Saturday, September 27, 2014

Scholarly-gender orders: mega-events as lightning rods in global cultural contexts

Photo: Rodanthi Tzanelli

For almost a decade now, I have been following the development of literature on mega-events, with extra focus on the Olympic Games (and more recently, the World Cup). My main observation has hardly changed over the years: within the critical tradition of the social sciences, scholarly discourse highlights the merits and problems mega-events generate in urban milieux (e.g. tourist and otherwise beneficial policies for host cities, protests for human rights violations, housing improvement or destruction of whole localities). Within a ‘less critical’ (a-la Frankfurt School) tradition, there is emphasis on the production of multiple mobilities (professional migrations, consumer products, the expansion of entertainment industries and technological apparatuses). One might attribute either thesis to paradigmatic or disciplinary preference, but I do not think that this is enough. In any case, the problem with the clash between these two discourses (for, this is what they are), has consequences for the quality of academic production. It is not that either scholarly analysis is ‘bad’, but that both are clearly politically dichotomised, making for younger generations in academia difficult to acquire an all-around appreciation of the mega-event. Of course, this bifurcated view is political in nature – for, in spite of the progressive neo-liberalisation of tertiary education, academia is still a space accommodating the need to pursue vocational, rather than mere professional orientation.

Scholarship on mega-events is part of two intersecting subject areas or ‘thematics’: that of globalisation and mobilities. As such, it promises an analysis of world-views, global politics and life-world considerations. It almost always commences with suggestions for the enlargement of public spheres – whether these are defined in consumerist or political advocacy terms – and ends up with overt, or covert conclusions on the state of global and national/regional, on the one hand, or cultural and political citizenship, on the other. Yet, there appears to be a – more conspicuous, by the year - gap between them: there is hardly a handful of scholars focusing on the ceremonial spectacle per se; when this is part of their analysis, it usually functions as the ‘maiden’ of broader globalisation arguments, and is almost never detailed enough to capture one’s attention. The analysis of the ceremonial content is subsumed by the general political context, or side-lined as by-product of nationalist mobilisation. Worse, those who pursue it as a self-contained subject area, they can expect a career in event management, but not in globalisation or critical mobilities.

How has this come to be? My own nagging suspicion is not utterly unrelated to a broader gender politics, which (unfortunately) highlights the obduracy of ‘tradition’ in what we consider as ‘progressive’ academic contexts: the subjection of artistic to political analysis, with a matching gender stereotyping. Contemporary rejections of the idea that art and spirituality are ‘endemic to economic activity, rather than superfluous or in opposition to it’ (Molotch 2003: 13) implicitly suggest that making and appreciating art are for those to whom we can assign ‘the unessential tasks: women and effete or neurotic men’ (Molotch 2004: 343). But contemporary scholarly rejections of artistic – by extension cultural – sociological analysis of mega-event ceremony, suggest that those who waste their time on such ‘bourgeois’ projects, allegedly always undertaken by elites, are not ‘polemical’ enough in their vocation. Rigorous polemics, of the manly type, can secure academic prestige and sufficient recognition.  

I have been there as a writer. What is missed in this witch-hunting, is the possibility to consider artistic-ceremonial performance as a social parable and broader cultural symbolisation, subsuming, but not always obeying to dominant discourse; making politics; imagining new world orders. For, how can we criticise something we have not taken seriously but discarded as inessential? And is this wilful omission not an admission that doing or analysing ‘politics’ necessitates divorcing the cultural from the political, while wedding it exclusively to the economic as a mobility accessory? The problem with such an attitude is that it endorses a gender-as-scholarly hierarchy of value (e.g. Connell 1987, 1995 on ‘gender order’ as social ordering), rendering critical analysis repetitive, over-structured and ‘fossilized’. Perhaps we should re-form then our problematique around the possibility of coupling successfully artistic politics with political art - but not before considering ceremonial texts in their various environments of production. 


Connell, R.W. (1987) Gender and Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Molotch, H. (2003) Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Computers, and Many other Things Come to be as They Are. New York: Routledge.

Molotch, H. (2004) ‘How art works: form and function in the stuff of life’. In R. Friedland and J. Mohr (eds) Matters of Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 341-77.

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