Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Over on Michael Bérubé's blog, John McGowan offers yet another "potted" account of cultural studies and hegemony theory. What's striking is the way in which he unabashedly takes the populist logic of cultural studies and suggests applying it to what he terms "politics-on-the-ground" (as opposed to some politics-in-the-air, one presumes):
politics-on-the-ground in the United States tends to offer two possible avenues of action. Either individuals or a group or a coalition of groups can try to capture one of the major parties. (Of course, there is also the recurring fantasy of—sometimes linked to valiant efforts to—create a viable new party, a feat only pulled off once in American history.) Or individuals or a group or a coalition of groups can try to address the sitting government directly, bypassing the parties.
There's the populist fantasy in a nutshell.

So let me offer a snippet from the conclusion to Posthegemony's first chapter...

Populism structures both hegemony theory and cultural studies. Indeed, it gives cultural studies what little coherence and consistency the discipline has. The attractions and seductions of this populism are clear: it provides a broad terrain of activity and analysis, expanding the sphere of politics from the formal arena of debate and policy-making to the swathe of mostly everyday practices that constitute culture. Populism offers another front for a politicized undertaking that has lost its way with the decline of Marxism. It also rings true in a context in which the cultural economy is taken as seriously as any other sector of the economy, in which the "sound bite" dominates as traditional political allegiances wither, in which the media are more extensive and more significant than ever, in which our subjectivities are molded ever more by taste and consumption, in short in which, as Fredric Jameson puts it, "'culture' has become a veritable 'second nature'" (Postmodernism ix). At the same time, in this same context, populism is also a source of anxiety and uncertainty. Its uselessness as a political compass is clear as soon as one steps from the passion and fervor that the populist impulse itself inspires. After all, is not the anti-globalization critique of Americanism, à la Jose Bové's campaign again McDonalds, as populist as the celebration of US popular culture and taste upon which so much of McDonalds' own image and advertising depend?

One response might be to argue that populism is less compass than weathervane: simply a more or less neutral reflex, an inevitable accompaniment to political activity. In some ways this is Laclau's position: politics is inconceivable without populism, so although populism has no pre-determined political valence, it should be welcomed rather than denigrated. What would be important therefore would be differentiating between populisms, between populism as a progressive project and populism as the ground for conservative reaction. There are, however, two problems with this position: first, the difficulty of resolving to any satisfaction how to distinguish between left and right populism; and second, more importantly, that populism itself does political work. By presenting hegemony as the only conceivable form of politics, it helps conceal other modes of political command or struggle. Populism enables a series of substitutions that fetishize culture at the expense of the institutional, and establish transcendence and sovereignty in place of immanent processes or micropolitical struggles. Populism simplifies the double register through which the social coheres, obscuring the mechanisms by which transcendence is produced from immanence, subjective emotion from impersonal affect, signifying discourse from asignifying habit, people from multitude, and constituted from constituent power, precisely because it is one of those mechanisms. The task of posthegemony theory is first to uncover what has been obscured in these substitutions, and then to outline the means by which their suppression has been achieved, enforced, naturalized, and legitimated. In sum, social order has to be disarticulated, to reveal both its mute underside and the process by which it has been ventriloquized, made to speak but in another's voice.

Above all, hegemony theory's political work consists in presenting social order as the result of either coercion or consent. Dominance is achieved, it suggests, either by imposition from above or through agreement from below. People are either overpowered by a transcendent state, or they willingly subscribe to a dominant ideology. And in that a relation of pure coercion is unthinkable, hegemony theory posits that there is always at least a residue of willed acquiescence. People stick together, forming societies and submitting to their laws, because in one way or another they think the same things, in the same ways. Hence the culturalism of cultural studies: communities gain their consistency and coherence through a shared set of beliefs and ideologies. Hegemony theory is the last gasp of the contractualism that has justified the bounded forms of modern social formations at least since the sixteenth century. However modified, it is still a rationalism: people give up their consent because it seems reasonable to do so, given what they know and believe (even if those beliefs are themselves ideological or irrational). But this dichotomy between coercion and consent is a debilitating simplification.

[. . .]

In the end, populism, and so also cultural studies, is an anti-politics. No wonder cultural studies has been derided for its complicity with the status quo, however much it wields the rhetoric of radicalism. It is not so much that its practitioners are victims of bad faith. It is that cultural studies takes hegemony at its own word, and so misses the ways in which hegemonic processes stand in for other, more complex, means by which dominance is asserted and reproduced. Cultural studies thereby reinforces sovereignty, the notion that power comes from above, and that the only options for the dominated are negotiation or acquiescence. It is blind to the ways in which state institutions in fact emerge from immanent processes, and secure their legitimacy well below consciousness, with no need of words. So long as cultural studies continues to take these processes for granted, then all its articulate verbosity is no more than a form of complicitous silence.

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