Author Archives: lray

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superstructure

First of all, I am really sorry for trying to start every blog with a punny title. Help is being sought.

So I really enjoyed Williams’ analysis of Marx, because his reading of Marx’s interpretations of base and superstructure helped to clear up a lot of the murky area that happens when interpreting the two in relation to one another. As a matter of fact, our discussions about this in class – especially using the skyscraper model – threw me off a little bit, as I kept thinking, “Couldn’t you say that economic exchange is a set of practices? Couldn’t ideologies be manufactured on that ground level, through the dynamics of production and challenges that consistently arise?” And so on and so forth.

It was difficult for me to think of the base as an object, and that is exactly what Williams first addresses in the first part of Base and Superstructure, etc. He reiterates often that we must think of base and superstructure as fluid categories – or not even categories at all, but arbitrary designations. However, I want to discuss one small chunk of the second part of this work, on page 81, in which Williams elaborates on the (misguided) concept of the base as something static and stolid. He rightfully says that the superstructure is perceived as more “varied and variable,” and thus it is easier to contextualize the structures within it historically – i.e. the legal system, or education, and especially ideologies. It comes more naturally to relate these different “limbs” to each other and to the general human moment in time from whence they arose. The base, however, is “given uniform properties,” such as “modes of production” or the economic system of social exchange. However, this detracts from Marx’s original insistence that the base is, in itself, a series of practices or “activities.”

This is where it got really interesting for me. Williams subsequently quotes Marx: “It is above all essential to perceive [material production] in its determined historical form and not as a general category.” Marx then cites the marked difference in the actual idea of production itself as it changed from a medieval to a capitalist mode. As we move through history, not only do our systems and objects change, but so does our very understanding of what it means to produce, and why we are doing it, and which superstructures correspond closest with the process of production. For example, young students may not have been thought of as commodities in ancient times, but they surely are now. Everything education-related, from “Hooked on Phonics” to the GRE, is regularly viewed as a collection of processes and activities which churn out a product, which will then be reabsorbed into the workforce or intelligentsia. The same principles may have been at work centuries ago, but this kind of relationship has only become part of our collective understanding of economics with the rise of capitalism.

Marx’s ability to hypothesize about such changes in the relationships between base and superstructure is really mindblowing to me. Although this small quote may seem like a caution – don’t get swept up by the simplicity of these terms – the idea really has huge ramifications for theorists at any historical moment. We should not be shoving all the rules of our current economy into the category of “base,” but taking the time to review what exactly led us to follow our complex system of economic activities. Recognizing connections that pop up between the so-called base and superstructure, and then historically exploring why they happened, can shed more light on what exactly drives a society than fitting pre-defined activities neatly into Marx’s boxes.

Bibiliography

This list looks kind of repetitive, but I’d really like a perspective specifically on American celebrity culture. Marketing and advertising points of view are doubly helpful. Could use feedback on other texts or materials that deal with Marxist principles of commodity, but with a more modern, pop-culture-focused spin.

Cashmore, Ellis. Celebrity/culture. Abingdon [England] ; New York : Routledge, 2006.

Frow, John. Time and commodity culture : essays in cultural theory and postmodernity. Oxford : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1997.

Holmes, Su and Redmond, Sean. Framing celebrity: new directions in celebrity culture.  London ; New York : Routledge, 2006.

Jaffe, Aaron. Modernism and the culture of celebrity. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Marshall, David P. Celebrity and power : fame in contemporary culture . Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c1997.

Marshall, David P. The celebrity culture reader.  New York ; London : Routledge, c2006.

Mathis, Mark. Feeding the media beas: an easy recipe for great publicity. West Lafayette, Ind. : Purdue University Press, c2002.

Nayar, Pramod. Seeing stars: spectacle, society, and celebrity culture. New Delhi ; Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications, 2009

Pinsky, Drew and Young, Mark S. The mirror effect : how celebrity narcissism is seducing America. New York : HarperCollins, c2009.

Pringle, Hamish. Celebrity Sells. Chichester, West Sussex, England ; Hoboken, NJ : J. Wiley, c2004.

Wilson, Sherryl. Oprah, celebrity, and the formation of self. Basingstoke, Hampshire [England] ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Winston, Martin Bradley. Getting publicity. New York : Wiley, c1982.

Contradiction: Between My Brain and This Reading

I want to understand Althusser’s “Contradiction.” I really do. I read over the italicized text and cannot figure out why some of those words are so damn important. So I’m going to use a blog as a tool for mental excavation.

