Meaning and morality in an age of uncertainty: A symposium and workshop

Erin Carlisle, Flinders University & Ashleigh Watson, Griffith University:

Our contemporary global age is certainly an uncertain one. Major events of 2016 demonstrated this: Brexit and the victory of Trump indicated a collective ambivalence toward globalisation. These two sensations—Trump and Brexit—buzzed frequently throughout the 2016 TASA Conference. Erin’s own conference presentation was no exception!

These trends of uncertainty – or Unsicherheit, as Bauman put it in In Search of Politics – formed the frame for the symposium and workshop held on 2 December 2016, at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Run by the Cultural Sociology Thematic Group, this was the last event organised under the stewardship of group co-convenors, Dr Nicholas Hookway (University of Tasmania) and Dr Sara James (La Trobe), and was supported by TASA thematic group funding. Ashleigh Watson (Griffith University) and Erin Carlisle (Flinders University) received postgraduate scholarships from the Cultural Sociology network which facilitated our attendance at the workshop. The symposium consisted of three main paper sessions (with a total of seven presentations), four postgraduate ‘snapshot’ presentations (including Olivia Kinnear, Adrian Rosenfeldt, Ramon Menendez Domingo and Cameron West), and a panel discussion titled ‘Writing and publishing panel in cultural sociology’, with Associate Professor Brad West (UniSA), Dr Katie Wright (La Trobe) and Dr Nicholas Hookway as discussants. Unfortunately, keynote speaker Clive Hamilton (Charles Sturt University) could not attend because of unforeseen personal circumstances, but nevertheless there was robust debate at the symposium on the contemporary problematics of uncertainty from across diverse cultural sociological perspectives.

Nick Hookway and Sara James were the presenters in the first session. Inspired by Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, their presentations each spoke to the self-creation of moralities and meaning in the current state of liquid modernity. Hookway highlighted the articulation of self-made moralities found through blog research. For him, the D-I-Y character of this form of morality-making had a potentially problematic aspect in its tendency toward narcissism. James, in turn, focused on forms of work and their relation to self-identity in contemporary modernity. This raised questions regarding the over-reliance upon forms of employment in the construction of self-identities, and the precarious character of work in an age of neoliberalism and the casualisation of the workforce.

Michael Walsh continued proceedings in the second session with a paper on conversation as a form of ‘socialised trance’. Leaning on Erving Goffman, Walsh moved beyond Goffman’s dramaturgical theory – which dominates the sociological field – to focus instead on Forms of Talk, offering an alternative approach to cultural sociological analysis of conversation. Nick Obaldiston’s presentation on the ‘irrelevancy’ of sociology to public discourse and the uncertainty of sociology in the current neoliberal and globalised context was a call to arms reminiscent of Michael Buroway’s address, ‘For Public Sociology’, and David Inglis’s keynote on the need for ‘kynical’ sociology at the 2014 TASA Conference in Adelaide. Indeed, as Obaldiston argued, sociology can play a role in illuminating – and interrogating – contemporary social institutional forms and inequalities in a context characterised by uncertainty.

The third session comprised papers that focused more specifically upon cultural products and their role in the social construction of meaning in times of collective ambivalence. Marcus Maloney centred his discussion on video games, including those that represent experiences of war, as a mode of late-modern narrative formation. Scott Doidge, in turn, considered the crisis of meaning portrayed in vigilante films, while Melinda Turner closed proceedings with an analysis of Harry Potter’s acceptance of mortality, which contradicted the character of Voldemort’s ongoing quest for immortality.

Each of the papers presented in the symposium reflected upon efforts combating the meaninglessness and ambivalence of contemporary modernity through modes of self-reflexive meaning construction, from across a wide range of cultural sociological viewpoints. These discussions continued after the official end of the day over Indian food and a couple (or more) pints, where we continued to challenge each other’s and our own notions of meaning and morality. Whether we made the uncertain more certain or far less so, the day was a great end to a big week of sociology.

At its core, the symposium revealed the ongoing and productive tension between modes of structure and agency that shape and reshape social worlds. Whether brought about through globalisation, neoliberalism, or populist political movements, trends of uncertainty at the structural level are always met with attempts at agency via the renegotiation and re-articulation of social relationships, shared meaning, and notions of morality. On behalf of the attendees at the symposium, we thank Nicholas Hookway and Sara James for organising this thought-provoking and timely discussion.

Finally, the Cultural Sociology Thematic Group would like to take this opportunity to thank Nick Hookway and Sara James for their dedicated work in promoting the Cultural Sociology network across their time as thematic group co-convenors. Following the success of this symposium and the ‘Cultures of authenticity’ symposium that Nick and Sara organised in 2014 (which resulted in a special issue of MC Journal; 2015), the new Cultural Sociology thematic group leaders, Dr Marcus Maloney (Monash University) and Dr Tim Graham (ANU), certainly have big shoes to fill!

References

Bauman, Z (1999) In Search of Politics, Polity Press, London.

Buroway, M (2005) ‘2004 Presidential Address: For Public Sociology’, American Sociological Review, vol. 70, no. 1, pp. 4–28.

Goffman, E (1981) Forms of Talk, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

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