Peter Beilharz and Katie Wright at her book launch for 'The Rise of Therapeutic Culture'
The 2011 Annual TASA conference held in Newcastle from November 29 to December 1 was an enjoyable and stimulating event that came as a welcome marker for the end of another long academic year.
The conferences’ stimulating keynote addresses addressed highly pertinent issues in current sociology. All three talks were united in their concern with how wider social, political and economic processes are impacting on the lives of modern subjects and where the possibilities for resistance and defence against some of these processes lie. On day one, Saskia Sassen kicked off with a thought-provoking talk on the ‘Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers’. She addressed the way in which the deepening of advanced capitalism is resulting in the expulsion of people from more traditional forms of capitalism. Through poignant examples and alarming statistics, Sassen suggested that modern capitalism has developed highly advanced and complex processes and structures that produce an elementary brutality. She highlighted in particular the financial sector as the most aggressive and most capable factor in this savage sorting. Sassen’s address raised pertinent questions around the role of international politics/law in such processes, the possibilities for resistance, and the dangers of capitalism becoming self-destructive. The second keynote speech by Johanna Wyn summarised the Life Patterns longitudinal study, which provides a provocative analysis of the social processes that have shaped young Australians’ lives. Wyn outlined how policies and related discourses around neo-liberalism, individualisation, responsibilisation and the acceleration of time have had wider social implications for the biographies of members of ‘Gen X’. She emphasised the increase in educational participation, particularly by women. She suggested that many of the hopes and promises the young Australians held at the outset of the study in the 1990s remain unfulfilled or disappointed today. On the final day, Mitchell Dean spoke on ‘Neo-liberalism and the Irresistible Event’. Dean highlighted the critical function of events for power relations, both as a way of strengthening and extending dominant power structures and of challenging and redefining them. Furthermore, Dean re-examined the notion that “the King reigns but he does not govern” through Carl Schmitt’s political theology, Foucault’s genealogy of arts of government approach, and Agamben’s theological genealogy of the economy and government. Ultimately, Dean suggested that the event is the crucial point of articulation of two poles of power defined by Reign and Government, Sovereignty and Economy, and Law and Order. The bipolarity of power relations represents, according to Dean, possibilities for resistance, counter-politics and counter-knowledge. This highlights how politics holds the possibilities of translating problematisations into actions for change.
In particular, the conference had an outstanding showing of papers dealing with cultural sociology. In the cultural sociology sessions, the quality of the papers was very high, and the range of subject matter that was discussed showed Australian cultural sociologists exploring many aspects of culture, from everyday life through to in-depth theoretical approaches. We were impressed with the amount of papers that were presented into the cultural sociology stream and in particular were highly impressed with the diversity of interests and methodological focusses that were brought along.
The dedicated cultural sociology stream had 5 concurrent session panels across the conference, and a number of other sessions also contained papers with a cultural flavour. One example of this was the inaugural John Western Plenary session on Tuesday morning entitled ‘Alternative, DIY and Subcultural Careers: Leisure, Lifestyle and Youth Transitions’. The panel looked at the relationship between participants in subcultures and the world of paid work using a variety of case studies. Airi-Alina Allaste explored the development of music festivals in Estonia, while Chris Driver examined participants in the Brisbane hardcore scene and the options open to them for converting subcultural capital into economic capital. Finally, Ross Haenfler presented data on aging straight-edge punks, giving a fascinating account of how the ideals of the straight-edge scene continue to inform the decisions of those who had been or still were straight-edge as they established careers. In particular, he noted how the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic of the scene was applied in people’s work lives as a way of maintaining what they saw as being important about their subcultural identities. The panel as a whole showed how the worlds of work and ‘adult responsibility’ and subcultural scenes, which are sometimes thought of as being quite separate, interact with and merge into each other in complicated ways, especially as people – and the scenes themselves – age.
The Thursday morning cultural sociology panel lost two of its presenters, which was ultimately fortuitous as the two remaining papers provided more than enough material for the full session. First, Michael Walsh and Eduardo de la Fuente spoke on “Framing through the senses: Sight and sound in the shaping of everyday life”. Their argument that the role that sound plays in defining the public and private spheres is changing and needs to be considered in more detail prompted lively discussion from the audience – mainly over the extent to which ipod users can be likened to audiences for classical music because of their bodily attitudes! The second paper in the session, Catherine West-Newman’s “Emotion and Imagination in Intrepid Shopping” also raised much interest. Catherine’s paper described her experiences on a tour of India that incorporated a lot of shopping, and presented an ethnographic account of the way western tourists in exotic and unfamiliar locations negotiated these unusual experiences of consumption. The concept of ‘intrepid shopping’ that she used to describe such tours clearly got the room thinking, with suggestions from the audience that it could be expanded to incorporate shopping experiences within our own culture that are ‘off limits’ or embarrassing, such as buying a wig or sex toys.
A further stream of outstanding quality and cultural value was the workshop on ‘The Sociology of Affect’, organised and hosted by ANU scholars Maria Hynes and David Bissell. Maria and David kicked the session off with a valuable introduction to the topic, highlighting the distinction of affect from emotion and the transitory nature of affect, as well as the links between affect and the body and the modulation of affect through media. David then presented a case study of “Affect, somnolence and habits of movement”, talking his audience through the affective experiences involved in a plane journey. Next, Maria came on again to highlight how indifference represents a flattening of affective response. Sarah Maslen then presented her fascinating research on the way in which aural perception acts as a form of foundational knowledge. She highlighted some particular examples from her study of the aural skills of groups like musicians and Morse-operators that generated much interest from the audience. Finally, Gavin Smith looked on the other side of CCTV cameras by reviewing his empirical work with CCTV operators. He presented his audience with partially disturbing, partially amusing original CCTV footage to highlight the multi-dimensional hyperrealities involved in CCTV surveillance.
On the final day we also held our annual thematic group meeting. The minutes of this will be posted later.
As a final note however, we would like to take this opportunity to thank all who attended the sessions at TASA and for your support throughout the year. As 2012 kicks off, we anticipate that we will be able to take on board some of your suggestions that we have received through emails and through the meeting at the conference. In particular, the group is keen to continue advertising and making space for academics to present their work not only in published form but also works-in-progress.
The Cultural Sociology Thematic Group Conveners.