Saturday, December 31, 2011

Romantic Fandom

Before the holiday, I heard from Professor Eric Eisner of George Mason University, who shared that he had edited a volume of the Romantic Circles Praxis Series, on "Romantic Fandom," in April 2011. I am not very well-acquainted with literary studies these days (and especially not British Lit.), so I was delighted to check it out. Clearly there are exciting things happening in the study of Romanticism--between this and Judith Pascoe's book on Sarah Siddons, I now see the Romantic Era as a key moment in the history of audiences. Much as the "market revolution" in the United States during the 1830s and 1840s changed the very nature of cultural consumption and participation, Eisner writes that, in England, the Romantic period of the late 18th century
...saw the popularization of recognizable "fan practices," spurred by the growth of consumer culture and the development of a mass audience for culture generally. Admirers collected autographs, souvenirs, portraits and relics of celebrity writers, artists, performers, military heroes, and athletes; snapped up mementos associated with beloved plays or books or music; visited the homes and haunts of celebrities; pored over gossip-filled periodicals and newspaper notices; imitated celebrities’ fashion statements; fantasized about becoming friends or lovers with celebrities; wrote fan mail and formed communities of like-minded aficionados.
And while I’ve emphasized the connections between modern and historical fans in this blog, these essays advocate caution. As Eisner explains in his introduction, “If these essays contest literary criticism’s abjection of the fan as ‘naïve, obsessive, desirous, and dangerously predatory’ (Watson), they also resist simply celebrating the fan or identifying Romantic-era readerly desire with our own…Fandom is always historically situated, always tied to specific and shifting cultural as well as individual situations.”

The essays are consistently excellent, examining everything from the literary tourism of Lady Frances Shelley to the surprising mania in the 1820s for Pierce Egan’s Life in London; or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, Accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis, with other contributions by Nicola J. Watson, Clara Tuite, Mark Schoenfield, and David A. Brewer. I have taken note!

Favorite Historical Fan Studies, 2011

While I have not covered every book in fan studies that has come out in the past year, I have encountered quite a few good reads in fan history. It really is time for fan studies to expand beyond the idea that fandom is simply rooted in the “popular media” of the 20th century. As many of these books and articles show, those with enthusiastic devotion to public cultural figures and forms, whom sportswriters first called “fans” in the 1890s, have been around for centuries. There were no “fans” before 1890, but there were amateurs, beggars, boomers, buffs, bugs, connoisseurs, devotees, dilettantes, enthusiasts, fanatics, the fancy, fiends, gluttons, habitués, heads, hounds, kranks, lions, longhairs, lovers, maniacs, matinee girls, nuts, rooters, Lisztians, Wagnerians, and more.

Here are some of my favorite historical fandom books for 2011. They all engagingly offer new insights into the practices of ardent audiencing, over time and across sports, theater, literature, and music.

Lapham’s Quarterly: Celebrity
In many ways an update of Leo Braudy’s Frenzy of Renown (1988) this special issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (Winter 2011) sought to collect primary and secondary sources about celebrity in history, from Cicero’s complaints about the demands of fame to Steve Martin’s tongue-in-cheek form-letter response to fan mail. I found Lapham’s opening essay a bit too dependent on Daniel Boorstin’s negative assessment of the media’s role in modern life; I would say that the overall skepticism of the issue’s interpretive essays stem from a Frankfurt School-like focus on the productive machinations of celebrity rather than the varied activities of media reception and their meaning in the daily lives of fans. The issue nevertheless offers very good writing and a useful compendium of audiences, culture, and desire over the past several centuries.

John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
Written by the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball, this book is a detailed and fascinating account of the early days of baseball in the nineteenth century, including some nice tidbits on fandom, from audiences’ frequent interference in games and penchant for gambling (which, in part, explains rooters’ fascination with statistics) to DeWolf’s Hopper’s popularization of “Casey at Bat” to the status of a cultural mania in 1888. Most interesting is the many ways in which team owners sought to make the game appeal to fans through all kinds of changes to games rules, as well as sales gimmicks. Not directly about historical audiences, it nonetheless is a very readable history of the entire culture of baseball and fans central place in it.

Judith Pascoe, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files
One of the pleasures of writing this blog has been learning about fan research outside of my own realm of expertise. Not only did I learn about all the work out there on historical readers or early sports but also on theater audiences. Judith Pascoe’s book, which was released in May 2011, enthusiastically outlines the appeal of British actress Sarah Siddons, who was the star of London theatre in the late eighteenth century and whose aural presence fascinated Romantic poets and philosophers. Pascoe not only outlines the culture of Siddons’s celebrity, but also the trials of her own learning. Historiography has never been so fun.

Daphne Carr, Pretty Hate Machine
Okay, so the history here is fairly recent, but this is still an incisive, daring, and sometimes quite moving analysis of rock fandom in the 1990s, based on Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 album, Pretty Hate Machine. Rather than merely offering a critical appreciation of the album’s songs or a history of the album’s creative genesis, Carr locates PHM’s most profound significance in what it has meant to the fans who bought and listened to it. Her thinking about Trent Reznor’s is deepened by the transcripts of interviews with fans of various ages and backgrounds, as well as interpretive surveys of the industrial decay of north-central Ohio since the 1960s. Personally, I never really “got” NIN, but I got this.

Emily Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia
Satterwhite examines fan mail from readers of Appalachian-set fiction from 1878-2003 and identifies the ways in which such fiction serves to affirm readers’ imagined understanding of the region as a “rural, rooted place populated by simple whites with a rich cultural heritage protected from mass culture.” The ways in which this romantic construction of “authentic Appalachia” has worked for fans over the past century (from the Gilded Age to the Neo-Gilded Age of the 1980s) is not without controversy (Satterwhite acknowledges that it reinforces “simplistic versions of the region that celebrate whiteness, glorify Americanness, and figure primitive people the world over as in need of the expert guidance of well-to-do Americans”). But Satterwhite also sensitively accounts for the ways in which regional fiction engenders its own kind of fandom for the idea of a place.

Still left to read:
Claudio E. Benzecry, The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of An Obsession
Amy Blair, Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States
Nancy Newman, Good Music for a Free People: The Germania Musical Society in Nineteenth-Century America

Looking forward to:
Andre Millard, Beatlemania: Technology, Business, and Teen Culture in Cold War America

Friday, December 9, 2011

Popular Media Audiences Symposium

The latest symposium on popular media audiences has a good set of speakers; not surprisingly it's in England:

The Centre for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth presents:
Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines
A Symposium to be held at the Odeon Cinema, Covent Garden, London
Saturday 19th May 2012

Keynote Address by:
Prof. Henry Jenkins
Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. Author of Textual Poachers (Routledge, 1992), The WOW Climax (NYU Press, 2006), Fans, Bloggers and Gamers (NYU Press, 2006), and Convergence Culture (NYU Press, 2006).


The first steps toward a wider consideration of popular media cultures surrounding film, television and the Internet, and the relationship between fans and their object of fandom, is to acknowledge the prominent position of what Jonathan Gray calls media paratexts as opposed to the centrality of specific films or television series as the text. Indeed, we are now accustomed in fan studies to state that the productivity of fans and their related fan practices represent an appropriate and worthy text to study just as much as the media text to which they are related or inspired by. So, rather than studying Star Trek as cult text, we might study fan produced videos on YouTube as important texts of fan activity that carry inherent meaning and significance in and of themselves. Or, for example, Star Wars carries with it meaning within and outside the narrative – from an analysis of its mythic story structure using the work of Joseph Campbell to studies of its fans who actively engage in their own meaning making by dressing up, making videos and writing fan fiction. However, the peripheral texts – those associated with the commercialization of the franchise such as the lunchboxes, toys, video games, and websites – are as much part of the meaning making process that they become texts to study in their own right.

