Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Rethinking West

After our discussion in class yesterday I would like to offer a "rethinking" of West's article.

I still think that "the threat of nihilism" is a cop out. And these are my reasons: First, West argues that when Africans were brought to the New World that there was a struggle against nihilism, but that the people overcame it by turning to culture and community (277). Second, he states the reason nihilism is a threat now is because of the "commodification of black life and the crisis of black leadership" (278). Ok, I would like to address the commodification of black life first. It was brought up in class that this commodification is of the "hip-hop" culture. I am confused how this leads to nihilism. Is this because other races/cultures are taking on the attributes of a traditionally black culture? In my opinion, and granted it may not be the "correct" one, much of the hip-hop culture has brought community and agency to black Americans. I realize that now, in this day and age, that there is a ongoing debate as to the content of rap and hip-hop, but at the time of this article, I don't think that debate was as prevalent - maybe I am wrong. It seems that many black Americans have been able to pull themselves out of the "asphalt jungles" because of the commodification of black life. Although, this may be an example of what he is arguing is part of the threat of nihilism.

On page 279, West argues that the nihilistic threat was "at bay" because of the breakthroughs in the 60's. But "the combination of the market way of life, poverty-ridden conditions, black existential angst, and the lessoning of fear towards white authorities has driected most of the anger, rage, and despair toward fellow black citizens, especially black women" (279). Is he arguing that history is causing black Americans to turn against their own race? I am confused. I understand that living in poverty would make someone angry or feel hopeless, howver, I don't see the connection between a lessoning fear of white authority and the turning of this anger towards their own people. The market way of life also makes me think that West is arguing that commodities, or the lack their of, are a problem within black communities. Obviously, poverty addresses this issue.

I hope this helps to make my point more clear. I realize my abstract wasn't as concise as it could have been.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why Not One More

Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in black America”

by Tyson Livingston

Description of Article

The article discusses the plight that is at the center of the issue of the future prospects of black America. West initially indicates that currently there are two camps, the Liberal Structuralists, who are concerned with such issues as equal employment opportunities, availability of child care and health care, etc., and the Conservative Behaviorists, who focus on the waning of the Protestant ethic black America, specifically issues such as hard work, deferred gratification, frugality, and responsibility.

West indicates that both camps ignore the central issue facing black America, which is nihilism, an issue that he asserts is a threat to the very existence of black America. He defines what he means by nihilism with this statement: “ Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no national grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (277).

West states that the Liberal Structuralists tend to shy aware from this type of issue because it focuses more on morals, which tends to be a taboo subject that they feel takes away from their focus on structures. On the other hand, the Conservative Behaviorists are inadvertently contributing to the nihilistic condition because they describe blacks as agents to affect their upward mobility while avoiding the inherent structural barriers that exist in society. The result is a deepening of nihilistic attitudes as much of black America encounters barriers that the conservative say do not exist.

In highlighting the central issue of nihilism in black America, West also provides a brief background of the issue, and how it has really been central to the struggle of blacks since their first encounters with the New World. He states that, however, black America was able to maintain civic and religious organizations that provided a form of armor against this condition of hopelessness by teaching and passing down cultural and community values of love and service to others. Ironically, it was after the civil rights movements of the sixties and early seventies, and the reduction of the fear of white physical retribution, that nihilism began to take a firm hold. He also points out the role of the market way of life, which creates an image of the “good life,” especially as expressed through the culture industries of TV, music, video, etc., promoting a way of life that espouses comfort, convenience, and sexual stimulation. In his words, the result of all of this is that “sadly, the combination of the market way of life, poverty-ridden conditions, black existential angst, and the lessoning of fear toward white authorities has directed most of the anger, rage, and despair toward fellow black citizens, especially black women” (279).

West does provide something of a solution to the problem of black nihilism, or at least an initial stepping stone. He is highly critical of black leadership, and indicates that solutions must rather come from grass roots movements that focus on local issues rather than strive for the limelight, be centers of political conversion, and that hold black political leaders responsible to promoting love ethics and the support of these local issues.

Key Terms

Black Nihilism
Liberal Structuralist
Conservative Behaviorists
Love Ethics
Political Conversion
Cultural Armor
Corporate Market Institutions
Political Accountability

Comments and Questions:

Let me start by saying that I really liked this essay, mostly for its structure. West is very good at outlining his topic and supporting points within the essay, making it very easy to understand and follow what he wishes the reader to be aware of. He is also excellent in defining his terms and stating what he means when he uses them. He does this for nihilism, love, the two camps in the black American debate, political conversion, corporate market institutions, pleasure, and other terms.

Overall, I think he makes a good argument. I had some initial trouble with his critique of the Conservative Behaviorists trying to make black people see themselves as agents. My initial reaction is to think that by thinking of yourself as an agent it provides at least a modicum of empowerment. He states that “on the surface, this is comforting advice, a nice cliché for downtrodden people. But inspirational slogans cannot substitute for substantive historical and social analysis” (277). Even though he continues his argument by indicating that any agency on the part of a black American must be considered within the context of his or her victimization, I got the sense that he was opposed to the idea of agency almost completely. He uses phrases such as “inseparable from, but not reducible to” that initially made me feel he was trying not to sound polar in his views but actually was.

However, my initial impressions began to change as I read further. Later, he indicates that he rather promotes agency through the love ethic, which is in fact “a last attempt at generating a sense of agency among a downtrodden people” (280). This would seem to be a legitimate attempt to promote black Americans as agents in the way that West approves, in relation to their level of victimization. This is especially true in light of his criticism of black leadership from which the initial ideas of the Puritan ethic stem. In this light, it is no wonder that he critiques the Conservative Behaviorist for their attempts to promote agency. Their version of it is a shallow and blinded agency that is only open to a few privileged few and would hide the conditions of the bulk of black America.

My only other mild complaint about the essay, is that I feel I have missed out on some of the power of his argument by not having read Toni Morrison’s book. While he holds it up as an example of a solution, he gives little in the way of details. Perhaps this is intentional, as he feels his readership would be more familiar with the work, or as a push for more people to read and consider this piece of literature.

Overall, I find this article very engaging, and wonder if the questions he deploys toward black America are not applicable elsewhere in American culture. Nihilistic ideas are present in other aspects and sub-cultures of American society, and have expressed themselves in such things as school shootings, home-grown terrorism, and increased crime statistics, as well as just general discontent and feelings of powerlessness. Materialism and the values espoused by the Corporate Market Institutions are ever increasing and solidifying. I wonder if some of West’s solutions could be applicable on a broader scale, that if localized grass-roots movements are the way to bringing back some of the values West idealizes to our society as a whole.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cornel West's "Nihilism in black America"

Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in black America”
By Jenny Lowry

Description of Article

West argues that the dilemma of African Americans is divided into two groups: the liberal structuralists who “highlight the structural constraints of the life chances of black people” (275) and the conservative behaviorists who “stress the behavioral impediments to black upward mobility” (275). West contends that these arguments do not come close to understand the problem with African Americans, that the real problem is the threat of nihilism.

Nihilism, according to West, is the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (277). African Americans are threatened by the lack of hope and the “absence of meaning” (277) in their lives.

Historically, blacks were armored against this threat through culture and community, but something happened along the way that changed this. West believes that this change occurred because of “the commodification of black life and the crisis of black leadership” (278). His solution to the nihilistic threat in black America is take “collective responsibility” and to play an active role in politics that includes many leaders.

Comments and Questions

West argues that “structures and behavior are inseparable”; that people act a certain way according the situation or circumstance they are in. So, a black man raised in the “hood” will act a certain way, while a black man raised in the suburbs will act a different way. He also argues that culture is “structural” like “economy or politics”; that culture is influenced by economy and politics. In this sense, it seems that culture is inseparable from politics and economy; that culture is often times made by politics and economy.

He argues that “economic deprivation and political powerlessness” (276) are not the only reasons for the nihilistic threat to black America. Both the liberal structuralists and the conservative behaviorists ignore the nihilistic threat, and the conservative behaviorists add to it. He argues that this threat is invading black America, but the only example he gives is that of commodification of goods in poverty ridden communities. It sounds like he is arguing that those people are being threatened by nihilism because they cannot afford what other people can. So, without certain commodities they are doomed to have no meaning in their lives. This is ridiculous; every culture and every race goes without something, but that does not mean that they are devoid of meaningful lives

West blames history for the problems of black Americans today for their loss of meaning in life. Slavery and white supremacy are prime examples of where nihilism started in America. He argues that while black criminals should be punished for their crimes, capitalism is to blame for the poverty and lost culture that leads them to nihilism and thus criminal behavior. This argument is ludicrous. What about white criminals? Is capitalism to blame for their criminal deeds as well? How can capitalism be the problem for all crime?

