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New Media Theory

Moving sideways from cultural hegemony?

This post is part of an intricate conversation centring on the question of whether there is a unified and narrowed message presented dominantly through corporate media, and whether or not it inherently socializes subservience from top-down towards an ever highly-media saturated group of entertainment consumers. Very quickly, we find that we cannot escape from certain conceptions of hegemonic ideology. The difficulty, first, then, is in how to define a hegemonic ideology, whether it exists and in what forms and contexts, such as if there are fissures in its structure.

© Corbis Images



To start, Antonio Gramsci gives a salient Marxist perspective by maintaining that the entrenchment of the capitalist system maintains what he calls a ‘cultural hegemony’. The important details for our purposes are in his emphasis that cultural hegemony is not distributed as monolithic, but as layered into the complexities of cultural society. In other words, capitalist cultural values has become the norm, crafting expectations, priorities, and sensitivities, making certain things in the cultural sphere gain an exchange value that is exponentially higher than its use value. Where the working class have to develop culture of their own in response to the ‘norm’, the bourgeoisie culture is closely tied to the political institutions, civil culture and engagement and legal constitutional structures. In this sense, the naturalization of social constructions and institutions have aided in the emergence of self-reproducing ideologies.

There is some validity here in thinking of artistic production as necessarily always interacting and responding to types and experiences of cultural hegemony in the Gramscian sense (capitalist values as not monolithic and unified but as multi-layered and labyrinthine). Artists will often push themselves to see their work as producing not just a cultural experience, but a cultural experience which has a certain exchange value. I use exchange value in this sense to distinguish from use value (the value of something based on its utility) but take it to mean that it is the value as comparative to everything else on the marketplace. According to Marx, the exchange value of a commodity implies the ability to command limited labour, which is implicitly confrontational in a materialist sense. However, the messy part of this is that artists ought to reasonably emerge from all parts of society, from all walks of life; So too, their audiences (who should be likewise invited to produce, in the form of responses and conversations). They necessarily articulate perceptions that are not articulated by bourgeoisie culture persay, which I have previously defined as the norm, the reified, the law. The very definition of art (and even entertainment) is to move away from previous subsistence of the mundane. However, the very articulation of the mundane is at least greatly framed by a cultural hegemony. Thus, exchange value, in this sense, is often outside of the control of the living labour of the artist, leading to what I would contend is a divisiveness between pleasure derived from succeeding at a creative endeavour (self-fulfilment), and pleasure because the external value based on the appraisal of the market system “approves” of the artwork (positive alienation).

Let’s link this back to the notion of ideology. Ideology works in a manner to reproduce certain social relations and to give broad, normalized justifications for a given ‘-ism’. Althusser, for example, contends that capitalism socially constructs the concept of the individual as a subject, that is, an agent responsible for his motivations, preferences, and values. All ideological practices as such constitute an individual as a subject in particular ways. This is not a natural occurrence, but something that conserves and reproduces subjects in the hegemon’s image. I think that this theory is somewhat complicated by the inherent competition and non-unitary disposition of the “bourgeoisie”/ “big media players”. Here on in I will move away from the Marxist divisional class structure and strive to work in theories that pertain more to contextual, time- and space-based sociopolitical phenomena. Nonetheless, the Marxist philosophers have emphasized that exchange value is always being conserved and added to in a relationship of oppositions. This is at a tension with art production and discourses about art, which both seek to question and perceive in new and context-compassionate ways. In other words, if we are not talking about derivative crafts, art as practice much more readily takes the form of sharing and communication, than it is about the individualization of choices, competition, and managerial organization. Art – the vagrant, non-linear, nomadic kind – must be contorted and warped to fit the transformation and socially constructed time normalized by capitalist managerial structures and cultures.

So what sort of structure can we define as relating to (nomadic) arts? Here, I am quick to point to postmodern thinkers, whose works I am greatly indebted to. For brevity, I will not discuss hypermodernists such as Baudrillaud and Marc Augé, although their framing of non-spaces and the hyperreal (the inability to distinguish between the virtual and the real) are instructive to aesthetics in general. Where Marxist philosophy engages in a discussion of broader socioeconomic materialist historicities, which binds the artist/audience through socialization/education from top-down ideological producers, the sections below will look at art and leisure of the streets, as lived experiences, and as chronic, addictive responses and forums.

Barbara Kruger (1981): Your Gaze Hits the Side of my Face. Installation, and other agitpop objects. Click on the picture for more details (external link).

