The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: November, 2015

Stuart Hall’s Defininition of Ideology

The most frequent working definition of the term ideology in contemporary cultural studies and related fields is the following from Stuart Hall:

By ideology I mean the mental frameworks – the languages, the concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and the systems of representation – which different classes and social groups deploy in order to make sense of, figure out and render intelligible the way society works.

  • Quoted in John Storey, “Introduction”, in Storey, ed., Cultural Theory, p. vvii

One interesting feature of this definition is that it avoids any approach to Marxism, notable because academically ideology is traditionally seen as a Marxist concept, and is often attacked on those grounds, such as here by Foucault. But historically the term predates Marx, and its popular usage is not usually inflected with Marxist ideas, so this academic approach towards the popular usage is to be welcomed, I think. There’s no need to subscribe to Marxist tenets like base and superstructure, etc., to use ideology.

It’s notable, as well, that Hall avoids a pejorative definition. Both most popular and academic usages, including Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, see ideology as a bad thing, an element of thought involving mystification and misperception. For Hall it’s just a feature of the way groups deal with the world. Rather than, say, “make meaning”, which would have implied a certain distance between things as they are and as they are seen by the relevant groups, he goes with “make sense of”, which has more benign connotations. Ideology thus becomes less critical and more neutral.

On the other hand, Hall’s reduction of mental operations to “frameworks” is problematic. Consciousness itself can’t be reduced to frameworks, so ideology, as a feature of consciousness, should not be either. It’s more nebulous than that, and the analysis of ideology has to be prepared for the multiform paths it could take, which cannot be pre-empted but only become clear in the course of analysis of a given text and may not correspond to any “framework”.

Ideology has a complex and interesting history, and engagement with this history is as important as any formal definition one could come up with. As for definitions, I tend to differ from many academics in that I think for key critical terms, the looser the better. Let the complexity lie in the analysis, not in the general theorizing or the definition of terms. To study ideology is to study consciousness; and consciousness, as we know, is the last mystery – it can’t yet be fully defined, but it can be studied with attention and an open mind.

Revival, by Stephen King

As a teenager of the 90s, I grew up reading a lot of Stephen King. As far as my adolescent reading self went, he was the Man. My impressions of his writing are mixed up with memories of staying up into the small hours eagerly consuming  The Stand, It, et al. It seems that adolescence is the optimum time to read King. This might explain why so many critics have had pops at King (like Dwight Allen at Salon): they first encountered him as adults, and were not responsive to his merits. (It may explain also my response to stuff like J.K. Rowling: I don’t get the appeal. Maybe I was just a few years too old when I first came to it.) My really intensive reading of his books was in my early teen years in the mid-90s. Later, I cooled on him, partly because my tastes changed and partly because once I had worked through his back catalogue I found that what he was then producing was not as good as the early stuff. The mid-90s saw a few clunkers (Insomnia, Rose Madder) and while Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis showed King developing in interesting ways, they were followed by an unparalleled outpouring of dross (Dreamcatcher, Black House, From a Buick 8, Cell, etc.) 2006’s Cell was where the very last vestiges of my King fixation died, and I stopped reading his new works.

Still now, as he approaches 70, King is putting out about 2 books a year. Novels mostly, of wildly varying lengths, punctuated with collections of short stories. Occasionally I check in, but with no great returns. Revival (2014) is my first King in quite a while. It’s a slim-ish volume, 372 pages of fairly large print. One thing that interested me was how allusive the book seemed. The dedication page lists 11 of “the people who built my house”; that is, the writers who have inspired him. It’s the usual suspects for King: Shelley, Stoker, Jackson, Lovecraft, Machen. The blurb from Sydney Morning Herald posits Frankenstein as the key influence on the novel; the Guardian review suggests Lovecraft. I would say it’s Machen. In King’s opening paragraphs, as the narrator introduces the key character, he writes:

I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things – these horrors – were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.

This recalls a passage from Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a story which King refers to specifically in the aforementioned dedication. In Pan, Machen’s protagonist exclaims:

It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world, where men and women live and die, and struggle, and conquer, or maybe fail, and fall down under sorrow, and grieve and suffer strange fortunes for many a year; but not this, Phillips, not such things as this. There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.

