History and Fan Studies: Barbara Ryan and Daniel Cavicchi (Part Two)

DC: We’ve really been focusing on method, here, haven’t we? I wonder if we might turn a bit toward the subject of fan history and what we might say about its timeline and function in American culture, something that you raised at the beginning of this discussion. I’m obviously focusing on fandom around music and you are focusing on fandom around literature –are we talking about the same thing?

I am most interested in whether the changing practices of and discourses around music audiences somehow correspond (in terms of chronology or sequence or content) with histories of audiencing other realms of culture: literature, theater sports, and film. What kind of “narrative arc” might you suggest for a history of fans in the U.S. and how do your letter-writers fit into that?

For me, the music loving points to the commodification of leisure in 19th century cities and people’s attempts to figure out exactly how to consume musical experience and the powerful emotions such consumption sustained. One common move was to borrow practices and ideas from the “adjacent” cultural world of organized religion. Otherwise, there was an intense measurement of music’s psychological effects and, socially, a vying for control over definitions of acceptable cultural participation. This origin history challenges the idea that music fandom appeared around the time of the phonograph and radio in the early 20th century (espoused by Fred & Judy Vermoral, for example) and were an outgrowth of diffuse and private consumption practices afforded by mass media. I can work this out in greater detail for you, of course, but it suggests, for me, new possibilities for understanding fandom as a wider cultural phenomenon.

BR: A study of one fan – interesting idea. It makes me think of Lynne Pearce’s book on her most avid reading experiences; in it, she makes explicit comparison to her football fandom. It would be very worthwhile to head back a few more generations and see what historical sources could reveal about just one fan. This could reveal a lot about social permissions and pressures, as well as media new and newfangled at a given time.

It’s in these areas I would probably expect to see correspondences between different sorts of fandoms, as broad forces of, say, enthusiasm, emerged and were “handled” in ways that might well fall into discernible patterns. We should talk more about this in 12 months or so!

Regarding mediation, I’m interested as a student of fan mail in how the U.S. post had developed in ways not seen in other countries, at that time. But I’m intrigued too by the possibility that the phonograph had impact on novel-reading insofar as it opened up new imaginative space relevant to the kind of reading that’s so engrossing people speak of being “lost in a book.” I’m thinking as well about media of the day such as magic-lantern shows, panoramas and tableaux vivants.

I have to add, though, that the issue of representation is really fraught in my project insofar as the focus of the debate around Ben-Hur, when it was new, was appropriate address of the Bible understood as God’s perfect and sufficient Word. This specificity makes religion not an adjacent cultural world, for my fans and their detractors; instead, it’s a huge and vital part of the Ben-Hur event. At the same time, this makes Ben-Hur a rich source of controversy about art understood as what an anti-Romantic called “spilt religion.”

The issue, for those who haven’t read Ben-Hur, is that the heftiest slice of its shock-value, back in the day, wasn’t the chariot-race or the male-male love-turned-to-hate relationship implied by the Gore Vidal script for the Charlton Heston film. Rather it was that Jesus of Nazareth shows up as a character in a romance, that being the gaudiest and least esteemed of “serious” prose genres, at that time. This character only gets a few walk-ons. But some said he was the real hero of Ben-Hur because he’s shown preaching, healing and finally being crucified, and those activities collude to save the titular hero from a bad end.

Who decides what sort of end is good or bad, what you want to say about Judah Ben-Hur’s bloody revenge before he turns to Jesus’s creed . . . struggles over these things are still ongoing. Summatively, fiction that can be misprised as a Bible supplement carries a heavy load.

How does this relate to your questions? The first point I’m making is that religious precepts, more than religious rhetoric or permissions, are right in there, integral to every judgment (and quip) about Ben-Hur. Does this make it tricky to work with fans’ effusions? You bet. But it points up the merits of Colin Campbell’s account of how Puritan fervor evolved over two centuries into self-congratulatory consumerism. That’s not too far from commodifications of leisure. But with Campbell as a guide, I’d start my narrative arc at the Protestant push for universal vernacular literacy.

