Losing Armitage? or, Thorin aches and pains, part 3
Part 1, in which I responded to an anonymous fan confession regarding Armitage’s relationship with fans of longer duration was here; Part 2, in which I discussed my own reactions to fandom growth and my initial reaction to the fans I encountered in January 2010, was here.
After a ninety-minute interruption from Pesky last night, there was no hope of finishing last night — and I’m getting constantly interrupted now — and I see this chunk is really long. So this piece is my comment on my perceived failures at this blog. So there’ll be a fourth part, I guess.
Lucas North (Richard Armitage) helps to break into the home of a suspected terrorist in Spooks 7.1. The image that was found in my first blog banner. Source: Richard Armitage Central Gallery
I left off by saying I became the fan I didn’t want to be.
I’m not attempting to get you to disagree with me, but rather offering a sober assessment of some points of where exactly I think I have failed. These are ones I am aware of. There may be others, as well. I’m not asking for pity or commiseration. I’m just evaluating my own concerns about this blog in response to my enumeration of things I didn’t initially like about the fandom.
First, on accessibility, “me + richard armitage” is no more accessible than any board, except that it isn’t hidden behind a password.
Judging from the number of first-time commentators who report they had to psyche themselves up to comment, it’s not any easier to join a conversation here than I thought it was on the forums back then. It may be harder. I’ve long estimated that only about 5 percent of visitors to the blog leave a comment, and additional data I have gained recently confirm that conclusion. Perhaps the silent people don’t want to talk — but perhaps they do and I haven’t found the key to welcoming them. In wanting to do things differently, I ignored the necessity for a constituted group that says it welcomes new members to exert itself incessantly to remain open to them. Churches have greeters — but this blog only has me — and to some extent you, its readers. I’ve known for years that I frighten the heck out of a lot of people, though I try to tone it down here, much as I do elsewhere. Even so, being consistently, solidly friendly to every potential newcomer (especially to people I don’t see) would take a better effort than I — or commentators — have been able to make. So people who speak here are a self-selecting group (though I wouldn’t dare to guess what they are selecting for).
As a consequence, in ways that alternately amuse and bother me now, “me + richard armitage” quickly became a place with its own clubbish dynamic — the club of Servetus’ buddies. Not everyone wants to or feels s/he can be my buddy, though, just as I didn’t want to become the buddy of everyone I observed on the boards. Someone — who likes it — once described this blog as a virtual water cooler. I think “bar” might be a better metaphor. Some people stay away entirely on the assumption they don’t want what’s on offer; some walk in and feel right at home; others stand at the margins and leave without having bought a drink or indeed, without anyone having noticed them. The cast shifts from time to time; someone moves in or out of the neighborhood and starts or stops coming. Sometimes I know why; some people disappear without explanation. Conversations and their participants may differ somewhat from the boards, but the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion is regrettably similar — and potentially even less visible to club members and me. As I said before, pan-fandom inclusion was not the goal of the blog; but exclusion, insofar as I have perpetuated that here, was not, either.
Second, on the assertion of knowledge / authority to reinforce a hierarchy that works to exclude or discipline the less informed: I have started to assert knowledge / authority as a fan of longer duration myself and I see I’ve unintentionally, but perhaps inevitably, fallen into some of the same patterns.
It may even be worse in my case, because I speak with authority for a living, and I am accustomed to being listened to. I try to model the behaviors of saying when I don’t know, so that I can learn, or noting when I’ve made a mistake, too — in order to clear the space to learn, to be closer to right the next time. In the classroom, however, the differential in levels of knowledge / authority between myself and my students is typically so vast that it’s easy to defuse because I never have cause to be insecure, and students realize that I’m not going to use my knowledge to shut them down. The knowledge / authority differential also means that when I encounter a student who wants to start a competition, I can easily decide to act empathetically and ask questions that recognize and validate the student’s need to function as an authority rather than putting him down peremptorily or haughtily. In the classroom, I always have to keep sight of the goal of the liberal arts experience: helping students to create their own critical or evaluative knowledge of the material in response to the version of it that I am presenting. The point is thus never that students agree with me, despite my knowledge — on the contrary, my knowledge / authority in that setting is significant enough that I can be confident that an acceptable result will emerge as long as the students develop a skill set and practice and engage in the deliberative process. It’s not about telling them things — it’s about making sure they have the room to figure them out for themselves. Because my power is greater, it’s much easier to let go of it when I need to. And I get to decide when that will be.
But the story is different in Armitageworld, perhaps not least because I didn’t initially see the goal in terms of creating space for facilitating the learning of other fans. I am not primarily here for the reader, but for myself, and I don’t see myself as an instructor but as a fellow learner. The job here is to figure out who I am, not be who students need me to be so they can teach themselves something. I don’t have a message here, or at least not a coherent one, in the way that I have in the classroom — in part, I’m still figuring out what the message should be. What can I say? And I have gnashed my teeth over that problem so many nights. If the only way I have to move forward is to write and push publish, do I publish something I need to express even though I know it will anger someone I care about or create a poor impression of me? If I can’t avoid fostering anger, do I simply suppress the thing I need to write? Even when knowing that I will never publish something creates a significant disincentive even to write it down? Isn’t that part of why I was avoiding the boards? What should I do, if the consequence is that I lose friends, if I cause an uproar, if the fallout is bad enough that I want to stop blogging, or if others do? If I end up being the person whose failure to be “willingly good, extra good, extra peaceful, extra forgiving” fosters a rift? Woe unto the world because of offenses!
***Richard Armitage signs autographs for fans, ComicCon San Diego, July 14, 2012. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Moreover, when I write here, I don’t think much about the problematic features of knowledge / authority differentials and their consequences. Of course, my knowledge about Richard Armitage is not vastly more informed than that of most fellow fans I know. I’m not always succeeding at staying above the fray, and I have occasionally exploited my rhetorical power because I was angry about something that was happening in the fandom (for instance, the “Stay Away from Armitage!” series from this summer, parts 1 and 2 and 3). In that sense, I don’t have the same trust in the fandom that I have in my classroom, that if I stay silent and ask questions and wait long enough, the result will be satisfactory. I am not confident enough in my own power here to let go of it easily. One can also use rhetorical power for good, of course, but definitions of “good” vary drastically, and the second one starts down that path, as the end starts to play a role as the argument for the means used. Ideally, I don’t want to be one of those people who always “knows better” or has some specific agenda in mind. But I can be, and I have been that person here, in this context.
And finally, there’s the perception issue. Even when I believe that I am solely writing to inform and analyze, these activities can be taken as an attempt to exert power (and my much-thumbed-through philosopher Michel Foucault would say it ineluctably is that anyway). In fact, the reason that authoritative writing is so often interpreted as arrogant is because knowledge and power are the same thing. But this is what I do: I’m a professional learner, and so I’ve learned a lot, and I know how to learn things quickly, and I’ve also tried to use this blog to create knowledge about Richard Armitage, in the sense that the kind of thing I know how to do with words is scholarly and pedagogical. Insofar as I create knowledge, I do amass power for myself. So, whether I actually achieve those ends, I have no control over readers’ perceptions of me. If the expression of knowledge is inevitably an expression of authority or power, I’ve been guilty of not knowing best how to do that peacefully, not always knowing when to hang back as opposed to speaking, when to trust that the result will come around acceptably anyway — or that there is no sought-for or desirable end in fandom beyond enjoyment — and I should be quiet.
***Richard Armitage signs an autograph for a fan outside BBC Radio One studios, September 17, 2010, London, England. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Which brings me to the last point in which I’ve reproduced the dynamics of fandom that troubled me — feeling frightened by conversations or their resulting dynamics of bad feeling:
Although I’ve sometimes managed to prevent certain things I dislike from manifesting in my own space, that doesn’t mean that I’ve extirpated bad feeling as a whole from my blog persona or environment. That problem remains one of the biggest ongoing issues for me in blogging. I try not to use images without permission or attack people, but even so, because of its content, “me + richard armitage” became a periodic magnet for certain kinds of ire within weeks of its appearance, and that dynamic has never fully receded. Indeed, I’ve taken occasional steps that have inflamed it, in the course of resolving for myself the content struggles I’ve enumerated above. One reason for that bad feeling was my sometimes conscious, sometimes naive, willingness to step onto controversial terrain. Wanting to expand the range of permissible conversations or talk about things that are tabu elsewhere has costs — and I maintain responsibility for what I publish here. Genuine controversy, respectfully expressed, doesn’t bother me — though its vehemence has at times stunned me. I can’t do anything about that without changing my goals for the blog, and since that would be at cross-purposes to the function of spending all this time on it, I’ll have to continue to do my best to judge what I can or can’t afford, and whether to pay that price.
Part of the problem is that it’s not just dissent that I deal with when people don’t like what I do — it’s hurt feelings that justify themselves (fairly or not) in moral terms. Certain arguments that call themselves moral ones manifest in particular situations, I would argue, because another factor has played a role in the emergence of bad feeling around “me + richard armitage,” and while I didn’t create it in the way I did the content issues, they have still been an unpleasant cost of doing business here. I’m thinking of the question of something that Guy-lty quite appropriately termed “alte Pfründe,” which she called “old rights” and I would probably translate more metaphorically as something like “prior possession.” (Geeky readers should note the historical technical meaning of the term, Pfrund, which translates as “prebend” in English.) On the basis of prior claim, some people may feel that they have more right than others to decide what can or can’t, should or shouldn’t, be said. And the defense against that position causes flames, and the expenditure of a lot of bad feeling. The question is how we know who has these rights.
***Richard Armitage signs autographs, BAFTA Television Awards, May 20, 2007, London, England. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Guy-lty was right to point out the submergence of this issue in my discussion in part 1. I was factoring the issue out there, implicitly, in the interest of not imputing motive to someone I don’t know. But the question is, quite frankly: Do (legacy) fans have rights to Armitage or pieces of him? Or even the right to control the discussion about him?
I can’t think of any fan I’ve ever met who would answer that question, if asked point blank, in the affirmative. And yet it’s never as easy as that. In practice, of course, rights are only meaningful in the sense that they can be enforced, and we actually don’t have this capacity outside a very narrow spectrum, and precisely this problem is part of why the Tolkien fans were so annoying to me in 2011: because some of them continued a discourse about Armitage’s appearance that I found annoying and damaging. (And then escalated it when they saw how angry some of us got.) But we think we do have these rights — precisely for the reason that John Locke would have explained in the initial chapters of the Second Treatise on Government. Because we create something through our labor, because we do occupy and mark our territory, not least by means of our creative and constructive efforts — and we arbitrate our political rights on that basis. And territorial disputes are thus the equivalent of disputes over property. Insofar as they are thus relatively predictable, they have played an important role in not only past aches and pains, but will affect us again in the future if we don’t make the conscious decision to elide reactions that may to some extent be normal but are nonetheless damaging.
I’m actually sympathetic to the matter, because the circumstances affect me, too, as more Armitage-related or Armitage-exclusive blogs and presences on other media emerge. I described it myself, elsewhere:
Let’s say … you’ve been organizing [an activity] for several years on a board or a site. … it’s taken you a long time to build up interest … you’ve put a lot of spare time or effort into advertising … you’ve done it a few times … it’s reasonably popular … most people in your circles know about it … you’re not planning to innovate because you see it as successful and … everyone you know supports it. And then a blogger pops up and proposes either exactly that activity, OR a “new and improved” version … without any reference to you at all. How are you going to feel? I suspect not overjoyed. It’s probably a fairly rare bird who says, “oh great, someone else is doing it, too,” [if] a lot of effort has been invested and one has a personal identification with one’s work (which is hard to avoid if you do something you love, and fandom is nothing if not a labor of love). Probably the most likely positive reaction is indifference (“ok, if she wants to do it, too, that’s fine”). But I suspect you might feel frustrated (“why isn’t my project good enough for her?”) or puzzled (“why doesn’t she … funnel more people into our ongoing project?) or even ignored (“why didn’t she take the time to note that someone was already doing this?”). There’s a similar dynamic in a lot of work situations, where the “new broom” comes aboard and proposes … changes to things that are running just fine, thank you very much. Or just wants to do something different. So it’s a totally familiar dynamic …
On the whole, I don’t think that fandom and work are similar in the sense that … it’s … necessary that all fans speak with the same voice or through the same medium. Fandom is not a political party. … I don’t think there’s anything larger to be won. But that means precisely that all the rewards lie in the self-concept of the fan, and that makes negotiating fandom tricky. It may be more efficient, for example, to conduct one project that accomplishes a specific project, but efficiency isn’t really a goal of fandom. The only goal that fans have is to be happy on their own terms … (In that sense … it doesn’t even really matter if I think other fans are happy or not — as long as they know what they’re doing, I don’t need to worry about it.) Or at least … we shouldn’t be trying to accomplish some other task beyond enjoying ourselves, except as a byproduct — improving our vidding skills, or cultivating our creativity, or raising money for charities are all a nice side effect of being an Armitage fan, but they are not an explicit shared goal or political end of the fandom as a whole. [...]
