I wrote a book


It is remiss of me not to mention it here, but last month I published a book. Available now from various Australian bookstores, my first monograph is entitled When the Goal Posts Move: Patronage, power and resistance in Australian cultural policy 2013-2016. It is published by Currency House as part of their long-running Platform Papers series.

The book is a short history of Australian cultural policy in the years 2013-2016, encompassing the end of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government and the first term of the Abbott-Turnbull Coalition government.

This was a tumultuous period in Australian cultural policy. Significant austerity was imposed on federal arts and cultural funding. Around $400 million was cut from the budget of the ABC, and around $300 million from the budgets of federal cultural agencies like Screen Australia the Australia Council for the Arts.

Most controversially, at least for the purposes of readers here, the federal government under former arts minister George Brandis, launched an audacious funding raid on the Australia Council in 2015. $105 million was subtracted from the Australia Council and given to a new cultural slush fund, revealingly entitled the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Brandis’ funding raid was about more than just moving the budget line around: it was nothing less than an assault on the institution of the Australia Council itself, and with it a four-decade tradition of arms-length funding decided by artistic peers. The politics were just as blatant: Brandis wanted to punish what he saw as undeserving (and politically suspect) art funded by the Australia Council, and redistribute the money to a palette of works and artforms that he liked: classical Western music and opera, by and large.

The pain of the Excellence raid fell squarely on the parts of Australian culture that many consider to be the most creative and innovative: the so-called “small-to-medium” sector of smaller arts companies, and the great bulk of individual artists and small collectives applying to the Australia Council’s grant programs. In a decision of remarkable cynicism, Brandis specifically ruled that the Australia Council must protect the funding of the 28 so-called “major performing arts” companies that make up the bulk of the Australia Council’s budget, thus making it inevitable that the funding cuts would fall on smaller players.

The Excellence raid revealed major schisms within Australian culture. The Australia Council and its board were shown to be impotent, even supine, in the face of the calculated political assault. Major cultural institutions that many thought would defend their colleagues were conspicuously silent; Opera Australia even welcomed the decision. The Australia Council’s board, which features media celebrities and well-known former artistic directors, said nothing.

The raid sparked national protests from artists and led to a Senate Inquiry, which took 2,700 submissions and issued a scathing report on the government’s actions. It also spurred a remarkable grass-roots protest movement from affected artists and small companies — one that proved surprisingly politically effective — called Free the Arts.

Why was the Australia Council so vulnerable? And what is the future for Australian cultural policy? This paper explores the broader socio-political environment that allowed a conservative government to launch the most damaging attack on the integrity of the Australia Council for forty years. It argues that Australian artists and so-called “cultural leaders” have largely lost or forgotten the vocabulary of public value that might be used to defend the public policy of culture here, a development not unlike that which has occurred in other parts of the public sphere, like universities and public science agencies.

The essay ends with a call to arms to rediscover the ethical and moral imperative of culture making, and the opportunity of convincing fellow citizens of that imperative.

Marshall Sahlins on culture, part 1

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779, by Johann Zoffany. Image: Wikimedia Commons

I am no anthropologist, I freely admit. In fact I am often left agog by the radical multiplicity of contemporary anthropology, such that I feel in no way qualified to write intelligently about it. Of course, this is the fate of any intelligent human who wishes to extend her reading into fields she is not intimately familiar with. So I shall write about it none-the-less.

I have come to Marshall Sahlins ridiculously late, insupportably late, really, given the contribution he has made to his field, and, indeed, to the social sciences in general. It is not unreasonable to posit Sahlins as one of the genuine intellectual giants of our time, which makes it a little difficult to presuppose any meaningful assessment of his influence.

There is, for instance, a lively academic debate about the validity of Sahlins’ view on kinship, which are entirely vulnerable to some quite elementary criticisms. Can it not be true that at least some role must be inherent in biology in the formation of kin relationships? Surely biology plays a role. How far can you coherently press the idea of social construction? (In Sahlins’ case: all the way).

