Hegemony à la Raymond Williams

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Ch. 6]

Williams claims hegemony goes beyond both conceptions of “culture” and “ideology”: for culture, because of “its insistence on relating the ‘whole social process’ to specific distributions of power and influence” (108); and for ideology, because it entails “not only the systems of ideas and beliefs, but the whole social lived process as practically organized by specific and dominant meanings and values” (109). Hegemony, however, refuses to “equate consciousness with the articulate formal system which can be and ordinarily is abstracted as ‘ideology’” (109).

While attentive to beliefs, meanings, and values, “it does not equate these with consciousness, or rather it does not reduce consciousness to them. Instead it sees the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living—not only of political and economic activity, nor only of manifest social activity, but of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships, to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense” (110). In other words, Williams argues that hegemony offers a much more concrete and situated way of approaching the way that particular groups are dominated and subordinated in any social formation, and the way this process is instilled in the common sensical fibers of our everyday life.

“It is a lived system of meanings and values—constitutive and constituting— which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming… It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense a ‘culture’” (110). This matches my own definition: Hegemony describes a fluid process of struggle through which certain social relations are naturalized and coercively enforced, while others are made unviable and even unthinkable. Williams similarly describes hegemony as something that is “internalized” (110).

Hegemony offers a more holistic conceptualization because “cultural work and activity are not now, in any ordinary sense, a superstructure: not only because of the depth and thoroughness at which any cultural hegemony is lived, but because cultural tradition and practice are seen as much more than superstructural expressions—reflections, mediations, or typifications—of a formed social and economic structure. On the contrary, they are among the basic processes of the formation itself and, further, related to a much wider area of reality than the abstractions of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ experience” (111).

Williams understands this as a process: “A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or a structure” (112). And it needs to be entirely understood within struggle: “it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not at all of its own” (112). “That is to say, alternative political and cultural emphases, and the many forms of opposition and struggle, are important not only in themselves but as indicative features of what the hegemonic process has in practice had to work to control” (113).

As William notes, I think hegemony allows one to think struggle and resistance (as well as domination and rule) in a much more relational and fluid way. Hegemony is always seeking to incorporate, neutralize, and tinker against the oppositions and resistances already responding to it.

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