Project 2-3: The Society of the Spectacle

This project requires reading an extract from “The Society and the Spectacle”, ‘Separation Reflected’ by Guy Debord on pps. 95-98 of the course reader before considering the following questions:

Weltanschauung – a comprehensive philosophy or world view?

Weltanschauung is defined as a particular philosophy or view of life, the term literally translates as ‘world view.’ It is a fundamental concept in German philosophy and epistemology which was first said to have been used by Kant before being popularized by Hegel.

Freud discusses Weltanshaunng in ‘A philosophy of Life.’ Near the beginning he notes the difficulty in translation as Weltanshaunng is “a specifically German notion which it would be difficult to translate into a foreign language.” Attempts to do this are so futile “it can hardly fail to strike you as inept.” He offers this useful definition:

“By Weltanshaunng, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.”

The pursuit of Weltanschauung is one of mankind’s ideal wishes – it leads to security in life as one knows what to strive after and how to organize emotions and interests to the best purpose.

It could be argued that the entirety of ‘Society of the Spectacle’ is Debord arguing that the spectacle has become Weltanshaunng, although, he definitely does not see this in the positive terms defined by Freud. The spectacle also represents an intangible and yet ubiquitous way to control society – Debord argues that citizens often do not even realise what is happening. The spectacle represents ideology and alienation.

In paragraph 1 Debord states:

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”

With “all of life” Debord is clearly beginning his case for the spectacle as Weltanschauung – for the rest of “Society of the Spectacle” he will seek to define what exactly the spectacle is, but here we are left in no doubt of the important hold it has over citizens as being omniscient and overwhelming.

The notion that the spectacle is something intangible is quickly asserted with:

“Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

This suggests the spectacle is ideological while referencing the Marxist notion of alienation.

In paragraph 5 Debord directly mentions Weltanschauung:

“The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung which has become actual materially translated. It is a world vision that has become objectified.”

The choice of “world vision” rather than world view here is an interesting distinction – it suggests that the spectacle is forced upon society rather than citizens sharing its ideology. Despite being seemingly intangible and difficult to pin down, “has become actual materially translated” shows that the spectacle is something that is real. “Materially translated” and “objectified” suggest the concept of commodity fetishism, the Marxist idea that misplaced value is placed onto objects due to capitalism – Debord seems to be suggesting here that the concept of the spectacle represents an extension of this idea from reality to the conceptual.

What do you think Debord means by ‘the spectacle’?

This question is accompanied by the reassurance that this is more difficult than it sounds and that it is the attempt that is important here, which, after reading through the extract for the first time came as gentle reassurance! Debord writes in a way that is both difficult and simple, you seem to gain insight for it only to slip away proving allusive. The individual paragraphs in ‘Society of the Spectacle‘ each define what the spectacle is, yet, this can sometimes contradict what we have understood and read previously or can give emphasis to something we have not yet considered. As I come to understand a little more what Debord is trying to achieve through ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ I recognise that this is the point – the spectacle is  a concept which is difficult to define – this is part of the spectacles intention in fact. It is pervasive, far reaching and infiltrates all parts of society without even being acknowledged as existing by a large number of people in society.

Some of the language and terms in the extract are recognisable to me in what has been studied already, particularly from Marxist theory, although not necessarily presented in the same way. The more I read the more I began to be able to pick out ideas of commodification, alienation and ideology which seem to be the main thrust of Debord’s argument. Debord reasons that the spectacle represents a kind of evolution of commodification – the final form of the commodity will be the image – no longer a physical object we can own, having being replaced by appearing. The circulation of images becomes more important than the accumulation of commodities. Buchanan observes that in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ it is not producing or owning things that drives society forward but how things appear and how they make us appear to ourselves that matters. The spectacle is the illusion that our fragmented, alienated life is in fact whole, true and authentic.

Sturken and Cartwright assert that Debord saw the spectacle as a metaphor for society – we live in an ongoing, constant spectacle. Through the spectacle we no longer experience life directly, life has become representation. The spectacle is an instrument of unification and a world vision that forges a social relationship among people in which images and practices of looking are central.

Pooke and Newhall define the spectacle as being used by Debord to characterize pseudo-events and commodified interactions under capitalism.

