Cultural Hegemony and Nostalgia

Matt Bruenig offers an interesting analysis of reality show Dance Moms and cultural hegemony:

“In simple terms, cultural hegemony refers to the way in which the powerful shape a society’s norms, values, and other institutions, and how that particular shaping becomes accepted as default, natural, perpetual, and inevitable. That is, people tend to regard the way we currently run things in society as the only way to run things in society. Instead of regarding our background systems as just one set of institutions among thousands of possibilities, people appear to think of them as default constants.

One consequence of cultural hegemony is that when people think about changing things, they only think about how they can make change within the parameters of the existing institutions. That is, they rarely think about changing the fundamental systems that structure our society; they only think about making changes within the confines that those systems have established.”

He then relates this to a particular development on the show: the pyramid.

Bruenig connects the two (cultural hegemony and pyramid) by arguing that the mothers initially resented the pyramid when it was first introduced by the person with the most power (Abby Lee Miller), but once they got used to it and accepted it, then, their thinking was centered around securing the best position for their kids on the pyramid. It had become the hegemonic frame through which their strategies were formulated. Thinking outside the pyramid was not even an option.

Bruenig then makes a broader point:

“That’s cultural hegemony in a nutshell really. Instead of looking beyond the system you find yourself in, you accept it as somehow constant and perpetual. Having assumed it fixed and unchangeable, if you think about change at all, it is only within the narrow confines that the system allows.

For a real life example, consider the way we think about poverty reduction in the US. Income inequality is, after all, a kind of socially constructed pyramid. Instead of rejecting our system of economic distribution that leaves so many in poverty, we assume that it has to stay. Therefore, the only thing we can hope to do is make other kinds of changes that might reduce poverty without altering our present system of income distribution. For the most part, that has led people to advocate cramming more kids through college and a number of education reform gimmicks.”

Yes and no. This is too detached from agency. I would want to add that cultural hegemony is perpetuated through social institutions (family, media, education, religion, etc.) as used by the power elite (to use Mills’s formulation). Cultural hegemony does not just happen. It is shaped and structured by the powerful (in this case, Miller) and, through institutional practice, accepted by the subordinate categories (here, the mothers and the daughters) who then operate within the field (to mix it up with Bourdieu), vying for less subordinate position within a frame they have not created and that maintains and reproduces their subordinate status (instead of overthrowing Miller’s pyramid frame, they just individually compete withing it). It does not threaten Miller’s authority and it reinforces her status as dominant.

At the same time, this analysis does not account for the phenomenon of nostalgia both that cultural and political trope. Nostalgia is yearning for a return to a – mostly imagined and mythical – past. Nostalgia reconstructs the past in an idealized fashion and uses then that mythical and imaginary standard to deplore the awfulness of the present. In Bruenig’s analysis, hegemony is always the present and therefore, it cannot account for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also used by the powerful to reject progressive social change, arguing that present social issues would not happen if we were still living in that imaginary past. It is then the (imaginary) historically-grounded set of justifications to reject further changes that would benefit the disadvantaged.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *