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September 19, 2004

public/private transcripts

I can't say that I've found Bourdieu "riviting," as Lisa did. I'm working my way through the interviews but needed to shift gears, so I read the background piece by James C. Scott. (Confession: first time ever.)

I am enthralled. Scott's analysis fits right in with

Smith (Paula's class) and the debates we're engaging in Stephen's class, all of which boil down (in my mind) to agency ~ not just the theoretical concept of it, but grounded, real-life examples of its practice.

Scott frames an analysis of "thick" and "thin" versions of hegemony, critiquing the thick version in similar fashion to Smith's critique of Harvey and Sassen for reifying economic and/or technological determinism. Scott's targets are Bourdieu and Gramsci. His focus is to understand "how the process of domination generates the social evidence that apparently confirms notions of hegemony" (1990: 77). He builds his case around several concrete instances of resistance, and the simple fact of the sheer volume and persistance of resistance in multiple and varied forms ~ which, if ideological hegemony was as powerful as Bourdieu, Gramsci and others proclaim, logically shouldn't happen.

Scott focuses on the public transcript and the ways in which subordinates operate within its terms in either strategic or practical ways, noting that from the outside we can't determine the degree of consciousness about the appearance of conformity and docility; only the hidden, private transcript can reveal this. He presents a "third alternative" to the discursive production of apparent submission: "that subordinate groups have typically learned, in situations short of those rare all-or-nothing struggles, to clothe their resistance and defiance in ritualisms of subordination that serve both to disguise their purposes and to provide them with a ready route of retreat that may soften the consequences of a possible failure" (96).

In support, Scott provides tangible evidence that peasants and other revolutionaries typically operate within the boundaries of the (so-called) dominant ideology, using it's own logic in attempts to subvert it to their own purposes. For instance, quoting Field, "Naive or not, the peasants professed their faith in the Tsar in forms, and only in those forms, that corresponded to their own interests" (italics in original, in Scott 1990: 98).

I've started the other assigned article; it's denser. Maybe I'll return to Bourdieu now. I wasn't reading the interviews with this notion of public/private transcripts in mind, so that might liven it up for me a bit. Perhaps I haven't yet been "hooked" because I didn't have a "something" that I was looking for...?

Posted by Steph at September 19, 2004 10:40 AM

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Yes, I think the issue of agency has been a recurring sore point, if you will, for social analyses of oppression from various left persuasions. The traditional Marxist account of capitalist society has an underclass ñ the proletariat ñ inevitably exploited by the capitalists, who thus accumulate more wealth, and gain greater capacity to accumulate more wealth ... Reminds me of that card game which I learnt as 'Arsehole', the objective of which is to get rid of all your cards, which you can do if you have a higher card than the one played. Each player is dealt cards and gets a social status (ranging from King to Arsehole) and the lowly Arsehole must give h/ best (i.e. highest) card to the King while the King gives the Arsehole the card the King least wants. A version of the rich get richer and the poor get poorer ... but I do remember that occasionally the Arsehole player did ascend to regal status!

Back to class ñ my point was that classic Marxism has been criticized for giving too deterministic an account in various respects, seemingly supplying a narrow script of possible actions (and affects, as Gibson-Graham et al. discuss) based on oneís membership in particular, economically defined classes. But Scottís targets are also those authors like Bourdieu who have perhaps painted a more complex picture of those who are oppressed, but whom Scott still faults for assuming that subordinate groups resist less than they perhaps in fact do.

I donít have a whole lot more to say about Scott for now, since youíve put it all so eloquently. Iíll just add a couple of thoughts about how the Gibson-Graham article relates to the question that Lisa posed to us: ** how is the concept of class in the readings poststructural? **

Well, Gibson-Graham et al. (G-G forthwith!) explicitly contrast traditional Marxism, where class is ìthe principal axis of social transformationî (6), with their position that no single factor/social process ìcan be eliminated or assigned prior or fundamental importanceî (7) in the constitution of social identity; rather, drawing on Althusserís notion of overdetermination, ìeach identity or event can be understood as constituted by the entire complex of natural, social, economic, cultural, political, and other processes that comprise its conditions of existence.î (6-7)

In terms of the formation of class identity, G-G also depart from classic Marxism (I think) in not restricting individuals to a single class membership, allowing them the potential of ìparticipat[ing] in multiple class processes at any one time and over their life spans, all of which may (or may not) contribute to a class identity.î (10)

And G-G reject the view that class is simply a power relation, and that power equals a relation of monolithic domination. Instead, they point to Foucaultís more subtle and complex account of power as a multiplicity of force relations, with few if any sites of power existing in a ìstable state of dominationî (12). This view of power opens up more possibilities of individual agency even amongst members of subordinate groups.

What I like about G-G is that they do not simply pull apart classic Marxist notions of class, they also offer one of their own that is not so bleached of specificity as to be useless, but which invites more complex analyses and links to contemporary social theory regarding mutual imbrication of class with race, gender, ethnicity etc., as well as acknowledging the contigent nature of social identities. Thus, G-G define not class identity but class processes as ìthe processes of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus laborî (2) and note that ì[h]ow class processes relate to individual and collective identities, the formation of social groups, and to other complexities such as power and property becomes an open question, something to be theorized rather than assumed.î (9) They aim for ìa language of classî that (among other things) can ìconnect gender, race, sexuality, and other axes of identity to economic activity in uncommon waysî and ìoffers possibilities for connecting class to ... sites from which class has been excluded, subjects to whom class has been denied, activities that have been seen as ënoneconomicí, identities that have been devalued and subordinated to class.î (2) Their introductory chapter is too brief to illustrate how such a language of class could do these things, but presumably the chapters in the rest of the book would offer examples of such, and perhaps the Bourdieu reading could be viewed as a project in this vein as well?

Posted by: Eve Ng at September 20, 2004 12:23 PM

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