Conclusion: Rhetorical Visions in Cultural Contexts of Authority and Power in the Xenaverse

CONTENTS

Z1

All paths in this dissertation eventually converge here, for as much as hypertext theory celebrates the nonlinear sprawl as a postmodern attempt at resisting closure, this dissertation stands squarely on the borderlands between modernist and postmodernist concerns, a hypertext that makes key concessions to linearity. My individual nodes in this hypertext are often long and quite linear lexias. This conclusion focuses down to a single, linear thread. My theoretical positioning in this dissertation also straddles the line between modernism and postmodernism, primarily on the issue of ethics and the problem of relativism in postmodernism, an issue that an activist researcher must take very seriously. Still I am drawn to the strengths of postmodern critique, to the multiplicities of dialogic, nonlinear arguments, and the shifting, fragmented identities shaping the ethos of online cultures.

Z2

In taking this apparently contradictory position of "Both/And" in regard to modernism and postmodernism I am aligning this project with what philosopher Richard Bernstein calls a "new constellation of modernity/postmodernity," a theoretical position which posits a way of dealing with the conflict of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism in terms other than what Bernstein calls "the grand Either/Or." The Foucauldian move to subvert the "grid" of binary oppositions such as "normative/empirical, universal/relative," and "rational/irrational" would seem to indicate receptiveness to such a new constellation (Bernstein 152). For although Foucault's style of radical critique seems to come from nowhere, deliberately finding nowhere to stand because that would be a totalizing move, Foucault consistently focuses on "instabilities, points of resistance, specific points where revolt and counter discourse is [sic] possible" (Bernstein 164). The question of whether such critique is actually possible without having a set of values or ethos from which to make the critique, regardless of whether they are acknowledged, denied, or hidden, is beyond the scope of this dissertation and part of the legendary conundrum that is Foucault, as Bernstein writes,

"Ironically, the current polemic about Enlightenment blackmail tends to boomerang; it is a diversionary tactic that obscures more than it illuminates. It tends to close off issues rather than open them up. It seduces us into thinking that we are confronted with only two possibilities: either there are universal ahistorical normative foundations for critique or critique is groundless. This specious 'either/or' closes off the topos that needs to be opened for discussion--the topos toward which so much of the polemic of modernity/postmodernity gravitates. How can we still today--in our historical present--find ways of significantly clarifying and warranting the ethical-political perspectives that inform a critique of the present." (165)

 

 

Z3

Bernstein's response to this problem is to propose a "Both/And" argument, claiming that "together" an irreducible constellation of modernity/postmodernity should remain a "juxtaposed rather than an integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to 'a common denominator, essential core, or generative first principle'" (225). This "Both/And" is unstable, contingent, disruptive, certainly not universalizing. Bernstein calls such a constellation an ethical-political "force-field," a "relational interplay of attractions and aversions that constitute the dynamic transmutational structure of a complex phenomenon" (9). For the terms of this study, "Both/And" opens this work to materialist, activist concerns about domination and liberation in cyberspace, yet refuses to cast the "relations of power" into simplistic dichotomies.

Z4

This follows along with a similar project set out by Patricia Sullivan and James Porter in considering ethical-political action in critical research praxis, examining the ways research methods are political instruments in power relations, and the ways research frames construct ethically-situated subjectivities as well as certain "shoulds" or "oughts" (39-40). Sullivan and Porter advocate bringing these issues into the open in critical research praxis, what they call "committed postmodernism," "postcritical," or, using Ebert's (1991) term, "resistance postmodernism." They stress that this position has a "liberatory aim, but has a critical consciousness of its own position (at least insofar as that is possible)" (42). They cite two important characteristics of a "postcritical methodology, and these characteristics have guided my study as well, such that they bear repeating here:

"First, postcritical research does not have an a priori aim in mind. The vision of the desired end state is not established at the beginning of the process; rather, it develops and arises through the process, in dialogic concert with research participants. . . .Second, postcritical research problematizes agency. It presumes neither the death of the subject nor the unified being of the subject; rather, it proceeds on the basis of multiple and shifting subjectivities that enable opportunities for change, at least at local levels" (42).

