Hegemony

By js, 27 September, 2008, 1 Comment

I’ve been reading in Race, Rhetoric and the Postcolonial the interviews with Laclau and Mouffe; both talk about hegemony, and the universal and particular. Both of these seem very interesting to me right now.

First the concept of hegemony which they put forth seems very similar to Foucaults concept of power. Power can both be seen as negative and as positive; that is, power can be seen as repressive and productive. It is the results of the power which put it in one category or the other. So power is negative when it limits and puts controls on a certain type of people which we usually think of repressive; it is only one type of person which is receiving benefits from the way in which the power is exercised.

Hegemony works in much the same way. Hegemony is when a certain definition takes hold and which helps to order other things and include some things, definitions while excluding others; hegemony is always going to limit and control; according to Laclau and Mouffe we should strive to create a different hegemony which excludes less. So those who want to create a different hegemony than the one which is currently in control would then take advantage of the productive side of power to create an alternative to the current hegemony which if it takes hold will become hegemonic.

So like Foucault argues that one can never get away from the power struggle, then we can never not have a hegemonic structure. The issue according to these political philosophers is what is excluded and who benefits from a particular hegemony. We can see that the current hegemony is created by conservative and positivist perspectives which make it less democratic. According to Laclau and Mouffe academics have the responsibility to help to create an alternative vocabulary and structure which not only questions the current hegemony but which also makes possible a different hegemony with the use of the new vocabulary and structure.  According to both, this is currently NOT being done.

So the question is Why not? or is it that the way it is being done is not yet recognized? in order to have a new vocabulary, people need to be able to recognize what it means and it needs to have enough circulation so that people begin to talk and continue to talk and add to the vocabulary. So how do we give this new vocabulary a venue which would allow for momentum for it to spread.  I think the answer here has to be the internet, this new way of communication which is much faster than traditional forms of publishing and distributing ideas.

Moufee argues that academics should also be sharing ideas in other venues which are not so limited as the academic publication network; we need to be writing for newspapers, lecturing to more local audiences, etc. The problem with much of this is that these forms of sharing ideas are not valued by the academy so many academics just concentrate on what is going to propel them forward in the academy. So it seems that the academy itself has created a system which sabotages the difference which academics can make with the new “vocabulary” which they create. If they are only publishing in academic journals because that is the only place in which they will get credit, then the system itself creates a bubble in which ideas do NOT trickle down and thus make the difference-contribution-effect which is possible and productive to change.

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  • Jaime Armin Mejía

    Hello JJ,

    It’s been almost a month since you made this entry. I can’t say I have read these political philosophers from this book which I do believe I own.

    Hegemony is a word which I came across in the late 1980s, as theory or theories began making their entrance in graduate school discussions but hardly in any of the readings which I had for my graduate classes. When someone used this word, we began to notice that that person, usually a graduate student, had begun reading some theory. It was a heady word for a heady time.

    That academics are supposed to be teaching students new ways of constructing power structures which are more inclusive perhaps can be said to be an exercise which predates the entrance of poststructuralist or postmodernist theories. Those who previously were under the umbrella of the Humanities or Liberal Arts also had such a mandate imposed on them from above, as we were supposed to teach students the arts of freedom, of liberty. These were romantic and idealistic ideas insofar as what academics were supposed to be doing. As English graduate students who back then only studied literary works and only wrote interpretations of literary works, we hardly were taught how to conduct what many today call service learning. While literary interpretations and criticism before the entrance of Theory were informed by grand modernist theories like evolution and marxism, besides doing close readings of texts which were supposed to follow the dictums of New Criticism, we hardly had an idea of how power structures were really constructed in academia or outside it.

    There was no such thing as critical thinking at all. There also was very little talk about how academia worked. The latter was and remains rather surprising because some of us were indeed going to be entering academia as professors, but what we really or truly new of its workings were conveyed most often only through whispered rumors of who, above us, got tenure and who didn’t, but hardly why. We were never sat down and informed,, at least I wasn’t, about how it all worked. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because our heads were in another place at that time because we might have been and probably were in the throes of completing course work, our PhD exams, and then preparing for and then writing our dissertations.

