by Mindy Clegg
For many historians beginning their journey through graduate school, one question arises over others to prompt many sleepness nights: so what? We, as individual scholars, hope to formulate a unique choice of topics. But at times an advisor or the department might push you into a more mainstream and marketable topic, that turns heads but avoids toes. “So what?” has become shorthand for being able to show that your project helps other historians and the public understand historical processes or events in new ways. Historians tend toward a more conservative bent than our more anarchic colleagues over in English and Sociology departments or in Gender studies. It can be a steeper climb for bringing in perspectives or topics that are a bit more off the beaten path. Sometimes, a more modern historical focus or historical narratives that center on mass culture still get short-shrift, unless framed in particular ways—despite the enormous impact mass media and culture have in our world today.
The “so what?” question that historians must engage with provides the key explanation for this state of affairs. Mass and popular culture, I argue, offer a variety of ways to examine and think about history in the modern period. Understanding that impact is critical to understanding some of the key events of modern global history, from the top-down and bottom-up. Mass media and mass/popular culture have not been entirely ignored, but tend to be studied within particular contexts, such as the Cold War, to give them more legitimacy in historical studies. Often these are seen primarily in a top-down manner, for example as a vector for American empire, but there are other ways to see the spread of mass mediated popular culture. I argue here that especially in recent years, popular culture has been a location for rebuilding community in a world of capitalist individualism and for crafting new kinds of identities. How people have engaged with mass produced culture and have sought to create mass culture of their own (and control the means of production in the process) show some interesting cracks in the “society of the spectacle” facade.1 In other words, how people make connection and meaning out of the culture in which they live matters.
There is little doubt that we are deep in the age of the mechanical (and now digital) reproduction of art. Walter Benjamin found himself intellectually on the cutting edge with his arguments about how high culture was being undercut by mass production. He cautiously, but optimistically, saw some revolutionary potential in the mass production of art, recognizing “mechanical reproduction” as being historically novel. One wonders how he’d view the reproductive techniques of the internet today, with the ability to digitally reproduce works of art, but also the ability to remix and recontextualize culture. Perhaps he’d contribute to the transformative fan culture of today with gifs and memes on Tumblr or share street art on Instagram.2 New ways to understand and interact with culture emerged with the consumer economy economy in the 19th century. It took some time for these new “culture industries” to become a powerful political and economic force in the American and global economies. Eventually film/TV and the recording industry became dominant in cultural production. Since the 1950s, film/TV and sound recordings have blossomed into multi-trillion dollar global industries. As such (following along with the Marxist base and superstructural model) we have to acknowledge how their economic power has shaped everything else in our society. That includes our identities.
Who we are is never a simplistic construct. Any number of society-imposed ideas shape our identities—our race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, time and place of birth. These vectors of identity are often hard for us to shape and control, especially when we are young. Some still seem biological and immutable to many in our society, particularly race, gender, and sexual orientation, although more people now accept them as social constructs. But ideas about what skin color, gender, and who you are attracted to mean in our society have a lot of power that is historically, politically, and culturally rooted, which privilege certain groups of people over others. Changing those ideas to something new is a generations-long project which has been at work for a long time now. One also has no control over when and where we are born, and to whom. Where we’re born and raised can have political and social implications for the course of one’s life. This is less of an obstacle, especially considering the American fondness for narratives of upward mobility, but it’s more of a hindrance for some than others. Generation is also an important consideration, although generational cohorts are much more obvious social constructs. Being born at the height of the baby boom conferred some clear advantages over those born during the dismantling of the liberal consensus that has taken place since the 1970s (again with caveats about race/gender). Last, many of us are raised with a particular religion that we did not choose for ourselves. Our parents pass down their religion to us as children and we either accept that or we move on to something else, which can go smoothly or cause permanent ruptures with our past. In our modern secular world, apostasy rarely results in a death sentence anymore, although at times a kind of social death can occur. But all of these shape our identity over the course of our lives in ways that we can’t entirely control as individuals, even as they are socially constructed.
Consumerism has provided a means for taking control of one’s identity since at least the 1920s. Young women in the jazz era recreated themselves as flappers to throw off restrictive Victorian morality, assert their individuality, and create a shared community of like-minded individuals. This happened partially via their consuming habits. The intersection between youthful rebellious identity and corporate promotion of consumer goods set the stage for a good deal of tension in the ensuing century. The father of public relations, Edward Bernays, seized the new, youth oriented jazz culture and the recent success of suffragists in his “Torches of Freedom” campaign in order to expand the market for cigarettes. This event is largely credited with doing so, with more women starting to smoke.
(An overview of the “Torches of Freedom” campaign from Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self)
It’s not an incorrect view, by any means. It just feels a bit thin of an explanation which erases all sense of agency for the young women in question. Women (or any individual) are very much more than the sum of their consumption and the identities imposed on them by society. Some young women were getting new space to explore their identity and were doing so via mass culture, as were some young men of the era. There is evidence to suggest that the forming of common cultural identity contributed to the cohesiveness of the labor movement in the middle of the twentieth century.3 In terms of larger numbers of Americans—particularly young Americans—embracing an identity based in part on their patterns of consumption begins in earnest with the postwar boom. As with the earlier and more limited Jazz age example, this was never a one way street, either with corporations dictating or young people demanding. Instead, it was a far more complicated set of interactions without an iron curtain between producers and consumers of culture, more of a web of connections between industry and consumer (although with power unevenly distributed across that web favoring to some extent corporations).