Possibly the most important statements Althusser seems to make concern historical “points of rupture” (100). He uses Lenin’s concept of the weakest link to examine why oppositional forces/ideologies/individuals come together to generate a historical tidal wave of change. Because of contradictions inherent in Russian and world society, Russia itself was the weakest link from whence capitalism was attacked and overthrown. He points out that the Russian Revolution occured because Russia was simultaneously the “most and least advanced” (99) industrialized country – a giant contradiction waiting to explode from the weight of smaller contradictions occuring within the nation. How this was the case with Russia remains beyond me, but Althusser says it both results from and is dependent on means of production. In other words, historical contradictions all occur as a result of some kind of disharmony in the realm of production; eventually, this may lead to the fall of an entire ideology.

Althusser also references a kind of internal truth and logic which is present in all facets of human existence – “customs, habits, financial, commercial, and economic regimes” (102). From perhaps one institution arises a contradiction, and that contradiction is caught in the matrix of all institutions which arise from a society. He “reduces [them] to a single internal principle” – what we might call an ideology. If I am reading this right, Althusser is confirming Marx’s theory that a dominant ideology both determines the mechanisms of production and arises from it.

Basically the last part I understood about this reading (before it seemed to collapse into an unintelligble discussion of abstraction, truth, phenomena, and survival) was Althusser’s explication of the inversion of Hegel by Marx. While Hegel insisted that the mental and spiritual realm – the consciousness – determines history and our perception of our contemporary existence, Marx says that ideas arise from activities in the material realm. In other words, Althusser says that we have an idea about a table and we manufacture it in order to see it and discuss it; Marx thinks that all thoughts about the table only occur after the physical thing is put in front of our eyes.

I am turning myself around in circles. So many questions. I am most fervently wondering: what is overdetermination? Althusser talks about it constantly and I have no idea what it means, still. My vote for lecture = a whimpering yes.

Proposal

After I blogged about Marx’s Commodities and mentioned the commodification of human beings (by others and by themselves), I realized the subject warranted a lot more examination. As a popular culture aficionado, I am a heavy consumer of the commodified individual, and I think that placing an academic (and predominantly Marxist) lens on celebrity culture is a natural extension of my interest. I would like to discuss exactly what “labor,” “exchange,” “commodity,” etc. means in the context of celebrities and the virtual pop culture realm. I think my paper would also include some musings on how all these interactions play out in the “real world” vs. the “digital world” – i.e. concert performances vs. leaked sex tapes on the Internet. While I’m at it, I’ll also explore the idea of performing an identity and how that ties into being marketed as an object. All of this is pretty nebulous, as I can’t decide on a particular celebrity or group of celebrities to focus on, but at this point I am leaning towards Britney Spears or Tyra Banks. More suggestions on heavily marketed/publicized celebrities would be awesome.

X Marx the Spot

I think that in my fifth or sixth trudge through Commodities, Chapter 1 of Marx’s Capital, I finally had a breakthrough. You all might remember my confession on the first day of class that “theory scares me,” and I have to admit that I had a really hard time even making connections and drawing conclusions within the text itself. However, once I felt I had made sense of Marx’s thoughts on human economy, I was so thrilled I almost forgot to take my findings a step further into the realm of media studies. So in an effort to document my mental process in case I get confused again in class, let me take you through my journey.

I worked on translating the text into simple terms, and then applying it to the framework of media theory. To start with, the two basic foundations of his theory are utility and commodity. A commodity is anything produced by human labor: a lamp, a ship, a summer blockbuster film. Utility, meaning how the item is exploited or explored, has no existence apart from its corresponding commodity. The commodity has two forms: the physical form and the value form, the latter of which does not correspond to the amount of human labor that produced the item, but rather its desirability (usually expressed by price) on the market. All of this fits easily into an economical model. Media-wise, this becomes something more nebulous, but still applicable. For instance, let’s take one of Perez Hilton’s favorite items: the paparazzi photo. The one I’ll use for this extended metaphor will be called Photo X, and it’s a shot of Angelina Jolie sunbathing topless and smoking a suspicious-looking cigarette. This is a commodity, produced by a human laboring behind some shrubbery with a telephoto lens. It has utility, most likely as blackmail, but also perhaps as a visual aid on a blog. It can be found in physical form on film or as a digital image, and its value form is determined by its cultural context. Angelina is a huge star, a humanitarian mother, and because Photo X clearly depicts some naughty activity it is currently in heavy demand on the market. Marx associates price with value, and Photo X’s price will surely indicate high value. This is a small example of Marx’s theory and its bearing on media, using a type of commodity he would not have foreseen. A commodity can even be corporeal: case in point, Britney Spears. But more on the packaging and selling of human beings later.

