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Debate Related to “Star Wars Canon”

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In July 2006, a debate broke out on the “Star Wars Canon” Wikipedia talk page, having largely to do with questions of authority, and who has the power to deem something ‘canon’ (i.e. elements of a fictional world deemed authentic by fans and/or creators). One side contended that only George Lucas himself had the power to control canon, whereas the other argued that both Lucas and his production company, Lucasfilm, could determine canon. The above is just one example of the types of debates that rage across the Internet—on Tumblr, on Twitter, on Reddit, etc.—about what is and what is not the canon of any given media franchise. Wikipedia is an interesting case to study, because on the site, fan editors come together with the express goal of creating a compendium detailing their media object of interest. However—as illustrated by the debate snippet above—competing understandings and/or conceptions of canon can and do butt up against one another. Consequently, because Wikipedia supposed to be a monoglossic compendium of knowledge, and canon by its very nature requires a single, authoritative interpretation, one side has to be wrong in these sorts of talk page debates.

Therefore, the purpose of this project is to reveal and document that dialogic and performative process by which by fandom editors at large come together and create a monoglossic article on the ‘One True Canon’ of their chosen media object from competing understandings of canon. Because it is a clear instance of a single article on canon being produced by the clashing of different fandom editors espousing different understandings of canon, the ‘Star Wars canon’ talk page debate has been chosen to serve as a case study. Ultimately, I contend that the findings derived from an observation of this debate in particular can be extrapolated and then applied to other fandom debates on Wikipedia.

Since this ethnography focused on fans who were attempting to regulate canon via a text-based dialogic process, this article will examine the talk page canon debates via the lens of semiotics. In particular, this article will explore the metapragmatic nature of these debates. The term ‘metapragmatics’—originally developed by Michael Silverstein (1976: 48) (Baron 2014: 251). Put more simply, metapragmatics can be conceived of language that discusses the regulation of language (Baron 2014: 251; cf. Lucy 1993: 17). Since it was first developed, however, the term has been expanded to also include. Canon talk page debates are examples of editors using language so as to discuss and ultimately regiment a culturally-created non-linguistic object (e.g. the canon of Star Wars).

It is here that many different interpretations of canon come into contact with one another. Second, the article will explore how the opinions and sayings of the author (the one who created—or is perceived to have created—the media franchise in question) are often invoked. Some editors see the proclamations of the author (who is often described as the ultimate interpreter, with authority akin to a deity: the ‘Author-God’) as a dividing line for what should be seen as canon and non-canon, whereas other editors are willing to listen and ascribe authority to properly sanctioned institutions (i.e. institutions that are in some way affiliated with and/or approved by the author). This resultant divide can lead to heated arguments about who should be considered the ultimate authority on matters of canon. Finally, the article will examine how fans overcome this divide by engaging in a ritual citation of authority. This article will suggest that by citing their preferred authorities, fandom editors participate in the authority of the one cited. This allows the fan editor’s assertion to be taken seriously by other editors. A talk page debate concerning canon ends, therefore, when a fan editor successfully inhabits the role of an authority figure via citation, and is in turn listened to by their fellow fan editors.

Tom Boellstorff argued that it is essential for anthropologists to gain experience by working closely with those whom they are studying (Boellstorff 2008: 4). This article follows the spirit of Boellstorff’s work. I thus became a member-researcher, not only observing, but also participating so as to better understand my object of study: Wikipedia. My approach was also inspired by Jason Mittell’s 2009 investigation of Lostpedia, as well as Dariusz Jemielniak’s 2014 ethnographic analysis of Wikipedia. Jemielniak’s work, in particular, has been influential, as he examined the website through thick ethnographic description. However, unlike Jemielniak’s ethnography, which focused largely on the hierarchy and structure of the site, this article looks at how editors interact and communicate with one another in a specific environment: the talk page and the editor interactions therein.

I carried out an online ethnographic study of how fan editors conceive of canon on Wikipedia. To do this, I focused on the article ‘Star Wars canon,’ as well as related articles, and article and user talk pages. Logging onto the website every day, I took to casually browsing related articles and editors’ user pages, taking notes as to whom I interacted with, and what I noticed or experienced. In addition to this rather relaxed exploration of Wikipedia, I critically and methodically examined the key articles’ edit histories, their talk pages, and the talk pages of the editors who had modified the articles in question. Importantly, this critical examination of the articles involved the observation and recording of editor interactions (either on article or editor talk pages). To supplement my observational information, I also engaged in interviews with ten select participants, who were chosen due to their level of editing activity and their perceived knowledge of the site. The interviews were composed of twelve questions and helped reinforce assumptions and hypotheses that were developed during the course of this study. In the end, this ethnographic study was thus the combined product of passive observation and active participation (Cf. Malinowski 1922: 6–8, 8–11).

