July 8th: Cultural Constructions

Let's pick up where we left off yesterday before going on to today's readings...

Before we get into the reading, I've been meaning to explain the difference between these two concepts:

  • Social Construction of Technology
  • Technological Determinism

Lynn White, a proponent of the technological determinism perspective, used this horseshoe nail proverb to introduce a chapter in White, L., Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Marxist Theory (cultural analysis)

As I said before, the theories we'll examine this week are not going to be exhaustive explorations. There are volumes upon volumes of analysis devoted to Marxism and Marxist Theory. Entire semesters could be devoted to its study. We will concern ourselves with a few broad factors or tenets of Marxism.

Charles E. Bressler offers the following as "core principles of Marxist thought" (p. 192):

  • Reality itself can be defined and understood.

  • Society shapes our consciousness.

  • Social and economic conditions directly influence how and what we believe and value.

  • Marxism details a plan for changing the world from a place of bigotry, hatred, and conflict because of class struggle to a classless society in which wealth, opportunity, and education are accessible for everyone.

...Of course, the above are the theories of marxism (just as capitalism has theories of salvation and prosperity). An ongoing philosophical question is "can we ever have a pure capitalist or marxist society, economy, government?"

The last point is important to focus on because American cultural bias against Marxism stems from issues about Marxism's utopian perception. The following are often the immediate associations/responses to Marxism:

  • Soviet Union (the Evil Empire): The Cold War enemy of America and the American way.

    • Communism was a Devil Term during the Cold War. Labeling something or (worse) someone a communist was similar to the contemporary labeling of terrorist.

    • The Soviets under Stalin were seen as oppressive and anti-freedom. While Stalin's atrocities are no secret and he was a communist, neither Stalin nor the Soviet Union (or other communist states for that matter) stand as the sole examples of the theoretical framework or cultural critique of Marxist Theory.

  • Utopian economic system that cannot exist. People will not work harder unless they have incentives to do so.
  • Massive government control and no private property/ownership...definitely a hard "sell" for capitalists and capitalist states.

Marxist Theory -- Texts and Contexts are Social Constructions

As a literary theory, Marxism is a 20th-Century development influenced by the writings of the 19th-Century philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. At a basic level (again, we could go into more detail), Marxist analysis "focus[es] on the study of the relationship between a text and the society that reads it" (Bressler, p. 193). Another core Marxist principle is the idea of reality or consciousness: cultural analysis, our focus in this course, is intertwined with the idea that "[a] person's consciousness is not shaped by any spiritual entity; through daily living and interacting with each other, humans define themselves" (Bressler, p. 193). Marx and Engels, products of newly industrialized/ing cultures, critique industrial society and theorize the following two tenets of industrial society: base and superstructure.

  • Base: "the economic means of production within a society" (Bressler, p. 193); think capital, land, wealth, etc.

  • Superstructure: the institutions and ideologies of a society that "develop as a direct result of the economic means of production, not the other way around" (Bressler, p. 193).

It's important to understand the difficulty of critiquing a culture that one belongs to because there's little chance for critical distance. We (humans in general) like to believe culture is absolute and not relative to the social conditions in which we interact or, in Marxian terms, the economic system in which we exist. For example, capitalism is pervasive in American culture and the "free" market is seen as the only appropriate way to organize or distribute  resources. Therefore, the means of production and who owns those means influence the ways in which institutions form.

Questions for Class Conflict Discussion

Of course, Marxism points to the idea that the base of capitalism (or other structures) divides citizens into classes, and these classes, well, they clash. Marx and Engels show the following divisions: the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and the proletariat (workers). What gets confusing in this system is the concept of the middle class...didn't Habermas portray the bourgeoisie as the middle class? Where does the middle class fit into Marxist theory?

The ruling class sets the culture's ideology, and the working class stays in line because they assume that the system under which they live is the only appropriate system in which to live. What are some American ideologies?

Other Marxist Theories (After Marx and Engels)

  • Georg Lukacs, a prominent genre theorist, advocates "that a text directly reflects a society's consciousness" (Bressler, p. 197).
  • Antonio Gramsci theorizes that the bourgeoisie, the ruling class, "establish and maintain what he calls hegemony, which is the assumptions, values, and meanings that shape meaning and define reality for the majority of people in a given culture" (Bressler, p. 198). This hegemonic relationship between the rulers and the ruled is "a kind of deception whereby the majority of people forget about or abandon their own interests and desires and accept the dominant values and beliefs as their own" (Bressler, p. 198).
    • For a contemporary analysis of Gramsci's theory that the ruled allow themselves to be duped by the rulers, check out What's the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank, who discusses why Kansans vote against their self interests. Frank does not invoke Gramsci in any way, but the analysis has a Gramsci-leaning aura.
  • Pierre Macherey argues "what authors mean to say [in their writings] and what they actually write and say are different. The various meanings of their texts continuously escape writers because they themselves do not recognize the multiple ideologies at work in them and their text" (Bressler, p. 200).
  • Raymond Williams is credited as a major contributor to what we today regard as cultural studies criticism, which is concerned with "the relationship between ideology and culture" (Bressler, p. 200).
  • Terry Eagleton, more closely connected to the cultural studies lens through which we're examining new media, "[b]eliv[es] that literature is neither a product of pure inspiration nor the product of the author's feelings...literature is a product of an ideology that is itself a product of history" (Bressler, p. 201).

What's missing from the summaries above is the fact that those adhering to Marxism advocate revolution or changing the status quo structure where capitalists rule and oppress the workers. While using a Marxist lens does not necessarily mean one has to adhere to such an idea, it's important to note that Marxist thought stems from the desire to make visible the conditions people find themselves in, and those conditions are not favorable to workers. The new media texts we examine are different from literature, but they are still cultural products and reify the ideologies of the cultures from which they come.

Of course, technologies can be read just like texts.

"Texts, like all elements of social life, cannot be analyzed in isolation because they do not exist as isolated entities; rather, they are part of a complex web of social forces and structures" (Bressler, p. 205).

Tomorrow's Readings

Keep up with the reading. I have a few things on tomorrow's page (July 9, 2013) that might help guide your reading. McLuhan's piece is essential reading for media studies and the Federman piece is an explanation on how to read the article. Read both! But the order isn't as important...it's not like watching the movie and then reading the book. Of course, go to moodle to post and respond to a classmate's post from Tuesday, July 2nd.

Don't forget that your "Critical Analysis of a Technology" essay is due Wednesday, July 10th.

Terms for Discussion

  • Ideology: prevailing cultural/institutional attitudes, beliefs, norms, attributes, practices, and myths that are said to drive a society.

  • Hegemony: the ways or results of a dominant group's (the hegemon) influence over other groups in a society or region. The dominant group dictates, consciously or unconsciously, how society must be structured and how other groups must "buy into" the structure. For example, the former Soviet Union was the hegemonic power influencing the communist countries of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

  • Systemic: (adjective) pertaining to an entire system, institution, or object; something 'systemic' cannot be removed from the system.

  • Genre: literary or other textual products "with certain conventions and patterns that, through repetition, have become so familiar that [audiences] expect similar elements in the works of the same type" (Dick, p. 112).

Works Cited

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. (4th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2007.

Dick, Bernard F. Anatomy of Film. (5th ed.). Boston: Bedford, 2005.



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