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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 61.3 (2000) 559-561
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Literature, Marxism, and Cultural Materialism
Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism, and Cultural Materialism. By John Higgins. London: Routledge, 1999. ix + 229 pp. $75.00 cloth, $23.99 paper.
Even before he died in 1988, Raymond Williams had earned a complex and disputed reputation. Some saw him as a charismatically aloof patron saint of British socialism, always in command of the long historical significance of new events and always aware of the cruelties of class struggle and class condescension; others, younger and more impatient, dismissed him as a "left-Leavisite" (his student Terry Eagleton's deftly withering phrase), one much too comfortable with the language of the "lived experience" and the "concrete" to respond adequately to the challenges of European Marxist high theory. His career was remarkably national, perhaps even at times provincial, though there is a new cosmopolitanism in the work of the 1970s, and he would never have written about Althusser the way E. P. Thompson did or Leavis might have. And indeed there were many careers: teacher, critic, adult educator, novelist, dramatist, political activist, and founding father of film and television and hence of "cultural" studies.
John Higgins wisely seeks not to account for them all but to explain the passage from literary criticism to cultural materialism by way of an intellectual biography that pays scrupulous attention to place, time, and circumstance and to the difficult engagement Williams maintained from start to finish with both Marxism and theory. Thus, Higgins argues, the young Williams found in the turn to drama a way to reconcile the antagonistic demands of politics and criticism--a criticism that, after all, had been cultivated by others as a conscious alternative to politics itself. Responsive to the moral core of Marxism but not to its statist or party incarnations, and sensitive to the appeal of literature without respecting its fetishized functions in "official" culture, Williams began a search for alternatives that would last a lifetime and take different forms. At first he hoped for a "practical effect on the dramaturgy of his time" (23). Higgins performs a careful reading of the early books and their revised editions, finding, for example, an original reliance on T. S. Eliot that is relatively occluded later on, along with a strong interest in film that Williams never relinquished.
Williams's best-known item of critical terminology is probably structure of feeling, which Higgins convincingly sees as a "direct challenge to the Marxist explanation of cultural reproduction" (38) and as an assertion of the independent [End Page 559] integrity and complexity of literature. If so, then Higgins has explained why it has been so hard to find a clear definition of the phrase and why the concept weakened in Williams's work between the 1950s and the 1970s, by which time Marxism was no longer the same creature it had been in the years of Soviet expansionism and party orthodoxy: various Western (and indeed earlier) Marxists had endorsed the exceptionalism of the aesthetic in its complex relation to ideology. The other term one associates with Williams's career is, of course, culture, and Higgins sustains an extended case for the lifelong importance of Williams's opposition to "official" culture and to the "right-wing appropriation" (57) of the idea of culture itself. Above all, and like Adorno in a different place and language, Williams sought to establish the dignity and political-aesthetic potential of difficulty, of not so well wrought urns, where for him the struggles of life itself, of social forms coming into being and changing under stress, of feelings structuring and dissolving, could be traced. Literature should organize and reveal the struggles of time and place, not stand imperturbably above them. As such, it can be an agent of change, not a merely formal representative memory of past times. The core of the "structure of feeling" was in this capacity of literature to give shape to what was otherwise inchoate, and the same emphasis reappears in Williams's late exposition of cultural materialism. It remains a...