Tag Archives: Gramsci

Thrift vs Patriotism: The Nationalistic Debate over Olympians’ Clothing

The Olympics may be over, but cultural critique is forever.

Before the start of the Olympic Games in London, there was a bit of a controversy state-side over the uniforms that the U.S. team was going to be wearing to the Opening Ceremonies. Apparently they were made in China. Shocking. The mass media had a field day with this, and politicians weighed in, everyone up in arms about the fact that the uniforms should be made in the United States.

Meanwhile, back in America, this is still a capitalist country that participates in a global marketplace. Of course the uniforms are going to be made in China: it’s cheaper! This made me wonder if, had the uniforms been made in the United States, there would have been a controversy about the expense of outfitting our athletes for the Games. Because you know they would have been pretty darn spendy.

What we have here are coexisting, competing yet related sets of values, ideologies even: the virtue of thrift vs. the virtue of patriotism. At this historical-cultural moment in the United States, the virtue of thrift is tied closely to the recession discourse and the “Jobs” trope people have been hammering for the past year(s). On the other hand, the virtue of patriotism [read: anti-China-ism] mandates that we buy U.S. made goods. This virtue is tied to the Jobs trope and the recession, as well. That hypothetical backlash would have been about excessive spending and anti-American consumer practices that “steal jobs” from hard-working stiffs. So basically, in this climate of competing ideologies, consumers can’t win. They will always be doing something antithetical to mainstream American discourse, which draws upon currently-held beliefs. (Those traitors!) This transcends to the larger scale as well, where Olympic officials can’t win, either. There is no right choice, because either one offends a deep-seated and currently harped-on ideology in America.

So you see, there’s no winning. Or rather, there is a winner, at least rhetorically, and that winner is America. (It’s also the loser, based on my argument, but the discourse will always position itself as drawing attention to how America should be winning. Maybe the real winner is capitalism.) This whole controversy–or rather, both of these controversies, the real and the hypothetical–is wrapped in the always-justifying “virtue” of Nationalism, which is really what the Olympic Games are all about.*

And the coverage of the Games, before, during, and after, is all about drumming up the controversies and human-interest stories that can be squeezed out of the sweaty towels of the competitors and turned into profit. There will always be hand wringing and finger-pointing. Newscasters gotta eat, too. Yay, capitalism!


*Side-note: In grad school during my Transnational Ritual class, I made the mistake of pointing out that the Olympic Games totally mirrors the hegemonic system of nationalism around which the world is currently organized, man. In response, my professor basically called me childish for not just accepting this as the status quo. (He had a hard-on for the Olympics because it was his “field-site,” and he couldn’t really take any analysis of it that he hadn’t thought of himself, especially not a kommie-Gramscian one. …and I may have aided in his dressing-down of me by sporting pig-tails at the time. But this does not alter the fact that he was still an asshole.)



Filed under Contemporary, Media

A Question on Appropriate Analytical Tactics

This question came to me during breakfast while watching a morning “news” show. I’d like to think they were doing a segment on consumer advocacy or reports, but it’s just as likely this thought came to me out of the blue:

In a consumer culture such as ours, is a Marxian analysis of the means and mode(s) of production still relevant? When the emphasis is so heavily on the consumer side, is it even useful to think of power in terms of who controls production? Or is the real power more in the hands of the hegemony, which convinces most of us that it is consumption that counts? And in any case, what does it say about our socio-economic system, about the state of things, that our main source of “power”–or at least the source most consciously realized and discussed–is consumptive?

In a sense, that’s not even power at all…although this is where I tend to slip back into Marx (is there a way to avoid it?)…but it’s not “real” power because it’s not just consumer demand that dictates production and makes companies rise and fall–it’s capitalist interest. That elusive yet pervasive “good” that we discursively (and mentally–subconsciously?) glorify yet only understand through well-worn metaphors and (misguided) faith. And it’s marketers who influence consumption patterns, by studying and exploiting them. It’s all related in a convoluted chain of powerful influences in the (ultimate?) service of increasing capital. And we consumers–the identity that all of us are encouraged to wear like a badge of honor–don’t have nearly the power we think we do.

But this does little to answer my original question about the relevance of a Marxian analysis in the face of our overwhelmingly consumerist society, because I just slipped so easily back into Marx up there. Almost too easily…Marx may be useful if only because he helps us dispel the hegemonic myths about the culture in which we live: a Marxian analysis helps us to see the production side of things that tends to be obscured, even as it is vaguely glorified in the “jobs” trope that is so in vogue right now. And of course there is always commodity fetishism, a big part of our consumer culture. But the working class has yet to come to mass consciousness, and I still want something that’s a better fit to describe what’s going on at the consumer level that’s so in the forefront of our national consciousness, while at the same time taking into account what is obscured by this focus on these gargantuan myths of the power of this hegemonically imposed and nearly-universally embraced identity. I want it all revealed and deconstructed and fit back together in a contemporarily sensical way.

Perhaps I need more Gramsci to understand what’s going on, but what I really want is an analytic that is for us–that is grounded in this culture and this time, not imposed from another, however appropriate or partially relevant it may seem. However well we try to make it fit. It just doesn’t do enough to completely understand what the hell is going on, here. And there probably is at least one, I’m just having some difficultly remember what it is. A little help, folks?


Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Power

Art, Deviance, and the American Imagination

It was someone’s off-handed description of something as “very noir” that got me on a haphazard brain-storm about deviant behavior and where we Americans tend to compartmentalize it and allow for it in our culture. Those compartments seem to be art and humor (and verbal abuse, with thanks always to E. Leach). (We’re not going to deal with outright derision, just those phenomena that index deviant behavior’s status as deviant from the socially mandated norm.)

It seems as though an awful lot of art–literature, music, visual art, movies, etc–is devoted to topics that showcase deviance. Deviance means interest–it’s almost an obsession. Film noir, which takes ordinary people and places them into seedy situations with the criminal underground, is one obvious example. Or any contemporary action movie or thriller, which generally involves a protagonist navigating some odd subculture or two while avoiding the “bad guys” and trying to solve some conspiracy, well-plotted or otherwise. There are more books about the extraordinary, the strange, the wrong, than the mundane and good. We love being voyeurs of that-which-is-not-officially-condoned. As members of the socially responsible majority, we cannot help but be fascinated with these alien underbellies that we would not dare participate in other than through the consumption of art.

The deviant Other is indeed in the savage slot. We imagine it as so close, yet completely removed from our own lived experiences, and we indulge our imaginations with graphic depictions of what these Others must be like. These anti-social savages with their disregard for social norms. We make joking, disparaging references to them in daily discourse–perhaps slyly comparing a similarly mainstream compatriot to a deviant Other of choice. And it is in the joking that we call attention to the fact that these Others are in fact deviant. It is in the joking that we signal our simultaneous fascination and discomfort.

Perhaps this is a vestige of puritanical culture-policing (because why not make tenuous discursive connections to that historical narrative?). Because deviance is not condoned in polite, everyday society, we have outlets for it; outlets that are clearly marked as not real; just art. (Art, of course, is real and a cultural product, but art that has deviance as a subject is often marked as deviant itself, depending on how puritanical or Victorian the climate is at any given time.) Such deviant art is both a reaction against and a validation of the existence of social-control strictures that we all embody and internalize, albeit not always consciously. Hegemony is everywhere and nowhere, man. We are all participants in the mass indoctrination and the mass-creation of our culture and its social norms. Deviant art is partially an acknowledgment of this, and also a place to let those normal among us experience–or look at or talk about–what we are not strictly supposed to experience. Art and jokes as outlet, as compartmentalization, as keeping-safe, as drawing boundaries between that which we condone, and that which we do not but enjoy by proxy. There will always be spaces for hedonism, even if they are explicitly marked as such, and bad to boot.

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Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Historical