For more information about Royal Holloway, please see this promotional video. To see a promotional video for the MA Consumption, Markets & Culture see here. To see a promotional video for the Royal Holloway School of Management, click here.

For more information about the Royal Holloway MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing and the application process see here.

To get an understanding of the unique values that underly the MA Marketing and MA Consumption, Culture & Marketing programme please read these blog posts: Value of Scholarly Values, Importance of Reading and Morris Holbrook and Business Interest in Education.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Dying to Consume

Dying to Consume – sustainability and dilemmas of imagined futures

Room: ABF016 (15) – Arts building first floor, room 016.
Date: Wednesday, 02 December 2015
Time: 13:00-15:00
All welcome
University of Southern Denmark

Contemporary consumer societies are predicated on unsustainable lifestyles. (Reich 2001: 374). However, rather than being a problem of the present, sustainability is set up as an exchange with an imagined future. The Brundtland Report for instance defines sustainable development as development that is able: “…to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…” (Brundtland et al. 1987: chapter 3 section 27, emphasis by the authors). Sustainability therefore requires conceptual clarity about the future. However, Connolly & Prothero note that sustainability is related to ‘how long’ consumption levels can be upheld; ‘sustainable consumption’ is therefore inherently a ‘fuzzy concept’, because “scale, scope, point of reference and the time horizon remain unclear” (2003: 276). This conceptualization opens up the need for a more rigorous theorisation of ‘time horizons’.

We suggest taking anticipated death into account as an important ‘time horizon’ and ‘point of reference’ in sustainability. Drawing on Heidegger (2010) we propose that cultural orientations toward mortality inform fundamental structures and dilemmas involved in consumer imaginations of the future. Sustainability therefore forces us to consider inherent differences vis-à-vis individual’s relationships to society in pre and post dying futures.

We show that these dilemmas of death appear as a number of culturally informed wicked problems in ‘future oriented consumption’ (Robinson 2015). The “wicked problems” are a series of dyadic alternatives, or marketing conundrums, such as those between: “consumer goods and hope” (Conolly & Prothero 2003: 286); ‘psychology’ and ‘materiality’ (ibid. 288), ‘hedonistic consumer’ vs ‘responsible consumer’ (D’Antone & Spencer 2015: 57); ‘structural conditions’ vs ‘agency’ (ibid); ‘materialism’ vs ‘spirituality ’ (Stern 1997: 16); and ‘personal well-being’ vs ‘welfare of the community’ (Seth et al. 2011: 24). More specifically we claim that Capitalism affects these dilemmas by intervening in the intersection of sustainability and anticipated future mortality, such that it serves the hegemonic interests of big business (Kilbourne & McDonagh 1997).

With a theory of the imagined future that centres on constructions of anticipated mortality, it becomes possible to mobilize insights from the anthropology of death (Green 2008; Palgie & Abramovitsch 1984) to critique the capitalist appropriation of sustainability and the problems this gives rise to when pursuing ‘sustainable consumption’ (Dolan 2001). Based on ethnographic research in the United States, Green (2008) finds that American cultural scripts emphasize heroic struggle and individual control over the timing and manner of our deaths, informed by a salvationist ethos (Sahlins 1996) that emphasizes self-enlightenment and freedom to choose over communal engagement and ethical commitment. We therefore hypothesize that in America and in Britain especially, increasingly individualized notions of “good deaths” is implicated in society-wide reluctance to seriously address issues of sustainability. This perspective suggests a need to change our ways of thinking about sustainability, and shift our focus from imagined futures to the present.

Monday, 21 September 2015

advance readings

For those students about to commence studies in the Royal Holloway MA Marketing, I strongly urge you to conduct advance reading. This will prepare you for the way that we approach the subject of marketing and also, hopefully, create a common body of knowledge among the students which will facilitate better class discussion. Therefore I recommend the following texts:

1. Critical Marketing by Chris Hackley

This book is the essential reading for the Critical Marketing core module that will be presented by Chris Hackley. The emphasis on critical approaches, not just managerial application, is a distinctive aspect of the Royal Holloway MA Marketing and this book serves as a very helpful introduction that will allow students to orientate themselves around various parts of the programme content. In particular the book emphasises that marketing should be studied and understood with an intellectual robustness and roundedness that one would expect of any humanities or social science field of study.

2. Contemporary Issues in Marketing & Consumer Behaviour by Liz Parsons & Pauline Maclaran

This textbook is used by Pauline Maclaran as essential reading for the Contemporary Issues in Consumer Research core module. The text provides an overview of a diverse range of societal issues raised by marketing activity and contains contributions from a series of scholars. The text looks at the history of marketing thought, ethical consequences of marketing and gender implications among many other topics. In short the book provides a highly eclectic set of commentaries and analyses about the field of marketing and its consequences.

3. The Rise of Brands by Liz Moor

This book provides a wonderful overview about brands and analyses them from a variety of viewpoints and brings a theoretical richness which far exceeds the conventional framing of brands. Brands are reviewed historically and understood as ideological technologies during an era of neo-liberalism.

4. Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture by Adam Arvidsson
From years of teaching brands and branding it is clear that the concepts that students find most difficult to comprehend are the very theories that stem from this book. It is indeed a difficult read but bear with it because the analysis of branding that is presented is an excellent exploration into how we can understand value with reference to the vagueness and strangeness of brands as  immaterial social technologies. In an age where brands generate gigantic financial evaluations and can be thought of as the chief asset of organisations, Arvidsson's book works through the mechanics of how value can be understood. Yes, this is a difficult read but if you can get a good grasp of this theory, you will find the course much easier to engage with.

5. Inside Marketing: Practices, Ideologies & Devices by Detlev Zwick & Julien Cayla

While this book is not attached to any particular module and is indeed outrageously expensive (sorry), it provides an excellent series of commentaries that explore how marketing functions and is practiced. You can read my full review of the book here.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

No More Page 3: The Demise of a ‘British Institution’ by Sarah Glozer

It was here for over 50 years. Then, one day in 2015 it disappeared. Just as all of the ardent activists rejoiced in celebration, it came back, only for it to disappear again a few days later. Today, Page 3 (a daily photograph of a topless woman appearing on Page 3 of The Sun newspaper) no longer frequents the pages of one of the UK’s most distributed tabloids. Indeed amidst the confusion, Page 3 it seems, has moved online with fans being offered the chance to see ‘Nicola, 24, from London’ on The Sun’s website, should they so wish. Alongside colleagues at Copenhagen Business School (Dr. Lauren McCarthy and Dr. Glen Whelan), I have been exploring the role of the ‘No More Page 3’ movement in causing the demise of the Page 3 ‘British Institution’, conducting discursive research into the social media settings within which debate and dissent around such topical environmental and social issues is increasingly harboured.

Fresh from discussions at the Social Issues in Management track at the Academy of Management in Vancouver, we have gained a range of international perspectives on our research. We focus upon the study of nonmarket actors, most notably feminist activists, who use a corporate Facebook page for their campaign (No More Page 3) to remove topless women from The Sun daily newspaper on the grounds that such images perpetuate negative gender stereotypes. In our case, what we find interesting is that it is not the newspaper itself that is targeted (although activists have lobbied The Sun newspaper for some time), but it is the Facebook page of a retailer that stocks the newspaper, The Co-operative, that becomes a target for the activists. Therein, the feminist activists reframe responsibility for gender objectification as a Co-operative issue, casting the organisation as the responsible agent within the No More Page 3 debate.  

Positioning the sexual objectification of women in mass media as an entrenched social institution (Bingham, 2014; Leveson Inquiry, 2012), we observe the ‘institutional work’ (Lawrence & Suddaby, 2006) actors engage in to disrupt Page 3, one element of the larger institution. We also include the voices of online citizens who argue against the activists and aim to discursively maintain Page 3. In doing so, we identify three levels of argumentation within this ‘work’, imbued within micro (individual level) meso (organisational level) and macro (societal level) discursive practices. Together the on-going back and forth of these discourses, as part of institutional work processes, succeed in turning the corporate-run Facebook page of The Co-operative from a ‘corporate arena’ of citizenship into a ‘public arena’ of citizenship (Whelan, Moon and Grant 2013) where large-scale social and ethical issues are debated, far-removed from the corporate’s aims, roles or objectives. The corporate actor does not delete or moderate this ‘work’ but allows the discussions to occur, whilst refusing to comply with either of the groups’ wishes. We propose that the corporation here engages in a form of ‘suspended discourse’ (Dansou and Langley, 2012), which arguably acts as a form of institutional maintenance since The Co-operative continues to stock The Sun newspaper and implicate itself in No More Page 3 debate.

As we shape up our research for publication, our interest in ‘fourth wave’ feminism (Cochrane, 2014) and the power of social media in opening up discursive spaces for debate and deliberation continues to gather pace. For further details or comments on our research, please contact Dr. Sarah Glozer, School of Management, Royal Holloway, University of London:


Bingham, A. 2014. Pin-Up Culture and Page 3 in the Popular Press. pp. 184-198 in Andrews,
M. & McNamara, S. (eds.) Women and the Media: Feminism and Femininity in Britain, 1900 to the Present. London and New York: Routledge.

Cochrane, K. 2013. All the Rebel Women: The Rise of the Fourth Wave of Feminism.
London: Guardian Shorts.

Dansou, K. & Langley, A. 2012. Institutional Work and the Notion of Test. M@n@gement,
15(5): 502-527.

Lawrence, T. & Suddaby, R. 2006. Institutions and Institutional Work. In S. R. Clegg, C.
Hardy, T. B. Lawrence, & W. B. Nord (Eds.), Handbook of Organization Studies, pp. 215–254. London: Sage Publications.

Leveson Inquiry. 2012. Minutes of Evidence, Day 38- PM. 7th February, 2012.

Whelan, G., Moon, J. & Grant, B. 2013. Corporations and Citizenship Arenas in the Age of
Social Media. Journal of Business Ethics, 118 (4): 777-790.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Book Review: Postcapitalism – A Guide to our Future

Paul Mason, Economics Editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News, reminds us that capitalism is a temporary arrangement with a finite lifespan. Today, he argues, it is possible to observe alternative practices that indicate a post-capitalist future. Arguing that we are moving towards a prolonged period of economic downswing as capitalism loses its ability to innovate, as nations become trapped into spiralling debt management that foreclose public expenditure , as people experience declining quality of life and increased precariousness, and as ecological catastrophe edges closer, Mason wants us to imagine alternatives and explore newly forming practices and networks that do not cohere with capitalist logic and might instead be harbingers of a postcapitalist future.

Mason’s core theoretical model comes from Nikolai Kondratieff who argued that, rather than inevitably collapsing under crisis, capitalism mutates and adapts. Capitalism’s crises, therefore, were not evidence of disorder and imminent collapse, but structural change. Kondratieff argued that these mutations took the form of successive waves. Each wave, Kondratieff argued, has an upswing that lasts about twenty-five years and is fuelled by new technologies and high capital investment, followed by a downswing of about the same length, ending with depression. During upswings, recessions are rare and capital flows to productive industries. During downswings, capital becomes trapped in the finance system and recessions are frequent. Mason argues that capitalism’s waves are currently disrupted because of neoliberal destruction of trade union power; during downswings, capital’s instinctively represses wages however organised labour movements resist this option and force capital to innovate new modes of production and technology that usher the next upswing.  

