Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Some Fan Studies Before "Fan Studies"

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Do Jazz Musicians Need to Know How to Write Criticism?

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Name That Audience 9

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fans Need to Dim Their Clothing

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

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

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pleasures of Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish you all absorbing and transformative reading.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hearing Disfluency

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

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

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

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