What anthropologists can teach journalists: Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things

I’ve just finished Daniel Miller‘s book The Comfort of Things. It’s a remarkable work of contemporary anthropology, in which Miller and an assistant spend 17 months interviewing and observing nearly all the inhabitants on an ordinary street in suburban London.

I think this book should be compulsory reading for journalists and especially students of journalism schools and courses. This is because the approach Miller takes to interviewing and engaging with his subjects is almost the polar opposite of the typical way in which journalists and reporters approach the task.

Rather than approach his task in the one-dimensional, goal-directed way so common of journalists – in which they relentless interrogate their subject until they get the answer they want – Miller gently befriends the inhabitants of this ordinary street, eventually obtaining access to their living rooms and discovering what their material possessions can tell us about their lives, their loves and the status of their lives. It’s the sort of “long-form narrative” that actually achieves the kind of engagement that most contemporary novelists seem to struggle with, let alone journalists. The best comparators I can think of are Iain Sinclair and Theodore Zeldin.

To top it all off, Miller’s writing is beautiful, easily superior to almost anything you’d read in the New Yorker, The Guardian or the London Review of Books.

Recommended.

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Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele replies

Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele has responded to my article in Overland. For the record, she does identify some factual errors in my piece which I freely acknowledge and will address in a subsequent post.

Here is the text of her reply:

Kathy Keele,  Australia Council CEO, responds to Ben Eltham’s Overland 199 article

Ben Eltham’s article raises a number of important issues worthy of further debate. I welcome his passion for the vitality of the arts in this country and the need for a dynamic approach to cultural policy.

I agree completely that culture is much bigger than the arts and indeed that the arts are bigger than ‘what the Australia Council funds’. We made this point in our submission to the National Cultural Policy consultation process. How we set the parameters of ‘culture’ so that it yields a policy that’s workable for government is a good topic for discussion.
But there are a number of points in his essay that need to be corrected.

One of Eltham’s key criticisms of the Australia Council is that its view of the arts is antiquated, remaining largely unchanged from the 1970s. As examples, he names arts practices that are not supported by the council’s art form boards – gaming, genre fiction, online writing, and musicals, to name a few.

The problem is that this isn’t true. For a healthy debate to proceed, it’s important to correct these and some other factual inaccuracies.

  • He states that the council ‘funds opera but not musicals (except when opera companies mount musicals)’. This is incorrect. The music and theatre boards have an initiative called Music Theatre which supports the development of musicals.
  • He argues for the artistic importance of gaming, and asks ‘why doesn’t the Australia Council support gaming?’ It does. The council has over many years funded artists who create game art works and explore game culture as an artistic practice.
  • He states that the council supports ‘serious novels, generally, but not genre fiction or online writing’. Not true. The Literature Board has funded genre novels, interactive media writing, websites, iPhone apps and graphic novels through our New Work and Write in Your Face grants programs. The board recently completed a three-year initiative called the Story of the Future and published the Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living.
  • Eltham states that the council ‘funds companies that only produce a few works a year but not festivals that produce hundreds’. In fact, each year the council funds dozens of works that are presented at festivals all over the country. We also fund the Major Festivals Initiative which commissions new Australian work for presentation at the seven capital city festivals.

Questioning the amount of funding allocated to these various new art practices is one thing. I worry, however, that his critique is based on an idea that the council doesn’t fund these arts practices at all.

What I want to make clear is that many ‘new’ art practices are currently funded by the Australia Council from within the existing art form boards, through our inter-arts section and, indeed, through programs and initiatives across council. The key criterion, no matter what its form, is that the art is excellent.

I also need to correct the impression left by Eltham that abolition of the Community Cultural Development Board in 2005 demonstrated that the council ‘turned its back on community arts’. He fails to mention that the Community Partnerships Committee, with an upgraded remit to support community arts practice across the nation, was formed the following year. This year Community Partnerships will be allocating approximately $10 million in funding.

Eltham also notes his objections to the funding allocated to the major performing arts companies. It is useful to note that while the Australia Council manages the distribution of this funding, decisions as to which organisations are funded and by how much are set by the six state arts ministers and the federal arts minister.

In spite of these errors and misunderstandings, I do believe Eltham’s piece raises a fundamental question: how do we most effectively fund the ever-changing way that art is created? This question needs to be constantly revisited by those sitting both inside and outside our arts funding agencies.

