Saturday, October 16, 2004

“The Concept of Cultural Hegemony:
Problems and Possibilities”
T.J. Jackson Lears
Lears says he presented an early version of this paper at the 77th Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in 1984. His purpose in writing here is to ponder the nature of historiography. What gets written down and remembered is important. How the story of what happened is told depends on whose voice records it. That’s where the idea of hegemony comes in.

Really, using and understanding the word hegemony itself is a good analogy for Lears’s early points. I think of myself as a person who has a better than average vocabulary, yet when I encountered the word hegemony in college, I found it mystifying, even after I looked it up in the dictionary. It came up in Eric Zencey’s class—Eric, the social historian—and Eric properly defined it for us. Since then, I encountered it any number of times in my reading, and each of those times I still had to look it up. It probably took me until last year to finally understand the sense of the word enough not to have to look it up every time I encountered the word. I tell this story not to digress but to say that Hegemony is the kind of word that excludes just about every kind of reader. It is a word with a strong power base, one that is so strong, it becomes invisible to the masses.

I felt a certain subversive power when the word came up in a reading for my English class this semester. “Did you look it up?” I asked my students. Some had, but they still didn’t know what it meant. “I know!” I empathized. “It took me so long to learn that one!” I explained it to them, of course, but they’ll have to work for so long to understand.

To move along toward Lears, I’ll point out that he discusses the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci as “an intellectual cause celebre” (567). His interpretation of Marxism takes the ideas that Marx limited to economics and applies them to social history, in such a way that he has “remarkably suggestive insights into the question of dominance and subordination in modern capitalist societies” (567).

So Gramsci looks at the notion of “cultural hegemony” which is the term he used to describe “the relation between culture and power under capitalism” (568). Apparently, his thinking is not as rigid as Marx’s. He tries to study cultural symbols to understand “how ideas reinforce or undermine existing social structures” and wonders about “the apparent contraction between the power wielded by dominant groups and the relative cultural autonomy of subordinate groups whom they victimize” (568).

But although Gramsci attacks these significant concerns, he never truly defines cultural hegemony. The closest he comes is to say that hegemony is “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” (568). (Incidentally—this comes from Gramsci’s Selections from the Prison Notebooks, a 1971 translation).

So to think about this for a second—it’s a powerful idea. The power in it has to do with the notion that the consent for control is given spontaneously by the masses. We don’t have to look far for a contemporary example. Just think of the 2000 elections. We knew something “fishy” was going on, but we all had better things to do and we just all thought, oh, fuck it. We have lives to lead, emergencies, weddings, crises at work, deaths, births, whatever. We have a social contract with those we “elect” as leaders, and we’ll let them handle it—and in this case at least, handle it they did—right out of our hands. I don’t necessarily think that this handling always has a negative end. I don’t know that he’s getting at that. But it’s clear that it has a terribly subversive potential, as it did in those elections.

Lears goes on to say that the reason why he doesn’t offer a single (hegemonic) definition of the word is that hegemony can be understood in a number of contexts and a number of ways. So, for example, Lears says, for hegemony to exist, it must be “paired with the notion of domination” (568). According to Lears, “[r]uling groups do not maintain their hegemony merely by giving their domination an aura of moral authority […] they must also seek to win the consent of subordinate groups to the existing social order” (569). Now the idea of consent from these lesser groups is controversial. But Lears says he clarified by saying that “the working class had ‘its own conception of the world’ [and … ] had ‘two theoretical consciousnesses […] one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers […] and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically observed” (569).

The first thing that account makes me think of is the idea of a double-consciousness in the essays of W.E.B. Du Bois. Any oppressed group has to have two levels of consciousness—and if you think about that, it is enough to keep them occupied, enough to keep them from standing up to the group in power—all they have time to do really is negotiate the terms of their servitude, not end it.

A related idea comes up later when Lears talks about the ways that “subordinate groups could identify with the dominant culture” (576). So even if the wanted to challenge the group that dominated them, they might identify with that dominant group—and according to Gramsci, the more they identify with that dominant group, the less likely they are to follow through with the challenge of their power. Nonetheless, it’s still a dual identity of sorts.

Another of Gramsci’s ideas is that no matter what, “ruling groups never engineer consent with complete success” (570). In other words, whether or not they’re rooked into agreeing, the working class still knows they’re getting a raw deal, “the outlook of subordinate groups is always divided and ambiguous” (570). Gramsci defines the state as “hegemony protected by the armour of coercion” (570). Its purpose is to “control the masses” (570).

In a different vein, Gramsci parts significantly with Marx in his ideas about a “historical bloc,” a particularly interesting idea to social historians. While Marx would view any sort of grouping as economic in interest, Gramsci views some social formations as those that “cut across categories of ownership and nonownership and that are bound by religious or other ideological ties as well as those of economic interest” (571). These historical blocs might not become hegemonic, depending on how they relate with other groups. The operant variables are “ideological and economic: to achieve cultural hegemony, the leaders of a historical bloc must develop a world view that appeals to a wide range of other groups within the society, and they must be able to claim with at least some plausibility that their particular interests of those in society at large […] The emerging hegemonic culture is not merely an ideological mystification but serves the interest of the ruling groups at the expense of the subordinate ones” (571). If you have questions on this one, think of the current president.

So the points that Lears stresses throughout the article become a little repetitive after this—he’s giving examples. He’s saying that dominant and subordinate societal groups co-exist, and they do so because the subordinate groups “legitimate” their own domination (573). In many cases the subordinate groups do not protest or rebel because they remain occupied with the work that subordinate groups must do. However, in some cases, “the capability for resistance flourishes and may lead to the creation of counterhegemonic alternatives” (574).

