Manual From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure: The Effects of Gramscianism on Cultural Studies

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Harris, D. Hay, C. Hodgeson, G. Cambridge: Polity. Holub, R. Jessop, B. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Laclau, E. London: Verso. Langer, B. Lawson, T.

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Marsden, R. Martin-Barbero, J. Newbury Park CA: Sage. McAnulla, S. Peet, R. Robinson, W. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rupert, M. Sayer, A. Steger, M. Such a concept of culture does not deny the existence of the materiality of things, but it does insist that materiality is mute: it does not issue its own meanings, it has to be made to mean.

Although how something is made meaningful is always enabled and constrained by the materiality of the thing itself, culture is not a property of mere materiality. It is the entanglement of meaning, materiality and social practice, variable meanings in a range of different contexts and social practices.

In other words, culture is always social, material and semiotic and always in a direct or indirect relation with the prevailing structures of power. The second conclusion we can draw from seeing culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings concerns the potential for struggle over meaning. Rather than being inscribed with a single meaning, a book or a film can be made to mean different things in different contexts, with different effects of power.

Contrast, for example, the interpretation of the film 'The Third Man' in the review elsewhere on this site, with the standard, mainstream interpretation. Those with power often seek to make what is multi-accentual appear as if it could only ever be uni-accentual. In cultural terms, this is the difference between dictatorship and democracy. What are the class politics of Downton Abbey, or the gender politics of Game of Thrones? Is Trident a weapon of mass destruction, the use of which is impossible to envisage, or is it a necessary means of self-defense in an uncertain world?

From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure

Is austerity a reasonable way to ensure we live within our means or is it a political choice that forces many people to rely on food banks and to become vulnerable to the Victorian diseases of malnutrition, scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough? In each example there is a struggle over meaning, a struggle over who can claim the power and authority to define social reality; to make the world and the things in it mean in particular ways and with particular effects of power.

Dominant modes of making the world meaningful are a fundamental aspect of the processes of hegemony. But hegemony is not something imposed that people passively accept. It is always a terrain of struggle between dominant and subordinate ways of understanding the world. While it is true that the forces of incorporation tend to be more powerful than the forces of resistance, this should not lead us to think of the consumption of culture as something always and inevitably passive.


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It is certainly true that the culture industries are a major site of ideological production, constructing powerful images, descriptions, definitions, frames of reference for understanding the world. People make culture including popular culture from the repertoire of commodities supplied by the culture industries. And it can be resistant to dominant understandings of the world. But this is not to say that consumption is always empowering and resistant. To deny the passivity of consumption is not to deny that sometimes consumption is passive; to deny that consumers are cultural dupes is not to deny that the culture industries seek to manipulate.

But it is to deny that culture, especially popular culture, is little more than a degraded landscape of commercial and ideological manipulation, imposed from above in order to make profit and secure social control.

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