Fanboys in the Ivory Tower: An Attempted Reconciliation of Science Fiction Film Academia and Fan Culture
This article contrasts the product of online fan film reviewers with academic film publications in terms of their content, disposition, and distribution, ultimately questioning the Academy as a dominant force of knowledge. By focussing on science-fiction film criticism, and, in particular, scholarly and fan-based treatments of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), this article questions the degree to which academics are also “fans” and how the ubiquity and accessibility of fan-based content is eclipsing scholarly production. Science-fiction film critics, as well as all media scholars, must find new, engaging, and technologically-modern ways of creating and disseminating knowledge in order to remain contenders for public opinion and attention on the texts on which they profess expertise.
The Internet’s highly vocal fan communities present a multifaceted challenge to the Academy as a socially sanctioned institution for the generation and dissemination of knowledge. In Cinema and Media Studies specifically, the film review blog circumvents the traditional peer-review model of factual and theoretical publication without necessarily disentangling fact from speculation and theory from opinion. Responsible, engaging and informed blog-based film reviewers certainly exist and, armed with their refreshing enthusiasm for the text at hand, should continue to publish their ideas. However, the patience and diligence required to discern the credible fan reviewer from the fallible, misleading, and even the moronic fan reviewer seems at odds with the egalitarian accessibility of the Internet and its logic of instant gratification for every query. This blind trust in the Wikipediazation of online knowledge has brought misleading information into the university classroom, and we as academics—and fans—in our own right must rise to the occasion to redefine the nature of what constitutes our “work.”
Indulge the following personal anecdote:
On my first day as a teaching assistant at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute in September 2010, one of my students informed me that the tutorial discussion I had so laboriously planned on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was a moot point because of a YouTube clip she had seen the night before. As we collectively unpacked Vivian Sobchak’s “Images of Wonder: The Look of Science Fiction,” which argues that the instability and moral malleability of science fiction’s iconography are among the genre’s strengths, this student told me that 2001’s black monoliths were hardly ambiguous. When I asked what she meant, she told me of a YouTube video called “The meaning of the monolith revealed.” Apparently this video resolves the issue once and for all: the monolith is the cinema screen and this cinematic self-reflexivity is the foundation of many hidden allegories and narratives embedded by Kubrick to work subconsciously upon the viewer. The student further referred me to the video-maker’s website, where he delves into his semiotic discovery in much greater detail and “reviews” the entire film from this perspective. YouTube had transitioned from a convoluted-yet-benign database of participatory media (Burgess and Green 14) into a pseudo-academic publication.
As an aspiring film scholar, my knee-jerk reaction to her conviction in this totalizing analysis of 2001, provided by video-maker Rob Ager via YouTube and his personal website, CollativeLearning.com, was to caution the class against citing non-scholarly sources, like YouTube clips and Wikipedia articles, in academic writing. The student seemed unimpressed. However, later that evening, with my curiosity and indignation piqued, I decided to see this video for myself. After all, 2001 remains among my favorite science fiction films, and I maintain my own opinions regarding the film’s ambiguous iconography that others might rightly deem eccentric. I was shocked by what I found.
