READING GUIDE TO: Coward, R  (1977)  'Class, Culture and the Social Formation', Screen 18, 1.

This article is about the term 'ideology' as represented in the two traditions -- Screen writers, and what Coward calls the Working Papers in Cultural Studies (produced by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies -- CCCS, to use the more common term). The differences arise especially in terms of the representations of social class. This article begins with criticisms of Resistance Through Rituals (Hall and Jefferson 1976) and of some pieces on TV coverage of current affairs written by the Birmingham Centre (see my 1992 book for details). Ultimately the Centre's approach is incompatible with  'Screen Theory'  --  the former reduces everything to class. 

Another way of putting this clash is in terms of 'structuralist' versus 'culturalist' approaches -- this is how the whole debate was rendered by the CCCS group (actually, by then they had become the OU Popular Culture Group). Hall made a specific, if a little obscure, reply to this article too -- click here

The 'Screen problematic' is based on the work of Althusser and Lacan, says Coward. It leads to an interest in signification rather than the representation of a subject. A semiotic approach must abandon the old idealism which sees communication as an intention of the subject. We also need to rework Saussure on the concept of meaning as the relation of the signifier to a signified: Lacan, by contrast, claims that meaning operates only in chains of signifiers, often unconsciously, that a discourse produces a subject, and that consciousness is an effect. This of course makes class analysis difficult. [and it introduces a number of other crises  -- variously called the 'crisis of the signifer' or the 'crisis of the subject']

The Birmingham Centre operates from culturalist assumptions, where cultures arise as responses to determinate material conditions, but also as active sources of meaning. Cultures 'belong' to different classes. They are linked to the old project in radical Education Studies, which tries to explain working class failure as due to clashes of alien cultures (page 80). The analysis attempts to re-attribute generational qualities to social class, and to explain them in terms of the same material conditions, via homologies (page 81) --  in other words the old category of class persists. Fundamental transformations of the social or ideological are denied. Socialist history [see also Clarke and Critcher] becomes one of patterns of crisis, between the classes, [leading to settlements such as] the incorporation of working-class movements into the Labour Party and trade unions, which produces an eclipse of  'real defences', leaving only youth subcultures as a response. 

Culture, or homologies of it, become ideological if they become hegemonic. Ideology dominates over culture as a 'political' response, and operates via the work of ISAs [ see file] . Working-class cultures still remain though, and they're always oppositional and always proto-socialist for the CCCS (fascism is ignored!  page 84). The flaw lies in seeing culture and consciousness in humanist/empiricist terms, and when these are then joined to properly Marxist concepts they influence them adversely. 

The Centre's concept of culture really comes from liberal humanism, as in the work of Richard Hoggart. This leads to the idea of culture as the production of values and meanings, a matter of how humans produce social life. Meaning itself is unproblematic, idealist -- there is no break with Sociology, liberalism, or historicism. This can be seen in work that talks of a split between 'structures, cultures and biographies'  [as did some early work by Critcher, attempting to connect 'action' and 'structure' dimensions, as veterans of the A-level Sociology course might know it]. Practice becomes only an expression of human will, or of the hidden purpose of history  (page 86). Analysis itself is never actually produced -- it becomes a mere neutral tool; we seem to gain knowledge from real objects via the senses of subjects. The Centre still works with an alienation problematic, where Ideology is a matter of misrecognition, not a matter of operating accurately, but with phenomenal forms [see Halls' later attempt to move beyond this via Mepham]. The work of the Centre is simply to reveal this distortion. In this way marxism is put at the service of  [familiar, British, conventional] socialist interests, rather than developed as a theory in its own right. 

