Book of the week - Thinking Popular Culture

In the cultural jungle, one person fights the good fight, finds Fred Inglis

December 11, 2008

I remember reading Tara Brabazon's Ladies Who Lunge: Celebrating Difficult Women half a dozen years ago and thinking, "Thank God for Australian academics". Stereotype is a synonym for category, and Brabazon fully fitted, as she does all her clothes, the essential category of Australian feminist and intellectual, the first uniform for which was designed for Britain by Germaine Greer 40 years ago.

The paradox is that each stereotype is unique. There is no one else with Brabazon's combination of raucousness and subtlety, offensive pugnacity and dazzling charm, terrific garrulity and razor incisiveness.

Each of these qualities, sometimes blazing, sometimes swamping, have fairly tumbled out of her half-dozen books since Ladies Who Lunge, and flash on to the pages of (where else for a migrant Australian?) The Times when she has cutting heresies to voice about the decline of standards and the irrepressible excellence of her students. She rebuts by her living, fiery example the bad-tempered laments intoned by those such as Janet Street-Porter over the emptiness of media and cultural studies.

Indeed, this packed and fizzing book is in many of its sections a celebration sung over the great achievements and works of art wrung from this epoch by both television and the great frescoes of popular culture, especially rock music, which provides its staple. Not that Brabazon ever lets shoddy art, lax attitudes to criticism, glazed-eyed relaxation in front of the computer or mere bigotry and cruelty get away with their skins unlacerated.

In a theme she has also broached in her dashing sallies into daily news, she fiercely criticises the unreal city of Google and her students' complicity in it ("It's there. What else would they do?") for its obstructing thought, clotting the mind with the thick stuff students can copy off the screen without ever having to read the books mentioned or having to grapple in a live, disinterested way with (in Yeats' wonderful phrase) "the fascination of what's difficult".

Thinking Popular Culture reads like a pasted-together but perfectly coherent series of shortish newspaper articles. I don't know whether or not this is the case, but the point is really that this swift, darting movement of the author's mind from topic to subject permits her to spin a long, ravelling and gossamer thread of continuity and connectedness along the multitudinous quiddity of popular and televised cultural life.

The sub-theme she ascribes to her flights over this terrain partakes, for my political taste, a bit too much of that high-pitched melodrama that cultural studies as a discipline (let the oxymoron pass) too much indulges: 9/11 was not that important, least of all by comparison with the last world war and then the cold one (17 million dead), respectively a mere 60-odd and barely 20 years over; the church of Islam is a durable and variegated caravanserai, and not merely the wrong side of the preposterous Samuel Huntington's clash of civilisations.

If Brabazon longs for the passion of a good cause and a horrible enemy, she has one to hand in her excellent Australian leftism to set against the hideous injustice as well as the grotesque self-indulgence brought by the latest, craziest moment of consumer capitalism.

That is quite enough of a moral method with which to uncover a comforting solidarity among a thrilling motley of outlaws in the forest, ambushing the helots of managerialism (a splendid essay in praise of The Office), making great musical art of itself - as it always is - a repudiation of quotidian meaninglessness at home or at work (a moving and musically minute eulogy of Eric Clapton and his heirs), calling us to the imaginative colours of old heroism against the dark forces (a hymn of praise for David Tennant as the Time Lord and for Russell T. Davies' Shakespearean resurrection of Dr Who).

These are much more than fragments shored against a ruined culture. For Brabazon, culture is, as Edward Thompson once put it, "a way of struggle".

Her exemplary positives - Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg, The Panics, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, all of them comrades (and she has plenty of them to summon up in these populous pages) - are each according to their ability and the art or craft in hand, engaged in a ceaseless struggle to vanquish the Enemy and cause the Good to prevail.

Not that she writes in capital letters. But the stirring thing about this scrappy, gripping book is that in a way quite unlike most academic tracts for the times, it implies a vigorous picture throughout of how things ought to be, and is explicit in its condemnation of how they ought not to be.

The first word of her title is "thinking", but in point of fact she had done the thinking before she began to write. Subtle as she can be in, say, her analysis of Roger McGuinn's innovations in guitar "picking", right and rousing as she is in her criticism of robotic news presenters and the diminishing soundbite, earnest and humane as are her frequent invocations to solidarity against the Iraq war, and the Darfur genocide, these are all finished judgments. In the rapidity, even the haste, of her writing, she rarely pauses to allow what William Empson aptly called "the mind's recoil upon itself".

As a result, the book is more bien-sentant than one expects and demands. One wants to ask for a picture of popular culture successfully crossing the boundary into politics. But when it did so with Live Aid, Brabazon dismisses Bob Geldof's efforts as so much time-serving.

There is in this, I think, a too-great reliance on the very limited intellectual resources banked by cultural studies. Brabazon has too good a mind and too ardent a nature to be satisfied with the pious lucubrations of the received reading list. It would be invidious to name those I have in mind, and in any case she cites her canonical authors at regular intervals.

But she doesn't need them. They are enclave liturgists, writing for the pious. She needs, let us say, Wittgenstein On Certainty, Clifford Geertz on Negara, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum on The Quality of Life, T. J. Clark bidding Farewell to an Idea.

There is no one intellectual I know with her range of popular cultural reference, no other academic who would write, "the game of life is not won by those with the tightest skin and perkiest bum", no feminist who would so cheerfully confess to the delight she (like me) takes in retail therapy.

All that this admiring reader asks, putting down (and snatching up) this exhilarating, racy, headlong book, is that next time Brabazon absolutely must search out and make an argument - the kind of tough, difficult argument that would stand up though the world end tomorrow.


Tara Brabazon will be familiar to Times Higher Education readers. Since March, she has written a column for our website that has amused, provoked and enlightened, and has also written for our print version. When not writing for us, her day job is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

She says that her students make her job: "It is the greatest gift to have the chance to read, write and think. Our job as teachers is to share that gift with as many people as we can." A glance at her CV shows she enjoys learning as much as teaching; she has three bachelors and three masters degrees, a graduate diploma and a doctorate. She is studying for a further masters at the University of Wollongong. It is thus surprising to learn that academia was not the first choice for the young Brabazon: "I became a historian because I was not good enough to become captain of the Australian cricket team."

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Brabazon has little time for much else, but she takes the time to "dance wildly, laugh loudly" and is "happily married to a man who often unhappily supports Manchester City Football Club".

Thinking Popular Culture: War, Terrorism and Writing

By Tara Brabazon

Ashgate, 254pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780754675297

Published 28 November 2008

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