    Moreover, the institutions where we were studying had inner workings which differed from many of the places where many of us would end up going after we graduated. All institutions are different insofar as what they value as well as for what they will allow to be used towards one’s gaining tenure and promotion. And as it turned out, back then, many of the schools many of us would end up going to really did differ considerably, insofar as what they valued. Each school is in a different stage of its evolution, and when you land in a particular place, its inner workings will be at a certain place, while at another school, other things are going on. I guess my point here is that it’s hard to make generalizations bout what academics can do or what they should be expected to do, that is, what is expected of them. It really does vary considerably.

    Each place has it’s own policies which reflect what it values, and at each place there are particular people, like Chairs and Deans, as well as their associates, who are authorized to offer up interpretations of what these policies mean. Each place, like with any job, has its own power structure. How anyone ends up figuring out how it all works will vary, and what you end up learning will depend on who you know. Many have said that academia is structured like the military is structured, with there being a hierarchy and echelons of power at different stages. There’s a great deal of truth in this, more so than in many other kinds of jobs.

    Should one want to become a crusader who uses particular kinds of materials and tools to teach students the arts of liberation, then one will have to know the power structure in which one finds him- and herself in, within academia. Some people in certain places “are allowed” to do this, while others doing exactly the exact same thing at another school will be squashed. Victor Villanueva is one such crusader, but I doubt the success he’s had at Wash. St. would’ve worked in many other places. In many other places, he would’ve been squashed, no doubt about it. The fact that he’s in the middle of nowhere, in Pullman, Washington says a lot. He loves it out there and has told me he’ll retire out there.

    Ward Churchhill at the Univ. of Colorado in Boulder, another crusader, got fired last year after he opened his mouth one time too many, even though he’d enjoyed a long stint there.

    You make a great deal out of the Internet, making it sound like a panacea, and while it has many possibilities, its availability across the board in our society and even more across the globe remains spotty. Some years back I heard a rather astounding fact which indicated that something like two-thirds of the world had not once used a telephone, which indicates the extent of the way we still need to go. That tantrum which that student of mine threw last Thursday because of my requirement that his paper should have one-inch margins is telling of the grasp which certain college students have with this widely used form of technology, Microsoft Word. I stayed in my office for four hours after that class helping about a dozen student properly format their damned papers, something which you’d think they’d be able to do on their own.

    Ok, call me a skeptic about technology and all that it promises. I am that, that’s true. The question, though, is why you’re not. You’re younger than I am, and came on to technology when it was more advanced in is sophistication and it’s multiple features. All of that may have been what’s given you the optimism you hold for it. Good for you, I say.

    I do think most students, maybe not all of them, that’s true, but I do think most college students see the value of the Internet and its related technology. iPods and iPhones are all the rage, sure. They absolutely love the Internet. Sure.

    Designing classroom exercises, perhaps even extending out to the community, which can teach students how to maneuver their ways through power structures sounds like a worthwhile exercise. I say these kinds of exercises have to be very involved, complex, complicated. The more complex, the better. But if they do go out to the community, there will have to be lots of communication and coordination between town and gown powers if such exercises are to be seen as productive and not disruptive of the local order. The fastest way to shut down local cooperation is for college classes to go about meddling in what they shouldn’t be meddling in, often messing and meddling in sensitive areas of where the power structure gets away with murder.

    I’ve been learning once again this semester how complex exercises, like the kinds of involved essay prompts I construct, can absolutely baffle certain kinds of students. In the face of complex issues involving power structures, students balk. They cower in the face of complexity and refuse to think for themselves, and without question, they always want someone else to do their thinking for them. If you pity them, you simplify the complexity; if you don’t, they cower and fail. Sure, certain scaffolding has to be provided, but how much will always remain a tough call. The less scaffolding, the better. Most of my students are really pretty bright, brighter than they often give themselves credit for. But they’re used to having things handed over to them by pushover teachers.

    While I’m on this subject, our students, American college students, as Americans, are largely really self-absorbed and immature and often absolutely full of a really desparate sort of angst. Their self-centeredness, though, remains their most salient quality. Gringos are the worst, but when you get an urban Mexican American or African American in this type of situation, it can be pretty pathetic. They think of themselves as entitled, as if the world owes them everything. Teaching them to think independently and being successul at this may well determine the future of our country. They’re just not hungry enough, and this, while there are others around the world who have figured out how to harness their self-discipline towards bringing the US to its knees.

    Oh, it’s late. Charley Rose is on. More later. Promise.

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