Theory unlimited

Print edition : August 18, 2017

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Karal Marx. Starting adroitly with Marx’s comrade, Frederick Engels himself, the book scrutinises and critiques at length the interventions by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, E.P Thompson, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci.

Frederick Engels.

Antonio Gramsci.

Louis Althusser.

Richard Hoggart.

E.P. Thompson.

Raymond Williams.

The book is a cogent summation of the most influential modern theories that have grappled with and tried to explain the dynamics of unequal societies and the cultures they produced.

CULTURAL Studies 1983 is a slim but power-packed book. Its curious title derives from the fact that the volume brings together a set of seminal lectures that Stuart Hall, the pre-eminent British public intellectual from Birmingham, delivered during a summer school at the University of Illinois (United States) in 1983. While the lectures are, therefore, nearly three decades old, they have appeared in print posthumously; Hall passed away in 2014.

The field of theory, however, is evergreen: the rigour and dialectics of a piece of genuine philosophical cogitation or criticism remain alive and appealing for centuries, a continuing source of intellectual edification and instruction. So, while Hall may not have been a Plato or an Abhinavagupta, his mastery over some of the iconic theoretical formulations of the 20th century Marxism, structuralism, semiotics, deconstructionism—and, more importantly, his ability to engage with them, and indeed better them, with perfect lucidity makes him memorable and relevant even in the 21st century. As the book description claims, here was a thinker and a discipline—cultural studies—that perhaps changed the course of critical scholarship and of political imagination and strategy.

At this juncture, a rewind is called for. What is this discipline called cultural studies and what does it have to do with all these politically charged schools of thought? The term culture is itself notoriously hard to define in any one way. Among the meanings associated with it is a way of life or the shared values and practices that any given social group hold in common. In popular usage, it is understood to refer to such things as literature, music, art, ritual beliefs and festivals.

However, a closer look may reveal the truth of Hall’s sardonic observation that “extremely slippery, vague, amorphous, and multifarious”, culture “is one of those concepts which, unlike the State, tends to wither away and disappear the more you work on it… [it is] a displaced field because so much of what one requires to understand cultural relations is not, in any obvious sense, cultural” (page 4).

So while a seemingly innocuous field of scholarship, cultural studies as it developed in the United Kingdom, especially at Birmingham University in the 1950s and 1960s where Hall headed a new, dedicated centre, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, turned out to be a study not so much of culture as of the politics it presupposes or the structures of power that may underwrite it. Uncovering such structures or making visible the subterraneous workings of power has given rise to much theorising. Cultural Studies 1983 is a cogent summation of the most influential modern theories that have grappled with and tried to explain the dynamics of unequal societies and the cultures they produced.

Marx and culture

Of all those theories, it is explicitly Marxism that predominates in the eight lectures collected in this book. More specifically, Marxism’s contribution to the interpretation of culture. In classical Marxism, however, that would have been something of a contradiction in terms. For, Marx originally was understood as dismissing culture or certainly subordinating and reducing it to economics. This was captured in that metaphor central to Marxist thought, namely, the base determining the superstructure.

But Hall tells us that the mandate of cultural studies was precisely to reject this untenable reductionism of Marx. He calls it “wrestling with the angels of Marxist theory”, “an assault on the inadequacy of the base-superstructure model” (pages ix, 24).

It is important to note that the main objection to this determinist model, according to Hall, is a humanist one: It diminishes the human lives you are trying to give an account of …[and] people cannot, should not, be thought of in such thin terms, especially since it is the purpose of cultural analysis to reaffirm their experiences, to bring them forward again in their richness” (page 47). Hence, the alternative sought by cultural studies involved retaining an essentially materialist approach while restoring culture to all its complexity, contradictions and autonomy.

Accordingly, this book examines the work of eminent scholars who revisited Marxist analytics, emending and extending it in important new ways. Starting adroitly with Marx’s comrade, Frederick Engels himself, the book scrutinises and critiques at length the interventions by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci.