Over 250,000 people had watched this video that reads into Kubrick’s film an allegedly self-discovered bastardization of rudimentary Apparatus Theory (Baudry; Comolli), expounded through a credible-sounding Liverpudlian voiceover narration. However, the content of Ager’s arguments is more befitting of an online conspiracy theorist than that of a “serious” critic. Ager’s analysis is formalism gone mad; an obsessive steganographic aggrandizement of the minutia of 2001’s mise-en-scène. Ager casts HAL (Douglas Rain) as a Nazi (“HAL = IBM …. in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey”) and explains the spatial relations between the geographic landmarks in “The Dawn of Man” sequence as Kubrick’s covert resistance effort against the Illuminati (“Chapter 11: Kubrick’s War Cry”). However, what struck me most was Ager’s claim to have conducted “exhaustive research” into various interpretations of 2001, having never pursued education beyond high school. Ager’s CollativeLearning website asserts that,
I don’t pursue academic education because of the unnecessary costs frequently involved (time, money, resources) and the political and economic factors which often hamper the work of academic institutions. Much of my work is also based upon the cross-referencing of disciplines that are treated separately in academia. What I do have an abundance of is practical experience and extensive reading / research in most of the topics I write about. […] The articles I write are not just about perceptual skill. They’re very dependent on articulation. (“General FAQ”)
Ager is certainly welcome to his opinions on Kubrick and film analysis in general. However, the self-asserted and scholarly tone in his online informational broadcast, influenced no doubt by his “lifelong fascination with psychology and philosophy,” the “General FAQ” left an undergraduate student unable to tell the difference between a scholarly reading of the film and a fan-based one. What further complicates the distinction between science fiction critical analysis and fan culture in this regard is 2001’s tendency to evoke academic interpretations that are sufficiently far-fetched—if not downright bizarre—as to warrant an association with the output of non-academic fan culture. Thus, what makes Ager’s review of 2001 of particular interest is its ambiguous status between highbrow fanboy-ism and sloppy, eccentric scholarship. The habitus of hybridized fandom and critical disposition toward the material about which we write becomes a simultaneous benefit and hindrance to the academic process as institutional credibility begins to converge with a website’s popularity and accessibility. The challenge presented to science fiction film scholarship by online fan reviews and participatory culture questions the distinction between, and co-existability of, fandom and scholar-dom through issues of cinephilia and information accessibility. However, before the differences and similarities between the impact of one’s disposition as science fiction fan and scholar on the content of one’s argument, as well as the media formats used for the distribution of knowledge used by fans and scholars can be assessed, we must account for the very phenomenon of the fanboy celebrity film reviewer.
Online participatory fandom represents the next step in the evolution of cinephilia (Ng 147). The responses to Susan Sontag’s famous “The Decay of Cinema” essay in The New York Times Magazine galvanized the close association that cinephilia and digitalized fandom have shared ever since, summarized neatly by Marijke de Valck in a recent issue of Cinema Journal:
While such talk of the “death of cinema” is widespread and developments in digital distribution and production reach new heights in bringing about fundamental transformations to the moving image, it is important to remember that, together with the fascination with cinema’s ending, cinephilia has resurfaced as a central concern, both in public debate and in academic writing. (132-133)
As the cultural trend for film audiences to watch films at home on television or DVD, rather than in movie theatres, this new cinephilia became “closely related to technology, in the way that it relies on the gadgets that make home theatres possible” (Behlil 112). As this new cinephilia began to encompass online film viewing, thus converging “old” media formats into various “new” multimedia formats (Burgess and Green 14; Jenkins 2), Hudson and Zimmermann argue that “cinephilia shape-shifts into mediaphilia – an excessive love of audiovisual images mediated by analogue and digital video technologies” (138). However, mediaphiliac fandom became dependent on a displayed enthusiasm for the source text, often in the form of a demonstrated expertise in the minutia of the text, distributed through fan-based websites, chatrooms and personal blogs. Prior to the blog and online forum phenomenon of the last ten years, the cultural association of publication with critical professionalism would prohibit amateur film critics from sharing their thoughts in article format with a mass audience, since magazines interested in fan reviews of films would likely have limited distribution and readership. However, once everyone could publish anything they write on the Internet, and these ideas became readily accessible through online search engines like Google, publication lost some of its elitist connotations and became democratized, insofar as anyone with Internet access could find an ongoing discussion on a personally meaningful topic.
