Image from Pluto Press — so much reading to be done!
Image from Pluto Press — so much reading to be done!
Re:Imagining Change is a very useful little book — both for activists looking to reframe the issues they are fighting and energize people around their cause, but also I think for critical theorists thinking about praxis. Authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning write:
Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the ideas and methods of the smartMeme Strategy and Training Project. We founded smartMeme to innovate social change strategies in response to the movement-building and messaging demands of the globalized information age. We are motivated by the social and ecological crises facing our planet and by a belief that fundamental change is not only possibly, but necessary. (11)
On the one hand it is written simply and is full of charts and questions to really help people on the ground work to create and tell a powerful story about their struggle (and I like that for the authors this is clearly just one component of movement building, and they ask that a politics and ethics of justice and accountability be intrinsic to this approach). They write ‘smartMeme uses storytelling to integrate traditional organizing methods with messaging, framing, and cultural interventions’. (12)
On the other, it is also contains some big thinking about discourse, narrative and hegemony. Thinking and theory that has been boiled down into the bare essentials through multiple workshops with a range of organisations around a range of issues. This is what activists working on the ground have found most useful in this theory — a good way to direct theoretical forces but also ask some questions about where those in practice may be missing something important.
It is in five sections:
Section I – overview of story-based strategy campaign model
Section II – theoretical framework of narrative power analysis
Section III – battle of the story method
Section IV – points of intervention
Section V – case studies
For me, and probably this is because of all I have been grappling with and my fascination with Gramsci, there was a long section that I found summarised much of what I have been thinking in a rather satisfying way (and while I have read a lot of Gramsci, I have not read much at all about narrative power analyses or story based strategies, though I have sat through a few press and spin trainings):
Many of our current social and ecological problems have their roots in the silent consensus of assumptions that shape the dominant culture…
To make real and lasting change…these stories must change.
A narrative power analysis recognizes that humans understand the world and our role in it through stories, and thus all power relations have a narrative dimension. Likewise, many stories are imbued with power. This could be the power to explain and justify the status quo or the power to make change imaginable and urgent.
A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see? And, perhaps more urgently, what are the stories that can help create the world we desire?
Narrative power analysis starts with the recognition that the currency of story is not necessarily truth, but rather meaning. In other words, we often believe in a story not necessarily because it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling.
The role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is what makes story a powerful force. These power dynamics operate both in terms of our individual identities — whether or not you get to determine your own story — and on the larger cultural level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? (20-21)
Who is heroic? Who is the villain? The answers show ‘the narrative dimensions of the physical relationships of power and privilege…’ (21)
A nice, simple view of Gramsci:
Hegemony operate in cultural stories that over time gain widespread acceptances and reinforce a dominant perspective or worldview. These webs of narratives are control mythologies, which shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative options or visions (22-24)
Referring to these stories as “mythologies” is not about whether they are true or false — again, it is about how much meaning they carry in the culture. (24)
And what this book is all about — changing people’s minds
A narrative power analysis suggests that the problem is not necessarily what people don’t know (the facts). Rather, the problem may be what they did know (underlying assumptions).
In other words, people have existing stories about their world that may act as narrative filters to prevent them from hearing social change messages. (28)
I think this is very true, and I also think it shows one potential limitation of this approach — it is in many ways about asking important questions while crafting stories, but those stories are still mostly for consumption. And I worry that there is not enough on how we know we are overcoming our own filters and our own stories.
Growing up poor, working alongside communities of colour and communities who don’t speak English, I have encountered (and continue to encounter) a large number of well-meaning individuals somehow unable to see any member of these groups as equal to them in experience or intelligence, who have believed they had all the answers if only people would listen. They liked to tell stories, to try and educate, to try and convince us that our narrative filters were wrong — when actually there was nothing wrong with our narrative filters. They just didn’t understand our realities.
This kind of approach used without a very deep integrity and commitment to critical dialogue and self-reflection could potentially lend itself to the same patronising mythmaking it is trying to fight. It needs to use both the process of creating stories, and the stories we create, to challenge and educate people to interrogate all such myths and memes for themselves and in themselves. So for example, when they write:
Audiences naturally look for characters we can identify with. Which characters do we sympathize with or relate to? (53)
They don’t interrogate the reality that in the US it is fairly well-known that many white people only relate to white people — and of their (self-identified) class or above. Hollywood holds this as axiomatic, immigrants know it, poor people know it, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the ongoing violence with impunity against Black bodies has shown again and again how true it is — how then do you frame your stories? How do you choose your audiences? How do you ensure sympathy? Who do they mean when they say ‘we’?
