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Matthew Arnold's Unique Philosophical Beliefs

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Before delving into the beliefs and ideas of the theories discussed over the course of the semester, first I will clarify what exactly Matthew Arnold himself believed in order to effectively compare his ideas to others. Arnold viewed culture as “The best that has been thought and said in the world,” a unified world where class is nonexistent. He saw the class structure of his time as problematic because he believed that class division should be demolished in order to create a social “perfection” (in his eyes) where everyone agreed on the standard of “the best that has been thought and said.” The fact that the working class had a drastically different culture than that of the aristocracy was Arnold’s definition of anarchy. The working class was the true majority of people, so their form of culture was what Arnold considered popular culture, and he did not like it. To Arnold, culture should be unified, not popular. Of course, there could never be such a thing as a classless society, so Arnold’s concept of social perfection never came to fruition.

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Structuralism is based heavily on the complexity of language. Language can only be understood through binary oppositions; it is impossible to know what day is unless night exists as its binary opposite. Structuralists believe that linguistic signs are completely arbitrary, as exemplified in the very idea of language itself. Every word (sign) acts as a signifier, but every foreign language has a different sign for every word. A universally understood object can have countless signifiers depending on where you are. Above all, signs are always relational and polysemic. Structuralists would denounce Arnold’s ideas because of the diversity of language. There can be no one culture where everyone agrees on “the best that has been thought and said” because there is no way for everyone to agree on what is being thought and said in the first place. Interpretation of linguistic meaning is completely arbitrary, and the existence of various races, ethnicities, and cultural values throughout the world emphasize that. For instance, Americans place little importance on the life of a cow because our culture uses it as food. In the Hindu culture, cows are sacred because they represent all other living creatures. The cow has a different symbolic meaning to different people. There would be no way for these two groups to agree on what is inherently an opposition of their cultures. Structuralists also believe that consumers of popular culture are unaware of how prominent language and signifiers are in their everyday lives. We are controlled by what we think we know and understand which is completely based on how we interpret linguistic meaning.

Marxism is a theory that is almost comically opposite of the ideas of Matthew Arnold. Everything in classical Marxism is based on class conflict. Everything is determined by society’s economic structure. While Arnold dreams of a world where class is absent, Marxists build their entire theory on the separation of base (industrial means of production) and superstructure (institutions of culture, education, religion, family, etc.), a unique twist on standard class systems. The base consists of the worker bees that create necessary basics of everyday life, while the superstructure consists of the artists that define culture for the base to enjoy. To Marxists, popular culture is a distortion of reality, fooling normal people into believing what is false to be true. Marxists are the ones who claim the ability to see through the façade of popular culture and live in their perceived exclusive reality that only the ones who have the superior sight can reside in. While Arnold dismisses popular culture as a product of the working class, Marxists view popular culture as a sickness that affects everyone. Only true Marxists can understand “how things work.” This deception is not exclusive to a critique of Arnold’s theory; Marxists believe everyone is fooled by popular culture, especially those that consume it.

Psychoanalysis, founded in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, is anchored in biology. The human mind is divided into the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id is our most instinctual nature of self that cannot be controlled. The ego keeps the power of the id in check, like the example in our book that compares the id to a horse and the ego to its rider. The super-ego is a compilation of the actions of authority over time, usually referred to as the conscience. This psyche structure is the core idea of psychoanalysis; all other ideas under its umbrella stem from this construction of the mind. Because we are born with and id while the ego and super-ego develop over time, what most people call “human nature” is actually a direct product of culture. Everyone’s most innate tendencies are the result of the cultural environment they are surrounded by. Psychoanalysts would see some problems with Arnold’s idea of a unified classless culture because if we were all a product of a singular culture then most people would not be inherently different. Popular culture is a significant part of who we turn out to be. This is also what most people do not understand about popular culture from a psychoanalytic point of view, that it is an essential influence on who you turn out to be. It is impossible to ignore or reject the effect popular culture has on the Freudian psyche.

Post-Structuralism centers around the ideas of differance and discourses. Jacques Derrida extended the oppositional nature of language with the word differance, the idea that language and text have no inherent meaning because meaning is the result of individual interpretation depending on the context and the signifier/signified. Unlike in Structuralism, Derrida believed that binary opposition is always a relation of power, which is where discourses come in. Michael Foucault said that discourses are ultimately about power; so much power that differance could be meaningless in the context of a discourse because within a discourse certain words or phrases could have very specific meanings that are not open to interpretation. To quickly sum up the idea of a discourse: discourses produce knowledge, which supplies power, which produces reality. These discourses are a direct source of popular culture. Post-Structuralists might have a problem with Arnold’s desire for a unified culture because it would likely result in the limitation of discourses, at least in terms of who may control them. Limiting discourse limits reality, which would limit creative prowess for further addition to the vast world of popular culture. Post-Structuralists would also think that consumers of popular culture do not realize that they as consumers do not have as much power as they think because it is the institutional procedures controlling discourses that have the power.

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