Whose determinism?

In early and mid-twentieth century debate, the problem [of the relationship between the economic ‘base’ and the ‘ideological superstructure’] was understood to be that this model was crude and reductive: superstructural phenomena, such as art, were supposed to be read off as a ‘reflection’ of economic circumstances. In the face of this some Marxists (…notably Gramsci) produced versions of the theory of ideology which loosened in certain ways the ties between base and superstructure. Thus for Gramsci ideology was a matter of ‘hegemony’ – the way in which a particular group and its ideas might come to be dominant in a complex and shifting field of class conflict – rather than being merely a simple reflection of the economic base. While this had the advantage of making the Marxist theory less crude, the disadvantage (or so it may seem) is that the theory becomes much less precise. Indeed, if there is a kind of autonomous struggle taking place in the ideological realm then it is no longer very clear what the Marxists’ insistence on the primacy of economics amounts to – perhaps not very much more than a commitment to a certain political position and set of social values.

[..]

While some artists may be conservative, others… are… consciously revolutionary, while still others, it seems, have no obvious political position one way or the other. Can the Marxist theory accommodate all three possibilities? And, if the answer is yes, does not an even more profound problem present itself: if Marxism can find a place for every phenomenon, does that not make it unfalsifiable and (as Sir Karl Popper famously alleged) something that has more of the character of religion than of science?

— Hatt, M. and Klonk, C., 2006, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods, Manchester University Press (emphasis added)

While reading this chapter of Hatt and Klonk for MA Art History, I took particular exception to this piece of argumentation.

As Marxist Anthropologist Maurice Godelier has pointed out, ‘superstructure’ is a spectacularly bad translation of the term ‘Uberbau’ (Godelier, M. 2012 The Mental and the Material, Verso, p.6). This is all the more apparent when considered in the context of the metaphorical usage Marx put it to. The relationship between Grundlage and Uberbau (often translated as ‘base’ or ‘infrastructure’ and ‘superstructure’) in the German language is that between the foundation of a building, below ground, and the building itself. There are no ‘super’ structures here, only the necessarily sunken foundation and the perfectly normal, quotidian, structure it supports. Furthermore, it is in the Uberbau, as a ground floor everyday building that we live our lives, not ‘in the basement’ (ibid.). To point this out is to attempt to demolish those deep-seated prejudicial twins of misreading which would either render ‘superstructures’ as some kind of airy-fairy imaginary order which floats above society miraculously ordering it (which would constitute a return to idealism), or to an entirely servile, if material, ‘cultural appendage’ to society wholly determined by economic forces; rather the Uberbau is the ‘built environment’ of society itself, constituted and reproduced by the material practices of everyday life. This level of material practice is, in the sense elaborated by Althusser, ideological, meaning not ‘informed or constrained by erroneous thinking’, but comprising of varying institutional structures or practical regularities, which furthermore are generated, disseminated, ideologically reproduced and to some degree policed by what Althusser calls ‘apparatuses’. Foucault will also refer to apparatuses (dispositifs) when he maintains, like Althusser, that a certain subjectivity is produced by a particular kind of apparatus. The point to stress here, in both Foucault and Althusser, is the relative autonomy, even the historical contingency, of institutional structures. Far from being entirely determined by an economic base, the everyday Uberbau is a place of contestation, the site of ideological struggle and social antagonism, not merely its reflection or expression.

Marx was not the economic determinist some might portray him as, nor are most Marxists. The direction of causality is certainly not fixed by the metaphor of a building supported by its foundation; Marx is no more saying that economics ’causes’ the culture of society, any more than a foundation ’causes’ the shape of a house. Nor is he restricted to the argument that the metaphor might itself suggest as its meaningful limit, in which the form of a foundation conditions the kind of building it can support in a unilateral manner. Indeed Marx himself has furnished us with examples of how political acts occurring at the level of the Uberbau may impact and affect the development of productive forces at the level of the Grundlage (economic base) [Singer, P., 1980, p.56]. Were Marx a thoroughgoing economic determinist, this would not be possible within the confines of his work.