And yet this is the position Sahlins takes in his recent book What Kinship Is — And Is Not, and a remarkable exercise it is too. There is something almost Berkleyan in his anti-realism. As Andrew Shryock points out in a review of the book:

The idea that phylogenetic and other material constraints on human reproduction (defined as “biology”) do not, per se, have anything to do with human kinship systems is language designed to send us to battle stations. As Sahlins masterfully deploys it, the idiom is binary, winner take all, and it has the virtue of being utterly predictable in its analytic consequences. Since we are dealing with strong doctrinal positions, I should confess (apt word) that I also believe that human kinship is cultural. But I do not think that culture—of the discursive, internally constituted, symbol laden, and highly structured kind Sahlins has preached for decades—is enough to explain what kinship does, how it works, why it varies, or, least of all, how it develops historically and has evolved, as a discrete range of behavioral and interactive tendencies, over millions of years of primate evolution.

Sahlins is of course no stranger to controversy. Indeed, he is one side of one of the more famous skirmishes of the 90s culture wars — that strange period of academic ferment that, for a time, made scholarly disputes seem relevant to the politics of their time, in a way that hasn’t been the case in subsequent decades (although perhaps we are again returning to that situation with the influence of thinkers like Piketty and Graeber). This was the so-called “Sahlins–Obeyesekere debate”, in which Sahlins squared off against a fellow anthropologist, Ganath Obeyesekere, over the historical facts and meanings around the death of Captain James Cook.

The debate was sparked off by Sahlins, who in a series of books and papers (see for instance 1981’s Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities and 1985’s Islands of History) had developed a very powerful analysis of the events leading up to and including James Cook’s death. For Sahlins, the circumstances of Cook’s death are a kind of cosmic jigsaw puzzle, in which a bizarre series of coincidences conjoin to create the exact conditions for Cook to appear to his Hawaiian hosts as first a god, and second as a fraud worthy of dismemberment.

Sahlins’ thesis is remarkably well worked out, and backed up with copious evidence, including from the primary sources, both Hawaiian and English. It runs like this: Cook turned up in 1778 at the height of Hawaiian makahiki festivities — Hawaiian New Year. Makahiki is a time in which any war or hostilities are typically suspended; priests are temporarily in charge. Cook arrived, of course, in a rather impressive ship, but a particular quirk of the tall ships’ sails made them look remarkably like the Hawaiian symbol for the god, Lono. Lono was meant to turn up on that particular day of the year; Cook’s timing was almost hour-perfect. Just to make the resemblance to the myth even more convincing, Lono was meant to progress around the big island during the makahiki celebrations. Cook’s squadron also took a meandering course around the archipelago that seems to exactly mirror this progress. When Cook landed on the big island for a second time, he was taken ashore and made the central figure in a priestly ceremony, in which he was acknowledged, ceremonially at any rate, as Lono. He appears to have played along convincingly. Cook then sailed away, to all intents and purposes a Hawaiian god.

But fate intervened. Cook broke a mast sailing away from the big island, and was forced to turn back and anchor for a third time. Now, everything was rather different. Makahiki was over. The king was back in charge, and Cook was no longer sticking to the script. In contrast to the celebration and deference of his previous visits, now Cook seemed like an interloper, a fellow who had pushed his luck too far. Perhaps Cook was no longer in on the joke; perhaps he was mocking his hosts? Hawaiians started to swim out to his ships and steal things, culminating in the bold theft of the Resolution‘s long boat. Cook made a fatal error in reaction. Rowing ashore with a detachment of marines, he kidnapped the ruling chief of the islands, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, and attempted to take him back to the ship. But one of Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s wives raised the alarm, and Cook and his soldiers (still holding the king) were soon surrounded by thousands of islanders on the beach. After a scuffle broke out, muskets were fired and Cook was knocked to the ground and stabbed. The British staged a fighting retreat, leaving Cook dead on the beach. After a number of reprisal raids, the two sides made peace. Cook’s “hindquarters” were returned to the Resolution in tribute.