He also feels like black politicians, particularly Jesse Jackson, only serve to halt progression toward eliminating this threat. He sees black politicians as narrow minded and over the top; that politicians like these only serve to further repress black Americans and leave them powerless.

While I am not a black American, this article is rather disturbing to me. It seems like West is dooming black Americans with this incurable disease. The black Americans I do know do not seem depressed or void of meaning in their lives. I agree that political progress should be made within black culture, as it should be in many other cultures in America. West’s argument that meaning is lost in black America seems farfetched to me. The fact that he offers no real evidence of his claim or a solution is problematic.

Cornel West: “Nihilism in Black America”

Abstract of Cornel West's “Nihilism in Black America”
by Mike Peterson


West argues that the two current and polarized “camps” that discuss the plight of black America—the liberal structuralists and the conservative behaviorists—fail to grapple with and even add to the real threat: nihilism. West discusses how these camps focus too narrowly on structures (liberal structuralists) or on values, attitudes, and individualism (conservative behaviorists), and ignore the nihilistic threat: “the despair and dread that now flood the streets of America” (276).

West argues that nihilism in black America has existed since slavery, but that until the 1970’s the black community has erected powerful buffers against its effects: cultural structures of meaning and feeling, religious and civic institutions that embody values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence. But now the commodification of black life and the crisis of black leadership have resulted in the crumbling of those structures and a relapse of nihilism.

The solution is a politics of conversion, which treats the nihilistic threat as a disease that can be tamed but never cured. For this to happen, leadership needs to be strengthened at the local level. West argues that national leaders are often too charismatic with little programmatic follow-through, which leads black nationalists, with their myopic visions that cause fragmentation, to pick up the slack. This all leads to political cynicism, which hampers the efforts of local activists, on whom the progressive effort depends. West says the model of one black national leader must be shunned, and that local activists must work in conjunction with state, regional, and national networks to form the collective responsibility that can hold back the nihilistic threat to black America.

Key Terms

Nihilism: “…the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (277).

Politics of Conversion: Treating nihilism as a disease that can be tamed by love and care, but that can never by completely cured (279-280).

Liberal structuralists: Focus on structural constraints. “More government money, better bureaucrats, and an active citizenry” (275).

Conservative behaviorists: Focus on behavioral impediments. “There projects rest largely upon a cultural revival of the Protestant ethic in black America” (275).

Comments and Questions

I don’t disagree with anything West has to say, but as I read the essay I became a little wary of his writing style. He uses direct, colorful language that is borderline bombastic at times. Does this pathos help or hurt his argument?

A few examples:

“We must delve into the depths where neither liberals nor conservatives dare to tread, namely, into the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America” (276).

I see the point he’s making, but he generalizes entire groups of people based on ideological affiliation, as if expressing a liberal standpoint makes you incapable of understanding or dealing with the threat of nihilism. Is there a way to talk about polarized ideologies without over-generalizing and exaggerating the “void” of the middle-ground?

“Many black folk now reside in a jungle with a cutthroat morality devoid of any faith in deliverance or hope for freedom” (278).

I don’t have a critique of this. It’s very powerful language that carries his point well. It’s obvious that the author has a lot of emotional and cultural investment in this topic, which spills out in his language. Does this have the potential to hamper his argument? Could critics dismiss him as being too emotional or too enmeshed in the culture to be reliable?

“…ushering the humble freedom fighters…who have the audacity to take the nihilistic threat by the neck and turn back its deadly assaults” (280).

Beautiful imagery, but how does one actually take an idea by the neck? Very motivational language, but it lacks concrete solutions or follow-through. I know this essay isn’t the place for West to lay out a direct plan of action, but it does leave me feeling a little let down—I clearly agree there is a problem, but I don’t walk away feeling empowered to do anything about it.

West critiques national leadership based on the current state of affairs (Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, etc), and he uses these “failures” to justify his call for increased local activist efforts, collective responsibility, and an end to the one-black-national-leader model. Is West implying that the idea of national leadership is inherently defunct and irredeemable? Is he targeting these specific leaders, or is he saying it’s a plug-and-play model, and it doesn’t matter who you put in their place, the same problems will abound? Or is he saying that these same leaders (again, Jackson and Sharpton) have the potential be effective leaders if local progressive efforts improve and operate in conjunction with, rather than in subordination to, this national leadership?

Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in Black America” 1992

Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in Black America” 1992
By Bridgett VanDerwalker
Description of Article:
West begins his article by explaining the two camps of thought who are trying to deal with the “plight of African Americans” those two camps are the liberal structuralists and the conservative behaviorists. West then tells us why these two camps fail to make progress against black nihilism. West then explains what black nihilism is and why it continues to persist. West claims that it is a result of the breakdown in community; a community that was weakened by the abolishment of slavery and further perpetuated by consumerism.
West feels as though blacks are jealous of whites, which then turns into anger that is turned on their own kind in acts of violence which causes more depression and lower self-esteem. West proclaims that it is through love and caring that nihilism can be curved. He closes his article by calling for strong black leadership. This leadership must start at the local level than at the national by doing so reforms can be passed that will help those who need it but it must start at the local level if any reform is to work. Community strength builds hope, a hope for a better future, and an end to the nihilistic cycle.
Key terms:
The Absurd
Familial/Communal Networks of Support
Politics of Conversion
Collective Responsibility
Discussion, Comments, and Questions:
West indentifies two camp of thought. The liberal structuralists think government programs will mead the ill of the blacks. The conservative behaviorists purpose “self-help programs, black business expansion, and cultural revival” (275). West suggests that the bigger issue of black nihilism is overlooked in three ways by the two camps. One aspect that is overlooked is the idea that “institutions and values go hand in hand” (275). They can’t be separated by taking positive actions this will not elevate living conditions for those living in black society. The second aspect is that one needs to look at all kinds of contributing structures not merely the political and economic ones. One question on this idea is, are mainstream values compatible with black values? I think West’s idea on strong black leadership can bridge mainstream values and those of blacks in particular but only if there are black leaders to speak for their needs which hasn’t happened as of yet. The third aspects that both camps ignore are the feelings of black people the deep-rooted despair and neglect they feel throughout all aspects of their lives. This type of problem is not easily solved and can’t be repaired with a quick patch up job in the form of political or economic reforms.
West explores where these two camps fail in their particular approaches. The structuralists fail to acknowledge the supporting structures like family, churches, and media and their role in reform these structures have to be in cooperation with the political and economic reforms if real change is to occur. Another failure of this camp is they “neglect the battered identities rampant in black America” (276). If the reform makers are white upper-middle class they can’t relate in any meaningful way to the troubles of lower class black citizens.
Conservative behaviorists fail in three aspects in their reforms. They fail to acknowledge that behavioral and political/economic factors contribute to the nihilistic attitudes prevalent among black citizens. The black attitude is one can’t succeed regardless their efforts so they feel cursed and hopeless. A second failure is admitting that they can’t relate to the blacks’ situation and that blacks are victims which only continue the bad feelings towards politicians. Thirdly, their lack of enforcement in policies results in cutbacks which furthers their nihilistic attitudes.
West defines what he means by black nihilism. He says it is the cumulative result of “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness and (most important) lovelessness” (277). This condition results in detachment from others and society as a whole; West remarks that this affliction is a “distinctive form of the Absurd” (277). I think Camus would agree that without hope the world is indeed Absurd and there is no point in fighting because it is futile in the end. A depressing thought for sure especially if a whole segment of the population feels that way and nothing is being done but denying it exist at all.
West explains that past generations of blacks had “cultural armor” which protected them from threats from the outside and that when the institution of slavery was abolished so to was black culture. West seems to be puzzled as to the reason why this would be but doesn’t reach a clear explanation. West goes on to claim that “Black people have always been in America’s wilderness in search of a promised land” (278). This may be so, in that black people have been neglected by American society as a whole but this doesn’t really explain the last 40 years. They have had the right to vote since 1968, and fought extremely hard to do so; then they seemed to stop fighting and thus disappeared into the underbelly of society. West seems to overlook this fact which weakens his overall argument that they never had fought and have never had self-pride. West explains that nihilistic attitudes “contribute to criminal behavior- a threat that feeds on poverty and shattered cultural institutions” (278). This point is hard to argue against given the statistics that blacks are less likely to go to college than all other minority groups, the highest murder victim rate, and the highest suicide rates in the country.
West’s argument that corporate market institutions are to blame for blacks feeling anger is besides the point in that the media affects everyone especially the disenfranchised which is a fifth of the US population. West claims that corporate institutions try to shift blame back upon blacks but West lacks conviction and evidence in supporting this claim. West says that violence, poverty, and hopelessness are signs “of cultural decay in a declining empire” (279). I think this is true, if a section of American society is decaying than the rest of society will eventually follow. A good example of this is the Katarina/New Orleans fiasco. Why didn’t we don’t we do more to help? Simple answer is 70% of the population of New Orleans was/is black. As a result of this disaster blacks feel more alone and helpless that they have ever did before. And the sad truth of the situation is no one cares. If this disaster had happened in New York or Washington D.C., they would have received more support financially and emotionally and the reason is a big percentage of the population is well-off whites.
West is on the right path when he suggests his politics of conversion. This politics of conversion is a call for strong black collective leadership in and at every level of government. His second idea for improvement is a self-sustaining circle of love and caring for oneself and others by doing so will produce political resistance within the community. West says “The politics of conversion proceeds at a local level then spreads when grass root organizations push for reform at the state and national level” (280). West proclaims that the politics of conversion meet the threat of nihilism head on and connects with everyday people it is trying to help. This is an idealistic vision but one that offers a real chance of hope.
West has three critiques of black leadership. His example of Jesse Jackson, who got caught up in his own politics and that of his party’s resulted in lack of follow through. Others focus too much on race neglecting other disenfranchised people or the bigger issues. West says “black leadership at the national level tends to lack a moral vision that can organize (not just periodically energize) subtle analyses that enlighten (not simply intermittently awaken), and exemplary practices that uplift (not merely convey status that awes), black people” (281). Can Obama do the above things? I don’t know, however, he is concerned with universal healthcare which would benefit everyone and particular blacks. West’s last claim is the lack of strong black leaders reinforces that blacks can’t make a difference just isn’t true. Blacks have the second largest percentage of voters in the US, so that makes them very powerful if they vote it will make a substantial difference. In the 2008 elections, black voters will have 15 million votes and 60% of those voters are Democrats so Obama could have a good chance of being elected. West points out that the real change must occur at the local level because that is where the biggest changes can occur.
West closes the article by saying that a leader must have a genuine want for equality, freedom and responsibility. It is this hope in good civic leadership that the war against nihilism can be won.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Abstract of Paul Willis’s “Symbolic Creativity” 1990

