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TORn is now part of the history of the commodification of fandom


Jun 17, 7:10am

Post #1 of 8 (1393 views)
TORn is now part of the history of the commodification of fandom Can't Post

In the course of reviewing recent academic work about Tolkien in the category “Reception and Adaptation”, I was tickled to come across a rather hard to read book by Dan Hassler-Forest, a European professor of film and literature.

I didn’t read the whole book; its publisher’s blurbs say it “guides us through the landscapes of contemporary film, television, and video. From Tolkien to Afro-futurism… Hassler-Forest delivers a set of sharp commentaries on the hazards of capitalist mythologies and pitfalls of post-capitalist desires in these alternative lifeworlds.”
OK, as I said, it is a bit difficult to read. However, I only had to review about eight pages where he talks about Tolkien in the context of his larger topic. Today I want to share excerpts from that section, which analyze the role that we fans on TheOneRing.net have played in a transformative movement in media fan culture over the past 30 years. I’ll give excerpts, and then try to sum them up. If anyone would like to read the full article, I’ve posted it here.
Organized sf and fantasy fandom emerged visibly in the American landscape in the wake of the countercultural movements of the 1960s. The first San Diego Comic-Con, now the most influential fan convention in the Western world, was founded in 1970 in the context of a developing grassroots fan culture. As fan conventions dedicated to comic books and fantastic genres grew and developed throughout the 1970s, fans self-identified as members of a subcultural group that existed outside of the mainstream. The pleasure of congregating at conventions like Comic-Con, WonderCon, FedCon, and many others is all too often described as a celebration of this shared outsider status: fans of imaginary storyworlds engage in cosplay by crafting staggeringly elaborate costumes to resemble their favorite characters and indulge publicly in other forms of “excessive” enthusiasm in ways that are remarkably different from the kind of aggressive tribalism associated with sports fandom. Instead, communities of genre fandom have traditionally been marked by their radically inclusive spirit: an enclave of nerds, geeks, and others who saw themselves as social outcasts excluded from hegemonic mainstream culture.

This makes such fantastic fandom a very specific type of community that goes against at least one basic understanding of the term. As political philosopher Iris Marion Young has argued, communities are typically constructed on the basis of the violent exclusion of otherness. The kind of “natural” balance that is so clearly visible, for instance, in Tolkien’s representation of the Shire is commonly perceived as authentic, organic, and pure. But the hobbits’ “pure and authentic” community can obviously exist only through exclusionary processes of racism, homophobia, and sexism. The model she proposes as a more productive alternative is what she calls a politics of difference: a set of social relations that fully embrace radical diversity, starting with the acknowledgment that the individual subject is itself multiple and uncontainable. Therefore, only by rejecting the Cartesian notion that the subject is singular, rational, and knowable can one arrive at a set of social relations based on solidarity, inclusiveness, and social justice.

Young’s ideal strongly resembles Hardt and Negri’s definition of the multitude as a fundamentally and irreducibly heterogeneous category that embodies this very politics of difference. The creative and self-organizing world of fan culture does indeed resonate with their description of the multitude’s political mobilization: a sense of community that isn’t based on a single common trait but on a solidarity that emerges partly through the shared sense of exclusion from a hegemonic mass culture, and partly from the creative energy of participatory culture and collective intelligence. Several arguments along these lines have of course been made by Henry Jenkins many times over, and they have by now even come to dominate in many ways the growing academic field of fan studies.

