Cultural Commentary

Cultural Commentary (47)

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism
Tuesday, 26 April 2016 09:19

Contradiction: the crucible of historical materialism

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Roland Boer continues his series of article on Marxism and religion, with an examination of the relationship of Marx and Engels to the Theological Young Hegelians: Strauss, Feuerbach, Bauer and Stirner.

In order to develop their own system of thought, Marx and Engels had to distinguish themselves from the overwhelming theological frame in which German thought operated in the 1830s and 1840s. This framework was embodied above all in the work of the Young Hegelians, especially Ludwig Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer and Max Stirner. Let me say a little more about these crucial engagements.

Ludwig Feuerbach’s Projections

Alongside David Friedrich Strauss’s controversial Life of Jesus (1839), Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity from 1841 was one of the most significant texts of the time. Marx saw the idea that religion and the gods were projections of human beings as a huge breakthrough. He used and extended what may be called the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ at a number of points in his own work. Feuerbach’s idea is an inversion since it argues that previous thought about religion began at the wrong point, namely in the middle. God was not a pre-existing being who determined human existence; rather, human beings determine God’s existence, whom they then assume to be all-powerful over human beings.

Marx took up this argument and claimed that it marked the end of the criticism of religion: ‘For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism’. He went on to suggest that the first great phase of criticism – the criticism of religion – began with Luther and ended with Feuerbach. The next revolutionary phase began after Feuerbach and Marx saw himself as part of this new phase.

For Marx, Feuerbach was the last word on religion. Statements such as the following are pure Feuerbach:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality.

However, Marx also wanted to go beyond Feuerbach on two counts. First, since human beings project religion from within themselves, the place to begin analysis is not in the heavens, but here on earth with flesh-and-blood people. Second, the fact that people do make such projections was a signal that something was wrong here on earth. If people placed their hopes and dreams elsewhere, then that meant they could not be realized here and now. So the presence of religion becomes a sign of alienation, of economic and social oppression. That needs to be fixed. We find this theme very strongly in the famous Theses on Feuerbach, especially the fourth and eleventh theses:

Feuerbach starts out from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious world and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. But that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must, therefore, itself be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

Marx would go on to use the ‘Feuerbachian inversion’ in a number of ways, not least to argue that Hegel’s position on the state was exactly the same as theology: it began with abstracted ideas such as state, sovereignty, constitution and tried to make human beings fit. Much later on, in 1886, Engels filled this picture out in his lucid prose and showed why Feuerbach was so important for the development of historical materialism.

Bruno Bauer’s A-Theology

Given Feuerbach’s importance, it is not for nothing that the first section of The German Ideology should be devoted to his work. But there is also a section given over to Bruno Bauer. After the joint work of The German Ideology, Marx would come back to Bauer in a number of writings, initially to defend him but then later to attack him mercilessly. Why? The basic reason was that Bauer had achieved a radical republican and democratic position through his biblical criticism and theology. Marx in particular was thoroughly opposed to such a possibility: theology dealt with heaven and was not concerned with earth – that was the task of the new historical materialism.

For Marx, Bauer was far too much under the influence of Hegel’s idealist method and in many respects Marx’s distancing from Bauer was an effort to come to terms with Hegel. So we find the repeated and often heavily satirical criticism (especially in the joint work with Engels, The Holy Family) that ‘Saint Bruno’ Bauer left matters in the realm of theology and thereby stunted his critical work. Marx was also excising the influence of someone who had been a close friend, first as joint members of the Young Hegelian Doktorklub from 1837, later as a teacher of the book of Isaiah at the University of Berlin in 1839 and as one who might have gained Marx a position.

The problem was that Bauer was dismissed from Berlin in 1839 for his radical theological and political positions. He argued that the church was ossified and dogmatic, for it claimed universal status for a particular person and group. In the same way that we find a struggle in the Bible between free self-consciousness and religious dogmatism, so also in Bauer’s own time the religious dogmatism of the church needed to be overthrown. In its place Bauer argued for atheism, a democratic Jesus for all and republicanism.

Max Stirner’s World History

So we find Marx and Engels at the point where Feuerbach’s inversion has enabled them to step beyond the criticism of religion and focus on the criticism of the earthly conditions of human struggle, and Bauer’s radical theology had to be negated since religion cannot provide – so they argued – a radical critique. The engagement with Max Stirner was different. Most people do not bother with the endless pages of The German Ideology given over to a detailed refutation of Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, preferring to stop after the early description of the new historical materialist method.

However, the Stirner section is crucial for the following reason: Marx and Engels developed the first coherent statement of historical materialism in response to Stirner’s own theory of world history. The way they wrote the manuscript (which was never published in their lifetimes) is important: as they wrote sections on Stirner they found that increasingly coherent statements of an alternative position began to emerge in their own thought. Some of these statements remained in the Stirner section, while others were moved to the beginning of the manuscript and placed in the Feuerbach section.

As these responses to Stirner became longer and more elaborate, we find the following: in contrast to Stirner’s radical focus on the individual, Marx and Engels developed a collective focus. Instead of Stirner’s valuation of spiritual religion, they sought an approach that was very much of this world. Above all, Stirner wanted to provide a schema of world history that was pitched against Hegel. The reason why Marx and Engels devoted so much attention to him is that they too want a schema of world history that overturns Hegel.

The catch is that the very effort at producing a theory of world history was still very much engaged with religion. One only has to look at the structure of Marx and Engel’s criticism – which moves through the major books of the Bible, quotes the Bible ad nauseam, and criticizes Stirner’s prophetic role and theological dabbling – to see that what is at stake is religion. In the same way that the final edited form of the Bible moves from creation to the end of history and the new Jerusalem, so also does Hegel offer a theory of world history in terms of the unfolding of spirit, and so also does Stirner do so in terms of the ego. But what about Marx and Engels?

