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September 16, 2015
Today’s news that Facebook has begun the process of developing a ‘dislike’ button resonates with some of the issues I reflect on in my new book on Understanding Cultural Taste. The book is an exploration of the relations between taste and social and cultural life and it includes a chapter on Digitalizing Taste, in which I speculate on the particular significance of taste to online cultures, including those of social networks such as Facebook.
‘Liking’ and ‘disliking’ has become something of a taken-for-granted dimension of social networks, for both users and the networks themselves. They are central to the very creation of a profile – in which identifying and sharing the music, films, books or TV that we like, as much as our occupation, our education, or our relationship status, is tacitly understood as a kind of performance of the type of person we are or, perhaps, the type of person we would like to appear to be. The display of such tastes – and indeed the possibility of judgment of the tastes of others amongst our ‘friends’- becomes part of the pleasure of contemporary cultural consumption as we identify and connect with common communities of interest, or distance ourselves from others. There are also the pleasures of gaining likes for photos we’ve taken, or for links to interesting stories or videos which we’ve ‘shared’, or for more general bon mots, to get instantly reassuring and re-inforcing feedback from our networks that we are appropriately cool, witty, radical or affected by and engaged in current events. Equally there are the significant feelings of disquiet and insecurity when expected likes do not materialise. Such anxieties perhaps reflect the success of social networks in constructing themselves as microcosms of social life more generally.
What might be more uniquely contemporary is that, for the networks themselves, our ‘likes’ are not just descriptions of our characteristics and interests but are crucial to their business models. The spread of the ‘like button’ across the web (there’s one in the corner of this page. Please click it!) indicates the extent to which liking has become part of its very infrastructure. The lists of things we like and the clicks on pages and posts with which we interact through liking are not just positive feedback or commentary – they are also data which feed into the complex construction of individual and collective users as products to be sold on to advertisers. They also feed into the algorithmic construction of news feeds and searches, in which data about the kinds of things we have ‘liked’ in the past is used to probabilistically predict the kinds of things we might be interested in in the future.
It is this latter aspect – crucial to what Gerlitz and Helmond describe as ‘the like economy’ – which has been at the heart of the controversy over whether Facebook should have a dislike button at all. Facebook’s historical reluctance to include such a button, they argue, reveals the crudity of ‘liking’ as a tool to express the range of sentiments (agreement, enthusiasm, even sarcasm) which users might wish to share in social networks. It also reflects the construction of such networks as spaces where the default setting, as it were, is to ‘like, enjoy or recommend as opposed to discuss or critique’ (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013: 1358). Dislikes are as important to the performance of taste in relation to identity, we might speculate, but harder to monetize.
It is interesting to hear the parameters which Mark Zuckerberg has placed around the proposed dislike button this morning – that the aim is to allow for the expression of empathy or solidarity even when ‘every moment isn’t good’. These seem laudable enough ambitions – but raise interesting questions about the ways in which data that will inevitably be gathered about dislikes can and should be put to use. What does Facebook get out of the effort to develop this innovation? As interesting for me is the extent to which this move fits with the ambition of organisations like Facebook to shape and alter social norms in the digital or machine age. As I suggest in my book, Facebook doesn’t really know what we like. Liking is a complex process involving, amongst other things, sensory, aesthetic and moral forms of judgment that emerge from a range of life experiences. Facebook knows what we click on. Its ambition might be to encourage or train its users such that the latter more frequently equates with the former but – thankfully in my view- it has a long way to go to achieve that.
November 21, 2014
I’ve wasted a bit too much time this week playing with the newly released You Gov profiler app. This is a powerful market research tool which provides its subscribers with detailed demographic information about existing and potential audiences for products and brands, drawing upon data provided by its panellists. It has generated considerable attention and comment in press and social media, with stories emerging about the tastes and inclinations of fans of Cliff Richard and Dr. Who, reflections on what tastes for Japanese manga may say about your preferences for pets and some surprising revelations about the fans of certain football clubs. Some of this comment has been, perhaps in the interests of a good story, strategically blind to the detail (the second of YouGov’s FAQ’s on the tool specifically explains why its information does not give a picture of typical consumers of the various brands, products or artists it asks about). This volume of media commentary, though, also reveals an on-going fascination with tastes, and the persistent assumption that they provide a route to know people in deep – and in this instance commercially exploitable - ways. This resonated with some issues I’m reflecting on in my current writing project on ‘dimensions’ of cultural taste.
