Book review: Alexander, Jeffrey, Dominik Bartmanski, and Bernhard Giesen, eds. 2012. Iconic Power. Materiality and Meaning in Social Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Studying visual and plastic arts, social researchers tend to assume that an aesthetic object is pre-given to a viewer who does not participate in the process of the object’s becoming. They problematise the aesthetic status of an artwork, but not its objectness. This paper shows that audience perception, considered as interaction and situated practice, does not merely define the meanings and emotions attached to a certain object, but plays a constitutive role in the objects’ physical state and its very existence as an object, i.e. as an integrated unity extracted from its surroundings and affording a direct, intensive encounter. Synthesizing the conceptual resources of Hennion’s pragmatics of taste, Simmel’s aesthetic theory, gestalt theory, and social phenomenology, I explain various ways whereby an object in the situation of perception happens and achieves a certain mode of existence or fails to happen and disappears. The paper is based on three empirical examples derived from the ethnographic study of the open-air land art/architectural festival ‘Archstoyanie’. The first case illustrates how an object is extracted from the environment and the festival’s infrastructure; the second, how the visitors destroy the incomplete boundaries of an object so that it dissolves into the surroundings; and the third, how an object maintains its integrity despite its inner complexity and multiple centres attracting the visitors’ attention.
This article maps the development of the sociology of culture in the Soviet Union and Russia from pre-Soviet to post-Soviet times. The analysis highlights the effects of two groups of factors – one cultural, the other structural – the combination of which brought about various patterns at each stage of the discipline’s development. Because of the political environment within which they worked, Soviet researchers of culture had to employ strategies of resistance to survive. The three most common were: finding niches in related, ideologically neutral disciplines; doing purely empirical work; or, in contrast, critiquing ‘bourgeois social theories’. They also opted to work in the modes of reading rather than writing, oral discussions rather than publishing, and communication with like-minded colleagues rather than debates with opponents. Contemporary Russian sociology of culture displays this inheritance in being structured by the opposition between isolation and international integration, as well as the tension between an elitist vision of culture and the economically centered worldview which has been dominant since the 1990s.