In this study, I was thus filling the role of a native anthropologist, examining the community that had accepted me as a member long ago. As an already-established and active editor, I was in an ideal position to analyze the site; my unique position allowed me to stress an emic understanding of the site as an editor, as well as an etic one as an anthropologist. Often times, traditional anthropology argues that studying one’s own culture can be difficult and unproductive (Leach 1982: 124). However, Jemielniak argues that this is not always the case. He points out that in online communities, all participants being as “outsiders” and eventually become “natives” after partaking in said communities. It is therefore difficult and ultimately counterproductive to engage in detached online observation (Jemielniak 2014: 194).

Case Study: Talk Page ‘Canon Wars’

Wikipedia, as a descendent of the encyclopedia project of the Enlightenment, espouses the ideology that knowledge can be objectively gathered into one place and preserved for posterity (O’Sullivan 2009: 80; Mesgari et al. 2014: 219). Wikipedia is thus about aggregating knowledge. There is often, however, a cognitive downshifting in the minds of editors, causing them to see the term ‘knowledge’ as interchangeable with ‘Truth’ (cf. Wikipedia 2016, Wikipedia:Verifiability, not truth). A problem quickly emerges, since an ethno-metapragmatic understanding of ‘Truth’ is different depending on which editor you ask. Even in articles that pertain to the ‘real world’—wherein many naively assume that ‘Truth’ can rather easily be ascertained via empirical studies—editors argue about what should and should not be included, and about what is and is not factually accurate. In articles about decidedly fictional people, places, events, and ideas (i.e. articles that have an inherently ‘created’ or ‘artificial’ nature, such as articles about the Star Wars universe), the ethno-metapragmatic definition of ‘Truth’ becomes even murkier. If such works are fictional, what does ‘Truth’ even mean (cf. Garfinkel 2008: 5)?

To answer this quandary, the concept of “canon” has entered into the discourse of fandom. This word was originally employed by the Roman Catholic Church to denote what was or was not approved as doctrinal truth within the faith (Delany 1999: 186). The inverse of canon is “fanon” (a portmanteau of “fan” and “canon,” popularly used by fans themselves) (2006, 5, 7).

Per Wikipedia’s “Manual of Style,” editors are forbidden from adding their own unique “original research” to articles. In other words, if editors add information to a page, they must include some sort of third-party, published source indicating from whence the information came. Personal theories, hypotheses, interpretations, or propositions are deemed unencyclopedic, and edits that do not include an acceptable citation can and often hastily removed (Jemielniak 2014, 20–21). This means that, for the fan, Wikipedia is diametrically opposed to many forms of participatory culture, such as fan fiction or fan art, because the site eschews originality in favor of the citation of established authority. Wikipedia thus appeals to fans who are more interested in (Thomas 2016; cf. Mittell 2013, 38), and these fandoms editors are often adamant that only that which is considered “canon” can be added to articles. These Wikipedia fandom editors are not alone, as the “canon-only” mentality has been embraced by a variety of other fan-produced wikis, such as Lostpedia and Battlestar Wiki (Toten 2008, Mittell 2009).

However, a problem quickly emerges for canon-only proponents. Furthermore, canon is rarely ever a list; although it often takes on this form (Delany 1999: 187). In other words, canon is a complex socio-cultural creation, which emerges from and feeds into its cultural context. It is by no means easy to decontextualize and study, much less objectively define. This means that for the fandom editor, determining the ‘correct’ or ‘true’ interpretation of canon is not a simple task.

As such, fans take part in a complex dialogic and performative process to determine canon. An epitomic example of this process occurred in July of 2006 on the ‘Star Wars canon’ talk page (or, as mentioned earlier, a discussion space located ‘behind’ a Wikipedia article that allows for other editors to come together to discuss the article at hand) centering on the use of the non-Wikipedia website ‘ST-v-SW.net’ as a citation. Before I examine the specifics of the debate, some background is necessary. In the Star Wars fandom (prior to the franchise’s purchase by Disney in 2012), there was considerable controversy as to what counted as canon (Gray 2010, 43). Some fans held that the only works that were to be looked upon as ‘genuine’ were the movies themselves, as well as any information revealed by their creator, George Lucas. ST-v-SW.net referred to this opinion as ‘Canon Purism.’ Others disagreed, pointing out that a wide range of paratexts (like books, comics, and other forms of media) existed that purported to ‘fill in the details’ between the fictional temporalities of the movies. These extraneous texts were collectively dubbed the ‘Star Wars Expanded Universe’ (EU). These fans—the ‘EU Completists,’ as they were named by ST-v-SW.net—argued that ignoring these works or writing them off as non-canon was foolish, since they all had been officially licensed by Lucasfilm (LFL), Lucas’s production company (of which Lucas himself was the president).

The website, ‘ST-v-SW.net,’ featured a page (see: Anderson n.d.) that analyzed both sides of the argument to determine which was more ‘correct.’ The site itself came to a conclusion that was closer to what the Canon Purists espoused, although the site did qualify their decision by noting that Canon Purism is not perfect.

At this point, the debate exploded onto the article’s talk page, wherein JimRaynor55 argued that it refuses to concede that Lucasfilm licensed the Expanded Universe works. Soon, the debate turned into a discussion about what even counts as canon, and, importantly, who has the authority to determine canon.

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