Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lecture Eight – The Origins of Cultural Studies in the U.K.

Lecture Eight – The Origins of Cultural Studies in the U.K.  [DRAFT - Last updated December 18, 2014]

Stanley Aronowitz. “British Cultural Studies”from Roll Over Beethoven – The Return of Cultural Strife.

For the limited purposes of our discussion, two important tendencies arose from the Frankfurt School’s critique. The first is a conservative one arising from a partial and conservative reading of Critical Theory, but especially Adorno’s writings on Jazz. The work associated with this tendency has ranged the moderate conservatism of Daniel Bell or Christopher Lasch.

This first tendency is found in the work of those who denounce the consumerism of what they term “mass culture” as well as the hedonism of the the post World War II era. This tendency obviously has a long history, but throughout it is consistently implicated in the series of “culture wars” that have characterized American politics since Richard Nixon’s declaration that the existed a vast “Silent Majority” of middle class American’s that supported his policies and which would later coalesce with the Christian Right around Ronald Reagan and every subsequent Republican administration. In its moderate form, such as Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism or Lasch’s, The Culture of Narcissism (1979) or the more recent Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital (1995/2000) by Robert Putnam.

The second tendency is an all together radical one that saw culture as a material force in society and, by extension, in nature. A force that had been seized away from that other material force: the working classes, in the words of the more orthodox, and to the less rigidly ideological, relations of human social production.

The second tendency can also be traced back to Adorno’s wrings on music and more specifically his argument that with the phonograph there began a loss of active engagement with music along with a democratization of listening that tended to produce passive listeners while fostering the commercialization of listener, musician, and performance.  In contradiction to Adorno, "Birmingham" rejected this assumption of passivity and instead proposed that hegemony is being constantly actively resisted by innovations of working class culture. 

To be fair, though, Adorno’s critique was directed at the middle and not the working class. he makes it explicitly in his discussion of the Nazi appropriation of Wagner and his music. On the one hand, one can not ignore those elements of Wagner’s music that align with Nazi ideology, but music can not be reduced to simple ideology or even Wagner’s personal enthusiasm for German nationalism. Nationalism was not peculiar to Wagner – after all, the Grimm Brothers were motivated by the same Germanic ideology and yet the Tales are not seen as proto-Nazi collections of volk tales. Adorno argues that Wagner’s music was available for the Nazis’ appropriation and promotion precisely because music was no longer being performed by the middle classes, but rather consumed. During the time when Wagner’s music could be played by amateurs in their parlors, its authoritarian aspects could be recognized and resisted through the performance. When, however, music became not an activity in the parlor or porch but rather a spectacle of the theater, the relation of the audience to the music obviously shifted. As a passive consumer of the music – as what might be called a hearer as opposed to an active listener – the audience could only encounter the music at the level that Nazi ideology demanded. So, Wagner’s music becomes fascist music not because of Wagner’s Germanism and reworking of Teutonic mythologies of which the Grimm’s salvaged Tales were be a degenerate residue of that true Germanic religion, but because of changes in the middle class consumption of music and entertainment coupled with new technologies and new techniques of propaganda.

 According to Stanley Aronowitz in Roll Over Beethoven, which is arguably the best study of the origins of Cultural Studies in the United States, finds both tendencies in Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. Indeed, I should pause to note, these two tendencies remain at least as echos and traces, if not overt politics, in the legacies of Cultural Studies, e. g., the preservation of the English working class through its preservation of traditions and loyalty to family and neighborhood (at least in the cities) despite the “all pervading culture” attributed to the upper classes.

And wrongfully at that. Just as the wealth of the upper classes results from the exploitative relations of capital, so too does its culture depend on the constant inventiveness of the working classes who, under the weight of a culture that was once theirs and is now alienated from them, had to adapt to or resist these social forces.

Hoggart makes two points that are important to our discussion:

  1. That the claim that consumerism will produce a classless society (i. e., a universal middle class) are false, though the class status of the workers is changing as they are welcomed into the expanding post-war middle classes.
  2. That workers are rewarded for the loss of working class culture by consumerism and in a popular culture/literature/media in which working class culture is itself portrayed negatively. The class and status of workers are altered by their embrace of the lifestyles of the middle classes.

If there is one view that united the upper class and bourgeois commentators with their counterparts within orthodox Marxism it is the idea that the working class is the class that always lacks something. First and foremost, it lacks the cultured life-styles of the middle and upper classes. It is defined by what it is by definition always not and then is suppose to always be striving to leave behind its culture for the middle class or even progress to a “new stage” of social evolution – at least those not thought to be degenerate.

