Saturday, March 2, 2013

Fans, Artists, Love, and Exchange

Punk has always challenged traditional models of artist-audience interaction, from DIY culture to the contradictions of the record industry selling rebellion against the record industry (for more on the latter, watch The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, then read Mary Harron's "McRock: Pop as a Commodity" in Facing the Music: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture, ed. by Simon Frith). The latest wrinkle in this thread of punk history is Amanda Palmer's innovative use of online culture, including Twitter and Kickstarter, to bypass the record industry and to ask fans directly to support her artistry. She explains her approach in a recent TED Talk, "The Art of Asking," which just went up online:

TED Talks are always a little awkward (I remember someone once tweeting that they are occasions "where business people and academics pretend to like one another" - who was that?), but this talk seemed awkward in a somewhat useful way, introducing the typically staid TED audience to the glories of edgy performance art and cabaret-punk. It has not been without controversy--last year, Palmer ran into some public criticism of her essentially anarchist business model in terms of paying guest musicians, and how she addresses this controversy in the TED talk has been a matter of further discussion in the blogosphere.

I am more interested, though, in what all this says about fandom and its place in the sales and marketing of music in the digital age. Are fans rebels or ultra consumers? What are the right and wrong ways to recognize their devotion? Who, if anyone, should own crowd-sourced work? How might such questions help us to rethink (or rediscover) the participatory nature of arts? There is a lot of thinking out there about these questions, of course, from Liza Potts' investigations of Palmer's fan base to Henry Jenkins' wide-ranging work on new media distribution to Lewis Hyde's thinking about gift culture and the commons. Looks like a good new undergraduate seminar, no?

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a charming memoir of bibliomania, by French editor and writer Jacques Bonnet. Treading in the footsteps of classics like Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," Bonnet offers a series of reflections on his personal library and, more generally, on the quality of a life lived with books. Its 123 pages can be enjoyed in an afternoon; its charm lies in Bonnet's quiet self-awareness and wry humor. Throughout Bonnet mentions not only the books he has read (and re-read) but also the numerous authors who have, throughout human history, written about their reading and their libraries. For those interested in books about books, this tiny volume is a great map.

Bonnet is interested in something I've been pondering a lot lately: from where does a passion for books (or passion for the arts, in general) come? In the beginning of the book, he mentions how "reading...penetrated, like a shaft of sunlight, through the gloomy atmosphere of a provincial childhood of the 1960s" and about how both escape from and knowledge of the world excitingly tarried with each other for him during the tumult of France in the late-1960s. These answers are circumstantial, pointing to the power of books to re-contextualize us, to subvert the conditions in which we find ourselves. But he also wonders about the force of sheer curiosity: "The fanatical reader is not only anxious, he or she is curious. And surely human curiosity--condemned as it was by certain Fathers of the church as being of no purpose since the coming of Christ, and even prohibited, since we now have the Gospels--is one of the determining factors of all our actions? A capital element in the search for knowledge, in scientific discoveries or technological progress, the essential force behind human endeavour..." (29)

Otherwise, I was taken with his repeated assertion about libraries as alive. For readers, this is a common reality; for non-readers, it might seem hyperbolic. It is not easy to explain. Bonnet says, "A strange relationship becomes established between the bibliomaniac and his (or her) thousands of books...We may have chosen its themes, and the general pathways along which it will develop, but we can only stand and watch as it invades all the walls of the room, climbs to the ceiling, annexes the other rooms one by one, expelling anything that gets in the way." (31) Bonnet is genuinely surprised as he writes to us about his library, seeing things he had not seen before. "How did these books get into my library?" he asks at the start of chapter 5. The question is not entirely rhetorical.