The prognosis of this extended downswing – in which profit persists by depressing wages rather than innovating - are bleak. Mason’s example is his English hometown of Leigh which, during his 1970s childhood, was thronged with prosperous working-class families: “there was full employment, high wages and high productivity. There were numerous street-corner banks. It was a world of work, savings and great social solidarity” (p16).  Mason witnessed the destruction of the social fabric and the repression of wages all in the name of clearing the ground for a free-market system. At first this resulted in “crime, unemployment, urban decay and a massive deterioration in public health”, a decay acerbated by financialisation – that is, banks increasingly dependent on leverage household debt so to finance transactions in open trading markets (see Lapavistas, 2013) – so that today’s urban landscape is one of expensive money and cheap labour, propped up by charity “food banks”. Mason’s experience is hardly unique, Lisa McKenzie describes the collapse of her English hometown: “The one Co-op supermarket has gone and in its place are corner shops that sell no food – only cheap alcohol, electric cards, and lottery tickets. There isn’t one single pub left on the estate, and local people sit on the walls where they once were with cans of cheap cider. This is perhaps one of the saddest things I have seen” (McKenzie, 2015). Such scenes remind us that with declining productivity and increasing concentration on open trade markets, capital can extract higher value from finance than direct production and therefore, as Mason puts it, “A single mum on benefits, forced into the world of payday loans and buying household goods on credit, can be generating a much higher profit rate for capital than an auto industry worker with a steady job” (p20).

Paul Mason

This reversal is one of several transformations into what Mason terms the ‘zombie system’. If recent OECD financial projections are true, then he interprets that by 2060 “Los Angeles and Detroit (will) look like Manila today– abject slums alongside guarded skyscrapers; Stockholm and Copenhagen (will) look like the destroyed cities of the American rust belt”; overall a “stagnation in the West, a slowing pace of growth in emerging markets and the likely bankruptacy of many states” (28-29). Meanwhile, Mason regards the continuous increases in energy prices as signalling long term commitment to exploiting raw materials, concluding that either there is an overestimation in the value of oil and gas companies by about $4 trillion, or that nobody of influence believes that we’re actually going to cut carbon use.

Where innovation occurs, Mason sees the technological transformations as challenging capitalism’s ability to extract surplus value and this threatens capital reproduction. Efficient markets are determined by the outcome of rational marginal calls between the benefit of buying a scarce commodity, versus the benefit of retaining the money. The key changing point, Mason argues, is that scarcity no longer defines info-tech markets;  today information can exist in potentially unlimited quantities (thanks to the magic of ‘copy and paste’) and in productive realms where this is the case, their marginal cost is zero. Meanwhile marginal costs of some physical technology (memory storage, wireless bandwidth, etc.) are collapsing towards zero and information content of lots of physical goods is rising. Accordingly many commodity goods’ production costs can plummet and this wrecks, Mason argues, capitalism’s price mechanism. And, as theory of labour value promises, in circumstances where automation reduces the necessary labour to amounts so small that work would become optional, the produced object will probably end up being free, shared and commonly owned.

Mason argues that in info-tech markets it is conceivable to have machinery which costs nothing, will last for ever and do not break down. Such a machine would transfer a near-zero amount of labour value to the product, thus reducing its market value. Mason’s example is the price of The Beatles’ Love Me Do on iTunes. Not only is the supply of the song infinite, but it costs next to zero to store on Apple’s server and next to zero to transmit to consumers. Yet the cost remains fixed at 99p, irrespective of fluctuations in supply and demand. As Mason argues, the only way it is possible to run such an information business is to rely on copyright law and generate “an entire walled garden of expensive technologies that work together – the Mac, iTunes, the iPod, the iCloud, the iPhone and the iPad -to make it easier for us to obey the law than break it” (p119). Such monopolistic tendencies, he argues, is the only way such industries can run and it completely depends on copyright law and restrictive coding to prevent uncontrolled mass reproduction.

