The workshop on cultural economy: Twenty years after

by Toby Bennett November 5, 2019

This post is part of a series reflecting on two decades of cultural economy, since the original “workshop on cultural economy” was organised by Paul Du Gay and Michael Pryke at the Open University. An anniversary symposium was held at City University, on 10th January 2020.

The Workshop
The mood is cheerful, relaxed, if perhaps laced with the quiet apprehension generally provoked by the appearance of a camera on occasions like this. A dishevelled collection of geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, students of culture and organisation are seated behind classroom tables, littered with cups, water bottles, piles of paper, and assembled seminar-style around a Kodak Carousel. By this point a little antiquated, but not yet romanticised as such – the stylish drama series Mad Men, set in the 1960s, hinges a key early (2007) scene of client seduction on the mediated intimacy of just such a device – the Carousel lends a more domestic air than might be achieved through the modern art of the PowerPoint deck.


It is Nigel Thrift’s turn to pitch. Smiling, left arm elevated, index finger extended, he urges us to turn back to the canvas screen hung at the back, onto which his slide casts “Who’s Fast 99” in garish period typography. Let’s get back to work now. We’re impatient. We’re reading Fast Company, the handbook and style mag for those “performing cultures in the New Economy”. We’re weighing its breezy claims that, “[t]he demands of work and life create unparalleled freedom and opportunity – and unprecedented stress. The new challenge is to find meaning amid chaos”.

The diptych captures a brief scene from the Workshop on Cultural Economy, shutter-frozen and timestamped in the American fashion: 12/16/1999. The scene twice-preserved, we skip forwards almost two decades, where it is remediated, reframed as both childhood story and anthropological artefact, via the networked sociality of the Journal of Cultural Economy Twitter feed.

The images serve to populate and enliven the subsequent edited volume – making its way into print two years later – titled Cultural Economy: Cultural Analysis and Commercial Life. This in turn discloses further details from the day: the venue is the Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research at the Open University and most of the visible participants’ contributions are present (“Richard Sennett and Stuart Hall, who acted as plenary speaker and respondent respectively”, as the acknowledgments remark, are glaringly absent from both; as are the administrative contributions of OU staff Pamela Walker and Karen Ho). But the date, inconsistently, is January 2000. Time is out of joint; some archival work is necessary. The now-defunct Pavis Centre webpages have been crawled and semi-preserved, enough to confirm the dates of the workshop as 13-14 January 2000, not the 16 December 1999 that the camera records.

But wait – if that seems to produce certainty, then turning to Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Cultural Economy Reader, which further fleshes out the field, manages to unsettle things again: their reference to the original Cultural Economy (Amin and Thrift 2004: xxix) locates that volume’s publication not in 2002 but 1999! This last is a definite typo – but as an act of bibliographic parapraxis (for one co-editor, at least), it seems also to offer a dual testimony: of the Workshop as originary moment in this field’s emergence; and of its firm associations with the last century’s end rather than this one’s beginnings. And so a minor chaos of technical glitches disrupts the event’s memorialisation in anything so easy as a twentieth anniversary, making it stutter and jump mischievously around the turn-of-the-century divide. The photographs themselves show little evidence of Y2K millenarianism – not much sense of occasion at all really, save the flourishing of a camera. But this is all entirely appropriate, of course, to the extent that the Cultural Economy project set itself against the epochalism of a moment infused with invocations of the ‘new’: New Times, New Labour, New Media, the New Economy, and so on.

International Sociological Association XIV, Montreal, 1998

To be sure, the workshop was not the only event in the “making up” of Cultural Economy. Debates ranged across every social science discipline regarding how to do political economy “after the cultural turn”, from the pages of Marxism Today to conference panels, special symposia and to the multi-stranded research programme of the ESRC-funded Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change. These debates constructed a range of texts from curricula for the Open University book series’ like Sage’s Culture, Representation and Identities and Routledge’s Culture, Economy and the Social, to the formation of the Journal of Cultural Economy over twelve (and counting) volumes and their associated devices of organisation, metricisation and mediatisation. Through them arose new concepts, frameworks, giving theoretical sustenance to working groups, doctoral apprenticeships and professional pathways.

On the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, therefore, we reconvene the Workshop: revisiting the conditions of its emergence; provoking consideration on its legacies and possible futures. Returning to this moment in a spirit both genealogical and renovative, we encourage original participants and those who engaged with later conceptual and institutional developments (sympathetic co-conspirators and passionate critics alike) to present their own evaluations of the (ongoing) ‘making up’ of the Cultural Economy moment.

The workshop was not necessarily the defining moment – but its twentieth anniversary, whenever that might be, should offer a moment for reflection. Cultural Economy has left behind two decades of archival traces, on which viewed from the present moment – which almost seems to revel in proliferating deep cultural, political and economic ruptures and uncertainties – it seems urgently necessary, in Stuart Hall’s phrase, “to do some genealogical and archaeological work”.