Having previously settled into a stable set of doctrines, Marxism has recently (as of 1977, when this book was written) experienced both a revival and a “related openness and flexibility of theoretical development. Literature, meanwhile, for related reasons, has become problematic in quite new ways.” (1) Raymond Williams seeks to criticize and develop both Marxism and literary theory, by simultaneously reviewing unquestioned dogmas of Marxist cultural theory and problematic concepts in literary theory to advance a new theory that can resolve the theoretical issues in both fields. This new theory he calls cultural materialism: “a theory of the specificities of material cultural and literary production within historical materialism. Its details belong to the argument as a whole, but I must say, at this point, that it is, in my view, a Marxist theory, and indeed that in its specific fields it is, in spite of and even because of the relative unfamiliarity of some of its elements, part of what I at least see as the central thinking of Marxism.” (5-6)
Part 1: “Basic Concepts”
Chapter 1: “Culture”
The concept of culture is for Williams emblematic of the condition of literary theory. It is a concept with a long development through complicated and even contradictory uses, and is undergoing a crisis in its stability and univocity as a concept: “When the most basic concepts – the concepts, as it is said, from what we begin – are suddenly seen to be not concepts but problems, not analytic problems either but historical movements that are still unresolved, there is no sense in listening to their sonorous summons or their resounding clashes. We have only, if we can, to recover the substance from which their forms are cast.” (11)
Society, economy, and culture are three concepts whose meaning has changed recently, each change in one affecting the meaning of the other two as well. In short, each concept has conformed to a bourgeois model: society, for instance, previously referred to active fellowship or company but in a bourgeois context refers to “civil society,” or commercial society. The meaning of economy has changed from management of household and community to the system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of modern capitalism. Culture has also taken its particular place within the bourgeois model: previously referring to the process growth and tending of crops, animals, and eventually human faculties, it responded to changes in the other two concepts to become equated with the concept of civilization in the 18th Century.
Civilization itself underwent a crisis at this time, severing its links with the concept of “civil society” which had an exclusively commercial and economic meaning and instead “expressed two senses which were historically linked: an achieved state, which could be contrasted with ‘barbarism’, but now also an achieved state of development, which implied historical process and progress. This was the new historical rationality of the Enlightenment, in fact combined with a self-referring celebration of an achieved condition of refinement and order. It was this combination that was to be problematic.” (13) For if history culminates in Enlightenment civilization as achieved state, other elements of human social existence not part of that civilization must be explained as states out of which humans have now developed and which consequently have no place in Enlightenment civilization. Along with critiques from older metaphysical and religious systems, Enlightenment civilization also experienced two new criticisms: “first, the idea of culture, offering a different sense of human growth and development, and, second, the idea of socialism, offering a social and historical criticism of and alternative to ‘civilization’ and ‘civil society’ as fixed and achieved conditions.” (14)
Eventually, civilization and culture, terms hitherto interchangeable, diverged in signification. The Romantics viewed civilization as external and superficial, and so aligned culture with internal individual development as opposed to general social development, associating with “religion, art, the family and personal life, as distinct from or actually opposed to ‘civilization’ or ‘society’ in its new abstract and general sense.” (14) Culture developed in opposition to civilization as an affirmation of the “inner life,” opening up such concepts as “subjectivity,” the “imagination,” and the “individual.” Culture for Williams was a secularization of earlier metaphysical forms: the creative subject (ie. the artist) took the place of a creating god, acting in isolation from the society that stifles her inner life, expressed instead in the “work.”
At the same time, however, culture became a concept within the emerging social sciences, which emphasized rational (rather than inspired) creation of human history, thus retaining its link with civilization. Universal histories stressed the human capacity to comprehend ourselves and the world around us (in natural science especially), “which allows us to create higher forms of social and natural order, overcoming ignorance and superstition and the social and political forms to which they have led and which they support. History, in this sense, was the progressive establishment of more rational and therefore more civilized systems.” (16) Subsequent historians, however, became disillusioned with the notion that reason alone acts as the driving principle of all human development, noting that human development is “much too variable to be reduced to a progressive unilinear development culminating in ‘European civilization.’ It was necessary, he argued, to speak of ‘cultures’ rather than ‘culture’, so as to acknowledge variability, and within any culture to recognize the complexity and variability of its shaping forces. […] But the idea of fundamental social process which shapes specific and distinct ‘ways of life’ is the effective origin of the comparative social science sense of ‘culture’ and its now necessary plural ‘cultures’.” (17)
Marxism entered the scene at this point, arguing both that capitalism constituted only one way of life among others, thus able to be superseded by socialism, and that “‘Civilization’ had produced not only wealth, order, and refinement, but as part of the same process poverty, disorder, and degradation.” (18) By adding historical materialism, “the history of labour, industry as the ‘open book of the human faculties’,” Marxism effectively criticized bourgeois understandings of history and society, but did not take this further in Williams’ view and challenge the bourgeois notion of culture as well, instead banishing it to the realm of the superstructure, “mere ideas” that are dependent on and reflect (in ways he discusses in later chapters) the base of economic activity. Williams believes that Marxism needs to rethink its cultural theory away from a base-superstructure argument that ultimately regards cultural as a-socially as bourgeois theories do, beginning with the next concept,
Chapter 2: “Language”
The concept of language holds a special place in most theories of social science, in that language is often interpreted as what is constitutively human. Marxism, however, has added little to our understanding of language, content to make use of other theories of language in its analysis. As the idealistic understanding of language as an aspect of metaphysical reality that had held sway from the time of the pre-Socratics has been finally dismantled, however, Marxism for Williams has a place to reconceptualize language, taking its orientation from the insights in social science that language (a) is an activity, and (b) has a history.
Thus, Williams opposes his understanding of language to a vestige of linguistic idealism, structuralism. Structuralism is a key starting point for Williams because a variant of Marxism has attempted to synthesize itself with French structuralism, and he wishes to differentiate himself from this particular strain of Marxism. Williams’ criticism of structuralism is, in brief, that it gives temporal priority to a system of values (in the Saussurian sense) over empirical “utterances,” which are considered derivative from the structure of a language which is seen as given. For Williams, this relationship between structure and utterance embodies a political relationship between observer and observed, “where the ‘language-habits’ studied, over a range of speech of conquered and dominated peoples to the ‘dialects’ of outlying or socially inferior groups, theoretically matched against the observer’s ‘standard’, were regarded as at most ‘behavior’, rather than independent, creative, self-directing life.” (27) By privileging structure over utterance structuralism participates in an imperialist project, taking over from 19th Century linguistics the objectification of languages, particularly “foreign” languages or “provincial” dialects. Treating language as a stable object that is constitutive of individual thinking and communication denies individual agency and creativity.