In contrast to monopolistic companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, is open source programming whereby information is made freely available. Popular examples like Firefox and Wikipedia demonstrate the potential of this software to flourish, all based on non-market mechanisms like decentralised cooperative voluntary work. And, inasmuch as Wikipedia makes no profit, it probably makes it impossible for competitors to make a profit in the same space. Social knowledge therefore can dissolve market mechanisms. We are thus moving, Mason argues, towards a model in which the price mechanism for many goods is corroded by pushing the cost of reproducing information goods towards zero.

Of course capital hardly stands by. As Mason argues, it seeks to remain profitable by either creating information monopolies, vigorously defending intellectual property or scurrying to innovate ways of capturing and exploiting produced information such as consumer data or capturing the value of freely produced work (i.e. privatising other people’s voluntary coding). Further, given that wages are repressed and that there is a consequent availability of cheap, unorganised labour, anachronistic production models persist because it is often more expedient to preserve a cheap workforce than to innovate by automating production. Hence significant blockage exists to the flourishing of ‘postcapitalist’ networks.

Unsurprisingly for an economist, Mason’s analysis contains no appreciation of marketing. Arguably an additional variable which acts as a source of labour value is contained in customer based brand equity. For example, whilst Couchsurfing presented an economy of voluntary labour to establish a global network of hosts and guests, not only was this network eventually incorporated in 2011, but crucially it also had its market share overtaken by AirB&B. Arguably AirB&B’s attraction to consumers is that the brand helps guarantee a certain level of service expectation and safety of payment that is, arguably, difficult for voluntary movements to emulate. And, as consumers actively produce what Arvidsson (2007) refers to as ‘ethical surplus’ that drives brand equity, brand value may be thought of as produced by social necessary immaterial labour, thereby countervailing the decline of other sources of labour value.

Further, as I and Detlev Zwick have argued (see Zwick & Bradshaw, 2016), there is evidence to suggest that in the ‘wild’ of network production, marketing looms like a predator to feed on free consumer labour. That is to say, many social media consultants anticipate that the next phase of marketing will exist in a widespread dissemination of marketing logic as it becomes internalised by consumers (a process we call biopolitical marketing) who relish shared productive activities in spaces that are actually private. If marketing is to succeed in this (extremely difficult) task, then we will witness an intensification of marketing rather than disintegration. Here postcapitalism would distort into what O’Dwyer terms ‘virtual communism’; where, though there may be commons-based peer production, the apparatuses that leverage value extraction are never communally held (O’Dwyer, 2013:p498).  As Stallabrass (2012) informs, peer-to-peer systems had previously allowed users control of the frame as well as the content. Consequentially, networked economies are typically a privatisation of the commons, not the other way around (see also Kleiner and Wyrick, 2007). This is not to reject Mason’s analysis as overly optimistic, but to agree with Gilbert (2014) that the management of apparently horizontally constituted democratic media is a key battleground of post-Fordist politics.

Specifically, the problem that Mason’s postcapitalism encounters is whether there can be an unleashing of the networks and an ushering of the next phase of innovation that would generate capitalism’s unravelling. Not only must capitalists dispense with opportunities to privatise new commons or strive towards monopolies, but they must also forego the temptations of cheap, disorganised labour and instead invest in expensive machinery that will ultimately destroy their source of surplus value.  Whether or not such a phenomenon is likely, Mason challenges us to be “unashamed utopians” (p288) and imagine what a postcapitalist future may look like, rather than be stuck in the Jameson-esque trap where “it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism”. As you read this, open source programming is being developed and each time, it carries distinct potential to corrode specific price mechanisms and destroy specific instances of free market logic of marginalism. Only an absolute pessimist would believe that all these pieces of programming will be appropriated, contained, ignored or repressed by capitalism. As Mason puts it, “it is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000-year-old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes and yet still seeing the abolition of a 200-year-old economic system as an unrealistic utopia” (p290). Given the stark economic and ecological forecasts, perhaps we must all consider how we can contribute to transforming these emerging processes into real projects.

Arvidsson, Adam (2007), Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture. London: Routledge.

