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Ideological Hegemony


Todd Gitlin supports Stuart Hall's interpretation of the media's role in modern societies. 

"A certain paradigm," says Gitlin, "has been developing during the seventies, after the collapse of the New Left and the translation of Antonio Gramsci's prison writings, and it is this paradigm...that can help situate the history of media-movement relations." 

"There exists," says Gitlin, "no full-blown theory of hegemony, specifying social-structural and historical conditions for its sources, strengths, and weaknesses." 

Gitlin directs the reader to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks which can "help situate the history of media-movement relations" and to find a better understanding of Gramsci's idea of ideological hegemony.

In his Notes, Gramsci described the internal workings of society as being that of a relationship between basis and superstructure: 

Certain "forces...are active in the history of a particular period," and the "relations between them" must be determined.

A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves... and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them... it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise....in the immediate, it is developed in a series of ideological, religious, philosophical, political, and juridical polemics ...

The "crisis" of society takes the outward appearance of polemics, which becomes visible in the form of public discourse. It is in the realm of public discourse, and its main distributors, the media, in which an attempt is made to defend the present structure from the demands of oppositional forces. 

Internally, this comes down to a frictional relationship between opposing groups who express themselves "in a series of ideological, religious, philosophical, political, and juridical polemics." 

However, as Gramsci warns, "the theoretical error," for the analyst, "consists...in making what is a principle of research and interpretation into an 'historical cause.'

It is therefore false to believe that, as critics, we are able to predict the outcome of one particular polemical phenomenon during any particular time frame, or to suggest that any particular ideological form or level of consciousness, based on assumed criteria, is correct or false.

"Hegemony," according to Gramsci, therefore exists when a ruling class (or, rather, an alliance of ruling class fractions, a 'historical bloc') is able not only to coerce a subordinate class to conform to its interests, but exerts a "total social authority" over those classes and the social formation as a whole.

As Stuart Hall explains, it is a matter of "a combination of force and consent. But-Gramsci argues-in the liberal-capitalist state, consent is normally in the lead, operating behind the armour of coercion."

Gitlin explains Gramsci's concept of hegemony as "a ruling class's (or alliance's) combination of subordinate classes and groups through the elaboration and penetration of ideology (ideas and assumptions) into their common sense and everyday practice; it is the systematic (but not necessarily or even usually deliberate) engineering of mass consent to the established order.

Gitlin's quote illustrates and support's Gitlin's assertion that the Vietnam war opened up deep and lasting lacerations in American society. There is no denying that the "crisis" which occurred in the 1960s, in spite of the changes brought about during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, has persisted to this day and that despite these attempts, the conservative forces in the United States are still struggling to defend and cure the present maladies affecting the damaged structure of American society. 

It is upon this terrain that we witness the "ideological, religious, juridical, philosophical and political polemics" of the 1990s. Worth noting in particular are the polemics used by the Republican Party in their "Contract with America," as well as the objections raised by opposition forces, especially the "Rainbow Coalition." 

It is precisely here, at the conjuncture of resistance to this "contract," that one can find a fruitful source of material for the study of conservative ideology in the United States.

SEE GITLIN: Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebook, quoted in Todd Gitlin: The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 178.