Space prevents me from exploring the intricacies of Sahlins’ argument in greater detail, or the considerable scholastic debate over his historical accuracy. But perhaps the most important aspect of Sahlins’ account is that it is structural. Sahlins is a symbolic structuralist, very much a follower of Boas and Levi-Strauss, and a contemporary of Geertz. (Adam Kuper gives an fine account of Sahlins’ intellectual development in Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account). Sahlins posits that Cook/Lono episode is a wonderful example of cultural structures imposing upon, perhaps even creating, historical reality. To quote Kuper, “Sahlins’ argument is, in short, that people enacted their interpretations of the past.” What we have here, in other words, at least i Sahlins’ exposition, is a convincing historical example of “mythopraxis”: of cultural determinism in its most pure form.

Some were not convinced. Foremost among them was Ganath Obeyesekere, who assailed Sahlins’ acount in a biting 1992 polemic entitled The Apotheosis Of Captain Cook : European Mythmaking In The Pacific. Obeyesekere took Sahlins at his word, examining what might have been going on Hawaii in 1779, and decided that the real myth-makers here were not the Hawaiians but the British. Was Cook really considered by the islanders to be a god? Of course not, Obeyesekere argued! What had occurred was the clever manipulation of historical custom to frame the European interlopers for reasons of pure realpolitik. Cook arrived at the helm of a powerful squadron, with soldiers and trade goods that could be extremely useful to the elites engaged in Hawaiian power politics. What’s really going on here is the paleo-imperialism from Sahlins, who has fallen for the myth of the noble savage himself. Obeyesekere, a Sri Lankan, knows a thing or two about the British empire. Sahlins is simply repeating Rousseau’s old fantasy: “the Western idea of the redoubtable European who is a god to savage people.” Coming, as it did, at the height of the culture wars then engulfing the US academy in he early 1990s, Obeyesekere’s book aroused considerable interest. Sahlins was so enraged by what he saw as a gross misrepresentation of his position, that he wrote an entire book in response. Disciplinary godfathers such as Clifford Geertz wrote it up. Ian Hacking devoted a chapter of his wonderful The Social Construction of What? to the controversy.

How can we adjudicate the Sahlins/Obeyesekere debate? Ultimately, as both Kuper and Hacking concede, the nitty gritty of the history must be debated by the specialists. This is difficult. The primary sources are patchy and plagued by mutual incomprehension: the British had little or no Hawaiian, the Hawaiians little English, and the Hawaiians did not even leave written sources at the time — these were in fact written a generation later by British missionaries. The priesthood that mediated the Lono ceremonies had dissolved in the years after the British arrived. So, in common with so much history, we can’t really be sure. So, while Hacking ultimately sides with Sahlins, Kuper does not.

But fear not! Sahlins has another move to make, which is to displace “history” and “what really happened” from the debate by insisting that they actually add up to culture anyway. Thus, history is radically and indivisibly cultural, and can’t be separated from the cultural preoccupations and symbolic architecture of the historians writing it. And this, in turn, becomes a fascinating demolition job of much of what we might call “historical realism”, or “realist historiography”, or, let’s face it, “international relations.”

And it is to Marshall Sahlins’ view of history as itself fundamentally cultural that we will next turn.





The minefield of cultural measurement

First published at artsHub, 14 August 2013

Arts strategist Julianne Schultz says we need to start measuring the value of culture, an important but risky venture.

In a speech as part of the Currency House Art and Public Life series in Sydney today, Professor Schulz called on the arts sector to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsic value of the work produced by artists.

Schultz, who chaired the Reference Group on the National Cultural Policy, said the arts should take advantage of new measuring tools.

For very good reasons we have been diffident about measuring the value of culture. It feels wrong in many ways. We have accepted as a mantra that there are some things that are so intrinsically valuable that they defy quantification. I am not unsympathetic to that view. Robert Kennedy expressed it with great eloquence many years ago, when he decried that we know measure the value of everything except that which is most valuable. In the intervening years new ways of measuring some of these things of value have been created – and that is important. In the arts and culture sector we have opted for a proxy measurement of value, the number of tickets sold, the number of visitors and their multipliers, the profitability of organisations and so on. These are important tools, but not sufficient to capture the public value that accrues from engagement in cultural activities. Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured, now it is. We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it. We have to be more ambitious in measuring the intrinsi’c value of the work produced by artists and the costs that fall disproportionately on them and their families because their work is not properly valued; the institutional in terms of a national ethos which draws visitors or inspires productive innovation; the instrumental value, like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives, and the commercial value which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors.