Z5

Again, I situate myself in a tenuous position between modernism and postmodernism. As a cultural critique, this work is somewhat interdisciplinary, seeking to make contributions to hypertext theory and practice through critical considerations of the often utopian democratizing claims made for hypertext and online communications, framed in terms of constructions of authority as an appropriate way to gauge the potential for democratizing cultural traditions and interfaces. This dissertation also seeks to enact and test in praxis the viability of hypertext theory in the making of academic knowledge, not so much in the construction of universalizing "Truth" through linear argument, but rather a mixture of nonlinear and linear persuasion. This kind of persuasion is what David Kolb describes as "an accumulation of words and images and considerations that persuade the reader to adopt an attitude or a course of action, but this persuasive effect would not be controlled by a line that provides a route for criticisms and rational evaluation in terms of the goal of truth rather than the goal of persuasion" (Socrates 328). In this dissertation, my goal is a dialogic form of persuasion. Rather than following one line with a goal of truth, I am seeking to mix a multiplicity of paths in order to bring out particular, localized, and contingent truths about the Xenaverse, some that may be extended beyond the borders of the Xenaverse and considered in other online cultures, or in the examination of extremism in contexts other than in cyberspace. This work also seeks to contribute to rhetorical theory in the conjunction of Fantasy-Theme Analysis and cultural critique, adapting and updating a useful dramaturgical approach to rhetorical criticism by bringing it into the service of activist research and cultural studies, as I discuss below.

 

 

 

 

 

Z6 The nerdish, divergent-thinking, outspoken fanatic is one of the most prominent stereotypes of inhabitants of cyberspace. This study still cannot tell us if the Internet spawns such characters, or if it simply attracts people who are already a bit extremist in their views, or if it reveals the common, if hidden, extremism in many of us. I have long been drawn to the apparent proliferation of highly polarized argumentative positions, of rhetorical polemic, in cyberspace. At first I focused on the phenomenon of "flaming" as the most prominent manifestation of this polemic, but flaming itself proved too difficult to consistently define, and the term failed to distinguish between ad hominem abuse and the argumentative rant. I was also intrigued by the interaction of incommensurate views, or what happens when extreme and oppositional rhetorical positions occupy the same cultural and discursive spaces, in interactions which are very easy to document in cyberspace. The communication style of extreme rhetoric on-line seems to be less revealing, however, than its character or ethos, the belief systems and cultural logic from which such rhetoric emanates. Mailloux's "cultural rhetoric" looks at "the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture" (emphasis mine). I found Bormann's Fantasy-Theme Analysis to be a useful way for looking at the political effectivity of trope and argument in the Xenaverse culture. According to Foss,

"A close relationship exists between fantasies and argumentation. in that shared fantasies are a necessary and prior condition for arguments. They provide the ground for arguments or establish the assumptive system that is the basis for arguments. Argumentation requires a common set of assumptions about good reasons and the nature of proof or the proper way to provide good reasons for arguments for belief and action, and fantasy themes provide these assumptions" (Foss 124).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Z7

This relationship between fantasies and arguments reinforces the importance of what Mailloux calls the "cultural conversations" around tropes and arguments. In developing his thesis for "rhetorical hermenuetics," he asserts that "any specific interpretation is best understood in relations to particular historical contexts of institutional and cultural debates" (Rhetorical Power 57). In this dissertation I have attempted to use the tools of Fantasy-Theme Analysis to situate the often extremist or fanatical rhetoric of the Xenaverse in its cultural contexts. This study was also greatly aided by the use of ethnographic cultural immersion and the limited use of participant-observation to deepen my understanding of those cultural contexts and to help me become privy to private conversations and groups, and the rhetoric they generated. One of the goals of this study was to describe and give voice to the Xenites in their cultural contexts, as well as to analyze the rhetoric that those cultural contexts generate in the form of shared fantasy themes and fantasy types. One of the findings of this study is that several key rhetorical visions, relating to power and empowerment, did emerge through the fantasy themes and types I discuss in my analysis. The pervasiveness of these rhetorical visions throughout many sectors of the Xenaverse indicates the political effectivity of these particular tropes and arguments in the Xenaverse culture.

 

 

Z8 Rhetorical Visions

In collecting evidence of fantasy themes and fantasy types in the Xenaverse, it became clear to me that, given the enthusiastic and active chaining of so many themes, several rhetorical visions were also present. These visions may not be so readily apparent to the Xenites themselves, but rather, they have become apparent from inspection of the data. One foundational principle which governs most of the Xenaverse is its strong feminist sensibilities, more specifically a distinctly lesbian-feminist focus, both in the reactions to the word "rape" and the subtext debate, for instance. Another foundational relationship is expressed in the motivations of the feedback loop and the boundaries between the HCNBs and TPTB. Two other fantasy types that I have found in the Xenaverse relate to a paradox: of community and of independence or transience. While quite a number of fantasy types and tropes emerge from the fan fiction section of my analysis, the imaginative nature of those types, expressed in story genres and clichés, tend to reinforce the fantasy types of the lesbian-feminist focus, community, and independence, through the repeating examples of Xena and Gabrielle's travels through the cyberspace Xenaverse landscape. Fan fiction has little to do with the feedback loop between TPTB and the Internet Xenaverse. These four categories I would name as the predominant fantasy types in the Xenaverse.

 

Z9

These four fantasy types support two dominant overarching rhetorical visions in the Xenaverse at large. They are:

Empowerment of the online culture credited to the democratization claim for Internet-based communication, cultures, and communities.

