Art, Hegemony, Universality and Totality

Art is regarded by Chantal Mouffe as one of the ’empty signifiers’ whose content – ie the very definition of art or ‘good art’ – is determined entirely by hegemonic struggle. Her agonistic conception of the political, she says, is particularly suited to grasp the nature of the new forms of artistic activism’ and, simultaneously, here, ‘that artistic practices can play a role in the struggle against capitalist domination’.

From the point of view of the theory of hegemony, artistic practices play a role in the constitution and maintenance of a given symbolic order or in its challenging and this is why they necessarily have a political dimension.

So, ‘according to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.’

Hegemony is the process by which the views, values or interests of a section of society come to dominate society as a whole by occupying the place of the official, accepted, authorized and legitimated thought. Mouffe explains this here thus:

To acknowledge the dimension of ‘the political’ as the ever-present possibility of antagonism requires coming to terms with the lack of a final ground and the undecidability which pervades every order. In other words, it requires the recognition of the hegemonic nature of every kind of social order and the fact that every society is the product of a series of practices that attempt to establish order in a context of contingency.

For Mouffe, the hegemonic theory of the political demonstrates that ‘every order is the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices’ (On the Political, p.18). And this is why ‘every hegemonic order is susceptible of being challenged by counter-hegemonic practices ie practices which will attempt to disarticulate the existing order so as to install another form of hegemony’.

Perry Anderson, in his famous analysis of Gramsci in the New Left Review, says that the concept of hegemony was ‘forged to theorize the role of the working class in a bourgeois revolution’ but came to refer to the ‘class alliance of the proletariat with other exploited groups, above all the peasantry, in a common struggle against the oppression of capital’. Peter Thomas, in his book The Gramscian Moment, says

hegemony, for Gramsci, involves a leading social group securing the (active or passive) consent of other social strata, rather than unilaterally imposing its decrees upon unwilling ‘subjects’. It relies more upon subtle mechanisms of ideological integration than direct recourse to arms. (p.161)

So, for Gramsci, Thomas explains, ‘hegemony is a particular practice of consolidating social forces and condensing them into political power on a mass basis – the mode of production of the modern ‘political’.’ (p194)

Gramsci here presents the concept of hegemony as a Marxist theory of ‘the constitution of the political’, as the process by means of which social forces are integrated into the political power of an existing state – and as the path along which the subaltern classes must learn to travel in a very different way in order to found their own ‘non-state state’. (p.194-5)

Laclau, following Gramsci, argues that hegemony ‘defines the very terrain in which a political relation is actually constituted’. (Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, p.44) Strikingly, though, Laclau says, ‘hegemony involves a series of universalizing effects’. (p.49) He explains this in some detail:

If the hegemony of a particular social sector depends for its success on presenting its own aims as those realizing the universal aims of the community, it is clear that this identification is not the simple prolongation of an institutional system of domination but that, on the contrary, all expansion of the latter presupposes the success of that articulation between universality and particularity. (p.50)

Laclau says ‘the universal is no more than a particular that at some moment has become dominant’ (Emancipation(s), p.26). Laclau rejects the politics of ‘pure particularism’, though, because it is self-defeating – to defend your own particular position is, in principle, to defend the particular position of your opponent. Laclau adds that to assert a particularism is to assert its context (hence, the dependence of oppositional movements on the society they oppose). He therefore argues that the social demands of minorities ‘cannot be made in terms of difference, but of some universal principles’ (p.28).

We have a good starting point for examining the concept of universality because we are now attending to (1) the question of how the universal relates to its rivals (ie partisanship), (2) the question of what is universal about the universal (here, it is power), and (3) the relationship between the universal and totality (here, that it suppresses difference in order to it stand for the missing or impossible totality).

Art is subject to the hegemonic struggle of universalization twice over. First, in Mouffe’s argument, what we consider art to be is fought over, and at this or that conjuncture the fight appears settled in favour of this or that version of art. What appears to be thinkable as art (and what is unthinkable, too) takes on a given shape. Although this is necessarily a temporary settlement, it appears, insofar as it occupies the place of the universal, to be permanent, true, essential: ie right, not just victorious. The second phase of universalization for art concerns not the internal hegemonic struggle over art but the wider struggle over art’s hegemony within a divided culture. This is why the sociological indexing of ‘high culture’ to the bourgeoisie, and ‘popular culture’ to the working class, is always hollow. High culture relates to popular culture as the universal relates to the partisan. This explains why we hear the argument that great works of art and literature belong to all of us, why the Arts Council used to operate on the assumption that ‘art is good for you’, why the current Arts Council England policy is ‘great art for all’, and why New Labour put artists into schools in deprived areas.

