Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Is 'Literature' the same thing as 'Culture'?

Why is literature worth studying?  What is the point?  If a play was written by a glove-makers son in Stratford back in the late 16th century, what makes it worth reading today?

These are questions tend to get a lot of focus at the beginning of an English degree, and which are frequently vocalised in derisory tones in any discussions about the future of Higher Education.  Those of you who have done an English degree might be able to cast your minds back all the way to your first year(oh, the good old days of youth and innocence!), and may find niggling away in some cognitive corner a recollection of the critic F. R. Leavis, whose view on this issue was dominant for some time.  He, together with the new wave of critics re-vitalising the study of literature in the early twentieth century, set out a clear set of values which students of literature should be interested in:

  • Its importance in human society for the sustenance of civilisation
  • The way it develops sensitivity to the natural responses of the human heart: good literature appeals to the natural sensitivities of humanity, which is something responsive rather than reasoned, even if the methods used to achieve the effect might be rationally analysed
  • Its recognition that those writers who have produced the greatest works of art in human history, have elevated it
  • The recognition that the intrinsic artistic value of literature is something of more elevated significance than any external factors surrounding it 

Now there are, of course, many problems with these apparent literary values. I mention them though, to highlight the close correlation between this view of literature and at least one significant view of culture.

Consider the following extract from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869):

There is a view in which all the love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it, - motives eminently such as are called social – come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part.  Culture is then properly described not has having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection: it is a study of perfection.  It moves by the force not merely or primarily of the scientific passion for pure knowledge, but also of the moral and social passion for doing good…
The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light.  He who works for sweetness and light works to make reason and the will of God prevail.  He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion.  Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light …

It is not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man, it knows that the sweetness and light of the few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light …

Again and again I have insisted how those are the happy moments of humanity, how those are the marking epochs of people’s life, how those are the flowering times for literature and art and all the creative power of genius, when there is a national glow of life and thought, when the whole of society is in the fullest measure permeated by real beauty; real sweetness and real light.  Plenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses.  The ordinary popular literature is an example of this way of working on the masses.  Plenty of people will try to indoctrinate the masses with the set of ideas and judgments constitution the creed of their own profession or party.  Our religious and political organisations give an example of this way of working on the masses.  I condemn neither way; but culture works differently.  It does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes; it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgments and watchwords.  It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely, - nourished, and not bound by them.

If culture is “the best that has been thought and known in the world”, and the “pursuit of perfection”, then there is a direct correlation between Leavis’ concepts of ‘literature’ and Arnold’s concepts of ‘culture’.

Our understanding of both of these concepts has certainly changed beyond recognition over the course of the last century, but from the earliest days of the study of culture it has been closely associated with Art (in its broadest sense) and literature.

There are, again, many problems which have become apparent in the views of both Arnold and Leavis.  This is not to suggest that their views were either ignorant or less than significant, any more than it implies ignorance to suggest that before Galileo people believed the sun revolved around the earth, or that before quantum physics people believed the universe could be positivistically described.  If in the future science proves that, despite all appearances, the sky is actually red, would that make us daft for having believed it was blue all this time?  No.

Arnold and Leavis were products of their time just as we are products of our own.  However, the problems can be seen:
1)  Reason and the will of God 

Arnold suggests that the point of culture and literature was to make “reason and the will of God” prevail, but that at the same time it “does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own”. 

Actually, if its purpose is either reason or the will of God isn’t it trying to win people to the sects of either science or religion?  And when Arnold suggests that culture seeks “to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere”, isn’t it enforcing his own particular value judgments in the same way that artists of the communist era tried to enforce their own ideas of what, exactly, was the best that has been thought and known?

2) Culture and classlessness 

Arnold suggests that culture “seeks to do away with classes”, and to “make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere”. 

The best according to who?  The best according to working class people?  Would Arnold admit Banksy into the pantheon of this cultural elite?  No.  Because what Arnold means is ‘the best that has been thought and known in certain parts of Europe’.  More specifically, his own parts of Europe (i.e. White, middle-class, academic elite). And isn’t there something inherently classist in the patronising references to ‘ordinary popular literature’ and ‘the masses’?

3) Culture vs technology 

Arnold suggests that there is a correlation between those who work for “machinery”, and those who work for “hatred”.  “Culture” he writes, “looks beyond machinery”, and later he describes machinery as “our besetting danger”.  Technological advancement is the enemy of culture.  Culture is about the “inward condition of the mind and spirit”, and is not dependent on “an outward set of circumstances”.