One of the funniest moments was his discussion of how "human reality sometimes intrudes strangely into the principles of classification" of any library, noting how book collectors think long and hard about which books should be allowed together or forced apart. Apparently, the author of a rulebook for personal libraries in the Victorian era suggested that works of male and female authors had to be separated "unless the parties are married to one another," (41); Bonnet quotes the hero of a bibliomaniacal novel, The House of Paper, who worries about putting Borges next to Garcia Lorca, Shakespeare next to Marlowe, or other potentially unpleasant social situations.

In the end, Bonnet assert that "hundreds of thousands of people live in my library." First, he notes that each book contains a host of "imaginary" characters, with whom we have a deep experiential and psychological communion, who are always there, living their stories for eternity. Second, while asserting that authors are only fragmentary apparitions about which readers know very little, he argues that readers nevertheless are are invested in their reality and are always in search of books' creators. "We are so anxious to maintain the illusion that the author is a real person that we cannot be satisfied simply with an orphan work of literature." (83) Of course, these are the two foundations of fandom--sustained passion for a work and the quest to establish a lasting and strong relationship with others, famous or humble. Escape and knowledge.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Musicking in Early America

I woke up this snowy morning to check my email and sleepily surf through my usual list of journals and sites, and what did I find? An entire issue of the online journal Common-Place devoted to "Music and Meaning in Early America." Exciting! The articles explore a wide range of issues and topics from musical representations of King Philip's War to sacred music and Southern nationalism after the Civil War. (There is also a review of Listening and Longing by historian David W. Stowe). One of the guest editors, Nikos Pappas, explains: 
...Rather than trying to define American music according to a narrow understanding and definition, the contributors to this special issue of Common-place explore the multivalent world of British North America and the United States for its first three centuries of existence. They reveal uniquely American trends in music performance, composition, and the climate for musicking, especially in the period predating recorded sound as well as the replication of European practice in the Western Hemisphere and its resonance and use in its new environment. Together, their essays explore the many ways in which music existed in the United States. The result reveals how disparate and quirky American music was in that period.
Have a look, if you get a chance.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fandom and the Public Sphere

In 2009, I talked with literary scholar Barbara Ryan about her ongoing project on Ben-Hur fans. She has been researching the political efficacy of Ben-Hur fandom and the complexities of the "citizen-audience," a term that has gained traction in media studies through the work of scholars like Richard Butsch, Joke Hermes, Toby Miller, etc. At the time, I wasn't fully aware of the specific ways that audience studies and citizenship studies had been intersecting, but now I'm starting to encounter this approach more broadly across both academic and professional fields.

The latest was a post by Peter Gutierrez last month on his Connect the Pop blog. Citing the ways that students' participation in online fandom might offer opportunities for learning not only "netiquette" and basic online safety but also civic engagement more broadly, Gutierrez offers K-12 students a "Digital Fandom Checklist" to help students think about the social contexts and commitments the shape their fandom. Given the strong, long-term, communal nature of fandom, Gutierrez notes, "Fans must take into account not just the short-term value of making a point or having the last word, but their long-term relationships with their fellow fans, both individually and generally, the latter insofar as they’re developing a reputation or history within fandom." He goes on to suggest that the particularly social framework of fandom can help students to begin to work out what it means to engage publicly with others in a democracy, especially around issues that are fraught with strong feelings, even tension.

