“Assembling Culture” Research Workshop, Melbourne

Assembling Culture was a research workshop held here at the University of Melbourne on 10th and 11th December. The workshop was convened by Tony Bennett (Open University and CRESC) and Chris Healy (University of Melbourne) and brought together a dozen scholars from Australia and the UK who spent two days discussing the potential of Actor-Network and Assemblage Theory for the analysis of cultural production.

The richness of the workshop derived from the range of disciplinary perspectives represented (including sociology, history, cultural studies, anthropology and museology) and the diverse subjects of the participants’ papers. These ranged from 19th century life assurance (Liz McFall) and craniology (Kay Anderson) to those ubiquitous contemporary commodities, bottled water (Gay Hawkins) and mobile media (Gerard Goggin). Sharon MacDonald discussed her recent work on the post-war history of the former Nazi rally grounds at Nuremburg. Both Evelyn Ruppert and Tim Rowse analysed the practices and uses of censuses in relation to indigenous people in Canada and Australasia respectively. Practices of assembling objects and also people were directly addressed in papers including my own work on the emergence of a public art culture in London in the early 19th century and Tony Bennett’s analysis of French museums of anthropology. Tony also introduced all of us to the wonderfully named Society of Mutual Autopsy in Paris whose members carried out autopsies on each others’ bodies when they died.

The diversity of subjects addressed in the workshop certainly demonstrated the flexibility of conceptualising culture as an assemblage, with a particular focus on the role of different forms of expertise in cultural practices. Inevitably, it also raised debates about the application and interpretation of Actor-Network Theory to these topics and, in particular, its political implications. For museology students interested in this exploring this theoretical approach, you could make a start with the work of Bruno Latour, John Law and Manuel DeLanda. The workshop was supported by Australian Cultural Researchers Network, the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change (CRESC), and the Ian Potter Foundation at the University of Melbourne. A special issue of a new CRESC journal, The Journal of Cultural Economy, based on the workshop is being planned.