The Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries

By Jan Baetens

The Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries

Eds Kate Oakley and Justin O’Connor

New York: Routledge, 2015, 575 p.

ISBN-13: 978-0415706209

Hardback, $142.55

There are many reasons to consider this book, for now alas only available in a hardback, library-only version, the most important publication in cultural studies of the year 2015. True, the scope of this collection is not cultural studies, but at the same time it makes very clear how much the current reflection to the cultural industries owes to existing work in cultural studies as well as political economy – the former having a strong focus on issues of representation, popular culture, and minorities, the latter being centered on the role of media and communication systems in the organization of capitalist systems. In all recent scholarship on cultural studies, the gradual merger with political economy has become more or less self-evident, which can only be seen as a wise and sound evolution.

routledge companionThe same can also be said of the increasing proximity, if not merger of the fields of cultural studies and cultural industries. The best available handbook at the time being, David Hesmondalgh’s The Cultural Industries (3 successive editions since 2002) is very clear in this regard, and here as well this is an evolution that can only be welcomed. There is, however, an ongoing mix-up of the notions of “cultural” and “creative” as far as the “industries” are concerned. Besides the many qualities of the separate contributions in this incredibly rich and very up to date overview, Oakley and O’Connor’s book also proves invaluable in demonstrating the necessity to avoid any confusion between creative industries on the one hand and cultural industries on the other hand.

Not an easy task, given the profound vagueness of both terms (“culture” is everything, and who doesn’t want to be “creative”?). Yet the difference between both types of industries can be neatly explained in two ways. It is first of all internal: creative industries have as their target the production of ideas, techniques, goods and services, that can be legally protected as “intellectual properties”, which is not necessarily the case in the cultural industries. But it is also, if one can say so, external: the goal of a creative industry is to make money (and the authors of this book are clever enough to stress that there is nothing wrong with this), whereas the basic horizon of a cultural industry is not automatically such (many cultural industries try for instance to “produce culture” rather than to make profit in the first place).

The Routledge Companion to the Cultural Industries is therefore a publication that can be cited as a model to all modern cultural studies research. It offers a broad synthesis, not only of the various cultural industries that exist today, but also – and more importantly – of the various theoretical and disciplinary frames essential for a correct understanding of what is happening in this field. In addition, and this is no less crucial, it also makes a strong plea for the cultural specificity of these industries, always in danger of being absorbed by the economically more interesting branch of the creative industries.

(Another reason to recommend the reading of this book is the strong presence of the work by our former MA student Christiaan De Beukelaer, currently teaching at Melbourne University whose publications are mentioned no less than 6 times in the general introduction.)

Five Years: Portrait of the Chameleon as a Craftsman

By Gert-Jan Meyntjens

Last week, in order to get into the right and enthusiastic frame of mind about the then forthcoming Bowie-album Black Star, I saw Francis Whately’s  2013 documentary David Bowie: Five Years. It was evening, I had been reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman that day, and watching this documentary about five decisive years in Bowie’s career seemed a good way to unwind.Bowie

Even though I am not a fan of music documentaries – their tendency to idolize can be quite hard to bear – I found this documentary rather compelling. Contrary to what its trailer suggests, Five Years shows and not only tells about Bowie’s merits. Having Sennett’s ideas fresh in my mind, here I could see fragments of the craftsman at work.

In Richard Sennett’s views, the craftsman is he or she who does work well for the sake of the work itself. Craftsmanship implies individual skill developed to a high degree through repetition and practice, as well as an attitude of receptivity. Amongst other things, this attitude of receptivity refers to the capacities to cooperate with others in the setting of the craftsman’s workshop, to work with new technologies and to be inspired by knowledge and practices from other domains than the one the craftsman is working in. Combined with expertise, this attitude of receptivity allows the craftsman to deal with the resistance and problems he or she inevitably encounters as well as to continue developing his or her skills.

Few people will dispute that David Bowie understood his craft. He knew how to write songs and how to perform. However, what Five Years interestingly reveals are Bowie’s other skills. Skills that precisely allow someone with the right know-how to have a long career in the arts.

Most importantly maybe, Bowie knew how to cooperate. He carefully selected with whom he wanted to work, but then left those around him enough space to do what they did best. He listened to them, was open to suggestions, but at the same time he was the one making the final decisions. Sennett suggests that it is such a combination of openness to individual initiative and authority (based on know-how) which forms the backbone of the good craftsman’s workshop.

Furthermore, Bowie’s dealing with new technologies (not repudiating them, but working with them), his tendency to complicate things for himself (a condition sine qua non to feed the craftsman’s interest in his or her own work), his openness towards other domains both in and outside of music, are all characteristic for the good craftsman.

On the day of his passing away, many compared Bowie to a chameleon that constantly changed his persona and music. As much as this is true, Five Years shows how Bowie was equally a skilful craftsman who could organize a workshop and nourish his own and his audience’s interest by being open to external influences. In the thin white duke’s own words: “My work gives the impression of changing a lot, but actually I am probably quite consistent.”

Francis Whately, David Bowie: Five Years, 2013.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, London: Penguin Books, 2008.

A Critical Return on Guy Debord


By Jan Baetens

On: Jean-Marie Apostolidès, Debord, le naufrageur (Paris, Flammarion: 2015)

The founding father of situationism, a highly politicized neo-avant-garde movement that is said to have played a decisive role in the May 68 turmoil (see the database “Situationist International Online: and author of the influential essay The Society of the Spectacle (various editions online, see for instance: ), Guy-Ernest Debord is considered one of the most important French thinkers of the second half of the 20th Century. One can guess students know him best from one of the most radical May 68 graffiti: “Ne travaillez jamais” or “Never work”, a principle Debord has held during all his life, for it was always others –family, friends, sponsors– who helped him make his living. The mysteries that surround Debord are numerous: first there is the enigma of the societal impact of his work, hardly known till the publication of his major work in 1967 and certainly much less noticed in that period than that of most other left-wing philosophers and activists; second, there is also the puzzle of his life, which has been the subject of intense efforts of mythification and self-mythification.

It does not come as a surprise that the most recent biography of Debord is written by Jean-Marie Apostolidès, professor emeritus of Stanford University. A specialist of French literature, drama, and cultural theory and history, Apostolidès had already widely published on Debord and situationism, both in fiction and nonfiction (for an example of the former, see for instance his play Il faut construire l’hacienda, 2006, which reconstructs the amazing encounter between Ivan Chtcheglov, a fellow situationist, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada –and father of the current prime minister of the country, see: DebordMoreover, his work as cultural historian had made Apostolidès very sensitive to some of the basic aspects of Debord’s key influence on society, such as for instance the shift from a patriarchal society to an anti-patriarchal society and the consequences of that shift for social structures either based on or rebuking authority. In his reading of Debord’s life, Apostolidès ceaselessly stresses a decisive paradox in this regard: the very authoritarian character and behavior of the man (but according to the author: the Peter Pan like capricious and megalomaniac child that Debord has always remained).

The current publication of nearly 600 pages is not only the revised and expanded version of previous, shorter biographical and fictional essays, it is also a critical return on the figure of Debord. The focus of the book is less on the literary and cinematographic work of the author than on his life, meticulously described but also systematically interpreted in light of certain childhood and adolescent traumas (absence of the father, overprotection by competing women, conflict with the stepfather and lasting influence of lost and self-constructed identities). The resulting portrait is devastating, at least from a biographical point of view. Apostolidès does not deny at all the literary and intellectual qualities of his model, but his judgment of the man –crudely egoistic, constantly manipulative–  is extremely negative. In that sense, this fascinating biography only increases the mystery of Debord’s publications, whose style and content leave no one indifferent.