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Theory Tuesday V (part one)

After a thirteen-month hiatus, we’re back!

But for those of you who haven’t been scouring this blog all year for these Theory things, let me remind you that I do not, in fact, have prepared lectures sitting on my hard drive just waiting to be transferred to the blog.  The first three installments were undertaken largely in response to challenges issued elsewhere, at blogs where they were threatening to blow down Theory’s house of clothes, or to point out that the Theory Emperor had no cards, or something like that.  So last summer I decided to haul out some of the things I’d been teaching in English 501, the entry-level course for graduate students in Penn State’s English department.  My version of 501 wasn’t devoted entirely to theory—we also had guest lecturers who gave introductions to the last twenty or thirty or fifty years of scholarship in various academic fields, and we introduced students to some of the mechanics of how the profession works (with regard to conference papers and article submissions and intellectual/ professional development in general).  And I did this Theory series not only to try to give people some general idea of What was What in 501 (without asking them to take 501!), but also to defend the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (which I find vastly preferable to most “overviews” of Theory because it’s all primary texts and copious headnotes) from the various slings and arrows tossed its way by the editors of Theory’s Empire (which I also reviewed earlier this year).

Why the prolegomenon?  Well, not just to jog your memory and mine, but also to admit that even the Norton sometimes nods.  Geoffrey Harpham wrote a stinging review of the volume in which he noted that its treatment of Stephen Greenblatt was downright weird, and I’ve found that their selection from Raymond Williams is really kind of weak.  So when it comes to introducing students to a representative snippet of Williams’ work, I forego the Norton and hand out photocopies of “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” instead, because that’s the item my friends chez Norton should have anthologized.

If you ask me.

Now, I hate to do this, but the following discussion of Williams’ “Base and Superstructure” will make a bit more sense if you go back to August 2005 and read my little post about Louis Althusser.  (The hyperlink on “thirteen-month hiatus” will take you there.) There you’ll find that I don’t think much of that Althusser fellow, and that I kinda regret the enormous influence he’s had on my corner of the world of ideas.  There are two reasons I regret that influence: first, because (as I argued in that post) I think the idea of a structuralist Marxism is basically incoherent (insofar as it amounts, in one respect, to an anti-historical theory of history), and second, because the theory itself is so rigid and dogmatic . . . and also incoherent!

You’ll recall (or you’ll find out, if you don’t recall) that Althusser introduces the notion of “interpellation” or “hailing” in order to answer the age-old Marxist question of why people believe things that, in the opinion of your friendly neighborhood leftist intellectual, aren’t in their material interest.  (It is a question that confounds leftist intellectuals to this day, as Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? demonstrates.) You’re walking down the street, a policeman says “hey, you,” and you turn around.  That’s it!  You’re interpellated.  And for Althusser, this scenario is played out on the Rue Lacan, where you are hailed not by any ordinary cop on the beat but by Ideology itself, and Ideology is unconscious, and the unconscious is structured like a language, and wham!  Just like that, you become a subject of ideology, and you start talking the talk it speaks through you.

Last year, I wrote this about that (apologies for rehearsing all this again, again):

Experience, Althusser says, shows us that hailings “hardly ever” miss their man, and that the one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed.  (This is a very strange claim in itself, not only because experience shows us no such thing but also because a structuralist Marxist ordinarily does not make empiricist claims at all, as Stuart Hall will point out in “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.”) A bit further on, Althusser reprises the scene: “There are individuals walking along.  Somewhere (usually behind them) the hail rings out: ‘Hey, you there!’ One individual (nine times out of ten it is the right one) turns round, believing/ suspecting/ knowing that it is for him, i.e. recognizing that ‘it really is he’ who is meant by the hailing.”

All right, so now we have three hailing frequencies to consider:

1.  The hailing hardly ever misses.
2.  The hailing is successful ninety percent of the time.
3.  The individual is always hailed—indeed, always-already hailed.  Ideology recruits us all.

We’re still in the initial scene of interpellation here, being yelled at by a cop on the street, and already you should be asking yourselves, uh, how exactly does this thing work?  Folks, you don’t have to wait for a card-carrying deconstructionist to come along and point out that the successful transmission of a message is a subset of all the message’s possible mistransmissions.  You can ask a more immediate question: what happens to that tenth person?  Can ideology fail to interpellate a subject, and if so, what happens then?  Is the subject cast into the outer darkness where there is no language, and no language police hailing people?