I suggest that the content of their proposal – with its collective and materialist concern with modes of production – is quite different from the proposals of the Bible, Hegel and Stirner. But the form of their proposal is analogous. By this I mean that the construction by Marx and Engels of a new historical narrative was based on a crucial lever: the Bible may have had Christ, Hegel may have had the world spirit, and Stirner may have had the ego. For Marx and Engels it was nothing other than contradiction, or rather, the contradictions within modes of production, contradictions that manifest themselves as class-conflict and revolution. In other words, the engagement with Stirner was the crucible of historical materialism, from which emerged a new approach to history that turns on contradiction.
 #bernienumnum meme by Marc James Léger, March 2016.
Sunday, 27 March 2016 15:08

Ecce Homo! Occupy God?

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A number of articles currently on Culture Matters touch on ideas of communism in cultural theory, in particular Andy Croft's The Privatisation of Poetry and Andrew Moore's Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought. Here, Marc James Léger argues for maintaining a sense of human subjectivity in theorising leftist collectivism, from the writings of Max Haiven to the work of the activist arts group Not An Alternative.

I recently noticed an online article written for Roar magazine in June 2015 by a friend of mine, the Halifax-based activist and scholar Max Haiven. The article, titled “Reimagining our Collective Powers Against Austerity,” defines the concept of the commons in terms of grassroots democracy, horizontalism, sustainable reciprocity, community-level decision-making and radical autonomy. What intrigued me about his article was not so much what he had to say about the need to replace state sovereignty with commons, but the way that individuals and individualism figure in his discussion.

In the following I reflect on the tendency of social movement activists to dismiss individualism and try to complicate this by addressing psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, which for previous generations was part of the standard mix of Freudo-Marxism, but that today, after the influence of postmodern discourse theory, have seemingly disappeared, as Michel Foucault once said, like a face in the sand at the edge of the sea. I contrast Max’s critique of individualism with the ideas of Not An Alternative, an activist group for which individualism is also a problem, but where, in contrast, psychoanalytic concepts are adopted and made use of in their Occupy strategies.

Brushing up against liberal ideology, Max’s text replaces the notion of “the public” and “counter-publics” with that of the commons, and so it makes sense that he would challenge the idea of the individual as an enlightenment concept that presupposes the public as its counterpart. The principle of egalitarian reciprocity that underwrites the commons involves, he says, “connections between communal and individual responsibility and autonomy.” He takes this beyond the idea of human rights, made in our capitalist world into a notion of the “self-contained, contract-making individual” as the source of political and economic power – the liberal social contract writ small. We must deconstruct this politics of white, male property owners – a “lethal fantasy,” he says, since none of us are self-sufficient monads. Instead, we always rely on collaboration, cooperation with others to create community and commons. He writes: “Our powers have been turned against us, to the point where we are at risk of undermining the network ecology of collaborative life that actually sustains us. Ecce Homo! This is what comes of the fetishization of the individual!”

The individual, according to Max, “is a dangerous but intoxicating fiction,” a “political box” we must deconstruct so that we can build commons. Since privacy implies private property regimes, as opposed to creative commons, neither are people or even the objects they make fully free, and so we must wake up from the adolescent dream of complete liberation from community, responsibility and accountability. Whatever social structures we have, he says, they should be used to build commons-in-struggle: human rights beyond human rights transformed into “rights to the commons” of education, health, material abundance, lifeways, migration, and the freedom to “practice one’s identity and body and mind and sexuality as one chooses.”

Max’s article contrasts interestingly with another text published in Roar magazine in February 2016: “Occupy the Party: The Sanders Campaign as a Site of Struggle,” written by the New York-based art collective Not An Alternative (NAA), a group comprised of core members Beka Economopoulos, Jason Jones and political theorist Jodi Dean. A few days ago I saw Beka Economopulos on the news show Democracy Now! She was participating in a campaign in which supporters of Democratic Party nominee Bernie Sanders had gathered in Zuccotti Park to telephone voters in the states of Illinois, Florida and Ohio and encourage them to vote for Bernie. I myself endorse the Sanders campaign and encourage people to use the hashtags: #hillarysowallstreet, #killarywarhawk and #bernienumnum (#bernienumnum is of course a reference to the hilarious Peter Sellers film The Party, where the main character interrupts the dinner party of a status quo establishment).

It’s significant that these activists have chosen to campaign on the site of the first Occupy Wall Street encampment, since Sanders is the only candidate who in some ways addresses the concerns of this grassroots movement. I know Beka from my brief interactions with NAA and I met her and Jason at the 2012 Creative Time Summit. The day after the Summit we also met at a Strike Debt assembly and march, where, as it happens, I met Max Haiven for the first time. Being familiar with the writings of Jodi Dean, I wasn’t surprised to see Beka on the Democracy Now! episode holding two placards, one of which read #Political Revolution and the other, #Not Me Us. The latter slogan would seem to fit perfectly with Max’s sentiments as well as Jodi Dean’s, even though there are significant differences between them in terms of the viability of party politics for the left. Jodi Dean has written extensively about the need for radical collective action and often criticizes individualism. For example, she writes in her book, The Communist Horizon:

“Some might object to my use of the second-person plural “we” and “us” – what do you mean “we”? This objection is symptomatic of the fragmentation that has pervaded the Left in Europe, the UK, and North America. Reducing invocations of “we” and “us” to sociological statements requiring a concrete, delineable, empirical referent, it erases the division necessary for politics as if interest and will were only and automatically attributes of a fixed social position. We-skepticism displaces the performative component of the second-person plural as it treats collectivity with suspicion and privileges a fantasy of individual singularity and autonomy. I write “we” hoping to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity. My break with conventions of writing that reinforce individualism by admonishing attempts to think and speak as part of a larger collective subject is deliberate.”

And so where Max sees individualism as a dangerous fiction, Dean sees it as a fantasy. I tend to appreciate Dean’s ideas and I certainly agree with her further critiques of the singular focus on micropolitical practices of self-cultivation and individual consumer choice. NAA and Jodi Dean are super-savvy activists and a boon to the movement.