Popular Media Cultures seeks to explore the relationship between audiences and media texts, their paratexts and interconnected ephemera, and the related cultural practices that add to and expand the narrative worlds with which fans engage. How audiences make meaning out of established media texts will be discussed in connection with the new texts produced by fans. The symposium will focus on the cultural work done by media audiences, how they engage with new technologies and how convergence culture impacts on the strategies and activities of popular media fans. If, Ken Gelder argues, “Subcultures are brought into being through narration and narrative: told by the participants themselves, as well as by those who document them, monitor them, ‘label’ them, outlaw them, and so on,” then this symposium will pay attention to what media audiences add to a text, what gets written in the margins of a text and what new meanings fans read between the lines. This symposium will bring together leading academics in the fields of film, television, fan and cultural studies to open up and take further the debates surrounding popular media, its producers, its audiences, and the cultures in which they are ultimately located.

Confirmed Speakers:

Dr Stacey Abbott, Reader in Film Studies, Roehampton University. Author of Celluloid Vampires (University of Texas Press, 2007), editor of The Cult TV Book (IB Tauris, 2010), co-author of Falling in Love Again (IB Tauris, 2009), and series editor of Investigating Cult TV for IB Tauris.

Dr Will Brooker, Reader and Director of Research, Kingston University. Author of Using the Force (Continuum, 2002), Hunting the Dark Knight (IB Tauris, 2012) and editor of The Blade Runner Experience (Wallflower, 2005).

Dr Joanne Garde-Hansen, Principal Lecturer in Media and Director of the Research Centre of Media, Memory and Community, University of Gloucestershire. Author of Media and Memory (Edinburgh UP, 2011), co-editor of Save As... Digital Memories (Palgrave, 2009) and co-author of the forthcoming Emotion Online: Theorising Affect on the Internet (Palgrave).

Dr Kristyn Gorton, Senior Lecturer in Television Studies, University of York. Author of Media Audiences (Edinburgh UP, 2009) and co-author of the forthcoming Emotion Online: Theorising Affect on the Internet (Palgrave).

Dr Matt Hills, Reader in Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. Author of Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005) and Triumph of a Time Lord (IB Tauris, 2010).

Prof. Mark Jancovich, Professor of Film and Television, University of East Anglia. Author of Rational Fears (MUP, 1996) and The Place of the Audience (BFI, 2003) and co-editor of Defining Cult Movies (MUP, 2003), Quality Popular Television (BFI, 2003), and Film and Comic Books (Mississippi UP,

Prof. Roberta E. Pearson, Professor of Film and Television, University of Nottingham. Author of Eloquent Gestures (University of California Press, 1992), co-editor of Cult Television (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), The Many Lives of Batman (Routledge, 1991), and editor of Reading Lost (IB
Tauris, 2009).

Further details of how to register and attend the event will be published in the New Year. For information on the Centre for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth please visit our website at:

Symposium Coordinator:
Dr Lincoln Geraghty
Director of the Centre for Cultural and Creative Research
School of Creative Arts, Film and Media
University of Portsmouth

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Romanticism, The Voice, and the History of Listening

One of the problems of studying historical audiences is evidence. Listeners, readers, and theater-goers don’t leave many traces. While the scores, scripts, journals, account books, and correspondence of professional writers, composers, and performers have been preserved and deposited in public archives, the everyday experiences and activities of audience members have not enjoyed the same recognition, and thus potential evidence for their engagement—descriptive letters, scrapbooks, tickets, or souvenirs, for example—have been undervalued, overlooked, and often lost. Scholars of historical reception seek to recover such audience experiences. It’s painstaking and frequently frustrating work, requiring a good deal of creative interpretation. It’s far more like archeology than history, a matter of piecing together found fragments—a single diary description, or obscure periodical image--with educated assumptions about past cultural institutions and ideological expectations.

Judith Pascoe, in her new book, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice, writes engagingly and humorously about this process of historical recovery. Pascoe became intrigued by enthusiastic Romantic-era accounts of London stage actress Sarah Siddons, who manipulated audiences with her command of Shakespeare and had a voice which, as contemporary Joseph Severn explained, “thrilled the air with melodious tones, and at the same time touched the heart with such deep pathos that the audience seemed to think it a merit to shed tears and thus appropriately accompany such sublime acting.” Pascoe realized, however, that while Siddons’s "most celebrated roles all seemed to contain sonic highlights that were anticipated with pleasure,” and while paintings almost always showed Siddons poised to speak, she had no idea how Siddons actually sounded. So she resolved to find out. As she explained, “If I could figure out how Siddons sounded, I might also understand how people listened in the romantic period and how that style of listening influenced what they heard.” (14)

While the book is, in part about Siddons, much of the narrative, written in the first-person, is driven by Pascoe’s own search for an auditory past that always seems just out of reach. She explores Siddons’s life story, the world of London theater in 1775-76, and the acoustic design of theaters like Covent Garden and Drury Lane. She takes an acting class to learn more about vocal technique, reads Barthes on the voice, probes the history of recording, and studies Gilbert Austin’s 1806 Chironomia; or, A Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery: Comprehending Many Precepts, Both Ancient and Modern, for the Proper Regulation of the Voice, the Countenance, and Gesture. Along the way, she offers some wonderful insights in Romantic-era theater-going. As she explains at one point:
Romantic theatergoers not only enjoyed performances that we would find overwrought, they enjoyed watching these performances over and over and over again. In fact, the intensity of their pleasure seemed to stem partly from the repetition, which allowed for a deep familiarity with the lines and gestures associated with particular plays….And serving as a further aide-memoire was the condensation of the romantic theatrical experience to a collection of emotionally, visually, or sonically intense scenes that helped to imprint these plays on the memory. The memorization of these ‘points’ made theatergoing more intensely pleasurable, as audience members anticipated these particular moments, watched them play out, and compared them to versions they had already experiences or even enacted themselves. (72)
Pascoe has a great sense of humor about herself and her objective, which, as she herself quickly recognized, was doomed to failure. As she explains, “I had wanted to find out how Siddons made [audience member Joseph] Severn want to change his life, or, failing that, how she caused so many people to go into conniptions when she stepped out on stage, but this meant, of course, and I’d known this all along, that I really had to be there.” (108). In the end, though, Pascoe's frustrations are her readers' gain. Her book is a funny and meaningful meditation on historical methodology, written with both clarity and verve. Its sheer inventiveness reminded me most of Bruce R. Smith’s attempts to discover how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays "actually" sounded in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Both Smith and Pascoe acknowledge that we can’t positively know how the past sounded. But through careful historicization of diverse contexts of listening and hearing, and analysis of the fragments of evidence still with us, we can discover faint but tantalizing suggestions of how audiencing had the power to shape lives.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gaming the Game

The latest in convergence culture: this video, from the English band Kasabian, features an experiment in which the framework of video gaming is used to shape a soccer game between living players on an actual field. Vocalist Tom Meighan and Aston Villa striker Darren Bent, up in the stands with electronic controllers, are playing the players, who all wear headsets and respond to their commands. What is meant by "audience" and "performer" in this scenario is complicated, which is precisely the point. I'm not convinced this is future, since the roles that are blurred still need to exist in some sort of meaningful tension, but I do wonder about the up-and-coming Xboxed generation and how they understand the experience of spectatorship in sporting events.