Obviously, there is much much more to think about in terms of how media, audiencing, education, and civics have influenced one another, especially in different historical contexts of social transformation. But I like that Gutierrez has provided teachers, librarians, and students with a means to start analyzing and applying ideas emerging from the growing scholarship on citizenship and audience.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Introducing Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte arrives in the RISD Auditorium, January 29, 2013. Photo by John Maeda, via Twitter
I've had an ongoing interest in the power of oratory since I started researching "cultures of hearing" in the 19th century. Anti-slavery activists, temperance reformers, Lyceum lecturers, campaigning politicians, evangelical preachers--19th century urban Americans were not only surrounded by speech but believed in the potential of an utterance to transform one's life. This history really came alive for me last night, when I had the honor to introduce--and hear--singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who was visiting Rhode Island School of Design as part of its 2013 celebration of Martin Luther King's legacy.
Where can I possibly start to introduce you to the exceptional achievements of Harry Belafonte?  
For me, the best way to sum up this work is to think about the voice. The voice, of course, is the key tool of any singer and actor, and Mr. Belafonte's emergence as a star in the 1950s was centered on it--a controlled baritone, textured with a slight rasp, punctuated by sharp articulation, capable of explosive, raw emotion. His voice could work wonders with audiences. Starting out as a jazz crooner, he soon expanded to a broad repertoire of spirituals, calypso, gospel, the blues, and folk; in all, he transformed the melodic simplicity of traditional songs into passionate declarations of a diverse world. In movies, Broadway, and television, too, his voice became a recognizable element of the sonic landscape of America. He was the first African American to have a million-selling record, the African American to win a Tony, the first African American television producer, the first African American man to win an Emmy, the first African American to host "The Tonight Show"--the list of superlatives reflecting his boundary-breaking achievements as a singer and actor goes on and on.  
The idea of the voice, of course, also emphasizes the importance of Mr. Belafonte's social and political activism. More than any other entertainer in the latter half of the twentieth century, Mr. Belafonte has given his voice, enhanced by his celebrity, to the cause of global equity and human rights. It's another version of that Kevin Bacon "six degrees" game; name a social justice movement since the 1950s and you can connect Mr. Belafonte to it.  
He was a confidant of Martin Luther King and strategist for the Civil Rights Movement. He was a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps and liaison between leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and of liberation movements in Africa. He was a public advocate for the American Indian Movement. He established TransAfrica, a group instrumental in shaping the anti-Apartheid divestment movement. He was the founder of USA for Africa and its benefit album We Are the World, which addressed widespread famine in Ethiopia. He was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, conducting fact-finding in Rwanda just after the 1994 genocide and later working across Africa to promote public education and awareness of HIV and AIDS. He organized Nelson Mandela's triumphant tour of the United States in 1990. More recently, he organized the Gathering for Justice to address the crisis of youth incarceration, and he led the movement against U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And I'm only touching the surface, here, of his remarkable record of activism. 
This is not just about Harry Belafonte's voice, though. All voices are central to a functioning democracy. America is a country with a robust history of declarations, public hearings, presidential debates, oral arguments, mainstream voices, minority voices, dissenting voices, free expression. We all want a "chance to speak" and to receive "a fair hearing." It's why Walt Whitman celebrated "America singing" in 1850 and also why some of the most deeply troubling historical moments in U.S. history have involved silencing, from the sedition act of 1798 to the electoral exclusion of women and minorities. In this light, Mr. Belafonte has done something quite extraordinary throughout his career--not only has he raised his voice in song, not only has he given his voice to the cause of social justice, but he has, in doing those things, created new spaces in which those made voiceless can speak themselves and participate anew in public discourse.  
In Protestant Christianity, there is a tradition of being called to service, of hearing a voice that guides one to speak and act in the world, sometimes in ways that are contrary to worldly assumptions about value or success. However you might feel about the religious nature of this phenomenon, its basic idea has also animated democratic activism and change for centuries: voicing, hearing, and action are deeply intertwined. In that spirit, let us listen now, in the hope that we might find the inspiration to speak and act ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, let us give a warm welcome to Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Audiences: Noisy, Social, Silent, Uptight

“The box-circle.” Sigismund Ivanowski, 1905. “Cabinet of American Curiosities.” Library of Congress.
Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan highlighted a portion of an interview with musicologist Carolyn Abbate, talking about her new book (co-authored with Roger Parker), A History of Opera. Titling the post "Before Opera was Uptight," Sullivan emphasizes Abbate's suggestion that reverent silence at the opera was instituted by composer Richard Wagner in the 1870s, and that such reverence has led young people ever since to eschew opera performance for more social and boisterous forms of popular music performance.