Personal growth and social empowerment through the association with the show "Xena: Warrior Princess," both inside cyberspace and in real life.

Z10

These two visions run through many of the examples of Xenaverse rhetoric I have analyzed. An exemplar of the rhetorical vision of the power of the democratization claim can be seen in Diane Silver's "Xenastaff, Fans, and Fairness." Silver's writings and also the work of Kym Masera Taborn especially highlight the power of the Internet to facilitate the kind of "political" empowerment fans come to feel in regard to TPTB. Fans repeatedly testify that the Internet plays a role in making the specifically democratizing angle of that empowerment possible. This is an interesting position in relationship to whether the communications medium of the Internet really is democratizing or not. Regardless of the actual democratizing potential for the medium, the rhetorical vision of the democratization claim does exist in the Xenaverse, and perhaps may serve a rhetorical purpose in giving the democratization claim additional force, simply because so many people believe in it.

 

Z11

The second rhetorical vision actually encompasses the first, for it testifies to the empowerment HCNBs testify that they feel on all levels, personally, through living the examples of strong independent women and heros as set by the character themes of Xena, Gabrielle, and Lucy Lawless, socially, through the strength of their communities, and creatively, in the pride many feel when considering the huge body of Xena literature they have produced. They feel lesbian-feminist pride that they are recreating the Amazon Nation online. They feel social unity, equality, and power in the blurring of the boundaries with TPTB. And lastly, they feel that the democratization claim about the Internet is true because of what they have witnessed in the fantasy type of the feedback loop. Many believe the Internet is one of the instruments of their empowerment. Together these rhetorical visions unify the discourse of the Xenaverse, creating a frame where certain arguments thrive while other dissipate. The unending Joxer Wars, for instance, might not be so unending if it were not for the vitality of the fantasy type of the feedback loop, or the articles that appear which celebrate fan access and empowerment. The lesbian-feminist fantasy type would not be so strong if it weren't for the argumentative support offered by tropes present in the television program in the types of heros portrayed and their independence and interdependence. These rhetorical visions affect constructions of authority in the Xenaverse, as well as "relations of power" (Foucault).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Z12 Central Research Questions Revisited

In my introductory sector I framed my study in terms of several related questions I hoped this dissertation would answer. The research questions in any ethnographic or rhetorical analysis serve as heuristic devices: conceptual "jumping off points" for the description, interpretation and even critique of the artifact or culture being observed. In this sense, initial research questions often reflect the biases and prior opinions of the researcher, and mine were no different. Recognizing my biased position, I wanted to leave the research questions as open-ended as possible to allow my analysis to be grounded in the online culture rather than my preconceptions. I wanted to know what kinds of cultures are being born in the various cyberspaces created by the Internet in the late 1990s, for surely interfaces and cultures will change almost as soon as this study comes out. The primary focus of my data description and analysis is on constructions of authority. I wanted to know if these particular cultures are authoritarian, or resistant to authority? Are they extremist? Are they inclined to rant? And if so, why? What keeps Internet fringe groups thriving? And what does that tell us about constructions of authority in less extreme contexts?

 

Z13

I chose to attempt to answer these questions by doing a case study of one particular culture, immersing myself in the culture at all levels to understand its rhetoric in its cultural context. Through descriptive data and Fantasy-Theme rhetorical analysis I believe we can gauge the "political effectivity of trope and argument" in this culture, the Xenaverse. The fantasy themes and types which chain out into rhetorical visions of personal and social empowerment as well as a rhetorical vision of the democratizing potential of the Internet as a tool of this empowerment, establish a common social framework or world view into which highly contentious and often extremist polarized arguments emerge. Yet despite the contentiousness of these arguments, an underlying fantasy type of the Xenaverse as a community allows divisive opinions to co-exist for the most part. Some factionalizing does occur, as well as the creation of special interest or exclusive, invitation-only groups.

 

Z14

On many levels, then, the Xenaverse accommodates both the insularity of self-selected groups which establish social norms as a form of authority and highly interactive argumentation which allows the insular social norms to be directly challenged at any time, within certain parameters of politeness and decency that have been socially evolving within the group. This seeming paradox of insularity and interactivity may help keep such Internet fringe groups thriving, for the people in the group have drawn together in their mutual interest, yet if the group faced no challenges from within or without, its insularity would leave little to discuss, since most members are in agreement. This paradox can be seen in the Xenaverse when factionalizing separates many little groups which form to escape the interactive challenges to their beliefs, but then find they have little to talk about when everyone is "preaching to the choir." Then group members seem to migrate back into the larger group, particularly if an alarm is raised that the larger group is being taken over by a faction which had previously been defeated in argument (such as the Pro-Joxer faction, which gained ground following a backlash against the unending Joxer Wars that led some Anti-Joxer people to migrate to the smaller, specialized groups).

