50 Key Terms in Contemporary Cultural Theory

Anthropocene, posthumanism, biopolitics… Terms such as these have not only become very popular in academic circles, but they are also increasingly used in public debates, catalogues of exhibitions and policy documents. Sometimes a term suddenly becomes a fashionable buzzword, only to go out of fashion as quickly as it gained attention, but there are also terms that people keep on using because they help us to understand something important about contemporary society.

finale cover 50 Key Terms croppedIn the book 50 Key Terms in Contemporary Cultural Theory, edited by Joost de Bloois, Stijn De Cauwer and Anneleen Masschelein, 50 important terms are explained by 35 scholars. In short texts, the history and context of each term is explained, as well as the debates that the term has triggered. Each text is followed by a short bibliography for further reading. There are terms that help us to understand contemporary political challenges: precarity, immaterial labor, biopolitics, common(s), anthropocene, surveillance, debt, cultural memory, agonism, multitude, spectacle, post-truth and political theology. Some terms help us to understand new media developments: algorithm, open access, digital cultural heritage, convergence, archive and network. Other terms help us to come to terms with the diversity of human life: intersectionality, heteronormativity, posthumanism, postfeminism, postcolonialism and crip theory. Some terms are deceptively simple but they have a complex history and their use has become the object of critical research in the Humanities: love, war, life, justice, immunity, noise, image, participation, crisis, creativity, performance, rhythm, curating and that mysterious notion people like to use so easily, culture. Certain terms may be considered to be somewhat outdated in the public opinion but they have continued to be relevant in the Humanities: utopia, class and ideology. Finally, there are terms which have become much-debated theoretical terms: accelerationism, plasticity, affect, individuation, speculation, medicalization and the sensible.

Amongst the 35 authors in this book, there are several staff members of the Cultural Studies program (Anneleen Masschelein, Stijn De Cauwer, Jan Baetens, Jonas Rutgeerts, Leni Van Goidsenhoven, Silvana Mandolessi, Laura Smith, Clarissa Colangelo, Gert-Jan Meyntjens, Heidi Peeters) and the Literary Studies department (Elke D’Hoker, Tom Chadwick, Michiel Rys, Jan Vanvelk, Tom Willaert).

With this book, the authors hope to clarify the meaning and use of these 50 key terms, which can be of great value to comprehend some of the challenges we all face today. The terms are not only of interest for students or researchers, but also for policy makers, people working in the art world and other cultural domains and people active in social and environmental organizations. Anybody who wants to take part in debates about the current political, social or cultural state of affairs will inevitably encounter these terms and this book will be a useful guide.

In Leuven, the book will be available in book stores such as Acco.


The Killing of a Sacred Deer, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (2017)

By Laura Smith

An archaic theme plays out in the interior world of a wealthy nuclear family. The superficiality and formality with which the members of the family relate to one another, in speech and interaction, creates a sense of unreality, planting a seed of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the plane on which the drama unfolds. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is described as a psychological horror. I am not sure horror, or even thriller—perhaps a thriller of inevitability—describe the film but rather a psychological disruptor, a psychological tornado, in which the tornado passes through the onscreen world quietly and in uncannily slow motion. It leaves behind debris of all sorts.

FilmImageThe film opens with an uncomfortable scene, thrusting the viewer head on to the heart of the matter. This initial anxiety rings like white noise throughout the film, increasing and decreasing in pitch, but penetratingly constant. Its only pitch-equal is the closing scene that, while quite a different image, echoes the initial degree of discomfort with which the viewer has been coping for the last 115 minutes.

The story and its name are based on Greek mythology. It is a story that seems completely out of place in the present, with its brutal and archaic rules for justice. Collin Farrell’s character, Steven, is a successful surgeon and head of household who has an unlikely friendship with a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan). In his review for RogerEbert, Brian Tallerico underscores that Steven plays the role of God, while Martin, who in increasing increments turns the family’s immaculate world upside down, plays that of the Devil. However, this categorical dichotomy twists like hot metal as the story unfolds and the viewer becomes aware of the doctor’s many and serious ‘shortcomings’. As Tallerico points out, the world of Steven appears, next to that of the boy’s, to be demonic rather than mortal. This demonic reversal from Martin to the family is again challenged when Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, acts in a Christ-like manner towards the supposed Devil, dressing his wounds and kissing his feet.

