Friday, December 10, 2010

"Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce?" by Nicholas Garnham –review and summary

 Nicholas Granham opens his "Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce?" by quoting Stuart Hall's reported break from traditional Marxist thought and the antagonism between Marxist political economy and cultural studies. Garnham's claim is that political economy is essential for cultural studies if its project is to be successful. He also argues that political economy is the source of cultural studies' critical stance. The affirmation of British working class in the works of the founders of cultural studies is situated in the formation of class structure produced by industrial and cultural capitalism. And therefore, Garnham argues, the struggle that cultural studies undertook was stemming from the wider social structure conflict. What Garnham subsequently argues is that for cultural studies to be a meaningful political project it cannot detach itself from its founding problematic, that dealt with by political economy. Cultural studies' developments, the growing interest in symbolic representation and taking on not just capitalism, but also gender and race issues, lead Garnham to ask of its current relation with political economy. Political economy sees all these as determined by material considerations of modes of production, ignored, so Garnham argues, by cultural studies. In other words, by distancing itself from political economy line of thought and subject matter, cultural studies are engaged with the secondary and less important and determining aspects of the social structure, and on the consumers' side instead of the producers'. Politics of identity, Garnham argues, not only secondary to the politics of labor, welfare and other economic issues.

Nicholas Garnham follows Marx in saying that every product produced must have a need which it satisfies, cultural products being no exception. Therefore cultural studies' sense of freedom in interpretation and consumption is justified only to some extent, an extent overly extended by cultural studies research.      
One of the ways in which Nicholas Garnham positions his attack on cultural studies is by understating it as a project assigned to "overthrowing domination" by assessing which cultural practices sustain the social order and which practices subverts it. Garnham further constructs cultural studies' interest in common culture not because it was a site of significant cultural activity, but due to the will to give the working class a "sense of importance" of their experience which Marxistically assumed to be stemming out of subordination. The second reason Garnham notes for cultural studies' interest in popular culture was the Frankfurt School project of explaining the mechanisms which inhibit a cultural overtake of the lower-classes (Stuart Hall, it should be noted, views the cultural studies turn somewhat differently).

These baseline questions necessarily hint, for Granham, at the Marxist notion of false consciousness, which he sees as claiming that only intellectuals, and not the blinded masses, have access to the truth. But cultural studies reject notion of false consciousness, which is for Garnham absurd.

Garnham also talks of cultural studies' view of education as means liberation of the subordinate classes and the role they assigned for themselves in it. However, cultural studies' sanctification of popular culture was in Garnham's eyes in fact harmful in the field of education. The attempt at liberation from power was foiled due to the obscurity regarding what that power was and where it comes from.

The main point of contention between cultural studies and political economy is according to Garnham that of the structure of power and domination. The difference is focus, while political economy reduces everything to issues of class, cultural studies tend to give an equal status to gender and ethnicity which precede the capitalist mode of production, but are, so Garnham argues, for the most part determined by class differences. Racial and patriarchal domination are founded on economic domination. Therefore dealing with representation (such as "black is beautiful") is meaningless without addressing structural economic issues which give rise to disadvantaging representations.