Kathy Keele
CEO Australia Council for the Arts

 

Rebutting Christopher Madden: part 1

Recently I had a piece published Overland magazine calling for radical reform, perhaps even abolition, of the Australia Council for the Arts. This week, the Overland website carries a response by cultural policy analyst Christopher Madden.

I think Madden’s rebuttal misguided in several important respects and so today I’m going to unpick his piece item by item … but before I do that I think it’s worth saying that we agree on many things. More than that, I welcome this debate – it’s exactly what I hoped to provoke with the piece. Madden’s response to my article is robust, informed, detailed and well-intentioned. It’s also, I think, quite wrong. Continue reading

The legacy and troubles of the Warburg Institute

 

Pages from Aby Warburg's Mneomysyne Atlas. Source: Mathias Bruhn

 

In The Burlington Review, Christopher S. Wood has a careful dissection of E. H. Gombrich’s famous 1960 opus Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation.

Gombrich was a prominent member of the Warburg Institute – but is the famous London institute under threat from savage cuts to British higher education funding. Anthony Grafton thinks so.

The value of the Warburg Institute to the study of art and ideas has been a recurring theme in my studies. Works such as Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology and Frances YatesThe Art of Memory have remained touchstones in fields such as art history and form a large part of the intellectual inheritance of currently important fields such as cultural studies.

But apparently the Warburg Institute and its remarkable library face significant funding and administration issues, no doubt as a result of the ongoing crisis of the British public sector and the UK university system. There’s an excellent interview with Grafton from ABC  Radio National here.

The long-tail of publishing

The following post first appeared on the website of The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, on October 4th 2010.

When was the last time you bought a CD?

If you’re like most young Australians, the answer is: a while ago. The advent of digital file sharing technologies has completely transformed the music publishing business. Since Napster was invented in 1999, CD sales have plungedmajor record labels are struggling – butconcert and festival attendances have boomed.

Now it’s the publishing industry’s turn to feel the destructive gale of technological change. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal is only the latest of many to chronicle the declining fortunes of traditional book publishers, particularly in fields like literary fiction:

From an e-book sale, an author makes a little more than half what he or she makes from a hardcover sale. The lower revenue from e-books comes amidst a decline in book sales that was already under way. The seemingly endless entertainment choices created by the Web have eaten into the time people spend reading books.

 

Publishers and authors face declining revenues and profits in the digital world. Source: LJK Literary Agents, Wall Street Journal

 

The sea-change in the publishing industry illustrates the new economics of digital distribution. It’s a phenomenon dubbed “the long tail” by Wired editor Chris Anderson. (Anderson borrowed the term from technology economist Erik Brynjolfsson).

The long tail is illustrated in the image below. The “tail” is simply the long rightwards sloping end of the curve. Inside the long tail are all the unpopular and obscure titles that never used to get published – but that can none-the-less sell in small numbers online. Aggregated together by a business model such as Amazon’s, this vast global back-catalogue can add up to real profits. In a nutshell: falling costs of publishing and distribution have allowed an avalanche of content to find new audiences. They are small audiences, but they are real.

 

MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson analysed sales data from Amazon and found that 30-40% of Amazon book sales are titles that wouldn’t normally be found in bricks-and-mortar stores. Source: Erik Brynjolfsson, Jeffrey Hu and Michael Smith (2006) “From Niches to Riches: Anatomy of the Long Tail.”

 

What this means for writers is beginning to emerge. The long tail contains nearly everything that isn’t a commercially-viable proposition: in other words, most writers, bloggers and poets. But these new technologies can also help once-obscure writers and bloggers to connect directly to audiences, and even allow them to make a modest but sustainable living from their craft. As technology writer Kevin Kelly has observed, artists and writers may only need “1000 true fans” to build a career, and cheap and easy access to blogging engines globally makes this easier than ever before.

The ability of technology to put publishing in the hands of writers won’t create many superstars, but we’re already seeing its potential to allow amateurs to reach meaningful readerships and journalists, academics and other literary professionals to add second strings to their bows. Increasingly, writers are making money the way musicians are: bymonetising their speeches, presentations and merchandise. Theinter-connectedness of blogs, which rely on many reciprocal links between a community of interest in a particular niche, help this process.

