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Theoretical terminology and conceptions are subject to a constant change. They deviate from their original meaning and context.
Nina Baker looks at modifications and appropriations of "Base" and "Superstructure" in various, including contemporary, cultural theories.

Tracing Superstructure or the Development of Marxist Cultural Theory

By Nina Baker

It is precisely its 'spontaneous' quality, its transparency, its “naturalness”, its refusal to be made to examine the premises on which it is founded, its resistance to change or to correction, its effect of instant recognition, and the closed circle in which it moves which makes common sense, at one and the same time, “spontaneous”, ideological and unconscious. You cannot learn, through common sense how things are: you can only discover where they fit into the existing scheme of things. In this way, its very taken-for- grantedness is what establishes it as a medium in which its own premises and presuppositions are being rendered invisible by its apparent transparency.” (Hall, qtd. in Hebdige: 11)
Ideology and hegemony, two terms which frequently appear in the texts of cultural theories in specific and in news publications at large; two terms with whose “definition” we seem to be familiar, however when looking back to the “origins”, the terms in their prevalent usage of today seem to have lost depth, are more in line with terms like “paradigm” or “dominant discourse”. In this paper I will trace the Marxist conception of superstructure and its evolving cultural theory; the reinterpretations and adaptations the definitions have undergone through several influential Marxist theorists, namely Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Raymond Williams and Louis Althusser, to also show the initial “meaning and depth” of the terms and the theory behind it and the actual relevance they still have today.
First it is sensible to capture the “base” of the terms themselves (to stay within Marxist terminology); to start with Marx' proposition of base and superstructure more detailed to then focus on the role superstructure played in his definition in order to relate to the transformations. In the preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx elaborates his understanding of the means of production and the contiguity of social being and states that:

in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness[...]In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.(Political Economy)

Thus, according to Marx (and Engels), consciousness is a social product; it is a part of the culture which in turn is shaped by the production relations in society. The social sphere is based on the “production relations”, the form of economic relations shapes the “superstructure”; the economic structure is the base of society.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production. (Marx, German Ideology)

Marx further defines this in terms of class and cites “the ideas of the ruling class” as the ruling ideas which also constitute the ruling intellectual force and thus also control the means of mental production (Marx 9). In this context the ruling class produces the naturalization of its own values and ways; since they control the means of production, they also produce the dominant culture and the “ideological framework” for their rule. Therefore, in order alter social consciousness the relevant field of struggle for Marx and Engels was the control of means of production: the base. "No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society“(Marx, Political Economy). Inscribed in this proposition is a strict economic determinism, an inflexible static nature which according to Williams

“constitutes, at least in certain hands, a very specialized and at times unacceptable version of the proposition” (Williams 3). In The Concept of Ideology Gramsci modifies this notion of ideology and shifts the focus from base to superstructure. He posits a mutual relation between the economic "base" structure and the cultural “superstructure” - the superstructure actually feeds and effectively reproduces economic structure, or effectively sustains the status quo by its ideological apparatuses. “Everything which influences or is able to influence public opinion, directly or indirectly belongs to it: libraries, schools, associations and clubs of various kinds” (Gramsci16). Gramsci asserts the term “hegemony” to describe this form of capitalist rule. As Williams points out this suggests a totality, “which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the limit of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure” (Williams 8). For Gramsci, this “saturation” is enforced through “the supremacy of a social group” which “manifests itself in two ways, as “domination” and as “intellectual leadership” (Gramsci 14). Gramsci characterizes “the relationship between the intellectuals and the world of production” as “not as direct as it is with the fundamental social groups” but instead “in varying degrees, “mediated” by the whole fabric of society and by the complex of superstructures, of which the intellectuals are, precisely, the “functionaries” (Prison Notebooks 144). In Gramsci's reinterpretation of superstructure intellectuals therefore play a pivotal, active role in maintaining the consensus of the general public. In contrast to Marx however, for whom ideology was entirely negative connoted as the “ruling ideas of the ruling class”, Gramsci criticizes the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie but does not categorically negate the concept itself. Instead he argues that “unless political revolution was accompanied by cultural change it would never breach capitalism's less visible defences, the entrenched bourgeois values and social relations of civil society” (Eley 211). Thus, for Gramsci the role of intellectuals was to “raise workers to a sense of their full capacity to govern production and thence society” (Eley 211).

Adorno and Horkheimer incorporate Gramsci's pivotal role of culture and the intellectual leaders shaping consciousness in their approach to cultural theory, also termed “Critical Theory”. In addition, they pose methodological and ontological questions regarding Marxism; Marxism established itself by claiming scientific principles, a “scientific truth of class struggle”. Adorno and Horkheimer (and with them the Frankfurt School) introduced skepticism against this notion of “scientific truth” itself. Thus, instead of a “practical philosophy”, they developed a critical theoretical framework to research culture. In their essay The Culture Industry they strongly criticize what they consider “mass deception” through popular culture ( Horkheimer and Adorno 41). Not as Gramsci envisioned a raised awareness of the workers is conceptualized; the new “technology of the culture industry confines itself to standardization and mass production and sacrifices what once distinguished the logic of the work from that of society” (HA 42). For Adorno and Horkheimer “the whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry”, by “being nothing other than style, it divulges style's secret: obedience to the social hierarchy” (HA 45-48). This pessimist conception of cultural developments is also prevalent in Adorno's Minima Moralia where he states that “The change of the relations of production itself depends more than ever on what befalls the “sphere of consumption,” the mere reflection-form of production and the caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals “.