Gilbert, Jeremy (2014), Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of the Individual.
London: Pluto Press.

Kleiner, D. and Wyrick B. (2007). Infoenclosure 2.0. Mute. 2(4), <available at

Lapavistas, Costas (2013), Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All. London: Verso.

Mason, Paul (2015), Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Allen Lane.

McKenzie, Lisa (2015), The Estate We’re In: How Working Class people became ‘the problem’.   The Guardian, 21 January. URL: (seen in August, 2015).

O’Dwyer, Rachel (2013),Spectre of the Commons: Spectrum Regulation in the Communism of Capital. Ephemera : Theory & Politics in Organisation, 13(3,: 497-526.

Stallabrass, Julian (2012), Digital Partisans: on Mute and the Cultural Politics of the Net. New Left
Review, 74(March-April),125-139.

Zwick, Detlev & Bradshaw, Alan (2016), Biopolitical marketing and the ideology of social media brand communities. Forthcoming.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015


Andreas Chatzidakis and Pauline Maclaran, two marketing faculty at Royal Holloway who teach on the MA Marketing, have produced a short film which explores an anti-consumerist movement in crisis in contemporary Athens. The research builds upon ongoing research that Andreas and Pauline have been developing over the past few years.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Research on Children's Lunchboxes

Should school teachers have the power to inspect children’s lunchboxes and remove or destroy items deemed unsuitable? Lunchboxes have been in the news recently following outraged parents at a school in Colchester reporting that their children have had items like Scotch eggs confiscated.

Lord Nash, an education minister, replying to a question in the House of Lords said that: 

There is nothing to prevent schools from having a policy of inspecting lunch boxes for food items that are prohibited under their school food policies. A member of staff may confiscate, keep or destroy such items found as a result of the search if it is reasonable to do so in the circumstances. It would be good practice for the pupil to be present during an inspection and for a second member of staff to be present if any items are to be confiscated.

Dr Benedetta Cappellini and I have been researching the social side of children’s lunchboxes. Our findings show how parents (and particularly mothers) feel on display through the contents of their children’s lunchboxes. Not only does surveillance happen from school staff but also from other mothers who ask their children what is in their friends’ lunchboxes. The mothers we interviewed showed a concern that packing a ‘bad’ lunchbox could be seen to imply that one was a ‘bad’ (or less caring) mother. Illustrating this, one participant explained:

I wouldn’t want the school to think, “Oh my God,” like, “his mum has just spent two seconds packing this”. Or it to look specifically like he’s packed it himself, in terms of the content […] I think there is an element thereof, “I don’t want to be judged, on the basis that my kid’s got inappropriate food regularly, on a regular basis.  Because you want people to think you’re at least a good parent or trying your best anyway.

One parent even described including a daily ‘token apple’ in the lunchbox to ‘keep the school happy’, knowing that her son would never eat it. We conclude that these kind of surveillance mechanisms are unhelpful and it would be better for schools to engage in dialogue with parents where their voices and concerns can be understood. The parents in our study expressed justifiable concerns such as wanting to make sure their children were not hungry throughout the day and making sure they actually ate their lunch.

You can read more about our research in a paper in the journal Sociology. This paper, titled  ‘Mothers on Display: Lunchboxes, Social Class and Moral Accountability’ explores mothers’ narratives on their daily routines of preparing lunchboxes for their children. In this paper lunchboxes are understood as an artefact linking together discourses and practices of doing and displaying mothering, media and government discourses of feeding children and broader issues of care and surveillance in private and public settings.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Klara Scheurenbrand in the Media

MA Marketing graduate Klara Scheurenbrand is now conducting research at doctoral level at Liverpool University. She is studying the civic bicycle scheme and its attendant practices in Gran Canaria. Her research is now subject of media attention in Pedeleando por Canarias (see here) and also in La Provincia (see here). The research continues a study that she commenced at Royal Holloway in the MA Marketing and formed the basis of her dissertation (see here).

