Cultural Power and Discursive Effects

  • Scott S. Blake
  • November 11, 1993
  • Classical and Critical Theory
  • Gila Hayim
  • Copyright 1995, Scott S. Blake

    Do not quote without permission of the author.


    The purpose of this essay is to examine Habermas's concepts of the system and the lifeworld and to see if there is room within his framework to understand Gramsci's notion of cultural and ideological hegemony. My plan in this endeavor follows. I will begin with an exegesis of the system. It is within the system that I believe we find the most fruitful initial application of the idea of cultural and ideological hegemony. Habermas spoke of the privileged language of the system and the demand for linguistic competence in the redeeming of the validity claims of the system. These ideas are very compatible with Gramsci's image of hegemony as placing constraints on the behavior of those within it through a power relationship that censures some areas of expression. Second, I will discuss the lifeworld and the problem of locating space for emancipatory action within it. As Gramsci observed, "Is a philosophical movement properly so called when it is devoted to creating a specialized culture among intellectual groups...?" The question will be asked whether discursive will formation can truly be carried out by a group larger than "intellectual groups," thus allowing for the formation of a counter culture. Finally, I will explore what other realms might hold promise as areas for emancipatory action (or any action, for that matter).

    The System

    Defining Habermas's concept of the system is an extremely difficult project and one bound to fall far short of his eloquence and clarity. This caveat in mind, I shall do as much justice as I can to it. In its most general sense, the system is the arena of strategic action, of instrumental rationality, of objects. It is the realm where one speaks in theoretical discourses, abstracted from confounding variables, the space where both the natural sciences and their objects of study are located. Within the system, one strives to make correct representations of the external world, to make statements about the truth of that world. It is also the location of pseudo-scientific pursuits such as economics, administration, and government. I refer to these fields as "pseudo-scientific" because they attempt to appropriate the privileged language of the natural sciences and thus make the validity claim of speaking truth when in fact, I contend, they are indeed non-positivist disciplines without legitimate claims of truth. In reality, these fields belong in the realm of society, with the validity claim of "rightness." Before explaining this position further, I must establish by what reasons the system claims truth and ownership of privileged language.

    The social system definitively bursts out of the horizon of the lifeworld, escapes from the intuitive knowledge of everyday communicative practice, and is henceforth accessible only to the counterintuitive knowledge of the social sciences developing since the eighteenth century.

    As this quotation indicates, the system is outside the realm of the intuitive knowledge associated with the body and traditional societies. It is instead a space in which technical discourse takes place. The system does not exist in what Durkheim termed "mechanical" societies. It is a feature of modernity and specific to it. It is the arena created by the Enlightenment to hold the language of purposive rationality, of economics, of self-interested calculus, of strategic action and thought. Having laid out these concepts, it is necessary to descend from the level of abstraction to the real world.

    What does Habermas mean when he speaks of privileged language? How does the demand for linguistic competence express itself in reality? One can see these ideas expressed easily in the natural sciences. Scientists must undergo years of specialized training to master the skills and language of their field. One must learn the mathematical techniques used to model phenomena and be facile with the jargon of the discipline. Physicists must learn three-dimensional vector calculus (whose very name alienates many), experimental techniques and the use of the specialized equipment of the various sub fields of physics. For those who venture to the cutting edge, they must learn the difference between strangeness and flavor as properties of quarks. To even describe the field, one must use a language so arcane as to be incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Yet, using the natural sciences as an example does not allow us to penetrate the power relationship intrinsic to a privileged language. To understand a field such as economics, which has application to everyday life and informs (or should inform) many of the choices we are faced with in the political life of America, the requirements are very similar.

    To even pursue an advanced degree in economics, one must already be versed in the mathematical techniques of econometrics (which are very similar to those of physics). One must (usually) be able to demonstrate significant competence on a standardized examination, which entails detailed knowledge of statistical methodology, international trade, microeconomic theories, macroeconomic theories, and mathematical modeling of economic behavior. Each of these areas has a specific language that is at once exclusionary and self-fulfilling. By this I mean that the terminology of economics is neither intuitively clear nor open to interpretation. Without understanding the words, one cannot understand the discourse, but without exposure to the discourse, the words have no meaning (no outside referent). The languages of the social sciences are characterized by what Marcuse called operationalization; that is, words are reduced to the meaning with reference to quantitatively defined variables. For example, "class" is reduced to the number of dollars an individual accumulates in a given time period.

