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.