Shakespeare not as lone genius but product of an art world

Howard Becker’s famous idea of an “art world” sounds like it could well apply to the success of William Shakespeare:

Shakespeare is not Western literature’s great inventor but rather its great inheritor. The Bard borrowed plots, ideas, characters, themes, philosophies, and occasional passages from sources ranging from Plutarch’s Lives and Holinshed’s Chronicles to Montaigne’s Essays and plays by his contemporaries. He returned again and again to ancient Rome, finding inspiration in Ovid, Seneca, Plautus, and others.

His inheritance also goes beyond the textual. When he began working in the London theater scene, its component parts were there waiting for him. There were already professional theater companies, outdoor amphitheaters, plays in five acts, iambic pentameter, and conventions surrounding comedies, tragedies, and history plays.

None of this should make us think less of Shakespeare’s achievements and neither should the increasing evidence that he sometimes used uncredited collaborators and occasionally served as one himself. Shakespeare didn’t just faithfully reproduce his sources—he argued with and subverted them, he combined them in unconventional ways, and he made substantial changes to them. King Leir, the anonymous source text for Shakespeare’s King Lear, ends with Leir restored to the throne and everyone still alive. Shakespeare frequently expands roles for women in his plays and removes many passages where characters share their motivations. Shakespeare also often makes his plays more complicated than his sources, both ethically and logistically. He even went so far as to add an extra set of identical twins to The Comedy of Errors.

To sum up:

A grubby businessman furiously writing plays and ripping off whatever he could get his hands on hardly fits our model of artistic genius. We think of geniuses as tormented rock stars, breaking new ground with sui generis innovations that spring from their minds like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In movies like Amadeus, this myth of artistic genius makes for delicious art in its own right, but it’s not how artistic creation really works. Creating a work of art is part of an endless dialogue that reaches both back thousands of years and out into the world around us. This is what Shakespeare did, and he didn’t do it alone.

Just because Shakespeare was not a lone genius does not diminish his work. Indeed, perhaps it is even more remarkable in this light: while there were plenty of other people who could have drawn upon the same resources and were engaged in similar activities to Shakespeare, they were not able to do the same thing.

Even though I teach about this topic from the sociology of culture fairly regularly, the idea of a lone genius is difficult for students to overcome. Not only do they want to give credit for success to a single person, they sometimes do not see “remixing” or approaching existing materials in new ways and with editing as examples of creativity. Yet, many of the social changes we see as monumental did not require the development of a completely new idea but rather a reapplication or reuse of existing concepts.

This reminds me: I should do a better job in the classroom of explaining how sociological work comes about. When you see a final product – article, book, other publication – it is easy to just see the author(s). But, there is often a significant backstory involving multiple people, institutions, and ongoing discussions within an academic field. For example, this blog post could be examined further for where the ideas came from. The typical acknowledgements section of a publication does not provide enough space to truly acknowledge the intellectual debts of the author(s) – and it is debatable whether readers would want to dig into this further.

Sociologist: “Celebrity is a self-defeating construct”

With a new Amy Winehouse documentary out, several sociologists weigh in on the nature of celebrity:

“Celebrity is a self-defeating construct,” says Dustin Kidd, a sociologist at Temple University and the author of Pop Culture Freaks: Identity, Mass Media, and Society. “Celebrities are seen as geniuses whose creativity comes out of [personal narrative]. Working artists, more common but more boring, develop their creative work through a daily grind of creative discipline, practice, and revision that is balanced with a full, multi-dimensional life. Tabloid culture turns the artist into the story themselves.”…

In other words, though this might be obvious, the attention Winehouse got as she rose to superstardom, like Marilyn Monroe or Ernest Hemingway before her, actually changed what society expected of her as an artist: the public was obsessed with how her image as an iconic trainwreck was reflected in her music, not with the music itself…

“There’s no boundaries to who can weigh in on what you’ve done and what you are doing,” says Joshua Gamson, a sociologist at the University of San Francisco and author of “Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America.” “Your story is a commodity, so people are actually competing for the profit from that commodity … [Celebrities] try to stay in control of their story — that’s why they hire publicists, why they hide out — but that’s part of the deal with celebrity. It’s what keeps you successful.”

