Teachers Have Class
During a 1996 interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen the irreducibly brilliant cultural theorist Stuart Hall remarked that “What has resulted from the abandonment of deterministic economism has been, not alternative ways of thinking questions about the economic relationships and their effects…but instead, a massive gigantic and eloquent disavowal.”
A seemingly immovable fixture in most Cultural Studies literature today, especially those that explicitly address issues of social inequality or oppression, is the ritual critique of Marxism’s blindness to the social typologies of race and gender. Mid-century black intellectuals (almost exclusively men) and white feminists beginning of the 1970’s have excoriated Marxism for its failure to develop a robust analysis of racial and sexual oppression, for its alleged economism, and for its class reductionism. Soon after, particularly academic feminists, began to assert that a Marxian analytic was irredeemably irreconcilable with the contours and challenges presented by “new social movements.” As “new social movements,” emblematized by the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Brown Berets, were systematically neutralized by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, (an organization whose original mission was the eradicate CPUSA from the country) scholarship on “new social histories” began to proliferate and people of color and women, in particular, agitated for the institutionalization of ethnic studies, black studies, and women’s studies programs around the United States. The emergence of publications like “Race, Sex, and Class” and the “Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice” as well as the popularization of theoretical paradigms like intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) or standpoint theory (Collins, 1990) represented the materialization of work (literally) emerging from these newly established departments. Cultural Studies, the banner under which such disciplines currently fall, rightly emerged as an (inter)disciplinary alternative to the Humanities, with its assumption of the indivisibility of society and culture, the “universal” and the “particular,” and labor and art. Cultural Studies also sought to unthread perhaps the most erroneous assumption on which the Humanities were originally based: a universal and transhistorical human (white, male, straight) subject. Indeed, the emergence of Cultural Studies must also be understood as a reaction against theories that, at worst, neglect, or at best, (in the words of cultural theorists) epiphemomenalize, different forms of social difference.
Questions of the relationship between “difference” and “power” within the field of postmodern theory is central to Cultural Studies, but the articulation of social difference remains steadfastly, though imperfectly, reflective of the conscious expression of our actual relations and activities. A loaf of bread, that is, looks, feels, and tastes different to a beggar than to a billionaire, does it not? Marx would attribute these hermeneutic variations in consciousness largely to one’s relationship to surplus value. That is, as he writes, “social existence determines consciousness.” Given that our existence—collective and individual—is invariably inflected by capitalist modes of production and social relations of (re)-production, experience itself must remain firmly and reflectively situated in the context of the capitalist forces and relations that (re)produce it. Experience, if you will, as an epistemological category, is suspect because it represents a unity of opposites. Experience is simultaneously unique, personal, and revealing AND thoroughly social, partial, incomplete, and mystifying, itself the product of historical forces and exigencies about which singular individuals may know very little. (If you dispute this claim, then I challenge you to ask a rich white kid from the suburbs why s/he is rich.)
Such a quibble should in no way delegitimize the experiential basis for knowledge claims, but ought merely to serve as a reminder to avoid the temptation of acting unilaterally according to lived-experience because such action in the world, in the words of Slavoj Zizek, “will not be performed in an empty space; it will be an act within hegemonic ideological coordinates." I argue, quite plainly, that the fashionable analytic triptych of Race, Gender, and Class within the field of Cultural Studies may very well constitute such invisible and seemingly value-neutral ideological coordinates. Invoking race, gender, and class and their intersections as a mantra in “social justice” circles often leads to the belief that all we must do as scholars is document these intersections as they exist, for as states Patricia Hill Collins, “everything that happens is, by definition, raced, classed, and gendered.” Again, let me be exceedingly clear on this score: the emphasis on lived experience within the field of Cultural Studies vis-à-vis the construction of knowledge helps to disabuse theories that, presumably, reflect only the experience of the powerful. This is a welcome inclusion, but it too has its thorns.
Each axis of difference in the Race, Gender, Class paradigm is presented as a theoretically equivalent system of oppression. For example, Patricia Hill Collins writes that the theorization of the connections between these systems requires "a working hypothesis of equivalency.” We should remember, however, that the radical equality of evanescent theoretical terms is not a replacement for radical political equity. Whether it possible to construe class as just another system of oppression depends on the theoretical framework within which it is defined. If defined within the traditional sociological stratification perspective, class refers simply to strata or population aggregates assigned on the basis of standard SES indicators (income, wealth, occupation, and education). Class in this descriptive sense is non-relational and has little basis on which to claim more traction than either race or gender because it simply refers to the set of individual attributes that place individuals within an aggregate arbitrarily defined by the researcher.
From a Marxian perspective, however, class varies qualitatively from gender and race and cannot be theorized as just another system of oppression. Terry Eagleton helpfully reminds us that “whereas racism and sexism are unremittingly bad, class is not.” He writes, “the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary stage was instrumental in ushering a new era in historical development, one which liberated the average person from the oppressions of feudalism and put forth the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Today, however, it has an unquestionably negative role to play as it expands and deepens the rule of capital over the entire globe.” While racism and sexism have no redeeming feature, class relations are, dialectically, a union of opposites; both a site of exploitation and, objectively, a site where the potential agents of social change are produced. Further, to refer to class as "classism" is, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, a deeply evasive formulation; class is not simply another ideology legitimating oppression but rather denotes exploitative relations between people mediated by their relations to the means of production. Insofar as the "class" in Race-Gender-Class framework remains a descriptive sociological concept it is likely that any conceptualization of intersectionality will be short circuited. The key here is not to privilege class oppression over other forms of oppression, but rather to consider the ways in which capitalist relations of exploitation provide the backdrop or foundation within which other forms of oppression are made legible.
With few exceptions, notably, Hazel Carby, Michael Denning, Lawrence Grossberg, Stuart Hall, and Douglas Kellner, those working within the field(s) of Cultural Studies continue to cut Marx’s understanding of class from their analysis of social oppression. I heartily acknowledge the reasons for which theorists of gender and racial oppression (I am one, for goodness sake!) have been, on the whole, unsympathetic to Marxism's alleged reductionisms, but I’d also like to remind us that, in the words of Terry Eagleton, “we don’t come to Marxism because it’s infallible, but because it’s unavoidable.” More conspicuously, ours is a country wherein discourses of class are systematically omitted from public deliberation. When was the last time you heard the words “poor” or “poverty” on the evening news?
Most work in Cultural Studies is anti-materialist, disproportionately ascribes causal primacy to discursive systems, and remains unintelligible to those without Ph.Ds. (Jesse Jackson is said to have once claimed: “If you can’t understand what I’m saying, then it’s a failure of my education, not yours.”) Make no mistake about it, folks, the first objective of any academician to maintain employment. This is what materiality looks like. According to Engels, all theories or explanatory devices must begin with a materialist recognition. That is, according to the materialist conception, "the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species." Revolution-making is difficult on an empty stomach, so is theorizing.
Perhaps we’d benefit from considering Slavoj Zizek's incisive harangue against left intellectualism. He writes, “We, the academic Left, want to appear critical while fully enjoying the privileges the system offers us. So let's bombard the system with impossible demands: we all know that these demands won't be met, so we can be sure that nothing will actually change, and we'll maintain our privileged status!” Zizek’s provocation, though intentionally overstated, helps to account for the reasons that class continues to be subjugated to race and gender within the prefecture of academe. Class conflicts in civil society must ultimately answer to a crude economy of time. Simply stated, my ability to blog for a few hours every week depends directly on the work of those forced to create extractable surplus value in the absence of mine. For this reason, among others, I suspect that there is an “elective affinity” in Cultural Studies between its dominant theoretical assumptions (which essentially "privilege" agency, embrace contingency, plurality, diversity, tolerance, and the concept of identity and exonerate capitalism by minimizing the pivotal role of class exploitation) and the lifestyles and worldviews of the middle and upper-middle class scholars and students who deify it. Academicians have class, too, and the social fact of class exploitation responsible providing the conditions necessary for our “mental labor” are often left unexposed through the analytic triptych of Race, Gender, and Class. Cultural Studies needs Marx and much as Marx needs Cultural Studies, lest we forget the conditions that continue to render our work achievable in the first instance.
Chen, Kuan-Hsing. "The Formation of a Diasporic Intellectual: An interview with Stuart Hall," collected in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies David Morely and Kuan-Hsing Chen eds.: New York, Routledge, 1996
Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Hill, Patricia Collins. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Zizek, Slavoj. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce. New York: Verso, 2009.
Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso, 2002.