London Calling: An album’s afterlife in academia

A well known and widely used convention in titling academic publications – particularly but not exclusively in the social sciences and humanities – is “[catchy phrase]: [actual description of the work’s topic].” In the period prior to the widespread use of keyword searches of electronic databases, the before-the-colon title might have served to grab the attention of someone scanning the table of contents of the latest issue of a journal in their field, or the relevant shelves in the stacks of their university library. As someone who went to graduate school in the 1990s, I’m somewhere in or around the last generation of academics for whom this attention to titles might have mattered.

I’m also at pretty much the very end of the generation with a firsthand experience of punk, or at least the original late 70s/early 80s version of it. When I was in 9th grade, my friend Mike, who was much cooler than me, said that The Clash was going to be playing in Ottawa (where we lived) and suggested that we get tickets. I had never been to a rock concert before. I don’t think I had even heard of The Clash before that moment, or at least certainly didn’t know much of anything about them. But, Mike was cool in a way that I aspired to be, so if he was suggesting it, I knew I should say yes. And certainly being able to say that my first concert was The Clash has been a pretty good flex. I remember very little about the show, which is probably not such a bad thing, since by the time of that tour (“Out of Control”) the band was on its last legs. Nevertheless, I became a big fan, particularly after I later went out and bought their iconic album, London Calling (named best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone).

London Calling album cover

Despite the stereotype of punk music just being simplistic thrashing, the Clash, and that album specifically, has been subjected to a perhaps surprising amount of academic analysis. I’ll just mention a couple to start here: Matthew Gelbart’s extensive analysis of the album and its cultural-critical context and reception, “A Cohesive Shambles: The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ and the Normalization of Punk”, and Colin Coulter’s edited collection, Working for the Clampdown: The Clash, the dawn of neoliberalism, and the political promise of punk.

Hey, did you notice that about Coulter’s title? “[title of a Clash song]: [description of the book’s topic].” A lot of academics have done something similar. I mean, a LOT. I think that, at least when it comes to academic publication titles, London Calling might be a contender for the most-cited album of all time. Springsteen’s Born in the USA is also in the mix, for sure. Settling this conclusively seems like it would be a lot of work. So I’ll just offer some evidence in favour of the most important album by The Only Band That Matters, based on a bit of time trolling through Google Scholar.

First, the album title itself, which is also the title of the first track. Granted, the title is taken from a phrase used in BBC World Service’s broadcasts to occupied countries during World War 2, so there may be some publications that use the phrase to refer to that, like this book about those broadcasts. But what about when it is used to title a study of financial markets, or taxation policy, or migration, or linguistics, or – what appears to be the most cited text with this title – the postcolonial literature of V.S. Naipaul… or the over 7,000 other hits that come up for “London calling” on Google Scholar? Just for some context, that is about 10 times as many hits as a popular and eminently-suitable-for-academic-study title like U2’s “Where the Streets have No Names” (subtitle of the top result for that one: “how library users get lost in the stacks”).

Now, there are a lot of problems with using Google Scholar hit counts as a measure. And to give The Boss his due, “Born in the USA” has about double the number of hits as “London Calling.” But that is just comparing the title tracks. What about the other songs on the album? I mentioned Coulter’s “Working for the Clampdown” book above. There are at least another half-dozen publications with that title, the most cited of which is about “state repression and confidence in legal authorities in a comparative context.” Meanwhile, “Lost in the Supermarket” yields at least a dozen works with that title, including an analysis of “The Traditional Museum’s Challenges” that starts with a quotation from that song. The most-cited article with that title [self-promotion alert!] is an analysis of “the corporate-organic foodscape and the struggle for food democracy” (feel free to contact me for a copy). And for “Guns of Brixton” there is an analysis of “which London neighborhoods host gang activity?

Like the earlier use of “London Calling” by the BBC mentioned above, some other song titles have other referents or are common enough phrases. “The Right Profile” is a song about celebrity culture and paparazzi. There are a lot of publications in management (example) and psychology (example) with that title, but whether they connect to the song is unclear. Similarly with “Four Horsemen” and “Death or Glory.” For the latter, in the song the titular phrase is typically followed by “Just another story,” so at least this Master’s project “Death or glory:(just another story)” seems like a safe bet. And for both “Spanish Bombs” and “Revolution Rock,” there are publications that are also substantively about the Clash or at least music like theirs: Spanish bombs: Una exposición desgrana las interioridades del mítico London Calling (as far as I can tell, a review of an art exhibition about the album). And for “Revolution Rock,” a book “Revolution Rock: The Albums Which Defined Two Ages“, a book chapter “Revolution Rock? The Clash, Joe Strummer and the British Left in the Early Days of Punk,” and a thesis “Revolution Rock: a study of a public pedagogy of protest music

Other than the title track, the most frequently cited song is the album’s most popular, but also “hidden,” bonus track, “Train in Vain.” There are dozens of publications with this as or in the title. The most cited seems to be D.E. Sholomskas et al, We don’t train in vain: a dissemination trial of three strategies of training clinicians in cognitive-behavioral therapy. And most of the publications, like Sholoskas et al, are about the activity or process of training. But just as the song is a hidden track (not appearing on the album’s list of songs), the title is not found in the song’s lyrics. This makes it the kind of polysemic phrase that can be useful for scholars working in multiple disciplines and areas of study. So special mention to Liam O’Brien for using it an article about the problems with rail traffic (yes, that kind of “train”!). And to Zach Chaffee-McClure for a law article about music copyright – I can’t resist pasting the whole title: Train in Vain: The Clash between the RIAA and the Eighth Circuit over Whether the DMCA Subpoena Provision Applies to Peer-to-Peer Networks, and the Need to  Steer the DCMA Back on Track with Congressional Intent.

