Letters

The Long Counter-Revolution

I like to peek at what other people in coffee-shops are doing on their laptops. Sometimes it is spreadsheets. Very, vary rarely it is code. Practically everyone else is doing the sort of stuff that might get them labeled in today culture as ‘creatives’. A ‘creative’ seems to mean anyone who works on a laptop with something other than code or numbers.

But what exactly does the word creative mean? And while we’re at it, what does culture mean? To answer those questions, a good place to look is the work of Raymond Williams. Here I shall look at part of his classic book, The Long Revolution (Pelican, 1961).

There is a certain sadness about reading Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution given that we seem to be well into the long counter-revolution. The convergence of economic, political, technical and cultural factors that Williams saw as potentially heading towards a new image of social democracy did not come to pass. In some respects the contemporaneous and more pessimistic diagnosis offered by Pier Paolo Pasolini about the rise of neo-capitalism and its infrastructural culture was more present.

However, there is a lot to be said for the way Williams unpacks the categories of art and culture. He was alive to their shifting qualities in the past, in a way that can help us track how they change again since his time.

For Williams, one had to be pretty deeply nested in the culture and affect of a place to be able to articulate something meaningful about it. Here is an anecdote about Williams which, if not true, ought to be: Williams, a young working class Welshman sent up to Cambridge on a scholarship, meets some upper-class twit over sherry in the common room, who says to Williams: “Welsh, eh? Well, my family has been in Wales for 400 years.” To which Williams replies: “How are they liking it so far?”

Paul Gilroy would later point out the limit to Williams’ understanding on British culture(s) in that he did not deal with immigrant culture at all, limiting himself to the tensions of class and region that connected to his own experience. But as perhaps even Gilroy might acknowledge, the way he felt and thought those tensions could be expanded to include others.

Williams’ The Long Revolution is thus a view limited to postwar Britain. He saw it at the beginning of the sixties as in a slow march through a series of revolutions. One was political, premised on the idea that “people should govern themselves.” (10) One was industrial, and while he did not think that the industrial revolution was the root cause of democracy, it could certainly be an enabling condition. The third kind of revolution, curiously, was a cultural one, but where culture had to be thought broadly, holistically, and within the space of modern means of ‘mechanically reproducible‘ communication.

Curiously, Williams’ book starts with the question of creative activity, its links with communication and community, and the problem of the individual. These might seem like strange places to start a ‘Marxist’ analysis, but I will come back to why I think that is – in a broad and ‘creative’ sense – what Williams offers. After the section on the creative, Williams turns to a study of the cultural institutions of his time, which need not detain us, and a concluding section on the long revolution.

Williams: “No word in English carries a more consistently positive reference than ‘creative’, and obviously we should be glad of this, when we think of the values it seeks to express and the activities it offers to describe. Yet, clearly, the very width of the reference involves not only difficulties of meaning, but also, through habit, a kind of unthinking repetition which at times makes the word seem useless.” (19) In our own times, perhaps even more so.

Here we see a characteristic Williams gesture. The range of meaning for a term is always socially produced, and one’s tactics always take place within this collective joint production of meaning. Here he is very remote from Althusser, for whom philosophers appear to have special powers to assign a new and scientific sense to terms. For Williams, it is always a question of working in and against the ‘ideological field’, as Althusser termed it.

Also characteristic of Williams is to look closely at how Keywords  evolve. (He wrote a whole book on this, one that is still indispensable). He begins by teasing apart the sense of mimesis and creation. It is God who creates. The best humans can do is imitate God’s creation. There might yet be special methods via which human work of a special kind might have access not just to the effects of God’s creation but to His ideas themselves.

Hence by the time of the Renaissance, there is a tangle of four ideas about creation as: 1. imitation of hidden divine reality; 2. the idea of beauty; 3. The idealization of nature; and 4. nature as god’s art, as ‘creation’. The latter in particular then gives rise to a notion of the artist as in a rivalry with God as creator.

What was new here was the idea of human creation, a claiming of the right to break out of the order of nature. In the age of the Anthropocene, this is clearly an idea in need of yet another revision. Yet it is striking how environmental aesthetics has mostly wanted to return to some version of the imitation of nature, rather than rethinking what human creation might mean.

Another strand to the story of ‘creation’ is the idea of imagination, which in the 18th century had a close link to poetry. Particularly in the Romantic poets, imagination begins to be thought of as a general human faculty. It fluctuates as an idea between imitation of nature and fresh creation, but the novelty is more in the emerging sense that out species-being might in some way be tied up with perpetual reinvention.

Coleridge: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation.” Here Coleridge rather splits the difference between mimesis and creation, but that it is a general capacity is here fully manifest, even if it is the poet’s particular charge to be the exemplar of this ‘Power.’

