Thursday, 26 November 2009

Guest Paper: David Wright, Making Tastes for Everything: 'Omnivorousness' and Cultural Abundance

This is the latest guest paper in this year's seminar series organized by the Cultural Studies Research Group and ICAN and we are delighted to welcome David Wright from the Centre for Cultural Policy at the University of Warwick. The event takes place on Wednesday 2nd December, from 4.00-5.30 in room GEE219 on the Clifton campus of Nottingham Trent University. The abstract for the paper, 'Making Tastes for Everything: "Omnivorousness" and Cultural Abundance' is as follows
This paper argues that debates about the social patterning of tastes need to take greater account of changed practices of cultural production as well as consumption. It identifies two ‘stories of abundance’ in the cultural realm, firstly relating to the expanding and influential accounts of the cultural industries and secondly to the rich variety of widely available culture enabled by various technologies of distribution. Taking these into account, it argues that sociological analyses of cultural hierarchy might lag behind those that are mundane and everyday to both cultural producers and consumers. The rise of alternative sources of capital that have questions of cultural openness and tolerance at their core means that an orientation to culture that ranges across established hierarchies is increasingly unremarkable. Such a change is not solely related to age cohorts but the structural and discursive means through which culture is produced and valued. The paper concludes that cultural analysts need to modify their theoretical models and their methodological approaches to better reflect a variegated field of culture and a more fluid cultural hierarchy. In the tradition of both Peterson and Bourdieu, contemporary analyses of patterns of cultural consumption and taste need to take fuller account of the ways in which culture is produced, circulated and valued if they are to maintain their explanatory power.
If you would like to attend the event, please contact Joanne Hollows.
(Photo credit. Niels77. Permissions)

Thursday, 19 November 2009

'I've Shaken Hands with Her': the Caravan Park and 'The Best Pair of Legs in the Business'

Drawing on research completed for his PhD, Matt Kerry discusses The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973).

Britain in the early 1970s was a place of moral panics, strikes and power cuts. Stuart Hall comments that 1972 was a year of ‘sustained and open class conflict of a kind unparalleled since the end of the war’ (293). Terry Staples also points out that the miner’s strike of 1973 had a direct influence on the film industry in early 1974 when the ‘restrictions on the non-domestic use of electrical power’ during the ‘three-day week’ meant that cinemas had to ‘reduce the number of shows they put on’ (229).

British cinema itself was heading for a crisis. Most of the debt-ridden Hollywood companies had withdrawn funding from British films at the end of the 1960s. Filmmakers had to resort to tried and tested formulas, such as movie spin-offs of TV sitcoms, or sex comedies, in order to sustain a living. Although Best Pair is not based on a sitcom, it is a film adaptation of a TV play, both of which star Reg Varney in the central role of Sherry Sheridan. During this period there were a number of films released which looked back nostalgically to the traditional British holiday such as Holiday On The Buses (1973), That’ll Be The Day (1973) and Carry On Girls (1973). However, Best Pair appears to evoke the mood of the time more successfully, exposing the holiday on a cheap caravan park for the dismal experience it could be.

A lot of the action in the film takes place at night. This darkness adds to the gloomy atmosphere. It’s as if the lights have literally been turned off – pre-empting the blackouts of the early 1970s. As the campsite’s only resident entertainer, Sherry attempts to construct some sense of community in the half-empty clubhouse of Greenside Caravan Park, by starting sing-a-longs such as ‘Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’, but the merriment appears to be forced. The atmosphere is like the aftermath of a party where the guests have stayed too long – a hangover, perhaps from the affluence and optimism of the late 1950s and 1960s. It’s as if the decade before hasn’t lived up to its expectations, and the decade that has followed has seen both an economic and spiritual slump.