Well, now.  This, I tell my students, is an influential but deeply problematic, and deeply flawed, account of ideology.  It is compounded, not clarified, by Althusser’s famous formula, “Ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” And just in case I haven’t already pissed off the last few remaining Althusserians in the English-speaking world in the course of this post, let me suggest that both these conceptions of ideology—as interpellation, as imaginary relations to real conditions—are little more than dressed-up versions of “false consciousness.” To be more specific: their dress is Lacanian formal dress, in which the “imaginary” is coextensive with the linguistic unconscious (remember, for Lacanians, the unconscious is structured like a language); “imaginary” in this formula does not simply mean “unreal” or “made up,” so it’s not as if Althusser is saying that people are just delusional dupes or something (undoubtedly some are, but this is hardly a firm basis for a full-blown theory of human subjectivity).  He’s saying that we all live in the Imaginary, and that’s why we heard that “hey, you!” in the first place.  So think of it this way:  people misrecognize their relationship to their real conditions of existence, just as they misrecognize their relation to ideology itself (which is the source of that misrecognition), but then, what would you expect, since misrecognition is the order of the day: “Hey, you!” the officer yells, and when we turn around, he says, “misrecognize your relation to the structures that interpellate you, including this one,” and we say, “okey-doke,” and proceed on our Mister Magooian misrecognizing way.

One wonders just how an ideological interpellation-scheme so rigid and reliable as this ever allowed anyone, let alone Louis Althusser, to grasp its workings.

Right, so now we’re all caught up, and I can move to Williams by saying this: one of the reasons I like Williams is that his theory of ideology, expressed most concisely and suggestively in “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” is so much better than Althusser’s.  And that’s the way I teach it!  Althusser bad, Williams good.  Althusser bad, Williams good.  I do not rest until all my students are chanting this in unison with me.  No doubt this is where I got my reputation as a “biased” professor.

But the funny thing is that the essay doesn’t announce itself as having a theory of ideology.  Instead, Williams starts off by telling us that we should think about rethinking the “base” / “superstructure” model on which Marxist theory rests:

Any modern approach to a Marxist theory of culture must begin by considering the proposition of a determining base and a determined superstructure.  From a strictly theoretical point of view this is not, in fact, where we might choose to begin.  It would be in many ways preferable if we could begin from a proposition which originally was equally central, equally authentic: namely the proposition that social being determines consciousness.  It is not that the two propositions necessarily deny each other or are in contradiction.  But the proposition of base and superstructure, with its figurative element, with its suggestion of a fixed and definite spatial relationship, constitutes, at least in certain hands, a very specialized and at times unacceptable version of the other proposition.

This sounds, perhaps, like a bit of throat-clearing, but the major pieces are on the board: social being determines consciousness, the base determines the superstructure.  In really reductive versions of Marxism, this can be taken to mean that you think what you think because of where you are on the social food chain (your social being dictates your consciousness) and that ideas, laws, philosophy, art, culture etc. change only when (and only because) the means of material production change (the base produces its corresponding superstructure).

OK, so the first thing Williams does to complicate matters is to insist that the very word “determines” (“the usual but not invariable German word is bestimmen, he writes) “is of great linguistic and theoretical complexity.” This, by the bye, is where Williams is usually at his best, sifting through the sedimentary layers of meaning that certain “keywords” have accumulated over the past couple of centuries.  About “determine,” he writes:

There is, on the one hand, from its theological inheritance, the notion of an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity.  But there is also, from the experience of social practice, a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures.

And if you’ve already guessed that Williams is going to take us down the second path, you win!  But notice what he’s done (subtly, at that) by marking the “theological inheritance” of the idea of determinism: he’s managed to suggest that the reductive Marxist tradition in which the base (or social being) predicts or prefigures or controls the superstructure (or consciousness) is more or less a bad hangover from the long night we spent drinking religion straight up.  To that residual quasi-theological thinking (and yes, I’ll get to the notion of the “residual” before we’re through), Williams juxtaposes the just plain “experience of social practice.” And his invocation of it, unlike Althusser’s, is not going to be purely gestural.  “Practice” is going to be key to the coda of the essay.

First, however, we’re going to look more closely at that superstructure.  Since it’s quite clear from the historical record that changes in the means of material production don’t produce superstructural changes just like that, hey presto, there have been what Williams calls “qualifications and amendments” to the basic model:

The simplest notion of a superstructure, which is still by no means entirely abandoned, had been the reflection, the imitation or the reproduction of the reality of the base in the superstructure in a more or less direct way.  Positivist notions of reflection and reproduction of course directly supported this.  But since in many real cultural activities this relationship cannot be found, or cannot be found without effort or even violence to the material or practice being studied, the notion was introduced of delays in time, the famous lags, of various technical complications; and of indirectness, in which certain kinds of activity in the cultural sphere—philosophy, for example—were situated at a greater distance from the primary economic activities.

To the “famous lags” (still a great unclaimed band name, btw) Williams adds two more amendments: one, “the modern notion of ‘mediation,’ in which something more than simple reflection or reproduction—indeed something radically different from either reflection or reproduction—actively occurs.” “Mediation” has been a crucial concept for latter-day Marxist theory, not least because it allows the theorist almost all manner of interpretive leeway.  The second amendment is still more complex: “In the later twentieth century,” Williams writes, looking over his shoulder at that structuralist Marxism, “there is the notion of ‘homologous structures,’ where there may be no direct or easily apparent similarity, and certainly nothing like reflection or reproduction, between the superstructural process and the reality of the base, but in which there is an essential homology or correspondence of structures, which can be discovered by analysis.”

All well and good, says Williams, but in all this qualifyin’ and amendin’ the notion of the superstructure, no one’s paid any attention to examining the notion of the base (it seems so basic, after all), and “I would argue that the base is the more important concept to look at if we are to understand the realities of cultural process.”

And here’s why he would argue that.  Noting that Marx’s suggestion (in the Grundrisse) that a piano-maker is a productive worker (and a piano distributor is probably a productive worker) whereas a pianist is not is “very clearly a dead-end,” Williams opens the door to understanding pianists and writers and theorists and their ilk as cultural producers instead of as superstructural ephemera.  Announcing simply, but with a keen awareness of the surprising interpretive consequences, that “when we talk of ‘the base,’ we are talking of a process and not a state,” Williams lays down the agenda for the future of Marxist theory (and we’re only on the fourth page of the essay!):

We have to revalue “determination” towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content.  We have to revalue “superstructure” towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content.  And, crucially, we have to revalue “the base” away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process.

OK, I admit, the language of “we have to revalue towards” and “revalue away from” is less than ideal, but my stars!  This man is calling for a form of Marxist theory that’s every bit as complex and contradictory as lived experience itself.  Determination as setting the field for a range of possibilities.  The superstructure as a range of cultural practices that are loosely “related” to one another and relatively autonomous from the base.  And the base as something fluid and churning rather than as something static and concrete.  Can he pull it off?

To find out, tune in tomorrow!  Because that’s as much as I can write today, everyone—it’s been a very busy First Day of the Semester here.  I’ll be back tomorrow with glosses on Williams’s understanding of totality, hegemony, and “practice,” and of course we’ll play the number one hit on the Marxist charts for 1973, your fave and mine, “Residual, Dominant and Emergent (Gonna Rock You Tonite).”

Posted by on 09/05 at 04:46 PM
  1. Uh, Michael, we’re not interested in academic word games. wink

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  07:46 PM
  2. And so ends the longest thirteen months of my life.

    --

    Q1: Will you be addressing reciprocity of determination between base and superstructure?

    Q2: Goddammit, but why isn’t there an entry on ‘fetish’ in Keywords? Is there one in ‘New Keywords’? Say yes.

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  08:12 PM
  3. Michael,

    I like the way you take time off from blogging!

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  08:18 PM
  4. Stepping out on a limb here…

    When I think about the base and the superstructure, I immediately want to think about bases and superstructures, and from there I move directly to superstructures that can be treated like bases, and vice versa, and finally end up with a meta-superstructure-base that’s recursive. I then stop and tell myself that’s all crazy think.

    But it does make me wonder the following. If a superstructure is really a range of possibilties (or exclusions) determined by the base; wouldn’t it seem to suggest that the range is determined by some mingling of percieved bases and/or superstructures percieved as bases - rather than a general fuzzying of the whole matter? I’m picturing a sort of evolutionary ideology that lives in an environment called the base.

    If that makes any sense at all in twenty words or less.

    Posted by Central Content Publisher  on  09/05  at  08:42 PM
  5. What about Zizek?

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  08:54 PM
  6. All your base and superstructure are belong to us?

