Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Anthony Elliott following the publication of his latest title Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies - his 18th book with us!
Read our Q&A interview with Anthony, where the discusses his latest book, long standing career as an author with us and his work in social theory.
About the book and the subject area
Congratulations on the publication of your book Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?
Two things, really. First, that celebrity is not a trivial phenomenon. Rather, celebrity has very significant social, cultural, political and economic consequences. And second, that celebrity is remarkably complex and complicated.
I begin the book by saying this: “Celebrity is at once astonishingly mesmerising and mind-numbingly dull, crazily libertarian and depressingly conformist”. How to reconcile these torn halves of celebrity culture? This is the challenge we face, and I am joined by some terrific academics and public intellectuals from around the world in trying to figure this out in the book. Make no mistake about it: today’s culture of celebrity feigns the new, the contemporary, the up-to-date, as it recycles the past. Celebrities are constantly on the brink of obsolescence, of appearing out of date. It’s a vast machine, a complex system which has transformed radically in these early decades of the 21st century. Celebrity is celebrated for its infinite plasticity and glossy seductions, and of course this fits hand in glove the patterns of investment of global capitalism as well as the lifestyles of many living in the expensive, polished cities of the West.
What inspired you to put this book together and what did you enjoy about editing the volume?
I wanted to do this book because I kept looking for it – in what bookstores remain on the planet, and online – but couldn’t find it! I kept thinking: “It’s surely obvious: celebrity has morphed so radically in recent decades, but still the humanities and social sciences talk about fame and its cultural consequences in mostly outdated terms and terminology inherited from the last century”. So, Routledge Handbook of Celebrity Studies was born. The trick was bringing together academics from diverse disciplines – sociology, cultural studies, media studies, politics, international relations – in order to try to get beyond the stifling orthodoxies of much recent cultural research. And I think the book has achieved that. It covers a vast terrain, from celebrity in social media to pop music to fans and fandom. Significantly, there’s a long section on non-Western forms of celebrity. And it’s very reader, student friendly!
About your publishing career
You’ve published over 40 books during your career, which is pretty astonishing! How do you think your writing style has changed over the years compared to when you first published your book?
Well, again, there’s probably two parts to that. I’ve changed as a writer, since I published my first book – that’s the first point I’d say. But academic publishing has changed quite a bit since the early 1990s – that’s the second part.
When I published Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition in 1992 – which has been, more or less, in print ever since and is about to appear as a 3rd edition with Routledge next year – social science writing was, for the most part, very mainstream, somewhat dull, a kind of ‘computerese’. My colleague in Australia John Carroll, the Australian sociologist, has lambasted the failure of social scientists to be able to write things which are readable, and I think he has a point. Much of the fault of this comes from the academic journals, of which only a few hundred people on the planet seem to read. So, back to your question, I tried to write a narrative with my first book, and tell a story: the story of how psychoanalysis had been marginalized, rendered outcast, in the social sciences during the 20th century, only to be welcomed back after it had been respectfully translated into French by Freud’s radical interpreter Jacques Lacan. Luckily, following the publication of that book, I was approached by Blackwell to write a little primer on psychoanalysis, my Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction, which forced me to try to communicate to a much wider audience. I think it was from that second book that my writing became more expansive, discursive, and open-ended. In any event, there’s a very big difference between those early books and my recent works such as Reinvention (2013) and Identity Troubles(2016).
What makes your work in social theory stand out from its competitors?
I’ve written extensively about identity, society, culture, mobility, globalization and the digital revolution. I’ve been fortunate that some of my research has had significant impact upon social theory and sociology worldwide. For example, my books have been translated into over a dozen languages. In all of these works, I have sought to develop and deepen the core preoccupation of my intellectual project: namely, rethinking the relationship between self and society in the age of a global digital economy. I’ve sought to develop a distinct and original account of the creativity of human action and a robust social theory of identity in the aftermath of post-structuralism, postmodernism and post-humanism. By conjoining the insights of various recent currents in sociology (especially the writings of Anthony Giddens, Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck) with various developments in modern European thought (principally the insights of Cornelius Castoriadis and Julia Kristeva) I have set forth the social theory of ‘new individualism’ (which I originally developed with the Yale sociologist Charles Lemert) and extended in my subsequent writings.
The second key contribution, which differentiates my work from mainstream social science, is mobilities. Working with the founder of the mobilities paradigm, the late John Urry, I developed contributions to the ‘rewriting’ of social science through the analysis of movement - of people, goods, services and information. My contribution, developed in our Routledge book Mobile Lives, was to introduce new techniques of analysis capable of addressing the personal, intimate and emotional consequences of complex mobility systems. I coined the term “mobile lives” to capture how complex, contested mobility systems are intricately interwoven with the transformation of ordinary lives “on the move”. This original insight into the interlocking of mobility systems and mobile lives involved the invention of various neologisms – “miniaturized mobilities”, “network capital”, “affect storage” and “portable personhood” – which have powerfully influenced the field of mobilities research.