If anything, you have to give it to Kasabian; they're pushing the edge of music marketing. A bit of background on the experiment can be found in another video here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Conference: The Audience Through Time

I'm sorry to be missing this conference run by Anna Kretschmer and Christine Twite from the School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, especially since it deals with many the same issues I explore here at the Ardent Audience. Still, I'm hoping to keep up with the events through Twitter.

Stumbling on the conference site has also made me aware of the audience-related blogs, Cultures of Spectatorship and The New Female Spectator. Theater studies has much to offer the study of historical fandom, so check them out.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Catching Up

I must apologize for not posting very much recently. It's been a demanding couple of months at work, and finding time to blog has been a challenge. I'm hoping to revive things; as a start, I'd like to highlight some recent activity and correspondence.

Robert Burke Warren wrote to share a piece he had written on R.E.M. for The Rumpus. I had previously noted Warren's engaging reflections on his fandom for Paul McCartney; this piece is equally compelling, weaving reminiscences about R.E.M. with a moving account of personal friendship and loss. You don't have to like or dislike R.E.M. to appreciate his articulation of the profound associations and meanings that popular music can provide us in our daily lives. From now on, when people come up to me and say, with a conspiratorial wink, "So you teach popular music at the college level? What do you talk about for a whole semester?", I'm directing them here.

Scott Thompson, a former student and now guitarist/banjoist with the band Tallahassee, wrote to share a feature on booing at It reminded me that the expression of audience displeasure is as important as audience pleasure in understanding fandom and enthusiasm. The podcast notes that booing is more appropriate in some contexts (sports) than others (Broadway), but also that the sovereignty of audience members to express themselves itself has been significantly reduced since the 19th century (Richard Butsch's work gets a nod, here). I think a deeper discussion about why such expression changed historically would have helped provide some stronger conclusions. And it also raises all kinds of questions about the sound of booing (why "boo" not "bah" or "buh"?) and the physicality of that action--versus clapping, for instance. In general, why do audiences primarily use the sonic capabilities of their bodies to send messages to performers onstage?

Ralph Rosen, at University of Pennsylvania, wrote to ask about my thoughts on Platonic conceptions of fans (or "lovers of sights and lovers of sounds"). His note made me realize the extent to which my own American studies background might be isolating me from wider global and historical conversations about fandom. In particular, I've been enjoying an essay Rosen wrote for Playing Around Aristophanes: Essays in Celebration of the Completion of the Edition of the Comedies of Aristophanes by Alan Sommerstein, ed. by Lynn Kozak and John Rich (Aris & Philips, 2006: 27-47), titled "Aristophanes, Fandom, and the Classicizing of Greek Tragedy." He explores how Greek tragic poets acquired a literary legacy in a time when performances were ephemeral and not made into texts that could establish a measurable "readership." His answer is that devoted audiences, post-performance, played a significant part in creating a poet's legacy:
I would suggest that the key players in the classicizing process are what, for lack of more technical term, I would call 'fans', although other synonyms would work just as well: devotees, cognoscenti, etc. Before a performative work is fixed and circulated as a text, it will amass a coterie of devotees for whom, for whatever reasons (and there may be many), the works have special resonance. As I noted above, however, for a work to endure, it requires some measure of iterability, even if this means simply some mechanism by which the memory of the event and its author are kept alive. Fans provide this service well in advance of any formal means of mechanical reproduction, for they will take the work seriously enough to continue discussing it among themselves and to proselytize among skeptics about the virtues of their chosen heroes. (32)
Finally, I noticed that Jennifer L. Brady has an essay about enthusiastic readers of Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World over at Commonplace. An engaging exploration of fan letters to Warner in the early 19th century, Brady shows how "Warner's fan letters can tell us why readers like (and unlike) Alice's Admirer devoured The Wide, Wide World, why they formed deep emotional bonds with characters whom they knew to be fictional, and why they chose to bare their souls in letters to a writer whom they would never meet. They can tell us why particular readers felt so strongly about this novel and why, for some, their attachment to it endured over decades. These letters can give us fresh perspective, then, on sentimental novels, ordinary readers, and fandom in the nineteenth century—and they do so by recording the varied ways that some ordinary readers and a sentimental author were brought together by loving The Wide, Wide World." Scholarship that draws on historical fan letters is growing in a number of fields; I would add Brady's work, here, with that of Barbara Ryan (see Reading Acts, as well as her new project on Ben-Hur), Courtney Bates (see her article on Willa Cather fans in Transformative Works), Emily Satterwhite (Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction Since 1878, which is coming out any day now), as well as Marsha Orgeron's work on fans of movie stars like Clara Bow (Hollywood Ambitions).

That's it for me this weekend. Back soon.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Literary Pilgrimage

I see that University of Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill has discovered fandom in his new book, Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, and Bronte's Grave, which was the subject of a recent profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education's PageView blog. His discomfort with readers who make pilgrimages to author-related sites is interesting; if anything, it shows why critics and fans, reading the same books, often exist in completely different universes.

I shouldn't show him, I guess, the photo of me, during a trip to New Orleans in 1989, casually reading a newspaper outside the French Quarter residence of William Faulkner (where he began his career as a writer):

Perhaps, however, my family will sympathize with Goldhill's skepticism. When I suggested a vacation trip to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this summer, so we could visit the home of Herman Melville, they laughed, and then, with some alarm, asked if I was serious. I was.

Literary tourism is a big business, big enough to get a featured in O Magazine articles like "5 Legendary Writers' Homes." It has also been a hot topic in literary studies, where it is generally equated with superficiality and commercialism, the equivalent of taking a pre-packaged bus tour of a city rather than living in a neighborhood and learning the language. Literary pilgrimage has been the subject of satiric novels (like Brocke Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England), as well as condemnatory papers about the public's naive obsession with authenticity or the emotional reality of texts (discussed previously in a Chronicle review, "You've Read the Book, Now Take a Look!," from 2009). Tourism, more generally, has been a hot topic in cultural studies for much of the last decade, the subject of journals like Tourist Studies, or research collectives like UC Berkeley's Tourism Studies Working Group, and also the subject of books in anthropology, literature, history, and music, from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (U. California Press, 1998) to Stephen A. King's I'm Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

From the standpoint of fans, visiting sites associated with various performers, works, or characters is a key element of how they decode works, aesthetize their lives, and shape cultural experience. As far as I can tell, however, work in fan studies has not had any explicit impact on the study of tourism. It might be time to connect that gap by holding some kind of meeting that will enable a sharing of perspectives from anthropology, history, literature, media studies, and religion on fandom and the power of place. Sounds like a good panel, at least, no?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Last year, in a seminar, one of my students was using her iPhone while we were discussing Jim Deetz's In Small Things Now Forgotten. I asked her to put the phone away, since class had begun and we were engaged in discussion. But she protested, indicating that she was engaged--the text had been downloaded to her phone, and she was merely following along with the passage I had asked everyone to turn to!

