Ideology and Hegemony – The academic study of culture analyses our individual beliefs drawn from a cultural view of reality and the power positions we uphold as a result. In understanding a culture, one should obtain a viewpoint through a lens of their beliefs and examine how said beliefs are created, thus generating a cultural context. As Douglas Kellner and Meenakshi Durham summarised it “Viewing culture from political economy, from the perspective of analysis of the system of production and distribution, may disclose how the culture industries reproduce the dominant corporate and commercial culture, excluding discourses and images that contest the established social system” (2004, p.4).
With the academic field known for focusing on economic power and the subsequent enforcements, I’ve chosen to discuss the appropriate concepts of “ideology” and “hegemony” in relation to the field, and as well, to each other. The works of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci will be essential to my argument, which I will reinforce with the examples of the 1988 film ‘They Live’ for ideology and the widespread corporation Apple in relation to hegemony. Throughout, I will discuss the comparable link between both concepts and how they are manifested in our culture, and conclude by summarising the points made.
“Ideology as a concept is predominantly defined as “a belief or a set of beliefs, especially the political beliefs on which people, parties, or countries base their actions” (Cobuild 1987). Pioneered primarily by German philosopher Karl Marx, the Marxist theory as an entirety places a central importance on the “‘materialist’ stance that social being determines consciousness” (Chandler 1995, p.4). According to this viewpoint, ideological positions are predefined by class domination as the prevailing ideology in society is the ideology of its dominant class.
Those in overriding class position define what acceptable behaviour within a society is, summarised concisely by Marx and fellow Marxist Freidrich Engels with the statement “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Marx and Engels 2000 p.21). Through their belief in a capitalist culture, Marxism organises society into two distinguishable classes: The Proletariat; those in means of labour, and The Bourgeoisie; those owning the means of production. Moreover, the ‘false consciousness’ that Marxism recalls as ideology allows for the bourgeoisie to control a functioning system of society, where labour flow from the proletariat continues and their class struggle is kept unassuming. Ideology has a constant interplay in cultural standings particularly within the meanings and values of the media industry, but also in the government’s control over society.
The ideological messages and values of the mass media are routed deeply in our culture, in the Marxist approach to the subject it’s been long perceived that mass media, both news and entertainment forms, are “sites for the dissemination of ideology” (Croteau and Hoynes 2002 p.160), in a sense basing their notion of capitalism on the media. One textual example that demonstrates seamlessly this effect is John Carpenter’s 1988 film ‘They Live’. It sees the central protagonist discover a pair of sunglasses, upon wearing them he sees publicity billboards reading imperatives like “Obey”, and “Marry and Reproduce”. With passers-by also now appearing as robots, the narrative connotes an exaggerated yet accurate message that we as a society are governed by the ideologies that surround us.
Online blog ‘UltraCulture’ (2014) makes reference to psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek’s (2009) review of the film “When you put the glasses on, you see the dictatorship within democracy. It is the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom”. He likened ideology as having a relationship to our social world, one where we are addressed not as subjects of duty but of pleasures. Throughout the film, the protagonist battles the numerous capitalist robots he is exposed to. It concludes with him being victorious, allowing every member of society insight into the previously unseen ideologies surrounding them.
A Marxist commentary is notable in the text; wearing the glasses let him see the struggle for dictatorship, linked to a Marxist belief, meaning it no longer determined him, he still viewed it before but just wasn’t aware of it. The “beautifully naive mise-en-scene of ideology” (Zizek, 2009) forms the basis of this cultural text, it teaches us how as individuals in society, our desires are controlled by ideologically constructed systems such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. This gives relevance to the academic field of cultural studies as it describes the ongoing battle in our culture between wanting to revolt one ideological construct just to conform to another.
Ideology and Hegemony – Academic Culture
Although the concepts of ‘ideology’ and ‘hegemony’ are both relevant in the understanding of cultural academics, there is a key distinction between them. Ideology refers to the ideas and values reflecting the social needs of a particular group, and hegemony, in a general sense, is the dominance of one group or state over another. Ideology speaks of a set of ideas whereas hegemony describes a power relationship. Having said this, hegemony came as a development of Marxist ideology, as a concept advanced and used extensively by Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. He had a fascination with the power of culture and civil society, and took to his works ‘Prison Notebooks’ to explore why the ruling class was so successful in maintaining its interests. Unlike Marx, Gramsci rejected the notion of a ‘false consciousness’, arguing the same value system would continue under the socialist mode of production unless the notion was replaced.
