Paddy Walsh: Dissertation
"No escape from the mass mind rape"; The relationship between political dissent, hegemonic institutions, and Rage Against The Machine.
In this dissertation I intend to explore the complex relationship between politics and popular culture, in relation to hegemonic rule, a concept in itself which requires detailed analysis. When Gramsci formulated the concept of hegemony, he did so with social conditions and state-controlled hegemony at the forefront of his theories; However, with the shift to cultural hegemony, heralded by the mass media revolution, it is now necessary to reformulate Gramsci's theories and apply them to cultural hegemony, which is now the foremost site of hegemonic rule. Such a shift has been discussed by theorists such as Stuart Hall and Jesus-Martin Barbero, but rarely has it ever been empirically applied to political rule. One of the few theorists to make the connection has been John Street in his text Politics and Popular Culture, whose arguments I engage with in the opening chapter. However, I do not feel that the conclusions he reaches stress enough the negative effect that the shift to cultural hegemony has brought to political education. Because popular culture is a depoliticised and hence depoliticising form, many critics have tended to ignore the implications cultural hegemony has had on state/governmental policies and political activism. I intend to discuss how politics has had to change its own form, both in image and belief, to adapt to the hegemonic rule of the mass media cultural producers, who now, to a large extent, control how the populous is educated politically. Consequently, I intend to analyse whether this predetermines a detrimental effect on the process of democracy and how it affects those whose political views remain unheard because they express opinions contrary to the ideologies of the cultural producers and do not own the means of production to voice their opinions equally.
This opposition is made even more interesting when we examine the discourses that emanate from dissent within the realm of popular culture, which are analysed empirically in this dissertation through studying the discourses provoked by the actions and ideologies of Rage Against The Machine, a subversive politically motivated rock group who sell millions of records and are signed to a multinational corporation. I will use the group as a catalyst for discussing the dichotomy between politics and popular culture and the co-opting of subversive ideology by the culture producers.
In Chapter 1 I will attempt to elaborate on the relationship between politics and popular culture, discussing in more depth Gramsci's theories regarding hegemony and how he located them within the social conditions of his age, and how these theories must now consider the overtly controlling factors of culture. I will then examine what (and whose) values and ideologies are being reinforced, and how dissent is marginalised. In discussing popular culture's effects on politics, I will cover the inherent nature of the former to depoliticise, and how, forced to acquiesce to popular culture's dominant hegemony, politics has had to adapt its form consequently, leading to the "soundbites and gestures" rhetoric of political comment today. The second chapter will focus on and examine the relationship between the producers of popular culture and direct political activism existing within that culture, using the aforementioned empirical example, the American rap-rock group Rage Against The Machine, whose emphasis on political education, making people aware of their political rights and how they can harness them/how they are suppressed, and who use the medium of music as a political tool (in the same way as Noam Chomsky uses literature) is in direct contradiction of the depoliticising aesthetic of popular culture. I am going to examine how the producers of popular culture sanitise a dissenting voice, appropriate it within the culture they produce, thus marginalising the dissent until it ceases to become a political threat, if this is possible. I will discuss many of the ways in which this dissent is marginalised, recalling themes from the opening chapter such as form over content and censorship; analysis will also focus on areas of political activism exhibited by Rage Against The Machine, such as lyrics, direct speeches, music videos and political activist events. The final chapter analyses Gramsci's assertions of how the proletariat can combat hegemony, and regain autonomy of how to communicate their own ideologies. Gramsci's theory revolved around society and social control; it stated that if the proletariat gained control of a "middle ground", it would become independent of dominant hierarchies and be able to exert independent control. I intend to adapt this theory in relation to cultural hegemonic dominance, again using as an empirical example Rage Against The Machine, and then examine the success of this independence, concurrently examining the ways in which the producers of popular culture still maintain their power. I will also examine whether politics can be removed from the "soundbite" culture this way, and what implications this has for political education.
"A camera's eye on choice disguised"; Politics, popular culture and the location of hegemonic rule.
