Cultural Hegemony Research Paper

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The concept of ‘hegemony’ has provided one of the most influential theoretical frameworks in contemporary cultural and media studies, and Marxist intellectual work in particular. While imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist regime in the 1920s and 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony to address the question of why the working class failed to make a communist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries despite Marx’s prophecy. By ‘hegemony’, Gramsci (1971) intended to conceptualize the pivotal role of cultural persuasion in acquiring, exercising, maintaining, or challenging power without resorting to physical coercion. Stated briefly, the concept of hegemony refers to a historical process in which a dominant group exercises ‘moral and intellectual leadership’ throughout society by winning the voluntary ‘consent’ of popular masses.

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1. The Concept Of Hegemony

The concept of hegemony can be more effectively understood when it is compared to Gramsci’s notion of ‘domination,’ as each term represents a different kind of power. Whereas domination rests on a dominant group’s coercion of the less powerful, hegemony relies on a dominant group’s ability to procure subordinate groups’ consent to the existing social order. Domination belongs to the state, which Gramsci called ‘political society,’ and is equipped with instruments of coercion such as the police and armed forces. In contrast, hegemony takes place in the realm of private institutions—including those outside of the spheres of economic production and the state, such as families, churches, trade unions, and the media— which Gramsci called ‘civil society.’ Gramsci attributed the political stability and obedience of the working class in Western European countries to the hegemony built into the vigorous civil societies of those countries. Consent and coercion always coexist, but typically, dominant groups in contemporary capitalist societies rule through hegemony unless severe social and political crises require directly coercive interventions.

1.1 The Concepts Of Consensus And Historical Bloc

The essence of the concept of hegemony lies in the idea of subordinates’ consent. According to Gramsci, the consent of subordinates is constructed when a dominant group’s particular world view is accepted by the subordinate groups as their world view, and thus the dominant group’s interests appear to be the interests of the society at large. As a result, the dominant group is seen as entitled to its ethical and intellectual leadership and arises as a hegemonic group in a particular historical period. Moral and political authority legitimated by popular consent characterizes hegemony as power from below, distinguished from power wielded by coercion or by manipulation from the top down.

However, the paradox of subordinates’ consent to their subordination in the long run raises suspicions about the nature of popular consent (Lears 1985). Indeed, some critics of the concept of hegemony have questioned how subordinates can give consent to what will adversely affect their interests unless they are selfdeceived in false consciousness. The very idea of ‘false consciousness’ threatens to undermine the concept of hegemony in at least two ways. First, if one accepts the idea of false consciousness as the basis of popular consent, subordinates’ consent is the outcome of sheer manipulation, and Gramsci might be accused of elitism for his implicit assumption that the popular masses are dupes. Alternatively, if one rejects the idea of false consciousness by arguing that people know the purpose of their actions and consistently base their actions on rationally determined self-interest, then the consensus may represent genuine or true consensus. Then, the characteristic of hegemony as dominance over subordinates would be invalidated, and their actual grievance or resistance may slip from view.

Both Jackson Lears (1985) and Stuart Hall (1996a) responded to this dilemma by rejecting the binary opposition of false and true consciousness in understanding the nature of consent. They instead embraced Gramsci’s idea of ‘contradictory consciousness’ grounded in ‘common sense.’ According to Gramsci, common sense as everybody’s spontaneously arrived at philosophy constitutes the popular masses’ practical consciousness guiding their actions. However, `common sense’ is fragmented and contradictory; the human conception of the world is `disjointed and episodic’ rather than `critical and coherent’ (Gramsci 1971, p. 324). Gramsci’s conception of `contradictory consciousness’ as the condition of humanity makes it possible to understand that human action does not always result from fully conscious free choices based on rational calculations. Individuals’ subtle subjective meanings and psychology also lead human action. So, without subscribing to the idea of false consciousness, one can understand popular consent in this broader picture of human beings whose consciousness may be `contradictory,’ but not `false’ (Lears 1985, Hall 1996a).

