Friday, February 25, 2011

Postructuralism and Power

As I prepared this week for this post, I thought hard about the concept of power- what it means, how it is produced and what are the mechanisms that proliferate it. I thought of the themes of struggle and negotiation because when we examine power or the idea of it, these themes are consistent with the application of power and in the resistance to it. Human beings are constantly engaged in a power struggle, whether it is on a macro-level (national/international politics) or a micro-level (workplace or family dynamics). As the recent events in Libya and Egypt indicate, we are living in times where regimes are becoming increasingly unstable, and the battle over who controls territory, resources and populations are in a constant state of flux which heightens anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will hold. War in fact is an extreme form of negotiation as sides engage in combat either physical or ideological to decide how power is distributed among objects and subjects. War has rules of engagement that exist because humanity negotiated the terms in which we kill and destroy in our power struggles.

Postructuralism is the culmination of the progression of thought that can be traced to the Marxian thesis. We discussed structuralism last week and structuralism is important because structuralists sought to understand the mechanisms than govern or produce human activity. Postructuralists recognize that these structures are never static, even in language. Foucault departs from Marx’s top-down philosophy as he recognizes that discourse exists across the line of discernable power and people outside the realms of power have the ability to change it. We all have agency. So as we proceed I will discuss the broad concept of postructuralism briefly, then I will discuss Foucault’s visitation of the repressive hypothesis and his concepts of biopower, biopolitics and panopticism.

Jacques Derrida in deep concentration

For postructuralists, meaning or structure is never fixed but always in negotiation. What is ‘meaning’ exists in a flow of interpretations following interpretations. Meaning is perpetually unstable. Signifiers do not produce signifieds but more signifiers (challenging Saussure) (chain of signifieds). Derrida’s idea of differance is important because he recognizes the importance of the discursive shift that is always in negotiation. “If we look up the signifier letter…we discover five possible signifieds: a written or printed message; a character of the alphabet, the strict meaning of agreement, precisely (as in “to the letter”) and to write or mark letters on a sign…” (CTPC, 126). Binary oppositions exist in a relation of power “in which one term is in a position of dominance over the other” (CTPC,127).

Foucault is concerned with how power operates within discourse as discourse can enable, constrain, or constitute. “Language…is a discourse, it enables me to speak, it constrains what I can say, it constitutes me as a speaking subject (situates and produces my subjectivity)” (CTPC, 128). Where power exists it is also resisted, and power is productive, as it produces reality through discourse. In the History of Sexuality, Foucault examines the discursive formation of sexuality as an invention of the Victorian discourses. The Victorian invention of sexuality did not invent sex itself but produced power over sexual behavior to organize and regulate activity. It sought to determine what was productive or unproductive, what was normal or what was deviant. The discourse acts as an authority over the activity, the “regimes of truth” insomuch as they are accepted, thought to be, and acted on as if they are true.  This process is always negotiated or in flux as discourse does not simply impose power, but exists in a space where power is resisted with the opportunity to undermine or thwart it.

Michel Foucault in a good mood

The Repressive Hypothesis
Foucault examines the history of sexuality and the proliferation of the subject of sex in public discourse. As sex in the private sphere was something that was censored, the opposite happened in discourse. “There was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex- specific discourses, different from one another in both by their form and by their object: a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onward” (HS, 302). Power wanted to discuss sex in specific detail, articulating the specific acts, the “positions of the partners, the caresses… an entire painstaking review of the sexual act”. The discussion of sex became more explicit in the pastoral confession, as power needed to know these details about the “evil” in order to eradicate it. Ultimately the discourses on sex define what makes sex productive as they inform society how they should have sex and what acts are outside of normative behavior. Marriage existed as the ideal for sexual relations, in fact, any sex act performed without the specific purpose of procreation in a sanctioned marriage was not acceptable. With this example we can see how the discourses on sex have modified this Victorian attitude. While sex in the institution of marriage still in many ways is ideal, there is much more space and public acceptance for sexual behavior outside of this traditional institution. The fascination with defining acceptable sexual behavior in scientific, medical and legal discourses ostensibly produced a categorization of people based solely on their sexual activity, which is how the idea of the homosexual was born. This is not to say that these sex acts did not exist before this classification, but that the formation of this categorization through discourse acts as a
Good times in the Victorian Era
mechanism for power to regulate this activity. Even as late as the early 20th century,heterosexuality was considered outside of the normative acceptable behavior, as the term defined a deviant abnormal appetite for the opposite sex. Regulating the means of reproduction was necessary for power because of the emphasis on controlling the population. “Governments perceived that they were not simply dealing with subjects, or even with a “people”, but with a “population”, with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation” (HS, 308). The masses were seen as economic components for prosperous industry and it was important to understand and regulate how people reproduced. Marriage existed as an institution to control sex and economic power and sex was regulated by the court system. These regulatory practices are examples of what Foucault called biopower, or the mechanisms or technologies used to control society.

Biopower and Biopolitics
The mechanisms for controlling and regulating human activity in society function to make these human subjects productive. Foucault argues that institutions of power exist in a continuity to discipline society into the acceptable forms of behavior. “The continuity of the institutions themselves, which were linked to one another (public assistance with the orphanage, the reformatory, the penitentiary… A continuity of the punitive criteria and mechanisms, which on the basis of a mere deviation gradually strengthened the rules and increased the punishment” (ST, 418).  In other words biopolitics are the political practices that regulate or govern the activity of subjects. This is what Foucault calls the “carceral network” or the complex material framework where society is organized. The delinquent is an ‘institutional product" and prison serves as the ultimate in the exercise of discipline. The exercise of the carceral system makes the “power to punish natural and legitimate, in lowering at least the threshold of tolerance to penality” (ST, 419). The various mechanisms employed by the carceral system legitimizes the ultimate forms of punishment and violence, as these modes of justice are naturalized through the various discourses and institutions. Components of the carceral system acting in concert produce the appearance of a system with checks and balances to regulate it. For example, when someone is executed or a declaration of war or other sanctioned violence is activated, the carceral system insures that this mode of action was necessary and a natural consequence after going through the checks and balances of the established order. Foucault writes, “the carceral pyramid gives to the power to inflict legal punishment a context in which it appears to be free of all excess and violence” (ST, 419).
Discourse and more importantly the discourses of power serve to legitimize and make the exercises of discipline regulation and correction normative.  “The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator judge, the “social worker” judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based, and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects it to his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements “(ST 420-421).  This is why discourse is analogous to power, as power dictates what is acceptable through discourses insomuch as the people in society mirror these regulatory mechanisms because they are agreed upon as normative and necessary.


Jeremy Bentham designed a prison in 1787 that “allows an inspector to observe all the prisoners in the surrounding cells without the prisoners knowing whether or not they are in fact being observed” (CTPC, 
Get in that damn cell!
 131). This design can be viewed as analogous to the mechanisms of control in modern society, as society has a constant awareness of the possibility of being under surveillance.  As it exists in this prison design, the inmates are constantly aware of the guard’s ability to watch them, even if this is not the case. In this design power is assumed as automatic, which in turn produces self-regulated activity. “Therefore, they learn to behave as if they were being watched. This is the power of the panopticon. Panopticism is the extension of this system of surveillance to society as a whole” (CTPC, 132).

Foucault describes this shift in social control from punishment to discipline. Instead of the outrageous public displays of punishment and torture to frighten people into behaving, panopticism serves to create awareness that we are always observed by power. We discipline ourselves according to the conventions and laws of society because the real possibility that someone, or most importantly, power, can see us. This historical shift revolutionized the way social control was exercised. Now the overt displays of punishment were no longer necessary, and the discourses and institutions would function to regulate society in a subtler fashion. 

Foucault writes:

“In short, to substitute for a power that is manifested through the brilliance of those who exercise it, a power that insidiously objectifies those on whom it is applied; to form a body of knowledge about these individuals, rather than to deploy the ostentatious signs of sovereignty. In word, the disciplines are the ensemble of minute technical inventions that made it possible to increase the size of multiplicities by decreasing the inconveniences of the power which, in order to make them useful, most control them.” (Panopticon, 209-210)

Tell me who’s watching?

We are all being watched. All around us cameras record our activity; we can be tracked through GPS technology in our cell phones, our exact locations can be pinpointed from satellite view. What does this mean for us? How does it regulate our activity or explicate our subjectivity? People are becoming more paranoid over these mechanisms of surveillance and concerned with their privacy. Citizens are becoming more outraged at this level of surveillance post 9/11, our civil liberties are at stake and individuals feel violated on many fronts. 
We know if you've been bad or good...

Many would argue that our modern conveniences and advances in technology are simply mechanisms to monitor, regulate, dictate and ultimately control our activity. We are living in a time where panopticism is greater than ever, as most of our activity can be aggregated through databases.

Here are my questions:
1. How do you view power and how do you see it being exercised or negotiated in your life? Do you buy Foucault’s theories of knowledge, power and discourse?

2. Are you at all paranoid because of panopticism? Do you feel that advances in technology, surveillance and information are beneficial or detrimental to humanity?

