In class yesterday, Salvador and Sophie came up with a couple of very good points in our discussion of William Rowe and Vivian Schelling’s Memory and Modernity. Indeed, their criticisms apply to a greater or lesser extent to much discussion of Latin American popular culture, or even popular culture in general.

Salvador’s argument, if I have understood it right (and you both should feel free to correct me) was that Rowe and Schelling downplay the effect of sheer domination. The indigenous peoples of the Americas didn’t just one day decide that they would take on certain elements of Catholicism, for instance: they were forced to do so. If they didn’t then they would (in Salvador’s words) get “their asses kicked.”

Meanwhile Sophie’s point was that in stressing the positive, creative, and resistant characteristics of popular culture, Rowe and Schelling downplay the continued injustices and inequalities that still plague so much of Latin America. Moreover, the implication is that there is little or nothing that can or should be done about the situation of the poor or downtrodden; there is no reason for anyone else to bother about it, let alone intervene in some way.

Again, I think that these are important arguments. But let me argue Rowe and Schelling’s case for a moment…

First, I suggested that they were saying something like “Yes, but…” Yes, the indigenous peoples of Latin America (and by extension all other subaltern and subordinated groups) have historically been the victims of great violence and exploitation, but even so they have managed, against the odds, to continue to resist in often surprising and unexpected ways.

Rowe and Schelling do, after all, acknowledge from the start that “The Conquest had catastrophic consequences for the Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations.” And yet, they continue, “despite this, neither the colonial nor the republican regime has been able to expunge the memory of an Andean, Aztec and Mayan civilization” (49). Indeed, the very notion of resistance implies that there is something to resist. If we see the indigenous (again, or other subalterns) as simply victims, then in some ways we also are ignoring their agency, we also are downplaying their inventive and creative capacities. Precisely the interest of popular culture, for Rowe and Schelling, is that it is here that we can see the evidence of this resistance and creativity; here we can appreciate what those in power have always either ignored or feared, which is that despite it all the subaltern continues to make its presence felt.

Second, I think that Rowe and Schelling would respond in similar ways to Sophie’s argument. If we are only ever thinking about what “we” in the privileged and powerful First World should or can be doing for those in the Third World, then we too are denying those people’s agency. This is not an argument that nothing can or should be done. But in order best to understand the situation, and so the pitfalls as well as the virtues of any action, we also need to be aware of the kinds of struggles that such people are already engaging in, without or without “us.” I think that’s part of what Rowe and Schelling term “subaltern classes ma[king] themselves visible, demanding social recognition” (132). That’s not to say that everything’s AOK, not by a long shot, but to take account of existing expressions of agency and subjectivity. Again, the argument is that such expressions are perhaps best seen in popular culture, which is why Rowe and Schelling want to distinguish popular culture from what they call the “culture industry” or from official, state-sanctioned instances of culture.

Finally, I think that these issues are also relevant to discussion of this letter written by a UBC student on the university’s Terry blog. The letter writer clearly has her heart in the right place. (And incidentally, I don’t agree with the tone of the disparaging comments that she’s received.) But she, too, is worried that she is being self-indulgent. I would go further: we learn from an investigation of Latin American popular culture that the relationship between First World and Third World, or between North and South, is more complicated than a simple dichotomy of victimizer (however unthinking) and victim. There are more complex negotiations and exchanges at work. If we don’t recognize this, then we inevitably end up being patronizing.


William Rowe and Vivian Schelling’s Memory and Modernity is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone else who has tried to replicate it: they aim to provide a guide to Latin American popular culture that covers both the gamut of theoretical positions (from within Latin American Studies and outside) as well as detailing, often in quite some detail and historical or sociological depth, an extraordinary range of popular cultural practices. Just in chapter two, “The Faces of Popular Culture,” they move almost seamlessly from Peru to Mexico to Brazil to Argentina, and from Andean oral narratives of Inkarrí to Mexican artesanía to Candomblé to telenovelas to football. It’s astonishingly erudite and impressive, while also remarkably readable; their accounts of critics from Adorno to Taussig to Martín Barbero to Arguedas are deft and decisive. They give a real sense of the texture and complexity both of Latin American popular culture and of the debates that it has provoked.

This book should have the status of a classic of Latin American cultural studies, and it’s a crying shame that Verso seem to have allowed it, along with the other surveys in its Latin American series such as Gerry Martin’s Journeys through the Labyrinth, to go out of print.

Of course, Rowe and Schelling’s approach also has its pitfalls. Especially when it comes to their accounts of critics and theorists, there can be no space for detailed textual analysis, and so their brief judgments are also potential hostages to fortune. Is it really true, for instance, that Michael Taussig’s project can be reduced to “finding in pre-capitalist cultures a source of resistance to capitalism” (73)? Likewise, their analyses of specific cultural histories, though they often extend over several pages, are also dependent on ex cathedra pronouncements rather than sustained argumentation. Their tone tends towards encyclopedic synthesis that threatens to overwhelm their own critical and conceptual narrative.

This narrative is driven by a conception of the popular as counter-culture: “The term popular culture, according to common usage in Latin America, evokes the possibilities of alternaties to currently dominant cultural practices. [. . .] To be of use, the term ‘popular’ must be distinguished from the products of the culture industry and the mass media” (97). And yet in practice they are forced to recognize that difficulties of trying to cordon of the popular as a space for political resistance and creativity. At the same time as they argue for a definition of the popular “in terms of the possibility of a counter-hegemony,” they also have to recognize the intimate coexistence of popular practices with the mass media: “popular cannot mean purity nor the culture industry its loss” (113). Yet it seems to be precisely in the name of at least a vestigial version of such purity that at times they put the popular in scare quotes, so as to indicate practices that are popular but not really they way they would have them be so. For instance, in their discussion of the samba, which “becomes a ‘popular’ and profitable form of entertainment transmitted together with commercial advertisements by radio” and which “was transformed into a ‘popular’ massified genre and an exportable symbol of national identity” (135).

So Rowe and Schelling want both to champion and to distance themselves from the popular, to separate out their own neo-populism from historical and state-supported populisms of Vargas, Perón, or the PRI. In short, they want to differentiate their counter-hegemony from hegemony per se. But it is precisely this gesture that they share with historical populism, which always wants to portray itself as embattled and oppositional, even from a position of state power.


Hegemony theory has become the ubiquitous common sense of cultural studies. This first chapter is a critique of both by means of an examination of their shared populism. After defining and historicizing the field, I embark on a close reading of the Argentine theorist Ernesto Laclau, whose version of hegemony theory is the most fully developed and influential for cultural studies. Laclau’s definition of hegemony is embedded in a series of reflections on populism, especially in his earliest book, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, and in his latest, On Populist Reason. I trace the development of Laclau’s theory, showing how from the start it simply mimics the logic of populism. Laclau sets out to differentiate between a left populism and a populism of the right, a distinction that would be essential for cultural studies to make good on its political pretensions, but ultimately he fails to establish such a difference, even to his own satisfaction. I then move to the relationship between populism and the state, and show, again through a reading of Laclau, how hegemony theory and cultural studies alike repeat the populist sleight of hand in which a purported anti-institutionalism in fact enables the state apparently to disappear. Hegemony stands in for politics, and screens off the ways in which states anchor social order through habituation, under the cover of a fictional social contract. Throughout, in counterpoint, I offer an alternative account of the Argentine Peronism from which Laclau’s theory stems.

Read more…. (long .pdf file)


Over on home cooked theory, with an entry entitled “Post Solidarity (?)” Mel Gregg is, I feel, a mite defensive about Cultural Studies. Admittedly, judging by this news about state funding of research in Australia (and the ensuing discussion), academics there have some cause to be touchy these days. On the other hand, she links my recent post on anti-politics to this same encroachment of state regulation upon academic production. To which I take, well, mild umbrage.

It’s true that, contra John McGowan, I would rather bury than celebrate Cultural Studies. But I see the main point of what I am trying to elaborate as “posthegemony theory” as the attempt to outline some kind of coherent alternative to the concept of hegemony that Cultural Studies wields so readily and so loosely.

The concept of hegemony serves as stand-in for political analysis, a deus ex machina that explains little and achieves even less. But it’s up to those of us dissatisfied with this approach to come up with something better.

In so far as people like Mel (or John McGowan, or, say, Larry Grossberg, or whomever else) also see their work as an attempt to come up with “something better,” then of course what I’m trying to do is in solidarity with their efforts.

The mistake is to assume that solidarity is premissed on agreement or consensus. But then that is a classic problem of hegemony theory itself…

Solidarity is a much more difficult and unrewarding relation than Cultural Studies typically imagines. As I’ve said before, “you cannot pick and choose: true solidarity has to contend with the physicality and materiality of the most unpleasant of affects and habits.” Cultural Studies consistently sets itself up for a fall by imagining that the people that it invokes will somehow spontaneously agree with the analyses and directions that it puts forward.

But if we learn anything from Subaltern Studies, for instance, it is that the characteristic gesture of the multitude is treason, betrayal.

Cultural Studies should therefore prepare itself to be unpopular (in all senses of that word: unliked and unpopulist). What would an unpopular cultural studies look like? Here’s how I’ve tried to answer that question in the past…

The first task of an unpopular cultural studies might be to return to those phenomena, such as testimonio, that (our current, populist) cultural studies has abandoned, to examine what flees or escapes from populism. We might understand the various failures of hegemonic movements less as, simply (and banally), failures always to be blamed upon some exterior force distorting the course of hegemonic politics, than as the sites of betrayals that may also be expressions of the multitude’s power. The second task of an unpopular cultural studies might be to return to examples of apparently successful hegemonic movements, such as Peronism, to examine the ways in which hegemony follows and overcodes the multitude’s inconstant and unpredictable movements. In either case, we may start with an investigation of “popular culture,” but only with the aim of uncovering traces of multitudinous unpopularity. And if the raison d’être of cultural studies has been the claim that hegemony is always provisional and incomplete–and that there is therefore room for counter-hegemonic projects–the watchword for unpopular cultural studies might be a radicalisation of this claim: there is no hegemony and never has been.


Over on Michael Bérubé’s blog, John McGowan offers yet another “potted” account of cultural studies and hegemony theory. What’s striking is the way in which he unabashedly takes the populist logic of cultural studies and suggests applying it to what he terms “politics-on-the-ground” (as opposed to some politics-in-the-air, one presumes):

politics-on-the-ground in the United States tends to offer two possible avenues of action. Either individuals or a group or a coalition of groups can try to capture one of the major parties. (Of course, there is also the recurring fantasy of—sometimes linked to valiant efforts to—create a viable new party, a feat only pulled off once in American history.) Or individuals or a group or a coalition of groups can try to address the sitting government directly, bypassing the parties.

There’s the populist fantasy in a nutshell.

So let me offer a snippet from the conclusion to Posthegemony‘s first chapter…

Populism structures both hegemony theory and cultural studies. Indeed, it gives cultural studies what little coherence and consistency the discipline has. The attractions and seductions of this populism are clear: it provides a broad terrain of activity and analysis, expanding the sphere of politics from the formal arena of debate and policy-making to the swathe of mostly everyday practices that constitute culture. Populism offers another front for a politicized undertaking that has lost its way with the decline of Marxism. It also rings true in a context in which the cultural economy is taken as seriously as any other sector of the economy, in which the “sound bite” dominates as traditional political allegiances wither, in which the media are more extensive and more significant than ever, in which our subjectivities are molded ever more by taste and consumption, in short in which, as Fredric Jameson puts it, “‘culture’ has become a veritable ‘second nature'” (Postmodernism ix). At the same time, in this same context, populism is also a source of anxiety and uncertainty. Its uselessness as a political compass is clear as soon as one steps from the passion and fervor that the populist impulse itself inspires. After all, is not the anti-globalization critique of Americanism, à la Jose Bové’s campaign again McDonalds, as populist as the celebration of US popular culture and taste upon which so much of McDonalds’ own image and advertising depend?

One response might be to argue that populism is less compass than weathervane: simply a more or less neutral reflex, an inevitable accompaniment to political activity. In some ways this is Laclau’s position: politics is inconceivable without populism, so although populism has no pre-determined political valence, it should be welcomed rather than denigrated. What would be important therefore would be differentiating between populisms, between populism as a progressive project and populism as the ground for conservative reaction. There are, however, two problems with this position: first, the difficulty of resolving to any satisfaction how to distinguish between left and right populism; and second, more importantly, that populism itself does political work. By presenting hegemony as the only conceivable form of politics, it helps conceal other modes of political command or struggle. Populism enables a series of substitutions that fetishize culture at the expense of the institutional, and establish transcendence and sovereignty in place of immanent processes or micropolitical struggles. Populism simplifies the double register through which the social coheres, obscuring the mechanisms by which transcendence is produced from immanence, subjective emotion from impersonal affect, signifying discourse from asignifying habit, people from multitude, and constituted from constituent power, precisely because it is one of those mechanisms. The task of posthegemony theory is first to uncover what has been obscured in these substitutions, and then to outline the means by which their suppression has been achieved, enforced, naturalized, and legitimated. In sum, social order has to be disarticulated, to reveal both its mute underside and the process by which it has been ventriloquized, made to speak but in another’s voice.

