Cultural Theory

Cultural Theory

Bill Honsberger


  1. It has sometimes been claimed that the 20th century might be characterized as the “Age of Structuralism”.  Explain what you regard as the principal insights of structuralism; what constitutes their novelty; for what critical purposes structural analysis is most useful; and what are its principal limitations or defects.  For the last, chooses an alternative critical viewpoint (e.g. post structuralism, Marxism, hermeneutics, etc.) that you regard as offering the most cogent challenge to the structuralist approach and indicate why.


Ferdinand De Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics set the course for 20th century discourse in what many call the ”linguistic turn”.  Throughout most of western philosophy linguistics had been seen as a fairly non-controversial aspect of the discipline, merely a handmaiden to important discussions elsewhere.  But Nietzsche upset the apple cart of the western tradition with the death of God thesis and with his rambling insistence that meaningless is upon us with the lack of a centering authority (such as God, or Konigsbergian morality or the like!)  If Nietzsche is correct that there are no “facts”, but only armies of metaphors and metonyms, than perhaps language has to be seen in a new way.  De Saussure proposed in his work to challenge the time-honored theory of language as representation, that is that words are assigned meaning and value as they correspond to particular items in the world.  This was far too simple a reading of the issue and didn’t recognize strength of he Kantian transcendental idealism argument that postulated none of us are actually in contact with the world as it is, or ding an sich (thing in itself) but rather are confronted with phenomenon, which are one step (at least) removed from the actuality of the thing.  Thus language becomes the framework for one’s understanding of the phenomenon.  How this is constructed became the Structuralist project.


De Saussure argued that words themselves are not essentially tied to the thing in any way.  By that he argued that the words are merely arbitrary signs.  It could have been “cat” to describe a certain mammal in English, but it also could have been something or anything else.  There was nothing in the actual animal that made “cat” the necessary assignation for itself.  De Saussure argues that the concept of “sign” as simple representation was also flawed.  For him the sign was really a compilation of two separate things, the aural sound made (which was material in the sense that it had a certain physical affect on the listener) and the mental concept that the listener had when that physical affect was occurring.  Combining the latter (the signified) with the former (the signifier) was to affect the “sign”.  This arbitrary nature of the sign points the way to the need for a system in which the sign operates.  This system/structure is the network of all the possible signs within a certain language.  Since each of the respective parts of the structure are themselves arbitrary signs as well, then what is crucial is not what each words supposedly “means”, in the old fashioned sense, but rather the relationship between all the signs.  These relationships would be somewhat flexible in that there could be instances of new sounds/words, which would cause a ripple effect in the structure, as relationships between signs were destroyed, altered and renewed.  But on the whole there was only a limited flexibility, limited primarily by the “tools” inherent within the language.  The tools would include the syntagmatic relation of the signs, in that their were rules in any given language that ordered the linear arrangement of the signs in a sentence, and the paradigmatic relation, in that one could replace the given sign with certain words that would be similar, but not with an unlimited supply.


The heart of this then is the structuralist does not look to any words as having absolute meaning or value.  Each word/sign is only meaningful in some larger context, without which it has no possible value at all.   Similar in some significant ways with Wittgenstein’s “language games”, the structuralist approach saw language as the field of play within each particular universe that it is applied to.  This sets the tone for several new versions of applied structuralist thought.  Claude Levi-Strauss took the approach and applied it to anthropology, finding that, in a deeper way the Durkheim’s functionalist approach could manage, that structures also existed within cultures or societies. Each unit or person within a culture was in relation with other units and these relations loomed much larger for him than the respective unit/person/individuated sign.  This was novel as the cultural anthropology field had long been dominated by a colonial/patriarchal mindset, which deemed the cultures under study as unevolved, primitive, etc.  This new understanding allowed Levi-Strauss to see the parallels within different systems, not in a competitive sense, but rather as different versions of the same phenomenon rising respectively and in a different way in other cultures.  So the witch doctor/shaman of one culture is on the same value plane as that of the medical researcher of European culture.  They might even arrive at the same place, argued Levi-Strauss in his The Savage Mind, such as finding the poisonous plants, but they both are relative to their own structure and neither has any epistemic primacy.


Another very interesting application of structuralism was found in Roland Barthes Mythologies.  In this work Barthes applied structuralism to a wider field of semiotics that is to the culture in the areas of art religion, mass market advertising, clothes, hairstyles, etc.  In other words, signs do not merely fill the linguistic space of any culture, but all of culture can be seen as a target rich environment for structural analysis and examination.  Since structuralism insists that the individual sign has no meaning in itself (essentialism) but rather it’s meaning is to be found in its relations to its neighboring signs within a language structure, that meaning for Barthes could do double duty.  First in a denotative sense, there is the literal sense that the sign has.  Secondly, and more important for “deep” structural analysis, the sign has a connotative sense, and this is where “myth” is born.  Barthes gave the example of a young Algerian African boy, in French Beret and saluting the Tricolor flag.  On the surface level, one might see a boy, a flag, a French uniform, etc.  This is the denotative nature of the picture.  But the sign gives birth to more signs, with the signifier/signified dialectic proceeding forever.  So the myth is born from the picture of a loyal French citizen of the then rebellious state trying to split from its colonial domination.  A very comforting picture indeed to the citizen in Paris or Tours.  (Fairy tale as well – my parents were in Paris during the Algerian crisis- machine guns on the Arch D’Truimph and “Tommy” guns all over the streets – not very comforting!  We lived in Frankfurt at the time and my brothers and I were not allowed to come into country because of the trouble.)  Barthes Mythologies give many anecdotal examples of deep structures being used in mass marketing to create a certain response.  It is in this last vein that I see an illustration of one of structuralisms more useful insights.  The de-centering of the sign shows the power of manipulation that is most vividly available within any mass marketing campaign.  When one of my children was 3, he announced to me that McDonalds was the best hamburgers ever made and we should immediately go and get some.  Considering that he had never actually eaten a McDonalds hamburger, as I hated their burgers with a passion, this was quite a conclusion for him to come up with.  The fact that he had at that time “consumed” virtually perhaps hundreds of hours of Ronald McDonald and other notables proclaiming the virtues of the burgers there, it is no surprise that the marketing had a powerful effect upon him.  I spent years trying to convince him that commercials are all liars, with limited success.  Another wider example of this is adorning some boring car with some beautiful, bikini clad girls.  The frames of the commercial denote the car, but the girls are myths of a whole different order, which is obvious to even polar opposites such as radical feminists and Christian fundamentalists.  In the field of religious studies, I also find the structuralist approach helpful in the sense of framing and contrasting with the personalist approach.  The deep structure of a culture/religion might be radically different with respect to an individual believer in that culture/religion.  Knowing the framework of the Roman Catholic church, its hierarchy, historic texts, rituals, etc and contrasting that with different individuals or even different groups within the larger system can help a scholar/student understand the larger phenomenon and its own individual fluctuations. The fact that Irish Catholics are more loyal to the Pope, generally speaking, than are Italian Catholics, can all be understood with the combined tools of bother structuralist and personalist approaches to the datum.

This brings up what I see as a major problem with structuralism as a system of thought.  The anti-essentialist or even anti-human (as some have put it) element within the system does not seem to allow for any real “rebellion” or originality, spontaneity or creativity.  If the signs only can be made sense of within a pre-existing system, which is coherent and comprehensive, than how does anything new ever overturn the system?  It seems that this approach probably correctly deduces the arbitrary nature of most words, (controversial still in many circles – Vietnamese word for cat is “ga meow” – I kid you not!)  but as applied to people this seems to build a type of linguistic prison, which assigns arbitrariness to the people, who are not mere units, and limits their freedom.  In this sense then there are some linguistic merits to the framework and even to some cultural analysis, but it is far too rigid a system to apply well en Toto with people as individuals.


