In this second Image [&] Narrative installment about the comics scene in Flanders, we touch on the issue of the Forgotten Sphere and appeal to media scholar Henry Jenkins in order to show how the notions of power and participation can shed light on the three-pronged structure we have hypothesised to underly the contemporary Flemish comics culture. This post engages with the first of the three spheres we have identified in post I.
Modes of Fan Practice: In which Participatory Culture Does not Seem to Agree with the Flemish Comics Culture (Part II)
In the previous blog post in this series I introduced the Strip Turnhout Festival and the F.A.C.T.S. convention and determined that the cultural praxes they each exhibited gave rise to the hypothesis that among the contemporary adult comics audience in Flanders three simultaneously existing spheres or orientations could be distinguished. The first sphere we identified was tentatively dubbed the “USA-oriented space”, the second sphere was called the “Franco-Belgian sphere” and the third sphere – the existence of which was mainly deduced by its resounding absence at the festival and the convention (in combination with its presence on other levels of Flemish (comics) culture) – was considered the “(European) graphic novel sphere”. No doubt the names I attached to each sphere at the time were only crude interim solutions in anticipation of the continuation of our investigation, but in their splendid imperfection they garnered comments which were very helpful for the further exploration of the spheres which we will undertake in this post. In this post, as a way of further understanding the spheres, I propose to have a look at their modes of cultural praxis.
One of the comments I received in particular stuck with me and proved a catalyst for further insight: the idea that in my three-fold division I had missed a fourth sphere which would then be “Japan-oriented”. While much is to be said for such a further delineation (there certainly is a group of comics readers in Flanders which is exclusively engaged with manga and/or anime and cares little for either superheroes, graphic novels or Flemish comics), in terms of cultural praxis (fan praxis) and overarching structure, it seems to me to be warranted to conceive of manga and superhero lovers as constituting one group. That is, I maintain that manga cultural praxis and comic book cultural praxis in Flanders 1) have a sufficient number of characteristics in common with one another to form a group and 2) differ from the other two groups sufficiently and on similar enough grounds to be distinguished from them as a group (this puts the nature of all groups relative to the others in a key position of course). The F.A.C.T.S. convention – which physically puts manga fans and superhero fanboys/girls in the same space – is of course an interesting point of departure here, but the (only) dedicated Flemish anime convention Atsusacon , indicates that gatherings focusing on manga or anime material share a number of structural traits with the experience of superhero comics fans in Flanders, the most obvious of which is of course the convention concept itself (as opposed to the festival concept for example). As the reader may recall, we have characterised the convention concept as revolving around the social fan experience more so than around the material which facilitates that experience. Thus, it should not surprise us that a change in facilitator material need not imply a change in cultural praxis or mode. Of course I do not mean to join the manga fandom and the American comics culture enthusiasts at any price. If both groups form a natural alliance in significant ways, they differ in others. The previously mentioned anime convention for example extends the material with which it engages beyond comics (Strip Turnhout) or popular culture (F.A.C.T.S.) to Japanese culture in general. In their interest in introducing the general public to said culture and in positioning themselves as “organizing an event that that [is] different than [sic] all the other events organized thus far in Belgium, especially those that are commercial in nature” (Atsusacon website) the Atsusacon initiative associates itself with the democratic principles and family-oriented nature of the state-subsidised Strip Turnhout initiative. Entry to this democratic realm is still dependent on our ability to purchase a ticket, however. In this case, practice does not make perfect (or at least practice is not congruent with the initiative’s apparent ambitions).
Let us now turn to the idea of the convention as a way to grasp the different modes of cultural praxis. Conventions seem geared towards fan participation and if we are looking to speak about the notion of participation in contemporary culture, we must of course consult with Henry Jenkins. In his report Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2009) Jenkins and his co-authors describe participatory culture as follows:
A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (Jenkins et al. 3)
According to Jenkins and his colleagues, the praxes, behaviours, and competences associated with this culture are “play, simulation, performance, appropriation, multi-tasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation”  (Jenkins et al. 4). While Jenkins primarily seems to connect these elements with the possibilities of the personal computer and the web 2.0 revolution in the report (he seems to focus on video games in particular), his book on convergence culture, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), stresses the fact that contemporary participatory culture should be conceived of as distributed across a multitude of platforms and media (including the convention hall we can presume – indeed, Jenkins stresses time and again how neither convergence nor participation are bound to a specific kind of technology). Key to Jenkins’ assessments seems to be the difference between the consumer and the prosumer (or participant), a difference which contrasts the power and agency, or “bottom-up energy” (Jenkins et al. 9) associated with participation with the lack of these elements in consumers. It seems interesting to me to use this idea of power in connection with the practices Jenkins has identified in order to come to a better grasp of the spheres.
