In recent years, cultural theorists have turned their attention to objects as much as to the human subjects that produce, use and provide them with meaning and value. Whether in the form of genealogies, biographical narratives or mapped trajectories, when done well these analyses can yield fascinating, and often disturbing, revelations about production, consumption, waste and recuperation along with the politics and economics of the global frameworks underpinning them. Michael Taussig’s 2004 book My Cocaine Museum, which looks at the complexities of the Colombian drug trade via a series of artefacts, is a notable example, as is Ian Sansom’s Paper: An Elegy (2012), which celebrates our love for all things paper in an allegedly digital age. That said, when not done well, focusing on objects alone risks reducing the subjects to passive (or, worse, ignorant and irresponsible) consumers with little agency over the objects that shape their existence.
In returning to culture as a set of practices as much as objects, and indeed moments, Elizabeth Wilson’s Cultural Passions offers a timely riposte, along the lines of a 21st-century update to Raymond Williams’ seminal 1958 essay “Culture is ordinary”. She does so by picking the most unlikely collection of examples possible in order to assert their potentiality for individual and collective agency and ethics. They are the very stuff generally associated with mindless consumption en masse and selfish individualism: the cult of celebrity in the form of Roger Federer, the material triviality of fashion together with the narcissistic creativity of Marcel Proust. In drawing on her own cultural passions, she convincingly demonstrates (and this reader did need quite a lot of convincing) that not only is the debate between high and low culture far from over, but that the stakes are constantly changing.
One of the book’s great strengths is that Wilson does not simply tell us all this but, rather, via her writing and carefully selected passions, actually shows us. What this entails is a playful yet painstaking intertwining of anecdote, self-reflection, knowingly indulgent discussion of favourite topics, authors and tennis players with a serious, sustained questioning of the ways these great loves have been nurtured over the years to exceed the original objects and moments they once constituted. Why, for example, did she feel compelled to visit a recreation of Proust’s living quarters in a Paris museum? Why does she continue to root for Federer even though his reign at the top is nearing its end? Why is it that we can experience the same degree of tension and excitement from rereading a novel, yet not from watching a rerun of a sports match? Why do certain belongings or places associated with a historical figure create a magical sensation when we come into contact with them, but others leave us cold? Rather than explaining away magic and superstition and their major institutional form – religion – Wilson articulates the deeply personal nature of such experiences. These should not simply be attributed to certain pathologies associated with late capitalism, but may instead open a space where an individual ethics can emerge.
While I remain suspicious of an ethics predicated on mass media and the personalised, individual consumerism of recent decades, Wilson may still be making a valid point – to locate an ethics in the way we develop our own cultural passions does appear to be a more useful place to start than the rock of cultural elitism and the hard place of a reductive and alienating over-theorisation of all cultural forms, objects and practices alike.
Cultural Passions: Fans, Aesthetes and Tarot Readers
By Elizabeth Wilson
I. B. Tauris, 224pp, £56.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9781780762852 and 62869
Published 4 July 2013