What remains most interesting is the treatment of bodies in the film. The disturbing sexual practice of “playing assault” with his wife is not merely a strange bit of character development, but rather can be understood as a central point around which the film turns. This film, beyond “science versus supernatural thematics” is one of bodily—figurative and literal—relations. When Martin is invited to the doctor’s home, his children—a girl of 15 and boy a few years younger, are curious to see Martin’s body. He is asked about his body hair and he, in turn, repeats this curiosity in his relationship with the older doctor. What is striking is that the doctor’s family, his wife and children, seem to miss evident facts about his body: Steven’s wife only notices his beautiful hands after strangers point them out, his son boasts of his father’s abundant body hair, which turns out to be more than an exaggeration. While we can chalk up the last example to an instance of a younger boy trying to impress an older boy, it remains pertinent that, to his family, Steven does not seem human, but rather is simultaneously a divine authoritarian and a shell, a simulation. Moreover, in Steven’s treatment of their bodies, his family seems likewise both spectral and (explicitly) objectified.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems, on the surface, to be a straight-forward cliché tale of an eye for an eye or a heart for a heart. However, the consistently manipulated degrees of anxiety reproduce in the viewer what is experienced as an automation of paranoid connections and their reversals, a seeming celestial, although immanent equation with no solution. We are not so much—or only—left wondering about the age-old questions of sacrifice, guilt, and justice, but about the world in which such extremes of the mythic and the modern appear as simply two sides of the same coin.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is currently in Cinema Zed http://www.cinemazed.be/

Reviews: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-killing-of-a-sacred-deer-2017

Robert Doisneau at the Musée d’Ixelles

By Laura Smith

The French twentieth-century photographer Robert Doisneau has become synonymous with his image of Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville (1950), which shows a mise en scène of a couple embracing amidst the street’s hustle and bustle. Fans of Doisneau, or simply visitors of Paris, will recognize many of his black and white photographs from their popular postcard form, most notably his series of café scenes, scenes of daily life, of artists and children. The exhibition, now on at the Musée d’Ixelles, displays both classic and many lesser-known images of his black and white collections spanning roughly 1930-1970, alongside vibrant colourful photographs of Palm Springs, California in the 60’s.


The museum’s interior architecture, which allows for visits of a circular flow, supports the exhibition’s three movements; Le Merveilleux quotidien, which displays photographs including FFI au repos (1944) and La dernière valse du 14 juillet (1949), images of cafés, marriages, and glimpsed moments; Palm Springs 1960, a collection produced for the February 1961 issue of Fortune magazine that shows, in bright blues, yellows and soft pinks the leisure life of Americans on the golf course and by the pool side, and Ateliers d’artistes, which allows for a view inside the studios of Picasso, Utrillo, Giacometti, Le Corbusier and many others. Particular delights from this last section include Tinguely – portrait de l’artiste (1959) and Niki de St Phalle (1971). For Doisneau fans, this exhibition is a chance to see gems from his collection (L’Atelier Robert Doisneau) and to discover unknown, surprising and impressive works by the artist. For those looking to get acquainted with the photographer’s work, this exhibition displays his ability to capture moments of socio-historical importance and the lifestyle of the everyday in Paris and Palm Springs. While the shift from the American golf course to the Parisian atelier at first felt like a cliché new-world/old-world dichotomy, the juxtaposition between the classic iconic black and white images with those vibrant photographs of Palm Springs—the latter of which is set against a wall of bubble-gum pink—highlights a continuity of striking composition and an attentiveness to daily gestures that connects such diverse contexts. Both the fan and the discoverer of Doisneau’s work come away from this exhibition with a renewed sense that it is in the mundane everyday that one catches glimpses of the joy, the humour, and the theatricality of life, if we are attentive. I myself found a new favourite image in, Fête à la maternelle de Gentilly (1934).

The Doisneau exhibition is on now and runs until 04.02.2018 at the Musée d’Ixelles (rue Jean Van Volsem 71, 1050 Bruxelles).