Sunday, January 30, 2011

Classics of Fan History: Fandemonium!

Fred and Judy Vermorel's Fandemonium! The Book of Fan Cults and Dance Crazes, first published in 1989 and now out-of-print, continued the themes of their earlier work, Starlust (1985), by celebrating the excesses of pop culture fandom. While Starlust featured the sexual fantasies of fans for pop celebrities in the 1980s, Fandemonium! provided an historical context for that work, tracing the development of various kinds of public hysteria, celebrity cults, and dance manias in 20th-century Europe and the U.S. It was lavishly illustrated with images and press clippings, and designed with the cut'n'paste sensibility of a manic scrapbooker (as if the Vermorals could not keep up with the deluge of mass-mediated material coming at them).

The goal of the book was to highlight the "passions engendered by consumerism." Making loose connections to Tarantism and St. Vitus's Dance and modern forms of mania, the Vermorels focused on everything from the fan riots at the 1927 funeral of film star Rudolph Valentino to jitterbugging to Beatlemania to mosh pits. The "True Stories" chapter featured fragmentary descriptions of celebrity fans impersonating their idols, trying to touch stars, turning star-related merchandise into fetish objects, and stalking. Sections on rock'n'roll assessed the rise of "THE GIRL," a role of "no particular gender," defined by being excitable, vulnerable, and a "consumer idealist/ideal consumer." The book's visual content was intentionally provocative, highlighting the human body: people dancing wildly, fainting behind crowd-control barriers, or in various states of delirium and ecstasy at concerts.

When I first encountered this book, I was suspicious of the unabashed sensationalism of the Vermorels' approach. The connection they were trying to make between the "historical" and the "hysterical" seemed to me overly selective, ignoring less-demonstrative fans like book lovers or more-organized fans like baseball kranks. They used a definition of fandom that fully embraced the portrayals of journalists and other elitist critics of popular culture: fandom was about unruly mobs and stalkers rather than human enthusiasm and connection. And in a move typical of cultural studies work in the 1980s, it casually flipped Adorno-esque cultural critique on its head: the Vermorels asserted that fandom was not about control by the media and its star machinery but about resistance to that control.  Thus frenzy and chaos were specifically meaningful:
"But don't knock hysteria. It's not just an irrational force which sends people into self-destructive frenzy. It's also a problem-solving behavior which helps us make emotional sense out of cultural shock and social trauma. Through tis florid and erotic displays we symbolically negotiate our unspoken desires and quite literally 'shake off' constraints by affirming the instinct for pleasure.'"
Now, however, I recognize that this was one of the first works in fan studies to address the breadth of fandom's history, bringing together and juxtaposing diverse instances of fan-like behavior over time. Perhaps there is legitimate link between medieval epidemics, 19th-century manias, and modern fandom, even if it's only the discourses used to describe those behaviors. The Vermorels make that issue worth exploring in more depth. And while I still have serious reservations about the Vermorels' definition of fandom as simple fanaticism about stars and find their history distortedly selective, I can get behind some of their broader goals of doing fan history, as stated in their brief but brilliant "Afterword":
This book is about showbiz in its widest sense. It bypasses distinctions and truisms dear to particular tastes or specialisms. Like the difference between rock and pop. Or the origins of rock'n'roll somewhere between the blues and post-War teenage affluence...They all come out of a preoccupation with the stars' or industry's point of view. A history of kings and queens, coronations and abdications, which would seem ridiculously outmoded and woefully elitist in any other subject. 
Paradoxically, when you look at it from the consumer's vantage point, showbiz seems a more integrated phenomenon than is usually presented...Focusing on the pleasures, necessities and ambivalences of consuming popular entertainment, on all consumers of all popular entertainment, also creates a definition for showbiz beyond genre and fashion, even beyond particular media...
So often the critic/fan/prof is driven to imagine (or to wish) that the origins of showbiz fascination lie somehow or somewhere in the objects of this fascination....Whereas all the time it's only the fan who has the imagination and talent and tenacity to reinvent such fascinations every single day. The magic of stars is in the work of fans.
Fandom is wider and more significant than we thought, and history has a multiple vantage points. Can we continue to build new scholarship on those principles?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Talk at UT Austin