The universalization of art is not merely the victory of a certain narrow culture imposed on the rest of us. Like all universalized phenomena, the experience of art is the experience of the universal itself. Zizek catches the feeling of this, as well as articulating its dialectical form, when he says ‘the universal dimension “shines through” the symptomatic displaced element’ (The Ticklish Subject, p.225). But the identification with the universal, and of feeling the universal therefore shining through you, is not merely the identification with authority and power. Zizek rejects the denouncement of ‘neutral universality as false (‘the “man” of human rights is actually the white male property-owner…’)’ and refers instead to the process of universalizing the ‘point of exclusion’ (eg the proletariat, illegal immigrants, the homeless, the feminine, the queer) as politicization.

Laclau is close to Zizek here, saying, ‘the universal is part of my identity as far as I am penetrated by a constitutive lack’, explaining:

The universal emerges out of the particular not as some principle underlying and explaining the particular, but as an incomplete horizon suturing a dislocated particular identity. (p.28)

Laclau’s ‘constitutive lack’ overlaps Zizek’s politicization thus: ‘the universal is the symbol of a missing fullness’. Politicization means that the universal can be occupied by the disenfranchized, the dispossessed and the excluded. Hegemony is not merely the ideological confirmation of power. So long as child labour, human trafficking and political corruption is unacceptable then the brutal use of force is, at least to some degree, tempered by hegemony. To see hegemony as nothing but force is to eliminate the need to speak of hegemony at all. Hegemony is rule by consent rather than coercion, so we need to understand how universalization takes place, not simply to redescribe its results in terms of power. Taken literally, the argument that the universal is the outcome of hegemonic struggle – in the absence of any good reasons for claiming this rather than that as the universal – leaves us with nothing but the conflict of self-interest. In order to go beyond self-interest in the assessment of rivals to universality, Mouffe thinks we need a concept of truth (which she rejects on both philosophical and political grounds). Marx provides a different way out of the bind.

Marx and Engels took two ideas – the problem of universals and the relationship of ideas to real existence – and combined them in an unprecedented way, the concept of ideology. Ideology is not ‘false-consciousness’ or the ideas of the dominant class expressed as the universal. What Marx and Engels argue is that it is ideological – or later Marx will say fetishistic – to look either to the idea of something or to the particular that instantiates it. Rather, they say, we must examine the ensemble of particulars to which the particular belongs. The ensemble of particulars is ‘material intercourse’ embedded in ‘material production’. (Or, in Althusserian terms, the apparatuses embedded in the stare.) Hence, ideology critique is not about deciding between what is true and what is false. It traces the social life of ideas in which the most abstract thought derives their content and value from the world in which they circulate.

Eagleton makes this point clearly in his choice of the statement ‘Prince Charles is a decent bloke’ as an example of ideology. Countering this ideological statement with the ‘truth’ that Prince Charles is in fact a super-rich obnoxious git entirely misses the point. For one thing, such a direct refutation of the ideological statement fails to contest the deeper ideological framing of the political issue of royalty as a question of character. The statement ‘Prince Charles is a decent bloke’ is ideological even if it is true because the ostensive fact that Prince Charles is a good bloke is ideologically separated from two key material conditions: first, the fact is cut off from the material conditions of his privilege, wealth and influence as a Prince, and second, the assertion of the fact is separated from the complex pragmatic circumstances of the speech act (illocution, perlocution, motivation and so forth) as if the fact speaks for itself and can be uttered innocently, justified by being true.

Balibar describes ideology as ‘the dream of an impossible universality’ (Politics and the Other Scene), but also argues that Marx’s universalization of the proletariat is the prototype of all emancipatory politics. The universal, being inscribed into both ideology and the political, is vital to the Marxist conception of power and social transformation. Balibar explains the matter concisely thus:

Marx did not produce a theory of ‘class consciousness’ here [this idea does not appear anywhere in Marx’s writing], in the sense of a system of ideas which might be said, consciously or unconsciously, to express the ‘aims’ of a particular class. He produced, rather, a theory of the class character of consciousness, ie. of the limits of its intellectual horizon which reflect or reproduce the limits to communication imposed by the division of society into classes (or nations, etc). The basis of the explanation is the obstacle to universality inscribed in the conditions of material life. (The Philosophy of Marx

“Viewed apart from real history”, Marx and Engels say, “these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever”. We can add, though, that specifically when ‘viewed apart from real history’ these abstractions appear to have a value all of their own. This apartness is the signature of ideology and it is the reduction of this apartness that is the aim of ideology critique. Marx and Engels therefore do not reject ideology the way that Max Stirner does, they seek, instead, to locate the ideological within the lived experience that ideology separates itself from and conceals.