The most challenging alternative to structuralism in my mind is found is found within Derrida’s extension of the field of relations within the structure.  While not having any sympathy for Derrida’s own methods and conclusions (whatever those might or might not be – depending on the critic!)  it does seem that from within the structuralist account Derrida has an argument.  If in his mind De Saussure is still playing within the metaphysics of “presence” tradition of the western philosophers, then the arbitrariness of the signs points to a much wider range of “play” or polysemiatric definitions.  It seems for Derrida the relations between the signs only shows a “trace” of what has been erased, that is the previous relation of “meaning” that the structuralist account has deduced.  Once one accepts the thought/language connection in a real way, than each sign is continually in flux, as language, culture, individuals all evolve, and as such there cannot ever be a real definitive meaning to any text (whether analyzed synchronically or diachronically).  Since there are no essences to be locked in, divine, natural or other contenders all need not apply and are all disregarded in this account, then it seems to me to be difficult to get off the slippery slope that De Saussure has perhaps unwittingly set up.  Derrida merely points where the anti-essentialism has to go, and the playground is constantly expanding and multiplying with no real end in sight.



2) Choose three works (or figures) on your reading list and compare/contrast how each defines and theorizes “popular culture”, what aspects of “popular culture” each tends most to highlight, and what limitations each seems, in your estimation, to display.  Feel free to suggest your own views regarding (1) whether (and why) “popular culture” represents some special theme as opposed to other manifestations of “culture” and (2) what you regard as the most adequate way to theorize and critically approach it (and why).


The first look at “popular” culture I want to examine is that of Sigmund Freud.  In two of his many works, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud sets up a very unique and controversial thesis of how culture operates and exists, which has a particularly telling conclusion as applied to this notion of “popular culture”.  For Freud, culture was the group manifestation of the types of repressed neuroses that he believed were held in common by all individuals.  Driven by such themes as the pleasure principal, the thanatos/eros divide, and most importantly the sexual repression of the males who longs to have sex with his mother, only to be frustrated at the presence of his father who stopped him from his desired goals (as explained by Freud in his Oedipus complex, the individual took his id (unconscious desires) and his ego which tried to control the id, and formed a superego, a larger more absolutizing controller which tried to harmonize in some ways the competing id/ego urges.  This repression of the more basic id by both the ego and superego (which was not the result of anything within the individual but only developed from without by outside forces) lead to a continually frustrated and neurotic individual, torn by guilt from his own desires and that of his father/god who was stifling him. Given this account, the way Freud could discover the source of the suppressed desires was through dream analysis, which he believed gave the analyst “access” to the hidden or repressed urges. So in The Future of an Illusion, Freud takes a popular projection theory about religion from Feuerbach, and argues that this is what organized religion is, a group neurosis assuaging feelings of guilt and propriety about the meaningless world and their role in it.  Culture becomes in this sense an enemy (developed more fully in Civilization… ) of the individual who wants to do lots of “bad” things, but the superego of the civilization forces the individual to suppress the urges. The God or the police or the armies then are seen as enforcers of this particular neurotic individual, as the father had been when the individual was young.  Thus for a Freudian analysis, “popular” culture could be seen as perhaps the most effective way to suppress and animal, destructive elements within humans.  (The “Barneyization” of the children as it were)  The directions of popular art, media, books and such then are available as “dreams” of sort, unconsciously showing the “real” desires or suppressed desires of the populace at large.  So the advent and popularity of say, Star Wars or other science fiction literature, could perhaps be a shared unveiling of the repressed desire for control and meaningfulness in the universe, which is unavailable in the individual life.


