Kathleen Stewart

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar

2001–2002

The Private Life of Public Culture

In The Private Life of Public Culture, cultural anthropologist Katie Stewart tracks the way that neoliberalism and advanced consumer capitalism in the United States find multi-faceted articulation, emerging in intimate and individual practices at the same time that they erupt in highly-generative and collectively-experienced events. Stewart is focusing particularly on "the charged border between things public and private" as a dynamic zone rich with indicators of how and through what forms cultural forces and sensibilities circulate.

Based on field work in Las Vegas, Nevada; Orange County, California; Austin, Texas; and New England, Stewart's work combines ethnographic analysis with cultural poesis, studying new cultural forms and forces at the point of their affective and material emergence. By examining contemporary everyday sensibilities and practices—such as shopping habits, "technophilia," the proliferation of gated communities, and confessional TV talk shows—Stewart finds linkages to broad cultural flows such as world trade, transnationalism, and millennial capitalism.

"How do these cultural forces and flows impact the self and, ironically, motivate a personal search for the 'true self,' the good life, an authenticity held as individual and unsullied by public things?" Stewart asks. "Conversely, how do things erupt from private life or from partially secret circulation into larger public circulation? How do relatively inchoate structures and sensibilities materialize or take form?"

Stewart's unique poetic and evocative writing style has been compared to the documentary prose of James Agee. "The writing is creative nonfiction, about things I saw or heard but condensed and fashioned through the use of story and voice," explains Stewart. "Often the writing is about taking a sensibility to its outer limit, trying to track its direction and force, but figuring out where it could go."

At her October colloquium, Stewart shared the introduction to her book, written just after September 11th. "I wrote this piece specifically as a reaction to the thought that 'everything has suddenly changed.' I think, yes, the attack is a generative event but the sensibilities of everyday life had already been steeped in the forces that are now snapping into place in a particular way. And those sensibilities are themselves undergoing an event of their own. They are both thrown into a free fall, and taking on a stronger form, mutating under pressure."

Affiliation at time of award:
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin


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