And it goes beyond song titles. An exhaustive search is beyond my capacities, but I came across a couple of lyrics from the album used as publication titles. Surely there are many more to be found if you have the time and inclination to search. The lyric “Phoney Beatlemania has has bitten the dust” (from “London Calling”) is the pre-colon title of Alex Ogg’s article “‘Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust’: The punk generation’s love–hate relationship with the Fab Four.” And a lyric from “Guns of Brixton” is used as the title of Natalie D. Baker’s study of resilience discourse in the field of disaster studies: ““His Game is Called Survivin”: A Resistance to Resilience.”

As I suggested at the outset, I think part of the reason for the album’s scholarly popularity has to do with timing (a convenient argument for me to make if it turns out that Springsteen’s 1984 album is actually used more often). But I also think there is something of a political-sociological explanation. This is supposed to be the conclusion, so I won’t get too deep into Bourdieu’s idea of the dominated fraction of the dominant class. But I’ll just say that, notwithstanding the world of difference between the seminar room and the recording studio, both artists and academics alike are found in that sociological category. John Lydon’s (aka Johnny Rotten) dismissal of The Clash allegedly was grounded on his view that Joe Strummer was a “champagne socialist” whose politics were limited to an “abstract socialism.” Oof. Yeah, so, call it a function of my class position, whatever. I (and, apparently, plenty of other late middle-aged academics) still think London Calling is a kick-ass album.


Sabbatical reading list 1/2

After almost 4 years away from this space, I’m back to trying to write semi-regular posts on this blog. This is prompted by a few things, including the (almost) completion of another writing project, the possibly impending collapse of Twitter, and an occasional nagging feeling that because I’m on sabbatical leave I should be doing more writing.

I submitted my sabbatical leave application back in August 2021. At the time, I was in the middle of a couple of significant service commitments and spending most if not all of my research time on the revisions stage of the book project (mentioned above, but why not link to it again), so I was at a loss for upcoming research/writing projects that I could slot into the application. There is a perhaps semi-apocryphal story at my institution about a now-retired colleague who once submitted a sabbatical application with a two-word plan: “Read books.” I wasn’t quite that blunt, but did say that I wanted to take some time to just read stuff catch up on the relevant literatures. And I figured if I wrote nothing else, I would at least write a list of books that I read during my leave. The list for the first half of the leave is at the end of this post. Part 2 will be coming in early July, I guess.

Stack of five books: As We Have Always Done; White Skin, Black Fuel; Women, Race & Class; The Problem with Work; and Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth.
Still on the to-read pile

In the Fall, I did actually write proposals for two new courses, one in Political Economy and the other in Politics of Climate Change (this was something, other than reading, that I committed to in the sabbatical application’s plan). So my reading list has skewed somewhat towards those topics. Some of the political economy books are also there because I was on the jury for Studies in Political Economy‘s Rik Davidson prize (winner: Heather Whiteside’s Capitalist Political Economy: Thinkers and Theories – a very good succinct overview of theories of political economy from Adam Smith to the present). I should also mention that I decided when I started keeping a list that I wouldn’t distinguish on it between fiction and non-fiction. Although I do tend to compartmentalize them in other ways, some of the fiction is obviously related to my research and teaching interests: The Overstory (probably my favourite novel on the list) about environmentalism, and The Every (which I was less taken by) about digital/platform/surveillance capitalism, for example. Some of it is not related, but fiction or non-, every book made me think.

Without further ado, here is the list of books I read, July 1 – December 31, 2022:

  • Adorno, Theodor, Philosophical Elements of a Theory of Society
  • Binet, Laurent, Civilizations
  • Cahill, Damien and Martijn Konings, Neoliberalism
  • Clarke, George Elliot, Whylah Falls
  • Crary, Jonathan, Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World
  • Dewey, John, The Public and its Problems
  • Eggers, Dave, The Every
  • Erdrich, Louise, The Sentence
  • Ferguson, Will, The Finder
  • Gooblar, David, The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching
  • Hogan, Kelly A. and Viji Sathy, Inclusive Teaching: Strategies for Promoting Equity in the College Classroom
  • Hermann, Christoph, The Critique of Commodification: Contours of a Post-Capitalist Society
  • hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
  • Hugill, David, Settler Colonial City: Racism and Inequality in Postwar Minneapolis
  • Kallis, Giorgos, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, and Federico Demaria, The Case for Degrowth
  • Liboiron, Max, Pollution is Colonialism
  • Malm, Andreas, How to Blow Up a Pipeline
  • McDowell, Tom, Neoliberal Parliamentarianism: The Decline of Parliament at the Ontario Legislature
  • Munoz Martinez, Hepzibah, Uneven Landscapes of Violence: Geographies of Law and Accumulation in Mexico
  • Paterson, Matthew, In Search of Climate Politics
  • Powers, Richard, The Overstory
  • Saad, Aaron, Worlds at Stake: Climate Politics, Ideology, and Justice
  • Sekida, Katsuki, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy
  • Thomson, Tony, About Face
  • Whiteside, Heather, Capitalist Political Economy: Thinkers and Theories

Gender Analysis of a Student Newspaper

Today in my Politics & Mass Media class, we did a gender content analysis of the Athanaeum, Acadia’s student newspaper.

I’ve done this exercise a couple of times, and wrote a post about the 2015 version…. I was hoping to compare 2015 to 2019, but the 2015 post was written on Storify, which no longer exists. There is a lesson there about archiving in an era of continual platform innovation, but that is another story.

The Ath now does most of their work online, but do publish a limited number of print issues each year. We used the most recent one (Issue 81.6). I brought a few copies to class, and had the students working in groups to answer a few questions. We have been learning about content analysis as a technique, so this was a chance for students to try it out. Content analysis works on the presumption that examining patterns within texts can tell you something about the context that the texts were produced within. When looking at news (or other) media, we can see social relations of power and inequality expressed through the patterns in media messages. For example, this analysis of film dialogue shows how gender and racial inequalities that are present in society are reflected in (or reproduced by) the fictional worlds of films.

In class we sought to similarly test gender (in)equalities by seeing to what extent they were reproduced in Acadia’s student newspaper. Somewhat provocatively, I suggested that we could consider two hypotheses to test – two sides of the same coin. On one side, the hypothesis is that we live in a patriarchal society, so we could expect to find patriarchal relations reproduced in Acadia’s student newspaper as in any other social institution. On the other side, the hypothesis is that feminism is a hegemonic ideology among Acadia students, so we could expect to see that reflected in the content of the student newspaper.

I asked a series of four questions about the content of this particular issue of the Ath: about the composition of the editorial board, the authors writing for the paper, the images in the paper, and the subjects of the articles.

The editorial board was the easiest (least controversial) one to answer. The board is listed on the paper’s masthead (p2), and after a bit of conferring about gender-ambiguous names (a couple of members of the board are in this class), we agreed that the Ath’s editorial board is just over 50% (7/13) female, which is pretty close to reflecting the gender composition of the student body as a whole. So, like Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, chalk one up for feminism, right? We’ll come back to that.

The second question was to count the number of articles written by women vs men. Again there was a bit of indecision about how a few authors should be counted, as well as whether we were to count the number of women authors or the number of articles written by women (some authors contributed more than one article to this issue). There was even some disagreement about the total number of articles (18? 20?) There wasn’t time to explore the source of that disagreement, but I think it was because there were poetry and visual art contributions to the issue. They had “authors.” Do they count as articles? Then there was an article written by the editorial board. As mentioned above, we know that the editorial board is 7/13 female, and a member of the board who is in the class confirmed that there was a board ratification of it. So does it count as a female-authored article? A 54% female-authored article? What if the editor-in-chief is male and he took a lead role in writing the article? Do we have gender parity if a 50%+ female board is headed by a male?

The third question was to count the images of women and men. More methodological questions: does the cover image of three women count as one or three? Do we count drawings as well as photos? Do we assume that the sketch of the person in a lotus position wearing yoga pants is a woman? Do we count ads as well as staff-produced content? How do we count the picture with a woman in the foreground and a mixed-gender group in the background? Even seemingly simple counting exercises can be complicated and contentious! And this doesn’t even get into questions about the nature of the images: obviously a publication full of sexualized images of women is evidence of something different than a publication full of images of women in positions of social power.

The final question was about the subjects of the articles. If women are only writing about men, we’d be hesitant to call that evidence of a dominant feminist ideology. Again, it’s complicated. If an article is about the author’s personal experience, does that mean it is an article about the author’s gender? The editorial board’s article was about the threat to student journalism posed by changes to education funding being implemented by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. So is that an article about Doug Ford (male) or about student journalists (male, female, and non-binary)? The loudest debate in one group was about how to categorize “Bring Campus Childcare to Acadia.” Most thought that this wasn’t gender-specific, although a closer reading could suggest otherwise: the 5th (second-last) paragraph discusses gender inequality in child-rearing, that “caregiving work is still primarily the domain of women,” and that “women in academia often experience what is called the “motherhood penalty”” while men don’t face a “fatherhood penalty.” While the debate was pretty short and because part of it was in a smaller group, I didn’t hear all of it, I did get the sense that the question of whether to count a story about the need for on-campus childcare as a story “about women” was also a debate about a whole set of deeper political and ideological investments. Again, a seemingly simple analysis turns out to be complicated and potentially fraught – sometimes frustratingly so. Welcome to Politics & Mass Media.

