Cornel Sandvoss: Fandom, Participatory Culture and Cultural Value – A Critical Review

When Bob Dylan took the stage at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 17th May 1966 a single shout from the audience marked what The Guardian recently described as one of the 50 key events in the history of rock music: “Judas!”. In this one-word-hackle a disgruntled fan summoned up the disillusionment, disappointment and frustration that had been growing among many in the folk music movement. Dylan by swapping his acoustic guitar for a Stratocaster had betrayed their cause, betrayed what they what they believed in, and disregarded what folk enthusiasts deemed as good and worthy music and art. The fan’s dismissive assessment of Dylan’s venture into rock triggered a typically defiant response by Dylan who after calling the hackler a liar advised his band to “play it fucking loud”.

This episode, prominently employed by Martin Scorsese in the closing sequence of his 2005 documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, illustrates that it is not only scholars who reflect on questions of cultural and aesthetic value. Far from being indiscriminating consumers, it is often those most committed to a given text – be it a novel, film, television show, music genre, artist or performer – who are the most immediate, and sometimes fiercest, critics. Fans bring a set of specific, occasionally rigid expectations to the object of their fandom. Indeed, as a number of recent contributions to Fan Studies have suggested, when fans engage with and evaluate texts, they embark on practices that closely resemble those employed by scholars in the arts and humanities in their assessments of value: they study histories and contexts, trace motifs and explore intertextuality and ultimately construct hierarchies of value. And when I say “they”, I mean “us” – as for it is near impossible to escape that particular affective reading position which marks being a fan in the contemporary communicative and cultural environment of omnipresent (digital) media.

The case of the disappointed Bob Dylan fan usefully reminds us that many contemporary fan practices which we associate with rise of digital media, such as interactivity and participation, date back to the heydays of post-war popular culture and mass communication: the folk music movement was marked by a participatory ethos; live performances, in folk music but also across the spectrum of art and popular culture, have long allowed fans to interact with their favourite artists and performers, sometimes expressing their appreciation, on other occasions making their disapproval heard. Yet, if being a fan was an option in an environment in which culture and art were commonly encountered through a handful of mass media (print, film, television, radio) and live performances (in themselves the oldest of all forms mass communication), it is increasingly becoming a necessity in the age of digital media. Confronted with the plethora of accessible culture in and through digital media, having an affective attachment to given texts and genres is an almost necessary premise for manoeuvring the sheer abundance of potential available works of art, culture and entertainment alike. With so many works and texts at our fingertips, our preferences and likes inevitably structure our cultural engagements more than ever before.

Bob Dylan is as good an example as any to illustrate the expansive range of critical evaluations a given artist or performer can attract across different stages of his career and from fan group to fan group. He does serves as a useful illustration of the degree to which value is constituted in the process of reception of art and culture, much beyond the original literary focus of Reception Aesthetics and the Constance School in particular. Acknowledging the importance of processes of reception in the construction of value by fans in their engagements with their object of fandom is thus the premise of this project. However, in offering a comprehensive review of the many empirical, qualitative studies of fan cultures across the spectrum of popular and high culture, this project also explores the fundamental impact of the emergence of participatory culture, and its interplay with technological change, on the generation and assessment of cultural value by fans.

In seeking to map the impact of participatory culture on processes of reception, this project will not only critically review the burgeoning field of fan studies but juxtapose its emphasis on use and reception (and hence agency) with object (structure) focused conceptual approaches to reception in literary theory and beyond. Among the manifold and complex implications that arise out of the interplay of technological change, fan practices and value, two broad themes stand out: the blurring boundaries between production and consumption in fandom as fans utilise the wider availability and accessibility of means of production and distribution of fan art and comment that digital media facilitate, and secondly, the changing nature of the “textual boundaries” of art and culture in a participatory age. Both are neatly illustrated by the example of Bob Dylan fandom. Recorded and redistributed by fans via video sharing portals such as You Tube, the “Judas”-hackle has decades later become one of many virtual spaces for fans’ debates about Dylan’s work, which in its paratextual function has become part of the ‘transmedia narrative’ that is Bob Dylan. The same channels of distributions are also employed by fans in sharing and evaluating their many covers, mash-ups and remixes of Dylan’s music, Dylan-focused fan art as well as blogs, comments and other reflections on his work and the person behind it – thereby contextualising reception as much as creating user generated culture and art. As this project seeks to critically assess the consequences of fandom in the field of arts, culture and entertainment as well as its wider, social, cultural, political and economic implications, it thus explores the transformations that digital media and participatory culture have fostered but also acknowledges important continuities in audienceship, reception and cultural value: much as at Dylan’s performance at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall nearly half a century ago, fandom has remained a site for contestations, interaction, and the articulation of cultural and aesthetic valuations.

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