Out of the three proposed audience spheres, it is the USA-oriented one that seems most closely aligned with the participatory tenets (Jenkins’ theory is focused on the US so this should not come as a surprise, similarly, the relative youth of the members of this sphere is conducive to associating the group with participatory culture). But such an impression seems largely to be a mistake based on certain elements which are important for (or which are prerequisites for) a participatory culture, but function quite differently in Flemish comics culture. The social aspect of the USA-oriented sphere is arguably the most salient example of such a prerequisite. From the list of participatory practices, however, only two elements stand out that are also applicable to our sphere: performance and transmedia navigation . Collective intelligence, in the form of fora, might be a third element, but this is a practice that is shared with the Franco-Belgian realm, although it is less pronounced in that sphere. What stands out in this sphere – and the situation at F.A.C.T.S. echoes this observation – is that while interaction is not ruled out and indeed is inscribed into the structure of the sphere), it always comes at a price that disempowers the members of the group and keeps the true participant or even creator role out of their grasp. Probably the most striking example of this phenomenon at F.A.C.T.S. is constituted by the lines of costumed convention goers who spend great amounts of time and (usually also) money in order to obtain a signature and a vague acknowledgement of their existence from their idol-creators. Such a situation stands in stark contrast with the phenomena described by Jenkins in Convergence Culture such as the practice of “spoiling”, whereby bodies of participants work together via social media to unravel the products they are supposed to consume, thereby influencing the decisions made by officially sanctioned creators (Jenkins 25-58). From this point of view, it makes sense that the participatory practices exhibited by this group of comics enthusiasts are those less geared towards the generating of extra benefit for the consumer in the form of knowledge and understanding (and as we all know, knowledge opens a path to other prized goods). Comics and especially fandom itself are the alpha and the omega of this group, their processes yield little cognitive benefit, they are not “prosumed”. Thus, the members of this sphere can be said to form a performative, social, fan culture, but not a true participatory culture as the culture lacks involvement with consumer agency.
In the third part of this series I will elaborate on the second and third sphere (the “Franco-Belgian” sphere and the “graphic novel” sphere). If sphere one is a gathering of “social fans” we will show sphere two to be a group of “material fans” and sphere three not to be a sphere of “fans” at all.
“Info Atsusacon and how it started”. Atsusacon. Ganbaro vzw. n.d. web. 3 Apr. 2012.
Jenkins, Henry et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 2009.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Charlotte Pylyser is a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven. She operates from a literary studies and cultural studies background and her research concerns the Flemish graphic novel in particular and issues of culture and context with regard to comics in general.
She sits on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.
 – Next to Atsusacon – which is only to be organised for the second time in July 2012 – two older anime conventions exist in Belgium (they take place in Brussels on an annual basis): Japan Expo Belgium and Made in Asia. While these conventions also target Dutch-speaking manga and anime fans, they are primarily Francophone initiatives (note that they are also geared towards the general Japanese cultural realm).
Play — the capacity to experiment with your surroundings as a form of problem-solving;
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery;
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real world processes;
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content;
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities;
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal;
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
(Jenkins et al. 4)
 – It is hard to get an exact read on how wide-spread the appropriation phenomenon (with fanfiction as its most prevalent representative) is in Flanders. While there are no doubt writers of fanfiction amongst the members of this sphere (they may or may not write their stories in Dutch), the phenomenon seems too marginal for it to be awarded the status of “cultuural praxis” in the sense of “shared cultural custom”. In itself this might point towards a failure with regard to the networking practice (using networks to disseminate a work amongst others).