The second point I’m making is that in the Western world, at least, there’s never been a piece of music that carried the cultural weight of the Bible. Lots of religious music, obviously, and some that’s held sacred. But people who engage music can’t hold up any one piece of music, or music in general, as the perfect and sufficient revealed music of God.

Here again, therefore, I would say we’re working on different things, though now I believe the issue is different valences I’m too close to my research, and approach, to be sure how its valences might carry over, or be inherited from elsewhere. But talking to you has brought my attention more firmly to the music critic John Dwight as one of the first non-ministerial pundits, on the U.S. scene, to try to attain arts authority. I like this term better than “cultural authority” because it’s more precise but also because when one works in the arts, or their histories, it can feel near-impossible to figure out what “culture” means, in a given sentence. Having mentioned Dwight, I’ll add that Adam Max Tuchinsky’s article on Transcendentalism made that group more coherent to me than they ever were before; his emphasis on jousting for power is relevant to the taste-shapers I study later in the 19th century and perhaps to your project, too.

Power-jousts structured my sense of my project, at the start. But a lot of that has given way to medial interests that foreground the citizen audience. This phrase really sings for me; it’s got me gearing up to argue, for instance, that in a civic register, Ben-Hur has claims on the tag, Great American Novel. This idea circles me back, though, to wonder if Hermes is vaguely pluralist; for instance, with all she says about citizenship, she doesn’t articulate a theory of the state. The reason I worry about vague pluralism is that that was the move of the critics who denied any political efficacy to their emphasis on good taste. These critics were later tagged “genteel.” But that’s only half the story because for scholars like Ian Hunter and Toby Miller, they were the “temperers” of the well-tempered self who structured citizenship via subjectivity.

Through, again, talking with you, I’ve been wondering if one of those critics’ main initiatives was an aggregation of things that had been disparate under a new catch-word, fan. What was aggregated? Top of my head: avidities that went under names like bibliomania, dog (or horse) fancier, Bovarisme and quixotry, a person thought “mad” for certain sports or entertainments, fop and dandy, the wheeling craze, curio hunters, maybe even card sharks and bluestockings. These are, generally, labels that highlight engagement run amok. Not necessarily the same thing as aberrant audiencing, but intriguingly close, I’d say.

Not so incidentally, religious terms crop up in here so that along with gambling “hells” and speed “demons,” we hear of autograph “fiends.” I’m surmising that the reason the word fan was pasted onto all this ca. 1900 is that the genteel critics helped put a premium on the tempered citizen-subject as a subject for capitalist purposes of production, consumption and what Richard Ohmann calls the professional-managerial class. If so, that’s additional reason to study quite critically what Fredric Jameson called “Reader’s Digest culture” in terms of its capacity to aggregate groups big enough to raise the spectre of mobs, hordes and throngs.

The “tempering” project gets underway, as I see it, right after the Civil War, with help from people like John Dwight’s one-time boss, George Ripley. Having said that, though, I revive my stand that media plays a role in fandoms, offering two reasons. First, books and newspapers had unmatched capacity to at least try to “mark” consumer/receiver positions as wholesome or wrongheaded, respectworthy or perilous. Second, efforts to mark in that way provided repeated stimuli as, of course, did reports of a concert or a race, a boxing match or a new book by a well-liked poet.

I think repeated stimulus is a central part of fandom, as I understand it. Stimulus can come from realms other than media if, say, a fan starts losing interest in her home-team until they hire a new forward and her enthusiasm revives. Media works quite hard, though, to stimulate new or ongoing interest, and so, I hold, to foster fandom. I don’t want to bear down on this too hard because I can think of pre-media enthusiasms I’d be unwilling to characterize as fandoms: medieval bear-baiting, maybe.

The theoretical issue is whether fandom is possible in isolation: if it’s a learned behavior or something intrinsically human. You see nudges in the second direction in some of the psychoanalytical analyses of fandom. By emphasizing media, I head away from them on the rule-of-thumb that many people don’t become fans. I think this also helps me talk about how fandom is not the same as love, though they can share attributes. You’ve said you see less in media. But speaking of “marking,” have you worked it back into your schema? Or maybe not; do tell; I need a rest!