I'm not so sure. The shift from noisy to silent audiences in the late nineteenth century has been articulated before, most notably by Lawrence Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow and John Kasson in Rudeness and Civility. It also has been criticized before by music historians like William Weber, Ralph P. Locke, and Joseph Horowitz. Based on my own research on nineteenth-century music lovers, I have to say that I agree more with the critique. I don't dispute that there was a change in expectations for the behavior of audiences for public performance between 1850 and 1910, but I worry that accounts of "imposed religiosity" on late nineteenth-century performance tend to unnecessarily homogenize people's historical experiences of music (audiences are either entirely boisterous or entirely reverent), and underplay how very uneven and complex the change was (audiences are portrayed too simply as loose and fun before the 1870s and then stodgy and uptight after).

As I wrote in Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum:
...Interpretations of classical reform as a break with more unruly and vibrant forms of audience participation also tend to gloss over the extent to which the reform movement depended on the already-established existence of devoted music listening, something to which the movement added new utopian ideas about the function of music loving in an increasingly anonymous and commercialized society. 
Both Kasson and Levine, for example, have talked about the “silence” that accompanied classical music appreciation, particularly how the imposition of new rules to keep audiences silent during performances were a means to overcome and control, in the words of Kasson, “boisterous informality and conviviality.”  However, the evidence of audience behavior in the diaries of actual listeners indicates that silent listening is not the most accurate way to capture changing practices and aesthetic debates among post-Civil War music audiences. Antebellum music lovers valued silence as much as postbellum audiences; for the former, silence enabled them to fully experience the skills of virtuosos and was a sign of engagement and astonished appreciation. Instead of introducing the novelty of silence to a noisy environment, postbellum reformers changed the meanings and uses of silence according to new beliefs about the definition and function of music. (173)
At any rate, I look forward to reading Abbate and Parker's book and learning more.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Archiving Tweets

Before the World Wide Web, Internet bulletin boards and discussion lists provided me with a new means for doing ethnographic work among fans. Today, online activity is more important than ever for those who study human social life and institutions, and it has fallen to archivists to find ways to usefully record our collective digital traces. As part of that effort, the Library of Congress just published an update about its new archive of tweets, a project that has been underway since 2010. They are currently trying to figure out how to index over 120 billion tweets and provide access to researchers, which, as the report explains, is an enormous and expensive task.

Whenever it works out, I'm most excited about the possibilities of this archive for audience studies. Some still dismiss Twitter as only record of the mundane (something, actually, that could be quite fascinating), but I think one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter culture has been the phenomenon of "live tweeting" various events, from concerts and television shows to elections and storms. As a kind of "event marginalia," such tweets might offer real insight into reception, social discourse, and diverse kinds of audience behavior.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading in Public

If you've come across this blog before, you probably know that I enjoy talking about reading as much as--well, reading. That's why I enjoyed this post by Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse, about "Reading Weird Books in Public," over at 3 Quarks Daily. Apparently, people have strong reactions to what others read. Think of it as a kind of social marginalia.

As an academic whose professional life revolves around reading, I bring books everywhere. There is always reading to be done, and, as a parent who must drop-off and pick-up children on a daily basis, I am often waiting, with time to kill. Why not catch up on the latest journal? Take notes on a book for research? Prep for the next class reading? It doesn't really matter whether it's at the mall or gymnastics class or on the soccer field--if there's light, I can read.

Apparently this is not always cool. Usually, I don't ever get more than a second glance, or someone wise-cracking "a little light reading, eh?," when I am spotted outside of the classroom with an academic monograph. Of course, there was that one time when a woman on a plane was curious about my copy of David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas and asked if I were "studying to be a meteorologist." And I do still get grief from my family about the time I sat amidst roaring fans in the stands at a high school football game, engrossed in Brian Ward's Just My Soul Responding. (In my defense, I had class the next morning).

