What’s new in the Journal of Cultural Economy

The latest issue of the Journal of Cultural Economy is out, themed around the idea of “Assembling Culture”.

The editorial for this issue by Chris Healy and Tony Bennett is available online, and what an interesting issue it is too. Taking their cue from Bruno Latour’s rethinking of power and its agency, Bennett and Healy ask:

If the social does not exist as a special domain but as ‘a peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling’, what implications does this have for how ‘the cultural’ might best be conceived? Is this too usefully thought of as composed of distinctive processes of assembly giving rise to ‘cultural assemblages’ which produce and exercise particular kinds of power? If so, how are we to think the relations between such assemblages and those processes and forms through which the economy and the social are made up? What new ways of thinking the relations between culture, the economy and the social might be developed by pursuing such lines of inquiry? And what are there implications for the relations between culture and politics? And what, finally, are the limits of recasting the concerns of cultural analysis through the prism of assembly/ assemblage theory?
The edition itself contains a fascinating series of articles including Tim Rowse on the “ontological politics of closing the gaps”, Celia Lury on “Brand as Assemblage”, Gerard Goggin on “Assembling media culture: the case of mobile phones”, and GayHawkins on the politics of bottled water. Lots to get your teeth into here.

Meaghan Morris dissects the Facebook grizzlers

It’s fair to say Meaghan Morris is one of my intellectual heroines. Her rapier wit and nimble intelligence make her something a national treasure in the intellectual life of this country. A stylist without peer, she is an ornament to the study of culture.

You can therefore imagine my delight on encountering her latest essay, “Grizzing about Facebook,” in the Australian Humanities Review. It’s a carefully argued but effortlessly expressed tip-toe through the vacuous grizzling that so often characterises old media’s response to social networks.

Morris begins with a fairly typical article in the Murdoch newspaper, a sententious editorial the South China Morning Post critcising Mark Zuckerberg’s invention for its supposedly insidious grip on our lives (“Facebook no substitute for real world contact”):

While forming a very small part of the on-line discussion of social networking sites, these stories arise from news media efforts not only to catch a wave of popular interest while reporting actual incidents but also to shape collective perceptions of a wider phenomenon. In the process, journalists often draw on their rich professional reserves of reductively metonymic realism (‘setting the scene’, the ‘character sketch’) to cast social network users as types whose ways of acting are symptomatic or productive of diverse social ills: alongside terrorists and sexual predators there are always students uploading their mobile pics of boorishly drunken parties, ‘stupid girls’ sharing every detail of their vapid daily routines, and workers who boast about bludging but forget that they’ve friended their boss. As in folklore, each of these figures is sustained by a dense field of concrete examples both stellar (Hugh Grant and Bono for Facebook party uploads, MySpace’s Paris Hilton or Twitter’s Ashton Kutcher for cosmic triviality) and ‘it-could-be-you’ mundane (Kyle Doyle’s ‘SICKIE WOO’ Facebook status update). Simultaneously grounded in and abstracted from the real history of on-line culture, such figures ‘stick’ in media memory, powerfully eliciting recognition (the party animal, the princess, the slack worker) while drawing attention away from a myriad other practices thriving on the sites. Stereotypes are forms of apprehension rather than bad representations, and their force is to mobilize familiar knowledge to explain and absorb unfamiliar experience (Morris,Identity 143-44). Continue reading

The perils of contrarianism: Gladwell and the Freakonomicists versus Pinker, Krugman and the entire scientific community



Malcolm Gladwell at TED

The New York Times currently carries two reviews of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, one by Janet Maslin and one by Stephen Pinker. Both offer back-handed criticism of this much-imitated writer and his occasional tendency to warp the reality he portrays in order to gain maximum narrative leverage. I think these reviews have something in common with the backlash against Superfreakonomics. They might even signal a change in critical sentiment about the modern style of non-fiction writing. Continue reading

Consumption through the looking glass: a post on consumer culture theory

A Buy Nothing Day poster from Adbusters. It's not a logo, per se, but it's certainly a symbol

“Consumer culture” – let’s loosely define it as the enjoyment of shopping and the positive identification with the acquisition of consumer goods –  has generally not got the greatest press in recent times amongst progressives, liberals and left-wingers. It’s fair to say there is an ambient suspicion, disdain and even fear of consumer culture amongst many cultural theorists, commentators and academics that dates at least as far back as Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and indeed clearly earlier. In more recent times, the likes of Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank, Kalle Lasn and Joel Bakan (writer of the documentary The Corporation) have waged full-frontal assaults on the consumer behaviours associated with market capitalism. The political slogans advanced with these agendas include attacking the brands of corporations, and their symbolic expression, logos, as well as the act of consumption itself (“Buy Nothing Day“).

The reason I mention all this is that it mystifies the academics who study consumer culture in business and marketing schools. In fact, many cultural theorists may be surprised to discover that there is a sophisticated literature exploring what Eric  Arnould and Craig Thompson, in a 2005 review article on the subject in the Journal of Consumer Research, describe as “a flurry of research addressing the sociocultural, experiential, symbolic, and ideological aspects of consumption.” Continue reading

How do US college students find out about new music in the digital age?

From Crooked Timber‘s Eszter Hargittai and Steven Tepper from Princeton’s Centre for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies comes a fascinating paper in Poetics: “Pathways to music exploration in a digital age” (Poetics 37 (2009): 227–249).

This paper is several things in one: a lively introduction to the literature on this topic (particularly the sociology of taste), a presentation of novel data, and a stylishly-written discussion of an important topic which contains many minor gems (my favourite was the description of The Wire magazine as “an expensive British magazine for eclectic rock aficionados.”

