One of the key principles of Birmingham Cultural Studies is that there is a hegemonic, dominant cultural formation which cannot be challenged directly--it can be negotiated on its own terms or opposed, but the latter often risks losing legitimacy of the argument (the exception being when there is a catastrophic event which threatens the legitimacy of the dominant paradigm, such as the sudden legitimacy of critiques of free market economics following the failure of these banks: people and arguments who would have had a very particular place only a few months ago--the exemplary Luddite or naysayer at best--are suddenly given center stage.)
Originally, this was also taken as related to the Marxian notion that the dominant ideas were those of the dominant class and, hence, the hegemonic ideology would, in one way or another, represent some economic interest or another. However, since this critique was made at a time that the state itself--and the dominant class interests--were riven with a variety of countervailing influences, the purely economic interest was difficult to dissect. In other words, the politics of the welfare state made the idea of a purely economic determination difficult to swallow. So, at roughly the same moment that the New Right was beginning to succeed in rolling back that welfare state, Cultural Studies retreated from the idea, first, that the dominant ideology was determined by economic interests and, next, that there was a dominant ideology.
Though there were all kinds of claims made about a specific culture in totality, or perhaps of a range of thought or actions that pervaded society (sexism, racism, heterosexuality) the concept of the "dominant hegemonic ideology" went the way of most Marxian inspired terms: cast aside in favor of Foucault or even the more radically atomistic notions of Deluze and Guattari. Power--and hence its support by a dominant regime of truth--could be discussed as an entity but immanent in its existence was the notion of its opposite, resistance. Thus the practice became one of merely describing the landscape, employing novel verbiage to express the ways discourses coalesced and were undermined. Culture, in this became a sort of process: open-ended, always promising avenues of resistance against whatever power had been established.
Though the past 8 years have brought more of this discussion back to the fore, in absence of the critical work on ideology and hegemony, the mainstream left has had what merely amount to the tools of the progressive era to both describe and challenge the established power structure. Ironically, the same tools have basically been adopted by the mainstream right--particularly in the blogosphere. The idea here is that the real problem in public opinion is that the organs of the media are expressly biased in some political sense and thus people don't get the right information. If it were possible to give people the information which would then shatter their preconceived notions, then opinion would change. Thus the issue was getting past the filter, providing facts that would help bombard the rational critical public with the correct view of events and turn opinion in favor of...well, in most cases, it becomes turning in favor of some established political candidate. So DailyKos and LittleGreenFootballs spend most of their day finding gaffes of fact or personality which, if the other side had to admit them there would be hell to pay.
In many ways, this is perfectly in line with the kind of politics and resistance that Foucault would talk about, though it ultimately would miss the main point of his understanding of Discourse, which was much more similar to the Cultural Studies issue of ideology and hegemony. In this, the interesting thing to note is not so much the play of power and resistance in this atomistic process, but the way that these are actually confined by even broader outlines about what can and cannot be said. In large part, this restriction is reinforced by the time horizon of politics (which could also be discussed in terms of the time horizon of the news cycle). Though there is a supposed counter-media on the blogosphere, in large part even this counter media is hemmed in by trying to keep up with individual nuggets or articulations that exist in the mainstream media. For the most part, it makes the blogosphere reactionary in at least the sense that they are always on the defense (even when they feel they are on the offence); but it also usually finds them being reactionary in the sense that, in so far as the MSM (or opposed bloggers) are countered because they don't adhere to the chosen politics of one's side, the latter become more cemented as both a guiding light for where you should target your criticism as well as a personal orbit and even an identity.
This is in accordance with at lest part of what Sunstein says about the internet as a deliberative tool, who says it encourages us to limit our interactions with only those who agree with us. Though his fuller understanding of this in Republic 2.0 may take it into account, as it stands, the other thing it encourages us to do is interact in limited ways with the opposition in so far as they can be framed as absolute opposition. In other words it not only polarizes the debate because we're ignoring the other side, but because we only interact with the other side in order to reaffirm our understanding of them and hence to make us feel more secure in the subaltern counterpublic of "The Daily Me."
But all of these are too focused on the individual consciousness as the main grounding for this orbit. As mentioned above, the dominant news cycle is equally determining. On the other hand, the dominant, hegemonic ideology is a compelling tool for noting the pattern of what is left in and out of a discourse. This means not only examining the mainstream media for what they leave out in the interest of a certain position, but what they leave out in general: what subjective statements are taken as objective. Or, as Barthes would have discussed, the connotative and denotative, respectively.
Of course, depending on how philosophical one wants to get about this, there could be no denotative grounds at all--the "what chair" philosopy exam joke comes to mind. Thus there must be some analytical sense of what we are trying to examine. It is this understanding of Hegemony that Stuart Hall eventually said would show how Gramsci could be used to look at racism and sexism. But in both cases, there was less a sense of how this was articulated to the power structure of the time. Whatever one thinks of this move, the relevance of the method seems sounder today.
