Saturday, December 31, 2011

Romantic Fandom

Before the holiday, I heard from Professor Eric Eisner of George Mason University, who shared that he had edited a volume of the Romantic Circles Praxis Series, on "Romantic Fandom," in April 2011. I am not very well-acquainted with literary studies these days (and especially not British Lit.), so I was delighted to check it out. Clearly there are exciting things happening in the study of Romanticism--between this and Judith Pascoe's book on Sarah Siddons, I now see the Romantic Era as a key moment in the history of audiences. Much as the "market revolution" in the United States during the 1830s and 1840s changed the very nature of cultural consumption and participation, Eisner writes that, in England, the Romantic period of the late 18th century
...saw the popularization of recognizable "fan practices," spurred by the growth of consumer culture and the development of a mass audience for culture generally. Admirers collected autographs, souvenirs, portraits and relics of celebrity writers, artists, performers, military heroes, and athletes; snapped up mementos associated with beloved plays or books or music; visited the homes and haunts of celebrities; pored over gossip-filled periodicals and newspaper notices; imitated celebrities’ fashion statements; fantasized about becoming friends or lovers with celebrities; wrote fan mail and formed communities of like-minded aficionados.
And while I’ve emphasized the connections between modern and historical fans in this blog, these essays advocate caution. As Eisner explains in his introduction, “If these essays contest literary criticism’s abjection of the fan as ‘naïve, obsessive, desirous, and dangerously predatory’ (Watson), they also resist simply celebrating the fan or identifying Romantic-era readerly desire with our own…Fandom is always historically situated, always tied to specific and shifting cultural as well as individual situations.”

The essays are consistently excellent, examining everything from the literary tourism of Lady Frances Shelley to the surprising mania in the 1820s for Pierce Egan’s Life in London; or, the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom, Accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis, with other contributions by Nicola J. Watson, Clara Tuite, Mark Schoenfield, and David A. Brewer. I have taken note!

Favorite Historical Fan Studies, 2011

While I have not covered every book in fan studies that has come out in the past year, I have encountered quite a few good reads in fan history. It really is time for fan studies to expand beyond the idea that fandom is simply rooted in the “popular media” of the 20th century. As many of these books and articles show, those with enthusiastic devotion to public cultural figures and forms, whom sportswriters first called “fans” in the 1890s, have been around for centuries. There were no “fans” before 1890, but there were amateurs, beggars, boomers, buffs, bugs, connoisseurs, devotees, dilettantes, enthusiasts, fanatics, the fancy, fiends, gluttons, habitués, heads, hounds, kranks, lions, longhairs, lovers, maniacs, matinee girls, nuts, rooters, Lisztians, Wagnerians, and more.

Here are some of my favorite historical fandom books for 2011. They all engagingly offer new insights into the practices of ardent audiencing, over time and across sports, theater, literature, and music.

Lapham’s Quarterly: Celebrity
In many ways an update of Leo Braudy’s Frenzy of Renown (1988) this special issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (Winter 2011) sought to collect primary and secondary sources about celebrity in history, from Cicero’s complaints about the demands of fame to Steve Martin’s tongue-in-cheek form-letter response to fan mail. I found Lapham’s opening essay a bit too dependent on Daniel Boorstin’s negative assessment of the media’s role in modern life; I would say that the overall skepticism of the issue’s interpretive essays stem from a Frankfurt School-like focus on the productive machinations of celebrity rather than the varied activities of media reception and their meaning in the daily lives of fans. The issue nevertheless offers very good writing and a useful compendium of audiences, culture, and desire over the past several centuries.

John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
Written by the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball, this book is a detailed and fascinating account of the early days of baseball in the nineteenth century, including some nice tidbits on fandom, from audiences’ frequent interference in games and penchant for gambling (which, in part, explains rooters’ fascination with statistics) to DeWolf’s Hopper’s popularization of “Casey at Bat” to the status of a cultural mania in 1888. Most interesting is the many ways in which team owners sought to make the game appeal to fans through all kinds of changes to games rules, as well as sales gimmicks. Not directly about historical audiences, it nonetheless is a very readable history of the entire culture of baseball and fans central place in it.

Judith Pascoe, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files
One of the pleasures of writing this blog has been learning about fan research outside of my own realm of expertise. Not only did I learn about all the work out there on historical readers or early sports but also on theater audiences. Judith Pascoe’s book, which was released in May 2011, enthusiastically outlines the appeal of British actress Sarah Siddons, who was the star of London theatre in the late eighteenth century and whose aural presence fascinated Romantic poets and philosophers. Pascoe not only outlines the culture of Siddons’s celebrity, but also the trials of her own learning. Historiography has never been so fun.