What Can You Do With a BA in Politics?

Last night we had what has become an annual event in our department. Our departmental “alumni forum” invites a few graduates of our program back to speak to current students about what they have done with their degree. One of the selling points for our students is that it gives them some answers to the question in the title of this post. While a few of our students do want to become politicians, most of them don’t. And most of them, especially in first year, can’t think of too many options beyond the ones they have observed first-hand (teacher or professor), working in government and practicing law. It provides a small opportunity for networking (being in a small town, the majority of our students move away after graduation), and confirms some of the things that we say about the usefulness of a BA degree and the things that they learn while completing one.


We usually try to balance the panel between people who take more and less “traditional” paths. Last night’s panel included a lawyer and a policy analyst for the federal government, as well as the executive director of a women’s shelter and a “director of farmer training” for a non-profit working with recent immigrants. In past years we’ve also had an urban planner, journalist, political activist, environmental consultant, and landscape architect-turned-restauranteur. And this just scratches the surface of what our graduates have gone on to do (an incomplete list is here – contact me if you are an Acadia POLS grad and can add to or update the list!)

Here are a few points raised by these panels. The ability to read – to read quickly, to synthesize written information, and to read critically – is very important. It gives you a leg up in post-graduate programs like law school, where the reading load is even heavier than undergrad (and our program is relatively reading-intensive). The panelists last night spoke to this in their presentations. A couple of years ago, when it wasn’t mentioned in the initial presentations, someone in the audience asked the panelists how much they read for their work. The answer was: all. the. time. Similarly with writing  ability : as one of the panelists said last night, “the ability to write clearly and concisely is a skill and people are willing to pay for it.” In addition to the “hidden curriculum” of getting lots of practice reading and writing, course content matters, too. The shelter director talked about how the ability to secure grants for her organization depended on an understanding of how government actually works. The director of farmer training talked about how he used contemporary political theory (and this book in particular, which he read in a 4th year seminar) in thinking about his work. The lawyer talked about how much of her work involves the skills of comparative analysis (comparing one case to another, or applying abstract principles to specific cases) that she learned in comparative politics classes.

It is great that our students hear these kinds of things from people other than their professors, and I hope it reinforces the idea that the work they are doing here matters, even if they never have to recall specific points of information. But the more selfish reason for organizing these kinds of things is that it is just great to reconnect with students and see and hear what they have done after leaving us. (If they say nice things about remembering your courses, or “I just mentioned something from my honours thesis at a meeting a couple of weeks ago!” that is an added bonus.)

Media theory in memes (updated)

[Original post Jan. 23, 2019, updated (postscript added) Jan. 30, 2019]

When I was teaching a course in Contemporary Political Theory a few years ago, I wrote a few posts about getting students to translate theoretical work or abstract concepts into more practically accessible registers (see here, here, here, and here). I did something similar in the Politics & Mass Media course today.

Today was the last class in the introductory section on “theories” (or “lenses”) of mass media. We covered four main theories, spending one class each on Marshall McLuhan (“The Medium is the Message”), Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky (the “propaganda model”), and Stuart Hall (“Encoding, Decoding”). Between Herman & Chomsky and Hall, we took a bit of a break from theory to talk about contemporary journalism in Canada, including reading Selena Ross’s Feb. 2018 article about “news poverty” (lack of local journalism) in Thunder Bay, ON. Today we spent half of the class talking about “hegemony,” based on reading a chapter from Todd Gitlin’s book about media and the 1960s New Left, The Whole World is Watching.

For the second half of the class I asked students to work in groups to create memes that explained or illustrated the four media theories we had read and discussed. Here are some samples of their work:

Marshall McLuhan


Herman & Chomsky



Stuart Hall


Todd Gitlin






A few hours after initially posting the above, I was on Twitter and saw and retweeted the following:

apple tweet

See here if you want to read the whole thread. I then realized that my post also published content produced by others (students), and I hadn’t asked for their permission to do so. So I did, and gave them the option for their work to be removed from the post (no questions asked).  As I told them, my reason for posting things like this is to (hopefully) spark some ideas and conversations about pedagogy. I’m not making money off of it, but if you are seeing ads around the post, then WordPress is.

I’m not sure what to do about the earlier posts that have similar student-generated content. Those students have now graduated, I don’t have contact information for most of them, and in most cases it would be difficult if not impossible at this point for me to connect individual students to particular images. Students are never individually identified in these posts because learning requires being willing to take risks and make mistakes, and that is less likely to happen if they think their mistakes will follow them outside of the classroom.

BTW in the end none of the students in this year’s class asked for their memes to be removed.



Who is the media elite?

