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The “Culture Turn” in Marxist Theory

The “culture turn” is a dynamic process that since the nineteenth century has unfolded in the worlds of theory, art, and politics. The reference to a “culture turn” captures a widespread movement – played out differently in various disciplines, nations, and traditions – that emphasizes the importance of art and culture for education, moral growth, and social criticism and change. By the 1980s, this development led to an explosion in forms of “cultural studies,” “identity politics,” and “multiculturalism” in response to changes in the structure of capitalism and relationships among economic, cultural, and political institutions.

While the term “culture” is notoriously vague and complex, one might define it as the social process whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and define their beliefs and values. Far broader than the arts, culture is rather the entire field and process of symbol interaction, communication, and technologies through which people define and express themselves. Since its inception in ancient Greece, Western society has sharply distinguished culture from “nature” – a category that includes the physical world, nonhuman animals, and often human groups (e.g., Blacks, Jews, and women) viewed as “savage,” “barbaric,” or “subhuman.” Westerners – specifically, white, male, European elites – defined culture in opposition to nature. This binary logic was employed in order to construct human identity (by virtue of an alleged essence of “rationality”) as radically distinct from animals, to fulfill (European) humanity’s self-ascribed mission or purpose to conquer nature and establish “civilization,” and to assert their professed superiority to other groups marked as the “Other” in opposition to their role as Subject.

There are two broad ways to approach the study of culture. According to the idealist outlook that prevailed from Plato to Hegel in the nineteenth century, culture is defined as an ideal realm of thought and meaning independent of social dynamics and/or the vicissitudes of history. While societies may differ and change, metaphysical and moral standards of “truth” abide as eternal and universal ideals. Idealist outlooks failed to recognize that all forms of thought and culture change over time and are contingent constructs of their social context. Culture is a social and historical product that changes in relation to shifting material dynamics. As Louis Dupre deconstructs the universal biases and ahistorical and asocial ideology of idealism, "the very concept of culture as a realm of values independent of social-economic structures, into which man 'withdraws` from his daily occupations, is an ideology that could only arise in a compartmentalized society" (cited in Adamson 1985, p. 32).

In direct opposition to this idealist model, the materialist definition emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with the philosophy of Karl Marx. Reversing the logic of idealism, Marx argued that consciousness does not determine social being, rather social being determines consciousness. Fundamentally, human existence is rooted in the economic dynamics of trade, markets, and production. As soon as surplus production emerges in history, Marx argued, social classes arise and the struggle for power and resources becomes the driving force and “motor” of history. By way of a problematic architectural metaphor, Marx views production, economics, and technology as the “base” of society upon which all forms of thought, culture, politics, and law arise as a related “superstructure.” The ruling ideas of society are those of the ruling class, and they comprise an “ideology” – broadly, a conceptual outlook or worldview -- that advances elite interests and justifies class domination as good, natural, and the only possible social arrangement. But the dominant class worldview, Marx noted, is a biased distortion of reality and becomes a “false consciousness” for those who uncritically accept it as given, factual, and true. In reference to a key element of capitalist ideology, Marx described how the vast machinery of production spawns a “commodity fetishism” whereby objects (commodities) take on human-like qualities (assuming an apparent life of their own) and subjects (workers) become more and more like things integrated into technological systems. Bourgeois economists, themselves deluded by this alien “topsy-turvy” world, treated the commodity as if it were independent of social relationships and capitalist exploitation.

Marx’s often subtle analyses of the reciprocal interaction between the economic-technological “base” and the cultural-political “superstructure” were reduced to simplistic and reductionist formulas by many “Marxists” who failed to grasp the “relative autonomy” of culture and politics from capitalist imperatives (see Best 1995). For the “vulgar” or “mechanistic” form of Marxism, such as the official philosophy of the Second (1889-1916) and Third International (1919-1943) (including theorists like Karl Kautsky and Georgi Plekhanov), issues related to art, culture, ideology, and everyday life were ignored, trivialized, or simplified through the focus on economics and class struggle. In a fairly automatic manner, it was supposed, the inherent contradictions of capitalism and “laws of history” would lead to socialist revolution. Consequently, in Russia, China, and other communist societies, cultural questions were subordinated to work; ideology critique was devalued in favor of the “scientific” laws studied by “dialectical materialism”; concerns with subjectivity and everyday life were denounced as "bourgeois"; avant-garde modernist styles were pilloried as "decadent"; the sensuous and affective power of art was shunned as a threat to repressive asceticism and puritanical ideals; and “authentic” art was defined in terms of “socialist realism” that mythically glorified workers and reduced art to mere propaganda.