As Jean-Francois Lyotard declares, postmodernism is an “incredulity toward metanarratives”. To Lyotard, our current experience of history, memory, and events outside our immediacy is one where we find obsolescence in the traditional narrative functions of a great hero, a nearly impossible but ultimately assailable quest, and a direct line of motivation. Instead, we live at “intersections”, without preordained linguistic systems to stabilize or communicate prescriptively or descriptively without mis-appropriation. Indeed, an audience has become ever fluctuating, mobile, and virtual (the clearest case being that of a hyperreal audience in cyberspace), thereby creating unpredictability. Sometimes great movements and agency bursts through, whilst other times there are only near silences and social deficits.

Instead of an emphasis on ownership and the measurement of derivative and exchange value, the emphasis is on pastiche and context. By moving away from framing cultural goods as principally materialist, but instead focusing on its conditions of relations through time, spatiality, and affect, we gain a critical theorization of cultural objects as transformative and vernacular. Cultural objects, through the lens of postmodernity, are embedded and constantly being rewritten, overwritten, underwritten. Culture is performed in a manner that speaks through multiple modalities – it respects, transgresses, decries, suspects, laughs at, and so on (as postulated in de Certeau’s Walking in the City). And then the (nomadic) artist flourishes in these fragmentations, at the fringes where she feels most at home and can propel conversation from tidal waves of different identities, groups, and newfound civil spaces.

I do not believe that I am guilty of reification when I suggest that groups in support of the hegemonic ideal has sensed this threat of fragmentation. The exponential growth of overt sponsorship and product placement of Veblen goods is a great example of the capitalist response to nomadic artistry. A exchange-value laden product wholly subservient to the hegemonic ideal thus baptises itself in an isolated, spectacular vision, making hedonism seem like a naturalized Need-to-live. So far, it’s seen great successes, if one measures by the metric of its profitability. One can even say that it has gained crucial political support in the form of investment opportunities for formidable businesses. However, political and civil support may go in the other direction as well (depending on the particular place), in the form of art grants, post-secondary education, and the emergence of community governance and local autonomy. Even if counter-hegemonic praxis is jostled into the shape of capitalist packaging, it is constantly undergoing further renegotiation from below. This has happened in the form of public forums, street festivals, artists collective, localvores, buskers, farmers markets, culture jamming, protests against globalization and closed-door trade agreements, independent political campaigns, even more passive-aggressive trends such as democratic deficits and low voter turnout. As postmodern cultures become more prevalent, I believe that the artists and the artphile shall jostle back against the binds of necessitating interactions to mere currencies. In fact, I believe that they’re doing so already, slowly but surely.

My warmest thanks to Gordon Frederickson (@midmotion) and Jeff Resnik (@jeffresnik), friends and forward thinkers, who were willing to put so much great ideas and tangents into open conversation. And yes, all of the earlier part of this conversation all took place on Twitter. I am at @tonedarklights and I welcome you to join us!

References:

  • de Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
  • Jay, Martin (1986). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. University of California Press.
  • Lyotard, Jean-François (1979). Introduction to The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Online Source: Uppsala University.
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About Darklights

I identify as an illustrator, game designer, writer, and 3D artist by trade. I'm driven by a symbiosis of passion for dance, new media, philosophy of aesthetics, cinema, creative writing and visual arts. My username? A shout-out to the tides of history that invented the camera obscura.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Moving sideways from cultural hegemony?

  1. great analysis, darklights…
    i must admit to feeling such binds, for the struggle against societies restraints can be great hindrance and comfort to artists. but i find it odd to blame hegemony’s insidious grasp when taking about artistic value, exchange or otherwise.
    my cursory research into the value’s placed on works of art, or artistic expression, seem to indicate a deeper chasm between the perception of worth and the actual exchange value.

    or perhaps my naivety is surpassed only by my ignorance…

    i do know, attempting to pin down the value of art without first assessing the audience (current or potential) for indicators of probable range, is a pointless exercise. without these indicators, the value of ones time is without frame of reference and so exchange value loses its meaning. the actual value becomes more of an extension of society’s values…

    maybe i’m just uncomfortable with the idea of the powerless public, unable to resist the whims of the powerful. doesn’t paint a flattering picture of the human race, but then again, what does these days?

    -jon

    Posted by jonnydropout | August 29, 2011, 3:23 am
    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for your wonderfully thoughtful response! I am very sorry that I haven’t had the chance to respond right away, due to my desire to start my own website outside of WordPress, and general work busy-ness. Nonetheless, I want to make sure that my response gives adequate reflection to match your own.

      My analysis in this post is very focused with engaging with two groups or camps of philosophers and theorists. I would readily admit that they don’t offer a full picture in the practical sense of everyday engagement of artists, which you have observed. The interesting thing to me, though, is in emphasizing that hegemonic discourses sometimes do fly under the radar when artists and communicators go to share their ideas. Hegemonic discourses may frame a mode of communication, or artists may respond and react to it, but often it is insidious because it is naturalized as part of the conversation.