It’s not easy being an arts policy nerd. As policy fields go, the area is a lot smaller and less influential than key political battlegrounds like economics, climate change or asylum seekers. Public intellectuals with clout in the field are few in number, and there is no high profile think-tank with easy access to media outlets, like a Climate Institute or an Institute for Public Affairs. Even the vested interests are not particularly organized: industry bodies such as APRA or SPAA don’t strike quite the same fear into a minister’s heart as the Minerals Council of Australia, the Pharmacy Guild or the AI Group.

The thin and patchy nature of cultural policy debate has a number of consequences. One is that discussion tends to languish for long periods. The fitful progress of the national cultural policy towards its eventual outcome in Creative Australia is a good example. First mooted by Peter Garrett as opposition Arts spokesman in 2006, the policy was finally delivered this year.

But the threadbare nature of the cultural policy discussion can have positive consequences too. One is that prominent artists and intellectuals have an unusually strong influence. While the big debates about economic policy are fiercely contested by powerful players, and correspondingly crowded with talking heads, cultural policy is comparatively empty. The few players of significance that do take the field have unusual freedom to move.

Amongst this small coterie, one figure has reached an unquestionable position of influence: Julianne Schultz. From her seemingly peripheral position as the editor of a small but respected magazine, Schultz has spun a web of influence that places her firmly at the centre of the Australian artistic and cultural debate. A key consultant to a succession of Labor arts ministers, Schultz co-chaired the creative stream of the 2020 Summit and went on to lead the reference group for the Creative Australia policy. She’s on the board of the ABC and the Grattan Institute, chairs the Australian Film Television and Radio School, as well as wearing a haberdashery of other hats. When The Australian’s Matt Westwood profiled her last year, she described her intellectual background as ‘broadly cultural, but … from a journalism-media background.’

This breadth of interests and networks makes Schultz a voice worth listening to, especially when, as she did this morning, she advances a bold new policy agenda to build on Creative Australia.

The take-home message of Schultz’ speech this morning concerns the need for an expanded Ministry of Culture. This new super-department would bring together existing federal programs and agencies in a cabinet-level Department. The precedents are strong for such a body overseas: France’s Socialist government of the 1980s was famous for its swashbuckling culture minister, Jack Lang. As Schultz observed today:

At the moment not even all the national collecting institutions answer to the same minister, heritage is in environment, cultural diplomacy and UNESCO are in DFAT, industry assistance for the creative industries is in innovation and climate change, tourism and sport are elsewhere, trade is not linked in any consistent way, broadcasting is in broadband and the digital economy, there are programs in education and health, and regional affairs funds the building facilities and gives prizes for regional arts.


Such a department would be able to address the cultural sector as a whole, bring a fresh and critical perspective to the sustainability of the component parts with rigorous economic analysis by taking the lead on developing the tools to measure public value.  Its ethos would be sympathetic to cultural potential. It would complement not replicate agencies, like the Australia Council and Screen Australia that allocate funds – so that the arm’s length relationship between cultural production and government, which is so highly valued would be maintained.

Schultz’s proposal is both bold and sensible, and echoes my thinking on the subject; in 2010, I proposed a similarly structured portfolio.

Other aspects of Schultz’ speech are just as interesting, though they will perhaps receive less attention. One argument she makes that could potentially be a game-changer is the need for a much broader and deeper set of cultural statistics and indicators.

‘Thirty years ago environmental value was not something that was measured,’ she points out. ‘Now it is.’

‘We have to be more ambitious and smarter in finding a way to measure the public value of culture. We know it exists, but we have not yet found the right way to measure it.’

There’s no doubt that measurement drives public policy, as the long-running evidence-based policy debate inside the public service amply demonstrates. The ‘poor cousin’ status of the arts and culture within government agencies stems, in part, from the fact that it remains very hard to measure the community value of a beautiful artwork or a provocative documentary. As former top bureaucrats like Leigh Tabrett have told us, the all-powerful central agencies of government – especially Treasury and Finance – are still highly skeptical of the value of the arts and culture, seeing it as warm and fuzzy window-dressing compared to the serious stuff of roads, schools and hospitals.