 

Z15

The paradox of insularity and interactivity plays out in cycles of retreat into insular enclaves and expansion back into interactive (and often polemical) engagement. The insular base of like-minded rhetors gives a rhetor strength to take and hold a polemical argumentative position, yet that position can never rest easy, for online there is always the potential for interactive challenge to that position. This cycle of insularity and interactivity helps to further polarize arguments in cyberspace in a similar fashion as Marsha Vanderford found in the "paradox of power and vulnerability" in her 1989 study of the highly polarized rhetoric of the abortion controversy in Minnesota. Vanderford's analysis of the connection between vilification and social movements points to the force inherent in the "paradox of power and vulnerability" in sustaining social movements. Through this paradox, polarized social movements cast their opponents as an "exclusive and narrow group" which nonetheless holds considerable power. "By negative definition, then, movement members saw themselves as representing the preponderance of Americans" (Vanderford 175). The group must rally support because of its own vulnerability to the enemy's power, yet by citing widespread grassroots support, the group claimed that it held enough power to defeat the opposition. This "paradoxical view of the enemy" as both powerful and vulnerable kept supporters at a fervent level and helped to sustain the movement.

 

 

 

Z16

On a smaller scale, the paradox of insularity and interactivity works the same way. The insularity of self-selected discussion groups gives strength in numbers (power), yet the interfaces of interactivity in online cultures almost guarantees that the insular positions will be challenged (vulnerability). Insularity alone does not seem to be enough to drive rhetoric online into extremist, polarized positions (unless the rhetoric was already extremist from the outset, as in the case in white supremacist groups as found by Gary Walter Larson in his dissertation on racist discourse on Internet Relay Chat). Interactivity alone means that argumentative positions are constantly open to challenge and potential moderation through forms of rhetorical persuasion. However, it appears that elements of insularity and interactivity, when combined, can be seen as partially responsible for some of the extremist rhetoric and polemical argumentative strategies that often make up the general ethos for certain online cultures, such as the Xenaverse.

 

 

 

Z17

This paradox of insularity and interactivity helps to explain the existence of extremist rhetoric in an online culture devoted to something as innocuous as a television show. Most HCNBs will admit to being fanatical and obsessed about the show, and this devotion often comes out in extended arguments and detailed rebuttals, arguments that go on so long, like the Joxer Wars, that they can only be called rants. The show gives this particular Internet fringe group a reason for existing, and feelings do run high. But I believe the paradox of insularity and interactivity, a social and interface-related feature specific to the Internet may help to escalate the rhetoric and reinforce Xenites to higher and higher levels of obsession over the show. This paradox is only part of an answer to my research questions, however.

 

Z18

Another part of the answer may have to do with a similar paradox of community and independence or transience. Again these are two seemingly oppositional urges among the kind of person I come to characterize as my stereotypical Internet extremist, my Hardcore Nutball. If the Internet has a particular attraction to highly independent, divergent thinkers, part of the attraction is to connect, to interact with other highly independent, divergent thinkers. Yet these are still oppositional impulses, to connect, to diverge, to carry community with you as you travel the lonesome byways, whether of cyberspace or real life.

 

Z19

This paradox of community and independence as found in certain sectors of the Xenaverse helps to shape these groups' relationships to constructions of authority. In my study of constructions of authority in the Xenaverse both the descriptive data and the analysis show the existence of two competing sanctioning agents in the Xenaverse culture, one external, The Powers that Be, and one internal, group social norms.

 

Z20

Externally we have seen how the fantasy theme characters of TPTB (including Lawless and O'Connor) function as very powerful sanctioning agents, especially in fandom culture, which I have shown is a sector of the Xenaverse that places TPTB in the center of its universe. TPTB's role as authority figures reveals itself in a kind of HCNB verbal genuflecting to TPTB's insider knowledge and control of the show. When members of TPTB publicly drop into a chat room (not lurking invisibly or anonymously) or participate in discussion groups, their statements are often met with a chorus of "Me toos." Conversational patterns shift in order to revolve around their presence, no matter how open and accessible TPTB have made themselves in attempting to blur the boundaries between the world of TPTB and online Xenaverse.

 

Z21

Internally, socially constructed forms of authority, indicated in open forums in the enforcement of social norms, can sometimes conflict with the positions held by TPTB. As I have shown in my analysis of community and fan fiction rhetoric, when socially constructed forms of authority begin to take precedence over the external influence of TPTB, community becomes a focal point for many in the group. Certain rhetors develop a "charismatic" ethos online as well, to the point that some online "names" are treated by some Xenites with the same sort of verbal genuflecting and "Me toos" as is also given to TPTB. Clearly these online spaces are not the great "levelers" as predicted by hopeful media theorists. Social groups online tend to carry whatever attitudes toward authority they have "in real life" into cyberspace with them. Some online participants seem to readily accept and defer to both external and internal authorities. Which is not to say that some social status is not earned online. Lunacy's authoritative knowledge of fan fiction is one case in point. And fan fiction authors or popular webmasters also can get a celebrity status which sometimes carries over into the face-to-face meetings at Cons and Xenafests.

