Author Archives: william

Fanon and cultural theory: points of intersection?

It’s interesting to read Fanon after having read the cultural studies writers, Hall and Williams. Here are two contrasting and sometimes contradictory views on a lot of Marxist concepts. I liked reading Fanon because it helped me to recognize where the cultural theorists have entirely ceased to respond to classical ideas of Marxism. First there’s the idea of class consciousness in contrast to the cultural studies concept, continually being altered, of ideology. It is interesting to note that neither Fanon nor the cultural theorists readily accept the concept of class consciousness. Fanon offers this somewhat cryptic passage: “[African labor union leaders] have not had to deal with the bourgeois bulldozer, they have not developed a consciousnesss from the class struggle, but perhaps this is not required. Perhaps. We shall see that this totalizing determination which often becomes a caricature of internationalism is one of the most basic characteristics of underdeveloped countries” (44). The consciousness of the masses of the recently decolonized countries, or of their representatives is not yet that of “class”. In fact, Fanon denies that this consciousness is even required in a developed country, perhaps hinting that the burgeoning nation does not have to pass through the phase of abject capitalism at all. Fanon’s idea of consciousness is what I would call, because it rhymes, a “mass consciousness” based on and around violence. He pays special attention to the vocabulary of the leader of this newly freed nation: “The vocabulary he uses is that of a chief of staff. “Mobilization of the masses,” “the agricultural front,” “the illiteracy front,” “defeats suffered,” “victories won”. During its early years the young independent nation evolves in the atmosphere of a battleground. This is because the political leader of an undeveloped country is terror-stricken at the prospect of the long road that lies ahead” (52). Unlike the cultural theorists, Fanon does seem at some level to accept the idea of class consciousness in capitalist, developed societies.

The second idea, which it seems to me that cultural theorists have ceased to discuss, and which is absolutely key to Fanon is violent revolution. The reason violent revolution exists within Fanon’s thought and not within that of the cultural theorists is that the contradiction between what the dominant, colonizer class wants and what the dominated, colonized class wants is altogether stronger and more explicit than the contradiction between the State and the lower classes in a developed, classical society. Further, classes themselves are much more easily identifiable in a colonial country.

I think it’s interesting how Fanon’s polemic tone fits much better with this rigid system, whereas a polemic tone does not make sense when analyzing developed, hegemonic culture, where contradictions manifest themselves in nuances and different sectors of society.

Art as a process

Williams and Hall, in reassessing the meaning and relations of the base and superstructure, allow art a place within culture that to me is far more satisfying and nuanced than the idea of art within Marx. Although Marx doesn’t address art specifically in any of the passages I have read, I assume that it is a part of the superstructure that is determined by the base, that it cannot escape the dominant ideology. There is a contrasting view that Williams addresses in “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”, in which literature and art are what propel societies forward—they are “emergent” cultural practices: “It would be easy to say, it is a familiar rhetoric, that literature operates in the emergent cultural sector, that it represents the new feelings, the new meanings, the new values” (44). From the orthodox Marxist point of view, art cannot escape the dominant ideology, whereas from point of view of the “familiar rhetoric”, art presents us with the most innovative, “creative” ideas.

As it turns out, art is both of these things, when we conceive of it as an active process in time instead of an object. As Williams writes: “We should look not for the components of a product but for the conditions of a practice… The recognition of the relation of a collective mode and an individual project—and these are the only categories that we can initially presume—is a recognition of related practices” (48). Like the base-superstructure relationship, which Williams insists should be hegemonic—the base being a selective process instead of a relationship between an objective base and another group of objects—the superstructure—determined by the base, we should conceive of art as a process, because, like the rest of society, we interpret it for ourselves.


I was interested in Althusser’s Epilogue in which he criticizes Engels’s explanation of the movement of history.  Engels sets up a geometrical (‘natural’) metaphor—that the movement of history is a transcendent resultant, decided by the individual direction and magnitude of millions of individual wills. Althusser points out that beginning a view of history by looking at such a small scale is impossible, that the answer will be a tautology or a representation of the problem that does nothing to answer it. Althusser goes on to critique a number of famous enlightenment philosophers for the same thing: “What is the starting-point for this classical ideology, whether it is Hobbes on the composition of the conatus, Locke and Rousseau on the generation of the general will, Helvetius and Holbach on the production of the general interest, Smith and Ricardo (the texts abound) on atomistic behaviour, what is the starting-point if not precisely the confrontation of these famous individual wills which are by no means the starting-point for reality, but for a representation of reality for a myth intended to provide a basis (for all eternity) in nature (that is, for all eternity) for the objectives of the bourgeoisie (125)”? What interests me about this passage is that Althusser is performing a Marxist critique on Engels (which he subsequently extends broadly to other philosophers), accusing him of the same thing Marx and Engels accused the German idealists of, namely thinking of history as a history of ideas instead of “historical” facts. What makes an event “historical”, he reminds us, “is not the fact that it is an event, but precisely its insertion into forms which are themselves historical, into forms which have nothing to do with the bad infinity which Engels retains even when he has left the vicinity of his original model, forms which, on the contrary, are perfectly definable and knowable (knowable, Marx insisted, and Lenin after him, through empirical, that is, non-philosophical, scientific disciplines)” (126). From this, as well as other passages, it became evident to me that Althusser is so strict a Marxist that he even accuses Marx himself of misrepresenting himself, when he says he will perform an inversion of Hegel’s terms (by this, he means he will begin with the economic system as the base and then explain how that informs the ideas of the period). Really, Althusser tells us, Marx changed both Hegel’s terms and relations.

It seems to me like Althusser has more faith in Marxism in the first article (1962) than the second (1969). This is evident in his critique of Engels, in which he supports scientific views of history over any other. In the second article, he doesn’t hold up the science of history as a model of perfection for philosophers and historians. Also, the system he sets up in the second article, in which the subject is already a subject to his family (one of the ISAs he lists) before he is even born, offers a pessimistic view on the prospect of a global revolution.

preliminary bibliography (music and copyright law)

Bishop, Jack. “Building International Empires of Sound: Concentrations of Power and Property in the ‘Global’ Music Market.” Popular Music and Society 28.4 (Oct 2005): 443-71. Online Resource.

Bishop, Jack. “Who Are the Pirates? The Politics of Piracy, Poverty, and Greed in a Globalized Music Market.” Popular Music and Society 27.1 (Feb 2004): 101-06. Online Resource.

Demers, Joanna. Steal this music: How intellectual property law affects musical creativity. Athens : University of Georgia Press, 2006.

Jones, Richard. “Technology and the Cultural Appropriation of Music.” International Review of Law, Computers & Technology 23.1 (Mar 2009): 109-122.

McLeod, Kembrew. Owning culture: authorship, ownership, and intellectual property law. Westport, Conn. : Praeger, 2001.

Miller, Paul D. (ed.). Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. The M.I.T. Press: Cambridge, 2008.

Rosen, Ronald S. Music and Copyright. Washington : U.S. G.P.O., 2008.

Scherzinger, Martin Rudolph. “Music, Spirit Possession and the Copyright Law: Cross-Cultural Comparisons and Strategic Speculations.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 31.1 (1999): 102-25. Online Resource

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Unoriginal Sins: Copyright and American Culture. Diss. UT Austin: 1999.

Masses and Orientalism

In Don DeLillo’s novel, The Names, there’s this one passage that I remember quite clearly, in which two people are talking about the way historians talk about invasions. The main point is that, when invaders come from the east, they are called “hordes” and they are always described as “moving in waves”. The Romans, in contrast, might be invaders, or conquerors, and they don’t move in waves. It’s a hilarious discussion, and I think it has bearing on Raymond Williams’s discussion of the masses.

The masses, Williams tells us, don’t exist: “There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses” (12). This way of seeing comes out of an improvement in communications, “in particular the development of new forms of multiple transmission of news and entertainment, created unbridgeable divisions between transmitter and audience, which again led to the audience being interpreted as an unknown mass” (12). This formula seems the “only one possible” to bridge the gap between the media transmitter and its audience. Williams continues that “masses became a new word for mob: the others, the unknown, the unwashed, the crowd beyond one” (12).

When I read Williams’s interpretation of masses, I immediately thought of the passage from DeLillo’s book. The passage is describing a form of orientalism, of seeing people from cultures we don’t understand in a way to understand them. I think the idea of masses is applied not only to the lower class, but to people from other cultures. I read the “Global Edition” of the New York Times online, and just about every other day, when the article is about India, or China, or pretty much anywhere in Africa, or southeast Asia, or the Middle East, it will be accompanied by a picture that shows many, many people from that culture. I remember the film The Constant Gardner, a love story about white people in which the backdrop is Africa and there are many scenes in which the backdrop is African masses. And the opening to the James Bond movie, Casino Royale, in which it seems as if James just doesn’t often have enough room to chase his target, simply because there are too many people everywhere.

Not only is this an absurd way of depicting other cultures, but in a way, it equates other cultures with the lower classes, with the masses, with people who aren’t worth understanding, because there are so many of them. Our culture is, we feel, inextricably linked to Roman culture, so the Romans couldn’t possibly have moved in waves. There were fewer of them. I think that the media’s depiction of masses, both within our own culture and in others, is a very interesting phenomenon, and a link between orientalism and class depiction that is worth exploring further.

Term Project Proposal

I think one of the most interesting ideas that I’ve gotten from Marx is that under communism, one actually has more room for individuality than under capitalism because they aren’t defined by the type of work they do (there’s that famous passage about being this in the morning, this in the evening, etc., but never being defined by any of those things. Although my topic isn’t entirely related to this, it comes perhaps to a similar conclusion. I want to write about music copyright laws and how they have restricted the freedom of musicians. I wonder how capitalism has actually changed the way music sounds by restricting its ability to borrow from others within or without the genre. To what extent are artists free under the capitalist system? How does making music a product change the way we think about it and what we can do with it? I think the genre changes how this can be answered. For example, in jazz, musicians are free to borrow ideas from others without fear of lawsuit, but in hip-hop or electronic music, sampling the material of others can be illegal (I’m not actually sure this is true, which is why this is just a proposal). This reflects cultural ideas about the different genres themselves. Are jazz musicians more free than hip-hop artists, or is it simply because hip-hop is a more lucrative commodity that there is more copyright law involved there?

materialism and idealism according to Marx and Engels

In the first chapter of The German Ideology, Marx and Engels explain their material conception of history as it opposes the prevailing, “idealist” notion of history. The main difference is that the material system, instead of studying the prevailing modes of thought of a particular epoch, rather explores the modes of production of that epoch. The modes of thought, Marx and Engels argue, stem from the economic system and not vice versa; there is no idea that precedes material man. “Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life but life that determines consciousness.” (42) For all communication and forms (politics and religion are simply “illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought” (52)) relating to the means of production, Marx and Engels employ the term “intercourse”.

While reading this chapter I was astounded by the simple fact that Marx and Engels were able to point out what they do. By this I mean that, somehow, even as they point out how much people’s views are dictated by the system within which they live, they themselves manage to step outside the system, to elucidate concepts other philosophers were unable to see. Their claims for me culminate in the statement “language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men… Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all” (48).

At the same time, there was one aspect of unresolved tension that ran throughout the whole text—the fact that the text consistently criticizes the subjugation of materials to ideas, and yet I am reading it for a cultural theory class, that is, a class in which ideas are all-important. Take this passage: The materialist view of history “comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into self-consciousness or transformation into apparitions, specters, whimsies, etc., but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other kinds of theory” (61). They make this claim, but at the same time, isn’t it their own, peculiarly strong “self-consciousness”, their ability to transcend the prevailing views of the time, that allows them to see in this particular way? Also, even though they decry criticism as useless, isn’t it their criticism that spawned revolutions?

The problem, then, is that, in forming their concept of history in opposition to one that deals mostly with ideas, Marx and Engels are in a way self-defeating. They must at some point admit that even they love ideas, because what else is “The German Ideology”? Perhaps the difficulty I encounter stems from the fact that I am reading Marx from an “idealist” and not a “revolutionary” perspective. However, I think the problem remains: how do you deny ideas their power over people and then hope to influence the reader with powerful ideas?

Feminized Splitting and Publicity

I was interested in Berger’s discussion of the splitting of the woman into the feminine object and the masculine observer. When he writes of publicity, Berger brings up a similar split—between the individual locked in the inadequate present and the glamorous one of the constantly deferred future. I wonder if it isn’t going too far to make an analogy between the split that takes place within the woman and the split within the consumer. Berger writes, “The power to spend money is the power to live. According to the legends of publicity, those who lack the power to spend money become literally faceless. Those who have the power become lovable” (143). The picture that follows depicts a man with money embracing two women while a group of faceless men stand in the background (144). This advertisement may produce an effect similar to the splitting of the woman Berger discusses earlier—on one hand is the sexual, happy and productive being of the future, and on the other is the faceless observer of the present. Buying moves the consumer into closer proximity with the desirable side of the self. However, as Berger makes clear, this desirable side is impossible to fully realize, it is constantly deferred.