For Williams, any understanding of language as constitutive of humanness must take into account its indissolubility from acts of self-creation and expression. Language, as an activity or practice, is involved in all human production from the start, quoting a key passage in The German Ideology:
From the start the ‘spirit’ is afflicted with the curse of being ‘burdened’ with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness, as it exists for other men, and for that reason is really beginning to exist for me personally as well; for language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. (Marx and Engels, quoted in Williams, 29)
Williams argues that language as practical consciousness is involved in all aspects of human activity in history, from production of biological life, the production of new and expanded needs, and the production of social relationships and the reproduction of the species, such that all human activity is inherently social activity. The result is that there is no such thing as “pure consciousness,” or isolated theoretical consciousness, but consciousness that always and only exists in terms of the material elements of language (“agitated layers of air, sounds”) and that is engaged in practical and social activity.
The social aspect of language is the most important and also the most difficult to grasp. William notes that even Marxism ultimately forgot Marx and Engels’ insight into the inherent sociality of language, relegating language and human consciousness to the superstructure, treating language as something that groups share as their consciousness, thus creating a “bourgeois,” a “folk” and a “proletarian” consciousness, tacitly reintroducing the objectification of language in the form of a supposedly unitary group consciousness, and eventually, by Stalin’s decree, the “national character.” (34)
Williams points as an alternative understanding of the sociality of language to an obscure Russian linguist, Voloŝinov, who may have in fact been a pseudonym for Bakhtin. Instead of relying on the Marxist orthodoxy of base-superstructure relations or structuralism to understand language’s role in society, Voloŝinov “reconsidered the whole problem of language within a general Marxist orientation. This enabled him to see ‘activity’ (the strength of the idealist emphasis after Humboldt) as social activity and to see ‘system’ (the strength of the new objectivist linguistics) in relation to this social activity and not, as had hitherto been the case, formally separated from it.” (35) Voloŝinov argues that human consciousness reflects the logic and laws of signs, but does not take the next step and posit the existence of an independent system of signs. Rather,
…the fusion of formal element and meaning […] is the result of a real process of social development, in the actual activities of speech and in the continuing development of a language. Indeed signs can exist only when this active social relationship is posited. The usable sign – the fusion of formal element and meaning – is a product of this continuing speech-activity between real individuals who are in some continuing social relationship. The ‘sign’ is in this sense their product, but not simply their past product, as in the reified accounts of an ‘always-given’ language system. The real communicative ‘products’ which are usable signs are, on the contrary, living evidence of a continuing social process, into which individuals are born and within which they are shaped, but to which they then also actively contribute, in a continuing process. This is at once their socialization and their individuation: the connected aspects of a single process which the alternative theories of ‘system’ and ‘expression’ had divided and dissociated. We then find not a reified ‘language’ and ‘society’ but an active social language. Nor (to glance back at positivist and orthodox materialist theory) is this language a simple ‘reflection’ or ‘expression’ of ‘material reality’. What we have, rather, is a grasping of this reality through language, which as practical consciousness is saturated by and saturates all social activity, including productive activity. And, since this grasping is social and continuous (as distinct from the abstract encounters of ‘man’ and ‘his world’, or ‘consciousness’ and ‘reality’, or ‘language’ and ‘material existence’), it occurs within an active and changing society. […] Or to put it more directly, language is the articulation of this active and changing experience; a dynamic and articulated social presence in the world. (37-38)
Thus signs have neither a fixed nor an arbitrary meaning. In the historical production of a sign through social experience of material reality it receives an “effective nucleus” of meaning, such that it is immediately recognizably by individual speakers, but has a variable range of possible uses based on the “variety of situations within which it is actually used.” (39) Signs are not, therefore, preexisting values that are internalized, but rather products of social interaction that allow individuals to use understood meaning of signs both in social and in individual situations, thus creating a “verbal consciousness”. Signs, the marks which are constitutive of consciousness and social life, have a stable but not a fixed meaning, such that their meaning can be changed by social practice, creating a dialectical process of language evolution as “the changing practical consciousness of human beings, in which both the evolutionary and the historical processes can be given full weight, but also within which they can be distinguished, in the complex variations of actual language use.” (43-44)
Chapter 3: “Literature”
The particular variation of language use Williams is interested in is, of course, literature. Literature, as a concept, has been debased by almost complete abstraction from its conditions of production, to the point of being identified with works expressing “immediate lived experience.” (46) Literature, like the concepts of society, economy, and culture, changed in meaning with the coming of capitalism. Previously, it had referred to a specialization out of the medieval liberal arts of rhetoric and grammar to learnedness specifically in reading. Literature was a form of learning that individuals of high social standing could achieve, a skill of reading that was a marker of a level of politeness, a social distinction. Literature, however, could be all printed works, not specifically works that were labeled “fictional” or “imaginative.”
Literature’s meaning shifted to refer instead to a “taste” or “sensibility,” a marker not of the reader, but of the work itself, occurring simultaneously with the narrowing of the category of literature to fiction, and the development of the concept of “tradition” to being put in nationalistic terms, creating for the first time “national” literatures. Taste and sensibility were unifying class terms, “characteristically bourgeois categories,” which can refer not only to literature, but also manners, wine, and poetry (49). Literary criticism also became professionalized at this point, as the “conscious exercise of ‘taste’, ‘sensibility’, and ‘discrimination’. It became a significant special form of the general tendency in the concept of literature towards an emphasis on the use or (conspicuous) consumption of works, rather than on their production.” (49) In this process of professionalization of criticism, literature became a concept in order to define the object of this practice, providing a stable domain where bourgeois class sensibilities can be exercised.
The narrowing of the scope of the concept of literature to imaginative or otherwise fictional works is a response to the repressive aspects of capitalist production, which increasingly takes on the form of automation, stifling human creative faculties. The concepts of art as a special province of human skill defined by imagination and sensibility, aesthetics as a specialized perception of beauty and artistic quality, and literature as the repository of fiction, seen as the bearer of “imaginative truth,” are all responses to this repression, designed to “preserve” human creativity when in everyday practical activity it was being systemically destroyed. With these new concepts, bourgeois criticism took as its task the discrimination between works that deserved the title “literature” and those which did not, based on “literary values”, particularly ones stemming from a supposedly national tradition, which defined “great” works.
The Marxist theory of practical consciousness has never been applied to the realm of literature, in Williams’ estimation. Literature has in general been assimilated to ideology, expressing a particular class identity. This has had the advantage of including popular literature as something equally canonical with the “great” works as defined by bourgeois critics, but has so far failed to mount an effective attack on bourgeois concepts of literature, art, and aesthetics. Williams outlines exceptions to this situation (Lukács, the
, Formalism, discussed in later chapters), he concludes that an effective Marxist literary theory must challenge each of these bourgeois concepts. This challenge must begin, though, as an immanent criticism of Marxist concepts, beginning with Frankfurt School
Chapter 4: “Ideology”
Ideology for Williams is an inherently problematic concept, which he thinks requires radical revision. He outlines three meanings the concept has had in Marxist theory:
(i) a system of beliefs characteristic of a particular class or group;
(ii) a system of illusory beliefs – false ideas or false consciousness – which can be contrasted with true or scientific knowledge;
(iii) the general process of the production of meanings and ideas.