The Democracy Now! episode showed people who disagree with NAA’s idea that grassroots activists should “occupy the party,” however. For example, Vlad Teichberg is quoted saying that OWS should remain outside the two-party system. In the way the episode was edited, Beka responds to this with the statement: “I’m thrilled that they’re here [i.e. those who disagree with the Zuccotti Park telephone campaign]. I believe that social movements, Occupy, are about disagreement – right? – yet a fidelity to what binds us together in struggle.” I want to reflect further on NAA’s Roar article but this simple statement implies, I would think, a nod to Alain Badiou’s notion of fidelity to an event and the truth procedure that follows from it. In other words, Beka is making an allusion to Badiou’s notion of “the communist hypothesis.” The buzz term fidelity is here not simply accidental, it’s potentially, insofar are people are followers of Badiou, or at least familiar with his work, a sort of conscripting concept.

In their artwork, NAA often use over-identification strategies, also known as the tactic of subversive affirmation. Examples include the pranks of the Yes Men, who pose as business leaders and infiltrate conferences to deliver in their speeches the kinds of information that corporate executives typically avoid, and the now defunct Colbert Report, a television parody of right-wing news pundits. During Occupy Wall Street, NAA made OWS protest tools that mimic the design of yellow and black police tape. The visually stimulating NAA tape was used extensively by OWS activists in their demonstrations. In the lead up to the one-year anniversary of OWS, the police had cordoned off certain streets near Zuccotti Park. In response, NAA made imitation police control cinder blocks out of polystyrene. These were spray painted with the same colours and fonts used by the NYPD and read: OWS Protecting the People from the Powerful. Cayley Sorochan and I used their instructional video on how to make book bloc shields and created for our Maple Spring marches red book shields of Alain Badiou’s The Rebirth of History and Slavoj Žižek’s The Universal Exception. Since we were a book bloc of only two people – impractical literati you might call us – we marched with these book shields alongside the demonstration in mimicry and mockery of the small police squads that would sometimes march alongside the demos. Cayley and I would certainly agree with the notion of fidelity to the idea of communism.

 

NAA

Not An Alternative, Occupy Police Blocks, 2012. Courtesy of Not An Alternative.

This notion of fidelity is part of Badiou’s contribution to the radical theory of praxis, as defined in his two main books: Being and Event and Logic of Worlds. According to Badiou, it’s impossible to understand the idea of fidelity without an idea of subjectivity. Subjectivity and subjectivization are very different words from individual and individualism. Although individualism is by and large an enlightenment concept and an essential component of bourgeois ideology, one could say that since the Rights of Man is an essential, core aspect of the French Revolution, individual rights are part of the first sequence of what Badiou defines as the communist hypothesis. Marxists, in fact, have never entirely eliminated the individual subject from dialectical theories of humanism, and beyond this, notions of subjectivity – whether you characterize them as individualist or not – are essential to numerous strands of materialism. But what about commons? In Capital, Marx described the way that cooperation and solidarity, insofar as they exist inside a capitalist mode of production and are mediated by money, and so despite the good intentions of leftists nevertheless contribute to capitalist social relations. For all of the criticism one might make of possessive individualism, and all things being equal, it remains not only a communist but a human challenge to go beyond the hegemony of capital as the concrete universal. This is patently the case in the context of global warming.

For Badiou, being, or ontology, is associated with Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the subject and with mathematical set theory. Being is infinitely multiple and not particularly significant in terms of creating a meaningful event in the worlds of love, science, art or politics. For Žižek, on the other hand, we are never so fortunate as to inhabit the good graces of truthfulness since humans, as subjects of language, are never at the level of what Badiou derisively refers to as animality, defined as the bare subject before becoming faithful to an idea through the transformative procedure that follows an event.

What is important about NAA is that they appreciate these kinds of complex issues, even if such questions do not always make activism simple. In “Occupy the Party,” they address the limitations of the Democratic Party, the electoral system, parliamentary democracy, and the state form. These are essentially meaningless to any radical revolutionary politics that would be able to deliver “internationalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and worker control of the means of production.” And so why vote for Bernie at all? Why not build autonomous political structures outside the two major U.S. parties?

One quick answer is that, according to polls and analysts, Bernie is the only Democratic candidate that is critical enough of the oligarchic establishment to win an election victory against the likely Republican candidate, Donald Trump, a demagogue whose ideas many have begun to compare to Hitler’s. The point that NAA make in the article is that the left has no means at the moment to implement its principles, that “our principles become the barriers to their own realization.” And so the more we try to occupy places of power, the greater is the danger of co-option. As they put it nicely: “The dilemma of left politics is that we appear stuck between beautiful souls and dirty hands.” They write:

“Politics involves knots of principle, compromise, tactics and opportunity. Their push and pull against one another accounts for much of what many dislike about politics: banal rhetoric, betrayals, splits. Finding a candidate or party with which one fully agrees is impossible. Something is always missing, always off. This is not (only) the fault of the political system. It’s (also) a manifestation of the ways people are internally split, with conflicting, irreconcilable political commitments and desires.”

Nothing therefore is unified and self-identical, not individuals, not institutions, and not movements for social change. The question then, in the battle for hearts and minds, and in political organizing, is whether the level of individual subjectivity is something we should or even can eliminate? Beyond endless deconstruction, what is to be done?

For NAA, the political struggle cannot be a matter of numbers, or majority rule, but the insistent push in the streets and squares. They give as examples Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, two movements that have challenged the status quo and changed the parameters of political possibility. The extent to which these movements have actually done this is debatable. They have certainly affected the media representation of critical issues, but they are also conflicted internally, as NAA is right to mention, by very different political philosophies and orientations. Like BLM, NAA proposes that movements for change should not create another mass political party but should occupy the existing parties, with the Sanders campaign extending these struggles within the Democratic Party, forcing a split within the party. “The more we engage, they say, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice.”

