DRAFT: Do Not Distribute, Quote, or Copy
Accepted for paper publication, early 1997

An Auteur in the Age of the Internet:
JMS, Babylon 5, and the Net

For starters, I have problem with the auteur term. [...] I do consider myself the author of the B5 story, the creator of its characters and universe. Insofar as we enter other areas, my position is that of navigator... I point to a spot on the horizon, and say "That's where we're all going." [1-1]
-- J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 creator/writer/producer
JMS is King. As to whether he belongs here [in rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5], everybody gets one vote, and JMS gets one more vote than the rest of us put together. Be polite to the King, even though you think he's not as honest as he says. [1-2]
-- Alex Rootham, Babylon 5 fan
I'm fairly disinterested in the auteur. I don't think they're best qualified to comprehend the breadth of their work in many ways: I prefer the perspective of the recon balloon to that of the front line. [1-3]
-- William Huber, Babylon 5 fan
  1. Introduction
    1. Background
    2. Author(ship)
  2. The Net Parts
    1. Newsletter
    2. Chat Areas and Discussions
    3. Newsgroups
    4. The Web
      1. The Lurkers versus Babcom
  3. Fans' Activities and JMS's Responses
    1. Self Preservation
    2. Fan Fiction
    3. Humor and Parody
    4. Crossovers from the Net
    5. Newsgroup Activities
      1. Looking for Clues
      2. Recovering Authorial Meaning
      3. Discussing Alternative Interpretations Within the Canon
      4. Discussing Characters and Relationships
  4. How JMS Views Himself
    1. JMS and Characters
    2. The Storyteller
  5. Example Incidents
    1. Story Ideas
    2. Racism Charges
    3. JMS leaves rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5
  6. Closing Comments
    1. Send Your Comments
  7. Notes
  8. Appendix 1 - a Babylon 5 Fan Parody
  9. Appendix 2 - a Babylon 5 Fan Analysis

1. Introduction

This paper is an effort toward understanding the effects of new technology on old paradigms. Specifically, it tries to analyze to some degree the relationship between an auteur and a fan community in the process of an ongoing dialog of mutual- and self-construction. In this case, the auteur is J. Michael Straczynski (JMS, as his fans call him and as he signs himself), the creator of the currently-running science fiction television series Babylon 5, and the fan community is those viewers of the show who have access to the Internet and use that access to gather information about the show and/or communicate with other, similarly enabled, fans.

I analyze in particular the means by which the author is constructed through interactions in these new media. This construction happens through three major processes:

This last process is the most interesting because it is one which has not been so pervasively available to authors before the widespread advent of the Net. The Net allows near-real-time interaction between parties to the discussion and thereby speeds up a process which is critical to fans' reading of a text such as Babylon 5, one that is complex, episodically unfolding, and potentially subject to a large number of constructions and interpretations.

Note that I am not claiming this is new; in the past the process has been carried out in fanzine and other print or broadcast media. However, in those media it has not been nearly so fast nor so widespread. As we will see, these factors of speed and number can play an important part both in the construction process and in what fans are able to do.

What is new is the directness of interaction between the author and his readers. In other media, intermediaries always intercede. There is, of course, the medium of the text itself, but there are also other processes such as interviews, press releases, information kits, and so on. Even in past cases where authors spoke directly to their fans (such as the Beatles' releasing Christmas records to their fan club members) there was no interaction, no means of direct feedback from readers to author. The new media provide that opportunity and it could change the entire character of the relationship.

I attempt to analyze that relationship by discussing the new-media resources available to fans, and examining fan activities within the media. I then discuss JMS's responses to fan activities and in particular his self-characterizations. I close by discussing three separate incidents in which the new media played a significant part in the construction of the author.

1.1 Background

In doing this writing, I am drawing heavily on the techniques and theories of Henry Jenkins, specifically [1-4], where he analyzes the fan response to the TV show Twin Peaks on the Usenet newsgroup alt.tv.twinpeaks, and [1-5], where he analyzes fan response to the science fiction shows Star Trek and Doctor Who.

These sources are very appropriate because Babylon 5 is like Twin Peaks in some ways and like Star Trek in some others. One of the key ways in which Babylon 5 is like Twin Peaks is that both follow a continuing story. Critical to understanding the relationship between JMS and fans is understanding the concept of the Arc, as it is called.

It is, as stated, a novel for television, with a definite beginning, middle and end. [1-6]
--J. Michael Straczynski, describing the Arc

The Arc is the overall plot outline which JMS wrote describing the major events and actions, the main characters, and associated stories of Babylon 5. The Arc (it is almost always capitalized in the discourse) features centrally in these discussions:

Jenkins in turn acknowledges the work of John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado [1-7] in pointing out that the norms of a program are neither static nor visible in a single episode. In order to understand these concepts in relationship to an ongoing series such as Babylon 5 we must look across episodes and seek a more global or guiding influence, which we label the author. In this paper, I seek the outlines of this entity.

This paper is only one attempt at analyzing a complex and constantly changing situation and as such must be far from comprehensive. I assume that the reader has at least a passing familiarity with both the Babylon 5 show and with the techniques and technologies of the Internet, particularly Web sites [1-8], mailing lists, and Usenet newsgroups [1-9].

Readers should note that ellipses (...) which appear in quotations are present in the original. In particular, JMS writes this way when he is composing articles for contribution to net discussions or responses to questions in net groups. Conventionally in these communities ellipses signify a pause in the author's writing/thought process. My edits of the quotations are marked as bracketed ellipses ([...]). All emphatic markers (uppercased words and asterisk-bracketed words) are in the original quotations.

1.2 Author(ship)

In trying to answer how the concept of authorship gets negotiated in this situation, and what that negotiation contributes to the fans' understanding of the series, we should begin with some definition of authorship. At base, I believe there is no absolute author. The author as commonly referenced is a construct of the writer, the text, and the readers. This begs the question of why concern ourselves with the author at all? Tulloch and Jenkins answer this way:

The centrality of the authorial myth to fan interpretation is not surprising. Media fandom emerged from literary science fiction fandom where issues of authorship are more clear-cut than in network television and where readers often have direct interactions with the writers of their favorite books and short stories. Many important science fiction authors came from fandom, while many writers in the genre regularly attend fan conventions. [1-10]

JMS is himself an avowed member of science fiction fandom, acknowledging important influences from such series as The Prisoner, and admitting to being an ongoing watcher of the X-Files television series. Babylon 5 also lists the well-known science fiction writer Harlan Ellison as a creative consultant, and D. C. Fontana (associated with science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular) wrote some of the early episodes.

In addition, JMS is acutely aware of the place that Babylon 5 might have in the history of science fiction fandom. Such history is inevitably judged vis a vis Star Trek and an entire analysis could easily be done on the relationship between the two shows. However, there are many other other series which have, and are continuing to, shape fan perceptions and expectations of science fiction series as they appear on television, so we will not discuss this particular relationship here.

Part of this awareness is his understanding of the need to cultivate an active fandom in order to help shows which do not do well in the standard (Nielsen) ratings. Fans of several shows including Star Trek, Beauty and the Beast, and Quantum Leap have repeatedly played important parts in keeping these shows on the air when networks or studios threatened to cancel them. As we shall see below, this is one of the major fan activities associated with Babylon 5 fandom on the Net.

JMS has also spoken about Babylon 5 in relationship to this larger discourse:

In the final analysis, I think we've made a little history with this show...had an effect on how SF Television will be done henceforth, and brought a "screw 'em, let's go for broke" philosophy back to the genre, which (personal opinion) had grown, in TV, a bit on the stuffy side. Bar fights, main characters who lie, bad guys who do good things and good guys who do bad things, bathrooms, fasten/zip and lessons in Centauri anatomy, we've broken some of the taboos, and I think that's a positive thing. [1-11]

Note the construction of Babylon 5 as a special, ground-breaking entity which is better than other texts to which it might be compared. Fandom, particularly science fiction fandom, has always posited itself as apart from, and superior to, viewers of other television series. Note also that participants in the new media are generally from the upper classes of society because of the non-trivial financial burden of net access; they are also overwhelmingly from the literate (educated) classes because written text remains the primary means of communication in the new media. Both these selection mechanisms lead to a fandom which is trained to value high culture artifacts and to separate itself from "mundanes," as non-fans are often known within fandom.

This move to superiority and separation from "low" or popular culture is a familiar one. For example, Bourdieu argues (see [1-12]) that creating an author is one of the ways that bourgeois (cultured, refined) tastes makes a space for itself in the realm of the popular.

In effect, high culture is authored, pop culture is not. As Foucault puts it: "Discourse that possesses an author's name is not to be immediately consumed and forgotten; neither is it accorded the momentary attention given to ordinary, fleeting words. Rather, its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates." [1-13] Readers who disagree with this formulation might think to themselves how easily they can call to mind the author of the Simpsons television series and how hard it is to name a comparable author for the Roseanne series.

My inability to find an official, maintained archive of the postings by readers of the rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5 newsgroup is an ironic echo of this process. Readers' words are judged as fleeting; the author's (JMS') words are preserved, archived, indexed and made accessible.

Authorship, and the construction of the author, also serve useful pragmatic purposes for readers:

Each of these purposes encourage fan construction of an author:

Foucault gives two descriptions of authorship and its construction which are key for understanding the process I wish to analyze:

...the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.