However, mediaphilia also implies a love and trust of the very media that contains the message, conflating well-spoken enthusiasm with expertise, hence the trust and authority given to Ager through his CollativeLearning website and review videos on YouTube. Ager’s claims to extensive research, bestowing a veneer of academicism in his semiotic analysis of 2001, position Ager as an expert on the film; to the casual, undiscerning reader, he clearly has a lot to say, has put a lot of work into his arguments, and speaks in a way that seems well-informed. Fandom liquifies the media text’s content (de Valck 132) into a malleable collection of references to be embraced, debated, and re-appropriated to suit the needs, whims, and demands of the fan community, such as YouTube commentary clips like Ager’s “Meaning…” videos. Fan reviews present form of published textual review in which the “fans [can] recognize themselves in the scholarship” (Gray et al. 7), thus challenging not only the academic project of fandom analysis, but the academy’s monopoly on the correctness of theoretical speculation on the texts themselves.
Academic studies of participatory fan communities tend to focus on the community as a sociological whole, rather than give extensive treatment to the more prolific individuals within those communities who are sufficiently active therein to attain a sort of celebrity status as non-academic experts. In this regard, the academy neglected to qualify the advent of the celebrity fan and the cultural capital that such a figure could accumulate within the fan community. While academic criticism on fandom and fan communities attempted to reconcile the microcosmic studies of fan conventions as “guerilla-style tactics” (Gray et al. 1-2) against hegemonic readings of mass culture, with the Bourdieuian macrocosmic view of fandom that denied the ideological emancipation from capitalism and subjection to inter-community pressures (6), prolific individuals within fan communities had found a forum through which to organize, refine, and engage with their desired texts in a way that suited their own needs. Simply put, zealous individual fans beat the academy to the punch in redefining textual aesthetics as “a subjective category with objective criteria” (Sandvoss 32) outside the academy; thereby enabling fans to engage with their chosen texts not as reviewers but with the previously unchallenged connotation of being pseudo-academic critics.
Fan reviews, such as Ager’s treatment of 2001, pass as knowledge within the fan community, thereby conflating the reviewer’s enthusiasm with a form of credible expertise, based on the ubiquity and popularity of the review in measurable terms such as site visits and number of views. Ager boasts 35,000 hits on his CollativeLearning site every month (General FAQ), and as of December 2010, the “Meaning…” videos have well over 250,000 YouTube views since they were created in 2008. I can only assume that Ager’s large audience consists of fellow fans and undergraduate students seeking to better understand Kubrick’s admittedly difficult film. However, if university students are turning to Ager’s and other fan-based commentaries rather than the assigned readings provided by their professor or direct contact with the professor, who is presumably an expert in the field in which he teaches, popular fan reviewers must come under the scrutiny of the academy as proven competitors for their student’s attention.
The mediaphiliac pseudo-intellectualism of fan reviewers like Ager, though distinct from academic criticism in its theoretical depth and its mode of publication, present a worthy challenge to academicism because of the pragmatic simplicity of its content, which invites non-academics— presumably, the majority of the online community—to take part in debates that would otherwise be closed to them. Fan reviewers like Ager prove Bourdieu’s point that “although the educational system, by its monopoly of certification, governs the conversion of inherited cultural capital into educational capital, it does not have a monopoly on the production of cultural capital” (80). The fan forum debate avoids the perceived elitism of academic discourse (de Valck 135) by maintaining an informed debate fueled by the cinephiliac’s love of the text. In “Ravenous Cinephiles,” Melis Behlil cites Kent Jones, a regular contributor to the New York Times online film discussion forum, to explain how the combination of emotional and rational engagement, of enthusiasm and expertise with the text at hand is the essence of fan-based mediaphilia:
whether or not we all agree about Olivier Assayas or Wong Kar-wai is less important than the fact that our respective responses to them are passionate and informed ones. In the end, that’s what distinguishes cinephilia from connoisseurship, academicism, or buffery. (115-116)
However, although the New York Times discussion forum certainly contains “passionate and informed” individuals whose personalities are more transparent within their contributions than that of others (118), the emphasis on this site is on collective discussion. Once the fan-based debate shifts from a communal forum to a personal website, administered by a fan for other fans to engage with the administrator, the power dynamic of the discussion becomes personalized and ultimately privileges the administrator as an authoritative voice. The primary focus of such a personalized debate becomes a way to advocate the administrator’s interpretation of the text at hand. Although this same grievance can be leveled against single-author academic publication, the online version of this author-reader engagement carries the veneer of a public forum, whilst retaining the individualism of the site administrator. This veneer co-opts a perception of collective agreement that miraculously harmonizes with that of the hosting fan reviewer, as if an inaccuracy within the website’s content would necessarily vanish upon being “outed” as such. For sociological reasons beyond the scope of this paper, it seems that whereas a word printed on paper can be condemned as wrong, with the perception of collective agreement and the possibility of perpetual re-editing among online, virtual words seem to represent content as both a work in progress and also the most correct opinion to date.
Ager’s YouTube clips become a sort of advertisement for CollativeLearning, where participants are invited to engage directly with Ager over the website’s content, all of which is defended by Ager in his published responses to any posted comments, and rarely in such debates is Ager so inspired as to change his mind. In the opening remarks of the first section of “Meaning…” Ager situates the interpretation that he is about to provide as more credible than all others he has researched, thereby establishing his own pseudo-intellectual expertise as superior to all others, academic or otherwise:
Depending on which review you read, 2001 is either an adaptation of the classic Greek play The Odyssey, an adaptation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a pretentious and self-indulgent art-house film, a bold statement about man’s evolution to the stars, a promotion of masonic philosophies, or a propaganda film to increase public support for the US moon landings, that came shortly after the film’s release, and the list I have just offered is by no means exhaustive. While there is ample evidence to support some of these interpretations, none of them offer anywhere near a full understanding, because no matter what analysis you apply, there always seem to be other symbols and concepts in the film that remain elusive. (Meaning…Part 1)
Although the persuasiveness of the found content is important, research, for the pseudo-intellectual fan like Ager, is more about the quantity of diverse readings collected, which function collectively as rhetorical straw-men to be defeated by Ager’s personal interpretation of the film. Barring for the moment Ager’s inaccuracies—that Homer’s Odyssey is a play, rather than an epic poem; that the film is a direct cinematic adaptation of Neitzsche, rather than arguing that 2001’s narrative may incorporate symbolically some of Neitzsche’s philosophies; etc. — that Ager is able to access and engage with so many presumably non-academic, fan-based sources, and still find them all lacking in some way, speaks to the abundance of fan-based content available. Beyond whether or not the material is deemed credible by a reader, if such a large amount of debate-fostering material is readily accessible to a fan like Ager, where is the impetus for a fan to look toward published scholarship, which is perceived as more difficult to read and less emotionally involved? de Valck positions the conceptual accessibility of fan-based commentaries as a direct threat to the academy’s proposed monopoly over truthful conceptualism:
Where is the value for money in paying professional film critics when plenty of reviews, discussion groups, and blogs are already available online? And if we follow the characterization by James Naremore that “[g]ood criticism needs to be written from the heart” and “informed by a spirit of discrimination and cinephilia,” how can professional criticism be distinguished from amateur reflections? (135)
Perhaps the answer to de Valck’s question is to look at the dispositions of fan and academic writers and this disposition’s effect on the content of their writing, and the ways in which fan and academic writing is distributed to the public. This investigation will therefore proceed by examining the ways in which academics are fans in their own right, and propose that by hybridizing fandom with academia, contemporary scholarship could impact the abundance of misguided fan writing that passes as scholarship within the fan community primarily due to a lack of accessible competition. If scholarly writing on topics traditionally attractive to fans, like science fiction cinema, is to retain the cultural capital it possesses through academic qualification (Bourdieu 80), it must engage with the fan community directly if it is to remain current, or else risk becoming increasingly isolated in the proverbial ivory tower of the Academy.