For Williams, the belief in poetry’s access to a superior reality happens in moment of transition from religious to humanist culture. But this transition out of religion also brings skepticism, including about ‘mere romance’. The emergence of an idea of creation as part of the human species-being is counterpointed by suspicion about such things as delusions. What emerges is a confused belief in naive realism, of describing nature as it is, in opposition to a romanticism seen as describing what nature ought to be.

Hence down to the present, views range from realism, where artist imitates the real, to romanticism, where the artist has access to a higher reality. Psychoanalysis, in this account, is a revival of the romantic strain (which will in turn show up again in Surrealism).

To put it crudely: Williams maps out a kind of declension through three periods, in all of which the artist is still seen as having some special access to something:

[neo]Platonism

Non-artist -> natural seeing -> Appearances

Artist-> exceptional seeing-> Reality

Romanticism

Non-artist -> natural Seeing-> Reality

Artist-> exception seeing-> Superior Reality

Modernism

Non-artist -> natural seeing -> Reality

Artist -> Exceptional seeing -> Art

There was a tendency in all three models to assume that perception actually perceives the world, or at least the appearances of an actual world. But for Williams, perception is always acculturated. Hence realities are culturally specific, and vary even within a culture. This is part of what leaves room for new creation.

Almost all modern aesthetics is either art as imitation or as creation. There are a wide variety of positions. Art can be either inferior or superior to the real. All assume there’s a real. But for Williams, there is no dichotomy between art/reality on which to base this. “The antithesis of nature to the mind, ‘as object to subject’, we now know to be false, yet so much of our thinking is based on it that to grasp the substantial unity, the sense of a whole process, is to begin a long and difficult revolution in the mind.” (39) or in short, Williams was no ‘correlationist.’

In Williams, there’s no prior distinction between representation and what it represents. Nor is there an a priori distinction between the special capacities (whether for creation or imitation) of the artist from her or his community. The history of language is an exemplar of the common, collective process of re-describing the world. Hence Williams’ close scrutiny of shifts in language as markers of a collective creative process, outside of individual authorship. The arts are simply an intensified node in a general practice of communication.

The artwork is a perception, but it has in turn to be perceived. Among other things, Williams is one of the links in the development of a reception theory, which does not take the ‘content’ or meaning of a work to be entirely defined or structured by the work itself. Janice Radway, Stuart Hall, Ien Ang, Henry Jenkins and many others will develop this both as a theory and indeed as a practice, particularly in media studies. Audiences are not passive but actively participate in the production of meaning.

There’s a shift of attention in Williams from the supposed creative agony of the artist to the pain of fresh perception as a general cultural problem. This is a timely theme, as the Anthropocene is nothing if not the pain of a fresh perception, and at the level of the totality. One only has to describe it to know that the description will be disavowed, and ‘before the cock crows thrice.’

The limits to even modern aesthetic theory is that it retains the idea that the artist is special, is ‘inspired’. The modern retains the idea that artist depicts a special reality. Often recoded as the idea that the artist has to make it new. This is what Williams calls one of the “disabling ideas” about art. And not only is the artist considered separately and as something special, so too is art. “It is characteristic of aesthetic theory that it tacitly excludes communication, as a social fact. Yet communication is the crux of art, for any adequate description of experience must be more than simple transmission; it must also include reception and response.” (46)

There is an expansion of the role of the aesthetic in Williams that is not only ‘spatial’, meaning expanded to more parts of the social formation beyond art ‘proper’; but also temporal, in its expansion to more moments in the life of the social. “There is great danger in the assumption that art serves only on the frontiers of knowledge. It serves on the frontiers, particularly in disturbed and rapidly changing societies. Yet it serves, also, at the very center of societies. It is often through the art that the society expresses its sense of being a society.” (47) The aesthetic can also be routine, a matter of habit, and is not always a bad thing when it is such.

Art is the organization of experience. It has, among other roles, a trans-generational one. It is a medium through which different temporal frames of experience negotiate with each other. “In practice, the process of change in art is normally one of extension of meanings, or modification of means. Beyond a certain point, a new meaning could hardly be communicated at all, or perhaps even described.” (49)

Art for Williams is not restricted to the fine arts, or to heroic modernizing moments, but all art is not, for all that, always good art. If anything, the standards Williams sets are more, rather than less strict for what good art might be. Bad art happens when the artist does not perceive totally. Good art connects the whole self to the whole of life – as in sex. Art works fail if the artist’s experience is insufficiently organized.

Art makes things possible. Williams: “We must see art, rather, as an extension of our capacity for organization: a vital faculty which allows particular areas of reality to be described and communicated.” (51) (Bogdanov could have written that! It is striking how his ideas about culture reappear despite their suppression in the Marxist tradition.)

