History and Fan Studies: A Conversation Between Barbara Ryan and Daniel Cavicchi (Part One)

A little over a year ago, this blog hosted an extended series of conversations between male and female academics doing work around fan studies, cult media, transmedia storytelling, and related topics. The exchanges have become a repository for contemporary work in these areas, a place I regularly send people looking for speakers on panels, contributors to books, or simply resources to support their own research projects. Whatever did or did not get resolved in the space of gender politics, the conversations have helped to promote fan studies more generally. With that in mind, I remain open to further conversations involving researchers who were not featured during the last round but who have interesting things to say to each other.

BARBARA RYAN, of the National University of Singapore, is working on a book about the Ben-Hur event. She invited DANIEL CAVICCHI of the Rhode Island School of Design to discuss some of the issues involved in pushing fan studies back into the 19th century. She got in touch with Dan because of his work on 19th-century U.S. music fans.

BR: Dan, we might begin by mapping our respective routes to this conversation. I think of you as a fan studies scholar who decided to go back in time, while I think of myself as an historian of reading who is trying to learn from fan scholarship. Your first book, on Bruce Springsteen, includes extraordinary conversations with present-day fans. So that’s a sociological approach — if I can just say this in a simple way. Too simple? Anyway, my first book analyzes 19th-century print culture that tried to emphasize how that print was put to use. Something of a reception study, then, but a social history, too. Now, here we are looking at 19th-century U.S. fans, yours being fans of music and mine being fans of Ben-Hur. Is this a new line of inquiry or one we’re joining, in progress?

One could say, I guess, that some histories of fandom already exist, that go back as far as we’re trying to go. But I see big differences between fan scholarship and even excellent histories of, say, the Astor Place Riot of 1849 or demotic activity in and around Helen Jewett’s murder and the trial of her alleged killer, somewhat earlier. We needn’t get stuck on specific examples – except maybe to identify some great histories. The point I’m making is that in those histories, I’m aware of not getting a good sense of what was true, or vital, for people who made up the Astor Place mob, or who wore “Robinson caps” to show their support for the clerk accused of murdering Jewett. Obviously, you can’t expect full documentation from all participants when you go back that far. And you sure can’t do interviews! But the first consideration is: when it is, and when it isn’t, right to speak of fandom(s). One way to proceed could be to examine media’s role on the grounds that, ultimately, media creates fandom. Does it all come down then, if only in the U.S. setting, to steam-driven printing and cheaper paper, or/and to the profit motive that inspired what has been called “a riot of words” from about the 1840s?

DC: My initial interest in fandom was actually sparked by histories of reading, especially the work of Robert Darnton and Cathy Davidson. But you are correct to say that my primary approach to fandom until now has been rooted in the social sciences. My fieldwork with Springsteen fans, in particular, came out of my studies in ethnomusicology and anthropology in graduate school. After immersing myself in the theories of the cultural studies movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s, I wanted to recover what I thought cultural studies had erased: actual people. My historical study of music fans is similar. I’ve always loved cultural histories of audiences, but I’ve found that they often rely on journalistic sources. Given what I know about how contemporary journalism has distorted fan culture, I’m a little suspicious about journalistic accounts.

Instead, I’ve been trying do “historical anthropology,” searching for people’s own explanations and testimony about their fandom. It’s true that you can’t get full documentation and you can’t do interviews, but you can find amazingly resonant experiential fragments from untapped sources, like diaries and novels. I’m quite interested in exploring whether those sources might lead one to a fuller “emic” or “experience-near” understanding–as they say in anthropology–of audience passion for theater, literature, music, and other cultural forms. In this regard, I’ve been much inspired by books like Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.

Beyond method, though, which is something we should discuss further, I think there remains a need to more fully historicize the subject of fandom, which will both help us think about its definition and its personal, social, and political functions. I think it is true that there are, already, histories of fan-like behavior, but they are not necessarily intended as such. What historians of fandom might bring to the historical study of popular culture (and events like the Astor Place Riot or the Columbian Exposition, etc.) is a re-interpretation of the evidence and the historical events through the prism of fan studies. Like any of the micro-histories that seem to be popular these days (the history of walking, the history of salt, etc.), “fandom” is a concept that, when used as a focus, might reveal new layers of meaning that were not evident before.

Still, the danger is revisionism–mapping “fandom” onto people and events in the past without justification or with gross distortion. As you note, the key problem in all of this is whether or not we can even speak of “fandom” before 1900, when the word started to gain currency in print as a description of a people or an attitude. It depends on how you define fandom, of course. The narrower or more historically-specific the definition, the less able one will be able to identify it in other contexts and time periods. The broader or general the definition, the less useful it becomes as a description of a distinct phenomenon.

I tend not to think of fandom in terms of “media,” actually, which is the luxury of someone who is not housed in a media or communications department. Instead, I tend to think of it as a degree of audiencing, a realm of marked cultural participation that is always relative to, and defined against, “normal” or unmarked cultural participation. These degrees of audiencing might manifest themselves in all sorts of ways in different historical and social contexts.

The “fandom” that scholars have studied thus far have had very much to do with mass-mediated forms of culture and have thus concerned modes of production and reception, commodification, the star system, the twists of encoding/decoding, etc. But I think there might be other modes of marked cultural participation–both in other cultures and in our own past–that might be legitimately brought into, or at least aligned with, “fan studies.” Are there behaviors and values that we might identify in, say, music lovers of the 1840s, Ben Hur readers at the turn of the century and contemporary Lost fans today? At the moment, what I see uniting those instances of audiencing has mostly to do with the commodification of culture, which depends on a radical–and sometimes playfully manipulative–reworking of the relationships between performer and audience.

BR: You speak of the functions of fandom, and the possibility that historicization will reveal new things about fans and their activities. That’s a motivation for my project, too. But the main thing I want to point out is that your word ‘marked’ will please many historians because in this field there’s much discomfort about having to read minds rather than looking to the documentary record. That said, the Springsteen book includes several vibrant discussions of your own fandom. I wonder if you feel you have a purchase on past fans and fandoms that reflects your experiences of being a Springsteen fan. Maybe more so when past fans or fandoms include music . . . or maybe not.

This raises a general question: is autoethnography still important when analysts move into historical fan studies? Could it help reveal, for instance, ‘marks’ on certain acts of cultural participation? This is on my mind because autoethnography isn’t the norm among historians. I don’t see it becoming a norm, either, due to the disciplinary freight on teasing out “how it really was then.” I’d like to see autoethnography make headway among historians because I’ve become aware of how it sometimes helps me figure things out. I tend to agree, though, with Nick Couldry that we don’t want autoethnography to become something every fan scholar must do, in print. I tend to agree because I read too much autoethnography — even from some of its proponents — that seems to me as uninformative as non-historians’ accounts of change over time.

One way I was thinking I might introduce positionality into my Ben-Hur project is to do some ruminating in sidebars. I’m playing with this in a current draft because I think it might materialize for readers outside fan studies how fan scholarship can develop a richer historical field. Some days, this feels crazed: where do I call a halt? Other days, it seems that’s the right way to feel about what it means to analyze something as big and amorphous as “culture.”

But back to your remarks. It’s interesting to hear that you turned to fan studies after reading Davidson and Darnton. They were helpful to me, too. But my first wake-ups came from books by Janice Radway and Barbara Herrnstein Smith. This will date me, but pop culture wasn’t taught in my graduate program in 19th-century U.S. literature. I mean, not even best-sellers like Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the grounds that they weren’t literature. In that setting, Reading the Romance was pretty thrilling for me. Smith’s Contingencies of Value is a different kind of project. But it did more than anything else to alert me to the value of historicizing . . . which is part of your project, too. I like your term “historical anthropologist.” You see my eagerness to talk about methods!

DC: I like the word “marked,” too! Though I must say that I was using it in the original Jakobsonian sense from linguistics, where it indicates the one side of a binary opposition that is aberrant and therefore significant. When we say “how tall are you?” instead of “how short are you?”, we weight the opposition of tall and short by making tall “unmarked” and short “marked.” That relational approach actually helps me understand fandom better than notions of “excess” or “resistance.” (I’m being totally pedantic, I know…you can imagine how my family suffers).

But you are right about “marks” and their importance. I certainly understand the concern with creating an empirical (not empiricist) understanding of the history of fandom. If fandom is about emotional attachment, something that is largely experiential and outside the realm of official institutions and documentation, what evidence would exist from the past to show that it was developing or even existed?

In the opening to his book, Making American Audiences, Richard Butsch recounts an abandoned project on “the change from music making to music listening associated with the dispersion of the phonograph & radio.” He admits, “After some preliminary explorations of dusty archives and old books, I concluded it would be difficult to document such private practices….” This is true, but I don’t agree that the private practices of audience history are totally lost.

Instead, I’ve found inspiration in newer approaches to history–the history of the senses, especially, as practiced by Mark M. Smith, Richard Cullen Rath, Emily Ann Thompson and others. Sensory history does what I want to do with audiences–it builds on the innovations of social history in the 1960s to recover a past that was long thought lost. These scholars use the close study of materials, tastes, landscapes, visual imagery, and sounds–combined with biological science and detailed contextual mapping–to articulate ordinary people’s sensations of the past.