If a meaningful distinction between the roles of enthusiasm and expertise in fan and academic writing is to be drawn, the writer’s disposition toward his subject is an important initial criterion. From the outset, the academic study of media fandom is fraught with concerns of legitimacy. Terry Eagleton slights fan studies, and, vicariously, fandom itself, as an un-serious project, arguing that for a scholar to permit his emotional investment in a text to inform his academic interests makes for simplistic scholarship, “[linking] classroom and leisure time with wonderful economy” (192). Eagleton’s interest in assessing the aesthetic value of a text requires a critical distance from the text that fandom, by its very nature, cannot maintain. However, Cornel Sandvoss dismisses Eagleton’s detached elitism as mere reactionism against “changing forms of textuality that much of literary theory had been unable to address, continuing the study of literary texts as if they existed in splendid isolation” (26). For Sandvoss, then, the habitus of the text’s reader, whether inside the ivory tower of the academy or elsewhere, is unavoidable; therefore, if one can acknowledge the influence of an emotional reaction to the text at hand, the boundaries between scholar and fan begin to blur (25). However, even if fandom and scholarship both require some combination of enthusiasm and expertise to produce results valuable to their respective communities, fandom seems much more willing to appropriate the habitus of the academic than vice versa. Hills argues that the academic’s suppression of the enthusiasm that leads him to desire expertise, or to re-connote that enthusiasm as neutralized “interest,” glosses over the shared status of scholars and fans alike as media consumers desirous of further engagement with the film text:
Recognizing the generalized hybridity of contemporary media academics – academics who are also audiences and consumers of the type that they write about – surely means letting go of the infantile fantasy of omnipotence in which scholars are imagined as the bearers of pure, anti-ideological thought. At the same time, it means going beyond viewing fan audiences as the problematic site of aesthetic judgements— hence concomitantly depicting scholar-fandom as a threatening hybridity—in order to safely re-conjure notions of academic authenticity. (Hills 46-47)
Scholars cannot divorce themselves from some degree of fandom for their field of study. In fact, the academic process has formalized fandom through citation format, recoding enthusiasm and expertise as diligently informed adherence to the ideas of others. Media scholars are able to express enthusiasm and emotional investment, without nearly as much fear of reprimand, in the writing of other scholars, just as a fan’s enthusiastic citation of a fellow fan reviewer’s work is encouraged in participatory culture.
Alan McKee’s study of Theory fandom in “The Fans of Cultural Theory” argues that scholars’ behavior toward favorite Theorists parallels the often-studied behavior of active participants in fan culture. Theory fans will travel great distances to attend conferences, seminars, and conventions where favorite theorists are also participating out of “a passion for Theory that goes beyond a passive acceptance of whatever they are given by publishers and conference organizers. […] Theory fans will also read it for pleasure” (McKee 89). Moreover, Theory fans will appropriate and incorporate their favorite texts into their own work, thus functioning as “cultural producers as well as consumers” (91), and even going so far as to label their scholarly outlook after their Theorist of choice. In this regard, the combination of enthusiasm and expertise required for one to self-identify as a “Marxist” or “Foucauldian,” mirrors that of a “Trekkie” or, in Ager’s case, a “Kubrickian.” Scholars can be fans of, at the very least, other academic writing, but the expression of their fandom within the content of their argument must be carefully guarded to protect the disposition of their critical writing, especially around topics that are likely of interest to the general population and not only of the academic community.
The content of a scholarly film essay is usually a process of contextualizing the film within a discourse of recognizable academic credibility beyond the film, such as historical context or theoretical applicability. For example, the political schema outlined in “The Other Americans” from Peter Biskind’s Seeing Is Believing for understanding 1950s science fiction is grounded deeply in the political impulses of Cold War-era United States. Scott Bukatman’s “The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime” contextualizes Douglas Trumbull’s visual design within the traditions of 19th century painting as well as a phenomenological account of the “shock and awe” experience associated with well-executed, grandiose special effects. However, this academic process of credited contextualization is far from foolproof.