The formative process of hegemony, for Gramsci, also involves a `historical bloc.’ According to Gramsci, a historical bloc means an alliance of disparate groups or class fractions which is bound not only by shared economic interests but also by a particular world view, understood as ideology which cements varied classes and groups into a unity of collective will. An instance of the successful formation of a hegemonic historical bloc is found in the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. According to Gramsci, the French revolution was possible because the Jacobins were able to bring the French bourgeoisie class fractions and the great popular masses together under discourses of `equality, fraternity and liberty.’ These discourses were not just the bourgeois class’s language circulating only within its own circles, but also the popular masses’ words rejecting the exigencies of their time in the French cultural tradition. By identifying the interests of the bourgeois class with the general interests of all the national forces in French society, the bourgeois class was able to form a historical bloc, and to exercise the intellectual and moral authority to lead the masses toward the revolutionary struggles. This case also makes clear that ideology plays a crucial role in building a historical bloc through both economic and spiritual solidarity.

In this vein, hegemony seems to represent the most effective and formidable means of exercising power. Steven Lukes (1974) argued that a significant layer of power is found in the ability of powerholders to affect and modify the desires and beliefs of the powerless to the extent that resistance from the powerless cannot easily take place. With regard to the concept of hegemony, this view of power highlights the cultural dimension of power and offers insights into the acquiescence of subordinates under hegemonic consensus (Gaventa 1980). However, this view may unwittingly generate the impression that hegemony is such an unconquerable, overarching form of power that it can prevent subordinates’ possible resistance in the first place by saturating their consciousness with hegemonic ideologies. An important question follows from this impression: `Is popular resistance really possible, and if so, what makes it possible?’ This question rejects Gramsci’s foremost concern. In explicating the concept of hegemony, Gramsci constantly emphasized the instability of hegemony, and enthusiastically proposed the possibility that subordinate and popular groups may form `counterhegemonies.’ The idea of counterhegemony suggests Gramsci’s vision of social change embodied in the concept of hegemony itself.

1.2 Hegemony, Cultural Resistance, And Social Change

The question of where power lies is closely related to an interest in the source of change and in the ways of making a difference in history for practical and political purpose (Lukes 1974). Gramsci understood popular consent as the locus of, as well as a means of, subverting hegemony, and as a strategy for historical social change. Hegemony is not a complete state or system but a historical process which needs `continually to be renewed, recreated, defended’ and is also `continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures’ (Williams 1977, p. 112).

What, then, may be the grounds for the possibility of alternative or counter hegemony? For Gramsci, common sense makes it possible for subordinates to come to occasional understandings of the conditions of their subordination and exploitation. By combining common sense with the coherent philosophy of the intellectual class, subordinates can constitute themselves as historical agents. Then, common sense turns out to be a strategically important terrain of ideological struggles. Since popular masses make sense of their world and themselves through common sense, various groups and classes compete over moral and intellectual leadership in this terrain.

The concept of a historical bloc also opens up the possibility of forming a national popular alliance led by subordinate groups for an alternative or a counter hegemony. Discussions about a historical bloc in counter hegemony have been extended and elaborated by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) and Stuart Hall (1996b). According to them, the principle underlying hegemony is `articulation,’ which refers to the practices of linking disparate groups, disparate ideologies, or various forces into a unity. In other words, a historical bloc is the very outcome of articulations.

Utilizing the concept of articulation, Laclau and Mouffe argue that there is no necessary, intrinsic tie between ideologies and classes, as assumed in such terms as, `bourgeois ideology’ or `working class ideology.’ Rather, certain ideologies come to serve certain groups’ or classes’ interests, and represent the world view of members of a class as a result of their efforts to articulate ideologies according to their own interests. In the French Revolution, for example, the Jacobins succeeded in articulating the ideology of `liberty and equality’ to the bourgeois class. Therefore, Laclau and Mouffe believe that subordinate groups such as women, people of color, ethnic minorities, and others can also enlist the ideology of liberty and equality to carry out a new, radical, democratic project in contemporary capitalism. This project implies that the working class is not exclusively responsible for the task of social and political transformation. That is, in contemporary modern society, relations of dominance and subordination do not hinge solely on the axis of class; the concept of a historical bloc as a strategic alliance can be applied to the strategies of `all’ classes and groups (Laclau and Mouffe 1985, Hall 1996b, p. 425). Moreover, individual human subjectivity and class identity are not a priori fixed and unified. Rather, individuals and groups negotiate and construct their own identities in the articulatory practices of hegemony.

Laclau and Mouffe and Hall have not so much diverged the theory of hegemony as they have returned to Gramsci’s argument that people, as the ensemble of social relations and thus as contradictory subject, `create their own personality’ (Gramsci 1971, p. 360). In the concept of hegemony, the popular masses’ ideological struggles and cultural resistance to form a collective will against the existing hegemony constitute the essential base of social and political change.

1.3 The Implications For Theories Of Culture

The concept of hegemony marks a groundbreaking departure from classical Marxist understandings of culture, which stand on the `base superstructure’ model. According to this model, the economic foundation of society, called the `base,’ determines the social, political, cultural life processes called the `superstructures.’ Related to this model is the proposition that the dominant ideas in a given society are the ideas of the economic ruling class. Upon these propositions, the complexity of culture is conceived of as a pale rejection of the economic imperatives of capitalism, and as an expression of the interests of the ruling class. In this line of thinking, culture is understood in terms of `ideology’ which was identified with `false consciousness.’ Therefore, cultural theories in the Marxist tradition have been underdeveloped and often limited to critiques of ideology.

In this context, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has brought remarkable changes to the understanding of culture. In the concept of hegemony, culture takes on a fundamentally important, formative role. Culture is grasped as a complicated, contradictory, multilayered sphere in which ideas and values are materialized in the forms of varied institutions. With the concept of hegemony, Gramsci significantly reformulated the relations between base and superstructure as dialectical interactions rather than a one-way causal determination, and emphasized cultural struggles. Therefore, he could establish the understanding of the relative autonomy of culture from the economic base, and effectively overcame the classical Marxist tendency toward both economic and class reductionism of superstructures.

In this regard, Raymond Williams, an injuential Marxist literary critic, convincingly argued that, by conceptualizing culture as `a whole social process’ and by connecting it to the power relations of domination and subordination, the concept of hegemony dialectically develops two powerful earlier concepts, `culture’ and `ideology’ (Williams 1977, p. 108). The concept of counter hegemony also emphasizes the relative autonomy of politics from the base, and facilitates the recognition of nonelite classes as agents of historical and political change.

2. Applications Of The Concept Of Hegemony In Cultural And Media Studies

Cultural and media studies have applied the concept of hegemony to understand and analyze the roles and meanings of various cultural and media forms and practices. Several of these applications are brieJy described in the following four areas: `journalism, ‘ `textual analysis,’ `subcultures,’ and `audiences.’

2.1 The Analysis Of Journalism

A seminal work relying on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony emerged from British cultural studies. Stuart Hall et al. (1978) argued that the radical right in the 1970s was able to reintegrate the crisis of the social democratic consensus into a new `law and order’ framework and smoothly usher in Thatcherism. Underlying the reconstructed popular consent was a moral panic against social crime like mugging. The moral panic, created through the work of the mass media as well as judiciary practices, was interwoven with racist bias, further mobilizing popular anxiety. This work demonstrates the ideological work of mass media as well as that of the state in recovering hegemony.

In the USA, Todd Gitlin (1980) took up the concept of hegemony as a theoretical framework to explain the relationship between the US news media and social movements in contest with broad popular consent in the 1960s. He illuminated how commercial news `framed’ the antiwar movement in ways that `trivialized’ and `marginalized’ it, and consequently how the New Left finally failed to control the public cultural space. According to Gitlin, news is a way of interpreting, organizing, and presenting the news, and it is a routine journalistic practice rooted in journalists’ professional beliefs. Through this framing practice, the news media tend to implicitly define dissident social actors as illegitimate, and to deject, absorb, and domesticate oppositional or convicting ideas in ways that reinforce the hegemony. For instance, journalists reported on antiwar student leaders as they would report on celebrities, since this `celebrity frame’ met their need for spokespeople, based on the code of objectivity and concern for the newsworthiness of the story. Furthermore, this frame could also satisfy the commercial media’s preference for the human interest angle. However, the impact of this frame on the student leaders was devastating. Subject to the glamor and pressures of popularity under this frame, the leaders became estranged from the movement base, and the movement itself gradually lost control of its own leaders. As a result, despite their original intention to use the media to reach the great popular masses, the antiwar movement failed to obtain popular consent.

