Appreciative and not-so-appreciative thoughts on cultural theory

June 8, 2020


[These notes, for what they're worth, are from, respectively, 2010 and 2018 (below).]


Reading Raymond Williams’ classic Marxism and Literature (1977). Words like ‘culture,’ ‘society’ and ‘economy’: evolved from original meanings of immediacy/concreteness (centuries ago) to highly abstract notions now. Reification of language as society becomes more dynamic and commercialized. Reification of how one sees the world and talks about it. Gradual “alienation,” mediation, estrangement from the immediate and concrete community.


Williams isn’t a rigorous or lucid thinker, but his heart is in the right place: analyze the material practices that produce culture. He insists on the material production of ideology, entertainment, politics, art, culture. He’s right that the base/superstructure metaphor can be, ironically, a hindrance to a proper Marxist analysis of culture. Material processes rather than “abstract totalizations” or fixed generalities like “ideology” and “political superstructure” are what count. “It is the reduction of the social to fixed forms that remains the basic error” in analysis (p. 129).


It’s interesting to think of the media, as in the “mainstream media,” as being the media of something, the medium through which something happens. Mediation. Mediation between the individual and society? Between the individual and the state? The media are the medium in which society becomes conscious of itself? In which ideologies are produced? Through which a class maintains its hegemony? The media are a mediation of society.


The chapter on hegemony and the following ones are much better than the first half of the book. Thought-provoking.


For a long time I’ve wondered why mass consciousness so often lags behind social being. As Marx said, ideologies from an earlier era hang on until they’re quite anachronistic. Williams has some good ideas on this. I like his concepts of the residual, the dominant, and the emergent. The dominant tends to be that on which the rule of the upper classes rests. The practices, habits, expectations, internalizations, “shaping perceptions of ourselves and the world,” which, in being shaped primarily by the (practices embodied in and extending from the) dominant mode of production, serve to uphold the rule of the dominant class(es). In other words, it’s basically the hegemonic. The residual has been formed in the past “but 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 practiced on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social and cultural institution or formation. It is crucial to distinguish this aspect of the residual, which may have an alternative or even oppositional relation to the dominant culture, from that active manifestation of the residual…which has been wholly or largely incorporated into the dominant culture."


For example, organized religion is mostly residual, but it has both “alternative and oppositional” elements and “a larger body of incorporated meanings and values,” which in practice are compatible with and may even be used to legitimize the dominant order. Through “reinterpretation, dilution, projection, discriminating inclusion and exclusion,” much of the residual is made compatible with the dominant culture.


Anyway, Williams suggests that “those meanings and values which were created in actual societies and actual situations of the past…still seem to have significance because they represent areas of human experience, aspiration, and achievement which the dominant culture neglects, undervalues, opposes, represses, or even cannot recognize.” This is obviously true. Examples are easy to think of. No dominant culture in itself is going to provide a palliative for every yearning, every doubt, every source of conflict to which humans are susceptible. Indeed, it necessarily “excludes the full range of human practice.” What it excludes “may be seen as the personal or the private, or the natural or even the metaphysical.” Hence, for certain purposes people will have to turn to either residual or “emergent” practices. The former, though, have an advantage over the latter (I think) in that they’ve already been consolidated for centuries. They already exist, whereas the emergent has to be birthed laboriously. And since it is oppositional or alternative vis-à-vis the dominant culture, it will often be actively suppressed. (Or it may be incorporated—and diluted in the process—as happened with the radical popular press in 19th-century England, as well as working-class lifestyles in general during the past couple of centuries, which have been incorporated into journalism, advertising and commercial entertainment. Or think of rap, which started out as oppositional and has been incorporated into the dominant order.)


It seems to me that with respect to any power-structure, the “emergent” (or pre-emergent) can come into play and be either suppressed or incorporated. For example, [a famous Marxist sociologist who had read something of mine and was skeptical] is part of an academic power-structure, so he has an interest in suppressing new ideas or in denying “originality” to people outside the power-structure who challenge his own ideas and his self-identity as an authoritative, original, correct thinker. People within the power-structure who challenge him are at least his “equals,” so he has to take them seriously; and moreover, chances are that they approach issues in the same way he does, they share his assumptions about the proper way to do “scholarship,” they shy away from “overreaching” or having the gall to seem excessively original, too challenging, etc. But people outside the power-structure, or new to it, who pose challenges to it can be brushed aside as unimportant, with the effect that potentially “emergent” practices or ideas are stifled, and the power-structure reproduces itself in relatively unaltered form. The interests of the individual thus coincide with the interests of the structure.


