‘Cultural Sociology Today’ Symposium

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.

The Welcome Address by Theresa Sauter set an inspiring tone for the remainder of the event. I was struck by the collegial and scholarly ‘culture’ that exists within Australian cultural sociology (and more broadly TASA). I felt privileged to be amidst the vanguard of cultural sociologists in Australia. Gary Wickham opened the proceedings with a presentation titled, ‘My Encounters with the Notion of Culture’. In his presentation, Gary shared rich insights into his own journey as a sociologist and his dealings with the notion of ‘culture’ since the early 1980s. In examining how to define culture, he pointed towards the importance of person formation and enculturation, grappling and engaging with various social theories ranging from Althusser, Gramsci, and Foucault, and also Weber and Elias. In interpreting culture, Gary argued that there are three main avenues for interpretation: politics, power and government. He suggested a pragmatic approach for anyone seeking to engage with cultural sociology: get ideas and be ready to defend them! Yet he also cautioned about being ‘too hard and fast’ in dealing with notions of culture.

Margaret Gibson followed up with an enthralling presentation titled, ‘Death, mourning and social media: the value of sharing the dead.’ In her presentation, Margaret brought to attention how the dead circulate as subjects, story fragments, and anchors for biographical integration for those who remain active in sites such as Facebook. Important questions were raised about how existing social and cultural norms around grief and bereavement are managed in the era of social media. Social media platforms leave behind traces of the dead, but also provide opportunities for ongoing remembrance and connection with lost loved ones. Margaret problematised this idea in relation to ‘hierarchies of grief’ in social media platforms that are generally non-hierarchical in design and thus equally open to all users. New issues of governance and legality arise, for example in respect to corporate control of death and bereavement, and who really owns the dead who ‘live on’ in social media.

The next speaker was Barbara Evers, who opened with a disclaimer about the ‘self-indulgence’ of her talk. However, Barbara provided a humble and fascinating account of her enculturation to cultural sociology with a presentation titled, ‘Cultural Sociology International: My experiences with the Norbert Elias Foundation’. Barbara identified the influence of theorists such as Mauss, Hirst, Foucault and Joop Goudsbloom to her own intellectual and sociological journey, which has recently included: an ongoing connection with Stephen Mennell (sociology of food); work on Masterchef; person formation and the relation between culture; government and politics; comparative studies of Dutch and English queens; and habitus and consumer society; Elias and the connection to art; and future Elisian studies of technology and the digital, to name a few. Barbara also provided a colourful and humorous account of ‘field trips’ to local pubs in England and Ireland, which was underpinned by more serious questions about masculinity, gender, and the distinction between public and private.

Eduardo de la Fuente brought our attention to concepts of self, artistic charisma and the aesthetic, grounding his enquiry through the figure of Andy Warhol. In his presentation, titled ‘Charisma ain’t what it used to be: Andy Warhol and the minimal self’, Eduardo identified how Warhol encapsulated the minimal self through his public performances of artistic persona. Warhol brought together cultural and psychological forms of self that centered upon an emotional style loosely characterized by disinterestedness and minimalism—the phenomenon of being ‘cool’. Rather than interpreting the minimal self as an emotional cripple struggling to get by in the modern world, Eduardo provided an absorbing and richly detailed argument that examines how the ‘minimal self’ has in fact emerged as a tool of charismatic empowerment. Cool indeed.

After lunch, Peter Beilharz took us on a journey of music, media and sociology in his multimedia presentation, ‘Cultural Sociology at La Trobe and Teaching Cultural Sociology’. Although Peter’s presentation commenced with a somber reflection of the state of cultural sociology at La Trobe University after job cuts, he directed attention to the power of music and media in pedagogy and his success using these methods. He recounted experiments in using music and media to teach Harvard students about Australian culture (who knew nothing about Australia). Using such methods he recounted a shift from a ‘tell’ to a ‘show’ model of teaching using music and media, even doing guitar workshops that were highly interactive. Peter candidly admitted that it has taken him a long time to feel comfortable enough to do this! Interestingly, he used videos in his presentation (himself being interviewed in another context), which added a layer of meaning and value to the arguments he was making. It was wonderful to hear such a passionate educator and gain insight into his challenges and successes teaching cultural sociology through music and media.

