Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pierre Bourdieu: Metamorphosis of taste

The key concept of Pierre Bourdieu's "metamorphosis of taste" is that the logic which drives the constant processes of change in taste and style, in all fields of culture, is that of struggles between producers of culture. A given field of cultural activity (e.g. literature, music, Fashion etc.) is constituted by a struggle over symbolic (which translates into financial) capital. Innovation and inventiveness are the product of this struggle over dominant positions within the given field. This negates the habitual conception of artistic novelty as being driven by artists' creative drive. Bourdieu's claim is also opposed to the assertion that novelty is the result of marketing and other economic considerations. Bourdieu does acknowledge the field of culture to be a market, but a social market rather than a financial one. This social market is characterized by completion over prestige and status. Status, according to Bourdieu, is gained by dissimilation from others and creating a distinctive supply-and-demand relations, that is, taste.   

Taste, according to Bourdieu, is a differentiating asset which distinguishes "good" and "bad", "high" and "low", "classic" and "vulgar". The artist is the one which actualizes taste, and is invested with the authority to do so. That is, a certain field configuration is enabling them to invest prestige in a certain object.  The artist's production is dependent on his relative position within his cultural field, a position which guides his activities. The changing nature of such cultural fields (it's easiest to see with fashion) is due to the constant struggle over supremacy within them. This inner dialectics is the reason why sometimes audiences get "left behind" and alienated from a field that is speaking only inside itself.

The growing demand for culture by bigger and bigger audiences creates the devaluation of products (and taste) which become more and more common (like Mozart). In contrast, retro fashion is reclaiming lost rarity.

see also: Pierre Bourdieu – The Historical Genesis of the Pure Aesthetic - summary and review
Suggested reading:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Street on politics and popular culture

In "Aesthetics, Policy and the Politics of Popular Culture" John Street tries to broaden the scope of discussion over the politics of popular culture in cultural studies. His aim is to examine the link between aesthetic judgment and politics which is manifested in determining state policies regarding popular culture, with the separation of high and low culture often serving as the criteria for national support.

John Street distinguishes 5 different approaches towards aesthetic judgment of popular culture: right modernism, left modernism, populist postmodernism, pragmatic postmodernism and neo-functionalism.
Right modernism is your typical conservative approach with orthodox perceptions regarding the supremacy of high culture and the view of popular culture as a threat to society.

Left modernism is also discontented with popular culture but for reasons of being a paralyzing mechanism in the service of capitalism (e.g. the Frankfurt School).

Populist postmodernism is the approach associated with some branches of cultural studies which deny the possibility of any universal or objective critetions for aesthetic judgment. Populist postmodernism holds the each consumer has his own needs and ways of interpreting cultural products.

Pragmatic postmodernism argues that aesthetic judgments about popular culture are possible and warranted, but should be made on popular culture's own terms.

Neo-functionalism is in fact Bourdieu's approach according to which aesthetic judgments are a function of a social hierarchy which aims at preserving itself.

Throughout his article Street utilizes his own criterion of judgment – the extent to which these approaches coincide with what Simon Frith (Performing Rights) had so to say. What Street (and Frith) eventually moves to demonstrate is that aesthetic judgment of popular culture is fundamentally a political activity, an extension of social power relations and their enforcement over who gets sponsored.         

Monday, April 4, 2011

"The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" by Gayle Rubin - article summary and review (on the sex/gender system)

In her 1975 "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" anthropologist Gayle Rubin tries to give an account of the origins of female oppression. Taking up a Marxist agenda, she asks what are the social relations which facilitate women's oppression? In order to answer this question she examines the works of Freud and Lévi-Strauss, which offer a detailed account of how systematic social mechanism shape domesticated women. Both of these thinkers, Rubin argues, offer conceptual frameworks for explaining the social structures which allow for the discrimination of women, structures which Rubin calls the "sex/gender system". Roughly speaking, the sex/gender system is the social organization of human sexuality.

Marxist explanations of women oppression have always been focused on the reproduction of labor and women's role in maintaining and reproducing the work force. But Gayle Rubin argues that explaining why women are essential for capitalism does not account for why the are oppressed by it, noting that women are oppressed in various forms of societies which are not necessarily capitalist.

In the writing of Engles Rubin finds that societies do not only have to meet their immediate material needs, but also the needs of reproducing themselves. Any satisfaction of material needs is achieved by means of a social-cultural formation which includes the sex/gender system which is different for every society.

