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The aesthetics of hegemony: Sloanism and mass persuasion in the United States, 1900-1930

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posted on 2023-06-08, 15:18 authored by Ishan Cader
Theories regarding the power of the United States in the International Political-Economic order conventionally treat issues of culture and aesthetics as functional aspects of the system of mass production created in the early 20th century. The ‘hegemony’ of the United States is attributed to the ability of its political-economic elites to create and maintain ‘consensus’ amongst other nations. Cultural manifestations of American hegemony are regarded as ‘soft’ signposts of this power, serving to entrench the values of American capitalism at a global level. Yet critical theories of international political economy have evaded analysing the ‘appeal’ of this cultural power, prioritizing materialist aspects of consensus formation such as the compromises made between capital and labour during the early 20th century during the rise of the mass production society. The task of this thesis is to provide the theoretical tools which allow critical evaluations of American hegemony to move beyond these materialist conceptions of cultural power. It is argued that an aesthetic approach to hegemony can fully realize the enduring power of American culture in political-economic terms. It does so by critically re-situating the terms of hegemony in Sloanism, which provides a more adequate template for realizing the power and meaning of mass consumption for non-elite social agents. Sloanism’s focus on branding and stylistic obsolescence demonstrates that the ‘aesthetics’ of hegemony can be grasped by evaluating the role of style and design in a mass production, mass consumption society. It therefore places epistemological priority on the contestations over cultural meanings of style, and the rise of ideals of upward social mobility which upset materialist expectations of a clearly discernable characteristics for different social groups. This in turn allows a questioning of the stability of norms, values and interests of ruling elites. It also restores the social agency of non-elite groups who contribute to ‘hegemony’ through the provision of styles, techniques and designs that represented challenges to received ideas of cultural order. Furthermore in the context of early 20th century, new techniques of mass persuasion in advertising and public relations provide a ‘site ‘ in which the discordant and antagonistic aesthetic values of different social groups resolve in an uneasy tension- one that is nonetheless powerful enough to hold a durable cultural power, celebrating both upward social mobility and aspirations of abundance.


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