My eventual approach to gleaning a closer reading from the text was to break down each paragraph and then write whatever response came into my head. This could be an observation or recognition of some sort of nuance or sometimes a question. This approach helped and yet I still find a personal definition of the spectacle difficult to articulate. In the spirit of Debord’s writing style here are some personal responses represented as bullet points:

  • The spectacle is everywhere.
  • We do not know who controls or orchestrates the spectacle – such a notion may not even exist in a simple way we can comprehend.
  • The spectacle is a means of control but in a much more subtle way than we have come to understand – for example in capitalist structure of worker/owner.
  • We are complicit with the spectacle but may not even recognisee what the spectacle is or even its existence.
  • Debord uses terms, phrases and ideas that have a resonance, particularly with Marxism, but they are somehow changed which emphasises that the spectacle confounds our conventional understanding. For example: “the spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced” suggests Marx’s description of ideology through which social relations are perceived in an inverted way (Marx uses the analogy of a camera obscura which gives an upside down view of the world) and groups this with the tangible idea of commodity production. This is a difficult but effective combination of both the abstract and the real.

The book was first published in French in 1967. Has the passage of time confirmed or contradicted Debord’s view?

A strength of ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ is that Debord did not confine his argument to specifics that would date his theses. This means that the ideas presented translate to the 21st century making them all the more powerful and Debord seemingly prescient.

Despite this, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ does not achieve Debord’s revolutionary intent, today it is seen as an important work of philosophy rather than a political manifesto with real purpose to change the world through revolt. Debord himself became depressed in later life that his insights ceased to be a call to arms but rather a banal, if accurate, description of the modern condition. (Hussey, 2001) The spectacle as a term has become a cliché appropriated by post modernism to describe any contemporary process.

Will Self views the “genius” of Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ as characterising “the totalising capability of late capitalism so early in its post -industrial manifestation” and that it reads “as fresh as paint.” He recognises the importance of the “pseudo-events” which act to convince the citizens of the spectacle that they are able “to progress into a better future” when it is only the anointed few, the celebrities, who are imbued with the money and power that signify the ability to make choices. Debord’s concept of the spectacle has been so thoroughly appropriated by society that it is no longer used as short hand for the consumer society or post-ideological character of western ‘democracy’ which is woven by the internet and late capitalism.

John Harris believes the frequency that the spectacle is used to describe the “image saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures” leads to it sounding banal, yet, the frequency used also “speaks volumes about the power of its insights.” ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ points towards much that is prescient in the culture of the 21st century:

-Celebrity culture and the portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us live it.

-The driving out of meaning in politics.

-Warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion”, for example, the Che Guevara T-shirt.

-Social media and “the white noise of most online life.”

The book describes that everything we consume, and if we are not careful, everything we do embodies a mixture of “distraction and reinforcement” that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme – ideas which we now term neo-liberalism.

Personally, the more I think about the themes contained in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ the more I feel it articulates suspicions I have held for a long time – what is it to be a citizen in a late capitalist society in the 21st century? We are told we have never had so much freedom and access to information and yet it is also accepted there is no alternative to the lives we lead. There is so much information that we are unable to process it – what on the internet is real and what is false? There is no longer any distinction in political life, no left or right – only a consensus that this is the way things need to be. Facebook seems to represent the clearest example of how human experience has become inauthentic, spectacular and false – what people now understand as friendship. Our online presence is the way we present ourselves rather than through real life – more real than the real world. As John Harris observes “even the way we relate to each other has been so commodified it is no longer genuine.” There is no more depressing modern sight than that of citizens who seemingly only have an experience through the prism of their smart phone – if we do not record our experiences then they no longer happen and by doing this we lose the ability to live our lives directly.

Does his view that we “see the world by means of various specialized mediations” mean that we are having our view of the world controlled or that we simply don’t know what is propaganda and what is not?

My first reaction in my notebook to this quote from chapter 18 is ‘what does various specialized mediations mean?’ Perhaps it is that the spectacle makes us see (and believe?) the world that it is presenting.

“We see the world” reminds me of the term ‘global village’ popularized by Marshall McLuhan in reference to the growth of media in the early 1960s, and is term that Debord would surely have been aware. The access to information that we can experience through the internet has the potential to make us participants in this global village that is now a reality. The more likely response however, is that we passively take in the view of the world which is presented to us through rolling news and media outlets. We feel connected to what is going on without questioning that the views that we are presented with are those that the broadcasters choose to show – that which is deemed worthy of reporting. We feel a closeness to citizens around the world which is false.

