Antonio Gramsci, activist and theorist, coined the term ‘cultural hegemony’ to explain how power works. He was interested in how power is exerted by those who posses it and how it is achieved by those who want to change things. Gramsci identified that it wasn't enough to take control of the institutions and the state; you had to take the population with you: public consent had to be maintained as power was exercised (he had observed how the Catholic Church exercised and retained power).
James Joll(1), in his biography of Gramsci states that in both politics and individual behaviour, Gramsci believed it was only through historical awareness and analysis, including how these affected societies and individuals, that man’s capacity to remake his surroundings - and to remake himself - become clear (p.90).
Gramsci concluded that in order to construct and sustain a new society, a new consciousness had to be constructed and sustained. He saw culture as central to consciousness. He refers to culture both on a macro and micro level ‘big-C Culture’ (in an aesthetic sense) and ‘small-c culture’, which refers to the norms that make up our day to day lives. Culture in this context influences our perception and ideas of what's good and bad, right and wrong. As with more explicit social structures such as class and gender, cultural hegemony organises our social practices, perspectives and relationships.
Cultural hegemony, as defined by Gramsci, occurs when - and because - it is ingested by society. As such, it becomes not only integral but also the norm, that is, the ‘small-c culture’. When a culture becomes hegemonic, it evolves as the 'common sense' view, is adopted and becomes habitual.
As Ivy Ken(2) points out, race, class and gender are produced, combined, experienced and digested in much the same way as what we eat:
"[People] become what they have “eaten,” and when we are eating race-class-gender combinations that are infused with difference - good and bad, ugly and beautiful, worthless and valuable, stupid and smart - we become different: different from each other and different from what we would have otherwise been. We identify race, class, and gender combinations in social things to determine the influence they have had on those social things, but we identify the functions of those social things - their effects on the world - by understanding how race, class, and gender are digested. (p.9)"
If cultural hegemony explains how power works, then it could be argued there are similarities or parallels with the race-class-gender combinations referred to by Ken. Cultural hegemony is laced through narratives, images and turns of phrase. As such, it doesn't look political and is a lot more difficult to detect. When comparing what we eat with the social structures that affect us,
Ken has a particular interest in sugar. In Digesting Race, Class and Gender: Sugar as a Metaphor, she explores how sugar is produced and combined, the ways it can be experienced and how it shapes the entities with which it interacts. In order to illustrate some of the primary points of relationship among race, class, and gender. To Ken, sugar serves as a metaphor, not for race or class or gender in their entirety but for any big or small part of any one of them.
This follows the work of Sidney Mintz(3), which analyses the introduction of sugar onto the European continent and its transformation from a luxury item to a everyday item. Mintz sees sugar as a commodity that has shaped modern society, imposing a sort of consumptive hegemony particularly in the UK and the US.
As Ken investigates the relationships and metaphors sugar in her book, I explore them through the physical use of sugar and other everyday substances. How can manipulating sugar’s form, for example by heating, colouring and reforming, reveal it’s hidden properties. What does this tell us about the similarly hidden properties of society’s hegemonies; the everyday norms of class, gender and culture?
(1) Joll, J. (1977) Gramsci
(2) Ken, I. (2010) Digesting Race, Class and Gender: Sugar as a Metaphor
(3) Mintz, S. (1985) ‘Sweetness and Power’