    Posted by Orange  on  09/05  at  09:11 PM
  7. I suppose someone had to say it, Orange.  But now I wonder: if Snakes on a Plane is superstructure, are snakes base?

    Posted by Michael  on  09/05  at  09:22 PM
  8. "Uh, Michael, we’re not interested in academic word games. wink”

    Fuck you.  I am!  Michael has convinced me to read Raymond Williams.  Thanks Michael!

    “are snakes base?”

    Snakes are a complex institution, much like the law.  The basic snake form is part of the base, part of the structure of generalized commodity production, but specific snake species and behaviors are definitely superstructural.  The possibility of putting snakes on transportation is therefore intrinsic to capitalism, but the possibility of putting motherfuckin’ snakes on a motherfuckin’ plane is definitely superstructural.

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  09:49 PM
  9. Because tone doesn’t always work on the interwebs, I better say that “fuck you” was not actually hostile.

    Also, “What about Zizek?”

    Well, if I’m interpreting Williams correctly from Michael’s brief excerpt, his work as a copy writer for Abercrombie and Fitch is part of the base, the relations of production, but his work as a Slovenian presidential candidate is superstructural.

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  09:53 PM
  10. The basic snake form is part of the base, part of the structure of generalized commodity production, but specific snake species and behaviors are definitely superstructural.

    Wait a minute. No way base/superstructure maps onto substance/accident in that way.

    Here’s some Zizek I had on hand: “The lesson is therefore clear: an ideological identification exerts a true hold on us precisely when we maintain an awareness that we are not fully identical to it, that there is a rich human person beneath it: ‘not all is ideology, beneath the ideological mask, I am also a human person’ is the very form of ideology, of its ‘practical efficiency.’” The Plague of Fantasies, 21

    In other words, MB might have already covered SZ, at least in this regard, sub nomine LA. At least in the 9 times in 10 where irony doesn’t take.

    Posted by  on  09/05  at  10:17 PM
  11. guess i missed that day we all started chanting in 501, because i kind of dig louis.  not that ray’s bad at all - he’s quite good (and thanks for bringing back theory tuesday) - but i’ve spent half my academic life strolling merrily down rue lacan, and the view from here is great.  ideology can hail me any day.  and it rarely ever fails.

    as for the first day of classes, i don’t have that for another three weeks.  they do things differently here on the quarter system, i suppose.  and the 501-type thingy i have to take over here has some light reading - hume, heidegger, and “archaeology of knowledge,” among other luminaries.  i guess it’s a “forget everything you puny undergraduates thought you knew about theory” sort of thing.

    sounds fun, but i miss the SC.

    Posted by Arkadin  on  09/05  at  10:25 PM
  12. Oh, you were there that day, Mr. Arkadin—if that is your real sprezzatural name—but apparently you were just moving your mouth.  Damn.

    I wonder why my attempt to hail you didn’t work.  Next time I will try something more like the closing line of Invisible Man.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/05  at  10:42 PM
  13. For one, I think Althusser’s ISA essay is a misreading of Lacan, though I think the essay could be a good introduction to Lacan. Okay, besides that, I teach Althusser over Williams for one reason, which is that Williams, for me, is too Marxist. In other words, I choose to assign Althusser as an example of structuralism coming to terms with Marxism(or vice versa). Though Williams does attempt to re-read base/superstructure, it is no Foucauldian power/knowledge, which radically challenges the directionality of power, the packaging of power and as well as the instruments(or as Althusser would say, the apparatuses) of power. So, I guess my main point is, Why Williams as a critique of Althusser when there is a better, though less Lacanian(which I know you have a disdain for, why by the way?) tour-de-force, the Bald Eagle himself aka M. Foucault, who happened to be Althusser’s student?

    I don’t know..just some thoughts.

    PS. Richard Dienst offers a lovely critique of Williams in his /Still Life in Real Time./ What a great book, by the by.

    Posted by Sam Han  on  09/05  at  11:13 PM
  14. Theory Tuesday and Wednesday? Thanks!

    The Althusser hailing analogy never worked well for me. Due to the pronunciation of my RL name, I often think people are hailing me when they are not.

