Introduction: Technology and Culture in the 19th Century

A digital essay that purports to discuss “hegemonic technologies” and “hegemonic cultures” ought rightly to begin with working definitions of “culture” and “hegemony.” As an interdisciplinary field of study some 20-odd years old now, “cultural studies” has staked out a claim to the study of “culture” – and scholars working in the field have paid particular attention to those cultural forms that work “hegemonically” to secure the interests of certain social groups.

          Stuart Hall, often considered the “father” of cultural studies, defines culture as “the actual grounded terrain of practices, representations, languages and customs of any specific society.”[1] Thus, for Hall, “culture” means not only what we might think of as “high culture” – art, literature, music, sculpture, and so on – but those everyday practices and everyday objects we use to make meaning in our world.

          The cultural form that particularly interests me here is the illustrated monthly magazine popular in the middle decades of the 19th century. More specifically, I am interested in the engraved illustrations that distinguished these magazines from other periodical literature published in the 1840s and 50s.

          The term “hegemony” can be traced to the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, who used the term to mean “manufactured consent” – that is, a kind of social coercion exerted by one class over another via its cultural forms. Gramsci was particularly fascinated by the hegemonic culture forms of the 19th century – newspapers, serial novels, the theatre – those culture forms dependent upon widespread literacy and improvements in the technologies of mechanical reproduction.[2] These culture forms, developed largely by the bourgeois (middle classes), function to exert control over the “popular classes.” [3] In a section of his prison notebooks entitled “Art and Culture,” Gramsci had this to say about the “struggle for a new culture,” for a “new moral life” that accompanies the rise of a hegemonic class:


A new social group that enters history with a hegemonic attitude, with a self-confidence which it initially did not have, cannot but stir up from deep within itself personalities who would not previously have found sufficient strength to express themselves fully in a particular direction. [4]

        So what concerns me in this essay is the way in which the illustrated monthly magazines published in Philadelphia in the 1840s and 50s used technology to construct a  middle class culture that concerned itself with prescribing the “norms” of race, class and gender.



[next ->]

[1] Stuart Hall, as quoted in Chris Barker, Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice (London: Sage Publications, 2000), p. 8

[2] Antionio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

[3] Gramsci, p. 363.

[4] Gramsci, p. 98.