On February 7th, I'll be giving a talk in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the University of Texas, Austin. Hope to see my one blog follower there--you know who you are. Seriously, the topic will be "Music Audiences, Ethnographic History, and the Construction of New Pasts." I'm basing it on my latest work about the avid audiences for urban music concerts, exhibitions, and shows between 1840 and 1880. The topic necessarily addresses sound and hearing (which leaves little historical evidence, as currently defined), and it involves people who have, for the most part, remained anonymous in American history. I will talk about the methodological challenges of locating and investigating the experiences of such people and the ramifications of bringing their world to light. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hanging on Every Word

In our mediated hyperculture, it is difficult to imagine how listening to a lecture could be a form of popular entertainment. Not so, however, in the 19th century, where oratory was big business, involving legions of travelling celebrity speakers and regular, large, and eager audiences. As Harper’s Monthly explained in 1855: “New England is dreadfully belectured. Every evening of the week usually brings some 'entertainment' of the kind, as it is courteously termed. The Mercantile Library of Boston, like an immense corporation doing a tremendous business, runs, as it were, two express trains of lectures during the week.”

Ordinary people frequently sought out speakers, reflecting in their diaries about they heard. In fact, they tended to treat public lectures and speeches as they did sermons: sources of life-changing wisdom. A good lecture was one that galvanized the audience, moving them to act. Thomas Augst has written about this use of oratory as a "technology of the self" in The Clerk’s Tale; what interests me is the extent to which such attention might also be characterized as a form of fandom. Relying on the framework of authorship, the history of oratory is often about the power of speakers, but the other side of that power, of course, is the enthusiastic embrace of listeners.

Political oratory was especially meaningful to its audiences in the 19th century. Samuel P. Orth, (“Government By Impulse, Atlantic Monthly, Volume 100 (July 1907): 1-9) summed it up in the context of William Jennings Bryan’s electrifying—but failed—run for president in 1896: 
“The American people love their orators. No other people flock as we do to hear sonorous sentences, well-rounded periods, plausible epigrams, multiplied alliteration, and picturesque metaphors. Nowhere else is a resonant voice so potent as in America. Where else in the world, and in history, could be reenacted the scene that witnessed the nomination of an obscure newspaper reporter for the highest office in the gift of a great nation, because of the full orotund of his voice and the appealing figures of his speech? And what greater tribute could be paid to man than was vouchsafed by the assembled thousands gathered from every state at the eastern gateway of the continent, to greet the necromancer of words as he returned to his native land from a world tour? It is not Bryan the statesman, nor Bryan the sage, nor Bryan the politician, but Bryan the orator, whom the masses adore.

The political orator exercises a mystic sway. The enchantment of the human voice is singularly complete over the average American audience. They will stand in downpouring rain for hours, they will fill the largest hall to suffocation, they will gather in unwieldy crowds at monster mass meetings, to hear a mighty wielder of phrases; they will get out of bed at unseemly hours in the morning, or stay up until midnight, to hear a stump speech from the rear platform of the train that bears the favored orator from town to town in a journey of triumph. 
And why do we love to hear our orators? It is not merely idle curiosity, for curiosity is transitory; it vanishes speedily, once that it is satiate. Nor is it surely for the logic or the wisdom or the originality of the orator. The public speaker who has a reputation for syllogisms or philosophy speaks to empty benches. We love to hear our political orators, not for what they teach, but for what they inspire. They make us enthusiastic. We love the thrills they give, the impulses they radiate. The function of the stump speaker is not conversion or conviction, but stimulation. In some degree all republics have magnified the gift of speech. The spoken word is the medium of legislation and agitation. From the village debating club to Congress, volubility is the much sought gift.”

There is certainly something about the ritual occasion of political speech that evokes strong feelings of civic participation. It suppose that's why I still watch my political party's national convention on television every four years. Some of what you see is so old-fashioned, it seems almost a mockery of the past (plastic skimmer hats and balloons, really?). However, it's still part of the political process, and I feel like I need to be “in” it even if not “at” it. There is also the fact that democracy remains fundamentally a persuasive art, and in politics, speaking is still the primary medium of action. Public political speech is almost always a speech act--directing, declaring, and committing. Most of all, though, political rhetoric demands response. The situation of an eloquent leader, poised before an expectant audience, is a social drama with potential legislative consequences. Most of the time, hearing a good political speech reminds people of their values, their ideal strivings, and new possibilities to consider. Sometimes, however, when audiences are ready to do something with the words they hear, oratory sparks action. 