 

Z22

An example of this verbal genuflecting can be seen in the AOL chat visited by Tyldus following the episode "The Bitter Suite." Before Tyldus arrives, during all the meeting and greeting, the celebrity fan fiction author Bat Morda is discovered to be in the room, and much of the conversation spins around her. The influence of her celebrity on the chat is not as great as Tyldus's is when he arrives, however.

 

Z23

Despite these findings on the influence of constructions of authority in the supposedly "democratizing" spaces, the paradox of insularity and interactivity is still in operation, enhanced somewhat by the democratizing influence of the interfaces of interaction on the Internet. While avoiding the pitfalls of technological determinism, it is still important to analyze the "politics of artifacts" (Winner). The politics of the communications technologies currently controlling the interfaces of interaction (which could change drastically at any time, just as the World Wide Web brought a graphical user interface to the Internet), are still taking a secondary role to social and cultural influences brought online by the participants. These communications technologies help keep the paradox of insularity and interactivity in force, first by aiding in the formation of self-selected groups (virtually anyone can start a discussion topic on anything), and in increasing the speed and ease of feedback, which can come in as an assent or as an interactive challenge with the simple striking of the return button.

 

 

Z24

This means is that despite the enforcement of norms through external or internal authority figures or group behaviors, challenges to those norms quite often appear when rhetors or groups choose to undermine or confront those constructions of authority. The technology supports these rhetorical moves, as can be seen in that same chat text with Tyldus on AOL. When Tyldus enters the room and everyone rushes to greet him, praise the episode he wrote, and ask questions about it, MOroWarior and several others ask the group to tell them who exactly Tyldus is. While some chatters truly do not know Tyldus, MOroWarior's friends give him away, revealing that he is just "playing dumb" and throwing inane questions around in the chat as a joke, effectively acting as if Tyldus were just another participant and not a celebrity at all. This sort of irreverent chat "performance" is a common part of the ethos for many chat rooms (Cherny), although few chat rooms get visited by actual celebrities (at least celebrities who are not hiding behind an anonymous pseudonym).

 

 

Z25

MOroWarior's verbal "dumb act" is just one example of how authorities and social norms can be resisted in online forums. In this same chat I edited out for space another form of verbal resistance that is particularly enhanced by the chat room interface. Chats support "multi-threading," that is, multiple chat topic threads taking place simultaneously. Because it is impossible to interrupt any speaker, anyone can say anything at any time. Participants choose which threads to which they want to respond. The text I cut out of the Tyldus chat was a second thread co-existing in the same discursive space as all the discussion that centered around Tyldus. It had about 3 or 4 participants engaging in a separate discussion of whether their housepets liked to watch "Xena." The mundane silliness of the topic and the fact that it went on so long, with an endless roll call of pets and pet's names and which episodes they liked best, belied the actual resistant purpose of the thread, which was to pretend that the enthusiastic verbal clustering around Tyldus was not really the dominant discourse in the chat room. It was a way to say to the group, "You may think this guy is a big shot, but we can still act like he isn't so special at all." This sort of social resistance, assisted by features of the chat interface, reveals that there are still democratizing and leveling forces present which will make themselves heard online. My analysis sectors on Community and Fan Fiction support this conclusion as well, with the displacing of TPTB from the center of attention in those sectors of the Xenaverse. Xenites are able to resist social norms and authorities while still interacting in community in an apparent paradox of community and independence as strong fantasy types in the Xenaverse.

 

Z26

The answer to my research question about whether interactive online cultures will be predominantly authoritarian or resistant to authority can be framed in terms of the discussion in my Introduction on constructions of authority in cultures influenced by various communications technologies. In that node I look at claims made about authoritarianism in predominantly oral cultures, alphabetic cultures, cultures influenced by print literacies, and finally new forms of communications technologies creating hybrid multimedia, interactive, dialogic, hypertextual cultures on the Internet. That literature suggests that electronic forms and traditions of communication could become both liberatory and oppressive, with both authoritarian and anti-authoritarian elements. In light of what we have learned in the case of the Xenaverse culture and its communities, the speculation appears to have been borne out. Social factors seem to be the dominant influence on the Xenaverse culture and communities, with the political influence of the various communication forums and the specific interfaces allowing a certain amount of freedom for the groups that would make use of them, freedom to create authoritarian and anti-authoritarian social structures and norms.

