Building Jerusalem
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:51

Building Jerusalem

Published in Arts Hub

Christopher Rowland discusses William Blake's visionary approach to art, religion and culture generally, and how his 'mental fight', or cultural struggle, inspires us to build a new Jerusalem, a better society.

William Blake was a visionary poet and artist, whose works have achieved a central place in British culture. Some of his verses, widely known as 'Jerusalem', which he wrote at the opening of one of his longer poems, ‘Milton’, have become an unofficial national anthem, and a very necessary alternative to the English national anthem for those of us with republican commitments. As with so much else in his writings, these verses are full of biblical themes, like a ‘chariot of fire’, and 'building Jerusalem', used in Blake’s own way. The words stress the importance of people taking responsibility for change and building, through cultural struggle or 'mental fight', a better society ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’.

Although he was a visionary, he was not a dreamer cut off from the realities and complexities of experience, particularly the poverty and oppression of the urban world in which he lived for most of his life. He had an amazing insight into contemporary economics, politics and culture, and was able to discern the effects of the authoritarianism of church and state as well as what he considered the arid philosophy of a rationalist view of the world which left little scope for the imagination.

He abhorred the way in which Christians looked up to a God enthroned in heaven, a view which offered a model for a hierarchical human politics, which subordinated the majority to a (supposedly) superior elite. He also criticised the dominant philosophy of his day which believed that a narrow view of sense experience could help us to understand everything that there was to be known, including God. Blake’s own visionary experiences showed him that rationalism ignored important dimensions of human life which would enable people to hope, to look for change, and to rely on more than that which their senses told them. All people needed to be aware of and allow to flourish the ‘Poetic or Prophetic character’ latent in them.

Blake had no time for conservative Christianity’s infatuation with the Bible as the ‘supreme authority’ in the life of the church and society. Such sentiments were a symptom of false religion, which contracted out responsibility for biblical interpretation to priests and scholars. All God’s people, inside and outside the churches, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the Spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience. The Bible had to be seen for what it was – a mixed collection of texts which might make a contribution to human betterment.

Blake loved the Bible because it acted as a stimulus to an imaginative engagement with society and also with theology. But Blake wasn’t just an interpreter. To paraphrase his own words, he wanted through his words and images to ‘cleanse the doors of perception’. Changing how one looked at the world and behaved in it were central for him. Blake’s comment that what he wanted to do in his work was ‘rouze the faculties to act’ parallels Marx's famous dictum on philosophy, 'Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'.

That meant empowering the readers and hearers of texts and pictures to have the courage of their convictions and not be dependent on the experts to tell them what a text or picture meant. Too much study of the Bible is, he thought, either completely dismissive of it or excessively reverential and doesn’t allow for creative, imaginative, engagement with it.

The Bible for him was a resource to stimulate understanding, and not a book of moral precepts. Blake is indignant about those elements in the Bible which have been used to condone injustice. He doesn’t attempt to make the Bible internally consistent, or universally benevolent, and he fully embraces its problematic elements as a means to question dominant readings within politics and religion.

In particular, he challenges its depiction of God as a remote monarch and lawgiver, and the use made of such imagery to justify patriarchy and authoritarianism. His astonishingly diverse array of poems, engravings, and paintings, permeated as they are with biblical themes, make Blake simultaneously both England’s greatest Christian artist, and also one of its most radical biblical interpreters.

‘Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets’, he wrote, thereby including all in the task of speaking out about what they saw. Prophecy for Blake, however, was not the prediction of the end of the world, but telling the truth as best one can about what one sees, fortified by insight and an ‘honest persuasion’ that if 'the doors of perceptrion were cleansed, things could be improved.

One observes, is indignant and speaks out. It’s a basic political maxim which is necessary for any age. Blake wanted to stir people from their intellectual slumbers, and the daily grind of their toil, to see that they were captivated in the grip of a culture which kept them thinking in ways which served the interests of the powerful.

The beautiful little poems which make up 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' contain some of Blake’s most profound political insights, in deceptively simple verses. Three poems, one entitled ‘London’, the other two a contrasting pair entitled ‘Holy Thursday’, exemplify the way in which Blake engaged his politics. He didn’t do this by grand pronouncements but by attention to what he termed ‘minute particulars’.