We certainly live in a new world of "reading." I have no moral or philosophical objection to e-books, the digital humanities, etc. In fact, I see the incredible potential of such technologies for creating and maintaining knowledge and fostering new kinds of educational, research, and business. But I have to say that, personally, I still prefer the "hard" form of a book. Flipping pages is an economical and pleasurable means of encountering text that involves not only a particular kind of spatial understanding but also involves familiar sounds (the swish of a turning page), gestures (holding a book in different stances), and materials (glue, cardboard, pulp). I particularly like each book's design identity, implying an intellectual world. Books as singular objects--with form, color, and weight; that I can carry around, have nearby, and consult--supports my understanding of them as a unique and singular utterances of fellow human beings. I fully understand the convenience of having one's entire library in a tablet device, but at the same time, I resist the idea of making "my library" a basic unit of value, like my stock portfolio. I want my library to be chaotic, more about all the amazing ideas and debates in the world to which I often return, puzzled, curious, and seeking connection. I'd rather not have my library conveniently display my investments but rather function as an imperfectly-wrought sanctuary that I can enter for the purpose of discovery, surprise, and encounter.

At any rate, there have been many writers, readers, and critics out there who have compared old and e-books over the past several years. JBMonco had a nice comparison of experiencing Moby Dick in book and e-book back in 2009, for instance. Or author Margaret Atwood:

This is a nice chart from The Daily Beast that compares the economics of the two forms. And now researchers are starting to get in on the debate, studying reading on different devices (including this study from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany). The findings are not surprising. It appears that reading is not simply a cognitive action of information retrieval or even communication, but also involves wider and more complex frameworks of preference, habit, and ritual. That's why thinking about reading has become so significant. Reading is undergoing changes, but those changes are cultural as much as behaviorial.

In the end, it seems to me that to properly assess "what's the best way to read--book or ebook?", we need to move beyond just the mechanics of the behavior to the institutions and ideologies that define reading for us and make it personally and socially meaningful. How are those changing? Are schools, government agencies, or companies requiring the use of ebooks and why or why not? What does it mean to advocate for older forms of print media through newer forms of communication like blogs or YouTube? If the competition between forms continues, will simply making the choice to read a book rather than an ebook become a form of antiquarianism, curmudgeonliness, or rebellion?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Daphne Carr’s contribution to Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Pretty Hate Machine, has been on my list of things to read since last spring, but other commitments prevented me from fully delving into it until now. I realize now that sitting near me all this time was an engaging work of radical contextualism, one that seeks to literally transform rather than revere Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 album.

Carr writes that the book was inspired by my book Tramps Like Us, which is cool (thanks for the shout-out, Daphne), but I have to say that she moves beyond my limited self-analysis and scholarly representation of fans’ voices to fully embrace the notion that not only musicians make music. She makes it clear that an analysis of Pretty Hate Machine that addressed only the songs on the album, or only the creative process of Trent Reznor, would be a distortion; the album has had such a resonance since its release that the only way to make sense of it is (to quote ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger) to “start in the middle and work outward in all directions.” Carr's analysis is not for the narrow-minded; it unabashedly connects the 1999 Columbine shootings, goth culture, Reaganomics, early rock'n'roll, the history of Youngtown, Trent Reznor's life, industrialization, slum clearance, historic preservation, Hot Topic, cultural contradiction, and American despair.

Despite the breadth of her vision, her specialty is the pithy meta-statement, perhaps learned at the hands of postmodernist theorists, but skillfully honed, here, to the memorable bon mot. (“Hot Topic was where sellouts sold the idea that selling out sucked).” What's most interesting, though, is the slyness of her insights. They often lurk in the background, suggested in word choices or absences in descriptions, finally jumping off the page to clonk you on the head. My favorite moment is her chapter on Cleveland, which starts by linking the cancellation of the Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952 to the story of rock’n’roll’s erosion of racial segregation. It’s a well-written description of what is now a conventional story. But then, in the next paragraph, she suddenly flips that truism on its head to reveal Alan Freed’s involvement in Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s African cannibal/coffin act, which pandered to white racist fantasies and drove Hawkins to cope through drug-use. In a final rhetorical twist, Carr sums it all up by making all these connections a foundation of Nine Inch Nails’ complex appeal, announcing, “This is the story of the first goth-rock stage show.”

The most controversial (for those who want to hear only about Trent Reznor) and the most moving (for those who want to understand the power and legacy of this album) are the ten chapters that each feature a fan talking about his or her experiences with and around the album. Like the Bruce Springsteen fans with whom I conversed in the 1990s, each person has an extraordinary story centered on an experience of hearing that becomes a long-lasting and powerful force for identity, reformation, and belonging. These fans are, like many self-aware people, slightly anxious that “the sounds they believe to be their soul’s salvation are also a mass-mediated commodity.” But that’s the point—the fragments of industrialized entertainment cynically sold to us as “revolution” or “soul-bearing art” can actually—though often unpredictably—foster revolution and soul-bearing.

Notice I said “foster.” I think what Carr’s book hammers home is that these meanings are not “in the music.” In fact, she goes so far as to instruct her readers to resist this commonplace musicological notion, encouraging instead a different approach: “If you have copy of Pretty Hate Machine, listen along to hear the book’s speakers with and against yours. The space between your hearing, their hearing, and my hearing is how we will get into a conversation (or argument) that is part of the point of this book. If the conversation makes us all cringe a bit, so much the better.” If that isn’t a good definition of fandom, I don’t know what is.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fandom is a Matter of Life...and Death

Check out this recent article in the New York Times about team-themed floral arrangements at the wakes and funerals of sports fans. This is not as bizarre as it might sound, especially when you consider the depth of meaning fandom affords life-long followers of teams.

I'm also glad that, so far, trademark claims have not been leveled at the grieving families. Can you imagine? (One thing that is not adequately recognized by "intellectual property" law is the illogic whereby corporate entities relentlessly thrust trademarked logos and phrases into people's daily lives and then insist that people's lives must not infringe on the symbolism).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The New Economy of Attention

I started out a recent speech by noting the ways in which fandom has changed since the advent of social media, saying:
These are interesting times for reception theorists, especially those that study fandom. Fandom represents an extra-ordinary form of audiencing, including everything from emotional attachment to performers to obsessive collecting. However, the nature of fandom’s extra-ordinariness has changed a great deal in the past several decades thanks to the advent of the Internet and digital production. It seems today that previously “abnormal” fan practices have not only become more and more accepted but also explicitly supported and nurtured by new technologies and re-framed by niche marketing. Simply: we live in an age in which “following” a stranger because you “like” them is not creepy, but rather represents a harmless form of networking. As Twitter encourages us, "Follow your interests."
I didn't say much more than that about fandom's current trajectory, veering instead into a consideration of this change for those of us interested in writing fandom's history. However, a recent article by Esther Dyson, "Attention Must Be Paid," has made me think again about just how social media has changed the value system behind what we call "fandom."