One might wonder, then, if everything is barred, to use Lacanian parlance, can institutions and individuals be occupied in the same way? The critique of liberal individualism has certainly seen its fair share of occupations in the twentieth century, from the “personalism” of forced collectivization and the gulag, to Maoist dormitories, Khmer Rouge social engineering and Symbionese Liberation Army abductions. If that be the case, one would rather be a member of a party that one has joined than be on either the receiving end of things, or worse, on the wrong side of History. Think for example of The New Babylon (1929), a wonderful Russian silent era film that depicts the events leading to the Paris Commune and its reorganization of the divisions that were already present in capitalist relationships, represented by the contrast between Dmitri Shostakovich’s “La Marseillaise” juxtaposed with the “Can-can” from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. But then Socialist Realist films like this get criticized for its stock characters.

Closer to our “postmodern” times than Stalinist and Situationist purges, micropolitics skew the problem of dissent and difference within the ranks in favour of the capillary and rhizomatic formations of post-human subjects. Affinity rather than discipline becomes the watchword of social movement activists and the process of radicalization is understood to take many paths. Fidelity to a truth procedure can get pretty confusing in the context of a horizontalist grassroots movement, especially, as Badiou says, when one thinks in terms of equivocal concepts like democracy and in the absence of a strong ideology.

Where there is no unified political formation you have what’s called massism, the relatively (dis)organized masses pitted against state and corporate power without the guidance of leadership and party programme. Self-directed leadership in these kinds of contexts is not always effective and if someone decides to opt out of leaders and programmes altogether, as does the Invisible Committee, the question of collectivism gets to be very local and insular. We’ve all experienced the kinds of conflict and tensions that can easily erupt in the absence of a general will. As Naomi Klein said, it’s easier for people in the movement to give in to callouts and the micro-policing of comrades than it is to focus on changing the power structure. The pretense of speaking with authority, for example in the case of Anonymous, in the media campaigns of Adbusters, or in the over-identification tools of NAA, can certainly have illuminating and beneficial effects. In my view the significance of the resurgence of the left in the 2000s can be explained as a critique of the limits of postmodernism and a renewal of political economy and macro-political thinking.

Psychoanalysis teaches us that the unconscious does not begin and end at the point of conscious effort or political identification. As all advertisers know, ideology, propaganda, and spectacle are operative at the level of the psyche, even if the outcomes are never certain or predictable. This is certainly true when Bernie describes himself as a socialist. The American public, politicians and news media often don’t seem to know what to do with such statements; they seem more comfortable with the outlandish buffoonery of Donald Trump. Why is this? NAA explains it nicely, “Just as Occupy was never about one group, so the Sanders campaign is not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility.” The Democrats are terrified of being taken over by politics, they argue, and the mobilization of the left gives them reason to be afraid. But how useful is this notion of fear? True, the billionaire class is afraid to lose control of its enormous economic power and so it does everything to prevent social movements from directing change, as was noticed in Greece with the debacle that followed the referendum on the debt crisis.

But fear is also an intrinsic part of their game. As Badiou said in The Meaning of [Nicolas] Sarkozy, “The electoral operation incorporates fear, and the fear of fear, into the state, with the result that a mass subjective element comes to validate the state.” Once the state is occupied by fear, Badiou argues, “it can freely create fear.” The dialectic is one between fear and terrorism: a state that is legitimized by fear becomes ready to become terroristic. One sees this everywhere in the building of a security state, with surveillance of the enemies created by global imperialism spreading to encompass the control of all leftist organizations, no matter how small they might be. As Badiou puts it: “Control will change into pure and simple state terrorism as soon as circumstances turn at all serious.”

The experience of the Black Panther Party is only one case it point and based on this and similar experiences, a “post-traumatic” left tends to avoid ideas like revolution and vanguards. Militants in the capitalist North must therefore convince both the working class and the middle class that things can be done through the system and that they shouldn’t fear the existing conditions of economic decline since, when fear takes hold, the aspiration to class mobility leads to identification with centrist and conservative politics, which guarantees declining living standards, poverty and misery for the vast majority of people.

In this context, psychic resourcefulness, the ability to speculate, reflect, and criticize is essential. Individualism, for lack of a better term, is an asset to social movements, against both conformity to the dominant neoliberal order as well as to idealist temptations within our own political thinking. Of course we have to be idealistic, but better to do so as materialists. It might be better, even if more alienating and academic sounding, to use the terms subject formation and social formation than that of individuals and publics. Lacan teaches that psychoanalysis is not a recipe for politics. As Žižek puts it in How to Read Lacan, “psychoanalysis does not show an individual the way to accommodate him or herself to the demands of social reality.” Having been excommunicated from official psychoanalytic milieus, Lacan made an entire theory of the concept of excommunication, understood in terms of what is unanalyzable and yet shared through the chain of signifiers. One way to think of this is with the Lacanian formula according to which “there is no Dasein (ontology) except in the a-object.” For Lacan, writing in The Logic of Phantasy, “there is no subject except through a signifier and for another signifier.”

The scandal of psychoanalysis is that the truth of the subject does not reside in himself or herself and such knowledge remains to this day an enigma, something that we avoid through the mechanism of fetishistic disavowal: our criticism of individualism is a measure of our repudiation of the knowledge that is made available to us by psychoanalysis. This is the reason that critical cultural and political theory can today speak about jouissance, knots and split subjectivity, while also proposing that we remain faithful to movements for progressive radical change. From our entry into language our primary narcissism is always already part of a commons of symbolic meanings and social structures, the point is to change them for the better.

