Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Literary Pilgrimage

I see that University of Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill has discovered fandom in his new book, Freud's Couch, Scott's Buttocks, and Bronte's Grave, which was the subject of a recent profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education's PageView blog. His discomfort with readers who make pilgrimages to author-related sites is interesting; if anything, it shows why critics and fans, reading the same books, often exist in completely different universes.

I shouldn't show him, I guess, the photo of me, during a trip to New Orleans in 1989, casually reading a newspaper outside the French Quarter residence of William Faulkner (where he began his career as a writer):

Perhaps, however, my family will sympathize with Goldhill's skepticism. When I suggested a vacation trip to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this summer, so we could visit the home of Herman Melville, they laughed, and then, with some alarm, asked if I was serious. I was.

Literary tourism is a big business, big enough to get a featured in O Magazine articles like "5 Legendary Writers' Homes." It has also been a hot topic in literary studies, where it is generally equated with superficiality and commercialism, the equivalent of taking a pre-packaged bus tour of a city rather than living in a neighborhood and learning the language. Literary pilgrimage has been the subject of satiric novels (like Brocke Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England), as well as condemnatory papers about the public's naive obsession with authenticity or the emotional reality of texts (discussed previously in a Chronicle review, "You've Read the Book, Now Take a Look!," from 2009). Tourism, more generally, has been a hot topic in cultural studies for much of the last decade, the subject of journals like Tourist Studies, or research collectives like UC Berkeley's Tourism Studies Working Group, and also the subject of books in anthropology, literature, history, and music, from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (U. California Press, 1998) to Stephen A. King's I'm Feeling the Blues Right Now: Blues Tourism and the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

From the standpoint of fans, visiting sites associated with various performers, works, or characters is a key element of how they decode works, aesthetize their lives, and shape cultural experience. As far as I can tell, however, work in fan studies has not had any explicit impact on the study of tourism. It might be time to connect that gap by holding some kind of meeting that will enable a sharing of perspectives from anthropology, history, literature, media studies, and religion on fandom and the power of place. Sounds like a good panel, at least, no?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Last year, in a seminar, one of my students was using her iPhone while we were discussing Jim Deetz's In Small Things Now Forgotten. I asked her to put the phone away, since class had begun and we were engaged in discussion. But she protested, indicating that she was engaged--the text had been downloaded to her phone, and she was merely following along with the passage I had asked everyone to turn to!

We certainly live in a new world of "reading." I have no moral or philosophical objection to e-books, the digital humanities, etc. In fact, I see the incredible potential of such technologies for creating and maintaining knowledge and fostering new kinds of educational, research, and business. But I have to say that, personally, I still prefer the "hard" form of a book. Flipping pages is an economical and pleasurable means of encountering text that involves not only a particular kind of spatial understanding but also involves familiar sounds (the swish of a turning page), gestures (holding a book in different stances), and materials (glue, cardboard, pulp). I particularly like each book's design identity, implying an intellectual world. Books as singular objects--with form, color, and weight; that I can carry around, have nearby, and consult--supports my understanding of them as a unique and singular utterances of fellow human beings. I fully understand the convenience of having one's entire library in a tablet device, but at the same time, I resist the idea of making "my library" a basic unit of value, like my stock portfolio. I want my library to be chaotic, more about all the amazing ideas and debates in the world to which I often return, puzzled, curious, and seeking connection. I'd rather not have my library conveniently display my investments but rather function as an imperfectly-wrought sanctuary that I can enter for the purpose of discovery, surprise, and encounter.

At any rate, there have been many writers, readers, and critics out there who have compared old and e-books over the past several years. JBMonco had a nice comparison of experiencing Moby Dick in book and e-book back in 2009, for instance. Or author Margaret Atwood:

This is a nice chart from The Daily Beast that compares the economics of the two forms. And now researchers are starting to get in on the debate, studying reading on different devices (including this study from Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany). The findings are not surprising. It appears that reading is not simply a cognitive action of information retrieval or even communication, but also involves wider and more complex frameworks of preference, habit, and ritual. That's why thinking about reading has become so significant. Reading is undergoing changes, but those changes are cultural as much as behaviorial.