Description of Article:
Willis begins his article by questioning the institutions of art and what it stands for. Willis proposes that art is not merely a collection of artifacts that we peruse on occasion but something that we engage in everyday by using symbolic creativity. Willis points to how young people engage in symbolic creativity in a multitude of ways because they are shut out of the world of “high culture” art. Willis points out that “symbolic creativity is not only part of everyday activity, but also a necessary part” (207).
Willis defines the many manifestations of “symbolic creativity” can take and how it can be an individual act or a collective effort. Willis then explains what is produced and gained by symbolic creativity. He also explains why “symbolic creativity” should be considered a grounded aesthetic because it raises and creates the culture around it. Willis concludes by saying that a culture should not be defined by art in the form of artifacts but by pure activity and imagination.
Key Terms:
Symbolic Creativity
Grounded Aesthetics
Commercial Cultural Commodities
Comments and Questions:
Willis starts his article by calling for a reform in what we should consider art. He states that art and creativity should be examined for what cultural significance it carries for the whole of humanity. Willis states his goal “is to uncover, explore, and present symbolic creativity in everyday life” (207). Willis believes that not only is symbolic creativity present in our everyday lives but that it is a necessary part. It is after this part that my support wavers especially when he says symbolic creativity is “essential to ensure the daily production and reproduction of human existence” (207). While I do believe that symbolic creativity is present in our everyday lives I don’t think human existence would end without it although it would be very dull. Willis discusses that it is through “symbolic work” we produce meanings and learn to communicate to our eternal essence and to the collective group as well.
The following section is where Willis really excels at defining what “necessary symbolic work” entails and what is produced from these endeavors. Willis explains that it is through the practice of language and our capacity to control it that we find “interaction and solidarity with others” (208). We realize our impact on ourselves and others by engaging in symbolic creativity. The second point he makes is that through our active bodies we produce symbolic resources such as singing and feeling. Willis points out that when we engage in “drama as practice” we are able to communicate to others through performing roles and rituals. Such examples of this principle are dancing, story-telling, and making jokes. His forth point is on symbolic creativity itself. By engaging in symbolic creativity we produce new meanings that are “attracted to feeling, to energy, to excitement, and psychic movement” (208). Willis encourages us to see these actions as “realities rather than as potentials” (208). This is an interesting idea and contributes to the idea that while these activities don’t create artifacts they create the reality of our everyday lives. Being human “the human-be-ing-ness means to be creative in the sense of remaking the world for ourselves as we make and find our own place and identity “(208). This statement summarizes why he thinks symbolic creativity is so important and why it should be recognized by the whole institution of art.
Willis then goes into explaining what is produced by symbolic work and creativity. He reintegrates that symbolic creativity forms individual identity and helps the individual make meaning. He then points out that, “Identities do not stand alone above history, beyond history. They are related in time, place and things” (209). While these creative efforts may different dependent on physical environment, time, and a particular culture they produce similar “products.” These products are dance, singing, cooking, jokes, and other similar everyday activities. Lastly Willis says “symbolic work and especially creativity develop and affirm our active senses of our own vital capacities, the powers of the self and how they might be applied to the cultural world” (209). He explains that by participating in these activities it helps the individual make cultural sense of how to manipulate and use symbolic forms in their everyday lives.
Willis asserts that it is this process that helps young people culturally survive and have power to change the world in some small way. It is in the everyday symbolic work that young people contribute to society as a whole. Willis seems to drift out of focus when talking about young working-class women and their lack of power and how they reclaim power by symbolic works. This example while making sense seems to be lackluster in the demonstration of how symbolic works actually function. Willis goes on to explore why youth culture is so important. He says they can “forge new resistant, resilient and independent ones to survive in and find alternatives to the impoverished roles proffered by modern state bureaucracies and rationalized industry” (210). Willis fails to mention how this reformation might be created in real terms which weaken his argument as a whole. Willis goes on to say “symbolic creativity’ is an abstract concept designing a human capacity almost in general. It only exists, however, in contexts and, in particular, sensuous living processes” (211).
Willis discusses the concept of grounded aesthetics which is “the creative element in a process whereby meanings are attributed to symbols and practices and where symbols and practices are selected, reselected, highlighted and recomposed to resonate further appropriated and particularized meanings” (211). Basically, young people are creating their own meanings to old ideas and symbols thus reclaiming power for themselves. Willis says “Grounded aesthetics are the yeast of common culture” (211). This idea makes sense when we reflect back to the beginning of the essay and the idea that “symbolic creativity” is necessary in everyday life because if symbols are not being reused and remade by the youth than a culture as a whole starts to decay. Willis asserts that this process is “the work of culture by culture” (212). Thus this process is both timeless and universal.
The process of grounded aesthetics leads to the concept of universalism which is an awareness of the future and what possibilities may arise from it. Willis proclaims that grounded aesthetics have uses which are “energizing, developing, and focusing of vital human powers on to the world in concrete and practical ways” (213). The result of this process can be wide spread or very personal and act as a treatment for the “injuries of life.” Willis explores the dangers of the above process if it is allowed to result in a text or artifact. He remarks that these material results maybe too narrow in their range of symbolic resources. The “artist” of the symbolic work may focus on the end result instead of meditating and enjoying the process itself. Finally, “Human receivers are allowed no creative life of their own” (213). This last point seems to tie into his over-arching theme that being, symbolic creativity should be enjoyed and that any material result is secondary to the process itself.
Willis sums up his argument by returning his introduction in which “official arts” are removed from the symbolic process and are displaced by time and true and original meaning. When official art loses its underlining context in which it was conceived it becomes merely a “commercial cultural commodity’ and loses the essence of its creation. Willis supports the idea that common culture with time becomes the culture and seeing the results of such an occurrence is what makes life worth living.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

“Meaning and Ideology”

Abstract of “Meaning and Ideology” by Judith Williamson

Abstract by Diane Neu

I. Description of Article

Williamson explains how advertising has created objects that are now an interchangeable piece of human culture. Instead of saying “I love you,” we give flowers. Instead of recycling and reducing consumerism, we buy a new Prius. Advertising has created “structures of meaning” where the good or object is now a stand-in for human language and action (188).

II. Comments and Questions

Williamson argues that advertisements are one of the major factors influencing our culture today, in addition to being the major cultural mirror “reflecting our life today” (188). Advertising is so pervasive in our culture because of its status as “a vast superstructure with an apparently autonomous existence and an immense influence” (188). You cannot easily counteract a force that is so rooted and ingrained in our culture that most people do not even recognize it for what it is. Williamson clarifies that her purpose is not to measure the influence of advertising but rather to analyze “what can be seen in advertisements” (188). She continues to explain that while part of advertising’s obvious function “is to sell things to us,” it also functions as a modern day replacement for art and religion in that it “creates structures of meaning” (188).