Part of the fascination with tastes, for me, comes from a broader tension in consumer-oriented societies. One of the abiding myths we live with in that kind of society is that consumerism entails liberation from the social constraints of an imagined pre-consumerist past. Consumers are ‘free’ - although the quality of that freedom is contested - from being placed into the ‘boxes’ of social identity, and are instead encouraged to craft themselves as individuals through their consuming practices. This creates an assumption that what we like can define or express the kind of person we are. Much of the social media reaction to the You Gov tool that I’ve seen has, in a similar tone to the response to last year’s Great British Class Survey, been concerned with critiquing the labels and categories in which people find themselves as part of a general disquiet with being placed in any kind of category (‘I read the Guardian but hate braised endive!’) and, by extension, to dismiss the value of trying to categorise at all. The energy of these kinds of response might reflect an awareness that tools like this reveal the uncomfortable truth that we are not, in reality, as liberated as we think and that our tastes are ‘map-able’ and patterned in ways which reveal that who we are (our social class, our gender, or age or ethnicity our educational experiences, our professional networks) still shapes what we like even though we might feel little emotional affinity with, or might even resent, the categories in which we are placed.
The tool also raises interesting questions about how we come to know about taste methodologically. Back in 2007 Mike Savage and Roger Burrows wrote a prescient article about ‘the coming crisis of empirical sociology’, arguing that the established technologies of social research (the survey, the interview) and the glacial mode of academic production were being usurped by commercial techniques and more nimble, creative forms of method, including those enabled by digital technology, which are increasingly influential in defining the social. This profiler perhaps exemplifies this shift. Its cost would trouble a funding council, but its scale and complexity (200,000 panellists providing responses to over 120,000 data points) has the potential to offer a rich resource for sociological analysis – as much as fodder for strategic brand development. It is certainly a mode of investigating and displaying the social which has echoes with the visualising of tastes evident in Bourdieu’s Distinction, but its findings are presented with a clarity and accessibility which might make it a perfect tool through which to teach that notoriously difficult book. The question of who gets to make this kind of tool and for what purpose, though, raises a slightly different question about what is gained and lost in our understanding of the relations between taste and social life in this kind of activity.
Knowing other people’s tastes and judging ourselves against them is part of a well-established social game and, in some areas – newspaper readership for example - tastes are a well-established synonym for types of people in social and political discourse. Talking about tastes, in this sense can be a relatively safe way of talking about difference in contexts in which explicit forms of prejudicial judgment have, for good reason, become frowned upon. Moreover talking about taste can be a basis for social interactions, and for the establishment of friendships or relationships. Placing people and things into categories is an act of power, but it also has its pleasures – as anyone who has spent time answering and sharing BuzzFeed quizzes about which Star Wars/Harry Potter/Breaking Bad character one is on Facebook will know. This kind of technology, which effectively categorizes on the basis of probabilistic statistical relationships between inputs is increasingly present in a number of aspects of daily life – and increasingly powerful too, given that the categories in which we are placed might have consequences – in relation to the self-assessment of our health or of our ‘personality type’ in the workplace. These everyday forms of categorising might be understood as a more general strategy of contemporary governance. The impulse and imperative to classify and the impulse to avoid classification are in clear tension in tools such as this and the debates they generate. Whilst debates about taste might be a benign expression of this tension, they also flag up the limits of these technologies in separating data from people, and tastes from the bodies doing the tasting.