At the same time, however, it’s entirely reasonable that someone who had put a lot of work into establishing a particular medium … would feel … personal investment and … frustrated in a situation like this where suddenly everyone feels free to speak however they want.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, to say, when someone starts writing a text or doing a project that’s similar in genre to one’s own activities, that we should be rejoicing over the emergence of a new talent, a new creativity, a new expression.
I affirm: it’s not easy to welcome that with open arms. To say: “How wonderful for you” might be a lot easier than to say “how wonderful for us!”
One way to avoid this dynamic, to circumvent a territorial dispute, is to stay off of others’ territory. But even assuming that a new fan decides to do that — in my profession, it’s important not to duplicate others’ work, so before starting any project one researches to see what’s available — this is harder than it looks. In my own case, the place for me in Armitage blogging in February 2010 seemed clear. I wanted only to document my own fan journey. If the blog eventually became a discussion forum, I still wasn’t starting a discussion board, moderated or unmoderated; I didn’t want to aggregate or document information or news for the benefit of new fans. I didn’t want access to insider information of any kind, personal or professional. I didn’t want to scoop anyone or be the first who knew a news item. I didn’t want to provide a definitive overview of the stations of Armitage’s career; Richard Armitage Online already provided one I admired greatly. My purpose was solely to write about Armitage from my perspective.
***Source: Richard Armitage Confessions
I seriously underestimated the amount and intensity of interest in Richard Armitage and his career, but I don’t think I fundamentally misunderstood the Armitage Internet presence at that point. Mine was not the first Armitage blog, but earlier blogs differed strongly from my plans for mine. Richard Armitage Fan Blog was a lot funnier, sweeter, and cuter than I aspired to be in my then-depressive mood. “Y I Mum?” (now private) presented mostly the blogger’s own original fan art; allthingsrarmitage, mostly pictures. Other blogs focused on Armitage’s intersection with particular themes: Avalon’s Realm was devoted to Guy of Gisborne but also treated Native American artists and celebrities; Spooks Fan Blog treated Armitage as Lucas North but never moved much beyond that; The Squeee and Reviewerama were Armitage-heavy around film, television, and books; and Fly High! and Enchanted Serenity of Period Films prioritized Armitage within a discussion of historical literature, novels, and films. The extant blog closest to my interests was “An RA Viewer’s Perspective” (currently hidden), but mulubinba always preserved her reticence on certain topics, and so its approach was more cautious than mine. I hope I haven’t forgotten to mention anyone blogging about Richard Armitage at the time; as far as I know the other blogs either postdated mine or turned to him as a topic afterwards. My point in this overview was to say that while I hadn’t approached anyone for permission to blog or discussed my plans with anyone, I did think about the territorial issue, and it never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to step onto their territory — because I saw my territory as me, and not as Richard Armitage.