Inappropriate reading has a long history, reaching at least into the 18th century, including workers sharing pamphlets, housewives engaging in novels instead doing housework, etc. (see I never really thought about the extent to which we still maintain all kinds of prescriptions and rules about what, when, and where to read. It may not be threatening anymore, but it can still provoke.

For more on the contemporary phenomenon of reading in public, be sure to check out:
Underground New York Public Library

Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading Music Writing in the Digital Age

Maura Johnston, at the NPR Music Blog, recently wondered about the future of music writing in the digital age, where traditional combinations of generalist coverage and more in-depth "think pieces" are being jettisoned for "legions of sites that dive down cultist rabbit-holes and other sites that attempt to predict what the masses will want to read and share on social media like Twitter and Facebook." Most interesting to me were her insights about the ways that digital audiences engage with writing itself:
The most crucial difference between print and online media consumption boils down to the click. When reading a print publication with multiple stories, your eye could flick over a headline or catchy paragraph and be drawn in; the process of choosing to read something is fluid. Compare leafing through a paper to scanning a stack of headlines, deciding which ones compel you from their brief description, clicking, reading, then clicking back and going through the whole rigmarole again. (There's also a question of scale; the cascade of headlines coming from, say, Twitter or Facebook is magnitudes bigger than that in a typical daily.) "Most Popular" lists on some publications' sidebars allow for a quick way to dive into content, but they often become self-reinforcing, or reward topics that have a predictable payoff.
I'm not convinced that this distinction, between an older "fluid" reading and newer fragmented "back-and-forth" reading, is as stark as Johnston portrays; readers have engaged with the written word in diverse ways, much of which ignored the intentions of authors, long before the advent of social media--just look at 19th century scrapbooking, for example. Her overall point is not really about whether readers are engaging differently with music writing, however; it is that professional journalists are no longer the arbiters of culture that they once were and might need to rethink their role:
...From streaming albums to artist tweets to comments in the iTunes Store and beyond — and music writers become just another voice, shouting above the fray to be heard. Turning that chaos into a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists, and that connects people in surprising ways, should be a goal among writers and editors in 2013.
Again, I see the point but am not entirely sure I'm convinced. It is true that social media has expanded readers' access to writing, commentary, and publications in ways that were not possible in the print age, unless you were willing to hang out at a university library for days and weeks, scouring the periodical stacks. (And some of us did). But I wonder whether music writing has ever had the power for listeners that Johnston ascribes to it. Music fans, for instance, were writing to and for each other, outside of conventional media coverage, long before social media; professional music writers have always been "just another voice" for them. Perhaps the issue is not simply one of institutionalized music writing yielding to the clamor of the crowd but rather of the changing quality, size, and scope of clamor from one decade to the next.

All this reminds of a book I should read by Jennifer Lena, called Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Sudhir Venkatesh offers an interview with Lena at the Freakonomics blog, where Lena argues that categories of taste and genre are not merely aesthetic but deeply social and contextual and that we need to pay more attention not just to artists and their works but also to the social, political, and economic players--including audiences and music journalists!--that have always defined music. It sounds pretty ethnomusicological to me (I should write about the frustratingly parallel universes of ethnomusicology and cultural sociology another time), but I will withhold comment until I've actually read it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reading and Not Reading

I love John Sayles' A Moment in the
 for many reasons.

Nice piece by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle Review last week about the "growing body of investigations into the history of reading." For reception scholars, such growth may seem old news, but the piece, prompted by Leah Price's How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain, separates historical research on reading from more established research on the history of the book and reception theory, linking it to current debates on reading and technology and transnationalism. Howard offers a too-brief history of the field (though it name-drops my own favorites--Janice Radway, Robert Darnton, and Jonathan Rose), but her discussion of research methods and problems is quite good, ranging from the rare joys of marginalia to new efforts to aggregate historical evidence, such as the Reading Experience Database (RED).

Price offers the best line, actually: "'The history of reading,' Price says, 'really has to encompass the history of not reading.'" Absolutely true, that. (I am reminded of my own students' love for "art books," as well as this amusing review of Ronald Reagan's memoir). But we still haven't figured out how to talk about "reading" in its broadest sense without some awkwardness. In my own work on music, I have used the term "audiencing," which encompasses moments of encounter, as well as everything else that goes into one's attention to music: various kinds of meaning-making around performances and works, social practices of fans, and the diverse uses of music in daily life. Michael Broyles and other recent reviewers of Listening and Longing have rightly called me out on the clunkiness of the term, but I'm not sure how else to capture all that we do with music. Until our shared understanding of "reading" (or "listening" or "viewing") moves away from the narrow act of sensorily encountering a text, we are stuck with this sort of awkward explanation.

With a little pedantry, I'm sure that we can shift the tide! Try this line at your next party: "I just read the best book! Which, of course, included my enjoying the story, posting about it on Facebook, inadvertently repeating its phrasing in conversation, doodling an illustration of one of the characters while talking on phone, trying to re-flatten the cover after I dropped it, using it to hide a gift certificate I bought for my sister's birthday, and proudly displaying it on the shelf where I keep Absalom, Absalom! and Finnegan's Wake."

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Ardent Audience 2.0

There's nothing like a good revival.

Time to revive the blog. Sorry to have been absent for so long; blogging had become a bit of an albatross, especially when other professional writing and editing projects required my attention. I started the Ardent Audience blog two years ago, in January 2011, so please consider this its second phase. To mark that transition, I've given the page a new, clean look. I'm still going to focus on the world of historical audiences, but in the interest of time and sanity, I'm going to re-balance the mix of commentary and aggregated information. I hope that this move will enable me to continue to offer a place where one might learn more about the latest research, ideas, and debates in audience studies. 

Back soon with some new posts.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Patience of Fans

News reports indicate that the general manager of the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence will honor, for an upcoming February show by The Who, tickets from a previously cancelled show. The twist: the cancelled show was 33 years ago

I suppose that's one way to distinguish "true fans" from "casual fans."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Graphic Texts, Then and Now

Over the past two years, I've been working as the editor for Music:Interview, a new series from Wesleyan University Press featuring books that creatively anthologize "the most provocative and resonant interviews by a significant figure in music." A project in the series I'm particularly excited about is Stephen Farina's Reel History: The Lost Archive of Juma Sultan and the Aboriginal Music Society. While the book introduces musician Juma Sultan and his performances with the Aboriginal Music Society from the 1960s and ‘70s, it is also an exciting experiment in form. It dynamically combines oral history, the graphic novel, audio recording, and film to narrate the story of Farina's own encounters with Juma Sultan and to make sense of Sultan's decaying but extraordinary archive of historical reel-to-reel tapes, 16 mm films, and posters from the heyday of black nationalist politics and avant garde jazz. Reel History is Wesleyan's first "digital-born" book--that is, it is available an e-book only--reading it was a new experience for me, since it invites a range of readerly engagement. One moment you are following Farina's story-telling in words, the next you encounter a visual montage (sequential panels evoking Sultan's body movements as he reminisces and laughs). Along the way, you can click on links that play clips of the music being discussed, or you can watch a silent movie of the AMS rehearsing. It is truly a book illustrated for readers in a digital age, used to moving between text, video, and audio with ease.