In his writing, reviewer Perry Anderson (1976) stressed Gramsci’s viewpoint “The fact of hegemony presupposes that account is taken of the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain balance of compromise should be formed”. In other words, sacrifice is necessary from higher classes for hegemony to be overruled. The work of Gramsci has significance in today’s cultural standings, particularly when considering American culture and the overwhelming realisation of how globally widespread their movies, TV shows, fast-food chains and so on, are.
A profound cultural example, deep rooted in today’s society, is the corporate giant Apple. It could be said that the business has a potential likeness to Gramsci’s philosophy for the force it imposes on cultural society. Hegemony reflects the notion that capitalist societies use their influence to dominate social classes particularly in social and political means, however it may be argued that today it is now corporations, such as Apple, that possess this power rather than political bodies. The ever-increasing demand for new technology could potentially have brought about a new wave of capitalism. It’s plausible that Apple have gained control of this and manipulated it as a means of dominating subordinate social classes and investing itself at the heart of digital technology usage.
When the company was being developed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak around the 1970 and 1980’s, research on the behalf of social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner was ongoing simultaneously. They developed a theory of social identity, suggesting “self-image is defined by one’s social group”. (Dooley 2012). They recalled that it is in fact simple to turn a brand into a cult through the notion of rivalry, something the consumer giant Apple embodies. ‘Apple created an enemy, the PC and its users, and built that enemy into much of its marketing’ (Dooley 2012). In their 2006 ad campaign Apple aimed to target the perceived weakness of PC computers, as well as publicising the stylish features of their own product, the Mac, and its reflection on its users’ lifestyle.
It’s arguable that this mirrors Gramsci’s notion of hegemony; Gramsci upheld bourgeois culture as the social norm similarly how Apple promotes itself as the number one digital innovator, adding that their products enable acceptance amongst society. The hegemonic values of Apple, exuding trendiness and vitality, is essential in their approach of consumers, making them believe your identity is reflected by your choice of product. Under a Marxist viewpoint, we as consumers are the proletariats and Apple maintain a bourgeoisie status, using advertisement in their control of wealth and widespread acceptance. As political theorist Yannis Stavrakakis paraphrased, corporations such as Apple “stimulate false desires, and deepen our enslavement to consumerism and capitalist exploitation” (2006 p. 86).
To conclude, cultural studies is deeply invested in the notion that our society is marked by a struggle for power, giving the concepts of ideology and hegemony strong relevance.
Pioneering Marxists, like Marx and Engels, focused on the control that the ideological values of dominant forces have, demonstrated effectively in the textual example of ‘They Live’. The comparability of the two concepts is reflected by the development on Marxist thinking by philosopher Antonio Gramsci. His theory of cultural hegemony is particularly relevant to today’s society with corporations such as Apple. Their subtle form of manipulation, through advertisement, targets our wants and desires, something Marx and Gramsci had foreseen long before and what those in the academic field of cultural studies are continuously working on today.
Durham, M.G and Kellner, D.M (2005) Media and Cultural Studies (KeyWorks in Cultural Studies) Revised Edition. Wiley-Blackwell. p.1-29
Cobuild, C. (1987) English Language Dictionary 1st Ed. London and Glasgow. Collins.
Chandler, D. (1995) Marxist Media Theory 1st. E-book. Aberystwyth University
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2000) The German Ideology 3rd Ed. Marx/Engels Internet Archive. p.21-61
Croteau, D.R and Hoynes W.D (2002) Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences 3rd Ed. SAGE Publications. p.159-193
Burke, A. (2014) Slavoj Zizek’s Masterful Commentary on John Carpenter s ‘They Live’
Zizek, S. (2009) Through the glasses darkly. Socialist review
Anderson, P. (1976) The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. 1st Ed. New Left Review
Dooley, R. (2012) Build Loyalty Like Apple: Define Your Enemy. Forbes
Stavrakakis, Y. (2006) Objects of Consumption, Causes of Desire: Consumerism and Advertising in Societies of Commanded Enjoyment. Gramma. p.83-103
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