I am not sure when the political world view reached a consensus through neo-liberalism but I am old enough to remember a time when there seemed to be real difference, not only in politics but in art, literature, music, films – even the high street. It seems today that we accept the homogenization of our lives without question, even those who oppose what they see as mass conformity struggle to define how or even what they are against. We believe that we are sophisticated readers of the modern world and its representations, we think that we would know propaganda if we saw it. This is because we think of propaganda in back and white 20th century terms rather than the complex description of the spectacle given by Debord which typifies propaganda in the modern world.

The film maker Adam Curtis seems to be highly influenced by Debord. He uses archive news footage along with a very personal viewpoint expressed through voiceover to try and make sense of the world. In a short segment he made for Charlie Brooker’s satirical Newswipe programme, he presents the idea that the news is so depressing and we are so detached from the events it contains that the only response is “Oh dear” – a defeatist reaction that has also become central to political control. He explains this by examining the political landscape of Putin’s Russia. We would normally associate Russia with the heavy handed propaganda and control of the Soviet Union, Curtis explains however that in modern Russia control is maintained by much more subtle and confusing means. Putin’s director of communications Vladislav Surkov has helped Putin remain in power for 15 years using techniques he learned from his previous life as a dealer of avant-garde art. Surkov turns Russian politics into a “bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre” the aim of which is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they can never be entirely sure what is really happening. Surkov achieves this by backing many disparate groups in Russia, some of which are even enemies of Putin, before (and this is key for Curtis) letting the people know what he is doing. The effect is that no one knows what is real or fake and all opposition is kept constantly confused – the constant shape shifting is unstoppable because it is indefinable.

Curtis then transfers his gaze to the political situation in Britain and recognises a similar situation – after all, Russia has always had a strange, fractured and controlling political situation so this approach by Putin and Surkov is hardly surprising. He argues that in Britain everything told by politicians and journalists is confusing and contradictory – a position which plays into the hands of those in power. For example: the war in Afghanistan which nobody seems to know was a victory or defeat; ageing disc jockeys who are prosecuted for crimes that alleged to have happened decades ago while no one in the city of London has been prosecuted for the endless financial crimes being revealed there; the war in Syria which was initially against the Assad regime which we were told was evil until we discover his enemies  were even worse and began bombing them keeping Assad in power.

The epicentre of our non-linear world is the economy and Curtis presents George Osborne as the closest we have to a “shape shifting, postmodern politician.” The economy is growing and yet wages go down, the importance of cutting the deficit is used as a reason for austerity policies but it is revealed the deficit is actually increasing, quantitative easing contradicts austerity and debt reduction. Vast amounts of money has ended up in the top 5% of the wealthiest people and this is prevented from becoming a scandal because nobody seems to have a clear idea of what is happening.

The strange mood of our times is that nothing makes coherent sense. We live in a “constant vaudeville” of contradictory stories which stop any real opposition from appearing because they cannot counter with a coherent narrative of their own. Individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a constant state of uncertainty. For me, Curtis’ description of the power of the media and politicians in the 21st century and the techniques they use to confuse and control is compelling and goes a long way to articulate and further much of what I understand from Debord’s arguments in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’.

Reification is the process of viewing the abstract as real (have a look at what Marx said on the subject); is the spectacle viewing the real as abstract or extreme reification?

Marx saw reification as being omnipresent in capitalism with all of its elements invoking a greater or lesser degree of reification. The fact that capitalism subordinates the lives of millions is obscured by commodity fetishism – an extreme form of alienation.

Lukács took this further by stating that modern capitalism is such that commodity fetishism can be extended to all fields of human activity – even consciousness.

John Harris uses the example of Facebook to prove the power of Debord’s argument and its relationship to reification: the Facebook friend is used as a way to monetise everything on the website, this inauthentic incorporation leads us to believe that the Facebook friendship is real when in fact it is classically, unbelievably spectacular. I find Harris’ argument compelling here and am led to conclude that the spectacle is indeed extreme reification.

Thoughts…

I now feel quite seduced with Debord’s thrust in ‘Society of the Spectacle’ although I would by no means pretend to fully understand it. From a position of frustrated lack of understanding that I experienced at the beginning of this project I have slowly began to comprehend what Debord is explaining as well as appreciating his complex means of expression which is necessary to project the complex, contradictory nature of the spectacle. I have read through the rest of the book and it does not get easier as it progresses nor has my ability to glean meaning at first read through improved. I will stick with it however and return every now and again because of the respect I have gained and insight achieved from the first section that is the basis of this project. Hopefully further reading (I intend to ‘dip in and out’ in the future) will broaden my understanding, I can understand what John Harris means when he describes the well-thumbed copy of the book that he owns.

