The Politics of the Popular drew together staff and students across the Humanities and Social Sciences, to explore some of the tensions surrounding popular cultural items that we take for granted. The day also offered some rich insights into how we can develop a more nuanced understanding of material culture and texts that are often trivialised.
Speaking first was Dr Tracey Potts, whose book with Ruth Holliday – Kitsch! Cultural Politics and Taste – had provided the inspiration for the event. Her focus on the garden gnome really demonstrated how an object that seems humble – or even derisory – needs to be taken more seriously in academic contexts. From gnome bans at the Chelsea Garden Show, to the ironic appropriation of gnomes in boutique London hotels, and wanton gnome destruction in a recent IKEA advertisement, this apparently innocuous garden ornament really crystallises how objects can function to police taste (and class) boundaries in powerful ways.
Tracey’s talk was followed by an object workshop that explored some of the approaches we could use in order to take material culture seriously, in the way demanded by Tracey’s talk. Participants brought a number of objects along – from plastic Jane Austen figurines to bunting – in order to explore the meanings of the objects, how these meanings are defined, who (or what) gets to establish these meanings, and what sort of conceptual tools we need to address these questions. As you can see, this part of the day was especially entertaining…
The day was rounded of by our own Dr David McWilliam who discussed an equally maligned type of cultural entity – True Crime fiction – to explore which types of social norms around justice and criminality are reinforced (or contested) by this sort of cultural text.
I had a fantastic day, and want to offer my congratulations to Holly and Wallis for putting on such a stimulating event. As a team we’re going to work together over the next year to put on similar workshops, as I think everyone found this really helpful – so we’ll keep people updated! Huge thanks to everyone who came and participated, thanks to the postgraduate research office for funding the event, and thanks too, to Sam Galantini & Terry Bolam for helping us sort out the venue!