Echoing an important stream of the academic debate about measuring culture, Schultz says there should be much more effort devoted to measuring the so-called ‘intrinsic’ value of the arts, for instance by using sophisticated tools from economics to measure the ‘contingent valuation’ of the arts by ordinary citizens. So, for instance, the public could be polled and asked what they would be willing to pay for a new art gallery in a regional city, or whether they’d like to spend more on public broadcasting than the ABC’s famous “eight cents a day’. When such exercises have been tried I other countries, they have consistently yielded answers in excess of current government funding levels.

Schultz also says there are a range of other measurements that could better capture the value of the arts, including instrumental value, ‘like the well documented legacy for children of exposure and involvement in arts and culture to successful and engaged lives,’ as well as economic factors, ‘which is contributing more to the national economy than many other sectors’.

It all sounds very useful, and arts advocates would no doubt love extra arguments with which to persuade skeptical razor gangs in Finance and Treasury. But by stepping into the minefield of cultural measurement, Schultz – and Australian culture in general – will need to tread carefully. The most recent attempt to develop such measures in the UK, for instance, developed detailed proposals to measure the value of the arts in Britain using contingent valuation [pdf]. Sadly, they were little help when faced with George Osborne’s austerity drive.

Not all metrics are created equal. Just yesterday, for instance, Essential Research released an opinion poll in which those surveyed said they were unhappy about Australia’s ongoing budget deficit, and would like to see cuts to arts funding to help pay for it. And if there’s one measurement every politician understands, it’s a poll.

Austerity and the social construction of economic knowledge

In a rich and wonderfully detailed 2011 article for the American Journal of Sociology, Donald Mackenzie lays out a case for “The Credit Crisis as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge.”

The global financial crisis, Mackenzie argues, was partly the result of particular and contingent “knowledge-generating arrangements”, which allowed the wildly mis-allocated risks of the US mortgage securities industry to accumulate and eventually implode. Research for the paper included detailed interviews with 87 financial market participants. Continue reading

The diffusion of the printing press in Europe, 1450-1500

These maps are just too pretty not to re-post. They come from Jeremiah Dittmar’s fascinating new paper, Information Technology and Economic Change: The Impact of the Printing Press.

The diffusion of the printing press, 1450-1500. Source: Jeremiah Dittmar.

There’s a good summary of the paper at Vox, but the take-home message is probably in two parts. Firstly:

  • First, the printing press was an urban technology, producing for urban consumers.
  • Second, cities were seedbeds for economic ideas and social groups that drove the emergence of modern growth.
  • Third, city sizes were historically important indicators of economic prosperity, and broad-based city growth was associated with macroeconomic growth (Bairoch 1988, Acemoglu et al. 2005).

And secondly:

I find that cities in which printing presses were established 1450-1500 had no prior growth advantage, but subsequently grew far faster than similar cities without printing presses. My work uses a difference-in-differences estimation strategy to document the association between printing and city growth. The estimates suggest early adoption of the printing press was associated with a population growth advantage of 21 percentage points 1500-1600, when mean city growth was 30 percentage points. The difference-in-differences model shows that cities that adopted the printing press in the late 1400s had no prior growth advantage, but grew at least 35 percentage points more than similar non-adopting cities from 1500 to 1600.

Elif Batuman on the double-entry book-keeping of writing

Elif Batuman. Image: ecu essays.

I must be the very last person in the literary world to discover the complex delight of reading Elif Batuman, but this piece of writing by her really did my head in.