    Posted by luolin  on  09/05  at  11:42 PM
  15. You mention Weber’s Marx’s _Grundrisse_ merely to show how scintillatingly hip and meta-everything you are.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  01:22 AM
  16. Sloppy pasting, sorry.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  01:31 AM
  17. Michael, Thank you very much, I was looking forward to this.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  07:35 AM
  18. You know, Michael, there have been times in my career when I’ve given Marxist thought a real shot at my brain, because, like, ya know, Marx is important, right? So, back in graduate school, up there near the Canadian border at SUNY Buffalo, I took a course in “Radical Approaches to Literature,” taught by Art Efron, a Reichian anarchist—I suppose Art was giving Marx a shot, too. And read lots of stuff, various flavors of Marxism. Even read some of Chairman Mao’s thoughts on the arts, underlined passages in the book (in red, natch), but it didn’t stick. Then about a decade ago I took a run on Jameson’s big fat tome on postmodernism and promptly forgot it. So now—oh joy! oh frabjous joy!—you tell me this:

    Williams opens the door to understanding pianists and writers and theorists and their ilk as cultural producers instead of as superstructural ephemera. 

    Yes. But why not just clear the decks of all this mouldering Marxist detritus and make a clean start of it? It’s not going to be easy, but, hey, that’s what we’re paid for—well, some of us are paid for it—to do the intellectual heavy lifting.

    # # # # # # #

    On this hailing business, sounds a bit like Dawkins and Dennett on memes. They want to know how all this wacky religion stuff gets lodged in people’s brains. It doesn’t make sense, so why do people buy it? Well, it’s the memes, the memes get in there, take up residence, and just won’t leave. What’s worse, they reproduce and spread to other brains.

    It’s not a very convincing story, but then neither is the hailing story—at least as you tell it. Don’t know why serious intellectuals bought the hailing story. But I have a hunch on why lots of not so serious intellectuals bought the meme stuff: they want to think Big Thoughts about culture without actually having to know much about it.

    captcha: “late,” as in “I’m late, I’m late for a very important date,” or perhaps, “the late Marx.”

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/06  at  08:10 AM
  19. If it’s true that material circumstances determine consciousness then P.G. Wodehouse and his Bertie & Jeeves would be the great antithesis to both Marx and Williams.  Bertie, the upper class goofball, is dependent on the greater cultural authority of Jeeves to remind him for instance that Nietzsche was “fundamentally unsound, sir,” and to keep him out of the hands of the proletarian nasties in the short polemic against radical thought to be found in the lyrical short story, “Comrade Bingo.”

    All hail Wodehouse!

    His material circumstances lit up considerably after he had hit on the Bertie-Jeeves combo.  Went in fact from drudge to master, from dweeb to patrician, until caught by those sieg heiling National Socialists, and forced to talk about green moustaches and such on radio which caused the crazy commies of Britain at the time to tar and feather him as their personal scapegoat of the wealthy and famous.

    What would D & G make of such a dude?  Had Sollers read him he would have been walking around Paris in spats instead of in a Maoist uniform, and French theory would be like, phun.

    Isn’t all of Williams really to be found in Marx’s one sentence in the “Contribution”?

    As Brits go, I still prefer Wodehouse for his takes on political and economic orders.  As for spats, we’ll have to stick with the argumentative kind, since the dress shops are all out.

    Posted by Kirby Olson  on  09/06  at  09:30 AM
  20. That part in Thank You, Jeeves when Jeeves applies bootblack to Bertie’s face and hands (which is, of course, all it takes to convincingly pass him off as a member of the “nigger minstrel entertainment” troupe) is a real knee-slapper, btw. High point of British 30’s humor, don’t you know.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  11:49 AM
  21. Love that residual and emergent--maybe the smartest thing Williams ever wrote!  Just used it in a debate with a very smart conservative, Noah Millman, who couldn’t reconcile George Eliot’s Victorian notion of dogged heroism in Middlemarch, via the character of Dorothea, with Freud’s quintessentially modern hermeneutic of suspicion.  Williams--and I, and countless of his grateful readers--say you can.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  12:18 PM
  22. Yeah, Williams gives good reasons why we should just junk the whole Marxist analysis to begin with.  Just call it sociology.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  01:53 PM
  23. You know, some of my best friends are sociologists.  As is one of the people who was most influenced by this essay, namely, Stuart Hall.  And in a strange lattice-of-coincidence kind of development, my most recent book just got reviewed by Library Journal together with a new book by University of Chicago sociologist and Simmel specialist Donald Levine.  (Don just sent me a nice note to let me know.)

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  02:35 PM
  24. What a relief to see a sensible distinction between “setting limits” and “dictating,” a distinction which my social relations determine to remind me of parenting theory.