Advertising creates meaning through its ability to “translate statements from the world of things […] into a form that means something in terms of people” (189). Williamson gives two examples of automobile advertisements. If a company is trying to sell a car that gets good gas mileage, they might portray the buyer of such a car as economical or eco-conscious. If they were trying to sell a car with low gas mileage, they might portray the buyer as someone who is too cool and wealthy to care about something like gas mileage. Advertising takes the product and creates a relatable story or meaning that we, the consumer, can connect to. Williamson points out that this aspect of advertising shows that advertising is not a “single ‘language’ ” (189). Instead, advertising can be seen as “capable of transforming the language of objects to that of people” (189). One set of advertisements that comes to mind is the new “healthy” McDonald’s campaign. They have these commercials with a hip, young mom and her beautiful toddler spending a wonderful day together – and then they finish the day by having a healthy meal at McDonald’s. The mom gets her salad (with Paul Newman dressing, natch), and the kid gets all white-meat chicken nuggets with milk and apple slices. Mmmmmm. Now you can eat Fast Food Nation style and presumably not get cancer. Of course, this whole campaign has nothing to do with McDonald’s actually caring about the food they serve – they just know that this is a great opportunity to capitalize on the whole organic, Whole-Foods movement.

Advertising does not always reduce “people to the status of things,” but it happens quite frequently when both the object and the person “are used symbolically” (189). This happens when the object becomes interchangeable with the person or human act – the object becomes a physical stand-in for emotion or human connection. Williamson uses the example of how diamond rings have become the ubiquitous symbol for true and enduring love. The diamond isn’t just associated with love – it is love. This immediately reminded me of the engagement ring ads for Scott Kay. Their slogan is, “Never compromise when asking someone to spend the rest of their life with you,” indicating that no matter how heart-felt or genuine the proposal, it just won’t mean anything without a Scott Kay diamond. The word “compromise” holds two meanings for me in this ad. The more obvious connotation is that the person who proposes without a Scott Kay diamond would be striking a compromise between cost/benefit. They have compromised and decided to not spring for the giant, platinum-set diamond. The other, more striking, meaning is that the person who proposes without a Scott Kay diamond would be compromising their relationship. They would be sending the message that the receiver of the ring means little to the giver. There is no love without a Scott Kay diamond. Williamson summarizes this phenomenon by pointing out that these kinds of ads “are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves” (190).

People are no longer “identified with what they produce” in a culture where advertising invokes “false categories” of class in order to “obscure the real structure of society by replacing class with the distinctions made by the consumption of particular goods” (190). We are no longer associated by what we can create, produce, and contribute; we become what we consume. Our identity and class status becomes inextricably linked to “what we are able to buy” (190). I remember one time reading this article where they were interviewing the marketing executives at Pottery Barn. They were commenting that while it is true that a lot of people can’t afford a $5,000 sofa, a lot of people can afford $20 Egyptian cotton towels. They are still purchasing a luxury item, but it is an affordable luxury that makes them feel like they are participating in a higher level of consumer culture. It makes them feel like they belong in that social class. That’s why you can now spend $20 on Kate Spade branded pencils. You might not be able to afford one of her purses, but if you use the pencils, everyone will think that you can.

Williamson concludes by pointing out that advertising can be elusive because while it “speaks to us in a language we can recognize,” it uses “a voice we can never identify” (190). This is due to the fact that “advertising has no ‘subject’ ” (190). There are people that produce these advertisements, but the ad never comes out and says, “This is Bill Jones, senior advertising executive, and I am here to sell you…” This leaves “a space, a gap left where the speaker should be” (190). As consumer, we are “drawn in to fill that gap” (190). Advertising sets up the social structure and meaning for us, and we are left to consume and distribute that meaning. Williamson reasons that if we could take back the “relationship and human meaning appropriated by advertising,” we “could radically change the society we live in” (191).

III. Key Terms and Links

Structures of meaning

Meaning and Ideology abstract

I. Summary

"Meaning and Ideology" by Judith Williamson deconstructs the meaning-making of the advertising world. The main tenet of her argument is that the advertising world does not operate within the static confines of a 'language,' but rather, molds a structure through which it can transform "the language of objects to that of people"(189). Advertisers create links between certain objects and certain characteristics of people and then those objects take on a symbolic nature. This was apparent in our discussion of the many sub-cultures that are a part of Boise--each culture was represented by the objects that are consumed within that culture.

A couple of my favorite lines that incapsulate Williamson's argument: "Advertisements are selling us something else besides consumer goods: in providing us with a structure in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable, they are selling us ourselves"(190).

"Thus instead of being identified by what they produce, people are made to identify themselves with what they consume"(190).

"Advertising gives goods a social meaning so that two needs are crossed, and neither is adequately filled."

I had never considered before Williamson's ingenious commentary that in the world of advertising there is "a gap left where the speaker should be" and so "we are drawn in to fill that gap, so that we become both listener and speaker, subject and object"(190). In other words, the authority of advertising comes from ourselves! We consume the symbolic objects that best typify the 'social place' we wish to find ourselves in, or the social attributes we believe we possess or wish to possess.

II. Analysis

A class structure of social place based on consumption rather than production is an interesting phenomenon. What about knock-offs? Products that try to offer the same symbolic resonance of an object at a more affordable price to the masses? Do they in fact have the same results? What about those who believe they can see past the advertising hype--that they are not "consumerists"? Are they complicite (sp?) in the system in another way?

It is my perception that Williamson believes the structure of the advertising world to be a reality independent of any one group of people. I don't know if I buy this. Obviously in our capitalist society there are more products and advertisements than any one person can control, but I wonder if there is not a nucleus of people that sort of determines the direction of trends in the advertising world--and profits thereby.

III. Question

Why does Williamson say that material and non-material needs are crossed, neither is adequately filled? I agree that a material object does not have the power to fulfil a non-material need, but can't that object at least satisfy the material need?

Jameson's "Postmodernism and Consumer Society"

Bill Schnupp

Abstract: “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”

I. Summary

Jameson opens his piece with an admission of the ambiguity that surrounds postmodernism, a concept that encompasses many forms of media: literature, visual and plastic arts, architecture, music, film, and “theoretical discourse,” that interdisciplinary and amorphous mode of inquiry popularized by Foucault and others. Jameson elaborates that postmodernism is a reaction against high modernism, forms of expression found irreverent and vulgar by the preceding generation, but which are now the “standard” against which the current generation rails. Similar to the ideas of Raymond Williams, Jameson cites a lack of division between high and low culture.

The author proceeds to offer two concepts that, for him, link postmodernism to late capitalism: pastiche and schizophrenia. Pastiche is essentially parody without the comic element, a form of “blank parody.” The idea of pastiche leads to a discussion of the death of the subject, which has two distinct perspectives: first, that in the ascension of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic social class, individualism may have existed, but is no more in contemporary, homogenous society; second, that individualism is not only dead, but instead never existed—it is a myth. The conclusion Jameson leads to from this discussion is that modern art is dead; there is no originality, only perpetual copies of pre-existing elements and forms, or, pastiche, “to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum” (196).

A prominent example of pastiche is the “nostalgia film,” films about the past and generational moments of that past. In a discussion that ranges from American Graffiti and Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chinatown, Jameson points out that nostalgia films are often less about the past and more about a false realism in which the past is sought through pop images and stereotypes of the past, with the original perpetually unattainable through our “incapability of achieving aesthetic representations of our current experience” (198).

Jameson then shifts his focus from nostalgia film to architecture,

a mutation in built space itself. . .the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept
pace with that evolution. . .we do not as yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new
hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space
I have called the space of high modernism (198)

The specific example is the Bonaventure Hotel, a space that seeks to speak the sign system (Barthes anyone?) of the surrounding urban area. The Bonaventure is a total and enclosed space, with a reflective, disjunctive exterior and escalators/elevators that not only replace movement but serve as reflexive signs of movement. Jameson ends this discussion with a return to his definition of architecture, and uses it as a metaphor for the way human beings are caught in the “global and decentered communicational network.”

The piece concludes with the idea that postmodernism is necessary because it chronologically traces the break from a prior form. This break is not so much the emergence of new ideas, but rather a restructuring of preexisting elements; this displacement of the dominant by the secondary is important in the postmodern context because it has become the center of cultural production. Contemporary society finds little scandalous or repellent, central to high modernism. Moreover, what high modernists would have found repellent enjoys commercial success. Postmodernism is a product of post WWII capitalism, and a part of this production is the function of the media to relegate experience into the past as quickly as possible, as well as an open-ended questioning about the place and value of post-modern art.

