Base and Superstructure, Raymond Williams

Many of the authors we’ve read in class discuss how hegemony is reinforced through the ruling class and its influence of a dominant ideology. Raymond Williams adds a new element to this equation and examines how society is made up of two corresponding organizations: the base and the superstructure. The base, as the name suggests, is the foundation of economic and legal exchanges happening within a social structure. This in turn shapes the superstructure where symbolic meanings and interactions are produced within dominant cultural institutions.Williams was apt to note that although the two are related, they also both influence the other.

This correlative influence can be contradictory, as explained in Renee G. Lee and Jeff B. Murray’s “A Framework for Critiquing the Dysfunctions of Advertising: The Base-Superstructure Metaphor.” In their essay, the two study the base and superstructure metaphor in the role of advertising. They note that it is not only the base of economic exchange that guides the social culture and its values, but it works the other way too in an almost contradictory way. For example, if the economic exchanges structure of the base creates a superstructural value of materialism, this materialism within the social strata means higher production to fulfill their needs. Higher production means taking away from the environment’s resources, at which point a scarcity of resources could lead to the demise of capitalism because it simply cannot be sustained. This pivots the two contradictory values of materialism and environmentalism in the advertising community. Understanding this contradiction, they note, may lead to changes in consumption habits, or the superstructural environment, as well as how we manufacture these materials within the base of exchange.

This constant flux within the base and superstructure model is why we see the comings and goings of emergent cultures where new meaning, values and practices are continually being created within  a community. Christina Moon’s article “The Secret Life of Fast Fashion” is an interesting take on how this dynamic works in consumer retail markets, specifically the community dedicated to it in Los Angeles. Her piece reflects on the growing market of Korean entrepreneurs diving into the fast fashion business, or the quick cycle of development and production of consumer clothing. The article details her studies of hundreds of Korean families and younger Korean-American generations who have moved to L.A.’s garment district and turned it into a central hub for fast fashion. In doing so, they have been a powerful group whose influence reaches consumers of Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, T.J. Maxx, Anthropologie, and Nordstrom. Moon calls her observations “a phenomenon whose rise is less a story about corporate innovation than one about an immigrant subculture coming of age.”

The origins for this economic and cultural development started in the ’60s and ’70s when the financial climate of South Korea was unstable. The country industrialized by producing and exporting cheap clothing to the U.S. market, but this factory work could only be so successful in the impoverished country. By the ’80s, many Korean and Vietnamese families had moved to the U.S. directly or South American countries, Brazil and Argentina in particular, and by the ’90s, large populations of Korean immigrants were setting up shop in L.A.’s garment district to become what it is today.

Each time these groups moved to a new environment without an understanding of the language or culture, these immigrant workers made up part of a residual culture. Although they contributed their labor and productions to the dominant culture, the styles that they created weren’t well-received in the market. By the 2000s, retail companies that relied on creating products that took several months of front-end planning and would last for several seasons were failing. At this point, many Korean immigrant families were working for these industries, and second-generation Korean Americans were studying to continue their families’ line of work in a new era. After many studied the industry on an international level by visiting fashion capitals in Paris, New York, Milan, etc., young industry specialists were able to use their Americanized cultural values and fluency in English to grow their family businesses. They used their learned design, merchandising and marketing skills to keep the whole production cycle in-house instead of sourcing the labor out, which in turn produced clothing at a higher volume in less time.

Now that their means of production were more in line with the dominant cultural values of time-effective manufacturing and consumption, these once-residual groups were beginning to bring their own values and influencing the dominant model. One of the more well-known success stories is the rise of Forever 21, started by the Chang family, which now has worldwide influence in the young adult retail market. Among the pervasive styles that appear internationally, the company still buys and uses designs from the L.A. Korean garment district to be incorporated into the global superstructure of fast fashion, immediacy and consumerism.


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