Beginning in the 1920s, Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and Antonio Gramsci renounced economism and scientism and emphasized the importance of subjectivity, culture, and ideology critique. They thereby inaugurated the fertile tradition of “Western Marxism” that defined itself in contrast to the sclerotic dogmas of Soviet Marxism. Western Marxists rejected the assumption that social change would come automatically through the “laws of history” and that revolution was possible without specific strategies to change and radicalize the consciousness of workers. Merging Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and Max Weber's theory of rationalization, Lukács (1975) analyzed how commodity exchange had become the central organizing principle of twentieth century capitalism, permeating education, law, and culture generally. Such conditions hardly guaranteed the emergence of a revolutionary proletariat, but rather necessitated strategies to actively forge a revolutionary “class consciousness” through radical art, culture, and education. Similarly, Karl Korsch (1972) responded to the vulgarization of Marxism with a call to reestablish its philosophical relation to Hegel and to initiate a substantive political education of the working class before they could lead a successful revolution. Gramsci (1971) emphasized that the ruling class achieved dominance not only through coercion (e.g., violent attacks on striking workers), but also through consensus whereby people give assent to the powers that oppress them, viewing them as legitimate and inalterable. To undo the stranglehold of “cultural hegemony” disseminated through compulsory schooling, mass media, and popular culture, and to prepare the way for a mass insurrection, Gramsci sought to initiate a “counter-hegemony” struggle through radical education, interventions in capitalist-controlled media, and forging new cultures.

The critical rethinking process launched by Western Marxists was developed in fruitful ways by the “Frankfurt School.” Beginning in 1923, theorists including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, Erich Fromm, and Walter Benjamin formed the “Institute for Social Research” (see Wiggershaus 1994). The Frankfurt School abandoned the ahistorical, positivist, and disciplinary outlook of mainstream philosophy and social science in favor of a historical, critical, and interdisciplinary approach that analyzed the interrelationships among culture, technology, and the capitalist economy. Frankfurt School theorists synthesized political economy, sociology, history, and philosophy, with the first modern “cultural studies” that analyzed the social and ideological effects of mass culture and communications. Against staid, pseudo-objective forms of “traditional theory,” the Frankfurt School developed a “critical theory” distinguished by its practical and radical objective, namely, to emancipate human beings from conditions of domination. Recognizing the limitations of “orthodox” or “classical” Marxism, Frankfurt theorists developed a “neo-Marxist” orientation that retained basic Marxist theoretical and political premises, but supplemented the critique of capitalism with other perspectives, thereby spawning hybrid theories such as Freudo-Marxism, Marxist-feminism, and Marxist-existentialism.

With the menacing rise of Hitler and Nazism, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse fled Germany and settled in the United States. They analyzed how the US itself was becoming totalitarian with the rise of state-monopoly capitalism and the role played by mass culture and ideology in stabilizing crisis tendencies and shaping consent to domination. Moving from the control of production to the management of consumption, from the workplace to the home space and everyday life, capitalism had penetrated virtually all aspects of society and personal existence. Against the nightmarish backdrop of world wars, totalitarian communism, fascism, monopoly capitalism, new forms of social control, and the cooptation of the working class, Frankfurt School theorists were understandably pessimistic.

Thus, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972), Adorno and Horkheimer argued that the powers of modern rationality, science, and technology championed by Enlightenment thinkers and Marxists led to domination not liberation. Building on a nineteenth century critique of “low culture,” extending Marx and Lukacs’s analysis of commodity fetishism, and developing Gramsci’s concept of culture as a form of hegemony, Adorno and Horkheimer described how culture had become integrated into the economy and a new “culture industry” emerged. An apparent oxymoron, their notion of “culture industry” showed how capitalism had colonized culture and everyday life, how the integrity and uniqueness of an artwork became obliterated in conditions of mass production, how the intrinsic value of expression was reduced to the extrinsic value of profit, and how culture weakened and pacified rather than stimulated and fortified the mind.

