Author Archives: erin

Capitalist Casey?

Casey’s analysis of the Che image is unique among our readings in that it does not derive from a complete critique of capitalism.  Though Casey is quick to point out the contradictory and ironic ways people have used the Che image, turning it into a Che himself into a commodity, he is not illuminating these instances to show how capitalism is evil and awful and must be overcome but is impossible to overcome, as many of our other readings have.  Instead, Casey, particularly in his descriptions of Cuba’s current political and economic situation, is quick to criticize anti-communist ideals.  On page 284, he calls Che “hyperidealistic” and shows the ways his ideas decreased productivity.  Casey goes on to cite economists who claim that “society pays a high cost for suppressing the individual’s drive for material betterment,” a mainstay of capitalist dogma.

He goes on to describe those who “agitate for social change” as “idealists” and asks “Why can’t we believe that human beings can change?” (284-285).  Casey does not seem concerned with finding real, material ways to promote societal change, instead (in a rather Hegel-like move) taking the discussion back to grand questions of human beings and the human spirit.

This was confusing and rather unsatisfying to me.  I have, because of the way we have discussed the evolution of cultural studies, assumed that cultural studies must be based in a critique of capitalism and the desire for material change.  But is this really the case?  Can a work like Casey’s instead make capitalism seem inevitable and – gasp – beneficial?

Sh*tty writing – it’s a cultural thing

I watched this video about different cultural styles of writing the other day, and though fairly ridiculous (scenes of brush painting were followed by those of a close-up of a hand writing in Arabic, all nicely accompanied by generic “exotic” music) it made me think twice about my all-too-common rants against the incomprehensible writing styles of the theorists we read.  How much of their styles can be attributed to different cultural conventions for writing, and how much of my own dissatisfaction – well, let’s be honest here, anger verging occasionally on hatred – is due to my training to write in a more direct and explicit “American” style?  And though I do still hold that there is something deeply hypocritically about critiquing the classed nature of taste or the hegemonic function of the traditional intellectual while writing in a way only accessible to those deeply entrenched in academia, I wonder what would be lost if all theorists were as straightforward as I wish I could demand them to be.

Just something that’s been rolling around the brain.  And, if anyone wants to watch Writing Across Borders and be carried away to a magical land where music involves a lot of reed pipes and writing is likened to entering a cultural jungle, I’ve got the hookup…

Jenkins the g

I’m really enjoying Textual Poachers, not only because of its nontraditional subject matter (trekkies! – ah, excuse me – trekkers) and its clear prose (what? You can simultaneously theory-speak and make sense?!), but because of Jenkins refusal to simplify complex, contradictory realities and his ability to anticipate my own misgivings within his text.

Following our discussions of Radway’s Reading the Romance, I’ve been struggling with the proper ways to approach the topic of reading and reception.  Though moves to foreground the consumer seem inherently empowering, an effort to contradict the common image of the mindless, manipulated consumer, there is still the potential for patronizing, pedantic evaluations of consumption.  Jenkins recognizes this in Radway’s work, noting the ways it “cast writers as vanguard intellectuals who might lead the fans toward a more overtly political relationship to popular culture” (6).  According to Jenkins, the way to avoid this tendency to “judge or to instruct but not to converse with the fan community,” is to be a fan yourself, to locate yourself as a participant in the very cultural phenomenon you are describing (6).  We talked one day in class about the distinction between anthropology and cultural studies – that anthropology is the study of cultures other than one’s own, whereas those in cultural studies engage with their own culture – but often the texts we read assume the same academic distance, portraying the author as somehow removed, above, and more capable of grasping the cultural object than those being discussed.  At the same time, though, they are in many ways all of these things – right?  As I said, I’m torn.  Jenkins, however, deals with this skillfully, never assuming the position of instructor or enlightenment-provider.  (As a side note, I wonder if Jenkin’s argument that a scholar must be a part of a community to write about a community is reminiscent of the very argument Said was arguing against in terms of race, gender, or nationality at the end of Culture and Imperialism.  Is it different to say that only fans can write about fans than to say only women can have insight into the experience of women?)

But at the same time that Jenkin’s recognizes the real awareness and agency of fans, he does not fail to recognize that their productions are contradictory, often equally oppositional and hegemonic.  While reading the first portion of Jenkin’s book, I began to wonder what would happen if one of Radway’s readers became a writer.  Would she be as subversive as Jenkin’s fans appear to be – even while writing stories in which patriarchal gender relations are celebrated?  Shouldn’t there be a distinction between a practice that resists hegemony, and the content of that practice, which can reinforce dominant ideology?  Jenkins, however, anticipates this challenge to his argument, presenting a much more nuanced interaction between individual and culture than we have found at other times: “To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors” (34).  Touche, Jenkins, touche.