In Philosophy for Militants, Badiou says that the goal of the twentieth century was to create a new man at any cost, so that humanity could become the new God. What we have today, he says, is the inhumanity of technological annihilation and bureaucratic surveillance. How then does humanity overcome the inhumanity in which it is immersed? Franco Berardi asks a similar question in his book The Uprising about the hypercomplexity of the technolinguistic automatisms that cause us to behave like swarms. The bio-economic totalitarianism of financial abstraction is due to the acceleration of the infosphere, with little prospect of being able to reverse this trend. If the only imaginable process of subjectivization is that of immersion, then we need to think like Bifo of ways to subvert subsumption. For Badiou, this requires the courage to create “new symbolic forms for our collective actions”: truths that are not reducible to law and its transgression but that rather create a generic will.

My take on individualism is that we should be collective while also being human. This to me is definitional of leftist class struggle. It means ridding ourselves of the idea of creating a positive unconscious of knowledge that could be located either in social structures, as Louis Althusser and Foucault taught us, or in the persons of individual subjects, inclusive of those who are part of the movement and those who are not. Notwithstanding the irreconcilability of difference, there is more to enjoy in human variance than there is in the pretense of conformity and the strictures of correctness. 

Think for example of both the hilarity and the pathos in a film like Miloš Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (1967), where the effort to keep up appearances and respectability clashes with such human foibles as hunger and neuroses like voyeurism. This is not at all to deny the call for solidarity, organization, responsibility and mutuality on the left, but is rather to challenge what is now the orthodoxy of the discourse theory and social constructionism that has argued for the disappearance of the human subject. This erasure is a delusion of all positive systems and so-called materialisms that have not incorporated the complex of existing critiques of social systems and political structures.

Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Friday, 29 January 2016 11:22

Counter Culture, Propaganda And Political Consciousness

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Chris Jury traces the relations between culture, oppositional consciousness and class struggles in recent history.

“It may be good to have power based on arms but it is better and more joyful to win and to keep the hearts of the people.”
-Goebbels, Speaking in The Triumph Of the Will, Directed by Leni Riefenstahl

Throughout history ruling elites have been all too aware that political consciousness is culturally created. From the Egyptian pyramids to Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph Of The Will, and through to the BBC's Dragons' Den, ruling elites have always understood that their power rests not only upon the guns and money they control but also, and just as importantly, on the ‘false consciousness’ of the people.

For all oppressed groups ‘power’ is as much an idea as it is a physical reality, and it has often been pointed out that we all collude in our own oppression by obeying the rules and playing the game even though we know the rules are fixed against us. The main reason we do this is because we can't imagine how it could be otherwise.

Thus in order for revolt, rebellion and/or revolution to take place, a number of ideas have to be become widely believed:

(i) That the current regime is illegitimate (Change is necessary, even unavoidable).
(ii) That there are legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives (The new order would be better than the old order).
(iii) That the current regime can be overthrown. (Change is possible).

When a person comes to believe these three ideas simultaneously they can be said to have developed an 'oppositional consciousness', and this consciousness is a crucial factor in bringing about progressive political change because without them individuals and groups will not undergo the inevitable hardships explicit in any fight for progressive social change - because they don’t believe change is necessary, possible or even desirable. But these ideas do not arise inevitably out of material conditions.

The Cage                                                             

A Man wakes up to find himself locked in a cage with a wooden treadmill. A thick mist surrounds the cage and he can see no other cages or any other landmarks. He called out for help and a Guard appeared. "Why am I in this cage?" Asked the Man. "It's the natural order." Said the Guard. "People like you always live in cages. If you behave yourself and work the treadmill for 8 hours a day you'll get everything you need." The Man tried to argue but the Guard made it clear the Man was never getting out of the cage, so the Man had no choice and tried to make the best of it.

But the Guard turned out to be an incompetent idiot and after a while the Man thought, "Hang on a minute I'm as good as him, why should I live in a cage while he swans around like Lord Muck?" So the Man decided to try and get out of the cage. He started banging his head on the bars to try and break them but he gave up very soon because it clearly wasn't going to work and it really hurt. Then one day the idiot Guard dropped the key to the cage and when he was gone the Man let himself out of the cage. It was only then that the Man discovered that the cage was surrounded by a wide pit of fire that he could not cross. The Guard returned and told him that there is no way to escape to anyway because beyond the flames of the fire pit, there is a Dark Forest full of vicious man-eating wolves and that, "People like you always live in the cages and don't know how to defend yourself in the Dark Forest." So the Man accepted that there was no alternative to his life in the cage and gave up trying to escape.

Then one day a group of rebel mutineers appeared with a set of keys. They had come to set the Man free. But the Man was frightened. "Aren't people like me meant to live in the cages?" He asked the Leader of the mutineers. "And anyway how are we going to get over the pit of fire? And what about the man-eating wolves?"

"Don't you want to free?" Asked the Leader. "Of course!" Said the Man. "But it's not possible. The world is the way it is and there's nothing we can do. There is no alternative."

The Leader tried to persuade the Man but the Man refused to try and escape saying it was dangerous and pointless. "I don't like the cage." He said. "But it is safe in here and I get everything I need."

"Okay, suit yourself." Said the Leader. "We're going to fight to be free." And the mutineers started to run off but out of the mist a squad of Guards appeared and all the mutineers were gunned down, right there, in front of the Man. The Man was so pleased he was clever enough not to get involved with the mutineers and realised that he was never, ever going to try to escape from the cage again.

Raising Oppositional Consciousness                                                    

So I've just told a story, a cultural object, to try and convey my meaning to you. By telling you the story I'm inviting you to imagine yourself living in the cage and by empathising with the situation, understand the point I'm trying to make.

And at the point I've left the story, it is clear any future mutineers would have a hell of a job persuading the Man to try and escape from the cage. They'd have to persuade him that he was unjustly being kept in the cage, that he didn't have to accept his imprisonment, that the Guards could be overcome, that there is a way over the pit of fire and there are no ravenous wolves in a Dark Forest, and that there is a life outside the cage. It might be very difficult to persuade the Man of this because although living in the cage is horrible it is safe and escaping might involve all sorts of risks that could literally cost the Man his life.

