body, and a specific other time, that is separate from that person, that is not a part of them, but that still defines who they are. In such a way, AIDS makes blatant a fact that is inherent in the identity of every human being – our identities are all constantly defined by a Being-not-one, constantly defined by other beings, other times, other places, over which we have no control.

Beyond Spock/Kirk

My initial plan for this week’s blog entry was to focus on the question of whether science fiction reading and writing is still something of a “boy’s club”. After reading the second portion of Constance Penley’s NASA/Trek, however, I’ve decided to reroute myself in order to contrast Penley’s experience with “fanfiction” with my own. The topics are certainly related—after all, fanfiction writing seems to create an almost exclusively female niche within “fandoms”.

In addition to being primarily female, the modern world of fanfiction is also primarily dedicated to works of fantasy and science fiction. I went to, the largest online database of fanfiction, to collect some statistics. The most popular “fandoms” are as follows (the number of fics currently uploaded are in parentheses):


1. Harry Potter (507, 944)

2. Twilight (178, 188)

3. Lord of the Rings (44, 628)


1. Star Wars (26, 080)

2. Pirates of the Caribbean (18, 4345)

TV Shows

1. Supernatural (46, 725)

2. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (41, 561)

Although fanfiction as we think of it today arguably traces its roots back to Star Trek fanzines, I believe Penley’s description of fandom to be exceedingly limited—or at least outdated. (Of course, mine is necessarily limited as well, though in a different way; I’m not trying to invalidate hers so much as offer an alternative perspective). Nowadays, the fanfiction community is chiefly virtual, almost wholly anonymous, and much larger and broader in scope. Because of this, it is much less united. With the rise of fanfiction websites and online journals over “fanzines”, overall quality drops but participation skyrockets. This has allowed many younger writers to get involved: In my experience, most writers are women in their late teens or early twenties, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if girls in their mid to late teens actually outnumber older writers, even if the typically poor quality of these early works keeps them from achieving any recognition.

Penley describes the fanfiction writers she encounters as “an underground group… who have ingeniously subverted and rewritten Star Trek to make it answerable to their own sexual and social desires” (2-3). I would argue, however, that while some fans do seek to “subvert and rewrite”, this is only one of the motivations behind fanfiction writing. Another is to enhance. Fanfiction allows fans to expand upon the material offered on screen or in published print. For example, I remember years ago enjoying some of the very popular “Marauder-era” fanfiction set in the Harry Potter fandom years before the actual series began. Nothing in the stories I’m remembering contradicted the published work; rather they enriched it, adding detail to a time period only alluded to in the books. Similarly, another subgroup of fanfics extends beyond the original work, continuing the lives of beloved characters long after the last chapter has ended or the screen has gone dark. Fanfiction can also be used, particularly for movies and TV shows, to get inside characters’ heads in ways that visual media does not often allow.

Although Penley focuses heavily on the “slash” aspect, in my experience homosexual subtext is just one theme that a subgroup of fanfiction writers like to explore. Rather, I would argue that fanfiction as a whole is characterized by an emphasis on the emotional (and, yes, often romantic). Although this can manifest itself as a “slash” relationship (perhaps in the absence of female characters or relationships that meet the author’s approval) this hardly forms a majority. (I also wouldn’t be as quick as Penley to glorify explicit “slash” works as some sort of revolution—sometimes porn or erotica is just porn or erotica. I don’t think anyone would be feeling too congratulatory over a man drawing or writing a highly sexual scene between two women.)

A third purpose of fanfiction is what Tom Moylan calls “inside” or “popular” criticism (36-37). Although presented in the form of a narrative, some fanfiction is clearly written as a way for the author to express his or her evaluation or interpretation of a controversial aspect of the original work, such as an episode of a TV show that seems to break character continuity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the community that fanfiction writing offers, which Penley briefly describes. Although the fanfiction community as a whole has expanded far past the point of unity, authors still tend to clump together (usually by original source material or, in the case of large fandoms, by the character or pairings they most enjoy). In my experience, these authors not only encourage each other’s writing, but often go out of their way to offer real-world support as well.

