Being a fan sometimes has its costs

I should be working on a book chapter, but the news today has me thinking in parallels. Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures has died due to cancer at age 63. It has been a bad year for fans with the passing of the great Nicholas Courtney in February, but as an acafan I’m wondering about the experience of loss for fans of the series, fans of the actors and fans of their characters.

I’m currently researching and writing about multiplayer First Person Shooter games and thinking about the role of ‘death’ in games, especially violent and militaristic means of dealing ‘death’ in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and the disconnection between death and ‘death’. As a fan, but never having met Sladen, I’m wondering about what is has more emotional intensity for the fan, the passing of the actor or the knowledge that the character’s ‘story’ (at least in the ‘cannon’ of the television series) is now finished, even if they aren’t ‘dead’?

Death of a character is not an obstacle in science fiction and especially in shows like Doctor Who, where regeneration, paradox and deus ex machina and generally overcoming ‘death’ in the narrative are part of the experience of watching and participating in the fandom. Only rarely does ‘death’ of a character in Doctor Who have an ongoing significance or ‘meaning’ for fans in terms of the impact on the story and mythology of the series, as was the case with Adric.

A new season of Doctor Who will start in a couple of days, but it is due to people like Sladen and Courtney and their generosity towards fans over the years, and their own role as fans, that there is a future in the series. So the expectation of the new series, the gradual build-up on fansites, blogs, the trailers and teasers designed to increase the expectation and chatter between fans ‘looking forward’ to the new series takes on a new tenor.

For a non-fan, the news of the latest series, and the death of Elizabeth Sladen (and the loss of Sarah Jane), ‘matters’ in a very different way to that of the fan. It is this mattering, and not it’s significance (or meaning) that suggests an overlap with ‘death’ in FPS games. In games, and in Doctor Who for characters like Rory Pond and the Doctor, ‘death’ is a tabula rasa (Richard, 1999), a chance to do things over, where as death (or Death) is, as Tom Stoppard (1968) describes in Rosencrantz and Guildestern are Dead, the ultimate negative:

Rosencrantz: Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is “not.” Death isn’t. Take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no… What you’ve been is not on boats.

Lawrence Grossberg has been immensely helpful in thinking about how ‘death’ and military ideology is involved in the ‘mattering’ of FPS games. In writing on the subject of fandom, Grossberg explains that “a fan’s relation to cultural texts operate in the domain of affect” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 56). In this context, affect is not the same as emotion or feeling. Grossberg privileges the ‘pleasures’ of affect in the sensibility of fandom as having greater determination of what makes the popular popular than the ‘meaning’ of the cultural texts. Not denying that texts are embedded with discourse, but arguing that ideologies are maps of meaning, Grossberg suggests that affect is also embedded and provides an organising function.

Affect operates in tandem (and potentially in competition) with ideology, as it is involved in the production of maps of mattering that indicate with what intensities and degrees of investment texts become part of the make up our self-identification: I am a Doctor Who fan because Doctor Who matters to me, not because of what Doctor Who signifies to me or anyone else, although how I make meaning of the text is dependent on what matters or what degrees of investment are involved:

Affect plays a crucial role in organizing social life because affect is constantly constructing not only the possibility of difference, but the ways specific difference come to matter.  Both ideology and pleasure depend on defining and privileging particular terms within various relations of difference. But it is affect which enables some difference (for instance, race and gender) to matter as markers of identity rather than other (foot length, angle of ears, eye color) (Grossberg, 1992: p. 58).

For example both Sarah Jane and Elizabeth Sladen matter interms of my self-identity, and my social identity as a fan because she was the first female character in a show (that mattered to me) to demonstrate, discuss, and reveal qualities and statements that I would latter associated with feminism. It was less the discourse and unpacking of feminist ideology (however naive in execution and reception) that ‘mattered’ and more the intensity of investment in the series that became part of the experience of becoming a fan. What exists before and after signification is the intensity of investment in that experience.