In contradiction to this stance, a stance than cut across so many ideological lines, Hoggart and a bit later, E. P. Thompson, argued that the working class should not be defined negatively or by what goods they lack in relation to the wealth and powerful. The working class must be described by its own culture, history, and its agency in creating itself despite the “all-pervading culture” of the dominate classes.

 [Listen to a BBC Witness account (10 mins.) of the 1926 General Strike  Above photo from BBC page:  "Photo: Armoured cars protect a food convoy in London during the strike. Hulton Archive/Getty Images."]

Thus from Hoggart to Hall, the work in Cultural Studies began with the assumption that culture - and not mere wealth or capital - is the crucial social fact of class and class identity.

This is in direct contradiction to the orthodoxy of the Communist Parties after the 3rd International which, like the French CP were more closely aligned with the Soviets than were the other parties of the Left, such as the British Labor Party. [For an excellent analysis of the failings of the 3rd International, see Nicos Poulantzas Fascism and Dictatorship: The Third International and the Problem of Fascism. Verso, 1979] While class is a word used with great authority, its actual meaning has always been contested, especially amongst those in the Marxist tradition where the dispute has been at times quite literally bloody and murderous. I. I. Rubin stands as a testament to this. His Essays on Marx’sTheory of Value argued that rather than presenting a theory of economics, Marx presented us with a theory of culture. He wrote something “outlandish” like “The theory of fetishism is, per se, the basis of Marx’s entire economic system” (pg. 5). Removed from the university, Rubin disappeared into the gulags; his fate unknown and his work almost erased from history.

But I do not want to get sidetracked into a lecture on the history of the Marxist parties, germane though it might be for understanding the specific traditions of Marxism that inform Cultural Studies.

Instead, let’s pause for a moment to return to Marx and at least one of his interpreters. Take this section from the third volume of Marx’s Capital:

The owners of mere labour-power, the owners of capital and the landowners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit and ground-rent – in other words wage-labourers, capitalists and landowners – form the three great classes of modern society based on the capitalist mode of production....

The question to be answered next is : ‘What makes a class?’, and this arises automatically from answering another question: ‘What makes wage-labourers, capitalists, and landowners the formative elements of the three great social classes?’

At first sight, the identity of revenues and revenue sources. For these are three great social groups whose components, the individuals forming them, live respectively from wages, profit, and ground-rent, from the valoraization of their labour-power, capital, and landed property.

From this point of view, however, doctors and government official would also form two classes, as they belong to two distinct social groups, the revenue of each group’s members flowing from its own source. The same would hold true for the infinite fragmentation of interests and positions into which the division of social labour splits not only for workers but also capitalists and landowners, forest-owners, mine-owners, fishery-owners, etc.
(At this point the manuscript breaks off. -- F[redrick] E[ngels])

The section breaks off just as Marx is about to define the meaning of class. More importantly, Marx demonstrates the complexity of the relations of social classes. It is not merely the capitalists versus the workers.

Earlier, in the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx also attempted a definition that is broad rather than specific:

“In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile contrast to the latter, they form a class.”

This view of class was expanded on by both Max Weber – and important influence on the early Frankfurt School-- and Emile Durkheim, whose work prefigures a good deal of work in French structuralism and post-structuralism. As Weber puts it in his “Class, Status, Party”:

... ‘classes,’ ‘status groups,’ and ‘parties’ are phenomena of the distribution of power within a community.... In our terminology, ‘classes’ are not communities; they merely represent possible, and frequent, bases for communal action. We may speak of a ‘class’ when (1) a number of people have in common a specific causal component of their life chances, in so far as (2) this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income, and (3) is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labor markets. These points refer to ‘class situation,’ which we may express more briefly as the typical chance for a supply of goods, external living conditions, and personal life experiences, in so far as this chance is determined by the amount and kind of power, or lack of such, to dispose of goods or skills for the sake of income in a given economic order. The term ‘class’ refers to any group of people that is found in the same class situation.”

The use of “class” in Cultural Studies follows from perspectives such as these, and not from the vulgar economic determinism or the orthodox Marxist or the romantic fantasies, utopias, and to use Marx’s term, “Robinsonades,” of the apologists for the social relations of capital.

To return to Hoggart and Birmingham, they argue that culture is the crucial determinant of class and class identity. As such, culture is not something apart, after, or floating above the economic “base”, but actually constitutive of the social relations of capital. This understanding of social class is fundamental to Cultural Studies.

Seeing social class as constitutive of the social relations of capital moves us to the pair that Hoggart credited with establishing Cultural Studies: E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams.