Workflow wise this project has helped me get back on track somewhat. Having felt a little lost and disappointed following the previous project I was initially quite perturbed by the even more dense and difficult to understand words to be studied for this project. Rather than take a ‘hopefully it will all make sense soon’ approach like I had with Bourdieu I stuck with this and revisited the text a great deal, much more than I have for any of the other projects so far, eventually breaking down the extract into digestible pieces and considering these in isolation. I often wrote whatever came into my head as a response rather than trying to come up with definitive answers, sometimes just writing questions. This way of working through a difficult text through writing seems to have been a small breakthrough for me. Similarly, I have tried to worry less about what I am writing for the project and encouraged the words to flow which has given me a strong sense of accomplishment – a lot of what I have written may not be directly relevant and I have certainly missed out much more that I could have said but as is stated in the course notes “it is the attempt [that] matters at the moment.” My new mantra!

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Appropriation art, Weltanschauung, the spectacle, reification, alienation, simulacrum

Key figures for further research:

Sherrie Levine (After Walker Evans), Walker Evans, Michael Mandiberg (www.afterwalkerevans.com), Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, Lichenstein, Jean-Paul Satre, Feurebach, Kant, Hegel, Marx.

Bibliography:

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Curtis, A. (2014) Oh Dear segment on Charlie Brooker’s 2014wipe. BBC. Available online http://youtu.be/wcy8uLjRHPM [accessed August 2015]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Freud, S. A Philosophy of Life. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis (1933) publ. Hogarth Press. Available online https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/at/freud.htm [accessed August 2015]

Harris, J. (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian 30th March 2012 Available online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Hussey, A. (2001) Situation Abnormal: the suicide of Guy Debord. The Guardian 28th July 2001 Available online http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jul/28/biography.artsandhumanities [accessed August 2015]

Kaplan, R. L. (2012) Between mass society and revolutionary praxis: The contradictions of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. European Journal of Cultural Studies. Sage. Available online http://www.academia.edu/2235717/The_Contradictions_of_Guy_Debords_Society_of_the_Spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge

Self, W. (2013) Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. The Guardian 14th November 2013. Available online http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/14/guy-debord-society-spectacle-will-self [accessed August 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Walker, B. (2012) The Big ideas podcast: Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ The Guardian 28th March 2012. Available online http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/audio/2012/mar/28/big-ideas-podcast-debord-society-spectacle [accessed August 2015]

Project 1-4: Ideology and Interpellation

This project requires reading the essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards and investigation)” by Louis Althusser in the course reader (Evans and Hall, 1999) before considering the questions below.

How does Althusser’s structuralism show here?

 First we need to understand what is meant by structuralism. According to Sturken and Cartwright (2009), structuralism is a set of theories which came to prominence in the 1960s the premise being that cultural activity (that is the laws, codes, rules and conventions that structure human behaviour) can be measured objectively as a science. Macey (2000) also notes that structuralism was an attempt to unify the human sciences by applying a single methodology.

Structuralism originates from the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (although in ‘Course in General Linguistics’ he used the term system rather than structuralism) who attempted to show humans can be understood as though they are structured like language. Structuralism became a global movement adopted by other disciplines, for example, anthropology (Levi-Straus and Jakobson), philosophy (Merleau-Ponty), literary theory (Barthes – led to semiology), film studies (Metz), and Marxism (Althusser).

In the essay, Althusser first presents two theses as an approach towards this central argument on the structure and function of ideology. The first concerns the object which is presented in the imaginary form of ideology:

“Ideology represents the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”

Examples of ideologies being imaginary such as belief in God are given. Althusser says that it is only when you do not share the ideology that you can see it is imaginary.

The second thesis is that ideology has a material existence – Ideological State Apparatuses:

“an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice or practices. The existence is material.”

The thesis is explained through Althusser’s observations of religion – an individual adopts a practical attitude and participates in the regular practices of the ideological apparatus, that is, he goes to church, attends mass, kneels, prays, confesses and does penance. Examples of belief in duty and justice are also given.

Subjects are said to have a consciousness, that is, they believe and freely accept the ideas of the ideology. However, they must act in accordance with these ideas and if they do not are thought to be ‘wicked’.

Althusser talks of  ‘obviousness’ – that which we cannot fail to recognise as true and defines this as an ideological effect. The example given is of a friend who knocks on the door – we recognize their voice and on opening the door find that what we have believed to be trues is so – that is that the person we are greeted with is the friend we recognised from their voice.