We get the point. 
  • Shakespeare = good
  • ipod = bad.
Art exists simply for the sake of perfection, but technology is merely functional.  But is this not simply snobbery?  After all, Shakespeare became staggeringly rich and successful by his writing.  It was his job, not just his hobby.  And by the same token if the ipod is simply a music player, why does its design go so far beyond mere functionality?  By this argument no architecture can be considered ‘cultural’, because it serves the function of putting a roof over people’s heads.
4)  Culture and politics 

Plenty of people” Arnold writes, “will try to indoctrinate the masses with the set of ideas and judgments…of their own profession or party.”  Culture, he suggests, works differently.  It is not partisan, political or nationalistic.

But as has already been mentioned, Arnold’s view of what constitutes ‘the best that has been thought and known’ is very much influenced by his Eurocentric assumptions.  When he speaks about ‘the best that has been thought and known’ he is speaking about Shakespeare, or Dante – and as Edward Said has pointed out, this is because he is able to see in them his own “people, society and tradition”.   So culture has become, already, associated with the nation or state of Arnold.  This, Said concludes, “differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’, almost always with some degree of xenophobia”.  

Ok, perhaps I am being a bit strong when I use the word ‘snobbery’, but certainly there are problems here which need addressing. Arnold had a specific view of what he thought ‘culture’ was and meant, but those views were fundamentally shaped and formed by a set of assumptions about the world which belonged very much to England in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. 

Think about it:

1)  Reason and the will of God
Arnold lived in a time and place where the existence of a (largely Christianized) God was assumed.  Today it is quite unfashionable to assume the existence of God.  In fact, there is some contested evidence to suggest that in contemporary Britain a belief in God is now considered a minority view.  An article in the Daily Telegraph (13 June, 2008) considers some controversial research which concludes that the “decline in religious observance over the last century” is the result of people getting smarter.  Intelligent people don’t believe in God (which somewhat discourages people from claiming that they do!). 

Actually, this research demonstrates no less a skewed point of view than that of Arnold.

We live in a world now where it is unfashionable to believe in God, and so that shapes the way we perceive things (and the way data is interpreted).  Arnold, by contrast, lived in a world where it was still rather taboo to be an atheist – and this shaped the way he perceived culture. 

It is particularly interesting to read in the Telegraph article a theologian refer to such research as evidence of “Western cultural imperialism”.  The implication is that representations of belief are essentially cultural: that the West is an essentially secular culture, and that this research is unconsciously attempting to empirically enforce this secularism on humanity itself.

Is one right and the other wrong?

If Arnold was writing from the point of view of a Christianized culture, then is it any surprise that his concept of what culture is, is shaped by it?

2) Culture and classlessness
Late nineteenth-century England was a tremendously class-based society.  This was a century which coined the terms ‘lower class’ and ‘upper class’.  Sallying forth from this ‘upper class’ came The Gentleman, an image of appropriate upper class conduct.  In 1852, John Henry Cardinal Newman offered this description of what a Gentleman was like:
…he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out.
(The Idea of a University, 1852)

Remind you of anything?  Perhaps the oh-so-proper Lord Orville of Evelina?  Or Mr Hale in Gaskell’s North and South, or Rochester in Bronte’s Jane Eyre?  Perhaps, too, it reminds you of Wordsworth’s luscious description of benevolent nature in his ‘Line Composed a few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1797):

Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
Wordsworth’s poem has been categorised by some critics as an example of pantheism (the worship of Nature).  He attributes nature with all the characteristics traditionally associated with a benign God.  If these same types of characteristics were associated with the upper class ‘Gentleman’ of late nineteenth-century English society, then we can see an association of ‘Godly’ ideals with the concept of class.

The higher the class, the more Godly their ideals.

If Arnold is associating the concept of culture with the highest ideals there can be (those of ‘perfection’), then of course it would have been natural to assume an association with high ‘class’ productions.

Hence the notion of ‘high culture’: the idea that culture is something associated with academic of social hierarchy.  Remember Frances Burney?  Novels were considered an improper pursuit for her because she was the daughter of a 'gentleman'.  The novel was associated with lower classes – which is perhaps which it took centuries before it was taken seriously as ‘literature’ at all.