In my Politics & Mass Media class last week, I did a quick class survey, asking students to identify up to 5 people who represent the “media elite.” This week I presented the results to them and got them to analyze the data. This serves as a useful exercise both for introducing some course content-related questions – who are the “media elite”? What kind of power do they exercise and how? etc. – and also starts to prepare for them more content analysis that they will be doing later in the semester.

The first issue or question came up even before I could hand anything back. While I thought I was being clear that I was asking them to name up to 5 individuals, a number of students didn’t interpret what I said that way. Some responded with types of individuals (journalists, political leaders, celebrities, media platform owners), while others responded with organizations (CNN, Fox, NY Times, Disney), or types of organizations (news channels, governments, large corporations). Even among the “individuals” there were a few families (two people listed “Kardashians,” one listed “Kim Kardashian). In short, it gave an opportunity to highlight an issue of mis-communication (sets up our discussion of audience decoding and Stuart Hall next week), and to show that what might seem like straightforward empirical research involves making judgment calls about categorization.

Once I gave them the results , I had them work in small groups to analyze the dataset: based on these results, what can we say about the “media elite”? The first comment was that the list was dominated by “personalities” – larger than life figures (the list of individuals is below). Another group reported demographic analysis that I was more or less expecting, breaking it down by gender, race, class, and nationality: the list skewed male, white, rich, and American. And in spite of the fact that “owner (or head) of media outlet” was one of the two most popular types of individuals for people who answered the question in that way, most of the votes were for media content producers or authors rather than media platform owners. Students also observed that the list skewed heavily to news over entertainment media, despite the fact that most media consumption is entertainment rather than news – but this bias was perhaps less surprising given that about 2/3 of the class are Politics majors. And again, if we wanted a precise count, there are categorization questions: do Trevor Noah and John Oliver “news” or “entertainment”? Or does this distinction even make sense when the US President is a Reality TV star and so much media consumption is affectively driven?

Somewhat more surprising was, despite the fact that they are a social media generation, the list was quite (their term) “TV-centric.” I asked how many of them had cable TV subscriptions, and only two out of 24 did. File this away for: what I think of when I use the words “watching television” is not how they watch television.

Finally, one group observed that the list skewed towards liberal or progressive: the (in)famous “liberal bias of the mainstream media”! We didn’t have time to get into a detailed discussion of the basis for this claim (note that the top vote-getter for “who represents the “media elite” is the very person who refers to “the media” as “enemy of the people”).ut it did set us up nicely for the discussion of Herman & Chomsky’s Propaganda Model that came this week. How do we reconcile the fact that North American journalists do tend to self-identify as liberal or left-leaning with Herman & Chomsky’s argument that the media has an inherent conservative bias and serves the interests of political and economic elites? Herman & Chomsky’s answer is that the filters that operate to shape news content work at a structural rather than individual level. One way to explain the significance of structure is to refer back to the survey, and pose a counterpoint to the idea that “personality” is what gets someone on the list. I did the same exercise the last time I taught this class, in 2015. Then, Donald Trump (by far the top vote-getter this time around) didn’t make the list at all. And the person who was at the top of the list in 2015 isn’t on the 2019 list at all: Barack Obama. Thus we could say that it is the occupant of that political office who is at the top of the media elite.


Here is the list. 24 students submitted lists, so just over one-third (9/24) students listed Donald Trump as a member of the media elite, and there are a total of 54 votes counted in the list below.

Individuals Number of votes
Donald Trump 9
Anderson Cooper 4
Kardashians 3
Justin Trudeau 3
Mark Zuckerberg 3
Jeff Bezos 2
Tucker Carlson 2
Sean Hannity 2
Jake Tapper 2
Kanye West 2
Jim Acosta 1
Bloombergs 1
Hillary Clinton 1
Tim Cook 1
Ellen Degeneres 1
Jimmy Fallon 1
Jon Favreau 1
Bill Gates 1
Kylie Jenner 1
Jimmy Kimmel 1
Koch Brothers 1
Don Lemon 1
Rachel Maddow 1
Elon Musk 1
Trevor Noah 1
Lawrence O’Donnell 1
John Oliver 1
Jake Paul 1
Gordon Ramsay 1
Joe Rogan 1
Quentin Tarantino 1
Oprah Winfrey 1


Resolution (2019 version)

This time is different. I mean, I have a plan, and I’m cautiously optimistic that it will work out.

I have been not-blogging for a while as I have been trying to focus fairly limited writing time on one project in particular. That project is still ongoing and I’m still committed to it. What has been working well is that, because it is a co-authored project, I have specific times booked into my calendar for working on it, and literally have someone waiting for me to show up so that the work can get done. Accountability is a helluva drug.

But this blog is a solo effort, and it is not like I am expecting to have a lot more writing time in my calendar over the next few months, as I am teaching three courses, including two that I haven’t taught in a few years. But like I said, I have a plan… This semester my classes are spread over 4 days, with Thursday as my one day off from teaching. So every Wednesday afternoon, I have a couple of hours between the end of my class and the end of the day. My plan is to use that time to write up a blog post that reflects on something from the week – most likely teaching related.