This small sentence alone raises immense issues and complexities in an American context, because the character that may evoke the most sympathy from the broadest swathe of American society — and that’s a group needing some targeting — may not at all be the character that should be used, and may in fact prop up the oppressive and all-pervasive racism that exists even though it might be trying to do the opposite in some well-meaning way.
Of course, this analysis would have made this a much longer book.
I think ultimately the point has to be to enable people to resist and deconstruct the power of myths and memes, and to collectively and as broadly as possible build up new and empowering stories. I think this book starts asking many of the right questions, starts thinking about some of the tools to do this. I also think these narrative tools are tools that can be used to move our causes forward and to build movement, and we ignore them at our peril. But I worry about using them too easily.
I kind of like this definition for example:
At smartMeme we think of a meme as a capsule for a story to spread. (34)
I like how they outline the craft of telling stories, and their elements: Conflict; Characters; Imagery (Show Don’t Tell); Foreshadowing; Assumptions.
This helps think about how to shift the frame, how we start to have the conversations we need to be having about issues of environmental collapse, and social and racial justice. I think perhaps I just wanted a little stronger dose of caution, of Paolo Freire and some of the brilliant work coming out around race and class, of critique and questioning incorporated into story telling and the complexities of that in the world we face today.
Stuart Hall died as I was in the middle of reading this, which made it so poignant even as I was thinking to myself just how good this book was as a totality and how much I loved him. Like many edited collections it had pieces that I loved and pieces that I didn’t, but even those that I didn’t find so useful still worked brilliantly to give me a solid sense of the international field of Cultural Studies from its early beginnings through the 1990s. That’s no small task given the way that it has changed and spread, been fought over and fought through. I’m not sure where it’s at now, but I feel that I know some of the places it has been and the structures of its debates.
I confess now, that Stuart Hall is one of my favourite theorists, and though I know the field is far greater and wider than him, it is his work that I feel opens up the most space for my own thinking in political geography. The first section looks at Marxism and cultural studies, and given my own relationship to Marxism is much like Hall’s, I wanted this section to be longer and I wanted more on the New Left. The authors are definitely more interested in the relationship between Cultural Studies and postmodernism, so I got more postmodernism than I wished but that was all to the good perhaps, as I discovered some redeeming characteristics…though not too many.
After a good intro from the editors it start with ‘The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees’.
The problem of ideology, therefore, concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of the masses, and thereby become a ‘material force’. In this, more politicized, perspective, the theory of ideology helps us to analyse how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historical bloc, in Gramsci’s sense; and, thus, helps to unite such a bloc from the inside, and maintain its dominance and leadership over society as a whole. It has especially to do with the concepts and the languages of practical thought which stabilize a particular form of power and domination….
We mean the practical as well as the theoretical knowledges which enable people to ‘figure out’ society, and within whose categories and discourse we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations. (27)
This is a revision of Marx’s model of ideology which ‘did not conceptualize the social formation as a determinate complex formation, composed of different practices, but as a simple structure’ (29), this via Althusser. And I’ve always loved his take on traditional arguments about ‘false consciousness’
Is the worker who lives his or her relation to the circuits of capitalist production exclusively through the categories of a ‘fair price’ and a ‘fair wage’, in ‘false consciousness’? Yes, if by that we mean there is something about her situation which she cannot grasp with the categories she is using; something about the process as a whole which is systematically hidden because the available concepts only give her a graso of one of its many-sided moments. No, if by that we mean she is utterly deluded about what goes on under Capitalism.
The falseness therefore arises, not from the fact that the market is an illusion, a trick, a sleioght-of-hand, but only in the sense that it is an inadequate explanation of a process (37).
The relations in which people exist are the ‘rela relations’ which the categories and concepts they use help them to grasp and articulate in thought. But—and here we maybe be on a route contrary to emphasis from that with which ‘materialism’ is usually associated—the economic relations themselves cannot prescribe a single, fixed and unalterable way of conceptualizing it…. To say that a theoretical discourse allows us to grasp a concrete relation ‘in thought’ adequately means that the discourse provides us with a more complete grasp of all the different relations of which that relation is composed, and of the many determinations which forms its conditions of existence. In means that our grasp is concrete and whole, rather than a thin, one-sided abstraction (39).