The feelings I have now as a fan are not entirely a subjective experience:

[Feeling] … is a socially constructed domain of cultural effects. Some things feel different from others, some matter more or in different ways, than others … different affective relations inflect meanings and pleasure in very different ways. Affect is what gives  ‘color’, ‘tone’ or ‘texture’ to our experiences ” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 56).

Following Grossberg who defines affect qualitatively, by the ‘inflection’ of a particular investment, and quantitatively in the magnitude of that investment in experiences, practices, identities, meanings and pleasure (although both are difficult to measure) and difference, being a fan of a popular cultural text has its rewards (the anticipation of new content and the familiarity and enjoyment of older material) and its costs ( the feelings, emotions, associated with the death of this involved in the production of the text). The ‘mattering map’ of self-identity as a fan is then marked out by the an  intensity and excess, that has a bearing on “how to live within emotional and ideological histories” (Grossberg, 1992, p. 57). The news about Liz sladen’s death had a very different emotional register (puzzled sadness), tone or modulation, than news about a child’s death or suffering (horror and helplessness), for example, due to the mattering map of self-identity that is dominated by the intensities of identification as a ‘father’ compared to that of the ‘fan’.

Affect does not explain, what the death of Elizabeth Sladen or Sarah Janes formative feminism means to fans, but does help to explain why these and not other events and ideologies matter. I was watching The Sontaran Experiment, just the other day and it occurred to me that watching the episode for the first time when I was 5 or 6, Sarah’s interaction with Harry didn’t really mean much:

Harry: OK, old thing?
Sarah Jane: Harry, I am not a thing.

This exchange didn’t feature, as far as I remember, in what Doctor Who meant to me as a child, but it certainly expanded my investment in the show as an adolescent and as an adult and why it continues to matter.  This history of an intensity of investment, the “ideology of excess” (Grossberg , p. 61) became part in some sense of my own identity, and the relationship between the ideology of excess and the ideology of feminism registers on the mattering map of that fandom and self-identity and intersects with how I enfold characters like Ace, and the new sexual politics of Amy, Rory and the Doctor into my understanding of what the series means and how I understand the competing discourses of that show to be limited or expanded.

The ideology of excess, what can be said and interpreted as part of my own identity that includes being a Doctor Who fan, governs the types of conversations I have with other fans and non-fans and the patterns of meaning and mattering that can occur, it does not suggest that I take on the significance of Sarah’s feminism in its entirety, only that it marks a point on the mattering map of my identity.

Similarly, to get to my long winded point, the ‘death’ in FPS games does not register in the same way that the death of Elizabeth Sladen, or the Death of someone more personally known to me, or news about civilian or military personnel deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, does. Rather, the less something ‘matters’ as part of the my self-identity the more strongly the ideological component seems to mean: the military discourse of violence, fetishism of weapons, and ‘death’ in FPS games are no less ideological, than the ways the game is organised into a quasi-sports matches, and the way gender or race are portrayed but matter to a different degree, register with a different affective intensity, than the social experiences, trials of competition, achievements in victory and defeat that matter personally to my self-identity as a gamer.  So the gamer self, the political self that abhors the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is conflicted about the US and NATO role in Libya, and the fanself saddened by both the prospect of no more Sarah Jane and the significance of an individual’s death, are all part of the assembly of  identity, that is composed out of the relations of differences that are being constantly reordered and made sense of:

It is in their affective lives that fans constantly struggle to care about something, and to find the energy to survive, to find the passion necessary to imagine and enact their own projects and possibilities (Grossberg, 1992, p. 59).

Sarah Jane [In The Monster of Peladon]: Now just a minute. There’s nothing “only” about being a girl, Your Majesty.

Sarah Jane [In Arks in Space, about the Doctor]: He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who understands what he’s talking about.

I would have liked to have seen Sarah Jane go on to be a batty old woman too.

Farewell Sarah Jane and thank you Elizabeth Sladen.

Grossberg, Lawrence (1992). Is there a Fan in the House?: The Affective Sensibility of Fandom, in Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Lewis, Lisa A (ed.), pp. 50 -65. Florence: Routledge.

Richard, Birgit (1998). Norn Attacks and Marine Doom, in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

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