Bottom-line: the long tail economics of blogging might be unsettling for writers and publishers used to the old models, but it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

Axel Bruns maps the Australian blogosphere

A close up of the Australian blogopshere map generated by Axel Bruns.

Axel Bruns has extracted some 2.6 million hyperlinks and come up with some very pretty data mapping the Australian blogosphere for the first time:

what we’re already seeing in the network is a relatively large cluster of sites on the left of the graph, made up of sites (MSM as well as blogs) that deal predominantly with news and politics. In addition to domestic and international news sites, various Australian political blogs (such as Larvatus ProdeoClub TroppoJohn QuigginPeter MartinCatallaxy Files, and the suite of Crikey blogs) appear as prominent nodes in the network (on both the indegree and eigenvector centrality counts). Many smaller – that is, less prominent – blogs cluster around them, but receive comparatively fewer inlinks. There’s even likely to be some further subdivision within this overall cluster, but I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on this point until we’ve had a chance to further clean our data.

You can see the full post here and download the full-size, gorgeous mapping images here.

Jeff Sparrow on the power of Wikileaks

Julian Assange. Source: ABC.

As I’ve pointed out even before this week’s latest explosive revelations from Wikileaks, the world’s most influential journalist right now is not even a journalist: he is Julian Assange, the leader of Wikileaks. (In fact, number two on my list would be Paul Krugman, who is not a journalist either). ProPublica has an excellent reader page of links for those wanting some context on the Afghanistan war logs.

Today, the ABC’s Drum website, Jeff Sparrow has an excellent piece of analysis on the implications of the leak:

… the release of the Afghan logs constitutes a damning indictment on the traditional pillars of journalism. Wikileaks is a tiny organisation: basically, a bunch of computer nerds supported by a handful of volunteers. Yet, in the short period of its existence, it has broken an extraordinary number of big stories, from the ‘Collateral Murder’ footage of the Apache helicopter in Iraq to corruption in Kenya. As one admirer put it, “Wikileaks has probably produced more scoops in its short life than the Washington Post has in the past 30 years”.

It is, quite simply, remarkable that the New York Times, with its global staff and budget, is depending on revelations from a few people with a website.

What’s the explanation for Assange’s success? Most importantly, Wikleaks practises outsider journalism in a time when many reporters prefer to boast about being insiders. That is, in recent decades, journalism has evolved from its origins as a fairly disreputable trade to become a profession that grants its most high-profile practictioners equal status with those on whom they report. Senior reporters are themselves political players. They know all the candidates personally, they mix with them socially – and they justify that proximity as a way of extracting information.

Sparrow is almost completely correct: journalism has gotten too close to power, and far too many senior journalists do indeed see themselves as political players.

But he is wrong to dismiss the Wikileaks organisation as merly a bunch of nerds. The power of Wikileaks is precisely in its ability to harness the power of the web and its associated technologies – some of them very sophisticated encryption alogorithms – to protect and succour those who would leak sensitive information. That sophistication has not been on offer before – even to the Guardians and New York Times’ of this world.

Could we be entering a new era in whcih the IT skills of journalists are every bit as important as the old-fashioned techniques of cold calling and shoe leather?

What’s new in M/C Journal: the ambient issue

"Smear No. 12" by Luke Jaaniste, from the cover of M/C Journal. Image: M/C Journal

M/C Journal has just released its latest issue, edited by my colleague, QUT’s Luke Jaaniste. The topic is ambience, a special interest of Luke’s that he explores in his editorial, “The Ambience of Ambience“:

Now is not the time or place to give a detailed history of these discursive manoeuvres (although some key clues are given in Spizter; and also Jaaniste, Approaching). But a list of how the term has been taken up after Eno–across the arts, design, media and culture–reveals the broad tenets of ambience or, perhaps, the ambience of ambience. Nowadays we find talk of (in alphabetical order): ambient advertising (Quinion), aesthetics (Foster), architecture (CNRS; Sample), art (Desmarias; Heynen et al.), calculus (Cardelli), displays (Ambient Displays Reserch Group; Lund and Mikael; Vogel and Balakrishnan), fears (Papastergiadis), findability (Morville), informatics (Morville), intelligence (Weber et al.), media (Meeks), narratives (Levin), news (Hagreaves and Thomas), poetics (Morton), television (McCarthy), and video (Bizzocchi). There’s probably more.