Marxism is still seen in Hegelian terms in CCCS work -- a loss of unity at the social level leads to subcultures. Eventually, the fundamental classes will reassert themselves [they hope]. However, for Coward, in modern social formations we have very different, complex, and contradictory class relations (themselves effects emanatiung from the different 'levels' [as in the EPI/C model-- see diagram here]). The myth of class still ties the Centre to Lukacs [and to his notion of 'expressive totality' -- hotly renounced by the CCCS]. They are still describing an Hegelian journey to self-consciousness, and this leads to the usual errors, including the need to resort to a guiding belief in, (page 89), and myth that, one day there will be a wholeness again. The theory of crisis and settlement shows this unfolding essence, where the classes first oppose and then balance each other. Phenomena like the growth of the Labour Party is also seen as reflecting historical needs. However the State is not just an expression of these needs,for the CCCS,  nor a representation of struggle, nor a space for  representations. It is always produced in struggle and in institutions, and these always guarantee the appropriation of surplus value by the ruling class. 

The Centre attributes insufficient autonomy to ideology. Ideology becomes merely a matter of representation, of the functions of economic interests. In this way there is no room for either fascist or feminist alternatives -- so they have to be ignored! 

The work on the media shows these limits too. The media are also seen as 'transparent', hence the focus on news and current affairs as obviously  'political'. Meaning apparently arises from codes which are homologous to the ideological meanings of the ruling class  (page 91). These codes are organised by  journalistic practices based on real events. The media is seen as an ISA, offering a discourse of social democracy. [See the {later} Policing the Crisis]. But the Centre still searches for class origins outside of this discourse, still pursuing  homologies between broadcasters and the political representatives of social democracy [and even looking for common class origins and memberships]. Since working-class interests cannot be reproduced in these codings of mass media, they can resist only in decoding. The examples [displayed in the analyses of current affairs programmes -- see Bennett et al (1982)] show how political allegiances are managed  -- and in a very optimistic example, how the triumph of James Callaghan [a former Labour PM] on a current affairs programme [when he temporarily outwitted his interviewer] reveals that Labour is still a threat. All this work simply reduces the role of the media to a functional one. 

Now let us pursue a Lacanian line instead, suggests Coward. This operates with no notion of external origins and no simple class-based representations: for example, the professional value of  'objectivity'  is itself a media produced practice, not one that lies somewhere outside (page 95). The Glasgow University Media Group [a rival centre!!] is much better at showing the effects of the media, and illustrating the practices of neutrality -- for example, the way a narrative inscribes an ideological position [for 'Screen Theory's' take on this, see the debate on realism]. This sort of effect  is not reducible to some outside immediate class interests. The real issue for analysis of the media turns instead on its effects on the class struggle. For example  'Carry On' films are not representative of either working class or middle class groups, and they do not reproduce their values, but they have effects nevertheless. The media construct ideology [on their own], rather than simply reproduce it. 

Marx himself says there are a number of competing classes not just two fundamental ones. Social divisions do not correspond with class divisions either. Diversity arises from the political and ideological levels. Hence, to grasp the position of women we must necessarily turn to political and ideological effects. In this way systems of signification have an effect on their own, and it is these effects which are the issue, not the origins of these systems. There is no fundamental determinacy of the economic level, [and here Coward refers to Hindess's and Hirst's work Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production -- see the file on Hindess for a more 'methodological' take]. It is a matter of considering the relations as well as the forces of production. The mode of appropriation of the surplus can be dominated by the ideological level alone. 

Coward's article ends with the discussion of Roland Barthes' book S/Z .This shows how practices can constitute real events, [in this case to conceal the real status, as a castratee, of the person so admired, but as a woman, by the French protagonist], and this has clear implications for how films imply the construction of sexual identities. There is no easy relation to a general theory of ideology though -- the symbolic acts as a limit to meaning imposed in a specific historical and social formation  (page 101) How can the specificity of signification possibly produce a notion generally of ideology as a matter of reproduction? [We need a Lacanian account of subjectivity is how -- but only the hints of one follow...].

The subject itself is absent, de-centred  (page 102) rather than based in false consciousness. This approach is well developed in cinema theory by people like Heath  (page 104). There is no discussion really of this mechanism in Marx except via the notion of alienation [and that's flawed]. [Only] Lacan offers a materialist account of signifying processes which can generate a theory of representation especially. It is much superior to the CCCS's simple sociological reductions (page 105).

Now see Hall's reply?