In one variant of Marxism, senses (i) and (ii) can be effectively combined. (55)
The major conflict in the term ideology has been between the synthesis of definitions (i) and (ii) on the one hand, and definition (iii) on the other, and has given rise to the opposition between class-based knowledge that is illusory and supposedly “scientific” knowledge of human activity and practice that is objective and true. This opposition has existed, in Williams’ opinion, since the time of Marx and Engels, where “‘ideology’ became a polemical nickname for kinds of thinking which neglected or ignored the material social process of which ‘consciousness’ was always a part. (58) For Williams, ideology has become a stand-in for any non-Marxist thinking, from bourgeois political economy to the ideas humans have had of their identity since ancient times, which Williams considers to be reactionary thinking rather than analysis, “simplistic, and has in repetition been disastrous. It belongs to the naïve dualism of ‘mechanical materialism’, in which the idealist separation of ‘ideas’ and ‘material reality’ had been repeated, but with its priorities reversed. The emphasis on consciousness as inseparable from conscious existence, and then on conscious existence as inseparable from material social processes, is in effect lost in the use of this deliberately degrading vocabulary.” (59)
Williams notes that in Vol. I of Capital Marx in fact exposes the falseness of the material-ideal dualism in his analysis of the labor process, as “consciousness is seen from the beginning as part of the human material social process, and its products in ‘ideas’ are then as much part of this process as material products themselves.” (59-60) However, ideology has been taken up in Marxist theory as a reductive dualism between consciousness, the realm of ideas, and the material world, the realm of products, of which consciousness is supposedly merely a reflection. In particular, Marxism not only perpetuates this dualism but also ignores the inherently social nature of consciousness Marx and Engels were at pains to describe.
However, Williams believes that what the term ideology does allow for is a way to understand signification as a social process: “Voloŝinov, for example, uses ‘ideological’ to describe the process of the production of meaning through signs, and ‘ideology’ is taken as the dimension of social experience in which meanings and values are produced.” (70) Ideology, for Williams, should be a term that refers in some way to the social process by which significations are produced as described last chapter. However, the historical reductiveness of the term ideology makes Williams suspect that it is an “open question whether ‘ideology’ and ‘ideological’, with their senses of ‘abstraction’ and ‘illusion’, or their senses of ‘ideas’ and ‘theories’, or even their senses of a ‘system’ of beliefs or of meanings and values, are sufficiently precise and practicable terms for so far-reaching and radical a redefinition.” (71)
Part II: “Cultural Theory”
Chapter 1: “Base and Superstructure”
Often considered the centerpiece of Marxist cultural theory, the concepts base and superstructure are the first concepts Williams chooses to revisit. Traditionally, the base has been conceived “the economic foundation” of a society, the totality of relations and practices of production, including especially class relations of oppressor and oppressed, which determine the nature of the superstructure (77). Williams has two problems with this understanding of base and superstructure. First, the superstructure has had variable definitions, including “(a) legal and political forms which express existing real relations of production; (b) forms of consciousness which express a particular class view of the world; (c) a process in which, over a whole range of activities, men become conscious of a fundamental economic conflict and fight it out.” (77) The only unity between these definitions of superstructure is that they are in some way determined by the base, which leads to the second problem Williams has, namely that the term “determined” used to express the relationship between base and superstructure is vague.
More centrally, base and superstructure are taken as objective categories that exist in some sort of a hierarchical relationship of importance favoring the base. As Williams and Marx both tried to demonstrate, institutions, forms of consciousness, and institutional and political and cultural practices (Williams’ abbreviation of the three senses of superstructure, 77) are inseparable from economic relations and practices, such that the two cannot be treated as separate entities. Williams concludes that the neither the base nor the superstructure can be considered as separate objects, as:
It is one of the central propositions of Marx’s sense of history, for example, that in actual development there are deep contradictions in the relationships of production and in the consequent social relationships. There is therefore the continual possibility of the dynamic variation of these forces. The ‘variations’ of the superstructure might be deduced from this fact alone, were it not that the ‘objective’ implications of ‘the base’ reduce all such variations to secondary consequences. It is only when we realize that ‘the base’, to which it is habitual to refer variations, is itself a dynamic and internally contradictory process – the specific activities and modes of activity, over a range from association to antagonism, of real men and real classes of men – that we can begin to free ourselves from the notion of an ‘area’ or a ‘category’ with certain fixed properties for deduction to the variable processes of a ‘superstructure.’
Thus, contrary to a development in Marxism, it is not ‘the base’ and ‘the superstructure’ that need to be studied, but specific and indissoluble real processes, within which the decisive relationship, from a Marxist point of view, is that expressed by the complex idea of ‘determination.’(82)
Chapter 2: “Determination”
Determination is itself a concept that requires radical revision, in that “a Marxism without some concept of determination is in effect worthless. A Marxism with many of the concepts of determination it now has is quite radically disabled.” (83) Marxism in Williams’ view uses a concept of determination closely related to determinism, where history unfolds according to its own logic, taking no account of the actions and decisions of individuals who are in fact powerless to stop the relentless logic of historical events. This understanding of determinism corresponds to what is known in Marxism as “economism,” or the reduction of all social relations and practices to economic terms, which become the categories defining all actions, a doctrine Williams finds “worthless.” (86)
Opposed to understanding determination as determinism and hence economism is the interpretation which understands determination as the setting of limits, the boundaries outside of which nothing can occur. Under this definition, determination would stress “the predominance of objective conditions at any particular moment in the process” of an event (85). Human agency is preserved, but is qualified by the conditions in which individuals find themselves when making decisions. To this understanding of determination Williams adds that determination is also the “exertion of pressures,” and are experienced as limits of one’s possibilities for action in a given situation, which are always social pressures:
They are at least as often pressures derived from the formation and momentum of a given social mode: in effect a compulsion to act in ways that maintain and renew it. They are also, and vitally, pressures exerted by new formations, with their as yet unrealized intentions and demands. ‘Society’ is then never only the ‘dead husk’ which limits social and individual fulfillment. It is always also a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and cultural formations and, to take the full weight of ‘constitutive’, are internalized and become ‘individual wills’. Determination of this whole kind – a complex and interrelated process of limits and pressures – is in the whole social process itself and nowhere else: not in an abstracted ‘mode of production’ nor in an abstracted ‘psychology’. (87)
In fact, Williams ultimately concludes that a better term for determination is overdetermination, to emphasize that limits and pressures on individuals are not categories but rather practices that exercise multiple and even contradictory forces on individuals, causing them to experience the complex interplay of interests and compulsions that make up actual decisionmaking processes. Williams believes that we can avoid falling back into determination as determinism by clearing up confusion in the next concept he revises,
Chapter 3: “Productive Forces”
The concept of productive forces has fostered the understanding of determination as economic determinism as it has been equated with material production. This, however, does not correspond to Marx’s understanding of productive forces:
What then is a productive force? It is all and any of the means of the production and reproduction of real life. It may be seen as a particular kind of agricultural or industrial production, but any such kind is already a certain mode of social co-operation and the application and development of a certain body of social knowledge. The production of this specific social co-operation or of this specific social knowledge is itself carried through by productive forces. In all our activities in the world we produce not only the satisfaction of our needs but new needs and new definitions of needs. Fundamentally, in this human historical process, we produce ourselves and our societies, and it is within these developing and variable forms that ‘material production’, then itself variable, both in mode and scope, is itself carried on. (91)
Material production is for Marx only a subset of all productive forces, but it has been taken as representative of all productive forces in a society, such that production has been equated only with economic activity, in turn identified with the base that determines the superstructure (not in the sense of providing limits and pressures but in the reductive sense of reflection) thus giving rise to economism. Marx himself gives emphasis to material production because he is studying production under the system of capitalism, which sharply divides between material production and society, culture, and aesthetics, all of which could be considered types of production, provided they are not relegated to the realm of the superstructure as in crude Marxist theories:
At this level, in an analysis of capitalism, there is no great difficulty until we see that a necessary result is the projection (alienation) of a whole body of activities which have to be isolated as ‘the realm of art and ideas’, as ‘aesthetics’, as ‘ideology’, or, less flatteringly, as ‘the superstructure’. None of these can be grasped as they are, as real practices, elements of a whole material social process; not a realm of a world or a superstructure, but many and variable productive practices, with specific conditions and intentions. (94)
The task of Marxist theory, then, is to rethink the concepts of art, aesthetics, ideology (as he did in an earlier chapter), and eventually, literature, in terms of production, rather than as outside of the realm of material production in an ideal and alienated realm.