It’s the first chapter of her doctoral dissertation, and it’s quite possibly the most erudite, dextrous and fleet-footed jaunt through the literary theory of the modern novel I’ve read since … well, since Borges:

The time of writing is not problematic for all novelists; only for 1) professional, full-time writers, who 2) maintain a strict allegiance to the raw material of lived experience.  The time of writing is not problematic for Casanova, because he takes up writing only in his retirement: far from scribbling his memoirs in the fear that he would die before completing his work, he actually tried to draw out his writing as long as possible, to fill his remaining years.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, metaliterary gamesters like Sterne or Diderot feel no epistemological responsibility to base their works on real experiences; to the contrary, epistemological self-sufficiency becomes for them a point of pride.  A much-cited passage from Tristram Shandy, for instance, testifies equally to a vivid awareness of the time of writing and a complete indifference towards “research”:

I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got… almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write… so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work… I am just thrown so many volumes back.

Shandy delights precisely in his own ability to keep writing with no new material at all.  Life does not interrupt Shandy’s writing; Shandy interrupts his own writing, congratulating himself on the inexhaustible nature of his new amusement (“I shall lead a fine life out of this self-same life of mine”), and on its capability to stimulate the “manufactures of paper.”  He is not battling an inescapable condition, but inventing a gratuitous obstacle, protracting his “Life” with digressions, deferrals and ruptures.  That Shandy himself  sees these obstacles as voluntary is borne out by his claim that they were “never applicable before to any one biographical writer since the creation of the world,” and would “never hold good to any other, until its final destruction” (198): engaged in willful play, he has no idea of having stumbled onto an inherent novelistic problem.  In similar fashion, Diderot gleefully protracts the story of Jacques’s loves:  “What is there to prevent me from marrying off the master and having him cuckolded?  Or sending Jacques off to the Indies?  And leading his master there?  And bringing them both back to France on the same vessel?  How easy it is to make up stories!”37  “Qu’il est facile de faire des contes”: for Cervantes or Boswell or Proust, it is not so easy.  The artificial hurdle becomes, in their works, an organic barrier.  Play becomes work—or at least a more arduous game, with a stringent new rule: the epistemological obligation to “make up” stories from something, some real material.  “Faire des contes” becomes, in this way, “faire des comptes”: each narrative element—each obstacle, separation and reunion—is a debit which must be balanced, in the credit column, with some experiential knowledge.  To introduce the central metaphor of this dissertation, I propose that this balance can be construed as such an account in the style of double-entry bookkeeping:


Debit Credit
The time of research, lived experience The time of writing
Material for a book Unhappiness, knowledge, experience
Ginés’s crimes Ginés’s terms in the galley
Marcel’s experiences; the dinner invitation Marcel’s solitude; the writing notebook

If in this light we reconsider Boswell’s metaphor of reaping no more than he can sow—living no more than he can record—we see that it is essentially an economical one: if his experiences are too numerous to write about in the remaining time, Boswell will have misspent his life.

A major new talent.

Corey Doctorow rebuts Evgeny Morozov

We’ve all heard about (though I’ve ot yet read) The Net Delusion.

Now, a leading thinker/practitioner in the field of new media reviews Morozov’s book, rebutting his thesis:

At its core, there is some very smart stuff indeed in The Net Delusion. Morozov is absolutely correct when he forcefully points out that technology isn’t necessarily good for freedom – that it can be used as readily to enslave, surveil, and punish as it can to evade, liberate and share.

Unfortunately, this message is buried amid a scattered, loosely argued series of attacks on a nebulous “cyber-utopian” movement, whose views are stated in the most general of terms, often in the form of quotes from CNN and other news agencies who are putatively summing up some notional cyber-utopian consensus. In his zeal to discredit this ideology (whatever it is), Morozov throws whatever he’s got handy at anyone he can find who supports the idea of technology as a liberator, no matter how weak or silly his ammunition.

Read the rest in The Guardian

Also worth a look is Clay Shirky’s Foreign Affairs piece on the political power of social media (firewalled)

Hollywood’s institutionalised sexism

Several media outlets including The Wrap have carried articles today about the “celluloid ceiling” – the long-term institutionalised sexism of Hollywood’s motion picture industry.

The data is sourced from Martha Lauzen’s recent report “The Celluloid Ceiling:Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2009”. According to Lauzen, the percentage of women involved as directorss, producers, cinematographers and associated roles is low and declining:

In 2009, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.  This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2001

The graph below says it all. As you can see, men still dominate Hollywood.

