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What is cultural materialism? The question is not a flippant one. Much recent theoretical work in English studies has proven remarkably unable to answer this question, and has at times served only to confuse what it seeks to clarify.
Cultural materialism has become identified with a kind of Lacan-ian approach to literary texts. Such an approach typically defines materialism as a process of language acquisition. It analyses the process of subjectivity formation as it is worked out in the dialectical relationship between the ego and the social environment. This relationship is registered in and through language, so that the Lacanian approach demonstrates how individual subjectivities are materially generated in the process of language acquisition. It then goes on to extrapolate the extent to which the manifestation of this process in literary texts is also a material affair. It is an approach that draws on Freud’s theory of sublimated sexual desire, and transposes this into a general textual economy of desire.
Scott Wilson’s 1995 study, Cultural Materialism, follows this trajectory. Wilson begins by using Freudian psychoanalysis as an instrument for understanding the process of self-fashioning. He then goes on to extrapolate the Freudian concept of desire, elevating it into a general principle for the interpretation of literary, especially Shakespearean texts. Broadly speaking, this extrapolation follows the subtler modes of thinking introduced into the field of psychoanalysis by Jacques Lacan, and moves away from the perhaps rigid deterministic approach of Freud.1 The same could be said of Alan Sinfield’s Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (1992) and John Brannigan’s New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (1998).2
So far so good. Whence the confusion? Cultural materialism is a term coined by Raymond Williams in the introduction to his 1977 study, Marxism and Literature. It is, in Williams’s own words, a ‘Marxist theory’ of culture (ML, p. 5). Williams did not write about Freud, or Lacan, very much at all. Indeed, over the course of thirty-four published books and countless journal articles, Williams’s references to Freud are few and far between. Williams appears to have been suspicious of what he saw as the bourgeois, individualist and anti-historical tendencies that could be said to exist in Freud.3 As a result, the emphasis of Williams’s cultural materialism is all about the correspondingly socialist and historical tendencies to be found in Marxism.
This is the confusion: recent work on cultural materialism is heavily indebted to the work of Williams. Wilson, Sinfield and Brannigan all acknowledge Williams as the founder of the field – cultural materialism – in which they operate.4 Yet their approach is often explicitly psychoanalytic or semiotic, drawing far more on the instruments of Freud and Lacan than on Marx. This theoretical approach is not clearly used in the work of Williams, despite the assertion of these theorists that his work was the cornerstone of their own. He appears not to have founded the field that they credit him with having founded. Cultural materialism as Williams understood it was a Marxist theory of culture. Cultural materialism in the guises mentioned here appears to be a psychoanalytic approach, drawing more on Freud and Lacan than on Marx. Which then is the ‘real’ cultural materialism?
Raymond Williams developed his materialist theory of culture over a long period of time and through recourse to several different areas of research. Although cultural materialism as Williams defined it is rightly identified as a Marxist theory, Williams’s work also overlapped more with the field of semiotic theory than is often acknowledged – hence the recent confusion as to how to define cultural materialism. Cultural materialism evolved as an analytic theory that combined the work of Marx, Freud and Lacan, transforming each in the process, in order to arrive at a sophisticated theory of culture.
THE FIRST TURNING POINT
Raymond Williams’s early intellectual formation is best understood through reference to the intellectual milieu in which he operated. Three names spring immediately to mind: I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis and E. M. W. Tillyard. When Williams arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1939, not much more than a decade had elapsed since the publication of Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism, which had established ‘practical criticism’ as the dominant method of the Cambridge English tripos.Leavis had published his pamphlet Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture in 1930, urging the social and literary elite to defend its way of life against the encroachments of the degraded masses. Williams’s own tutor, Tillyard, was somewhere around the height of his career, producing studies of Elizabethan and Victorian poetry, emphasizing the organic, harmonious and supposedly timeless nature of idyllic English society.5
The best word to describe the approach to literature which was dominant when Williams arrived in Cambridge is literary idealism. Practical criticism as Richards defined it was a way of viewing the literary text, as it were, in isolation. It had been developed partly out of the dictates of the English course. Typically, the object of practical criticism was a short poem, or, exceptionally, a short passage of prose. This had the advantage of being capable of being transmitted to students quickly in advance of a tutorial. During the exercise of practical criticism, the students were supposed to examine the text for its innate properties: What did the text mean? How did it generate this meaning? How successful was it as art?