Bourdieu on the Working Class

I am conflicted by Bourdieu’s representation of the working class, and so am hoping to use this blog post to find out whether or not other people responded in similar ways.  I find Bourdieu challenging at times because of the way he assumes the language of the ideas he is relaying – making it difficult to distinguish between the claims he is critiquing and those he is personally putting forth.  Bourdieu is making a class-based analysis of aesthetic judgment and taste, yes.  He is directly challenging the notion that taste is natural, that those of the dominant class are simply born with superior understanding and aesthetic feeling, yes.  But even as he identifies the ways in which taste is constructed and employed to naturalize class distinctions, does he present a reductive and patronizing view of the working class?

I’m thinking here of moments like the one on page 41: “By contrast, working-class people, who expect every image to fulfill a function, if only that of a sign, refer, often explicitly, to norms of morality or agreeableness in all their judgments.”

By asserting that all members of the working class always value function over form (a claim shown to be false by Hebdige’s work on the importance of style to punk), he is continuing to exclude the working class from the realm of the aesthetic.  He shifts the source of the exclusion from nature to education and social origin, but still indicates that this exclusion is definite and all-encompassing.  A member of the working class would not get – or, fair enough, want to get – this type of art.

And sometimes he’s simply patronizing, as on page 33: “…working-class viewers protest, not only because they do not feel the need for these fancy games, but because they sometimes understand that they derive their necessity from the logic of a field of production which excludes them precisely by these games…”

Occasionally, the working-class brain may be able to comprehend what he has grasped well enough to write a 500 page book about.

I’m overstating my claims here.  And, honestly, I’m still unsure about how problematic Bourdieu’s presentation of the working class really is.  But the way in which he generalizes and asserts working-class people’s opinions and capabilities for appreciation come too close to mirroring the very arguments he is attempting to challenge for my taste…

And now I wonder: Is his treatment of the bourgeois and other class groups similar?  Are they equally problematic?

Too hip to be hipster

Hey all –

We’re going to talk about this article (as a technophobe, I don’t know how to make words into links, so I’ll just post the link at the bottom) in our discussion today, but if anyone is messing around on the blog right now and wants to check it out, please do so!

Note to all closeted and/or publicly declared hipster members of our class: We apologize if this offends your sensibilities…you offend ours.  NO – gah – just kidding, just kidding…

Consumption as War

Lost somewhere in Michel de Certeau’s prose, I will return to what I found particularly clear (and thus exciting), the introduction, and to a theme that struck me while reading: that of war and warfare.

On page xvii of the introduction, Certeau introduces the metaphor of war when discussing the effects products have on consumers, using the terms “actions” and “engagements” and specifically stating that he means these words in “the military sense.”  He then goes on in the following paragraph to make even more explicit this framing of cultural interpretation as warfare when he calls for a “polemological analysis of culture” (I had to look this word up, but tells me that “polemology” means the “study of war, especially as an academic discipline”).  Culture, he says, “articulates conflicts…and develops in an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence” (xvii).  Though culture attempts to temporarily mediate this violence, offering “contracts of compatibility and compromises,” the battle between the weak and the strong is continued through our consumptive practices, or (restated in military terms), our “tactics of consumption” (xvii).

There is more work to be done here to map out the exact relationship between culture, war, and consumption (as it appears so far that culture is merely the battle ground, and consumption is the actual battle), but I was initially intrigued by this passage because of the ways it described the “tension” and “violence” in which culture exists.  These words immediately reminded me of Fanon and our discussion of colonialism and decolonization, while Certeau’s emphasis on “everyday practices” simultaneously called to mind Williams’s concept of culture as ordinary.  Essentially, two worlds collided in my head: the world of real, lived violence in a colonial or post-colonial nation, and the seemingly innocuous world of supper and trains, of everyday life.  Said had already made this connection for us, showing how seemingly harmless literature actually furthered the colonial project and brought that (violent) project into the everyday lives of the colonizer – but this connection is more explicit and forceful.  Everyday acts of consumption are war.  By purchasing a specific item and consuming it in a particular way, I am engaging in battle – and not just a metaphorical battle, but a violent battle.  Williams made valuable and meaningful everything that I do and every product that I consume – Certeau makes it dangerous, subversive, warlike.  Makes me think a lot harder about this egg salad sandwich I just made…

Annotated Bibliography: The Green Consumer

Chan, Ricky Y.K., and Lorett B.Y. Lau. “Antecedents of Green Purchases: A survey in China.” Journal of Consumer Marketing 17.4 (2000): 338-357.

