The best essay in this collection is by far "Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory" [available here if you have access to the New Left Review], which is a remarkably clear critique of what's often called "vulgar Marxism." Very simply, Williams is able to turn the base/superstructure schema, which often seems to produce only Ptolemaic epicycles when confronted with any nugget of cultural complexity, into a concept that seems not only practical and useful, but indispensable and remarkable. Much of the book, in fact, is like that—the essay "Problems of Materialism" especially [New Left Review version here].
But this is an oddly handled salvage project; although he spends a bit of time examining how the concept of superstructure has calcified and self-corrupted through a misunderstanding of its relationship to the base, Williams is not terribly concerned with "returning to Marx." If he does return to the site of the concept's original formulation, it is not in the manner of consulting Scripture; instead, it seems clear that Williams has thought the problem through as to how it must be solved, and only looks back to Marx to, in essence, check his work.
"Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory" introduces the terms residual and emergent cultures, which many theorists have found useful, and another distinction which I find really useful—that between alternative and oppositional cultures.
There is a simple theoretical distinction between alternative and oppositional, that is to say between someone who simply finds a different way to live and wishes to be left alone with it, and someone who finds a different way to live and wants to change the society in its light. This is usually the difference between individual and small-group solutions to social crisis and those solutions which properly belong to political and ultimately revolutionary practice. But it is often a very narrow line, in reality, between alternative and oppositional. A meaning or a practice may be tolerated as a deviation, and yet still be seen only as another particular way to live. But as the necessary area of effective dominance extends, the same meanings and practices can be seen by the dominant culture, not merely as disregarding or despising it, but as challenging it. (41-42)I think the implications of this distinction are fairly obvious even to the point where such a distinction just becomes a better name for something already generally operative within our conception of cultural forms, but it is nevertheless a much better way of talking about the historical conditions which make a cultural expression either alternative or oppositional. By making use of this distinction, we can better talk about the opportunities afforded to resistance by the dominant culture: what possibilities of true opposition are created by the creative writing program, for instance, and how are impulses to opposition often pushed back across that "narrow line" toward mere alternativity?
The essay is chock-a-block with illuminating passages which equip the reader with some very solid tools for a host of similar questions, but it is also full of indirect critiques of the forms of intellectual cheating and sloppiness which often slip in ahead of any proper analysis. One singularly good example is the following passage:
Now if we go back to the cultural question in its most usual form—what are the relations between art and society, or literature and society?—in the light of the preceding discussion, we have to say first that there are no relations between literature and society in that abstracted way. The literature is there from the beginning as a practice in the society. Indeed until it and all other practices are present, the society cannot be seen as fully formed. A society is not fully available for analysis until each of its practices is included. But if we make that emphasis we must make a corresponding emphasis: that we cannot separate literature and art from other kinds of social practice, in such a way as to make them subject to quite special and distinct laws. They may have quite specific features as practices, but they cannot be separated from the general social process. Indeed one way of emphasizing this is to say, to insist, that literature is not restricted to operating in any one of the sectors I have been seeking to describe in this model. It would be easy to say, it is a familiar rhetoric, that literature operates in the emergent cultural sector, that it represents the new feelings, the new meanings, the new values. We might persuade ourselves of this theoretically, by abstract argument, but when we read much literature, over the whole range, without the sleight-of-hand of calling Literature only that which we have already selected as embodying certain meanings and values at a certain scale of intensity, we are bound to recognize that the act of writing, the practices of discourse in writing and speech, the making of novels and poems and plays and theories, all this activity takes place in all areas of the culture. (44)The key phrase in that is, I think, "at a certain scale of intensity." Frequently critics bail themselves out of the messiness of literary fiction/genre fiction dogfights by making some variation of this argument: that literary fiction is better (or better for you) not because it has ideas and stuff and genre fiction doesn't, but because it has them in greater intensity or greater density. The ideas that literary fiction gets over on the reader are somehow sharper or bolder, both more basic and more noble. That, at any rate, often seems to be the argument to me, and the one that Williams very neatly closes down. And it is this type of argument that is often employed precisely in those kind of situations when critics want to make the claim that Literature proper belongs exclusively in emergent culture, that Literature is (or must be) always avant-garde, always breaking apart an old genre or forming a new one. The idea that Literature, in order to be Literature, is language at its most intense (or some other modernist maxim) is shown to be, I think, just part of that larger project of mystification that canon-eers like Harold Bloom attend to.
I'm sure it's already redly apparent, but I feel a tremendous amount of harmony between my own views on literature and Williams's. I had only read some citations of his work in other theorist's articles and books (well, and part of Marxism and Literature and part of The Country and the City), and am very glad to have pulled this book from my shelves finally. I suppose it is dangerous ever to find any thinker whose writings feel more like more articulate and better conceived confirmations of your own muddled ideas, and so I will try to read more of Williams with this danger in mind—I don't want to misinterpret him because I assume I think like him. On the other hand, it is also a tremendous inspiration to find someone so close to what I perceive my critical temperament and inclinations to be.