Fan identity, format shift, and the exploitation film

I’m currently at work on formulating some early ideas about my Ph.D. dissertation topic, which I should begin developing in more detail next year. This project will tentatively examine how cultural memory operates in contemporary fan cultures focused upon the remediation of exploitation films.

Early academic accounts of fandom tend to implicitly reproduce the image of the fan as a subcultural member, even if structural and oppositional models of subcultures remain fittingly challenged today. Self-identity as a fan often relies on the intensity of one’s fandom, but while online technologies have given rise to fan communities based around virtually any cluster of media texts, I would argue that most fan identities are based on fluidly shifting and contingent relationships, not upon highly visible signs of subcultural belonging. Sociologist Michel Maffesoli’s theories of neo-tribalism are more promising than subcultural models of fandom, since Maffesoli argues that each person occupies multiple and intersecting affinity groups, each of which forms a symbolic territory based more upon the relationality and mobility of shared tastes, collective memories, and consumption patterns than subcultural connotations of fandom traditionally provide. Since exploitation cinema is itself less a genre than a sensibility that encompasses a broad range of genres, styles, and modes of production, it proves a useful case study for discussing the mobility and affectivity of fandom’s neo-tribal dynamics. If various forms of cultural memory play a significant role in shaping a sense of both self-identity and cultural belonging, then we can posit that the neo-tribal affinity groups formed by individual fans are inspired by memories about the consumption of their chosen media texts, which are later pooled in more collective ways through the active circulation of fan discourse about said texts. In particular, this memory work would seem enabled by dramatic changes in the sites and formats for the circulation of exploitation films, especially in the aftermarket enabled by home video technologies like VHS, DVD, and online video. Technologies of neo-tribal memory face impending change during moments of format transition, creating moments of crisis and redefinition for fans whose identities are partially constructed around not only certain film texts, but also modes of access, sites of exhibition, and questions of interactivity. The cult reception of exploitation films reflects not only the material accumulation of these texts over the course of the long reception tails that allow them to be retrospectively interpreted as “exploitation,” but also the layering of individual and cultural memory that accumulates during their afterlives. Historical distance between a film’s initial release and its fannish appreciation as an “exploitation film” reifies such films as collectible historical objects that are no longer in the immediate public eye and must be (re)discovered by viewers with discerning tastes in which films to commemorate. These films often traded in timely and controversial subject matter that could help recoup their budgets quickly but also seemingly doom them to speedy obsolescence—yet they often played on exploitation circuits for years after their initial release. Importantly, these tensions between planned obsolescence and market longevity are reproduced through the histories of the various technological delivery systems that have allowed older exploitation films to live on beyond their theatrical incarnations. The mnemonic processes that help promote fans’ identities within and around taste communities are also increasingly occurring in an age of convergence in which media content flows across multiple formats, and media fandom potentially loses many of the subcultural, supposedly “oppositional” connotations that it may have once held. This trend suggests that the format transitions initially encouraging the growth of exploitation film fandoms on home video now increasingly contain the seeds of crisis for fan identities constructed around such films, necessitating nostalgic appeals to pastness as a defensive tactic against new modes of cultural change that subcultural models of community are less useful for explaining.