The format through which Ager expresses his Kubrickian-ness is scarcely that of auteuristically-informed production context or of historical frame of reference, as scholars like James Naremore and Michel Chion have done in their respective treatments of 2001. Rather, Ager’s review is an experiment in formalist interpretive steganography, the eccentric content that undercuts any advantage offered by his cited predisposition toward semiotics (“Meaning…” part 1). Also, although Ager frequently alludes to the vast quantities of research that he has conducted, he rarely credits his sources, thus layering into his pseudo-scholarly tone the connotation that most of his content is of his own invention.
I took the liberty of contacting Ager when I discovered that the central thesis of the “Meaning…” videos—that the black monoliths represent the cinematic screen—which Ager posits as his own discovery, was published at least four years earlier by Gerald Loughlin in his scholarly book, Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology:
The monolith is a wonderful conceit, for it both evokes an alien presence at the same time as it denies us sight of what is evoked. […] But it is a cinematic conceit, for turn the monolith on its side and one has the letterbox of the cinemascope screen, the blank rectangle on which the star-child appears, as does the rest of Kubrick’s film. (Loughlin 73, emphasis mine)
I enquired as to whether Ager had read Loughlin’s book: if so, why does Ager not credit Loughlin with the foundational argument of his reviews; if not, would he consider reading Loughlin’s book and then altering his CollativeLearning site and the “Meaning…” videos to include a reference to the person who came up with the idea first. Ager responded that, though he had not read Loughlin, he would not alter any of his online publications because, among other reasons which I will take up later in my consideration of knowledge distribution and accessibility, he claims to have come up with the idea on his own. Furthermore, upon being presented with the aforementioned quote (Loughlin 73), Ager insisted that Loughlin’s book does not likely take up the notion of the monolith as cinema screen in nearly as great detail as Ager does on CollativeLearning and YouTube, thereby negating any potential plagiarism1. Therefore, although Ager’s commentaries periodically cite observations sent to him by fellow fans, the general lack of academic contextualization drives his content into speculative conspiracy theorizing, rather than the heightened discourse to which he seems to aspire.
The very act of writing an extensive commentary on a film, for either academic- or fan-based reasons, implies some degree of innate fandom—or, at the very least, an acknowledgement of interestmdash;on the part of the author towards his subject (Hantke 199). What is at stake in this line of questioning, however, are the consequences to the academic’s disposition as a scholarly writer if the scholar employs his fandom in his writing: as Matt Hills asks, “how can media academic’s status as media audiences be properly tackled, acknowledged, even utilized, without audience-based identities and tastes begin seen as a threat to academic identity?” (44) The “impassioned neutrality” (37) of the scholar toward his subject becomes a way of guarding the highbrow academic discourse from an association with fan writing, which is perceived within the academy as being a less serious and, ultimately, less valid discourse than academic writing. Enthusiasm, it seems, should be muted if an academic is to be perceived to possess expertise, which would be betrayed by “the perceived ‘loony’ or irrational nature of the fannish response that puts [high-culture fans] off” (Pearson 106). If fan communities are to be studied, and especially if the scholar is a potential member of the community in question, scholars feel the need to preserve within their writing the veneer of reason’s triumph over emotion, thereby safely “declaring [fannish] allegiance without committing a class faux pas” (104). Since fans typically engage with their chosen texts with more overt emotional investment (Gray et al. 10) than scholars, the lack of emotion in much scholarly writing becomes associated with intellectual credibility.
Part of what is therefore dangerous to the Academy about Ager’s analysis of 2001 is the veneer of emotional detachment, thus connoting scholarship and highbrow credibility that permeates his argument. Whereas other YouTube-based science fiction commentators emote with giddy enthusiasm whilst recapping the narrative content of their chosen text, such as the hosts of YourGeekNews, Ager attempts at analytic interpretation with a poised and calm demeanor. His deadpan delivery and, at least to North American audiences, his gentle British accent both carry resonances of intellectualism to a casual undergraduate and fan-based audiences in search of a quick answer to the complex questions of a film like 2001. In a way, Ager’s audience perceives that cultural capital gained by attending a screening of a film, as Bourdieu asserts (270), will be gained just the same by watching a brief video commentary that allegedly summarizes the film. However, the cultural capital of fan culture does not translate easily into educational capital within the academy because the demands upon an argument’s content are at least as strenuous as that of the writer’s tone and disposition.