"This is honestly about fandom in general - everyone’s a fan of something - and it’s a tribute to it. The point about LINDA is that they forget the Doctor after a while, and make friends. They’re genuinely good mates. That’s what good fandom does. It’s real passion, and connection, and fun. And that’s not said often enough." - Doctor Who showrunner Russel T Davies concerning the episode in which the Doctor gets a fan club ("LINDA")

Get a Life!: Taking Fiction as Reality

What makes or breaks a television show, a movie, or a book series in the often maligned and marginalized science fiction genre? The fans. Fans brought Star Trek back from a future of being remembered as nothing more than a short-run campy scifi show to a burgeoning enterprise. Fans brought Star Wars from the silver screen into an expanded universe of novels, comics, video games, television shows, merchandising and established the brand as a multimedia empire. Fans are an integral part of keeping any creative venture afloat, but more so in the science fiction genre than anywhere else. Without there would be no Next Generation and the reality of science would pale in comparison to the fiction.

Fans bring a number of things with them. The first being a passionate intensity for one subject: Star Wars, Star Trek, Star Gate, Serenity, Doctor Who, and a host of others that I cannot think of at the moment. Fans gather in conventions to put their interest on public display. Some even fashion costumes to mimic many characters from the universe. There is a place for all kinds of fan obsession: from the lowliest Stormtrooper to the emperor of the Galactic Empire all fans play their role.

They are Legion.
The second thing that fans bring as an intimate familiarity with the source material. The best contribution to a body of work such as Star Wars may come through the writing of passionate fans as seen in the Expanded Universe. This interest may spread to areas unforeseen by the series creator, as theories of fan canonity or "fanon" may outshine the original established canon and replace it. For insance, Boba Fett's death in the Sarlacc Pit was ruled out after several highly successful stories in the Expanded Universe were published and his position as an Ensemble Darkhorse among the fans was firmly entrenched. In one of his many rereleases of the trilogy, "George Lucas stated in the audio commentary of Return of the Jedi that he added a shot of Boba Fett crawling out of the Sarlacc, which Fett does, stating that the character survived, he managed to blast himself out, killing the Sarlacc in the process" []. The fans played a role in Lucas reaching this decision, so the "fanon" became canon.

The moral of the story is popularity will bring you back from being slowly digested for 10,000 years.
--Get a Life sketch from SNL

It is precisely because the fans may take it too far, that they may let the fiction affect the reality that we are able to see precisely how much our reality is itself a construct of the fiction. In Constance Penley's "NASA/TREK" the ideology of the construct Star Trek is the driving force behind the reality of NASA, and they rarely meet up cleanly. In other words, our drive to reach the stars is driven by a fiction, and the practice may not necessarily live up to it. No more clearly is this connection between the fiction and the reality present than in examples of fiction taking on fiction-- pastiches such as Galaxy Quest.

Jason Nesmith: There is no "quantum flux". There's no "auxiliary". THERE'S NO GODDAMNED SHIP. You got it?
Brandon Wheeger: I just wanted to tell you that I thought a lot about what you said. 
Jason Nesmith: It's okay, now listen... 
Brandon Wheeger: But I want you to know that I'm not a complete brain case, okay? I understand completely that it's just a TV show. I know there's no beryllium sphere... 
Jason Nesmith: Hold it. 
Brandon Wheeger: no digital conveyor, no ship... 
Jason Nesmith: Stop for a second, stop. It's all real. 
Brandon Wheeger: Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it! I knew it! 
--Galaxy Quest

In some cases the difference between canon and "fanon" become blurred and the former may affect the former. Similarly "fanfiction" and a successful pastiche are not too far off from each other as well.  In the case of the film Galaxy Quest, the characters are clear send-ups to the characters from the various iterations of Star Trek. Tim Allen's character Jason Nesmith channels a Shatnerian delivery that reeks of overacting and arrogance accompanying the public perception of William Shatner milking his role in the original series for all its worth. Alan Rickman's alien character carries clear influences from both Spock and Worf– the inability to remove himself from the I Am Not Spock problem of never escaping your role as the other, the makeup and prosthetics, and the chilly exterior.