And then he draws on Volsinov, who I truly love, to argue
It is precisely because language, the medium of thought and ideological calculation, is ‘multi-accentual’…that the field of the ideological is always a field of ‘intersecting accents’ 40
And thus a source of struggle, every word contested terrain. Which he repeats: ‘This approach replaces the notion of fixed ideological meanings and class-ascribed ideologies with the concepts of ideological terrains of struggle and the task of ideological transformation’ (41). Then draws on Gramsci to see how these ideologies become material forces by articulating with political and social forces to deconstruct and reconstruct the ruling ideologies in a ‘war of position’. The terrain of this struggle is historically defined, above all it is the terrain of common sense, which become the stakes of ideological struggle. Thus ‘‘hegemony’ in Gramsci’s sense requires, not the simple escalation of a whole class to power, with its fully formed ‘philosophy’, but (43) the process by which a historical bloc of social forces is constructed and the ascendency of that bloc secured’. In thinking about the relationship between base and superstructure:
What the economic cannot do is (a) to provide the contents of the particular thoughts of particular social classes or groups at any specific time; or (b) to fix or guarantee for all time which ideas will be made use of by which classes. The determinacy of the economic for the ideological can, therefore, be only in terms of the former setting the limits for defining the terrain for operations, establishing ‘raw materials’, of thought. Material circumstances are the net of constraints, the ‘conditions of existence’ for practical thought and calculation about society.
And a smack down against orthodoxy and ‘determination in the last instance’:
‘It represents the end of the process of theorizing, of the development and refinement of new concepts and explanations which, alone, is the sign of a living body of thought, capable still of engaging and grasping something of the truth about new historical realities (45).
One of the more useful chapters was from Colin Sparks, outlining the work of Raymond Williams and EP Thompson and cultural studies’ beginnings in a humanist Marxism before its encounter with Althusser and Marxism, its engagement with Laclau and Gramsci. It does through multiple representatives of the school, not just Hall, which I particularly liked.
My favourite, apart from Hall’s own work, was ‘The Theory and method of articulation in cultural studies’ by Jennifer Daryl Slack. She writes
However, articulation works at additional levels: at the levels of the epistemological, the political and the strategic. Epistemologically, articulation is a way of thinking the structures of what we know as a play of correspondences, non-correspondences and contradictions, as fragments in the constitution of what we take to be unities. Politically, articulation is a way of foregrounding the structure and play of power that entail in relations of dominance and subordination. Strategically, articulation provides a mechanism for shaping intervention within a particular formation, conjuncture or context (112).
And also this:
cultural studies works with the notion of theory as a ‘detour’ to help ground our engagement with what newly confronts us and to let that engagement provide the ground for retheorizing. Theory is thus a practice in a double sense: it is a formal conceptual tool as well as a practising or ‘trying out’ of a way of theorizing’ (113).
Conceptualisations of theory as process, as being constantly regrounded and rethought, are the only ones that make sense to me. Of course, I feel that if you are grounded you are working under the assumption that we live in a profoundly unequal and exploitative society and that theory is meant to change that, so I do have some parameters.
With and through articulation, we engage the concrete in order to change it, that is, to rearticulate it…Articulation is, then, not just a thing (not just a connection) but a process of creating connections, much in the same way that hegemony is not domination but the process of creating and maintaining consensus or co-ordinating interests’ (114).
Lawrence Grossberg’s interview with Stuart Hall on Postmodernism helped a great deal in clarifying some of my own thoughts. Like Hall on Foucault:
let’s take Foucault’s argument for the discursive as against the ideological. What Foucault would talk about is the setting in place, through the institutionalization of a discursive regime, of a number of competing regimes of truth and, within these regimes, the operation of power through the practices he calls normalization, regulation and surveillance. … the combination of regime of truth plus normalization/regulation/surveillance is not all that far from the notions of dominance in ideology that I’m trying to work with…I think the movement from that old base/superstructure paradigm into the domain of the discursive is a very positive one. But, while I have learned a great deal from Foucault in this sense about the relation between knowledge and power, I don’t see how you can retain the notion of ‘resistance’, as he does, without facing questions about the constitution of dominance in ideology. Foucault’s evasion of this question is at the heart of his proto-anarchist position precisely because his resistance must be summoned up from nowhere… there is no way of conceptualizing the balance of power between different regimes of truth without society conceptualized (135) not as a unity, but as a ‘formation’. If Foucault is to prevent the regime of truth from collapsing into a synonym for the dominant ideology, he has to recognize that there are different regimes of truth in the social formation. And these are not simply ‘plural’ – they define an ideological field of force (136).