    (Arbitrary but fun parenthetical:  Famous Lags would be a good band name; the un-used band name that’s been striking my fancy is Bipartisan Figleaves.)

    Posted by john  on  09/06  at  03:15 PM
  25. Before i had begun to read the comments, and come across Benzon’s Yes. But why not just clear the decks of all this mouldering Marxist detritus and make a clean start of it? and blah’s Yeah, Williams gives good reasons why we should just junk the whole Marxist analysis to begin with I was already thinking that pretty much all that is left of Marxian thinking in me is being squeezed our of my left little toe.  Part of the problem for me with the history of theory approach comes from the advances in the scientific studies of consciousness, perception, language acquisition/development, etc.  Likewise, the framing of “culture” as a generalization is so positively consumed by the history of western civilization, making it near impossible to apply any of these analyses to non-western, non-capitalist, non-modern populations (from whence we all came).  The recent, and ongoing, studies at Michigan regarding the social behaviorial differences between Asian populations and those in the US mark profound contradictions as well.  Is theory, devoid of any relevance to reality, functional?? Or as ithe captcha word emotes: Is it all just in our “head?”

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  03:16 PM
  26. Likewise, the framing of “culture” as a generalization is so positively consumed by the history of western civilization, making it near impossible to apply any of these analyses to non-western, non-capitalist, non-modern populations (from whence we all came).

    Not sure exactly what you mean, but, I don’t have deep faith in our underestanding of “culture.” Nor of its opposition to “nature.” I don’t think we’ve got a very useful grasp of what culture is or how to think about it. 

    Yep, we know it’s all over the place, but all too often we talk about it as though it were some homogenous substance that comes in various flavors, like Western and African and Oriental. But just what is the relationship between American culture and Western culture? And Brazilian culture, what is that? Western, Southern?

    Methinks there’s an odd wisdom in professing dangeral studies rather than cultural studies.

    Posted by Bill Benzon  on  09/06  at  05:11 PM
  27. "Wait a minute. No way base/superstructure maps onto substance/accident in that way.”

    Well, yes, not in general, but if you replace “snakes” with “law”, it’s Pashukanis’ argument.  I’ve been researching him recently, so…

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  06:52 PM
  28. Well, yes, not in general, but if you replace “snakes” with “law”, it’s Pashukanis’ argument

    That works better, I think.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  08:34 PM
  29. Not sure exactly what you mean,
    I apologize for not being more clear, yet still feeling the need to be brief.  I think your following statements reflect well much of what i was intending (oh did i use that word?).  We use the term “culture” loaded (as Albert Mehrabian would say) with so much baggage, making it much too difficult to differentiate what we are discussing.  For example, this post and this blog requires one to acknowledge the limits of the entire field, as in, we are not talking about culture, Marx, Russell, et al as applied to contemporary indigenous societies.  Yet, for all practical discursive purposes we seem to all assume that we know to what the term “culture’ refers without so much as refining and limiting its definition; and for me this broader more generalized term is too laden with western civilization to be of any use: the history and use of the word in history, linguistic development, anthropological and sociological uses, etc. 

    As a further example, a book i read on this latest road trip, abused the constructs: culture, cult, culting, etc.  Doug Atkin’s The Culting of Brands presents a mulligan stew of connotations for which he really does not make the effort to create necessary and important distinctions.  It could have been a very utilitarian book, useful in many ways, especially in middle school classes to help students begin to acknowledge how they have been targeted and consumed by media savants.

    Posted by  on  09/06  at  08:48 PM
  30. Peter, that novel THANK YOU, JEEVES is just great, and that scene where Bertie is mistaken for a minstrel is amazingly complicated --there are ironies upon ironies in it.  Your reduction of it bothered me a bit.  Even if you did reduce it to race, gender and class readings (the usual dumbing down) it would still stand up as long as you permit Wodehouse a multi-layered irony (Marxist readings generally can’t handle irony because they have to posit simpler identities).  In that scene of Thank You, Jeeves everyone has at least three identities. And the story has a very complex statement in terms of race, gender, and class, but it wouldn’t be one that you could summarize in a space that was shorter than the novel itself. It’s a miracle of compression as it is.

    Posted by Kirby Olson  on  09/07  at  02:53 PM
  31. I can never think about that whole Althusserian interpellation thingie without remembering <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7gWB7IzxtU">Cheech and Chong</a .

