REMEMBERING PETE PETERSON
Paul Dimaggio wrote a personal essay about Pete Peterson. It is found in the ASA Culture Section newsletter. Click here to read article.
I wanted to share a few thoughts on Pete’s passing. Pete was both my mentor and my friend, and he was excellent at both. I first met Pete as a graduate student, after giving a presentation at a professional conference. He offered his comments and handed me his business card. I had not recognized him–there were no web profiles at the time to help–and I was astonished at his generosity with his time and ideas. He was, after all, the primary source I cited in my paper. A few years later he helped recruit me to Vanderbilt’s faculty–essentially, to take the spot he had vacated as the resident “production of culture” expert–served as the outside reader on my dissertation committee, co-authored two papers, and became my dear friend. I had the great honor of spending a great deal of time with him, both before and during his convalescence. During a recent visit, just after he became ill, Pete said to me, “If I pull out of this, maybe there would be some kind of thing I could do with your class.” Pete loved students: hearing their ideas, watching them mature, influencing their work, and welcoming them into the home he shared with Claire. I was so lucky to be one of those students. It should also be said that Pete was among the few sociologists who could write well–for him, writing was a meticulous process, and writing collaboratively was often frustrating given our difference in styles. He outlined, and re-outlined, and outlined again. He insisted that all documents were Arial font, size 11. He spoke of his “muses” visiting him, and I learned over time this was a signal that his writing (from these etherial visits) was above reproach. Pete was generous providing “pull quotes” for colleagues’ books, and in just the last few months did so for both Johnston and Baumann and Dave Grazian’s new book. As far as I know, there’s a half-finished article review on his computer. Anyone who came to know Pete personally knew he could be difficult to deal with at times. As Gabriel Rossman has aptly written, “His personality was cynical in principal but generous in practice.” He was his own worst critic, and mine, at times. But he was also a soft-hearted man, easily hurt and ready at the defense of the weak. Perhaps for this reason, he adored animals and his series of (male, outdoor) cats were central in his home life. Pete and Karen Campbell had an annual contest to mark the arrival of hummingbirds to Nashville. Although Pete loved his renovated (overheated!) second floor office, he would often sit at the kitchen table, telling the squirrels to get away from the birdfeeders outside the window. One of Pete’s favorite hobbies was beading, and a few weeks ago, after he was no longer able to climb stairs, Pete asked me to retrieve some supplies from the office. I discovered boxes and trays and cabinets full of beads and thread and various pointed implements. He sent me upstairs twice more before I identified just the things he was looking for: a special type of thread and a beading board that was marked with the wrist diameters of his wife Claire, and daughter Roo. Although Pete loved to talk for hours, I think it is time to stop, for now. It has been so extraordinarily difficult for us here the last month, watching Pete’s health fail him again and again. I am lucky that Pete and Claire allowed me to help them, and I hope Claire and the kids will share the relief I feel that his difficulties are over. I don’t think Pete believed he would have experiences after death, but if he does have any, I hope they don’t involve onions. Bird lives.
Pete’s intellectual contributions to the sociology of culture are evident; his 1979 Annual Review article “Revitalizing the Culture Concept” provided early definition and identity to an emerging field. (He was especially gratified by the reception of his retrospective Annual Review article with N. Anand, twenty-five years later, on “The Production of Culture Perspective.”) His personal contributions to the section were even more vital: always approachable, he made it his business to know and follow (we might say, omnivorously) the work of new culturalists. It was realistic pride and joy in what his section had become that motivated him to compile the “Books of Note” column for Culture (even a more demanding task than it seemed) for two decades, and to attend nearly every Culture session ever held at ASA. Pete liked to station himself center rear in the meeting room assigned to the section for its sessions; that vantage point allowed him to survey the entire crowded scene. He sometimes left his backpack to save his place during the breaks between sessions. It will not seem right to take the podium at a Culture session without Pete occupying his accustomed spot. Shall we leave a seat empty on the podium of each Culture session in Atlanta? If Claire will lend us that old backpack that Pete often used to save his seat during the breaks between sessions, we should save Pete’s place for him.