 

Z27

On the other hand, the social distribution of power in the Xenaverse is already prefigured with some strong institutional boundaries carried over from entrenched power structures in programmed, linear media. As we have seen in this dissertation, the complex relationship between MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures strongly affects the Xenaverse. MCA/Universal's position representing the "lowest common denominator" heterosexist mainstream is often cast as a powerful threat to the online culture, and not without reason. MCA/Universal would be the one to crack down on copyright violations with cease and desist orders. It is also seen as an agent of subtle censorship that affects the content of the show, regardless of the strong denials from the Renaissance PTB.

 

Z28

Renaissance Pictures would appear to be in the catbird seat in regard to relations of power. They have a hit show, which should keep MCA/Universal happy with them. Renaissance Pictures's position on the margins of the Hollywood hierarchy, on the backwaters of cable syndication, has been turned into a position of power because of the freedom from close scrutiny it offers, allowing RP to make campy but also "exciting television," in the words of Lucy Lawless. RP also is in a position of power as well as authority in the new world of interactive, nonlinear cyberspace cultures. They have the most control over the source product, the show. By choosing to be open and receptive to Internet fans, they have gained a distinct public relations advantage. They have also become social participants and members of the online culture and some of its communities. By appearing to blur the boundaries between TPTB and the HCNBs, RP makes it seem as if they are sharing power with the marginal, niche, Internet audience. However, when it comes to knowledge and control of the show, RP clearly reinforces its boundaries of power and operates according to the standard, linear media, entertainment industry model of ownership, secrecy, and control over the source product. According to the Renaissance PTB, this model of control over the show and knowledge of the show is simply "the way things are." That these Hollywood rituals and traditions of producing and marketing a mass media product are socially constructed does not enter the picture. From the point of view of RP (and MCA/Universal), there are no other "conditions of possibility" for interactive power-sharing with outsiders, let alone Internet HCNB fanatics (Foucault).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Z29

By emphasizing its "visionary" side, RP makes the claim that it is not audience-driven nor affected by ratings. This also strengthens the boundaries of power. Undoubtedly RP is affected by ratings at some level, regardless of its public rhetorical stance. That it craves feedback from Internet fans is one side of this. However the RP PTB can get feedback from fans without revealing themselves. If they are sufficiently aware of the need for it (and amazingly, mainstream media is sometimes completely ignorant of goings on on the Internet), TPTB most certainly also pay professional marketing people to collect knowledge on the Internet through the "connected practices of surveillance, confession, and documentation" (Rouse 97), one side of the power of panoptic surveillance as analyzed by Foucault. Marketing analysis is one kind of power/knowledge which people in the entertainment industry make strong use of in the form of marketing surveys and focus groups, a very labor intensive process. However, with the Internet fans it is possible to observe unnoticed, without influencing the data. From a panoptic viewpoint, the openness of the discussion groups and web sites on the Internet ought to be a marketing person's dream.

 

 

Z30

With the numbers of TPTB who admit to "lurking" online, especially in places like NetForum, the other type of disciplinary power, that of "normalizing judgment," could be having an effect in the Xenaverse, although there is no way I can find out for certain. I have noted a tendency toward "trolls" and juvenile "acting out" on NetForum, hardly "normalizing behavior," and it may simply be to attract general attention rather than the attention of TPTB. I do know of several people who believe (and have posted publicly saying as much) that TPTB don't miss a thing that goes on in the Xena discussion groups, that they are much more present than they let on. There is no way I could verify this claim either.

 

Z31

Given these strong, pre-existing structures of power, it is somewhat remarkable that Internet fans have chained out rhetorical visions of empowerment at so many different levels. They feel that the democratization claim about the Internet is true and that it is one of the instruments of that empowerment. They feel social unity, equality, and power in the blurring of the boundaries with TPTB. They feel the power their online culture has attracted through the attention of the mainstream media (which some have considered using as a threat against TPTB should they ever go too far and betray the interests of the HCNBs--a threat of public boycott and blackening of web pages). As they turn their attention away from TPTB, many HCNBs feel strength in the communities they have put time and effort into building, and in the friends they have made. HCNBs also feel power in living the example that Xena and Gabrielle set, as Xenites find opportunities for strength and heroism in their walking-around lives, beyond the borders of the online Xenaverse. They also admire the courage, openness, and frankness with which Lucy Lawless welcomes her lesbian fans. Some HCNBs dream of a reborn Amazon Nation. They draw on the mythos of the sheer number and quality of their collective literary output for inspiration, and feel pride at the productive and imaginative capabilities of their bards, whom some believe surpass and eclipses the creative output of TPTB. Xenites believe they are the authors of a new lesbian literary archetype.