During the 1930s and 1940s there were lively debates among Adorno, Lukács, Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and others on whether art could still be a vehicle of criticism, education, and change; if so, the question shifted to which aesthetic forms or styles were best suited to this purpose. Whereas Benjamin (1969) analyzed how the art work has lost its aura in “conditions of mass production and reproduction,” but argued that mass media had the potential to democratize culture and promote critical thinking, Adorno thought this process spelled the collapse of critical distance and the cooptation of oppositional politics – a key concern of later postmodernists (see below). Doubting the effectiveness of realism or overtly political art such as Lukács and Brecht promoted, Adorno argued in favor of radical modernist and avant-garde styles, such as novels of Franz Kafka or the plays of Samuel Beckett, which he believed alone could provoke critical consciousness.

But this last-ditch hope too was dashed with the implosion of “high” and “low” art and the commodification ad cooptation of modernism itself. By the 1950s, the cubist prostitutes of Picasso and the starry nights of Van Gogh fetched tens of millions of dollars on the burgeoning art market, the works of Kafka and Beckett were standard university seminar fare, the anti-art gestures of Dadaism were institutionalized within museum parlors, and the jarring images of surrealism served the ends of advertising.

Amidst these conditions, Marcuse (1974, 2006) depicted Western capitalist societies as totally administrated systems populated by one-dimensional conformists. By spreading cultural narcotics and binding desire to consumption, capitalism had succeeded in bringing about a "socially engineered arrest of consciousness." In the 1960s, however, with the emergence of “new social movements” (e.g., Blacks, youth, women, peace, and anti-nuclear groups) Marcuse (1971) gained renewed hope for social revolution via a “Great Refusal” of capitalism. In the spirit of Western Marxism, Marcuse emphasized the need to change the subjective conditions of life (e.g., needs, desires, sensibilities, and the imagination) as much as the objective conditions of society (e.g., economics, politics, and law). He thereby advanced a cultural politics that emphasized the crucial role that critical and oppositional art could play in individual and social transformation.

By this time, the Frankfurt School had shaped a broad and fertile field of Marxist-oriented cultural studies, or simply “Cultural Marxism.” One important offshoot of this development was British Cultural Studies. Beginning in the 1950’s, theorists such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and E.P. Thompson analyzed the significance of working-class cultures in Britain and the negative effects of mass culture. In 1964, Hoggart and Stuart Hall founded the “Birmingham School” of cultural studies. Like the Frankfurt School, Birmingham theorists employed an interdisciplinary approach to study the ideological effects of mass culture and communications. Unlike the Frankfurt School, however, the Birmingham Centre emphasized not only capitalist domination, but also widespread resistance to oppression. Hebdidge (1979), for instance, explored how subcultures subverted social codes to generate their own meaning and symbols, as Hall (1980) – a pioneer of “reception theory” – analyzed how people actively “decoded” signs and messages “encoded” in cultural “texts” (e.g., films, fashion, paintings, television programs).

Whereas Frankfurt theorists (with exceptions such as Benjamin) dichotomized high and low culture, largely ignored popular culture except to treat it as capitalist ideology, and Adorno focused on the critical potential of the avant-garde, British theorists studied popular culture and emphasized the dialectic of domination and resistance. The Frankfurt School abandoned hope for the working class as a source of emancipatory change, as British cultural studies valorized youth and workers for their ability to resist ideological power and to create their own style and identities. But if the Frankfurt School focused on political economy and “hegemony” at the expense of lived experience, active subversion of the dominant culture, and “counter-hegemony,” British cultural studies went too far in abstracting culture from political economy and exaggerated the significance of “resistance” – a marked feature of contemporary culture studies (Kellner 1997). If the Frankfurt School focused on the avant-garde at the expense of popular culture, British cultural studies concentrated on popular culture without engaging the political possibilities of avant-garde art (see Adamson 2007).

In addition to Germany, the US, and England, there were crucial developments in France, where numerous sociologists and philosophers attempted to mediate determinist or functionalist views of social institutions (that over-emphasized the determinant power of “structure”) and idealist or volunteerist concepts of culture and subjectivity (that exaggerated the role of “agency”). Pierre Bourdieu (1977) stressed the active role of subjects in the production and reproduction of the rules, habits, and dispositions of their lives; Michel de Certeau (1974) analyzed how individuals appropriate and subvert mass culture through “tactics of consumption” to claim their autonomy from social forces; and Henri Lefebvre (1971, 1992) engaged the impoverishment of daily existence in capitalism and broadened Marxist theory into analyses of the city, the urbanization of society, and the politics of social space in general. Guy Debord (1976) and the Situationist International theorized how consumer capitalism, mass media and entertainment, and the proliferation of images and signs generated a “society of the spectacle” that pacified individuals, such as Jean Baudrillard (1983) argued led to a “hyperreality” that blurred the boundaries between illusion and reality. But whereas Debord looked to the capitalist social relations obscured by the fetishized appearances of commodity-images, Baudrillard claimed reality was irrecoverably lost. If Debord and the Situationists posited the “constructed situation” as the antidote to the spectacle, using experiments in radical cultural politics to reawaken revolutionary agency, Baudrillard proclaimed the triumph of objects over subjects, the demise of revolutionary dreams, and the “end of history” in spent social conditions where nothing new could emerge and one can only “play with the pieces” of the past.

Baudrillard exemplified the jaded “postmodern condition” (Lyotard 1984) premised on the “suspicion” of “metanarratives” – whether Christianity, Hegelianism, Marxism, or Bourgeois Progressivism – that view history as the realization of Freedom or Progress. Indeed, by 1960, there was already a widespread sense within the art world that modernism was over, that it had exhausted itself and done all that could be done (Best and Kellner 1991, 1997). A “new sensibility” (Irving Howe) emerged in criticism and the arts that expressed dissatisfaction with modernism. Seen as stale, boring, pretentious, elitist, and alienating, European and American high modernism were rejected in favor of new attitudes and styles. The new postmodern sensibilities and aesthetic forms spread like wildfire, erupting in the novels of William Burroughs and John Barth, the music of John Cage, the pop-art paintings of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, the architecture of Robert Venturi and Philip Johnson, as well as dance, film, photography, and the creation of new forms such as happenings, performance art, multi-media installations, and computer art.

The postmodern turn in the arts maintained some links to earlier aesthetic traditions while also breaking in key ways from bourgeois elitism, high modernism, and the avant-garde. Like modernism and the avant-garde, postmodernists reject realism, mimesis, and linear forms of narrative. But while modernists championed the autonomy of art and excoriated mass culture as bland gruel for a crude majority, postmodernists rejected elitism and embraced the implosion of “high” and “low” cultural forms in an affirmative pluralism and populism. Rather than snobbishly dismiss popular culture, postmodernists embraced it and assimilated its images and influences into their work. While modernists attempted to create monumental works and to forge a unique style, and avant-garde movements wanted to revolutionize art and society, many postmodernists were ironic, playful, and apolitical, eschewing concepts like genius, creativity, and even the author. While modernist works produced a wealth of complex meanings and interpretations, postmodern art was surface-oriented and renounced the attempt to produce and locate “deep meanings.” As evident in postmodern architecture, the quest for stylistic purity and minimalism gave way to eclecticism, such that the postmodern artist – as if to confirm Baudrillard’s eulogies for modernism – playfully and ironically played with past styles and forms.

In his seminal essay, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson (1984 and 1991) vividly describes the panoply of new attitudes, experiences, and cultural forms sweeping throughout American and European society. Among a many characteristics of postmodernism, Jameson singles out as especially important “a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum” (1991: 6). Akin to the “rhizomatic” analyses of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1983), Jameson notes how postmodern culture ruptures narrative and decenters subjectivity in a “schizophrenic” dispersal of fragments. Individuals are overloaded with information, images, and the complexities of a vertiginous “hyperspace” that disables their ability to situate themselves within larger systems of meaning, thus demanding a new “cognitive mapping” of contemporary subjective, cultural, social, political, and economic conditions.

Although Jameson interprets postmodernism as the new “cultural dominant” that supersedes modernist forms and philosophies, his concept was less a stylistic marker than a periodizing device marking a new stage in the development of capitalism. Rejecting idealist approaches, Jameson relates changes in the cultural “superstructure” to shifts in the economic base, and thus interprets postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” Jameson reasserts the importance – indeed, primacy – of Marxism at the very moment others proclaimed its death (Baudrillard 1983) or attacked its “metanarrative” of history (Lyotard 1984). Postmodern culture, for Jameson, emerged as a product of a post- war society dominated by consumerism, mass media, images, advertising, information, computers, and the total commodification of life in a global capitalist market system. Indeed, because postmodernism is so intertwined with mass culture, media society, and capitalist markets, Jameson argues that the “critical distance” between culture and economics, the outsider and the insider, has been “abolished -- an attitude voiced by many postmodern theorists and artists who saw no escaping the gravitational orbit of capitalist cooptation.