“The working artists who survive and thrive,” Kidd adds, “seem to consistently either avoid the tabloid spotlight entirely, or they present the media only with a contrived performance, like Lady Gaga.”

And as noted later in the article, we all get a little taste of this today as we can project what we want through social media and receive attention from both those who know us as well as join a viral realm where what we say and do might be picked apart by millions.

Yet, to me this seems to beg some basic questions about celebrity:

1. Do the people who were or are celebrities actually enjoy it? To be turned into a commodity sounds exactly like Marx’s idea of alienation.

2. What are the long-lasting consequences of being positively or negatively famous?

3. Since we have some indications that humans can only have about 150 stable relationships (Dunbar’s number), does having so much social exposure from celebrity inevitably lead to social and psychological problems?

4. So much of this celebrity push seems to come from the mass media – indeed, you couldn’t really have celebrity in the way we know it today before the mass media of the 20th century. Are people who consume less media less interested in or influenced by celebrity?

Structuralists vs. culturalists in explaining poverty

Sociologists may not have the public profile they desire but the discussion about it may have helped. The New Yorker looks at two sociological approaches to poverty and attempts to sum up the culturalist approach:

There is a paradox at the heart of cultural sociology, which both seeks to explain behavior in broad, categorical terms and promises to respect its subjects’ autonomy and intelligence. The results can be deflating, as the researchers find that their subjects are not stupid or crazy or heroic or transcendent—their cultural traditions just don’t seem peculiar enough to answer the questions that motivate the research. Black cultural sociology has always been a project of comparison: the idea is not simply to understand black culture but to understand how it differs from white culture, as part of the broader push to reduce racial disparities that have changed surprisingly little since Du Bois’s time. Fifty years after Moynihan’s report, it’s easy to understand why he was concerned. Even so, it’s getting easier, too, to sympathize with his detractors, who couldn’t understand why he thought new trends might explain old problems. If we want to learn more about black culture, we should study it. But, if we seek to answer the question of racial inequality in America, black culture won’t tell us what we want to know.

Do we have to have an either/or answer? Situations like these are complex and involve a multitude of factors. That doesn’t necessarily lend itself to quick policy making or answers the media can grab and run with. Yet, even sociologists of culture would highlight other structural factors including economics and race in addition to the power of patterns of meaning-making.

How much do academics cite work in another discipline?

Sociologist Jerry Jacobs has a new book about the value of specific academic disciplines and presents this data regarding how much academics cite work outside their field:

“Interdisciplinarity depends on strong disciplines,” he said.

He said he became interested in the topic while serving as editor of American Sociological Review. He wanted to see if the articles in that journal were showing up as citations in the work of non-sociologists, and found that they were, leading him to question the idea that disciplines don’t communicate with one another. Using National Science Foundation data, he looked at where science journals are cited, and found that a “substantial minority” of citations come in other fields.

Citation Outside of Disciplines

Discipline % of Citations From Outside Field
Physics 18.3%
Chemistry 31.0%
Earth and space sciences 16.8%
Mathematics 22.6%
Biology 38.3%
Biomedical research 24.6%
Clinical medicine 28.6%
Engineering and technology 38.1%
Psychology 34.5%
Social sciences 22.7%

Jacobs then analyzes the various social sciences, and finds that scholars in the interdisciplinary field of area studies are more likely to cite non-area studies work than their own fields, while economics scholars are mostly likely to cite their own field. “These data on cross-field citations raise an important question for advocates of interdisciplinarity, namely whether the fields that are most open to external ideas are also the most intellectually dynamic,” Jacobs writes. “If this were true, area studies would be the envy of the social sciences, and economists would be busy trying to figure out how best to emulate the success of areas studies scholars. In fact, the reverse is true: economics is the most influential field in the social sciences, and it is also the most inwardly focused.”

While interdisciplinary is a hot topic, it is nice to see some data on the topic. How much should scholars cite those outside their disciplines? Jacobs suggests here that he thinks 20-30% of citations outside of one’s field is a good total – roughly one-fifth to one-third of citations. Should this be higher? Who gets to set these guidelines? The table also suggests this can vary quite a bit across disciplines.

I’ve noticed in my own research that certain topics in sociology lend themselves to more interdisciplinary citations, particularly for certain subject matter and new areas of study. I study within the subfields of urban sociology and the sociology of culture, subjects with plenty of sociologists but also plenty of interest in other disciplines. Some of my recent projects have been more historical, meaning I’m interacting more with historians, and about the media, meaning I’m interacting with work in media studies, communication, English, and elsewhere. Also, studying less-studied topics means one has to go further afield to understand what all of academia has said. In my work with McMansions, I’ve found that sociologists haven’t said much so I’ve worked with sources in history, planning, law, and housing (a rather interdisciplinary field).

Music has gotten louder not to drive sales but because artists want it that way

Recorded music today tends to be loud – and this is what many artists want:

The problem with Katz’s pronouncement, though, is that the market doesn’t incentivize loudness in the first place. Studies have shown that there is no correlation between volume and sales. Broadcast radio, where the competition for loudness might be most fierce, already clips the audio waveform at a certain level to avoid conflicts with advertisements and speech. Many cloud music services like Rdio and Spotify already have volume adjustment logic built in with no noticeable effect on recording trends. Low-fidelity loudness has succeeded and survived for some time without much outcry from the public, just from the small population of audiophiles and sound engineers.

The truth is that artists and engineers make their music loud because they want to. And the desire to do so usually correlates more with trends in technology than with commercial concerns. From gramophones to electric playback of records and digital technology, a series of short-lived fads have sprung up wherein musicians abuse new listening mediums to make their songs as loud as possible to the detriment of fidelity. In a paper for the journal Popular Music, Kyle Devine reviewed the long history of feuds over formats and electrical amplification for attention:

The history of sound reproduction can be understood as a history in which auditory ideals and practicalities are in constant negotiation, where the priorities of audiences and “audiophiles” drift in and out of synch…

And something similar is happening now in pop music as more songs that aren’t in the vein of screaming punk choruses make their way onto the charts. While not high fidelity, groups like Adele and Mumford & Sons are easing away from the volume ceiling with moments of quiet that are actually, technically, quiet.

We’ll see what happens in the latest installment of the loudness wars. There appears to be an interesting interplay between what is possible technologically, what artists want to try (and this varies quite a bit by genre), and what the public wants to listen to. From a production perspective in the sociology of culture, technology is the important part because that is what drives tastes. Flip the question around and we could ask whether punk rock would have emerged as it did without the technological ability to simply play loud.

I wonder if another reason is the uptick in headphone/earbud usage throughout the day which really began in force during the 1980s with the Walkman which was followed by the Discman which was followed by mp3 players/phones. While walking around and with lower quality headphones, particularly ones that don’t block out other noise or cover the whole ear, quiet songs are difficult to hear.

How boundary work helps explains false equivalence in the media

Read here for an explanation of how the sociological concept of boundary work is applied to the issue of false equivalence in media coverage:

Boundary work is a kind of rhetorical work that is performed in public argument: something is asserted to be science by stressing what it is not (pseudo-science, or faith, or religion, or what have you). Even Tim Geithner did it in his exit interview when he painted his own work as just a kind of technocratic problem-solving rather than politics, see this analysis.

It seems to me that our political discourse also contains a similar kind of boundary work — between “politics” and “policy.” Our politicians will always say: what I’m doing is just plain old common sense or the right thing or just good policy, or just the solution to a problem; whereas what my opponent is doing is playing politics. And if one sees politics as actually a way of managing relations between conflicting groups of people, one can see why they do that.

For instance, reforming the American health care system is almost certainly a matter of redistribution: taking money from older people and giving it to others (the uninsured, younger people, etc.). But one can’t say that if one is a politician, and so there is a delicate balancing act: one’s own work is constructed as problem-solving and policy-making, the opponent is portrayed as playing politics (where politics is understood to be trading off between different social groups).

