Fandom as Magical Practice: Great Big Sea, Stockwell Day, and Spoiled Identity

Article excerpt

BEGINNING IN 1977, AND continuing for over two decades, I taught undergraduate and graduate courses in folklore and popular culture that explored small group expressive uses of mass-mediated materials. Of the many paper topics fitting this theme, ethnographies of fandom predominated. Thus I discovered through my students' work that several basements in St. John's housed Star Trek main bridges bedecked with life-size cutouts of Captain Picard and Data, major Star Trek characters; that home shrines and displays lovingly devoted to Elvis were commonplace; and that carloads of young Newfoundland women made pilgrimages to the United States to see the Indigo Girls perform live. In general, the conclusions of my students stressed the positive activities of audiences, not the pathology of fanatics (see Jenson 1992) who Theodor Adorno would have viewed as the dupes of a monolithic popular culture industry (1991). In 1987 several of my graduate students' ethnographies of fans were published in a special section on "random" in the folklore graduate student journal, Culture & Tradition (Volume 11). These examinations highlighted fan creativity, their collection and display of artifacts, and their social networking.

Since then, fandom studies have burgeoned. Most notably, folklorist Camille Bacon-Smith's extensive study, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992), developed a positive view of fandom further by detailing how groups of women have used the frame of Star Trek to creatively communicate with one another about mutual concerns and life values. Relatedly, cultural studies scholars have drawn on Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony to interpret fans as members of more active audiences than average consumers. These analyses have underscored the subversive nature of fan groups and activities in their oppositional and resistant readings of texts produced by dominant cultural industries (see John Fiske 1989). Combining cultural studies and gender perspectives, Lisa Lewis's close examination of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna fans emphasized that "female-fan response ... incorporates female forms of experience and expression.... the spectacular response of Lauper and Madonna fans comes directly from member interaction with mass-media texts and consumer culture" (170). Acknowledging but going beyond interpretations of fans as engaging in oppositional micropolitics, Henry Jenkins's influential Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), inspired by a theory of Michel de Certeau, likened fans to marginalized poachers, who use what they salvage for both individual and collective purposes. In their playful readings, Jenkins maintained, fans are not resistant to cultural dominance so much as of the passive mundanities of everyday life. Taking a comparable approach, Cheryl Harris's examination of television fandom has argued that "the activity of random itself appears to lead to a stronger sense of influence and control, perhaps 'empowering' viewers in the face of a monolithic industry" (51). Other studies of fandom, most notably the neglected work of sociologist-folklorist Orrin Klapp (1969), have focused on the development of identity, in Klapp's case through individual fans' vicarious identification with popular culture celebrities (also see Grossberg 1992).


The folkloristic interpretation of fandom that I will forward here is unlike those cited, for it stresses the traditionality of the logic that most fan activities reflect, a mode of thinking that is essentially magical. In his classic multivolume comparative study The Golden Bough (1890), Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) reasoned that magic, the formulaic manipulation of the supernatural for specific ends, develops from a particular kind of associative thinking, namely, that things act in sympathy with one another. Further, Frazer maintained that in magical practices such sympathetic actions are driven by principles of similarity (homeopathic or imitative magic) and proximity (contagious magic). …