Autoethnography is a part of this approach, though it isn’t called that. One of the useful things that Richard Cullen Rath did in How Early America Sounded, for example, was visit a colonial-era Quaker meeting house and analyze his own experience of the acoustics in the structure as a way to begin making sense of how colonial Quakers might have experienced it. I, too, have visited King’s Chapel in Boston for an afternoon organ concert in order to experience how the space might have resonated for 19th century music lovers.

Of course, there’s a danger in this: there is no guarantee that my experience of a church in 2007 will be at all the same as someone in the same space in 1842. In fact, most historians of sound would say that our cultural understanding of sound is so different, so changed, that any comparison would be suspect. However, at the same time, the wood, the paint, the instruments, and the acoustics are the same. And I have historical diary accounts from people enthusing about hearing music in that space. It’s a matter of taking one’s own experience and weighing it with that of someone else, using the materiality of the space and the human body as a sort of constant.

If anything, I really see my approach as that of an historical ethnographer. Historical fieldwork is a little weird, since the implication is that I am conducting observation and interviews with the dead, but in many ways I really do see that as being true. In my research in archives, I am encountering all sorts of people and experiences–through diaries, images, even personal objects–and trying to make sense of those encounters.

The encounters contain the familiar but at the same time there are unexpected things that I don’t understand: odd language or design, misplaced emphasis, or, as Robert Darnton pointed out in The Great Cat Massacre, jokes that aren’t funny. As an anthropologist tries to make sense of his or her accumulation of encounters with the unexpected in the field, I am trying to do the same in historical research and build some meaning out of the enterprise. The difference is that I can’t ask questions and receive answers; but I pursue questions and expect answers and, in general, value the paths opened up to me as I move from diary to diary, object to object. This is most definitely not traditional history, in that it sees the past as a “field” and derives meaning from the means, or process, of historical research rather than the ends. But I don’t know how else to do it.

In the end, I have to say that I never thought I was doing auto-ethnography in Tramps Like Us; I just thought I was being a reflexive ethnographer. There’s a difference: I’m sympathetic with the phenomenological premise behind the valuing of one’s own experience but it seems to me that that approach works best (and is tested) only in tandem with the examination of the experiences of others. How do you see auto-ethnography informing your understanding of Ben Hur readers? What’s the relationship between those sidebars and the text you are writing? In general, how do you approach making sense of the evidentiary fragments that inform your work–the letters from readers? How far can you go with that to create convincing or meaningful conclusions?

BR: On historical fieldwork, I remember when a friend in Classics expressed envy of my ability to go visit the home of a 20th-century writer who received fan mail. ‘You’re so lucky!’ he kept saying; ‘all I have is scraps of parchment and heaps of rubble.’ I recall this because I think there’s a point at which we can’t speak, even metaphorically, about doing fieldwork in the past.

We can do research but its basis is distinct; I do wonder how that relates to the sorts of things scholars will be able now or later to identify as fandoms. This is just a brain-teaser, really. But it was thought until quite recently that fan mail wasn’t a resource for historians of reading because so little has survived. When that turned out to be less true than had been assumed, the next objection was sampling: ok, this school said, now we have fan mail but it isn’t representative of all readers. The clearest statement of this position, that I know, isn’t at all aware of fan studies scholarship. But it wouldn’t be strange if the scholar who took this stand, as recently as 2008, looked at fan studies scholarship, found nothing there about fan mail, and therefore fell back on common sense that, as so often, is hard on the non-normative role – here, that of avid enthusiasts. I haven’t figured out why fan researchers who go to great lengths to find subjects to interview are so chary about fan mail. But I plan to do something about this oversight.

So that’s me on my soapbox. Where this gets us is “sources untapped” . . . to misquote you . . . that exist to be tapped because of two State-funded institutions. One is libraries that undertake the fairly expensive job of preserving authors’ papers but which do so under the lit history rubric of authors as artists. This institutionalization girds the idea, affirmed by the few historians of reading who examine fan mail, that this evidence of reception is best framed in terms of author-reader intimacy.

Backing up this affirmation is the other institution in the mix: the U.S. mail. I explore its impact with help from Friedrich Kittler’s sense of “the semi-media monopoly of the post.” Kittler is a controversial figure. But I think his radical historicization of media, during the period of most interest to me, helps nudge analysis of the Ben-Hur event toward art/civic topics probed by Couldry, Butsch, Joke Hermes and others.

