When the most basic concepts—the concepts, it is said, from which 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 were cast.—Raymond Williams
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In the last few years, the advertising slogan "Stop just investing. Start Vanguarding" has received at least a passing glance from magazine readers across the country (New Yorker, 41-42). Clearly, the idea of a "vanguard" no longer signals a form of collective political agency that will lead to the destruction of bourgeois society through an insistence on innovation and futurity. Instead, Vanguard advances the commodification of daily life through a speculative frontier of capitalist innovation (financialization).1 Such a dramatic shift calls to mind Raymond Williams's insight in the epigraph above: "basic concepts" of cultural theory, such as the "avant-garde," are not static labels but historically constituted problems. Cultural theorists cannot simply repeat the ideas of the past; they have to recognize the historical "substance" of social contestation that is their real content. In what follows I offer a reassessment of Williams himself in what I argue is a central and overlooked context necessary for understanding the ongoing significance of his work and our own cultural moment: the collapse of the avant-garde as an agent of revolutionary social transformation.
Of course, the "basic concept" Williams wrote about most often was not "vanguard" or "avant-garde" but "culture." He was one of the [End Page 108] first to elucidate the particularly complex history of the idea of culture, beginning with the romantic critique of capitalism, which served as the basis for the "culture and society tradition" he famously identified and analyzed. For many contemporary readers, Williams's influential theory of culture remains limited by his failure to distance himself from the romantic idealism of this conservative tradition. Working against this common characterization of Williams's project, I argue that his theory of culture, and its specific basis in romanticism, must be understood within the historical context of the transformation of the avant-garde, which moved from an oppositional space on the margins of capitalist production to a seamless integration within it ("Start Vanguarding"). Though Williams makes use of the past, he does so neither naively nor nostalgically. Following the methodology he outlines above, Williams approaches the "basic concept" of culture historically, in order to identify a form of collective agency specific to a postwar era without revolutionary vanguards. For Williams, this agency is culture itself, understood as a form of artistic collaboration, the shared work of an entire society.
Williams's use of artistic collaboration to theorize culture as a form of collective agency represents a unique response to the social crisis created by the historical collapse of modernist vanguardism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, avant-garde artistic movements flourished, drawing energy and inspiration from the revolutionary vanguards that aimed to lead a mass political movement toward the total transformation of bourgeois society.2 By the end of the Second World War, these artistic and political groups had dissipated, creating a post-vanguard crisis of agency that decisively shaped the political possibilities of the postwar period.3 This problem necessitated a new conception of collective agency in an era dominated by social "consensus" rather than revolutionary movements.
Like other significant postwar intellectuals, Williams identified culture as a site for catalyzing social change.4 From members of the Frankfurt School to Althusserian Marxists such as Williams's student Terry Eagleton, some attempted to recuperate the idea of a modernist cultural vanguard, however isolated from direct political action. Others, including E. P. Thompson, the English Marxist and like Williams a member of the British New Left movement of the late 1950s, asserted the direct revolutionary agency of ordinary people. Williams himself [End Page 109] refused this choice between vanguardism and populism in the postwar period. He understood...