Thompson’s great work was the appropriately named The Making of the English Working Class. In it class is “a relationship, not a thing” and Thompson sets out to describe the creation of the working class by analyzing how it was that the “English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves and as against their rulers and employers. The ‘making’ [of the working class] is a self-conscious activity” (Aronowitz, Roll Over Beethoven, pg. 92). The English working class created itself . Moreover, as the productive class, it is the source of culture as well. The English working class, in other words, defines what "England" and "English" mean, and not the English aristocracy.

During the period framed by Hoggart and Hall, work in Cultural Studies in the U. K. was organized around two fundamental distinctions: first, the the hegemonic upper and middle class culture is distinct from popular culture, and that popular culture can be distinguished from commercial culture, i. e., the products of what the Frankfurt School had already called the “culture industry.” In both of these formulations, however, popular culture served as a site of resistance to the dominant order. British cultural studies attempted to show that the working classes had produced a relatively autonomous culture that resisted the appropriations and dominance of the hegemonic order. Moreover, Hoggart, Hall, Williams, and Thompson all wanted to reclaim that appropriated cultural artifacts of the working class. 
The second distinction was between commercial and popular culture, and this project was one that proved much more difficult and demanded the serious study of commercial artifacts and how they are used in terms of identity, representation, consumption, and resistance. “For mass culture could be seen either as a pure fabrication of a ‘culture industry’ in which case it had few, if any, redeeming features; or despite this fact, might be understood as a series of incorporations of a still vibrant popular culture, a judgment that would merit more serious study of commercial forms” (Aronowitz, Roll Over Beethoven, 109).

In later periods, especially from the middle 1970s forward, the work in Cultural Studies was to be profoundly transformed by the encounters with feminism and investigations of the social meaning of race as well as studies of sub-cultures replacing studies of working class culture. Works such as Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor already noted fundamental changes in the working class culture as the attempts to resist the social restructuring of Thacherism (see Policing the Crisis) were losing their base with the smashing of the unions. Hebdige’s work on sub-cultures and the several internal feminist critiques shifted the work of the Centre towards emerging forms of resistance. We will speak more about this aspect of the Birmingham School a bit later in the second part of this lecture. In terms of the origins of Cultural Studies, especially the Cultural Studies associated together under the banner of the Birmingham School. As Raymond Williams argued: Cultural Studies defines “culture as a whole way of life” and makes no distinction between the notions of culture and society. History and sociology provide the basis for understanding the social structure and the structures of everyday life that resist the many forms of domination that operate on all levels and at all moments of society. Indeed, society may itself be constituted by this very relation of domination and resistance.

At this point, we should recall from the first lecture the descriptions of Cultural Studies given by Aronowitz and Williams:

....cultural studies... seeks to transgress the boundaries between the humanities and the sciences, and even to transcend the boundaries of formal academic sites. At its best, cultural studies is not interdisciplinary, it is anti-disciplinary.” ---Stanley Aronowitz

...a quite central theoretical point which to me is at the heart of Cultural Studies but which has not always been remembered... is...that you can not understand an intellectual or artistic project without also understanding its formation; that the relation between a project and a formation is always decisive... this is really what Cultural Studies has been about, of taking the best we can in intellectual work and going with it in this very open way to confront people for whom it is not a way of life, for whom it is not in any probability a job, but for whom it is a matter of their own intellectual interest, their own understanding of the pressures on them, pressures of every kind, from the most personal to the most broadly political....” --- Raymond Williams

As Stuart Hall said in the video lecture, something is always at stake in Cultural Studies. There is always a political intervention involved at the center of the critique. Like the Frankfurt School, Birmingham confronted the shadow of Stalinism, the rise of right-wing fanaticism and forms of McCarthyism, and the theoretical question “Why no revolution?” or as Adorno once put it “Where is the proletariat?” Unlike the Frankfurt School, Birmingham had retained a connection to working class culture and politics of the Labor Party. This makes perfect sense given their focus on the agency of the working class in its self-conscious self-creation, and their affirmation of a working class culture that is relatively autonomous and self-reproducing.

What happened to the revolution? Why did the workers go over to the Right and to fascism rather than to the communist left? Or more specific to the origins of Cultural Studies in Birmingham, why no revolution in the U. K.? In Germany and France, the Revolution had been violently repressed, but in England, this was not the case. In Britain, middle class social reformers had effectively deflected the working class towards reform over revolution, in part by their actual success in alleviating the exploitation of the working class while providing it with the means to enter into the middle classes. Thus the position and perspective of Birmingham was shaped by the same forces, but the response was specific to the social relations of the place. Birmingham turned to Gramsci and to a lesser degree, Louis Althusser, for the means to understand the failure of the working classes to do more than resist the “all pervading culture” that dominates society.