We only met once briefly but I had many agreeable encounters with Pete (and his wife Claire) at various meetings (not just the ASA but also STP&A, ISA and International Association for the Study of Popular Music). They were very committed to social justice (as evidenced for example by deciding to donate the funds they would have spent to attend the World Congress of the ISA in Durban in 2006 to efforts to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina).
Thank you for informing me about the sad news. For most of my professional ("American") life I have learnt so much from him. I invited Pete to our European Sociological Association Sociology of the Arts Section in Lueneburg, Germany, in spring 2007, where we experienced a wonderful and brilliant Pete presenting his then newest results on the "trajectories of music". After the meeting I spend another day with him and Claire along the banks of the Elbe river, really enjoying both their presence and warmth. I will also miss him for his wry humor. Every year, we also received his and Clair annual letter. I don't have to tell you how much he meant to the theoretical development of the field - also outside the Anglo-American academic world! Here in Germany his impact is actually still growing. The September and October meetings of the two ESA sections of arts (in the UK) and culture (in Italy) should also have some kind of commemorative session about him and his great achievements.
Just arrived to NY, and immediately connected to my mail on a Sunday sunny afternoon, like at my office, what a wonderful thing this modern world! But it makes me read again your messages about Pete. I could send a message to Claire and their sons before leaving. Pete was in fact my first contact in the sociological international world, in 1976 conf in Albany, NY, I think it was one of the first "Social Theory and the Arts" event! We were beginning our work, with Vignolle, on recording industry, and Pete invited both of us to Nashville, just like that! Since then, he was always helping, for instance he reviewed and had Claire re-read one of my first papers submitted in English, just to give me more chances to be published, and it was useful, both for the language accuracy on this kind of issues and for fitting with Anglo-US standards, so far from the French ones, especially at that time. We worked together quite a long time at the RC37 in the 80-90ies, when one of us or both were in charge of different matters, and met at many events. He invited me again in Nashville for confs, and we had him as a special guest at CSI about 10 years ago, just before his friendly retirment at Nashville University, where they read short blurbs about him or our meeting, by people like me from everywhere in the world. Souvenirs, souvenirs...!! he was a very nice and trustful person, and was very important in our field, by raising very well-targetted issues just in the right time: the importance of medias and records ('Why in 1955?'), the importance of studying popular culture, the "production of culture" perspective, his beautiful big opus on country music, the omnivorous thesis, disputable but which, as one of you already said, helped so many diverse people to study cultural practices again, after Bourdieu... Quite an impressive outcome from a single searcher, so modest and helping to everyone who needed it!
I am deeply saddened by the news brought to us yesterday and I will inform all my French colleagues and the members of ISA RC 37 (Sociology of Arts). Pete's reputation in France was great and the fabrication of authenticity as well as the omnivorous hypothesis were really central in renovating and reorienting the sociology of culture in Pierre Bourdieu's country. It is strange that I checked my e-mail just after having told a PhD student here in Budapest to add Creating Country Music to his reading list for independent study.
I, too, am very saddened to hear about Pete's death. I first met Pete in 1990 (having known about his work before, of course), and have seen him regularly since, as he was active in various conferences. I will look into doing something with respect to the ESA Arts Network. If I can help with the ASA's Culture Section memorial (or RC37), I would be willing.
I don't know how people who met Pete only in the last few decades (once the sociology of culture had become well established) could appreciate the pleasure he seemed to take from doing this kind of work in the 1970s in a period of sociology in which this was looked down upon. He personally encouraged all of us to deepen our cultural interests, and find the sociological explanations for their formations, explaining that we could do something really new. The production of culture approach was not only a wonderful way into the study of cultural forms, but was Pete's way of talking back to his training in the sociology of organizations. Against structures, he looked at processes, and took the institutional ordering of cultural work as the focus of analysis. Pete was modest in his personal style, but he recognized clearly that this kind of work could challenge the center of the discipline and the future of sociology. It did not happen exactly as he had hoped or expected, but he remained loyal to the section and the myriad forms of analysis it spawned. I am personally very grateful to him not only for providing a new way into cultural analysis in the 1970s, but also for setting me intellectually free to see where my cultural understandings would take my sociology.
REMEMBERING PETE PETERSON