Sunday, September 12, 2010

Some Thoughts on Academics, Cultural Studies, and Class

      Working on your dissertation is supposed to focus your intellectual labor and interests towards a particular project, a goal, but I've found myself drifting as I try to get a better handle on the time period that my author, Judith Merril, is working in.  This drift hasn't been exclusively historical.  The relationship of Merril's novels to the melodramatic conventions of the fiction in women's magazines has led me to read about French theater, the films of Douglas Sirk, and variations on the play, Showboat.  But the historical question has been the one that has really taken up the most time, reading about the cultural history of domesticity, technologies for the home, commodity production, and the image.  One of those pathways put me in the direction of the work of Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen.

       That work, primarily under Stuart Ewen's name alone, probably would be best categorized under the category of cultural studies, although you probably could make as valid an argument that it operates within the category of social history.  His work explore the history of advertising, fashion, images, and PR, or more broadly, the mechanisms that allow for and reproduce mass consumption.  However, Ewen's work fits more comfortably generically with the cultural studies work produced within the British context, rather than the U.S. context.  Ewen links the history of those processes into the larger history of the larger structures of industrial capitalism, looking at the interconnection between advertising after Bernays and Fordism, for instance.  These connections are worked through in the best tradition of cultural marxism, avoiding the idealist mystification of simply positing the 'superstructure' as a simple expression of the 'base' of the economy.  Cultural industries such as advertising are both an expression of the interests of industrial capitalism and are intertwined in its structures.

        More significantly, it avoids the mistakes that so often make the discipline of cultural studies in the United States so boring.  We avoid the boring agency debates, the celebrations of shopping, etc., that is the individualist mystification that is such a dominant feature of that formation.  In addition, it's exciting to read critically thoughtful work that has been positioned to also be accessible.  This puts it in the same category of a lot of the British work as well, particularly the work of Raymond Williams, but also the attempts on the part of John Burger to make semiotics accessible through his television series on the BBC, "Ways of Seeing."  (Incidentally, this is available on youtube, and I recommend taking the two or three hours it takes to watch it.)  It's difficult to think of contemporary work that fits into this category of popular cultural theory and criticism, but the 1950's through the 1970's is littered with it.  (Betty Friedan, C. Wright Mills, Kate Millett, Angela Davis, etc.)

     Okay, so what's the point of this beyond simply celebrating Ewen, and perhaps slipping into the stinking morass of nostalgia?  Well, here goes.  The Ewens (Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness is one of the co-written books) shift from the general history of the mass image in industrial society, and move into some particular examples, beginning with the movies, but quickly moving into a history of fashion and the mass production of fashion.  The essay does this through the exploration of the expectations put on women through the fashion industry, through jeans, etc.  The pair do a pretty good job of showing that good materialist history can only occur through an approach that takes an intersectional analysis seriously, or perhaps, using the language of Althusser, an analysis operating on the basis of an overdetermined causal structure, rather than an expressive one.

      In any case, one of the threads that occurs in the narrative is the relationship of the semiotics of fashion to the structure of class, both in the long duree of the rise of the capitalist world system, as well as in the history of the United States.  In that history of the long duree, the history is probably a little obvious at this point, that history deals with the shift from a class structure of fashion that explicitly prohibits certain clothing items from the poor and middling classes to the open structure of signification allowed in the market.  It also is a narrative that moves from an aesthetics of leisure to an aesthetics of bourgeois severity, and finally to forms of rebellion that took shape in the counter-culture's embrace of denim.  At the same time, the narrative brings in the ways that fashion contributed to the patriarchal constructions to women's bodies, and the interdependent relationship between the mass production of clothing and plantation slavery.

      However, the thing that struck my interest is a little more specific.  The books shows how the mass production of leads to the access of professionally produced clothing for a wide swathe of the poor who were previously dependent on home production for clothing, or mass 'slop' production.  However, the narrative avoided the sort of easy celebratory democratic narrative that could be produced out of this material.  The process that allows for "Miss Astorbilt's" fashion to uncannily resemble "her father's stenographer or secretary" does nothing to change their class relationship, or the regime of exploitation that creates those distinctions.  For the Ewens, this marks a distinct innovation in U.S. capitalism.  They note, "This ability to erect a unity of opposites, social and economic disparity along with a mask of parity, is a part of the genius and achievement of American capitalism." (Ewen and Ewen 177)  The erasure of an obvious class semiotics leads to mystification of those very class relations.  It becomes part of a social democratic facade covering a variety of regimes of exploitation.

     I think that this offers a useful thread to understanding the lack of a mass working class movement in the United States.  (I'm not dismissing other threads here, for instance the critique of whiteness that runs from the analysis of DuBois to Roediger.)  Style becomes a significant mode of social mediation, an interpellative mechanism to allow for a labor peace and a kind of mobility in the bourgeois public sphere.  Perhaps, if one pushed it further, it gestures to the veracity of Voloshinov and Bakhtin's claims about language.  It does erase the possibility of two languages of fashion, leaving the semiotic struggle to occur in the ambiguity of the one.  At the same time, if we take the democratic narrative offered by this shift seriously, it is a profoundly false one, erasing the sustained violence of class exploitation.  The question is how to negotiate a radical politics within the materiality of that erasure.  (Once again, I need to gesture towards the incompleteness of this analysis.)

       As a final point, one of the things I have found fascinating has been the uptake of older modes of masculine working class aesthetics amongst many young white radicals interested in labor politics, most notably around the remaining fragments of the I.W.W.  In a certain sense, their gesture resembles the gesture made by the older skinhead movement.  As Hebdige notes, skinheads created this fantasy of tradition and continuity in order to respond to their disappointment in their parents lack of faithfulness to the working class, through their embrace of the material comforts of the welfare state and their compromises.  I don't think that our I.W.W. colleagues can be understood as operating within a homologous logic, but it might be a place to start in analyzing that sub-cultural formation.  It would provide somebody an interesting cultural studies project from the sociological angle.

(As I complete this, I can't honestly say that I know who the audience is for this material, perhaps falling into the same trap as the manifesto I earlier critiqued.)

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