The State of the Union is Tuesday.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Recreating Performance Environments

There are many excellent histories of urban theater architecture; there are few that give us an understanding of actually being a concert or theater-goer on a particular night in 1855 or 1870 or 1903. What was playing? How did the inside of a theater look from various viewpoints? What was it like to sit with others in a crowded house?

Of course, scholarship and narrative description can represent such experience. For example, Thomas Forrest Kelly’s First Nights and First Nights at the Opera address some of these questions for specific premieres of musical works and operas. Vera Brodsky Lawrence’s monumental multi-volume Strong on Music re-creates the whole world of music and theater in New York City between 1840 and 1860, using George T. Strong’s mid-19th century diary and a detailed mining of journalism from the period.

However, there are also a number of digital approaches, a few of which I will note here:

Mapping the Moment is an interesting interactive map of theater and entertainment in Nottingham, England, in the 19th century, including performance venues, performances, and census information.

The Lost Museum, is an archive and re-creation of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. The simulation lets you see and hear the museum's rooms, some of which contain historical commentary.

Virtual Vaudeville engagingly recreates New York City’s Union Square Theater in 1895. It’s a sophisticated simulation that allows you to experience a vaudeville show, in “real” time, while also exploring the space of theater. 

For a related but different take on virtual recreation of entertainment venues, the Urban Simulation Team of UCLA creatied an architectural simulation of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It needs people, but it's still pretty cool. 

I’m only beginning to explore all this. If Ubisoft can bring 15th-century Italy to life, with attention to historical accuracy, in Assassin's Creed II, why not a night out in an antebellum city? For a scholarly summary of the issues, see Hugh Denard

Friday, January 21, 2011

Harmless Insanity: Bibliophilism v. Bibliomania

The excerpt below, from Henry Howard Harper's Booklovers, Bibliomaniacs, and Book Clubs (1904), is an early attempt at explaining what Joli Jensen, in 1990, called “fandom as pathology." I’m not sure the author succeeds in moving beyond the disease metaphors! Good point, at the end, though, about how some people, more than others, are apt to be labelled maniacal.

"It should be remembered that one possessing a fondness of books is not necessarily a bibliomaniac. There is as much difference between the inclinations and taste of a bibliophile and a bibliomaniac as between a slight cold and the advanced stages of consumption. Some one has said that 'to call a bibliophile a bibliomaniac is to conduct a lover, languishing for his maiden’s smile, to an asylum for the demented, and to shut him up in the ward for the incurables.' Bilbio relates to books, and mania is synonymous with madness, insanity, violent derangement, mental aberration, etc. A bibliomaniac, therefore, might properly be called an insane or crazy bibliophile. It is, however, a harmless insanity, and even in its worst stages it injures no one. Rational treatment may cure a bibliomaniac and bring him (or her) back into the congenial folds of bibliophilism, unless, perchance, the victim has passed beyond the curative stages into the vast and dreamy realms of extra-illustrating, or 'grangerizing.' People usually have a horror of insane persons, and one might well beware of indulging a taste for books, if there were any reasonable probability that this would lead to mental derangement. There could be furniture-maniacs, rug-maniacs, and china-maniacs, but people do not generally hesitate to purchase furniture, rugs, and china for fear of going crazy on the subject, and no more reason is there why rational persons should hesitate to make a collection of good books for a library, for fear of being called bibliomaniacs. In Sesame and Lilies Ruskin says: 'If a man spends lavishly on his library, you call him mad—a bibliomaniac. But you never call one a horse-maniac, though men ruin themselves every day by their horses, and you do not hear of people ruining themselves by their books.'"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Banking Reading

Two online sites to note about historical research on reading are the Reading Experience Database and the “A Place of Reading” Exhibit.

The Reading Experience Database (RED), begun in 1996, is extraordinary—an accumulated collection of descriptions of reading over centuries, from a variety of English language sources (mostly from autobiographies and literature). It is one of the go-to places for learning more about the changing practices of reading.

“A Place of Reading” is a wide-ranging overview of reading in early America, including an image bank of people reading in various private and public spaces. The bank is less expansive than the RED but nevertheless interesting; while iconographic research has somewhat of a hold in music studies, it has not had wide application in literary studies (Garrett Stewart’s The Look of Reading being a notable exception).