And on Baudrillard (and others, but mostly Baudrillard)
I don’t think history is finished and the assertion that it is, which lies at the heart of postmodernism, betrays the inexcusable ethnocentrism—the Eurocentrism—of its high priests. It is their cultural dominance, in the West, across the globe, which is historically at an end…I think Baudrillard needs to join the masses for a while, to be silent for two-thirds of a century, just to see what it feels like (141).
Now, more to the point, his own theory of articulation
the theory of articulation asks how an ideology discovers its subject rather than how the subject thinks the necessary and inevitable thoughts which belong to it; it enables us to think how an ideology empowers people, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intelligibility of their historical situation, without reducing those forms of intelligibility to their socio-economic or class location or social position (142)
I am not interested in Theory. I am interested in going on theorizing. And that also means that cultural studies has to be open to external influences, for example, to the rise of new social movements… (150)
I can’t do justice to such a sprawling volume full of brilliant contributors, so I am focusing on this concept of articulation that I am grappling with right now…but there is are lovely interventions from Angela Robbie and Charlotte Brundson over the struggle of women to gain power and voice in the New Times Project. It is both political but also personal, and to me these kinds of articles are so important for those of us without those historical memories about just how hard women have had to struggle even in left departments, and the forms this struggle took.
More from Hall on ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in reference to Homi Bhabba:
I don’t understand a practice which aims to make a difference in the world which doesn’t have some points of difference or distinction which it has to stake out, which really matter. It is a question of positionalities (264).
And back to my own relationship with theory really:
I want to suggest a different metaphor for theoretical work: the metaphor of struggle, of wrestling with the angels. The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency (265)
How can you not love someone who writes of his study of Althusser ‘I warred with him, to the death’ (266).
I loved David Morley’s article ‘EurAm, modernity, reason and alterity’ for its discussion of centres and peripheries (though I wish people unpacked the US just a little more, with its white culture one of the centre, but containing within it the colonized, the enslaved, the murdered), its review of post-colonial thought and brilliant quotes from people who are now on my list of things to read.
I’ll end with Hall’s ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity’. First, a return to defining Hegemony
1. ‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society…They have to be actively constructed and positively maintained.
2. we must take note of the multi-dimensional, multi-arena character of hegemony. It cannot be constructed or sustained on one front of struggle alone (for example, the economic). It represents a degree of mastery over a whole series of different ‘positions’ at once. Mastery is not simply imposed or dominative in character. Effectively, it results from winning a substantial degree of popular consent.
3. What ‘leads’ in a period of hegemony is no longer described as a ‘ruling class’ in the traditional language, but a historic bloc. (424)
And of course, the two kinds of struggle, ‘war of manoeuvre’ ‘where everything is condensed into one front and one moment of struggle’, and the ‘war of position’, ‘which has to be conducted in a protracted way, across many different and varying fronts of struggle’ (426).
It’s interesting putting this solid description in conjunction with Lawrence Grossberg’s description in an earlier piece ‘History, politics and postmodernism’
Hegemony is not a universally present struggle; it is a conjunctural politics opened up by the conditions of advanced capitalism, mass communication and culture. Nor is it limited to the ideological struggle of the ruling class bloc to win the consent of the masses to its definition of reality, although it encompasses the processes by which such a consensus might be achieved. But it also depends upon the ability of the ruling bloc (an alliance of class fractions) to secure its economic domination and establish its political power. Hegemony need not depend upon consensus nor consent to particular ideological constructions. It is a matter of containment rather than compulsion or even incorporation. Hegemony defines the limits within which we can struggle, the field of ‘common sense’ or ‘popular consciousness’ (162)
Stuart Hall does more to open up the concept to see where counter-hegemony can come from:
Ideas…’have a center of formation, of irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion…’(PN, 192). Nor are they ‘spontaneously born’ in each individual brain. They are not psychologistic or moralistic in character ‘but structural and epistemological’. They are sustained and transformed in their materiality within the institutions of civil society and the state. Consequently, ideologies are not transformed or changed by replacing one, whole, already formed, conception of the world with another, so much as by ‘renovating and making critical an already existing activity’ (434).
I like also hegemony as not a ‘moment of simple unity, but as a process of unification (never totally achieved), founded on strategic alliances between different sectors, not on their pre-given identity’ (437).
Anyway. Much to think about…