II. Analysis

Let me start by saying that I find Jameson’s discussion of the two conceptions of the death of the subject to be incredibly depressing. There is no way that all possible combinations of elements and media have been used and are only recycled. I take his point to be more that operating within the hegemonic code may yield a finite limitation of elements and forms (though even that seems doubtful). What about Hall’s idea of the oppositional code, or the notion of infinite readings of a text we encountered in Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture? Conversely, I do find myself agreeing with Jameson’s idea of pastiche and nostalgia films—I’d wager we have all let our minds wander back to some over-idealized notion of our past at the behest of some particular film

I find myself questioning why we are so accepting of media forms that would have offended the previous generation. If we play along with Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as a restructuring of preexisting elements (reminds me a little of Johnson’s discussion of the breaks), it seems to me the reason postmodern society is so accepting of previously offensive forms of media seems obvious: they are not new, only old elements juxtaposed. It makes sense, but makes me question boundaries. How far can the limits be pushed? Or, if everything is only a matter of restructuring elements, has the boundary already been reached?

Honestly, I’m having some difficulty settling on what qualifies as Jameson’s discussion of his concept of schizophrenia: is it that we are so disjointed in out perception of time, either in the case of the nostalgia film, or our media’s contribution to our loss of past? Or, is it the great divergence in media forms that fall under the postmodern label? Can anybody help me here?

I also find Jameson’s choice of examples interesting, as he makes some interesting leaps; this rhetorical decision seems to effectively echo his assertion about the ambiguity and resistance surrounding postmodernism’s multi-media form.

III. Questions and Further Reading

1. How do you respond to Jameson’s two perspectives on the death of the subject?

2. Why do you think postmodern society is so much more tolerant of traditionally offensive media forms?

3. How do you respond to Jameson’s idea that the postmodern era is rooted in post WWII capitalism?


Monday, October 22, 2007

"Postmodernism and consumer society" By Fredric Jameson

“Postmodernism and consumer society” by Fredric Jameson
Abstract by Patricia Little


The essay entitled “Postmodernism and consumer society” by Fredric Jameson, attempts to clarify the concept of postmodernism. Jameson’s goal in this essay is to show how postmodernism is opposed to modernism in not just themes of art and literature, but also how these differences show themselves in the general culture.

For Jameson the postmodern has two main characteristics. Firstly, he believes that the postmodern is directly influenced by the negation of its previous epoch, modernism. In order for something to be postmodern it, “Emerge[s] as specific reaction against established forms of high modernism…This means that there will be as many different forms of postmodernism as there were high modernisms in place, since the former are at least initially specific and local reactions against those models” (192). And secondly, a key feature of postmodernism is that the lines between high and popular culture are gone or at least beginning to fade. This incorporation of high and mass culture can also be seen in other areas of discourse from philosophy to literature, where normal discourse theory has been replaced by “a kind of writing simply called ‘theory’ which is all or none of those things at once” (193). Jameson considers this phenomenon (which he calls ‘theoretical discourse’) to be a sign of postmodernism and an example of the merging culture.

In order to clarify his point he says he will discuss two examples that he labels “pastiche” and “schizophrenia”. He first undertakes to clarify the term pastiche from its closely related cousin parody. He plainly explains their difference as such, “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a particular or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language; but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic” (195).

Pastiche reflects postmodernism and our current social atmosphere by examining “death of the subject”, which is what Jameson refers to in his definition of pastiche being a humorless imitation of dead language. He explains that the modernists felt like they were doing something new, something individual. Jameson states, and he says many agree with him, that this sense of the individual in the postmodern is gone. This theory, that there is no longer individualism, has two main positions. First, because we are in an age of corporate capitalism, the “older bourgeois individual subject no longer exists” (195). This is in contrast with competitive capitalism that allowed for a sense of individualism in the modernist era. The second position is that the idea of individuality didn’t even exist in the past or in the modern era, it in fact never existed at all. The idea of the individual “is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification which sought to persuade people that they ‘had’ individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity” (195).

Jameson feels that these two positions are beside the point. Regardless of these positions, if there is no longer individualism, then, Jameson feels, “it is no longer clear what artists and writers of the present period are supposed to be doing”(196). Everything that can be said has already been said. Artists today must only comment or reproduce past art. This will inevitably be a bad time for art, or as he puts it, “the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past” (196).

To further his point he gives examples in film. He wants to make it clear that he is not just talking about high culture being dead, but also mass culture. To do this, he talks about nostalgia film, which he sees as remaking the past, namely pastiche. This is not only represented in what we would consider historical-type films. He gives the example of Star Wars, explaining that this is pastiche because the general construct of the film is directly mimicking the plots and provoking the same emotions of older films and TV shows of the 1930’s-1950’s.

Jameson further explains that this nostalgia/pastiche, as a representation of postmodernism, reflects a problem with the current cultures inability to represent their own time. We cannot see and feel our current existence for what it is, but are only able to relate to it through the past. Jameson says, “If there is any realism left here it is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement and of realizing that, for whatever peculiar reasons, we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about the past, which itself remains forever out of reach” (198).

From the discussion of pastiche and his film examples, Jameson moves to a critique of postmodern buildings. He is here trying to show that the same inability to feel the present as represented in nostalgia films, can be shown in our inability to relate to postmodern architecture.

As a result of our not being able to move into our new era, Jameson believes we are unable to match the “originality of postmodernist space” (198). The ability to have anything original in the postmodern era seems to contrast his previous point. However, Jameson makes his point, stating, “My implication is that we ourselves, the human subjects who happen into this new space, have not kept pace with that evolution; there has been a mutation in the object, unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject; we do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace, as I will call it, in part because our perceptual habits were formed in that older kind of space I have called the space of high modernism” (198).

He illustrates this point with the example of the Bonaventure Hotel. Using the example of this ultra post-modern space he explains the various complexities and comments on how we just don’t get it. The result of this inability to understand the space results in it being changed, “recently, colour coding and directional signals have been added in a pitiful and revealing, rather desperate attempt to restore the coordinates of an older space” (201), one in which we would be more able to understand.

Jameson next moves to what he calls the new machine. In this example he uses the novel Dispatches by Michael Herr. He remarks that the novel, being highly innovative, remains postmodern. He uses this novel to explain a different space, postmodern warfare, that is equally innovative, and possibly we are to assume as misunderstood, as Portman’s building. His conclusion is, “In this new machine (shown in a Dispatches text example), which does not, like the older modernist machinery of the locomotive or the airplane, represent motion, but which can only be represented in motion something of the mystery of the new postmodernist space is concentrated” (203).

In conclusion, Jameson tries to tie all of his ideas of modernism and postmodernism to cultural production and consumer society. In his conclusion he argues that the main components that made modernism what it was, was that it was outwardly dismissed and hated by the masses. It was not part of the mass culture and was therefore able to be honest and real and showcase the individual. He seems to be saying that because current culture is marketed to the masses, this type of realism is not longer attainable. He says, “I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism” (204). He is clearly dissatisfied with current culture and its constant obliging to the masses. Modernism was described as “critical, negative, contestatory, subversive, oppositional and the like” (205). Jameson wonders, and really hopes, that post modernism can find a way to do the same. If the current cultural trends were more subversive, it might allow for more individualism.


The definition that Jameson is able to construct of postmodernism is a very interesting one. This seems to be a time of various ideas of postmodernism, so it is nice to read an article that tries to both explain the concept and relate it to the general society. While it is nice get a theory, this one is definitely depressing. To actually believe that there is no original thought in our own era is incredibly depressing. While I am trying to fight this definition, while reading this essay and writing this abstract, I was not really able to think of anything current that could not be considered a remake or had it’s origin in the past. I am not giving up! While I may be entirely wrong, there just has to be some hope or some example of original thought. Can we think of any?

The essay itself is a bit difficult to understand and follow. I believe the reason for this is shown in the first endnote, “The present text combines elements of two previously published essays” (205). I don’t really know if the author put this together himself, or if it was done for him. However, after having read this note, the obvious structural problems of the essay seem to make more sense. The essay is generally hard to follow after “The nostalgia mode” section. Also, at the end of the first section he promises to give the description of his topic using two key features, pastiche and schizophrenia. We hear a lot of pastiche, but that is the last time we see the word schizophrenia.

Did anyone else find the structure or his examples a little difficult to understand under his general thesis?
Do we buy the idea that the postmodern can be basically described as not having an individual voice?
Does the problem really lie in the fact that our current culture seems to be permissive of about anything? That there not being a real point of contesting is the main problem?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Between holy text and moral void

Abstract of “Between holy text and moral void” by Bhikhu Parekh

Abstract by Jenny Lowry

I. Description of Article

Bhikhu Parekh describes Salman Rushdie’s The satanic verses as a battleground between cultures. He begins by stating that non Bombayite persons will have a difficult time understanding the text, as will many readers familiar with its cultural background. In order to understand the text is must be read through Muslim eyes (140). It is a controversial text that greatly offends most Muslims because of its highly graphic and vulgar descriptions of sacred persons and traditions. Parekh argues that two chapters in the text are “fantasized history [because the stories] are fantasies, but fantasies relating to, deeply embedded in and severely hedged in by, history” (140). In other words, Rushdie is taking truth and weaving into fiction.