The articles in the issue are just as interesting. Of particular interest to readers of this blog are two articles about “ambient journalism”, by Alfred Hermida and Alex Burns.

Hermida puts forward the now-conventional thesis that social networking technologies like Twitter are creating a new style of news-gathering:

… ambient journalism presents a multi-faceted and fragmented news experience, where citizens are producing small pieces of content that can be collectively considered as journalism. It acknowledges the audience as both a receiver and a sender. I suggest that micro-blogging social media services such as Twitter, that enable millions of people to communicate instantly, share and discuss events, are an expression of ambient journalism.

Burns takes issue with this. He argues that cirizen journalists or “para-journalists” may lack the professional expertise to carry out the functions of journalism in any comprehensive sense:

Craft and skills distinguish the professional journalist from Hermida’s para-journalist. Increasingly, media institutions hire journalists who are trained in other craft-based research methods (Burns and Saunders). Bethany McLean who ‘broke’ the Enron scandal was an investment banker; documentary filmmaker Errol Morris first interviewed serial killers for an early project; and Neil Chenoweth used ‘forensic accounting’ techniques to investigate Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. Such expertise allows the journalist to filter information, and to mediate any influences in the external environment, in order to develop an individualised, ‘embodied’ perspective (Hofstadter 234; Thompson; Garfinkel and Rawls). Para-journalists and social network platforms cannot replace this expertise, which is often unique to individual journalists and their research teams.

As always, there is plenty more to read and digest in what I found to be a high-quality and thought-provoking issue of this journal.

A bunch of links: casualised higher education labour, Hollywood movie betting, collapsing business models in TV, whingeing arts administrators, Siva Vaidhyanathan lecture, and more

From around the blogosphere and the web – some links:

1. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Conn argues we need to acknowledge that “full-time tenured and tenure-track jobs in the humanities are endangered by half a dozen trends, most of them long-term.” Heading the list is casualisation, followed by older faculty who refuse to retire, the rise of for-profit higher education and a university system that continues to pump out PhDs.

2. Clay Shirky calls on the guru of complex systems theory, Joseph Tainter, to explain the current predicament of television production as a business model. Bottom-line:

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken.

3. The high arts lobby starts to get shirty with the lack of hand-outs from Peter Garrett, as a number of arts administrators whinge to Michaela Boland in The Australian. Notice the parade of usual suspects, including a festival director, a couple of theatre company managers and the CEO of the Australian Council. Because that’s what “the arts” is for journalists like Michaela Boland.

4. Siva Vaidhyanathan is giving a lecture at Vanderbilt University, which be podcast on Thursday. I’ll post something about that this week.

5. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian profiles artist-led communities.

6. By way of Tyler Cowen, a New York Times article about Hollywood’s quest to prevent betting markets. Both the Cantor futures exchange and Veriana Networks would allow investors to buy or sell — or “short” — contracts based on a movie’s box-office receipts, in essence betting on how well a film will do when released in theaters.

How “neoliberal” are the creative industries?

Above: "Creativity" proved an attractive label for the business press in the mid-2000s. Source: Fast Company

Today I’m having a look an important recent paper by Stuart Cunningham and Terry Flew, entitled “Creative Industries after the First Decade of Debate” (it’s a paper published this year in the journal The Information Society 26: 1–11, 2010).

There’s no doubt that the “creative industries” debate is one of the most prominent in the cultural policy sphere. You might remember that in September last year I had a look at Toby Miller’s paper, “From Cultural to Creative Industries” [Cultural Studies, 23(1): 88 — 99]. In that paper, Miller examines the academic claims and policy rhetoric  of the various proponents of the creative industries idea, like Richard Florida and the QUT school, and attacks them for their “neo-liberal” ethos:

[The creative industries discourse] has offered humanities intellectuals already interested in cultural policy - often for reasons of cultural nationalism - the opportunity to go still closer to the heart of power, shifting their discourse to a comprehensively copyright-inflected one that focuses on the language of comparative advantage and competition.

Flew and Cunningham’s paper can be read as a direct riposte to this attack. Continue reading