The concept of hegemony was formulated by Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci in the early twentieth century to explain the ways in which the ruling block maintained its power, and is based on what Bocock terms as 'moral and philosophical leadership', leadership which is maintained by the active consent of the major groups in a society. Whoever is in control of the factors of production, or who owns institutions that underpin hegemonic ideals, can promote their own ideologies and value systems to present them as the "norm". Gramsci, of course, held that power was located in the state and its various components, from the armed forces and the police to schools and churches. Mass culture was a foreign concept to the Italian, so he attempted to show how his theories must be adapted to his contemporary social order, wherein hegemonic rule was exerted by the state and the financially-dominant bourgeois society. Gramsci formulates hegemony with bourgeois rule as its specific object, but conditions of society have since transformed radically in ways Gramsci could never have predicted, meaning that concentrating on bourgeois rule is no longer as relevant; to understand how hegemonic rule applies itself in modern society, we must examine how hegemonic rule is now predominantly located within the sphere of popular culture, and less so the state.
Mass media has an overwhelming role in reinforcing or shaping hegemonic ideology, as most economic factors of production are located here. More important is the fact that the mass media provides the easiest opportunity to communicate with the largest audience. Popular culture's greatest asset is that it is universal, as Street notes, 'Popular culture is a form of entertainment that is mass produced or is made available to large numbers of people (for example, on television). Availability may be measured by the opportunity to enjoy the product or by the absence of social barriers to enjoyment of it (no particular skills or knowledge are required; no particular status or class is barred from entry).' In order for politicians to use the optimum measures to communicate their beliefs to the masses, however, they must filter their message through the mass media and its parameters, which can have severe (and, as I will show, negative) effects on that message.
Hegemonic rule also requires the complicit subjugation of the masses, which Gramsci sees as a trait of human nature, 'In acquiring one's conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting. We are all conformists of some conformism or another.' However, it is more complicated than that. The cultural producers use hegemonic rule subtly, occasionally submitting to democratic wants, in order to give the appearance of democracy and to stifle thoughts of revolution.
The shift in the process of socialisation seemed to change concurrently with the increasing importance of mass culture to the populous; The family, the school, religion, the State have considerably less influence as sites of ideological socialisation, superseded by mass culture. As Bell notes, '[Today] the mentors of behaviour are films, television and advertising...[they begin by changing fashion and end by provoking] a metamorphosis of the deepest moral aspects.' Now that the nucleus of hegemonic rule has shifted location to cultural producers, the state's once integral control of social hegemony has diluted significantly. Consequently, political parties are reliant on popular culture more than ever, so that it now takes up the role as the pivotal site for political and ideological rule; 'In a society which lacks well-defined national institutions and a class of elite leadership fully conscious of its legitimate role, social integration is achieved through mass media' (Bell).
Street defines cultural production as 'the organisation of cultural industries, broadcasting institutions and the regulations that apply to each, and the politics that emerge in the balance of interests and power, as well as the values and judgements that go into the creation and distribution of popular culture...The politics is located in the views and forms of cultural expression that are marginalised and excluded, whether through direct censorship or through routine practices...By the nature of its operation it passes judgement upon a range of cultural possibilities, allowing some to exist and others to be consigned or ignored. The judgements, insofar as they operate systematically, represent a set of views and/or interests, and promote these to the advantage of others.' These judgements are based, not on any democratic notion, but on reinforcing and promoting production values of the cultural producers, to serve their own ideological and/or economic ends.
The significance of an economic base when analysing the social theories of Gramsci is recognised by Lumley; 'The State's role as the organising force of the bourgeoisie is seen as an epiphenomenon of its economic organisation, and hence a seizure of the economic infrastructure will determine the collapse of the bourgeoisie superstructure.' Gramsci himself concentrated his critique on the economic infrastructure of the state, -'...though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.' - however, with the predominant shift from social to cultural hegemony, there has inherently been a focus on the importance of economic factors. Cultural producers are almost exclusively companies whose actions are based on the profit motive, and are disparate elements promoting equally disparate self-serving capitalist ideologies, unlike the state which represented one specific power bloc, and one ideology.
The importance of popular culture in the everyday highlights the hegemonic possibilities the cultural producers have; it is endemic to the lives of almost everyone. As Street comments, 'We are not compelled to imitate it, any more than it has to imitate us. None the less our lives are bound up with it.' Reiterating this sentiment, McKay notes that 'Mass culture is constructed as a form of socialisation, even, in the most extreme and pessimistic versions, as a tool of ideological conditioning.' It has both the properties and the potential to shape political ideology.
However, we must be wary of how we define "popular", as it does not necessarily connote notions of democracy; Stuart Hall, for one, identifies definitions of "popular" culture as being juxtaposed to some notion of the power bloc, and not representative of democratic rule, which I would agree with. For the purposes of this essay, "popular" is understood to be representative of a hegemonically reinforced ideology, and not the democratised impulse of the majority.
Today, politics is for the most part viewed through the ideological filter of popular culture; the cultural producers have the ability to control how politics is transmitted, and politicians are forced to adapt to the rules it sets; Street uses the examples of Ronald Reagan and Silvio Berlusconi as 'part of a general rule which recognises that popular culture constitutes part of the way we communicate with each other, and that political communication depends upon symbols and gestures as much as words and sentences...Politicians increasingly borrow the techniques and skills of popular entertainment to communicate their message or promote their image.' Reagan used his cultural capital of being a former movie star, a cowboy (symbolic of the American pioneering spirit) to translate to his presidential image, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Berlusconi likewise used his success as a businessman to translate onto his image as a successful politician.
The importance of populism cannot be understated, because, as Wallis and Malm argue, simply providing people with the lowest common denominator is enough to ensure the highest profit motive, give the appearance of democracy and repress rebellion all at once, 'The media industry [has a] need to present a lowest common denominator in terms of cultural products that can be sold in as many countries as possible...The common denominator is a total absence of anything that could be interpreted as social, or, even worse, political.' Echoing Marx's view of the existence of an opiate of the masses, and Gramsci's notion of the conformist human nature, it would appear people's need for something to blind them from the realities of human existence is greater than thoughts of rebellion for repressed social existence. The cultural producers raison d'Ítre is to provide such escapism, providing it is filtered through their own ideological positioning, and because the majority are complicit in their conformism and subjugation, they will unconsciously absorb these values without wanting to analyse them politically or socially.
The hegemonic power that popular culture commands is thus demonstrated by how it constructs the identity of its consumer. Street asks the question, 'If politics is the site within which competing claims are voiced and competing interests are managed, there is an important question to be addressed: why do people make such claims or see themselves as having those interests? The answer is that they are the consequence of us seeing ourselves as being certain sorts of people, as having an identity, which in turn establishes our claim upon the political order...There is an endless attempt to locate people in order to tell stories about them and to provide explanations for their behaviour.' Because popular culture has the properties to create identities, it is an inherent fact that it is then in a position to judge these identities according to its own value system, thus hegemonically perpetuating its own ideologies.
Politics has been shaped using these methods, turning it predominantly into a culture of gestures and soundbites where the pressure to entertain inherent in all forms of popular culture has consequently enveloped it. Politicians to a large degree rely on popular culture to help transmit their opinions, so they must adapt their views and their image according to dominant cultural ideological hegemony in order to be judged favourably. Conflict therefore arises between politics and popular culture when we consider that the latter is inherently a depoliticised form (and thus depoliticising, as it reinforces its values hegemonically). Politics, as it adapts its form to cultural hegemony, is becoming more and more a spectacle geared to entertain, which has a negative effect on general political education. Most people's education regarding politics is got through popular culture, so simplifying politics to forms of sloganeering will mean that for many people, the extent of their political awareness is confined only to these images and slogans.
In my opinion, the "soundbites and gestures" culture that has been created should not merely be explained away by "sign of the times" rhetoric but is instead an example of the decreasing political awareness in society. To the same end, some would argue that politicians have always used whatever techniques are available to communicate with voters and win them over, but I would argue that this doesn't consider how this breeds political apathy to the detriment of democracy. For one, Todd Gitlin notices this trend, '...[while] American politics has been raucous, deceptive, giddy, shallow, sloganeering and demagogic for most of its history...the fascination with speed, quick cuts, ten-second bites, one-second "scenes" and out of context images suggest less tolerance of the rigours of serious arguments and the tedium of organised political life.' Contemporary politics is characterised by the dominance of the image over the word, which devalues political awareness and consolidates the authority of the powerful. Because of this pressure to entertain, there is an increasing disparity between image and content, to the detriment of political awareness and political knowledge of the populous. Politics is now packaged to conform with popular culture's values, which has lead to the "dumbing down" of political rhetoric, and political education; Packaging politics seems to be a marketing exercise rather than a democratic process.
