Aspects of Power and Cultural Politics in Literature

Seminar Paper, 2016

7 Pages


Aspects of Power and cultural politics in Literature By: Hamid MasfourSultan Moulay Sliman university, Beni Mellal, Morocco

In many ways, literature underlies subtle discursive processes that either inform the text with a power regime or contest it through a disruptive counter-discourse. Taking part in circulating power-laden cultural values legitimating or countering the status- quo, literature has been a fertile ground for different currents of critical and cultural studies such as postcolonial, feminist and literary theory. In this context, the argument of this paper investigates through examples of different literary genres how literature has always been amid a tug of war either endorsing hegemonic power representations or taking a position of resistance.

Since the early Greek tragedies, drama was not only a didactic pedagogy carried out by “the imitation of an action that is serious” to accomplish catharsis[1]. Making the tragic hero a victim of uncontrollable supernatural powers, classical tragedies endorsed a worldview anchored in the great chain of being. This latter consists of a hierarchical order wherein God is central and man is performative of divine will. However, humans are not equal despite enjoying a spirit that relates them to God. For instance, Kings were privileged as divinely pre-ordained representatives whose resolutions constituted an unquestionable authority of providence. Within such a system of signification, the production of meaning was carried out in a top-down manner through a closed sign system that subjugated the majority to turn them to passive decoders of a power-oriented chain of values. Accordingly, the validity of any human act emanated from extending the truths that bound the subject to the metaphysical powers through theocratic mediators.

Such a worldview is legitimated by classical tragedy on many levels. On the one hand classical tragic drama neutralizes human agency using protagonists who surrender to invincible unworldly powers. On the other hand, it backs up a political order through restricting heroism to bearers of titles and power positions. These latter have virtues that mark them from ordinary mortals but hardly spare them from misfortunes. Consequently, Agamemnon, Antigone , Oedipus ,Anthony and Cleopatra and Hamlet ,among others, are all tragic heroes of noble breed who can voice protest to death and suffering. Although Nietzsche considers tragedy an expression of man’s creative resistance to the incomprehensible sources of suffering[2], the act of locating heroism in high social rank is in its own right a latent power discourse that eclipses the ‘populace’ from the capacity of integrating the conflict-based narratives of tragedy.

Unlike Aeschylus, Sophocles , Euripides and other Greek writers of tragedy, modern play wrights have decentred kings, queens and princes[3]. Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman and Eddie Carbone are cases of ordinary, modern tragical heroes who struggle against socio-cultural and economic powers instead of metaphysical destiny. Reversing the power discourse and the political implications of the great chain of being, such modern tragedies dissect the human conflicts to foreground how their outcomes are directed and settled by secular power relationships. Such modern heroes voice their protest to the earthly powers victimising them as a lower class.

In Death of a Salesman (1949), Arthur Miller demonstrates how the power of capitalism devours the ordinary salesman Willie Loman who cannot keep up with the pace of a consumerist society. Through a life time of toiling, the economic system exploits him to fire him at an advanced age. Moreover, growing older and economically frustrated, he becomes psychologically unstable, which shows how capitalist power relationships alienate the subordinate class. Anxious about the future of his sons, Lowman struggles to enact social mobility and create new power relationships by persisting in talking to Biff to convince him to become a businessman. Ironically, he attempts to insert his son in the same profit structure of the capitalist power that reified him as a human means of production. Failing the ways and means to help his son, Willy crashes his car so that his son could obtain the life insurance to start his business career. In such a suicidal tragic moment, Loman voices a symbolic cry of protest against the dysfunctions of a modern capitalist power system that makes people schizophrenic and unable to enjoy life.[4]

Likewise, in A View from the Bridge the breadwinner Eddie Carbone is the victim of an international capitalism that has created uneven economic opportunity. This system made him immigrate from Sicily to carry with him to America values not fitting the new world and leading him to his tragedy. On a similar vein, Eddie’s deviance from his Sicilian community leads him to be ostracised by the power of the Italian culture. Informing the immigration bureau about the illegal stay of Rodolpho, Eddie seeks to secure his incest love by preventing his niece from marrying him. In an act of betrayal to his Sicilian countryman, he confronts a whole structure of ethnic solidarity that exceeds and denounces him as cultural power.

Clinging to a structure of representations demonstrates how the ethnic Italian enclave community refuses to integrate an American capitalist system of cultural values that estrange them[5] in Brooklyn’s stark slums. They resist a dominant nativist power distribution that empowers a fabricated indigenous identity[6] and disempowers diasporic immigrants .In this context, Carbone’s final decision to defend his name in a Sicilian deadly dual strongly articulates how the power discourse of American jurisdiction to settle down conflicts has a flimsy grip on him .For good or bad, the Sicilian normative code cannot be dropped altogether by Carbone .Amid a struggle against the secular powers of culture and capitalism, Eddie is a modern hero whose tragic flaw lies in ignoring how to make the best of third spaces and hybridity. As he cannot negotiate with different cultural powers, he becomes unable to empower himself beyond resorting to the same American nativist essentialzing worldview that denigrates difference.

As far as verse is concerned, although Plato excluded poets from his republic for their blurring the boundaries between the rational and the irrational, poets have been involved either in circulating power or in resisting it. With rigid patterns of sounds and poetic diction, classical poetry considered creative validity that which stick to the norms. These constituted canons which were adhered to as an aesthetic yardstick. However, these latter do not only involve creative criteria, but also make part of a whole prescriptive system of cultural values that form a symbolic power. Through strict prosodic , metric and rhetoric structures poets used to legitimate the idea of common sense, order and social normativity .Since the Greek epics celebrating a national spirit in a grandiose style[7], poetic diction was stagnant for a long time to impose an artificial arrangement of poetic language. This was meant to perpetuate the canons and their associated values of conformity.

However by the eighteenth century with the industrial revolution and the eclipse of the feudal system new social values of individualism and social hierarchies will emerge. Similarly, poets invented a deviant poetic language to express a rising consciousness that contests the industrial values of utilitarianism and the reification of human life. Against capitalism and its savage utilitarianism, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge reject in the Lyrical Ballads (1800) a poetic diction that denies the individual poet free idiosyncratic self-expression. Beyond an exclusionary elite language, they advocate a diction that uses the language of the common man and everyday colloquial speech. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge are not only preoccupied with framing new poetic parameters but also seeks to dislocate the dominant power by lending a voice to the suppressed majority through using their language as a revolutionary poetic alternative. Beside constituting a reaction against industrial capitalism and the social hierarchies it imposed, they also rethink a system of values through reassessing the means of meaning production which make culture and power relationships possible.

On a similar vein, beside its thematic and artistic complexity, T.S Eliot’s time-honoured Wasteland (1922) abounds in cross cultural myths that challenge the provincial Eurocentric confinements of creativity. In addition to symbolism, Eliot’s myths are a fresh breathing space for acculturation as a dislocation of univocal epistemic power. Written after the First World War, the wasteland revolutionizes poetry as it links the poetic to a broad human identity rather than to the restricting national affiliations that have kindled wars. With disjointed style and phrases from multiple languages, Eliot does not restrict knowledge to a particular origin of truth-making, nor does he produce meaning according to the spur of a cultural totalitarian power. As a counter-discourse, the cross cultural load in the wasteland questions the homogenising worldview of different Eurocentric essentialist nationalisms. Beside its dystopian tone about a degenerate post-war world, It interrogates monolithism that led competitive utilitarian and capitalist imperialist regimes to drag the world into war atrocities. Although “The wasteland” is interlarded with historical and cultural layers of the western world, Eliot parodies most of it to philosophically contest eurocentrism and divest it of its argumentative power.

In the sphere of novel writing, power has also motivated literary narratives with spectacular ideological signs wherein hegemony and resistance counter-discourse manifest in one form or another. In this regard, as one of the most egalitarian utopias ever written, H.G Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) advocates an ideal unified state world. Tending to social harmony, this latter is managed by an international government and one bureaucracy. For fair distribution of wealth and a class-free society, the land, the capital and the industrial resources are state-controlled. Like the guardian philosophers of Plato’s The Republic, Wells’s global utopia is ruled by the Samurai who are voluntary dedicated nobleman .Although Wells’s global utopia claims harmony, coexistence and justice, it is no longer power-free. As a realm of a central source of decision-making, Wells’s ideal world rules out all the nuances that cultural contexts and geographical variations underlie. Since different countries accumulate different cultures and life styles, a universal state such as Wells’s becomes a device of uniformity for neutralising multiculturalism. Ignoring different ways of making human experience and perceiving the self, the world and the other, such a global state is made viable only through a structure of power promoting a dominant center and creating margins. In the guise of a welfare state, Wells utopia operates through a coherent system of homogenizing difference in order to subordinate probable sites of dissent. Similarly, unworldly and selective, A Modern Utopia utterly excludes individualism. It imposes instead a narrative of the community and collective identity to abort diverging individual desires by a communist principle that prohibits even the right to individual ownership.

Unlike Wells’s implicit support of centralised power, Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is a dystopia that openly denounces global hegemony. Through Winston Smith, a member of the ruling party in the fictitious nation of Oceania, 1984 creates a depressing vision about a world controlling individuals’ bodies and thought . Through tele-screens the party enacts a round-the-clock surveillance on the protagonist. In Foucauldian terms, such panoptical monitoring enforces the ubiquity of power to make it accepted in the long run[8]. Besides, Orwell undergoes further anatomy on hegemony to locate its predicates in discourse. In Oceanea people are forced to implement the language of Newspeak which omits all words associated with rebellion and likely to resist the power-related tropes of the party. Enabled by a uniform discourse, the uniformity of the dystopian world of Oceania suppresses individuality to prohibit sexual desire and condemn free expression as a “thought crime”.

In the “Ministry of Truth”, like his colleagues, Winston is required to adapt the invented historical records for the interests of the party. Overtly, 1984 demystifies power dynamics to lay bare how it conquers and dominate history through invented narratives that selectively include and exclude for the sake of imposing a transcendental and self-unified truth. By means of the protagonist’s critical attitude to the party’s claim that Oceania has always been threatened by Eurasia, Orwell conveys how hegemonic regimes survive by strengthening power through circulating Manichean values glorifying a totalised collective self and vilify the other.

Having a clandestine love affair with Julia, Winston develops more self-awareness and consciousness about his desires. He becomes sceptical of a system that privileges oppressive oligarchy and relegates the individual to subordination, which makes him question the party and the power relationships it legitimates. At this stage of confrontation, Orwell’s point is that resistance becomes possible only when the subject’s individualism sparks. Even more, it is individualism that power targets to perpetuate a hegemonic course of action. Trapped by the spy O’Brien for his rebellious “crime thought”, Winston is exposed to months of torture and brain washing to compel him to give up his emotions to Julia, and to love, instead, the party’s symbolic figure Big Brother. Transposing the affective attachment to an ideological faith, the power arsenal of Oceania divests its inhabitants from feeling , imagination and spirituality as human resources that have long been omnipresent within every twist and turn of the human narrative. Aborting such factors of agency, the modernised world of 1984 assisted by far- reaching scientific power-knowledge deconstructs modernity’s pretensions that man’s well being is the teleological end of human creativity.

Alhough this topic requires critical volumes, it can be concluded that part of the complexity of literature lies in its encompassing the very multivalent forces making life irreducible .For between the drives of power and the desire of freedom from it, the literary word is energised by human experience to articulate the human struggles wherein the mind has been unable to discard “the irrational” heart.


[1] Aristotle poetics, VI1 449, section 145b.

[2] Cf . Nietzsche’s The birth of tragedy

[3] Cf. Arthur Miller. Tragedy and the common Man

[4] This converges with Deleuze and Guattari’s hypothesis in their two- volumes Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

[5] “The nativist position was that immigrants would be inassimilable, and that their customs and manners would be inimical to maintaining the political institutions of the country, and that they would constitute a threat to the American cultural identity” Martin E. Spencer .Multiculturalism, "Political Correctness," and the Politics of Identity.

[6] Stewart Hall claims that diasporic subjects are mainly hybrid .They distabalise the power-motivated identity fixation as they “produce themselves anew and differently” through “market and exchange relations.”(Hall,362)

[7] The Homeric epics are nationalist in scope : The Illiad tells about the wars between the Greeks and the Trojans and the Odyssey recounts the adventures of Odysseus on his return from the Trojan wars.

[8] Cf. Foucault : Discipline and Punish.

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Aspects of Power and Cultural Politics in Literature
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This paper was given at a seminar on literary criticism and English studies at the faculty of Arts and humanities, university Sultan Moulay Sliman Beni Mellal, Morocco.
power, cultural politics, literature, George Orwell, H.G Wells, Arthur Miller, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aristotle, Nietzsche, T.S Eliot
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Hamid Masfour (Author), 2016, Aspects of Power and Cultural Politics in Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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