Skip to main content


Welcome to  BPI's open-enrollment, tuition-free, extra-hyphenated (and caffeinated) Tuesday morning celebration of Things We've Learned This Week (TWLTW).

On the syllabus today is an attempt by your humble host and moderator, Professor Crackpot Caractacus to open the controversial can of critical theory and see what happens when we stick a spoon in and stir.

The review will include words like ideology, hegemony, and power. Words that may be familiar, but are used specifically, and sometimes differently, in the cause of critical theory. Names to know include Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, and others.

This is a dense and decades-old area of challenging thought and inquiry, which I will try to shrink to a manageable diary size stuffed with insight and clarity. Wish me luck. For those previously critical, there will be simplifications and omissions. Don't be surprised by that. If something's missing, please introduce it (or him) in comments.

First, 3 big ideas ground the discussion...

3 Big Ideas
Activist Stance
Critical Theory is all about changing the world. This is theory designed to shake people up. To wake people up to a reality that most will miss in a blind stupor of material satisfaction or a vague, ill defined dissatisfaction.  Deckard did not know he was a replicant. Neo didn’t know he was a battery. Critical Theory is activist in both waking us up to the reality we inhabit but cannot see, and then encouraging us to disrupt and subvert the dominant ideologies that constrain, restrict, and limit everyone.

So, what, exactly, is this "reality we inhabit but cannot see?" Stephen Brookfield, celebrated (and real) professor of adult learning writes:

Ideology is the set of unquestioned beliefs, values, practices, and ideas that are accepted as natural, normal, obvious, common-sense, and taken for granted.

In America, this would include things like, "you can be anything you want to be," "anyone can grow up to be President," everyone is born equal, hard work will result in material comfort, and that American capitalist-democracy is the best system of governance ever hatched from the minds of men. Ideology is set by the privileged few who benefit from inequity, racism, homophobia, and imbalanced power relationships, all of which are the "real" reality underlying the ideology's slogans, mantras, and rhetoric.

Ideology then loves the status quo and works hard to resist and prevent change. But, when change is apparent, ideology has an uncanny knack for anticipating it and co-opting it. Giving the surface appearance of real change (Emancipation Proclamation, for example) while the daily lives of people continue in about the same manner as before (Jim Crow Laws and segregation).

And yes, much of this perspective on ideology comes from that European bugaboo, Karl Marx, from a text titled, "The German Ideology."

It is assumed that people live in a constant state of conflict, with the physical and mental labor of the masses corralled to serve the comfort of the privileged. Physical labor is the more obvious of the two. This is Marx's traditionally understood critique of capitalism serving to alienate people from themselves and their work so the rich can get richer. Mental labor is less obvious, but this means that even people's thoughts serve the dominant ideology. When we think, it is toward improving the existing system, not toward overthrowing it or creating a better system. Such systems are dismissed as idealistic and unreal utopias, or socialist hells.

3 Big Theorists
Gramsci and Althusser
So, if real reality is conflict and dissatisfaction with dominant ideology, why so few revolutions? What happened to that brief window of opportunity in the 60's, anyway?

Gramsci and Althusser may have answers.

Althusser argues that churches, businesses, and especially schools and the popular media, are all means for the replication of the dominant ideology. We buy into them because churches promise an after life (where all are equal, are rewarded in kind for their hard work while on Earth, etc...), businesses promise an income, and education a ticket to both. As long as these work to instill the ideology into the masses, then the state doesn't need more "repressive" means, like Stalin's purges, Hitler's SS, or Chinese military suppression of Tibet (not to mention the Cultural Revolution itself).

And if they work really, really well, you get hegemony, an idea associated with Gramsci (Cornel West considers himself closely aligned with Gramsci, if you know Brother West). In hegemony, it is not about the culture pushing an ideology down on the people, but the reverse. The people actively learn, pursue, and accept the ideology. Brookfield says people "enthusiastically embrace" that which actually does them harm. If you're not happy with your own subjugation, then hegemony and the institutions that promote it haven't completed their work.

This is where I begin thinking about people without health insurance who vote against health insurance reform. Where I wonder about people tired of paying $3.35 per gallon voting against sustainable energy initiatives. And, as I mentioned last week, the unemployed trucker who spent his last unemployment check selling bootleg t-shirts for Sarah Palin. And, about the use of the US military to instill American ideology by force in cultures with no history of democracy, without spending the time and money necessary to build the ideological institutions required to sustain and maintain it. Without them, according to Althusser, we're back to the use of force before long.

Well, a little Foucault, at least. There is a lot there. Relevant to this diary, however, are some of his ideas about power and the panopticon.

For Foucault, power is not something that is used by those above to keep those below in line. For him, this is an outdated description of power, which he calls "sovereign power." An example would be George III imposing a tea tax on the colonists. They were expected to pay, under threat of military force if their goodwill and loyalty to the king didn't compel them first.

Instead, power in the 20th and 21st centuries is a pervasive, ever flowing force that moves between and within everyone in a society. People exert power on themselves to stay in compliance with ideology. This is disciplinary power. Simple examples are punctuality, stopping at a red light when no one is around, and not cheating on a final exam. All disciplinary power is based on observation (as in this rec-list diary about the student laptop surveillance program, and the Patriot Act, etc...). That compelling feeling that someone may be watching, even if we can't see them. And even when we know no one is there, that feeling that we are watching ourselves. The internalization of the norms of behavior, for Foucault, is a very serious and real power function. This internalization is best illustrated by Jeremy Bentham's panopticon (maybe the best link in the diary, certainly the creepiest picture I've seen in a while). A circular prison (looks like the coliseum, actually) with a central tower. The tower is dark, the inmates can't see in to tell who is there or where they are looking. But, the people in the tower can look out and see any inmate at any time. Bentham said inmates would internalize the "gaze" and comply with good behavior as a result, making it possible for the state to save money by hiring fewer prison guards. Modern versions would include Big Brother from 1984, the character "Jacob" on the tv show Lost, Times Square surveillance cameras, ATM surveillance cameras, the two examples earlier in the paragraph, just about any Kafka story, and, well, God (I guess that would be a modern and ancient one, actually).

Now, I'm thinking about Luntz, and the quick and easily-accessed conservative talking points-du-jour. The political right in American has been very efficient at packaging "the normal" in quick and digestible emotional bites and distributing those memes for a long time. Once conservatives know what their "judges of normality" have determined to be in today's "regime of truth" (both phrases from Foucault), they are quick to adopt it and begin loudly promoting it to others. Even if today's "normal" is different from, or directly opposed to, yesterday's "normal." And, if you dare, imagine for a moment considering Glenn Beck from this theoretical point of view.

As I said in the intro, this explanation is intentionally simplified, and many important ideas are left out altogether. I'm considering a Foucault-centric diary for next week just because so many of his other ideas are intriguing to me, and hopefully by writing about them I may come to understand them better than I'd like to think I do now. If that would be interesting to you, to, please let me know in the comments.

Now, I've discussed some of these ideas as if the political right are their case studies and the left is immune to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we on the left actually fret when we have to get something at Wal-Mart instead of our preferred locavorian organic food co-op, we still accept the dominant ideology enough to operate within it and self-monitor our behavior to comply (the vast majority of us, do at least).

I would submit that those on the left are more likely to dream about better ways of doing things, rather than better ways of maintaining the old ways of doing things (as in, "I want my country back!"), but we too butter our bread, stop at red lights, and buy songs on iTunes (at least, I do). We too, get co-opted into incrementally improving the current system instead of taking radical actions to imagine and implement new, truly equal and socially just institutions. If the shock is too great for the system  to absorb, it will reject it. And that begins with us rejecting our own activist tendencies and impulses.

Recently, we've seen some people be very vocal (teabaggery, I speak of) about rejecting some recent changes to the system, changes that the system itself may have foreseen and adapted to already. In which case, their calls for rejection will themselves be rejected, and a new status quo settle into place. I'm with Cornel West who calls for critical skeptical hope that things are really improving, while continuing to work for their improvement.

Thanks for reading. I hope I didn't gum up these ideas beyond recognition. I'm curious what you think.

I'm doing some observations of teachers later this morning, so I'm posting a little early (I hope, as I write this sentence it is 2am on Tues. morning). My nurturance of the discussion will be sporadic as a result, but I promise to check in as often as I can through the morning and answer any questions and address concerns as they may arise. Otherwise, I leave it to the panopticon!


  1. A person who invested $330 in the original Broadway production of The Fantasticks (1960-2002) has earned over $80,000 in dividends (without reinvestment) in 50 years. With reinvestment in safe(r) T-Bills, that would have come to $422,000.
  1. For context, from the same article as #1, in 1970:
  1. A NYC subway ride cost $0.30. Now = $2.25.
  1. Average Broadway ticket was $8. Now = $125.
  1. Best Brooks Brotherssuit then was $200. Now = $1,900 (off rack price).
  1. Harvard undergraduate tuitionwas $2,600 (total cost of attendance in 1970 was $4,070). Tuition for 2010-2011 = $35,568, or $4,446 per 3-credit course for part-timers.
  1. Median American income was $8,734. In 2007, $50,233.
  1. A new apartment building just opened at 72nd St. and Broadway. Rents run from $8,000 to $20,000 a month. No walk-in closets in the 3-bedroom, but you can get a custom door knocker (for an additional fee). If the building went condo this year, that $20,000 per month apt. would be become a $7 million apt. home.
  1. Lynn Redgrave passed away after a 7 year battle with breast cancer.
  1. The Prime Minister of Namibia is a Teachers College graduate.
  1. Vocabulary: I haven't read much this week, and new words are in the diary. Or, rather, old words, but new definitions (for me, at least) are in the diary!
  1. After Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal = 0 Pulitzer Prize nominations. New York Times in that same time = 3 Pulitzer Prizes.

" the record, theydescribe tension over the paper's shift to breaking news and away from groundbreaking long-form articles. "Last year, I don't know if we necessarily even deserved a Pulitzer," one senior reporter told me. Added another senior editor: "To be honest with you, the bigger issue is that the Journal's factory for megastories has been broken."

Thanks, Rupert!

  1. Women are now allowed to serve on some of the Navy's submarines, for the first time ever.
  1. There was an arrestearlier this morning in the Times Square terrorist attack (there, I said it).

What Did You Learn This Week?


Originally posted to Caractacus on Tue May 04, 2010 at 04:06 AM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site