Friday, February 24, 2012

Jeremy Lin, Race, and Sports Fandom

Kathleen Yep, author of Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground, has an insightful post at North Philly Notes about Jeremy Lin mania. I have to admit that I'm not a basketball follower, so the constant headlines about Lin at first confused me ("Jenny Lind mania is back?! Fantastic!"), but the more I've learned, the more interesting the whole phenomenon has become for me in understanding the nature and history of sports audiencing. Fan studies has done a pretty good job of exploring the complexities of gender in the history of popular culture participation, from feminist theories of spectatorship and reading to male-bonding over Elvis, but race and ethnicity in fan history remain only superficially understood (see the recent special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, Vol. 8, for analysis on the issue). Yep, drawing on her research of a fan community that has a long history but is still little known, points out that,
...Similar to today’s frenzy over Jeremy Lin, there were multiple currents of consumption in the late 1930s from not only the mostly non-Asian American spectators but also the Chinese American communities on the basketball tour. The invisible and marginalized Chinese Americans in the 1930s marveled at the visibility of players who looked like them. In 2012, Lin’s transcendence into a popular culture hero validates the vast network of Asian American players and basketball leagues that have thrived for over one hundred years.
In her post, Yep goes on to ask some questions that might make some fans uncomfortable but are nevertheless crucial in understanding not only the fandom for Lin but also fan participation in American sports in general: "How does the sports-industrial complex simultaneously circulate colorblind and hyperracialized rhetoric about African American, Chinese American, and white players? How are these circulations similar and different for the various racial groups yet part of a similar mechanism?"

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Pleasure Garden, Ctd.

David Coke graciously responded to my previous post about pleasure gardens, offering a small but important correction about Vauxhall: even though gambling took place at other pleasure gardens, like Marylebone, it was outlawed at Vauxhall. He explained,
Prostitution and gambling often did go together, especially in the Georgian period, but Jonathan Tyers [Vauxhall's owner] was very adept at gauging his audience’s tolerance of certain things. Prostitutes, if they at least looked respectable, and restricted themselves to sunset and later, were part of the attraction of Vauxhall. And Tyers was happy to admit this.  On the other hand, he knew that gambling, especially card-sharps and cheats, would have put off many of his regular audience, and would have wrecked his hugely valuable word-of-mouth publicity."
These nuances of morality, class, and business are fascinating and not unlike some of the distinctions that emerged in American theatre in the 19th century. More on this, I'm sure, in the future--I'm learning before your eyes, here!

In the meantime, I encourage everyone, again, to check out the book:

From A Companion to All the Principal Places of Curiosity
 and Entertainment In and About London and Westminster
, 1801

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Record Listening in the 20th Century

Students listening to records in their dorm, 1930s. U-M Bentley Historical Library, U. of Michigan.

David Gilmour, in an interview in Rolling Stone, Sept. 28, 2011, observed that the social rituals of record listening have pretty much disappeared:
Attention spans have changed. The idea of going around to somebody else's flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on...does that happen today? (46).
Shortly thereafter, reading Keith Richards' Life, I took particular note of his account of listening to records with Mick Jagger:
It was, always, all about records. From when I was eleven or twelve years old, it was who had the records who you hung out with. They were precious things. ...Mick and I must have spent a year, while the Stones were coming together and before, record hunting. There were others like us, trawling far and wide, and meeting one another in record shops. If you didn't have money you would just hang and talk. But Mick has these blues contacts...Blues aficionados in the '60s were a sight to behold. They met in little gatherings like early Christians, but in the front rooms in southeast London. There was nothing else necessarily in common amongst them at all; they were all different ages and occupations. It was funny to walk into a room where nothing else mattered except he's playing the new Slim Harpo and that was enough to bond you all together. (80-81)
This all reminded me of William Kenney's account, in his book Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945, of jazz fans and collectors in the 1930s, including Marshall Stearns, Milt Gabler, John Hammond, Nat Hentoff, and Dan Morgenstern:
Many swing fans found meaning in the records themselves. The very act of gaining ownership of a valued jazz record became an integral part of the meaning that a fan attributed to the music. Collecting records became an enduring passion, an intellectual preoccupation, and a way of life...When at age 16 Morgenstern began collecting seriously--reading the pioneering books on jazz, comparing notes with other collectors, and finding his way to sources of records--he became adept at what he later believed to have been 78 rpm record culture. In a time before widespread record reissues, one was forced to hunt down copies on one's own. This necessity led to a a detailed knowledge of the secondhand bookstores, junk shops, flea markets, and sidewalk browser bins where the occasional jewel awaited...
This, in turn, reminded me of the phonograph society movement in the 1920s, which sought to establish clubs of listeners that would gather in private homes or public meeting halls for "phonograph recitals" and "phonograph concerts." As discussed by Tim Gracyk, phonograph societies were actively promoted by The Phonograph Monthly Review, a publication showcasing the vernacular knowledge of record collectors on, for example, how to best file a collection of 700 or more records, the pitfalls of steel needles, or the best way to listen to Beethoven (with lantern slides!).