While such pessimistic discourses bear the marks of defeat in the aftermath of the 1960s (Best and Kellner 1991), postmodernism is not a monolithic discourse, for along with the ludic artwork of Warhol or the nihilism of Baudrillard there were positive and political forms of postmodern art, theory, and politics that incorporated progressive elements of the 1960s. Thus, in addition to an apolitical, self-indulgent, or defeatist “postmodernism of reaction,” Hal Foster (1983) identified a competing “postmodernism of resistance,” such as one finds in the novels of Thomas Pynchon, the photography of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, and the postructuralist-inspired “radical democracy” of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985).
Political postmodernism is also expressed in various forms of “identity politics” and “multiculturalism.” In the transition from the “new social movements” of the 1960s to the identity politics of the 1980s, any semblance of unity or common vision fractured once women, people of color, gays and lesbians and others focused on their own “subject positions” as oppressed or underprivileged groups. Identity politics turned to the distinct history, culture, and consciousness of marginalized groups, who sought to avoid losing uniqueness to either the “melting pot” of US culture or the acid bath of Marxist politics that reduced all forms of oppression to class struggle. Many proponents of identity politics identified themselves as postmodernists and thus -- congruent with the postmodern theories of Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Richard Rorty, and others -- valorized difference over unity, with different groups pursuing their own single-issue, reformist politics. In the 1990s, however, new “anti-“ or “alterglobalization” movements rejected this approach to form new kinds of alliances – such as between North and South and labor and environmental groups – essential to fight the growing power of transnational capitalism (see Brecher et. al. 2000).

Another form of the postmodern politics of difference championed “multiculturalism” in university studies and throughout society as a whole, thereby promoting greater diversity and equality. Rather than seeing multiculturalism as a call for inclusion, however, conservatives denounced it as a corrosive relativism and subversive attack on the timeless norms, eternal truths, and hallowed academic canon (e.g., the “Great Books” programs centered on the ideas of dead, white, western males) of Western culture. This set off a new round of “culture wars” in which conservative academics, media commentators, and fundamentalist Christians demonized liberalism (conflated with Leftism) as the cause of every form of social “decline” and went to battle to preserve their beloved traditions and social status.

As multiculturalism spread throughout academia, so too did “cultural studies” in the form of books, articles, conferences, and department programs dedicated to analyzing the profound social influence of advertising, images, mass media, and popular culture (see Grossberg et. al., 1992, Kellner 1995). Work done under this rubric has been incredibly diverse and fecund, including a variety of feminisms, gay and lesbian studies, and queer theory; projects for critical pedagogy (Giroux 1988, McLaren 2006) and critical media literacy (Kellner 1998); sociological studies of “McDonaldization” and the “globalization of nothing” dynamics rooted in the spread of industrialization and bureaucratization logics (Ritzer 2003, 2004); science and technology studies (Best and Kellner 2001); and cyberstudies (Gray 1995) and animal studies (Baker 2000, Wolfe 2003).

As culture becomes more pervasive throughout everyday life, the task of developing a critical analysis of its influence is increasingly urgent. The richest approaches to cultural studies will absorb the best elements of prior traditions and avoid their flaws and limitations. Such a perspective would, for instance, retain the Frankfurt School’s contextualization of culture within capitalist social relations, and eschew the tendency of many Birmingham and postmodern theorists to sever culture and economy. Conversely, it would reject the Frankfurt School’s outmoded dichotomy between high and low culture and recognize their implosion in a unified field dominated by capitalist imperatives. Also, it would break with the deterministic tendencies of Frankfurt School and postmodern theorists in favor of complex descriptions of how individuals are both shaped by and in turn shape culture, signs, and ideology. It would analyze the subtleties of resistance without exaggerating their significance and occluding the need for large scale social transformation. It would be multiperspectival in its facility to use different theoretical orientations (e.g., Marxism, feminism, race theory, queer studies, and animal rights), to draw on a wide range of texts (be they architecture, books, film, television, or the Internet), to analyze a broad array of identity positions (including not only class but also sexuality, race, gender, nationality, and species), and illuminate the various ways in which cultural texts are encoded and decoded, produced and consumed (Kellner 2007).

At its best, cultural studies is not an esoteric academic exercise, but rather part of a critical pedagogy that teaches individuals how to interpret and decode the media representations that so powerfully shape their consciousness, identities, and lives. Critical cultural studies teaches skepticism to authority, logical reasoning, value thinking, and the importance of our roles as citizens not consumers. Critical cultural studies can “empower people to gain sovereignty over their culture and to be able to struggle for alternative cultures and political change. [It] is thus not just another academic fad, but can be part of a struggle for a better society and a better life” (Kellner 2007).


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