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Director's cut — September 2004

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September 1, 2004 by Tara Brabazon

Greetings to members and lurkers.

Popular culture has energy to it, encouraging passionate debate, staunch attack or dense love. It moves us outside of lives and into new terrain, challenging us to think differently and be different.

Besides the Olympics, politics has been dominating my vista and ideas in the last month. Many of these troubled thoughts were provoked by Michael Moore's filmic commentary on 9/11. Most people have seen it — and most people have an opinion on it. While listening to others offer their commentary, I was fascinated how Moore was attacked. He made 'a bad documentary.' He used 'excessive emotion' to make his points. He was 'a propagandist,' not a film maker.

As I listened to these comments about the film, I became troubled. Not because these views were 'wrong,' but disingenuous. One of our members, Felicity Cull — head of the Rhythm and Movement hub — provided a rationale for my disquiet. As some of you may know, Felicity is writing a PhD on Billy Bragg's music and politics.

She has been on quite a journey this year, trying to understand the complex and undulating changes to popular music and society since Billy's early successes. A few weeks ago, Felicity made a breakthrough. She was uncomfortable questioning Billy's effectiveness in activating change. Felicity said to me, "at least he was doing something. He makes me want to do something."

As always, Felicity has hit on something important, and explained my ambivalence in unequivocally attacking Michael Moore. Whatever we may think of these cultural figures politically or socially, there is no doubt that they provoke thought and create debate. Thinking is important: it unsettles our taken-for-granted assumptions. Even if we end up maintaining our position on issues, reassessing our logic and arguments is healthy. While we can question Michael Moore, we should thank him for making us consider our views on war, peace, politics, race and class.

This is the task of popular cultural intellectuals at their best. In the Popular Culture Collective, we follow a great tradition in cultural studies of scholars who look around their life to find issues and ideas in which they can make a difference.

A scholar I have always admired for his complexity and courage is Edward Said. His death earlier this year signaled an end to a writing career that changed the world, and how we think about the east and the west. Best known for his book Orientalism — one of the most influential works of the twentieth century — he had a career filled with thinking about literature, culture, art, music and identity.

His final article was published in The Observer on August 1, 2004, and was titled "Rage of the Old". This piece explores how a life's work gains meaning when it ends. I was struck by his eloquence in recognising the apartness, exile and anachronism that is the nature of ageing.

Edward Said rarely wrote about popular culture, although he placed much attention on the representations of the orient. But he remains an example, an icon, a model of a life lived with distinction. During this month when you are thinking and writing about popular culture, remember Edward Said. If one person can intervene and interrupt even the most embedded of life's truths, then think about what a Collective can do.

Be well.