1. In brief, this argues that organized fandom started in the 1960s in the context of the counter-culture of that time. In keeping with that idealistic ethic, the resulting community was anything but traditional: unlike most communities (his ironic example is actually Tolkien’s Shire), fans came together in solidarity despite their very different backgrounds and origins. Thus they represented a form of rebellion against the flattening tendencies of modern mass culture.
2. But, at the same time, the hyperconsumerism and general lack of radical political activity in these groups has become more problematic as fan culture has been increasingly absorbed by the mainstream. The many grassroots forms of organized fandom that emerged in the 1970s as a provocative alternative to mass culture can now no longer be approached with the same naiveté. Visiting a fan convention or watching a documentary such as Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, one is struck by the overwhelming reproduction of an intense market logic, with fans desperately attempting to achieve the kind of fame and fortune associated with celebrity culture, competing fiercely in one of the many cosplay shows, or else embracing consumerism to the fullest by paying extortionate fees for celebrity photos and autographs, and by the never-ending quest to seek out the most valuable collectables and “limited collector’s editions.”

This transformation of the fan from marginalized outsider to collaborative hyperconsumer is illustrated vividly by the production and reception of Peter Jackson’s first series of Tolkien adaptations. Before the LOTR film trilogy’s production, fans had mainly been perceived by Hollywood film studios as irritants: niche groups of excessively invested consumers whose limited numbers rendered their voices insignificant in terms of desired audiences. The 1989 blockbuster Batman is a clear example of this kind of perception, as director Tim Burton and film studio Warner Brothers explicitly tailored their film for the largest possible audience, while the character’s most devoted fans were “fated to watch helplessly as ‘their’ treasured possession [was] given over to the whims of the majority.”

2. This idea that fan communities represent a counterweight to mainstream commercial culture is hard to defend, however, when one examines the intensely commercial activities and ethos seen at fan conventions. Then in recent years seemingly independent and non-conformist fandoms have been co-opted and harnessed in the service of the mass consumer culture of commercial films, with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy given as a specific example.
3. But less than a decade later, when Jackson’s film trilogy went into production, the fan’s status in the media industry was about to change. The clearest illustration of this transformation is the fan-driven website The One Ring. The site was established in 1998 with the explicit goal of reporting on the films’ production. Individual LOTR fans from New Zealand, known online by their Tolkienian aliases, sought to develop a network of spies that could report exclusive news related to Jackson’s massive production. Webmaster “Tehanu” first attempted to infiltrate the closed set where the town of Hobbiton was being constructed and was unsurprisingly escorted off the site by security guards as soon as her presence was noticed. But shortly thereafter, she received an invitation to return to the set the next day, where she was given a guided tour by Peter Jackson himself. “Tehanu” was told that she was free to take photographs and post them on her website, and, before long, The One Ring had become one of the key resources for publicity and breaking news surrounding the highly anticipated film trilogy.

3. This was where I woke up and took notice. Hey, that’s TORn! There’s the famous story of our founders sneaking onto the set in New Zealand and getting early photos of the production.
4. The unusual alliance that was forged between the production company and the fan community The One Ring testifies to the shifting relationship between fan culture and media industries in the early twenty-first century. In this process, fans were addressed not only as the ideal consumers of a commercial fantastic franchise but also as valuable contributors to the process. The Tolkien enthusiasts who ran this website were quickly reframed by the production company not as hostile spies but as brand ambassadors thus legitimizing both their affective in¬vestment in the text and the sociocultural practices they had developed. Jackson’s collaborative approach thus explicitly established fans as both participants and crucial “influencers” and legitimizers: getting the most vocal Tolkien fans to support the film adaptations became the first important step toward bringing in a larger audience while positioning the LOTR films as “cult blockbusters” that cannily bridge the divide between “authentic” cult property and “artificial” mainstream. As a result, a set of “fannish” practices that once constituted an alternative to a corporate-driven mass culture was all too easily absorbed by the system it had previously resisted. This process illustrates how sub- and counter-cultural activities that emerged and developed outside of the mainstream can be reterritorialized by the media industries as valuable forms of immaterial labor.

