Stuart Hall’s 1983 grad course on cultural studies

From my archives: Lecture notes from Stuart Hall’s course on Cultural Studies, University of Illinois at U-C, Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Summer 1983

Tom Streeter

Introduction to Cultural Studies 6/16/83

The intellectual and political space of cultural studies appeared as a response to the question “What happened to the working class in Britain under the affluence of the post-WWII period?” The perception that the rise of the American-styled consumer society in Britain had eroded traditional working class society (and thus the Labor Party’s power) led to a search for new tools and understandings that could grasp the social transformation that Britain was experiencing. This search inspired the birth of both cultural studies and the early New Left, and it was central to the seminal work of Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy and founder of the Bermingham Centre for Cultural Studies. The Left’s new concerns about cultural transformation also revived discussion of the conservative cultural tradition that goes back to Matthew Arnold and is more recently exemplified in the literary criticism of F.R_. Leavis, the tradition that understood culture as “the best that has been thought and said.” This tradition’s emphasis on culture (as opposed to politics, economics, etc.) became a starting point for discussion; its elitism and disparagement of the bulk of the culture of the working class, on the other hand, became something to argue against.
Raymond Williams 6/19/83
One draws on theory particularly in cultural moments which confront people with a major historical shift, a new tempo, a new set of social relations; old theories then prove themselves inadequate and new ones must be generated. It is important to understand, however, that any theoretical work takes place on an already existing terrain, that there is always a set of discourses which give rise to a theoretical inter-discourse. Williams, in Culture and Society, sought to engage other, dominant discourses, by rereading the literary liberal tradition of the nineteenth century, not as independent literary works but as responses to the industrial revolution. Williams set the culture and society tradition against the dominant discourses of the 19th century: political economy, individualism, utilitarianism. C&S is organized around, not moral and aesthetic terms, but cultural and social ones like “industry,” “class,” “society,” “art,” and “culture.” C&S, however, is distorted by its almost exclusive emphasis on great literary works. Furthermore, the dominant discourses are not clearly defined; they basically serve as an “other,” which results in a lack of a sense of cultural struggle and ideological dominance. (While Williams couldn’t find popular voices in the books, Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class found them in records, law courts, newspapers, etc.) While C&S made the important contribution of showing how the literary canon can be read in social and historical terms, therefore, it is important for cultural studies to beware of excluded and silenced voices.
Part I of The Long Revolution is Williams’ first attempt to put together a cultural theory. The three terms culture, community, and communication are central, and are almost coterminous. Experience is also a key concept: culture is inseparable from life as it has been experienced. Experience is made up of the interaction between two things: 1) one’s objective placement in life, and 2) the way those conditions of living are experienced. (This definition can result in confusion.) The objects of cultural studies, therefore, are the common forms of experiencing, the common definitions shared [through communication] by a particular community. The goal is not simply describing how a group lives, or analyzing or cataloguing the ideas of the group, but rather studying the interactions between these two. This is similar to the common anthropological definition of culture as “a whole way of life,” and is opposed to the elitist understanding of culture as “the best that has been thought and said.” Cultural practices, therefore, can not be separated from meanings, the base cannot be separated from the superstructure. Williams, like Goldmann, is a genetic structuralist; he searches for the homologies, key configurations, key words that are the expression of the underlying coherence of a culture; differences or non-homologies indicate cultural struggle, e.g., aristocratic/bourgeois. This interaction of class cultures result in “structures of feeling.” William’s concept of totality, similar to Thompson’s, understands the relation of particular practices to the rest of the social formation in terms of a complex interpenetration of levels, at the center of which lies, not the economic, but human energy, human “practice” (not “practices”) — man the creator, man the producer. (This conception, present in Hegel and the Marx of the philosophical manuscripts, is what enabled Althusser to define this problematic as humanist.) Thompson has argued that The Long Revolution is too evolutionary, that culture should not be understood as “whole ways of life” but as “whole ways of struggle.”
In Marxism and Literature Williams finally acknowledges that he has been arguing about the inadequacy of traditional Marxist approaches to culture, but he replaces a covert conversation with Marxism with a covert conversation with structuralism. He opposes the base-superstructure metaphor on the grounds that the base is a highly abstract construction, artificially torn from the concrete practices of the superstructure. This work of abstraction diminishes the richness of the human lives involved, and obscures the extent to which everything is interactively interrelated. Williams prefers “descriptive thickness” to abstractive models. Hall argues that, while the concept of “structure of feeling” is broken-backed, Williams’ three-part framework of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures is a powerful idea.