Althusser’s main thesis is that ideology hails or interpellates individuals as concrete subjects: if an individual shouts a greeting at us in in the street, we turn 180 degrees and recognise that the hail is directed at us and thus become a subject through the recognition that we are being addressed.

The idea of an individual as a an always-already subject is given through the example of a new child being born. The ideological ritual surrounding the birth forms part of the familial ideological configuration through the rituals, rearing and education of the family. Freud’s theories of the pre-genital/genital stages and studies into the unconscious are used to add weight to the argument here. The article ends with a consideration of Christian religious ideology.

In essence, Althusser shows his structuralism through the development of his argument and the examples/metaphors he uses to illustrate them through the essay. Through my reading I only managed to gain an overall rather than in depth view of structuralism with the majority of sources discussing how structuralism was a precursor of semiotics – theories that are discussed in much greater depth. Post-structuralism originated from  Derrida’s criticism of structuralism and the fact that the theory has moved on can perhaps explain why many of the books I have do not give it a great deal of consideration. Interestingly, Althusser is not always cited as a key figure in structuralism which leads me to wonder how closely he associated himself with this school of thought.

What does Althusser mean by ideology?

 The wording of the question suggests what I have learned to be true through my reading about ideology – there is no straightforward definition, in fact, it has multiple meanings. Howells and Negreiros (2011) consider ideology to be a “complex, shifting, frequently misunderstood term.” It is often invested with negative connotations, however, in the simplest sense it is the study of ideas, system of thought and systems of belief.

New Keywords’ (Bennett et al, 2005) gives an interesting extension from the point that Williams analysis in ‘Keywords’ ends. Williams states that ideology first appeared in English in the late 18thC as a direct translation of the French word idélogie originating from the work of a group of French enlightenment philosophers who aimed to bring scientific method to understanding the mind. Napoleon began the modern pejorative definition of ideology as an attack on enlightenment ideals and this definition expanded throughout the 19thC, used primarily by conservatives to label any supposedly extreme or revolutionary political theory or platform. Marx and Engels continued to use ideology in the pejorative sense to mean abstract or false thought, false consciousness, or unreality. In ‘The German Ideology’ (1845-7) Marx and Engels used the metaphor that ideology presents the world as if being viewed through a camera obscura – always upside down. Bennett et al (2005) describe ideology as a narrow set of conflicting beliefs (such as liberal, conservative, socialist) – it is always the opposing point of view that is ideological rather than ones own. They argue that in the ea.21stC, ideology as a political concept has diminished due to the end of the cold war and the seeming lack of alternative to democratic capitalism. The modern meaning of ideology is that it is likely to be a clash of civilizations (often religion) and that ideology is equated to idealism and opposed to realism.

At the beginning of ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses’, Althusser defines ideology as world outlooks – for example religious, ethical, legal or political. However, he quickly begins to pick apart failings in ideology: he challenges us to think about an ideology we do not share, such as God, duty or justice, and points out that from the non believing point of view we can see that these ideologies constitute an illusion: “ideology = illusion/allusion.” He continues to state that ideology equals an imaginary representation of the real world.

The method in which ideology exists in the world is described as the ideological state apparatus –  the material existence of an ideology. Individuals who live in an ideology have an imaginary relationship to their conditions of existence, that is, relations of production and class. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, has no history, and has the effect of obviousness – that is, what we cannot fail to recognize. Subjects freely believe in the ideas promoted by the ideology accepting and acting accordingly to these ideas. There is the illusion of free will (false consciousness) as subjects choose to conform to ideologies, not conforming is seen as inconsistent, cynical or perverse:

“those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: the ideology never says I am ideological.”

Individuals are “always-already” ideological subjects. This can be demonstrated by the way the rituals surrounding the expectation of a birth play out and the way a child is formed into the ideology of the family with all of the expectations that go with this:

“[there] is a mutual recognition of subjects and Subject, and the subjects recognition of each other, and finally the subjects recognition of himself.”

Is there in your view an area of visual culture where this idea may seem to act in an overt way? Find examples and make notes on them.

 The keyword in this question is ‘overt’, Althusser seems to go to great lengths to describe how the interpellation of ideology is a mainly covert process. A parallel can be drawn between the ‘soft power’ of ideological state apparatus that requires persuasion rather than the violent, physical coercion that would define the ‘hard power’ of repressive state apparatus. In the modern age where we are bombarded with visual culture and are quite sophisticated in reading their messages (although it could be argued some of these readings are based on understanding conventions rather than having a conscious understanding.) It is difficult therefore to think of many overt representations of ideology in western visual culture, perhaps the most obvious example of this is advertising.