In the context of Empire, immaterial labor has become the hegemonic form of work, where it has been able to intertwine the production of subjectivity with the production of things. Unlike the physical products that result from industrial processes, immaterial labor involves “the less-tangible symbolic and social dimensions of commodities.” In this sense, fandom’s labor in creating valuable “buzz” around a transmedia franchise like LOTR typifies capital’s new reliance on participatory audiences in the age of media convergence. Like the fans who became instrumental in promoting and legitimizing Jackson’s film project from its early stages to the later prequel trilogy, these influencers have only increased in relevance as media industries have come to rely more and more on networked cultures and “spreadable media.”

4. By co-opting TORn into becoming a publicity vehicle for the films, Jackson and New Line both gave the fans a sense of legitimacy and validity, and employed them as unpaid participants in promoting the films with the more general public. The concluding phrase ‘immaterial labor’ is an academic term referring to the work of producing culture and information. It is not often recognized as work by those who do it, with the result that they do it for free for the monetary benefit of others. A Marxist interpretation would conclude that it’s an updated form of the ancient drive of capital to exploit labor, with labor as usual resistant to the idea that it is being exploited! In this instance, Tolkien fans and TORn effectively became unpaid and unwitting employees of New Line, in the context of modern media marketing and networking.
5. But this form of collaboration is ultimately much less participatory than the fan cultures from which these practices were derived. The grossly asymmetrical relationship between media producers and fans results in a continuous negotiation of questions of ownership as media corporations seek to maintain control over what they consider their intellectual property. When storyworlds like Tolkien’s become highly profitable global entertainment brands, they no longer make up a form of cultural commons that can be appropriated, embellished, transformed, or subverted by anyone freely. Instead, they become lucrative corporate franchises made up of a wide range of commodities, most of which are dependent upon fans’ affective and immaterial labor to achieve their desired commercial value: “What gives these commodities value beyond their initial sales price is what fans add to them—the new uses to which fans put old things and the emotional landscapes that fans construct around them.’’ The irony is that as the successful incorporation of fandom’s affective energy changes its direction from “transformative’’ to “affirmational,” the radical spirit that informs these storyworlds simultaneously seems to diminish or even evaporate.

5. Once the Tolkien (or other media properties) brand becomes profitable, it’s no longer fully available to its fans to play with in order to assert solidarity within their difference from the mainstream. Instead they play within the fences established by the corporate marketing, whose value and creation they helped to create.

Well, that’s all I think we can take in one sitting. The rest of this part of the book (see the link above) is equally entertaining. It reviews how the ground-breaking EE’s of the LotR trilogy carefully built an affective bond with the Tolkien fans, casting Peter Jackson in the “hobbit” role. He is presented as the plucky outsider from a little-known and distant land who took on the quest that had been refused by the Wise and the Great of Rivendell and Gondor, I mean, Hollywood.

I’m not suggesting anyone needs to take this more seriously than they want to, but I was as I said absolutely tickled to see TORn cast as a ground-breaking example of exploitation in a modern academic’s theory of cultural Marxism. What do you think?

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Jun 17, 3:35pm

Post #2 of 8 (1307 views)
False consciousness [In reply to] Can't Post

Tehanu was clearly exploited. She should have charged New Line Cinema money for distributing the photographs she took of the Hobbiton set. In fact, I think it's high time Amazon started advertising for Leakers on its job board. They need to make sure the Content Security Operations Manager has something to do.

N.E. Brigand

Jun 17, 10:40pm

Post #3 of 8 (1271 views)
How does your review fit into this picture? [In reply to] Can't Post

My presumption is that you wrote a short review of this essay and a couple dozen others as part of your contribution to "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2016", the annual survey included in the journal Tolkien Studies, whose contents were announced here by the journal's co-editor, David Bratman.