In Ager’s defense, however, interpretations of 2001 are notoriously eccentric, even by published scholars. Loughlin’s reading of the film, though initially inspired by the notion of the monolith as a metaphor for the screen, jumps to consider the blackness of outer space and the monolith as the womb of 2001’s Star Child’s absent mother. Loughlin then invokes a feminist appropriation of the Plato’s cave parable (77-9), various Christian theological treatments of the Virgin Mary (79-81) and Raphaelite painting (81-4) en route to comparing the Kubrick’s trompe d’oiel with early cinema’s Lumiere brother’s realist impulses and the Georges Méliès’ magicism (89). With little contextualization provided for his drastic shifts in critical paradigms or inclusion of cinematic references beyond Kubrick’s film, Loughlin’s consideration of 2001, published as part of a series of critical books by Emory University in Atlanta, GA, is eccentric to the point of being incomprehensible.
Similarly strange is Robert Kolker’s Norton textbook analysis of 2001. Although Kolker begins his essay with a generic contextualization of 2001, his final subsection, entitled “Speculations and Ambiguities: The Unanswerable Questions of 2001” (616-619), proceeds to argue that the Star Child is HAL reborn in human form (619) because of a series of questionable causal associations linking HAL directly to the monoliths. Part of the problem with Loughlin and Kolker’s line of criticism is the perceived burden of producing a cohesive, totalized reading of a film wherein the enormous thematic scope is expressed through alternately minimalist and grandiose narration. Maybe a totalizing interpretation of 2001’s statement on spiritual transcendence, the nature of intelligence, interstellar destiny, human identity in the wake of sentient technology, etc., is not possible without risk to one’s intellectual credibility, and that subjective and partial readings of this film are the only recourse. Even Ager concedes that “no matter what analysis you apply, there always seem to be other symbols and concepts in the film that remain elusive (“Meaning…” Part 1). Therefore, in the absence of a reliable critical understanding of the film why should fans not “make use of, and create, new, media texts […] just as academics do,” (McKee 95) since Ager’s radical interpretation of 2001 is no less credible than those of two published academics?
This very notion of publication, and accessibility of information, must come into play when assessing the potential damage done to Cinema Studies as an academic discipline and fannish hobby: given the ubiquity of modern internet usage, Ager’s argument is easily searchable online and accessible in its entirety immediately thereafter and is free of charge to persons with and without access to databases of scholarly writing. A similar internet search for any of Loughlin, Kolker, Chion, or Naremore’s texts, without access to scholarly databases that often require paid subscriptions, would likely reveal retail websites where their books can be purchased, but the content of the book will be inaccessible. The academy’s institutional model for the distribution of knowledge prevents participatory culture’s access to scholarly writing by, in a way, refusing to participate. One is hardly surprised then that fan reviewers like Ager turn to fan-based and popular sources of readily-accessible information on the Internet; the proverbial gates to the academic ivory tower are locked to them since, within the academy, unauthorized collaboration is cheating [and therefore] media are read primarily as threats rather than resources” (Jenkins 270). If information is free, communal, and accessible, the notion of conceptual citation—and thereby expressing scholarly fandom for an individual writer—diminishes greatly. Therefore, if the societal trend toward participatory knowledge and immediacy of access to said knowledge continue, the academy, as it currently stands, cannot compete for attention in the public forum of the Internet against fan reviewers like Ager.