The turn towards Gramsci makes sense when one notes that both Gramsci and the Frankfurt School were around similar objects of study, particularly attempting to understand the raise of fascism and authoritarianism through understanding culture as opposed to economic necessity. This made the critique of Marxism and its inevitable proletarian revolution a necessary task. One should remember that contrary to the wishes of zealots and the dispatches of journalists, social revolutions are very rare and are rarely sudden or successful. Social structures are by definition highly integrated and resilient, they are also varied and quite specific in time and space. One might think of Rome, which had numerous lineages of Emperors and usurpers as rulers, sometimes more than one a year, and yet one might speak of a Roman society with specific institutions and social relations existing over several centuries and over a wide geographical area. And though Roman communication systems were quite reliable and advanced, it took time for information to be dispersed around the empire. So it is certain that for several days after the final “Fall of Rome” bureaucrats, local officials, tax collectors, Legionaries, Consuls, traders, shopkeepers, tutors, slaves, and all the rest got up out of their beds and went about their everyday lives.

Social institutions create the reality of everyday life, define what is understood as “common sense” and as the pseudo-naturalism of “just the way the world is.” Even when we examine the narratives of working class resistance we find that those moments of resistance are moments “in which Capital retains the initiative” (Aronowitz, Roll Over Beethoven, 105). These common sense notions can be overturned only after a long struggle that must of necessity be a long cultural struggle, as Rosa Luxemburg maintained, a struggle over everyday life.

Ironically, most “successful” revolutions occurred where the working class was weakest, not strongest. And those revolutions came to dominate those it claimed to emancipate. In those places, such as the U. K., where the labor movement was strongest, the power of the parliamentary parties of the Left and the expansion of the middle class gave social reform ism the advantage over social revolution. This supports the notion of the relative autonomy of the English working class and its strength being, perhaps ironically, one of the reasons that no revolution occurred there.

Hall gives a brief resume of what he and others learned from Gramsci:
“immense amounts about the nature of culture itself, about the discipline of the conjunctural, about the importance of historical specificity, about the enormously productive metaphor of hegemony, about the way in which one can think questions of class relations only by using the displaced notion of ensemble and blocs.... while Gramsci belong and belongs to the problematic of marxism, his importance for this moment of British cultural studies is precisely the degree to which he radically displaced some of the inheritances of Marxism in cultural studies... but Gramsci also did something else for cultural studies....

    [The organic intellectual]
Admittedly, there’s a problem with his phrase ‘the production of organic intellectuals’. But there is no doubt in my mind that we were trying to find an institutional practice in cultural studies that might produce an organic intellectual.... I think it is very important that Gramsci’s thinking around these questions certainly captures part of what we were about. Because a second aspect of Gramsci’s definition of intellectual work, which I think has always been lodged somewhere close to the notion of cultural studies as a project, has been his requirement that the ‘organic intellectual’ must work on two fronts at one at one and the same time. On the one hand, we had to be at the very forefront of intellectual theoretical work because, As Gramsci says, it is the job of the organic intellectual to know more than the traditional intellectuals do, really know, not just pretend to know....If you are in the game of hegemony you have to be smarter than ‘them’. Hence, there are no theoretical limits from which cultural studies can turn back. But the second aspect is just as crucial: the the organic intellectual cannot absolve himself or herself from the responsibility of transmitting those ideas, that knowledge, through the intellectual function, to those who do not belong, professionally, in the intellectual class. And unless those two fronts are operating at the same time, or at least those two ambitions are part of the project of cultural studies, you can get enormous theoretical advance without any engagement at the level of the political project” Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies” (pgs. 102-103).

And I would add that the reverse is also true that an emphasis on engagement may bring about a political advance, that advance would ultimately fail without theoretical support. I have no doubt that Hall would agree with that position as well. But we can see in this long section that the political engagement that had once been centered on the affirmation of the working classes has shifted as those classes have themselves changed, but the political commitment has not lessened nor can it and the work still be considered Cultural Studies.

