Saturday, February 14, 2004
Stuart Hall interlude
No time for blogging this weekend-- I’ve got to write my talk for the MLA “Disability Studies and the University” conference at Emory University (March 5-7, so register right now), and so I can’t follow up on the world-historical question of whether major media are running with (or even bothering to investigate) the story that a former AP reporter’s parents think that John Kerry may have been attracted to their daughter.
In the meantime, some words to live by from Stuart Hall’s brilliant 1983 lecture, “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism among the Theorists.” The political context is the British Left’s failure to anticipate or understand Thatcherism’s appeal for the very people it was screwing; in the following passage, Hall offers one of his most stinging rebukes to neo-Leninist Leftists who think that the masses will flock to their cause once the “objective conditions” of their society are sufficiently draconian. Adapt to your local circumstances as you see fit-- and pass the word along to anyone you know who still thinks that all we need is another four years of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Ashcroft-Wolfowitz-Rove in order for tens of millions of Americans to see the virtues of Green/ Socialist/ Anti-Imperialist/ Vegan politics:
“The traditional escape clause for classical marxism . . . is the recourse to ‘false consciousness.’ The popular classes, we must suppose, have been ideologically duped by the dominant classes, using what The German Ideology calls their ‘monopoly over the means of mental production.’ The masses, therefore, have been temporarily ensnared, against their real material interests and position in the structure of social relations, to live their relation to their real conditions of material existence through an imposed but ‘false’ structure of illusions. The traditional expectation on the Left, founded on this premise, would therefore be that, as real material factors begin once more to exert their effect, the cobwebs of illusion would be dispelled, ‘reality’ would be transferred directly into working-class heads, the scales would fall from workers’ eyes, and Minerva’s Owl-- the great denouement promised by the Communist Manifesto, as the socialization of labor progressively created the conditions for mass solidarity and enlightenment-- would take wing at last (even if timed to arrive approximately 150 years too late).
“This explanation has to deal with the surprising fact that mass unemployment has taken a much longer time than predicted to percolate mass consciousness [Hall was writing at a time when unemployment in the UK had reached three million, even after analysts had predicted mass uprisings and riots once the number of unemployed reached two million]; the unemployed, who might have been expected to pierce the veil of illusion first, are still by no means automatic mass converts to laborism, let alone socialism; and the lessons that can be drawn from the fact of unemployment turn out to be less monolithic and predictable, less determined by strict material factors, more variable than supposed. The same fact can be read or made sense of in different ways, depending on the ideological perspective employed. Mass unemployment can be interpreted as a scandalous indictment of the system; or as a sign of Britain’s underlying economic weakness about which mere governments-- Left or Right-- can do very little; or as acceptable because ‘there is no alternative’ that is not more disastrous for the economy; or indeed-- within the sociomasochistic perspective that sometimes appears to be a peculiarly strong feature of British ideology-- as the required measure of suffering that guarantees the remedy will work eventually because it hurts so much (the Britain-is-best-when-backed-to-the-wall syndrome)! . . .
“It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas ‘they’-- the masses-- are the dupes of history, ‘we’-- the privileged-- are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation. Yet it is a fact that, though there are people willing enough to deploy the false consciousness explanation to account for the illusory behavior of others, there are very few who are ever willing to own up that they are themselves living in false consciousness! It seems to be (like corruption by pornography) a state always reserved for others.”
-- from Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (U of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 43-44. Assigned (along with no fewer than nine other essays by Hall) in my current seminar, “What Was Cultural Studies?”