The question that practical criticism did not address was how students were to arrive at these judgements. Indeed, it seemed to require them intuitively to know what constitutes great art, and how. This value was taken to reside in the works themselves somehow, rather than in the students’ estimation of them. This was more or less by definition true, since, in order for the students to have been presented with a poem or passage of prose in the first place, the piece had a priori been selected as a specimen of great literature worthy of appreciation.
This selection would of course have been made by the tutors and committees of the English faculty, and it is here that Richards’s practical criticism intersects with the work of his colleague, F. R. Leavis.Leavis at this time was already beginning to develop the ideas that would culminate in the publication of his classic study, The Great Tradition, in 1948. In this work,Leavis sketched out what he took to be the finest representative works from the continuous organic tradition of the English novel. The Great Tradition depended essentially on a circular argument. Anything thatLeavis discussed in it, from Austen to Conrad, was by definition great literature. Anything that was understood as great literature was by the same token discussed. AsLeavis himself put it, ‘by great tradition I mean the tradition to which what is great in English fiction belongs’.6 Raymond Williams recalls in Politics and Letters in 1979 that theLeavis approach to literary history remained the ‘going position’ in Cambridge for decades (PL, p. 245).
Practical criticism and The Great Tradition rely heavily on a notion of literary idealism. These approaches assume that the literary text is best considered in isolation from any separate kind of knowledge or understanding. Each approach assumes that the literary text innately contains its own meanings and values, and that these cannot vary from reader to reader. In other words, it disavows the possibility that readers might call those same meanings and values into question. This is especially true of The Great Tradition, which is constructed to define all of the best qualities of Englishness as they are manifest in five centuries of classic literature, in a continuing harmonious culture. Any values which did not adhere to those defined by the great tradition were considered not worthy of consideration. This meant in practice that literary texts which expressed alternative values were rejected altogether. It meant also that students and readers who wanted to bring alternative values to bear on their interpretations of the ‘great’ works were generally discouraged, if not actively prevented, from doing so.
Literary idealism is a curious thing. It assumes that it is possible to approach a literary text with no more knowledge of the world than that which is generated by the text itself. At best, this requires readers to ‘pretend’ not to know the things that they do know about history, about politics, and about the world, in order to prevent these ‘debased’ and ‘materialist’ factors from impinging on their assessment of the work of art. At worst, it actively disavows the knowledge of the world brought into the process of reading, as if the people bringing that knowledge into their reading somehow did not count, or were not worth knowing about. The great tradition is composed primarily from a precise sector within English society. It assumes that to be anything other than ruling class, male and Anglican is automatically not to count.
When Raymond Williams, who was neither ruling class nor Anglican, nor English, began to bring his positively working-class and (at least putatively) nonconformist experience to bear on the ways in which he read literary texts, he was mildly rebuked by his tutor, E. M. W. Tillyard, for not playing the great tradition game. Before sketching out the process by which Williams developed his historical and materialist approach to the understanding of written texts in contradistinction to the dominant perspective of literary idealism, however, it is worth exploring the ways in which that perspective informed his own early critical work.
Williams’s study at Cambridge was interrupted when he went to serve as a tank captain in Normandy during the Second World War. Upon discharge, he completed his degree and then went to work as an adult education tutor in the extramural delegation of Oxford University. During this period, he began work on what was in effect his first book of literary criticism, Drama from Ibsen to Eliot (although by the time he had managed to get it published in 1952, he had already published Reading and Criticism in 1950).7
Williams’s selection of T. S. Eliot as the terminus for his own take on the great tradition is not an arbitrary one. For if Richards,Leavis and Tillyard can be seen as the key theorists of literary idealism, then Eliot was its main practitioner. Despite the many frustrations Williams encountered as an undergraduate grappling with the great tradition, this choice of culmination therefore implicitly reveals the extent to which that idealistic approach had taken hold within Williams’s own mind.