Unless the Tolkien Studies model has has changed since the last time I contributed, you weren't paid for that review, which likely took you, at a minimum, an hour per item reviewed. (It would take me more than twice as long, as I am a slow reader and writer.) When Douglas Anderson announced his departure from Tolkien Studies in April 2012, he castigated academic publishing as being "at root a kind of scam" in this blog post. Most people published in scholarly journals presumably have paid university positions which include the expectation that they will be published in these volumes. You and I and a number of other contributors to Tolkien scholarship do not work in academia and gain nothing financially from contributing, and tying this back to your post: we came to Tolkien scholarship from Tolkien fandom. Speaking for myself, I wrote for Tolkien Studies because it was fun yet challenging and I thought I could contribute. (I even cited TORN once, referencing a 2008 post by Darkstone.) But was I and are you helping to perpetuate an unjust system?

Treachery, treachery I fear; treachery of that miserable creature.

But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.

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Superuser / Moderator

Jun 18, 3:52am

Post #4 of 8 (1238 views)
That's a really interesting read. [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions entirely, but it's interesting to see the early TORN/Tehanu situation put into wider context.

I don't have any education in economic theory to properly partake in this discussion, but it is fair to say that co-opting of cultural trends has been part of marketing and advertising pretty much forever? And would the use of fans and influencers have happened anyway due to the growth of social media, with or without TORN?

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded beggar with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.

Ataahua's stories

(This post was edited by Ataahua on Jun 18, 3:53am)

Forum Admin / Moderator

Jun 19, 12:11am

Post #5 of 8 (850 views)
Interesting take... [In reply to] Can't Post

I think it lacks a sufficient understanding of the inner dynamics of fan culture, though. PJ's approach to the fans was not simply one of commodification and use. It worked because Peter is one of the "new" media creators who grew up in fan culture. He provided what the fans wanted because it's what he always wanted as a fan. The massive behind the scenes documentary and the production vlogs are far beyond the standard special features, and were not just a ploy to suck the fans in and turn them to profit. If they had been, or if the finished product had not made the grade, there would have been a lot of backlash, because fans are not brainless peons. Is he also a business man? Of course, and I'm always bemused by the idea that one must either be exclusively one or the other. We are happy for his business to succeed if it is producing a thing we enjoy.

There's a pretty strong contrast between the way Peter and New Line related to us and the way WB did. WB fits his conclusion about attempts to turn fans into superconsumers far better than New Line did or Peter Jackson does. Their overtures and promotions and attempts to build on that fan involvement were not so enthusiastically received. Remember the Blu-ray release hype?

I'm also not sure that it's true that the creative spirit of fandom has diminished by it either. The movies greatly expanded the number of fans and made involvement much easier to access. You didn't have so many "casual" fans before, or at least not casual readers who found an easy "in" to the fan community. We had tons of people arrive here saying "I thought I was the only one!" But did the influx of movie viewers cause those who were more invested in fan art or other creative endeavors to stop? Has Tolkien scholarship ceased? There's always a core in any fandom who engage in it more creatively or seriously than others. Before the films, they probably formed a larger percentage of those who found each other in fan clubs and meet-ups, so if you got involved at all, there they were. When it goes "mainstream", they are still there doing their thing, just maybe less visible to outsiders looking in, who generally don't actually spend much time in the community before forming their conclusions.


Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.


Jun 19, 5:10pm

Post #6 of 8 (730 views)
"Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer." [In reply to] Can't Post

 'Immaterial Labour' sounds like work though, and surely whether something is work or play is a matter of whether someone's making you do it -- a discovery of the Philosopher Tom Sawyer, I believe. The discovery follows Tom being required to whitewash his aunt's fence as a punishment:

At this dark and hopeless moment an inspiration burst upon him! Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.

He took up his brush and went tranquilly to work. Ben Rogers hove in sight presently -- the very boy, of all boys, whose ridicule he had been dreading. Ben's gait was the hop-skip-and-jump -- proof enough that his heart was light and his anticipations high. He was eating an apple, and giving a long, melodious whoop, at intervals, followed by a deep-toned ding-dong-dong, ding-dong-dong, for he was personating a steamboat. As he drew near, he slackened speed, took the middle of the street, leaned far over to starboard and rounded to ponderously and with laborious pomp and circumstance -- for he was personating the Big Missouri, and considered himself to be drawing nine feet of water. He was boat and captain and engine-bells combined, so he had to imagine himself standing on his own hurricane-deck giving the orders and executing them:

"Stop her, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling!" The headway ran almost out, and he drew up slowly toward the sidewalk.