Although it might be made by fans we shouldn't confuse parody for fanfiction.

Galaxy Quest works as an interesting instance of pastiche because it in fact lauds the role of the fans– the heroes could not succeed without the aid of several nerdy characters Tim Allen had written off at the start of the story. The fans save the world, the actors only succeed by luck and the virtue of others. When Nesmith writes off the fan Brandon as embracing a short-lived series with little merit he does a disservice to the concept of works like Star Trek. Sure, their sets may be cheesy, their acting not always on mark, and their plots contrived. But a work like Star Trek which takes the future of man (and woman's) exploration into the farthest reaches of the cosmos as its subject allows for a greater access to the potentiality of a bright future in the public unconscious. That allows for strides forward in the field of science.

Sagan neglects to account for something when he says," the opposite of enlightenment; popular science and science cannot coexist because popular science ("irrationality") confounds the progress of science ("rationality")." (Penley 6) The popular fiction allows for insight into where science might take us, even if the specifics of the science are hazy or downright wrong. The popular science influences the science in a way that makes it meaningful, even if the actual science behind it is bunk.


In Defense of Carl Sagan

Jasmine’s post raises a number of issues in the argument Penley develops against the scientific establishment and Carl Sagan in the first few pages of NASA/TREK. I’d like to add to that by explaining why I think Penley’s criticism of Sagan is, as a whole, unjustified.

Penley’s criticism of Sagan begins with the claim that Sagan believes that “Entertainment… is the opposite of enlightenment,” in the realm of science, and points out that “such a view contrasts sharply with that of … physicist Stephen Hawking”. As Jasmine points out, Penley’s attribution of this view to Sagan is simply wrong, given Sagan’s SF publications. Indeed, no contrast of the sort that Penley claims can be found between the views of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking: Sagan is committed to the popularization of science as long as it is accurately represented, which Stephen Hawking, being a practicing physicist himself, would surely have done in “A Brief History of Time”. Sagan only objects to popular science writing when it is grounded in a misunderstanding of modern science and misrepresents scientific facts, a caveat which Penley overlooks when she accuses Sagan of being anti-populist.

Penley also characterizes Sagan as insisting that “our pleasure in science… should only emerge through identification with the righteous joy of his skeptical debunking of nonscience”, but this characterization is clearly inaccurate. Sagan does not debunk pseudoscience because he derives pleasure from showing off his superior scientific knowledge, as Penley makes him out to be, but rather because he is concerned about the impact pseudoscience may have on the public, who may not be able to distinguish science fiction from fact. Given a choice, Sagan would certainly prefer to engage in writing his own works of popular science to spending time disproving scientific myths, making it difficult to see how he would derive any pleasure from being forced to debunk pseudoscience, much less expect others to derive enjoyment from such a debunking. Thus Penley’s characterization as Sagan as being some sort of holier-than-thou scientific elitist is simply wrong.

Subsequently, Penley rejects Sagan’s criticism of the X-Files, as she argues that the X-Files “does not eschew skepticism”, instead turning skepticism “towards the complicity of establishment science and the government”. Yet even her own characterization of Sagan’s argument shows that Sagan is not interested in skepticism in this sense. Rather, Sagan is criticizing the X-Files for its lack of empirical skepticism, or its preference for explaining unusual phenomena by means of alien involvement, rather than through scientifically plausible methods. Thus even if it is true that the X-Files is “fully skeptical” in the antiestablishment sense, Penley’s point is hardly a relevant response to Sagan’s criticism.