In ‘London’ he imagines himself like the biblical prophet Ezekiel, walking round the streets of Jerusalem, and seeing people marked with ‘marks of weakness and marks of woe’, because of the poverty, injustice, hypocritical social convention, and the stranglehold of emerging capitalism. And he observed what he called the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of cultural conformity which stopped people comprehending the injustices around them.

In the two 'Holy Thursday' poems we have contrasting perspectives on the social situation in England. On the one hand, the poet describes a festive event in St Paul’s Cathedral, in which children who are recipients of charity come to thank God. On the other, there is a hard-hitting critique of what life is actually like for most children, in ‘this green and pleasant land’ -

‘Babes reduc'd to misery. Fed with cold and usurous hand’

The ‘Holy Thursday’ poems offer readers the opportunity to meditate upon late eighteenth century England through the lens of a particular social event.

All people, inside and outside the churches, according to Blake, have the responsibility to attend to the energetic activity of the divine spirit in creation, in history, and in human experience. He wouldn’t have wanted his words to become a sacred text, any more than the words of the Bible, but an ongoing stimulus to politics and religion in the struggle to realise that (as he puts it in ‘Jerusalem’) ‘every kindness to another is a little Death In the Divine Image nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood’.

His work has enabled ordinary people to recognise that culture matters, and that there are mental and cultural chains, as well as economic chains, which bind us. He sought to affirm the importance of everyone in the struggle for community and human betterment. I feel sure he would have been sympathetic to the aims of this website, and proud to see his verses used to help 'build Jerusalem'.

Christopher Rowland is the Dean Ireland professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture Emeritus at the University of Oxford.

What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?
Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:51

What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?

Published in Cultural Theory

What is culture and why does it matter? To help us answer those questions, Professor John Storey outlines a neo-Gramscian approach to culture. It exposes culture as a site of struggle, equips and empowers us to resist cultural domination, dissolves the barriers between 'high' and 'popular' culture, and thus helps us build the 'new Jerusalem'.

If we want to make the claim that culture matters politically, and be able to illustrate this claim against those who want us to see it as something quite distinct from the political, we need to be clear what we mean by culture. What I propose in this article is a working definition that will provide a way to think politically about all the things we call culture.

To claim that culture matters because it is ultimately political compels us to move beyond all definitions that reduce culture to the arts with a capital A. In other words, it is a definition that rejects the arbitrary – and elitist – distinction between culture and popular culture. The politics of culture involves all of us because it is about the making and circulation of meanings, meanings which affect all of us.

For example: meaning is produced by a play by William Shakespeare, but it is also produced by the latest episode of Coronation Street. If both produce meaning, and the production of meaning is how we are defining culture, it makes no sense to value one as culture and dismiss the other as popular culture. This does not mean that we cannot judge one as better than the other, but it does mean that we cannot rely on arbitrary categories of pre-judgement to make the decision for us. And of course ‘better’ always implies the questions: better for what and better for whom?

We must also reject the idea that the meaning of a play or television drama is the sole property of the text itself. Undoubtedly, they produce meaning but they are also sites for the production of meaning. And these meanings are variable, and often contested by those who consume them. Culture is a 'mental fight', as Blake wrote in 'Jerusalem'. It is a site of struggle between competing ways of making the world meaningful to us. And that cultural struggle therefore becomes a political struggle.

For the commodities produced by the culture industries (books, CDs, films, theatre, television programmes, etc.) to become culture, they have to be consumed and how they are consumed is always, ultimately, a question of politics. To paraphrase Karl Marx, a house only becomes a home when it is inhabited. So in a similar way a novel that no one reads is barely an example of culture. Culture involves both production and consumption. Both text and audience produce meaning: in political terms, a text can help change how we see the world, but so can the meanings we find in it.

There are two conclusions we can draw from a definition of culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings. First, although the world exists in all its enabling and constraining materiality outside culture, it is only in culture that the world is made meaningful. In other words, signification has a ‘performative effect’; it helps construct the realities it appears only to describe. As Antonio Gramsci once pointed out,

'It is obvious that East and West are arbitrary and conventional (historical) constructions, since every spot on the earth is simultaneously East and West. Japan is probably the Far East not only for the European but also for the American from California and even for the Japanese himself, who, through English political culture might call Egypt the Near East … Yet these references are real, they correspond to real facts, they allow one to travel by land and by sea and to arrive at the predetermined destination.'