Both passages start with an expression of incredulity (“I can’t bear to believe”, “It is too incredible”), though Machen’s character is more unconditional, King’s more ambiguous. This incredulity is founded, not on rationality, but on what is bearable. Machen’s register is classically of the horror genre: “monstrous […] terror […] nightmare”. These are all the things that are at stake in accepting the evidence. King, too, lays on the big abstractions of the genre (“the horrors“).

Even King’s syntax and word choice changes in this passage. “If that is so” is archaic, and rather inconsistent with the tone of King’s aging rock musician narrator. “[W]e live in Darkness” evokes the biblical “we see through a glass, darkly” and, by extension, Sheridan LeFanu’s famous collection In a Glass Darkly. Machen, like most pre-20th c. Anglophone writers was steeped in biblical language (his father was a clergyman), and it gives his prose a resonance and stark power, at times. With King, though, it’s imported, and sits unassimilated in the middle of his much more homely and colloquial prose. Machen couldn’t have written like King, and King can’t write like Machen, not for more than a paragraph or so, anyway.

But those two paragraphs both set the works in the genre of cosmic horror. The genre is predominantly associated with Lovecraft, but the real establishing text is The Great God Pan, which Lovecraft, like King, made no secret of his admiration for. So similar are the philosophies underlying Machen and Lovecraft’s stories that influence by the former is sometimes imputed to the latter, simply because he’s more widely known and read. The essence of cosmic horror is not that there is a monster who must be faced and, perhaps, defeated; it is that life is monstrous, the universe is monstrous. And the universe cannot be defeated. The visible monsters are only representatives of a greater evil at the heart of life itself. That is why life is a “nightmare” and faith a “foolish illusion”.

King plays with these ideas in Revival, but for most of the novel they’re background. Like most of King’s work, there’s a great deal of focus on characterization, of community life, and so on. King is an incorrigibly humanist writer. Machen wasn’t really a humanist; Lovecraft even less so. Maybe that’s where the difficulty lies: King is too warm, too invested in his fellow humans to be really invested in cosmic horror. It’s when you don’t think much of humanity in general that horror can come to seem cosmic. For all King’s humanity, though, when it comes to the pay-off, the big finale, we know from the hints and the build-up that it’s all going to have to centre on the idea of the great horrors. The anti-climax in Revival is, sadly, risible. How can you really construct a finale that will provide pay off when dealing with ideas of such magnitude? Machen didn’t do great in bringing Pan to a climax, either. For Lovecraft, there tended to be an overreliance on “indescribable” and its synonyms when the monsters made their appearance. King barely tries, his ending is run-of-the mill, though I don’t want to get too spoilery about it.

In short King is King, and this is a superior read in the King vein. There’s some pretty atmospheric americana scene-setting, some of King’s typically laboured humour (this has always been his weak point, for me: the guy just is not funny, but he never stops trying), and a lot of nods towards the greats of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is just the dressing, though, it’s not really what King is about. He’s got his own thing going. It’s a shame he couldn’t integrate this particular subgenre better into his own writing, but, on this front, Revival doesn’t quite come off, though it retains interest I think both as a good read all round and King’s most considered fictional statement on religion, rendering it a notably more thematic work than most of his others, while still retaining a good narrative thrust.

Henty’s With Clive in India

Up until very recently, I had only the vaguest notion of who G.A. Henty was. Who he was, incidentally, was a late 19-century novelist of imperialism, writing dozens of formulaic novels set all over the globe involving militarism and conquest, mostly focused on English soldiers and their victories over various peoples. The books were aimed at a young readership. I was offered a copy of The Complete G.A. Henty through Amazon on condition that I review it on that site. I accepted. I haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet, as I want to read a larger selection, but I’ve read one novel in full, With Clive in India.

This may not be Henty’s most representative novel. He notes in the preface that he has given more space than usual to historical detail, and, in fact, the vast majority of the book is historical rather than novelistic. The only more widely-read work I can compare it to in this respect is Moby Dick – that, too, starts off like a novel but soon ditches the genre almost totally to foist upon the reader endless information on a subject related to the plot. Henty’s style is nothing like Melville’s, however. Henty started out as a journalist, and his prose retains a bland journalistic tone. Whatever his aims were in the novel, they were not literary.