One of my classes is on Politics & the Mass Media, and like the last time I taught that course (2015), I’m trying to make the class as interactive and discussion-oriented as possible. I think it’s helpful for student engagement in general, and for this course in particular, I feel like I have a lot to learn from students about the contemporary media environment. A second class is a seminar in Environmental Political Theory. That course always sparks ideas for me, and I last taught it in 2014, so there is a lot of new material on the syllabus that I am excited to get into. The third class is our departmental Honours Seminar, a course that is part capstone and part preparation for senior thesis-writing. This one will probably get the least blog attention, for a few reasons. It is more inside-baseball than the other two. It is also my fifth time teaching the course since 2013, and while there are some changes to the syllabus this time around, it is more settled than the other two. And this is likely to be my last time teaching it for a while. And finally, just practically, that class meets on Fridays (how do we make sure that only serious students pursue Honours? Schedule a required class on Fridays!) So by Wednesday afternoon it will be less fresh in my mind than the other two.

In any case, the plan is to have something here every Wednesday afternoon. One potential obstacle is that I have also scheduled office hours Wednesday afternoon, although past experience suggests that I won’t be fully occupied seeing students most weeks. Another is grading or other commitments, which could become more pressing as the semester progresses. (Full disclosure: this post was drafted yesterday, as I was in a meeting 3:00-4:00 today.)


Reading a Bottled Water Menu

There is a restaurant in Los Angeles with a ~40-page “Water Menu.”* The menu, which features about 20 different brands of bottled water, is curated by Martin Riese, “America’s only certified water sommelier.” What are we to make of this?

R and S menu 3

Ray’s & Stark Water Menu. Photo: M. Gero. Used with permission.

Maybe it suggests nothing more than the success of clever marketing, or that some people just “have more money than good sense,” as a favoured saying in my family goes. But maybe there is more to it. After all, I’m old enough to remember when bottled water was almost unheard of in North America, but it is ubiquitous today. And while most people are well aware of the pernicious effects of bottled water consumption, and there are plenty of campaigns to ban or limit it, US per capita bottled water consumption increased tenfold in the last quarter of the 20th century, and more than doubled again in the first 15 years of this one (Canadian figures are not much different).  And most of us think of “water” (singular) as homogeneous and tasteless, but there are something like 3000 different brands of bottled water available globally.

So I spent some time looking at, and thinking about, this water menu. And writing a pretty detailed analysis of it, which is being published in the Journal of Consumer Culture, here. (It is paywalled, but if you can’t access it and want to, let me know.) If you just want the short version, read on.

The article starts with two epigraphs. One is from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who literally wrote the book on taste. In one of his most famous phrases (just yesterday quoted by – ugh – David Brooks): “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.” Bourdieu’s work emphasizes the difficulty, if not impossibility, of separating the physical sensation of taste from the social phenomenon of taste as an assertion of cultivation, refinement, or status.

This insight is helpful for understanding both the water menu specifically and the evolution of bottled water more generally. When bottled water was relatively rare, its mere consumption was a mark of distinction. Paying for a bottle of water, rather than contenting yourself with the free tap water that everyone else drinks, was a way to signal an elevated or refined sense of taste. A relatively early (2001) critical analysis of this phenomenon, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund, explains: “Drinking expensive bottled water (compared to tap water) is a sign of a rise in the social scale” (p18).

But things are more complicated now. What does bottled water signify when it is itself produced and consumed on a mass basis? When environmental and other critiques of the industry are widespread? When big brands are produced by soft drink conglomerates and are known to be little more than tap water in a plastic container? Since I wrote the article, water sommelier Martin Riese has provided an answer to these questions that is short enough to fit into a single tweet:

Riese tweet

“Water from nature and not from a factory.” But how do you tell the difference?

A number of previous studies have shown how bottled water brands rely on images of nature to sell their product (pictures of mountains or lakes, implicitly distinguishing it from municipal water that comes out of a metal tap). A content analysis of the water menu confirms this is one of the more prominent themes. A majority of the brands are described using words like “natural,” “untouched,” “pristine,” or “pure.” Moreover, “purity” is almost always assured by association with human-free wilderness – the water source’s spatial or temporal distance from human influence – than by human regulation.

One interesting finding was that (by about a 2-1 margin) more of the menu discusses how particular waters are produced (where they come from), than what it is like to consume them (how they taste). Even in a restaurant, when portability isn’t a concern, and it is just as “convenient” to order a glass of tap water, the menu suggests that it isn’t necessary to inform readers how a brand of water tastes, in order to cultivate a taste for it.

Another surprising finding was the prevalence of geological references in the brand descriptions. Geological terms or phrases (“ancient volcanic rock” or “layers of ignimbrite” – note also the references to low or high mineral content in Riese’s tweet above) appear in a majority of the brands. Sometimes the implication of this specific geology are clear (“the reason for the inimitable freshness”). But other times it remains unstated. This seems to pose something of a paradox: to sense something’s “naturalness” requires specialized scientific knowledge?