It would be great to see more collections of evidence on listening, dancing, viewing, and other audience behaviors about which we know very little historically.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Teaching Audience

I’ve been teaching reception theory at Rhode Island School of Design since 1998. If reception theory is still a bit marginalized in humanities disciplines, it’s definitely an odd approach in an art and design school, where students are primarily focused on learning how to create and produce. However, that is the reason why I think it’s important to teach it: it provides a small counterweight to the power of intention (“This work articulates my struggle to make sense of my upbringing”), or, conversely, to its casual abandonment (“People can feel whatever they feel.”). I want my students to glimpse that creativity and meaning are far more complex and non-linear, far more deeply contextualized (in moments, communities, and pasts), than most would like to acknowledge. 

In some semesters, I have been more provocative than in others: 

Mostly, I’ve just tried to introduce undergraduates to the classics in the field. From the early to the mid-2000s, I focused on theories about different forms of cultural expression: literature, film, television, and music. We read Iser and Radway, Eisenstein and Staiger, Kubey and Katz, Adorno and Hebdige. As I wrote in the catalog description for "Reception Theory and Popular Culture" in Fall 2000:
In this course, we will explore the ways various scholars have conceived of popular culture audiences, from early psychological analyses of reading to current historical and ethnographic investigations of popular music. By focusing on the differing ideas of audience and methods of audience research within and across these disciplines, we will discuss the impact of, and problems with, ideas of reception, consumption, and resistance. 
To the extent that reception studies and debates have unfolded in separate disciplines, this comparative framework was useful. Studying reception this way, though, was also limiting. I found, over time, that students did not necessarily have access to a meta-discourse that would enable them to move outside of disciplinary conceptions. There was also a lot of repetition that made the course into a kind of "parade of theories," with the students passively watching the authors march triumphantly by. That led me to start thinking about reception more anthropologically—not as a response to particular forms of expression, or even particular works (as reception is often conceived in literature and music), but rather as a culturally- and historically-contingent behavior that merges consumption, attention, sensation, association, memory, and enthusiasm—in short, what we might call “audiencing.”

For the past several incarnations of my reception theory course, I’ve moved to a different structure that avoids my previous formalism for a new focus on themes and debates around the whole notion of “receiving” art. I don’t know if the students care, but personally, I find not having to think about reception in strict disciplinary terms quite freeing. (Of course, doing so is the luxury of someone teaching in a department called “History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences”). At any rate, this spring I will give it another try: 

Audience (Spring 2011)

Stemming from developments in literary criticism and media studies in the 60s and 70s, the field of audience studies examines the complex ways that people read, view, and hear---or “receive”—artistic expression. Its radical emphasis on audiencing as a primary source of meaning has been controversial, challenging fundamental concepts of authorship, creativity, critical authority, and the work. In this course, we will analyze classic audience studies from across fields in the arts and humanities and explore the ramifications of those studies for disciplinary practices in art and design.


In this brief introductory section of the course, we will examine the concepts of “authorship” and “intention” against which reception theory is traditionally defined.

      February 21


February 23: Martha Woodmansee, “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of ‘The Author,’” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, (Summer, 1984), pp. 425-448.
February 28: Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Aspen, Nos. 5 & 6 (1968); Michael North, “Authorship and Autography,” PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 5. (Oct., 2001), pp. 1377-1385.


How do audiences—readers, spectators, listeners—make sense of artistic expression? We will consider “audiencing” from a number of perspectives: phenomenology, biology, history, psychology, and sociology.

Interpretive Moves
March 2: Wolgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 2, On Interpretation: I (Winter, 1972), pp. 279-299.
March 7: Stanley Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Spring, 1976), pp. 465-485.

Rhetoric and the Senses
March 9-14: Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O Factor. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Emotion, Cognition, and Response
March 16 Roger Pouivet, “On the Cognitive Functioning of Aesthetic Emotions,” Leonardo, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2000), pp. 49-53.
March 21 Noel Carroll, "Toward a Theory of Point-of-View Editing: Communication, Emotion, and the Movies," Poetics Today, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 123-141; Charles Carson, "'Whole New Worlds': Music and the Disney Theme Park Experience," Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov. 2004), pp. 228-235.

Sum: Frameworks of Interpretation

March 23 Paper #1 Due


We will evaluate reception theory by looking at particular problems and debates in audience studies, including fandom, participation, and politics.