Gramsci’s idea that “the line between dominant and subordinate cultures is a permeable” one is makes him differ from other social historians. According to Lears, when he saw the potential for movement between the two groups, he “opened possibilities for more complex approaches to popular culture” (574). One might infer that the idea of more complex approaches to pop culture means that if the original assumed borders—high culture, low culture, etc.—may be transcended or crossed, then popular culture is legitimized or made equal with “high culture.”

Lears gives a different example of the permeability, a different reading of the subject than I’m doing. He says that one historian that used Gramsci’s theoretical perspective was Eugene Geneovese, who analyzed slave culture. Genovese saw how the “master’s paternalistic world view penetrated the slave’s consciousness” in such a way that it caused them to limit their own rights. They so internalized their own domination by their paternalistic owners that “[p]repolitical protest (such as breaking a plough blade or running off into the woods after a beating) provided slaves with valuable breathing space and even a sense of dignity. But it also reinforced the master’s paternalistic belief that he was dealing with irresponsible children.” It’s a great example of hegemony. Lears simplifies Genovese’s argument for us: “powerlessness combined with paternalism to influence the slave’s consciousness in ways that reinforced the master’s hegemony” (374).

Also on the topic of slavery, Lears brings up David Brion Davis’s research, which demonstrates “spread of bourgeois cultural hegemony” on freed slaves. Davis shows “how antislavery agitators unwittingly promoted new forms of cultural hegemony. By ignoring the emergent ‘wage slavery’ in factories and defining labor exploitation solely in terms of the master-slave relationship, abolitionists helped legitimize the capitalist organization of labor” (588). In other words, the slaves went from one kind of slavery to another as a result of the dominant cultural hegemony—by being freed they could fully identify with their captors.

An idea that is particularly suspect to thinkers like Gramsci—and as it turns out an American historian, Richard Hofstadter—is populism. Hofstadter was particularly suspicious of populism. He was even suspicious of what he called the “agrarian myth,” which he said was “concocted by Eastern literati and imbibed by fuddled farmers” (575).

Gramsci was suspect of ideas like populism because “the hegemonic culture depends not on the brainwashing of ‘the masses’ but on the tendency of public discourse to make some forms of experience readily available to consciousness while ignoring or suppressing others” (577). Lears points out that all this reasoning doesn’t mean that the working class has “developed immunity to dominant values” (577). It’s more that, according to Mann, “working class people tend to embrace dominant values as abstract propositions but often grow skeptical as the values are applied to their everyday lives” (577).

Genovese also tried to test Gramsci’s theories by studying the way hegemonic consensus comes about. In other words, how does society agree that its truths are true? What a good question! Genovese conducted some research among a group of minors and found out about how consensus comes about. He noted a situation where a false hegemonic consensus occurred and theorized that “historians do not have to assume false consciousness” in such cases (581).

Aileen Kraditor tried to look at it outside the economic sphere. She theorizes that “workers chose to accept dehumanization in the workplace in exchange for autonomy in the private sphere” (581), an idea that seems logical even without proof. Furthermore, she claims that not every need should be explained by “class interests” and that “not all cultural forms can be pigeonholed as accommodation or resistance to capitalism” (582). She argues in favor of a “private sphere” (582).

Kraditor attempts to disprove the idea of hegemony or consensus and learns that she can’t. However, Lears says that “the concept of hegemony may at least be falsifiable in principle” (583). John Gaventa tried to do so in his book on powerlessness. Gaventa gets back to the idea of “how can one observe nondecisions, analyze nonissues, and study what does not happen?” (583) when he observes a situation where the subordinate interests don’t speak up.

One danger in understanding the concept of hegemony is to confuse it with the notion of social control from the top down. One example Lears gives is when in the late 1800s, people with neurasthenia were treated with the advise to take on lifestyle characteristics of “Oriental people, the inhabitants of the tropics, and the colored peoples generally” (587). While this could be considered an example of social control, it is not an example of a purposeful attempt at hegemonic control.
An important idea that Lears brings up is that the language or “rhetoric of a dominant culture may contain […] clues to is hegemony” (590). Because, as Lears says, language is “a contested terrain,” it is still difficult for us to understand the notion of hegemony. Limiting, he points out, is our cultural tendency toward binary oppositions. Lears explains, “Semiotic theory suggests one way out of the binary realm by drawing attention away from static categories and toward the process by which meaning is constructed in particular texts. From this view, ideology is less a product than a process in which different kinds of meanings are produced and reproduced through the establishment of a mental attitude toward the world” (590). So, Lears says, rather than looking for a specific truth, why not instead examine “elements in a code that resonate ‘truthfully’” with what we study (590).

Another important point Lears raises here is methodology, though Lears says it has more to do with audience than with methodology. Hmm. Anyway, Levi-Strauss’s definition of “bricolage as a pattern for the construction of meaning in modern mass culture” is important in the study of contemporary culture. The person who conducts this kind of study, or the bricoleur, is “a kind of cultural hero, decoding fragments of consumer culture […] and reassembling them to create his own personal code” (590). Bring into this notion Bakhtin’s idea of “culture as a many-voiced conversation” (591). This way of studying culture will be fruitful to test the theories Lears discusses.

The last idea Lears raises is the logical offshoot of bricolage, post-structuralism. Lears gives examples of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida’s ideas of “’intertextuality’ and multivalence of literary texts” (591). Lears warns us, citing Bakhtin, of the danger for the cultural historian. S/he must “avoid a kind of even-handed reductionism: first look for the assimilation, then the protest” (591). Instead, it’s better to open up analysis to many factors.

So that’s it for Lears.

1 comment:

advisery blog said...

Hey this was written a while ago. but I still think its great.