Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Culture and Materialism, by Raymond Williams

A couple of days ago I was at another person's apartment and found myself looking at his bookcase. Scanning down the spines, I noticed that the bottom shelf had a number of titles by Marxist thinkers. "That's great," I said, "My bookcase is like that too! Marxists at the base, everything else is superstructure!"

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.


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I remember, in an offhand comment in a discussion following the death of Beckett, Christopher Ricks describing Hell as "lectures by Raymond Williams". I see why now. He represented the Left-wing British philistinism that is now represented by by Prof. John Carey. For it is identical to the right-wing philistinism we're more familiar with (i.e. represented by almost every literary editor in the UK newspapers). It is a strain of the Little Englander, anti-Europe element that stains British culture.

Also, who are the critics who "frequently ... bail themselves out"? Seems like Williams is closing down a straw man, if that's possible.

And the modernist maxim you refer to doesn't mean anything to this modernist. Perhaps this refers to British and US modernism which, it has to be said, has only rarely appreciated the variety of approaches of art called modernist: Wallace Stevens for example - hardly avant-garde and one who employs intense language yet only in the sense that it is poetry and that it has a meaning and a pressure both on life and literature's presence in it. The only meaning I find in Williams is a sublimated fear of literature.

Andrew Seal said...

A sublimated fear of literature? I sincerely doubt sublimation can go this far--the man devoted his life to the study of literature. His 'philistinism' (and mine, I suppose) is simply an aversion to mixing up the study of literature with the writing of hagiographies. So if by "sublimated fear of literature" you mean measured disregard for vaporous aesthetic idealism, then yeah, you're right.

I was thinking mostly of the New Critics when I referred to critics bailing themselves out with a recourse to "intensity," but I'd also throw in there anyone who believes in a Leavisian Great Tradition or canon--anyone who believes that some literature belongs to a whole different order of existence. Anyone who thinks that distinctions between works of literature exist in some numinous plane rather than in cultural practice.

Jillian said...

I have to more or less agree with Stephen here.

There was a time in my life, from the first two years before grad school into the second year, where I pursued this line of inquiry. I consulted Said and Williams and Moretti and Lukacs and Jameson and Bakhtin and Adorno, some of whom--particularly the last two--I still have a lot of time for, and then I even waded out of the flawed but noble Marxist tradition into the paranoid gloom of American Foucault World (D. A. Miller! Nancy Armstrong! gahhh!), that closed-system horrorshow of omnipresent power in which writers are always to blame; and what I eventually concluded is that all of these torturous political posturings, these willful imbrications of the trivially true ("literature is part of culture") with the preposterous (making normative claims about artistic value is a "sleight-of-hand" etc.), amount not, as conservatives claim, to an unwarranted radicalization of the aesthetic, but indeed to a flight from it, an attempt to evade its intensities not dissimilar from fears about unregulated sexuality.

The problem vanishes when you put to bed this notion about "are you alternative or oppositional?" and if you stop expecting imaginative works, whose normative function is to raise the intensity of language and consciousness, to instead be a camp follower of some mass-politics solution to which no artist ought to accede. That can be restated in literary-sociologese if you like, as when beastly Bourdieu, in his finest hour, defended the autonomy of art created by the 19thC French by rightly asserting that these artists drew their moral and critical authority by virtue of their distance from the political as such. But even that's no longer enough for me, trapped in a rotting and rotten academic discipline, surrounded by the Reverend Casaubons of The Revolution.

I have taken up enough space here, so I will conclude my cri de coeur by saying that I see theories like those of Williams and his comrades as being part and parcel of the dehumanization they decry. Our privileged intensities, not just literature but music and dancing and painting and comics and all the rest, provide a vantage and a haven for the dehumanized consciousness, and at their best--and not to consider them at their best, to put Wuthering Heights and The Dark Knight, Sula and Showgirls, into the same pile, is unethical, especially pedagogically unethical--go beyond the dead ends of the sociologists and the "radicals" who do, indeed, fear what they can't control and fundamentally worship the power they decry.

End of vaporous aesthetic idealism...I wouldn't wish to live in a world without it!

Andrew Seal said...


You're absolutely right. "The problem vanishes when you put to bed this notion about "are you alternative or oppositional?" and if you stop expecting imaginative works, whose normative function is to raise the intensity of language and consciousness, to instead be a camp follower of some mass-politics solution to which no artist ought to accede." I just think that you're reading Williams incorrectly to think that this is what he is expecting or wishing for. Or that this is what Said is wishing for or expecting. And Moretti--you think Moretti wants literature to constrain itself to a simple political function--this is what the mammoth, omnivorous collection The Novel is for? How does that compute? And Bakhtin? Please reconcile dialogism and heteroglossia with "a camp follower of some mass-politics solution" for me, because I don't get where you think these things sync up.

Literature is something humans do, not something outside of humanity that we get privileged peeks into when our "best" people manage to wrestle a poem out of the angels. This very basic idea is at the back of the thinkers you cite disapprovingly, and it's something I sign on wholeheartedly with.

But I'm intrigued by this notion that anybody who doesn't venerate these "intensities of language and consciousness" is afraid of them like an evangelical is afraid of unregulated sex. I mean, that's a really provocative thing to say, but what's actually holding it up? Do you see Raymond Williams condemning Baudelaire anywhere? Or Edward Said trying to, like, ban performances of Martha Graham ballets as morally or politically pernicious? I mean, are any of the people you mentioned actively trying to do anything that remotely resembles the attitudes of conservatives toward sex?