So as we close I will leave you with clips of a debate between Foucault and Noam Chomsky.



Tuesday, February 22, 2011

People and Power

Here are a few insightful documentaries that focus on power.  I found them educational and enlightening. Notice again the themes of struggle and negotiation.

Theme Music

As you all know, this week's readings focus on poststructuralism, starring the incomparable Michel Foucault. Those of you familiar with Foucault know he discusses power in great detail. So in honor of Foucault, this week's theme is power. There are a couple of key words that we can associate with the notion of power, which are struggle and negotiation. The themes of struggle and negotiation are consistent in the various multimedia I will provide for you all this week. So I have decided to kickstart our "power week" with some theme music, as all of the featured artists wax poetic about power in different ways. Stay tuned for more media that builds on this theme of power and sometime around the official deadline I will provide my official post which will discuss postructuralism and our friend Foucualt in depth.

I have included links to the song lyrics for analysis and inspriation if you wish.

Some individuals feel rather powerful...
Kanye West- "Power"

(wanna do a semiotic analysis of this one?)


Some have other ideas............
Iggy Pop- "Raw Power"

The people need that power....

Absolute power corrupts absolutely....
Napalm Death-"Siege of Power"

In this case, power must be fought...

Two times....

Keep fighting!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Words, Myths, and Images

On April 22, 2004 Corporal Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. He was the all American story, a NFL football player who turned down a contract for over $3 million to enlist in the Army in order to fight for his country after the September 11th attacks. He was posthumously awarded the silver star and promoted to Corporal. Details of his heroism were published and recounted. At the time, I was going to school at Arizona State University (ASU) and Tillman's death was a huge story. In 1994, he was a linebacker for ASU, and the University decided to honor his legacy (make his story theirs) and they created Tillman scholars and Pat's Run with the help of the Pat Tillman Foundation.

However, there was a problem. The story of Pat Tillman death was a lie. He had been killed by "friendly fire" and the Army had covered it up.

ASU and many others were determined to maintain the hero narrative, but a professor of mine, John Jota Leanos, created a public art exhibit that challenged the established narrative and attempted to change the meaning behind the much used picture of Pat Tillman.

He put these posters up on campus and around town.

Here are some of the reactions to the poster:

"I don't understand morally how people can USE someone else's image and death for political purposes without any regard for their family? It's sickening.
This guy should be sued for defaming Tillman's memory!
Free speech doesn't mean that you have a blank check to LIE.

I'm attempting to get as many people as I can to instigate some sort of recourse against this immoral professor. Don't give up. Ranger Tillman deserves our efforts!"

"However, if this does not work he should be hunted down (any volunteers?) and some one should KILL THE FUCK out of him. His boss should be ass-raped like he was in a Federal Ass pounding prison. :twisted: This should help others decide to think before they open their cum dumpster/ cock holsters and spew filth.
I hope this Cock-Jockey gets sued so hard that his grandchildren will still be footing the bill. I am going to sit down tonight and come up with a diatribe for this cornhole that will drop jaws.
can you say a la raza fuckstick, this guy is a tonk or a wanna be tonk preaching the la raza bullshit of atzlan, you can bet he is supporting groups like brown berets de atzlan who are a bunch of wana be tonks and tonks who think this is there mythical homeland of atzlan and that the evil US stole it and they want to reclaim it by any means necessary"

Prof Leanos received hundreds of emails including threats and the University decided to launch an investigation on him.

According to the school paper, The State Press, "ASU is conducting an "administrative review" to "explore whether anyone else at ASU was involved in what appears to be a blatant attempt to trade on the celebrity and patriotism of one of ASU's most honored and respected graduates," according to the letter."

In response to the controversy, ASU put on some forums about Academic Freedom. Prof Leanos spoke at one of the meetings.
"My latest artwork concerns many issues, but I want to highlight three themes that the work brings into question:
i. the social construction of war heroes
ii. the branding and marketing of soldier images in order to glorify and promote war
iii. the canonization of war heroes at the cost of truth
... This is serious business. At the same time, the death of Pat Tillman and the framing of his image as an untouchable American hero raises critical questions about militarism, truth and America's declare infinite War on Terror, questions that in a democracy we should not be afraid to ask." (

As we discover this week in the readings, it is not so much the image, but the text that goes with the image that creates meaning.
I think an overall question we could think about is, who controls meaning?

What are the unquestioned stories and images we live within?

What happens when someone tries to tell an "unsanctioned" version of a societal story or myth and how does this connect to hegemony and ideology?