Whilst there might well be an affinity between the kinds of patterns revealed by this tool and inclination to buy related products, goods or services one of the things I’m exploring in my book is whether this is the whole story of taste. I’d also argue that taste is a more complex phenomenon bound up with sensory and affective aspects of experiencing the world and of moral judgments of ourselves and others living together in it. These latter questions remain important to understanding the consequences of classification – but they remain difficult to capture through measures of ‘liking’, however sophisticated they may be.
You can follow my research at academia.edu
August 28, 2014
Very pleased this week to receive a copy of a new edited collection to which I have contributed. The Cultural Intermediaries Reader, edited by Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews provides a comprehensive and critical overview of an influential concept in theoretical and empirical research on the creative industries. Identified by Pierre Bourdieu as strategically significant figures in in the field of culture in the France of the 1960s, ‘cultural intermediaries’ were members of those then ‘new’ occupations – advertising, marketing, public relations etc. which were concerned with the supply of ‘symbolic goods and services’ and engaged in the processes of identifying, shaping and circulating tastes for new products and lifestlyes. In the fifty years since, such industries have become even more significant, both in their relative scale and in their apparent sophistication. Workers in them have also, through such assumed characteristics as their creativity, dynamism, and their blurring of distictions between work and leisure become models for workers in other industries. An accompanying valorisation of youth subcultures, new technologies and emerging forms of urban living has appeared to place these kinds of workers in the vanguard of social and cultural life – although some well-placed satire has also helped to prick the more grandiose claims made for their significance.
The essays in this collection provide a timely critique of the original concept and also point to some developments of the theoretical language, drawing from the now far more established field of cultural economy which has complicated the distance between cultural production and consumption which the figure of an intermediary depends on. Contributions from the editors, and from influential voices in the field including Liz Mcfall, Sean Nixon and Toby Miller unpick and critique the claims made for cultural intermediaries and for labour in the ‘creative economy’ more generally. These essays are complemented by case studies of empirical work in specific fields of mediation including from Liz Moor on Branding, Victoria Durrer and Dave O'Brien on Arts Promotion and from Warwick’s own Lynne Pettinger on fashion retail.
My own contribution is also in this latter camp and provided a welcome opportunity to revisit research originally undertaken as part of my PhD into workers in the retail book industry in the early noughties in the light of the developments in this field since. Most significant here is the increasing dominance of online forms of retail and the accompanying digital means of mediation. The rise of online retailing was arguably a continuation of a story that had begun much earlier in this particular field. In the UK and US large retail chains had, since the early 90s dominated the book retail landscape, taking advantage of the rational and logistical technologies of modern retailing to reconstruct a field with a long history of shaping literary tastes. Such chains placed smaller stores who were unable to benefit from economies of scale in their negotiations with publishers under particular pressure, and shifted the power relations in the book industry away from publishers and towards powerful retailers and supermarkets able to pile ‘em high and, following the end of price maintenance policies protecting books from the market in the early 90s, sell ‘em cheap. The rise of Amazon effectively beat these firms at their own game, combining the logistical power of computing technology with a mail order - and then through Kindle and e-books, a digital- mode of delivery which physical stores can't compete with in terms of either space or price.
One consequence of this story is the change in the role of the book shop worker. Once imagined as a ‘profession’ amongst service work, and even as a means of entry into the publishing industry, the re-organisation of book retail over the last thirty years has also arguably involved processes of deskilling of its workers. The booksellers of the past might have been intermediaries in the classic sense, taste- makers whose expertise and enthusiasm enabled them to provide guidance to their customers. Processes of rationalisation have undermined the power of that expertise - for better or worse - such that the bulk of the day-to-day work becomes passing a barcoded product, linked to a electronically organised centrally managed stock-database through a till on behalf of a consumer who knows what s/he wants. Workers and firms in my study were often able to negotiate the tensions in this process. Workers were able to insulate themselves from the low pay and insecurity of service work through the pleasures of working with things they loved. Firms were able to use worker enthusiasm as a resource in shaping the semiotic meaning of the shop space – so crucial, so the story goes, to the ‘experience economy’. This accommodation is threatened by the digital context in which the apparently rational calculative consumer meets the algorithmic means of recommendation of the digital retailer, rendering any form of face-to-face mediation at best marginal and at worse an expensive indulgence.