Compare and contrast this with the themes of Louis Althuser as established in his Lenin and Philosophy and many other works.  As an unrepentant Marxist, he shares many materialist presuppositions with an atheist like Freud.  There must always be material causes for phenomenon and God, and souls or essences were not part of the menu.  But Althuser also deviated from classic Marxist thought, especially in the area of the Hegelian dialectic concerning economic causes being the sole (for Marx) driving force in the culture.  Althuser saw that each culture had within it certain operating forces, which were just as important as the economic drive of classic Marxism.  There was the RSA’s or Repressive state adjudicators (can’t remember the “a” part right now!)  and the ISA’s which were the Ideological state adjudicators.  The RSA’s included the police and the army, which could and would use violence to enforce the given power framework.  The ISA’s would include religion, art, and other areas but especially the educational system.  These would use non-violent means of inculterating the populace into compliance with the powers that be.  While Freud thought most of the activity was unconsciously working its way through any given culture,  Althuser focused on the material and conscious powers that are projected upon any people.  Since for him there could only be on RSA but many ISA’s in any given culture, Althuser saw that capitalism used the power of the mass production of things to help to domesticate the culture from seeing their lack of power and freedom.  This reification process, seen by other writers as well, served capitalism’s goals of keeping the workers from understanding their true situation in the world.  Worse yet from Althuser’s perspective, this situation not only preexisted in the culture, but through interpellation (sp?) “Calls” and invites the individual to his/her place with the pre-existing culture at large.  So in this sense the system self-perpetuates its dominance and each successive generation is programmed and fit into the system.  Mass marketing in this sense becomes “niche” marketing, but each niche must be retained from within the existing system, enforced by the RSA and domesticated by the respective ISA’s.


In some respects Antonio Gramsci effectively showed this in an earlier time within The Prison Notebooks.  In his reflection as to the failure of communism to win out in Italy, and heightened by the frustration of watching the fascists instead take over. Gramsci postulated that it was the differences between the mass culture of the northern part of Italy, which saw itself as intellectual, urbane, etc, as opposed to the southern agrarian part of Italy, which was religious and unsophisticated, etc.  This clash of opposing “popular” culture types, had kept the southern and northern workers from uniting in their common understanding and cause, to throw out the oppressing Bourgeoisie.  This can especially be seen in how Gramsci saw the Roman Catholic Church’s role and that of the “local” intellectuals, especially Croce.  Croce as an Idealist of sort and the RC Church as being a modern manifestation of platonic idealism, had somehow masked the workers plight and made them compliant towards their “masters”.  Gramsci had urged the northern workers to come to the aid of their southern counterparts, but this had not occurred.  Gramsci uses the word hegemony to describe how (similar to ISA’s) the different parts of the culture had all been used to form and inform at the same time, the workers into their proper roles, as compliant worker bees, happy in their servitude.  This hegemony was instilled in all forms of mass or popular culture.  Thus the society had been protected from its rightful doom and the revolution had been stalled.  But somehow the Fascists accomplished the deed in a very short time.  What Gramsci noted and inferred for future cadres to learn from, was that the Fascists had focused not on the real needs and rights of the worker class that communists had been urging them to do, but rather on national themes (thus uniting both north and south).  The glories of ancient Rome, of Italian nationalism, and themes which inspired people to look past their real problems (as Gramsci saw it) and see themselves as a force were nationalistic and not economic.  The Roman Catholic Church helped forge this fascist tsunami by expressing RC blessings over the reinvesting of the Italian as Caesar myth, which had the side benefit of expanding their own power as well.  Gramsci notes the value of popular culture from this interesting angle, seeing how the Fascists had better sense of the psychology of the culture, and thus turning it from its docility into a new progressive (depending upon perspective) program.


