I had a brief email exchange with a friend about, among other things, cultural politics. I’ve heard that phrase a lot and to be totally honest it’s one of those terms where I don’t have much at all of a clear idea of what it means, but I still use it once in a while because I’ve heard other people use it. If pressed, and trying to press myself here to get clear, I take the term to refer to various things. Here’s a few possibilities:’

(1) The idea that cultural products like art, literature, music, and so on can have a use in emancipatory social movements. Cultural products as a tool for conflict with structures of power – protest songs and so forth.

(2) The idea that with the right sort of processing via another cultural product – namely cultural commentary/criticism, usually in writing, typically academic writing – the potentials in (1) can be released or otherwise made use of in ways they couldn’t before.

(3) The idea that influence in an area of culture with a relatively restricted audience can migrate elsewhere (trickle down?) and begin to have other cultural effects. (I was initially thinking mainly of ideas of the importance or utility of philosophy and some of Althusser’s remarks on this. That’s a bit unfair and not really what I want to talk about here so I’ll leave that out for the purposes of this post and focus instead on the rest of this category.) This would I think relate to (2) and (5), along the lines of something like the following: “if we accept either or both of (1) and (4), then if there are conversations which influence the producers of cultural objects then these conversations among more restricted audience could thus have important influences.”

(4) That cultural products have negative political implications – they reinforce power structures in various ways.

(5) The idea that with the right sort of processing via another cultural product – namely cultural commentary/criticism, usually in writing, typically academic writing – the implicatons in (4) can be neutralized or at least minimized.

(6) There’s also a sense in which cultural products can be a a sort of refuge in a hostile world, and/or a way to recharge oneself.

I’m not sure at all what, if anything, I want to say about any of this. I mostly just wanted to try and lay out these categories. I’m only really interested or at least am by far more interested in 1-3 than the others (though I think (6) is hugely important, at least to me personally) which is why they’re numbered as they are. Part of why this is on my mind is that post over at Duncan’s and the other discussions that I linked to before about the functions of intellectuals, which is part of what spurred me to think about this stuff on marxism, philosophy, and recent philosophers in/and recent marxism.

In looking at the above it seems to me that I’d do better if here if I had some examples (feeling lazy, so none coming soon). It also seems to me that running through the background of my thoughts or intuitions on this is a strong but blurry line – a sort of strongly felt but not clearly conceptualized “I know it when I see it!” kind of impulse – between academic and extra-academic, and almost the same but not entirely the same line between individual and organizational or at least individual and movement-milieu. What I mean is: there are important differences among the circuits of distribution and conditions of reception (that too should be more specified but again, feeling lazy) for the above types of things, without which I think this stuff couldn’t really be understood.

My gut level impulse with all this (and it really is just a prejudice and not an argument on my part and it may even be one that flies in the face of my experiences being politicized in part by punk) is to say that anything of value in the above stuff follows from rather than leads the organized working class. It’s also my impulse to say that approaching people based on their relatively immediate experiences of interactions with capitalism – bosses, landlords, banks, etc – and with other sites of oppression is more useful and politically necessary (at least for radicals in the US at the moment) than talking about their experiences of culture. I don’t know how I’d prove any of that of course.


This is only partly related but I find that this passage from Perry Anderson’s _Considerations on Western Marxism speaks to me a lot –

In the early 20th century there developed in some quarters “an ever increasing scission between socialist theory and working-class practice” which later fed into and was reinforced by “a seclusion of theorists ni universities, far from the life of the proletariat in their own countries, and a contraction of theory from economics and politics into philosophy. This specialization was accompanied by an increasing difficulty of language, whose technical barriers were a function of its distance from the masses. It was also conversely attended by a decreasing level of international knowledge or communication between theorists themselves from different countries. The loss of any dynamic contact with working-class practice in turn displaced Marxist theory towards contemporary non-Marxist and idealist systems of thought, with which it now typically developed in close if contradictory symbiosis. At the same time, the concentration of theorists into professional philosophy, together with the discovery of Marx’s own early writings, left to a general retrospective search for intellectual ancestries to Marxism in anterior European philosophical thought, and a reinterpretation of historical materialism in light of them. The results of this pattern were three-fold. Firstly, there was a marked predominance of epistemological work, focused essentially on problems of method. Secondly, the major substantive field in which method was actually applied became aesthetics – or cultural superstructures in a broader sense. Finally the main theoretical departures outside this field, which developed new themes absent from classical Marxism – mostly in a speculative manner – revealed a consistent pessimism. Method as impotence, art as consolation, pessimism as quiescence”, all of this a response to “defeat – the long decades of set-back and stagnation, many of them terrible ones in any historical perspective, undergone by the Western working class after 1920.” (92-93; via, see that link also for funny comments on written marginal notes building up over time in library books).

One might argue that perhaps cultural politics of one variant or another has prospects for small victories of a sort able to turn the tide, at least a bit, at least locally, or to contribute to that. Maybe, who knows… it’s possible, though as I said I’m not convinced and it seems to me that energies are best focused elsewhere (on mass work, in my prejudiced opinion, as I sort of said already above).

None of this is to say that none of this matters. It does, if I didn’t think so then I wouldn’t bother to blog about it. It is instead to that say that I wonder if this sort of stuff matters *politically* and that I wonder if saying it does is in part to make “politics” and related terms into primarily an honorific, a sort of terminological version of giving out a ribbon to all (who see themselves as) participants so that everyone can feel good about what they do *for the same reasons*. I could imagine dismissive readers (which I’d deserve, being engaged here in basically an extended and awkwardly phrased bit of dismissiveness) saying that the same sorts of skepticism I have for all this cultural stuff could also be extended to practices of a sort that I’m more in favor of. I’d mostly agree, I think that a large chunk of those efforts as they actually exist are probably wrongheaded and that even most of the rightheaded ones will likely not bear fruit – most will be nipped in the bud (being rightheaded does not mean one will win, after all) – so I’m for a modesty of self-assessments.

My hypothetical dismissive readers might rejoin here that if X is useless then it’s a safe assumption – one to operate on until disproven or at least strongly argued against – that showing the uselessness of X is likely no better, and that I am thus doing something no better than the stuff I’m suspicious. I’d have no reply to that except to say I’ll at least admit the uselessness of all this.)