Saturday, April 30, 2011

Reception Study Society Conference

In case any academics out there might be interested, the deadline for paper proposals for the 2011 Reception Study Society Conference has been extended to June 1, 2011.

Northwest Missouri State University, in Maryville, MO, about 80 miles from the Kansas City International Airport.
Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 8-10.

Keynote Speakers:

Shirley Samuels, Flora Rose House Professor and Dean
Cornell University
“Reading the American Novel, 1780-1850”

Daniel Cavicchi, Professor of American Studies
Rhode Island School of Design
"Fandom Before 'Fan': Shaping the History of Enthusiastic Audiences."

Jonathan Gray, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“The Audience of the Rest of the Text: Hype, Spinoffs, Extratexts, Paratexts, and Reception”

The Reception Study Society promotes informal and formal exchanges between scholars in several related fields: reader-response criticism and pedagogy, reception history, history of reading and the book, audience and communication studies, institutional studies, and gender, race, ethnic, sexuality, postcolonial, religious, and other studies. Suggestions for panels and papers in any of these areas are welcome. Please submit proposals of 250 words or less to Philip Goldstein at or University of Delaware, 333 Shipley St., Wilmington, DE 19801, or visit the website: The deadline is JUNE 1.

Selected conference papers will be published in the RSS journal Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History, an on-line, refereed journal focusing mainly but not exclusively on the literature, culture, and media of England and the United States. Submissions to RSS are welcome at any time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Royal Watchers

Wedding of Queen Elizabeth II, 1947.

Fans ritualize entertainment. This is, in fact, one of the basic attributes of popular culture fandom: instead of simply enjoying a temporary experience of leisure (through the purchase of a product or a ticket), fans go beyond the limited expectations of commercial producers and seek to imbue their purchases with lasting personal connection and depth of feeling. Fans refuse to leave the concert hall or the stadium, or put down their favorite novel, but instead try to keep those encounters alive in everyday life. They engage in devotional activities, like collecting and interpretation; they sustain a reverence for significant places and sites, through pilgrimages; and they share narratives amongst themselves about their fandom, at conventions, in fanzines, and on websites.

But what does it mean when people entertain themselves with ritual? I've been thinking about this question lately, particularly with reference to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. A wedding is a sacred ritual, of course, and this wedding will also be a national celebration. But it will also be a major source of entertainment for the public and a significant boost for the television, travel, and souvenir industries. The royal wedding is projected to have a massive audience of enthusiasts who will be taking time off from work and other daily obligations to watch the ceremony on television or to participate in the pageantry of the moment in London, on its streets and parks and bridges; in pubs and halls, and before the large television screens that will be set up around the city. Fans are already camping out, and even after the ceremony is over, people will be able to purchase commemorative items like coins, posters, Kate masks (!), mugs, and hats. An audio version of the entire ceremony, produced by Decca Records, will be up on iTunes by next week.

Many people prefer ritual and entertainment to remain separate, with ritual affirming deeply-held beliefs and entertainment offering temporary amusement. This was at the core of debates in American Protestantism in the early nineteenth century, for example, when some critics warned that services were being perverted by congregants who were too-enamored of choirs' "bewitching jingles." But, as scholars like Richard Schechner have shown us, ritual and entertainment are connected poles of performance. And throughout history, the difference between the two has often blurred. Perhaps, in fact, intentional blurring is at the center of fandom: not only do fans apply feelings of devotion to entertainment, but they also apply feelings of pleasure to ritual. Normally, this transgression of established categories takes place privately or in relative isolation: individuals in front of their computers, or people in small communities, acting "inappropriately." But in the case of the royal wedding on Friday, millions will blend the sacred and the secular, and, in doing so, enact fandom on a global scale.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Notes on Flower Enthusiasm

The love of flowers is a peculiar form of fandom. It is not about loyalty to a team, the power of aesthetic experience, or a feeling of intimate connection with a star, but it nevertheless involves desire, identity, and marked devotion, including rituals of cultivation, collecting, pilgrimage, and story-telling. Flower enthusiasm, especially, creates powerful social bonds; garden lovers, like sports and music fans, seek each other out to discuss their latest discoveries and insights, or to marvel at each other’s beds and plots; the American “garden club,” a phenomenon that started generally among women in the 1920s, is not all that different from the charitable organizations or concert societies forming around the same time. But flower culture has a world history that spans centuries. Historical evidence of this culture lies in seed catalogs, countless poems and books and magazine columns about flowers’ symbolism, and accounts of various “manias” for particular flowers, from the rose to the cactus. Flower-culture, like many instances of fan-like enthusiasm, has sometimes been the subject of mockery by outsiders but, for its followers, it provides a source of deep human feeling.