I thought Dyson's essay, subtitled, "How the Internet is Changing How People Listen," was going to be an analysis of listening in the 21st century, one of my favorite topics, but it turned out to be an outline of how companies might commodify attention in the digital age. The paragraph that made me sit up a little straighter was:
The Internet is changing the economics of attention by fostering peer-to-peer interactions. People used to pay attention to those around them and to "stars." Now, they spend lots of time online paying attention to people they haven't met. And, increasingly, individuals go online to get attention, not to give it. Accordingly, companies need to learn how to give customers the attention that they crave, rather than demanding customers' attention and then charging them extra for the attention that their brand commands.
I relied on rather old categories of "normal/abnormal" in thinking about the re-framing of fandom on Facebook and Twitter. Dyson, however, suggests something even more subversive than the mere acceptance of fannish attention: she's saying that the economy of attention has changed so that what is commodified is not the cultural performance, event, or product to which one might attend but rather the very act of attending. In other words, in the world of social media, fans and fandom have become products; fans consume each other, with stars and cultural producers playing a supporting role.

Yow. This reminds me of late 18th and early 19th century opera and musical theater in the U.S., when people went to performances to see and be seen, and what happened "on stage" was secondary. Maybe cultural behavior in our society has come full circle. Except this time, of course, there are companies ready to "monetize" it all. We'll see.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fan Rituals

Check out the Boston Globe's recent photo essay of Fan Traditions and Rituals. There are many many more, of course, among sports fans and among other kinds of fans.  Not to go too anthropological on everyone, but it's worth reflecting on the ritual aspects of fan behavior, which link fandom to broader systems of human belief, symbolism, and communal affirmation.

I don't have time to do it, but I'd love to see an Encyclopedia of Fan Ritual some day. Perhaps it could be done collectively online. It would be a great way to start mapping and comparing the varieties of fan experience.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reception Study Society Conference 2011

I just finished a four-day stint at the biennial conference of the Reception Study Society, where I gave a keynote talk on the need for a more precisely comparative account of enthusiastic audiences in history. I argued that new research on pre-1900 fan-like subcultures (from kranks to matinee girls), as well as on the wider discourses of monomania, enthusiasm, and agency in the mid- to late-19th century, will help scholars to better understand how exactly fandom became a explanatory discourse for certain kinds of audiencing in modern society.

I saw lots of great presentations, from Emily Satterwhite’s discussion of fan mail about Christy (based on research from her new book) and Gillian Silverman’s analysis of 19th century reading as a “technology of intimacy” to Melissa Click’s study of adult and teen Twilight fans and Pedro Curi’s outline of the various ways in which Brazilian fans ‘Brazilianize’ American TV shows they see on the internet. Jonathan Gray also gave an amusing and provocative overview of this theory of “paratexts,” arguing that packaging, marketing, merchandising, and spinoffs of books and television shows must always be part of the “texts” that we study, since, for some people, paratexts are the texts with which they engage most. In all, a very satisfying weekend, sharing ideas with people who think similarly about culture and its meaning.

Next up: the fall semester.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some Fan Studies Before "Fan Studies"

In the past, I've written about some of the classics of fan studies. In this post, I want to briefly highlight a few books that do not explicitly address fandom but nevertheless deserve mention as works of scholarship that have addressed the subject of devoted or enthusiastic audiences. For me, these works all had to do with reading; in the late 1980s, I was a newly-graduated English major, growing tired of great authors and works (I think I had read Moby Dick five times at that point), and becoming more and more interested in marginal aspects of literary studies: the physical nature of books, the business of publishing, and, especially, the history of readers. To my astonishment, I found a number of fairly recent works on those subject. I wasn't studying fandom when I first encountered these books, but once I did start to think about fans a bit later, in the context of popular music, the book's arguments and stories came back to me, providing a rush of intriguing parallels, echoes, and connections. Rousseau readers and Springsteen fans, for example, separated by centuries, seemed to be thinking in similar ways--how could that be? It's something I'm still thinking about twenty years later.

Robert Darnton, "Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensitivity" (1984). This essay appeared in Darnton's collection on French cultural history, The Great Cat Massacre. Drawing on a collection of letters between Jean Ranson, a French merchant book collector, and a Swiss publisher, Darnton unearthed Ranson's fascination with the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Ranson called "L'ami Jean-Jacques" (my friend, Jean-Jacques) even though, as Darnton noted, he "had never met" Rousseau and could only know him through the printed word. This relationship was the set-up for an amazing analysis of what Darnton calls "Rousseauistic reading," a new way of understanding the world of a novel as an intimate representation of an author's emotional being. In some of the funniest passages, Darnton talked about Rousseau's alarm about the new type of readers he created; apparently Rousseau had to install a trap door in his home to escape the many admirers who sought him out for heart-to-heart chats and expressions of gratitude after reading books like La Nouvelle Heloise. In the described shift toward a Romantic "sharing of selfhood," I started to see patterns that pre-modelled modern fans' relationships to media celebrities.

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1984). Susan Stewart's On Longing was an extraordinary work of cultural theory, rooted in literary studies but also ranging outward to include giant myths, doll houses, and book collectors. For me, it was one of the first theoretical works I had encountered about the sometimes intense relationships that people develop with objects and performances. No one I knew was writing about that particular kind of desire in 1984, and her arguments about the ways in which we make sense of the world around us by sorting our experiences and manipulating time and space through narrative gave me a stronger sense of the existential gravity behind reading: it was about much more than mere entertainment or cultural refinement. Stewart's final essay on collecting directly addressed what I later recognized as a primary fan practice. She showed how collectors variously layer objects with complex narratives of authenticity, nostalgia, and the self. The book's post-structuralist language and Lacanian references were, at first, a bit impenetrable for me, but Stewart, a poet, still had a knack for thought-provoking declarations: "The printed text is cinematic before the invention of cinema." "Although reading may give form to time, it does not count in time; it leaves no trace; its product is invisible." "The souvenir must be removed from its context in order to serve as a trace of it, but it must also be restored through narrative and/or reverie." I still go back to it.

Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). In one of my first jobs (1985-86 or so), I worked at Barnes & Noble, where I was in charge of, among other things, shelving the new series arrivals in the romance section and shipping older, unsold editions back to the publishers. I distinctly remember the customers who came into the store regularly to buy romance books and who seemed to have a deep knowledge of the nuances between Harlequin lines and other competing series. I wanted to talk to these customers more about their obvious passion for books and reading, but it was too awkward for me. Radway did. Published in 1984, Radway's pioneering research featured interviews with a group of women romance readers. Like Stewart's work, Radway was, at one level, rescuing a denigrated form of popular culture by showing the ways in which it facilitated meaning-making in everyday life; as a feminist, her goal was to find out how such books helped women to negotiate patriarchal society. There were problems with the research, at least in terms of ethnographic practice (Radway was ultimately unwilling to take the women's articulation of their own lives at face value, asserting their patriarchal oppression and then wrestling with how to interpret romance reading in light of that), but her work nevertheless showed me how fieldwork--typical for anthropology abroad rather than at home--might serve as a legitimate method in the investigation of popular culture fandom. I taught this book for many years in a seminar on audience studies, and it remains influential.