Chapter 4: “From Reflection to Mediation”
The concepts advanced in the earlier chapters of this part, such as base-superstructure, productive forces and determination, are often thought to be related by way of reflection. Thus the superstructure reflects the base, or productive forces, and determination is equivalent to reflection. This corresponds to a notion of the work of art as reflecting the real world, such that art does not show mere appearances of things “but the ‘reality’ behind these: the ‘inner nature’ of the world, or its ‘constitutive forms’. Or art is seen as reflecting not the ‘lifeless world’, but the world as seen in the mind of the artist.” (95) In some way the real world, however it is defined, exists in the mind of the artist, who grasps its true forms, and expresses this in art, such that art reflects the real world. Materialism, however, challenges this naïve realist definition of art, by claiming that the true forms of the world are not ideal, in the mind of the artist, but material, such that the artist’s reflection into ideal terms of the real world is in fact a distortion of the world. In addition, the mind of the artist is itself materially conditioned, and “its reflection is then not independent but itself a material function.” (95)
Both, however, share a common feature of treating the “real world” as an object, something that could be known and reflected, whether in art for naïve realism or in science for materialism. Both theories still understand art as some kind of reflection, either accurate or inaccurate, “suppressing the actual work on material – in a final sense, the material social process – which is the making of any art work. By projecting and alienating this material process to ‘reflection’, the social and material character of artistic creativity – of that art-work which is at once ‘material’ and ‘imaginative’ – was suppressed. It was at this point that the idea of reflection was challenged by the idea of ‘mediation’.” (97)
Mediation suggests an active process of reconciliation between two opposed entities, which could then describe the relationship between society and art, base and superstructure as “indirect expression: the social realities are ‘projected’ or ‘disguised’, and to recover them is a process of working back through the mediation to their original forms. Relying mainly on the concept of ‘ideology’ as (class-based) distortion, this kind of reductive analysis, and of ‘stripping’, ‘laying bare’ or ‘unmasking’, has been common in Marxist work.” (98) Opposed to this definition of mediation, though, is the Frankfurt School’s, understanding all consciousness and objects as inevitably mediated, “and this process is not a separable agency – a ‘medium’ – but intrinsic to the properties of the related kinds. ‘Mediation is in the object itself, not something between the object and that to which it is brought.’ Thus mediation is a positive process in soial reality, rather than a process added to it by way of projection, disguise, or interpretation.” (Adorno, quoted in Williams, 98-99)
Williams concludes, though, the mediation, even in the
’s definition, perpetuates a dualism between pre-existing layers of reality that are somehow brought together in the active process of mediation. Even if mediation is an inevitable part of all social processes, “when the process of mediation is seen as positive and substantial, as a necessary process of the making of meanings and values, in the necessary form of the general social process of signification and communication, it really only a hindrance to describe it as ‘mediation’ at all. For the metaphor takes us back to the very concept of the ‘intermediary’ which, at its best, this constitutive and constituting sense rejects.” (100) Frankfurt School
Chapter 5: “Typification and Homology”
Two concepts that appear to be able to resolve the dualism inherent in the concepts of reflection and mediation are typification and homology. Typification in Marxist theory refers to the creation of a figure that “concentrates and intensifies a much more general reality,” such as an ideal type or a hero in literature (101). Typification has in fact become very popular in Marxist cultural theory which has searched for figures who represent dynamic social processes, “the elements and tendencies of reality that recur according to regular laws, although changing with the changing circumstances.” (Lukacs, quoted in Williams, 102). The idea of being a representative example of something, such as an ideal type, though, presumes a reality, a something of which the ideal type can be an example and against which it can be verified, reintroducing the dualism and objectification of social reality discussed last chapter.
Homology, on the other hand, is distinguished from the concept of correspondence, which can refer to either resemblances between seemingly different practices based on their growth form a shared social process, analogies between the activities, or displaced connections in Adorno, where “while the immediate evidence is direct, the plausibility of the relation depends not only on a formal analysis of the historical social processs but on the consequent deduction of a displacement or even an absence.” (104) All these senses of correspondence refer to similarities between appearances, whereas homology refers to similarities between forms and structures of things, or in origin and development. So the homology between different events or objects demonstrates the form of social and historical development by which they are organized, but
On the other hand, ‘correspondence’ and ‘homology’ can be in effect restatements of the base-superstructure model and of the ‘determinist’ sense of determination. Analysis begins from a known structure of society, or a known movement of history. Specific analysis then discovers examples of this movement in cultural works. […] The most evidence practical effect is an extreme selectivity. Only the cultural evidence which fits the homology is directly introduced. (106)
The only concept that can avoid treating history and social structure as known objects that can be made into the basis of social analysis is
Chapter 6: “Hegemony”
Hegemony is a concept whose meaning in Marxist theory stems from Gramsci, who differentiates hegemony from rule, which is power exerted through direct political and even coercive physical means. In everyday life, however, “the more normal situation is a complex interlocking of political, social, and cultural forces, and ‘hegemony’, according to different interpretations, is either this or the active social and cultural forces which are its necessary elements.” (108) Hegemony for Williams goes beyond the concepts of culture and ideology. Hegemony relates the whole social process to specific inequalities, demonstrating the necessary connection between social processes of creativity and dominance and subordination in societies, such that culture is revised to include aspects of inequality that affect the process of creativity. At the same time, hegemony emphasizes the wholeness of the process of cultural creation, refusing to equate consciousness with a worldview of set of beliefs as with ideology.
