I am currently re-reading Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture. I don’t think we’ve discussed it enough here (that’s my attempt at humor—check out how much cyberspace we’ve colonized discussing this book). More seriously, I am reading it again because I assigned it to my graduate students, and because I put together a roundtable panel on the book for our conference, which means I need to come up with something new to say about it, no easy task given how much has already been said.
This post is not about Age of Fracture per se. I’ll post my conference comments to the blog after the conference (and I’m hoping my fellow roundtable panelists—Mary Dudziak, James Livingston, Lisa Szefel, and Daniel Rodgers—will allow me to do the same with their comments). Rather, something I read in Chapter 3—“The Search for Power,” one of the book’s better chapters—has sparked my curiosity. Rodgers writes that, in the age of disaggregation, “among historians,” the search for power “led to a virtual abandonment of the terrain of economics for new worlds of culture” (79). For many historians, “power grew less tangible, less material, more pervasive, more elusive until, in some widespread readings of power, it became all but impossible to trace or pin down” (91).
Much of the historiographical cultural turn owed to the influence of French theory, as I have already written about in my quick overview of Francis Cusset’s book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Foucault’s evocative notion that discourse was everything—which collapsed the brackets separating material, institutional, ideological, and linguistic sources of power—seemed particularly convincing to those who wrote about the constructedness of race, gender, and sexuality. But the cultural turn in American historiography predated the French invasion, which didn’t reshape the categories of inquiry until the 1980s. Cultural Marxism, on the other hand, influenced American historians as early as the 1970s, for example, when E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class was eagerly embraced. Thompson inscribed working-class agency into the power of the working-class—captured by the “making” in his book’s title—as opposed to the more typical structuralism or economic determinism of most Marxism not of the cultural bent. Rodgers writes about the impact Thompson’s theory of culture-as-power made on this side of the Atlantic in general terms: “It formed an outlet for the politics of consciousness that had run so strongly through the new left, the civil rights movement, and feminism. Culture gave historical ‘agency’ to the common folk of history, who had so little else to offer” (94).
Beyond Thompson, other cultural Marxists made their mark on the American historiographical landscape. For instance, Gramsci’s entry into the English-speaking world was paramount in popularizing ideas about the power of culture, from the bottom up, like Thompson’s theories on working-class culture, but also, more importantly, from the top down. The Gramscian idea about how culture aided the powerful became known as the theory of hegemony. In Rodgers’s eloquent words: “Hegemony was the power of the dominant class not only to impose its social categories on others but also, and still more, to make its system of meaning come to seem the natural order of things, so that by insensibly absorbing that order the many consented to the domination of the few” (96). The most important American historian working in the Gramscian school was, of course, Eugene Genovese, who famously argued in Roll, Jordan, Roll that the agency of the slaves—“the world the slaves made”—was only limited to a slave system of meaning that had been naturalized, or reified.
The Gramsci-Genovese theory of culture-as-power—hegemony—was hardly inspirational, and thus seemed to carry less affinity with E.P. Thompson than with his great interlocutor, Louis Althusser. For Althusser, whose imprint on Foucault is apparent even though the student largely left the teacher’s Marxism behind, people were always-already hailed, or in his language, interpellated, into powerful social structures that he called social formations. Culture is powerful, as constitutive of the larger social formation, but “economy is determinant in the last instance.” We might think of our current social formation as neoliberalism, or the information age. In it, culture is very powerful, perhaps more powerful than ever before. Sometimes it feels as if culture is capitalism, and vice versa. But this feeling arises because “economy is determinant in the last instance,” or, capitalism is still first and foremost an economic system even if it seems to shape all of life.
I admit to being a vulgar structuralist like Althusser. (There, I said it, I’m out.) I would argue that there is evidence for such a theoretical inclination. The degree to which New Left cultural radicalism has been sopped up by American consumer capitalism (which I’ve written about here and here) is an indication that structuralists like Althusser were correct in their critique of culturalists like Thompson. That said, I’m not dogmatic on this (despite my admission to being vulgar). So what say you? How do you conceptualize culture in relation to power? Are we post-postmodern? And does this lead us back to non-cultural Marxism?