The quote I cited quite specifically is against evading any form of literature--including the kinds that are supposed to have these intense qualities of Literature. Williams is just saying that we don't get to pretend that our experience of certain books actually takes us to a place where all the rest of the world just falls away. We might feel that way about certain books, but we also sometimes feel that we're better-looking than we really are.

You think this is dehumanizing, maybe. Fine. But I would say that it is an awful thin notion of the human if we lose everything by losing the illusion of Literature with a big freaking L.

Richard said...

I must admit some confusion. I don't really understand the passages from Williams that you cite, Andrew, nor, frankly, do I understand Stephen's sharp rejection of them. And yet I disagree with most of what Jillian says. Let me see if I can venture something coherent, then.

You have mentioned more than once here at your blog your dissatisfaction with what you have called the "imperialism" of modernism. My contention has been that you're somewhat missing the point, especially as regards the differing conception of modernism some of us share. But I admit I haven't been as clear, in my attempts to explain, as I ought to be.

I can tell you that your account of the literary/genre "dogfight" in no way even touches on the issues with genre as I try to discuss, and as I know Stephen does, as well as others. I'd admit we haven't been clear, if only because no one seems to understand the point. And I don't have space to rehearse it here. (Though Josipovici, you will not be surprised to learn, has much of value to say on this.)

In addition, when you say that some "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", you seem again to be taking issue with the perceived imperialism of modernism, the idea that all literary innovation must be modernist, which itself means "avant-garde". This conception of modernism is indeed widely prevalent, and I think I know why. Stephen hints towards it when he suggests that perhaps it refers to British and US modernism. And if we think about it, all of the major ideologues of "making it new" were British or American. Pound; Stein; Hemingway; etc. I'm actually giving Joyce a little bit of a pass, being Irish, and by one definition not a modernist at all, and Eliot seems to straddle both conceptions, depending on how much influence Pound has on the work in question. The American so-called post-modernists are very much in the vein.

Oddly, though I don't understand the Williams excerpts, I think this is where Said and Moretti and Williams can help us (and this is where I think Stephen is being overly strong in his denunciation), even if they themselves are not in tune to what we're trying to say. Their study of literature is important, if not elemental. They help show where this stuff comes from and what it reinforces, the work literature (both big and little "L") does, at a societal level. What I want to say is, it is absolutely no coincidence that it was the bourgeois novel that became hegemonic in the major imperial centers, Britain, France, the US, and that it is further no coicidence that the "modernism" that prevailed in Britain and the US insisted on this obsession with "making it new", where the more European strands witnessed modernity as a calamity, and a shaking up, as an unfolding of the problems of bourgeois society, etc, and the modernism there reflected this in its recognition of the kinds of problems relevant to literature. That is, the recognition that something important and irretrievable had been lost in this rush forward. This is very different from the avant garde insistence on rushing forward. (And, oddly, it's probably this very distinction which confuses people, makes them think the version we favor is "reactionary" or "conservative" or, worse, "fascist". I don't think these are remotely fair assessments, but clearly dangers are present.)

Ok, I hope I've made some sense here.

Andrew Seal said...


I think the geographic distinction does make a great deal of sense, and I think another writer who might be able to help us out here is Milan Kundera, who makes a very similar argument in his two books on the novel and introduces a host of names which certainly broaden the concept of what modernism meant to people who considered themselves modernists. Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz, Schulz, Kiš--I confess I haven't read them, but Kundera makes it clear that they are addressing the exact sense of irretrievability that you talk about.

Yet what I don't get about your argument is how this actually diminishes the imperialism of Anglophone modernism and, more pointedly, its appropriation of someone like Kafka or even Beckett into a very narrow avant-gardism. What I feel deserves a rigorous critique is explicitly this imperialism and appropriation, and if I need to delimit it by in the future by referring to it as Anglophone modernism, then I can.

But a large part of the imperialism I want to critique is precisely its absorption of non-Anglophone literatures into a single idea of Literature as exclusively an avant-garde venture, as if there are universal values for what true Literature contains and that these values were most intensely present in this monolithic, world-sweeping event called Modernism.

As for the literary fiction/genre fiction dogfight, I was referring more to embarrassing things like the Millions post you pointed out (actually, that was the exact thing I had in mind when I wrote this post). I think there are obviously much better conversations out there on genre fiction and its relation to "literary fiction," but I think that this particular type of conversation is terribly prevalent, and that it is rarely entirely absent from any conversation about this distinction.

As an aside, though, I apologize if for some reason either you or Stephen felt as if my post were specifically addressing what you write about modernism. I guess by not addressing what you write separately I might be inadvertently including you in this critique, but that's not my intent. I do hope to have some things to say soon on Josipovici's On Trust, and maybe I can do some justice then to the excellent stuff you guys have written on modernism.

Andrew Seal said...

Ran across this in Proust: "What I demanded in this performance… was something quite different from pleasure: verities pertaining to a world more real than that in which I lived, which, once acquired, could never be taken from me again by any trivial incident--even though it were to cause me bodily suffering--of my otiose existence."

It's not that I don't at times feel these verities at work; I just doubt that they pertain to a world more real than this one--it is that belief which I find vaporous.

Richard said...

Are you reading Proust, or did you across that some other way?

The narrator discovers that he has invested too much in his anticipation of these experiences, as he is inevitably let down, among other things...

Richard said...

Also, from what I understand, Kundera is indeed relevant, though I haven't myself read his criticism yet.

Good point about the co-optation of Kafka & Beckett, too... The latter is especially routinely mentioned alongside such writers as Burroughs and Genet, as you put it, "into a very narrow avant-gardism".

Richard said...

Damn, re-read that first comment several times, still didn't notice the missing word. Obviously I mean "did you come across" etc....