The title and the post are meant to provoke a bit, and I know I risk being considered a snobbish, or a chauvinist, European.
The United States – I was saying – exert today a cultural hegemony over the planet at a high and a popular level of culture [for the high level, suffice it the sheer excellence of their universities in the scientific, technological and humanities fields, not to mention the number of Nobel prizes attained by Americans]
One can speak of a new American Renaissance, with fantastic contributions offered to the world – the Internet, a great revolution, being just one of them.
Which affects both the American culture and those cultures exposed to American influence – basically ALL of them, at diverse degrees.
[By culture I mean both:
1) the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a group (the Unesco definition);
2) the general knowledge, values etc. an individual can attain through education (linked to the Ancient concepts of Humanitas & Paideia.)
Also culturequality has to be considered. If I enjoy Shakespeare better than soap operas, I am not a snob, I am simply better educated and my mind is more powerful]
Gramsci, reflecting on the US soon after the 1929 depression, considered America culturally hegemonic already at his time (the 1930s) although to him such world-wide hegemony presented a few cracks for being, the US, too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many ‘cultures’ (see above the meaning 1 of the term.)
Now, following Gramsci’s reasoning – and considering his notions of ‘intellectuals’, ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘national-popular’ culture (see our posts on Gramsci 1, 2 and 3)– we can ask ourselves:
In our rapidly changing world, with powerful civilisations about to re-surface, is America seductive enough at a world-wide scale [ie ‘culturally hegemonic’ world-wide]?
I’ll say my opinion right away: the cracks Gramsci was mentioning seem today particularly evident (at least to many Europeans) at apop culture level [update:whatever the reasons for this.]A civilization doesn’t export its high culture only. It exports the sentiments of its whole people with its books (quality works and blockbusters), films, TV serials etc. and when its tourists, business people, soldiers & the men of the street wander about the planet.
[A Gramscian national-popular notion ofculture is where the intellectuals – artists, writers etc. – express at a higher level the elementary sentiments of the common people who thus emotionally and intellectually participate. The examples he indicates of ‘national-popular’ may clarify this Gramscian crucial concept: the Elisabethan theatre, the Greek tragedy or the Italian opera.]
I mean, when Rome conquered Gaul, Romanization occurred deeply without any organized effort by the Romans. That is, the Roman ‘culture’ was felt as superior and seduced the Gauls who became the French – not only the culture of the ‘intellectuals’ (big politicians, generals, writers etc.) was seducing, but that of the merchants, of the soldiers, of the simple citizens as well.
Do you also think that American world-wide hegemony’s weakpoint is a low-level and too pervading pop culture (due to consumerism, to making money being what only matters nowadays etc.) and also the “erasure of any high-pop culture distinction”? [see Lichanos‘ comment on this]
Do you also think that, to quote Andreas Kluth, a ‘high culture’ perceived as snobbish only “is a tragedy” and that – I’d add – the tea parties, the Sarah Palins and US widespread anti-elitism will make America pay a price in the long run in terms, again, of world cultural hegemony?
Finally – be patient, I dislike Star Trek – what do the Indians, the Chinese, the Persians, the rest of the world population – often belonging to ancient civilizations – think of the thousands of Star Trek conventions and clubs that have spread all over the globe? Will it benefit America’s image?
As for culture (in the sense of individual general knowledge & refinement) Lichanos had lamented the erasure of a high-pop culture distinction in the USA. To him more than the ‘youth factor’ a role may be played by America being often “the first to represent trends that are going world-wide”, ie America is just ahead of Europe in mass-culture and consumerism, which explains why a superficial pop culture is so pervasive in the US.
To Andreas Kluth a ‘high culture’ perceived as ‘snobbish only’ is “a tragedy” and due to many factors among which a too widespread anti-elitism (“Sarah Palin and all the rest”).
I usually reply to my readers one by one. Tomorrow it will be the others’ turn.
Explaining Paris Hilton
Thomas. Thank you for an interesting and insightful 795 words! For me, Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture. I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well, but the whole technology thing needs more thought. I’m worried that saying that social media (and reality TV) are vehicles of cultural domination might sound too much like a conspiracy theory. But they certainly do support Gramsci’s view that hegemony is achieved and maintained by consent of the subordinate class.
MoR. “Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture.”
You may refer to Gramsci’s study of Marx’s superstructure. Gramsci criticises the notion of a superstructure as simple ‘skin’ of a society, and of a socio-economic base, the ‘skeleton’, that is what really matters by determining the conscience etc.
“Women – Gramsci said – fall in love with the skin, not the skeleton”. Seduction, again, ie cultural hegemony.
[Update: ie people are ‘seduced’ by the ‘skin’ or cultural elements (superstructure) more than by the ‘skeleton’ – socio-economic class structure. It is a metaphorical way of stressing the importance of cultural hegemony, of men’s choices – free, non mechanically predetermined by the economical class structure – and of ‘intellectuals’ in history.]
I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well.
I’ll get to Facebook and Paris Hilton. But I’ve got to follow a long forgotten reasoning.
Since the core of Gramsci’s reflection is the superstructure – intellectuals being like the agents of it –, by analyzing both the high and the pop culture(s) of several countries he strongly advocates a blend of the two levels.
The intellectuals, he argues, should not be separated– as it always was the case of Italy – from the ‘elementary passions’ of the common people. A folk should be culturally united, as a tendency at least.
Greek Tragedy & Shakespeare
Such culture [update: of a high level, where the ‘intellectuals’ and the common people interact in a two way process] he calls ‘national-popular’ (complex notion to say the truth.) Among the best examples of it Gramsci indicates the Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan theatre, where the majority of the people were involved in a great experience. To him the only Italian example of such ‘artistic unity’ of the people [update: high-low interaction] is the Italian opera (I may possibly add, since I saw it with my eyes, the ‘popular’ love for Dante one can still experience in many parts of Tuscany and elsewhere.)
The Italian Renaissance to him, though sublime, was too elitist [update: ie no participation of the populace, no high-low interaction] and one cause in the end of the Italian decline. The protestant Reformation saw instead great popular participation (Renaissance-Reformation are to Gramsci also dialectic metaphors – in the Hegelian sense of thesis and antithesis – that he uses abstractly.)
Even if at first the Reformation – Gramsci argues – was like a return to the dark ages, it later liberated people’s energies by reaching higher levels of culture and contributing to the construction, among the rest, of the American nation.
US Cultural Hegemony
The first British immigrants to the New World were in fact an intellectual and especially moral elite – Gramsci argues. Defeated religiously in their fatherland but not humiliated, they brought to the New World great will, moral energy and “a certain stage of European historical evolution, which when transplanted by such men into the virgin soil of America, developed – and continues to develop – the forces implicit in its nature but with an incomparably more rapid rhythm than Old Europe”, where the relics of the past generated opposition giving to every initiative the equilibrium of mediocrity …
We all know what happened, how Europe went down and how the US have become the dominant power.
Following Gramsci’s reasoning, the United States exert yet today a cultural hegemony over the world, at both a high and a popular level of culture. Their universities are excellent in all fields (they even have among the best Dante’s specialists!) etc., intellectuals are not that detached from the people (they tend to ‘disseminate’ knowledge in their books, not like here in Italy although things are changing a bit – while France, a not at all bad ‘national-popular’ place in the 19th century – see 19th-century French literature! – is nowadays possibly even more elitist than we are, but I’m not sure.)
Not concluded. Tomorrow, Thomas and you folks. I am European, not American. And my dog Lilla is recovering but she is 15 years old.