In order to describe the working of a sex/gender system Rubin moves to examine the working of kinship systems which also serve to reproduce concrete forms of socially organized sexuality. This is where Lévi-Strauss ("The Elementary Structure of Kinship) comes in with his analysis of how kinship is the cultural organization of biological reproduction.

Two of  Lévi-Strauss's concepts are employed in order to understand how kinship is related to gender inequality: the gift and incest taboo. A gift is a basic form for establishing special relations between individuals, families, clans etc.. Marriage,  Lévi-Strauss argues, are one of the basic forms of gift exchange. He claims that the taboo on incest is the mechanism which insures that such trade relation will be performed between families or other units as a means of grounding alliances. The alliances are between men, with women serving as the means for establishing them.
Rubin notes that the concept of the exchange of women situates their oppression in the realm of society, not biology. With Lévi-Strauss asserting that culture is founded of the incest taboo, it follows that it is also founded on oppressing women. This is something that Gayle Rubin can't accept, and she therefore argues that kinship systems do not exchange just women, but also sexual access, genealogical statuses, dynasty names and those of founding fathers, rights and people – men, women and children. The kinship system, which is tied with the sex-gender system, allocate certain rights for men and others for women, thus denying women's right to choose their own destiny. Women oppression is not the source of social organization, but the product of it.

Rubin seeks the development of a "political economy" of sexuality systems, that is, to investigate the mechanism which create and preserve sexual conventions in society. Lévi-Strauss's notions about the family are an additional step, being the manifestation of an artificial division of labor aimed at insuring heterosexual marriage.

Gender for Gayle Rubin is a coerced social distinction between sexes. It is the product of sexual social relations. Kinship relations are based on marriage, and they therefore turn males and females into "men" and "women", each an incomplete half that can only be complete by uniting with the other, stressing difference and suppressing resemblance. In Rubin's view heterosexuality and oppression of women are related, for intersex marriage is imposed as the result of an asymmetry between the sexes.

The one component still missing in Rubin's analysis is the one that will account for the mechanisms through which children internalize gender conventions. And for this end she turns to psychoanalysis which gives an account of how androgynous children turn into "boys" and "girls".

Freud's explanation of gender identity formation is at first glance biological, resting on the girl's discovery of the absence of a phallus. However, the "Electra Complex" can also be understood through non-biological means: without forced heterosexuality the girl would never have felt that she is less equipped to satisfy the mother.
Psychoanalysis without biology is more in line with Lacan's work than it is with freud's. Lacan sees kinship is the mediating system through which biological sexuality is transformed in the process of entering the cultural order. Through kinship systems the child learns his place and the world and his allowed objects of desire. In the pre-oedipal stage the child is without a defined sexuality, but after resolving his Oedipal complex his gender identity is in line with his culture's conventions. Lacan offers a theory of the workings of kinship terms which serve to define the role of each agent or object in the Oedipal drama, with symbolic features assigned to objects such as the phallus (which is different from the actual penis). The phallus, with its symbolic meanings, distinguishes men from women and bears the meaning of male domination.

Here we find how psychoanalytic theory and the work of Lévi-Strauss complete each other by accounting for the deep structures that create and sustain sexual repression. Lévi-Strauss's kinship systems require sexual distinction, and it is the Oedipal process which creates it. Kinship is the "core" of the sex/gender system and it forces heterosexuality and assigns privileged rights to men. In Gayle Rubin's eyes, a feminist revolt against the current sex/gender system should be a revolt against kinship structures which would offer the possibility of an alternative outcome of the Oedipus Complex. Kinship, in fact, has already lost its importance at organizing modern society, and it is only a dubious heritage which continues to reproduce itself nowadays.  
Gayle Rubin/ The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex full text found here.

Something to read:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Simone de Beauvoir's explanation for gender inequality in "The Second Sex"

Simone de Beauvoir's gender theory is considered to be one of the pioneers of feminist thought. Her book "The Second Sex" is seen as a milestone in explaining how and why women were and are subjected to men's rule. While some of Simone de Beauvoir's insights might be seen today as self evident (such as "a woman is not born a woman but becomes one"), other remain revolutionary till this day.

In the second chapter of "The Second Sex", titled "History", Simone de Beauvoir tries to explain how gender inequality established itself in the course of history and how is it that we came to take in for granted. de Beauvoir offers an existential approach to the examination of how is it that the woman was marked as society's "other" and subsequently "lesser".