Where, therefore, you’re looking to historians of the senses — a great initiative — I’m looking to fan and audience studies that discuss crowds and publics, cohesion and pop culture. As you’d expect, I contextualize the handful of letters saved by the author of Ben-Hur (or someone near him) by looking at clippings scrapbooks commissioned by him or his wife, news articles about Ben-Hur‘s value as literature, and 19th-century reports of its soaring sales.

I think of my project as step-by-step charting of an event/uality 20th-century critics were happy to telescope into a flat narrative: after critics dissed Ben-Hur, “ordinary” Americans cherished it to best-seller status. My research reveals that that isn’t sound chronicling. But we can’t see that unless we take fans’ letters seriously, probe them as thoroughly as we’d probe any other document, and pay close attention to each letter’s date. I use the term ‘event/uality’ to emphasize that there was nothing inevitable about Ben-Hur‘s success, understood as an arts enactment of democratic citizenship.

Where do sidebars fit in? In my Introduction, I’m trying out two. The longer summarizes Ben-Hur‘s plot because it’s been my experience that a lot of experts in 19th-century literature and culture haven’t read this fan favorite. Usually, books like mine offer plot-summary in the body-text. But I think a sidebar signals more forcefully that I’m not going to analyze Ben-Hur; I’m interested instead in how specially avid readers shaped its event.

The second sidebar will tackle my relationship to Ben-Hur. I want to be up-front that I didn’t read this book as a fan, or become a fan by reading it. But I want to clarify too that I’m embedded nonetheless in the Ben-Hur event as – I’ll argue – are all my readers, whether they’ve read Ben-Hur or not. Do you see how these sidebars lace into each other? I hope that that will make them operationalize, for more readers, a sense of the literary politics exposed in Contingencies of Value.

The other thing to say about sidebars is that they’ll give readers a chance to skip, or think about skipping, reflexive passages. Quite fun, isn’t it, to have this chance to swap thoughts about work in progress? Thanks, Henry!

You mentioned unfunny jokes; in my case, this could be a lexical leap in an archived fan letter, or an illustration on a product sold along with the stage-show of Ben-Hur. Findings of both sorts helped me dig deeper into event/uality in ways that helped me range more widely. The illustration, in particular, led me down unexpected pathways. It’s part of the reason, for instance, that just a few weeks ago, a book I’d picked up for leisure reading sprang into focus as more evidence of the global impact of the Ben-Hur event . . . which was, and remains, amazing to me: how far this novel reached, how many lives it touched – how many people it irritated! It was partly with a view to that amazement that I said earlier, where does research stop? But it’s more central to my interest in fan mail that researchers devise methods resistant to what Raymond Williams called “the long dominative mode.” It’s been exciting for me to explore media studies that challenge the premises of literary history, a discipline that found its footing by, among other things, shooting down Ben-Hur and all who liked it.

Do you find similar put-downs or posturing in your project? I think you end before Americans heard reports of women standing on their chairs at open-air concerts, to get closer to Wagner’s music. But you’re seeing, I’m sure, concern about over-avid or rawly untutored reactions to Lind, Bull, Paderewski and so on. What space do you make for anti-fans? Do you feel you need to present a ‘fair and balanced’ account of those days, or that it’s more valuable to focus on all that’s currently unknown about receptors ‘marked’ as lacking or aberrant?

DC: You raise many issues about evidence, here, Barbara, that are worth considering in fan studies. Of course, evidence has always been an issue in the discipline of history–from basic questions of origin and access to standards for evaluation and interpretation. It is generally true that physical traces of the past tend to disappear and become increasingly scattered as time goes on, making the process of piecing together a coherent understanding of past events and experience more and more difficult. That difficulty arises from the principle of accumulation, that one can make conclusions only when enough of the evidence warrants a claim. Worry about conclusions occurs when the evidence is “thin.”

However, debates in anthropology have taught me that what constitutes “enough evidence” is often defined by the subject being investigated. Not having enough evidence is often a problem when the goal is to build a general field theory about a past culture or time period; the generalization required at that level of analysis requires a great deal of support to be convincing. A solution to that problem, however, is to scale back and recognize that writing about a fragment, a very limited moment or experience, or even a single voice, can be as worthwhile in creating meaning. In my own work, I can spend months trying to learn as fully as I can about a single person I have encountered in archives–a young clerk and avid music listener trying to make his way in Philadelphia in 1849, the first winner of P.T. Barnum’s ticket auction for Jenny Lind’s 1850 concert in Boston, etc. At one point I contemplated writing a whole book about the latter! Would that have enabled me to still think through the emergence of music fandom in the United States? Yes, but in a very particular way that might prove unsatisfying to those looking for broader understandings of the sweep of culture and history.

