I spoke with Chris Wisniewski – like Slavisa Tasic of Critical Review Alumni “fame” – over the summer about his article in the current issue of CR on Ignorance and Culture, wherein he makes the case, contra two scholars named Mark Fenster and Bret Chandler, that modern Cultural Studies fails to illuminate the reality of political non-participation on the part of what we colloquially refer to as “the masses.” The article is actually a rejoinder to said pair’s earlier critiques of Wisniewski, in which they make their case for what 20th century Marxist-inspired Cultural Studies scholars dubbed “ideological reproduction.” This theory posits that underclass political passivity is due to overclass hegemony in the realm of ideas, about, say, inequality. Or race. Or sex. Or WMDs in Iraq?

Wisniewski doesn’t actually confront the substance of such ideas, just whether the idea-peddling-from-on-high idea itself has any merit. He submits that it does not. Using the fact of public ignorance on all matters of politics as a springboard, he argues that if “neoliberal” elites are reproducing their agenda among the citizenry, they aren’t doing a very good job of it, given the fact that few on Main Street would recognize the name “Milton Friedman.”

Wisniewski separates the Cultural Studies paradigm into (more or less) two camps: the followers of Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu. Gramsci maintained the theory of cultural hegemony as an explanation for why the working class had not seized the reins of power, as predicted by Marx. The bourgeoisie had thrown its ideological wet blanket over the Italian rank and file, so what could they possibly know about how, or even why they ought, to emancipate themselves?  Gramsci represents the unreconstructed false consciousness take on ideological reproduction. Bourdieu, on the other hand, is the seminal figure in the contemporary view of the concept, with his subtle regard for multiple, overlapping elites and their quiet battles for the attention of the world’s underlings. Wisniewski is partial to the Bourdieu camp, when forced to choose, but he criticizes both, and Cultural Studies as a whole, for assuming that capitalism ill serves the interests of the masses, such that without cultural blinders of one sort or another imposed on the masses, they would intuitively see that their interests would be served by engaging in political action to severely modify or overthrow capitalism. Thus, culture for them is inseparable from an exercise in class suppression, and Cultural Studies following either Gramsci or Bourdieu is premised on the by-no-means-self-evident assumption that the suppressed class–the masses–are harmed by capitalism, so that more political participation on their part would necessarily be good .

I pointed out to Wisniewski how similar the Bourdieu perspective appeared to be to textbook political pluralism, but he responded that for Bourdieu, the practices embodied (the “habitus,” as the French thinker would describe it)  in the institutions intimately known to political actors are jealously guarded, and thus detrimental to a legitimate democracy. For Bourdieu, and the mainline of Cultural Studies scholars, such habitus undermines the participatory potential of the modal citizen by keeping him or her separated – intentionally or not (and for the relatively sophisticated Bourdieu, it is not) – from the knowledge needed to improve their lot. By contrast, in the mainstream American political science research paradigm known as political pluralism, interest groups are legitimate and sincere proxies in any properly functioning representative democracy.

As Wisniewski highlights, the idea that more participation is a de facto good is simply assumed at the outset by his critics, which makes for the real normative crux of their disagreement. There is certainly a positive correlation between greater knowledge of political issues and participation in politics, but the question of  whether this is beneficial overall is open to interpretation.

I should point out that what Wisniewski is getting at should be distinguished from the obvious influence of the media on the views of ordinary voters on certain highly visible events such as the BP oil spill, Koran-burning pastors or, as mentioned above, Iraqi WMDs. The issue at hand for Wisniewski and his interlocutors is the extent to which full fledged ideologies are being grafted onto the masses, by elites, to the former’s detriment, and the latter’s benefit.

In any case, there’s much to chew on in the interview, including a dig at hip-hop-as-politics, reminiscent of a John McWhorter argument.

As an aside, I’ll mention that Chris Wisniewski is a contributor to NYC based Reverse Shot, a quarterly, independently published film journal.

HT: Jeffrey Friedman for assistance with this write-up.