In the next presentation, John Carroll provided a sweeping but incisive examination of ‘Death and the Modern Western Imagination’. Drawing on extensive literary examples ranging from the 17th century (Hamlet, Don Quixote) through to the modern day (The Sopranos, The Dark Knight), John argued that there is a central idea at the crux of culture in modernity: the threat of the meaningless death contaminating the search for a meaningful life. John argued that this idea pervades modern literature, which suggests that the Western imagination has something fundamentally important to tell us about ourselves, our culture, and the very notion of existence. Whilst these arguments were fascinating and provided plenty of food for thought, I was fascinated by what John regarded as literary work in the modern age: The Misfits, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Dark Knight; all these he included in his analyses, providing highly inventive literary critique that I am certain will filter into my own ‘literary’ debates with friends and colleagues. (John, if you are reading this, I would love to know why you think Breaking Bad is an inferior literary work to The Sopranos!). Moreover, we were posed with three universal metaphysical questions to explore in relation to literary narratives and culture: (1) Who am I? (2) What am I doing with my life? (3) What happens after I die? Perhaps provocatively, John left us with one final haunting suggestion—the third question is the important; if you can answer the third then all will be well.

Sara James provided a poignant segue following John’s presentation, bringing into the spotlight Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby in her presentation ‘Gatsby, Luhrmann and Redemptive Illusion’. I should point out that I am a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and had not yet seen Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, due to grave concerns about it ruining the original work. Hence, Sara’s presentation was a real eye-opener; I was once again astonished at the breadth of what is studied within the remit of cultural sociology. Fanboyism aside, Sara made two key arguments. Firstly, the original The Great Gatsby occupies a central place popular imagination because it deals with an important issue: how to find meaning in an era of disenchantment. Sara developed this existential analytic further using Nietzsche’s concept of ‘redemptive illusion’. In a world where god is dead, how are we to live? Hence, Gatsby is great because it grapples with the most significant problem in contemporary Western culture. Gatsby is utterly convinced by his dream because it distracts him from the horrible reality that life in the modern West is meaningless; his illusion makes him forget practicalities; his romantic optimism is at once redemptive and fatal at the same time. Yet his eternal hope (also read: naïve illusion) is what makes him great. The second argument that Sara makes, and this is the clincher, is that Luhrmann’s adaption of Gatsby is not great because it fails to convey this. Thus, Sara made a compelling argument that simultaneously served as literary critique, cultural analysis, and perfect enough reason for me to never watch Luhrmann’s film.

Following afternoon tea (the coffee was particularly delicious), several La Trobe PhD candidates showcased their work. Scott Doidge followed suit with another fascinating exploration of popular media, this time winding back the clock to 1950s America. In this presentation titled ‘Imagining Springfield: the American Middle-Class’, Scott argued that when America looks back at the 1950s it’s most vivid and enduring memories are from the television domestic comedies that proliferated throughout the decade. Ostensibly, Scott argues, these shows take part in the celebration of the fifties as a time of political consensus and economic abundance. But… if we dig a little deeper we see that not all is well in Springfield, USA. Scott provided a fascinating take on shows like Father Knows Best by interpreting them not as ‘benevolent Aryan melodramas’ but highly contradictory and tense cultural artefacts that reveal the anxieties lying behind the white picket fence. Scott deftly points out that in shows like Father Knows Best there are no bad institutions or bad people—only breakdowns in communication that are inevitably resolve to restore everything to right. Moreover, such shows inculcated the myth of America as a nation of small towns where the achievement of community or familial consensus was not only paramount but also ultimately achievable. Scott argues that underlying such shows was a fundamental shift in American character and landscape. By examining the contradictions and tensions in these cultural artefacts we can read these shows as much for their anxieties as for their celebration of American culture.

Next up, Henry Paternoster took us on a critical sociological voyage in ‘Marxism and the analysis of class narratives in Australian history’. In this presentation, he made a persuasive argument that we still need to understand concepts of class to grasp society but we need better frameworks to do it. We have a distorted understanding of class narratives; a remedy, it seems, is to reconceptualise class in terms of cultural sociology. In order to develop these arguments, Henry argued that Marxists have written the most influential histories of class in Australia, describing class as sets of relationships, beyond arbitrary categories of wealth stratification. However, he problematized these histories due to their inherently structuralist flaws—that class is the predictable result of objective social structure. This, Henry argued, reduces the complexity and specificity of social groups in Australian history to familiar categories with familiar narratives (e.g. workers, bosses and everyone else as the middle class). A key argument that he puts forth is that a new way of analysing class has emerged: ‘culturalist’ class analysis, which draws on the language and theory of Bourdieu. Whilst Bourdieu’s analytic once again renders possible a discussion of class in Australian history, Henry suggests that this can also be problematic because it reduces class to the competitive struggle for power (an even narrower conception of class than Marxism!). Overall, Henry contended that class analysis would benefit substantially by disentangling the language of class and speaking of the subjects of class analysis as contingent, rather than structurally determined, narratives. Thus, we can position class analysis fruitfully within the remit of cultural sociology.

The final presentation of the day was provided by Marcus Maloney, titled ‘Cultural Threads in Four Popular Stories’. Belying Marcus’ initially humorous tone was a serious subject echoing previous speakers John Carroll and Sara James. Marcus once again shifted our attention to an enduring cultural dilemma: the difficulties faced by modern Westerners in their search for a meaningful life. Interestingly, he explored this dilemma through a close reading of four popular film and television narratives: Pixar’s animated feature film, Toy Story; Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; the television romantic comedy, Sex and the City; and the mobster drama, The Sopranos. Once again, I was amazed at the way in which these cultural artefacts (which I have never thought to consider through a sociological lens) were positioned analytically in order to address some of the most fundamental questions about human existence and the search for meaning embedded in a cultural context. For example, Marcus argued how Toy Story is a tale about disillusionment, exploring the figure of Buzz Lightyear and his imagined role and destiny to ‘infinity and beyond’ (yet confronted with his reality as a toy in a child’s bedroom). Similarly, Marcus highlighted the existential crisis of Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, in which Tony struggles to find meaning in his life; confronted each day with incoherence, emptiness and despair as he searches desperately in family, friends, work, leisure, and violence. At the heart of all these narratives, Marcus argues, is disenchantment. We are forever faced with diminishing horizons; the threat of the inevitable; the horror of absurdity, and so forth. Yet in our lives, and in these popular narratives, Marcus argues that we face this disenchantment by coming to terms with acute discordances between hope and reality; between life as we would like it to be, and life as it is. To the extent that we can navigate and perhaps even succeed in this project is reflected in the cultural artefacts we produce in the Western imagination.

Finally, Brad West provided a wonderful Closing Address to cap off the day. In his remarks, Brad recognized the important role that La Trobe and Thesis Eleven have to play for sociology in Australia. He further argued that the Cultural Sociology Today symposium fulfills the promise of what he and other colleagues had in mind when they first brought the Cultural Sociology group into being. As a newcomer, I felt very fortunate to experience this ‘fulfillment’ of the Cultural Sociological project at this stage of its history. I greatly look forward to next year’s event and now have a budding interest and appreciation of cultural sociology and its role in Australia and around the world.

Tim Graham is a doctoral student at The University of Queensland. His thesis explores the role of websites in configuring ‘choice’ and delivering public services. Tim also works on an ARC funded research project that examines the institutional structure of government on the Web in the UK and Australia.

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