The Construction of Fandom in Sherlock. Distinctions and Power Structures in “The Empty Hearse”

Essay, 2018

7 Seiten, Note: unbenotet


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes has never completely disappeared from the scene of literature, thanks to men like Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, who presented their interpretation of the master detective to the world and will always be the Sherlock Holmes to some people. Similar to these adaptions, another version of the detective and his companion Dr. John Watson had an immense impact especially on young people. The BBC series Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch starring attracted attention all over the planet and evoked a remarkable variety of fan communities and fandoms. This extensive resonance went not unnoticed by the two writers of the series, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and consequently the motif of fandom was integrated into “The Empty Hearse” the first episode of the third season. It appears in the form of the character of Scotland Yard’s former forensic expert, Phillip Anderson. After Sherlocks presumed suicide, Anderson became a fan of the detective, but he was also the one that had driven forward James Moriarty’s destruction of Holmes’ reputation by the media, which inevitably lead to the great detective’s death. In the episode, Anderson joins the fandom around Sherlock Holmes and utilizes it for his own benefit. In order to analyse how this fandom is constructed in “The Empty Hearse” I will base my argument upon John Fiske’s definition of fandom and Michel Foucault’s understanding of discourse. Fandom in “The Empty Hearse” represents a counter discourse to the institutionalised mainstream discourse embodied by Detective Inspector Lestrade. The counter discourse contrasts on the one hand the mainstream discourse and on the other and mirrors its power structures. Along this constellation which at first glance may appear paradoxical I will develop my analysis.

But before I will begin to analyse “The Empty Hearse” with respect to fandom and discourse I am going to delineate fan culture and especially fandom by means of John Fiske and supplement it with aspects of nowadays features. According to Fiske fan culture is a subordinated form of popular culture (33) in which fans can, metaphorically speaking, migrate in a field of “fan cultural capital” (42) by accumulating or losing such, similarly to individuals, that ascend and descend in Bourdieu’s field of cultural capital and economical capital (Fiske 33). He calls it “a ‘shadow cultural economy’” (Fiske 30). This distinction within fan culture creates and is created by fandoms. Fans within these accumulate cultural capital and thus discriminate further (Fiske 34) by two major aspects: Knowledge (Fiske 42) and authenticity (Fiske 36).

“Knowledge […] is always a source of power” (Fiske 43) and especially those who lack aforesaid find themselves in fandoms, for knowledge about the object of fandom gives the one who possesses it power over other members in the fandom (Fiske 42-43). It can be acquired through information which is spread by the media like newspapers, television (Fiske 42) and nowadays internet. Fan knowledge additionally increases the amount of “fan cultural capital” (Fiske 42-43). It entitles to decide who is a true fan and who does not meet the criteria to be one (Fiske 35) and lacks authenticity.

Authenticity is clearly linked to “productivity and participation” (Fiske 37) which further constitute fandom (Fiske 37). The former is the making of new meanings based on the object of fandom, orally or in textual form, although in times of the internet these two practically coincide. It can assume shape in fan talk or fan fictions, especially the second one provides a huge opportunity for fans to discriminate in terms of authenticity, because it opens a field of infinite possibilities to continue or extend the canon which are unauthentic to some fans.

The principle of authenticity also applies to “participation” (Fiske 37). What should a true fan do, to be near his or her object of admiration? Clothes and accessory are only two examples how a fan participates (Fiske 38), as well as visiting significant locations or filmsets. In any case authenticity is individually used as an exclusion criterion by every fandom to accumulate power and thus fan cultural capital, which serves the one who gathers it self-esteem and empowerment in his or her daily life (Fiske 35). It enables to create “the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world” (Fiske 34-35).

Boundary is incidentally an adequate metaphor to describes what in Foucault’s terms is a discourse. As far as I comprehend Foucault’s way of thinking and his view on the world, I see his understanding of discourse as that of a way of speaking about any thinkable matter and read or attach meaning into it (8 1977). This results from and leads to power structures and differences (Foucault 8-9 1977) which are created through “exclusion” (Foucault 8 1971)1.

A system of “exclusion” (Foucault 8 1971) is the “will to truth” (Foucault 10 1971) or used almost synonymic the “will to knowledge” (Foucault 10 1971). Truth is no longer assigned through a certain act, in which power was inherent, but rather to what is said (Foucault 10 1971) and it is assessed under the principle of how the speaker verifies, what he or she says (Foucault 11 1971). The “will to truth” (Foucault 10 1971) is institutionalised and forces other discourses to justify the interpretations of the object of discourse (Foucault 11 1971). As a result, discourse produces a specific truth.

Another exclusionary element is “commentary” (Foucault 12 1971). It is a “principle of rarefaction” (Foucault 14 1971) and the permission so say, what was already hidden inside or rather implied by a primary text of a discourse under the condition that it was to some extend self-contained. It describes the elimination of chance but simultaneously the possibility to create new discourses (Foucault 12-13 1971).

The third aspect that excludes is the “rarefaction among speaking subjects” (Foucault 17 1971). It assures that only those who possess the mandatory qualifications or fulfil certain requirements are able to enter a discourse. One of its specific elements is the “ritual” (Foucault 18 1971) which concerns the outer appearance, behaviour and all actions of the individual (Foucault 17-18 1971). For my upcoming analysis I would like to condense all these in the term of authenticity. It outlines the discourse and discriminates vastly.

As I mentioned above the mainstream discourse is represented by Detective Inspector Lestrade. “Sherlock’s dead,“ (“The Empty Hearse” 00:03:46 – 00:03:47) he reminds the viewer at the beginning of “The Empty Hearse” and a television journalist continues, “Sherlock Holmes fell to his death from the top of London’s Barts Hospital” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:05:19 – 00:05:23). The two quotes demonstrate how this discourse presents itself: Lestrade, as an inspector of Scotland Yard, acts not as a private person, but as an elongated arm of an institution, particularly one that is committed to find out their truth, in this case the circumstances of Sherlock Holmes’ suicide. This truth is passed on to the media, again via Lestrade, who speaks in front of the press on behalf of Scotland Yard (“A Study in Pink” 00:05:26 – 00:06:53). In this discourse this grants power over public opinion, as media power lies within the general “believe in the authority of media discourse” (Couldry 5).

Anderson has no longer access to the mainstream discourse, for he has been suspended from his job in the Forensic Department of Scotland Yard (“Many Happy Returns” 00:03:07 – 00:03:12). From this subordinated, disempowered position his counter discourse of fandom arises. According to Foucault new discourses emerge from other discourses by “commentary” (Foucault 12 1971) whose “only role is to say finally, what has silently been articulated deep down” (Foucault 13 1971). Anderson recognises something in the mainstream discourse that drives him to find his truth of the events which is: Sherlock Holmes feigned his death and is still alive (“The Empty Hearse” 00:03:46 – 00:03:49).

Despite the different reading of occurrences, Anderson’s counter discourse mirrors the mainstream discourse in two aspects: The methods that implement the justification of the truth (Foucault 11 1971) and the “rarefaction” (Foucault 14 1971) in the form of “ritual” (Foucault 18 1971). Anderson’s main object is to regain power or, in terms of Fiske’s definition of fan culture, to increase his “fan cultural capital” (Fiske 42).

Similar to the mainstream discourse the ability to hold sway over authenticity is created through the methods that justify the truth. The mainstream discourse exploits scientific knowledge as judgement over authenticity. Lestrade points it out by explaining, “There was a body, it was him. […] Molly Hooper laid him out” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:03:50 – 00:03:56). Complementarily Anderson uses fan knowledge to enable himself to recognise authenticity in others. He used a whole wall in his apartment to affix what appears to be mostly information about Sherlock from the internet, as it is printed by himself (“The Empty Hearse” 01:19:21). Between some handwritten notes and newspaper articles, there are also photos of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where the alleged suicide occurred (“The Empty Hearse” 01:19:50 – 01:19:57). This implies that Anderson visited this place to expand his fan knowledge. It is reinforced by Anderson’s statement: “[…] the paving slabs in that whole area, even the exact ones that he landed on” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:04:12 – 00:04:15). Both forms of knowledge empower the two men to rarefy their discourse and to distinguish between those who are, in their view, authentic and those who are not.

The instrument of this distinction is, in line with Foucault, the “ritual” (18) or as I already pointed out, authenticity. In both discourses same is equated to sanity. Lestrade claims Anderson and his ideas to be insane by declaring: “[…] the theories keep getting more stupid” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:04:06 – 00:04:09). In addition to that the parallelism between the main discourse and its counter discourse becomes apparent in two equally constructed scenes. In the first one Lestrade exclaims, “Bollocks!” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:03:38 – 00:03:39), in disapproval of Andersons theory, how Sherlock survived the fall. In the other one it is Anderson, who yells at Laura, another member of his fan community, “What? Are you out of your mind?” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:29:37 – 00:29:39), to express his condemnation of her theory. Both scenes display the two men’s distinction and therefore power, in Anderson’s case his fan cultural capital, over their counterpart.

Another element that expands authenticity in Anderson’s discourse is seriousness. It deals with “productivity and participation” (Fiske 37) which are characteristic of fandom (Fiske 37).

The theories which Anderson and the members of the fan community “The Empty Hearse” create are “productivity” (Fiske 37) , but Anderson, due to his fan knowledge, has a precise idea of what is serious “productivity” (Fiske 37). Again, I will use the scene between Laura and Anderson, I mentioned above. After Laura presented her theory, Anderson tells her, “Look, if you’re not going to take it seriously, Laura, you can,” and gesticulates with his hand to imply that she would have to leave. In his eyes her theory in which Sherlock fools John Watson and everyone else by the simple method of dropping a dummy from St Barts’ rooftop is a clear sign that she does no longer believe in Sherlock’s survival and thus is not a true fan. To him that is a reason for exclusion. A second contentious issue of “productivity” (Fiske 37) in the fan community is whether the members should wear the deerstalker hats (“The Empty Hearse” 00:29:46 – 00:29:47) to enunciate their belonging and solidarity to Sherlock Holmes. It appears to be a question of seriousness, as Sherlock Holmes is known as “hat detective” (“The Empty Hearse” 00:30:00) in the mainstream media and hence in the mainstream discourse but actually hated this image of himself (“The Reichenbach Fall” 00:03:21). Although it would be an excellent identifying feature, it might indicate absence of seriousness and thus authenticity.


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The Construction of Fandom in Sherlock. Distinctions and Power Structures in “The Empty Hearse”
Universität Bielefeld
ISBN (eBook)
construction, fandom, sherlock, distinctions, power, structures, empty, hearse”
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Laura-Marie Siebert (Autor:in), 2018, The Construction of Fandom in Sherlock. Distinctions and Power Structures in “The Empty Hearse”, München, GRIN Verlag,


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