Hegemony appears not as one set of beliefs (the ruling class ideology) against which the proletariat has to fight, but rather
…as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living – not only of political and economic activity, nor only of manifest social activity, but of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships, to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can ultimately be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense. Hegemony is then not only the articulate upper level of ‘ideology’, nor are its form of control those ordinarily seen as ‘manipulation’ or ‘indoctrination’. It is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world. It is a lived system of meanings and values – constitutive and constituting – which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives. It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense a ‘culture’, but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes. (110)
For Williams, this understanding of hegemony has two advantages, first in that it corresponds the most closely to actual forms of social organization in modern societies than the classical Marxist conception of projections from the ruling class, and second, because it allows cultural activity to be seen not only as tradition but also as practice. Culture is no longer relegated to the superstructure, but is in fact that ways in which individuals become conscious of their identities and of the social and economic activities of the societies in which they live.
Furthermore, hegemony so defined cannot be reduced to a static structure, but is rather a process, a
complex of experiences, relationships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits. In practice, that is, hegemony can never be singular. Its internal structures are highly complex, as can readily be seen in any concrete analysis. Moreover (and this is crucial, reminding us of the necessary thrust of the concept), it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own. We have then to add to the concept of hegemony the concepts of counter-hegemony and alternative hegemony, which are real and persistent elements of practice. (112-113)
At any one time in a given society there are multiple sets of political and cultural emphases that make different sets of experiences and practices hegemonic among different groups. A hegemonic process must remain constantly aware of these counter and alternative hegemonies, and be able to incorporate them or neutralize them. Transformations a hegemonic process can also occur, and this is most importantly seen for Williams in works of art, whose openness to interpretations allows them to become parts of multiple hegemonic processes, or to challenge them.
Chapter 7: “Traditions, Institutions, and Formations”
Hegemony is a process that organizes and incorporates disparate meanings, values, and practices into a dominant cultural and social order, all of which are themselves related to economic realities. Williams focuses now on hegemony’s process of incorporation, beginning with the three concepts of traditions, institutions, and formations.
Tradition is a concept that Marxism has almost completely ignored, first because it was considered merely a part of the superstructure, and second because it was considered to be the “surviving past,” an inert element of society (115). However, Williams considers tradition to be the most powerful means of incorporation, as long as we see tradition not in the traditional Marxist fashion but as an active process of selection, “an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification. […] From a whole possible area of past and present, in a particular culture, certain meanings and practices are selected for emphasis and certain other meanings and practices are neglected or excluded. Yet within a particular hegemony, and as one of its decisive processes, this selection is presented and usually successfully passed off as ‘the tradition’, ‘the significant past’.” (115-116) Tradition gives a selection of the past in order to provide continuity with the present. The active sense of tradition is especially important as it gives us a clue as to where to find counter-hegemonies, in the discarded past material separated from “the tradition,” which can be taken up and used to create an alternative tradition, such that tradition as a mode of incorporation is both powerful and vulnerable.
This process of the creation of a tradition is usually thought to take place in identifiable institutions, particularly ones involved in socialization. Educational institutions, for instance, are sites where selected knowledge and skills are taught to children as ways of making them recognize what social reality is and how to live in it, along with other institutions, such as religious institutions, the media, and certain state institutions. These are often thought of as locations where tradition is primarily contested.
While this understanding of the role of institutions is partially true, for Williams an often neglected and equally if not more important are non-institutional formations as sites where hegemonic processes are transformed and traditions are contested, Formations are “conscious movements and tendencies (literary, artistic, philosophical or scientific) which can usually be readily discerned after their formative productions. Often, when we look further, we find that these are articulations of much wider effective formations, which can by no means be wholly identified with formal institutions, or their formal meanings and values, and which can sometimes even be positively contrasted with them.” (119) Formations are specialized practices, occurring outside of institutions but which can enter into institutions, stemming from meanings and values in the wider and more diffuse social sphere.
Chapter 8: “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent”
Along with the aforementioned concepts, cultural complexity is also explained by interrelations between movements and tendencies in a culture. Williams argues against a systems-based approach to culture, which regards culture as a coherent system dominated by a singular tendency (ie. feudal or bourgeois culture, or culture in transition between one system and another), privileging a static “type” as the essence of a culture taken as an object. In its place, Williams advocates studying the “internal dynamic relations of any actual process,” classifying these relations into dominant, residual, and emergent categories (121).
A residual relationship does not denote something that is archaic, in the sense of recognizably belonging to a past era, but which has been “formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present. Thus certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practices on the bases of the residue – cultural as well as social – of some previous social and cultural institution or formation.” (122) Something that stands in a residual relationship to culture can be oppositional to the dominant tendencies, but can also be incorporated into dominant tendencies. The dominant culture, being threatened by too many experiences that are interpretable in terms of past cultural formations and institutions weakening its legitimacy, incorporates residual elements into itself: “It is in the incorporation of the actively residual – by reinterpretation, dilution, projection, discriminating inclusion and exclusion – that the work of the selective tradition is especially evident.” (123)
Formations that are in an emergent relationship to dominant culture are not only “new meanings and values, new practices and kinds of relationship”, but specifically those which are “substantially alternative or oppositional to it: emergent in the strict sense, rather than merely novel.” (123) New experiences, not interpretable within the dominant tendencies, foster the creation of new cultural forms, and often the most active incorporation of cultural elements occurs with emergent formations, leading Williams to posit the axiom that “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention.” (125) Classes and the variety of experiences in the social world, even among the dominant class, are constant sources of emergent cultural forms, and remain in their subordinate position to the dominant tendencies coordinately with the social and economic position of the class unless it is incorporated into the dominant tendencies.
Dominant cultural formations not only include the “mainstream” of culture, but more importantly “what the dominant has effectively seized is indeed the ruling definition of the social.” (125) The cultural formations which are understood to be the definition of all experiences within a culture and which dominate other cultural forms, which they relegate to realms like the “personal or the private, or as the natural or even the metaphysical.” (125) Inasmuch as a dominant cultural formation is hegemonic, it constitutes the sense of reality over all of a society, and reaches into as many practices and activities as it can to interpret them in terms of the dominant tendencies.
In advanced capitalism, “because of changes in the social character of labor, in the social character of communications, and in the social character of decision-making, the dominant culture reaches much further than ever before in capitalist society into hitherto ‘reserved’ or ‘resigned’ areas of experience and practice and meaning.” (126) Williams therefore concludes that the processes of emergence are especially important to study now, and so turns to “pre-emergence, active and pressing but not yet fully articulated, rather than the evident emergence which could be more confidently named.” (126)
Chapter 9: “Structures of Feeling”
In moving from the emergent to the pre-emergent, Williams is forced to confront the bias towards concentrating on particular works, products of art, giving the impression that such works are already finished, and the emergent tendencies are already identifiable. This bias towards objectification of emergent forms Williams counters by noting that the process of production and interpretation of art is continuous, such that “the making of art is never itself in the past tense. It is always a formative process, within a present moment.” (129) Thus Williams looks to the experiences that give rise to emergence, which he labels structures of feeling.