I would emphasize in all this, though, that the one thing that fan studies has taught me is that while much evidence is lost, perhaps even more of it is ignored or overlooked, thanks to the politics of collective memory. In other words, there are traces of the past everywhere, if only someone were to interpret them as so. Maybe that’s too literary, or radically postmodern, for a lot of historians. There is something subversive about researching popular fandom at state and private archives like the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, or the Boston Athaeneum. When I did so, I was mis-using the sources in those places, which were collected and preserved as antiquities or aesthetic treasures, by elites who likely disapproved of the activities I was seeking to value. I should say that I was supported by a competitive fellowship at one of these institutions, so there was nothing really under-handed about doing fan research there, but at the same time, the institutionalized understanding of “history” that shapes research practices at such archives is not set up for a quirky, left-field mining of the collections.

In my case, none of the finding aids so carefully prepared by past curators and archivists were useful for locating materials related to music audiences, or listening, or passionate engagement. Instead, it was a matter of experimenting with lots of open-ended searching in diaries and ephemera. I also started systematically perusing sources catalogued for other histories (religious debates, women’s diaries, military history, etc.) and then reading them for what those sources might lend to a study of music loving.

It seems to me that your use of fan letters is similar: you are looking at something that has always existed but has been ignored by researchers or whose meaning has been narrowly prescribed by institutionalized frameworks of interpretation. As you suggest, by taking such letters seriously as historical documentation, we can see (or to be more accurate about it, create) a different history of Ben-Hur’s reception.

I do agree that my very focus on music lovers is a way to bring them into a musicology (and a culture) that has spent much time denigrating fan behavior and demoting practices of audiencing to secondary status. I seek to recover such behavior, quite simply, because it’s missing, and I think our understanding of American musical life suffers in its absence.

Does that lead me to avoid anti-fans in the research? Not really. The more work I’ve done on the emergence of music loving, the more I’ve learned that the binary opposition of fan and anti-fan is itself historical, developing in from the sacralization of high culture and the disciplining of public spectatorship described by Lawrence Levine, John Kasson, and others. After the turn of the century, you are either high or popular, good or bad, etc. In the antebellum period, the valuing of different kinds of audience participation is far more variable and complicated. “Music loving” could be exercised as a focus on the space of the concert hall and a focus on the “work;” an outer enthusiasm, a kind of communal sociability, and/or an internal intensity; and a means for circumventing, embracing, or strategically using the increasingly rigid frameworks of commercial entertainment. Preferred and less-preferred kinds of engagement are sorted out on an institutional and cultural level between 1850 and 1880, but the process is messy and confusing.

I’m not sure that I could focus only on marked receptors, if I tried, because the people I’m investigating are clearly working through the process of “marking” in the first place. In fact, I found myself seeing what I initially thought was elitist and dismissive “anti-fandom” (insisting on reverent silence in the concert hall, for example) as a complexly unfolding reform of previously established behaviors of passionate engagement. There is no doubt that in the context of urbanization and immigration in the mid-19th century that such revisions had ideological consequences that reinforced growing class divisions; I am less certain, however, that the motivations of the particular people who argued for such revisions were uniformly and/or simply about class prejudice. As in Tramps Like Us, I am wrestling a bit with the seeming contradictions of macro- and micro- interpretative frameworks.

I do have my own strategies in writing, of course. Your separating out, in sidebars, of the text of Ben-Hur and your own relationship to Ben-Hur from the event of Ben Hur is necessary for uninformed readers but also highlights the politics involved in your analysis. In my case, I am consciously resisting any privileging of “the work” in my analysis. In part, that absence is meant to re-orient (or perhaps disorient!) my readers so that they can think about music outside of the common frame of composer/text/performance that is so incredibly entrenched in both the academic study of music (musicology has never really experienced a postmodern crisis of definition) and in the music industry.

I am intensely uninterested in working out the lineages of styles or performers that typically occupy music history; instead my focus is resolutely on an alternative history of audience behaviors. I did go out and find some recordings of the operas that music lovers mentioned in their diaries, but I see such texts as only part of the many details that make up the event of reception.

In fact, initially, I prefer NOT knowing what symphony or song is being referenced by an auditor or an artifact–it makes it easier to avoid the work and focus solely on reception behaviors. It allows me, for a brief moment, to explore audiencing in a more open-ended way before my own musicological knowledge and associations narrow my thinking. That suspension of knowing also gets me psychologically closer to the “newness” of musical works that music lovers themselves were experiencing. Maybe it’s all pretend, but I find, at least, that experimenting with how I am positioned in my own processes of research and of writing can be worth while.

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Comments

  1. Kevin McLeod says:

    This was fantastic. Thanks.