determination, Williams, & literature

Guy Yasko guyy at
Wed Mar 15 21:04:29 MST 1995

    While I agree with the direction of the recent exchange on determination, I
think that the participants have neglected an important aspect of Williams'
project, its setting in cultural and literary studies.  In particular, I would
like to defend Williams from Howie Chodos' charge that he sweeps theoretico-
practical difficulties under a rug called totality.  This may seem to be the
case if we take the section on determination out of context, but Williams did
not stop here.  In a sense then, I'm really voicing a mild disagreement  with
Kenny Mostern about how much Williams to read.  Leaving Williams' cultural and
literary studies unconsidered means missing his point.   Reading a few pages
beyond the section on determination, in a discussion of the concept of hegemony,
Williams writes:

..there is a whole different way of seing cultural activity, both as tradition
and as practice.  Cultural work and activity are not now, in any ordinary sense,
a superstructure: not only becaue of the depth and thoroughness at which any
culutural hegemony is lived, but because cultural tradition and practice are
seen as much more than superstructural expressions -- reflections, mediations,
or typifications -- of a formed social and economic structure.  On the contrary,
they are amnoy the basic processes of the formation itself and, further related
to a much wider area of reality than the abstractions of 'social' and 'economic'
experience. (Marxism & Lit. p.111).

Or again, on a similar vein, Williams criticizes Marx's "fundamental error" in
his classification in the Grundrisse of the piano maker as a productive worker
and the pianist as unproductive (p.93).   In so far as Williams considers the
cultural and literary as forms of social practice, as forms of an encounter with
totality, such an abbreviated reading amounts to a rejection of his social

    Because the encounter with an open totality occurs on a shifting social
terrain, there is no single way for Williams to chart this encounter.  In
_Marxism and Literature_, Williams runs through many of the terms of Marxist
literary studies and casts aside the static and inflexible reading strategies
for dynamic ones.  As a result, his approach to literature resists closure and
avoids degenerating into technique.  Williams' approach renders a master theory
of literature impossible:

Bourgeois literature is indeed bourgeois literature, but it is not a block or
type; it is an immense and varied practical consciousness, at every level from
crude reproduction to permanently important articulation and formation.
Similarly the practical consciousness, in such forms, of an alternative society
can never be be reduced to a general block of the same dismissive or celebratory
kind.  Writing is often a new articulation and in effect a new formation,
extending  beyond its own modes. (p.211)

Williams gives us strategies but not a manual for developing new formations; a
good thing too, since Balzac is not Stendahl, much less Toni Morrisson or Thomas

   Taking inspiration from Lukacs' project while at the same time criticizing
it, Williams tries to put writing and practice back together.  As a party man,
Lukacs was on one hand an orthodox marxist, but at the same time he developed an
approach to literature that gave the bourgeois novels of the 19th c. great
value.  However, because the requirements of his day job with the Party differed
substantially, one finds a separation and idealization of literature in Lukacs.
For that reason, one gets the suspicion that Lukacs' analyses of literature
compensates for the other part of his career.  Williams and others have brought
practice and literature together again, at least to their own satisfaction, but
I think many outside cultural and literary studies remain suspicious.  That's
fine, but such suspicion puts those who agree with Williams on the basics in a
difficult spot.  It seems hard to deny the importance of literature and culture
while at the same time agreeing with Williams on the nature of language and the
relation between signification and production.

     --- from list marxism at ---


More information about the Marxism mailing list