I was inspired in thinking about this-and perhaps should have started by saying so--after watching the debate last night and hearing some people's reactions to it this morning. I didn't expect anything groundbreaking, for the most part, because it seems like, on most issues there's not that much difference between the candidates (link goes to video by the Nader campaign, pointing out the basically identical positions of the Obama and McCain on many issues). But in retrospect, I was interested in the few places that Obama conceded to McCain on issues of foreign policy, which could easily have been contested. The first is well known (Obama conceding on the surge); the second could be the result of his ignorance (conceding that Pakistan was a failed state before Musharaf took power); but the third is definitely hegemonically inscribed (letting McCain take his remarks on Russia and Georgia as obvious sign of naivete).
The first could be described as hegemonically proscribed as well, it just shows that Obama was already willing to accept some of the key limits set on issues of foreign policy. For most of the debate, in fact, he played to his strength on domestic policy issues, even on the issue of Iraq, where he was always changing the subject from whether we are winning to whether it was a good idea at all in terms of what we could do with those funds domestically. The latter is an area where Obama has been relatively successful in promoting a new discussion that challenges the status quo on what the government should and can do. Talking more about social contract issues in terms of expanding the American dream of the universal jump to the middle class, speaking pragmatically about issues of taxes as opposed to simply conceding "the era of big government is over," as Clinton did, represents at least a tweak on the dominant discourse, even if substantively it may not be that much of a change from the proscribed range of options. In any case, the rhetorical flourish of Obama--much criticized by those further on the Left as a sort of opiate--could also be a mandate to push further in that direction than even the pragmatic pol in him will allow at the moment. In any case, on domestic issues, there are clearer differences between the two candidates, if only on the surface of what they claim to believe.
On foriegn policy, aside from the general argument that a belligerant neo-con US is not the best way to engage the world, Obama is pretty mainstream--which means he is pretty close to McCain. Sabre rattling Liberals are old hat--argument being that, in order to not appear soft, they tend to overemphasize their committment to the use of force. But the outlines of the discourse that McCain promotes are fairly strict: and largely replicated not only in the Mainstream Media criticized by the blogosphere, but also by the blogosphere itself, with a few topical exceptions. (Juan Cole, for instance, has posts up today pointing to two of the three points I make above: Surge isn't really "working" and Pakistan wasn't a failed state. Likewise, Pepe Escobar on The Real News makes similar points.) Whether these are basically cencessions because one has to choose one's battles or not, the truth remains: in general, these kinds of assertions go unchallenged and form a kind of factual background of assumed denotative, objective facts.
The point about Russia seems apt here because the evidence seems to indicate that, in his initial judgement, the polarized, recycled, cold war frame used to describe the conflict didn't exactly gel with reality. When McCain cited Obama's initial reaction that both sides should show some restraint, Obama could easily have replied that, in the situation, this seemed merited. After all, South Ossettia had voted for independence, Georgia was trying to stifle this vote, and Russia, while obviously the "Big" bad guy, wasn't necessarily doing something that wasn't favored by the littlest guy, i.e. Ossettia. How we parse these situations seems relevant and, except for the supposed alliance the US has with Georgia, the nuance is warrented. If we are acting in terms of principles rather than hypocritical power politics, then there is something to be said for not relying on worn out paradigms in a Post-Cold War world.
[UPDATE: Now, almost four months later--though, probably more importantly, a week after the election--the Western media (in this case the NYT and BBC) have finally rejoined reality by say that, um, it was probably Georgia that started it. Better late than never, I guess.]
However, it would seem that the aforementioned alliance, and the cold war, bipolar world that inspired the frame, which, likely, inspired the alliance as well as the media reading of events, ultimately trumped any honest reflection on this: instead of challenging McCain's credibility on this issue--which could have been very interesting, and not nearly as frought in contemporary domestic political discourse as taking him on re: the surge--Obama simply noted that he had observed last year it was odd to have Russian peacekeepers in S. Ossettia and, instead, there should be UN peacekeepers. In other words, he had already been pragmatically bipolar so his breif attack of nuance should be forgiven. In doing this, he reestablishes the hegemonic narrative McCain relies on for his legitimacy on issues of foreign policy.
Likewise, in the only place he really attempted to challenge McCain--on whether there should be direct talks with Iran (and by extension, the new Latin American Axis of Evil--Chavez, Castro, etc.)--Obama doubled back and relied not on his own personal judgement but on the judgement of establishment foreign policy people like Henry Kissenger and the Bush administration itself. In this, he inadvertently plays to McCain's self proclaimed maverick label and in continuing that portion of the debate, gave McCain way too much rope. In any case, the basic premise here is that he wasn't going to challenge the hegemonic discourse: he simply represented a clear-eyed version of how that discourse had changed.