 

Z32

How much of this power is real and how much is illusory, merely a dramatized fantasy theme? Have fans really turned their marginal status into a position of power in the same way Renaissance Pictures turned its marginal status into a position of power? Is RP a real threat on some level to the entrenched power structures of the entertainment industry? Are these marginalized fans the front line in a conflict over power between programmed linear media and interactive nonlinear media? No, this is all mostly wishful thinking. I have no doubt that the fans actually feel empowered in all the ways I listed in the paragraph above this one, but whether that feeling will translate into real leverage and democratizing power-sharing in the monopolistic entertainment industry is a question I have to leave unanswered. Still, I can feel proprietary bristling on all sides over the boundaries of power which are under active contention.

 

Z33

And the HCNBs are not as egalitarian and democratizing as their rhetorical visions suggest. There are hierarchies in the Xenaverse, cliques, and invisible boundaries of power which surround secret groups. Sometimes these groups get privileged access to TPTB that the average Xenite doesn't even know about. While these groups covet their privileged status, they justify their exclusivity by claiming that the entire Xenaverse benefits from what they know, which they leak out circumspectly to other Xenites. This still casts them as high priestesses to TPTB, a power position. Some of these groups exist for very important reasons as well, to protect a safe space for women or lesbians or Joxer-lovers to interact openly and unharassed, to create an insular space. This is what oppressed minorities have been doing for ages, circling the wagons to protect their own.

 

Z34 Limitations

One of the limitations of this study comes from my role as data gatherer and ethnographic instrument. In order to get the depth of information I required on the Xenaverse culture, I had to become very close to my subject, immersing myself in the Xenaverse culture, yet bringing my own biases and prejudices with me. This meant that some sectors of the Xenaverse may have been overlooked, particularly the sectors occupied by younger Xenites enacting outrageous verbal performances, or the Callisto fan lists, which are more predominantly heterosexual and male. I did not pursue entrance into the three specialized Gabrielle fan listservs, although the presence of those groups is felt in the more general interest spaces of the Xenaverse. I did not seek to become involved with the Joxer-defenders. Even with the impossibility of covering everything in the Xenaverse, the scope of my coverage is still quite broad. An entire dissertation could be done just on the fan fiction community alone, and that is likely a direction I will pursue in future research.

 

Z35

Another limitation in this study is an unavoidable problem with research in electronic realms. Most of my information comes through one narrow channel, the computer screen. It is predominantly text-based, despite advances made in graphical user interfaces. I must acknowledge the power of this narrow filter to limit what I can know. This was dramatically demonstrated to me at the face-to-face conventions I attended, where I was suddenly faced with data overload. I had become used to processing information through my computer filter with a level of intense focus I could not maintain in the face-to-face setting. While my computer facilitated text capture and an instantaneous "electronic memory" of anything I had just witnessed, it also limited the bandwidth of the information I gathered. Despite the limitations of the medium, it is still an appropriate medium to use in this instance because it is also the medium of choice for the participants in the Xenaverse culture. Xenites were getting most of their information in the same way I was. That said, I should note that due to the narrow bandwidth, it often took much longer to get the same amount of information that one might gather in an afternoon at a Con.

 

Z36

This is activist research, yet another limitation for this work is the blunting of direct activism in an online setting. While I made my presence known online as a researcher, refusing to lurk invisibly, I had no direct activist agenda, preferring to let my stance toward critical research praxis as well as critical online citizenship reveal itself in particular and localized circumstances. On some issues I would make a decision to speak up rather than remain silent, on the issue of copyright, for instance, which has many implications for power and control in online environments, and which is still being debated vigorously in the Xenaverse. I had no previous conception of a "false consciousness" from which I was going to help Xenites break free. Mine was a kind of dialogic activism, learning from Xenites in the manner advocated by Freire as well as Sullivan and Porter, and contributing to the discussion. Perhaps the most strongly activist part of this study is how, by emphasizing reciprocity, I have chosen to share this dissertation while in drafting process with the Xenaverse culture and communities, and to incorporate their comments into the dissertation in the sector "Xenites Talk Back," giving them direct voice in this project. Due to the deadlines with which I was working, I did not have enough time to gather as many voices and comments on this dissertation from the Xenaverse as I would have liked, although I will continue to maintain the "Xenites Talk Back" section on the project's dynamic web site. This additional material will not be available on the CD-ROM version in the library, but the CD-ROM will be set up to link with the web site if it is used with an Internet hookup. One group of voices is particularly missing from this study, and that is the group known collectively as TPTB. While I have had direct contact with the two members of TPTB who are present at times online, Tyldus and Avicus, I have found them to be very busy people with little time for correspondence. There is a possibility that they may have time to respond to this dissertation in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Z37 Future Research