Historical Comparison of Percentages of Women Employed in Key Behind-theScenes Roles, 1998-2009. Source: Martha Lauzen

The Wrap carried an interview with high-grossing director Catherine Hardwicke, of Twilight fame.

Catherine Hardwicke …  directed 2008’s “Twilight,” the first in the hugely successful vampire franchise, but Hardwicke told The Wrap she was prevented from even pitching to direct “The Fighter.”

“I couldn’t get an interview even though my last movie made $400 million,” she said to The Wrap. “I was told it had to be directed by a man — am I crazy?” said Hardwicke, who also noted she liked what David O. Russell did on the film. “It’s about action, it’s about boxing, so a man has to direct it … But they’ll let a man direct “Sex in the City” or any girly movie you’ve ever heard of.”


Michael Berube on the Sokal Hoax and the science wars

At Democracy: A Journal for Ideas, the always-perceptive Michael Berube has a wonderful potted history of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax. For those who’ve forgotten or don’t know, the short version is that Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist, submitted and had published a hoax paper to then-influential cultural studies journal Social Text. The paper made fun of cherished theories of postmodernism and science and technology studies such as constructivism and relativism, and threw in a farrago of dodgy physics references for good measure.

The ensuing controversy cystallised the disdain many conservatives (not to mention scientists and philosophical hard materialists) felt about the 90s postmodernist in-crowd. But Berube’s article has a sting in the tail: the ideas of relativism and constructivism advanced by thinkers such as Andrew Ross in the 90s are now being used, he argues, for far more nefarious purposes, against science by demogogues and populists on the right. I’ll let Berube explain in more detail below, but the whole article is recommended:

The cover of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's book about the hoax, Intellectual Impostures. Image: Profile Books

What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? While I was chatting with my colleagues at the Postmodern Science Forum, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on . . . the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part ofSocial Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury.

Cannily, Sokal chose Lingua Franca, a then-influential (since folded) magazine that covered the academy and the humanities, as the venue in which to publish his “gotcha” essay, in which he revealed that the whole thing was a great big joke. And as if on cue, Ross and Aronowitz fired back almost precisely as Sokal believed they would: Aronowitz called Sokal “ill-read and half-educated,” while Ross called the essay “a little hokey,” “not really our cup of tea,” and a “boy stunt . . . typical of the professional culture of science education.” Aronowitz and Ross had every reason to feel badly stung, no question; but the terms of their response, unfortunately, spectacularly bore out Sokal’s claim that “the targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside.” It was not hard to wonder, after all: If indeed Sokal’s hokey boy-stunt essay was not really your cup of tea, why did you publish it in the first place?

For many people, the answer to that question was simple: because the theory-addled, jargon-spouting academic left, of which Social Text now stood as the symbol, really didn’t know squat about science and really wasdevoted to the project of making shit up and festooning it with flattering citations to one another’s work. It was what critics believed all along, and now they had the proof. The disparity of audience response was–and remains–stark: In my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith; everywhere else, especially on the rest of the campus and in the world of journalism, Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor (and there was much talk of naked emperors) and burst the cultural-studies bubble that had so drastically overinflated certain academic reputations–and academic egos.

Alex Burns on attention cascades

Over at his blog, Alex Burns has an excellent post on Google Ngram and its ability to map long-wave “attention cascades”:

I chose the literature on the Graeco-Armenian magus George Gurdjieff and the Russian journalist Pyotr Uspenskii (Ouspensky) for several reasons. It is a structured ‘body of work’ with primary sources, pupil narratives, and second- and third-generation commentaries. This segmentation means it can be compared with a range of authors and topics using bibliometrics, historical research, and anthropological methods. It anticipated themes of the 1960s Age of Aquarius and 1970s environmental movements. It grew endogenously after some specific events, such as the timed release of Gurdjieff’s authorised writings and the early popularity of Ouspensky’s neo-Theosophical writings on consciousness, mathematics, and comparative religion. The fluctuations in Google’s Ngram Viewer can be interpreted, in part, as the rise-and-fall of what Ouspensky called the ‘Fourth Way’ in the Human Potential movement and other subcultures. Continue reading