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Foamy custard
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The Myths of Reality

hegemony

Although pronounced in a great many ways, he'gemo'ny is most consistent with the Greek origins of the word.

To the Classical Greeks 'hegemony' implied leadership by one state of a confederacy, making that ruling or 'supreme' state 'hegemonic' over the others. In the 1920s and 30s the Marxist sociologist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), argued that, '... the rule of one class over another does not depend on economic or physical power alone but rather on persuading the ruled to accept the system of beliefs of the ruling class and to share their social, cultural, and moral values' (cited in Joll 1977: 8).

Gramsci called this concept 'hegemony'. If a social group can be persuaded to accept the ideology (cultural, social, and moral) of another group then hegemony is established and the 'hegemonic group' will be able to dominate or control the other group. Hegemony can be established either by coercion or more subtly by what are usually termed 'consensual' processes. These all-but invisible processes of domination are made to seem 'natural', so that the oppressed consent to their subjection.

    According to Gramsci, it is in the interests of those wishing to establish hegemonic control to gain the consent of those it wishes to control. It is at this point that we begin to see how hegemony is a culturally and ideologically linked concept. Gramsci understands hegemony as cultural and ideological, for it is the process whereby dominant groups sustain their dominion via gaining the informal consent of lesser groups. This process is tantamount to ideological and cultural negotiation.

    For Gramsci, the origins of hegemony lie within the actions of certain groups and institutions within capitalism, for example, the state, popular culture, the family, and the mass media. Speaking of the serialisation of popular novels in newspapers, Gramsci puts this point over succinctly by arguing that, "Newspapers are politico-financial bodies, and they do not propose to put out belles-lettres in their own columns if these belles-lettres increase the return of unsold issues. The serial novel is a way of circulating newspapers among the popular classes"
    (Mark Woolley, 1996, 'Beyond simulation', citing Gramsci 1988: 365)

The pioneer British cultural studies researcher Stuart Hall picked up on Gramsci's ideas of hegemony. Whereas Gramsci had seen hegemony as the power struggles between a state and its inhabitants, Hall broadened hegemony to encompass the whole domain of social and cultural life. Hall also looked specifically at the ways hegemonic domination could be uncertain and contested. (See Adam Katz's 'Postmodern cultural studies: a critique'; the best discussion of Gramsci's influence on Cultural Studies that I have come across is by John Storey (Storey 1999:Ch.8).)

More interestingly, at least from the perspective of foamy custard, the Marxist social historian E.P. Thompson looked specifically at how popular culture – i.e. 'folk customs' – contested the hegemony of the eighteenth century British gentry (Thompson 1993: Ch.2 esp. 74–5, 87). The parallels for contesting modern day hegemonies are interesting as this suggests that, despite the potential for 'oppositional' alternative interpretations of mass culture, the real opportunities are with those areas of popular culture that are not primarily transmitted by mass culture and might be better regarded as 'folk customs' and 'folk lore'. (This recognition that some aspects of 'folklore' can be more important politically than many aspects of 'mass culture' is key to what foamy custard is 'all about' – at least in this formative phase.) These ideas are also picked up by Simon Danser in his foamy custard article, beyond anti-capitalism.

Although Gramsci, Hall and Thompson adopt a Marxist approach, in recent years the concept of hegemony has become detached from its Marxist roots.

how hegemony nullifies subversive elements

Roland Barthes was the first to recognise how the 'power of myth' helped to make hegemonic imbalances seem to be 'common sense'. Cunning, rather than force, enables the 'powers that be' to nullify subversive elements. One commonly-used technique is to label undesired behaviour as 'deviant'. Over the years this way of categorising has been applied to homosexuals, victims of psychiatric illnesses, muggers, football holligans (even the terminology used is emotive), and – more recently – so-called 'anti-capitalist' protesters. An even more emotive 'categorisation', with its associated myth-making, is the term 'terrorist'.

Another technique is to absorb subversive 'threats' into the mainstream by trivialisation. TV sitcoms have a long track record, starting with Till Death Us Do Part's parody of racism, The Good Life's frivolous perceptions of self-sufficiency, and The Young Ones piss take of youth cultures of the day.

Will Brooker (1998: 67) has noted how around 1977 the British tabloid papers set out to make punk seem 'cosy'; the Sex Pistols' rendition of God Save the Queen is now thoroughly absorbed into nostalgia for the 70s. In the late 1980s black rap music was promptly made safe by pretty white boys such as Vanilla Ice and Duran Duran (a process started by Elvis Presley's 'acceptable face' of black rock'n'roll, continued with the Rolling Stones appropriation of black r'n'b, and current today with Ali G's trite parodies of black street culture). Likewise, in the mid-1990s black drum-and-bass entered the mainstream in the far-from-threatening guise of backing tracks for TV commercials selling various brands of upmarket cars.

mass media's role in global hegemony

In recent years the increasing concentration of economic power in the hands of interwoven multi-national businesses has seen all the major mass media interests being concentrated into a remarkably small number of owners. Such multinational businesses have vast resources to promote the 'benefits' of particular forms of consumerism and capitalism as the 'only possible way'. As politicians can only reach the voters by using the mass media controlled by these same global businesses, there are strong grounds for regarding the Western political system not as a democracy (in any meaningful sense of the word) but as a hegemony.

For instance, Al Gore was quoted in the New York Observer during November 2002 saying: 'Fox News Network, The Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh – there's a bunch of them, and some of them are financed by wealthy ultra-conservative billionaires who make political deals with Republican administrations and the rest of the media... . Most of the media [has] been slow to recognize the pervasive impact of this fifth column in their ranks – that is, day after day, injecting the daily Republican talking points into the definition of what's objective as stated by the news media as a whole.' In a (presumably unwitting) confirmation of this, the Web blog where I saw these remarks quoted followed with the far-from-neutral sentence 'Has Al Gore lost his mind?'

Jon Katz recognised in January 2000, in the wake of the AOL-Time Warner merger, that 'We're getting mergered into mass conformity'.

All multi-nationals, not least the mass media operations, are extremely adept at using hegemonic processes to 'nullify' alternative viewpoints – and this certainly includes the ability to 'nullify' political parties and leaders who do not agree with their objectives. Dissent is rarely entirely silenced but merely reduced to 'tokenism' – a few individuals are permitted who are presented as talented 'eccentrics' (George Monbiot and John Pilger are currently tolerated/patronised in such a manner by the British press).

Hegemonic aspects of modern culture are also explored in politics of culture and beyond anti-capitalism. John Storey devotes a whole chapter of his excellent book Inventing Popular Culture to discussing hegemony in popular culture (Storey 2003: Ch.4).

bibliographical references:

BROOKER, Will, 1998, Cultural Studies, Teach Yourself Books.
GRAMSCI, A, 1988, in D. Forgacs (ed), A Gramsci Reader, Lawrence and Wishart.
JOLL, J., 1997, Gramsci, Fontana
STOREY, John, 1999, Cultural Consumption and Everyday Life, Arnold.
STOREY, John, 2003, Inventing Popular Culture, Blackwell.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1993, Custom and Culture, New Press.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003, 2004

 

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