It is true that Marx does at times adhere to a teleological model of history in which a sense of purposiveness remains and sometimes speaks of the Uberbau as expressing ‘the unconscious’ of history. However, to subsume all moments of Marx within a kind of over-arching economic eliminativism (in which nothing happens but for ultimately economic reasons) is a misunderstanding. It could even be said to be an anachronism borne of current neoliberalism’s own disavowals. Indeed, it is only within the last few years that a minister of education could write in a white paper that the purpose of higher education is ultimately to ‘generate value’ and is to be set in view most aptly in terms of such an investment. It is interesting that the more a purportedly ‘Marxist’ economic determinism is fervently rejected on a cultural level, the more it is embraced – in inverted, reactionary forms such as ‘austerity’– as actual policy at the level of governance; in this way a generalised criticism of a deterministic Marx seems to mask the very deployment of a reactionary economic determinism. Do government departments such as the ‘nudge unit’, which attempts to remould subjectivities and society in general by attempting to push people’s economic behaviour in certain directions, not bespeak a deterministic outlook, do they not presuppose a certain commitment to the direction in which an economy ought to be going? Is it not teleological, if not outright anthropomorphic, today, to allow financial markets to ‘decide’ best policy (right up until the point when bankrupting all major financial institutions in the western hemisphere is no longer justifiable as ‘best’ practice, and politicians must decide that things simply ought to be going differently)? Would this moralised economic teleology be any more acceptable, any less ‘religious’, than orthodox Marxism, on Hatt and Klonk’s account?

It is inaccurate to reduce orthodox Marxism to economic reductionism in the way that Hatt and Klonk seem to want to; their argument that, were ideology autonomous and therefore economic determinism inarguably disproved, would not in the least entail a refutation of Marxism. Rather it only entails the refutation of a supposed Marxism that was contained entirely within economic determinism, which is something that would remain to be shown.

Understood in this way, it is possible to argue that Hatt and Klonk’s understanding of the base/superstructure model of earlier Marxist art historians may either comprise of genuine criticism aimed at a vulgar, although perhaps widespread, mistranslation of Marx which those art historians adhered to, or consist of a ‘straw man’ argument in which a crude understanding of traditional Marxism has been retro-fitted onto those art historians by Hatt and Klonk. Either way, the base/superstructure model of a society determined by an economic base, which seems to dog Marxism more from non-Marxist critics who do not read Marx in the original and receive their understanding third-hand, than from Marxists who translate the original for themselves, must be at all cost jettisoned. That Hatt and Klonk read this as actually jettisoning Marxism itself only compounds errors made along the way.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

Some comparison between the semiotic notions of coding, overcoding, and undercoding (Eco, U., 1976/1979, A Theory of Semiotics) and Erwin Panofsky’s phases of iconological insight (Panofsky, E., 1939, Studies in Iconology) seems possible. In particular, the two movements accomplished in Umberto Eco’s given coding-overcoding sequence (p.134) would seem to correspond to the first two stages, i.e. the pre-iconographic and iconographic phases, in Panofsky’s three staged iconology. In the first stage we have a purportedly ‘innocent eye’ that merely inventories the more conventional signs (‘here is a woman bearing a pair of eyes in a golden saucer’), and then at some indeterminate point, the possession of iconographical knowledge (one could also say ‘cultural knowledge’ or ‘cultural familiarity’) would determine the onset of a second stage. In that second stage the rules of the first code still operate to identify the elements, but become the basis of a further rule that determines their applicability, in effect telling us how to apply them (‘here is a conventional image of St. Lucy’). In some respects one may even say that the meta-rules or overcodings provided in the iconographic phase serve to suspend the usual operation of the first, ‘innocent-eyed’ layer of codings.

If we read Panofsky alongside Eco, we can say that according to Eco’s definition of overcoding:

While iconology recognises a specific arrangement or organisation of items to refer to a particular icon or theme, it is only through the ‘innocent-eye’ coding of these individual elements or items that they first become recognisable. Iconology thus practices an overcoding on the basis of this coding, a further rule to its rules; first it recognises (de/codes) the items but then, on top of that, it recognises (de/codes) their specific arrangement, their co-occurrence or constellation, as having further specificity on the plane of cultural meaning.