Williams begins by returning to the concept of practical consciousness as consciousness of the world as inevitably inflected with our social presence in it. While dominant social forms describe reality for general social relationships, or in a generic sense, social consciousness only factually exists in real relationships, “which are more than systematic exchanges between fixed units.” (130) The generic sense of reality given in dominant and hegemonic social tendencies is often distinct from factual social experiences:
There is frequent tension between the received interpretation and practical experience. Where this tension can be made direct and explicit, or where some alternative interpretation is available, we are still within a dimension of relatively fixed forms. But the tension is as often an unease, a stress, a displacement, a latency: the moment of conscious comparison not yet come, often not even coming. [...] There are the experiences to which the fixed forms do not speak at all, which indeed they do not recognize. There are important mixed experiences, where the available meaning would convert part to all, or all to part. […] Practical consciousness is almost always different from official consciousness, and this is not only a matter of relative freedom or control. For practical consciousness is what is actually being lived, and not only what is through is being lived. (130-131)
These inarticulate experiences are what Williams calls an “embryonic” phase of an emergent formation, before it can be defined, and generally appears as literary or artistic “style.” (131) These elements of feeling within experience that makes them differ from the official model are for Williams a structure, “a set, with specific internal relations at once interlocking and in tension. Yet we are also defining a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolation, but which in analysis (through rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies.” (132) This distance from official consciousness is what is represented in art, and is only later theorized into a particular “aesthetics,” thus preserving the social aspects of aesthetic experience while providing a way to grasp individual style.
Chapter 10: “The Sociology of Culture”
Bourgeois sociology of culture generally focuses on institutions of culture and on the notion of “mass” culture, thus reducing culture to one form with certain variants. This homogenization of culture ignores both class differences in cultural production but also the processes of hegemony and incorporation discussed earlier. A Marxist sociology of culture for Williams must also include studies of formations that take place outside of institutions, and move beyond the sociology of institutions of “organized knowledge” such as education and religion, which understands cultural production in positivist terms, as the progressive articulation and rationalization of aesthetic theories. Williams argues that, against the sociology of knowledge, “in cultural production (and all consciousness is in this sense produced) the true range is from information and description, or naming and indication, to embodiment and performance […] (social methods of speaking, moving, representing, and so on).” (139) Ultimately, a sociology must take into account all of these elements, understood in terms of the relations between forms and movements within a hegemonic system of culture.
Part 3: “Literary Theory”
Chapter 1: “The Multiplicity of Writing”
The category of literature is a critical case of the modern capitalist understanding of aesthetics as a specialized form of experience of beauty and artistic quality. Recapitulating earlier chapters, Williams argues that the modern understanding of aesthetics transformed from a theory of perception to a “description of the response to ‘art’) itself newly generalized from skill to ‘imaginative’ skill). What emerged in bourgeois economics as the ‘consumer’ – the abstract figure corresponding to the abstraction of (market and commodity) ‘production’ – emerged in cultural theory as ‘aesthetics’ and the ‘aesthetic response.’” (150) As noted earlier, this identification of art with “imaginative” skill involves a reduction of art to a series of forms labeled the proper objects of aesthetic experience. In literature this has resulted in the reduction of “literature” to specialized forms that obscure the multiplicity in types of writing practices: literature is “fictional” and not “factual,” it is “imaginative” and not “practical,” and it is not “subjective” rather than “objective.” Literature’s association with these concepts is specific to the capitalist era, and a Marxist literary theory must attempt to recapture the multiplicity of forms of writing outside of the categories left to it by bourgeois critics.
Chapter 2: “Aesthetic and Other Situations”
Despite aesthetics’ banishment to a separate form of experience from other provinces of experience (ie. practical, religious, etc.) under bourgeois criticism, the separateness of aesthetics also has for Williams positive potential, in that it signifies an “affirmation of ‘creative imagination’, of certain human meanings and values which a dominant social system reduced and even tried to exclude. Its history is in large part a protest against the forcing of all experience into instrumentality (‘utility’), and of all things into commodities.” (151) The general problem with this protest is, however, the problems of extending a specific “aesthetic experience” to the process of production of art, particularly the material and social aspects of its production. Rather than seeing the aesthetic experience as the result of experiences with objects, Williams argues that we should regard aesthetics as “a ‘function’, and therefore a ‘practice’, as distinct from its location in special objects or special means,” quoting Mukarovsky’s statement on aesthetics that there are “- within art and outside of it – objects which, by virtue of their organization are meant to have an aesthetic effect. This is actually the essential property of art. But an active capacity for the aesthetic function is not a real property of the object, even if the object has been deliberately composed with the aesthetic function in mind. Rather, the aesthetic function manifests itself only under certain conditions, i.e. in a certain social context.” (152-153)
Art is only the particular set of objects in which the aesthetic function is dominant, seen as a “series of situations, in which specific intentions and responses combined, within discoverable formations, to produce a true range of specific facts and effects.” (154) Additionally, Williams extends the effects garnered from aesthetic experiences, which are both specific and variable based on social context, from the beautiful and the sublime, to a “range” of possible effects. Specifically, literature carries “references, meanings, and values. To suppress or displace them is in the end impossible. […] language and form are constitutive processes of reference, meaning, and value, and that there are not necessarily identical with, or exhausted by, the kinds of reference, meaning, and value that correspond or can be grouped with generalized references, meanings and values that are also evidence, in other senses and in summary, elsewhere.” (155) Neither the reduction to beauty nor the Marxist reduction to ideology exhausts the possible aesthetic situations literature can produce, and therefore literary theory must look to the “complex formations, situations, and occasions in which such intentions and such responses are made possible, are modified, and are encouraged or deflected.” (156)
Chapter 3: “From Medium to Social Practice”
Adding to his analysis of aesthetic situations, Williams challenges the notion that the work of art and the work of literature is a “medium”: “words are seen as objects, things, which men take up and arrange into particular forms to express or communicate information which, before this work in the ‘medium’, they already possess.” (159) In cultural theory, the properties of the medium were eventually abstracted from the artist and his/her practice “as if they defined the practice, rather than being its means.” (160) Despite the increased attention it gives to the material aspects of art, Williams insists on his understanding of art and literature as activities, thus with agents, albeit conditioned and determined ones in the sense elucidated earlier, and so argues that we must find another category to describe the artist’s use of materials.