If news framing is a routine practice, then how can news frames be changed? If commercial news frames maintain hegemony, as Gitlin concluded, one must look elsewhere for possible conditions for social change. Daniel C. Hallin’s (1989, 1994) work on US coverage of the Vietnam war and of the convict’s in Central America offers valuable insights. By tracing shifts in news framing, Hallin identified dynamic relations between the news media and the dominant political group, which underlay the competition of different frames for a hegemonic presence. According to Hallin, depending on the degree of consensus among the political elite, news coverage of war took on different frames. Hallin stressed that journalistic routines relying on official sources (e.g., press conference) tend to constrain the media’s consensus over the frame to the boundaries of the hegemonic view. But he also convincingly argued that when the hegemonic group reveals cracks in the political power bloc, the media become more critical and independent, and journalist routines break down. As a result, dissident views and groups can be framed more positively, until the hegemonic group, recovering its unity, actively engages in repairing the boundaries of general consensus in society. These analyses of journalistic routines and news framing successfully connect the microlevel sociology of journalism with the macrolevel politics of hegemony, and simultaneously suggest the possibility of social change.

Tamar Liebes (1997) shed light on another dimension of journalists’ voluntary consent to the hegemonic social order. According to her work on Israeli media coverage of the Arab Israeli convicts, Israeli journalists genuinely believe in the necessity of censorship for national security and, as a result, they actively compromise their ideals of free speech and professional autonomy by colluding with military censorship. Thus, journalistic `self-censorship’ of news routinely takes place before any forceful, formal official censorship actually occurs. Despite the fact that Israeli journalists self-consciously perform self-censorship, interestingly enough, they are rarely seen as either manipulators of public opinion or conspirators with hegemonic power. Rather, as Liebes showed, the journalists’ consent to Zionism as a dominant ideology was formed and internalized throughout their life experiences in the Israeli culture and history; that is, the journalists are both part of the community and members of the elite group. The discussions of Gitlin, Hallin, and Liebes on the practices of journalism are distinguished from the instrumental view which considers the news media as a tool for the privilege group. For example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) argued that the media are a propaganda system which is controlled and directly manipulated by the elite so as to benefit the powerful and the state. Their approach ignores the decentered hegemonic process which Gitlin, Hallin, and Liebes argued by revealing the dimension of journalist acculturation as well as socialization in news organization.

2.2 The Analysis Of Texts

The concept of hegemony has injuenced the theories and practices of `textual analysis’ by conceptualizing texts as site of struggles over meaning, not as means of inculcating dominant ideologies. Textual analysis in cultural studies has been applied to various cultural forms and practices, in particular film and television in media studies. It has significantly contributed to the understanding of ways in which dominant meanings are encoded in cultural products so that readers take the established social order for granted. In many textual analyses, however, audiences were often assumed to be passive and vulnerable to dominant ideologies; texts, especially the mass media, were easily credited with powerful ideological effects. Many textual analyses tend to read the ruling class’s or state’s successful hegemonic process directly from the text, to privilege the researchers’ perspective, or to easily assume subordinates’ consent (Condit 1994). These limitations may become serious in cases where rearchers endorse language-centrism to the extent that only language and its structure determine human subjects and power struggles, apart from texts’ meanings in peoples’ real social life process which Gramsci relentlessly emphasized.

2.3 Studies Of Subculture And Popular Culture

The concept of hegemony provided a key theoretical framework to British subcultural studies in the 1970s. Subcultural studies inquired into the everyday life of the young working class and the meanings of their cultural consumption in a framework of power inequality (Hall and Jefferson 1976, Hebdige 1979). The researchers were primarily concerned with the styles of youth subcultures in the UK such as mods, rockers, teddy boys, and punks. According to them, these teenagers actively create their styles by appropriating various symbols out of consumerism to construct and express their identity and to resist the hegemonic social order. In this view, styles are not only sites for negotiating meanings but also forms of cultural resistance built in lived experience, although not all of their responses prove potentially counterhegemonic. This body of work on youth cultures takes popular culture seriously as the terrain of symbolic struggle, which is not necessarily bound to the economic class struggle.

Research on long-term consequences of youth subculture on power relations by Paul Willis (1977) fascinatingly demonstrated how working-class boys’ counter school culture prepares them for reproducing themselves as laborers. Although Willis did not employ Gramscian terminology, this work may deepen the understanding of hegemony. In this ethnographic work, Willis observed that the schoolboys’ resistant practices, intertwined with the dominant values of masculinity as patriarchal ideology, ultimately produced their concession to the existing power relations. In such a case, any simple dichotomy of `resistance’ and `hegemony’ becomes problematized, and the line between them blurred. Willis showed that hegemonic consensus contains very contradictory and uneven processes with unintended consequences, which refutes any necessary correspondences between consciousness, practices, and material conditions.

Recent applications of the concept of hegemony to subculture and popular culture seem to be located in a broader cultural matrix than the earlier British subcultural studies embedded in the context of `English culture.’ Focusing on race, gender, ethnicity, class, age, and other axes of cultural subordination, studies of subculture and popular culture have examined the complicated process of cultural politics. For example, rap music is not simply a music for the young. It is an important form of young black cultural resistive expressions in the USA. Black urban male rap artists strenuously attempt to delegitimate powerful social order by criticizing racism and police brutality on blacks; but at the same time their lyrics often reject sexist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic ideas (Rose 1994). Cultural politics hardly proceed without contradiction.

2.4 The Analysis Of Audience

After the injuential Marxist linguist Mikhail Bakhtin argued compellingly that language innately bears a multiplicity of voice in conversation, the understanding of the monolithic and predetermined ideological role of texts has come under criticism. Following this, abundant interest in audiences’ interpretations of texts has Jourished in cultural and media studies. With regard to the concept of hegemony, this interest seems promising to provide substantial empirical evidence about popular consent, culled from audiences’ actual interpretations of symbolic work.

A theoretically significant model sparking the emergence of critical audience studies was proposed by Stuart Hall’s (1980) `Encoding} decoding.’ He suggested three decoding positions, i.e., `dominant-hegemonic,’ `negotiated,’ and `oppositional’ positions in which the accommodation of hegemony and popular struggles over meaning can be simultaneously considered. These reading positions help to identify whether audiences read a text according to the way that the message is `dominantly’ encoded, or in an `oppositional’ way although they would understand the dominant meaning preferred by the producers of the message; or, they generally accept the dominant meaning of the text but partially read against it in a `negotiated’ way of rejecting their own interests. Building on this model, David Morley (1980) launched a landmark work on audience reception of a British news magazine television program. In this work, Morley, who was primarily interested in working-class audience interpretation of the program, concluded that neither text nor audiences’ social class directly determine audience readings. After his work, audience research proliferated and has provided evidence that audiences are capable of interpreting texts oppositionally or alternatively based on their own social experiences, and of using texts for their own purpose.

The shift of focus from the text to the audience and from ideology to cultural resistance runs parallel to increasing interest in counter hegemony in the context of everyday life, although some research has been criticized for its tendency to celebrate audience autonomy without evidencing any substantial social consequences.

Cultural and media studies since the 1980s tend to be theoretically more synthetic, including Gramsci’s concept of hegemony together with other postmodern theories, and have drawn more attention to issues of identity politics. Noticeably, scholars outside of the Anglo-American context have increased their presence in English-speaking forums, and have enriched cultural and media studies. For example, deeply engaged with the concept of hegemony, Nestor Garcхa Canclini (1995) and Jesus Martхn-Barbero (1993) have offered valuable elaboration on the development and complexity of popular culture, and on the active struggles for the formation of new cultural identities in Latin America. Case studies of Mexican film, Brazilian popular music, and the telenoЉela illuminate how the melodramatic and cultural imaginations of the popular classes in everyday life are articulated popular with cultural memories as a way to form new cultural identities (Martın-Barbero 1993).

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has been continually reinterpreted and applied to different areas of cultural and media studies, depending on the immediate social and cultural questions of theorists in specific social and historical contexts. However, all research relying on the concept of hegemony shares a common pursuit in criticizing culture as a source of control, and, simultaneously, in envisioning it as a source of resistance.


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