Monday, March 28, 2011

Special Journal Issue on History and Fandom

Just a quick note that the online journal Transformative Works and Cultures has recently published a special issue on history and fandom, titled "Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," edited by Nancy Reagin, Pace University, and Anne Rubenstein, York University. I'm only beginning to read it, but a what a great pleasure to see so many articles on my favorite subject in one place!

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. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fans on the Field

World Series, 1903
Huntington Ave Park, Boston, 1904

Ohio Football League Championship, 1906
Brookside Park, Cleveland, 1914
Stagg Field, Chicago, 1915. Chicago History Museum.
One of the things that impresses me most when I look at images of early sporting events is just how close the audience was to the field of play. While this is still generally true for amateur and college games, in professional sports, the grounds of play have become sacred; audiences cannot enter the space during game time without risking censure, arrest, or a heavy fine. In fact, when fans are allowed to cross the boundaries of the field, that act is always ritualized and marked as special; it's okay when a home team wins a championship, for example, or when one has paid a fee for a specially-guided tour.

But it wasn't always so. Look at these images. Before stadiums and bleachers organized the flow of sports crowds into designated areas, audiences tended to congregate as close as possible to the players. Especially in baseball, the audience helped to shape the field's broader outlines; in some games, fans were actually on what we could today consider the frame of the field. In all, fans' bodies, voices, and dynamic responses must have been a far more integral part of the game.

Yale Football Game, 1879
In football, around the turn of the century, it was decided that something had to be done about the crowds. As Walter Camp explained in his 1894 book, American Football, audiences were starting to create problems for the news kinds of highly-ruled play that had developed. In other words, they needed to be separated from the game:
To-day the teams which meet to decide the championship are brought up to the execution of at least twenty-five different plays, each of which is called for by a certain distinct signal of its own. The first signals given were “word signals;” that is, a word or a sentence called out so that the entire team might hear it and understand whether a kick or a run was to be made. Then, when signals became more general, “sign signals” (that is, some motion of the hand or arm to indicate the play) were brought in and became for a time more popular than the word signals, particularly upon fields where the audience pressed close upon the lines, and their enthusiastic cheering at times interfered with hearing word signals. Of late years numerical combinations have become most popular, and as the crowd is kept at such a distance from the side lines as to make it possible for teams to hear those signals, they have proven highly satisfactory… (120-121)
Compare these two images of the first Rose Bowl in 1902 and then the first game in the new Rose Bowl stadium in 1923:

The audience is bigger, obviously, but what's notable, I think, is the extent to which they have been moved, away from the field, up on grandstands, and behind barriers. I wonder what the relationship of this removal is to the late 19th century "disciplining of spectatorship" in theater and music, where audiences were asked to silently behold--or, at least, not interfere with--the unfolding of a work onstage? Or is this all simply progress--audiencing made more convenient, the field made visible to all, the game allowed to be played as a pure contest between teams?  

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Audience For Whom or What?

Here's a fun game. Can you guess what the audience depicted below is watching? An FDR speech? Shakespeare in the park? Underdog? The answer is after the jump.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Canon of Great Fans

Canons of great authors, artists, and composers have fallen out of favor in some humanities disciplines lately; judging some work as better than others, once the core work of criticism, has become a bit old-fashioned in the wake of post-structuralism. At least, how scholars understand the power of "good" art has changed. After the first wave of reception-theory in the 1970s, which pointed out the complexity, diversity, unpredictability, and even perversity of audiences as they received and "decoded" creative expression, the Arnoldian idea that a person would simply need to expose himself to works of genius in order to become educated or "cultured," or the modernist notion that structural complexity is a primary marker of artistic significance, needs to be understood with a degree of skepticism. "Canon formation," or how we evaluate the best works in a society, has turned out to involve more than just merit.