II. Comments and Questions

Parekh ties the novel to immigrants (I am assuming in Britain), particularly Muslim immigrants, whose “central life” is highly embedded “with the sacred” (141). He argues that the immigrant is “mocked” by the country they are living in and their sacred lives are stripped of dignity. It seems that Rushdie’s novel is essentially doing the same thing by mocking Muslim religious beliefs.

In order to cope with their situation the immigrants use “different strategies of physical and moral survival” (141). One strategy is cynicism in which the immigrant views everything negatively. The second strategy is a “retreat to the familiar certainties of the past” (141), usually their sacred beliefs. Parekh believes that all immigrants hold some level of these beliefs and Rushdie is no exception. This tension explains the controversial nature of The satanic verses. Rushdie is torn between two extreme emotions, which is why he lashes out at the Muslim religion in his text. It seems at this point in the article, that Parekh is arguing for Rushdie’s interpretation of the Muslim religion. He seems to support him in his quest for a “literary truth” even though he clearly defines the The satanic verses as a “fantasized history.” I am not sure what literary truth Parekh has found in the text, particularly since the next section of his article he focuses on two chapters which even he argues are especially offensive.

The two chapters are obviously belittling the Muslim religion. Parekh gives examples from the text (like the twelve wives of Muhammad as prostitutes) that are insulting to Muslims (as well as most other people I would think) and states that they are clearly vulgar and offensive. Even though Parekh argues that the text is disgusting and often times comes too close to describing real people in harmful ways, he still contends that the text is a “legitimate literary inquiry” and that “the offence caused to Muslims could therefore be ignored in the larger interests of truth” (143). Parekh even questions whether the text has provoked racism against Muslim immigrants and states that “religion requires a greater degree of sensitivity” (145), yet he still contends that the text has a “literary purpose” that must be explored. He argues that it is a writer’s responsibility to explain himself and his words, but at the end of the article he states that Rushdie should be left alone.

Parekh seems to be contradictory in his feelings about The satanic verses. Perhaps he is torn between cynicism and his sacred beliefs as he argues Rushdie is. The contradictory nature of this article in which he begins to seemingly support the text, then proceeds to rip it apart, then goes on to defend the author is distressful and confusing. It appears that Rushdie is helping to oppress his own people by mocking their religious and sacred beliefs through his text. The fact that Parekh is arguing for the texts “literary truth” seems to me that he agrees with Rushdie and is in a way acting to support this oppression. Parekh states that even though the Muslims “had no friends [and] felt intensely lonely and helpless” (146) due to the oppression caused by The satanic verses, they should step down and “leave Rushdie alone to ponder over it in peace and security, and hope that he will one day provide an answer that reconciles a creative writer’s right to freedom of thought and expression with other people’s right to respect and dignity” (146). I’m sorry, but that is a complete contradiction to Parekh’s previous statement that “[Rushdie] owed [the Muslims, his own people] an obligation to understand their feelings, to explain his position, to argue with them, to do all in his power to mollify and hopefully win them over to his point of view” (145).

While I have not read The satanic verses I can definitely see how it caused controversy. From what I have read in Parekh’s article it seems that Rushdie is, at the least, guilty of providing ammunition to oppress his own people. And in my opinion, Parekh seems to support this in light of seeking a “literary truth.”

Is Rushdie participating in the oppression of his people?
Is “literary truth” always worth the consequences?


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“Subcultural Conflict and Working-class Community”

Abstract of “Subcultural Conflict and Working-class Community” by Phil Cohen

Abstract by Diane Neu

I. Description of Article

Cohen discusses the issue of urban blight and re-population in urban London. He briefly contrasts this issue with the process and impact of gentrification in sought-after urban neighborhoods (think Boise’s North End). Cohen argues that the loss of desirable working-class housing was intimately tied to a loss of skilled working-class jobs. This loss of jobs and housing led to a loss of community and collective power in the East End. This loss of a unifying culture eventually led to a distancing of the youth culture from their parent culture. Cohen details some of these youth subcultures and ends by arguing that youth subcultures are a way for youth to retrieve “the solidarities of the traditional neighborhood, destroyed by redevelopment” (103).

II. Comments and Questions (note: I made up my own subtitles)


Cohen begins by describing the impact that rapid development in the fifties had on urban neighborhoods. Cohen describes the scene as follows: the poorest families were relocated to these fringe neighborhoods, and the areas they left behind were taken up by immigrants who transformed the neighborhoods to suit their own culture. What is interesting is that Cohen sees the migration to the suburbs including two opposite ends of the spectrum – both the “families from the worst slums” and the “long-resident working-class families” fled the city for the suburbs (95). Two key urban neighborhoods were left in this wake: 1) the mostly run-down rental neighborhood with little community investment and 2) the posh, gentrified neighborhood typically composed of historical homes that housed hipsters/young professionals.

After seeing the migration of working-class families, the “planning authorities decided to reverse their policy,” and they began to focus on transforming the former “slum sites” (96). This transformation took the form of high-rise developments meant to house working-class families. This redevelopment led to “the impoverishment of working-class culture” (96). The high-rises were built without any consideration for quality of life or community interaction. As such, the buildings were purely built as spaces for storage, eating, sleeping, private time with family, etc. There was no outward social discourse. The second largest impact of the redevelopment was the destruction of the “matrilocal residence” (96). (Side note: I’m not so sure I would call that a bad thing – there is no way I would want to live with my mother now). Nuclear families no longer lived with or near their extended family, and the lack of a neighborhood community meant that nuclear families were isolated units. Cohen uses housebound mothers to demonstrate the impact of severed community ties. With little social interaction and no one to turn to, the mother becomes a bit like a caged animal, lashing out “on those nearest and dearest” (97). I would have personally liked some more specific statistics and/or personal anecdotes to round out this section. Cohen talks a lot about impact, but he never really gives specifics.

Redevelopment’s Economic Impact

The late fifties saw Britain recovering from WWII. During this time, they began to apply technologies developed during wartime to private sectors of the economy. Emphasis was placed on helping those industries that had suffered or stalled in previous years. This change in the blue-collar economy meant that “the small-scale family business was no longer a viable unit” (97). Jobs in the craft industry and other skilled working-class jobs were rapidly diminishing. The family business could not contend with the larger factories and large-scale box stores. Cohen points out that even if a small store was lucky enough to be able to compete with the larger businesses in terms of customer base, they could normally not afford the higher rents that came with bigger businesses moving into the neighborhood. The youth (I find that when Cohen says “youth,” he typically means male youth) just coming onto the job market had the hardest time adjusting – they could no longer find a job and work at it for their whole lives like their fathers had. As such, many of these youth were forced to move out of the community in order to find work. The only area of the East End economy that remained relatively untouched was dockland.

Cohen explains that the attempt to modernize life in the East End was “such a disaster” because of the larger “political, ideological, and economic framework” that was in place (98). The best pieces of land had to be sold to commercial interests in order to fund the housing developments. This, in turn, led to the small family businesses being forced out, which led to a loss of jobs and community industry. The necessity of selling land to commercial interests also cut out any “non-essential services” (98). Open green space, playgrounds, community centers, etc. were sacrificed in order to bring in more money. When this same situation presented itself in the nineteenth century, a large opposition voiced their concerns over these “tower” developments. However, this community voice was lacking when the same situation presented itself in the fifties and sixties because the “labour aristocracy, the traditional source of leadership” was now gone (99). When the skilled working-class jobs left, the people’s power left as well.

Class Structures and Other Social Matters

The loss of jobs and of a community voice had far-reaching social ramifications as well. Workers lost their power in a market controlled by the “new automated techniques” (99). Skilled laborers could no longer take satisfaction from their work since there was little work to be had, and their low economic status prevented them from participating in the new commercial enterprises that were springing up around their old neighborhoods. The group that felt this shift the most strongly was again the youth just entering adulthood. Young adults began to marry at an earlier age since this was the only way to escape the confines of nuclear family isolation. At this time, there was also an “emergence of specific youth subcultures in opposition to the parent culture” (100). These young adults found themselves struggling against the culture their parents had always lived and worked in. Although, it seems to me that it wasn’t so much a rebellion as an inevitable outcome. Their parent’s culture was essentially gone, so rebelling against it wouldn’t really make that big of a statement. I don’t really see it as an oppositional subculture but as a natural progression and evolution of the social structure. The main point that Cohen seems to want to make is that these subcultures of “mods, parkers, skinheads, crombies” developed because the youth were seeking to “retrieve some of the socially cohesive elements destroyed in their parent culture” (100).