In other words, East and West are cultural constructions, directly connected to the imperial power of the West, but they are also forms of signification that have been realized and embedded in social practice. Cultural constructs they may be, but they do designate real geographic locations and guide real human movement and organize real political perceptions of the world. As Gramsci’s example makes clear, meanings inform and organize social action. To argue that culture is best understood as a terrain of shared and contested meanings is not, therefore, a denial that the material world exists in all its constraining and enabling reality, outside signification.

Such a concept of culture does not deny the existence of the materiality of things, but it does insist that materiality is mute: it does not issue its own meanings, it has to be made to mean. Although how something is made meaningful is always enabled and constrained by the materiality of the thing itself, culture is not a property of mere materiality. It is the entanglement of meaning, materiality and social practice, variable meanings in a range of different contexts and social practices. In other words, culture is always social, material and semiotic and always in a direct or indirect relation with the prevailing structures of power.

The second conclusion we can draw from seeing culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings concerns the potential for struggle over meaning. Given that different meanings can be ascribed, for example, to the same novel or film, the making of meaning is always entangled in what Valentin Volosinov identified as the ‘multiaccentuality of the sign’. Rather than being inscribed with a single meaning, a book or a film can be made to mean different things in different contexts, with different effects of power. Contrast, for example, the interpretation of the film 'The Third Man' in the review elsewhere on this site, with the standard, mainstream interpretation.

Culture, understood as the making of meaning is, therefore, always a potential site of ‘differently oriented social interests’. Those with power often seek to make what is multi-accentual appear as if it could only ever be uni-accentual. In cultural terms, this is the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

The different ways of making something signify are rarely an innocent game of semantics, rather they are a significant part of a political struggle over what might be regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘correct’ – an example of the politics of signification. What are the class politics of Downton Abbey, or the gender politics of Game of Thrones? Is Trident a weapon of mass destruction, the use of which is impossible to envisage, or is it a necessary means of self-defense in an uncertain world? Is austerity a reasonable way to ensure we live within our means or is it a political choice that forces many people to rely on food banks and to become vulnerable to the Victorian diseases of malnutrition, scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough? In each example there is a struggle over meaning, a struggle over who can claim the power and authority to define social reality; to make the world (and the things in it) mean in particular ways and with particular effects of power.

Dominant modes of making the world meaningful are a fundamental aspect of the processes of hegemony. But hegemony is not something imposed that people passively accept. It is always a terrain of struggle between dominant and subordinate ways of understanding the world. While it is true that the forces of incorporation tend to be more powerful than the forces of resistance, this should not lead us to think of the consumption of culture as something always and inevitably passive. It is certainly true that the culture industries are a major site of ideological production, constructing powerful images, descriptions, definitions, frames of reference for understanding the world. However, we should reject the view that the people who consume these productions are ‘cultural dupes’, unable to resist the prevailing ‘common sense’.

People make culture (including popular culture) from the repertoire of commodities supplied by the culture industries. Consumption understood as ‘production in use’ can be empowering to subordinate understandings of the world. And it can be resistant to dominant understandings of the world. But this is not to say that consumption is always empowering and resistant. To deny the passivity of consumption is not to deny that sometimes consumption is passive; to deny that consumers are cultural dupes is not to deny that the culture industries seek to manipulate. But it is to deny that culture, especially popular culture, is little more than a degraded landscape of commercial and ideological manipulation, imposed from above in order to make profit and secure social control.

What is produced and how it is consumed can also challenge the taken-for-granted that always underpins hegemony. A progressive cultural analysis should insist that to decide these matters requires vigilance and attention to the details of the production, distribution and consumption of the commodities from which culture is made. These are not matters that can be decided once and for all (outside the contingencies of history and politics) with an elitist glance and a condescending sneer. Nor can they be read off purely from the moment of production, by locating meaning, pleasure, ideological effect, the probability of incorporation, the possibility of resistance, in, variously, the intention, the means of production or the production itself.

We need also to consider how meaning is generated through consumption, which should be understood as ‘production in use’. Because it is, ultimately, in ‘production in use’ that questions of meaning, pleasure, ideological effect, incorporation or resistance can be (contingently) decided.

This, I suggest, is a more optimistic, empowering approach to defining culture than traditional approaches. It enables us to engage with cultural products on more equal terms, and it enables us to break down the elitist divide between 'high' culture and 'popular' culture. I believe that if contributors to this website apply this approach, a wealth of meanings will be discovered which will help us build 'the new Jerusalem'.

The review of 'The Third Man' mentioned above is on the film section of the arts hub.