The caravan holiday in Britain had originally been a middle-class pursuit in the 1920s and 1930s, as part of the fashion to ‘get back to nature’, just as the original pioneer holiday camps had been. Camping in a Romany style van had been a rare novelty for Bohemian types who wanted to get away from it all, the whole point of the holiday (as Angeloglou 49 - 50, explains) was to ‘rough it’, by digging your own toilet, cooking over an oil stove, and by looking after the horse, which most city folk were not used to. The static caravan parks of the post-war era, however, had little to do with the origins of middle-class camping, instead providing a cheap alternative to the holiday camp, with cut-price accommodation. As Walton points out, the number of people taking caravan holidays at the end of the 1960s had more than doubled to 4.5 million in comparison to the 2 million who took a similar holiday in 1955, and ‘The coastline of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) saw caravan numbers increasing at 1,000 per year throughout the 1950s and 1960s from the 3,000 already present in 1950’ (43). The rows of static caravans were seen by some traditionalists to be an eyesore. In his 1974 poem, ‘Delectable Duchy’ Betjeman expresses a wish for them to be swept ‘out to sea’ by a ‘tidal wave’ (21).

The crisis of the central character in The Best Pair appears to embody the crisis of Britain at the time the film was made. As an entertainer who has just been dropped by his agent, Sherry’s future job prospects look very bleak. In one scene he announces his options as “the Labour Exchange, National Assistance, and very shortly the old-age pension”, and as a last resort, he pessimistically hopes for death. Sherry belongs, suddenly, to another era. He sings Flanagan and Allen songs and does a terrible drag act that allows him the freedom to fill his gags with innuendo, when in actual fact he disapproves of the sexual revolution – in one particular scene he decries the world as a ‘filthy, dirty’ place, after discovering that his wife is having an affair. Not only has Sherry been stripped of his masculinity, but he has also lost his authority as head of the household. His son, Alan, for whom he paid to have a private education and then go on to university, is now effectively middle class and Sherry feels threatened by this. Sherry believes that Alan is also ashamed of his father for ‘making a living by being a lady’, even though his act is ‘good enough for Royalty’, as Sherry points out.

Sherry is a monarchist. His ‘idea of England’ as Stuart Hall refers to, is an imperial one, with ‘a commitment to what Britain has shown herself to be capable of, historically…rooted in ‘feelings about the flag, the Royal Family and the Empire’ (147). The film was made at a time when the Royal Family was relatively free from scandal, and it could be argued that the strong Royalist sentiments of the time were a reaction again to the crisis of the period. Princess Anne’s wedding was celebrated in the year of the film’s release, and the Jubilee came four years later. These celebrations were part of a trend of nostalgia, as Britain desperately looked back to the Coronation; a time when it was coming out of a period of austerity and rationing and was looking forward to better times.

Sherry constructs part of his national identity around his monarchist values, and name-drops the Queen at any given opportunity, his brief meeting with her, being the highpoint of his career, and a boost to what little ego he has left. He stretches the story, however, beyond credibility, telling two young campers that his Royal command performance was by special request from her Majesty, and that his job at the caravan park is merely a ‘paid holiday’. Later, we get a glimpse of a photograph of the occasion. The Queen is greeting a group of entertainers after their performance, but Sherry is on the back row, and not in close proximity to the monarch, which puts paid to his later claim that he’s shaken hands with her.

The culture clash between working-class entertainer and his educated son is brought to a head in a scene where Sherry and Mary go to have tea with Alan’s prospective in-laws. Their son is due to marry into an upper-middle class family who live in a Georgian vicarage. During his visit to the vicarage, Sherry modifies his regional accent and mimics the vicar’s body language by walking with his hands behind his back. When the vicar questions him about his job in a caravan park, Sherry disguises his shame about the job by saying that he has merely spent the summer there as a ‘try-out’, and that he intends to take over the site when he retires. Sherry feels that working in such a place is only acceptable if you are the owner, just as working as an entertainer is only acceptable if by Royal command.

The argument that ensues is triggered by Sherry’s not knowing the proper way to eat cake during middle-class ‘tea’. The vicar’s Georgian silver tea service, handed down from his grandmother is a symbol of inherited wealth. Mary expresses her admiration for it – she sees it as a symbol of ‘family’, whereas, Sherry is intimidated by it. He tries to go one better by saying that he has eaten off gold plates with the Queen. The claim is so ludicrous that no one believes him for a minute, and the lie is further compounded by Sherry’s saying that it happened first at Buckingham Palace, then Windsor Castle. Sherry wrongly believes that an association with Royalty gives him ‘class’, not realising that those who do have class might not necessarily give a damn whether he has met the monarch or not. He also attempts to speak of his relationship with the Queen in ‘show business’ terms by saying she has ‘warmth and star quality’. This is an attempt by Sherry to exclude the vicar and underline his allegiance to the Queen, and in turn demonstrate her supposed loyalty to entertainers.

Sherry’s fa├žade then slips. He stops speaking in Received Pronunciation, throws down his pastry fork and eats the cake with his hands, much to the disgust of everyone else. By trying to break their pretence by disregarding the rituals of eating with a fork, plate and napkin, he reduces eating to its most basic function and makes it grotesque. He then also admits to his working class status by arguing that he has ‘slaved himself into the ground to make a gentleman’ of Alan. When his lie about having eaten with the Sovereign fails to convince, he desperately claims that he has ‘shaken hands with her’. Even this is a lie, and one which his wife refuses to back him up on. The bitterness of Sherry, and his lack of identity is fore-grounded in a scene which could have come as light relief, set as it is in an English country garden, away from the bleak and depressing campsite. The setting, however, throws Sherry’s inadequacies into relief. He doesn’t fit in with the middle-class traditions of the past, and without the support of his family, and uncertain job prospects, his future is uncertain too.

If earlier depictions of the holiday camp in films such as Sam Small Leaves Town (1937) and Holiday Camp (1947) attempt to construct an ideal working class community in the pre- and post- world war, in The Best Pair community falls apart, prefiguring an emergent pessimism, expressed in the crisis of the three-day week.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Academia-UK: the story continues

Colleagues may have seen the news that the Sociology department at the University of Birmingham is under threat. Liz Morrish writes occasionally for the United University Professions newsletter, State University of New York. This is her view on the 'review' of the Sociology department.

Here in Academia-UK we mount another defense against the neoliberal insurgency. Colleagues in the department of Sociology at the University of Birmingham face redundancy after the university administration announced the results of a recent 'review'. No meaningful consultation with faculty or students has taken place, and yet administrators have made plans to transfer responsibility for the undergraduate degree program in Media and Cultural Studies to another department (Social Policy), with only three of the current teaching complement of 17 to deliver it. All this will happen behind the breastplate of 'quality assurance' vaunted by Birmingham and every other UK university, and almost certainly without any murmur of dissent from the discredited Quality Assurance Agency.

Let me put this controversy in some context. Academia-UK is governed by league table lottery, however, this operates in unpredictable ways, a bit like snakes-and-ladders. So, despite their excellent results in terms of teaching quality, student satisfaction, etc., Sociology at Birmingham performed less well than expected in the recent Research Assessment Exercises. Birmingham is a 'Russell Group' university, equivalent to US Research tier 1 universities. Since this group seeks to dominate the research rankings, and certainly the research grants awarded on the basis of RAE performance, no slippage is tolerated by university heads. Quite simply, Birmingham Sociology is being punished pour encourager les autres. To call this short-termism would be to miss several ironies. Firstly, Birmingham is a large multi-cultural city and the university makes a claim to be diversifying its student body through its 'widening participation' agenda. Sociology would seem to provide a resource and a natural home for many of the target demographic for such a mission. Secondly, the next RAE (which will be titled the REF) will place an emphasis (and allocate funding) partially on 'impact'. Impact is widely interpreted as economic, but in the arts, humanities and social sciences, impact on social and cultural policy will be assessed. Funding is likely to be bestowed on departments which 'transfer knowledge' to social policy agencies, NGOs, local government etc., - precisely the sort of work encapsulated by the department's Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture. The website offers this description of its work: “It is a focus for the department’s engagement with the local community (and wider policy agendas), while the community’s multi-ethnic character brings the global ‘home’”.

The loss of Sociology at the University of Birmingham will represent a loss to the wider world of research in the field and to the local community. Perhaps an enduring loss to the university will be to its recruitment of both staff and students. Who will now take the risk of planning a career at the University of Birmingham, whether that should be as a lecturer, researcher or as an undergraduate, if the structures within which you work are not likely to endure for the extent of your ambitions?
(Photo credit: SBishop. Permissions.)

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Guest Paper: Professor Liesbet van Zoonen, 'Islam on the Popular Battlefield'

The first guest paper in this year's seminar series organized by the Cultural Studies Research Group with ICAN, and we are delighted to welcome Professor Liesbet van Zoonen from Loughborough University. The talk takes place on Wednesday 18th November from 4.00-6.00 pm in room Gee219, in the George Elliot building on the Clifton Campus of Nottingham Trent University.  The paper is entitled 'Islam on the Popular Battlefield'. The abstract of the paper is as follows:
In March 2008, Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders released a 16 minute anti-Islam movie called Fitna. Wilders had a hard time finding a broadcaster or internet provider willing to air the film, because his mere idea caused an immense global controversy, leading to death treats, violent protest, diplomatic incidents and fierce public debate. One of the reactions consisted of organised and unorganised video protest by young people from all over the world, who uploaded their reactions to websites such as YouTube or LiveLeak. Since then, Wilders has tried to export his video to the UK and the US, with a widely published refusal of entry in the spring of this year.
This talk will be about all the video reactions to Fitna, raising the question whether a 'video=sphere' has emerged on YouTube that offers a visual complement to more traditional manifestations of the public sphere. The project is funded by the AHRC Religion and Society Program. More info can be found here.  If you are interested in this talk, please watch Fitna beforehand (on YouTube) since I will not be showing it in my presentation.

Everyone is welcome but there are a limited number of places, so if you would like to attend, please contact Joanne Hollows.
(Photo credit: zapdelight. Permissions

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Freeview and DRM: An update

In an earlier blog I discussed how the BBC was requesting a form of digital rights management for its Freeview High Definition service, which is due to begin rolling out in December. In a submission to Ofcom, the BBC said so-called 'content providers', which is widely taken to mean principally US rights holders, would withhold content if such provisions weren’t put in place. Critics such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation argued that these rights holders were attempting to improperly influence the development of future TV hardware and the move would not be in the public interest.

Despite the brevity of the consultation period, in a letter to the BBC Ofcom yesterday put the proposals on hold. It said it had received a large number of submissions, mainly from consumer groups, who had ‘raised a number of potentially significant consumer “fair use” and competition issues that were not addressed in our original consultation.’ (Such groups included the Open Rights Group, a UK based organisation similar to the EFF that campaigns to ‘preserve and promote your rights in the digital age’.) Ofcom ordered that until these issues have been resolved no DRM requiring a licence, which is the critical point in all this, can be implemented.

Given the imminence of the HD rollout this is something of a cat among the pigeons, but then again the BBC only applied for the change in its broadcasting licence at the end of August. And it seems the BBC is suddenly left holding the baby. According to a contributor to the BBC’s ‘backstage’ mailing list, ‘The big shock was that (and I read all of the responses) no “content provider” was prepared to say why they asked the BBC for it in the first place. No PACT. No BSkyB.’

This strange state of affairs seems to speak ill of the whole exercise. Today would be an interesting one to be a fly on the wall in a number of boardrooms.

See also

Photo credit Ladybeames Permissions

Friday, 6 November 2009

Mosaic: Fragments in Search of the Bigger Picture in FlashForward

We're delighted to welcome our second guest blogger to the site. Today's guest is Mark Jancovich (Film and Television Studies, University of East Anglia) who is currently working on a history of the 1940s horror film. Below, he takes time out to discuss some recent TV.

In FlashForward, the whole world experiences an unexpected and unprecedented event – everyone appears to lose consciousness for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. The event causes devastation and loss of life and, it soon transpires, that each person did not lose consciousness but rather had their consciousness shifted six months into the future. In other words, the world has seen its own future, if only a decontextualized 2 minutes and 17 seconds of that future. For some, this future offers hope and for others despair, and soon the Los Angeles FBI are trying to make sense of the event by piecing things together – literally. They set up a website called MOSAIC on which people can post their visions of the future and verify their experiences by cross-referencing them with the visions of others.

In this way, the series continually plays with the notion of fragments that are meaningless in themselves but form part of a larger picture – like most network television in the US, it follows a series of characters whose different narratives form a complex multi-layered broader narrative arc. More importantly, the larger arc is explicitly global.

In many ways, then, the series creators hope to emulate the global themes of Heroes and its frequent narrative globetrotting, but with the exception of one Asian-American character, Demetri Noh (John Cho), the series lacks the multi-national cast of characters that distinguishes Heroes, and remains firmly centred in the US. However, where it fails to replicate certain aspects of Heroes, the ways in which it borrows from other shows are rather more successful. Indeed, what is odd about FlashForward is how familiar and fresh it feels.

On the one hand, the series borrows heavily from the fan favorites of post-X-Files television in ways that are often surprisingly blatant but, on the other, it does so without seeming to be derivative. The show features FBI officers searching into an inexplicable and possibly paranormal event in ways that are clearly reminiscent of The X-Files. It is also features Brannon Braga as an executive producer, a figure whose presence is highly significant. Braga was not only a key figure behind Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise, but also, while Enterprise wandered off into a rather misguided post-9/11 storyline (see a forthcoming blog entry on this topic), he has since become associated with another key series to which FlashForward is greatly indebted. After Enterprise folded in 2005, Braga was hired to work on the post-9/11 counter-terrorism series, 24, and he had just finished working on season seven (the last episode of which aired on 18 May 2009 in the US) when he began working on FlashForward (the first episode of which aired on 24 September 2009 in the US).

Much like the Jack Bauer and his associates in 24, the FBI of FlashForward whizz around trying to explain the mysterious event and counter an increasingly bizarre conspiracy. Furthermore, the event itself is clearly likened to 9/11. While it is clearly presented as a global event, it is largely visualized in terms of urban devastation in which smoking skyscrapers figure prominently. Even the Mosaic website is strongly reminiscent of the numerous 9/11 memorials, with they collages of fragmentary photographs and testimonies that are supposedly unified by a common trauma. From these disparate details, it is hoped a pattern will emerge, and an enemy will be identified that can account for things.

Of course, another feature that is central to 24 is its use of time but, while 24 unfolds in ‘real time’ as Jack Bauer and his associates race against the clock, Flashforward’s use of time draws upon yet another key show, Lost. In its early seasons, Lost (which told the story of the survivors of Flight 815 after their plane had crashed on a mysterious island) dedicated each episode to a different character and not only told the story of their present but also features flashbacks to their previous lives before they arrived on the island. In later seasons, however, the time-line became increasingly complicated, with flash-forwards, and with the character’s literally jumping between different time periods. It is hardly any surprise then that by the end of episode four of FlashForward, Dominic Monaghan (who played the drug addicted musician, Charlie, in Lost) turns up as Simon, a character that seems to be central to the conspiracy behind the event.

In other words, while FlashForward imagines a world trying to make meaning and coherence out of fragmented experiences, the show itself tries to bring together bits and pieces from a range of other shows and, at least so far, has fashioned something fresh and coherent out of its raw materials. Of course, there is a very real question about what will happen once time catches up with the series itself, and its character’s visions of the future have become visions of the past.

(Photo credit: qbix08. Permissions)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Diasporas, Migration and Media: Crossing Boundaries, New Directions

NTU is co-hosting the conference of the ECREA Diaspora, Migration and Media section with Utrecht University and the University of Thessaloniki. This year's conference takes place on November 6-7 and focuses on Diasporas, Migration and Media. With a key note speech by Kenan Malik, panels focus on a range of issues such as Concepts and Methods in Diasporic Film and TV Research; Social Media and Diasporas; Urban Environment and Multicultural Encounters; and Diasporic Audiences. The contact person at NTU is Olga Bailey.
(Photo credit for Window-cleaners at the University Library of Utrecht: .Storm. Permissions.)