Saturday, 21 May 2016

Cultural Resources and the Construction of Self.

Image by Yvonne Forster.
One of the aspects of colonialism that psychiatrist Frantz Fallon pointed out was that the colonizing was not just the occupation of a territory and the reordering of that society/economy to the interests of the colonizer but also involved the colonizing of the oppressed subjects minds. The colonized adopted the cultural views, values and attitudes of the dominant colonial power including it's view of the colonized. This effect reoccurred in apartheid RSA with the black population internalising the categorisation of the white State (1).
Similarly the working class has been colonized. Since the Industrial Revolution society has been organised  by capitalism to suit the interests of capitalists-external control- but in late capitalism there has been a change. Industrial capitalism demanded the worker's body but was often uninterested in their mind or ‘soul’, their thoughts, relational skills, communication abilities, however late capitalism wants those aspects as well (2). In 1950s/60s The Situationists wrote about ‘the spectacle’ (3) — representation in an advanced capitalist society; society and culture dominated by a seamless representation of a capitalist version of the world via the media, state and corporations (3), where any dissent is marginalised or co-opted, representation so effective that the oppressed internalise those values, those views. Gramsci referred to something similar as 'cultural hegemony' (4).

The effects of this full spectrum dominance is that the minds of the working class have also been colonized-by the internalising of neoliberal capitalist values.

Social Constructionists (5) believe that we construct our sense of self, of self identity, from the cultural resources available to us. That is in order to construct a version of ourselves that is understandable and intelligible to ourselves and others we draw on the representations, roles and social signifiers around us, configuring and modifying them to construct a sense of who we are both for ourselves and those around us. The individual and society are mutually constitutive, this is a problem when society has become conformed to the values of right wing hyper capitalism.  Many, possibly most, people in the UK imbibe a daily dose of right- wing press including the abjectification of 'othered' groups and a few hours of 'entertainment'-game shows, food contests, programmes about the well off choosing new houses, dramas, soap operas etc. Often these programmes represent the working class as poorly educated, divided, bogged down in domestic problems. When did you last see a working class character in a contemporary drama who was 'sorted', self educated and politicised? Most TV appears to be written by the privileged reflecting their view of the working class-unfortunately many have internalised these offensive, belittling representations.

If individuals do draw on cultural resources to construct themselves and the 'cultural hegemony' of neoliberalism has created a society and media where the cultural resources readily available are an expression of a neoliberal worldview-including a disempowering view of the working class- then how is it possible for the working class to wake up and break free of both being constituted by neoliberalism and helping constitute neoliberalism? They are not going to hear an alternative narrative or come into contact with a creative progressive vision from the top down, the elite like things as they are. The Labour Party, despite Jeremy Corbyn's best efforts, seems determined to remain Tory-Lite, berating itself for not coming across as more business friendly in the last election.

The appearance of radical resources within the mainstream exposes the depth and breadth of the means of control, the publication of 'Revolution' by Russell Brand in 2014 was accompanied by a sustained attack on him in and by the media. Jeremy Corbyn's rise has threatened to remind people of social democracy and to introduce an alternative narrative into the political mainstream, the corporate media/political elite has maintained a sustained attempt to distract people from his message by concentrating on the messenger and drowning out anything he has to say. However, over the last few years you could go and see The Hunger Games, and Elysium in your local cinema, films blatantly questioning and attacking the oppression, exploitation and inequality of the modern capitalist state.  

While mainstream culture has generally become the tarted up result of market forces and the commodification of all things, it is still possible to come across resources that militate for change, occasionally in the mainstream but more often in the arts and literary spheres. It is here that the status quo is questioned and challenged, where more promising cultural resources are to be found. In the early 20th century the Dadaists wanted to create art that drew on non-capitalist values and that pointed to non-capitalist possibilities. Drawing on Dada and the Situationists punk was constructed in 1976/77 opening up new possibilities. At its best it was a resource that young people could utilise enabling them to transform their self identity and consequently their relationship to society around them. In 2007 Mark Wallinger's reconstruction of Brian Haw's protest camp against the Iraq invasion was displayed at the Tate (6), and in 2014  there was an exhibition of William Morris' art at The National Portrait Gallery entitled 'Anarchy and Beauty' (7). On the way in there was this quote from Ken Loach 'For William Morris, art and politics were indissoluble. One of the great voices of revolutionary socialism in England, he saw capitalism as the great destroyer-of our creativity, of social justice and of the natural world. Change would come, he believed, through the organised working class. inspirational ideas-and never more relevant.'

Of course left anti capitalist and anarchist politics can be found overtly expressed by many punk(ish) bands, for instance In Evil Hour, Atari Teenage Riot and The Levellers, but the challenging of capitalism is also present in other genres. Psych band The Oscillation's last two albums have explored the alienation of modern urban life, the lived experience of many in this capitalist age. In an interview from September 2014 Demian Castellanos talks of the homogenization and gentrification going on in London and other cities and the accompanying increase in anesthetising entertainment (8). In a recent interview he commented that the same issues had been present while making the new album 'Monographic' but that he was working on his response to those issues and felt more hopeful of not being 'over run by it' (9). Here is a songwriter conscious of capitalism's corrupting effects on social space, culture and the individual-and allowing those concerns to inform his work.

Mirror, the latest album by Manchester collective Gnod is the aural equivalent of 'The Scream', it is an album that confronts the listener with the truth that life includes suffering and pain but the band also investigate the causes of that pain. According to Gnod's Bandcamp page the album came out of, and was informed by, a period that included individual illness, anger at the 2015 election result-and the realisation that as individuals we live in relationships of asymmetry to structures of power that are often hard to perceive but have a very real effect on our lives (10). Mirror is a response to individual struggle and societal dysfunction but their response isn't self anesthetisation, losing themselves in distraction or looking away from the sources of pain and anguish instead it is to confront those problems, to empathise with the victims and transpose the pain and anger experienced into this (hopefully) cathartic album. Gnod's album Mirror is a daunting, uncomfortable listen, a superbly realised unflinching expression of how we do, and should, respond to each other and societal dysfunction, it's also a reminder that really good music often forces us to engage with reality not flee it.  At a recent concert Gnod's set was made up of tracks from Mirror and new material, among the new songs was one critiquing and questioning hegemonic masculinity, and another included the line 'I want to be a stick in the wheel not a cog in the machine', echoing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's comment 'We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself' (11). 

We construct our sense of self using the cultural resources available to us- if we limit ourselves to those resources that are readily to hand we will end up as embodiments of capitalist norms and values but even in a society that has been colonized by neoliberal capitalism for 35 years there are resources that can be used to construct a more radical, humane, egalitarian self- a few of these resources are easily available, found in the cultural mainstream in films and books and some are on the edges found in various sub-cultures but they both offer people a chance for personal and societal reconstruction.


(1) Mesch, C. (2014) 'Post Colonial Identity and the Civil-Rights Movement' Art and Politics; a small history of art for social change since 1945', I. B. Tauris, London & New York. p.53.

(2) Berardi, F. (2009) The Soul at Work, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles.

(3) Debord, G. (1968) 'The Society of the Spectacle'. Black and Red, USA.

(4) Thomas, M. (ed)(2012) ‘Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary’, Workers’ Liberty, London

(5) Redman, P. (2008), 'Introduction' in Redman, P. (ed), (2008), 'Attachment. Sociology and Social Worlds', Manchester University Press, Manchester.

(6) Mark Wallinger, 

(7) Khan, T. (2014) 'Anarchy and Beauty; A dull Exhibition on William Morris's Legacy'.



(10) Gnod; Mirror.







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