Finally, Penley accuses Sagan of being unable to “appreciate the levels of irony and humor in the X-Files”, and of underestimating “the degree of critical reflection fans are capable of”. In the process, she also makes another ad hominem jab at Sagan, again suggesting that his motivations for debunking pseudoscience are elitist. It may be true that by analysing the X-Files from a solely scientific viewpoint and focusing on its failings with regards to empirical skepticism, Sagan may be missing out on the various other themes of the show which make it so enjoyable, such as the issues of government accountability and gender which it addresses. But this is irrelevant to Sagan’s criticism, for the extent to which the X-Files makes insightful social and political commentary has no bearing on the extent to which it represents scientific facts accurately, and so again Penley’s supposed response to Sagan is inadequate. Given this and the other flaws in Penley’s argument I have outlined above, I consider Penley’s criticism of Sagan to be unjustified.

Queering Utopia

Oscar Wilde wrote in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

Tom Moylan echoes this concept in “Absent Paradigms” (mainly 64-5) - Utopia is not a concrete map; it is a “mapping,” a constant performance. Utopia is unattainable. How can science fiction impart utopian impulses to readers? By positioning the reader in the text, the narrative works on the reader, encouraging the reader “to ‘break out of the passivity and illusionism of the traditional reading experience in an effort to push the reader to work for change.’” (Fitting qtd in Moylan, p 54). The reader must work “from the inside” to fill in the details left out of such utopian science fiction works, glimpsing utopia in the “absent paradigm of the alternative world” (52).

In Crusing Utopia: the then and there of queer futurity, Jose Esteban Munoz writes about the utopian nature of the queer movement. “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality…. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality…. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” (1) Soon after that, he claims that “Queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” (1) Munoz opens with Oscar Wilde’s quote for a reason — queerness is a vision to work towards, it may never be attainable. His language may be very different from Moylan’s explanation of absent paradigms, but queerness operates through an absent paradigm.

Constance Penley’s “Nasa/Trek” and Jennifer DeVere Brody’s “The Returns of Cleopatra Jones” both offer queer readings of seemingly heterosexual characters through this framework of absent paradigms. Penley writes of K/S (Kirk and Spock fanfiction) as a way for women to write a space for themselves in Star Trek (Penley describes Star Trek as a supposedly egalitarian world 300 years in the future, but there weren’t any female captains for years). Penley also cites the argument that “science fiction, seemingly the most sexless of genres, is in fact engrossed with questions of sexual difference and sexual relations, which it repeatedly addresses alongside questions of other kinds of differences and relations” (103). In other words, science fiction, because it seems sexless, is a prime target for readers to fill in absent paradigms of sexuality with ideas of queer sexuality. Star Trek “fans recognized that there was an erotic homosexual subtext there, or at least one that could easily be made to be there” (101-102).

DeVere posits a similar argument to explain why (primarily queer black feminist) fans cast Cleopatra Jones as a black queer figure. “In order to (mis)recognize Cleo as a ‘queer’ black heroine, these readers creative have deformed and erased aspects of the film character’s initial reception. In other words, the image of Cleopatra Jones can be ‘queered’ only through a canny counterreading that privileges different desires that result from spatiotemporal distance” (103). In this sense, arguing for a queer reading of Cleopatra Jones involves actively erasing and reworking the initial intent and public perception of her character (as a blaxploitation heroine who had to appeal to an audience of primarily black heterosexual men). Cleopatra Jones is not “sexless” — recognizing a queer subtext in the Cleopatra Jones films requires a utopian performance that overwrites the original perception of her character, building an absent paradigm that wasn’t originally there and filling it in with a queer vision.
In this way, absent paradigms, queer futurity, and utopian visions all have similar trajectories that can find a unique vehicle in science fiction.

Slash and the Phantasmatic Theater

Speaking of songtapes and VCRs, there’s a video-editing workshop in Holder 4B (a.k.a. SDA headquarters) this Saturday 1–5 p.m.… you know, if you really want to make things like the sample below. Just sayin’.

Come back to the Castle ag’in, He-Man honey.