3) Culture vs technology

Let us ask ourselves the question: what does technology mean to people?  What images to people associate with machines?
In the age of Enlightenment, technology and machinery were the ultimate symbol of human reason – the by-product of rational thinking and a capacity to further civilisation through the application of science.

Of course, it did not take too long before this optimistic view of technology was eroded by the increasing number of factory towns, the decimation of agricultural communities and the dehumanising, smoke-blackened new urban sprawls erupting throughout Britain.  Consider the following extract from William Blake’s bleak 1794 poem about ‘London’:

I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:
‘[M]ind-forged manacles’ paints dark image of machines invented by Man, which are now turned to enslave Men. Again, in ‘Tyger’, Blake associates machinery and industrial activity with everything that is dark, fearful and evil:

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
This dark image of the evils of technology and industry was far from diminished by the onrush of the twentieth century.  As Europe plunged into World War, technology was again associated with evil – with tanks and weapons of destruction.  It is no coincidence that when J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he associated all his heroes with nature (the Hobbits in their gardens) and nobility (Aragorn wondering around in the wild).  His villains were homebound, and industrial (Saraman and Sauron, locked in their towers while their minions construct weapons of destruction)  – something which came across well in Peter Jackson’s recent adaptations.

Tolkien would have known that ‘Isengard’ was anglo-saxon for ‘iron yard’.  Saraman is described as possessing “a mind of metal and wheels” and not caring for “growing things”.  As with Blake, Tolkien associates metal, machinery and technology with the destruction of all that is beautiful, all that is good. 
If Blake’s negative images of technology arise out of the dark days of industrialism, Tolkien’s emerge as machines of war grind into gear to decimate the population of Europe.

Again, if we are tempted to see Arnold as being somehow snobbish for derogatory descriptions of machinery, it does not take a great deal of investigation before we find evidence that explains just why he believed culture and machinery to be so diametrically opposite.
4)  Culture and politics

Arnold was the product of an imperialist nation.  If you are not sure what I mean by this, then consider this: here is an (incomplete) list of countries and regions which Britain ‘owned’ during Arnold’s life, and have been made independent since (year of independence in brackets):

Zanzibar (1963) Sierra Leone (1961) Nepal (1947) Gilbert Islands (1979) Cameroon (1961) Uganda (1962) Seychelles (1976) Naura (1968) Gambia (1965) Bombay (1947) Caicos Islands (1973) Sarawak (1963) Mosquito Coast (1860) Fiji (1970) Bhutan (1947) Oman (1971) St. Vincent (1979) Mauritius (1968) Eritrea (1952) Berbice (1966) Trinidad and Tobago (1962) St. Lucia (1979) Malta (1964) Ellice Islands (1978) Bengal (1947) Transvaal (1961) St. Christopher (1983) Maldives (1965) Ireland (1948) Bechuanaland (1966) Transjordan (1946) Rodriguez (1968) Malaya (1957) Egypt (1954) Bay Islands (1860) Tonga (1970) Redonda (1981) Madras (1947) Dominica (1978) Basutoland (1966) Tokelau (1976) Qatar (1971) Leeward Islands (1960) Cyprus (1960) Barbuda (1981) Tanganyika (1961) Punjab (1947) Lagos (1960) Coorg (1947) Barbados (1966) Swaziland (1963) Penang (1957) Kuwait (1961) Christmas Island (1948) Baluchistan (1947) Surat (1947) Palestine (1948) Kenya (1963) Enderbury (1979) Bahrain (1971) Sudan (1956) Muscat (1970) Kamaran Island (1967) Bushire (1971) Bahamas (1973) Rhodesia (1980) Ocean Island (1979) Jamaica (1864) Burma (1948) Antigua (1981) South West Africa (1960) Nyasaland (1964) India (1947) Brunei (1983) Andamans (1947) South Africa (1961) Nova Scotia (1867) Hong Kong (1997) Togoland (1956) Aden (1967) Solomon Islands (1978) Borneo (1963) Heligoland (1890) Somalia (1960) Cameroon (1961) Singapore (1965) Nigeria (1960) Hawaii (1893) New Guinea (1975) Bombay (1947) Sind (1947) New Hebrides (1980) Grenada (1974) Honduras (1981) Bhutan (1947) Sikkim (1947) Nevis (1983) Gold Coast (1957) Guiana (1966) Berbice (1966)


The scale of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, and the French and American empires to come, was unprecedented in human history.  By 1800, Britain and the West held control of 35% of all the nations on earth.  By 1878, they held 67%.

By 1914, they held 85%.

There is a fundamental assumption of imperialism that there is a difference between different nationalities.  Difference is not necessarily a negative thing, but imperialism takes that sense of difference and applies a value judgment to it.  Africans became the servants of Europeans.  Why?  Because Europeans assumed they were in some way superior to such obviously ‘different’ people.

When Arnold was writing, there was scarcely a corner of life in Britain not touched by empire, and the power-relationship between these state of empire, and their colonised vassal-nations not only identified those nations as distinct from each other, but coloured the valuation of cultural productivity as well. 

Shakespeare, the assumption was, is a more sophisticated example of culture than anyone who may have been writing in a more ‘primitive’ society at the same time.

Arnold was writing at the height of British imperialism, and that imperialism led to what Edward Said referred to as a ‘Cultural Imperialism’ which still affects the way the West sees the East (and visa versa) today.

The attitudes of late-ninteenth-century British imperialism were captured in Kipling’s infamous poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1899).

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
So, for Arnold, culture was something inextricably bound to the attitudes and assumptions surrounding his home country, and the time in which he lived.

Was he wrong?  Is culture, then, not any of the things he claimed it to be?

Well, yes and no.  Culture is what we perceive it to be at any one moment in time.  But more importantly, culture is what affirms, perpetuates and reflects the values of any given society in any given time.  For Arnold, the impractical quest for perfection in art and literature stood for a humanity attempting to maintain a sense of beauty in a world becoming increasingly ‘mechanical’.

All of this has brought us to the point where there is only one conclusion.

Culture is never just one thing.  It is different to different people, to different nations, times, places, etc.. Culture is shaped by established attitudes and assumptions.  It both reflects and moulds those assumptions.  As Giles and Middleton suggest, “culture can be viewed as a contested field of interaction within which people make and encounter meanings” (2008, p. 179).

Culture is what shapes people’s understandings of and actions in the world, and studying culture tells us about ourselves.

Raymond Williams suggests that culture refers to:
1) The general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development

2) A particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group

3) The works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity

(Williams, 1976; cited in Giles and Middleton, 2008. p. 181)

These cultural practices, he suggests, do change and evolve, but at any one time there are dominant, residual and emergent groups of cultural formations in any given society (Williams, 1981. p. 204). 
Residual Formations:

Older formations which differ from dominant formations.  Residual formations may sometimes be powerful enough to feed into dominant forms (for example, class snobbery is a residual form of behaviour which can still be traced in dominant forms of behaviour today), but residual formations are not themselves reproductive. 

Dominant Formations:

Accepted and ascendant in the immediate (ever-changing) present – usually perpetuated by ruling classes.  The belief that the earth was the centre of the universe was once a dominant cultural formation.  Now, the belief in the relative insignificance of earth in relation to the universe is the dominant formation. 

Emergent Formations:

By definition emergent formations are different to dominant formations.  Emergent formations are (usually unconsciously) shaped out of new social expressions, and often directly challenge dominant formations.  Emergent formations begin on the margins, and may become dominant.  The belief that ‘all men were created equal’ was an emergent formation, and has become a dominant one.

If we think about these three formations in terms of literary forms which we have already studied, we might think about the following (please excuse the rather generalised terms here, but we are using this as an example):

Residual Formations: 
Up to the early 17th century England was still shaped by a largely medieval viewpoint – one in which there was a divine order in which God man-managed the universe.  Social structures were rigid, and largely unchanging, as to change them would be to challenge the order instituted by God. 

Dominant Formations:

In the eighteenth century, the the dominant cultural formation was now more Augustan – itself influenced by the residual formation of Roman culture.  Augustanism valued human reason over divine status quo, and although it continued to value social order (influenced by residual formations), it was distinctively different, and reinforced by the social powers of the Royal Society, and the literary / philosophic intelligentsia. 

Emergent Formations:

Some, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, began to challenge the dominant formations, and instead of viewing human society in terms of human reason, began to view it in terms of nature.  This emergent formation was radically different from the dominant formation.  In time, it changed from being emergent, to being dominant, as Wordsworth changed from a radical to conservative figure.

If we consider this pattern in relation to art history, the evolving cultural patterns can be seen even more clearly.