DC: While we are both working on historical fandom, I think you are correct in saying that we do have different “valences,” which I take to mean different clusters of cohering ideas. (I’m a little rusty in some of my critical theory terms and never really got a hold of this one!). You’re circling a particular work, while I’m looking at the development of a behavior; you’re interested in the dynamics of power and citizenship, while I’m more focused on the traces of specific individuals’ experiential realities. [My generalizations may be off, here, I know--let me know!] At least in terms of fan history, however, I think you touch on a number of important overlapping areas of inquiry, even if we come at them in different ways. All have to do with the identifying some of the key forces involved in the emergence of “fandom” in the changing contexts of the American 19th century.

First, religion. I understand now how religion operates differently among the readership of Ben-Hur than with antebellum music lovers. While I’ve been thinking about religion as a separate but important source for discourse about music loving, your readers are wrestling directly with the religious implications of Ben-Hur. In talking to you, I have realized how much I have relied on my previous parsing of the religious and the non-religious among Springsteen fans in order to make sense of the world of antebellum music lovers, something that I need to seriously question. Overall, I think I still need to come to grips with the role of religion in everyday life in the 19th century, especially among the specific audience members I’ve been investigating.

I’ve done a lot of thinking and exploring of the ways in which the behaviors of Protestant church-going directly intersected and shaped people’s concert-going, building on work like Jean Kilde’s When Church Become Theater. But I’ve only begun to explore the relationship between the “self” and the development of capitalism through works like Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God. A recent book review essay in American Quarterly, by Paul Pfister, about several books on “emotional capitalism,” was one of the most exciting things I’ve read in a long time, simply because it has pointed me in fruitful directions for making better sense of how selfhood, religion, music, and consumption formed a new ecology of musicking in the 1850s.

Second, “jousting for power” and the role of “taste-shapers.” You have thought far more deeply about this than I have. I’ve only wrestled in a limited way with the classic accounts of “the sacralization of culture” in Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow and John Kasson’s Rudeness and Civility. In this project, I’ve been sympathetic to some of the critiques of their histories, by scholars like Nancy Newman, who wrote in a Ph.D. dissertation that asserted that his timeline of class separation was accurate for theater but not music; or William Weber, who wrote in Music and the Middle Class that “histories of Victorian society have taken the moralists of the time a great deal too seriously, simply because they were so vocal and articulate;” or Ralph P. Locke, who questioned Levine’s dismissive attitude toward figures like John S. Dwight and marginalization of the role of amateur women patrons.

A lot of the discussion of power-jousts around music audiences actually revolves around the issue of silence, which is most interesting (especially with regard to religion) and whose meanings, I think, are sometimes a bit over-simplified as refined/not refined. At any rate, while interpretations about the “disciplining of spectatorship” accurately outline a significant shift in the social discourse of music listening in the nineteenth century, I would argue that important experiential details are lost in characterizing the shift as primarily from social heterogeneity to homogeneity, or from active to passive appreciation. It’s a delicate argument to make, but again, it’s one that makes sense from my “experience-near” perspective.

The last force we are both exploring is “the media” and its role in fandom. I very much like your characterization of the “new imaginative space” created by the phonograph and other media. However, I am hesitant to move in the direction of technology-determining-behavior. I’m not sure why, and I’m hoping it’s not just knee-jerk humanism. I have to admit that much of my work on fandom has worked against the notion of “media manipulation,” which I’ve always seen as a bit too reductive, both on the positive side (opening up new ways of doing things) and the negative side (forcing people to act or think in prescribed ways). Jonathan Sterne wrote a marvelous book in 2003 called The Audible Past in which he explored the various ways in which shifts in ideology and behavior in the 19th century made the invention of the phonograph (and recording in general) possible in the first place.