In some sense I see that all of these writers as well as many of the other thinkers on the list brought many valid points into the “popular” culture.  Some like Adorno, saw the popular culture as merely a denigration of what had been high culture.  Others like Jameson, sees the capitalist/modernist mentality in its late stages as mass producing popular culture, thus undermining and globalizing all local and truly indigenous cultural formations.  My argument would be that the particular schools of thought or traditions that they come from limit them all.  Presuppositions rule!  None of them, while sometimes enlarging the envelope from safely within the boundaries of their respective movements, seem to be able to apply a multiplicity of outlook or perspectives to the phenomenon.  If one is Marxist, even neo Marxists like Althuser or Jameson, then in some way Marxist presuppositions seem to dictate what frameworks can be applied.  In this sense they all exhibit their own set of Kantian categories which (unlike the actual categories described by Kant) predispose them to only see things from within their categorical straightjackets.  Of course (as will be described in question 3 later) if the hermeneutical tradition is correct, this is because all they have is their own “categories” which both establish or preconfigure the interpretation thus grounding it, and thus limiting it from being anything other than competing, mutually exclusive (in some cases)  perspectives.  It was refreshing to see Marxists come out of their economic prison and see other forces other than “show me the money”.  Their perspective has an incredibly difficult time dealing with the motivations of homicide bombers in Jerusalem or martyred pastors in India and Pakistan.  They try, but it doesn’t really fit as well without ideological factors woven in.  From my own “enlightened” perspective (of course – no smileys on this computer – shame…)  Popular culture can hardly be described in any simple way with the accuracy that can encompass the entire datum.  While it is true that at one point, half of American kids seemed to own one white glove (even sadder given the last ten years of MJ) another major part of the “popular culture” rejected it.  All culture, like all politics, seems to be “local”, in that people generally look to their own interests, and these might be economic and the may be ideological and they may just be faddish or “pastiche”. The revenge of black light Elvis as it were.  As I will explicate more fully in question three, I think one needs a “toolbox” approach to the question of popular culture, and some approaches, used in harmony as needed, can better serve our understanding.


# 3  Given that there are a variety of “critical discourses” available and that some are incompatible with others, explain how you would approach the problem of choosing among them.  For example, would you follow a “process of elimination” (some just aren’t cogent or useful); or a “tool-box” model (i.e. they all have something to offer, it only depends on fitting the “tools” to the problem at hand); or some sort of “synthesis”?  Put in other terms, what might be the “criteria” that an adequate approach to cultural theory and critique must fulfill?  Which critical discourses (or combination of them) best satisfy these criteria and why?


As already stated above I come to this question with a sense that the best model is seeing all of the prospective models as tools to draw upon as necessary given the particular situation.  The incompatibility of many of the systems is endemic to their own presuppositions driving them into particularized boxes, with nothing to harmonize or synthesize them.  Of course this is exactly what some of the systems themselves are demanding, that no “grand theory” of anything is possible so localized narratives are all one has, and none has any more value or epistemic certainty than any other.  So how does a hopelessly pre-modern (as it were!) Christian find a way to learn from and find useful all of these mutually exclusive frameworks?  Great question – hope I can answer it.

First it is critical for me to say that since I do think that there are absolutes, moral certainty, and real things existing and discoverable in the world, that my own presuppositions are at odds with almost all the writers in some way.  But in other ways I find myself in sympathy with many of the writers.  As Nietzsche once quipped in a letter, Marx was just a “closet Christian” to use our vernacular. His concern for the masses of oppressed workers (weeds to Nietzsche’s mind) just showed that Marx, like Hegel, had not completely left behind the Judeo Christian tradition, as Nietzsche believed that Darwin had shown conclusively as the way to go.  God had no job left after Darwin, and Nietzsche impolitely applied the epitaph.  So in this way many of the Marxists writers are driven by utopian ideals and humanistic goals.  In many ways these goals are similar to my own belief and understanding.  When Althuser or Jameson shows how capitalistic mass production can reify and homogenize aspects of culture in a dehumanizing way, I am impressed with their analysis of mass cultures negative impact.  While I don’t see capitalism as the end all of the problems of the world as they do, I do see the need to press capitalistic drives with a certain humanism (a Christianized one of course – smile!) that can keep in check the greed unleashed to their and their cultures destruction.  But the utopian aspect of Marxism in most of its forms is too optimistic in both their assessment of the potential of human beings and of the cultures they form.  The 20th century showed the folly of what many of the “workers paradises” were capable of, the destruction of freedom, of meaning and value, of the environment and so on, not to mention the death of perhaps over a hundred million people, all to create that once and future “socialist” utopian dream.  So as Marx stole from the Judeo Christian tradition to express a concern for the masses, than I can recognize the value of critiques of popular culture without acceding to the other presuppositions which are in fact opposed to my own.