Cohen specifies that “subcultures are symbolic structures, and must not be confused with the actual kids who are their bearers and symbols” (100). I’m not actually sure what he means by that. Is the subculture not something tangible and real? He seems to be saying that the subculture itself is more of an idea or symbol for larger issues at work and that the kids who participate in the subculture are merely actors. He further articulates that “a given lifestyle is actually made up of a number of symbolic subsystems, and it is the way these are articulated in the total lifestyle which constitutes its distinctiveness” (100). I’m pretty sure that there is something to do with Barthes and the whole signification/signified/signifier/sign process here. Cohen later says that “no real analysis of subculture is complete” without “a structural or semiotic analysis of the subsystems and the way they are articulated” (101). Somebody please figure out that equation for me. I understand the concept, but I have difficult putting the labels in the right places. Cohen specifies four distinct subsystems:

1. Dress
2. Music
3. Argot (slang/jargon)
4. Ritual

Cohen gives specific examples of how these subsystems worked in specific youth subcultures. He begins with the mods and moves through the parkers and scooter boys, skindheads, hippies, and crombies in chronological order. The process of developing subcultures is described as “circular,” and Cohen reasons that this is because the subculture can never entirely break away from the parent culture (101). The youth culture merely uses the subculture as a replacement form of their parent culture. The conflict between different subcultures “serves as a displacement of generational conflict, both at a cultural level, and at an interpersonal level within the family” (102). By participating in a subculture, the youth delay “real” adulthood for as long as possible while also trying to capture the solidarity that they have found missing in their parent culture.

III. Key Terms and Links

Planning blight
Matrilocal residence
Social class/social structure/social mobility
Parent culture

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"The Television Discourse - Encoding and Decoding"

Abstract of “The Television Discourse – Encoding and Decoding” by Stuart Hall

Abstract by Diane Neu

I. Description of Article

Hall discusses the role of encoding and decoding from the vantage point of television production. He discusses the process of television production as a series of codes and signs that are constructed in order to relay specific messages. He also discusses the role that television production plays in encouraging a “preferred meaning or reading,” and he also discusses the issue of misreading signs. Hall ends by discussing three types of codes and how they affect the viewer’s connotative meaning. The codes are: dominant or hegemonic, professional, and negotiated.

II. Comments and Questions

Hall argues that television is structured to produce a specific message – this message is organized and transmitted through “the operation of codes” (28). These codes are structured to relay a certain message while adhering to the “rules” of language. The successful transmission of this message requires the traditional materials of television production – film, cameras, etc. Hall refers to these materials as “substratum,” and I am not entirely sure what he means by that. Is he saying that the message that these materials transmit replace the actual transmitter? The transmitter no longer exists – only the message matters? Or is the material merely transforming the message – the message is no longer pure because it must be transmitted through another material? I am not saying that I don’t necessarily agree with all that – I’m just not sure that’s what he is saying.

Hall explains encoding as the process where an event becomes a story – essentially, by being turned into “televisual language” the “raw historical event” becomes different because of the signs and rules of language that are now imposed on it. I think he’s trying to say something about the difference between watching a newscast of an event and watching the TV version – like Band of Brothers or something. I’m really not sure what the argument is here. I have a lot of trouble following the process of encoding. What are these rules that he is talking about?

The communicative exchange (in television) is described as a sort of linear, closed circuit process where the broadcasting organizations, who already have rigid “institutional structures and networks of production” organize certain “routines and technical infrastructures” (29). These routines and infrastructures are necessary “to produce the programme” (29). I’m not sure if Hall means “programme” as just a 30-minute television program or in the method sense of the word – like a program of study or a program of events. Maybe both. The production process initiates the message that the program is broadcasting. Hall is clear that “production and the reception of the television message are not identical, but they are related” (29). He further explains that while production and reception are linked, they are still separate parts of the communicative process. Hall uses the formulaic TV Western to explain how certain discourses are heavily encoding with certain rules, content expectations, etc. The Western is a good example of a televisual language where the message being decoded by the viewer is likely to be “highly symmetrical to that in which it had been encoded” (29). It is a more straightforward discourse where the expectations of the view are inline with the intentions of the producers.

Visual Sign

Is a picture of a cow the same as an actual cow? Is it an actual urinal or a sculpture of a urinal? That’s the complex nature of visual signs. Every visual sign is encoded with numerous amounts of information – the “fundamental perceptual codes which all culture-members share” (31). Visual signs are more universal. While it can be easy to think that visual signs, because of their universality, are simple and straightforward, they can actually lead to misreadings because they appear so transparent and easy to read. We assume that the image is only saying one thing – we oversimplify the decoding process by assuming that the visual sign is empty of connotative meaning.

Connotative Sign

Visual signs are also connotative signs. The connotative sign of the visual sign is the “point where the denoted sign intersects with the deep semantic structures of a culture, and takes on an ideological dimension” (31). The connotative sign represents that point in culture where the word means something else on its own because of the perceptual codes that the word represents. Hall uses advertising as an example of a visual sign that is nearly void of denotative communication. The visual signs in advertising are full of connotative communication. Every aspect of the ad “ ‘connotes’ a quality, situation, value, or inference” (31). Hall then describes three different kinds of connotative reading: dominant or hegemonic code, professional code, and negotiated code.

Dominant or Hegemonic Code

The viewer is operating within the dominant or hegemonic code when they take the message “full and straight” (32). They read the message entirely as the maker intended it.

Professional Code

The viewer is operating within the professional code when they receive the message transmitted by a broadcasting professional. This message may be highly similar to the dominant code, but it may also contradict it is some ways. The professional code is highly linked to the dominant code, and while “the professional code is ‘relatively independent’ of the dominant code,” it still “operates within the ‘hegemony’ of the dominant code” (32). The professional code is tied to the dominant code since the controllers of the dominant code also control the news reporters, producers, etc. However, these broadcasting professionals are still able to spin the dominant code if they so choose. I think a good example of this would be when the Bush administration sends out a press release, brief, etc. Taking that message “full and straight” would be to read it as a dominant code. Some broadcasting professionals (Fox news) may deliver the message as almost identical to the dominant code, whereas other news professionals may take a different spin on it – entering the professional code. At least that’s what I think he’s saying.

Negotiated Code

The viewer is operating within a negotiated code when they acknowledge some aspects of the dominant code (usually those aspects that are removed from their immediate community), while also disagreeing with aspects of the dominant code that might negatively impact them personally. Hall gives the example of a worker agreeing that a bill to restrict union rights might make sense from a national economics viewpoint. However, that doesn’t mean that the worker won’t ardently oppose the ramifications the bill when it impacts his own salary and working conditions.

III. Key Terms and Links

Communicative event
Preferred Meaning
Connotative sign
Dominant or hegemonic code
Professional Code
Negotiated Code

If this link doesn’t work, search for “linguistic substratum” on JSTOR. It’s the first article that comes up: “Linguistic Substrata of American English” by E. C. Hills I couldn’t figure out how to hyperlink to a subscription based service.

At one point Hall quotes Gerbner – I’m guessing he was talking about this guy:

This is from the computer side of things:

Monday, October 8, 2007

Williams' "Culture is Ordinary"

Bill Schnupp

Abstract: Raymond Williams’ “Culture is Ordinary”

I. Summary

Williams opens his piece with a short account of revisiting his childhood home in Wales, accompanied by a brief recollection of his personal history—a rhetorical strategy he employs with frequency in the piece, and not unlike what we saw in Miller’s work. From here, Williams presents us with the notion that a society is forged from its members’ formation of common meanings and directions, its growth actively debated under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery. This definition serves as segue into the main idea, that culture is ordinary, composed of two distinct parts: “the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested” (6).

To further his point, the author delivers and refutes two conceptions of culture he has encountered: I call them “down-the-nose,” and “bad-mouthing.” Those in the first example (teashop culture) are committed to the notion that the only culture is high culture—art, music, literature, etc. Williams rejects this notion for what it is, a means of maintaining a power division between cultivated and common folk, and adds that he has encountered fine examples of art in the company of so-called common people. Williams’ second rejected notion of culture is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The bad-mouthers, like those in the teashop, perceive (and are threatened by) culture as solely high culture, and label such work that of do-gooders and highbrows.

From here, Williams transitions into a brief discussion of some of the ideas of Marx and Leavis that have come to shape his own thinking. From the Marxists, Williams extracts three principles, only the first of which he accepts: culture must be interpreted through its underlying systems of production; education and hence power are restricted to those in power; and new systems of production create new culture, thought, and art. Willams refutes the second notion by stating that the working class are not restricted, but are instead gaining access to institutions of learning (as Williams himself did) and developing there own culture. English bourgeois culture has no elitist monopoly on culture, and in fact, future cultural development could do no better than to emphasize working class values neighbourhood, mutual obligation, and common betterment. The final Marxist idea is rejected on the premise that a culture is a tapestry of individual and collective meanings, of personal and social experience, and as such are living and ever-changing, impossible to dictate through a change in systems of production.