Raising oppositional consciousness always involves an imaginative leap of this kind. We have to illustrate to people how and why the world they live in is unjust. We have to help people to imagine and envision a world that doesn't exist yet, an alternative reality that could exist but only if they were prepared to fight for it. And we have to convince people that the fight could be won, and that it is worth the sacrifice involved in the fighting.

Dry political theory and strategy papers aren't going to do this because the process is largely emotional and imaginative, and we have to be able and willing to use emotional and imaginative tools to inspire people to make the sacrifices inevitably required by any political struggle. Thus the books, posters, pamphlets, songs, graffiti, films and theatre associated with contemporary campaigns and movements for social change, are not simply a feel-good sideshow to the main business of political action, but an integral part of creating the oppositional consciousness essential to making political change happen is not possible.

 

 

 

In any given situation it is oppositional consciousness rather than the underlying economic circumstances that determines whether resistance, revolt and revolution take place. This is not to deny that brutal and oppressive economic realities can in themselves be important factors in developing oppositional consciousness, just that they are not the determining factors as economists (Marxist or otherwise) might claim.

We’ve Never Had It So Good?

The Wall St crash of 1929 and the austerity measures that followed plunged the West into the Great Depression. It took WW2 and an entirely managed wartime economy to drag the world out of this depression.

In post WW2 Europe a form of highly regulated managed capitalism combined with the rapid expansion of the Welfare State gave rise to unprecedented economic growth. In the UK the period from 1950 to 1973 was characterized by exceptional economic growth, a fall in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid (i.e. increasing equality), low inflation and near full employment.

This led to increasing disposable household incomes for ordinary people, which combined with the political idea of ‘democratising’ elite privileges to stimulate a burst in technical innovation that gave birth to the modern consumerist age. By 1957 Harold Macmillan was able to famously say, "Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good."

As the Fifties turned into the Sixties washing machines, fridges, central heating, cars, televisions all started to become affordable to working people. The Welfare State also meant that ordinary people (in the UK and Europe) were getting medical care free at the point of use, free access to education, (right up to undergraduate level and beyond for the brightest students), and a benefit system designed to ensure that no citizen ever again had to suffer the deprivations and indignities of the 1930’s. It was true! Exactly as Macmillan said, we had never had it so good!

But what happened next seems to fly in the face of this economic reality, because what followed was a 15-year period of sustained and intense left-wing resistance, revolt and rebellion, which involved occupations, sit-ins, violent riots, police brutality and murderous terrorism.

1960-1979: Power To The People

 

The resistance, riot and revolt of the Sixties and Seventies was not the result of oppressive economic conditions but was the result of several, initially distinct, cultural phenomena that conflated and gave rise to the cultural idea of the ‘rebel’ being central to the way a generation defined itself. These cultural phenomenon can be summarised as:

The relentless ‘freedom’ discourse of The Cold War.
The 'Liberation' struggles of the former European colonies.
The African-American Civil Rights movement.
The emergence of Rock & Roll as a profoundly ‘rebellious’ form.
The identification between black and white youths that came about as a result of the power of ‘black’ music.

By the end of the Sixties to be a ‘rebel’ was to be cool; to be a white kid and have black friends was really cool; and to be ‘young, gifted and black’ was exceptionally cool.

For perhaps the first time in Western history oppositional consciousness was the dominant mainstream disposition of an entire generation. To be patriotic was not ‘cool’; to dress like your Mum or your Dad was not cool; to be obedient was not ‘cool’; to respect authority was not ‘cool’; to work hard and do as you were told was not ‘cool’. By the end of the Sixties to be ‘cool’ was to be angry, rebellious and defiant.

The Cold War

The Cold War is perhaps the defining cultural feature of this post-war era. Western Cold War propaganda conceived the West as ‘free’ and the East as ‘oppressed’. The West meant the capitalist, representative documentaries of Europe and it’s ex-colonies; The East was Russia and China and their Communist satellites. This basic conflict between ‘the free’ West and the ‘repressive East’, defined both elite & popular Western culture for 40 years. In the elite arena of ‘Art’ the idea was that the repressive East used Art as propaganda to impose its evil doctrine on their helpless citizens, therefore in the West ‘Art’ that conveyed political ideas was to be avoided at all costs - hence the dominance of the abstract in post-war painting and sculptor and the dominance of the L’Art Pour L’Art philosophy of the 19th Century Aesthetes across the entirety of elite Western culture in the post war period – Western Art was free because it didn’t say anything.

In popular culture we were reminded that we were ‘free’ (and they were not), on a daily basis. Russian and East European ‘dissidents’ and ‘defectors’ were endlessly valorised on the news and even scripts of popular TV shows like Robin Hood were purposefully written using the language of liberation and resistance. For the capitalist ruling elites of the West there was however an unforeseen and unwelcome repercussion of this endless ‘free West’ propaganda - we started to believe it! We actually started to believe we were free, that we were democratic citizens entitled to determine our own futures and not beholden for our livelihoods to the prince, bureaucrat or businessman.

Colonial Liberation

From the end of WW2 into the 1980's, most of the Third World European colonies in the Third World freed themselves from direct colonial rule after 300 years of brutal Imperial exploitation and oppression. This process started with the Independence of India in 1947, which was achieved without a war of independence due to the non-violent strategy led by Ghandi. But most other colonies were forced to fight for the freedom through violent military insurrection. The Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya 1952-60, and the French Algerian War 1947-62, started the trend and were followed by violent independence struggles in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Algeria, Uganda, Egypt, Tanzania, Zaire, Guinea, Senegal and Nigeria, to name but a few.

The success of these violent revolutions established the three principles of oppositional consciousness. (i) The colonial powers were widely shown to be morally and politically illegitimate as they controlled these countries against the wishes of the indigenous population and only by brute force. (ii) The successful liberation struggles proved that it was possible to overthrow these colonial powers. (iii) It was recognised by all that whatever the negative economic or political consequences of liberation, the reality of living free from racist colonial rule was worth fighting for.

