Deplorable Cultus: Populism, Globalization, and The Lord of the Rings

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This is a Marxist genealogy of The Lord of the Rings, a study of the production of literary value. It traces the function of this story in the world: how it became mass culture, how it has been used, and how Tolkien wound up occupying the number three position on Forbes’ magazine’s list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities. The Lord of the Rings has changed laws and economies and sustained and been sustained by numerous incompatible subcultures. This project seeks to illuminate the relationship between the unpaid labor of fans, its conversion into capital, and the aesthetics of mass culture. Using literary analysis directed not only to well-known literary and media texts but to a combination of archival and ethnographic research, it asks where mass culture comes from, where it goes, how it gets there, and what this has to do with the paradigmatic bourgeois aesthetic form, the novel. The introduction gives an overview of the novel’s history and addresses the limitations of ideology critique for understanding popular culture. It offers notes on Tolkien’s biography and two brief readings of the novel focused on its imagination of time and space, respectively, arguing that the novel should be seen as a late colonial text producing an effect I call historical mise-en-abyme. Chapter two looks at commercial publishers and science fiction fanzines, mostly from California, in the early 1960s. It culminates in the release of the first paperback edition in the U.S. and the conversion of the text into mass culture. Chapter three focalizes investigations of the era around 1969 through the city of Birmingham and its legacies in cultural studies, in the history of capitalism, in the arts, and in rock music. Chapter four looks at fan communities in England, Tolkien studies, and the way that Oxford University manages its relationship the property and its fans. Chapter five looks at Peter Jackson’s films and at Tolkien tourism in New Zealand. Chapter six looks in depth at two interviews from my fieldwork, with fans of different generations in the U.K. and New Zealand respectively.

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Tolkien; Lord of the Rings; book history; cultural studies; Popular Culture; Fan Studies; Music; Film studies; English literature


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Villarejo, Amy

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Braddock, Jeremy
Salvato, Nicholas G.
Piekut, Benjamin D.

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English Language and Literature

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Ph.D., English Language and Literature

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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