In the introduction to Drama from Ibsen to Eliot Williams sets out an early critical and methodological position. His approach is a textual one, concentrating on isolated individual works of drama:
It is literary criticism also, which, in its major part is based on demonstrated judgements from texts, rather than on historical survey or generalised impressions: of the kind, that is to say, which is known in England as practical criticism. Practical criticism began, in the work of Eliot, Richards.Leavis, Empson, and Murry, mainly in relation to poetry. It has since been developed, notably by both F. R. and Q. D.Leavis, in relation to the novel. In the drama, apart from the work of Eliot on Elizabethan dramatists and of other critics of Shakespeare, the usefulness of practical criticism remains to be tested. This book, in addition to its main objects, is intended, therefore, as a working experiment in the application of practical critical methods to modern dramatic literature.8
Williams’s approach at this early stage is a literary-critical, or idealist, one. He sets out to test the applicability of practical criticism to studies of drama. The thesis Williams propounds in Drama from Ibsen to Eliot is that drama is best understood in terms of its capacity to communicate an experience to an audience. Williams suggests that the overall design of a dramatist is best realized when he or she retains direct control of the play. That is, high art requires strict policing:
It seems to me that the most valuable drama is achieved when the technique of performance reserves to the dramatist primary control. It does not greatly matter whether this control is direct or indirect. In an age when it is accepted that the centre of drama is language, such control is reasonably assured. For when the centre of the drama is language, the form of the play will be essentially literary: the dramatist will adopt certain conventions of language through which to work. And if in such a case, the technique of performance – methods of speaking, movement and design – is of such a kind that it will communicate completely the conventions of the dramatist, the full power of the drama is available to be deployed. (DIE, p. 29)
The vague reference to ‘the age’ is counter-intuitive. For in the 1950s it was by no means clear that the centre of drama was language. Williams’s whole argument about naturalist drama was that it represented a turn away from the powerful controlling language of the playwright that we find in Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, towards an elaboration of costume, set, prop and action. These he terms ‘substitute effects’ (DIE, p. 75) for they deflect attention away from the controlling power of language. Only the best of contemporary drama, to Williams, retains this controlling power. This shows Williams caught in an impasse between high minority art and degraded mass culture. There is a real fervour with which he advocates the dramatist’s tight control over language, and the implied need for a strict policing of high art.
Williams believed that communication is best achieved as a process when the dramatist finds the forms and conventions which are most appropriate to the experience he is seeking to convey. These conventions must be recognisable to the audience as such, rather than appearing as mere reproduction of lifelike behaviour. An example Williams gives of such dramatic convention is the chorus of mythical Greek Eumenides in T. S. Eliot’s play, The Family Reunion (DIE, p. 245). Use of convention generates dramatic tension between the familiar and the innovative, and so enables drama to function as a profound source of communication. This interplay between novelty and the familiar was the basis of Eliot’s own dramatic practice. As Eliot wrote:
One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express, and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.9
Eliot argues that the job of the poet or verse dramatist is to work everyday emotions up into a new kind of experience. This sounds very much like Williams’s idea of the intensification of what is already familiar.
Williams’s positive valuation of Eliot and his recapitulation of I. A. Richards’s practical criticism points to an early difficulty which is both theoretical and methodological. The argument of Drama from Ibsen to Eliot is that communication can only really be achieved by the utilization of a form appropriate to the experience being communicated and to the receivers of the communication. Not only is it theoretically compromised and hamstrung by a strenuous emphasis on the defence of a minority culture, but this theoretical blindness impacts on the construction of the argument itself. Williams’s attempt at finding means for expanding access to cultural forms recapitulates and extends the idea of a minority culture in danger of being swamped:
The pressure of a mechanical environment has dictated mechanical ways of thought, feeling and conjunction, which artists, and a few of like temper, reject only by conscious resistance and great labour. That is why all serious literature, in our own period, tends to become minority literature … It will never become majority drama if it is to wait on the spread of universal beliefs. But its communication may be extended, and its writing made possible, if developments in society (the sum of individual developments) make possible the re-creation of certain modes of living and of language against which such complexes as industrialism have militated. (DIE, pp. 27–8)
The nostalgia evinced in this passage for the putatively harmonious days of a pre-industrial society underlines the extent to which Williams’s early work was shot through with the traces ofLeavis and Eliot.10 It is harder to imagine any writer in the English language who more fully idealizes feudal and medieval society than those two, and Williams, at the beginning at least, seems taken in.11
The abstractions Williams employs her...
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Citation styles for After Raymond Williams
APA 6 Citation
Dix, H. (2013). After Raymond Williams (1st ed.). University of Wales Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/573117/after-raymond-williams-cultural-materialism-and-the-breakup-of-britain-pdf (Original work published 2013)
Dix, Hywel. (2013) 2013. After Raymond Williams. 1st ed. University of Wales Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/573117/after-raymond-williams-cultural-materialism-and-the-breakup-of-britain-pdf.
Dix, H. (2013) After Raymond Williams. 1st edn. University of Wales Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/573117/after-raymond-williams-cultural-materialism-and-the-breakup-of-britain-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Dix, Hywel. After Raymond Williams. 1st ed. University of Wales Press, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.