***The interview opportunity that fans of the first hour created with their clamor: Richard Armitage from North & South DVD extras, 2005. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
“me + richard armitage” found readers with stunning speed. G*-gle Alerts meant that by the time I started commenting on other blogs and trying to get in touch with the Armitage presence on the Internet, many of those people knew about the blog and had already formed an opinion. It’s natural, of course, not to be completely open with newcomers right away. And most people were quite friendly, particularly the first generation of Armitage bloggers, many of whom had tangential contact at best with the core fandom organized around the boards. But tensions were perceptible at the beginning, nonetheless; they came through in conversations where I requested permissions for images or interviews. And whenever anger emerges over something I’ve written, it’s been signaled to me through explicit, direct messages, implications, or discussions conducted in places I can see, that this blog clearly reflects a conscious power grab on my part. It’s true that a few very negative voices sting worse than a sea of silent or whispered approvals — and the blog traffic on this site suggests that what I have to say has found plenty of readers, no matter what they think. I also don’t want to imply that people who were critical in the past can’t or haven’t changed their minds, and I know that I’ve won some people over even as I’ve offended others. But for some fellow fans, as a consequence of writing this blog, my name is irretrievably sullied — for the people who believe that by writing that I am trying to obtain Richard Armitage’s attention or affection for myself, that I have a mental illness or some other pathology of personality, that I fail to understand or query my own motives, or that I actually (seek to) endanger Armitage in some way. And I’ve heard and read much worse about myself.
Maybe those people are right. Maybe I am dirty, dangerous, naive, or stubbornly opaque to my own motivations. However, I have also become resigned to the fact that even if I am none of these things, I can do little or nothing to change this perception — trying to use my rhetorical power on projects that serve the fandom has also been read by some as a further attempt to consolidate some kind of power — simply by trying to be (falsely) perceived as virtuous.
***Source: Richard Armitage Confessions
When these criticisms emerge, I think, it may have something to do with prior claims on Armitage based on time invested, I think. I’ve got a lot invested in my Armitaging by now, but lot of people have a lot more invested than I. The question is not whether we feel we have prior possession — we clearly do feel that way, and I am not immune — and that rights go along with that status. The question is rather how aware of those feelings we are, and what we do with them. One clear result of them has been the fan-on-fan behavior and discourse policing which has erupted periodically — from my perspective with the most damage this last summer, just as Mr. Armitage was appearing in San Diego — the first extended glance at him we were going to have in quite some time. Now, maybe we needed to witness a painful flame with just that much vehemence to see how damaging it could be for us. At the same time, it’s clear that that every episode of policing (not just that one, but ones that occurred before it and after it as well) have killed the creative energies of a few more people, have driven a few more eager people from our ranks. I experience this trend as painful not just because I lose friends and people I like — but also because insofar as this blog is about me figuring out my identity in relationship to my creativity, when the hassle of using the Armitage fandom for that becomes to great, it saddens me no end. If people leave because they need to, that’s one thing; but if they leave because flames destroy the atmosphere for creativity, that’s a different thing. I really hope that we can be consciously on alert to prevent the latter.
***Source: Richard Armitage Confessions
To summarize the points of this post — it wasn’t ever my goal to create a new fan venue, but insofar as that happened, I reproduced plenty of my own concerns about the fandom as conducted by others within my own atmosphere. These included the exclusion / inclusion dynamic, the questionable exercise of knowledge / authority, and waves of bad feeling related to content decisions I made. Negative reactions, I argued, have been related to or exacerbated by our feelings of prior possession of Armitage and our frustration over newcomers who do not recognize or value our fandom territories, so that when people come in and do things we don’t like, hurt feelings layer over dissent regarding the correct way to proceed as fans. One result of these hurt feelings is fan-on-fan policing, which not only frightens newcomers, but gradually, bit by bit, destroys our own creative resources and joy in fangirling.
If it’s true that we’re about to be flooded with new fans, we have a chance to change these dynamics — and in my opinion, one that’s nearly unique in the history of the fandom so far, in that most of us agree that we are likely to be overwhelmed by the new level of interest in Richard Armitage. I will argue in part 4 that we should see that not as a crisis or something to be frightened of, but an opportunity. I will also assert that we will need to make conscious decisions in this regard.
To be continued. How did this get so long? The last part is much shorter.