Visible Fandom: Reading the X-Files through X-Philes

Article excerpt

Early in the spring of 1999, a friend of mine e-mailed me about her increasingly fan-like interest in "Sports Night," ABC's now defunct half-hour comedy/drama created by Aaron Sorkin. Noting her subsequent combing of the web for information on the series, she wrote: "I'm stopping. I'm still going to love the show and I'm going to read anything I see in magazines, etc., but I am not searching the web anymore. It makes me feel like there is actually a relationship between me and the show." Thinking of my own experience with The X-Files, I posed the following question, both as a joke at my expense and a serious response to her brush with media fandom: "Do you mean there 'isn't' a relationship between me and the show?"1 To me, the implication of her choice was clear: the experience of being a fan is predicated upon precisely this construction of some sort of connection-an emotional and intellectual investment-between the viewer and the text that prompts the individual to explore his or her engagement with the given object of interest. Whether or not the individual ever participates in any fan communities, access to the Internet and an impulse to run a search on Yahoo! gives the would-be fan a concentration of information that can facilitate the creation of a fan identity. But a viewer without this relationship "between me and the show," no matter how much she or he loved a given series, would not be a fan at all.2

Theories about fandom, from Janice Radway's Reading the Romance to Constance Penley's influential work on slash fanfiction, offer us descriptions of the activities of fandom through which we can assign significance to this experience of a relationship "between me and the show," however ephemeral and conflicted such a relationship may be.3 In many ways, this article proceeds no differently: My project is to read the activity on and as representative of what John Fiske calls the "productivity [that] occurs at the interface between the industrially produced cultural commodity (narrative, music, star, etc.) and the everyday life of the fan" ("The Cultural Economy of Fandom," 37). Specifically, I argue that in the long-running debates over the current status and future direction of Mulder and Scully's relationship, we see the ideology of The X-Files-what I will define as its investment in intersubjectivity as contextualized by both the show's conspiratorial tone and unclosed narratives-intersect with the experiences of fandom. The productivity of online X-Files fandom, including the very terminology through which X-Philes describe themselves, further suggests how we can refine our understanding of the styles of engagement with popular culture that the relationship "between me and the show" represents.

As one might expect, X-philedom creates close, and at times, contentious connections to the culture industries through the fans' own positionings of series creator Chris Carter and his production company, Ten Thirteen.4 The terms of the attachment that fans create between themselves and the series, however, are not solely the domain of fandom; they are also present in the series. The easily accessed fandom that exists on the Internet offers Ten Thirteen the impression that their audience is not, as Fiske writes, "ultimately unknowable" ("Popular Narrative and Commercial Television," 144), but instead can be incorporated within the narrative of the series itself: Since season three, The X-Files has attempted to articulate the position occupied by the online contingent related to its own popularity. Fiske writes, "the economic imperative of the culture industries requires them to strive constantly to produce commodities that people will make popular" ("Popular Narrative and Commercial Television," 144), and in this article, I read the very specific production of the popular that is made visible by the activity on Internet newsgroups dedicated to Fox's long-running series. But I also ask what effect the kind of popularity that fandom represents has had on this particular televisual narrative, and in turn, how that effect-as a representation of the relationship between The X-Files and X-Philes-is welcomed or criticized by the online fan. …


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