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Marxism And Literature (Marxist Introductions) Paperback – 29 May 2003
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`Williams has brought his authority and experience, established by his immense critical achievement, into the Marxist tradition.'Anthony Barnett, New Society
The exploration and integrations which this book makes will bring a major pressure to bear on academic literary criticism and its institutions. (John Sutherland, New Statesman)
About the Author
Raymond Williams was formerly Professor of Drama and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. His publications include Culture and Society, Communications, The Country and The City, and Keywords.
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When reading Marxism and Literature, it is easy to see that Williams based his presentation on material that Marx produced throughout his life, from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the German Ideology through the Grundrisse, Capital, and Theories of Surplus Value. As best I can determine, Williams regarded the work of the early Marx to be just as committed to materialism and the socially constituted nature of human beings, their language, culture, classes, and class relations as anything he wrote later. The pattern of references in Marxism and Literature is clearly consistent with this judgment.
Marxism and literature is a willfully condensed book, nearly devoid of examples to illustrate Williams' theoretical assertions, and it is quite dense. The material itself is inherently difficult, and when offered with deliberate compactness and an aversion to all but the essentials, it becomes even more difficult. For readers unfamiliar with much of anything Marx wrote, Marxism and Literature may prove to be inaccessible. Even for those who have read substantial portions of Marx's writings, and who are familiar with related work, such as that offered by the Frankfurt School and the Althusserian structuralists, may find this book heavy going. Many of the concepts that are commonly used by Marxist students of literature are not due to Marx but to others who followed him. Thus, while Williams was an accomplished prose stylist, when he chose to make Marxism and Literature no more than half as long as it might easily have been, he demanded the reader's unwavering attention and thoughtful participation in the innately demanding social process of bringing his account to life.
Much of Marxism and Literature is written in a point-counterpoint manner. Williams introduces a crucial concept, say language, and then acknowledges others' rigorous scholarly efforts to come to terms with this idea, often finding favor with a Marxist audience. While Williams is never acerbic nor given to shredding straw men, he then proceeds to explain the deficiencies in the work of others, and provides a more thoroughly Marxist alternative.
Some of Williams' correctives are straightforward and easy to follow. In the case of language, for example, which he discusses brilliantly and at length, he begins with the simple observation that language cannot be reduced to the status of a tool used by human beings to facilitate cooperative activity. Instead, language is constitutive of human beings. There are no human beings without language, and language is produced only by human beings.
For readers new to Marxist literature, the use of the idea of production in this context is straightforward and unlikely to be troublesome. However, when Williams judges the production of language, as well as the creation of human beings, to be manifestations of material production, this usage may generate confusion for those unaccustomed to this way of thinking. The notion of materialism in instances such as these refers to something that others have referred to as material practice. Both human beings and the language constitutive of them are produced in social interaction. They are products of ongoing social relationships, thereby giving priority to behavior occurring in specific social settings rather than to fixed ideas whose provenance is unsettled.
Throughout Marxism and Literature, Williams returns again and again to the judgment that others fail to fully understand the social, the material, the productive, and the relational nature of the world in a suitably thoroughgoing way. Invariably, however, Williams emphasizes that we must understand these processes in the historically specific social contexts in which they occur. Williams is a determinist but not a crude one. He understands the importance of the manifold class-based and other variable contingencies in which determinism is present.
While there is nothing really new about it, Williams treats Gramsci's concept of hegemony in the most compelling and informative way that I have read. Many others have invoked hegemony in a variety of contexts and then left it as self-explanatory. Perhaps it is, at least for those who have read Gramsci. But I'm glad that Williams gave it a thoughtful rendering. Nevertheless, as with other concepts, Williams admonishes us to avoid reification of hegemony. It exists, yes, but only through production by active and material social relationships among human beings in a particular time and place.
A particular form of hegemony, moreover, contributes substantially to creating that time and place in ways that permit change and variability, rather than being crystallized and static. An example of the latter sort of lifeless concept would be Zizek's "social conscience" as used in Living in the End Times. In contrast to Zizek, as Williams matured, his Marxism became more sophisticated and more useful.
Whatever its many virtues, Marxism and Literature can be annoying. Williams' use of parentheses, sometimes containing an uncomfortably long line of words that cost us our train of thought, is excessive. Furthermore, with or without parentheses, sentences that are longer than most paragraphs could easily have been avoided. In addition, Williams' aversion to concreteness may make one suspect that while this is indeed a book about Marxism, the place of literature is, at best, ancillary. This may be the primary limitation of William's fine book.
Marxism and Literature is an instance of exemplary Marxist scholarship. I think it also illustrates the ironic fact that things written by others, purportedly in a Marxist tradition, are commonly more difficult to understand than anything Marx himself ever wrote. As such, it gives the reader a chance to decide if he or she is really interested in what passes for Marxist treatments of literature given the issues raised over the decades. After all, it's entirely possible that one will find Marx or any other original thinker fascinating, but not be interested in what their adherents have to say about literature or any other practices commonly subsumed by the notion of the aesthetic. As it turns out, that's where I find myself, something I never expected.