As I write this in November, the advertising cycle is gearing toward the peak Christmas season. The most discussed commercials are for John Lewis and Sainsbury’s – interestingly neither of these directly sell the viewer anything each having a strong sense of narrative and boasting production values that would not be out of place in a Hollywood film.

Over the past few years, John Lewis Christmas adverts have become something of an event. Indeed this year the first showing of their commercial was advertised itself and greeted with a degree of anticipation. The adverts are interesting in that although they are different each year, (2013 featured an animation for example)  they follow a set of conventions that make them clearly identifiable – there is a narrative conforming to the John Lewis brand identity of family as well as being aspirational. They have high production values and are artfully put together without being fussy – they are classy. And lastly, their soundtrack is a well known song given a completely different interpretation, usually only a voice and guitar or piano. The adverts are all about reinforcing our trust in the John Lewis brand rather than being overtly sold anything – products do not feature. We are being reassured that spending our money with John Lewis will lead to happiness and satisfaction, the adverts are a hit with the public and commentators alike being a topic for discussion at work or being shared on social media (have you seen the new John Lewis advert?) In fact, the only criticism I have heard in the media about this years advert is that the stuffed penguin soft toys (2014s star)  the chain are selling are low on availability and too highly priced at £95.

See the John Lewis Christmas 2014 advert here:

The Sainsbury’s Christmas advert has caused much more debate however as it depicts the famous football match between British and German soldiers on Christmas day 1914. The reasons given for the subject matter are that Sainsbury’s have long been a supporter of the British Legion and they wanted to mark the centenary of World War I (they are also raising money for the charity as part of the campaign.) The production values are as high as any top end Hollywood film and there is no doubt that the piece is a well put together piece of work. The advert has been accused of cynically exploiting the public mood for remembrance in this centenary year of the beginning of the Great War, currently opinions seem to be stretched between the two opposing poles of for and against and I guess only time will tell if the advert promotes or damages Sainsbury’s as a brand.

See the Sainsbury’s Christmas 2014 advert here:

There seems to me to be a great deal of truth in Althusser’s arguments about the subtle nature of ideology and the fact that I struggle to find overt examples of ideology in modern visual culture demonstrates this. True there are many examples of how the norms of society such as the presentation of beauty and glamour, and concepts of good and evil are presented in a variety of media. In this age of multi channel media outlets it is no longer the case that only one ideology is presented – there are always a great deal of opinions and voices that oppose any particular point of view. And yet despite this, the normalcy of democratic capitalism and the requirement to aspire to more consumer wealth is all pervasive and anything opposing this is seen as deviant.

Notes on Althusser:

Louis Althusser (1918-90) was an Algerian born French Marxist philosopher, regarded by Macey (2000) as “perhaps the most sophisticated of post-war Marxists.” Althusser aimed to revive the revolutionary purpose of Marxism and construct a theory that could make real, practical difference to the world. Although his legacy is uncertain, he succeeded in reworking many of Marx’s key concepts and introduced a degree of intellectual rigour into Marxist philosophy.

Althusser’s education at the prestigious Parisian institution Ecolé Normale Supérieure (ENS) was interrupted in 1939 when he was drafted into the army. He was almost immediately captured by the Germans however and spent the duration of the war as a POW. Resuming his education after the war he became a tutor in 1948 and, although he gained renown his academic career was unconventional and he never held a senior University position. His entire career was spent teaching at ENS and many of his students went on to have influential careers including Foucault and Derrida. Althusser’s physical and mental health was always uncertain and he was hospitalised several times. His goal as an author was to produce a complete reinterpretation of Marx’s theories and establish a theoretical link between Marx and psychoanalysis. Although prolific, he failed to produce a full theoretical account and a substantial corpus of unpublished work was discovered after his death.

Althusser reasoned that the scientific understanding of society could enable a program of change to be implemented. He argued for a ‘return to Marx’, he believed in his ‘mature’ works Marx had founded the science of historical materialism (the general laws of the development of society) however, his work remained incomplete and it was the purpose of contemporary Marxism to continue this. He renovated Marx’s base/superstructure metaphor into the concepts of repressive state apparatus (RSA) and ideological state apparatus (ISA) along with the idea of ideology as interpellation.

Although Althusser was a member of the French Communist Party from the 1950s he was often an isolated and embattled figure within the organisation whose writings appealed to a young audience rather than the party leadership. This can be encapsulated by his disagreement with the party following Khrushkev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. Although he was sympathetic to the anti-Stalinist positon he felt this betrayed the revolutionary spirit of Marx and was designed to discredit the heritage of Lenin. His enthusiasm for Mao also went against the FCP’s pro Soviet stance.