In the late nineteenth century Claude Monet began to develop a new type of painting.  One which instead of attempting to create a realistic simulation of what could be seen, attempting to give the impression of what could be seen, felt, and changed. 

This was a radical challenge to traditional forms of art – indeed many considered Monet’s work an assault on ‘proper’ art.  Monet’s art was an emergent formation:

In time, Monet’s impressionism grew to be more and more widely accepted, until it began to appear everywhere – on handbags, t-shirts and inexpensive gift sets:

When people think of ‘proper’ art now, Monet may well be one of the first artists that spring to mind.  What was once an emergent formation has become a dominant formation.  

So what, now, is the emergent formation?  Perhaps the source of emergent formations now are the likes of Tracy Emin, who self-consciously attack notions of ‘proper’ art by bringing a focus on the sordid normality of real life:

Of perhaps, again, it is the Banksy, who deliberately blurs the distinctions between art and crime, between painting and vandalism:

Here’s a thought though.  Let us go back to Williams’ three points about what culture refers to:

1) The general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development

Culture and literature are always going to be closely related because of this first points.  Emergent formations of culture are often most clearly perceived in such aesthetic developments, which act as both social and philosophical critiques.

2) A particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group

According to cultural critic John Storey, this refers to cultural practices – “everyday activities and events [that] can be seen as specific to a particular group, and thus partake of the beliefs and values of that group”, such as Christmas, or seaside holidays (cited in Giles and Middleton, 2008. p. 181).

3) The works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity

This category includes “signifying practices … “was of encoding and / or communicating a set of meanings / ideas / values”.  This might include “soap operas, pop music, comics, novels, ballets, fine art, etc.” (cited in Giles and Middleton, 2008. p. 181).

Taking these things into account, examples of culture can be so much more than simply historical literature, or fine art.
As Raymond Williams writes in his book Keywords, "Culture is ordinary; that is where we must start”, so let us try to think of Williams’ three formations in terms of that most ordinary of activities – getting dressed.

In the 1940s, the prevailing dress-code appeared to be one of business-like severity, perhaps reflecting the seriousness of the time.  This is a residual fashion because it is no longer current and no longer reproductive (in the sense that it is no longer being perpetuated). 

If, for the sake of argument, we accept the (somewhat disturbing) television fashion guru Gok Wan as the ‘ruling class’ of fashion, then his recommendations about what people should be wearing today must constitute the dominant formation of fashion trends.

This dominant formation is reproductive – because (if we are to believe Mr. Wan) more and more people are going to begin dressing like this.

We can see that this dominant formation is informed by the residual formations, although the residual formation is not reproductive (you will not see people dressing like fig 1 outside of retro disco).

So what about the emergent formations?  If Mr. Wan represents the ruling class of fashion, then emergent formations are something which by definition are different to those things he determines to be dominant.  An emergent formation is not simply a dominant formation in waiting.  If Mr. Wan believes that shell suits will be ‘back in’ next season, then that makes shell suits merely an innovation within the dominant formations. 

What makes emergent formations emergent is that they often pose a radical challenge to the dominant formations.  An emergent formation in fashion, then, may well be something that will mean Mr. Wan is out of a job…

Culture as we perceive it today, then, is usually only ever a product of dominant formations – although we may perceive traces of residual formations in it.  Identifying emergent formations is one of the most difficult tasks of the cultural analyst, and perhaps Mr. Wan would agree with Raymond Williams when he writes:

“No analysis is more difficult than that which, faced by new forms, has to try to determine whether these are new forms of the dominant or are genuinely emergent.  In historical analysis the issue gets settled: the emergent becomes the emerged…and then often the dominant.  But in contemporary analysis, just because of the complex relations between innovation and reproduction, the problem is at a different level.”
(Williams, 1981. p. 205)
This is all very well, but what have we done besides identify what fashion came before, what is popular now, and how difficult it is to predict what is going to come next?

This is where the skills which are developed by students of literature come to the rescue.  It is not enough to simply be able to identify culture (the ‘don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it’ approach).  We have learned nothing if we do not begin to analyse and draw meaning from the patterns which emerge as we see culture at work – shifting and changing and powerfully reflecting the residual, dominant and emergent ideologies which have, do and will shape all of us.

Looking for patterns of meaning emerging from texts is something that students of literature (and discourse analysts) spend their time practicing.  If we were to treat forms of culture as a text, those skills of literary analysis will help us begin to see patterns of relationships between national identities, age, class, race, gender and sexuality all play out in the making and consuming of popular cultural forms.