This study examines the green product purchasing behaviors of people in China, specifically as influenced by Chinese cultural values and “ecological concern” (“ecological concern” is defined as consisting of three components: the amount of environmental knowledge a person has, how emotionally affecting environmental issues are to that person, and the degree of intention a person has to act in an environmentally-friendly way).  The study found that despite being emotionally affected by environmental problems and having intentions to buy green products, people lacked knowledge about the environment and made few green purchases (351).  This study is useful to me because it tries to empirically map the relationship between cultural values, emotion, intention, knowledge, and green product consumption.  It is particularly valuable in that it demonstrates the discrepancy that can exist between concern for the environment (personal and cultural) and level of green purchases made.

Johnston, Josee. “The Citizen-Consumer Hybrid: Ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market.” Theory and Society 37.3 (2008): 229-270.

This article explores the theoretical contradictions in the now pervasive construct of the “citizen-consumer” and tries to tie this theory to the specific case of Whole Foods Market (pretty awesome, as this is what we are supposed to do in our papers!).  Johnston is particularly concerned with the possibility of a balanced consumer-citizen: is it possible for a consumer to satisfy both their personal needs/desires and larger social/environmental obligations?  This article is especially useful because of the focus it places on discourse (helpful as I want to examine green products from the standpoint of the narratives we construct about our consumption).  Through an examination of the “ethical consumer discourse” of Whole Foods Market, Johnston argues that the citizen-consumer is actually more consumer than citizen, paying “relatively superficial attention to citizenship goals in order to better serve three key elements of consumerist ideology” (262).   Johnston goes onto say that both the citizen-consumer model and green consumerism in general serve as a temporary fix, allowing people to maintain capitalism consumption in light of greater social and environmental awareness.  This article provides theoretical support to Szasz’s basic argument (see below), and will be key to my own argument.  Now the only question is, what will my essay add to this?

Micheletti, Michele, and Dietlind Stolle. “Mobilizing Consumers to Take Responsibility for Global Social Justice.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 611.1 (2007): 157-175.

This is an article that seems like it will be less than helpful.  I had originally thought that it would be useful as it focuses on ethical consumerism, but does so from the perspective of the anti-sweatshop movement (thus perhaps giving greater insight into whether or not all forms of ethical consumerism are problematic in capitalism, or just environmentally-minded ethical consumerism).  This article’s conclusions about different forms of consumer engagement and different strategies for recruiting consumers proved less applicable than I had hoped.  One for the recycle bin.

Moisander, Johanna, and Sinikka Pesonen. “Narratives of Sustainable Ways of Living: Constructing the self and the other as a green consumer.” Management Decision 40.4 (2002): 329-342.

This article looks at descriptions of green consumerism as they relate to subject formation.  Moisander and Pesonen argue that green consumerism is a form of resistance, capable of creating new subjectivities.  I was drawn to this article because of its emphasis on representation and narrative, and find it even more important because of the way it complicates my idea of green consumption.  It stresses the difference between mainstream conceptions of green consumerism and more radical, personal self-conceptions of green consumerism, finding the possibility for resistance in these self-narratives.  This article will help me think through the ways people construct narratives about themselves through their green product consumption and the resistive (and not-so-resistive) potential of these narratives.

Nelson, Michelle R., Mark A. Rademacher, and Hye-Jin Paek. “Downshifting Consumer = Upshifting Citizen? An Examination of a Local Freecycle Economy.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 611.1 (2007): 141-156.

This article is intriguing to me as it focuses on the consequences of an alternative form of consumption (“downshifting”) that occurs within capitalism/consumer culture, but I’m not sure how helpful this article will be for my paper.  Though motivations for downshifting are often environmental, this study looks more at the implications of this alternative form of consumption (specifically participation in a freecycle online community) for civic engagement, highlighting community engagement over environmental concerns.  This article is useful to a certain degree because it presents another (and potentially more effective) mode of  environmentally-conscious consumption than the purchasing of green products (which I am currently trying to argue is not as beneficial as we’d like to believe).  I’d need to do more research, however, if I decided to include downshifting within my paper.  One other way this article may be useful: one section of this article argues that in the US, shopping is considered patriotic, an interesting claim in light of our recent discussion of nationalism.  I’m considering attempting to incorporate the connections between consumption, environmentalism, and nationalism in my paper, and this study provides some basic information which may prove useful.

Prothero, Andrea, and James A. Fitchett. “Greening Capitalism: Opportunities for a Green Commodity.” Journal of Macromarketing 20.1 (2000): 46-55.