Bourdieu again provides a clue. He insists that “taste” is acquired, through “a labour of identification and decoding” (Distinction, p.100). Using the example of art connoisseurs, he notes how it takes time and work to develop a good sense of taste in art. Since Bourdieu didn’t endorse a distinction between “aesthetic consumption” (e.g. viewing art) and “ordinary consumption” (e.g. drinking water), it would stand to reason that he would agree that being able to taste differences between waters also requires a “labour of identification and decoding.” But here is one difference: for Bourdieu, writing in 20th century France, taste was seen as a marker of “the progress from nature to culture” (Distinction, p.490). In 21st century North America, taste may mark a kind of progress in the other direction: the desire for, ability to sense, and acquisition of experiences of, (non-anthropogenic) “nature.”

In short, it isn’t enough to say that bottled water drinkers are deluded, or that the taste differences between bottled waters are invented or imagined. Maybe they are, but these delusions or imaginings are collective ones, and, like all distinctions and discriminations, they have real social consequences.

If the cultivation of taste requires work, and tastes therefore evolve over time, we might be better to ask what kind of history has been required to produce the taste distinctions that the water menu evokes, and what price has been paid to develop this rich sensory capacity. Which brings me, finally, to the second epigraph for the article about the water menu, from Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”


* Or maybe there was such a restaurant. The restaurant’s website no longer has a separate “water menu,” and now only lists 10 different brands of water on its “cocktail menu“. Some evidence that the water menu did exist can be found, for example, here, here, and here.

Adorno: A Reading List

So, this happened a few days ago….


In the multiple choice poll that Jeet Heer posted, Adorno came a distant second to Hannah Arendt (but ahead of Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt). I’ve taught texts by all four of them (a post that is partly about teaching Arendt’s The Human Condition is here). They all have their virtues. And if you only have 5 minutes, read the two-page Epilogue to Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

But if you have more time, then Adorno. I’ve taught a seminar on Critical Political Theory eight (ulp!) times now. Adorno has always been there to some extent, although he has been looming larger as the course has evolved. The first few times, I just assigned the “culture industry” chapter from Dialectic of Enlightenment (co-authored with Max Horkheimer). Then a few years ago, for a variety of reasons, the course underwent a major re-boot, with a more sustained focus on Frankfurt School thinkers (including Adorno). Now we read all of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which takes close to half of the course, and the last couple of times through, I have also started the course with a shorter essay of Adorno’s (more on those, below).

First warning: if you are looking for a quick solution to the Trump problem, Adorno is not your guy. For Adorno, the search for solutions (and especially quick and easy ones) is exactly what gets us into the kinds of problems that we are currently facing.

Second warning: one of the problems with proposing an Adorno reading list is that, as Adorno says in “Essay as Form”: “It is impossible to always begin at the beginning.” I warn my students that Adorno is a difficult writer, and no matter where you start, you are likely to feel like you are not just dropped into the deep end, but adrift on a vast ocean. Occasionally, you will spot an island of meaning rising above the waves (“hey, I get that reference!”) Keep paddling, and you will increasingly (eventually) be able to put your feet down.

A few places to start:

  • “Society.” This is where we start my Critical Political Theory course. It is a short (10 pp) piece that is something like an encyclopedia entry. It gives a sense both of what Adorno thinks “society” is or means, and of what a “critical theory” is supposed to look like.
  • “Education after Auschwitz.” This was suggested by @FoptimusSublime in response to Heer’s poll. It is from a 1966 radio lecture, so the form makes it more accessible than some of his written work. And if this exercise is inspired by the fear that we are veering towards fascism, then it is on-point.
  • “The Idea of Natural History.” I mean, if you actually want to start at the beginning… this is one of Adorno’s earliest published works. I think it is really helpful for thinking about contemporary environmental issues, particularly in the Anthropocene, but that may be another story.

Now, if you want the “really essential readings” (s/o to folks who were in the grad school Comparative Politics core course, where that phrase was regularly used to describe the tranche of ~500 pages of weekly assigned readings, just below the equally big “required” tranche).

  • Minima Moralia. A collection of 100+ – what do we call them, mini-essays? “hot takes” avant la lettre? The aphoristic format – the vast majority of the sections are no more than a page or two – means you don’t need a big block of time to devote to it. Adorno is a master aphorist, and a lot of the best ones are here.
  • Dialectic of Enlightenment. This is the text that is probably best known, though not necessarily most read. The entire field of cultural studies more or less begins as a reaction to the perceived elitism of the chapter on the “culture industry.” (It is the first chapter in Simon During’s edited collection The Cultural Studies Reader.) As mentioned above, I used to assign that chapter alone, as I think it still provides a sharp diagnosis of much of contemporary pop culture (I don’t think it or Adorno more generally is as elitist as cultural studies scholars have tended to assume). It is the second-last chapter of the book, and when I initially shifted to assigning the whole book, I worried that the last full chapter, and the fragmentary “Notes and Sketches” that follow it, would be somewhat anti-climactic. This year, that changed. Reading the last chapter (“Elements of Anti-Semitism”) in mid-October 2016 was an amazing experience. If you can set aside the dated Freudian view of sexuality, Horkheimer & Adorno’s fixation on the “half-educated” and “paranoiac” as a political-psychological problem, seems an uncannily prescient view of contemporary politics.
  • “Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda.” Another short piece, based on the work done for the large Research Project on Anti-Semitism, that produced The Authoritarian Personality. This essay can be found in The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, which also includes Adorno’s (significantly longer) analysis of the LA Times Astrology column.
  • “Commitment.” A later (1962) essay on political art.