Coincidentally, I've been reading another older work, for a class I'm about to teach on social justice and the New Deal, that also experimented with illustration and narrative, albeit in a very different way: Lynd Ward's Vertigo. Ward was a printmaker who combined wood engraving and a strong commitment to social justice to create a series of "novels without words" in the 1930s. I had never heard of Lynd Ward until he was recommended to me by a friend, but his work is extraordinary, representing a kind of moving picture, with the "movement" created not by visual illusion or mechanical device--or even a layout of frames, typical of comics and graphic novels--but rather by a reader's own engagement with narrative flow. Each page holds one illustration, exquisitely-rendered: establishing scenes of city streets, characters in various settings, conversations, dreams, close-ups of faces and expressions. When taken together in sequence, they tell a complex story. In an earlier work, Wild Pilgrimage, Ward interestingly used different colors--red to indicate interior thought and black to indicate exterior action; in Vertigo, he dispensed with such cues, putting everything into the composition and sequence of the images. Sometimes, you don't know what's going on for several pages, but then with one expression or twist, it all becomes clear.

Finally, thanks to Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Daily Beast, I was made aware that the Folio Society is re-publishing William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) in the way that Faulkner originally intended, with different colored text indicating different time periods. The Sound and the Fury is a complex, layered book, with the same story told from multiple points of view and with abrupt shifts in narrative style and time period. Faulkner had originally hoped to use colored ink to help readers negotiate these shifts, but the publisher refused, so he had to rely on roman and italic type instead. Now, we can experience the book graphically in ways we could not in the original Random House editions.

I've been reading a lot about reading lately, but I have not come across scholarship that addresses the processes of reading a graphic text in the way that, say, Wolfgang Iser or Stanley Fish have addressed the more conventional word text, or art historians have made sense of looking at a painting. I'm fairly certain that this is due only to my ignorance, so I'd appreciate any recommendations for such criticism and theory in the comments. In the meantime, happy "reading," whatever that entails.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tag-Team Audiencing

We tend to think of audiencing as a rather prescribed set of activities: purchasing a ticket, entering a theater of some kind, and watching/hearing a performance. But there are all kinds of alternative audience practices that challenge this model, either out of necessity or defiance. In Listening and Longing, for instance, I wrote about the practice of lingering outside concert halls to catch the muted strains of performed music inside, or drawing out the experience of a performance through various kinds of reproduction: writing and re-reading detailed descriptions in diaries, or purchasing sheet music or scripts of works and trying to re-create them.

I just realized the significance of another alternative practice. Harry Belafonte, in his new autobiography, My Song, writes about how he and Sidney Poitier, as young struggling actors in post-War 1940s Harlem, would go to the theater: "We started going to the theater once or twice a week, splitting the cost of a single ticket. One of us would go in for the first half, come out at intermission and pass the stub, along with a plot summary to the other. We saw some theater that way, and agreed that seeing half of each play taught us more than not seeing a play at all." (60)

Remarkably, I had just read Patti Smith's account of the same practice when she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City in the 1970s. This is a fascinating way to encounter a performance. All audiences set up a performance and then collectively interpret it afterward through conversation and criticism--but in this scenario, the performance itself is a dialogic construction, made from individually-experienced fragments, imagined together. If you believe that audiences are secondary, only receiving the primary event of performance, then this sort of tag-teaming is simply a clever way to report "what happened" among those who can't afford more than a ticket. However, if you believe that audiences in some way constitute the performances they encounter, then tag-teaming presents some very interesting questions about how texts might be understood, crafted, and made meaningful in their re-telling. 

Of course, we do this all the time. When a group of people is watching television and one person leaves for a moment to get a snack or use the bathroom and then asks, upon returning, "What did I miss?," he will piece together the narrative from experience, memory, and whatever irritated descriptions he receives. What I like about tag-team audiencing is the positive investment in the process; both Belafonte and Poitier planned to relate half the play to the other and knew that their collective understanding depended on it.