The growth and development of the social totality depends on new descriptions by artists, but we cannot always accept them. Such growth is complex, so its wise to keep available a wide range of means to achieve it, including aesthetic ones. But Williams resists too much emphasis on art’s connection to novelty. “The traditional definition of art as ‘creative’ was profoundly important, as an emphasis, but when this was extended to a contrast between art and ordinary experience the consequences were very damaging.” (53) Art is ordinary, because creativity is ordinary. “Art is ratified, in the end, by the fact of creativity in all our living.” (54)

Art is a subsidiary moment of culture. The analysis of art has to be subordinated to that of culture, as superstructure is to base in more economistic Marxist thought. One should “begin with the whole texture… the whole of common life.”

Culture is a slippery category. It has three kinds of meaning

as ideal, human perfection, timeless order;

as documentary, record of human experience;

as particular way of life, its values, as a totality.

Cultural is a total, active process of learning and communicating, and is the work of many. Here Williams is firmly against reductionist Marxism. Culture has its own materiality and historical force. The study of culture is the study, in his famous phrase, of “structure of feeling.” (64) It is the study of “the deep community that makes communication possible.” (65)

Culture is not reducible to what Althusser calls the ‘ideological state apparatuses.’ It is not even explicitly taught. It has rather three levels:

The lived culture of a time and place,

The recorded culture,

The culture of the selective tradition.

Culture is not something that is easily known. Our approach to it is always through selective traditions, making it hard to even think about how selective traditions get selected. “One can say with confidence, for example, that nobody really knows the nineteenth-century novel; nobody has read, or could have read, all its examples, over the whole range, from printed volumes to penny serials.” (66)

Curiously enough, the ‘distant reading’ project of Franco Moretti seems to me entirely implied in this remark from some sixty years before Moretti attempted to ‘read’ that entire corpus, with a little technological assistance!

There is clearly a class interest in the form taken by the “selective tradition.” I suspect this applies even, or even particularly, to the western Marxist tradition as it is received. Is it entirely an accident that traditional scholars in the humanities constructed a canon of Marxist thinkers who were – traditional scholars trained in the humanities? One day we shall have to revive that other, lost tradition of critical thought, the one that passes through the natural sciences.

Williams was well aware that academic institutions can be too rigid and self-perpetuating rather than open to revising selected culture. Never was this more true than now. The selection and re-selection of ancestors seems (one hopes temporarily) to have become rather stuck on the same old Apostolic Succession.

The case study of how one could approach culture whole and fresh in Long Revolution is Williams’ sketch of the 1840s. He reminds us to pay attention to the reading habits of the time, to the forgotten authors who were then most popular. In short, he constructs a sensitive literary sociology. He draws our attention to the mode of literary production, to railway distribution and steam printing. The study of literature becomes, necessarily, a subset of media studies.

The attempts to control of working class opinion emerges as a major theme. The structure of feeling of the 1840s is dominated by the codes of thrift, sobriety and piety. But there are dominant and alternative social characters in the fiction – and culture – of the time. There are, for example, residual aristocratic characters, whose structure of feeling is more about charity, authority, and play.

Like Walter Benjamin, he took the 1840s to be a key period because the class conflict between the rising bourgeois and residual aristocratic culture both meet a new player: the first forms of organized labor. In England, this was the Chartists. The structure of feeling of this culture is about neither birth right nor individual competition, but mutual aid. In short, the structure of feeling of a culture, of its time, describes dominant social character interacting with the other types.

In what will become a classic formulation, the narrative art of a time provides imaginary solutions to real problems. In Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations, the Chartist loves an aristocrat, but turns out ‘really’ to be a displaced aristo herself. Problem solved! The novel offers an imaginary romantic solution to the problem of class made manifest at the time by the rise of the Chartist movement.

There is a distinction for Williams between art and culture. It is just that it is not given in advance, by markers of genre, for example. It is the critic’s job to make the case for a work of culture as a work of art. Literature and stock fiction may use the same social characters, but the former make them reveal the whole of life. Even if the endings are conventional, the ‘middle’ goes deeper in a work that can be claimed for literature.

And sometimes, as in Wuthering Heights, we go beyond the structure of feeling, to hints of a new one. Williams: “Art reflects its society and works a social character through to its reality in experience. But art also creates, by new perceptions and responses, elements with the society, as such, is not able to realize.” (86) Culture is then a matter of the relation of patterns in the mind to patterns in the social.

In sum: Williams sees the creative dimension of social practice as an important one. It is not limited to either the artist as restricted social type, nor is it restricted to specific moments of qualitative change. Art has functions related both the novelty and continuity. Art does however have to be thought as the superstructure to a base (even if Williams does not quite put it in these terms). That base is culture, thought in The Long Revolution as a structure of feeling. Culture is at once institutional but also very everyday. In both respects, culture is ordinary, a means of constructing and modifying realities, practiced by everyone, and not just at special moments. Culture, for Williams, has a material history, shot through with power and economy, but not reducible to either.

McKenzie Wark

Previous post

Visualizing the Occupation

Next post

Pizzas for the People