It was Orr’s description of the phantasmatic theater in Panic Diaries that reminded me most of Penley’s “/TREK” slash segment. Slash “redistributes its [social] space” (Penley 106) in sort of the same way in which Orr describes how Wells’ phantasmatic theater generates new effects out of the existing shared social space. As Wells challenges the conventions of electronic broadcast media, slash challenges the larger heteronormative structure of production television and popular culture. But the parallels are not just with content, rather the majority of Orr’s section on War of the Worlds focus on its not-so-subtle relation to wartime propaganda and the development of market research: a “slashing” between radio and psychology institutions, if you will. “Was the Princeton Radio Research Project part of a choreographed, if not precisely conspiratorial, attempt to develop techniques for the mass manipulation of audience behavior?… [W]as early radio research itself contributing to the development of techniques of propaganda and mass persuasion that best fit a capitalist society on the brink of war and in the wake of fiscal panic and depression?” (Orr 60) In the same way, Penley suggests that NASA/TREK has already begun but lacks the maturer coherence of, e.g., radio/propaganda.

If there was nothing too conspiratorial about the social psychology research that followed Wells’ broadcast, perhaps there is in the slash fanfic-writing fanbase (not in a bad way, of course). Phantasmatic theater “redraws academic conceptions and cultural experiences of the social group… [mobilizing] social imaginations and… collective perceptions” (Orr 39). The conspiracy of slash is that in its sexual context it is phantasmatic theater for a small subgroup of the audience, among whom the interpretation of slash may vary considerably, as Brody argues about queer reading in general (101–102). The second feature of the phantasmatic theater is its suggestive power. This works on two levels: the suggestion of Kirk/Spock from television, and the suggestion that Kirk/Spock is real from the plethora of slash fanfic. To the degree by which television may be called phantasmatic theater, the appropriation of the theater of slash from TV’s normalized narratives (i.e. the queer reading) defines a new political subspace for influencing the originating narrative and its generating norms. Has it been successful in doing so?

It is important that Star Trek’s medium is television, for which subverting its social space requires a different creative act than that for radio. Orr notes that the effectiveness of Wells’ broadcast lay along class and education lines, for which twisting the truth of the narrative is an outwardly political act: military invasion, descriptions of mass panic, and governmental authority. The interpretation of television, where seeing is not believing, must then be more subtle and thus becomes inwardly political: slashing two futuristic heterosexual characters and weaving feminist ideas into a narrative without women (Penley p.?). Additionally, as far as the motivation for utilizing the future’s Kirk and Spock may lie in women’s self-alienation from their bodies, “legal, moral, and religious battlegrounds” (Penley 126), suggests the very politics of cognitive estrangement which defines SF. The thematic and visual prominence of the male heroic in television allows the written slash pairing extreme effectiveness. And although the audience proper of slash fanfic may not be large (although the Internet has certainly accelerated its reach), the subtle suggestion of Kirk/Spock from the source material is available to the entire shared social space, like Wells’ broadcast; unlike it, participation in Kirk/Spock enables a new genuine political act through having an almost exclusively female fanbase.

Orr’s well developed history of propaganda and social psychology research suggests an uncanny “becoming” of War of the Worlds in social reality. For Penley, the overt narrative of Star Trek has been slowly influencing staff and leadership at NASA, but it is the subtle subversion of slash which holds the greatest promise of transforming NASA’s male script. On the other hand, slash is still seen as exterior to accessible popular culture (for example, I learned about it through Snarry fanfics read by friends). One differentiating feature of slash as a creative body is its egality and rejection of rigid hierarchy in favor of seeming unprofessionalism (Penley 112–113). If NASA/TREK potentially has feminist political goals, has it failed to achieve them because of its sequestration from the rest of popular culture and even squarer Trek culture? While slash lacks a broad audience or venue, queer pairings have come out of the closet in popular entertainment (cue Jake Gyllenhaal from October Sky to Brokeback Mountain).


ETA: Just saw Arlyn's post, and she goes deeper into Brody's argument about queer readings rewriting the text.