While gardeners love flowers' beauty, they more specifically love the process of nurturance, growth, and display. Flowers' dynamism is, in fact, often associated with people or nations and with human qualities and emotions, from Charlotte Elizabeth's "biographical garden" to preacher Henry Ward Beecher's invocation of flower-enthusiasm as an earthly leveler of all men.

From: Charlotte Elizabeth, Floral Biography (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1840).
Botany is doubtless a very delightful study; but a botanical treatise is one of the last things that I should be found engaged in. Truth shall be told: my love of flowers—for each particular petal—is such, that no thirst after scientific knowledge could every prevail with me to tear the beautiful objects in pieces. I love to see the bud bursting into maturity; I love to mark the deepening tints with which the beams of heaven paint the expanded flower; nay, with a melancholy sort of pleasure, I love to watch that progress towards decay, so endearingly bespeaking a fellowship in man’s transient glory, which, even at its height, is but as “the flower of grass.”…But there is yet another, and somewhat fanciful view, that I delight to take of these fair things, my course has lain through a busy and a chequered path; I have been subjected to many changes of place, and have encountered a great variety of characters, who have passed before me like visions of the night, leaving but the remembrance of what they were. I have frequently in my lonely rambles among the flowers, assimilated one and another of them to those unforgotten individuals, until they became almost identified; and my garden bears a nomenclature which no eye but mine can decypher.
From: The London Quarterly and Holborn Review, vol. 24, p. 50, April 1865.
Floriculture adapts itself to a leading instinct of human nature. Much of the life of the florist is spent in making provision for the future. He sows his seeds in hope of a reward that is to be. Supposing him not only to cultivate flowers after the ordinary fashion, but to set himself to obtain new and improved varieties, this same instinct finds fresh scope and satisfaction. The reader must himself be a florist if he would understand with what enthusiasm the first blooms of seedling plants are watched by the expectant grower; how eagerly he notes such of them as seem to merit preservation; and what wholesome stimulus body and mind alike are apt to receive from the entire process of his occupation. Perhaps the adaptation of floriculture to satisfy certain instinctive cravings of our nature has quite as much to do with the all but universal passion for it as the love of flowers for their own sake.
From Henry Ward Beecher, Pleasant Talk About Fruits, Flowers, and Farming (1874), 50.
Floral insanity is one of the most charming inflictions to which man is heir! One never wishes to be cured, nor should any one wish to cure him. The garden is infectious. Flowers are “catching,” or the love of them is. Men begin with one or two. In a few years they are struck through with floral zeal. Not bees are more sedulous in their researches into flowers than many a man is, and one finds, after the strife and heat and toil of his ambitious life, that there is more pure satisfaction in his garden than in al the other pursuits that promise so much of pleasure and yield so little. It is pleasant to find in men whose hard and loveless side you see in society, so much that is gentle and beauty-loving in private. Hard capitalists, sharp politicians, grinding business men, will often be found, at home, in full sympathy with the gentlest aspects of nature. One is surprised to find how rich and sweet these monsters often turn out to be! 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Matinee Girl

A recent article by Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set, contemplating the waning interest in live performance, reminded me of the matinee girl, a type of audience member who was intensely interested in the stage. A fixture of urban theater culture in the late 19th century, matinee girls were young women who attended the cheaper afternoon performances of plays and, unlike "ordinary" audience members, found pleasure and meaning by engaging with the offstage personas of actors rather than the aesthetic content of the dramatic works. She was among the first widely-identified consumer types in American history, and, until the arrival of the flapper and then the bobbysoxer later in the 20th century, the most visible of America's female fans.

Charles Reade Bacon in "The Reporter's Nosegay" of 1896 said of matinee girls:
The eccentricities of the callow youths who haunt the stage doors of the theatres are well known. Most of them are regarded as harmless, and if they get any enjoyment out of ogling chorus girls as they leave the theatres it is nobody's business. There is another species of stage-door habitues, however, possessing far more interest, in the persons of matinee girls. The stage entrances to most of the Philadelphia theatres are located in dark, dirty and altogether uninviting alleys, but the environments do not deter hosts of nicely-dressed young women from repairing thither immediately after a Wednesday or Saturday matinee. Some of them are regulars, and they are slightly blase, unless some particularly strong matinee hero is the attraction. But it is amusing to watch the actions of those to whom the experience is novel. Their excitement is intense, and occasionally almost hysterical. The matinee stage door girl never speaks to the object of her adoration. She dreams of doing so someday, and in the meantime contents herself with writing him perfumed notes, which come in handy for shaving paper.
Bacon's description of backstage door culture raises issues that are still at work in contemporary fan culture--the hierarchy of more experienced fans and overly-excited neophytes, the reluctance to actually engage with stars, etc. Interestingly, it also pathologizes this kind of audience behavior in ways that are still current. While boys are just being boys while ogling chorus girls, women audience members who long for matinee heroes are portrayed as dreamy and deluded.

The matinee girl was a regular subject for derision in the press. Matinees were created by entrepreneurs in 1870s to move theater away from its reputation as an uncontrolled and dangerous environment and create new, safe entertainment. In fact, matinee performances were meant to help women fulfill the feminine ideal of Victorian culture and to develop their emotional sensibility through participation in the arts. Of course, this was a kind of trap; while it cultivated the feminine ideal, it also enforced that ideal. Genteel women easily slipped into the caricature of the overly-excitable, overly-emotional, easily-manipulated girl, given to romantic fantasy. And for male critics worried about the increasing emasculation wrought by industrialization and urban life in the late 19th century, female consumers were a symbol of everything that was wrong with America's commercialized society. Matinee girls made clear suspected associations between femininity, passivity, and lifeless bourgeois “Culture.”

However, there was also something else going on, here. For many women participating in theater at the turn-of-the-century, the matinee became a source of new power. It provided a rare shared space in which they could gather and express themselves freely in ways forbidden in everyday life—in Peter Rabinowitz’s phrase, with their “own dominant passions.” The matinee girl was commonly portrayed in the press as prone to fantasy and hysteria, but in reality she was also independent, single, unaccompanied by a male escort, and openly displaying desire outside of the usual prescriptions of middle-class courtship. Another thing I didn't know until recently was that apparently matinee girls were as equally fascinated by women actors as men. Thus a 1900 article in Metropolitan Magazine (Vol. XI, No. 6, 611) could state, "Margaret Anglin, the leading lady at the Empire, maintains that she is always at her best at a Saturday matinee. She declares that the sea of uplifted faces, eager, mobile, and attentive, is a source of inspiration...the real matinee girl is more deeply fascinated by young women who depict the lighter emotions of every-day life."

The rise and fall of "matinee girl" as a term between 1890 to 1940.

The height of matinee girl culture in the United States was around 1910. Of course, one can follow the matinee girl into cultural forms beyond theater, including film, popular music, and television. Fred and Judy Vermorel, writing in Fandemonium (1989), argued that the marked cultural position of “the girl” broadly serves as “the key sign for desire itself. The GIRL acts out for all of us our consumerist deliriums of possession and ecstasy.” Perhaps the recent blow-up about the problem of the tween girl audience for American Idol is a good example of that. “Matinee girls” will remain with us as long as public discourse links popular culture consumption and irrationality and then, in turn, portrays irrationality as a marker of nascent femininity.

Of course, girls themselves may have something else to say about it all, which remains an important area of fan research.

Friday, April 1, 2011

iPod Culture and the History of Listening

Slate excerpted an essay from the journal n+1 this week, on the iPod and its historical meaning, by Nikil Saval. It caught my attention, especially since I just spent the past eight years writing a book (Listening and Longing, coming Fall 2011 from Wesleyan University Press) about music listening in the 19th century. Certainly, we live in a music culture in which listening has long had a distinct role, and in the past decade or so, that role appears to have become more visible. Have mp3 devices like the iPod changed us? How might we measure such a change?

Saval approaches the iPod from the perspective of social theory, something that’s clear from his statement that “in the 20th century, the two most considered attempts to connect music and society were those of the philosopher Theodor Adorno and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.” No ethnomusicology, here--nor more recent sociological work by Tia DeNora or Michael Bull. While he rightly notes that Adorno avoided empirical evidence, and that Bourdieu failed to see how music pluralism might create its own kind of class hierarchy, these criticisms appear to be only a polite deference to skeptical readers; in the last instance, he agrees with Adorno (and Allan Bloom, for that matter): We live in “a counterfeit heaven where music plays all the time," but “we're not even listening.”

The judgments of social theory don’t involve actual people, which, I suppose, makes this sort of assertion safe from the messiness of accounting for experience. Nevermind that there are people on the street right now, to whom one could ask, “Why do you listen to your iPod so much?,” and from whom one would receive many considered and richly complex answers that may contradict the notion that people are “not even listening.”

My main criticism, however, is actually with the history presented in the essay. I very much appreciate Saval’s serious attention to the cultural behavior of music listening (something, as he points out, almost entirely absent from both academic and journalistic music criticism). And I am impressed with his emphasis on the fact that listening is always historical--that is, not a biological given but a complex set of interpretive moves on the part of listeners, which are themselves influenced by changing ideologies and institutions. But in his attempt to place iPod listening in that history, I would argue that he oversimplifies.

For Saval, it all comes down to Berliner’s Gramophone. In particular, he says, “Before the invention of the record and the gramophone (1887), the only form of listening people knew was social; the closest thing to a private musical experience was playing an instrument for yourself, or silently looking over a score. More often, if you had the means, you got to sit in the panopticon of the concert hall, seeing and being seen to the accompaniment of Verdi.” The gramophone, in his view, facilitated a new era of “solitary hyper-listening,” broken only by a brief and failed utopian moment in the 1960s, when  members of the counterculture believed that music could be a means to bring people together for social change.

This is not a new historical formulation; the advent of sound recording figures as a significant epochal dividing line in most textbooks on communications history, as well as the history of American music. But besides the fact that it is doubtful that the mere novelty of the phonograph was powerful enough to unilaterally determine lasting shifts in people’s daily behavior, (or that no music motivated 20th century social movements outside of the 1960s counterculture), I think we really need to interrogate the notion that recording technology was primarily a source of private and introverted musicality and that the public concert was primarily a source of shared experience and sociality.

The 19th-century music lovers I’ve studied, for example, frequently reported feeling alone in their passion for music. While they listened at concerts in the midst of friends and family, they insisted that their listening was individual; their friends did not hear the same sounds and were not moved in the same way. The longing music lovers felt, as they awaited the next visit of an orchestra, was a little embarrassing; rather than risk condemnation or ridicule, they recorded their concert experiences privately in their diaries.

Even if we accept that music listening in the 19th century was more fundamentally social compared to iPod use in the  21st century, the question remains: social how? There were different kinds of social relationships between audiences and performers, between audiences and works, and among audience members at urban concerts from their emergence in the 1830s through the early 20th century. Elites coyly displaying the latest fashion at a recital, young clerks sitting in an astonished hush while witnessing a virtuoso, and bourgeois reformers enacting the ideal of an educated citizenry through reverent listening were all participating socially in music events but with different motivations and beliefs about what that participation entailed and what it meant.

Our analyses of iPod listening ought to at least hold open the possibility that what’s going on is as equally layered as concert listening in the 19th century. Saval rightly asks, "We need a way to find out what all this music listening is doing to us, or what we're doing with it." But his discussion doesn't quite get at the latter as much as it might. The essay ends with his own dismay at “ubiquitous music” and a call to reject "the obscure social injunction that condemns us to a lifetime of listening." This strikes me as little different than John Philip Sousa's call for Americans to reject the phonograph back in 1906. Sousa couldn't see the point of canned music, relative to amateur performance, but his readers did; the phonograph did not, as he predicted, end the piano lesson or the marching band or, for that matter, Americans' interest in music. In the case of the iPod, the same might be true. People may be listening to more music than ever, and frequently doing so through earbuds, but they are likely making sense of that behavior, relative to other forms of musical participation, in ways that scholars are only beginning to explain.