U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Culture and Other Theories of Power

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?

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Are these theories really that different? They all strike me as variants of leftish and Marxist cultural criticism. There seems to be a family resemblance, so maybe they’re siblings, or cousins. An Arnoldian critique of culture and power would be a different theory. Or maybe a Rousseauean or Platonic one. Not that I have any notion what those would actually look like.

    “How do you conceptualize culture in relation to power?” I can’t say I’ve ever given it a moment’s thought, but I do think that’s the most interesting question posed here. I’d answer by asking if that relation is necessary or, before that, if it even exists. Obviously the variants of leftish/Marxist cultural criticism you describe here answer both questions affirmatively. But is that because those theories accurately describe reality, or because those theories require it and so create it as an artefact of their assumptions about what reality is?

  2. Varad: I have a difficult time thinking about culture void of power. Even the Arnoldian view that culture “is a study of perfection” that “seeks to do away with classes” seems to me mere cover for power, especially in the division it creates between High Culture (“sweetness and light”) and philistinism. Such difficulty must be an artefact of my Marxist/leftist assumptions about reality. How would you define culture in a way that does not assume a necessary relation to power? That’s an honest question.

  3. I’m really glad you wrote this post, Andrew, because I tend to think of structure as those aspects of the racist society that cannot be tracked to individual racism. It’s nice to be reminded about structuralism.

    So far, I haven’t taught a survey course on my own (methodology courses and a special special topics course) and in those courses I could concentrate on individuals, culture, and ideas rather than teaching large structures. But at least half my class this semester wants “The Great Depression” to mean economics and I know their papers will reflect that (I’m teaching ‘how to write a big giant research paper’). I feel more equipped for the Great Depression to have economics in the background, but to ask more what it meant in individual lives, or how race, class, and gender affected experience. How do you help a student write a paper on economic history when you haven’t been trained in economics-the-discipline?

    Always good to be challenged by one’s students!

  4. “How would you define culture in a way that does not assume a necessary relation to power? That’s an honest question.”

    My honest answer is that I don’t know. That’s why I said I’d never given the question any thought whatsoever; I wasn’t exaggerating. I think about a lot of big questions, but that’s not one of them. Perhaps you’re right and culture can’t be thought of “void of power” as you say. But if that’s the case, does it make any sense to discuss “culture” and “power” separately? In what ways aren’t they the same thing, then? I’d also ask, what are ways of conceptualizing power that don’t involve culture? And I’d also pose once more my question about non-Marxist/leftist conceptions of the relationship: Are there any, and if so what are they? I threw out Plato and Arnold because they popped into my head and wrote about culture, but I’m not sure if they really discussed the subject in the same way as Foucault or Althusser.

    The title of the post is “Culture and Other Theories of Power.” But as I said, I don’t really see more than one theory of power, and it’s one that looks to culture. Now, you’ve taken that relationship for granted. And maybe you’re right. But I’d respond that it can’t be taken for granted. It is a first principle; and first principles have to be established, otherwise you’re begging the question.

  5. I suppose one problem with the culture as power thesis involves the question of how one actually knows that one has, via culture, affected or transformed any other related power structures – as opposed to say flattering the vanity of liberal elites. It would be absurd to claim that culture is disconnected from power relations,and just as absurd to reduce all power to culture. Given that antireductivist imperative, how does one know?

  6. To All,

    AH asks: “How do you conceptualize culture in relation to power? Are we post-postmodern? And does this lead us back to non-cultural Marxism?”

    Very loosely, since we’re in professional-theoretical-confession mode, my “cultural theory” assumptions work around Critical Theory/The Frankfurt School and the work of Clifford Geertz.

    Geertz, to me, provides a definition of culture that works in and out of power structures. From that definition, I work back to the Frankfurt School to account for American capitalist-cultural formations (cultural commodification). So I follow a capitalism-meets-anthropological-cultural-momentum model.

    On discourse, though I am an adherent of Hollinger-esque “communities of discourse” thinking in intellectual history, I work really hard to avoid the traps of postmodern/poststructuralism in language theory. To me, the discourse-is-everything line of thinking ultimately works to negate or avoid questions of power and meaning (in speech acts, ultimately) due to diffusion (someone has the power to move people through speech and writing). That’s why I like the communities trope; it provides focus for power centers, but still locates power in various nests of society/culture (not putting too much power in the “hands” of an individual).

    How does this relate to Marxism, or neo-Marxism? Well, again, I look to Marx and his adherents for “critical thinking” about capitalism. And in American history, many of the nested communities I note above must ultimately deal with the market paradigm.

    But they also have to negotiate political power in a representative democracy. To me, that particular kind of political power provides opportunities for agency (group or individually) outside the capitalist paradigm. So I should be reading more Habermas, but I haven’t.

    Okay, I’ve given too much. I’ll stop now. – TL

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