The information that Henty chooses to give is mostly military. Battle scenes abound, as the protagonist in Clive’s forces conquers his way across India, overcoming the French along the way. None of this is very interesting. What I thought would be worth noting, though, were the ideological techniques Henty used to justify and glorify imperialism to his young 19th-century audience. I can make a couple of points about this, some of which were a little surprising to me:

  • Religion: There is none. The Irish servant character, Tim, is overtly religious, but he’s played for laughs. The English protagonist, Charlie Marryat, only brings in religion once in the whole book, I think: when he’s talking to his love interest, Ada, and their lives are in danger he tells her to “pray God to give you strength”. He himself does not pray, though, then or ever, and religion appears to play for him no part. Nor is it introduced by the narrator at any point in relation to the imperial mission.
  • Race: Even knowing little about Henty, I knew of his reputation for racism. The racism in With Clive in India, then, was less overt than I had imagined. There is little denigration of other races, little sense that the Indians or other races present (French, Irish) are essentially inferior or less competent than the English: “Look what rough tools that man is working with, and what delicate and intricate work he is turning out. If these fellows could but fight as well as they work, and were but united among themselves, not only should we be unable to set a foot in India, but the emperor, with the enormous armies which he would be able to raise, would be able to threaten Europe. I suppose they never have been really good fighting men. Alexander, a couple of thousand years ago, defeated them; and since then the Afghans, and other northern peoples, have been always overrunning and conquering them.I can’t make it out. These Sepoys, after only a few weeks’ training, fight almost as well as our own men. I wonder how it is that, when commanded by their own countrymen, they are able to make so poor a fight of it.”

    The argument seems to be that the Indians are inferior in providing leadership. Herein is implied the justification for imperialism. I was surprised at how modest the claim was, ontologically: they’re really the same as us, as long as they have the right guidance. Of course, this can be seen as monstrously patronising, but when compared to Marlow in Heart of Darkness and his horror at the idea of distant kinship, I’m tempted to say Henty’s is a more tolerant view than some that were around at the time. Henty has less of the anxiety about race that you find in Conrad. Charlie and his servants Tim (Irish) and Hossein (Indian) all get along very well, and in a spirit of mutual trust and affection. The ideological energies of the novel don’t come from dwelling on the inferiorities of other races. Late in the novel Charlie introduces Hossein as follows: “He calls himself my servant. I call him my friend.” Hossein remains a servant, though, to the end. Henty idealizes the relationship, so that being a perpetual servant seems like a pleasant and rewarding activity.

  • National myths: Another element that surprised me slightly was Henty’s willingness to chronicle the less salutary aspects of English imperialism. The novel is named after the famous imperialist Robert Clive, and I expected a heroized depiction of him. That is offered, to an extent. But, firstly, there’s very little characterization of him, rather an account of his military campaigns. And secondly, though Henty offers encomia on Clive’s bravery, efficiency, etc., he also offers overt criticism. Clive is described by the narrator at one point as “wholly unscrupulous”. An episode involving extortion, fraud and a forged signature on Clive’s part Henty recounts in detail and attempts no defense of Clive, rather concluding that “the whole transaction [was] one of the blackest in the annals of English history”, “dishonorable” and “disgraceful”.

So, though Henty’s work is widely considered to be  concerned with advocating English imperialism, it seems to accomplish this less by religion, racism or national mythifying than by presenting the military enterprise as being enormously fun, and also financially rewarding. Henty perhaps judged that it is these elements of fun and reward that would appeal to a young audience and prepare them for imperialist ideology, and his popularity seems to indicate he was right.

To Review the Literature or Not to Review the Literature

Having reached endgame in the writing of my thesis, I now have to reflect on some of the choices I made. Unorthodox choices are the hardest, the ones that will be questioned closely in the viva. And I have made some of those. Case in point: I have no explicit literature review in my thesis. General handbooks on theses always simply assume a literature review chapter will be present. There’s Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, then the Data Analysis or Case Studies chapters, depending on the subject/ discipline. This is derived from a social science model, but is presented as simply the default mode in all the guides I have consulted. The idea of not having a literature review just doesn’t come up. This may be to an extent a reflection on my university and its emphasis on the scientistic and business models to the neglect of the humanistic, with a library to match. However, it also seems to be the standard, even in guides specifically targeted at humanities, like this one.

But my thesis will have no literature review. One reason for this is that the literature review is a place where “the study is located within a specific theoretical tradition or perspective” (Paul Oliver, Writing Your Thesis, SAGE, 2008, 6). A humanistic study, I maintain, is not about adopting a specific perspective, but rather about trying to attain the widest perspective possible. This may involve making use of any available methodological tool at any specific moment. This renders the methodology section of the thesis problematic as well as the literature review. My “methodology” is partially a defense of retaining an open methodology (which comes perilously close to having no methodology).

“The new thesis should not be seen as an isolated study, but as a study which exists in an academic tradition, and the purpose of the literature review is to try to establish the nature of that tradition” (Oliver, 93). Of course, my thesis is in an academic tradition, and is written according to academic standards. But I nevertheless maintain that by engaging with the humanist tradition, it is making a claim to being somewhat sui generis, and that this is not simply a formality, but a consequential fact with regard to method and structure. It is not, evidently enough, exactly the same as any other thesis, and is a product of a particular consciousness in a particular situation; dealing with particular source materials in particular combination. To exactly define the tradition from which it springs would place all of the analysis in the body of the thesis under intolerable strain, as it would have to be justified not only in terms of an argument, but also in terms of a tradition.

In terms of writing conventions and (mostly) basic structure, it is indeed a standard academic thesis, but epistemologically, it does not aim to privilege any specific tradition over all others. Such epistemological specificity is only possible, it seems to me, in a project where the methodology itself is very specific. A quantitative study using positivistic methods: yes, that has a clear epistemology, very well defined and very limited. It has its place, obviously, and a large place under current academic conditions, but it is not all. I’m not anti- the defined and restricted epistemology of quantitative research, by any means, and believe that it can be incorporated into even humanistic study. I argue only that a space be retained for the non-methodological investigation. In my thesis, I rely at certain important points on Paul Feyerabend:

We must, therefore, keep our options open and we must not restrict ourselves in advance. Epistemological prescriptions may look splendid when compared with other epistemological prescriptions, or with general principles but who can guarantee that they are the best way to discover, not just a few isolated ‘facts’, but also some deep-lying secrets of nature? (Against Method, Verso, 2010, 4)

By keeping our options open, who knows what we might uncover? Perhaps nothing. But the point is that we don’t know exactly what knowledge is, so we can’t impose methodologies on it; not if we have any broad purposes, at any rate. We can’t limit it to a certain academic tradition which we can partition off from the rest of history, culture and nature.

The points I have been making problematize the notion of methodology just as much as that of literature review. I have dealt with the problem of methodology in my thesis by having a formal methodology, but a fairly capacious one, and by stressing the need to think and analyze openly rather than, or certainly in addition to, methodologically. My methodology chapter has also incorporated a measure of literature review, for in delineating my method, I have referred to many others in similar areas of research, This overcomes, I hope, the need for a separate literature review chapter; such a chapter would only serve to delineate too narrowly the field in which I operate. The onus would move onto my analysis to respond to and interact with the field laid out in the critical review, whereas the objects of study may demand and reward quite other methods of study. It is possible to be too narrow, I feel, to go into too much depth in one field, a field which has been created through the artificial processes of academia and which, the more it attains a sophisticated methodology peculiar to itself, the more it cuts itself off from history and forgets that academic research is not an end in itself, and an increase in theoretical sophistication is not necessarily an epistemological advance.

If academic research is not an end, then, what is the end? Here, I haven’t gotten very far, so for the moment I just go with Feyerabend again: “The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man” (4).

HuffPo, Carlyle and Men’s Issues

The Huffington Post UK is dedicating a month to men’s issues. I note it here because in the post announcing and introducing the series, they start off with a reference to Carlyle’s On Heroes, noting how “that certainly wouldn’t fly today”. It goes on to say “The way we talk about men today is alarmingly different”. This is true of course. In my soon-to-be-submitted thesis, I opine that Carlyle is a near-perfect ideological other for 21st-century Western societies – everything he espouses is contrary to the the mainstream ideology of our societies. For that reason alone, he is an interesting figure, one whose re-instatement into conversations about masculinity, society etc. can only help to broaden our conceptions and our modes of discourse. That’s not to say, of course, that his writings should be taken as a source of wisdom in themselvesBut adding them to the conversation, mediated through other viewpoints, all of this is for the good, I believe, creating an encounter with otherness that will lead to a more panoramic viewpoint of this condition we call human.

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