The on-going consequences for these changes for cultural workers and for processes of cultural consumption – in this and equivalent fields - are yet to be worked out. The essays in this book should give students and researchers some useful context to understand the processes at play and provide the theoretical and methodological tools to help think them through in the future.
May 06, 2014
I thought it was worth dusting the blog off to write about the new exhibition in the Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre, All That is Solid Melts Into Air. The show connects with a number of the issues I’m engaged with in my research on taste and the politics of cultural participation, as well as touching on some of the broader concerns we think and teach about in the Centre. It is a touring selection of pieces from the Hayward Gallery in London, curated by Jeremy Deller. One of the more intelligent and provocative British artists of his generation, Deller manages to be both of ‘the Art World’ (he won the Turner Prize in 2004) and also at a distance from it, in that his work seems more likely to reflect on ‘big P’ political struggles than that of some of his contemporaries. The items curated here evoke these struggles in depicting the often surprising collisions between the grand ambitions of the industrial revolution and the ways in which that revolution was and continues to be experienced, lived with and even resisted.
The title, as students of Marx will know, is lifted from a famous passage in The Communist Manifesto which extemporises on the creative, transformatory powers of the bourgeoisie to shatter existing orders and usher in new ones. The tensions and ambiguities – or contradictions we should probably say – in this process are evoked in the exhibit through some telling juxtapositions between the past and the near-present. The grand-masterly painting The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852) for example, reveals the anxieties of romantic intellectuals of the 19th century about the human consequences of the rise of industrial capitalism. Exhibited close by is a two-faced grandfather clock, one face measuring time and the other productivity, which also reminds us of the structures and techniques which underpinned this rise. Time-keeping mechanisms of various kinds, as the historian EP Thompson famously described, emerge as fundamental tools in the industrialists’ armoury, ideal for transforming people into their measurable and commodified labour power. Rather than being condemned to the past, though, this process is perhaps completed by the technologically managed workers depicted in Ben Robert‘s photos of Amazon’s vast warehouses. We can also see up-close the wrist-held device that monitors the rate at which the tasks in this kind of workplace are performed. With a nod to an earlier work, Deller plays with the imagery of a trades-union parade banner decorated with the words ‘You can have day off today’, sent by text to a zero-hours contract worker. Such juxtapositions raise powerful questions about the real labour that underpins our weightless economy – and the extent to which our apparent freedom to have whatever we want, whenever we want it, is worth the cost of the other hard won freedoms – of collective bargaining, security and dignity at work- which can be compromised to provide it.
The show is far from a lament, though. There is also a playful, celebratory air to it, not least in its exploration of the role of various forms of popular culture in British industrial history. The exhibition charts the journey from the ‘solid’ world of the industrial revolution to the ‘air’ of the cultural economy in relation to music. It does so in part by exploring the iconography of heavy metal as a music that emerges from the manufacturing heartlands of the UK and indeed - as visitors to the foyer of the Ramphal building will know -from our very environs in the West Midlands. An album cover from Birmingham’s own Judas Priest echoes a kitsch, exaggerated version of the imagery of Gomorrah. The photo of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, minus one of the fingertips he lost in an industrial accident, reminds us that workers were and are always more than the sum of the labour power of their bodies. The short historical distance from ‘solid’ to ‘air’ is also depicted in the family trees of musical icons, displaying the professions of the ancestors of Slade’s Noddy Holder, Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music. That the latter has gone from generation upon generation of blacksmiths, domestic servants and miners located in a distinct and narrow geographical region of the North East to the very archetype of the suave cosmopolitan elite perhaps makes him the embodiment of the journey Deller is charting here.