And then… Adorno’s two biggest and most challenging works.

  • Negative Dialectics. If anything can be described as Adorno’s philosophical magnum opus, this is it. He might have rejected the “philosophical” descriptor, but it certainly is a big work. The lecture course that preceded its publication, where he works out many of the ideas in the text, is now available (Lectures on Negative Dialectics). Full disclosure: I haven’t read the Lectures, although I did have a student who did for her MA thesis, and she said it made ND itself easier.
  • Aesthetic Theory. Published posthumously as it wasn’t finished in Adorno’s lifetime. In the first paragraph of Robert Hullot-Kentor’s translator’s introduction, he describes “starkly unbeckoning sheer sides of type, uninterrupted by chapter titles or typographic markers, that have severed and jettisoned every approach and patched over most every apparent handhold.” You’ve been warned.

I generally don’t recommend secondary literature to my students, as I would rather they struggle with the texts themselves, even if they get some of the ideas “wrong,” than learn someone else’s interpretation. I also haven’t kept up with the secondary literature on Adorno in the last decade-plus. So, caveat emptor.

  •   If you are interested in the historical/biographical background, Martin Jay’s Dialectical Imagination is a classic, and provides at least as much time to explaining Frankfurt School ideas as to covering historical events. Thomas Wheatland’s The Frankfurt School in Exile is more historically focused, on their time in the USA. Rolf Wiggershaus, The Frankfurt School, embarrassingly, sits on my to-read pile. I know I should.
  • In the same vein but much shorter is the “Introduction” to David Held’s Introduction to Critical Theory. I assign this along with Adorno’s “Society” in the first week of the Critical Theory course, so that there isn’t a mass exodus from the course.
  • It’s been a while, but I remember Simon Jarvis, Adorno: A Critical Introduction being helpful as I worked my way through the Adorno chapter of my PhD dissertation. Slightly more recent is Jay Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics. And then Robert Hullot-Kentor, Things Beyond Resemblance.
  • Finally, to circle back to where this, in a way, really started: like a lot of people, over the last year and a half I have read a lot of essays, thinkpieces, hot-takes, op-eds, and Twitter threads about Trump. Peter Gordon’s essay, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” from last summer, remains, I still think, the single best one I have read.


Fall term 2016: review in lieu of post

Well, after blogging semi-regularly during a 6-month sabbatical in the first half of the year, I completely fell off the blogging schedule in the second half.

I don’t know if it was actually an unusually busy semester (it sure seemed like it, at times), or I was overwhelmed by the change of pace after the sabbatical. Here is what I did instead of blogging over the last few months:

  • Taught two regular courses: one (“Critical Political Theory”) which I have been teaching pretty regularly over the last few years (though it still gets tweaked every year), and one (“Politics of Water”), which I last taught 4 years ago. That one went through a pretty significant overhaul. The good news is that the work of overhauling the course means that I have some material for a few teaching-related posts (hopefully coming soon). I also taught a directed reading course on Politics & Hip-hop. A steep learning curve on that one for me, although the one-on-one format did help to take some of the pressure off. Help in a couple of instances (at least!) came from the folks at the Critical Karaoke podcast, and also from Jeff Hennessy’s (music prof and interim Dean of Arts at Acadia) Tuesday evening open album listening nights.
  • Supervising an ongoing Honours thesis (on water politics in Israel-Palestine), and three or four (depending on how you count) ongoing MA theses. One (or two) of those were more or less “dormant” this semester, for various reasons, but the other two (Bourdieuian analysis of US campaign finance; politics of/& dystopian literature) were more active.
  • I also sat on two MA thesis examining committees (one on Foucault & Deleuze, one using Agamben to explore tolerance and xenophobia in the context of the current refugee crisis).
  • Participated in two roundtable discussions/public forums on campus: one on electoral reform in Canada, and the other on the aftermath of the US election. (The latter was recorded as part of our new departmental podcast series.)
  • Presented papers at our graduate colloquium, and at the Atlantic Provinces Political Science Association conference in Saint John, NB.
  • Gave a public lecture on “21st Century Water Wars: Global and Local” at Oxford College at Emory University, in Atlanta, GA.
  • Submitted an article, had it desk-rejected, and resubmitted to another journal (all in August), had it accepted with revisions, and just sent the revised version off last week.
  • Started (and almost finished) a proposal for a co-authored book project.
  • The usual department head duties and various other service commitments. You don’t want to know.

As usual, one of my new year’s resolutions will be to try to post something here more regularly. For now, it’s back to grading…