The Cultural Politics of “Phan” versus “Scholar”

I have a doctoral degree in performance studies.  I teach at a fairly reputable West Coast university, only three years away from that holy grail of educators, tenure.  I consider myself a scholar, in that I’ve worked long and hard — reading, writing, and thinking a lot — in order to be able to gain insights into, and make nuanced arguments about, that which I study.

Broadly speaking, what I study is the power of music.  Especially live music.  Especially live music that has a strong element of improvisation.  And, given this, I study the relationship between music, its performance by musicians, and its reception by and effect on an audience, on a collective of fans.

Speaking more narrowly, what I’ve studied is Phish. I actually wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the band.

In addition to considering myself a scholar, I also consider myself a fan.  Most precisely, I consider myself a “phan.”  Yes, I am one of those people who has spent a lot of time and energy listening to and thinking about Phish.  I often talk in terms of “the Phish phenomenon.”  I have dealt with Phish, then, as both a phan and a scholar.

As a phan, I’ve of course seen the band live a number of times. I first caught them at a festival, in 1993; having not even heard of them before then. As has happened to many, they became a source of increasing interest to me over the ensuing years. Though I’ve never liked the diagnosis, some have referred to my phandom as an “obsession.”

As a scholar, I was able to legitimize — and, more importantly, to understand — this keen interest. After deciding, around the end of my first year as a doctoral student, that Phish was to be my research topic, I dug in. Though it was a few years off yet, Phish would be the main subject (though, it turns out, not the only one) of my disseration;  the book-length project that one needs to write in order to get a Ph.D. I thus endeavored to apply any and all readings I came across (either through my coursework or through my own research efforts) to wrapping my brain around what it was that was going on in/with this powerful thing I would come to refer to as “the Phish phenomenon.”

The full story of my work with Phish is not to be told here, now. But it’s there. And it’s still unfolding.

One of the main reasons that I’ve so enjoyed not just having gotten a doctorate, but also having gotten it by writing a dissertation centered around Phish, is that I’ve learned a lot of good, interesting things.  I’ve learned that there’s lots of important stuff to consider about Phish; about fans and fandom (and about phans and phandom); about subcultures and Culture; about society; about politics; about the human condition itself.

Among these many things learned, I’ve come to see that the line that supposedly separates a “fan” from a “scholar” is an interesting one.  Again, I could of course bore you with a whole bunch of details, arguments, and insights about this.  But I won’t, don’t worry.  All I am going to do, for now, is leave you with this one…

I was recently advised (not unwisely, it must be noted) to make sure I don’t “only” publish academic articles on Phish.  I need to publish some stuff that deals with other subject matters — i.e., that doesn’t have “Phish” in the title or, really, anywhere in the manuscript.

Again, I could say a lot about this advice.  I could go on and on about the many ways in which it is highly problematic; point out that this gentle admonition is actually symptomatic of a culture (in the academy as well as in the so-called mainstream world) that values certain expenditures of time and energy over others.

But, really, summarizing this issue is quite simple:  If I were, say, a William Shakespeare scholar, would I have been asked to stop publishing on his life and work?  Or, to tie this to music, if I were an academic who specialized on the music and on the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, would I have been asked to take it easy with the Mozart?

One person’s obsession is another’s legitimate (and legitimized) career.

It’s worth pondering, folks. I know I have.

Dr. B, aka Jnan Blau, is a university professor, a scholar, and a fan of music (he loves Phish, as well as a great many other acts, including Mr. Mozart).

Tell your friends!