      I think that that there is a strong linkage between the perception of worth, practical value and exchange value. This relationship is often fraught with contradictions. Artists may argue that they’re underpaid and under-supported, but they sometimes also spearhead movements and ‘counter-culture’. Sometimes there may be so-called ‘nihilistic’ art that arises because of that: Visions associated with the death of humanity, beauty, and the medium of art itself (everything from thrash metal to trashy celebrity scandals to Dogme 95 filmmaking). What I mean by this is not that re-negotiations and fixations on death is a negative thing, but just that it ought to tell us something about the symptoms and hopes of the society when its culture has an obsession with such images and texts.

      I don’t think artists, even in the day of media conglomerates, are without their own voices. Knowledge-based economies continue to be transformative even though it’s considered the current and next-gen big wave. Artists continue to inform, argue about, and articulate how urban spheres are arranged, sometimes quite literally in terms of urban planning, other times by forcing open public forums, community centres, and democratic protests, where citizens can have the space to be creative agents. The media, in any form, is still power without any obvious, monolithic direction, as much as those with existing pools of power try to shape it in one way. However, there are just too many people willing to think for themselves nowadays (or discontented with the inequality/unfairness that they experience) to not follow status quo to the word.

      – Tanya

      Posted by Darklights | September 13, 2011, 11:51 am
  2. thank you tanya, for responding in such a thoughtful and systematic way to my questions. i appreciate your optimism most of all…

    the artist, i believe is truly a reflection of society, as you alluded to when you wrote,”that it ought to tell us something about the symptoms and hopes of the society when its culture has an obsession with such images and texts.” i agree that while each artist by necessity must reflect their own interpretation of societies image, the spread of images or ideas is based largely on monolithic structures of single-minded control, which decide much of the framework through which art finds value.

    but surely there are examples of art which does not receive the blessing of these benevolent dictators, but gains popularity within a large population. sure, there’s probably a billion or so examples going the other direction, but the point is made; if the control is thought to be far-reaching hegemonic power, but we aren’t privy to the motivations of said power, how can we be certain the control is absolute or illusion? in other words, how could we know if one’s art or action helped or hindered, if we are trying to fight monolithic institutions, when we are mere reflections of these same structures?

    the function of a miror is not to show the viewer the way forward, but to reflect, in a fraction of a second, the light back towards where it came from. i like to think it is the same with artists… we simply have to reflect what we see back outward, as best we can, for as long as we can. the rest is up to the hegemony, and history.

    regards,
    -jon

    Posted by jonnydropout | September 19, 2011, 3:45 pm
    • Hello Jon,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response in turn. I am sorry again that I have been slow in responding to you. This is because I am currently abroad from home and my internet connectivity is spotty at best. I hope to continue this conversation when I return to my own home and computer hubs in early October!

      Thanks for understanding,
      Tanya

      Posted by Darklights | September 25, 2011, 1:04 am
  3. tanya…

    you’ll have to forgive my grammar or spelling because i am, at the moment, drunk… but i couldn’t be happier that you’ve taken my response seriously. your attitude is infectious, i guess, because i now find myself religiously checking to see if you’ve responded… more an indicator of my own psyche’s condition, i suppose… please take it as a compliment…

    regardless, i can think of no better reason to be out of communication, and i hope you enjoy your travel and experience abroad… learn something for me while you re out there.

    -jon

    Posted by jonnydropout | September 26, 2011, 1:28 am
    • Hello Jon,

      Hahah, you’re spelling very well for someone who’s tipsy. And thank you very much in turn for enjoying my writing as you have! It’s wonderful to know that my writing can be responded to; That is, that I’m not being impossibly obscure or, alternatively, too brief (for concepts that I myself find compellingly difficult).

      I am now wishing that I had messaged you earlier when I first started packing for my trip and predicted that my schedule and connectivity is going to be a maddening carnival! Anyhow, come late October, I hope that I can write more regularly as well.

      Posted by poliloquy | September 26, 2011, 10:29 pm
  4. I am curious to find out what blog platform you happen to be working with?
    I’m experiencing some small security problems with my latest website and I would like to find something more risk-free. Do you have any solutions?

    Posted by Rakshan Sanghvi | June 20, 2012, 7:25 am
  5. Smart, but entertaining, as are many of your posts.
    I read through the past entries over the past week, and I must say I think I’m found a new bookmark.

    Posted by Noor udeen Mukhopadhyay | July 1, 2012, 11:33 pm

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