"Ship up to back! Ting-a-ling-ling!" His arms straightened and stiffened down his sides.

"Set her back on the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow! ch-chow-wow! Chow!" His right hand, meantime, describing stately circles -- for it was representing a forty-foot wheel.

"Let her go back on the labboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow-ch-chow-chow!" The left hand began to describe circles.

"Stop the stabboard! Ting-a-ling-ling! Stop the labboard! Come ahead on the stabboard! Stop her! Let your outside turn over slow! Ting-a-ling-ling! Chow-ow-ow! Get out that head-line! Lively now! Come -- out with your spring-line -- what're you about there! Take a turn round that stump with the bight of it! Stand by that stage, now -- let her go! Done with the engines, sir! Ting-a-ling-ling! Sh't! S'h't! Sh't!" (trying the gauge-cocks).

Tom went on whitewashing -- paid no attention to the steamboat. Ben stared a moment and then said: "Hi-yi! You're up a stump, ain't you!"

No answer. Tom surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist, then he gave his brush another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before. Ben ranged up alongside of him. Tom's mouth watered for the apple, but he stuck to his work. Ben said:
"Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?"

Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

"Why, it's you, Ben! I warn't noticing."

"Say -- I'm going in a-swimming, I am. Don't you wish you could? But of course you'd druther work -- wouldn't you? Course you would!"

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

"What do you call work?"

"Why, ain't that work?"
Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

"Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer."

"Oh come, now, you don't mean to let on that you like it?"

The brush continued to move.

"Like it? Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?"

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth -- stepped back to note the effect -- added a touch here and there -- criticised the effect again -- Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

"Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little."

Tom considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

"No -- no -- I reckon it wouldn't hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly's awful particular about this fence -- right here on the street, you know -- but if it was the back fence I wouldn't mind and she wouldn't. Yes, she's awful particular about this fence; it's got to be done very careful; I reckon there ain't one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it's got to be done."

"No -- is that so? Oh come, now -- lemme just try. Only just a little -- I'd let you, if you was me, Tom."

"Ben, I'd like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly -- well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn't let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn't let Sid. Now don't you see how I'm fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it --"

"Oh, shucks, I'll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say -- I'll give you the core of my apple."

"Well, here -- No, Ben, now don't. I'm afeard --"

"I'll give you all of it!"

Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs, munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite, in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to swing it with -- and so on, and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth. He had besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn't unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass doorknob, a dog-collar -- but no dog -- the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.

He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while -- plenty of company -- and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn't run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it -- namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.

Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain (Chapter II)

Thought I'd share that, even if it is immaterial whether I do so.

"Go down to the shovel store and take your pick." Traditional prank played on dwarves when they start down the mine.

N.E. Brigand

Jun 19, 6:54pm

Post #7 of 8 (729 views)
"Furthermore, Tom’s capitalist instincts are on display in the cunning way he convinces his friends to paint the fence ..." [In reply to] Can't Post

"...a privilege for which they pay him."

From "Adorno's Tom Sawyer", a post at the website of the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

Treachery, treachery I fear; treachery of that miserable creature.

But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.

Discuss Tolkien's life and works in the Reading Room!
How to find old Reading Room discussions.


Jun 20, 4:08am

Post #8 of 8 (683 views)
Utter equine fecal matter [In reply to] Can't Post

Wow, what a load of pseudo-academic garbage. I don’t think I’ve seen quite so much babble masquerading as intellectual study in so few paragraphs in a long time. This kind of falderal is what is giving contemporary academics a bad name.


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