Our Great Authors, 1865

I don't really believe that we should abandon the idea of a canon in humanities scholarship, even as we expose its politics. Judgments about worth, after all, are vital for defining shared values and for democratic decision-making. And working through the process of judging is a key component of learning, and doing that through the evaluation of artistic works is useful. However, I do think that canonicity is often too narrowly-focused on authorship. Great works are almost always attributed to the great minds that conceived them. That's why musicologists or literary scholars still tend to develop expertise in particular authors deemed worthy of in-depth study (especially if they want a faculty appointment and/or tenure), or why textbook cultural histories continue to organize their narratives around moments of creative production, conveniently offering decontextualized lineages of creative influence, as if all great artists in history are really just part of one, big, family of geniuses.

It seems to me that if we are going to go through the effort of canonization, we ought to open up the process to all aspects of artistic culture. We can have a canon of great authors, as long as we also have canons of great bookbinders, concert promoters, instrument manufacturers, and audience members. Certainly, judgments could be made in those areas, too. In fact, I've been thinking a lot lately of whether it might be possible to create a canon of great fans, audience members who we might deem as having been the best and the brightest readers, listeners, and spectators of their times.

Some names immediately come to mind from the American nineteenth century (which where I've been spending most of my time for the past eight years). Walt Whitman, for instance, is good initial candidate.

As a young journalist and man-about-town, Whitman was an especially active participant in New York City’s rapidly growing number of theaters, lectures, exhibitions, and concerts in the 1840s. He was a regular at the Bowery Theater and loved the intense emotionalism of actors like Junius Brutus Booth and Edwin Forrest. He was an enthusiastic follower of oratory, attending political rallies and abolitionist meetings at Broadway Tabernacle to study the fiery rhetoric of reformers; he especially was eager for lectures by Brooklyn preacher Henry Ward Beecher or temperance speaker John Gough. Perhaps most of all, Whitman was huge opera fan, following what he called his "musical passion." His status as a journalist put him on the “free-list” for concerts in the city, he heard most of the major virtuosos that passed through in the late 1840s and early 1850s. In Specimen Days, he recounts, for instance:
I heard, these years, well render'd, all the Italian and other operas in vogue, "Somnambula," "The Puritans," "Der Freischutz," "Huguenots," "Fille d'Regiment," "Faus," "Etoile du Nord," "Poliuto," and others. Verdi's "Ernani," "Rigoletto," and "Trovatore," with Donizetti's "Lucia" or "Favorita" or "Lucrezia," and Auber's "Massaniello," or Rossini's "William Tell" and "Gazza Ladra," were among my special enjoyments. I heard Alboni every time she sang in New York and vicinity--also Grisi, the tenor Mario, and the baritone Badiali, the finest in the world.
In addition to his obsessive attendance at the cultural events of the city, he had a consistent, almost unbridled excitement about those experiences--his ardent listening, participation, and spectatorship shaped many of the descriptive passages of urban life in Leaves of Grass and shone through his criticism, essays, and reminiscences. Such experiences were important enough for him to note at the end of his life, in "Good-Bye My Fancy" (Complete Prose Works, 511): 
Seems to me I ought to acknowledge my debt to actors, singers, public speakers, conventions, and the stage in New York, my youthful days, from 1835--say to '60 or '61--and to plays and operas generally....Seems to me now when I look back, the Italian contralto Alboni (she is living yet, in Paris, 1891, in good condition, good voice yet, considering) with the then prominent histrions Booth, Edwin Forrest, and Fanny Kemble and the Italian singer Bettini, have had the deepest and most lasting effect upon me. I should like well if Madame Alboni and the old composer Verdi (and Bettini the tenor, if he is living), could know how much noble pleasure and happiness they gave me then, and how deeply I always remember them and thank them to this day.
Of course, there are other great fans in history for whom we have evidence, some famous and some unknown, and I hope to highlight some of them in the coming months on this blog. (James Boswell ought to be here!) The larger point, here, is that thinking about a canon of fans, however reactionary, can re-orient our understanding of what's significant when we think about how art works in society and how we might account for its history. And that re-orientation is worth pursuing further.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Panoramic Audiences

The "panorama," a wide all-encompassing view of a subject (usually a landscape or a battle), was a regular feature of urban popular culture for much of the 19th century. Panoramas were painted on wide and sometimes cylindrical canvases and some had mechanisms that allowed them to rotate, but all offered spectators the illusion of immersion in a scene. Once photography became more common in the late 19th century, more "realistic" panoramas of cities and national parks were created by placing several wide-angle shots side-by-side; by 1900, specially-designed panoramic cameras were used by professional photographers to depict large structures, geographical expanses, and groups of people.

Panoramic photographers seemed especially interested in the increasingly large audiences for political rallies, sporting events, and concerts at the turn of the century. A stadium or theater audience was difficult to reproduce with an ordinary camera, since it typically stretched beyond the viewing field. But the panoramic camera could capture the entire seating area of a hall or amphitheater (albeit with slight distortion). And by representing the whole of that audience from a fixed position, something that was not possible to the normal eye, the panorama artfully enhanced the audience's significance. Such photographs are an untapped resource for audience studies in terms of the detail they offer about performance spaces, as well as audience behavior, public decorum, and the vital role of spectators and listeners in American popular culture.

The Library of Congress has an excellent collection that is available online. A few samples of the photographs follow.

New Theatre, Chicago, 1906

President Wilson addressing Associated Ad Clubs, Independence Square, Philadelphia

Harvard-Dartmouth Game, 1903

Rubenstein Club, 1908

The next three are too big to depict properly, but the detail is amazing. You can find them here and here and here....

Squires-Burns Fight, 1907
Arbor Day 1908
President Taft, State Fair, Detroit, 1911

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Canned Enthusiasm

We tend to think of enthusiastic audiences as spontaneously reacting with fervor and admiration to performers, but of course enthusiasm can also be manufactured by clever entrepreneurs for the purposes of manipulation and profit. In the music world of the 19th century, for example, tricks of the ticket trade include “deadheading,” which created demand for a concert ticket by giving away most seats for an opening night to associates to create an irresistible “full house.” Other managers paid carriage drivers to line the curb outside their theaters, suggesting that people must be fascinated with something going on inside. Most deceptive were claqueurs, professional applauders, in the audience for 18th century Parisian opera. As a travel writer in Harper’s Monthly (February 1854: 310) explained,
After one has been led by the contagious force of example to join in a round of uproarious applause, with which some favorite actor or piquant speech has been greeted, and perhaps been simple enough to add a bouquet to the pile cast at the feet of a pretty actress, whose emotions of gratitude, too powerful for speech, can only be expressed by a well-studied pantomime, it is as killing to sentiment as frost to flowers, to hear a cynical Frenchman beside you, with a latent smile at your greenness just discernible on his otherwise polite features, coolly remark, “that cost fifty francs.” You turn to him and ask an explanation. Monsieur is always happy to enlighten strangers, even when the information conveys no compliment to his own institutions. In the first place, he tells you never to take a seat in the centre of the parquette, just under the chandelier. You wonder at this, as it is really the best place in the house to see the stage and audience, but after the explanation you avoid it as you would one of the plagues of Egypt. It is the locality of the “claqueurs.” Remark that group immediately under the chandelier, some fifty persons, they are called “Les Chevaliers du lustre.” See how periodically they applaud; how well they are drilled; a hundred hands clapping in perfect unison. They are like soldiers, and have their corporals and captains, who motions they follow with all the regularity that a flock of geese follows its leader.
In this context, true admiration was always relative to the false kind:
It is reasonable to suppose when a French audience has a mercenary band to execute gratis for them all the clapping, stamping, and shouting, they do not trouble themselves much with such fatiguing ceremonies. If they are so far carried out of their dignified contempt for the claqueurs as to join in applause, it must be by something decidedly good in their estimation.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Obsession Has a History

There are a number of books that I’d like to highlight on this blog which explore the historical and cultural understandings of behaviors that are associated with the phenomenon we call “fandom.” One example is Lennard J. Davis’s Obsession: A History (U. of Chicago Pr., 2008). I first encountered Davis’s book after I had already done a year’s worth of research and reading on monomania, a medical “condition” of the 19th century, and also on enthusiasm, an associated and equally controversial behavior that goes back to Plato, Martin Luther, and the Earl of Shaftesbury. In that context, Davis recounted a familiar story of people in modern Western society attempting to control excessive non-rational behavior--what Philip Ennis has called the “institutionalization of ecstasy.”