I think this kind of boundary work exists in journalism too (and more on why it exists later); it’s what you call false equivalence (and Yglesias calls bipartisan think). Here the newspaper is seen as above politics, which is what grubby politicians do. And therefore the contrast between the policy that the newspaper is advocating (which is not politics but merely good moral sensible stuff), and that what the politicians are doing. It is imperative, I think, in this model that both parties be painted in the same brush. Because if you don’t, then you agree with one of the parties, which therefore makes you political.

Why should the newspapers practice this kind of boundary work? My sense (which comes straight from Paul Starr’s history of the media) is that it’s a holdover from the times when the newspaper industry changed. As we all know now (from arguing about partisanship), newspapers in the 19th century were unabashedly partisan. They also catered to niches, and made money from subscriptions. And that changed sometime in the 20th century when newspapers started to make money from advertisements — and therefore they had to be less partisan and attract more people. Hence the objective tone of the reported stories (he says, she says) — and also I think the false equivalence of the editorials.

The concept of symbolic boundaries is an important one in the sociology of culture. Groups or organizations engage in drawing boundaries between what they are (by their own definition) and what they say others are. Policing these boundaries is a consistent and tricky task; the changes the other groups make might force a group to redraw its own boundaries. Or, outside social forces and circumstances might push all groups to redraw or double down on their boundaries. A good application of this concept to defining social class in the United States and France is Michele Lamont’s book Money, Morals, and Manners.

From modest homes in a Canadian prairie town to McMansions

R.J. Snell returned to the Canadian prairie town of his youth and was surprised to find that its modest homes had been replaced with McMansions:

Having just returned from a two-week visit, I’m struck by the visible demise of modest restraint, particularly in the homes. Driving about the countryside, for this is what one does there, I saw many new homes of a preposterous scale, many thousands of square feet (one even had an outbuilding to house all the mechanicals), with multiple garrets and turrets, all jutting conspicuously from the fields and into my purview. They could not be hidden, nor were they meant to, and on the treeless flatness were visible for great distances.

Right beside them, sometimes just across the road, stood the old farmhouse, diminutive, overshadowed. In the towns, a kind of segregation had taken place, with the older neighborhoods a mix of homes smaller or larger (but of a kind), but new developments on the far side of town housing looming monstrosities dwarfing the older places.

This was not neighborly. This was not modest. This was a thumbing of the nose at those with less, a demand to be noticed, seen.  Roger Scruton writes of the bad manners of much contemporary architecture compared with older patterns, saying:

The principal concern of the architects was to fit in to an existing urban fabric, to achieve local symmetry within the context of a historically given settlement. No greater aesthetic catastrophe has struck our cities—European just as much as American—than the modernist idea that a building should stand out from its surroundings, to become a declaration of its own originality. As much as the home, cities depend upon good manners; and good manners require the modest accommodation to neighbors rather than the arrogant assertion of apartness.

Rod Dreher follows up with an interesting question:

The question is, did money cause this cultural revolution in domestic architecture, or did the arrival of wealth happen to coincide with a cultural revolution in the way people thought about themselves and their desires, causing them to build their houses in a certain way now as opposed to then?

Which comes first: the cultural values or the material conditions? If looking at this from the production perspective in the sociology of culture, changes in material conditions like how architects are viewed, how single-family homes are viewed (as Snell suggests, should homes fit into the neighborhood or stick out?), how houses are constructed, how the real estate business operate, how zoning laws and local regulation encourage or discourage larger homes, etc. In other words, architectural styles or consumer desires don’t just change because individuals desire this. Rather, they change in conjunction with material and cultural change.

I also wonder about larger factors affecting this community. Where did residents get this money to spend on bigger houses? I ask this after lecturing this week about the Ferdinand Tonnies’ ideas about gemeinschaft and gesellschaft as well as Emile Durkheim’s concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity. Both theorists were interested in the shift from small town life to more urban life. Both suggested urban life contained fewer strong interpersonal relationships and systems where people were joined together by interdependence and external constraints rather than tradition, family ties, and shared values. Is a similar process taking place in this prairie town, perhaps through suburbanization or the rise of a good nearby job source or the Internet which opens up more possibilities for residents to connect to the outside world?