As readers will know, all these scholars were members of Communist parties. This points again to the fundamentally political underpinnings of the cultural studies movement: Rejecting the dominant forms of Marxism, it was a search for another sort of socialist politics as much as a new materialist practice. This is best exemplified by Hall himself: As a founding member of the New Left and editor of its iconic journal, The New Left Review, Hall’s academic work was closely tied up with his political strategising. A striking legacy of the Left movement, this combination of academics and politics continues to be found in university campuses all over the world today.

Despite his political affiliation, there is something to be said for the humanism of Hall’s scholarship that uniquely rejected absolutes and what he called the fetishising of theory (read: ideology). He insisted on the historical context of theories and that “ideas always arise in particular concrete historical locations which inflect the ideas in certain ways”. Therefore, “theorising is a continuous engagement or dialog between positions in which clarification is a mutual process…. The notion that theory progresses by a sudden epistemological rupture with all the bad theories that preceded it… without any further need to think again for another epoch, is the summit of the rationalist illusion” (page 2, emphasis added).

Extending this concern for flexibility and context-sensitivity, Hall also made a plea against the tendency to “transfer wholesale” cultural theories to different geographical and intellectual contexts, without a care for their specificities and complexities. This, one might add, is a tendency rampant in academia worldwide as well as in India, where the rush to adopt Western historical and anthropological models has often caused much confusion in explaining distinctive indigenous traditions or social formations that refused to submit to the imported perspectives.

There are other such salutary insights of wide interest in Cultural Studies 1983. This review will discuss some more of these rather than detail the dense technicalities of ideological argumentation in the book, since the latter is likely to put this review beyond the reach of lay readers just as it, frankly, puts the book itself.

Tradition & selectivity

While explaining Raymond Williams’ anthropological understanding of culture as a community’s whole way of life, Hall penetratingly observes that “[any] practice is always cultured. It has been cultivated. It is impregnated with forms of interpretation. That is what culture is: experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined” (page 33).

In the process, every culture throws up certain traditions, implicit in which is an element of selectivity, wherein some voices find themselves left out. About this controversial nature of tradition, Hall has the following, careful and balanced comment to offer: “A dominant and traditional culture functions precisely by selecting particular voices and organising them into a tradition in order to exclude others. I don’t attribute intentionality to that, but that is how tradition functions. What else is a tradition but a selection of some things and not others?” (page 31).

Then, endorsing Thompson’s drastic critique of Williams, Hall agrees that a more adequate account of culture would talk about “whole ways of struggle” rather than a whole way of life, since in any social formation there are multiple and contesting subcultures. The monumental legacy of this rather more confrontational notion of culture and indeed of history can be seen in two immensely popular fields of research in India today—gender and caste. These categories of analysis are proposing entirely new ways of writing and reading the past, if not also proposing entirely new pasts which, it is argued, were hidden until now in more conventional accounts.

Interestingly, while calling out the limitations in Marxian thought and analysis, Hall also pauses to redeem the great German philosopher, especially in relation to what is regarded as Marx’s greatest failure: his incorrect prediction of the impending death of capitalism as a result of the socialist upheavals in Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Hall fascinatingly writes: “As Engels later said, they mistook the birth pangs of capitalism for its death throes…. It was a profound error of historical judgment. [But] It really defeats Marxism to take Marx as a prophet…. If you invest the last vestige of your faith in Marx, and he makes a wrong prophecy, that can only destroy Marxism for you; you have made a commitment that Marx did not invite” (page 87).

The author devotes the last two chapters to advances in the Marxian understanding of the state as well as resistance to it. The former revolves around the Gramscian notion of hegemony that, among other things, shows how the state was truly in control, not merely by being a coercive instrument of the ruling class in the Leninist sense, but by being the primary agency through which cultural relations are organised and reorganised. Serving as a “contradictory site”, the state was also educative, creating new social and cultural possibilities.

As if taking off from this, Hall identifies the cultural practices—such as literature, music and religion—that construct “subjective possibilities and new political subjectivities” as the locus for popular resistance and opposition to the state (page 206).

Cultural Studies 1983 is a book that charts complex ideational terrain with clarity and sympathy. Although it may appear to dwell on well-worn theories from a different era, it nonetheless retains an appeal for aficionados of intellectual history.

Shonaleeka Kaul is an associate professor in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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