Accepted for publication in the The Information Society’s special issue: ‘The Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data’ – Vol. 29, Issue 3, Taylor and Francis
New debates surrounding the digital remains of people who have died and the possibilities that new technologies raise in terms of symbolic immortality are generating significant interest. These issues provide exciting opportunities for sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists to further understand evolving attitudes to death and mourning. But what happens when the deceased is a popular media figure and the symbolic immortality extends to a digital resurrection played out through the media in new contexts and over an extended period of time? Drawing on sociological, anthropological and cultural theory, this discursive paper addresses some of the reasons for the perpetuation of media personalities whose posthumous careers often exceed their living careers, both in longevity and popularity. It is argued that digital technologies add a new dimension to the many parallels that can be drawn between celebrity culture and religion in what are becoming increasingly secularised societies. For many, digital technology and the Internet remain incomprehensible, leaving room for mythical and magical interpretations especially in relation to a prospect many prefer to deny – ultimate non-existence. It is proposed that the disenchantment with religious belief, brought about by science and rational thought during the Enlightenment era, leaves many people with inadequate or unacceptable ways of understanding death and mourning. Ironically it seems that science and new technology now provide the fuel for a re-enchantment of society, and the now normalised suspension of disbelief inherent in the consumption of media entertainment and popular culture helps to facilitate this process.
In April this year a group of American social psychologists published a study entitled Shoes as a Source of First Impressions. The study, conducted by the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, aimed to prove that people can make accurate assumptions about other people’s personalities by simply looking at their shoes. Despite its flaws – most notably that all 271 participants (subjects and observers) were undergraduate psychology students, thereby vastly reducing the potential ambiguities associated with varying ages, ethnicities, political affiliations and economic backgrounds – the study has sparked the public imagination: taken up across the globe with headlines like ‘Why this boot means you may be depressed’ (The Sun, June 14th 2012).
Thankfully some of these claims have also been critiqued in the popular press. Virginia Postrel contacted and referenced the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ team in her article Boots are made for talking, about who we are for Bloomberg View and raised a far more interesting and insightful issue in relation to the publicity the study received:
“By getting so much attention […] it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes.”
She goes on to look at various social, cultural and historical factors that may have contributed to our current interpretations of, and fascination with shoes – suggesting that simplistic reductions of meaning undermine the rich and diverse uses and experiences of shoes in consumer culture today.
Indeed it seems that everyone does have an opinion on shoes which is why it is a joy to be working on an academic research project that transgresses academic boundaries and engages the public in such a profound way. Our data promise to show that while some people certainly do use shoes to identify others, this process is far from straightforward and certainly can’t be codified or generalised – no matter how attractive this prospect may be. Postrel’s responses to the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project and my own PhD research suggests that an audience for our research is ready and waiting to be presented with some of the sociological realities and fascinating intricacies of people’s relationships with shoes, and with one another through shoes.
To read Postrel’s full article click here.
In December last year I helped curate an exhibition in the ICOSS building at the University of Sheffield which showcased the research that had been conducted to-date for the research project If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition. The exhibition was aimed at communicating the aims and objectives of the project, along with a sample of the data gathered so far, to a wider audience.
I later assisted Jenny Hockey in writing a review built on an exhibition toolkit written by Hazel Burke as part of the ‘Real Life Methods’ programme at the University of Manchester. Those planning on setting up an exhibition to disseminate data, or those interested in seeing some images of our exhibition may be interested to read the review (left).
I also produced a brief observational film of people’s shoes on Carnaby Street in London to accompany the exhibition. To view the film click here.
‘This is not a Pipe Shoe’: Deconstructing the Shoe as a Visual Metaphor for Gendered Experience.
It is perhaps no surprise that shoes are used in visual culture to signify gender and sexual identity. In terms of film, one need go no further than Sandy’s transformational high-heeled red mules in the movie Grease to realise their significance. However, through an innovative set of research methods the research reported in this paper sheds light on the extent to which shoes and gender – through visual metaphor – are enmeshed in much more mundane, and powerful, visual contexts.
Drawing on Butler’s assertion that gender is constituted and also transformed through stylised repetitive acts (1988), the paper analyses the results of a 48-hour content analysis, performed to determine the various ways shoes are represented on television. A small selection of the resulting 170 references will show some of the ways gender stereotypes are not only fortified, but also transformed and subverted through shoes.
During a recent empirical study, the selection of clips was shown to research participants who work in the footwear industry. Their responses revealed that in some circumstances metaphorical use renders particular shoes invisible – even those people most conditioned and likely to notice the shoes were surprised by what they saw. The invisibility of these shoes raises concerns about their subliminal power when representing gender and sexual identity. By shining the spotlight on visual shoe metaphors one is able to ‘make strange’ and therefore deconstruct what we think we know about shoes, and gender.
Butler, J. 1988. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40, 4, 519-531.
For more information about the conference or to register click here to be redirected to the University of Winchester website.
Earlier this year I was asked to review the paperback edition of the book Shoes: a History from Sandals to Sneakers for the second issue of the journal Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, edited by Efrat Tseëlon and published by Itellect.
If you subscribe to the journal click here to read the review.
Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil (eds), 2011 London: Berg, (448 pp.), ISBN 9780857850386, PB, £19.99
In 2010, during my masters in Material and Visual Culture at UCL I completed a documentary filmmaking course. The resulting film was one of 5 selected from a class of 18 to be shown at the annual UCL film premiere screening.
An inspiring love story that focuses on Joan Cattanach’s memories of her 59 year marriage to her husband Sandy. The film documents the importance of objects and possessions in the development of life-long relationships and shows that while objects are essential in order to bond with others in life, their significance, rather than die with the physical body, continues as an important tangible way of connecting with loved ones after death.
To view the film (16 minutes) please click the link below.
This was an anthropological experiment I did for the methodologies module on the Material and Visual Culture MA at UCL in 2010. The project now forms the basis for a regular lecture on innovative research methods delivered to Design and Visual Culture undergraduate students at Nottingham Trent University.
Four small plastic toys were released into the world and their journeys were photographically recorded by participants and logged through the social networking site Facebook (to visit the Facebook group click here). Photos were then compiled into a hard-back book with an accompanying essay which drew comparisons between modern exchange practices in the West and Bronislaw Malinowski’s study of the Kula exchange.
The experiment was inspired by Arjun Appadurai’s book ‘The Social Life of Things’ and Igor Kopytoff’s essay ‘The Cultural Biography of Things’. It sought to prove (sucessfully) that Appadurai’s so called ‘tournaments of value’ and Kopytoff’s ‘exchange spheres’ are indeed possible in late capitalist societies and not merely restricted to non-monetized societies like the Trobriand Islands. By following the objects’ biographies through the Facebook page, the experiment gave an effective insight into how material objects accumulate social and sentimental value.
To read the book please click here.
- Appadurai, Arjun, 1986, Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value in Appadurai, Arjun (ed), 1986, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Kopytoff, Igor, 1986, The Cultural Biography of Things in Appadurai, Arjun (ed), 1986, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.