Why did people react the way they did?

How might Leanos' narrative be seen as a castration?

Look at the first image, which is being used "correctly."
Who all had a stake in the story of Pat Tillman as a war hero?

Was his image turned into a commodity, if so in what way?

How are the images attempting to interpolate the viewer?

Next is a brief summary of this week's readings.

Ferdinand de Saussure
According to John Storey (2009), "Structuralists argue that language organizes and constructs our sense of reality" (p. 112). Meaning is produced in the establishment of difference, but it is not complete until it is spoken. "The way we conceptualize the world is ultimately dependent on the language we speak" (p. 113). Therefore grammar or the structures that underlay text make meanings possible. "The task of structuralism, therefore, is to make explicit the rules and conventions (the structure) which govern the production of meaning" (p. 114).
Saussure broke down language into elements. (a) "The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image (Social Theory p. 152). (b) "The word symbol, has been used to designate the linguistic sign, or more specifically, what is here call the signifier." However, he explains that the connection between "the signifier and the signified is arbitrary" (p. 154). There is nothing about the word tree or arbor that automatically associates it with the actual object. These words or sound-images are artifacts of the English language not of the object for which they signify.
Sassure states, "if words stood for pre-existing concepts, they would all have exact equivalents in meaning from one language to the next; but this is not true" (p. 159). The Spanish word for tree is el arbol, L'arbre in French,or Дерево in Russian. One universal aspect he says we have to take into account is time. "If we consider the community of speakers without considering time, we would not see the effect of the social forces that influence language…Language is no longer free, for time will allow the social forces at work on it to carry out their effects" (p. 156). As an actor, time became an important factor when I was working on Shakespearean roles. How a word was used in his time was different than our modern usage. Take the word Bedazzle which the Oxford English Dictionary traces back to Shakespeare "a1616 Shakespeare Taming of Shrew (1623) iv. vi. 47 That haue bin so bedazled with the sunne." These days it means "The art of taking ordinary things and making them EXTRAORDINARY by adding sparkles, rhinestones, glitter, stars, beads, etc. For some it is a way of life" (Urban Dictionary). Sassure argues that the only usage of a word that should be considered is its current understanding. "No society, in fact, knows or has ever known language other than as a product inherited from preceding generation, and on to be accepted as such. That is why the question of the origin of speech is not so important as it is generally assumed to be. The question is not even worth asking, the only real object of linguistics is the normal, regular life of an existing idiom" (p. 155). No matter how much research a Shakespearean actor does, when they say the word bedazzle the audience will connect the sound-image to its most current concept, because it is all they know.
Now for a musical break.

Claude Levi-Struss
"Mythologiques," his four-volume work about the structure of native mythology in the Americas, attempts nothing less than an interpretation of the world of culture and custom, shaped by analysis of several hundred myths of little-known tribes and traditions. - New York Times
Levi-Stuss argues that myths have patterns that can be deciphered. "The anthropologist’s task is to discover the underlying ‘grammar’: the rules and regulations that make it possible for myths to be meaningful"(Storey, p. 115). He saw them as creating binary structures which divide the world into categories. "Myths are stories we tell ourselves as a culture in order to banish contradictions and make the world understandable and therefore habitable; they attempt to put us at peace with ourselves and our existence" (p. 115). Unlike words which are bound by time myths are timeless, they explain "the present and the past as well as the future" (Social Theory, p. 315). Myths also cross cultures. "Myth is still felt as a myth by any reader in the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells" (p. 315). Levi-Struss broke myths down in order to reveal the common elements of their stories.
Roland Barthes
"His guiding principle is always to interrogate ‘the falsely obvious’ (11), to make explicit what too often remains implicit in the texts and practices of popular culture….what-goes-without-saying" (Storey, p. 118). Barthes connects myth to ideology that is "understood as a body of ideas and practices, which by actively promoting the values and interests of dominant groups in society, defend the prevailing structures of power" (p. 119). He identifies a second level of signification beyond the signified and the signifier, connotation. The signifier tree creates a sign the image of a tree, which become a signifier on the second level, "That boy is as tall as a tree." It is on this level where myth is produced. "Barthes suggests, ‘myths has…a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us’ (p. 121). We are interpolated by myths as we are hailed by them.
Barthes explains that the meaning of an image is determined by the text or stories surrounding it. "Image does not illustrate text, it is the text which amplifies the connotative potential of the image…the text produces (invents) an entirely new signified which is retroactively projected into the image, so much so as to appear denoted there...Without the addition of a linguistic text the meaning of the image is very difficult to pin down" (p. 123). If you grew up in America, can you think of a Cherry Tree without recalling the story of Honest Abe? Myths are ahistorical and simplistic. "It organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity; things appear to mean something by themselves" (p. 122).
The video below expands on his ideas and uses same example as Storey, Barthes' analysis of the cover of a French magazine Paris Match (p. 119).