The victories of the former colonies demonstrated convincingly that the world didn't have to be the way it was and that as rich and powerful as the Western Imperial powers were, they were not invincible. This had a transformative power on popular political consciousness not just in the third world but also in the first - especially amongst the Afro-Caribbean community of the USA who were inspired and emboldened by witnessing their brothers in Africa fighting for freedom.

Civil Rights

 

The participation of African-Americans in WW2 had a profound influence on the communities sense of self worth and this combined with the victories of colonial struggles in Africa and the relentless cold war discourse of freedom and of America as ‘the land of the free’, to bring about an oppositional consciousness within the African-American community in the USA and by the mid to late Fifties the Civil Rights movement had been born.

Despite the obvious courage of the Civil Rights activists and the justice of their cause, most white Americans did not initially identify with the trials and tribulations of black America, which were perceived as either ‘natural’ (i.e. it was the black person's own fault), exaggerated (i.e. it can't be as bad as they say), or as the sufferings of a far off distant foreign land (i.e. this might be happening in Mobile, Alabama but it isn't happening in my town). And so initially in the 1950's, the black community was very much fighting alone - until the culture changed.

Rock & Roll

And it changed because in 1953/54 black Rhythm & Blues was fused with white Country music to form 'Rock & Roll', which became in due course, the single most significant cultural factor in building bridges of empathy between black & white America.

Initially, in the fifties it was Rock & Roll performed by white artists from the South, but as the fifties became the sixties, black music written and performed by black artists crossed the segregation lines in to mainstream white culture in the form of the Blues, Soul, Motown, Funk and Reggae.

But the cultural impact of Rock & Roll wasn’t just that it was ‘new’, Frank Sinatra had been ‘new’ once, no, the thing about Rock & Roll was that it was disgraceful. It wasn’t the lyric content of Rock & Roll that made it subversive, ("And we rolled, reelin' and a rockin'. We was reelin' and a rockin'. Rollin' till the break of dawn." are hardly radical lyrics), it was that the form itself, and the way it was enjoyed, rejected the musical and social norms that had gone before, and to be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be a rebel; to not do as you were told and not to look to your elders as role models but to your peers. To be a Rock & Roll fan in 1955 was to be out of control, to be dangerous.

Unsurprisingly the ‘establishment’ turned on the new music with vitriol and Rock & Roll fans were defined by mainstream society as ‘outsiders’ within their own society; as being in opposition to the white middle-class men who were trying to stop their fun and were demonising them simply for wanting to dance. But then amazingly as Rock & Roll became the mainstream so did this sense of the young being outsiders and in opposition to the old, suddenly to be young, rebellious and defiantly rebellious was the mainstream!

Over time the attraction to black music forced white youth to re-examine and redefine how they related to black people. As a result the Civil Rights movement started to achieve success partly through the growing support from the white community and especially the urban, educated, white youth of the North. In turn, watching news coverage on the TV of white and black youths fighting together for Civil Rights, seeded in the mainstream white audience a number of ideas, namely: (i) That the USA (the land of the free) was a country capable of violent oppression and injustice like any other; (ii) That there were legitimate, credible and desirable alternatives to segregation and oppression; (iii) That the U.S. government could be beaten – i.e. that change was possible.

It just so happens that these are the basic ideas of oppositional consciousness.

Then came the Vietnam War, a war that was going to be fought by young people (mostly black) on behalf of the very white middle-class men who had, just a few years before, tried to stop them dancing. So in opposing the Vietnam War the interests of the youth of white and black America coincided, and due to the success of the Civil Rights movement and the impact of Rock & Roll, many of these young people had already developed an oppositional consciousness, which meant that this particular generation were willing to fight.

There is not space here to delve further into the history of the Sixties but suffice it to say that the violent overreaction of governments to radical youth activism escalated oppositional consciousness across the Western world. In Europe this led to many white middle-class youths becoming radically politicised resulting in Grosvenor Square, CND, the LSE, the Radical Student Alliance... to name but a few.

Privileged, often middle-class, young people were kicking-off all over. In Paris in May 1968 the middle-class student revolt led to an alliance with the trade unions and there was very nearly an actual revolution. In other places the rebellion was so ferocious it turned into terrorist violence. In Northern Ireland the Catholic Civil Rights movement led to the reactivation of the IRA as a terrorist organisation. In Italy the Red Brigade was formed, and in Germany Baader-Meinhof.

But it wasn’t just middle-class students. In British Industry the effect of the spread of oppositional consciousness into the mainstream of popular culture was dramatic.

By the early '70's, industrial strife was said to be 'the British disease'. Things were so bad that in 1969 even the Labour Party tried to control the trade unions but Barbara Castle's paper, 'In Place Of Strife', was rejected and by 1974, when Edward Heath tried and failed to take on the miners, trade union density had risen to over 55% of the total workforce. 13 million of us were members of trade unions. Men like Red Robbo, at British Leyland in Birmingham, represented a real challenge to the ‘managers' right to manage’. Ideas of worker control of industries were seriously being discussed and despite, or perhaps because of, the ‘never had it so good’ economic conditions, the British working class were more empowered and more willing to fight than at any time since the early years of the 20th Century.

 

 

 

By 1979 the ruling elites had had enough of the economic costs that all this 'freedom' had imposed on their businesses. They realised that full employment and job security had encouraged rebellion and revolt and that structural unemployment and financial insecurity were crucial to reasserting capital's control. So counter-intuitively perhaps they planned to regain control by purposefully making material conditions worse for the working class and deliberately creating fear, anxiety and insecurity in order to encourage people to be passive, obedient workers. And so with Reaganomics and Thatcherism the ruling class launched a class war to reassert their profits, power and authority – a class war that is still going on today.