Williams argues that the specificities of 20th Century art provide some space for a redefinition of medium to social practice:
Significantly, since the late nineteenth century, crises of technique – which can be isolated as problems of the ‘mediums’ or of the ‘form – have been directly linked with a sense of crisis in the relationship of art to society, or in the very purposes of art which had previously been agreed or even taken for granted. A new technique has often been seen, realistically, as a new relationship, or as depending on a new relationship. Thus what had been isolated as a medium, in many ways rightly as a way of emphasizing the material production which any art must be, came to be seen, inevitably, as social practice; or, in the crisis of modern cultural production, as a crisis of social practice. This is the crucial common factor, in otherwise diverse tendencies, which links the radical aesthetics of modernism and the revolutionary theory and practice of Marxism. (163-164)
Chapter 4: “Signs and Notations”
Language in literature is not a medium but a social practice. It is also, though, a special case of a practice, as it is “at once a material practice and a process in which many complex activities, of a less manifestly material kind – from information to interaction, from representation to imagination, and from abstract thought to immediate emotion – are specifically realized. Language is in fact a special kind of material practice: that of human sociality.” (165) But inasmuch as language is used by individual users, its social aspects can get lost, giving rise to two different theories of literature’s use of language that are mistaken in different ways.
Formalism focuses on the use of the specific use of both general and specific forms, which not only serve as the “scaffolding” for experiences, but also enter into their content. At the same time, however, it reduces the experiences written about in literature to nonexistence, leaving itself open to the commonsense reaction that literature expresses real situations, people, and has real messages. For Williams, though, this reaction is not in itself a literary theory. At best it becomes the other option, expressivism, which argues that literature directly relates personal experiences, ignoring the fact of the production of meaning: “No expression, that is to say – no account, description, depiction, portrait – is ‘natural’ or ‘straightforward’. These are at most socially relative terms. Language is not a pure medium through which the reality of a life or the reality of an event or an experience of the reality of a society can ‘flow’. It is a socially shared and reciprocal activity, already embedded in active relationships, within which every move is an activation of what is already shared and reciprocal or may become so.” (166)
Against these erroneous literary theories, a more radical formalism was advanced that treated all expression consists of “formal signs which are words and not persons or things, and on their formal arrangement. ‘Natural’ expression of ‘reality’ or ‘experience’ can be convincingly shown to be a myth, occluding this real and demonstrable activity.” (167) However, this radical formalism led to the hypothesis of systems of signs in arbitrary relationship with each other, leading back to structuralism, ignoring, as argued earlier, the social relationships that produce the values of signs.
Williams thus advocates understanding writing as a process of production, where written words are not signs with a stable though arbitrary meaning, but rather notations, whose meanings are regular but shift given the productive context in which they are used. The meanings of expressions are the means of production of literary products, and so are tailored to produce the intended product:
But the central characteristic of writing is the production of material notations, though the purposes and therefore the means of production are variable. Thus the written play is a notation of intended speech, and sometimes also of intended movement and scene. […] Some written forms are a record of speech, or a text for speech (speeches, lectures, sermons). But the characteristic ‘literary’ form is notation for reading. It is characteristic of such notations, in printing obviously but also in copying, that they are reproducible. They are unlike normal forms of produced material objects, even such related forms as paintings. For their essential material existence is in the reproducible notations, which are then radically dependent on the cultural system within which the notations are current, as well as, in a secondary way, on the social and economic system within which they are distributed. It is thus in the whole and complex process of notation that we find the reality of this specific material and social process. Once again the linguistic elements are not signs; they are notations of actual productive relationships. (169-170)
And reading is just as active a process of production as writing:
Thus the notation is not, even at this level, simple transfer; it depends upon the active grasping, often by repeated trial and error, of shapes and relationships which the notation promotes but does not guarantee.
, then, is as active as writing, and the notation, as means of production, depends on both these activities and upon their effective relationships. (170) Reading
So literature is a constant process, throughout two characteristic activities of reading and writing, of producing expressions of experiences with socially existent linguistic forms of expressions (notations: “indications of speech, reported speech and dialogue; indications of explicit and implicit thought processes; indications of displaced or suspended monologue, dialogue, or thought; indications of direct or ‘characterized’ observation) as its means, altering those elements in the process of producing that product. The use of existent notations means that all literature is an inherently social product, and Williams begins to investigate this social aspect of notation in his next chapter on
Chapter 5: “Conventions”
“Within any social theory of art and literature, a convention is an established relationship, or ground of a relationship, through which a specific shared practice – the making of actual works – can be realized. It is the local or general indicator, both of the situations and occasions of art, and of the means of an art.” (173) Conventions are more general than notations as notations are always a material aspect of language (ie. some combination or organization of words), whereas conventions can involve absences, silences, or the non-use of particular procedures or devices (eg. the description, but non-presentation of violent deaths in Greek tragedy). Conventions indicate certain experiences that are recognized within a certain society and thus become “self-defining criteria of significance and relevance. Thus the inclusion or exclusion of specific family or social history, or indeed of any detailed identity ‘before the event’, represents basic conventions of the nature of individuals and their relationships.” (175) Conventions, therefore, generally betray the assumptions and understandings the “official consciousness” a hegemonic process has of social relationships, identities, and actions, and so always has a class content to it. Thus, conventions can also be products of alternative hegemonies and can challenge dominant hegemonies:
For it is of the essence of a convention that it ratifies an assumption or a point of view, so that the work can be made and received. The modern controversy about conventions, or the cases of deliberate exposure or reversal of older or inherent conventions in an attempt to create new relations with audiences, thus relate directly to the whole social process, in its living flux and contestation. But the reality of conventions as the mode of junction of social position and literary practice remains central. (179)
Chapter 6: “Genres”
The theory of genres has always been plagued by the opposition between theories of specific types of literature, “fixed genres,” versus the empiricist response demonstrating the “impossibility or inefficacy of reducing all actual and possible literary works to these fixed genres.” (180) In bourgeois literary criticism the theory of fixed genres was transformed by the association of literature with “creative” and “imaginative” activity. Genres are no longer as they were previously a set of rules defining what an author could or could not do if he or she wished to write a particular type of book, but “as a matter of the now specialized characteristics of the ‘form’. (The novel ‘cannot’, for example, include unmediated ideas, ‘because’ its proper subject-matter is ‘individuals’ and their relationships). (181) Genres are divided into absurdity in bourgeois literary theory “by literary form, by subject-matter, and by intended readerships (this last a developing type in terms of specialized market-sectors), to say nothing of classifications which are combinations of these or which represent late, desperate entries to include some miscellaneous but popular type.” (182) This technical understanding of genres Williams believes to verge on meaninglessness with the endless permutations and subcategories of genres literary theory has conjured.
Different forms of social process must instead rule our understanding of genres, which begins with recognizing that there are no fixed or definitive boundaries between genres. Genres are generalities made out of different combinations of the “basic components” of genres: “(i) stance; (ii) mode of formal composition; (iii) appropriate subject-matter.” (183) Stance refers to the organization, always a socially recognizable one, of a text that determines the presentation of action, plot, characters, etc. Three stances have been traditionally advanced: narrative, dramatic, and lyrical, but Williams argues that these must be transformed given changing social and historical relations, giving different modes of address. Mode of formal composition is often linked with the stance: lyrical stances often go with verse composition, and so on. But endless permutations and degrees are possible between these two aspects of genres. And appropriate subject-matter is even more variable historically and is also dependent upon the first two aspects of genres. Thus, “genre, in this view, is neither an ideal type nor a traditional order nor a set of technical rules. It is in the practical and variable combination and even fusion of what are in abstraction, different levels of the social material process that what we have known as genre becomes a new kind of constitutive evidence.” (185)
Chapter 7: “Forms”
Williams argues that the best literary theory, in fact, has replaced the concept of genre with that of form. Form, however, has an inherent ambiguity, signifying “a visible outward shape, and an inherent shaping impulse,” thus allowing it to stand for both the superficial and the essential simultaneously (186). Literary forms can thus either be existent and thus available to authors, or can be understood as the active making of forms in literary practice. Both ideas Williams understands to be true to practice, but literary theory has not adequately understood their relationship.
One way of stating the issue is to pose the question of the relationship of “society” and the “individual,” or between “social (collective) modes and individual projects.” (187) Forms are “the common property, to be sure with differences of degree, of writers and audiences or readers, before any communicative composition can occur. This is much easier to recognize in the case of stable traditional forms, where a specific relationship, of a collective or relatively general kind, is called upon and activated in the very processes of composition and performance.” (188) Our “individual” experiences are recognizable within existing cultural forms. Furthermore, Williams adds a historical dimension to this, noting that “there are significant correlations between the relative stability of forms, institutions, and social systems generally.” (189) The hegemonic process is, as stated earlier, a linkage between the artistic and the real social relations within a society. The strength of cultural and social hegemony are linked, so the changing of forms must be understood in this context. Thus, Williams concludes that “there is thus no abstract theoretical relationship between collective modes and individual projects. The degree of distance between them, within the continuing reality of each mode of consciousness, is historically variable as a function of real social relationships, both general and specific.” (190) The question that interests Williams, then, as the site where “the true social practice and analysis of art must begin,” is at what point “material articulations” (ie. uses of notations, conventions, etc.) become socially recognized as authoritative articulations of experiences, or in other words, at what point a new form is created (191).
Chapter 8: “Authors”
Despite the heavy criticism that the concept of author experienced over the past 50 years, Williams maintains that “any procedure which categorically excludes the specificity of all individuals and the formative relevance of all real relations, by whatever formula of assigned significance, is in the end reductive.” (198) Marxism indeed understands that no one is his own author, in the sense that all individuals are determined by society (along, as he says, with genetics) and history, language, and inherited social conventions. At the same time, however, the individual as a subject is retained by understanding its trans-individuality, which has two senses. First, Williams gives the example of people in conscious collaboration, who through their relationship have experiences and produce expressions they could not have had on their own, individually. Second, and more complicated, though, are “effective social relations in which, even while individual projects are being pursued, what is being drawn on is trans-individual, not only in the sense of shared (initial) forms and experiences, but in the specifically creative sense of new responses and formation.” (195) For Williams, all authors are trans-individual in the second sense insofar as their consciousness is from the start infused with existing cultural forms, and individuation is a process describable by his earlier concept of structures of feeling, thus always keeping the dialectic between individual and society intact. The author is a figure that exists in the midst of social relationships and responses to experiences, making it a dynamic, rather than an essentialist and static figure.
Chapter 9: “Alignment and Commitment”
Williams further specifies the relationship between author and society in his analysis of alignment and commitment. Alignment is the less controversial concept, particularly within Marxism, namely that “writing, like other practices, is in an important sense always aligned: that is to say, that it variously expresses, explicitly or implicitly, specifically selected experience from a specific point of view.” (199) This formulation of alignment expresses the fundamentally Marxist notion that all consciousness is limited and determined. The larger question arises, though, in regards to commitment, a term which has specifically political connotations. Commitment to (or against) social and political causes elicits great discomfort, particularly among bourgeois cultural critics, who in their romanticizing of the individual and unmediated aspects of literature depoliticize it. At the same time, however, literature which is nothing more than ideology, or better put, propaganda, is not a model Williams wishes to set for all literature.
Commitment for Williams involves “conscious alignment, or conscious change of alignment,” a practice of recognition of “the realities of their social relations, and in this sense their alignment,” on the part of authors (204). An author’s choice to understand the real social relations in which he or she lives, what his or her alignment is, and what alignment he or she would like to have, is the beginning of commitment. More fundamentally, however, authors must commit themselves to limitations in their literature based on their choice of alignment:
To write in different ways is to live in different ways. It is also to be read in different ways. It is also to be read in different ways, in different relations, and often by different people. This area of possibility, and thence of choice, is specific, not abstract, and commitment in its only important sense is specific in just these terms. It is specific within a writer’s actual and possible social relations as one kind of producer. It is specific also in the most concrete forms of these same actual and possible relations, in actual and possible notations, conventions, forms and language. Thus to recognize alignment is to learn, if we choose, the hard and total specificities of commitment. (205)
Chapter 10: “Creative Practice”
The idea that humans are self-creating, rather than being dependent on external causes (God, nature, human nature, etc.) is essential to Marxism. Refusing to understand literary and artistic creativity in terms of a mystical phenomenon such as “timeless permanence or “the progressive development of humanity” requires Marxism to delineate the specific creative pathways literature takes (206-207). Literature is an inherently material process, using existing formulations and articulations of socially shared experiences in a process of production of a new expression of a set of experiences, such that “the real literary process is active reproduction.” (209) Creativity in truth is closely related to the concept of performance, seen as the enactment of an existing literary model of expressing relations and people in such a way as to match ones own experiences. In a hegemonic process, we already always have an understanding of our experiences in the dominant cultural mode, but that definition of our experiences is never complete, though in general it is sufficient. Thus creativity in the sense of emergence, Williams notes, is rare. Creative practice, the active performance of social models with the intention of expressing and communicating (both to others and to oneself) social experiences has a great range of connectedness to the dominant hegemony:
Creative practice is thus of many kinds. It is already, and actively, our practical consciousness. When it becomes struggle – the active struggle for new consciousness through new relationships that is the ineradicable emphasis of the Marxist sense of self-creation – it can take many forms. It can be the long and difficult remaking of an inherited (determined) practical consciousness: […] confronting a hegemony in the fibers of the self and in the hard practical substance of effective and continuing relationships. It can be more evident practice: the reproduction and illustration of hitherto excluded and subordinated models; the embodiment and performance of known but excluded and subordinated experiences and relationships; the articulation and formation of latent, momentary, and possible new consciousness. (212)
Literary theory, then, must take as its task creating a general and social consciousness of what is often experienced by authors as “a special and often relatively isolated consciousness.” (212) The practices of self-creation authors undertake must be understood by theorists, in order to grasp the unknown, emergent, new aspects of any work of literature and the work of an author.
A very condensed book. This is what reading it was like: