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Class, Ideology, and Cultural

Forms
A. Examining Context

• We don’t exactly remember who said it or where we read it but the idea that the choices we
make determine ‘who we are’ appeals to us as a piece of common sense.
• This seems hard to dispute since so much of how we define ourselves has to do with how we
actively decide on a college degree, career, clothes, careers, movies, books, food, music, and
sometimes, even, friendships.
• In fact, this practical knowledge informs what we understand by the concept of individuality.
• Essentially, individuality pertains to our ‘natural selves’, a set of qualities that distinguish us from
other people. The following aphorisms validate this perspective.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest
accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”
Mahatma Gandhi
“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition
of your life, but define yourself.”
Harvey Fierstein
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to your self.”
Michel de Montaigne
• No matter how compelling these claims and views strike us, none of theme are ultimately self-
evident. In fact, most of them are examples of ideology.
• But before we sample its definition, let us examine the discussion in first paragraph.
• The idea of accumulating certain objects, commodities that other people buy anyway, as an index
of identity cannot but be ironic.
• Moreover, the availability of these products is subject to fads and trends, which are ultimately
dictated by the market industry-which makes for another irony.
• The Devil Wears Prada, Miranda Priestly rebukes Andy, her new assistant, when the latter scoffs
at the idea that two blue belts can be very different. Miranda tells her “…This…’stuff’? I see, you
think this has nothing do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that
lumpy sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too
seriously to take care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that
sweater is not just blue, its turquoise, its not lapis, its actually cerulean. You're also blithely
unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I
think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?... And then
cerulean quickly showed up in the collection of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down to
through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic corner casual corner
where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions
of dollars and countless jobs and so its sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that
exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was
selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”
• The quotes, which presumably express a general truth that applies to anybody at any time, are a
trickier proposition since they posses a verbal or rhetorical presence.
• As an example of a universal ideal, ‘individuality,’ in the four aphorisms is hypothesized a
problem-solution kind of a statement, a worldview where the self is threatened by society (e.g.,
other people’s opinions, social norms, and conventions).
• Compared to the previous scenario, these quotes are more persuasive and forceful since they
offer profound ‘truths,’ which can depreciate or deflect what is inimical to our individuality,
namely how society “thinks,” where we are on the social ladder, our class backgrounds, and other
social determinants.
• An ideology can be interpreted as a type of “false consciousness,” but this in itself is a
misperception since it assumes that there is a “true” consciousness out there that we only need
to imbibe in order to get the heart of reality.
• Moreover, the understanding of ideology as a “consciousness” belies how these statement
operate as the most natural set of observations and, therefore, ‘real.’
• Whereas, these statements are not something we actively choose (the freedom of choice is itself
an ideology); rather, ideology is made up of a set of already existing images, discourses, and ideas
that allows us to imagine (our relationship with) reality.
• The message we get from movies, commercials, magazines, and other reading matter, which
correspond to a certain ideal (e.g. looks, femininity, romantic relationship, family life, job, success,
happiness), are example of ideology.
• they reach us in their obviousness and their common sense logic.
B. Exploring Texts and Contexts

• One form of determination that ideology deflects or wishes away is class, especially in a capitalist
society such as ours.
• In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ considered history from a materialist
perspective as opposed to the idealist worldview propagated by Hegelian thought.
• Marx and Engel held that human lives are ultimately governed by their material conditions.
• ‘Material conditions’ pertain to individual’s work or labor that allows the individual to produce
his/her means of subsistence or survival.
• Here is a well-known passage from Marx’s A Critique of Political Economy (1859) which
encapsulates the materialist view of history:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are
indispensable of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of
development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production
constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and
political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode
of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life processes in general.
It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social
being that determines their consciousness.
• Two important points emerge from this. First is that men, in order to maintain themselves, need
to engage in some kind of work, which entails entering into socioeconomic relationship.
• Secondly, the socioeconomic relations and productive forces of society at any given time
constitute its mode of production, which shapes the infrastructures and superstructure.
Social Class and Literary Genres

• Given the determination of class and the social hierarchy it installs, it is inevitable that literature
cannot but assume the character of a political act or expression in that poems, novels, and
everything in between is written from a certain class position.
• Literary works, in fact, are not autonomous objects but are mediations of the base on the level of
the superstructure.
• In Ian Watt’s landmark study The Rise of the Novel: Realism and the Novel Form (1956), the
author traces the emergence of realms and its exemplary form, the novel, to the rice of the
middle class in 18th century England.
• In Watt’s account, capitalism as a mode of production made possible the burgeoning of prose
narratives that evolves into the realistic novel.
• The ideology of individuality, thus, is a direct result of the process of concealment and distortion
which capitalism, in its capacity to substitute the value of one’s work for wages and the value of a
product for its monetary value or price, perpetuates and renders innocuous and natural.
• Ideology we might say, directs our understanding of ourselves as subjects, an “I” who possesses
free will and self-determination. Louis Althusser, a French critic who reworked the main ideas of
Marx, coins the term interpellation to refer to the operation by which ideology assigns to the
individual human being an identity as a ‘subject.’
• We are interpellated by ideology in that it addresses us and calls us into being as the origin of our
actions, our thoughts, and our emotions.
• For Marx and Althusser, religion is an exemplary ideology in that it conditions people to recognize
or see themselves in the Christian narrative about God, Christ, and eternal salvation.
Interpellating the Female

• Two of the most popular genres that address the female reading public are romance novels and
its more contemporary mutation, chick lit.
• In The Task of Cultural Critique, Marxist critic Teresa Ebert notes that romance are, conspicuously,
narratives that operate on female fantasies about love, sex, and marriage.
• Romances, despite their formulaic plots that revolve around the spontaneous and combustive
intimacy between men and woman, are in fact, ideological discourses that interpellate the female
reader to identify with the desire for wealth and comfort, which are the preoccupations of the
middle class.
• In a number of romances like Harlequin, for instance, the male character whose smoldering gaze
and sculpted body mesmerizes the heroine is typically a rich, a spoiled businessman, a reluctant
scion or an antisocial banker.
• Although chick lit foregrounds the same female need for love, Ebert claims that the genre is more
ironic than its predecessor in that it rejects the sentimental quality of romances.
• The female protagonists in chic lit are more brooding and cynical than their romance novel
counterpart.
• Bridget in Bridget Jones’s Diary, for instance, gluts the novel, and the movie adaptation as well,
with her nonstop paranoid thoughts about her figure, her vices, and her public image. Moreover,
sexual scenes are less graphically described while the narrative focuses on the anguish caused by
a one-night stand.
• Nevertheless, chick lit prescribes the same economic alternative to the angst-ridden life of its
heroine which is to shop-for the perfect shoes, the trendiest clothes, the smartest hair color, and
the coolest guy.