Popular Culture and Politics

April 4: Adorno, “The Culture Industry” (at:
April 6: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) at


April 11 Daniel Cavicchi, “Loving Music: Listeners, Entertainments, and the Origins of Music Fandom in the 19th Century,” in Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, Cornell Sandvoss, Jonathan Gray, and C. Lee Harrington, editors. New York: New York University Press, June 2007.
April 13 Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell, 'Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption and Rethinking Textuality' from Participations  -

Participation and Technology

April 18-20 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press, 2008.

Sum: Issues in Reception

April 25 Paper #2 Due

What’s the use of audience studies? We will think about the implications of reception theory for various fields of art and design.

Provocations and Challenges
      April 27-May 2 Michael Kammen, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in 
            American Culture. Random House, 2007.

Your Own Art and Design
May 9 Steven W. Dykstra, “The Artist's Intentions and the Intentional Fallacy in Fine Arts Conservation,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Autumn - Winter, 1996), pp. 197-218.
May 11 Jeffrey L. Meikle, “Material Virtues: On the Ideal and the Real in Design History,” Journal of Design History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1998), pp. 191-199.

Sum: Audience Research and Practice

May 16 Presentations
May 18 Presentations

Paper #3 Due on Liberal Arts Exam Day – May 23

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Celebrity, an important element in the history of fandom, is the theme of the Winter 2011 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. While I remain suspicious of theories that describe fan behavior as a mere byproduct of the cultural machinery of celebrity (with the associated hand-wringing about the superficiality of consumerism, modern life, etc., etc.), any historical understanding of audiencing needs to take into account the workings of public performance and fame. 

The issue collects some intriguing historical passages: Plato on Protagoras's "entourage" in 432 B.C., Heinrich Heine on Lisztomania in 1844, John Dos Passos on Rudolph Valentino's death in 1920, the "fan base" for Jesus in 30, Charles Mackay on Mesmerism in 1795, Charles Dickens on the readers hounding him in 1842, and other topics. No theorizing, really, except for Lewis Lapham's introductory essay, which tends to rely on the artificiality-thesis of Daniel Boorstin's The Image (1962). In its historical scope, the issue reminds me of Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown (1986), which I would recommend (and which I should re-read!).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Varieties of American Enthusiasm

Like many editorials about avid behavior in the 19th century, the “The Absurdities of Enthusiasm” (The Galaxy, July 1873, 141-145) has a slightly mocking tone. Nevertheless, it is a bit more sympathetic than most: “Enthusiasm seems to me a kindling of the soul toward a favorite object or idea, to almost the entire controlling of our thoughts and purposes and emotions. By its very nature it is uncalculating and unselfish. In this, you can distinguish true from false enthusiasm. But this effervescence of the imagination often leads to mental intoxication, and the understanding reels and totters. Hence the element of absurdity. The enthusiasm of some souls is so grand that we are never tempted to smile at their eccentricities.”

After accounting for various European enthusiasms--for mathematics, alchemy, the Holy Land, South Seas speculation, tulips--the writer observes: “The Americans cannot boast of superior coolness. We had a Jenny Lind fever, and an excitement about Dickens which might be called an intermittent attack, for the “Notes” gave a chill between the spasms of wild admiration. We play croquet rainy nights aided by glimmering lanterns, and are ready for base-ball matches while a digital stump remains. We shake hands with our heroes until the poor member resembles a dropsical lobster; run the maddest kind of races on the Mississippi; and chew more tobacco and burst more engines than any other country. Then we had the “Moris Multicaulis” to an insane degree. (I prefer to appear learned, and so leave this a mystery to many). And not many years ago we had the hen fever. The papers were full of the excitement. The largest kind of eggs were laid—on editors’ tables—and extraordinary prices were paid for the fashionable fowls. Mr. Burnham, the gentleman who raised the excitement, assures us that in the summer of 1850 dozens of full-grown men, enthusiastic hen-fanciers, came to his house for Cochin China eggs at one dollar each, and on being informed that there were none at present, would sit down and wait three of four or six hours for the hens to lay them a few. ‘Who’s dead?’ the stranger would query, seeing the rows of vehicles standing in long lines by his fence.”