The third area is that of psychoanalysis, both as method and theory for the social sciences. I was the first to develop a systematic, comparative study of the import of psychoanalysis for the social sciences - principally through a comparative critique of readings of psychoanalysis in the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory on the one hand and Structuralism and Post-Structuralism on the other hand. I introduced a comparative approach to contemporary psychoanalytic theories, one that went beyond the mainstream cross of Freud and Lacan that previously had won ascendency in the social sciences. While I was living and working in the UK, first in Bristol and then at Canterbury, I realized that mainstream accounts of self-theory were inadequate to the emotional complexities of human experience. I leveraged this insight to argue that a critical appropriation of psychoanalysis is of central significance to a more complex, nuanced conceptualization of human subjectivity in the human sciences. In the related area of psychosocial methodologies, I pioneered methods for clinically-informed, in-depth interviewing of human subjects. My breakthrough was to demonstrate how psychoanalytic approaches can engage with the complex ways individuals emotionally invest positions of discourse. These breakthroughs were recognized by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council which used my publications to help define its “Identities and Social Action” Program, and where I delivered an ESRC keynote at Birmingham University.
Tell us more about your academic background and what first attracted you to social theory?
Well, I never planned to be an academic! I wanted to be a musician. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne in the 1980s studying law and arts, and it had been suggested to me (in polite but direct terms) by the Dean of the Law School that it would be best if I left the Law Faculty! So, I retreated to my Arts Degree, but my passion was music and I didn’t really think much of the social sciences. Then, I encountered this amazing professor, the late Alan Davies, who was running a course of Freud and dreams. Davies had around him all these brilliant people who were trying to inject psychoanalysis into social theory andpublic debate, academics such as John Cash and Graham Little. I was spellbound by this work, and thought such research important and timely. They were good enough to support me, and encourage me in my endeavours. In 1986, Anthony Giddens from Cambridge University came to the University of Melbourne to deliver some public lectures. I met with him, and he encouraged me to apply to study at Cambridge. The stumbling block, as always, was money. But luckily I won a Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship and was able to travel to the UK to commence my PhD, with Anthony Giddens as my supervisor. Tony is the most exceptional academic I’ve ever encountered, and he was a brilliant supervisor. Much of what I now do in my intellectual, academic and professional life was heavily influenced by him. It’s interesting that, whilst I can’t easily recall what we talked about in supervisions for my Thesis, all these years later I have all these capacities and ways of doing things which I learnt from him. And when I say learnt, I don’t mean consciously: these were skills, capacities, and ways of doing social life which were ‘transmitted’ pre-consciously or unconsciously. It’s amazing really, because much of Giddens’s social theory is exactly about the routine, practical, pre-conscious conduct of social life and its reproduction.
Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?
What comes next will develop and deepen themes presented in my most recent book, The Culture of AI (Routledge, 2019). There will be several book projects, and they are all concerned with the digital revolution - specifically, developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Everything that’s in the pipeline will be filtered through the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of South Australia, of which I am Executive Director. I’m fortunate to work with a really inspiring international, interdisciplinary team at the Centre. I also hold Visiting Professorships in Japan and Ireland, and increasingly spend time in Germany. The new book projects derive from empirical research we are doing which has been funded by the European Commission, the Toyota Foundation and the Australian Research Council among others.
AI, machine learning and advanced robotics represents, from one angle, a technological tsunami. It’s a brave new world of stunning opportunities and high-consequence risks. The new books will be charting this out in the fields of employment, education, lifestyle change, global politics and much else.
Anthony Elliott is Executive Director of the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of South Australia, where he is Research Professor of Sociology and Chancellery Dean of External Engagement. He is Super-Global Professor of Sociology (Visiting) at Keio University, Japan, and Visiting Professor of Sociology at UCD, Ireland. Professor Elliott studied at the Universities of Melbourne and Cambridge, where he was supervised by Lord Anthony Giddens. He was previously Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK and was Associate Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Flinders University, Australia. Professor Elliott is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, a Fellow of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, and a member of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the author and editor of some 40 books, which have been translated or are forthcoming in 17 languages. His recent books include Identity (4 volumes), Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, The New Individualism (with Charles Lemert), Mobile Lives (with John Urry), On Society (with Bryan S. Turner), Reinvention, Identity Troubles, and The Culture of AI. He is best known for Concepts of the Self, which has been in continuous print for 20 years and across three editions.
Find out more about Anthony and his work by visiting his website http://www.anthonyelliott.org/
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