    There is an implicit value system that informs the decision to operationalize terms and to formulate an exclusive language. The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, elevated rationality from being a tool of inquiry to being the ultimate human achievement. Reason was believed to hold the key to conquering nature -- both that of the external world and that of human nature. Both were viewed as anti-civilization and in need of control. Once Hobbes described life in the state of nature as, "nasty, brutish, and short," it became obvious that nature was not something to be desired. The early conquests of science (everything from Newton's Principia to the anthropologists of the British Empire) brought many spoils to the victorious. Booming industrial centers allowed the production of enormous war machines and massive quantities of consumer goods, as well as necessitating the development of rational means of ordering the production, the distribution and the society.

    Lest one think that I am limiting this analysis to the material world, allow me to raise the parallel trend of secularization. As Peter Berger noted,

    The original "locale" of secularization ... was in the economic area, specifically, those sectors of the economy being formed by the capitalistic and industrial processes. Highly secularized strata emerged in the immediate proximity of these same processes. A way of putting this in terms of common sociological parlance is to say that there has been a "cultural lag" between the secularization of the economy on the one hand and that of the state and the family on the other.

    I believe that secularization can be understood to mean the calling into question of previously unquestioned ideas, traditions, and common sensical notions. In this sense, it is easy to see that the Enlightenment certainly secularized large portions of what had previously been sacred. By subjecting more and more areas of life to rational inquiry, the Enlightenment de-mystified many previously held traditions and created a realm of life that was thoroughly disenchanted. The application of instrumental reason to the social had other effects, as well. When social scientists found something that did not match with their conception of how things should be, they devised means of transforming the world to fit their schema. This entailed large organizations capable of gathering, processing, interpreting, and acting on data. These organizations were built around the dominant principles of the Enlightenment and as such were rational entities par excellence. It was in this way that the language of reason became privileged. Through its own merit in accomplishing its goals, instrumental, purposive rationality became the dominant mode of thought. The extent of its penetration into the lifeworld will be the subject of the next section.

    The Lifeworld

    To repeat my caveat regarding the system, it is impossible for me to do full justice to the intricacies of Habermas's argument. Within the scope of this essay, I can only attempt to paraphrase Habermas in the hope painting a reasonably fair picture of his very complex theory. I therefore ask for the reader's tolerance in this all-too-short exposition.

    To trace the broad outlines of the lifeworld, let us begin with the three structural components that Habermas identifies: culture, society, and personality. He sees these structures as the broad shapes of the lifeworld. It is within these categories that various social functions take of particular forms. For example, the process of cultural reproduction not only transmits, criticizes, and acquires cultural knowledge (within culture), but within society it also renews, "knowledge effective for legitimation." On the individual level, this process reproduces knowledge relevant to child rearing and education. Habermas identifies several other processes and relates them to the structures in a variety of contexts. For my purpose, it is not necessary to understand the detail of these processes. What we must grasp, however, is the extent to which the life world has remained outside the rationalization of the system.

    Our discussion of the trajectories of the lifeworld is significantly more confounded than those of the system. There are no clear, overarching buzzwords to clarify what modernity has done to the lifeworld (if anything). One useful way of looking at the trends of the lifeworld is to examine the growing end of the public sphere and the movement of the private into the public. Public sphere, defined as the realm of public opinion, has been shrinking as more and more issue areas become technified. Growing administrative imperatives result in the seeking of technical solutions to political problems. This relates to my previous discussion of the development of a highly valued reason. When solutions claim to speak in the privileged language of science, one cannot reject the solution without demonstrating (within scientific language) that it has an incorrect claim to truth. Habermas's writing on validity claims allows for the redeeming of those claims, but it does not support the notion that a claim might be located in the wrong area. Take the area of economics, which purports to be a science, with validity claims of truth. In the recent debate over NAFTA, both sides claim monopoly of the "facts." The contenders speak with statistics and projections. In order to debunk these claims, one must present flaws in the data or opposing data. One cannot ask why this issue is important, why we need NAFTA, or whether the treaty is ethical. The debate is thoroughly taken over by technical issues. Asking the questions I posed moves discourse into the realm of the sociopolitical where one cannot claim truth, but must claim rightness. In redeeming claims of rightness, one cannot speak in the scientific language and, therefore, one cannot discuss the scientific debate. The spheres are wholly separate insofar as the people involved in one discourse cannot or do not value the other's language. In this way, we see that not only is scientific language privileged in its content, but it also dominates the very subject of discussion. Those topics that a deemed to be outside the purview of science are discounted. Put another way, topics that cannot be discussed relative to truth are reletivized in such a way that their existence is ruled inconsequential to the serious business of discourse.