Conclusion: “Enthusiasm is a good thing. If you have it, be thankful. You will need it all before you get through life.”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Nightlife in Philadelphia, 1849

Nathan Beekley, a young clerk in Philadelphia, kept a diary in 1849 in which he chronicled his frequent and fascinated attendance at plays, concerts, shows, sermons, and parades. The city's increasing array of commodified entertainments (as fellow resident Joseph Sill remarked in 1840, "There are now 4 Theatres open every night—and 1 Equestrian Circus! Rather too much for Philadelphia!”) was a significant source of new kinds of cultural experiences and obsessions. For some young, rural, white men, away from their families for the first time to work in the city's merchant shops and manufactories, the diversions were almost overwhelming. The American Antiquarian Society, which holds Beekley's remarkable diary, is currently making its contents available online at Clerk and the City.

Invisibility & Traces

In American cultural history, there is very little attention given to audiences, even enthusiastic ones. Why?

First, most historians of the arts focus on making, either in aesthetic terms that account for notable authors, performers, and styles; or in production terms that focus on manufacturing, technology, and distribution. Creative lineages and changing styles are primary; diverse people reading, listening, or viewing is secondary.

Second, there is little evidence of audiences’ experiences. In the context of the Western star system, creators and performers in the public eye have been expected to attend to the legacy of their work; their notes, manuscripts, journals, account books, and personal correspondence have been preserved and deposited in public archives. The everyday experiences of audience members remain anonymous. Why would an ordinary theater-goer record his enjoyment of a show? To whom, exactly, would an avid reader share the logic behind the organization of her bedroom bookshelf?

Of course, these conditions are related: not looking for evidence of audience practices means that you never find any. My research is about trying. When you do so, the first thing you learn is that the readiest glimpses of audiences in the public record come from critics amused or alarmed at popular audiences' intensity, unfashionable behavior, or excess. Audience exuberance is sometimes an ignorant mania to be mocked, sometimes a dangerous disease to be cured; it is always distortedly described, from the outside, from above, and at arms-length.

The second thing you learn is that, if you are patient, audience members reveal themselves in other places: on ticket stubs or programs, a page in a family scrapbook, hints in letters and diaries, the design of buildings. I spent eight years reading old diaries, one by one, for traces of music audiencing—any reference or phrase or description. After reading multiple diaries about farming or accounting, stumbling on an entry like “She played ‘Old Folks at Home,’ with variations, which quite carried me away” can be positively magical! (Historical research is all about the small triumphs).

Patiently accumulating those glimpses, one at time, over years, eventually reveals patterns--representations of audiences in the past. Like stepping back from random pixels on a screen and seeing an image.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fan Words

The term “fan,” in the human sense, didn’t come into common use until the 1890s. Obviously, before that time, people were passionate about art, sports, and performance. Instead of “fans,” however, they were amateurs, beggars, boomers, buffs, bugs, connoisseurs, devotees, dilettantes, enthusiasts, fanatics, the fancy, fiends, gluttons, habitu├ęs, heads, hounds, kranks, lions, longhairs, lovers, maniacs, matinee girls, nuts, rooters, and more. (Wagner had his very own Wagnerians). All of these terms require contextual understanding, of course. Many of them, for instance, originally had derogatory connotations meant to codify and control audiences through public discourse. But surveying such names at least offers one a provocative entry point into fandom’s history.

I have long used etymologies in various dictionaries to follow the trail of some of these words. Another way to go about word research is to use Google Books, where you can do searches for terms from among millions of digitized historical texts. Such searches do not distinguish between multiple definitions and can be deceivingly inaccurate, but they still point to resources that might not surface otherwise. A new application that visualizes such searching is the Books Ngram Viewer, which is based on the work of folks at the Cultural Observatory at Harvard University. It can do cool things like compare the chronological occurrence of the term “music lover” versus “krank” (from baseball) in the Google Books database. Of course, there’s nothing here that tells you about the changing definitions of such terms, or the actual experiences of the people involved; that’s the hard part.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Begin...

Since 2003, I've been working on a new book, Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, which will be published in Fall 2011 by Wesleyan University Press. This blog is my next step. While I've explored the history of music fans, I've always been interested, too, in fans for literature, theater, sports, oratory, cinema. When and where does each group emerge and develop as a social phenomenon? Is it even useful to talk about them as separate groups? Overall, what can such historical fans tell us about changing circumstances of culture, consumerism, manipulation, identity, and participation in the U.S.?