Riffing off the last paragraph of Rhiannon's post, as well as an off-the-cuff promise I made during Sunday's field trip, I'm going to write about slash. :D Except I'll be expanding the topic a bit to incorporate yaoi fandom as well, despite the obvious differences in cultural context. This post will be a bit quote heavy, as I'm mostly interested in throwing out some thoughts rather than making a totalizing statement about slash/yaoi. (See what I did there?) My approach is almost diametrically opposed to Moylan's, as I found myself agreeing with Michael's assessment of the flaws in Absent Paradigms. Instead of looking at critical texts, I sought out the views of fans and writers--what they wanted to say in a text and what they wanted to read out of a text.

First of all, I dove into the depths of, just for you guys. Well, not the depths, but I wanted to survey the available options for reading slash fic. I didn't check that every fic was explicitly slash, I just used the Char A/Char B search, but here are some numbers. These numbers refer to the 3027 fics available under the "Star Trek: Original Series" header. I also refer to the ratings of fics, where T refers to age 13+, and M to age 16+. Explicit, adult-rated fics are not allowed on (so they say).

Out of 834 fics featuring Kirk/Spock, 271 are rated T, and 114 are rated M. Out of 389 Spock/McCoy fics, 121 are rated T, and 52 are rated M. Out of 130 Kirk/McCoy fics, 32 are rated T, and 9 are rated M. The other pairings I looked at had few enough fics that I separated out the explicitly slash and rated-M pairings from other pairings. Of these, there were 2 Scotty/McCoy, 1 Spock/Chekov, 1 Kirk/Scotty, and 3 Kirk/Chekov. I did not look at sites aimed at fandoms, which would likely have more stories. In terms of a cursory look at the general availability of slash pairings, I think this is fine, with the caveat about the whole character search thing not necessarily yielding explicit slash fics.

From here, I move into Yaoi fandom and writership. Yaoi, in contrast to Bara, tends to be aimed at and written by women. Rhiannon's post interrogates this kind of phenomenon happening in the world of fanfic, with the conclusion that perhaps a lack of accessible and well-written female characters leads readers to have more interest in the romances between the well-developed male characters.

In her piece on Cleopatra Jones, Brody makes an interesting point regarding queer readings that I think applies very well to the whole slash/yaoi concept. She asserts that "borrowing and recontextualizing images from the past is part of the pleasure of queer reading" (101), but that queer readings do not necessarily accompany a greater visibility of queerness in the works to be read or their readership. Slash offers a possibility of inserting queer readings into and pulling them out of texts with little explicit mention of queerness as identity. Said more simplistically, slash lets readers pull scenes from a work (text or film or even game--there are a few) that do not necessarily signify a certain kind of relationship, but allows the reader-writers to construct a narrative around these scenes in which these relationships are made blatant.

It's interesting how yaoi functions along similar lines, as the overwhelming majority of works involving yaoi are doujinshi, or fan-made works that are essentially fanfic but for manga and anime. Additionally, a fair amount of published yaoi mangaka started by writing their own fanfics or djs. During a panel on yaoi and yuri manga and an LGBTQ audience, Erika Friedman writes,
Fan-fiction is the breeding ground. I wrote what I wanted to read. If you're doing any kind of fan work, fanart, fan-fiction or cosplay — you're queering that you've done. You fantasized it and did something different with it. That's human nature. I don't think it has anything to do with yaoi or yuri.

This quote aligns with Brody's use of "queer" as a verb, as something done to a text and not something that is represented within the text. Also, it's interesting to see Friedman associate fan-made work with "queering", especially when such a significant portion of fan-made work is explicitly queered.

In an earlier moment from the same panel, Leyla Aker discusses yaoi's huge female fanbase, something that seems paradoxical about works depicting sexual relationships between gay or bisexual men. (Note: this paradox also applies to slash fic.) She resolves this paradox by once again raising the banner of queerness,
To go back to what Chris said about (yaoi) being fundamentally queer, I think one of the reasons why yaoi appeals to people is its dislocation. You're talking about stories women for women about the opposite gender relationships.

