Hegemonic transitions and cultural change

Hegemonic transitions and cultural change: The making and unmaking of hegemonic modernity in the modern world system

Steven Marc Sherman
PhD Dissertation State University of New York at Binghamton 325 (1999)

The meaning of contemporary cultural change has been the source of considerable debate. The ‘Americanization’ of the world and the emergence of Postmodern forms of thought and cultural production have been interpreted as signs variously of limitless American political strength, Japanese/East Asian weakness and a profound epistemological break with enlightenment forms of thinking. This project attempts to situate these phenomena historically by comparing them to similar phenomena in the past.

Three periods are investigated. In the first, 1500-1650, Italian culture dominates the imagery, texts, and habits of the elites of Europe. Yet Italy had by 1500 become politically subordinate to Spain and France.

“The European Renaissance”, constituted by a scattered, transnational intellectual community, uncovered diverse approaches to the study of the world. Yet its dreams of a new age of enlightened investigation were smashed by the onset of the thirty years war. By 1650, the Dutch Republic had emerged as the greatest power in Europe. Yet its major cultural production, genre painting, was distinct from the Italian dominated trend.

The Dutch Republic also provided the context for Descartes, whose attempt to abstract and rise above empirical knowledge marked a break with the diverse, often hermeneutic approaches of the Renaissance.

In the next period, 1650-1820, France emerged as the center of elite culture in Europe. While France was not entirely eclipsed as a great power, its declining military fortunes stood in inverse relation to its ascending popularity. Exiled, dispersed Huguenots led the way to the creation of a new transnational community, searching for economic, political and religious enlightenment through unhindered investigative daring and the cultivation of the ‘republic of letters’. Yet they too, were eclipsed by the period of wars and revolutions beginning in 1789.

The ascending power, the United Kingdom, was most distinguished by its production of novels, which, like Dutch painting, were not widely regarded as serious culture. After the period of wars, as it attained hegemony, the British substituted of economic liberalization for political liberation and the advocacy of family, tradition, and religion as bulwarks against excessively rapid change.
In the final period, 1848-1950, Britain enjoyed considerable cultural popularity, although perhaps not as great as France or Italy. Nevertheless, the belle epoque it presided over ended abruptly in 1914, and upper-middle class, nineteenth century culture was rapidly eclipsed thereafter.

A new transnational community, led by the diasporic community of secular Jews, produced modernist ways of thought which pulled all elements of social life into the reign of science as well as producing unprecedented explorations of subjective life. Alliances between modernists and state leaders were short lived, however, as populist forms of culture proved more valuable in assuring the consent of the governed.

The rising power, the US, was most notable for producing the cinema, again ignored in ‘serious’ intellectual circles. On its ascension, the US circumscribed modernism by narrowing the subjective to the purely internal and detaching social science from history. In the conclusion, this history is employed to cast doubt on the ideas suggested in the introduction that the Americanization of the world indicates US political/military strength and that the emergence of postmodernism indicates a linear progression towards a new epistemology.

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