Of course, phonograph societies were not that far from the original 1899 Edison tone tests, which themselves set up the whole practice of listening to the phonograph in one's home as one would listen to an orchestra in a concert hall:

In all, an extraordinary 20th century of people developing behaviors, values, and communities centered on listening to records.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Beatlemania Emerges in U.S.

It was 48 years ago today...

The O Say Can You See blog, run by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, has an interesting post about the Beatles' first concert in America, which took place on February 11, 1964, featuring some the artifacts from the concert in the NMAH collections.

Beatlemania used to be the subject of much head-scratching, and even derision, both in the press and in academia, so I'm glad to see it recognized, here, as a significant moment in history. "Maniacal" audiences existed long before 1964, of course, but the behavior of American Beatles fans was significant as clear evidence for the vast commercial potential of teen culture (see, for example, this great collection of 1964 magazines capitalizing on the Beatles phenomenon) and also, somewhat contrarily, of the grassroots political potential of rock'n'roll, including an empowerment of young women's public expression (see Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, Gloria Jacobs, "Beatlemania: Girls Just Want to Have Fun").

In the end, it remains an iconic moment of rock'n'roll audiencing.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Before "Fan": The Buff

When I started this blog last year, I talked about some of the slang terms used to refer to ardent audiences before the full emergence of the term "fan." I'd to explore those terms in posts over the next several months. For me, the etymological origins of early audience names provide an important window into the history of fandom; how people chose to label themselves, or were labelled by others, can enable us to see the personal and institutional forces at work in shaping the meanings of public participation.

First up: BUFF.

The origins of using "buff" to refer to a follower of an activity is complex. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011), "buff," in one of its many definitions, is a shortened form of "buffalo," and was used in particular to refer to "leather made of buffalo hide; but usually applied to a very stout kind of leather made of ox-hide, dressed with oil, and having a characteristic fuzzy surface, and a dull whitish-yellow colour." This term for a particular color of leather was used to refer to certain military uniforms, to skin (naked="in the buff"), and to a variety of Cochin fowl.

"Buffs" were apparently those who, at the start of the 20th century, enthusiastically followed firefighters and fires. According to the Oxford, the term "buff" was applied to fire enthusiasts because they were reminiscent of the volunteer firefighters of New York in the mid-19th century, who wore buff-colored uniforms.

Foremen, Phoenix Fire Company, Charleston, SC, c. 1855.
However, Robert W. Masters, in his Pictorial History of Firefighting (quoted at, states that,
The name "buff" originated in the hose-and-wagon days when enthusiasts with smoke-bleared eyes stood on icy street-corners for hours, huddled together tightly under buffalo robes. Firemen humorously named them "the buffaloes," which soon became "buff" for short. In some cities, they are known as "fire-fans" and in a few as "sparkies" but whatever they're called they're easily recognized. They're the boys who attend each major blaze with almost religious determination.
Whatever the exact origin, the term is meant to indicate a quality of participation in firefighting more generally. Early 20th century buffs, gathering at the scenes of fires, especially evoked the mid-19th century, when firefighting was an amateur volunteer effort, and male camaraderie and the fellowship of street culture trumped public service or efficiency in extinguishing blazes. In fact, before being professionalized in the 1860s, firefighting in American cities involved competing clubs of urban, working-class males, who often acted quite territorially in response to alarms and used the occasion of fires to settle debts, acquire capital, and just plain rumble. Martin Scorsese captured this well in Gangs of New York:

At some point in the early decades of the 20th century, when Progressives moved to codify and clean up civil and governmental services, the culture supporting buffs started to disappear. It's something I'm only beginning to explore, but as this article (from the Elmira, N.Y, newspaper, The Summary, Vol. XXXIII, No. 43, December 23, 1905, pg. 2) suggests, buffs were increasingly forbidden to enter the firehouse or "accompanying apparatus to fires":

I haven't been able to trace the word's history further. The usual slang dictionaries are failing me, so it will take some deep mining of literature, magazines, and other primary sources. For now, it appears that the eradication of buffs from the world of firefighting freed "buff" from any specificity of meaning and allowed it to be generalized as any form of "amateur enthusiasm." The only thing I would note is that "buff," at least in my own experience, is used in particular ways. It is acceptable to refer to a history buff, sports buff, science fiction buff, television buff, film buff, etc., but "LOST buff" or "Ornette Coleman buff" seem a misuse. The term connotes intense amateur involvement in types of cultural engagement rather than any specific text or figure.

In the end, I realize that "buff" is perhaps not quite a word that circulated before "fan"--the two terms seemed to have moved out from their respective pockets of American society (firefighting and baseball) around the same time in the 1900s. But any alternate word for "fan," whether parallel or antecedent, is intriguing. It widens the scope of audience behavior and gives us a stronger basis for understanding its history.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Fans in PARADE

Writer Will Leitch wrote an intelligent PARADE Magazine cover story today on super fans. While I wish there was a bit more historical context (I am quoted briefly, but not about football's past), the piece does a good job highlighting some of the themes that seem to crop up again and again in fan studies: fandom is an extension of audiencing into everyday life, fans form a deep sense of community, fandom builds identity and friendships, etc. Leitch located and talked to actual fans, allowing them to explain their own behavior and avoiding the usual dismissive narratives of fans as dangerously pathological or superficially amusing. Good for him and for PARADE (which, let's be honest, is not known for the weight of its social analysis) in taking fandom seriously as a constructive social phenomenon.

The Swerve: A History of Passionate Reading

I just finished reading Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, something that I accomplished in a day. I rarely find myself so enthralled with a nonfiction book that I can't stop reading it, but this instance was even more remarkable since the The Swerve is itself about avid reading. On one level, it narrates the story of a former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini, whose passion for ancient texts led him to a German monastery in 1417 and to the discovery of a long-lost poem, On the Nature of Things, by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. The carefully-copied lines asserted Epicurean ideas with such eloquence and daring that--despite its challenge to fundamental precepts of Christianity--Bracciolini sought to make it known again to the world.

At another level, it is about Greenblatt's own fascination with Lucretius. Greenblatt's preface to The Swerve is an eloquent testament to the power of a text to strike, thrill, and infiltrate one's daily life. As he explained: "It was not Lucretius' exquisite language to which I was responding. Later I worked through De rerum natura in its original Latin hexameters, and I came to understand something of its rich verbal texture, its subtle rhythms, and the cunning precision and poignancy of its imagery, but my first encounter was in Martin Ferguson Smith's workmanlike English prose...No, it was something else that reached me, something that lived and moved within the sentences for more than 200 densely packed pages"(2).

Some have cited Greenblatt's engaging analysis of Epicureanism and its influence on Enlightenment thinking, but, for me, what is most significant are Greenblatt's insights into the history of ardent audiences. Most importantly, Greenblatt argues that for Bracciolini to be so passionate about books in the early 1400s was strange: "To all but a handful of people in Germany, this quest, had Poggio tried to articulate it, would have seemed weird"(18). Books were valued mostly in monasteries in the 15th century; all monks had to know how to read and were expected to engage in both "prayerful reading" and manual labor as part of their vocation. This institutionalization of reading was good for the survival of ancient texts; in order to read, the monks had to have books, and they learned to carefully reproduce texts through copying. However, it was not necessarily a joyful or exciting affair--reading and copying were, for most, compulsory chores.

Even more significant than Bracciolini's strange avidity for books was the fact that he was not alone. Greenblatt cites a small but earnest community of humanists in Italy that were devoted to uncovering and collecting lost classics. "Italians had been obsessed with book-hunting for the better part of a century, ever since the poet and scholar Petrarch brought glory on himself around 1330 by piecing together Livy's monumental History of Rome and finding forgotten masterpieces by Cicero, Propertius, and others." (23) Petrarch, Greenblatt suggests, set the model for Bracciolini, by investing "this search with a new, almost erotic urgency and pleasure, superior to all other treasure seeking" (119). Greenblatt quotes Petrarch's own assessment: "Gold, silver, jewels, purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one's bones. They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy."

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this love of books among humanists in 15th century Italy was actually an emulation of the intellectual culture of the ancient world, in which, "it became increasingly fashionable for wealthy Romans to amass large private libraries in their town houses and country villas...whether on the banks of the Rhone in Gaul or near the grove and Temple of Daphne in the province of Syria, on the island of Cos, near Rhodes, or in Dyrrhkhion in what is now Albania, the houses of cultivated men and women had rooms set aside for quiet reading." Even more remarkable, Greenblatt states that in the first century CE, the first reader-fans emerge: "At the games in the Colosseum one day, the historian Tacitus had a conversation on literature with a perfect stranger who turned out to have read his works. Culture was no longer located in close-knit circles of friends and acquaintances; Tacitus was encountering his 'public' in the form of someone who had bought his book at a stall in the Forum or read it in a library" (60-63). Based on Robert Darnton's work on Jean-Jaques Rousseau's public readership (See "Readers Respond to Rousseau" in The Great Cat Massacre), I had always associated this sort of public reader-author relationship with changing social and urban contexts of the 18th century, but this is a tantalizing revision.

There are other great tidbits in The Swerve about book hunting and collecting, about the circulation of ideas in Renaissance society, and about those whose lives were deeply shaped by the recovery and maintenance of a lost, seemingly better, past. In the end, The Swerve is really about a fan-like love of learning, from Lucretious in the first century BCE, to Bracciolini in in the early 15th century, to Greenblatt today. Their enthusiastic encounters with texts, together with one's own potentially enthusiastic reading, have the power to accumulate--or resonate together--to form an extended community of reception.