Here, the queering that goes on within the work enables the reader to enact and question their own queerness. But I think this explanation, while intriguing, fails to address the often exploitative relationship of yaoi manga and slash fic to actual queerness. Just as Brody points out, the consumption of yaoi manga and slash fic permits an erasure of LGBTQ identities that do not conform to the stylized images in the works.

One gay activist in Japan wrote against yaoi manga(ka) in 1992, quoted from a discussion on the debates surrounding yaoi here,
He felt that his human rights as a gay man were harmed by women drawing and enjoying yaoi manga. He compared them to the 'dirty old men' [hentai jijii] who watch pornography including women engaging in sexual activities with each other. In addition, he accused yaoi of creating and having a skewed image of gay men as beautiful and handsome and regarding gay men who do not fit that image and tend to 'hide in the dark' as 'garbage' [gomi]. In addition, he attacked them for creating the 'gay boom', a media wave of interest in gay issues sparked by women's magazine Crea, which, according to him, did nothing for gay men at large.

To what extent does the (often-)female readership of yaoi and slash-fic render GBTQ men abstracted but invisible? Doesn't casting the situation like this erase the experiences of GBTQ men who read yaoi manga and slash-fic? And isn't there something fundamentally anti-feminist about the fact that this huge industry that caters to female sexuality has no women in it, except as one-dimensional villains? (I remember a post I came across quite some time ago discussing the issue of female sexuality coming out in male-male(-male?) relationships, but I couldn't find it for today.)

And if anyone wants my recommendations for yaoi manga, check out Future Lovers, which also comes recommended from the panel that produced the first two blockquotes. It avoids the common pitfalls of "evil women", "rapey seme", and actually represents a loving relationship that navigates surrounding pressures from the family and the workplace. Though there is a bit of explicit sex...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Only Amateurs

In NASA/Trek, Constance Penley proposes that Star Trek is the theory and NASA is the practice of space travel, and that the combination of the two humanizes our relation to science and technology. Penley first discussed the ways that NASA has marginalized and discriminated against women, only accepting those who could either be the "token overachiever" or mediocre enough to appear a mere amateur, an individual whose appearance and role on a shuttle reconfirms, rather than rebels against, the dismissive role of women as nurturers, teachers, mothers and inferiors. Penley then connected this to the position that women have marked for themselves in the fan-verse of Star Trek, creating a close-knit community of Kirk/Spock slash fanfic writers. However, I think that this connection has implications for Star Trek as the "theory" of NASA that Penley did not fully explore.

Penley mentions that these fanfiction writers are stubborn amateurs: "they feel free to express themselves as writers only insofar as they can conceive of their writing as a hobby and nothing more." In this way, the women that Penley discusses seem to place themselves within the amateur role within the theorizing of space travel that the female astronauts were forced to take in its practice.

Furthermore, if Star Trek is the theory of space travel, even this supposedly "female-oriented domain" of K/S pushes women away into the background. Although women are the writers, the artists, the creators, and the consumers, the product with which they are working only involves male figures. Although Penley argues that this is actually a feminist move, as it allows the writers and consumers to explore a relationship that is entirely equal (and, because it is set in the 23rd century, somehow "gender neutral"), it still reinforces the idea that masculine is the neutral gender, and that women have no visual place in the theory or practice of space travel. To what extent could we argue that some of these women become so involved in the Kirk/Spock relationship because it is the most developed relationship on the show, and that they would be more inclined to write and read about male/female pairings (or female/female pairings) if more fully-developed female characters were available to them. A comparative study to other fandoms could be useful here: for example, when considering Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the majority-female fanfiction writers do produce slash, but the presence of engaging female characters means that many heterosexual pairings are also popular. Although slash is a popular form in many fandoms, it therefore seems to be more popular, more dominant, when compelling female characters are less accessible. As they are not given a compelling entry point into the world of space travel, the female viewers identify with (and even make gender-neutral) the existing male characters, building a separate space for themselves in which they are still only "amateurs," just "hobbyists," viewing adventure from a distance dictated by their gender.