Whether you realised it or not, if you have studied English you have been spending your time developing the practice of analysis and discussion of varieties of cultural artefacts and events!

The next question is how you can begin to apply those critical and theoretical skills to the investigation of the significance of cultural continuity and cultural novelty within the broader framework of Western modernity.

Well, here is a suggestion for starters.  Look back at Mr. Wan’s example of dominant fashion (fig 2) and ask yourself:

  • What significances can I draw from this image?
  • How do these clothes reflect dominant social ideologies (ideologies about the past, about nationhood, about gender?)?
  • What are the key differences between the residual fashion (fig 1) and the dominant (fig 2), and why have those differences emerged?

From this perspective, we might consider that fig. 2 represents a revision of an image of traditional English womanhood: trim, efficient, and decidedly a-sexual (in stark contrast to the more overtly sexualised fashions which have preceded it).  Such trim and efficient approaches to clothing may remind us of the fashions of war-time, when women were required to play an active role in society in order to facilitate the war effort.  The dominant ideology of that time was one of determination and ‘stiff-upper-lips’.  We might contrast such ideas with those of more recent years when fashion tended more to reflect a self-conscious frivolity which emphasised a liberated sexuality (fig 4.). 

Why such a difference?  Why the movement from sexual and frivolous to a-sexual and serious?  Perhaps the dominant social ideology represented by fig 2. is one which emphasises the feminist and proto-feminist movements of the early 21st century: An ideology in which women are not determined purely in terms of sexuality (this is a feminist reading).  Perhaps it is indicative of anxieties of nationhood in a nation where ‘multiculturalism’ is demanding a new assessment of what nationhood actually means – an search to reaffirm an idealised notion of ‘Britishness’ from a past which has become idealised in the imaginations of many (this is a postcolonial reading).  Perhaps it reflects the social and political anxieties of an age of terrorism and economic instability – a new world in which frivolity is out of place, and a ‘stiff upper lip’ required (this is a cultural materialist reading).

Remember Yeat’s response on being asked to write a war poem?

I think it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.
During a time of such severity, frivolity was considered out of place.  Indeed, in 1949 Theodore Adorno went so far as to suggest that “[t]o write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”: In other words, these times are too dark for a literature whose function is to delight in own excessiveness of language. 

The severity of the fashions of the time reflect such attitudes, which begs the questions as to why dominant fashions identified by Mr. Wan adopt a similar style?  Such a style contrasts with the frivolity of fig 4., and can perhaps be seen to be reflected in Billy Collins’ ‘Introduction to Poetry’, written in the 1990s, when he begs his readers to revel in the surfaces of his literature:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
Perhaps this should not be surprising.  The 1990s was a decade in which theorists delighted in defining everything in terms of a ‘postmodernism’.  Frederick Jameson, one of the most prominent exponents of theories of postmodernism defined it as a dominant cultural form emerging from capitalist ideologies, in which “depth is replaced by surface” and an “essential triviality”.  Jameson is not suggesting here that postmodern culture is of no value, but that it becomes interested more in the vehicle of meaning than in meaning itself:

So, in postmodern culture, "culture" has become a product in its own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself: modernism was still minimally and tendentially the critique of the commodity and the effort to make it transcend itself. Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process (Jameson, 1991. p. x).

Commodification as a process.  Hmm.  How can we apply this to fashion?

  • Do not look for function in fashion.  Look for a focus on the surface of fashion; a focus on the excess of how material can be shaped and formed.
  • Do not tie down a poem with meaning.  Look for a focus on the surface of the poem; a focus on the undulating waves of excessive language.

If this characterises postmodernism, and Mr. Wan’s view on current dominant cultural formations in fashion signify a move away from such characteristics, can we use Gok Wan to explore the possibility that contemporary culture has moved away from postmodernism into a new dominant cultural formation?  One which draws more on the residual formations of pre-postmodernism?

The more you explore such questions, the more you find yourself being drawn inexorably to the palate of theoretical strategies which English students develop: close reading; gender study; cultural materialism; postcolonialism, etc..  You may find yourself, as well, being reminded of what Roland Barthes said in 1977:

…a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination … Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature … we [now] know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author (Barthes, 1977).

We are the readers of culture and society.  Doesn't that make it all the more important to practice being good readers...?