In the case under study, the society is that of Babylon 5 fandom and the author function is crucial to that society's self-constituted cohesiveness within the new media.

[the author-function] is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual. It results from a complex operation whose purpose is to construct the rational entity we call an author.
My effort in this paper is toward outlining some of the resources, models and processes of this operation. Foucault also gives us some bases for understanding this complex operation and constructing the rational entity, by referring back to Saint Jerome's writings on authenticity and four salient criteria:
  1. "the author is defined as a standard level of quality";
  2. "the author is defined as a certain field of conceptual or theoretical coherence";
  3. "the author is seen as a stylistic uniformity";
  4. "the author is thus a definite historical figure in which a series of events converge".

Additionally, we should not forget that authors are often constructed by parties other than readers of texts, often for commercial reasons. A name can sell, even when that name has little or no relationship to the text. For example, the writer Stephen King recently (successfully) sued to have his name removed from the title of the film Lawnmower Man. The title of the film was taken from a four-page short story whose content comprised one 30-second scene in the film; the studio clearly prepended King's name in an attempt to draw moviegoers.

Conversely, it is often necessary for a writer, director or producer who wishes to make himself known and yet remain relatively free of the confines of a particular corporate establishment to "make a name for himself." Fans of that named person will seek out texts associated with the name, allowing the named person to market himself, his skills and his name to the highest bidder. Recent examples of this include Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee and David Lynch, all of whom have made movies with their names prepended to the title (as in Spike Lee's CLOCKERS).

Part of what makes these products associable with the named authors is some marks of style or distinctiveness. We come to associate certain idiosyncratic traits with the formulations of a given author -- the violence of a Schwartzenegger film, the climactic confrontations of Tarantino, and so on. Auteur theory gives us some critical tools for talking about these idiosyncrasies.

In the opening quotation of this paper, JMS denies himself the auteur label. However, I argue (playfully as well as seriously) that JMS deliberately constructs himself as an auteur, at least as I understand the transplanted term. Jenkins asserts that this construction by others is almost inevitable:

In TV studies, it is the producer who is almost always treated as the auteur, since directors are rarely under contract and what matters is the overall trajectory of the series more than the individual episodes. [1-14]

JMS suffers from this even more than the usual television producer because he is the series' writer. Not only does he write the Arc (as described above), but he also writes many of the scripts for the individual shows. In the beginning of the series he wrote fewer of the actual episode scripts; however, for a variety of reasons outside the scope of this paper other writers have not worked out and JMS has assumed more and more of the responsibility of writing the script material. As such, he is strongly associated with both the overall trajectory and with the individual episodes.

However, I am more interested in the self-construction of the auteur than with default assumptions, though they are worth keeping in mind. In American auteur theory as put forth in, for example, the work of David Bordwell [1-15] [1-16] and applied to cinema, the key feature of an auteur is that authorial intent is foregrounded as the means by which meaning can be recovered from an ambiguous, multi-layered, or complex text.

As I discuss in detail below, recovering authorial intent is the most prevalent activity in the online fan community. It is also precisely the mode in which most of the interactions with the writer occur: fans ask questions to clarify or validate their interpretations of what they see in the episodes and JMS responds (or not) within the framework of a presumed correctness.

With that theoretical framework established, the next section looks at some of the major Net resources by and for Babylon 5 fans.

Disclosure

Readers should know that I am not an impartial observer. I am both a long-time Net citizen (since 1983) and a fan of Babylon 5 since the pilot first aired. I have been a participant-observer in the newsgroup and my choice to publish this paper first on the Web is in large part due to my desire to have it be reachable and readable by that community I am writing about and of which I consider myself to be a part. I consider the Web to be the "journal of record" for that culture.

Wherever possible, I have provided links to sources which are on-line and to helpful references in order to give the reader the best opportunity I can muster to explore this material. I am aware that these links have an effect on readership, as they provide no inherent means of returning to this text. I depend on the interest of the topic and the quality of my prose to motivate readers to hit the "back" button on their browser after they follow these excursions.

Readers who wish to comment on this paper are encouraged to do so. You can use the form at the end of this paper to send me your comments.

Thanks

Thanks to the fans whose words and images I have appropriated herein, and to the maintainers of the Lurker's and other B5-related sites. The net and the web are redefining scholarship as well as authorship and without the work of these people there would have been no materials for me to draw upon. I hope that by publishing this paper and making it freely and widely available I am able to give back some measure to the community.

Thanks particularly to Henry Jenkins, on whose work I have relied a great deal.


Copyright © Alan Wexelblat

Alan Wexelblat <wex@media.mit.edu>
Except where otherwise noted
Last modified: Tue Mar 5 11:50:38 1996