Finally the iconic Dennis Hutchinson photograph of the South Waleian professional wrestler ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street represents a defiant two-painted-finger-nail salute to the romanticization of working class life. He is depicted returning, in spectacular costume and make-up, to the mining village he ‘escaped’ and, as a glance through the autobiography displayed nearby reveals, the father he despised. There are no comfortable, nostalgic resolutions here, but a hopeful reading might at least recognise the power of performance and creativity to subvert, reconfigure or melt the solid strictures of gender or class. It is timely, in the year of the passing of two giants of the Cultural Studies tradition, Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, to be reminded that popular culture has been, throughout history, a keen indicator of and resource for revealing the tensions in the political formations of its day (whether through the bawdy folk songs or broadside ballads of the 19th century, or TV wrestling, or commercial pop music). The exhibition has certainly raised questions for me about where those tensions might be visible in contemporary cultural life. It is on until the 21st June and it is well worth skiving an hour off work to see it.
You can see a webcast of Jeremy Deller talking about the exhibition on an earlier stop of the tour in Nottingham here.
October 16, 2013
This week I had that slightly bewildering/fearful experience for an academic of touching the zeitgeist/ having the rug stolen from under me. Preparing a talk which I had tentatively entitled ‘Producing tastes’ for a couple of presentations this month, I heard some of the issues I was thinking about being addressed in Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture – Democracy Has Bad Taste. My talk is part of a developing writing project on aspects or dimensions of cultural taste and it tries to outline some of the institutional, ‘industrial’ and social processes through which tastes get formed– processes which, like all the most fundamental parts of infrastructure, seem to be obvious and eternal but actually are the products of various histories and struggles. Grayson Perry had a couple of evocative phrases to describe this process – one of which, ‘the lovely consensus’ of people in various positions of power who validate art - I might well appropriate. He is a lively contributor to these debates in the UK - as demonstrated by his authoritative and thoughtful documentary on taste and class last year. Subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, playful and subversive he revels in what he describes as a teasing insider/outsider status which allows him to critique an academic elite, an artworld establishment, celebrities and political correctness as if, as a cross-dressing, Turner prize-winning, CBE-holding, Royal Academy-exhibiting, Reith lecture-giving, Visiting Professor he doesn’t have at least a trace of himself in all these categories.
The talk was always entertaining – but never, I think quite nailed its object. Grayson began by downplaying the prospect of easy answers – but the question of why democracy might inevitably or always produce bad taste wasn’t addressed as much as the less controversial notion that the value of art does not rest in either monetary exchange or bums on seats. Quality was important but it was located somewhere else. Precisely where, understandably for a question which has vexed thinkers for centuries, wasn’t really clear. In place of an answer, though, there was a familiar ambivalence to the notion of the popular. It was evoked as a kind of safety net against pretension on the one hand but also identified as a dubious source of authoritative aesthetic judgment on the other. Perhaps one might expect that kind of ambivalence from a room at the Tate, full of artworld insiders, enjoying being gently mocked by one of their own. Overall the talk, and the questions that followed had what the anthropologists might call a rather liminal, carnivalesque air – a space in which a (validated) clown or fool can poke fun at power for a bit before the rules kick in again, refreshed and renewed.
For me the best moment was when the writer and journalist Miranda Sawyer asked a question about the anger that people unfamiliar with contemporary art might experience in contemporary art galleries– even those who are comfortable with other forms of culture, such as pop music. Part of this anger stems, she suggests, from the feeling that they are being ‘tricked’. This reminded me of a passage from the influential sociological critique of the foundations of taste, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction in which he describes the ‘exclusion’ felt by what he identified as the working class audience, confronted by modern art. It is admitting they don’t understand it that betrays this exclusion, for Bourdieu. The bourgeois audience might not understand either – and indeed David Halle’s study of New York art collectors indicates that wealthy collectors of abstract art were as likely to buy things because they went with the curtains rather than because of any judgment about what pieces meant. What the art-insider-audience knows, though, through their accumulated family and educational experiences, is that the rules of the game require them to remain reverently silent and move on to the next piece.
Debates within these kinds of institutions and establishments are probably never going to be able to be genuinely radical about the assumptions upon which they rest. I’ll listen with interest to see if Grayson can pull it off over the coming weeks. It might be that an important first step in a move to ‘democratise’ questions of taste is for the ‘artworld’ to stop talking about art as something separate or special from everyday aesthetic practices, which are also infused with tacit judgments of what is good, beautiful or valuable. If the director of the Tate genuinely does, as Grayson intimates, collect Cliff Richard memorabilia, I for one would applaud him. Admitting it might also make the many other people who do that, or its equivalent, feel more welcome in the gallery.
May 30, 2013
Two papers published this month, written with colleagues from the University of Helsinki, Semi Purhonen and Riie Heikkilä, and supported by the British Academy, represent the culmination of a project on comparing cultural tastes in UK and Finland.
Why compare tastes? Principally because one criticism of the most influential account of the social patterns of taste, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, is that its analysis is tied to a specific time and place and therefore its insights are not transferable to other times and places. Comparison between nations is one way to explore that further.
Why the UK and Finland? Here the answer is partly practical. Many of the comparative studies I’ve read on other topics are prefaced with accounts of their difficulty. Whilst, of course, we had our struggles, our path was eased by the fact that two studies with similar questions, methodologies and a similar relation to Bourdieu had been recently conducted in the UK and in Finland. This made comparison something of a natural next step.
The first of the two papers, written with Semi Purhonen, appears in a special issue of the journal Cultural Sociology on ‘field analysis’, edited by Mike Savage and Elizabeth Silva. Field, along with habitus and the more familiar capital is one of Bourdieu’s conceptual triad, with fields representing the overlapping spheres of human activity in which capitals are struggled over. Field, capital and habitus are always inter-related for Bourdieu – an element of his approach which is often forgotten, at least by some of his critics. In order to be analyzed fields need to be constructed or demarcated somehow – and the special issue shows some great examples of how this can be achieved, in relation to such diverse topics as comedy, fell-running and the digital worlds of musical tastes. For comparison, though – and especially for comparing something as complex and hard to pin down as ‘national taste’ - the fields that are being compared need to be constructed in similar ways. Our studies allowed that to happen, but not without some problems. These problems included how to interpret the different items which are asked about in national surveys of taste and participation, and the different positions of those items in local or national cultural hierarchies – assuming such surveys can’t just be identical (asking about schlagers in the UK would be as meaningless as asking about cricket in Finland). In the paper we explore how Multiple Correspondence Analysis (MCA), the statistical method which underpins Distinction -which produces those infamous diagrams and which Bourdieu describes as ‘thinking’ in terms of relation – allows a partial resolution of these issues by revealing the underlying structure of tastes. Regardless of which items or activities are liked in the two countries, the MCA produced by both projects showdivisions which can be similarly interpreted in both nations, and which relate to class, education and age. The activities themselves are less important, then, than their relation to other activities. We back this up by analyzing the in-depth interviews of people located, through their survey answers, in different bits of our national ‘fields’, so that we can explore how people feel about their likes and dislikes, illustrating how a position in a field is experienced – and importantly reminding us that people are more than an accumulation of their variables. It was an interesting process – and might provide a model for comparative work of this kind in the future.
The second paper, written with Semi and Riie, appears in the journal Comparative Sociology. Here our concern was to use taste to critically explore the notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’, which has emerged as a somewhat hopeful and optimistic form of post-national identity, characterized by tolerance and openness to difference. It is a concept which has been more theorized than empirically explored, though, and taste might be where it is visible. The value of comparison here is that, for all their similarities, the UK and Finland have distinct collective histories shaping their national cultures and are differently positioned in global flows of people and things. We used the interviews and focus groups produced by the two projects to explore how the tensions between the national and the global are played out. We find lots of examples of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck refers to as ‘banal cosmopolitanism’ – i.e. the presence in everyday life of items and people from beyond ‘the nation’, simply by virtue of the globalization of the cultural industries and migration of various forms. Interestingly we find little evidence of rejection or suspicion of ‘global culture’, or at least its US version – which might have been present in studies of this kind in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Age seems to be an important indicator of cosmopolitan attitudes – especially in Finland where learning languages, including English, appears to give ready access to work and travel abroad. In both countries, for younger more educated, professional groups (those with, roughly, more cultural capital), identifiably ‘national’ forms of culture were less attractive than more exotic forms. Older people and those with lower levels of education seemed more attached to the nation (although in Finland, older people who might be identified as elite also seemed to exhibit particular pride in national cuisine). These kinds of findings might indicate some of the ambiguities of cosmopolitanism – it might spread with the cohort effect of younger generations and the inter-connections of global culture, but it is equally likely to be marked by inequalities in cultural capital, although on a global scale.