In one final example, where Obama and McCain typically seem to enjoy a simple minded militaristic version of the dominant hegemonic logic regarding Afghanistan, I see a rather clear way that Obama, with even his own version of the narrative of "Hope" seems comepletely unable to challenge basic premises about this argument. Aside from the argument about "the surge" which, as mentioned above, is hardly some magical formula to be replicated in every situation (not least because, in so far as it appears to have worked the first time, it was largely due to internal politics rather than the level of troops), they both seem to have some fetish for saying that the issue of the gathering strength of the Taliban is somehow an issue of there not being a US military presence in the area. This is, of course, a fairly widespread discourse. It represents one of those key arguments where Democrats and Liberals in general can appear to be properly aggressive and militaristic but mostly in retrospect. Here the argument is that Iraq was a mistake because we should have been even more militarily involved in Afghanistan. The assumption, therefore, is that, in so far as Afghanistan as a mission has failed, it is because there wasn't a complete stomping out of our enemies there.
This kind of logic replicates the hegemonic US understanding of what is required in the War on Terror. Namely, it is that the only possible way to make the US safe is to use overwhelming force wherever and whenever necessary, sometimes before threats even really materialize in a way that would make it "necessary." This is the only tool it advises and anyone unwilling to use it--say in the use of force against Iran or Pakistan or, originally, against Iraq. It has been, of course, more of a domestic political tool--giving the GOP a front on which they (supposedly) can't be challenged and, in the case of the current administration, giving the executive vastly enlarged powers. Here, belligerant, forceful power is supposedly the only effective tool available.
It is completely in tune with the understanding of hegemony because, in general, it only comprises a portion of what the US government is actually doing--and in many cases the hegemonic discourse undermines some of the diplomatic and aid based work done. McCain, of course, has been (or "once was") a very vocal opponent of torture and rendition practices--an issue which Obama, along with most of the mainstream media (with the exception of the increasingly vocal Daily Show critiques of McCain) have seemingly given him a pass on abandoning. In other words, it is hegemonic in so far as it outlines what can legitimately be said. And Obama basically didn't challenge this interpretation, particularly on the issue of Afghanistan.
It would have been a fairly easy challenge for him to make. The issue of going into Afghanistan in using the "war on terror" mentality would be easy for him to counter in terms of his supposedly challenging rhetoric of "hope." The wildly popular book Three Cups of Tea and the Central Asia Institute, both authored by Greg Mortenson point to fairly mainstream forms of combatting terrorism. It is another version of "winning hearts and minds" only I'd point out that it wouldn't necessarily need to have the imprint of the US or the west on it at all. Building facilities and infrastructure, helping communities in remote Afghanistan improve food production or health care services, etc. alongside whatever police duties could be aided there, would go much further towards getting rid of the Taliban than an enormous increase in military presence.
Of course I have multiple problems with even this kind of intervention--particularly as it was made during the cold war, which was largely along the lines that would benefit major US agribusinesses and which neglected to take into account any of the local cultural context (issues central to critiques made by Escobar, McMichael, and many others). Still, the context then was in surreptitiously involving ourselves in local affairs under the aegis of the Cold War: it was, in other words, a substitute for military action. In this case, the military action has already transpired. The question of development of institutions that would be helpful to the population--ideally those that the Taliban is already fulfilling--is less one of only (and cynically) winning hearts and minds, and more one of fulfilling a responsibility. Further, I know personally that this is already being done as one of my close friends was working with the Sea Bees in one of the eastern provinces building infrastructure, etc. In other words, there are already some of the US military's finest employed at these tasks.
Defining hegemony in this context is difficult, I suppose, because it makes it more about a disarticulated ideology which must be employed in its purity above the messy pragmatics of reality. In some ways it is a consequence of the massive development of the US state apparatus over the last half century, which creates all sort of problems for people supposedly promoting pure, free market libertarianism. Speaking of the dissolution of the state from within the US is a bit of a non-starter, even if you are really only promoting what amounts to a form of class warfare against so-called entitlement programs. On the other hand, there are plenty of other places where the ideological reformation of institutions has been more rigorous--US health funds in Africa where it is unclear the effect religious interest groups in the US have had on the condom distribution in previously existing programs.
In any case, the "War on Terror" is mainly focused on the War strategy so discussing the fact that broader programs already exist in military and diplomatic circles is certainly a departure from current hegemonic orthodoxy. Whether it would make one appear "weak" on defense seems an open question. If Obama had countered with a wider discussion of this type, pointing out that, pragmatically, it made sense: so much so that even if it was forced under the radar, this is alerady happening. The people, in other words, who know how this is done, are already trying to do this. Taking this wider tack would not only set oneself up to be a realistic presidential figure, it would also have set him apart from his contender in a clear way. This approach would be appealing, moreover, to people who see this idea of "change" in a wider sense. From a purely political/rhetorical strategy perspective, it would have made sense to become better briefed on this tack.
All of this is to say that there is certainly a hegemonic discourse about foreign policy. It could be said that in each case it is questionable whether it is an emergent cultural dominant (such as the narrative of the surge working or the longer hawkish interpretation of the war on terror) or some archaic survival (such as cold war frame) reactivated as support for a certain interpretation of the world. But the fact is that, in many cases it seemed the Obama was helpless to defend his positions precisely because he refuses, in general, to challenge this hawkish rhetoric. This is especially the case in the clearly false case of McCain's argument that Pakistan was a failed state, where Obama seems to have conceded simply because he didn't know.