Cathy N. Davidson, "The Life and Times of Charlotte Temple" (1989). This essay, which appeared in a collection edited by Davidson called Reading in America. I could talk about Davidson's equally compelling Revolution and the Word (1984), which more broadly addressed the power of novel-reading in the new republic, but this essay was one of the first that I had encountered that analyzed, head-on, the ways in which a single novel might change the lives of ordinary readers. The novel was Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, a cautionary tale of a young woman's fall from virtue, and one of early America's bestsellers. Davidson pointed out that readers developed such intensely emotional reactions to the story and the character of Charlotte that they believed that the sensational story was true. Someone even placed a tombstone for Charlotte in the churchyard of New York City's Trinity Church, signifying readers' blurring of the lines between fiction and reality, and by the 1850s, weeping readers (men and women, working and middle-class) regularly made pilgrimages to the churchyard to pay their respects. Besides suggesting the ways in which readers worked to sustain the world of a narrative outside of their encounters with that narrative (much as music or theater fans stay in "audience" mode long after performances are over), the notion of pilgrimage really resonated with me. I knew fans for Springsteen who did the same thing as Charlotte Temple readers, imbuing real places with new layers of meaning known only to them.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Do Jazz Musicians Need to Know How to Write Criticism?

The Boston Jazz Blog poses the question, "Do jazz critics need to know how to play jazz?" There are interesting answers, though I would question the question by asking, "Do jazz musicians need to know how to write criticism?" I'm not joking. I've written about this before, and it has been a subject of tension in ethnomusicology since the days of Mantle Hood argued for the primacy of "bimusicality" as a mode of understanding, but I don't agree that musicality comes automatically from playing or singing, or that it is necessarily greater among musicians than among, say, listeners or dancers--or critics. Rather than narrowly value only composers and performers (relegating all the other people that make music meaningful, from engineers and critics to retailers and fans, to secondary status), I'd rather understand music as a complex ecology of participation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Name That Audience 9

Can you guess what these gentlemen are watching? What's up with the odd postures? Is that man in the back sleeping? Answer after the jump.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fans Need to Dim Their Clothing

The Big League Stew reported that at a recent Oakland A's v. Baltimore Orioles game, two fans with LED jackets (one scrolling the message "Go Orioles") were asked by the umpire to turn them off. We can't have fans "disturbing" the game from up in the stands (or, more like it, disturbing the paid neon advertising), right?

I've written about this before--see Name That Audience 7Fans on the Field, and Football's Continuous Ovation. What fans can and can't do is policed today far more than in the past. I wonder if it just might be better if they didn't attend games at all. Then athletic competition could proceed in its utmost purity: isolated and silent, except for the occasional grunt of physical exertion or the crystal call of an umpire.

Of course, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it....

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pleasures of Reading

I just finished Alan Jacobs's new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It has been getting some press attention lately, with a review in the Wall Street Journal, as well as an adaptation in the Chronicle of Higher Education

I have to admit that I was a little worried about the title, at first glance. While Jacobs is decidely not a member of the "turn off your computer" camp (or their predecessors, the "turn off your TV" crowd), who assume a negative causal relationship between media engagement and the quality of one's reading, he does point to the ways in which the the obligations of educated refinement (promoted especially in academia), as well as the information triaging necessitated by the hyper-culture of social media, create a great deal of anxiety about sustained, deep, and enthusiastic reading. We feel we should get lost in a book, but we can't. When we do, it feels a little strange. 

First, kudos to Jacobs for trying to capture the pleasures of reading (even though he admits that it is truly impossible to convey what a "page-turner" feels like). I certainly love books in they ways that Jacobs describes and can attest to the ways in which chance encounters with individual works have changed my life. I also appreciate the ways in which he attempts to situate that joy in the context of contemporary culture, assuaging lack of confidence about "reading properly" or about "reading deeply" by encouraging "reading at whim," that is, to fully embrace the experiences of reading that feel right, no matter the dictates of taste or the competing demands on one's attention. As he writes, "The book that simply demands to be read, for no good reason, is asking us to change our lives by putting aside what we usually think of as good reasons. It's asking us to stop calculating. It's asking us to do something for the plain old delight and interest of it, not because we can justify its place on the mental spreadsheet or accounting ledger (like the one Benjamin Franklin kept) by which we tote up the value of our actions" (16).

This is, as he suggests, not so much the function of a "good book" itself, but rather of one's general approach to the ecstatic potential of any encounter with a book. That is, we read deeply when we accept, or, at least, leave ourselves open to the premise that "books are the natural and inevitable and permanent means of being absorbed in something other than the self" (116). While Jacobs tends to talk about fandom as a kind of extremism, I'd suggest that this approach to books more accurately describes fandom as it is experienced: a recognition of a performer or performance (including "texts" of all kinds--books, movies, music, art, etc.) as having the ongoing potential to move, transform, connect, and otherwise wrest one from torpor. As Tia Denora put it, we engage in culture to "aesthetize ourselves." Fan engagement can sometimes appear aberrant (when fans embrace a work that is not canonical) and it can sometimes appear obsessive (when fans allegedly spend too much time engaging one work or author), but its mode of hopeful enthusiastic engagement is unabashedly catholic and deeply pleasurable, often facilitating a kind of lasting and meaningful learning that cannot be attained through other means.

Jacobs focuses a bit too much for my taste on quietude, on shutting down cultural "distraction," though I do recognize the need for many to carve out time for sustained reading. Rather than turning things off, I always encourage my students to simply treat books differently. I tell them, first, to understand reading as not simply a mechanical movement of eyes over a page, but rather as the development of a relationship, much like one you might develop with a person. "Reading," in fact, is always a complex and unique story of encounter, flirtation, acquaintance, and knowing. It's a little weird, but I ask students to carry their books around with them, place them nearby when they are not reading (on their drawing desks, at the dinner table, etc.), and, in Whitman-esque fashion, get to know them, even unopened, as daily companions and even as old friends. I hope, this, in turn, leads to a reformation in their minds of what a book is. When some complain that a book is "dry" or "boring," or even when they assert that a book is "exciting," I tell them that, in fact, it is their relationship to the book that is "dry" or "boring" or "exciting." Books are just books; their meaning and transformative power depend on how readers bring them to life. 

These are just some of my own techniques for keeping the pleasures of reading alive; on the whole, I think Jacobs and I are far more in sync than apart. Perhaps more so than Jacobs, I sense that all this might be futile: maybe the pleasures of sustained reading are indeed being erased and are likely to be lost to us in the future. But, really, I don't know. Like Jacobs--and, I think, teachers in general--I hopefully and defiantly try to keep it alive anyway. (The cliché of teacher-motivation is true: "If I can just reach one person....").

I wish you all absorbing and transformative reading.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hearing Disfluency

An article posted last week on Slate, Michael Erard makes the case for the usefulness of "ums" and "ahs" in speech, "disfluencies" that we typically discourage. Apparently, such pauses in the flow of speech engender a feeling of anticipation in listeners that can focus attention, if not overused. It reminds me, in a way, of musicologist Charles Keil's notion of "participatory discrepancies," the ways in which being slightly "out of time" and "out of tune" in performance actually can make music feel more, not less, groovy and danceable.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to understand a speech as an artifact that is to be delivered (without disfluency) rather than an utterance that is heard (with disfluency). In our culture, a public speech is commonly documented as a script that has gone through multiple drafts, can be scrolled on a teleprompter, and whose success depends on an accurate delivery. Even a transcript of a speech, after the fact, tends toward idealized representation, with the true messiness of non-sentences, false starts, and paralinguistic acts edited out and the dynamics of the speaking event largely ignored. Journalistic transcriptions of the annual State of the Union address are a good example of this sort of reduction. While the text of the speech is always offered for study, anyone who witnesses the event knows that a major part of its meaning is about the dynamics of delivery and response: how things are said and who in the room applauds, stands, sits, smiles, or scowls--and when. How is that behavior documented? Why don't we have good ways to represent it?

The institutionalization of langue over parole leads me to the problem of how we might recognize disfluency in the past. Imagine that you wanted to look back and really analyze the oratory of a public speaker and how his or her delivery was variously heard and understood by audiences. Could you do so? You can partially recover instances of speaking and hearing during the era of recording, using a combination of audio records, film, and contextual understanding of audiences from acoustics, linguistics, oral history, and social history. However, for 19th century public speakers like Henry Ward Beecher, or even early 20th century figures like Theodore Roosevelt (who apparently had a surprisingly high-pitched voice), such analysis is even more difficult. To account for how public speakers were heard before 1900 or so, you can only work with fragments: brief written descriptions (from letters and news reports) of how speakers may have sounded, or how audiences reacted; images and photographs, if you can find any, that might allow you to make something out of the body language and facial expressions of audience members. It's not promising.

It seems to me that the static nature of what we typically deem as "historical evidence" erases the dynamism of the events we would like such evidence to represent. I'm quite interested in thinking more about what, exactly, we archive as historical evidence, something that raises all sorts of questions about processes of interpretation and the limits of historical practice. I also think we can do much now to more fully document contemporary performing and audiencing (with its "ums" and "ahs") for the historians of the future.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fandom Before the Internet: The Fan Club Directory

How did fans keep up with the latest news, enthuse with friends, and sustain their enthusiasms before the Web, Facebook, and Twitter? We take it for granted that a "community" can be non-geographic these days, but before the Internet that concept was not wholly accepted; a community without shared experiences and practices in a particular place felt considerably weaker, more like a loose association ("the international community," "the scientific community") than one based in a neighborhood or other locality. Nevertheless, fans' intense feelings of connection motivated them to seek one another out and attempt to build a sense of community, something that they did mostly with regular face-to-face meetings (at conventions, performances, and parties) and print communication (fanzines, newsletters, and private letters). Much of this activity, especially for fans of lesser-known stars and art forms, was DIY, and it required an amazing amount of labor and love. You really need a certain level of devotion to work at a job all day, manage a family, and then also spend your remaining time, night after night, doing the rather isolated work of collecting clippings, writing articles, compiling fan art, and mailing out photos and tapes to fellow fans.

I'll be exploring these aspects of fandom a bit more (and maybe compare them to today's practices), but for this post I just wanted to highlight an extraordinary publication, which is now defunct: The Fan Club Directory. Published between 1979 and 2002, the Directory was a two-staple, roughly 75-page booklet, produced annually by the National Association of Fan Clubs (NAFC). It listed alphabetically every fan club that elected, for free, to become a member of the NAFC, giving readers the U.S. mail address of the current president and/or contact person. The NAFC was an organization dedicated to representing "all fan clubs in all fields of entertainment," and so the listings in the Directory were unintentionally jarring: announcement of The Amazing Pudding, the fanzine for Pink Floyd, sat right across from the Annette Funicello fan club (both are listed alphabetically under "F"); "The Celestial Affiliation of Time Lords: A Time Travel Fan Organization" was next to the "Charlie Daniels Band Volunteers;" Elton John and Al Jolson were side by side. It read like a fantasy middle-school classroom before everybody went off to become famous in their various pockets of the world.

Some of the clubs were focused on stars or shows that I don't recognize anymore--Becky Hobbs, Secret Oktober, etc. But full-page breakouts were allotted for entertainment stars with more than one club, including Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, and Elvis Presley. There seemed to be a mixture of both "official" fan clubs, run by an artist's management, and "unofficial," run by fans out of their homes. Of equal historical interest were the details in the Directory's ads. You could learn, for example, that The Flying Nun Fan Club "has been looking for the original hat and dress from 'The Flying Nun' for the 25th Anniversary." (One can only wonder: did they find it? What did they do with the artifacts?). Or that there was a new Keith Carradine Club in Gronau, Germany, "searching for new members who are interested in international contact with other Carradine fans all over Europe." Or that a group called "Operation Tribbles" helped to coordinate Star Trek clubs to donate stuffed "tribble" toys to people in rest homes, hospitals, and hospices around the world. In all, the Directory offered a heterogeneous slice of late 20th century popular culture in the English-speaking world. 

When I first received The Fan Club Directory in my mailbox back in 1993, I remember being amazed at how many clubs there were and how much work it must have been to bring that information together in one place. Of course, that was right at the dawn of the World Wide Web, when fans were just joining online "bulletin boards" and "discussion groups." Blanche Trinajstick, the Editor/Publisher of the Directory, retired from "fan club work" in 1992, stating that "for more than 30 years I have not known the meaning of 'spare time.'" Her successor, Linda Kaye, published the Directory for another decade before finally calling it quits in the face of the Internet explosion, which both made being a fan and communicating with other fans far easier and slowly eroded the usefulness of a printed directory. As Kaye wrote retrospectively: "While the NAFC provided a great service for a quarter of a century, the Internet made the task of keeping up with confirming the legitimacy of 'new' website clubs and responding to mountains of e-mail requests for fan information and clubs dealing with fans most of us have never heard of a burden too overwhelming to continue."

Yes, the Internet changed things. But I am wary of simply understanding technology as determining radically new kinds of human behavior. In fact, I see The Fan Club Directory as an important and necessary antecedent to today's social networking. While it is all but forgotten among the current iPod generation, I hope that at least it will be preserved (along with fanzines and other fans publications) as evidence of how enthusiasm in our culture has been continuously, as well as variously, organized.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Fan's Perspective: McCartney as Dad

Musician Robert Burke Warren has a thoughtful article over at Paste on his fandom for Paul McCartney. His reflection was prompted by McCartney's recent concert at Yankee Stadium, which he describes as a powerful show for the audience gathered. As he put it, "I was a riot of sensation and notion; chill bumps, laughter, singing with strangers—all messy, uncool spillage from an open heart." Part of that spillage was realizing the extent to which his fandom has, in some way, always been about McCartney as a father figure. "I was struck" he wrote about the finish of the concert, "by the amount of families, some of whom carried sleeping children out of the still-charged stadium. This had been a family event. Of course."

In public discourse, fandom is typically reduced to stalking or silly teenage enthusiasm. (Certainly, the story of Beatlemania was always centered on screaming teenage girls). But, here, Warren shows us that such stereotypes of fandom fail to get at the consequences of individuals' long-term attachments to public performers. Devotedly following a star's career over time--for years or decades--transforms most people's initial attraction, however motivated, into a significant force for meaning in daily life. Songs get attached to personal memories and values, lyrics begin to illuminate diverse circumstances, concerts start to feel less like entertainment events and more like repeated rituals of affirmation.

McCartney as an iconic dad? Sure: for Warren. Fandom is complicated--as complicated as the diverse experiences and life stories of the millions of people who identify as fans. Especially in our complex culture, in which intense fame vies with widespread anonymity, fandom works not only as a framework for consumption but also as a technology of the self. Few have really bothered to articulate the latter, but it is obvious when someone does.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Name That Audience 7

I've been focusing a lot on music lately, so time for something different. That's your hint for this week's Name That Audience:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Ecological Approach to Awe

There is a very interesting moment in the narrative of Geerat J. Vermeij's The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything From Seashells to Civilization, when, after laying out some of the basics of his thesis about adaptation, he describes a profound concert experience:

On a cold Thursday evening, Edith and I sit in the cavernous Hooglandse Kerk in Leiden, the Netherlands, immersed in sonic splendor, and move to deep contemplation as the sacred music of Tomás Luis de Victoria and other Spanish late Renaissance masters, performed alternately on the great Baroque organ and a capella by the choir, fills the church. Everyone and everything--the audience, the chords and melodies, the organist and his craft, the singers and their conductor, the artistry of the composers, and even the church with its echoing acoustics--have become one, a three-dimensional edifice of harmony and meaning.

I've been collecting descriptions of concert experiences for as long as I can remember, but this one is different than most. Being moved by a performance is most often described by contemporary Americans in the language of religious faith; the feelings generated by experiencing something greater than oneself most closely recall one's feelings about God. But Vermeij, as a biological scientist, offers a slightly different analogy, using the principles of ecology to account for aesthetic pleasure. In fact, after admitting that the concert is "a transcendent construction, inspired by a fervent faith in God, anchored in beliefs in miracles and creation stories and the afterlife, all doctrines I rejected long ago," he explains his being moved in terms of his own awareness of participating in a complex ecosystem, as a one component among many:

But the magic--the ecstasy created by coordinated complex machines inside a massive box of stone--endures. The components taken singly may be ordinary and undistinguished, but the whole achieves a grandeur and significance, a richness of experience, that transcends the context in which it was created....This is as compelling a demonstration as can be found of parts working together to produce an emergent whole, a unit with properties that none of its components possesses. Water, a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is utterly unlike the two component elements. It is a liquid rather than a gas at room temperature, it expands rather than contracts in the solid state, and it is an exceptionally good conductor of heat. The properties of water seem irreducible, much as our complex brain might appear to be irreducible to its many constituent parts; but in fact they arise through the interaction--the working together, or synergy--of components. Likewise in music, chords and melodies convey patterns and evoke emotions that single tones cannot. Sentences, paragraphs, and books have meanings that individual words and letters do not. Living things, too, work together to add dimensions of value, function, and meaning. Survival and propagation are themselves expressions of emergence and synergy common to all life-forms; but we humans are motivated and enriched by more than these lifewide aspirations. We perceive a greater purpose--through love, curiosity, a social conscience, helping others, and perhaps above all, through aesthetics--a deeper meaning that makes our individual lives worthwhile to others. Without that added significance, and without the intentionality that enables us to create a future according to our tastes and values, life would be empty; we would descend into apathy and callousness. Purpose and meaning, however they come into our lives, are as real and as essential as the evolved imperative to survive and reproduce.

It might be productive to place this understanding of a "transcendent construction" next to others that have come down to us over the years from more religiously-minded philosophers (enthusiasm, the sublime, etc.). In fact, I see the beginnings of a bad academic joke: "Plato, Kant, and Darwin are sitting in the audience at a concert...." Seriously, Vermeij's ecological approach to thinking about aesthetic experience recalls early American concert-goers in the 1840s and 1850s. Before reformers insisted on reverence for great works, concert-goers primarily reported being moved--sometimes overwhelmed--by the entire experience of a concert, from acoustics and seating to the sensation of mass applause. I'm not sure their experiences included Vermeij's admiration of "synergy," but they did involve heightened attention to the interaction of multiple and dynamic parts, which was, in a way, a nascent sort of ecological awareness.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Latest Work on Opera Fans

Looks like I need to catch up on a recent publication: Claudio Benzecry's The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession. Jessa Crispin has a review (combined, somewhat oddly, with Wayne Koestenbaum's now 18-year-old The Queen's Throat) over at the Smart Set, including a reflection on her own fandom. She focuses on the importance of love as an independent organizing force for fan behavior, a motivation that, in most post 1970s cultural studies work on fandom, is de-emphasized in favor of social and political meanings involving subculture, hegemony, resistance, etc.

I assume this focus is the case with Benzecry's book, as well; my cursory reading of the introduction indicates that he is interested in staking a claim for understanding opera fandom outside of Pierre Bourdieu's highly influential ideas in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. All good. It might be nice if, on occasion, sociologists were to consider seriously the growing work on music fandom in disciplines outside of sociology (I had the same complaint about Tia Denora's otherwise brilliant Music in Everyday Life), but I'm open to Benzecry's fieldwork insights and hope to read it thoroughly soon.

My Music, Part Two


I am sometimes asked whether I will ever join my old colleagues, Charlie Keil and Sue Crafts, and create an updated version of My Music: Explorations of Music in Daily Life, which we published in 1993. But I have to say that it seems to me that Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are doing just that lately over at All Songs Considered. They've now produced two great podcasts based on audience submissions and stories; one was on "Summer Music Memories" and the latest is about "Songs That Make You Weep." The show usually features Boilen and Hilton (and sometimes other critics, as well, including Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers) highlighting their favorite new releases or shows, but these episodes offer stories of ordinary people using music in the daily lives, often in their own voices.

So much has changed in the world of popular music, especially in terms of its technology, business model, and distribution. However, at the same time, Boilen and Hilton are pointing to many of the same meanings and actions that we discovered in the Music in Daily Life Project back in the late 1980s: the uses of music to shift or match mood, the deep connections between music and memory, and the transformative power of being moved by a song. This is a balance that really interests me: what has changed about the practice of audiencing, thanks to new technologies and social forces, and what remains the same, thanks to the constants of cultural and human behavior?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Audience Approval

Tom Bartlett, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has an amusing post on who gets a standing ovation  for a TED talk. Applause, when you think about it, is pretty bizarre, no? Clapping our hands together vigorously to indicate approval? Standing, while clapping our hands together, to show super approval?

It's no weirder, I suppose, than rock concert audience members holding up cigarette lighters during a power ballad (for young people that currently use a cell phone: sorry, it's not the same--no flicker). We no longer yell "huzzah!" but we do still cry, "bravo!" and, in other venues, "woooooh!" Today, we "like" messages by clicking a symbol on a keyboard, but that's really no match for the forceful and sustained physicality ("thunderous applause", etc.) of audience approval in the 19th century.

There is a BBC radio piece on the history of applause, which is useful. Otherwise, Alex Ross, of the New Yorker, has dug up fascinating details about the increasingly limited role of spontaneous applause at classical music concerts. London's The Musical Times of July 1, 1897 (pp. 448-449) offers some insights, as well, particularly regarding changes in the relationship between applause and gender:
Thirty years ago it was hardly "good form" for a lady to applaud. She allowed her brothers or sons of husband to express her approval vicariously. But emancipation and the athletic education of our Amazons have changed all that. In applause nowadays, as in everything else, dux femina facti, and when a Paderewski plays lovely woman does not merely clap her lily-white hands, but she stamps her fairy feet and thumps on the floor with her elegant parasol or en-tout-cas. And certainly musicians are not likely to resent the innovation, for they would scout as a counsel of perfection the maxim that "virtuosity is its own reward." No; it may be a sign of weakness, but musicians, when they perform in public, like to be applauded, and as fully three-fourths of the tribe of conert-goers are of the fair sex, it is just as well, in the interest of the performer, that women should have abandoned their old prejudice against testifying their approval in the way practised by the mere male person.
I need more, though. Has anyone done a serious scholarly history of applause? If women and men, or refined and non-refined persons, were expected to show appreciation differently at concerts in the past, were fans and non-fans doing the same? How exactly? How do we vary our approval in today's digital age?