This article is useful in that it poses a counter-argument to my own, claiming that environmentalism and capitalism do not have to be fundamentally opposed.  Instead, it is only current discourse that represents the two as such.  As we can never get beyond capitalism (all of our language originates from within it) we must use the revolutionary capabilities already present in our system to bring about change – and this is what we are doing when we use “commodity discourse” to promote environmentalism.  I am intrigued by this concept of revolution emerging from within capitalism, but find a huge problem in this argument in that it calls on us to commodify the idea that less consumption is desirable – a task that seems impossible and contradictory to me.  This article will be helpful in defining the limitations of an argument for green consumerism, and is also very useful in its presentation of (post-Marxist) theory.

Szasz, Andrew.  Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

In this book, Szasz makes the argument that current acts of environmental consumption follow a philosophy of “inverted quarantine” whereby consumers are motivated by the urge to self-protect instead of a desire to create vast social/environmental change. Though he does look at specific threats to the human body in the environment (toxins, etc) and specific products marketed to protect against these threats (bottled water, organic food, “green”cleaning products”), I believe the argument made in his last chapters will be most useful to me.  In these final chapters, he argues that inverted quarantine is dangerous because it creates “political anesthesia,” convincing people that they have somehow solved the environmental crisis and are no longer responsible for promoting greater systemic change.  Szasz’s argument will be central to my argument about the powerful, complacency-inducing narrative of green consumption.  His text, however, fails to fully address the positive implications of green consumerism – a topic I need to further explore in my own paper.

Said on The Exile

In reading Culture and Imperialism, I was most struck by Said’s final section, entitled “Movements and Migrations.”  This makes sense, as it is the final section of the book – and every author hopes to make their final section noteworthy, impactful, implanting something in the reader’s mind that keeps poking, provoking.  In this section, Said offers up a solution – or at least a form of resistance – to nationalism and imperialism in the figure of the exile.  I am partially unsatisfied by this because it has been done before (or maybe, actually, Said was among the first to do so – the historical timeline in my head is practically non-existent) – many an author has championed hybridity, liminality, the paradoxical here-not-here presence of the exilic figure.  At the same time, however, I am intrigued by his discussion of the exile and the ways it reflects his thoughts on identity.

In this discussion, Said makes a very Marxist move, claiming that the figure capable of undermining nationalism and imperialism has been created by those very systems: “As the struggle for independence produced new states and new boundaries, it also produced homeless wanderers, nomads, vagrants, unassimilated to the emerging structures of institutional power, rejected by the established order for their intransigence and obdurate rebelliousness” (332).  Particularly ironic is the way in which the exile is almost forced into the role of revolutionary figure, emphasized by Adorno’s statement that “He who offers for sale something unique that no one wants to buy, represents, even against his will, freedom from exchange” (333).  Refugees, migrants, exiles are excluded from the very nationalist system that they often desperately want to be a part of – and so have been forced by that system into a homeless state that allows them to effectively challenge nationalism.

I think Said saves himself and his argument by acknowledging the pain of this position.  Said values the exile for the challenge this figure poses to the essentializing, dichotomizing, binary-creating philosophy of imperialism.  Imperialism wants to divide the world into East and West, wants to give us distinct, permanent labels and identities.  Existing “between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages” the exile reminds us that “we need to go on and situate [our identities] in a geography of other identities, peoples, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict” (330-331).  This claim can verge on sounding too idealistic and humanistic, romanticizing the role of the exile and seeming to encourage us to find what is commonly “human” among us.  Said, however, interrupts us with the reminder that “unexpected, unwelcome loss” is central to this state, that this position is often uncomfortable and painful.  The value in it is that it reminds us that all attachments to nation, all identities for that matter, are constructed and transitory – and inherently contain a similar loss, a similar pain.  In this argument, Said works to emphasize the positive and creative possibilities of this exilic position, but does not let us forget that it is the real, lived, often harrowing circumstance of millions of people currently in our world.

Revised Project Proposal: Don’t feel so good about green

In my research so far on green products/the green economy, I have focused more on the production end of the equation, but I am currently thinking that I would like to focus my exploration of this issue on the green-product consumer.  I would like to further explore Josee Johnston’s concepts of the citizen-consumer and consumer activism, particularly as they relate to environmentalism (“The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market”).  I am struck by the inherent contradiction in the idea that through the conscious re-direction of our money (namely to buying “green” products) we can right the (environmental) wrongs of capitalism.  I will use this contradiction to further analyze the concept of hegemony laid out by Gramsci and Williams, particularly the idea of emergent alternative and oppositional culture.  Green products seem a perfect example of the way new, potentially oppositional trends can be co-opted by the dominant culture.  Even so (in a move typical of cultural studies), I am not yet ready to rule out the potential benefits of this absorption of environmental consciousness.  Can emergent ideas co-opted by the dominant culture in this way further that culture – can this new green consciousness so present in marketing and business have more than a marginal impact on capitalist practices, products, and consumers?