Simone de Beauvoir argues that whenever there are two different human categories at the same time and place, there will always be one striving to subject the other to its rule. The burden of childbirth in ancient societies made women dependant on men's labor, and thus enabled the initial inequality. In this situation women were banished from activities such as hunting an fighting that were seen as man's purpose in his strive to elevate himself from nature (which was the woman's domain and there she stayed).

With the shift to agrarian societies and the introduction of the need to plan ahead, women gained importance by providing the continuation of the family/community/species, and her powers were recognized and feared (here the "witch" was born). The response was the objectification of women and they're treatment as property at the disposal of men. They were reduced to a mere function, and not an integral part of human existence. Women, Simone de Beauvoir argues, were the eternal and absolute "other" of men.  

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" by Joan Wallach Scott – article review and summary

In her 1986 "Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" Joan Wallach Scott examines the use of the analytical term "gender", its historical emergence, its importance, contribution and shortcoming. Scott describes that manner in which feminist thinkers began the use the term gender as a key concept for describing and analyzing both historical processes and current social relations between men and women as social and cultural categories.

Gender was first introduced into circulation in the writings of American feminist writers who pointed at the social origins of male vs. female characteristics and emphasized the constructive and normative nature of these distinctions. In "Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" Joan Wallach Scott argues that the use of the concept of gender and it theoretical framework enabled a more complex examination of history and the understanding of different times and societies. The use of the term gender, Scott argues, has offered the opportunity to reveal and expose the power structures that create the both the hierarchy between men and women and the justification of the social structure.

Scott criticizes some prior definitions of the term "gender" and offers her own definition of gender as an organizing principle of social relations which is based on "sex differences". This organizing principle, Scott asserts, is predominantly used to mark relations of power.

In "Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis" Joan Wallach Scott introduces a methodological framework for tracing, describing and understanding gender formations and the processes which constitute and maintain them. She distinguishes available cultural symbols and the proliferation of sometimes contradictory representations of sex differences, normative perceptions which determine the understanding of those symbols and finally the shaping of gender identities. Scott says that the principle question that must be asked is what relation these three parameters maintain.

Friday, April 1, 2011

"Doing Gender" by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman – article review and summary

In their 1987 article "Doing Gender" sociologists Candace West and Don H.Zimmermann first introduced their notion of gender not as a trait, a social role or a societal representation, but rather as an accomplishment- the product of daily social practices and behaviors which codify and manifest femininity of masculinity. This product is the result of social structures and it in itself serves to reinforce them. The "doing" of gender legitimizes social structures and therefore establishes the male/female dichotomy as natural.

Traditional gender perceptions view man and woman as natural and unequivocal categories. These allegedly principal differences between sexes are supported by the division of labor and are characterized by female and male behaviors, which have deep psychological and social implications.

In "doing gender" West and Zimmerman refute the classic distinction between the social constructed "gender" as opposed to the biological "sex". Instead they argue for a more complex relations between social and physical features.

West and Zimmerman's definition of gender is a sociological one which relies on codes and conventions that are at the foundation of everyday activities. "doing gender" means to perform complex societal activities of perception, interaction and of micropolitics which define certain activities and pursuits and either masculine or feminine.

West and Zimmerman argue that gender is a series of traits nor a "role", but rather something which is performed, something which is "done" (hence "doing gender") in a continuing and context-related manner. Gender is established by mean of interaction and is displayed through it, and while appearing as "natural" it is in fact something which is created by an organized social performance.

In viewing gender as an accomplishment, its essence is diverted for intrinsic traits and features to something which is dependent on social interactions and contexts. Gender is also a result of institutionalized functions of society – indeed individuals are the one that are "doing gender", but they do it in the real or imagined presence of others.

In "doing gender" west and Zimmerman replace that traditional sex/gender distinction with a triadic division of 3 concepts:

Sex: a determination which is founded on conventional biological criterions for distinguishing male from female.

Sex category: a categorization which is founded on socially required identificatory displays that assert one's masculinity of femininity. Sex categories suppose sex but are not necessarily determined by it.

Gender: a reaction and result of an action in certain situations, as determined by conventional and normative expectations regarding one's assignment of sex category.

Doing gender in this sense is acting in a manner which promotes assignment to one of the sex categories, under the supervision of others. Doing gender is a socially required practice, and therefore we cannot "not do gender", our assigned sex category is imposed on us and is perceived as essential, we can comply with is or rebel against it, but in either case we are always, West and Zimmerman argue, "doing gender".

Check these out: