After losing three Ashes series on the bounce and following much soul-searching about the decline of its national sporting prowess, Australia is giving England a pounding in the cricket. For many, all is right again with the world.
Recently, I sat at Melbourne Airport as Australia’s resurgent fast bowler Mitchell Johnson – the butt of some cruel humour by visiting Barmy Army fans during his erratic, neurotic last home series – terrorised the English batsmen. Many people were watching the cricket on screen, with one fellow traveller loudly proclaiming:
There is no greater pleasure than sticking it to the Poms in the cricket!
On 25 November 2013, we held a one-day symposium on Cultural Sociology Today at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Tim Graham reflects on the event below.
Several weeks ago I had the great fortune of attending the ‘Cultural Sociology Today’ Symposium. This well-attended event was hosted by La Trobe University and organised by the TASA Cultural Sociology Thematic Group and the Thesis Eleven Centre for Cultural Sociology. As a newcomer to Cultural Sociology, the Symposium served as somewhat of an introductory tour. Well, it left quite an impression on me! The depth and breadth of scholarship was astounding, with topics that included: the nature of culture itself; academic cultural pub crawls; teaching cultural sociology through music; mourning the dead on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube; the ‘minimal self’ as a tool for charismatic empowerment; the threat of a meaningless death and the search for meaning in modern literature; why Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not indeed great; the hidden anxieties of the American middle-class revealed in pop TV shows; the complexity and meaning of ‘class analysis’ in Australian history; and the search for a meaningful life as expressed in popular film and television narratives such as Toy Story and The Sopranos. I was not aware that such stimulating, and ultimately entertaining, topics constituted the basis for cultural sociological inquiry; nor was I aware of the scope and impact that Australian cultural sociology seems to be having with respect to key contemporary debates.
As the dust settles after a decisive change of government, it is time for the main support players to call in their favours. Among the cheerleaders for a Coalition government, none was more vocal than the Murdoch media, which subjected a wounded Labor government to a barrage of obstreperous tabloid front pages, relentless broadsheet criticism, and a constant stream of syndicated hostility across its many platforms.
News Corp Australia was not shy about being led from the top in this campaign. Chairman Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter (with a characteristic apostrophic error) in June to declare:
Australian public now totally disgusted with Labor Party wrecking country with it’s [sic] sordid intrigues. Now for a quick election.
With mission accomplished, and after Murdoch’s Lowy Institute pep talk on “Australian values” and “the key drivers of prosperity: trade, technology and free market” last month, attention has turned to the juicy concessions that might be extracted from a sympathetic government.
An Ashes series – the latest set to commence in Brisbane – symbolically ushers in the Australian summer in a manner akin to the loud soundtrack of thrumming cicadas. The media will cover the sporting exploits with forensic intensity, but once again are using the Ashes to define and refine myths of Australian identity, masculinity and class.
The first blow in the most recent battle for the Ashes landed early and from an unanticipated angle. The body shot did not come from an Australian fast bowler’s short ball thudding into an England opener’s midriff. Instead, it was a little above-the-belt ridicule of the proposed content of a touring cricketer’s stomach.
The leaking of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s catering requirements and accompanying substantial recipe book stimulated a lot of mirth among Australian journalists and hard-bitten old players about the high-end dining demands of the visitors.
The wishlist of 194 food and drink options to be served up to the England team at Australian cricket venues contained a good deal of culinary exotica. It included the latest health-affirming wonderfare like quinoa and kale.
There was great play with requests for such gastronomic delights as “Buckwheat pancakes with probiotic yogurt and fresh berries” and “Raspberry and oat cranachan pots (protein-based maximuscle)”. Fairfax Media gleefully quoted the response of paunchy, moustachioed former Australian paceman Merv Hughes that he would “dry retch for the next three days” if presented with England’s serving suggestion of “Piri-piri breaded tofu with tomato salsa”.
Much was made of former Australian spinner Shane Warne’s proletarian preference for baked beans, pizza and coke when in his playing prime. Even the British tabloids felt that exposing England’s sophisticated dietary secrets would feed Australian hostility.
An opportunity for additional fun, though, was missed when the menu’s critics failed to notice that England’s meticulously prepared menu misspelt “dessert”. If detected, it would have prompted multiple puns about starving beefy cricketers in “health food deserts” or the supercilious English getting their “just deserts”.
Some of this response is obviously generic resentment at the privileged treatment of a small number of sportspeople (mostly men) in the era of global sports business. As the commercialisation of sport advances apace and the amateur ethos recedes into the world of the museum, both the media who live off commercial sport and the fans who pay for it complain about how celebrity sport professionals are now detached from the lives of common folk.
But as I wrote in a trilogy of articles on its implications for sport, nation and media during the last series in England, the Ashes phenomenon has a very specific history that recurrently replays and refashions the colonial history of its antagonists.
All the mirth about the English team management’s prescription of the likes of “hummus, black olive and sun-blushed tomato” is, in fact, an attempt to distinguish effete colonialist pretentiousness from the earthy authenticity of old-school Australians. This is a familiar and effective rhetorical move. And yet, it comes at the price of reproducing the stereotypes of beer-swilling, pie-scoffing unintellectual Australians that populate the ribald songs of rival Barmy Army fans.
It is difficult to see how, in an Australia that has made snobbery about caffeine, premium wine, boutique beer and food into a cross-country sport, there is much to gain by pretending that the national dish consists of instant coffee, chateau chunder, home brew and a Dagwood Dog.
There is another element of fantasy in fingering the English as food fad elitists – that unlike the Septic Isle, Australia is a steadfastly classless society. At a time when the quest to accumulate cultural capital through private schooling has never been so intense – and the Australian Bureau of Statistics describes the nation’s distribution of wealth as “asymmetric” and becoming more so – the faux classlessness of Aussie sporting mateship is exposed as a convenient smokescreen.
So, it should be clear that the animated response to MasterChef: Cricket and compulsive manufacture of other Ashes stories that play on images of national cultural identity says as much about contemporary Australia as it details the development of English cuisine in its post-fish-and-chips and warm beer phase.
Digesting the Ashes Cookbook demands much more than pondering the dietary virtues of “Papaya, glass noodle and prawn”. It offers instead a spicy smorgasbord of postcolonial dishes, marked by a clear preference for raw ideological ingredients and bubbling mythological hotpots, with a little dash of cricket on the side.
In his new book Making Culture, Changing Society (Routledge, 2013), Professor Tony Bennett aims to change the way we think about culture. The book uses four core ideas about the nature and meaning of culture to present a view that does not see culture as just a set of signs and symbols. Rather culture is a form of knowledge practice, bound up with material conditions and institutions, which is implicated in the production of persons and freedoms. Making Culture, Changing Society justifies this view of culture in two ways. In the first instance the book considers how specific humanities disciplines, associated with anthropology and aesthetics, have been used to distribute ideas of freedom and ideas of the person within liberal government. Bennett uses examples from anthropological studies of colonial societies, along with discussions of the role of aesthetics for theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, to show the function of culture and its interdependence with forms of knowledge. At the same time the book insists on the material aspects of these discussions, using the example of Melbourne’s National Museum of Victoria and Paris’ Musee de l’Homme.
The book offers an important intervention into debates on culture and public policy, grounding questions of rights and representations within the historical project of liberal government. Moreover it develops a critique of the assumptions surrounding culture as a potentially positive or beneficial force for social change, raising profound questions for public, politics and policy.