    Habermas himself struggled to be less than absolute about the nature of this relationship between scientific language and the discourses of the system. He wanted to find possibility for emancipatory action in the realm of discourse. The ideal speech situation, although never fully attainable, could serve as a forum for the redemption of validity claims of all types. However, as I believe Gramsci points out, such a situation is not only impossible to perfect, it is impossible to approach without first being emancipated in several important ways.

    The Cultural Hegemony

    Before discussing the distorting effects of cultural hegemony on speech situations and the subsequent meaning for locating emancipatory action in the discursive realm, I would like to retreat somewhat from Habermas in order to expound Gramsci's ideas and their extension to the lifeworld and system in general.

    Although Gramsci was undoubtedly firmly rooted in a Marxian conception of the world, with a concomitant belief in the revolutionary power of the proletariat, the notion that a culture can have a limiting effect on thought, speech and action have application far beyond the strict confines of Marxist thought. Domination, in its many forms, has been a fact of much of human history. Gramsci spoke of religion forming (perhaps) the first locus of a cultural hegemony. By its very nature, religion sets down a code of conduct and normative claims about the world. In Gramsci's words,

    Note the problem of religion taken not in the confessional sense but in the secular sense of a unity of faith between a conception of the world and a corresponding norm of conduct. But why call this unity of faith "religion" and not "ideology," or even frankly "politics?"

    If we take this for granted, one can easily see that "politics" is far more than what the bourgeoisie would have use believe. It is far more than the technical resolution of problems and debate over which of the sciences of society holds the "true" answer. Yet, this flies in the face of what we see in the world labeled as "political" behavior. How can we call religion political? That which in America is the most private of experiences, the innermost portion of our selves. Freedom of religion is guaranteed, the church and state are separated. However, even in America, religion exercises power over individuals. It shapes our feeling of what is right and wrong and, thus, our ethical behavior. Religions demonstrate the, "need for doctrinal unity of the whole mass of the faithful." It is in this sense that religion is political: By requiring the faithful to espouse its doctrine, the church generates a set of shared norms that guide the behavior and thought of its constituents.

    This also shows how culture is political. A culture is embodied in the language, symbols, and beliefs of a people. To the extent that the culture shapes thought, behavior, inquiry, and morality, it is more or less hegemonic. A culture that is truly sacred (in the Durkheimian sense), is totally hegemonic. Needless to say, there are many gradations within the quality of sacredness that still allow us to speak of a hegemonic culture. Since we are not living in a totalitarian nation, no culture will be absolutely in control. Yet, we can speak of a dominant, or hegemonic, culture in the United States. It is characterized by an extreme valuing of empirical data, injunctions to speak in terms of demonstrable evidence, requirements to calculate costs and benefits before launching an action, and many others.

    I am now coming to the main question of this essay. To what extent does the cultural hegemony of the United States prevent the redemption of validity claims and thus prevent emancipatory action in the lifeworld? I believe the answer to this question is found by examining the nature of the culture and the particular areas of it that are generally considered to be sacred. Obviously, this endeavor could be the life work of a scholar. However, I will attempt to lay some foundations for it in the next few pages.

    We live in a culture that is at once extremely rational and pathological. Vast portions of our society have been rationalized and there is a growing mass psychosis. On the one hand, we have the scientific debate of NAFTA (where the contenders wield swords of statistics). And on the other, a young man in Pennsylvania who lay down in the middle of the road and waited for a car to come by and kill him. The possible examples are endless. One need only open a newspaper to see the simultaneous growth of scientific-rational control (or attempted control) of the world and mindless, pathological violence (on the self and the other). Lest I become too morbid, the newspapers also reveal more positive events: growing awareness of the environment, avant-garde art, and increasing civil rights. However, how can we tell whether these positive signs are harbingers of the future? Marcuse spoke at length of how modern society absorbs it's discontents. One need not travel far afield to see the indicators of such absorption. The industrial park, the parkway, and "environmentally friendly" corporations are all examples of how counter-cultural movements are incorporated into common wisdom, thus stripping them of their "counter" element. We have seen how the revolutionaries of the sixties grew up to become the yuppies of the eighties. The contrast between the long-haired, dope-smoking men of the student movements and the corporate lawyer with a "power tie" who does "power lunches" is truly stark. How did this transformation occur? What happened to the idealistic youths? Many, of course, continued their critical enterprises and are now some of the most respected people in the academy. Again there is a striking difference between the activist of then and the tenured professor of now.