Jonathan Sterne has described the phonograph as "a machine to hear for us." In many ways, tag-team audiencing functions similarly; both Belafonte and Poitier provided playback for each other. Belafonte doesn't talk about how he, or Poitier, grew to enjoy the descriptions they gave each other as much as seeing plays, but that wouldn't be impossible to imagine. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Summer is the Time for Reading

I'm never going to make it onto the Hot Guys Reading Books blog (fascinating concept in the history of reading, no?), but I am a guy who is presently engaged in reading books. Lots of them. During the academic year, while I deal with the non-stop demands of teaching, committee-work, and administration, I rarely have time to read. Still, every year, there are about a dozen or so new books on fans and audiences that I really must read, a situation that puts the pressure on me during my breaks from teaching to take them all out of the library. I rarely get through the whole pile, but with due diligence I do begin to acquaint myself with some of the latest interesting work in the field. Maybe there needs to be a Harried Professors Reading Books blog.

This summer, I've been trying to catch up with recently-published books on popular music by Will Hermes, Patti SmithKevin Fellezs, Claudio Benzecry, William Roy, John Street, Steven Feld, Kiri Miller, and Harry Belafonte. I've already reviewed Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire and will talk about some of the others, soon, on this blog.

Of course, while I've been focusing on music, I've been noticing a host of books on audience that have been cropping up in other fields. Just quickly, for example, here are a few books about ardent reading that I ardently wish to read:

Michael Millner, Fever Reading (University of New Hampshire Press, 2012)

"Drawing on a rich archive of scandal chronicles, pornography, medical journals, religious novels, and popular newspapers, as well as more canonical sources, Michael Millner examines the panics and paranoia associated with “bad reading” in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War. Weaving into his analysis a model of emotion recently developed in cognitive psychology, he provides the back-history to our present-day debates about “bad” reading and shows how these debates—both in the past and in the present—are in part about the shape of the public sphere itself."

Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Queequeg's Coffin (Duke University Press, 2012)

"The encounter between European and native peoples in the Americas is often portrayed as a conflict between literate civilization and illiterate savagery. That perception ignores the many indigenous forms of writing that were not alphabet-based, such as Mayan pictoglyphs, Iroquois wampum, Ojibwe birch-bark scrolls, and Incan quipus. Queequeg's Coffin offers a new definition of writing that comprehends the dazzling diversity of literature in the Americas before and after European arrivals. This groundbreaking study recovers previously overlooked moments of textual reciprocity in the colonial sphere, from a 1645 French-Haudenosaunee Peace Council to Herman Melville's youthful encounters with Polynesian hieroglyphics.

By recovering the literatures and textual practices that were indigenous to the Americas, Birgit Brander Rasmussen reimagines the colonial conflict as one organized by alternative but equally rich forms of literacy. From central Mexico to the northeastern shores of North America, in the Andes and across the American continents, indigenous peoples and European newcomers engaged each other in dialogues about ways of writing and recording knowledge. In Queequeg's Coffin, such exchanges become the foundation for a new kind of early American literary studies."

Barbara Hochman, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Reading Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011; recently won the 2012 DeLong Book History Prize from SHARP: The Society for Authorship, Reading, and Publishing)

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of Stowe’s influential book by addressing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared cultural assumptions. These changes reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe’s text in the wake of the Civil War.

During the 1850s, men, women, and children avidly devoured Stowe’s novel. White adults wept and could not put the book down, neglecting work and other obligations to complete it. African Americans both celebrated and denounced the book. By the 1890s, readers understood Uncle Tom’s Cabin in new ways. Prefaces and retrospectives celebrated Stowe’s novel as a historical event that led directly to emancipation and national unity. Commentaries played down the evangelical and polemical messages of the book.

Illustrations and children’s editions projected images of entertaining and devoted servants into an open-ended future. In the course of the 1890s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became both a more viciously racialized book than it had been and a less compelling one. White readers no longer consumed the book at one sitting; Uncle Tom’s Cabin was now more widely known than read. However, in the growing silence surrounding slavery at the turn of the century, Stowe’s book became an increasingly important source of ideas, facts, and images that the children of ex-slaves and other free-black readers could use to make sense of their position in U.S. culture."