Thus, in the case of the image of a woman carrying her eyes in a saucer, which Eco gives (and here is an example) the first level of coding is composed of the conventional elements {woman, saucer, eyes, carrying}, but a further recognition of a more specific, rarer coding or convention is needed in order to see that, in the arrangement of these elements in the context of a certain kind of image within a certain cultural history, we find ourselves before a very specific though conventional figure or symbolic representation of St. Lucy. Suddenly, the woman is no longer a woman, the eyes are no longer (just) eyes. Through the constellation with the eyes she holds and the golden saucer that bears them, against a background of cultural knowledge, a further, symbolic figure appears. If not exactly nullifying the conventional coding on which it was initially dependent, this new image certainly pushes it to the back burner. This is so because a new and different register or context has opened — the iconological — and the ‘innocent’ register, a necessary step but lacking overcoding, has been superseded. At least, this would be the standard reading of the iconological hermeneutic translated into Eco’s semiotic terms.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

However, as with the standard criticism of Panofsky’s stages — the ‘innocent eye’ is retroactively constructed as a virtual position we were never really in (i.e. free of cultural associations) — it is also possible to hold a critique of Eco’s overcoding. Are we not always already looking for a referential context when we first approach an image, approaching its elements only as features within a synoptic whole, rather than already having broken it down into recognisable atoms of reference to be reassembled? It can be argued that on first approach there is not an empirical stock-taking of discrete elements, but that the initial approach beholds first their ensemble.

In other words, on the first approach we are already operating in the realm of overcoding, rather than coding. This is perhaps tantamount to stating that we are already acculturated, socialised, and thus iconologically operative, when we first encounter the image. If so, then is this encounter nothing other than the site where cultural differences, rather than monocultural confirmations of ‘competence’, might appear?

The problem with the transcultural (or multicultural) audience regarding the monocultural icon is that according to Eco such an audience ‘undercodes’, that is to say, ‘in the absence of reliable pre-established rules’ (p.135), such an audience guesses at a general cultural meaning, constructing a ‘rough’ coding. Thus according to Eco, ‘images produced by an alien civilization… are understood by way of undercoding’ (p.136). Clearly this statement is insufficient when read in the light of an always-acculturated audience, which is to say, an audience for which ‘reliable pre-established rules’ always exist: it is not that these rules of decoding are unreliable, nor under-established; it is simply that they are culturally different to those of the artist and of his or her attendant iconologists of the same culture. The criterion of ‘reliability’ in determining the subject of an image would then come down to this rather dismal question: as a foreigner, are you culturally competent enough to understand what the artist is representing? Here it is appropriate to ask why this sharing of cultural context with a posited presence or intention is considered the ‘reliable’ overcoding, whereas an equally acculturated audience from a different ethnic or social background, bringing a variant overcoding, is not reliable. Why are these other kinds of overcoding to be regarded as deficient, as ‘undercodings’? Clearly one reason is that they would not necessarily fall into line with, i.e. reproduce, the existing discourses of existing powers. And here we are mired with the problem of a monoculturally-embedded authorial intentionality, which only a panel of cultural hierophants are sufficiently equipped to divine for an ‘ignorant’ laity. This audience, it would seem, remains constitutionally uninformed by its divergent cultures, and can only graduate from its alien undercoding to ‘proper’ overcoding by a passive process of learning from those experts who write the official cultural history, and produce the proper knowledge. Certainly there are problems of cultural imperialism here.

I thus propose to replace Eco’s problematic conception of undercoding — specifically in this transcultural instance — with what we might choose to name contestant overcoding. And in principle, all overcoding — including those instances in which the authors of artworks themselves accompany their work with cultural explanations — can be shown to be contestant overcoding.

In this way it would be possible to bring together a conception of contestant overcoding with that of hegemony (in the case of Gramsci) and of enchainment (in the case of Laclau) to provide a theory of meaning in which differences of interpretation can co-exist, if often antagonistically.