The Birth of Structuralism 6/21/83
Cultural Marxism has relied on a continous engagement with structuralism, which as a mode of thought provides a very different angle of vision from culturalism. The legacy of Durkheim, the father of both modern sociology and of structuralism, contributes to understanding the relation between cultural studies and sociology itself. There are three “Durkheims”: 1) the Durkheim of Suicide, and Rules who tried to dig deeper into institutional structures, to get beyond “phenomenal forms,” and who became the main source for British and American structural anthropology; 2) the Durkheim of Parsons, who focused on what he took to be the positivist methodology of Suicide etc.; 3) the Durkheim of Elementary Forms, who was excluded by Parsons, who founded Annee Sociologique,and who influenced Mauss and — distantly — Saussure. This third Durkheim is the progenitor of structuralism, the Durkheim who studied the constraining and limiting nature of systems of collective representations on individual behavior. Reproducing collective representations helps reproduce social norms, thereby maintaining social order. The concept of social norms has within it a notion of those who do not keep the norms, of those within the normative framework and those without. Durkheim’s discussion of crime and the ritual nature of punishment as a means for confirming the limits of acceptable behavior (i.e., the dominant ideology) became important in cultural studies; cultural studies recognized the relative nature of social norms, and thus transformed the sociology of deviance into subculture theory. Mauss and Levi-Strauss are direct descendants of the late Durkheimian tradition, with its focus on collective representations. While Malinowski and the dominant functionalist anthropological tradition dissolved the importance of symbol systems into materials, Levi-Strauss has argued against this: symbols are not for eating, they’re for thinking with. Moreover, he argues against the Western positivist belief in a singular form of logic, noting instead that there are many logics equal in status to the Western one. For Levi-Strauss, “logic” has come to mean, not the standard sense of Western rationality, nor the contentful ideas of collective representations, but a particular set of relations or arrangements. For Levi-Strauss, the hope and promise of anthropology lies in that part of the humanities that looks most like a science: linguistics.
The effects of these ideas on cultural studies have been many: the essence of mankind is seen less as Promethean creativity and more as rules; the focus on conscious experience is displaced by an interest in the unconscious underlying “grammars” of social life; the focus on a dynamic history tends to be replaced by one on static systems; and an interest in causal relations is displaced by a formalist tendency towards classification. These shifts in turn have resulted in a displacement of the speaking subject in the conceptual scheme of cultural studies, a shift from a concern about social/material relations to a focus on internal cultural relations, and a move from a language of practice to a language of discourse.
Base and Superstructure 6/23/83
This central problematic of cultural Marxism should be a central point in relation to which dialogue with other issues such as feminism and racism should be engaged. The problem of base and superstructure deals with a particular notion of determination, and raises questions of how to think the complexity of the social whole, of how to think the relations between different practices. It usually appears in relation to Marx’s “opening up” of a general historical materialist method, and was formulated in the context of the struggle against idealism. It stems from three premises: the specificity of historical determination, the importance of the systemic properties of structures such as the modes of production, and the primacy of the economic. People, therefore, live in historically determinate social relations (not a Durkheimian “society.”) A key question concerns the relation between social relations and productive relations. It is possible to reduce, elegantly, differences between historical epochs into variations in these relations between social relations and productive forces; the sum total of all of these is the base, i.e., structure, which Marx calls, unfortunately, “the economic.” Corresponding to the base are the two levels of the superstructure, the legal and political structures, and the ideological forms of social consciousness. This model tends to have the appearance of complexity without the behavior of complexity; it appears as an expressive model of causality, where the relations of the base are expressed everywhere else. It is possible, however, to have the base be determinate while another factor (e.g., religion) is dominant, and is given that dominance by the base.
There are at least two common ways of formulating the principle contradiction of capitalism from within this set of ideas: 1) the socialization of relations of productive forces vs. the private ownership of the means of production (the economic reduction); 2) capital vs. labor (the class reduction). Class reductionism, as it is elaborated in The German Ideology relies on an epistemologically and politically weak notion of “false consciousness.” For Hall, “all ideologies that have ever moved men and women have some truth to them, though perhaps only a partial truth.” The problem of the relation of the cultural to the material was inadequately theorized at this point in Marx. Later, the contradiction was formulated as the differences between relations of exchange and relations of production. The emphasis was on the differences, not correspondences. Properly understood, therefore, the relations of production, exchange, and consumption should each be seen to have its own contradictions; the three function together, not because they’re the same, but because they’re different and articulated together. If this is a structure, it’s a necessarily complex one. In the face of this complex structure, theory becomes necessary in order to “break into” the heterogenous mass of contradictory facts. The “production of the concrete in thought” requires, therefore, the addition of greater and greater levels of theory.