As such, we can see Foucault as the heir of Stirner, who believed that particularity was the cure for ideology. Singularities need to be reconnected with the ensemble of singularities in material intercourse (which is what Foucault and Agamben do) but also with the material production of real history. The key issue here is that, despite all their materiality, Foucault and Agamben systematically fail to relate particularity to the totality of material production. It is because Marxists consistently refer particularity to totality that they understand that it is more ideological to examine the multiple technologies of micro-power than it is to develop an analysis of class relations.

The problem with universals cannot be solved with particularity but must, instead, be judged, on a case by case basis, in relation to totality. It is not ideological to defend child labourers from economic exploitation but it is ideological to justify their exploitation with reference to market forces. The difference between the two is not ethical. The first places the individual transaction within the totality of world poverty, globalization and capitalism’s drive for ever cheaper labour, as well, perhaps, as the totality of a life lived that requires education and so on, and the totality of the global workforce which capitalism responds to by employing children in the Third World while making adult workers redundant in the industrialized nations.

The reason that Marx described the proletariat as the universal class was not that it was exploited, dispossessed and downtrodden but because, for the first time in history, it was a class with no interests in the strict sense. The bourgeois revolution was based on the eradication of feudal power in the interests of capital, and insofar as capital presupposes exploitation, the bourgeoisie could never be regarded as the universal class. Since the proletariat has nothing (and therefore nothing to lose), it has no self-interests to pursue in the act of revolution. This is not the same as saying that the victory of the proletariat is, simultaneously, the victory of those oppressed for their gender, race, sexuality and so forth. (Rather, we would have to add that women are the universal sex, black is the universal race, queers are the universal sexuality, etc.)

Compare Laclau’s reading of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘The Rights of Women’:

she did not present the exclusion of women from the declaration of the rights of man and citizen as proof that the latter are intrinsically male rights, but tried, on the contrary, to deepen the democratic revolution by showing the incoherence of establishing universal rights which were restricted to particular sectors of the population.


The issue, here, I would say is the relationship between universality and totality. The ‘incoherence’ that Laclau refers to is the inevitable effect of what Bhaskar calls ‘detotalization’. This does not mean being inclusive in the ethical sense. The proletariat is universal because of its relation to the social totality of capitalism not because it refuses to take sides. Totality is not the empiricist sum of all particulars (we don’t have to know everything or everyone before proceeding). Totality is the structural whole. It is not the census that reveals the totality of society but the principles of its material conditions, or, as Marx put it, the mode of production.

So, is the assertion of art as universal culture ideological or is it, like Wollstonecraft’s response to the Rights of Man, the universal in need of further universalization? The association of art with power, wealth, privilege and ‘cultural capital’ cannot decide this question. Nor does art’s relationship to kitsch settle the matter in favour of the culturally ‘inferior’, for the relationship between art and popular culture must be understood in terms of the totality of capitalism in which mass culture has the advantage of being backed by capital. All the advantages that art has over mass culture derive from its status as universal culture, so, to universalise mass culture on this basis means to be trapped in an endless switch from one to the other.

Adorno was right that art and mass culture were two halves of a totality to which they do not add up. This non-existent totality is not the true universal, just as the non-existent ‘human’ is not the universal of a society divided by class, gender, race and so on. Nor is the universal culture to be determined by the comparison of quality, which Adorno sometimes descends into with his contrast of Beethoven’s depth or Schoenberg’s complexity versus Jazz cliche and pop sentiment. Universal culture is not the culture that ‘deserves’ our assent, as if the working class is regarded as the universal class because it is more humane, educated and sophisticated than the bourgeoisie! Nor can the universal culture be guaranteed procedurally, for instance through the implementation and maintenance of autonomy. It should also be clear that any cultural position that affirms art while denouncing all other culture is not universal in any politically defensible sense because it suppresses large sections of the totality of culture.