You cite the ways in which books and newspapers marked audience positions as desirable or not desirable, which I think is true. But I think they were tools not necessarily sources. Likewise, I’m less inclined to see the media as a source for the repeated stimulation found in fandom and more as an enhancement, or fulfillment, of people’s already existing need for repeated stimulation. I’m coming from a different body of evidence, of course: In some of the early diaries I’ve read (1840-1850), the writers, having just had an intense experience of music, yearn to repeat that one-time event to the extent that they re-create events in their own words so that they can re-live them and linger over them again and again through reading. That is a form of mediation, I suppose. But it happens before the impact of commercial, mass media in the music world.

This is not to dismiss the role of, say, newspapers: very quickly, by the 1860s, music magazines and newspapers start to cover concerts and profile “star” performers, and scrap-booking takes over. Commercial sheet music, too, which was initially linked to specific concert events and given out by performers to audiences as souvenirs, come to serve the desire for repetition. At any rate, while the media provided new, convenient opportunities for repetition, there are desires and needs at work that makes those opportunities possible in the first place. I’m not sure that downplaying the primacy of media necessarily makes fandom intrinsically human or a kind of psychological universal, however–it may be instead that fandom is a mode of engagement and understanding that develops in response to a host of equally-important social and ideological shifts in the “enlightened,” capitalistic, modern world: growing markets, ideologies of consumption, urban anonymity and the rise of individualism, etc.

In the end, I wonder if part of the problem of trying to come up with a comparative history of fandom is that “fandom” may not be a coherent historical phenomenon. As you suggest, fandom may indeed emerge in the genteel aggregation of diverse avidities in the second-half of the 19th century. If so, the legitimacy of the study of “fandom” as a single phenomenon is something to think long and hard about. The upshot may be that a history of fandom may not be about identifying homologous practices of “audiencing” but rather about the social and political processes that constructed that homology. Perhaps, though, there is room for both lines of inquiry. I am interested less in ideological apparatuses and power-jousts than in what might be called a “phenomenology of avidity.” I’m guessing you may have different interests. Yet, here we are, conversing!

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BR: Yes, exactly: conversing is possible and, happily, it’s proved most edifying to me. I hope anyone who reads through our back-and-forth has been edified, too. But at the very least, I’ve learned a lot from your input.

First and foremost, our converse has helped me sharpen my focus. Too, it’s increased my sense of the analytical premises I’ve been relying on, and given me a sense of their research limits. Third, I’m persuaded that we’re working in proximate but not overlapping areas that probably reflect training as much as interests, and of course tool-sets.

What you’ve just said, for instance, reveals to me certain “lit” antecedents that I want to both honor and struggle against. One of the ways I do that is, actually, to try to hear silences. But I think from what you’ve said that I will want to think again and more about media and mediation. I share your concern about techno-determinist pitfalls. That’s kind of vexed, though, in terms of media’s fully and necessarily human origins . . . about which I also need to think more. Which leaves me semi-certain that together we’ve sketched about 10 more years of work in which projects like ours will supply bricks and straw, from which others build narratives about the social and political processes embedded in homologies we’ve begun to uncover. Though maybe I should just speak for myself there!

On that note, I’m ready to head back to writing. It’s been much fun, and very fruitful, conversing with you. Thanks for recommending several books I will now go read and for prodding me to take up positions on a few key gnarls. Would you like to sign us off with a final word?

DC: “Likewise” about sums it up for me, Barbara! It’s been an immense pleasure learning about your research, thinking with you about our respective approaches, and, as you said, exploring our analytical premises.

I really enjoy dialogue like this. Study in the humanities too often emphasizes individual ownership of ideas (“What is the topic of your research?”), since that’s really the only meaningful capital people have in hiring and promotion. You can see this emphasis clearly in the form of published writing that has the most weight and recognition for tenure committees: the single-authored essay or book.

I know we’re not going to change the world, here, but I’m glad that we’ve had the opportunity to do something a little different. Wouldn’t it be great if we could develop, more fully and meaningfully, new forms of dialogic narrative in academic research and writing? Perhaps the internet gives us a new tool for doing so. At any rate, I would like to thank Henry for generously providing a space for our conversation.

BR: Me, too: Henry, thank you so much.