Finally Barthes breaks down language as "a collective contract which one must accept in its entirety if one wishes to communicate" (Social Theory, p. 318). However, language can not exist without speech and speech without language. You have the written word, normative usage, and how the individual speaks. When I was a playwright, the trick was composing dialogue that mimicked everyday speech. People don't speak grammatically. But people do follow conventions and dialects. You can tell what group or where someone comes from based on how they talk.

For an additional reading Barthes also demonstrates his theory in The Rhetoric of the Image.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Since we're reading Zizek anyway...

I thought I'd share his latest article on Egypt.


This week, we entered the realm of the psyche or the soul with a specific emphasis on psychoanalysis. We find ourselves eavesdropping on a conversation among three social theorists – Freud, Lacan, and Zizek. This conversation revolves around questions of identity and being. At the root of psychodynamic theory is the idea that human being is a complex myth. We are all actors driven my perceptions and conceptions created and existing just outside of our awareness. I am reminded of the words in certain rituals of baptism that declare baptism as the "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" (

Like Zizik, I will use any number of examples or artifacts to explain a point. In this post, I will frequently cite song lyrics. For example, it seems to me that a good place to start is to with a classic Who song that asks, "who are you?" A Pink Floyd song responds, "just another brick in the wall." Certain classic rock bands create music as a very public form of psychotherapy and social criticism. The band Styx famously welcomed listeners to the "grand illusion." The song observes,

But don't be fooled by the radio
The TV or the magazines
They show you photographs of how your life should be
But they're just someone else's fantasy
So if you think your life is complete confusion
Because you never win the game
Just remember that it's a Grand illusion

Such lyrics might make one wonder if Dennis DeYoung was writing in collaboration with Freud, Lacan, and Zizek. In a few words, he captured the essence of what these theorists are getting at. That is to say, life is smoke and mirrors. The individual exists only in dynamic tension with others. With other, the individual is trying mitigate the impact of external forces.

Each theorist highlights the notion that the human game is rigged long before an individual has the conscious capacity for choosing to play. Arguably, biology created some essential boundaries through phenotypic and other genetic constraints. Further, each of us enters the world in a particular context and are shaped by forces in that context long before we are aware of the process. Parents and the family system are the first line of offense in this shaping process. We know this. Did we have a hand in naming ourselves? Were we able to select breast-feeding or bottle feeding or our birth order? Were we able to select baptism or circumcision or other religious markings? Of course we were not able! We were agents without agency. This is not to say that at some level we were not aware of the other or of the shaping. Perhaps we did protest or resist, but to little avail. As a result, we began to create a space, an internal locus, through which we could orient ourselves to the world and maximize our subjectivity. In that space, we reconcile others to ourselves - we survive and even thrive. Confusion subsides and we do win the game.

Psychoanalytic theory posits a view that the essentials of who an individual are set early in life before language or the ability to skillfully manipulate other symbols. This need not be overly deterministic, but it can hold great explanatory value. For Lacan, an important development in the first 18 months of life is the development of a mirror image. At some level, the human instinct is to establish a mental image of self. It is a reflected self shaped by the other. Lacan likens the process to looking into a mirror. This imagine being becomes foundational to how we function in the world and is the engine that drives our subjectivity. It is structural. Lacan, unlike Freud is not as concerned with interpreting behavior as he is with understanding the architecture of being. Our being is lived or enacted fiction. Such language reminds the contemporary rhetorical scholar of Kenneth Burke's dramatism and his foundational concepts of division and identification. I am further reminded of the biblical figure Paul who writes, "For we know in part, and prophesy in part ... For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (I Cor. 13:9, 12). This is the great yearning of human being - to be fully known and to be wholly real.

Yet, as all of the readings suggest, our understanding of our subjectivity is tainted. It is illusory. Further, the human freedom that inheres to notions of subjectivity necessarily reduces the other to an inhuman object. One could cynically say that we are all figments of our imaginations. None of us has every seen ourselves without the aid of some reflective device such as a mirror. Paintings, sketches and photographs attempt to capture our reality, but all such devices fall short. In reality, all of our sense of self is a reflected sense. We hear our voice one way and others hear it differently. We see imagine our appearance one and being one way, but others experience it quite differently. As the Who sings in another classic song, "Behind Blue Eyes" (,

No one knows what it's like
To be hated, to be fated to telling only lies
But my dreams, they aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance that's never free

Such an observation necessarily brings us to the place of understanding life as a kind of violence rooted in the tension between subjects and objects. The human subject is programmed to instinctively survive the face of the objective. Thus, at any given moment, each of us is living is a place of barely contained rage. Freud suggests that humans possess a psychical apparatus to deal with this tension. We are familiar with his concepts of id, ego, and superego. Ego is the mediator between id, base animal instincts, and superego, the constraining force sometimes thought of as conscience.