    Oh, goodie, the captcha is language!

    Posted by  on  09/07  at  04:24 PM
  32. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7gWB7IzxtU

    Posted by  on  09/07  at  04:27 PM
  33. Kirby Olsen, I believe the sell-by date for finding multi-layered irony in blackface had long since passed by 1934, when Thank You, Jeeves was published. I’ll admit I find Wodehouse amusing in the main, but, as the inestimable Harry, with his usual pith, notes:

    There’s a phenomenon these days, I don’t know how to name it, but you make one asinine remark, dangle one infant above one crocodile, shoot one lawyer in the head, fuck one goat, and no one ever lets you forget it.

    Anyone who prefers Wodehouse’s takes on politics and economics will just have to lump it, I guess.

    Posted by  on  09/07  at  07:09 PM
  34. I believe the sell-by date for finding multi-layered irony in blackface had long since passed by 1934

    Ah, now’s a good time to plug Eric Lott’s Love and Theft.  Nothing there on Wodehouse, though.

    Posted by Michael  on  09/07  at  08:56 PM
  35. Sorry for diverting the thread from Raymond Williams to Bert Williams, Michael. I know, I know, don’t feed the Lutherans.

    Posted by  on  09/08  at  12:13 AM
  36. Peter, the great task since the 1930s has been to reclaim the left from the Stalinists who were incapable of irony, and who enforced a convergent thought, and more than anything else—were afraid of humorists, since the doctrine of social realism couldn’t function properly in the face of humor.

    Wodehouse was in fact scapegoated by the communists of Britain as early as the 1930s.  Read the book Wodehouse at War, by Ian Sproat, for more information on this, and on the Cassandra broadcasts.

    But Wodehouse’s books are still in print and in wide popular demand. 

    While the books of the communists are long forgotten

    But there’s one very important communist book that deserves to be resuscitated: Essays on Literature, Philosophy, and Music, by Andrei Zhdanov.  He was the great codifier of the doctrine of Social Realism.  His work is a masterpiece.  Humorous writers throughout Russia were killed after its publication, and others never found themselves in print again until the thaw.  His writing is at the very least honest, and clear.  He hated humorists the most.  But even he didn’t know why.  It was because of the multiple identities that humor proposes.

    The great problem in fact for communist theory is humor.  Humor has many layers.  Anyone who reads Thank You, Jeeves will see how many layers there are in Thank You, Jeeves, but no “political” or leftist account can still account for humor or for irony especially since the intrusion of standpoint politics, which posits a single identity.  Anything more complex than that must be reduced to a single identity.

    A more divergent take on Wodehouse would have to apply—Bakhtin, at least, and if you wish a straight-out political thinker, and if it must be on the left, you could try, ahem, Fourier and his phalansterian notion of association through emotional affiliation, for instance.  But again, this would require divergent thinking from that of Zhdanov.

    Even Lukacs was made to agree w/ Zhdanov.  I can’t find anything in your post that Zhdanov would disagree with.  Nor have I been able to find anything in Williams that Zhdanov would have disagreed with, but haven’t read deeply.

    Not to agree with the Soviet Imperialist hegemony meant imprisonment, or death. 

    If you read Zhdanov you will find out where the whole field of cultural studies has unwittingly dipped its pen. 

    “It is wiser to find out than to suppose”—Mark Twain.

    Posted by Kirby Olson  on  09/08  at  10:51 AM
  37. Those that try and weseal out of what “determines” means should read the passage before the “Consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness” sentence in the German Ideology:

    “Rather one sets out from real, active men and their actual life-process and demonstrates the development of ideological reflexes and echoes of that process. The phantoms formed in the human brain, too, are necessary sublimations of man’s material life-process which is empirically verifiable and connected with material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness no longer seem to be independent. They have no history or development. Rather, men who develop their material production and their material realationships alter their thinkning and the products of their thinking along with their real existence.”

    Ideological reflexes! Necessary sublimations! No independent history or development!

    Posted by  on  09/13  at  01:15 AM
  38. If you read Zhdanov you will find out where the whole field of cultural studies has unwittingly dipped its pen.

    I think that of all the boneheaded, ignorant things I’ve ever read about cultural studies, this one wins.  It’s a little like saying “the critical thing to remember about the anti-Communist left is how pro-Communist it was.”

    Posted by Michael  on  09/13  at  09:25 AM

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