The 1960s shaped how we thought about popular culture and consumption in the next few decades. Popular culture allowed for a sense of shared identity across the country and around the world, for one thing. Michael J. Kramer dubbed the international embrace of rock music as the “republic of rock” in his 2013 book of that name. Young people not only listened to rock music, they built a shared sense of citizenship in an imagined community during the 1960s and 1970s.4 The consumption of music then began to shape how young people identified themselves, in some cases carrying that identity through the rest of their lives. The best example of that was the emergence of post-punk, which included hardcore punk and subgenres like goth and industrial (though their evolution is a bit more complicated than just that they emerged out of punk scenes). At least some of the people who consumed this music took on a new facet to their identities—they became punks or goths, which meant more than just their consuming habits. It spiraled out into their manner of dress, haircuts/colors, body modifications, and how one spent one’s free time (at concerts, at clubs, making albums and zines, hosting college radio shows, among other activities). It also dictated ones’ relationship to mainstream culture—generally antagonistic, much like their hippie predecessors. These went global in the waning years of the Cold War. Fans of heavy metal, a genre that emerged out of coal country in the UK in the late 1960s, also eventually crafted a globe-spanning subculture, with its own cultural codes and norms.
Punks, goths, and metalheads were not just following from the hippies of the 1960s, but also took influence from subcultures in other areas of mass culture—what we today call fandom. This culture has roots back in the Jazz age, with the earliest conventions appearing in the late 1930s, such as Philcon in 1936 and Worldcon in 1939.5 Fans of science fiction literature got together to discuss and debate their shared interest. Today, there are thousands of conventions held around the world, some of which attract over 100,000 for a weekend of a shared celebration of popular culture. The focus of these conventions run the gamut from general science fiction/fantasy, comics, anime, to specific fandoms (like Star Trek, Game of Thrones, or Harry Potter). While professionals within the various industries that fans consume are present—such as actors, directors and producers of films, and authors and artists of comics and novels—especially in smaller conventions, many of the panels are for and by fans. In fact, the vast majority of conventions are created and run by fans, not by industry insiders.
One fan addressed this division in a 2009 essay about “affirmational vs. transformational” fandom. They define the former as reinforcing authoritorial intent. “It all tends to coalesce toward a center concept; it’s all about nailing down the details.” The world has been created, and the fans role is to consume, enjoy, debate, and accept the world the author created. Transformative fandom, in contrast, takes things a step further, with fans taking the original text and spinning out new material, such as new stories, art, or engaging in active consumption such as cosplaying (dressing as a favorite character).6 Transformative fandom in recent years has become increasingly visible outside of conventions, thanks in part to the internet. Tumblr is an especially rich location to find this kind of cultural engagement. Such engagement is becoming increasingly accepted as important by the industries that produce the object of fandom culture. Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, while never reading fanfiction based on his work, regularly endorses and encourages such activities by his fans.7 Some eventually make the jump from “amateur” fanfiction writer to professional writer, such as Lois McMaster Bujold (author of the Vorkosigan Saga, who started writing in Star Trek fanzines back in the 1970s) or Andy Weir (known for the novel The Martian which became a film of the same name, who started writing fanfiction based on the novel Ready Player One).8 At the 2019 Hugo Awards, long considered a bellwether of sci-fi/fantasy tastes and quality, gave the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own the award for Best Related Work.9 In other words, the division between “professional” and “fan” looks increasingly blurred, and in reality hardly existed at all. Science Fiction and fantasy fans have long been a group who have strong feelings about their interests and express that through active engagement. With the internet, those fan voices have become louder still.
(A nice discussion on fanfiction and its changing role in both publishing and fandom from PBS)
Perhaps more important than the vertical relationship between professional creator and fan is the horizontal one between members of these communities. Much like punks, goths, and metalheads who built up archipelagos of translocal communities, fans of speculative fiction have done much the same. Fans share a love of a particular type of consumer culture, and have very much done more than just consume it passively—they have built up community and identity around it. Who they are is in part informed by what they consume, but also by how they consume. In some cases, those who aren’t engaged enough, knowledgeable enough, or transformative enough can be looked on with some suspicion, but often new fans are welcomed and find a place within these communities. This has become doubly true as much of what was once considered outsider subcultures has gone mainstream, as evidenced by the success of properties such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation of George RR Martin’s high fantasy classic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Casual fans certainly boosted the viewership numbers, but the hardcore fans showed up on opening night, went to conventions, wrote fanfiction, cosplayed, and built community and a sense of shared identity around them. The most important connections in all of these have been the ones that fans have made together. If capitalism’s individualism tore asunder communities that sustained people for centuries, consumerism around popular culture offered a new way to build an identity and community. Rather than just passive consumers of the spectacle, fans, punks, goths, and metalheads have devised ways to use the spectacle to rebuild community and to forge meaningful identities.
3 Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990, especially chapter 3. Dr. Cohen’s work on the role of consumerism in postwar American politics is also illuminating, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, New York: Vintage Books, 2003.
5 See for example “Mike Glyer, “The First Ever Convention,” Then: The Archive, 1987, (accessed March 6, 2020), Then: The Archive.
6 Obession_Inc., “Affirmational Fandom vs. Transformational Fandom,” Obession_Incs Journal, June 1, 2009, (accessed March 7, 2020), Obessions_Incs.
7 See Neil Gaiman, “Neil Gaiman’s Opinion on Fanfiction,” Neil Gaiman Tumblr, June 29, 2014, (accessed March 6, 2020), Neil Gaiman on Tumblr.
8 See Katherine Kovach, “7 Authors Who Wrote Fanfiction Because It’s Actually the Best,” Bustle, May 20, 2016, (accessed March 6, 2020), Bustle.
9 “AO3 Wins 2019 Hugo Award for Best Related Work,” Archive of Our Own, August 18, 2019, (accessed March 6, 2020), AO3.