Continue reading

Popular music policy in Australia and New Zealand: Part Two: “A portrait of a politician as a young rocker”: Shane Homan on live music venue regulation in NSW

Today I have a look at Shane Homan’s 2008 article in Popular Music, “A portrait of the politician as a young pub rocker: live music venue reform in Australia”, 27(2): 243-256.

For non-Australians, the Joyce reference in the title refers not to Australia’s arts minister, Peter Garrett, the former lead singer for seminal Australian rock band Midnight Oil, but New South Wales’ former Premier (Chief Minister), Morris Iemma, who rediscovered a teenage love of attending pub rock gigs after taking office in the mid 2000’s .  But Homan’s article is really about the policy framework that regulates Australia’s live contemporary music venues in this country’s largest state, New South Wales, and the demographic and regulatory trends that have affected it.

Sydney’s famous “pub rock” scene produced a number of world-famous acts in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, including Midnight Oil, the Hunters and Collectors, INXS, Icehouse and a slew of others. Homan’s paper does a good job of explaining this scene: “the Australian pub rock experience in particular distinguished the local product in a global market; the renowned ferocity of bands and ‘punters’ provided a distinctive regional characteristic to a local industry built upon an imported cultural form.”

By the mid-1990s, however, the commercial live music sector was confronting some significant problems: rapid gentrification of the inner-city neighbourhoods where live music pubs were located was leading to complaints against live venues and regulatory enforcement by local governments; this issue was exacerbated by state laws aimed at suppressing alcohol-related violence and public disorder. “Gambling law changes also made an impact,” Homan writes, as slot machines rapidly proliferated in New South Wales pubs, often at the expense of support for live music.

Ironically, it is the cosmopolitan and cultural nature of inner-city districts that is typically the selling point for urban redevelopment and inner-city gentrification; Homan argues that “the property boom, and subsequent changes to residential populations, has thus provoked a perverse programme of social selection, where the more controlled urban environment sought by the new residents is distinctly at odds with its earlier vibrant, cosmopolitan reputation.”

Homan then goes on to take an in-depth look at New South Wales’ live music venue regulations. Predictably, he finds they are expensive, opaque and typically at odds with other aspects of cultural policy, such as live music initiatives. It’s a fascinating discussion for those interested in the policy minutiae, and a valuable lesson in one jurisdiction’s regulatory overhead  on cultural expression for the rest of us.

Homan concludes that “within more orderly, gentrified constructions of the night-time economy, the presence of the ‘noisy’ live music venue remains a key means of assessing our commitment to a diversity of cultural leisure communities.”

Popular music policy in Australia and New Zealand: Part 1: Roy Shuker on New Zealand popular music

In 2008, the journal Popular Music issued a special edition [Volume 27, Issue 02, May 2008] on the cultural policy of popular music. According to the editors, Simon Frith and Martin Cloonan:

on the one hand, there clearly is a global policy trend: from cultural policy to cultural industries policy, from treating popular music as a matter of social or cultural concern to treating the popular music industry as a matter of economic concern, from devising policies to counter the local effects of international commerce to devising policies to embed local practices within the world marketplace. On the other hand (and whatever the common development of such things as export support mechanisms and state-subsidised trips to the US music trade fair, South By South West), how cultural industry policy is articulated nationally is determined by quite different ideologies of what we might call governance. National music policies differ from country to country, that is to say, less because of different popular musical traditions or practices than because of different ways in which state power is organised and understood.

This issue contains a couple of interesting articles from the antipodean context.

From New Zealand, Victoria University of Wellington academic Roy Shuker analyses New Zealand’s cultural policy environment in regards to popular music. In a time when you can see Flight of the Conchordes on a major US television network, Shuker is surely correct when he writes that “this is the greatest visibility that New Zealand music has ever enjoyed.” Continue reading

Organising the musical canon: US symphony performances in the 19th and 20th centuries

Today, a look at one of the more interesting papers in the sociology of music of the last decade: Timothy Dowd, Kathleen Liddle, Kim Lupo and Anne Borden’s “Organizing the musical canon: the repertoires of major U.S. symphony orchestras, 1842 to 1969,” published in a special issue on music sociology in Poetics in 2002 (volume 30, issue 1-2).  

This impressive work of scholarship analyses 86,000 musical performances by 27 major US symphony orcehstras over more than a century. There’s a lot of fascinating discussion in this paper that draws on the work of Paul DiMaggio – but in terms of the data, the take-home message for me is that “the canon” is both more diverse and more stable than you might expect. Take the following data points, from Table 2 of this paper:

Top five composers accounting for the most performances in a given time period:


Mendelssohn (14.4); Beethoven (12.1); Weber (10.6); Mozart (8.6); Spohr (6.6). Combined percentage: 52%


Beethoven (15.0); Wagner (8.1); Liszt (7.4); Mendelssohn (7.1); Schumann (5.1). Combined percentage: 43%


Wagner (10.2); Beethoven (7.3); Brahms (4.9); Mozart (4.1); Strauss, R. (4.0). Combined percentage: 30%


Beethoven (8.8); Mozart (7.2); Brahms (5.5); Wagner (4.2); Tchaikovsky (3.4). Combined percentage: 29.1%


What does this tell us? What do you think?


Organizing the musical canon:
the repertoires of major U.S. symphony
orchestras, 1842 to 196  

Reality TV contestants: exploited dupes or self-aware fame seekers?

Economists have a strange way of thinking about the world. Take Nicholas Gruen’s remarks on Tim Brunero’s long and interesting article in New Matilda about the conetestants for Channel Nine’s Ladette to Lady.

Brunero’s article takes a long and hard look at the disingenuous practices of reality television producers towards the “stars” of their often highly humiliating shows. While some contestants literally win millions, most are paid very little for their time, talent and work. Gruen thinks this is fine, as the contestants are merely trading off moeny for fame. Continue reading