Though I still need to do more research (and I’m trying my best here to let this be an honest exploration and learn from my research – we’ll see how that goes), I am currently rather skeptical.  I am particularly intrigued by Andrew Szasz’s argument that these acts of green consumption are actually motivated by the urge to isolate and protect ourselves (as opposed to a primary concern with the environment), and promote what he calls “political anesthesia,” the feeling that we have done something to solve the environmental problem and thus are required to do nothing more (Shopping Our Way to Safety).  I currently see myself making an argument similar to this one, pulling a Said-esque move to examine the ways our new narrative about ourselves as “environmentally-conscious consumers,” though perhaps producing a superficial awareness of environmental issues, negatively impacts our actions, making us content in our consumption and undermining what is being claimed by many to be a true, world-wide mass movement along the lines of what Marx had dreamed of…

Genetically modified ideology…

I’m currently fascinated by the power of metaphor, by the ability of a substituted or explanatory image to completely restructure thought.  The essays that we have read as of late have in many ways tried to counteract the intensely powerful legacy of the architectural base/superstructure metaphor.  As Williams explains in “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” this metaphor has not only worked to explain the concepts of base and superstructure, but has created them.  By offering up the image of a building and its foundation, Marx’s metaphor solidified the two concepts, turning them into limited objects.  The superstructure became for many “a unitary ‘area’ within which all cultural and ideological activities could be placed” (32).  Likewise, “ ‘the base’ has come to be considered virtually as an object, or in less crude cases, it has been considered in essentially uniform and usually static ways” (33).  As evidenced by these essays, years of theoretical work has been required to complicate – to undue the effects – of this metaphor.  That’s a lot of freaking power.

With this in mind, I would like to share the new metaphor that has been floating around my head while reading Williams and Hall this week.  It was sparked by a sentence in one of Hall’s two essays (which of course I can’t find now for the life of me) where he uses the word “genetically.”  I know – you’re gagging.  Could I seriously be doing this?  Could I really be asking us to use the hugely clichéd metaphor of the human genome, good old DNA, for rethinking base and superstructure?  Yep, I am that humanities major, using my poor understanding of scientific concepts for the purpose of a theoretical endeavor.

The metaphor is a tired one.  And it doesn’t always seamlessly correspond with our many understandings of base and superstructure.  But it has helped me think through them further, and perhaps even build on them a little (as Marx’s old metaphor clearly did).  Where it has been most helpful is in illustrating the shift Hall is attempting to make in “Signification, Representation, and Ideology” from “necessity” to “possibility” (96).  In this essay, Hall is trying to stake out a position between two theoretical extremes: between the claim for the necessary correspondence of ideology and economic system and the claim for total non-correspondence; between the necessary coming of revolution and the impossibility of any revolution.  To do this, he puts forward the idea of “no necessary correspondence”: “there is no law which guarantees that the ideology of a class is already and unequivocally given in or corresponds to the position which that class holds in the economic relations of capitalist production…[but] there is no guarantee that, under all circumstances, ideology and class can never be articulated together in any way or produce a social force capable for a time conscious ‘unity in action’” (94-95).  Or said another way: “Structures exhibit tendencies – lines of force, openings and closures which constrain, shape, channel and in that sense ‘determine.’ But they cannot determine in the harder sense of fix absolutely, guarantee” (96).  The metaphor of the gene incorporates this concept of randomness, of “unfixedness,” in combination with an overarching tendency or inclination.  Our genes make us, they literally form us.  But, though they code for certain characteristics, there is no final guarantee that they will be expressed a certain way.  There are many other factors that determine the expression of a gene and shape our formation.  And, more importantly, there exists within the genetic code the possibility of mutation – the possibility for “rupture” – a completely new formation that was undetermined, that can promote change.

There are some elements of this metaphor that I haven’t quite worked out yet (for example: from what I said above, it seems like our genes correspond to the modes of production; but genetic code, as a language that is always-already present within us, that writes us, has a nice relationship to ideology as well.  This in itself could be telling and could further claims Williams makes that base and superstructure can’t be divided as neatly as one might think).  Also – if Hall is asking us to try and shape these tendencies to promote revolution, does that make him the scientist, modifying genes: the genetic engineer?  Okay, too far.