Another writer I have certain sympathies with is Jurgen Habermas, if only because he is the one writer on the list who has not completely overtly abandoned the enlightenment project.  Just like I think that the United States Constitution was better in its initial principles than it was in its applications of those principles in a consistent manner (slavery for example)  I also believe that much of what Habermas is saying, that there is a point to the discussion, that communication can reveal some shared values common to all, or least most.  This then can be expressed in ways that properly posit a humanism and rationality that would benefit all.  So much of the pomo/poststructuralist has reacted so adversely to the metanarrative problem (Lyotards incredularity noted here) that in my mind they have overreacted and taken nihilism (although some are pretending this is not case – but their arguments are weak!)  Most of the enlightenment project suffered from hubris, and can be corrected, but as Habermas notes rationality is far superior to irrationality.  I would concur and argue that just as Descartes tries to “center” and secure his project with “God” as the guarantor of the certainty of his thoughts, and just as Kant argued for God as guarantor for universal morality, then I would try and show Habermas that his desire for a rational world and a moral world (no more holocausts) must have a “center” and that this center is that of God.  Nietzsche despaired at what the loss of God would bring in some ways, although certainly in his arrogance he loved the death as well.  But a hundred plus years later we see the fruit of the loss of “logocentrism”, the Balkanization of thinking, morality and culture, and it is not pretty at present nor I am optimistic for the fruit of the near future.  So when Habermas argues that there is still a center, I am in agreement and although we may disagree on what grounds or articulates that center, that is a conversation worth having.

Contrast this with  Gademer’s project.  If as he and Ricouer are saying is true, that each individual is in constant interpretive mode with all others, that this “prejudice” or pre-suppositional backdrop invests and informs all our interpretation, than we are in constant dialogue and no answer is ever even possible (Derrida smiles here).  In saying this I would argue that it is true that each of us is framed from within our interpretive communities, histories and experiences.  This kind of frankness is necessary if one is to overcome these limitations.  Far from postulating the hopelessness of purely subjective subjects, constantly in difference and “difference” with each other, it is this understanding which not only grounds our communication but allows us to recognize and go beyond these strictures toward a greater whole.  The analogy of learning another language or conversion in religion might work well here.  Even though I speak an adulterated (south Texas/southern California) type of English, I am not only able to communicate with others who only partly share my experience (say an Aucklander or Singaporean) but even LEARN to communicate with someone from a completely different culture and language.  In this language is not a structural prison, but rather like Wittgenstein’s games, and the rules are available for all.  In the same way, people might convert, like a Nebraska housewife I met who converted to Shia Islam, even though the language, the history, the culture, etc, from both starting points were radically opposed.  In this sense humans in their freedom have shown the amazing philosophic and cultural dexterity to bridge all these admitted historical and biographical presuppositions.  This is one thing I enjoyed about Levinas’s early work about the “face”.  The face was almost primordial, and existed before language placed the person in its proper framework.  The demand for ethical action preceding all language and cultural preconditions.  Of course I think that his Talmudic studies could alone ground that argument but that is a fun discussion for another day.


Even though I am also hopelessly pre-suppositionally and rationally opposed to so much of what Derrida and Foucoult bring to the discussion, much like my affinity for Nietzsche, there is wisdom even in the negative application of their own thoughts.  Foucault’s emphasis on power relations can be very instructive in some situations, but much like my problem with Marxism it focuses on only one aspect of human culture and is therefore inadequate to understand too many other situations.  His writing, like some of the postcolonial writings, seems to suffer from the problem of saying “un-equal power relations are wrong” or “colonialism is wrong” but not having the absolutizing meta-ethical tools in place to justify the critique.  To wax Derridean for a moment, if all we have is “play” and “difference” and inter-textuality and so on, than as he realized, meta-discourses, whether grand narratives in science or categorical imperatives or exclusivist religious claims all must be rejected.  Habermas and many Christian writers see this in common.  No “logocentrism”!  Fine, then we follow the Nietzschean march into the Nihil and how can we stop?  But culture does not act that way, whether local or popular. Culture still resists the void and can be measured and seen in light of these many schools of thought.  My own perspective requires me to see them in relation to my faith, practice and philosophical realism, but there is much to be gained from seeing all of these viewpoints in relation to the world and to each other.

Love at the end of the rainbow