Daphne Carr, Pretty Hate Machine
Okay, so the history here is fairly recent, but this is still an incisive, daring, and sometimes quite moving analysis of rock fandom in the 1990s, based on Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 album, Pretty Hate Machine. Rather than merely offering a critical appreciation of the album’s songs or a history of the album’s creative genesis, Carr locates PHM’s most profound significance in what it has meant to the fans who bought and listened to it. Her thinking about Trent Reznor’s is deepened by the transcripts of interviews with fans of various ages and backgrounds, as well as interpretive surveys of the industrial decay of north-central Ohio since the 1960s. Personally, I never really “got” NIN, but I got this.

Emily Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia
Satterwhite examines fan mail from readers of Appalachian-set fiction from 1878-2003 and identifies the ways in which such fiction serves to affirm readers’ imagined understanding of the region as a “rural, rooted place populated by simple whites with a rich cultural heritage protected from mass culture.” The ways in which this romantic construction of “authentic Appalachia” has worked for fans over the past century (from the Gilded Age to the Neo-Gilded Age of the 1980s) is not without controversy (Satterwhite acknowledges that it reinforces “simplistic versions of the region that celebrate whiteness, glorify Americanness, and figure primitive people the world over as in need of the expert guidance of well-to-do Americans”). But Satterwhite also sensitively accounts for the ways in which regional fiction engenders its own kind of fandom for the idea of a place.

Still left to read:
Claudio E. Benzecry, The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of An Obsession
Amy Blair, Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States
Nancy Newman, Good Music for a Free People: The Germania Musical Society in Nineteenth-Century America

Looking forward to:
Andre Millard, Beatlemania: Technology, Business, and Teen Culture in Cold War America

Friday, December 9, 2011

Popular Media Audiences Symposium

The latest symposium on popular media audiences has a good set of speakers; not surprisingly it's in England:

The Centre for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth presents:
Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines
A Symposium to be held at the Odeon Cinema, Covent Garden, London
Saturday 19th May 2012

Keynote Address by:
Prof. Henry Jenkins
Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. Author of Textual Poachers (Routledge, 1992), The WOW Climax (NYU Press, 2006), Fans, Bloggers and Gamers (NYU Press, 2006), and Convergence Culture (NYU Press, 2006).


The first steps toward a wider consideration of popular media cultures surrounding film, television and the Internet, and the relationship between fans and their object of fandom, is to acknowledge the prominent position of what Jonathan Gray calls media paratexts as opposed to the centrality of specific films or television series as the text. Indeed, we are now accustomed in fan studies to state that the productivity of fans and their related fan practices represent an appropriate and worthy text to study just as much as the media text to which they are related or inspired by. So, rather than studying Star Trek as cult text, we might study fan produced videos on YouTube as important texts of fan activity that carry inherent meaning and significance in and of themselves. Or, for example, Star Wars carries with it meaning within and outside the narrative – from an analysis of its mythic story structure using the work of Joseph Campbell to studies of its fans who actively engage in their own meaning making by dressing up, making videos and writing fan fiction. However, the peripheral texts – those associated with the commercialization of the franchise such as the lunchboxes, toys, video games, and websites – are as much part of the meaning making process that they become texts to study in their own right.

Popular Media Cultures seeks to explore the relationship between audiences and media texts, their paratexts and interconnected ephemera, and the related cultural practices that add to and expand the narrative worlds with which fans engage. How audiences make meaning out of established media texts will be discussed in connection with the new texts produced by fans. The symposium will focus on the cultural work done by media audiences, how they engage with new technologies and how convergence culture impacts on the strategies and activities of popular media fans. If, Ken Gelder argues, “Subcultures are brought into being through narration and narrative: told by the participants themselves, as well as by those who document them, monitor them, ‘label’ them, outlaw them, and so on,” then this symposium will pay attention to what media audiences add to a text, what gets written in the margins of a text and what new meanings fans read between the lines. This symposium will bring together leading academics in the fields of film, television, fan and cultural studies to open up and take further the debates surrounding popular media, its producers, its audiences, and the cultures in which they are ultimately located.

Confirmed Speakers:

Dr Stacey Abbott, Reader in Film Studies, Roehampton University. Author of Celluloid Vampires (University of Texas Press, 2007), editor of The Cult TV Book (IB Tauris, 2010), co-author of Falling in Love Again (IB Tauris, 2009), and series editor of Investigating Cult TV for IB Tauris.

Dr Will Brooker, Reader and Director of Research, Kingston University. Author of Using the Force (Continuum, 2002), Hunting the Dark Knight (IB Tauris, 2012) and editor of The Blade Runner Experience (Wallflower, 2005).

Dr Joanne Garde-Hansen, Principal Lecturer in Media and Director of the Research Centre of Media, Memory and Community, University of Gloucestershire. Author of Media and Memory (Edinburgh UP, 2011), co-editor of Save As... Digital Memories (Palgrave, 2009) and co-author of the forthcoming Emotion Online: Theorising Affect on the Internet (Palgrave).

Dr Kristyn Gorton, Senior Lecturer in Television Studies, University of York. Author of Media Audiences (Edinburgh UP, 2009) and co-author of the forthcoming Emotion Online: Theorising Affect on the Internet (Palgrave).

Dr Matt Hills, Reader in Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. Author of Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002), The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005) and Triumph of a Time Lord (IB Tauris, 2010).

Prof. Mark Jancovich, Professor of Film and Television, University of East Anglia. Author of Rational Fears (MUP, 1996) and The Place of the Audience (BFI, 2003) and co-editor of Defining Cult Movies (MUP, 2003), Quality Popular Television (BFI, 2003), and Film and Comic Books (Mississippi UP,

Prof. Roberta E. Pearson, Professor of Film and Television, University of Nottingham. Author of Eloquent Gestures (University of California Press, 1992), co-editor of Cult Television (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), The Many Lives of Batman (Routledge, 1991), and editor of Reading Lost (IB
Tauris, 2009).

Further details of how to register and attend the event will be published in the New Year. For information on the Centre for Cultural and Creative Research at the University of Portsmouth please visit our website at:

Symposium Coordinator:
Dr Lincoln Geraghty
Director of the Centre for Cultural and Creative Research
School of Creative Arts, Film and Media
University of Portsmouth

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Romanticism, The Voice, and the History of Listening

One of the problems of studying historical audiences is evidence. Listeners, readers, and theater-goers don’t leave many traces. While the scores, scripts, journals, account books, and correspondence of professional writers, composers, and performers have been preserved and deposited in public archives, the everyday experiences and activities of audience members have not enjoyed the same recognition, and thus potential evidence for their engagement—descriptive letters, scrapbooks, tickets, or souvenirs, for example—have been undervalued, overlooked, and often lost. Scholars of historical reception seek to recover such audience experiences. It’s painstaking and frequently frustrating work, requiring a good deal of creative interpretation. It’s far more like archeology than history, a matter of piecing together found fragments—a single diary description, or obscure periodical image--with educated assumptions about past cultural institutions and ideological expectations.

Judith Pascoe, in her new book, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice, writes engagingly and humorously about this process of historical recovery. Pascoe became intrigued by enthusiastic Romantic-era accounts of London stage actress Sarah Siddons, who manipulated audiences with her command of Shakespeare and had a voice which, as contemporary Joseph Severn explained, “thrilled the air with melodious tones, and at the same time touched the heart with such deep pathos that the audience seemed to think it a merit to shed tears and thus appropriately accompany such sublime acting.” Pascoe realized, however, that while Siddons’s "most celebrated roles all seemed to contain sonic highlights that were anticipated with pleasure,” and while paintings almost always showed Siddons poised to speak, she had no idea how Siddons actually sounded. So she resolved to find out. As she explained, “If I could figure out how Siddons sounded, I might also understand how people listened in the romantic period and how that style of listening influenced what they heard.” (14)

While the book is, in part about Siddons, much of the narrative, written in the first-person, is driven by Pascoe’s own search for an auditory past that always seems just out of reach. She explores Siddons’s life story, the world of London theater in 1775-76, and the acoustic design of theaters like Covent Garden and Drury Lane. She takes an acting class to learn more about vocal technique, reads Barthes on the voice, probes the history of recording, and studies Gilbert Austin’s 1806 Chironomia; or, A Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery: Comprehending Many Precepts, Both Ancient and Modern, for the Proper Regulation of the Voice, the Countenance, and Gesture. Along the way, she offers some wonderful insights in Romantic-era theater-going. As she explains at one point:
Romantic theatergoers not only enjoyed performances that we would find overwrought, they enjoyed watching these performances over and over and over again. In fact, the intensity of their pleasure seemed to stem partly from the repetition, which allowed for a deep familiarity with the lines and gestures associated with particular plays….And serving as a further aide-memoire was the condensation of the romantic theatrical experience to a collection of emotionally, visually, or sonically intense scenes that helped to imprint these plays on the memory. The memorization of these ‘points’ made theatergoing more intensely pleasurable, as audience members anticipated these particular moments, watched them play out, and compared them to versions they had already experiences or even enacted themselves. (72)
Pascoe has a great sense of humor about herself and her objective, which, as she herself quickly recognized, was doomed to failure. As she explains, “I had wanted to find out how Siddons made [audience member Joseph] Severn want to change his life, or, failing that, how she caused so many people to go into conniptions when she stepped out on stage, but this meant, of course, and I’d known this all along, that I really had to be there.” (108). In the end, though, Pascoe's frustrations are her readers' gain. Her book is a funny and meaningful meditation on historical methodology, written with both clarity and verve. Its sheer inventiveness reminded me most of Bruce R. Smith’s attempts to discover how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays "actually" sounded in The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Both Smith and Pascoe acknowledge that we can’t positively know how the past sounded. But through careful historicization of diverse contexts of listening and hearing, and analysis of the fragments of evidence still with us, we can discover faint but tantalizing suggestions of how audiencing had the power to shape lives.