I like Williams’ semi-reconceptualization of art. It’s not a spiritual, ideal, “higher” sort of thing, but ineluctably material practices, craftsmanship, manual work, techniques of production, saturated with materiality and implicit social relationships, power-relations, class structures. The romantic idealistic ideology of art was (in part) a reaction to the material monstrosities of the Industrial Revolution, the commodification of art, the degrading of culture. Think also of the ideology of genius, of inspiration, the divine expressing itself through the artist. It ties into the aristocracy’s reaction against industrial capitalism, commercialism, the bourgeois order, seeing itself as the guardian of all that is beautiful in life, of aesthetic pursuits as against the lust for filthy lucre. In this sense the idealization of art is somewhat residual even though it didn’t fully exist prior to the eighteenth century. It’s a transformed residue of aristocratic ideologies, the celebration of leisure and autonomous self-expression. As the aristocracy melted away or blew itself up in the twentieth century, this romantic ideology became untenable. What you had then was modernism and postmodernism. The “death of the author,” all that. (Death of individuality, autonomy, an “aristocratic” haven from the herd.) The hegemony of mass culture and commercialism, and the despair of art. Hence Andy Warhol and the like.


The “productive process” of writing and of reading. Material production. “Notations [in writing] of order, arrangement, and the mutual relationship of parts; notations of pause, of break, of transition; notations of emphasis: all these can be said to control, but are better described as ways of realizing, the process of the specific productive relationship that is at once, in its character as notation, a way of writing and a way of reading.” The emphasis on writing and art as material production can be taken too far, but it’s a corrective to idealism. Williams is surely right, though, that a work of art is in a sense a social relationship, between the creator and the perceiver. Each of its many elements involves a relationship between at least two parties, and the way these elements are understood and constructed depends on the social position of the parties. “Every communicative element is a social process which…becomes a social product.” [See also John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing.]


“What is at issue in form is the activation of specific relations, between men and men and between men and things.” Very suggestive. Epic, drama, novel, lyric, romance…


On the whole, however, I think literary theory tends toward masturbation, with the endless ruminations, speculations, meditations, cogitations, and explorations. 




Reading Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction (2017), by Sara Upstone. Came across it in the bookstore. It’s a pretty good book, systematically going through a remarkable number of schools of thought, including, e.g.: aestheticism, practical criticism, new criticism, formalism, reader response theory, Marxism and post-Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalytic criticism (Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian), existentialism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, Deleuze, postmodernism, feminism(s), queer theory, postcolonial criticism, cultural studies, cultural materialism, humanism, ethical criticism, genre theory, and ecocriticism. But I’m left with my old impression that, while literary theory and literary criticism can be intriguing, insightful, and suggestive, in the end it’s all just an infinity of interpretations, playful interpretations. Here’s one way of interpreting a text, here’s another way, here’s another way, here’s another way… You can choose this interpretation if you prefer, or that one, or that one, or this other one if you find it more interesting; and you can choose this approach (or ‘method’), or that approach, or this approach. Some of the approaches/interpretations might have more value than others—a Marxian interpretation might be more fruitful or illuminating (or reasonable) than a Freudian interpretation—but they all might have something to say. But you’re left thinking…so what?


No wonder postmodernists rejected the idea of objective truth! There is no real truth in this sphere of cultural theory. There are only perspectives.


I don’t know, I’m conflicted between recognizing the potential value of literary/cultural theory—and criticism—and thinking it’s quite masturbatory. (And sometimes just silly or nonsensical or totally self-indulgent.) Some ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, might give insight into the subtle workings of power and authority in culture, and might be construable as additions to or refinements of useful Marxian ideas. But I’m suspicious of the endless proposing of new conceptualizations seemingly for their own sake. Like, in Bourdieu, habitus, doxa, disposition, field—notice the characteristic borrowing of terminology from natural science, a practice that comes perilously close to pretentiousness (puffing up ideas as more substantive and necessary/useful than they are; and also trying to benefit from the intellectual prestige of science, by positioning oneself, more or less meretriciously, in its shadow). Inventing jargon that might, perhaps, be mildly thought-provoking but doesn’t add much of substance to old, simple insights. Or the new vocabulary might even serve to distract from and dilute pithy, punchy Marxian intuitions that challenge the ruling class’s legitimacy; in this case, it will, naturally, become popular in institutions propped up by the ruling class. 


It all seems so damn decadent. 

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