In the end, it seems to me that to properly assess "what's the best way to read--book or ebook?", we need to move beyond just the mechanics of the behavior to the institutions and ideologies that define reading for us and make it personally and socially meaningful. How are those changing? Are schools, government agencies, or companies requiring the use of ebooks and why or why not? What does it mean to advocate for older forms of print media through newer forms of communication like blogs or YouTube? If the competition between forms continues, will simply making the choice to read a book rather than an ebook become a form of antiquarianism, curmudgeonliness, or rebellion?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Daphne Carr’s contribution to Continuum's 33 1/3 series, Pretty Hate Machine, has been on my list of things to read since last spring, but other commitments prevented me from fully delving into it until now. I realize now that sitting near me all this time was an engaging work of radical contextualism, one that seeks to literally transform rather than revere Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 album.

Carr writes that the book was inspired by my book Tramps Like Us, which is cool (thanks for the shout-out, Daphne), but I have to say that she moves beyond my limited self-analysis and scholarly representation of fans’ voices to fully embrace the notion that not only musicians make music. She makes it clear that an analysis of Pretty Hate Machine that addressed only the songs on the album, or only the creative process of Trent Reznor, would be a distortion; the album has had such a resonance since its release that the only way to make sense of it is (to quote ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger) to “start in the middle and work outward in all directions.” Carr's analysis is not for the narrow-minded; it unabashedly connects the 1999 Columbine shootings, goth culture, Reaganomics, early rock'n'roll, the history of Youngtown, Trent Reznor's life, industrialization, slum clearance, historic preservation, Hot Topic, cultural contradiction, and American despair.

Despite the breadth of her vision, her specialty is the pithy meta-statement, perhaps learned at the hands of postmodernist theorists, but skillfully honed, here, to the memorable bon mot. (“Hot Topic was where sellouts sold the idea that selling out sucked).” What's most interesting, though, is the slyness of her insights. They often lurk in the background, suggested in word choices or absences in descriptions, finally jumping off the page to clonk you on the head. My favorite moment is her chapter on Cleveland, which starts by linking the cancellation of the Alan Freed’s Moondog Coronation Ball in 1952 to the story of rock’n’roll’s erosion of racial segregation. It’s a well-written description of what is now a conventional story. But then, in the next paragraph, she suddenly flips that truism on its head to reveal Alan Freed’s involvement in Screamin’ Jay Hawkin’s African cannibal/coffin act, which pandered to white racist fantasies and drove Hawkins to cope through drug-use. In a final rhetorical twist, Carr sums it all up by making all these connections a foundation of Nine Inch Nails’ complex appeal, announcing, “This is the story of the first goth-rock stage show.”

The most controversial (for those who want to hear only about Trent Reznor) and the most moving (for those who want to understand the power and legacy of this album) are the ten chapters that each feature a fan talking about his or her experiences with and around the album. Like the Bruce Springsteen fans with whom I conversed in the 1990s, each person has an extraordinary story centered on an experience of hearing that becomes a long-lasting and powerful force for identity, reformation, and belonging. These fans are, like many self-aware people, slightly anxious that “the sounds they believe to be their soul’s salvation are also a mass-mediated commodity.” But that’s the point—the fragments of industrialized entertainment cynically sold to us as “revolution” or “soul-bearing art” can actually—though often unpredictably—foster revolution and soul-bearing.

Notice I said “foster.” I think what Carr’s book hammers home is that these meanings are not “in the music.” In fact, she goes so far as to instruct her readers to resist this commonplace musicological notion, encouraging instead a different approach: “If you have copy of Pretty Hate Machine, listen along to hear the book’s speakers with and against yours. The space between your hearing, their hearing, and my hearing is how we will get into a conversation (or argument) that is part of the point of this book. If the conversation makes us all cringe a bit, so much the better.” If that isn’t a good definition of fandom, I don’t know what is.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fandom is a Matter of Life...and Death

Check out this recent article in the New York Times about team-themed floral arrangements at the wakes and funerals of sports fans. This is not as bizarre as it might sound, especially when you consider the depth of meaning fandom affords life-long followers of teams.

I'm also glad that, so far, trademark claims have not been leveled at the grieving families. Can you imagine? (One thing that is not adequately recognized by "intellectual property" law is the illogic whereby corporate entities relentlessly thrust trademarked logos and phrases into people's daily lives and then insist that people's lives must not infringe on the symbolism).