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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

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 Michael on 09/05 at 04:46 PM
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