Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

Seaside as Sign

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm

By Tina Richardson

It is impossible to separate the seaside resort from the modernist project itself. The British seaside is, amongst other things, the product of an improved transport system that resulted from industrialisation. Evolving in the 19th century, it also produced another ‘space’ for the citizen to consume in in order for the continuation of production. It carried with it, at least in its early days, notions of conspicuous consumption, the outward representation of wealth and status. Therefore even in the Victorian period it was already well-grounded in the ideology of reproduction (Marx), the cyclical nature of capital’s structural process. Fèlix Guattari explains that through its use of a system of signs “the capitalist Signifier, as simulacrum of imaginary power, has the job of overcoding all the other Universes of value.” (1995: 105). This is done through a system of signs that are ideologically coded, and yet appear as ‘natural’.

The contemporary seaside’s manifest form is pure spectacle: its multitude of signs bombard the senses and attempt to hijack individual subjectivities converting them into what Guattari describes as capitalist subjectivity. While it does not in any way reach Jean Baudrillard’s fourth order of the sign, that which has no bearing on reality, it could easily be considered a level two sign: not providing a true representation of reality, while simultaneously implying that reality does actually exist. However, what makes the seaside particularly interesting is its juxtaposition: a space of consumption set alongside the sand and sea. The dividing line between this culture/nature dichotomy is starkly apparent in a geographical sense; setting up interesting spatial tensions that encourage examination. John Fiske provides a superb semiotic analysis of the seaside in his essay ‘Reading the Beach’. In the introduction he states: “Like all texts, the beach has an author – not, admittedly, a named individual, but a historically determined set of community practices that have produced material objects or signs.” (2004: 43).

We all read the beach, whether we realise it or not. However the test, I would say, is whether we read solely the dominant signs as opposed to those which are less apparent.


Fiske, John. 2004. ‘Reading the Beach’, Reading the Popular (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers). pp. 43-76.

Guattari, Félix. 1995. Chaosmosis: An ethico-aesthetic paradigm, trans. by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).

For information on my other work, please go to: particulations

The fantasy of cultural history

In Arcades, reading on June 23, 2009 at 10:11 am

“…fashion…this semblance of the new is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the semblance of the ever recurrent. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of “cultural history” in which the bourgeoisie enjoys its false consciousness to the full.” (Benjamin 2002: 11)

Benjamin launches himself against the fantasy of cultural history here. This is an attack against aesthetics, good taste and capitalism that seeks to collapse these categories into each other at the same time as exposing them to the light of critique.

As a good materialist, Benjamin refuses to accept the narrative of a transcendent culture, a universal aesthetic sense which floats above the social conditions of the day. The false consciousness of the bourgeoisie is the self-referential ideal of cultural superiority, hidden behind fantasies of taste, education and inheritance. This consciousness is false, not because it is not real, but because it is not true.

The high-priest of this doctrine is Kant, who provided a legitimation of the fantasy under the guide of of ‘disinterestedness’, a universally accessible state of being in which the most complex representations become sensible through an aesthetic sense, allowing us all to experience the beauty of the aesthetic object equally. Of course, those of us unable to access this state of disinterestedness must be hindered in doing so in some way and it is a marker of the bourgeoisie that they have taken the time and made the moral commitment to do so effectively.

Most Marxists tend to relegate cultural production and consumption to the superstructure, or assign it some other subordinate role that props up the system, as with Gramsci’s (1998) concept of hegemony. Cultural materialists however, take their cue from the Marx of the Theses who states that the essence of man (sic) is the “ensemble of social relations” (1845 / 1998: 570), and not solely the physical and economic conditions of the age. This version of materialism both elevates social relations to the states of ‘real objects’ and, at the same time, subsumes them into the “practical” (ibid: 571); a productive dialectic that allows to move back and forth between the social conditions and social practice within the same conceptual framework and without having to prioritize one over the other. Embodying this dialectic are those cultural objects which are made by us to exemplify our culture whilst also speaking to us about what our culture is. The cultural object exposes the conditions of its production just as it tells us what cultural production is and is for. The fantasy of cultural history is made explicit in the fantastic objects of cultural production and consumption.

A cultural materialist perspective on Paris’ Arcades leads Benjamin into discussions of the development of iron manufacturing, the textile trade, mechanization, empire, urban planning and poetry. To extend this method to the promenade will necessitate drawing on history, sociology. Economics, cultural studies, literature and other media. Establishing a productive dialectical understanding of the cultural form of the promenade will be important and I hope that Benjamin’s Convolutes, the next section of the Arcades Project text that we are working from can be instructive here.