Davis nicely summarizes some of the diverse ways that artists, philosophers, doctors, and others have thought about obsessive behavior since the 18th century, suggesting that, while it can certainly be debilitating, say, in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, we nevertheless need to understand obsession as historical. That is, modern Western society has arrived at a set of medicalized understandings about obsession; the extent to which obsession is a “problem” has been rather dynamic over time, dependent on changing assumptions and values about normalcy. We need to think of obsession not simply as a universally biological disease, he writes, but—borrowing a term from David Morris—as a “disease entity,” a bio-cultural phenomenon.

Davis shows that what was described plainly as "madness" before the 18th century slowly became recalibrated as a condition of varying degree beginning in the mid-1700s. By the early 19th century, some people were understood to be more obsessive and compulsive than others; for some it was a matter of agony and paralysis, and for others it led to valuable kinds of expression and discovery. In particular, obsession seemed to connect madness and genius. Some thinkers allowed that the frequent exercise of the imagination distorted one’s mental equilibrium, but suggested that, in the case of great artists and writers, madness might be okay as long as that imbalance was temporary or isolated. (Not coincidentally, the mid-1700s was also a time when enlightenment philosophers were rescuing “enthusiasm” as a concept from its religious connotations of possession or zealotry and remaking it into a secular concept of avidity, a move that was not altogether successful—see Jon Mee’s work for a nuanced reading).

Most important for the new thinking about obsession was the advent of the idea of “partial insanity,” or “monomania,” to which Davis devotes three chapters. The diagnosis was formulated by French doctor Etienne Esquirol in 1810 to refer to “a disease of the sensibility,” where someone could function normally in most aspects of life while also suffering from a fixation characterized by “maniacal excitement.”  While Esquirol created the diagnosis for legal purposes, to explain “crimes of passion,” Davis explains that monomania nevertheless “opened the doors to a wide-ranging application of the idea of insanity to the general population.” In fact, the idea of monomania became a “mania” in the middle of the 19th century. It appeared widely in works of literature (the protagonist of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” suffers from monomania, as does Herman Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick), as well as serving to describe the approach to writing of a number of authors, such as Emile Zola or Gustave Flaubert. It accounted, too, for various kinds of fixations, like bibliomania, and later, Sigmund Freud’s elucidation of “neurosis.” In all of this, Davis provocatively juxtaposes instances of mania in medicine, art, and human relationships to suggest the extent to which there was considerable public debate among doctors, artists, philosophers, writers, critics, and monomaniacs themselves about which kinds of mania were acceptable or valuable, and which were not.

The link between obsession and fandom is a strong one. However, as I have suggested I think there is actually a broader history of “maniacal excitement” than the one presented here; it would be useful to compare and contrast the history of obsession with the histories of enthusiasm, devotion, and fanaticism. Debates about ecstasy and attraction from art, religion, philosophy, and medicine operate in very different realms but also seem to be connected together in their concern for defining the personal, social, and, ultimately, political meanings of emotional connection. Most immediately, for me, Obsession: A History offers a helpful methodological framework for thinking about the emergence of cultural behavior. As he writes, “I’m trying retrospectively to see how a space opens in a cultural field. One could easily object that what I am doing is based on a fallacy of trying to find in the past structures for things that don’t yet exist….On the other hand, there is, I think I’ve shown, sufficient historical and archival evidence that a major shift occurs.” (51) Figuring out that apparent contradiction is one of the main problems of studying fandom’s history.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Teaching, Learning, and Enthusiasm

Albert Sands Southworth, Classroom in the Emerson School for Girls,  1850.

I have been on a brief “blog break” in order to better manage the start of the new spring semester. With the various demands of teaching and learning on my mind, I have been wondering about the ways in which education might be a field for fan-like behaviors. Obviously, this is move that stretches common definitions of “fandom," but perhaps it’s useful to ponder for that very reason.

What does teaching and learning have to do with the history of audiences and fandom? Well, one of things most teachers know is that, at some level, leading a classroom is always a performance. I don’t mean that it is simply entertaining--it can be, but teaching is more often ritualistic, which is another side to performance (see Richard Schechner for more on that kind of distinction). Instead, I mean that teaching involves “display enactment for the benefit of an audience.” In other words, teachers stage learning for students, who must attend to what’s happening.

In particular, I’ve been reading an early journal on teaching, The Massachusetts Teacher: A Journal of School and Home Education, from June 1851 (vol IV, no. 6). I actually found issues of this journal from the 1860s under the hay in my barn (a teacher used to live in my house, perhaps…); copies may more readily be found on Google Books. The June 1851 issue fascinatingly addresses pedagogy and student attention with the emotional language of enthusiasm that was simultaneously being used with reference to the world of arts performance. It is this kind of thing that makes me wonder whether “fandom” need be resolutely tied to 20th century media at all and whether fandom might be more accurately described in terms of a broader framework of enthusiastic audiencing. (Working that out is the whole point of this blog, of course!).

Here are two excerpts to consider from The Massachusetts Teacher:
It is a remark of an experienced teacher in another State, that no day should be allowed to pass without seeking to make the pulse of the whole school beat in unison. This remark seems founded in reason. No teacher can put it in practice without perceiving the force and propriety of it. Such exercises tend to create a general interest in the affairs of the school-room. They create a love for the school, for the fellow pupil, for the teacher. They appeal to the strong feeling of sympathy in our nature. It is natural for us to enter with interest into what we do in concert with the many. Be it a religious service, it is a common remark that a full meeting is a good one; be it a parade day, the sight of a great throng will animate most men, and kindle the flame of glowing interest in what would soon tire, if viewed only by a few; be it a mob even, the dictates of reason, and the voice of conscience, and the sense of right, frequently will all be hushed by the voice of the many, and the most timid will unresistingly follow “a multitude to do evil.” 
The teacher will wisely avail himself of this principle, and as often as he can, make the voice of the whole school rise in concert in the strains of music, in the mutual reading of the sacred word, or of some secular lesson, or in some exercise prepared expressly for this purpose. As already remarked, no day should be allowed to pass without some exercise of this kind. Some teachers are fond of a mutual exercise as one method of reaching reading; but this seems to be as much recommended by the show and sound as by its utility…No person, however, can doubt the propriety of this exercise occasionally, as a method of making the great arteries fo feeling in the school-room throb in unison…”  (139) 
The teacher can interest his classes only by becoming himself interested even to enthusiasm. A successful man in any calling must be an enthusiast. Nothing can supply the place of this in the school-room. The best methods and the most stimulating expedients will fail in the hands of an indifferent teacher. If the “Goddess of Dulness” presides over his brain, her drowsy influence will soon extend over his little kingdom—the school-room. 
Enthusiasm is quite as contagious as gaping. You see it flashing from the eye of the orator to the soul of his audience. You see it spread like electricity from the heart of a Bonaparte, and kindling every heart in his vast army. You may sometimes see its enkindling influences in the school-room. An enthusiastic man guided by truth will always interest. It is impossible to resist the charm of earnest enthusiasm. 
…We ever become heated by earnest pursuit. With what absorbing interest does the chemist pursue his processes of composition and decomposition, while the mere spectator or mechanical operator regards them with entire indifference. How completely engrossed does the mathematician become among his diagrams, formulas and abstractions. There are few subjects from which the mere looker-on would turn away with more indifference. It is a law of the whole creation, that action produces warmth. The head and the heart of the schoolmaster are not exceptions.  
The teacher should work in the daily preparation of his lessons. He cannot begin every recitation promptly and say and do just what he ought to say and do, without forethought. With it he will save time and do more finished work. But he will derive a greater advantage than this. His inventive powers will be aroused. Clearer explanations, new processes, and better illustrations will be discovered for every class. Let the teacher once begin to invent, and he is sure to be interested. Inventors are always enthusiasts. (174)