If I could summarize the mantra of O-Week in 2014 I would say: only things worth sharing are worth doing. Basically, you should only do something that can easily be captured in a photograph. Said photograph can then be shared online, to prove how successful your event was, and form part of a monoculture of similar photographs – where life and joy are captured in stills.
Enter the Quidditch Society, the latest Clubs and Societies offering, flying onto campus in the space between fun and photogenic entertainment. Quidditch Soc is perhaps the biggest pop-culture phenomenon on campus ever, receiving widespread praise at o-week (from students passing by, presenters on the main stage, and o-week brochures) to its positive coverage in Honi Soit. More substantial than praise however, the Quidditch Society also received $5000 from the USU to attend the Quidditch World Championship in South Carolina.
That this society, and not others, received such substantial funding, proves that pop culture in and of itself can win over dusty (young) bureaucrats. The justification stated by USU President Hannah Morris is that “a key part of the USU’s mandate [is] to support students in exploring their potential and developing their skills, talents and leadership abilities.”
Going to South California to play Quidditch is a great way to develop “skills, talents and leadership abilities”. It is also a great way for the USU to grab photographs for next year’s O-Week, and other propoganda. Let me just stop here to say: There is nothing more deceptive than a glossy brochure. Shiny as it may be, its vapid lack of integrity is obvious upon a casual reading of its content.
This kind of USU photogenic “culture” originally began as an offspring of social media, where “sharing and capturing” has become the goal instead of being just one way of observing something. Erich Fromm once remarked that people shouldn’t take photos at all, and should instead engage in life itself; be present, not absent; feel the moment, be alive. Back then he was discussing photographs taken by tourists on holiday. Now we face an increasing amount of people being tourists in their own lives: observing, capturing, celebrating, but not actually being present and thinking for themselves.
Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century French philosopher, once wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The modern explanation of this is that this type of activity – quiet, intimate, introspection about the world, can never be shared. Someone sitting “quietly in a room alone” makes for a bland photograph, or worse, a lonely photograph. It looks out of place on social networks, next to photographs of University parties, Law Balls and Quidditch Championships. It is unpublishable, because it is unremarkable. It is unpublishable because it is revelatory, not celebratory.
The result is that we end up with a campus that supports photogenic endeavours over substantial thought and intellectual enquiry. Even though, arguably (not really arguably) intellectual enquiry is the reason why universities exist. Indeed, it is their central purpose.
There’s a great irony in J.K. Rowling herself being inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, itself a product of ancient history; and yet Usyd’s Ancient History society receiving only one submission to their student journal in the past 3 years. By contrast, Quidditch Soc has become a rampant student favourite.
Interestingly, it takes no thought to watch or participate in a game of Quidditch. It is similar to other forms of entertainment in that it is simply a product, as opposed to a creative force pushing the individual to greater heights. But if Sydney University were to produce the next J.K. Rowling,what society would she rely on to create a new pop cultural phenominon? What Medieval Studies course would the new J.R.R. Tolkein take, just as Usyd slashes and burns its Medieval Studies department?
The reality, often missed by first years in photo-booths, is that our pop culture comes from somewhere. More often than not the Quidditch we enjoy originated from quiet, introspective thought and development that cannot be captured in a photograph. Our culture comes from independent enquiry and passion in a quiet room. A room, I hazard, too bland to be placed on the front of USU’s glossy brochures.
Edit: To any assertions that I am elitist – I don’t think advocating “thinking” in Universities is an elitist proposal. Especially considering sport dominates almost every other place in Australian life. On the major nightly (commercial) news broadcasters the breakdown is:50% sport, 5% weather, 5% cute dogs, 40% politics. There are also thousands and thousands of sports teams in the community, AND the university disproportionately gives money to SUSF as opposed to other student services. (Even though only 10% of students use these facilities). Hence, in context, this argument is not elitist. It’s tame even, considering the challenges faced.