    Some have argued that it is futile to attack the system in this advanced stage of capitalism. It is deeply entrenched and possessed of formidable powers for the diffusion of radical thought. Despite Foucault's observation that power is a diffuse process, constantly changing and in motion, the government is still the seat of the legitimate means of coercion and has the ability and the will to impose harsh sanctions on those who would use their powers of coercion outside prescribed ways. Even those whose mere thought threatens the established order are crushed, often in very violent ways. This does not mean that there is no opposition, no critical thought. Quite on the contrary, "counter-cultures" are a celebrated aspect of our society. In the eighties, for example, no sooner had a revolutionary group begun to form out of pockets of disaffected youth in urban, suburban and rural areas (the punk movement) then their dress became the latest style. Soon all the teenagers were wearing ripped denim pants and leather jackets. The punks rapidly became indistinguishable from "normal" teenagers. Seeing that direct approaches do not work, some have turned to a quieter method for reform.

    Habermas saw potential in the student protests of the sixties. From his observations, it appeared that late capitalism was nearing a legitimation crisis because of its reliance on "achievement-ideology" to motivate people to perform in productive ways. It appears, however, that such a crisis never materialized. Many of the factors that Habermas pointed to as being indicative of the coming crisis are still with us today (I am thinking particularly of the various disaffections of youth). Indeed our society has a tremendous legitimacy problem. The vast majority of people in the US express deep cynicism about public life. Yet they continue to stress that we live in a democracy. It is an unfortunate situation that despite the deep skepticism of our system, most people think of it as legitimate because it is a democracy. I believe that this is yet another example of what Marcuse spoke of as the collapsing function of art. With art being so thoroughly commercialized that it does not produce negative feelings for its consumers, the people are left with no direction for their anger and they see no potential for improvement. They are left with a resigned anger that leads them to adopt a "holier-than-thou" attitude toward politics. I have many friends who fit into this category. They consider themselves to be "apolitical."

    Foucault amply demonstrated that there is no such thing as "apolitical." Power and politics are everywhere, even down to the very words we speak, the thoughts we think. This is particularly important in considering the influence of our culture on locating hope of the future within the realm of communicative action. In light of the situation in America with regard to the power of the language of the system and the culture of consumerism, I contend that it is not possible to affect long-term substantive change simply by redeeming the validity claims of that system and that culture. Further, that communicative action has no reality beyond a very limited cadre of intellectuals. Gramsci identified the problem of action through a philosophical movement. He said,

    Is a philosophical movement properly so called when it is devoted to creating a specialized culture among restricted intellectual groups, or rather when, and only when, in the process of elaborating a form of thought superior to "common sense" and coherent on a scientific plane, it never forgets to remain in contact with the "simple" and indeed finds in this contact the source of the problems it sets out to study and to resolve?

    I do not imply that Habermas set out to generate a movement that forgets to contact the "simple," but I believe that it has. Most people in the US do not possess the tools necessary to coherently penetrate the claims they are faced with, nor do they (in many cases) desire to make substantive changes. Within the ideology of democratic legitimation, change can only be accomplished within the political system that can, in theory, accommodate any and all changes provided a majority approves of them. Unfortunately, garnering sufficient support for a reform requires speaking the language of the system, within which there is no room for basic questions about the nature of the society. Only those things that can be quantified are legitimate and even then there is always a multiplicity of methods for generating numbers such that the opposition can generate data against almost any proposition.

    If these contentions are accurate, what space, if any, exists for action? In answering this question, I am most influenced by Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition, she spoke of the vita activa in modernity and observed, rightly, that as a population grows and becomes a better statistical population, it becomes increasingly difficult to live the vita activa. Individual actions mean very little when the weight of hundreds of millions of people presses on. I fear that I have painted a picture of gloom and doom. In conclusion, allow me to say that it is my sincerest hope that everything I have written here is absolutely wrong. Yet it appears to me that we are not standing on top of history, but rather that we are being crushed under the weight of it.