Street, however, in his text Politics and Popular Culture, proposes the idea that political content being reduced to soundbites, slogans and images is merely a sign of the times, which in itself is not a negative aspect. He writes, 'Rather than seeing [the soundbite] as a substitute for thought, it can be regarded as just another means by which politicians try to accommodate themselves to the medium in which they operate. This is, in one sense, no different from the way in which we all tailor our language to our audience or our setting...Adapting to your audience and your medium... is an essential part of rational electioneering...The current antipathy is just a reaction to change, and makes no more sense than arguing that we should renounce the microphone and return to the bullhorn.' That this antipathy is merely a "reaction to change" is a sweeping statement that seems to be completely unsupported, especially when we consider what Street ignores. He only allows for party political content, ignoring how the move to soundbite rhetoric has implicitly appropriated itself into all strands of political discourse. For one, he completely ignores those who do not have the cultural capital to be able to respond politically in such a way. Political critics such as Noam Chomsky, John Pilger or even the imprisoned political dissident Mumia Abu-Jamal (whose case for innocence is supported by Rage Against The Machine, among others), cannot condense their wide-ranging political rhetoric into soundbites, and do not have the access to promote their ideologies in the manner of the state/political parties. Their detailed social and political criticism goes largely unnoticed then, as it cannot be easily assimilated into a "soundbite culture", and does not have the political power to put in such a position. Curiously, Street also argues the point that because this is the way politics has always been conducted, by adapting to your audience, it is implicitly fair and democratic, which is blatantly untrue.
Street goes on to argue that, 'The soundbite is, in this sense, just another version of the slogan...tailored to the medium, linked to techniques of marketing and cultural expression. This is not necessarily to excuse or celebrate it, but rather to see it as a part of a larger cultural trend from which politics is not immune.' However, I would argue that by not condemning it, it is inherently excused. Again, Street does not consider where the cultural trend emanates from, or who it benefits. As already established, it benefits the dominant cultural producers, and those who profit from decreased political awareness. It does not benefit the politically dispossessed.
Although I would not agree with Street's observation that soundbites are merely a sign of the times, he does correctly locate the instigator of change, namely, the media; 'The pressure to "entertain" requires a shift in the way politics is covered and reported. The point is to recognise the packaging of politics as part of a larger process which affects media generally, and which shifts the explanation for the new devices away from the parties and politicians and on to the media and the culture industry.' The pressure to entertain introduces new problematics, specifically concerning populism and its effects on the disparity between image and content.
The pressure to entertain and the reliance on soundbites and image has borne another serious problem to political education, in that politicians may hold personal self-aggrandisement dearer than socially beneficial policies. Improving image and staying popular can be as important (if not more so) than policy. This is how Street defines the concept of populism in relation to politics, 'The only good policies, the only good parties or politicians, are those that give the party what they want. The only test of cultural merit is to be found at the box office, or in the ratings or in the charts. Both these varieties of populism - whether political or cultural - have a superficial appeal; they appear to guarantee neutrality and legitimacy. The popular choice is the democratic choice.' I have already established that we cannot confuse popularity with democracy, so instantly we see the problems that arise.
Historically, this reliance on populism has gained political credence concurrently with the rise in mass media influence; Politicians 'use' populism for their own ends, but consequently reinforce the hegemonic values of prevailing ideologies as they do so. With the shift towards cultural hegemony, politics became more image led, 'Parties and politicians are increasingly marketing and packaging themselves to attract voters, using the same devices as advertisers employ for perfumes and cars. Much political time is taken up in garnering the right image, in acquiring the right odour...Popular culture is a crucial intermediary in this ambition.' All the ways in which politicians adapt to popular culture are evident; they associate themselves with popular cultural iconography, to become associated with "the popular" and hope some of the popularity will rub off; they combine political and commercial interests (Street gives Berlusconi as an example); and they rely upon the techniques of popular culture in the performance of their political role. The importance of the rules of popular culture emphasises the potential for a disparity between politicians self-aggrandisement and policy promotion through popular culture, which echoes arguments about the disparity between image and content.
The relationship between popular culture and politics leads to construction of identities, no guarantee of democracy and can breed forms of exclusivity. Inevitably, we thus see the possibilities for censorship by those that control the cultural factors of production. Street comments that 'Popular culture's ability to focus passion and to express defiance also allows it to become a form of political management. This opportunity can, of course, be used to malign and benign effect, just as the identities constructed through popular culture can be liberating or oppressive. Both by acts of censorship and by acts of propaganda, the state tries to make popular culture a device for securing deference.' Dissent is marginalised and repressed, so it can be appropriated into the value system of the dominant ideology, until its message is sanitised and is less of an overt 'threat'. The methods used here I intend to explore and analyse empirically in the next chapter, using the example of Rage Against The Machine.Back to Fans Speak!
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