And culture has been central to that class war. In the UK since 1979 positive images of the working class and/or radical political struggle have almost entirely disappeared from the mainstream media. Business and businessmen are relentlessly valorised in the mainstream media (Dragons' Den and The Apprentice), consumer goods are fetishized and the celebrity culture of Big Brother and The X Factor endlessly promise the poor and underprivileged that ‘it could be you’; that any of us can be rich and privileged if only we can get on the telly, and of course if we ‘want it enough’.

Modern capitalists certainly know that political consciousness is culturally created and in 2014 they spent $650 billion on doing it – it’s called advertising. Modern advertising is remarkable in that it has largely succeeded in persuading millions of us that our ‘freedom’ is best expressed by buying things we don’t need and can’t afford. This is an incredible political achievement that Goebbels would have been proud of as it flies in the face of centuries of Christian teaching and social practice. In England, even as recently as 30 years ago, conspicuous consumption, debt and self-promotion were regarded as vulgar, yet today they are the hallmarks of status and prestige across the whole society.

But it is Thatcher’s 'there is no alternative' (TINA), narrative that has been so culturally effective in stifling dissent for the last 30 years. TINA is so powerful because if you can get people to believe there is indeed no alternative to neoliberal free markets, free trade and capitalist globalization, then what is the point in opposing them? The argument is that neoliberalism is the only legitimate system because it is the only possibility. There are no alternatives so obviously there is nothing to replace the system with. And change obviously isn’t possible because there is nothing to change to, because there are no alternatives. It's clever stuff - if you can get people to believe it.

And it seems they have done just that because despite the most catastrophic crisis in global capitalism since 1929; despite the fact that ordinary people are literally being asked to pay for the debts created by the bad bets of the casino banking culture; despite the conspicuous 19th century levels of inequality directly linked to that casino culture; despite the blatant and evident dismantling of the Welfare State; despite the lay-offs, closures and pension heists; despite all this, we are seeing nothing like the levels of radical resistance and revolt that were seen in the boom years between 1950 and 1973.

The economy boomed 1950-73 yet there was revolt and rebellion across the world. Since '79 wages across the West have stagnated and the welfare state dismantled and there's barely been a murmur. Why? Because the culture dictated the consciousness of the working class not the material conditions. From the birth of Rock & Roll and The Angry Young Men in 1956 to the Punk explosion in 1976, oppositional consciousness was at the heart of Western popular culture. But after Thatcher's election in '79 the ruling capitalist elite relentlessly reasserted through the mainstream media its cultural hegemony of obedience, hierarchy, and inequality, and for 30 years has put out the consistent message that there is no credible or legitimate alternative to capitalist economic liberalism, and that the benefits of free markets far outweigh any disadvantages. And it seemed to almost everyone that they had won the propaganda war and the Left's propaganda had failed to such an extent that 'the Left' had ceased to exist as a meaningful political force. It seemed that ideological history had indeed ended.

Or so they thought

Because somehow, despite all their propaganda, the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity have not only survived but have found a new form of expression and a new burst of energy.

Since the mid-nineties the internet has allowed for a flourishing of independent counter-culture and media to be widely accessible outside of the mainstream and this has allowed oppositional consciousness to survive, even prosper, despite the success of the TINA narrative in the mainstream. This is primarily a cultural phenomenon, rather than a technological one, with social media being merely the vehicle to distribute the alternative news, information and cultural memes at a nominal cost.

Indeed, it could be argued that 'the internet' is serving the same function today as 'Rock & Roll' did 50 years ago. 'The internet' as a concept is rebellious, subversive and uncontrollable, just as 'Rock & Roll' was. Sure it is owned and controlled by corporations, just as most record companies were in the previous era, but it also allows for an unprecedented level of free expression beyond the confines of the mainstream media.

The idea that the current regime is illegitimate is almost ubiquitous on the internet, similarly credible and desirable alternatives are all over the web as is the idea that change is possible. Thus the internet creates a sort of permanent, vibrant counter-cultural oppositional consciousness that bubbles along entertaining, educating and informing but completely under the radar of the mainstream.

On the internet people have access to cultural and intellectual material like they never have before; most of the defining literature of left wing discourse is available for free as PDF's on the internet; Wikipedia has democratised knowledge in an unprecedented way; subversive jokes, graphics, posters and images are constantly exchanged and disseminated across the globe. People can see pictures and photographs of demonstrations, revolts and rebellions from all over the world while the events are still taking place. The internet can give an unprecedented sense of being part of a movement while still being in your own living room (or bedroom). Even though we mainly use the internet as atomised individuals, suddenly all this oppositional discourse can come together and find a collective, public outlet. As a result across Europe we are experiencing an outburst of oppositional consciousness and the return of democratic socialist ideas to the public political discourse. Podemos, Syriza, Corbyn and even Bernie Sanders in the USA, are collective, real-world, public expressions of the virtual counter-culture that has been quietly working away for 15 years.

But the 'Arab Spring', that most famous previous example of internet inspired rebellion, shows us that while oppositional consciousness is a necessary prerequisite for revolt and rebellion, it is not alone sufficient to bring about permanent change. For that we also need determination, patience, courage, solidarity and self-sacrifice.

 

 

 

The full version of the flash fiction embedded in this article as The Cage is on the fiction section of the arts hub.

west bank wall balloon girl
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Saturday, 12 December 2015 17:58

Art, activism and the cultural food chain

Written by

Susan Jones outlines how activism can help artists in an age of austerity and widening gaps between rich and poor.

The so-called golden age of arts funding gave way to debilitating austerity, felt particularly by artists who are now at the end of a long food chain, divorced from arts funding and policy decision making. But when did these divisions start, and how can artists use activism to create meaningful change for the future?

What do we mean by culture and why does it matter?
K2_PUBLISHED_ON Tuesday, 24 November 2015 18:40

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

Written by

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.

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