A more interesting suggestion might be to propose the avant-garde or anti-art as representing universal culture because it combines art with the attack on art, with cutting edge formal developments alongside the integration of the circus, the newspaper, leisure, comedy and the political rant. Here, rather than choosing between art and mass culture, or hoping for a harmonious reconciliation of the two, the totality of culture is brought together in a contradictory, conflictual, troubled whole. But this is not entirely satisfactory. A universal conception of culture must also include the most conservative art, too, but not on its own terms. The point, I think, is to open art up to the totality of uses, interpretations and narratives. Art becomes universal, then, by being ‘refunctioned’ (to use Brecht’s term) by the whole range of subjects and citizens, unrestricted by the norms and protocols of expertise, cultivation and ‘cultural capital’. And at the same time, no universal conception of culture can focus entirely on the refunctioning of art but must also open up mass culture to new uses, new interpretations and new narratives. This is anticipated by Fredric Jameson’s argument that utopia is present in all culture. Utopia, then, is another name for universalization. This is because universalization is another name for revolution, another name for democratization, another name for politicization.

Spoken Choir

The Corporate Occupation of the Arts, The Bank of Ideas, Sun Street, 14th Jan 2012.  2- 6pm. 

Andy Conio organized a great event yesterday, with Platform, Liberate Tate, the Precarious Workers Brigade, John Cussans, Mark McGowan, John Beck & Matthew Cornford, Dean Kenning, and Freee.

photo: Lee Campbell

Alfred Marshall, Capitalist Realism & Marx

Whenever Alfred Marshall referred to Socialism or the radical anti-capitalism if his day, he inevitably accompanied his comments with the term ‘poetic’. This is in sharp contrast to the perceived ‘pragmatism’ and ‘realism’ that he associated with economics and his own work. As Mark Fisher argues, resignation to the logic of market forces, what he calls ‘capitalist realism’, becomes synonymous with what is ‘thinkable’, so that alternatives are either literally unthinkable (mute) or normatively unthinkable (preposterous).

In response to a discussion of Bruno Gulli’s book ‘Labor of Fire’ today, one of my students asked “who would do the horrible jobs?” if we all did the ‘free, appealing labour’ that Marx opposes to ‘alienated labour’. It is not a dumb question but it is trapped within ‘capitalist realism’, just as Alfred Marshall was. It appears fanciful to imagine the elimination of alienated labour, as if we would therefore be left with leisure (ie the kinds of activities that wage-labourers engage in when they are not being paid, or the kind of pastimes enjoyed by the idle rich). In other words, we imagine this world, this society and the mentalities that are fully adapted to it, then subtract its economic centre. We are left with an insubstantial dream-image of a permanent weekend.

This follows the logic of Alfred Marshall’s distinction between the ‘dreamers’ and the ‘pragmatists’. Marshall, here, draws on the already established distinction between art and science to load the dice in favour of capitalism, economics and capitalist realism against Socialism and the critique of political economy. Anyone with a genuine interest in art will have trouble subscribing to this hierarchy of value, nevertheless, the rationale is pretty plain: Socialism, according to this account, is fanciful, overly-optimistic and utopian. Marshall calls Socialists ‘dreamers’ – and he even shares the values of the dream – and claims that Socialists want people to be more ‘altruistic’ and ‘virtuous’ than ‘man as he is’ or ‘human nature’.

The abolition of alienated labour appears impractical because the nasty jobs – which still must be done – could not be ‘manned’ in the way they are now. Without wages, would any cleaners and other maintenance labourers choose to do their vital work?Such ‘realism’ implies that capitalism works and that socialism must fail. Without wages to exchange for unappealing labour, capitalist realism runs up against the limits of the thinkable. But as soon as we recognise that social and individual actions are not motivated solely by money, then alternatives are not difficult to imagine.

Before capitalism and before wage-labour the shitty jobs still got done, and not only by slaves, serfs and other unfree workers. Historically, capitalism did not only supersede the old economic relations but the old uneconomic relations, too. Marx talks about how practices and products that were external to economic exchange were commodified. We can see the same happening today with the commodification and professionalization of childcare. Can we imagine a future – perhaps not so long off – when capitalist realism fully colonises the family so that we ask “who would look after our children?” if nobody was paid to do it?

Before capitalism, many of the most important jobs, like looking after children and the elderly, were not done for money but were given priority through an uneasy combination of love, duty, kindness, respect, obedience, fear, ideology and force. After capitalism, the motivation for completing those tasks that are not always pleasant will not revive this uneasy combination but will certainly not be motivated by money. Pride, care, concern and other non-monetary values would no doubt play their part. What we can expect, in the absence of financial motives, is not merely a world of pleasure-seeking individuals focused entirely on the pursuit of leisure, but a society in which the whole range of our shared values, not just economic value, become motivations for action.