March 26, 2008
SCMS: Jason Mittell, Jonathan Gray, and Paratexts

One of the more intriguing panels at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies dealt with paratextual material--that material outside the "main text" or "primary text" of the show--from a variety of perspectives. The idea of paratext is that it is anything surrounding the text that isn't considered the text itself, and it is most often used to give us better understanding of the primary text.

This panel featured two of the Consortium's consulting researchers--Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell--as well as two academics I've had the pleasure of increasingly collaborating with--Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse. Kristina was responsible for helping spearhead the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture discussions that took place in LiveJournal and on Henry Jenkins' blog last year, and Louisa and I are participating in a workshop with others at Console-ing Passions next month to discuss that series of discussions in greater detail.

This panel was directly informed by the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture discussion as well. All four participants were part of that discussion, and all four are involved with the new journal Transformative Works and Culture, whose first issue is coming out this fall. Here, the way the panel was laid out was in response to many of the issues raised as part of that Gender and Fan Studies/Culture discussion and the ongoing dialogue that came out of that series. In particular, the four presentations at SCMS in this session were organized based on their relativity to the source text itself.

The presentations started with Jonathan Gray, who was looking at the various promotions, merchandising, and Web sites surrounding The Simpsons television show and The Simpsons Movie, as well as video games and other parts of the Simpsons franchise. Jon discussed how--with a show like The Simpsons in which the source text always returns the characters and their relationships back to a static state--it is hard to consider inferior or ancillary that which is most often considered "paratext" while privileging the "primary text" of the television show. He pointed out that the creator of The Simpsons has handed over many of the responsibilities of writing the shows to other writers, while he is often very hands-on in creating promotional materials. Further, because most of the promotions for other Simpsons products are funny, they themselves could be considered as much Simpsons content as anything else. Jon concluded with looking at a variety of biases against paratextual sutdy, including biases against the promotional nature of much paratextual content, concerns about authorship and paratextual material, and the difficulty of collecting paratextual material.

Meanwhile, Louisa Stein presented on ABC Family show Kyle XY, looking at how the show uses multiple interactive platforms through their Web site to add to the story through insider vlogs, discussion forums, and games. Louisa discussed how ABC Family and the show's producers were designing these activities to try to reach and tout a viewership of "tech-savvy millennials." Their Web presence for the show includes Web sites advertising products and services that are only a part of this narrative world and including documents from inside the text, allowing some degree of new narrative information to be released through the show. In particular, she looks at how fans were encouraged to come to the official site to interact with one another and with the program, but in ways that were controlled or sanctioned by the show itself. Louisa concluded by discussing how this corporate version or adaptation of fan behaviors could be seen as a masculinization of many feminine fan practices, yet she also posed the question of whether or not the interaction of fans on the official site could be seen as crucially different than more transgressive fan behaviors in unofficial spaces, and how to understand participation in sanctioned locations, as compared to fan interactions elsewhere.

While Louisa's research is looking at fan interaction on official sites, Jason Mittell's work looks at fan interaction around a source text on an unofficial site, particularly wiki fandom and the case of "LostPedia," the online wiki dedicated to collecting and archiving primarily "factual" information about the ABC series Lost. Jason, who participates in the site himself, discussed "forensic fandom" and the ways in which sites like these allow fans the chance to gather materials about a show and also specifically designated areas to speculate about shows, particularly those the create some sense of mystery, such as Lost. As compared to Louisa's examination of Kyle XY, this site exists independent of the official show itself. In fact, when ABC attempted to create their own wiki for the show, it never gained traction, perhaps primarily becaust LostPedia already fulfills that function.

Further, Lost writers themselves say they like to consult the site, giving it further cache as a paratext that retains some unofficial relationship with the primary text itself. Jason's work looked in particular about negotiations on the site about what kinds of information to include on the site, how to treat speculation or parody as opposed to encyclopedia-style recording of information from the show, and questions of what is "canon" and how alternative readings--including queer readings--can and should be treated.

While Jon's piece looked at official paratext in merchandising and franchising and Louisa looked at official paratext in the form of activities for fans and sites for official fan discussion, Kristina Busse's project joined Jason Mittell's in looking at unofficial sites. However, while Jason looked at how fans catalogued minute details about what happened in the official text, Kristina's work looks at the work of fanfic writers and how paratextual material does not have to be from "official" authors or even bear any ties with the show itself to still have a role as paratext. In particular, she looks at paratextual commentary as writer-response criticism and how fanfic texts provide a method of collaboration between author and reader. Kristina focused both on fan comments as providing paratexts around official texts but also at discussion around fanfic stories as providing paratexts for the fanfic. Therefore, fan-created material can both be seen as paratext while also having their own additional paratext built around them, depending on whether you want to look at any fanfic or fanvid as material reacting to a source text or as a primary or source text itself. The fact that it exists as both demonstrates the shortsightedness considering paratextual material "ancillary."

In addition to the intriguing questions being posed by each of these individual projects, the order of the presentations created a variety of important questions about how the varying degrees to which paratexts may reside in conjunction to the primary text, and I hope this panel was just the beginning of seeing how projects like the Gender and Fan Studies/Culture discussion will impact and create a greater understanding within fan studies and media studies.