Notes on 5th Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: James Brow

James Brow, “Notes on Community, Hegemony, and the Uses of the Past,” Anthropological Quarterly 63, no. 1 (January 1990): 1-6.

To open, Brow turns the anthropological lens back onto those who would be observers, to argue that ‘we’ and ‘they’ are/have been subject to similar social mechanisms. He states, for example:

While it is plausible to maintain that, having already happened, the past cannot be altered, it is equally evident that memory is less fixed. Moreover, it is clearly not only in so-called traditional societies that culturally constructed versions of the past are authorized to shape a people’s sense of identity. Representations of the past are an equally prominent feature of hegemonic struggle in modern industrial societies.

It is story-telling as a tool of hegemony that Brow sets out to tackle, laying out a “conceptual apparatus” – an ordered description of the hows and whys of group cohesiveness – “to facilitate the task of grasping the mechanisms and significance of these complex processes.”

He is careful about core terminology. For example, Brow notes that the term ‘community’ is often applied loosely to either a place or a collection of people. He uses it more precisely, limiting it to refer to “a sense of belonging together” (following Max Weber). He explains this subjective state includes both affective and cognitive components: a feeling of solidarity combined with an understanding of shared identity.

Working from that basis, Brow is able to define “communalization” as any pattern of action that promotes a sense of belonging together. He describes ‘pattern of action’ as a continuous process with two prominent characteristics that are in effect opposing tendencies.

  • The one suggests a communal relationship in which “the orientation of social action . . . is based on a subjective feeling of the parties . . . that they belong together.”
  • The other suggests an associative relationship in which “the orientation of social action … rests on a rationally motivated adjustment of interests or a similarly motivated agreement.”

Brow maintains that while most social relationships have the first communal characteristic,  it is usually determined (meaning decided/influenced) by the second’s associative factors. In his view, there is a “constant interweaving,” therefore, “of economic utility and social affinity.” (He is describing what in Marxist terms would be called a dialectic.)

Brow cites Weber’s observation that this interweaving of social pattern-making occurs at many scales of interaction — from “a religious brotherhood, an erotic relationship, a relation of personal loyalty, a national community, the esprit de corps of a military unit” to “the family.” He then notes “Marx, of course, emphasized the creation of communal relations on the basis of common class position as a crucial aspect of the transformation of a class-in-itself into a class-for-itself.”

Brow then turns to furnishing examples “largely concerned with the interplay among processes of communalization that emerge from different bases situated between the levels of the family and the nation, as these are conditioned by changes in the distribution of power within the capitalist world economy.” He describes Benedict Anderson’s  “much-cited definition of the nation as ‘an imagined political community’” as affirming that the sense of belonging together is an active process, while at the same time it “tacitly” accepts that people look to generating a sense of community in conditions where a feeling of solidarity is effectively absent, or appears elusive, because the community is too large for face-to face contact. Brow takes the argument a step further, however, to argue that communalization – no matter the scale — always contains an imaginative aspect. He then discusses vertical community ties (here he assumes the model of a hierarchically organized society applies). In his view, these are as important to consider as horizontal ties (meaning class). He takes issue with the idea (Marxist) that “communal relations are always exclusively horizontal.” Brow acknowledges that there may be instances of “communitas,” (egalitarian social organization) in which horizontal relations of equality are pronounced and the vertical dimension hardly exists. But, he implies that condition is really only an abstract, utopian ideal. He is more interested in arguing that in communities with a vertical dimension the experience of community transcends class, tying the lower to the upper:

The popular British identification with its royal family, for example, bears ample testimony to the persistent power of vertical solidarity even in class-divided industrial societies. Communal relations may, in other words, possess both egalitarian and hierarchical dimensions.

Thus Brow is able to regard nation as a larger community that contains separate relations to communities ‘nested’ within it.

[A this point in his description, Brow has stipulated so many potential scales of interaction that I have to wonder if community, as a word, is in fact useful in this discussion? Despite Brow’s attempt to limit its definition, like the words ‘power’ and ‘culture’ in academic texts (roughly 1960s into the 1990s), here ‘community’ seems to be applying to everything and anything, thus progressively moving towards becoming representative of nothing. I have an uneasy feeling that Brow has perhaps set up a distinction without a difference. (More worrisome yet: is the term ‘community’ really only functioning as a way to reference previous works on the basis of homonymic similarity? After all, the works cited do not necessarily share Brow’s definition. See notes on the Donnan and Wilson text below and the discussion of McGuffin-esque metonyms)]

Brow avers that “All communal relations are socially constructed.” He qualifies the statement, however, by observing “some communal relations are felt to be more deeply binding than others,” so much so that they “seem to flow more from a sense of natural . . . affinity than from social interaction,” and come to possess “an ineffable, and at times overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves.” They seem to be, in essence, primordial (an innate drive) and therefore inevitable.