I should note that Althusser occupies a much more ambiguous position in British cultural studies. Hall mentions that he was highly resistant to Althusser’s reading of Marx:

I remember wrestling with Althusser. I remember looking at the idea of ‘theoretical practice’ in Reading Capital and thinking, “I’ve gone as far in this book as it is proper to go’. I felt, I will not give an inch to this profound misreading, this superstructuralist mistranslation, of classical Marxism, unless he beats me down, unless he defeats me in spirit. He’ll have to march over me to convince me. I warred with him, to the death. A long, rambling piece I wrote on Marx’s 1857 “Introduction’ to The Grundrisse, in which I tried to stake out the difference between structuralism in Marx’s epistemology and Althusser’s, was only the tip of the iceberg of this long engagement. Hall, “Theoretical Legacies” (pg. 101).

The influence of semiotic on early Cultural Studies is clearly evident in Hall’s “Encoding, Decoding” for example. However, one should pause to note, as I hear from students that you feel that you are reading Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus in every class and I agree that you should read more widely! But more to the point, E. P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory is an extended critique of Althusser from the author of The Making of the English Working Class and a social historian closely associated with the origin of Cultural Studies. Given that you get Althusser’s essay so often , you have plenty of time to add Thompson to your reading list.

To spark your interest, here is Thompson’s summary:
I will argue the following propositions and examine them in sequence. 1) Althusser’s epistemology is derivative from a limited kind of academic learning-process, and has no general validity; 2) As a result he has no category (or way of handling) ‘experience’ ( or social being’s impingement upon social consciousness); hence he falsifies the ‘dialogue’ with empirical evidence inherent in knowledge-production, and in Marx’s own practice, and thereby falls continually into modes of thought designated in the Marxist tradition as ‘idealist’; 3) in particular he confuses the necessary empirical dialogue with empiricism, and consistently mis-represents (in the most naïve ways) the practice of historical materialism (including Marx’s own practice); 4) The resultant critique of ‘historicism’ is at certain points identical to the specifically anti-Marxist critique of historicism (as represented by Popper), although the authors derive from this opposite conclusions.
This argument will take us some way on our road. I will then propose: 5) Althusser’s structuralism is a structuralism of stasis, departing from Marx’s own historical method; 6) Hence Althusser’s conceptual universe has no adequate categories to explain contradiction or change – or class struggle; 7) These critical weaknesses explain why Althusser must be silent (or evasive) as to other important categories, among them ‘economic’ and ‘needs’; 8) From which it follows that Althusser (and his progeny) find themselves unable to handle, except in the most abstract and theoretical way, questions of value, culture – and political theory.
--- E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors (pgs. 5-6)

Obviously there is a theoretical tension within your faculty that has not been explored!

Let’s end by watching a lecture by Stuart Hall. This is a nice introduction to Hall’s work as well as a good summary of an approach to Cultural Studies that still holds on to both aspects of Gramsci’s organic intellectual. This video is from the Media Education Foundation, and it is a group that does very good work. However, I of course have some criticisms of the video. Its existence is in effect one of the signs of the acceptance and institutionalization of Cultural Studies in the United States. Cultural Studies became marketable during the 1990s and after. In one of the bookstores I frequented, the sociology and anthropology sections were replaced with one “Cultural Studies” section because Cultural Studies books sold more copies than one’s from the traditional disciplines. Publishers were quick to notice, of course. The Simon During Cultural Studies Reader once sold for under $30, but now sells new for over $100. The cost is one factor in why I no longer require it. The fact that it has become a textbook for Cultural Studies and another indication of institutionalization is another. The introduction of the lecture by Jhally is somewhat problematic. He will say something to the effect that McLuhan said that a fish can not discover water and so Cultural Studies invites you to step out of the water and examine it critically. This is not at all the case, or perhaps it is for his work in communications, but it is not the case for others who realize that one is always immersed in their society and that the critique is done from within society. There is no detached, objective, and a god-like vantage from which to look down upon the social relations of everyday life. As Adorno noted (Introduction to Sociology), society is not merely the sum total of its parts and so the nature of sociology is itself determined by its social context.

The unfortunate attempts to commercialize the lecture will be obvious, as well as the sometimes, shall we say, unsuccessful animations. Something more serious is that the captions are not always what Hall is saying and they frequently racialize his lecture. For example, Hall will be saying that “when you see an image, you will think this” while Jhally will cut to scenes of black men and write “when you see images of Black men, you will think this.” The opening scene, taken from Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987), is also edited in such a way that it does not include the collusion of the Black actors in the Black Acting School. Notice, too, that Hall never speaks autobiographically in this lecture or only obliquely. I’ll leave it to you to think about the significance of this, for now.

Original Scene from Hollywood Shuffle

Stuart Hall -- Representation and the Media
(We will watch it is class, but here are the links if you are only reading this online.)

Next Lecture

American Reception: Social and Cultural Context