Williams on the other hand not only transforms Gramsci's notion of hegemony, but he also offers a challenging, more positive reformulation of the Marxist conception of base and determination. He traces the notion of determination back to “theological accounts of the world and men” (Williams 4). Marx, according to Williams, denied this sort of “external” determination and instead “puts the origin of determination in men’s own activities”; thus, instead of external causes acting as determinant agents of being, it is within “the experience of social practice” that limits and pressures are exerted (Williams 4). Likewise the “base” which for Williams

is a mode of production at a particular stage of its development. We make and repeat propositions of this kind, but the usage is then very different from Marx’s emphasis on productive activities, in particular structural relations, constituting the foundation of all other activities. For while a particular stage of the development of production can be discovered and made precise by analysis, it is never in practice either uniform or static. It is indeed one of the central propositions of Marx’s sense of history that there are deep contradictions in the relationships of production and in the consequent social relationships. There is therefore the continual possibility of the dynamic variation of these forces. (Williams 5)

In this reappropriation the “base” is thus not a “state”, a static construct, but a process without fixed properties (Williams 5) .This dynamic conception also leads to a revaluation of “superstructure”, “away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content” towards what Williams calls “cultural practices” (Williams 6). He also asserts a much more active conception of “hegemony”, which for Williams is not “singular”, but instead a complex account of structures that have “continually to be renewed, recreated and defended; and by the same token, that they can be continually challenged and in certain respects modified”(Williams 8). And it is exactly this understanding of “challenge and modification” which he merges with “cultural practices” and identifies counter-hegemonic potential. More specifically, it is within what he considers to be “emergent” as opposed to residual and dominant cultural practices that he locates this potential.

An emergent culture, he [Raymond Williams] argues, unlike either the dominant or the residual, requires not only distinct kinds of immediate cultural practice, but also and crucially "new forms or adaptations of forms". Such innovation at the level of form, he continues, is in effect a pre-emergence, active and pressing but not yet fully articulated, rather than the evident emergence which could be more confidently named. (Milner 93-94)

This is realized in the form of “structures of feeling” which “can be defined as social experiences in solution” (Milner 94). Again, the flux of the process is emphasized by Williams, an openness comes to the fore, greatly contrasting Marx's initial rigid concept. However, as Williams is well aware, in a culture in which “anything that can be seen as emergent” quickly becomes incorporated, there is the real problematic of distinguishing between “emergent-incorporated” and “emergent not incorporated” practices (Williams 11).
Unlike Williams, with Althusser, Marxist cultural theory takes a decidedly structuralist turn away from dynamic practices. He substantiates the ideological apparatuses that Gramsci introduced and amplifies their breadth. “In Althusser, culture is neither a superstructural effect nor the expression of the truth of a social totality, but rather an autonomous structure of "ideology", with its own specific effectivity, located within and in relation to a wider structure of structure” (Althusser 84). In his seminal essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses Althusser subdivides the apparatuses into two distinct groups and terms them RSA(Repressive State Apparatus) and ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses). Significant for him, the RSA despite its subgroups (army, police etc.) forms a singular entity while the ISAs (e.g. religion, education) are characterized by “plurality” whose unitary relationship “is not immediately visible” (Althusser 80). The decisive difference for Althusser between the two main sets of apparatuses lies within their function. The Repressive State Apparatus “functions 'by violence', whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function 'by ideology''" which also constitutes “what unifies their diversity”(Althusser 80-81). Althusser understands the function of ideology as “constituting concrete individuals as subjects” (Althusser 84).

For “...ideology has very little to do with “consciousness”...It is profoundly unconscious....Ideology is indeed a system of representation, but in the majority of cases these representations have nothing to do with”consciousness”: they are usually images and occasionally concepts, but it is above all as structures that they impose ont the vast majority of men, not via their “consciousness”. They are preceived-accepted-suffered cultural objects and they act functionally on men via a process that escapes them. (qtd. in Hebdige: 12)

Althusser terms this phenomenon as an “interpellation” and asserts that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (Althusser 85). In this context it becomes clear that ideology is something “total”, every apparatus, every “function” of life is ideologically permeated, the subject can not escape ideology as the subject is always within ideology. Thus, “ideology is eternal” as “individuals are always- already subjects” (Althusser 87). Numerous other influential Marxist theorists or their contributions are not mentioned in this paper, which of course given the length, would prove an impossible task. “Naturally”, after Althusser, further modifications and adaptations of superstructure and Marxist cultural theory have taken place, especially since the shift to postmodernism and the development of even more interwoven, “rhizomatic formations” between base and superstructure, between the material forces of production and social production of existence. Some, like Jameson took on a more critical stand towards postmodernism, some like Laclau and Mouffe greatly altered and “postmodernized” Marxist cultural theory. By tracing the some of the “original influences” I hope “underline” the significant contributions these thinkers have made in analyzing human existence, how much their thinking has permeated what we experience as cultural studies and finally, the great role Marxist cultural theory plays still to this day.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner.
Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 41-72.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. 1951. 2 August 2007 .
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation)." Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 79-83.
Gramsci, Antonio. “The Concept of Ideology.” Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 13-17.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. London: ElecBook, 2001.
Eley, Geoff. Forging Democracy : The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000. Cary: Oxford University Press Incorporated, 2002.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas." Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. 9-12.
Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. 1845. 31 July 2007 .
Milner, Anrew J. Re-imaging Cultural Studies : The Promise of Cultural Materialism. London: Sage Publications, Incorporated, 2002.
Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review I/82 November-December 1973: 3-16.