Sunday, March 27, 2011

Classics of Fan History: The Frenzy of Renown

Okay, so it's not really about fan history, at least not throughout. But Leo Braudy's The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, published in 1986 by Oxford University Press, was one of the first scholarly books I had ever encountered that placed fame and its role in popular culture into an historical framework. When I first encountered the book in the late 1980s, I was struggling with how to make a living as a "music writer" and looking for a new path, and it convinced me of the legitimacy of studying popular culture at the graduate level. (The book's length alone--598 pages--was part of that. So much to learn! So much to argue about!). Soon I was off to earn a Ph.D.

This is not to say that I agree with everything Braudy says in the book. Braudy is a literary scholar (Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at the University of Southern California), so the book's main arguments are based on the authority and logic of his interpretations of various historical and social texts. He's a great wit (“In a self-made country, who had not the potential to be self-made himself, with the help of an equally self-made audience?”), and often insightful, but the historical scope of the work also leads him to generalize about the motivations of entire groups of readers or audiences and to make broad declarations about "our" society. The ethnographer in me questions statements like: "The ease with which we allow ourselves to be absorbed by such images, the desires to be that way ourselves, confirms that the essential lure of the famous is that they are somehow more real than we and that our insubstantial physical reality needs that immortal substance for support." (6)

Despite such misgivings, however, I have always appreciated Braudy's recognition of audiences as a significant part of both culture and Culture; The Frenzy of Renown is one of the first modern scholarly works to recognize fandom as a phenomenon existing before the 20th century. In a remarkable section of the book, titled "The Advent of the Fan," Braudy pinpoints a significant shift in audience attitude and agency in the 18th century, especially with respect to authors who were availing themselves of new models of publishing that allowed the "rapid diffusion of books and pamphlets, portraits and caricatures." More and more facsimile texts available to more and more readers was a situation crucial in fostering new means for "introducing the famous to the fan." As Braudy says, "The most unprecedented element in the crucial changes the eighteenth century makes in the concept of fame is the appearance of an audience that, instead of passively responding to its idols, takes an active role in defining them, an audience that is willing to be manipulated but eager to convey how that ought to be done more expertly."

He writes specifically about the curious readers of Rousseau in the late 1700s, who used to seek him out at his home for conversation and to whom he responded with confusion and horror (Braudy's take is similar to Robert Darnton's acccount in The Great Cat Massacre, which was published around the same time as Frenzy of Renown, in 1984). Braudy also highlights James Boswell, the reader/fan/writer who continually crossed "the line between admiring and wanting to be like his idols." (382). Boswell, Braudy argues, was a "quintessential representative of the new audience," who, in celebrating an author like Samuel Johnson in his Life of Johnson, sought to join or even replace him. 
His [Boswell's] personal and explicit response to fame two hundred years ago so well lays out a syndrome of aspiration, achievement, and disgust with achievement that has become so familiar. Boswell's elaborate self-examination makes him a prime modern case of those who believe that fame and recognition will satisfy their desires to be complete, "uniform," and filled with character, only to discover that nothing is really sufficient to satisfy the hunger within.
After discussing the "democratization of fame" and the "natural performers" of the 19th century, Braudy discusses the consequences of such shifts in the United States of the 20th century, where selfhood, publicity, and worth are finally and intensely fused into a widespread competitive desire for self-recognition on the part of both the famous and their audiences. Fandom, in such a context, is a bellwether, because it:
mediates the disparity between the aspirations fostered by the culture and the relatively small increments of personal status possible in a mass society...even for the nonfan, there is a larger sense in which the expansion of the possibility for fame and the preoccupation with those who achieve it indicates a deep-seated uncertainty about the survival of individuality itself. Does the increasing complexity and sheer connectedness of the world--the question might run--mean more uniformity or does it mean that self-assertion might be taking on different shapes, unforeseen in the individualities of the past but somehow linked to them? 
I appreciate the linkage of fandom to changing ideas of selfhood, but because we don't actually hear from audience members in this book, it is difficult to evaluate Braudy's assertion about their uncertainty. In other ways, too, I would argue that Braudy's take on fandom is, ultimately, incomplete, because it is consistently positioned as a response to "emblematic figures" in history. (I don't think it is a coincidence that this book came out at a time when the "star system" was gaining currency in film studies). Fans of creative genres, styles, or of groups of people are not here. Nor is fandom perceived as anything other than a relationship with the object of one's fandom. 

Still, fandom emerges as a significant social force begging to be understood. For which publics, exactly, have the renowned displayed and enacted their selves? How have audiences paid attention and why? The intellectual breadth of this work, and its audacious linking of diverse "public men" and "performers" over centuries through the complex ideological framework of "fame," represents an impressive and lasting example of scholarly cultural history. 

No comments:

Post a Comment