Above all, hegemony theory’s political work consists in presenting social order as the result of either coercion or consent. Dominance is achieved, it suggests, either by imposition from above or through agreement from below. People are either overpowered by a transcendent state, or they willingly subscribe to a dominant ideology. And in that a relation of pure coercion is unthinkable, hegemony theory posits that there is always at least a residue of willed acquiescence. People stick together, forming societies and submitting to their laws, because in one way or another they think the same things, in the same ways. Hence the culturalism of cultural studies: communities gain their consistency and coherence through a shared set of beliefs and ideologies. Hegemony theory is the last gasp of the contractualism that has justified the bounded forms of modern social formations at least since the sixteenth century. However modified, it is still a rationalism: people give up their consent because it seems reasonable to do so, given what they know and believe (even if those beliefs are themselves ideological or irrational). But this dichotomy between coercion and consent is a debilitating simplification.

[. . .]

In the end, populism, and so also cultural studies, is an anti-politics. No wonder cultural studies has been derided for its complicity with the status quo, however much it wields the rhetoric of radicalism. It is not so much that its practitioners are victims of bad faith. It is that cultural studies takes hegemony at its own word, and so misses the ways in which hegemonic processes stand in for other, more complex, means by which dominance is asserted and reproduced. Cultural studies thereby reinforces sovereignty, the notion that power comes from above, and that the only options for the dominated are negotiation or acquiescence. It is blind to the ways in which state institutions in fact emerge from immanent processes, and secure their legitimacy well below consciousness, with no need of words. So long as cultural studies continues to take these processes for granted, then all its articulate verbosity is no more than a form of complicitous silence.


Over at I cite, Jodi Dean has posted an essay on “Political Theory and Cultural Studies”.

She’s rather positive about British Cultural Studies, though only really discusses Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism, and nothing that Hall wrote while he was at the Centre, for instance. She says of Cultural Studies that “in a context of struggle with Marxism, and as an effort to understand and contest a newly emerging right wing alliance that had come to power in the wake of widespread social, economic, and political disruption—’authoritarian populism,'” it achieved “analytical power and political purchase, indeed, truth” (17). Less mention is made, therefore, of the fact that for Hall it was Thatcherism that showed up Cultural Studies’ (or at least the Centre’s) manifest failure: Thatcherism’s success as a hegemonic project was a rebuke to the Left’s inability to do more than watch, appalled, from the sidelines.

She then argues that as some of the ideas and approaches of British Cultural Studies crossed the Atlantic and become influential within (at least some parts of) US Political Theory, “a sense of the dominance of cultural politics (as opposed to the marginality of a venture called cultural studies), on the one hand, with the demands of political science, on the other, formatted political theory’s cultural turn so as to distance it from the state” (17). In the culture wars, everything, and so nothing, became political. Rather, however, than lambaste either US political theory or US Cultural Studies, she argues that this mutation is itself determined by a new phase of sovereignty: “Despite the depoliticization the claim perversely effects, the notion that everything is political marks a change in the political situation of late-capitalism, namely, the decentering or changed role of the state” (21).

I’d argue, by contrast, that Cultural Studies had lost sight of the state long before its 1980s or 1990s expansion to North America. Where, after all, is the state in Culture and Society? Pretty marginal. If there was a flurry of attention to state processes at the Centre in the mid 1970s, for which the best example is probably Policing the Crisis, this was above all thanks to the influence of Althusser (whom Dean never mentions). Once Althusser was sloughed off, in large part thanks to Hall’s appropriation of Gramsci via Laclau’s endorsement of populism as politics, Cultural Studies (British as well as American) could return to its populist impulses, and leave the state behind with hardly a glance in its direction thereafter.

What’s most interesting is the slippage or sleight of hand at the heart of a movement such as Cultural Studies, and indeed at the heart of all populisms: a movement that claims to have the state in its sights, as it champions popular expression against domination from above, but which at almost the last moment loses sight of the state, putting a fetishized conception of culture in its place. And it is, of course, the concept of hegemony that enables this depoliticizing substitution.