Williams then moves on to Leavis, whose idea, that as England has became industrialized and vulgar, art and thinking have suffered, Williams also rejects (though with difficulty). The basis of the rejection is in Williams’ working class roots: he and his family view the technological advances and easing of labor from industrialization as an advantage, a newly acquired from of power. This leads Williams to his suggestion of how we can move into an age of economic abundance and productive common culture: by disproving two false equations, one false analogy, and one false proposition.

The proposition is that ugliness and pollution are a price all cultures must pay for the economic power that comes from industrialization. Williams posits cleaner, less-abrasive technology and responsible industry as a solution.

The equations are that popular education gives rise to commerical culture, and that consumption of popular culture bespeaks a flawed character. Williams interprets both equations as essentially a flaw in perception. The over-crowding of industrialization, coupled with mass communication, led to the construction of “the masses,” a threat for its unfamiliarity. According to Williams, then, there are no masses, only ways of constructing people as such. This manner of thinking is what imbued popular education, and popular culture—the culture of the threatening masses—with its stigma. Along with this comes the discussion of the false analogy, which is that bad culture will drive out good culture. Williams cites rising instances of literature, quality periodicals, and literacy to debunk this idea. The author ends the piece with the idea that culture and its inherent elements are expanding, and that this phenomenon must be studied.

II. Analysis

This piece seems to me less a description of the idea of a common culture and more an account of how Williams formed this idea through the rejection of many of the ideas of Marx and Leavis. However, the oddly altruistic manner in which Williams refutes these ideas is interesting: he does not characterize them as useless simply because he disagrees with them, but instead closes his work with emphasis on how important the ideas are, how they have come to shape his own inquiry into the expansion of culture. It’s strange: the ideas he has no use for are those that have served to most powerfully shape his thinking. His idea of common culture is compelling, and echoes other readings from this semester—culture is not elitist and compartmentalized, but a continual negotiation of power via interactions, texts, and ideas.

I’m a little confused about the page 9 rejection of the Marxist notion that altering systems of production spawns new culture and thought. I may just be misreading the text, but if we accept Williams’ notion of culture—negotiations of meanings and directions, both known and unknown—then the change that came about from the industrialization (change in production from the rural and agricultural) of the author’s village in Wales does seem to have produced cultural change, as it delivered “the gift of power that is everything to men who have worked with their hands” (10). New meanings, ideas, possibly even art can’t help but arise from that kind of drastic change. Maybe someone can help me out?

I also respond to Williams’ use of the personal in this piece. He constantly emphasizes his working class roots (I enjoy it) to establish his ability to make use of both this perspective, and that of the academic, sort of a dual expert voice. There are places, however, where I question if he relies too much on the personal to stand as evidence (on page 13 he disproves the deleterious effects of popular culture by talking with family members). Above all, I think he draws on the personal, on his “common roots,” to distance himself from the bourgeois class, of which he is, in many places, disdainful. I wonder a little at how incongruous this is with his assertion that culture is common, ordinary, and shared. Why emphasize the division in light of this idea? If we all share a common culture, can there be a division?

Making another attempt at Bathes here: does anyone else feel that Williams two-part model of culture “the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested” (6), seems to qualify as linguistic/denotative (accepted/known) and mythological/connotative (new observations and meanings)?

III. Questions and Further Reading

1.What do you make of Willams’ definition of culture?

2. How do you respond to Williams’ treatment of the ideas of Marx and Leavis?

3. Is Williams rhetorical decision to employ the personal effective? Why or why not?


Raymond Williams: “Culture is Ordinary”

by Mike Peterson


In this essay, Williams takes us to his roots, his rural Welsh home, to give us an understanding of why he dislikes current (as of 1958) interpretations of culture. Williams believes that culture should be defined as both (rather than distinguished between) a whole way of life with its common meanings, as well as the processes of discovery and creativity in the arts and learning.

The two prevailing senses of culture that Williams dislikes are what he loosely labels as Teashop culture, and Drinking-hole culture.
1. Teashop culture: “The outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of…cultivated people” (7).
2. Drinking-hole culture: The folks who exclude the ethical content of culture and emphasize the purely technical standard—the new cheapjack who uses “scraps of linguistics, psychology and sociology to influence what he thinks of as the mass mind” (7).

Williams says that while he respects Leavis and the Marxists, he must disagree with their views of culture. Williams discusses the three Marxist ideas that “matter” in the discussion of culture:
1. That culture must be interpreted by its underlying system of production,
2. That the masses are considered “ignorant,”
3. And that for socialism to succeed, a person must write, think and learn in “certain prescribed ways” (9).

Williams goes on to say that Leavis knows more about “real relations between art and experience” than the Marxists. Williams, however, doesn’t like the dichotomy that Leavis places on pre and post industrial-revolution culture: old vs. new, valuable vs. cheap, pure vs. vulgar. Williams defends these advances in culture and technology by asking how such things are bad for society. He doesn’t imagine anyone who has ever done without these things (e.g. aspirin or electricity) would ever go back to the old ways. It is a myth of simpler times.

But then William asks, if we can defend these “good” advances, how do we answer the problem of the “new cultural vulgarity” of strip newspapers, cheapjacks, and raucous triviality? (11). To answer this question, he says, we must first debunk the legacy left by cultural critics, specifically the legacy of 2 false equations, 1 false analogy, and 1 false proposition:

False proposition: Ugliness is the price we pay for new sources of power, production, transportation, and communication.
Defense: These new sources of power may be ugly at first, but they will eventually “make England clean and pleasant again” (11).

False equation one: Popular education is responsible for the new commercial culture (11).
Defense: “There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses” (11).
Defense: The assumption that popular education and commercial culture are cause and effect is based on Northcliffe’s correlation of the Education Act of 1870 and the rise of the “new cheap and nasty (popular) press”—the latter, Williams argues, comes from the “social chaos of industrialism” and not the masses becoming literate—there were, after all, already more than enough literate people before the Education Act to have sustained a popular press (12).

False equation two: Popular culture accurately reflects the mind, feeling, and quality of living of its consumers (12).
Defense: his observation of folks who consume popular culture indicated that one doesn’t reflect the other.

False Analogy: “Just as bad money will drive out good, so bad culture will drive out good” (13).
Defense: The increase in bad culture doesn’t mean a decrease in good culture. Culture expands, and with it all its elements.

Williams concludes that this is a starting point. The ideas of Leavis and the Marxists need to be radically revised, and it is time to start asking the real questions about the social and economic problems raised by culture’s relative rate of expansion.


Putropia: The characteristic 20th-century “opposite” of a Utopian romance: the stories of a future secular hell. Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are the most famous examples. Putropia, however, stops a little short of Doomsday. Doomsday is the immensely popular genre which, with considerable ingenuity and variety, disposes of life altogether. (Definition culled from an essay found at

Cheapjack: peddler of cheap, low-taste goods (for more info, visit


Favorite line: “So when the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture, and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I asked them then, where on earth they have lived” (9).
I haven’t thought of it in these terms, but when I studied Marxism in the past (not the Terry Eagleton variety, but the yawn-inducing essays from my Political Ideologies course), I had a hard time envisioning who these ignorant masses were. They certainly weren’t to be found in my daily adventures. Ignorant people abound, but it hardly seemed accurate to pigeonhole an entire “mass” that way.

I liked reading about the false equation number two: that popular culture is an accurate reflection of the consumer. I think this is an important debate still going on today, especially when it comes to censorship. Wayne Booth, in his book The Company we Keep brought up this idea in his argument against censorship: just because a person reads about violent events, that doesn’t mean she will turn around and mimic those events, nor does it mean that the book is a reflection of her inner desires or vulgarities. A person can read Huck Finn, he says, without feeling the slightest inclination to walk away and use the word nigger, nor would seeing the word in print over a hundred times make him any more of a racist than he was before. It made me think of a well-spoken, educated, respectful business man turning on his I-Pod and listening to Snoop-Dog on his way to work, or a bored mom turning on Grand Theft Auto to take her mind off things. I’m sure the psychoanalysts would have plenty to say about this, but I bet their conclusion would be similar to Williams: you can hardly define a person by what they consume. Or would they say that’s the only way you can define a person?

When Williams talks about the two senses of culture in the beginning, I understand the first group, the teashop culturists, but the second group is a little fuzzy to me. Is the distinction between the groups the same as distinguishing between intellectuals vs. anti-intellectuals? Or high vs. low culture?