Children at Play

Here are preliminary notes for a brief guest lecture I’m giving tomorrow in Professor Maya Nadarni’s course “Anthropological Perspectives on Childhood and the Family.” The topic is Children at Play.

Introduction: my larger research project

  • fantastic-media objects, includes model kits, collectible statues, wargaming figurines, replica props: unreal things with material form
  • these objects are an integral part of how fantastic transmedia franchises gain purchase culturally and commercial, as well as how they reproduce industrially
  • particularly complex objects in terms of signification and value, mediation of mass and private, principles of construction, and local subcultures (both fan and professional) where they are taken up in different ways
  • while these objects have been with us for decades, evolving within children’s culture, hobby cultures, gaming, media fandom, and special-effects practices, the advent of desktop fabrication (3D printing) paired with digital files portends a shift in the economies, ontologies, and regulation of fantastic-media objects

Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: a counter-reading of toys and action figures

  • examines Star Wars toys and action figures as examples of paratexts shaping interpretation of “main text”
  • story of Lucas’s retention of licensing rights, considered risible at the time
  • graphic showing that toys and action figures account for more profits than films and video games combined
  • rescues “denigrated” category of licensed toys as “central to many fans’ and non-fans’ understandings of and engagements with the iconic text that is Star Wars. … Through play, the Star Wars toys allowed audiences past the barrier of spectatorship into the Star Wars universe.” (176)
  • licensed toys provide opportunities “to continue the story from a film or television program [and] to provide a space in which meanings can be worked through and refined, and in which questions and ambiguities in the film or program can be answered.” (178)
  • notes role of SW toys in sustaining audience interest during 1977-1983 period of original trilogy’s release
  • transgenerational appeal of franchise linked to toys as transitional objects, providing a sense of familiarity in young fans’ identities
  • current transmedia franchises include licensed objects as components of extended storyworlds

Case study in history: the objects of monster culture

  • 1960s monster culture spoke to (mostly male and white) pre-teen and adolescent baby boomers
  • mediated through Famous Monsters of Filmland (1958-), especially advertising pages from “Captain Company”
  • Aurora model kits were key icons of this subculture: “plastic effigies”
  • Steven M. Gelber: popularization of plastic kits represented “the ultimate victory of the assembly line,” contrasting with an earlier era of authentic creativity in which amateur crafters “sought to preserve an appreciation for hand craftsmanship in the face of industrialization.” (262-263)
  • model kits provided young fans with prefab creativity, merging their own crafts with media templates; also opportunities for transformation (1964 model kit contest)

Materializing Monsters

About a year ago, I began to experiment with using this blog as a space for sketching out research projects and writing rough drafts. One of my first efforts in this direction was an essay on Famous Monsters of Filmland and Aurora model kits, which grew out of a panel I attended at the 2010 SCMS conference in Los Angeles. The panel’s organizer, Matt Yockey, was generous enough to invite me on board a themed issue he was putting together looking at FM and its editor, Forrest J Ackerman; the rudiments of the resulting essay can be found in this series of posts.

Revised and expanded, this material formed the basis of a faculty lecture I gave at Swarthmore in January, entitled “Materializing Monsters: Fan Objects and Fantastic Media.” While the talk and associated essay stand on their own, I plan to turn them into a chapter in my next book project, Object Practices: The Material Life of Media Fictions, which looks at the role of material artifacts in the production and circulation of fantastic media. (My other blog posts on this subject can be found here.)

Here’s a link to a news feature on my talk, including audio of the lecture and the PowerPoint slides that accompanied it. I invite you to check it out and comment!

CFP: Materiality and Object-Oriented Fandom (March 2014)

I’m excited to be guest-editing a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures on objects and artifacts in media fandom! The CfP follows.

Alongside its consumption and transformation of texts, media fandom has always been marked by its consumption and transformation of objects. From superhero figures, model kits, and wargaming miniatures for sale at hobby shops, to costumes and props worn at Comic-Con, material objects and body decoration have functioned as displays of textual affiliation, crafting skills, or collecting prowess, reflecting a long history of fan-created and -circulated artifacts around popular media fictions. While “mimetic” and “affirmational” practices seek to replicate the objects of fantastic media as faithfully as possible, other fan creations result in material mash-ups, expressing transformative impulses in artifact form. Regardless of orientation, object-oriented fandom represents a distinct strand within old and new activities and cultures, one whose intimate and often friendly relationship with corporate branding and ancillary market exploitation make it of central interest to an emerging body of scholarship on transmedia, convergence, and the franchise.

This special issue seeks historically and theoretically informed essays that explore the role of objects and their associated practices in fandom, as instances of creativity and consumerism, transformation and affirmation, private archive and public display. We are particularly interested in work that complicates or transcends the binaries of social vs. solitary, artwork vs. commodity, and gift vs. monetary economies to engage with object-oriented fandom as self-aware and playful in its own right.

We welcome submissions dealing with, but not limited to, the following topics:

  • creating and collecting, buying and selling fan artifacts (production artifacts, memorabilia, reference materials, models, material fan art, and fan crafts…)
  • cosplay (creating costumes and other artifacts, performing cosplay, competitions…)
  • fan enactments, events, and embodiment (Renaissance Fairs, Quidditch competitions, re-enactments, fannish tattoos…)
  • fan objects as paratext and transmedia extension
  • dissemination of skills and abilities (workshops, online blogs, fan meetings…)
  • object marketplaces (con, comic-book store, ebay, etsy…)
  • evaluation and valuation of artifacts across the various economies of fandom
  • impact of digital technologies (including social networking and 3D printing) on object creation, collecting, and cataloging
  • new debates over authorship, ownership, and control

Submission guidelines

TWC accommodates academic articles of varying scope as well as other forms that embrace the technical possibilities of the Web and test the limits of the genre of academic writing. Contributors are encouraged to include embedded links, images, and videos in their articles, or to propose submissions in alternative formats that might comprise interviews, collaborations, or video/multimedia works. We are also seeking reviews of relevant books, events, courses, platforms, or projects.

Theory: Often interdisciplinary essays with a conceptual focus and a theoretical frame that offer expansive interventions in the field. Blind peer review. Length: 5,000–8,000 words plus a 100–250-word abstract.

Praxis: Analyses of particular cases that may apply a specific theory or framework to an artifact; explicate fan practice or formations; or perform a detailed reading of a text. Blind peer review. Length: 4,000–7,000 words plus a 100–250-word abstract.

Symposium: Short pieces that provide insight into current developments and debates. Non-blind editorial review. Length: 1,500–2,500 words.

Submissions are accepted online only. Please visit TWC’s Web site ( for complete submission guidelines, or e-mail the TWC Editor (editor AT


We encourage potential contributors to contact the guest editors with inquiries or proposals: Bob Rehak (rehak.twc AT

Due dates

Contributions for blind peer review (Theory and Praxis essays) are due by March 1, 2013.

Contributions that undergo editorial review (Symposium, Interview, Review) are due by April 1, 2013.


Excited to dig into The Values of Precision, edited by M. Norton Wise (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). Most of this collection from the history and philosophy of science delves into the development of precision measuring instruments in science and manufacturing from the late eighteenth century to the present, and I will admit that much of it has little to do with my current research interest in fantastic-media objects and 3D printing. But what does resonate is Wise’s observation, in his Introduction, that precision and accuracy are critical pieces of standardization, or in Wise’s words, “establishing uniformity by agreement” (9).

Problems of establishing precision thereby become simultaneously questions of establishing agreement among a community. Precision requires standardization. (8)

I’ve been thinking about standardization in relation not just to the fantastic-media object’s shape (its resemblance to an ideal, a fictional entity given visual form in film, television, comics, or gaming) but its scale, a quality that becomes important when we think of these objects are part of a set, array, or collection. Particularly important to fantasy wargaming, the scale of the fantastic-media object dictates the mise-en-scene of battle, those tabletop spaces on which metal and plastic armies arrange themselves in tactical orientation to one another. The history of organized wargaming is in large part a history of the standardization of scales for fighting figurines, and these shared scalar qualities are even more important for fantasy wargaming, the dimensions of whose objects (dragons, cyborgs, superheroes, and so on) can be stabilized only through the establishment of conventions and product lines to feed them.

Copyright on the Fabrication Frontier

This post from the New York Times Bits blog is one of the first I’ve seen to address the problems — and opportunities — likely to be created by personal-fabrication technology, aka 3D printing, when it encounters copyright law designed for an earlier era. As Nick Bilton points out, having a box on your desktop that manufactures solid objects from data files opens the door to the physical reproduction not just of objects you have designed yourself, but objects that already exist:

Not only will it change the nature of manufacturing, but it will further challenge our concept of ownership and copyright. Suppose you covet a lovely new mug at a friend’s house. So you snap a few pictures of it. Software renders those photos into designs that you use to print copies of the mug on your home 3-D printer. Did you break the law by doing this? You might think so, but surprisingly, you didn’t.

Bilton goes on to explain that while copyright law protects one kind of object — the aesthetic — from being replicated without permission of the owner, another class of item — the utilitarian — is fair game. “If an object is purely aesthetic it will be protected by copyright, but if the object does something, it is not the kind of thing that can be protected,” Bilton quotes attorney Michael Weinberg as saying. The logic goes something like this: if you could conceivably have made your own version of the mug in, say, a pottery class, it wouldn’t be illegal; so employing a hardware intermediary to accomplish the same goal is similarly allowed.

The apparently tidy distinction between the artful and the useful suggests that there is more at stake here than simply case law and precedent, the glacial patching of traditional legislation to apply to nontraditional processes and products. (Lawrence Lessig’s remix culture might here be understood as replication culture.) In addition to foregrounding the question of how we name and assign value to the things around us, personal fabrication foregrounds new kinds of objects that fall somewhere between the pretty and the practical, neither toy nor tool but something in between, with branded identities and iconographic affordances that make them the powerful focus of manufacturing and collecting, as well as performative and procedural, activity both at the subcultural and “supercultural” level.

I’ve been interested in 3D printing since 2007, when I came across Neil Gershenfeld’s book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop. (Gershenfeld is the director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and perhaps the key proselytizer of what the Times has labeled the Industrial Revolution 2.0.) For me, as a theorist and fan of popular culture and fantastic media franchises in particular, the profound shakeup promised by 3D printing is less about designing new kinds of widgets or copying existing ones than about the way that fantasy-media objects and the practices around them will be reshaped. Spaceship models, superhero collectible busts, even fantasy-wargaming miniatures — the colorful statuary on display in any comic-book store, materialized forms of what otherwise exists only on paper — will inevitably find their place within the personal-fabrication movement. Most of these objects are licensed, of course, and provided by artists under contract with companies like Sideshow Collectibles and McFarlane Toys. But to adapt the question that Bilton poses, what will happen when I can snap several photos of a friend’s Green Lantern maquette or Warhammer 40K mini, stitch them together on my iPhone (you can bet there’ll be an app for that), send the resulting shape file to my 3D printer, and produce my own instance?

Surely then the intellectual-property hammer will come down — under current codes, there’s no way to justify a Captain Kirk figurine or the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver as a practical rather than an aesthetic object — and we’ll witness not the elimination of unlicensed fantasy-media objects, but their migration to the anarchic wilds of piracy, newsgroups, and torrents, just as current “flat” media content like television, movies, and ebooks circulate free for the taking. To date I’ve found little discussion of the role of such objects and their probable audiences, i.e. tech-savvy scofflaws, in the 3D printing literature, which focuses instead on the rapid-prototyping function of these emerging technologies: testing out new inventions or generating workaday things like flashlights and doorknobs. But it’s precisely this dividing line, between the things we use and the things we enjoy because they connect us to vast transmedia entertainment systems, that will dictate 3D printing’s future as the commercial and cultural juggernaut I suspect it will be.