Congratulations to Klara!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Globalisation and its Reactions

May 27, 6:00 pm at Room 263 in Senate House, Bloomsbury
This seminar explores local reactions to globalisation. Exploring the rise of New Nordic Kitchen (see a manifesto here) as an assertion of local heritage in a context of globalisation, we explore questions relating to the real and the fake, and the authentic and the hyper-real. Are these local reactions a commodified parody of local culture, an authentic restoration of traditional values, a hyper-reality that only exists because of globalisation, or an articulation of a reactionary localism that intersects with the rise of the anti-immigration platform across the European Union? 

The keynote speaker, Professor Dannie Kjeldgaard from the University of Southern Denmark shall elaborate on the relevant theoretical issues and present empirical research relating to the New Nordic Kitchen. A panel discussion shall then follow, speakers shall include Katharina Husemann, Avi Shankar and James Fitchett. 

All welcome. 

Royal Holloway Marketing Group Ranked 7th Nationally

The Marketing group at Royal Holloway has been ranked no. 7 nationally. See the details here.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Art v Commerce in Marketing

A recurring question within marketing studies of the arts is how to conceptualise the sometimes antagonistic relationship between art and commerce. Marketing is, after all, a frontline that implicates artists in the active commoditfication of their produce and it is the context in which they are most likely to be accused of 'selling out'. I here consider the issues as they relate to music.

Chet Baker whose notorious self-destruction seems to have inspired audiences

The first question we must ask ourselves in pondering the relationship between art v commerce is why this should matter to us at all. At worst, the preoccupation of art v commerce may speak to a middle class anxiety, an anxiety borne of a flat ontology which seeks its antidote through cultural consumption. Within this grid of analysis, cultural production is reviewed in terms of whether or not it embodies truth, authenticity and subjectivity. Herein musicians are carriers of a class’s desire for authenticity and therefore must commit their careers to being a performance of such values in order to meet the demands of an audience who typically live to no such personal standards themselves. Taking the lifestyle to its full extreme and publicly self-destructing– as per the case of Chet Baker I previously developed with Morris Holbrook here – apparently satisfies this public demand and so exposes the deep problem of this desire, which places huge expectations on the shoulders of musicians in terms of their scope of professional conduct and their lifestyles. 

Theodor Adorno whose mode of analysis is described as a foundational trauma for music studies

From another perspective, we might query as to whether the academic fixation, especially as it typically arises within music studies, attempts to resolve a post-Adorno impasse. By centring analyses onto how the musical commodity - as any music becomes rendered as a commodity in a cultural industry - reproduces modes of industrial production that reify any meaningful cultural content in capital’s image, Adorno presents an authoritative mode of critique that becomes very difficult to work around. As Krimms has argued, Adorno’s intervention has become a “foundational trauma” for music studies because it tends to exhaust most forms of music and leave music lovers with very little scope for optimism or radical intent. This problem is all the more so because in Adorno’s preference for deeply esoteric music – most notably Schoenberg –, a sheer difficulty arises in nominating any music that can escape Adorno’s critique and hence Adorno’s argument has had the effect of strangling most forms of analysis (I wish to make clear that I am not repeating the stale argument of Adorno as an elitist). My argument, then, is that successive authors (including my earlier work) have perhaps sought to conduct analysis post-Adorno by displacing Adorno’s analytic question towards ones of authenticity within the arts v commerce question. If this argument is true, then a large portion of analysis that perseveres with this analytic lens does so as an act of displacement, a way of avoiding engaging with the extremely difficult questions set in motion by Adorno. Therefore there is a case to be made to say that the art v commerce question was always ever a fake question, one that intersects with petit-bourgeois anxieties and adds nothing to the politics of engagement. We can contrast this dead end with the more politically determined work that we see within other fields, for example as detailed in the recent ReNew Marxist Art History as edited by Carter, Haran & Schwartz. 