Althusser’s stock as a theorist went into decline following the Paris student uprisings of 1968: Althusser was expected to participate and although it was illness that prevented him doing so he was also highly critical. His inadequate responses to China’s cultural revolution and lack of acknowledgement of Solzhenitsyn and the existence of gulags in the USSR also contributed. Despite this, in the 1970s the influential British film studies journal “Screen” championed his thoughts and he became an influence on upcoming theorists Pierre Machery and Terry Eagleton.

In his final years his controversies were personal rather than political: in 1980 he strangled to death his partner of 34 years. Although he was never convicted of murder he was hospitalised for 3 years following this and spent the rest of his life unable to be published.

Key Works: ‘For Marx’ (1969), ‘Reading Capital’ (1965 with Balibar), ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ (1971)

Thoughts…

This is by far the most complex project I have undertaken so far, both in terms of scope and complexity of the text. I made the decision at the beginning of this exercise to read as much as I could about the subject – this meant also researching points that were raised in my general reading. My understanding has certainly moved forward, but, I am nowhere near proficient in my knowledge of the subject. A quick search on Amazon for books about ideology brought up scores of titles – it is probably no exaggeration to say that I could have researched for the next year and not read enough!

I found Althusser’s writing style to be complex yet repetitive. It seems to me that he is not concerned about the clarity of his prose for the reader. (I at least felt a little better that the blogs of fellow students I looked at seemed to have the same difficulty with his writing style.) The reproduced essay in Evans and Hall is an extremely truncated version of the full text which was published in ‘Lenin and Philosophy’, reading the full essay helped extend my understanding and the development of Althusser’s arguments seemed more logical. Writing down my thoughts was a struggle as I kept hoping that the next piece of study or rereading of the essay would further my understanding, and although it has to an extent I realise I have not been able to give the full response to the questions I would like. Interestingly, the process of putting finger to keyboard has highlighted to me both strengths and weaknesses in my understanding and this is a technique I will try in the next project to see if I can find my blind spots quicker and then return with to more research to fill them in.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Ideology, interpellation, hegemony, structuralism, post-structuralism, empirical, imperialism, alienation, bourgeois, proletariat, alienation, the enlightenment, common sense (Gramsci), ideological consensus, ideological struggle, dominant ideoology, ideological state apparatus, repressive state apparatus, false conciousness, class conciousness, end of ideology, epistemology.

Key figures for further research:

 Karl Marx, Frederick Engels (The German Ideoology), Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), Morris (workshop based system of production), Antonio Gramsci (Prison Notebooks), Lacan, Satre (bad faith), Geertz, Daniel Bell (end of ideology thesis), George Lukacs, Hegel, Karl Mannheim, Ernesto Laclau, Stuart Hall.

Bibliography:

Althusser, L. (2001) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Bennett, Tony; Grossberg, Lawrence; Morris Meaghan (Eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (2005)   Wiley-Blackwell, Revised Edition

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Polity Press

Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) London: Penguin books p.9

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, R. (2010) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press.

Project 1-3: Base and Superstructure

This project requires reading a section on ‘Base and Superstructure’ from Daniel Chandler’s article on ‘Marxist MediaTheory’

http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/Documents/marxism/marxism02.html Accessed July 2014

In his introduction, Chandler recognises that although neo-Marxist approaches to media theory were common in Britain and Europe from the late 1960s – early 80s there was no common school of thought and also that the jargon used often seems impenetrable to the uninitiated. The neo-Marxists  tend to emphasise the role of the mass media in the reproduction of the status quo. An opposing view is provided by liberal pluralists who contend that media promotes freedom of speech.

What did Marx mean by ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’?

The terms ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ describe the relationship between the economic base: the forces and relations of production or labour and economics, and, the superstructure: the state, legal, political and ideological forms or social systems and consciousness. The theory is expressed in “The German Ideology” (1845-6 Marx and Engels) and the preface of “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859 Marx).

Marx argues that the mode of production of material life (the base) determines social, political and intellectual life (the superstructure) and that the ruling ideas/dominant ideology of any given historical period are those of the ruling class. Changes in the economic base of society will eventually transform the entire ideological superstructure, however, the superstructure is unable to influence the base.

Of the different ways of looking at the subject outlined by Chandler, which makes most sense and why?