The Wikipediazation of knowledge leads to inevitable legal complications over potential copyright infringements. However, according to a 2007 study on mediaphiliac fan appropriations of protected material by Rebecca Tushket, legal disputes over such material are far more likely to be dismissed as fair usage if the appropriation of the text “brings out in the open what was [already] present in the subtext or context” (62). Although the opacity of 2001’s subtext ought to be sufficient protection for Ager’s videos, the most prolific citations in any of his videos are the legal disclaimers that prevent him from being sued for posting clips from the copyrighted film on YouTube. These disclaimers stress that the following videos are for educational purposes only, thereby qualifying as fair use. However, given the debatable educational value of Ager’s videos, YouTube’s “disruptive influence on established media business models” (Burgess and Green 6) forces the website into an unexpected conflict with the business model of academic publication.
Unique to the fan community, the measure of worth for one’s textual output is the number of times the information is accessed rather than how the same information is applied and invoked in other writing, scholarly or otherwise. The number of times a video is viewed, or a website is accessed, the more fan-based credibility the content gains. This is the other reason that Ager gave me for why he is reluctant to alter his “meaning…” videos to include a nod to Loughlin’s published version of the monolith-as-cinema-screen theory. Ager views the more than 250,000 views his videos have received as an accomplishment, and to change the video now would mean reposting the clip anew and thereby losing the credibility of his high view-count. Another, though less direct, casualty of re-editing his videos now would be the video’s comment section, where viewers are free to leave a message for Ager based on their opinion of his work. Ager is vigilant in responding to as many of the comments attached to his videos as possible, thus creating a system of online peer-review that can operate much more quickly and with many more opinions than in the traditional academic process (Black 73, 77).
What seems to be completely overlooked in media scholarship is the potential scholarly opportunities afforded by YouTube as a medium of academic knowledge dissemination. In the “Meaning…” videos, Ager uses simple digital home-video editing techniques, such as adding a voiceover narration to a pre-existing cinematic video track, freezing on a single frame for as long as is necessary to make a point, and simple super-imposed graphics to transform a YouTube clip into a dynamic medium for discussing and teaching film. All of these editing techniques are easily accomplished on now standard-issue computer software, such as Apple’s iMovie, thus implying that any scholar so determined could begin using YouTube as a medium for instructional and tutorial filmmaking. With the appropriate legal disclaimers citing the video’s educational purposes, and the easy incorporation of verbal citation into the scholar’s voiceover narration, YouTube academicism could potentially become a logical extension of the PowerPoint presentations now common in university classrooms, simply broadcast to a much larger audience. In fact, as voice transcription software continues to improve, the scholarly voiceover could very easily become cross-referenced within a text-based online search engine like Google, thus making any YouTube academicism that can generate sufficient engagement within the fan community as accessible as and more conceptually sound than a fan reviewer like Ager.
Hybridizing the accessibility of participatory fan culture with the intellectual content of the academy may seem utopian, and would involve a massive paradigm shift in the notion of what constitutes scholarly publication—and vicariously, a scholar’s employability by a university (Black 81)—since the scholar would no longer profit as directly from being “read” but why should scholarly fandom of a media text not benefit from the possibility to engage with an active and enthusiastic new audience? The question is not whether by publishing academic texts in free-access websites like YouTube, scholarly output would indirectly valorize all online content as intellectually worthy. Rather, it is a question of whether scholars, already fans in their own right, can share the material that sustains their own enthusiastic expertise in fan communities that, like science fiction fans, have a voracious appetite for more to learn about their preferred media texts. Online fan-based debates will go on, with or without contributions from academics, but this chance to address an enthusiastic audience, and thereby potentially generate further interest in film academia amongst such an already-engaged community, should not be quickly dismissed.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Douglas Rain. MGM, 1968. Film.
Ager, Rob. YouTube. “HAL = IBM …. in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Video. 9 December 2010.
——— YouTube. “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY meaning of the monolith revealed 1 of 2.” Video. 9 December 2010.
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1 Unfortunately for Ager, Loughlin’s chapter on 2001, “Visionary Screens,” is nearly 40 pages long. Although written quantity should not be confused with quality, I frankly felt that I had been of sufficient aid to Ager’s research to justify returning focus to my own. I have not, prior to the date of this article’s publication, resumed communication with Ager.