Lauren Berlant, author of Cruel Optimism

A further issue may arise if we consider the problem of art v commerce as one that inhibits artistic possibility. There is something tragic, it must be conceded, in watching a musician intent on a career in the avant-garde playing instead the Girl from Ipanema in a provincial hotel lobby as a form of background music for a transitory non-audience. Within this spectacle, we might see what Lauren Berlant refers to as the ‘cruel optimism’ of capitalism which typically renders the object of desire as the object that is actually the obstacle for personal flourishing. Hence the ambition to be an avant-garde musician will probably condemn the musician to a career of precarity and obscurity whereupon he/she will be dependent on menial forms of labour to temporarily make ends meet. Accordingly, we may conceive of art v commerce as indicative of capital’s ability to limit our creativity and general propensity to flourish. From this perspective, we should identify the precarious forms of working inscribed within capitalism as the problem and consider the issue to be one of infrastructure. Further, we should recognise in the tragic performance of the Girl from Ipanema how we all remain attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life – be they upward mobility, job security, political and social equality and durable intimacy – which have all been undermined by contemporary capitalism (see the arguments pursued in Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant). If jazz appreciation is the art of hearing the notes that are not being played, we might take this way of listening much farther and also query the gap between what we are listening to and what the musician might prefer to play.

Crowds gather for the Federal Theatre Project's perofrmance of Macbeth in 1936

Arguably, one of the golden periods of flourishing in US cultural history took place during the New Deal for the arts. The Federal Theatre Project cut across class and racial divisions and pushed the boundaries of what could be performed beyond the corporate filter. Some of the most radical shows of the century emerged including the so-called Voodoo Macbeth and the ill-fated Cradle Will Rock. The biopic movie, Cradle Will Rock, that charts the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project, concludes with an evocative scene (see wherein the performers who had benefitted from the New Deal carry a now useless marionette through the Broadway theatre district of 1937, walking away from an epoch characterised by Orson Welles, Marc Blitzstein and Hallie Flanagan. Their procession is juxtaposed with the bittersweet celebration that followed the conclusion of the only performance of Cradle Will Rock -an enormously compromised affair, stripped down to its bare minimum in the face of a determined opposition to the show being performed at all - and the smashing to pieces of Diego Rivera’s mural inside the Rockefeller building. The cortege concludes in contemporary Times Square whereupon we are forced to behold the grotesque, garish spectacle of the now overly commercialised cultural wasteland. Viewers are beckoned to contemplate how the contemporary entertainment circuit is built upon the ruins of a once vibrant state subsidised avant-garde that was destroyed by a now hegemonic deeply reactionary counter politics. In this scene, the politics of art versus commerce are made uncomfortably explicit and, by identifying the political fault lines and observing how we all suffer a lack of infrastructural support, we see why art v commerce matters. 

A final example of how we might approach the question is raised by the possibility of a mode of analysis that explores how art might specifically pressurise capitalism. As distinct from analysing the content of the music itself, searching for signs of reification a la Adorno, instead a study might present a historical analysis of how the music specifically comes to make spatio-temporal contestations against capitalism and to assess particular moments of pressurising power. In this regard the music ought to be explored in terms of how it caters for new forms of gathering, shared experiences, and politicised subjectivities and to understand the infrastructural conditions that lead to such possibilities. Such analysis should of course probe the axiomatic assumptions that underpin the analysis itself, persistently subjecting itself to reflexive doubt. To nominate a recent text that combines Marxist art history with music studies, Owen Hatherley’s Uncommon (2011) reviews the career of English band Pulp (see an abridged version here). Hatherley reviews Pulp’s output, detailing how the music challenged class stereotypes and registered anger and resentment against the class warfare endemic to the late twentieth-century Britain. Hatherley locates the band’s career within a particular infrastructure centred around art school education, arts council grants, council housing, and social welfare payments. Hatherley’s reading of Pulp of the 1990s also allows for us to critique contemporary British politics and also to notice something often overlooked in music studies: working-class musicians are rapidly disappearing from public view.