Marx goes on to say that human labor does not have value; only the commodity does. This is obvious in the case of Photo X: Perez and his counterparts would not pay more for the photo if the paparazzo used a better camera or strained himself more in trying to maneuver his camera through the leaves. They are paying for the content of Photo X and its significance in capturing a pop culture moment. Marx also talks about a language of commodities which directly feeds into his discussion of fetishizing commodities. To explain using Photo X: the image will be bought and sold by various media outlets and blogs, as well as illegally spread to other sources using email, Twitter, or Facebook. Publishers will hotly contest with Angelina the legality of the image for public consumption. Websites which prominently display the image will garner millions of hits, and the public will perceive the owners of those websites as reliable people with up-to-the-minute juicy gossip. And so on and so forth. You and I might understand all of that, but my grandmother wouldn’t – because she doesn’t speak the language of those commodities, the photos.

Let me return to two points: the fetishization of commodities, and the human as a commodity. Marx says that we fetishize commodities by making the act of exchange a social ritual and perhaps a basis for appraising our fellow men and women. Can we take this a step further by discussing the commodification of people themselves? I mentioned Britney Spears, whose personality, talent, and career is one huge commodity. Countless hours of human labor made her into “Britney Spears”: makeup was applied, auditoriums were booked, dances were choreographed. It seems as if our modern take on commodities, especially in the pop culture realm, truly exemplified what Marx was referring to. He said that we treat our commodities as extensions of ourselves, and we use interactions based on trading those commodities to define our social structure. Considering that Britney (at least before the shaved-head debacle) was supposed to reflect the ideal nubile young woman – and when she broke down, much of our pop illusion was sullied – I think Marx was truly on the money. I could go on much further about what this says about the impossibility of self-actualization when one  human being”makes” another, but I have to go check Perez. Seriously, though.

El Cash Vive!

Because my only exposure to any history or information about Che Guevara is indeed Alberto Korda’s famous graphic icon, I was quite interested to see what Michael Casey thought the image meant to someone like me – a passing, anonymous consumer, expert navigator of the global media. Particularly in reading about instances of re-using his image for guerilla marketing purposes (the “Rambo” story, p. 1-2) or making a living on the street off his ever-evolving mystery and popularity (p.10), I was consistently struck by Casey’s wording. Like theorist Stuart Hall, he seemed to be mining the depths of “low culture” with both anthropological professionalism and a fond condescension. He distinguished between “compelling parts of [Che’s] real life” (p. 7) and his afterlife as a “pop superstar” (p.8).  At first, it seemed as if Casey was simply tracking the bastardization of a revolutionary’s legacy; he seemed to be pointing out how Che’s original aims, actions, even life story have been subsumed into one icon with a vague, heroic connotation. Casey started off with what I interpreted to be a simplistic Frankfurt-schoolian argument: that a very real person with world-altering (often violent) ideas had become a victim of The Man, and thus his legacy had turned into vacuous media mush.

            However, after reading through the introduction, I realized Casey was not sadly decrying the global use of Che’s image as heresy. He, in fact, showed that the icon is an ideal canvas on which varying and often contradictory ideologies are painted over and over upon each other. Che’s actual message in life and the historical context of his defiant face provide a certain romantic energy from which countless myths may spring. Casey discusses this “spirit” (p. 18) in great detail; words like “revolutionary,” “entrepreneurial,” and “guardian” all pop up as variations. To simplify all this with a metaphor: Che is like Elvis. Because in his lifetime he already loomed as a legend, his legacy magnifies his global presence into a Christlike phenomenon. We reason that someone so dynamic and luminous in corporeal form must be iconic and immortal after their death. And because Korda’s graphic is a simple visual representation of such immortality and strength, its power can be harnessed by any individual looking to tap into the visceral reactions it brings forth on a global scale.

            Emerging directly from that discussion was the contradiction I found most compelling of all: Che was a Marxist, fiercely anti-capitalism – and yet his own image is consumed by millions, his intense gaze the source of incomes both small and astronomical. Those millions continue to see Che as a symbol of both collective struggle, and as a champion of individual creativity in a gray corporate world. How do these inconsistencies even add up? I admit I was still confused about Casey’s attempted reconciliation of global media with Che’s hatred of capitalism. Was he implying that global media as we see it now is indeed Marx’s wet dream, an organism constantly responding to the needs of the masses? Or was he only complicating our view of modern capitalism, so we do not fall into the trap I spoke of earlier – presuming that capitalist suits are erasing Che’s historical legacy and ideology in order to make a quick buck off his popularity? I’m interested in hearing your interpretations so I can process his thesis a little more clearly.