Marx’s “The Eighteenth Brumaire” is an example of concrete analysis that does not solely rely on the capital/labor contradiction. Instead of a “ruling capitalist class” it finds a complex political bloc, and the mode of production (a complex mix of peasantry, emerging capitalism, etc.) can not in this case specifiy the political, i.e., “determine” it in a simple way.
Marxist Structuralism 6/26/83
Althusser brings the two intellectual strands of Marxism and structuralism together in an unstable synthesis, giving a Marxist orthodox gloss to particular, isolated structuralist aspects of Marx. Althusser relies on several of those aspects. Marx’s notion that “men and women make history but don’t always know it” involves a decentering of subjectivity and an abandoning of a sense of indeterminate human agency that parallels the structuralist dethronement of “men” and the concurrent emphasis on relations, structures, etc. Similarly, Marx’s analysis of the elements of the modes of production and associated rules of combination leads to a very reductive but useful understanding of broad differences; from this Althusser concludes that the modes of production work like a language. (This, however, involves privileging the abstract, formulaic elements in Marx.) Althusser’s distinguishing of different levels, on the model of parole/langue, can be useful as a way of making analytical distinctions, although the three particular levels he names are weak, and the distinguishing of levels can not be taken to be the same as distinguishing the specificity of particular events. Althusser’s anti-humanism simply involves turning some problems of historicism into an absurd anti-historicism. While it is true that Marx does not hold to an expressive view of the social totality, the strictly “structuralist Marx” is an Althusserian construction. Althusser’s first attempt to produce a non-reductionist view of determination involved borrowing the Freudian notions of condensation, displacement, and overdetermination. He added to that the notion of the “relative autonomy” of levels and institutions as a way of breaking with reductionism without abandoning real structuring effects. He retains, however, a belief that in the last instance this all reproduces the conditions of production. (For Hall, not only is this reproduction not inevitable, but as a model it tends to obscure struggle and contradiction.) Althusser’s “structuralist causality” is basically a hardening up of overdetermination. His concept of theory involves the necessity of searching for abstract concepts that can produce “the concrete in thought,” which is not just the empirical, but the empirical grasped in its context of levels of determination.
Ideology, Representation, Subjectivity, and Politics 6/28/83
[Continuing last lecture]: Althusser’s influence has been immense, some of it good, some of it bad. Althusser made the important point that Marx’s totality is a complex, not simple, structure; the relation between levels is not one of correspondence, but is necessarily uneven. (In the retreat from necessary correspondence, however, there’s been a slide to necessary non-correspondence; while there is no necessary correspondence, there still is the possibility of “effective articulations.”) Similarly, he illustrated the importance of living with difference, of recognizing that contradictions always will appear in different forms, in different places, and will have diétion of the economic in the last instance,” is also an important idea. Determination should be understood in terms of “the possibility of linkages formed by articulating the consequences of particular social contradictions together.”
Althusser’s theory of ideology is opposed both to class reductionism and to false consciousness. The former tends to assume one true ascribed ideology per class, except when something is interrupting, and the latter assumes an empiricist relation to knowledge, i.e., the idea of a mask or screen preventing recognition of the real. Theory, for Althusser, is therefore not an attempt to produce a reflection of the real, but the production of practice. Instead of true and false ideologies, we should think in terms of more or less adequate ones; the work of science is thus the clarification of ideology. In his essay on “Ideological State Apparatuses” Althusser tries to think the relation between ideology and other practices in terms of the reproduction of the conditions of production. This reproductive theory of ideology is left undeveloped, however, and is substituted by a theory of subjectivity loosely derived from Lacan. Althusser suggests that ideology tends to work through ideological state apparatuses in ways that fit the purposes of the dominant classes — an argument that suffers from functionalism. Furthermore, the article hypostasizes the State, using the State’s existence to explain the dominance of civil institutions, rather than seeking to explain how those civil institutions maintain dominance by way of the State. Preferable to “ISAs” is Althusser’s earlier conceptualization of ideology in For Marx as “systems of representation in which men live their imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence.” The phrase “systems of representations” here emphasizes both the necessity and plurality of the semiotic (“systems,” not “system”). This conceptualization also suggests the impossibility of living outside of ideologies, outside of the systems of representations in and through which we understand, define, and experience the world. Systems of representation, according to Althusser, are founded on unconscious structures. Unconscious structures, originally understood as rules and systems in the sense of Levi-Strauss, later came to be understood more in the Lacanian sense. According to Hall, Lacanian theory with its focus on the unconscious is not adequate to a theory of ideology in general because it cannot account for political, social, and economic processes which are often conscious.
Gramsci and Hegemony 6/30/83
Ideology is a field of struggle. Class-articulated ideologies, emergent bourgeois ideologies, etc. can be important, of course, but ideology can not be directly reduced to either economics or class. A suspension of the capitalist mode, for example, will not gaurantee the liberation of blacks and women, and political and civil rights need not be irrevocably bourgeois. The question of which contradictions came first — class or some other — need not be of concern. What is important is the irreducibility of one to another. The critical moment in the transformation of ideology, then, can be the connoting of a new set of meanings through ideological struggle, redefining the relations of ideological terms.
Gramsci suggests a hegemonic Marxist politics that recognizes the necessity of struggle on many fronts, including the ideological, a politics that finds unity through complexity, not unity through reduction. He insists on bringing theory into line with empirical complications. He reacts strongly against the mechanism of the Second International and its canonization under Stalin and Lenin. He relies, not on a base/superstructure model, but on a structure/superstructure model that fully recognizes complexity and interrelations. He understands domination in a structuralist way, and is sarcastic about instrumentalist analyses. He identifies three moments of political struggle: the war of manoevre, when there is a general division of society and mass mobilization; underground warfare, which involves raiding particular strongholds of the power bloc; and the war of position, the typical state of societies of mass democracy, which involves a differentiated struggle “in the trenches of civil society” involving culture, language, morality, etc. Gramsci also recognized the centrality of the State as a new, key structuring force, as central, in a way, as the modes of éy coercive, but also educative, persuasive, and very contradictory. Hegemony is not rule by a particular class, but rule by class fractions and historical blocs that have mobilized segments of the popular classes for support. Hegemony is about leadership as well as domination. It is a historical process, not a thing achieved. Consent can be the dominant instance of hegemonic power, though it is always accompanied by force.
Domination/Incorporation/Hegemony 7/2/83
There is an important need for an enlarged sense of what domination is about. Domination is not simply repression; when a censor is needed, hegemony is not secure. The double modalities of coercion and consent need to be understood, along with the nature of the work of subordinating. There is also a need for rethinking resistance in the same way as domination, particularly cultural forms of resistance. All forms of resistance are contradictory, and have negative and positive sides. None of them can be reduced to something else. Forms of cultural resistance, moreover, provide space for interventions, for deepening contradictions. These are the areas where culture can change. Cultural forms alone, however, cannot progress. One should avoid romanticizing the deviant, i.e., mistaking the moment of rebellion for the moment of opposition. Central to the analysis of Resistance Through Rituals is the belief that youth movements can neither be reduced to fundamental class memberships, nor understood outside questions of class. Residual cultural forms such as religion can be simultaneously the “opium of the people” and a means of survival and resistance. All ex-slaves, for example, have learned the importance of cultural resistance by negotiation, by somehow keeping Africa aliveside Christianity. Rastafarianism reinterpreted dominant and residual cultures to create an alternative way for speaking about what it means to be Jamaican.
Conclusion and Clarifications 7/7/83
The way in which theorizing runs away into idealizing necessitates retaining the reference points of classical Marxism. We should not obliterate its importance. “I’m willing to give up Marxism,” Hall says, “when capitalism ends.” If Marxism survives, however, it will be a Marxism with no gaurantees. One must recognize the necessary complexity of the unity of the social formations; no one contradiction can be reduced to any other. Looking for origins of contradictions, therefore, is looking at the wrong end of the social formation. We should look at the effects, the results, and the possibilities for closure. It’s impossible to trace a clean line from origins to effects. The only given of history is compromise. The concept of “nation,” for example, has played a variety of progressive, conservative, and reactionary roles; it has no necessary content; it cannot be separated from its varied and contradictory uses. Cultural Marxism would do well to study relations between the first and third worlds with this in mind, remembering that the third world’s struggles are not unitary, not “natural.” The anti-imperialist struggle is the consequence of a particular set of conditions. It often takes the form of the “national popular,” which is a highly contradictory structure. None of this is thinkable in a simple dialectic of repression/resistance.
Is this reformist? What is not reformist? For immense periods of historical time we’ve had to live with a lack of fit between ideals and reality. A clear distinction between reform and revolution will not do. The only practice of value is one that understands the determinateness of its own existence. One needs theory to identify the strategic points for intervention, the moments of open, contested resistance. The revolutionary practice, then, is probably to find the contradictory edge of reformist politics.