This study also follows along a line of research begun most strongly by Laura Gurak, Stephen Doheny-Farina, and James Zappen, as well as Kevin Hunt, to frame the study of cyberspace in as a "rhetorical space" (Kaufer). While my approach and the approaches of those listed above are very different, we have in common a focus on particular sites in cyberspace, choosing to ground our work in online practices of rhetorical cultures and communities in their "native" settings. This is a necessary counter to two other movements in electronic scholarship. One is the highly theoretical and postmodern hypertext scholars of the "Eastgate School" and others who push the limits of hypertextual reading and writing styles, yet whose fluidly associational forms have yet to catch on in widespread practice, particularly in the evolving cultures of the World Wide Web. Perhaps we are still seeing the limits of the web interface, limits which also constrict the interface of this dissertation. The other movement, in computer-mediated communication (CMC) research, influenced by organizational communication, human-computer interaction, and perhaps even technical and professional writing usability testing, often relies on experiment designs, studying the effects of CMC in artificial settings, outside of everyday personal and social uses. These studies focus on relationships, reduced social cues, even flaming, yet they often neglect the cultural contexts in which these electronic artifacts will eventually be used. Both the hypertext theorists and the CMC researchers put too much distance between their work and the everyday interactive, social and cultural uses of these communication forms. Rhetoric and rhetorical criticism provides a fruitful path into the actual practices of socially constructed cultures and communities in an online setting.

Z38

Another closely-related approach can be found in the field of computers and composition, which, although strongly influenced by hypertext theory, has opened the way to more practical studies of classroom uses of computer-assisted pedagogies, electronic discussion groups, and chats, as well as a politically-aware focus on power-issues between teachers and students as mediated by computers. Often applying feminist or critical pedagogies, these studies begin to consider online spaces as socially-constructed cultures or communities, although they are often artificially created for the purposes of a semester-long college course. These studies focus on writing and contexts for writing, yet ongoing debates in composition theory create differences of opinion on the kinds of writing students should be doing, writing in the language of the academy and the workplace, or learning to critically critique the language of the academy and the workplace.

 

Z39

The millions of texts being generated by online cultures creating their own contexts seem to fall into a no-man's-land, for they are not created for the classroom OR for workplaces, yet the prose is alive and vital and interactive. What categories for scholarship will these texts fall into? They remain outside an economic model completely, yet these texts are strong evidence of community literacy practices engaged at a high level of argumentative and persuasive sophistication. And they are multiplying at an astounding rate, just in the Xenaverse alone. Should these texts and the cultures which created them not be studies simply because there is no pre-existing category for scholarship that they fit into? While the field of computers and writing has developed a strong level of research that is applicable to places like the Xenaverse, I believe rhetoric provides the best conceptual frame for studying these online cultures and communities, and there is a strong need for more research in this area.

 

Z40

Conclusion

While this is a study about a particular online culture, the Xenaverse, it is really a study about how a highly marginalized and often oppressed group, along with their supporters, constructed a space of empowerment for themselves in cyberspace and beyond. The lesbian and lesbian-friendly majority in the Xenaverse is nothing like the heterosexist mainstream outside the Xenaverse, although Xenites, with their Xena war cry, are taking heroic stands for themselves outside of the Xenaverse because of the strength they feel inside it. They are still to some extent transgressing against that mainstream. Salon magazine online called it "The Kiss That Shook Cyberspace," and discusses the ways the Xenaverse is changing how business is done in the entertainment industry,

"Xena's online following offers a fresh example of how the Internet is altering the way fans and creators influence each other. In the absence of any clear sign, so far, of disapproval from Xena's rights-holders, Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures, Xenites have freely created a festival of Xena glory online -- a world chock-full of unauthorized screen captures, video clips, sound files, screen savers, computer games, detailed episode summaries and ream after ream of fan fiction. On the Net, fans are hardly helpless consumers of pop cultural commodities. They have been given the power to redraw the lines that separate them from the objects of their devotion.
There is an intimate connection, in every sense of the word, between the Net and the Xenaverse."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Z41

How is it that a marginalized and oppressed minority can gain this power? Xenites feel their time has come, and they believe in their model, a hero and champion for the underdog who fights in no man's army and has the strength of ten men. And they believe in the show's star, an unknown actor from New Zealand who bluntly says what she thinks and isn't afraid of lesbians. Their admiration boggles Lucy Lawless's mind, as she told an interviewer for an Australian queer magazine, Lesbian News,

"I got this letter, though I don't usually read my mail. I get some weird stuff. I'd have to live behind bars if I read it all but I got this great lesbian fan letter that said how important our show was to her. It said," she stops, still incredulous at the content, "this girl said, 'It's so important that you're not afraid of us,'" Lucy pauses for a long time. "Do you have any idea what that means? Any idea the kind of existence one must have to need to say that to me? It's shitty. I felt bad and great at the same time. Just shitty good luck is all."

 

 

 

 

 


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace


Copyright © 1998-2016 Christine Boese, All Rights Reserved
Unless otherwise noted, all photos, sounds, and video clips are the property
of MCA/Universal Studios, and appear here for fair educational use only.



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