Producing both papers was a very rewarding process – and hopefully these conversations, about the UK, Finland and elsewhere, will continue.
Warwick staff and students can access the papers via WRAP
You can find links to the articles and follow my research on academia.edu
September 11, 2012
I’ve recently had a new book chapter published –‘ List-culture and literary taste in a time of endless choice’ in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, edited by Anouk Lang of Strathclyde University. The book gathers contributions to a conference in 2008 – Beyond the Book – at which scholars from a range of disciplines, together with librarians and policy makers discussed the new reading practices that are emerging in the light of new technologies and changes to the broader literary landscape.
My chapter reflects on the ‘list’ – a perennial staple of cultural journalism as a mediating ‘technology’ in the judgment of authority and value – and not one that is just confined to the field of reading. A recent example of the kind of phenomenon I was considering is provided by the relegation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its position as ‘the greatest film ever made’, according to the BFI’s decennial surveyof critics and its replacement with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Vertigo was second in the list in 2002 but not even in the top 10 in the 1972 poll; Citizen Kane has been top since 1962 - but wasn’t even in the top 10 in 1952. Given that neither of these films have changed since their releases - 1941 for Kane and 1958 for Vertigo – how can one now be ‘better’ than the other, after being ‘worse’, sometimes significantly so, for so many years? The answer is of course that the films don’t change, but that cultural value is a dynamic thing. The criteria of judgment of, in this case, serious film critics aren't fixed. Lists of this kind act can, then, act as intriguing indicators of the shifting sands of cultural authority.
In the chapter I explore the relationships between different kinds of authority evident in the ‘great books’ lists of the turn of the twentieth century (produced by writers such as Arnold Bennett in 1909 and John Cowper Powys in 1916), the bestseller chart which rose to prominence with the consolidation of the cultural industries in the mid-twentieth century, the list as popular poll – exemplified by the BBC’s The Big Read initiative - and the most recent iteration of list-culture – the listmania feature of Amazon, through which readers post lists of their favourite books for the benefit of other browsers. These different types of lists share an overriding aim to navigate readers through the abundant choices that the ‘industrial’ production of literature provides them with. The early twentieth century lists were proposed as a kind of practical ‘canon’, guiding readers towards the kinds of books they ought to read and away from those which might be salacious or radical. By the late twentieth century this patrician element of list-culture was less evident, replaced with a more apparently democratic republic of taste in which the authority of ‘serious’ critics competed with the often subtle promotional tools of publishing industry (literary prizes, TV book clubs) in managing readers’ choices. And in the early twenty-first century, on-line lists, complemented by the algorithms of retailers like Amazon, mean that readers can find what they want through like-minded readers (‘customers who bought this also bought…’) without recourse to any obvious ‘authority’ at all.
There are some revealing tensions in this story. Critics of various kinds dismiss popular lists in particular as trivializing or commercializing culture – and there are elements of the list which can re-cast cultural judgment as a crude form of competition. What they also do, though, is open up the kinds of dialogue and debate which John Frow refers to as the ‘circulating energies of culture’ – the seemingly irrational pleasures of liking and disliking, and sharing your likes and dislikes with others, which are a fundamental part of the fun of cultural consumption. This is clearly a challenge to established forms of cultural authority – though one that is, in my view, broadly to be welcomed.