Brow is interested in delineating the political aspects of assuming “primordialization,” the term used to describe “the process whereby certain kinds of communal relations are promoted and experienced as if they possessed an original and natural inevitability.” This would be an instance of Boudeau’s “doxa”: where the culturally constructed world is “seen as a self-evident and natural order” that is “taken for granted” because opinions to the contrary have not been voiced; no one has chosen to consider alternatives.

In his present, Brow finds nationalism and ethnicism to be “pervasive and forcefully propagated forms of contemporary primordialization.” He lists among the components of nationalism and ethnicism: kinship, language, religion, locality, and “etc.”, all of which interact with one another “and with communalization on other bases, especially class, in extremely complex and varied ways.”

Brow then addresses story-telling about the past to remark:

Almost everywhere, it seems, the sense of belonging together is nourished by being cultivated in the fertile soil of the past. Even newly established collectivities quickly compose histories for themselves that enhance their members’ sense of shared identity, while solidarity is fortified by a people’s knowledge that their communal relations enjoy an historical provenance. Communalization is further strengthened by the conviction that what ties a group of people together is not just a shared past but a common origin. Anthropologists hardly need to be reminded that claims of descent from a common ancestor are among the most effective and commonplace means by which human groups forge bonds of community. But what gives kinship its special potency as a basis of community is that it can draw upon the past not simply to posit a common origin but also to claim substantial identity in the present. Kinship thus provides a standard idiom of community for collectivities ranging from the family, the lineage and the clan to the nation and the race, and is extended also to include religious brotherhoods, feminist sisterhoods, fraternal orders of all kinds, and even the whole family of nations.

Despite the rhetoric of kinship (“blood is thicker than water“), the power of the past to shape communal relations in the present is more a matter of culture than of nature. What is at stake is not genetic affinity or the inertia of habitual behavior but the moral authority of tradition, the maintenance of which requires continuous cultural work. Various means are available to bolster the authority of tradition, of which one of the most widely adopted is its sacralization, as Weber noted when he described the ideal-type of traditional authority as “resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions.”

Construction of an authoritative tradition that identifies all who accept it as members of the same political community is particularly prominent in the creation of nations and sub-nations. Tradition typically composes a version of the past that not only binds the members of the nation to one another, by proclaiming their shared descent and/or common experience, but also associates the nation as a whole with a particular territory that  –maintaining the domestic imagery of the family — is its homeland. Such renditions of the past establish the enduring character of the national community despite all the ruptures and vicissitudes of history.

Brow also observes that:

The essential continuity of the nation is often also represented in the figure of the countryman or peasant, doubtless because his way of life seems endlessly to reproduce that of ancestral generations, while his (less often, her) intimate connection with the land epitomizes the nation’s inviolable attachment to its territory.

[The point is interesting when applied to Métis constructions of community, given that originally connection to the land ‘from time immemorial was maternally conferred.]

Brow then outlines hegemony: the “state of `total social authority’ which, at certain specific conjunctures, a specific class alliance wins, by a combination of `coercion’ and `consent’, over the whole social formation.” Brow accepts as given the Foucaultian axiom that there are “intimate and intricate connections between knowledge and power.” So that

at any moment socially organized knowledge of the past both reflects and affects the distribution and exercise of power. Memory is thus an important site of political conflict, and contending versions of the past figure prominently in what it is useful to describe, in the sense opened up by Gramsci, as the struggle for hegemony.

The attainment of hegemony, according to Brow “is very rare.” [I would have said ‘exceptionally transient’ and then worried about scale again, and perhaps sought to define hegemony as a perception/imagining of condition (see Williams below)]. Brow, referencing Gramsci, describes the struggle for hegemony, as another continuous process “whereby the interests of other groups are coordinated with those of a dominant or potentially dominant group, through the creation of ‘not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity’.” Communalization therefore, can be seen to be “an indispensable component of any hegemonic process.”

Brow cites Raymond William’s description of hegemony as continually “renewed, recreated, defended and modified . . . [but] also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own” (another example of a dialectic). He then lays out William’s formulation in a way that suggests ‘hegemony’ too is a term that applies so much in the everywhere that it threatens to fizzle into defining nothing essential found anywhere: “the relations of dominance and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness … in effect [saturate] … the whole process of living … to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense.”

[Is this just a complicated way of repeating that ‘people are sheep’? Where is individual agency here? Do we opt to beco-erced‘ and ‘trapped’ in a system? Or is it an accident beyond our control? Do we just get “swept up in the times” (as Bayly put it)? Or do we pick sides? Is it really too much of one and the other happening simultaneously for us to know? I prefer to believe that the possibility of choice is ever-present. To plead a lack of awareness of the existence of choice is to feign innocence and deny personal responsibility for contributing by tacit agreement to outcomes. To my way of thinking, there are times when choosing one form of ‘common sense’ over another – and I would argue there is always another — is motivated by considerations other than logic, although it might still be ‘rational’ in that there is a rationale: a choice is a reasoned response. There is an aspect of self-preservation to choosing, and sometimes self-interest, but I believe people are capable of altruism – or at least learning to mimic it. Otherwise, the ‘might is right’ approach is ‘naturalized’ and personal responsibility goes out the window. The historical result of that social scenario, as Innis argued, is that people who en masse decide to be mighty and righteous, so far, haven’t hung on to their superior position indefinitely. ‘They’ seem always to have got their ‘come-uppance’ – and a pretty ancient assessment of the state of the human condition that one is – ‘the meek,’ if the  Beatitudes are to be read as any indication of ancient reflection/prediction, inevitably see roles reversed.]

Brow moves on to note that “to bring into question and discussion what was previously unquestioned and therefore undiscussed is an act of political consciousness-raising. Conversely, primordialization, as an instance of what Bourdieu claims is the tendency of ‘every established order . . . to produce . . . the naturalization of its own arbitrariness’ is an act of political consciousness-reduction.”

[I remain leery of this shifting of responsibility off the individual. What a lazy bunch, who individually won’t be conscious – and will tacitly agree not to deride each other for said lazy unconsciousness.]

Brow introduces a new term: “Departicularization.” This he defines as “the process whereby historical discourses and practices are emptied of their local, concrete meanings and universalized, made the property of all who are incorporated within the hegemony. And he defines another process: “Idealization is the process through which the past is cleaned up and made the palatable embodiment of dominant values.”

[imho: Overseers of knowledge and its dissemination can be held as responsible for this – but agreement and acceptance of this domination is a choice.]

Brow winds up his construction of community as intrinsic to hegemony with a number of statements, notable among them:

Anderson’s remark that the nation is imagined as ‘inherently limited’ applies also to other kinds of community. Just as ‘no nation imagines itself as coterminous with mankind,’ so every community is defined in opposition to others. Communalization is, then, a process both of inclusion and of exclusion. At the same time differences among those who are incorporated within a community are often muted or obscured, while differences between insiders and outsiders are loudly affirmed. This pattern of polarization between communities and homogenization within them can then be fortified by appeals to the past that represent a cultural distinction as an original and essential difference.

None of these processes, however, is either uniform or unassailable. The contradictions and distortions within any hegemonic discourse, as well as the discrepancies between it and the popular understandings of common sense, leave it ever vulnerable to penetration, criticism, and refusal. The struggle for hegemony is always an open-ended process of contestation as well as incorporation, of negotiation and resistance as much as of accommodation and consent.

The political connection that Gramsci discerns ‘between common sense and the upper level of philosophy’ should be understood in the broadest possible sense. State officials and political parties are certainly among the major agencies that determine this relationship, but cultural, educational, and religious institutions, as well as the family and all kinds of voluntary organizations, are also fundamentally involved. As Williams stresses in the passage quoted earlier, the concept of hegemony looks at relations of domination and subordination … as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living — not only of political and economic activity, nor only of manifest social activity, but of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships.

In short, hegemonic struggle is ubiquitous in social life.

[Which is all very well, except, saying that community is apparently so much a part of hegemony and hegemony is so much a part of community (in modern industrial societies) that the two comprise a ‘natural’ (because indivisible) dialectic, Brow seems to be concluding that for the individual, the ‘sense of belonging together’ is in fact a primordial need — one so overwhelming that it compels people to group together and play power games? No matter what other conditions exist?]

Sources Brow cites:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/knowledge. New York: Pantheon.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic.

Giddens, Anthony. 1979. Central problems in social theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

——. 1984. The constitution of society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the prison notebooks, ed. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance. In Sociological theories: Race and colonialism. Paris: UNESCO.

——. 1986. Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity. Journal of Communication Inquiry 10(2): 5-27.

Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The invention of tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 1982. Recasting Marxism: Hegemony and new political movements. Socialist Review 66 (12: 6): 91-113.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

——. 1980. Problems in materialism and culture. London: Verso.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes 2, Section I: Identity. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Notes on 5th Text for Aboriginal Studies Reading List: James Brow

  1. ianclary says:

    Here’s a very odd and unrelated question: Did you used to own Northrop Frye’s “Anatomy of Criticism”?

    • hallnjean says:

      Yes odd 🙂 No didn’t own it — did a quick scan and read about it at the library though.

      • ianclary says:

        The reason for asking: I was in Value Village and picked up one of his books on criticism second-hand. The previous owner, so the scribble on the inside front page, is “Norma Hall.” So I googled the name and you seemed a likely candidate. Woops!

      • hallnjean says:

        Well, the scribble part sure sounds like me … honest mistake

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