In a paper titled ”Psychodynamics Of Political Correctness,” Howard S. Schwartz asserts that, "this psychology rests on an internalization of external order and places a premium on the maintenance of established structure." He goes on to say that,

The problem is that ... our experience never fully corresponds to the ego ideal. We never get to be the center of a loving world. The problem is that the world is not our mother. It has an independent existence outside of ourselves. Far from being structured by love for our selves, the world manifests a cold, powerful indifference. It does not simply give, but makes demands on us which we must fulfill if it is going to sustain us.

Lacan understand the superego in this cold, anti-ethical agentic way. Zizek builds on a similar understanding of psychology as he writes about the political manifestations of an internal human dynamic. In fact, Zizek captures this quite well in "Passions of the Real, Passions of Semblance" when he writes,

The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he is living in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he is living in a real world, while all the people around him are in fact actors and extras in a gigantic show. [He cites The Truman Show.]

So, this raises an interesting question, which is "How far will individuals go to protect and preserve the fantasy and the imaginary?" As Zizek reflects on the events of September 11, 2001, the answers seems to be that humans will go all the way and this highlights the inherent lie of behind notions of humanity.

In "Slavoj Žižek – Freedom as Feigned Necessity: The Mask of Civility," Sabrina Dawkins writes, "human freedom requires the inhuman treatment of the Neighbor, and the humane treatment of the Other requires that he or she be made an object. Since the Other is unfathomable and terrifying, a civil, free society must domesticate the unknown territory through routine niceties and abstract kindness to a universal Neighbor that does not exist."
As I close this post, I want to leave you with the words of Tracy Chapman. Her songs have a particularly strong political orientation. For example, she sings in her 1989 song "Crossroads" ( that,

All you folks think I got my price
At which I’ll sell all that is mine
You think money rules when all else fails
Go sell your soul and keep your shell
I’m trying to protect what I keep inside
All the reasons why I live my life

And even as she protests, she understands that it's all a grand illusion.

An academic posting should be seeded with questions. My research interests are oriented around rhetorics of identity and reconciliation especially as constructed along racial and religious lines. I like to think of myself as an advocate of human rights and see some of my future work as support efforts to advance the causes of peace and nonviolence. However, as one engages Freud, Lacan, Zizek and others, how is it possible to imagine a superego capable of mitigating the violence inherent in human being? Also, how does an awareness of what seems to be essential human conflictedness, enhance the scholarship and work related to conflict resolution? Finally, Zizek suggests that the idea of loving ones neighbor as ones self creates a subject-object relationship in which the other is dehumanized (or treated inhumanly). Is peace or a state of non-violence coexistence possible when some are in an inhuman status?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ideology and Hegemony


Within the remaining section of chapter four, Storey examines Althusserianism, Hegemony, Post-Marxism and cultural studies. Although these sections relate directly or indirectly to our readings, we should nevertheless examine the key points outlined by Storey. Instead of accepting the "base/superstructure formulation," Storey explains that Althusser instead believes that economic, political, and ideological practices found within the superstructure maintain the base (p. 70). Storey then goes on to draw on two of Althusser's definitions of ideology. The first is that ideology is "a system (within its own logic and rigour) of representations (images, myths, ideas, or concepts) (1969: p. 231) through which men and women live their relations to the real conditions of existence" (p. 71). Like nature, representations establish meaning based upon one's ideology. However, "a text is structured as much by what is absent by what is present" (p. 72). For example, when we look at the collection of "women laughing along with salad" we become more aware of what is not included within the picture, such as a woman who is crying over her salad, a woman grumpy because her friend sitting next to her is eating a steak, or even a man laughing alone with his salad.

Althusser's second model of ideology operates through the process of "interpellation." We will expand this notion a bit further when we discuss Althusser more specifically. However, before moving to the next section, we should be careful to note Storey's criticism that Althusser's second model seems to work too well. If ideology does operate through interpellation, then there would be little room for interpellation not to occur.

Storey turns to Gramsci to understand the hegemony section of the chapter. Through hegemony, "a dominant class (in alliance with other classes or class factions) does not merely rule a society but leads it through the exercise of intellectual or moral leadership" (p. 80). Thus, despite class oppression and injustice, the hegemonic system maintains the superstructure/base relationship. And like the Althusser section, we will expand on Gramsci's understanding of hegemony further in the post -- in his own words.

We should lastly note that Storey argues that organic intellectuals "shape and organize the reform of moral and intellectual life" -- while others believe this is the role of "practical intellectuals" (p. 81). Additionally, Storey applies the idea of hegemony to popular culture. He argues that through popular culture the "ideological state apparatuses" (more on this later) are maintained (p. 81). While youth culture serves as an exemplar of how this hegemonic process of culture can be challenged, examples such as the merchants of cool and hipsters draw attention to the complications involved in challenging hegemony in culture.

Lastly, Storey discusses Post-Marxism and cultural studies. Using Laclau and Mouffe, he identifies the difference between moving beyond Marxism as a whole (post-Marxism) and transforming Marxism (post-Marxism). Storey explains that post-Marxist cultural studies recognize two things. First, that “only in cultural that the world can be made to mean,” and second, “meaning making is always a potential site of struggle and/or negotiation” (p. 87). Therefore, regardless whether the site is a radical art show or filling out bureaucratic forms as a symbolic moveby paying attention to “details of the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities,” we become more aware of how symbolic forms of protest, as well as others, serve as a way to define and challenge relationships among groups of individuals.


Louis Althusser's essay delineates critical distinctions to be drawn from notions of ideology, power, constitution, interpellation, and the roles of both the State and the subject. First, Althusser articulates an important distinction between "State Apparatuses" (henceforth, SAs) and "Ideological Apparatuses" (henceforth, ISAs) (p. 321). SAs, in the vein of Marx, are more tangible structures; e.g. governments, administrations, armies, the police, courts, prisons, and the like (p. 321). Marx understands such apparatuses to be repressive; that is, they are characterized by their public and visible reliance on violence to maintain and exert power. Conversely, ISAs are less tangible and, unsurprisingly, more ideological, private, and seemingly invisible; in short, they are institutions like religion, education, the family, law, politics, unions, communication, and culture (p. 321).

Althusser advances two theses about ideology. First, he claims that ideology is a "representation of imaginary relationships" (p. 322). By this, he first argues (and then debunks the claim) that ideology merely represents an imagined relationship between individuals and their real conditions of existence (p. 322). In this view, ideology is nothing more than a "world outlook," a "belief," a "point of view," "mythical," "an illusion 'alluding' to the real world": all of these suggest a marked distance between ideology and reality. Althusser disagrees. Instead, he finds that ideology has a "material existence" (p. 323). That is to say, individuals act based on material relations. Formulaically, material action is carried out via material ideological apparatuses, ultimately yielding material rituals which reoccur. A good exampe of this connection between ideology and action would be hair-straightening. Ideologies that suggest that women should either defy or correct nature by straightening their hair might lend themselves to women investing in and using hair-straighteners; ultimately, these women might then (ritualistically) straighten their hair every day. Adele Morrison wrote a fantastic article chronicling practices of female African-American law professors who straighten their hair to fit into the ideological practices in their workplaces. As Morrison argues in this case study, "the process of straightening Black hair [is/becomes] a metaphor for the process of straightening one's identity" (p. 88).

Finally, Althusser writes that ideology "interpellates" individuals as subjects. In short, his key proposition is that all ideology "hails" or "interpellates," in the process acting to "recruit" subjects from individuals. In doing so, the individual is transformed into a subject by his/her recognition of (and, by extension, compliance with) the ideology at hand. In many ways, this hearkens to Brown & Levinson's articulation of "politeness" for example. "Politeness" can function ideologically; that is, yelling "help" and the response (or lack of response) to that can serve as an example of an individual being hailed and either responding negatively/impolitely/maintaining individual status or positively/politely/transforming into a subject of the "polite" ideology.


In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci makes a distinction between the ability to be an intellectual versus the opportunity to be an intellectual. Instead, he argues that through a "historical process," an "intellectual strata" has been produced. Depending on what is needed for a particular location, specific types of specialization are created. What's more, Gramsci concludes that these relationships are "mediated" through the whole fabric of society and by the complex of superstructures (p. 264). Essentially, the negotiations of these relationships are everywhere. These superstructures can be pinpointed to "two major superstructure 'levels'." One level is the superstructure that is silently enforced, which Gramsci refers to as "civil society" and "hegemony" (p. 264). The other superstructure is maintained through "direct domination," or rather "the State" (p. 264).

However, Gramsci argues that an "intellectual moral bloc" can guide the "intellectual progress of the mass" (264). Because we have "two theoretical consciousnesses" -- one which uses the intellectual training to question the hegemony, and one which adheres to the hegemony -- hegemony can be overcome through the help of the "intellectual moral bloc" (p. 264). Gramsci asserts, "Consciousness of being part of a particular hegemonic force (that is to say political consciousness) is the first stage toward a further progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally become one" (p. 264). In other words, one becomes aware of supererstructure when an intellectual theory is being used to critically examine practice(s).

Through films such as "Metropolis" we can imagine how the "historical process" of the traditional intellectual could transcend to an extreme separation division between those who have the "brain" and those who have the "muscle." One could even argue that Gramsci's "intellectual moral bloc" is represented by Freder. While this might represent Gramsci's argument truthfully on one level, we cannot be too quick to accept his premise.

In Joyce Kornbluh's collection of Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) archival material we learn that the I.W.W. hobo would often spend time not working, in camps, also known as jungles, learning biology, sociology, economics, and a variety of other subjects. These self-reflexive critical migrant workers basically embodied the type of "intellectual moral bloc" that Gramsci described. Although the I.W.W. did indeed pave the way for labor unions to take hold, we have only to look around to judge the effectiveness of this strategy.

What's more, groups such as anarchists, who have often taken Gramsci's approach, have been accused of ignoring the needs and values of the working class. As Kraditor explains, these organizations will often fall into the trap of attempting to "awaken" the "political consciousness" within the worker. Not only can this strategy be ineffective, but it is built on the assumption that the "intellectual moral bloc" holds the only solution to addressing the hegemonic structure.


In the "Introduction" to his work on "Hegemony," Bocock procivides us with an initial definition for the term of his focus: hegemony is "moral and philosophical leadership [which] is attainted through the active consent of major groups in a society" (p. 11). To this end, hegemony becomes a "concept" and a "problematic" concerned with how "moral and philosophical leadership is produced, [reproduced, consented to, challenged, reinforced, and so on] in a social formation" (p. 12). As Bocock notes in his overview, Foucault extended Althusser's conception of the movement of power within a society to include "discourse" as a site where "power was to be seen being exercised" (p. 16). Both make, as the author argues, a critical error in either over- or underestimating the role of the State in exercising power: this is largely due to the negligence of considertation given to the agency of humans (p. 16). Further, Bocock directs our attention to Antonio Gramsci and the evolution of his thought regarding "hegemony" to demonstrate his point.

As an imprisoned critic, Gramsci brought to light the integral role of hegemony in Marxist thought through his concern "with people giving their full understanding and consent to the politices which political leaders aimed to carry out" (p. 22). Tracing the history of the concept and its eventual influence on Gramsci, Bocock tells us that "hegemony" emerged in the 1880s by Marxists, based in Russia, who were concerned with a lack of knowledge, consciousness, and power in more marginalized groups like peasants, workers, the bourgeois, and intellectuals (pp. 25 - 26). Drawn to this concept, Gramsci used the term in three ways (pp. 28 - 30):

1. Hegemony as cultural and moral leadership exercised in civil society, while coercive power came via the State.

2. Hegemony as exercised in both civil society and the State.

3. Hegemony is characteristic regardless, and distinctions between civil society and the State are collapsed.

Further clarifying the terms at hand and, most helpfully, elaborating on distinctions between "civil society" and "the State" for us, Bocock highlights three which are key (pp. 33 - 34):

1. The Economic: the "dominant modes of production at a particular moment in time."

2. The "State": the means of violence (police and armed forces) combined with institutions funded by the State (e.g. certain educational institutions, welfare, etc.).

3. "Civil Society": institutions that are neither funded by the State nor related to the dominant modes of production (e.g. religion, politics, etc.)

Ultimately, a principal contribution from Gramsci is his movement away from a Marxian economic-centric approach, to instead provide a more accomodating view, which more fully accuonts for "the other major areas of society, namely the State and the institutions of civil society" and the (emotional!) agency of individuals (p. 35).


1. How does accepting Gramsci's statement of the two forms of consciousness affect how one might approach hegemony?

2. Althusser delineates the relationship(s) between notions of ideology, interpellation, and individuals-as-subjects. To make clearer the relationships between and among these concepts, provide one example of how you understand them to interact and work. Moreover, ground your example in a case study in communication. That is to also ask: what is the role of communication (rhetoric) in Althusser's theoretical framework? Can interpellation take place without communication?