Agreement with the base/superstructure model suggests that the messages carried by mass media are rooted in the economic base of the institutions that produce them. That is, in order to viable organisations must maximise their potential audience-they do this to satisfy the needs of advertisers that provide their revenue. Media institutions that are controlled by the state tend to gravitate toward the middle ground politically. Applying the base/superstructure model to mass media provides an inherent concern over ownership and control of the media. In classical Marxist terms the mass media are a means of production in the ownership of the ruling class perpetuating their ideas and world views and denying alternative ideas.

Critics of an economic explanation of mass media behaviour argue that the base/superstructure model fails to account for diversity and the role of the audience in mass media, that is, the relationship between base and superstructure is not purely one way and can be reciprocal. Although the balance of power is not even and is often in a state of flux.

The classical Marxist reading of base/superstructure seems both appealing and too simplistic to me: I believe notions such as a ‘free press’ and ‘objective reporting’ (if news media is taken as an example) are too readily taken as truth and not analysed sufficiently. The modern media is unrecognisable from what Marx would have understood in the 19thC: it can no longer be said that the media solely perpetuates the ideology of the ruling class as there are now too many avenues of communication, I think particularly of the information that can be found on the internet. Perversely the huge amount of information that is available to us through new media goes some way to validate more traditional forums as they have a cache of respectability and trust-perhaps freedom of information is a myth? Powerful media moguls (such as Rupert Murdoch) in modern capitalist society are significant and not something anticipated by Marx. If the state is the prevailing influence on media why is endorsement of media organisations so important to politicians?

Does your understanding of base and superstructure vary depending in whether you are looking at society in general or the media and the arts?

In modern British/western society there is an almost accepted view that we live in an independent and autonomous way with freedom of thought, movement and the ability to better ourselves. Similarly, it is commonly accepted that the media operates outside of political influence. The opposite view of this is that we merely experience the illusion of being able to change our way of life (it has been said that the gulf between rich and poor has never been wider) and that there is little we can do to affect the world in which we live. This idea is kept in check because the media fails to report it and is therefore complicit with the ruling elite. (If those in power are not an elite how do we explain so many cabinet ministers from privileged public school background?) Like the base/superstructure model these opposing views are too simplistic, in my view there are elements of truth on both sides. The idea of a controlling elite either in government or the media does not take into account the way many elements of society and the media interact.

In modern capitalism the media needs to be funded somehow, advertising is the main vehicle for this and media organisations can be seen as subservient to advertisers meaning there content is conservative in nature as they do not wish to upset those that keep there business going-no brand would want to be associated with a media organisation that is too controversial.

The definition of base/superstructure described by Marx makes more sense to me when applied to society as this can be more closely allied with the Marxist view of capitalist society even though modern capitalism has evolved immeasurably since Marx was writing. Because the modern media is so different to anything Marx could have understood base/superstructure seems less relevant. The relationship between media organisations and society seems much more complex and far reaching than the theory can allow especially today when we all have the ability to create our own media and make it available to almost everyone through digital technology and the internet.

Thoughts….

I have found this to be an extremely challenging exercise as (while interesting) the text we are asked to read does not give sufficient information to answer the questions posed. The subject is vast and more importantly extremely controversial with many opposing points of view and differing approaches. I wonder how much posing these questions at this point of the course is a deliberate strategy to push the student out of their comfort zone? I have found myself considering the questions here at length and not really getting any cut through. With the previous two projects I felt that (although I do not pretend to yet fully understand) I had made progress and was starting to tackle new ways of thinking. With this exercise I feel more uncertain and less informed than when I started, my knowledge of the subject is not sufficient to be able to have yet formulated a full opinion. If I consider this logically however I can appreciate how this can be a benefit-I know that Marxist theory and many of the sources quoted appear again later in the course, hopefully as I progress I will absorb more theory and gain better understanding. Despite this I do feel guilty moving on as I know there is so much more reading I could have done….the danger however is that I would get hung up on this rather than progressing with the course, hopefully I will revisit again in the future.

Keywords and concepts for research:

Marxism (neo-Marxism, orthodox Marxism, classical Marxism, fundamentalist Marxism, Culturalist Marxism) scientific socialism, materialistic theories (dialectical materialism, scientific materialism, historical materialism) post-structuralism, post modern, dialectical method (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal pluralism, functionalism, social being, social consciousness, political economy.

Key figures for further research:

Marx, Engels, Hegel, Curran, Murdock, Althusser, Lapsley and Westlake, Hirst, Hall, Gramsci.