I’ve just read Abigail Derecho’s essay “Archontic Literature” which attempts to theorize fanfiction using the concept of the archive. Derecho doesn’t like defining fanfiction as simply fiction which identifies itself as such, nor does she like the broad terms derivative or intertextual. She suggests that the concept of the archive has less of a hierarchical structure – “every addition to an archive modifies the entire archive” (70) moving the focus away from the concepts of the original and the modified copy.
I think this concept might be useful in thinking about postcolonial rewritings in general (are Shakespeare adaptations fanfiction/archontic?), but more specifically in terms of contemporary media and online fan cultures. Is fandom’s racebending/headcanoning of white characters a form of resistance to cultural hegemony, or does it reinforce the centrality of the very texts it is trying to reclaim (to the detriment of original works that more prominently feature minorities). I think it’s probably actually a little column A and a little column B. If we think about these texts as an archive, though, it might allow us to see more clearly the transformative power of fanon.
Even for people who aren’t fans of slash fiction, how often do discussions of Star Trek jump to Kirk/Spock? If it wasn’t for the work of fanfiction, would that be the case? Can’t we say that the hypothetical Star Trek “archive” has itself become a queer space, even for those that don’t interact directly with fanfiction? It’s hard to think of another example where fandom’s interpretation of race has had that level of impact on the archive as a whole, though. The recent examples I can think of where fan reimaginings might be reshaping the archive are cases where creators themselves publicly approve of them: the fancasting of Idris Elba as James Bond might be influencing producers, JK Rowling’s favouriting of black Hermione tweets, or Andrew Hussie’s* Homestuck merchandise shop producing stickers that reflect popular fan POC headcanons.
It seems that the dynamics at work are somewhat different when it comes to race. On a practical level, the experience of being a POC fan is simply not equivalent to being a queer fan. On a more theoretical level, I wonder if slashing doesn’t seem like less of a threat to the archive itself: sexuality might be understood as something that is less knowable in canon, and slashing an expression of private desire (aroused by canon but tied to fan subjectivity). Racebending might be understood (by those who oppose it) as introducing a more concrete contradiction to the archive, that of a fundamentally irreconcilable whiteness and non-whiteness, which can only be understood on a political rather than personal level.
The practice of headcanoning is certainly both political and personal – “Shame” by Pam Noles is my favourite ever essay on a fan’s affective response to racially diverse characters and is a great example of the damaging effects of presumed whiteness. I suspect that white fans might focus on the erotic aspect of queer headcanons and therefore allow for more imagination in that realm – no need to provide justification for what gets you off, right? Racial headcanons (assuming they are not motivated by fetishization) fulfill an appetite for representation that white fans probably don’t know they have – hence the demands for evidence of character race that don’t seem to be leveled at slash fiction. I’ve seen a similar thing happen with asexual headcanons, which might show how they tend to illuminate the separation between orientation and eroticism and thus become politicized.
This is the main problem I see with the archive model: actual archives are controlled by archivists. As much as the archive itself might theoretically invite new materials, not all people have equal access to it. On the (aptly named) fanfiction website, archiveofourown.org, anyone can join and post, and we can say that each individual work within a fandom modifies that fandom’s archive. However, as fandomshatepoc often points out, fans as a collective give greater weight to certain types of representation – meaning that if you search for fanfiction about a show that features a Latino lead and a secondary POC character who is canonically a gay male, you are most likely to find slash fiction focused on two white male characters. Henry Jenkins discusses a “collective intelligence” in fandom – a kind of hive mind that is prone to speculative interpretations and holds more knowledge than one person can know, but which also tends towards either consensus or deep rifts. Fandom seems to simultaneously invite postcolonial rewritings and to inevitably marginalize them, making it perhaps a simple mirror of all other forms of culture.
The question I’m stuck on is whether it makes a difference that archives which have a lot of cultural sway contain these radical yet marginal elements. Are the fans who get angry about the idea of a black Hermione Granger or Harry Potter being exposed to issues of representation that they would not otherwise? Does the liminal space occupied by fans of colour grant them some kind of (less un)happy medium between cultural capital and representation? Will postcolonial headcanons ever assume a position from which they can have the kind of leverage on the archive that some queer ones do?
* I can and probably will make an entire (much longer) post at some point about how Hussie deals with (or doesn’t deal with) race.