Theory Tuesday V (part two)
Welcome to Raymond Williams’s “Base and Superstructure 2: Theorize Harder,” the sequel!
The sections on totality and hegemony take the essay to the Next Level, at which we’re dealing not just with how productive forces do or don’t influence the world of art and ideas, but with the question of how to conceptualize Marxist cultural theory in toto. In only eight paragraphs, Williams covers an astonishing amount of ground, so I’m going to go over it in super slo-mo.
The idea of “totality” remains every bit as vexed today as it was in 1973, if not more so. As Fredric Jameson was wont to complain, by the 1990s, “totalizing” was commonly used as a term for All Bad Things Theoretical, as when people would say (and they said it often) that they did not want to produce any “totalizing”account of a cultural phenomenon or historical period. In the gestural politics of the time, Jameson noted (and he was largely right about this), “totalizing” meant something like “monocausal” or “simplistic”or “really bad straitjacket thinking that reduces lots of different stuff to just one thing, man.” And it was uttered with the same disdain with which people used the term “linear” (as in, “that’s an especially egregious example of linear, totalizing thinking”)—a habit that got some humanists in trouble in the early 1990s when they glommed onto chaos theory in the belief that nonlinear differential equations must be more nuanced and generally cooler than linear differential equations. So, then, if you were called “totalizing Marxist” back in the day, you were being insulted. Jameson, meanwhile, insisted that the term “totalization,” at least in the work of Sartre, referred to a mode of analysis—a mode of analysis without which, like T. S. Eliot on Margate Sands, you can connect nothing with nothing.
That’s basically what Williams says here, harking back to Jameson’s forebear, Georg Lukacs. He opens the section like so:
Now the language of totality has become common, and it is indeed in many ways more acceptable than the notion of base and superstructure. But with one very important reservation. It is very easy for the notion of totality to empty of its essential content the original Marxist proposition. For if we come to say that society is composed of a large number of social practices which form a concrete social whole, and if we give to each practice a certain specific recognition, adding only that they interact, relate and combine in very complicated ways, we are at one level much more obviously talking about reality, but we are at another level withdrawing from the claim that there is any process of determination. And this I, for one, would be very unwilling to do.
And that’s why, to answer Bill Benzon in yesterday’s comments (comment 18), we don’t junk the Marxist apparatus altogether—at least if we’re Raymond Williams. (I’ll say more about this later.) Not just anything goes with anything; as Stuart Hall would insist in the ensuing decade and a half, there is a vast difference between saying there is no necessary correspondence among the various facets and practices of a society (against those reductive Marxists) and saying that there is necessarily no correspondence among them. A society takes a certain shape and a certain character, and though this may be exceedingly complex and conflicted, it is not random. “Indeed,” Williams adds,
the key question to ask about any notion of totality in cultural theory is this: whether the notion of totality includes the notion of intention.
Note that this is the stop where Foucault gets off the bus. The emphasis on “discourse” rather than on “ideology,” and the insistence on regimes of power/knowledge rather than totality: these are moves designed expressly to forestall the question of intention. Why would Foucault want to do that, you ask? Partly because he doesn’t like what he considers the residual humanism at work in Marxism Williams-style. Whereas that’s precisely what I do like about Williams, so go figure.
I could add, and therefore will, that Williams’ passage on the different between “epochal questions” and “historical questions” speaks pretty well to the strengths and weaknesses of Foucault as a theorist of history, even though Foucault’s not a Marxist:
For one thing that is evident in some of the best Marxist cultural analysis is that it is very much more at home in what one might call epochal questions than in what one has to call historical questions. That is to say, it is usually very much better at distinguishing the large features of different epochs of society, as commonly between feudal and bourgeois, than at distinguishing between different phases of bourgeois society, and different moments within these phases: that true historical process which demands a much greater precision and delicacy of analysis than the always striking epochal analysis which is concerned with main lineaments and features.
I don’t mean to pick on Foucault here, because you could make the same charge (as many have done in recent years) with regard to Jameson: I believe it was Gil Rodman who pointed out, à propos of Jameson’s distinction between van Gogh’s shoes and Andy Warhol’s, that you can do a pretty convincing compare-and-contrast between modernism and postmodernism if you simply skip over roughly a hundred years of grainy details. But the point remains that Foucauldian history does better with epochs than with historical processes. Foucault did great work on specific institutions and their histories—from asylums to prisons to the sciences of population management—but if you go to his work looking for an account of why and how things change (whether prisons or sexualities), or why episteme X was superseded by episteme Y, you are going to come away frustrated. Sure, you may be able to forestall that sense of frustration by telling yourself “power produces resistance” over and over, but that’s about it. And don’t go to his work looking for an account of “totality.” Just don’t.
Now for hegemony. This part, my friends, will be on the final.
Here’s most of the opening paragraph of the section, and I suggest you tattoo it onto your forearms for ease of reference:
It is Gramsci’s great contribution to have emphasized hegemony, and also to have understood it at a depth which is, I think, rare. For hegemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or superstructural, like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limit of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure. For if ideology were merely some abstract, imposed set of notions, if our social and political and cultural ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, or a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then the society would be very much easier to move and to change than in practice it has ever been or is.
I apologize for all the italics. I’m not usually so indulgent. But, you know, I really want to emphasize this point, so I got all emphatic about it. A generation later, people still talk about ideology and hegemony this way, as if, once the blue pill is consumed, they will cast off the veil of illusion and discover at last the Real Nature of the World Around Us. And I’m not making the Matrix reference to be “hip” and “with-it” and “teh r0xx0r,” either. The first Neo-Morpheus scene is precisely a staging of the notion of ideology against which Williams is arguing:
Morpheus: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
But you don’t necessarily avoid the Matrix-scenario simply by substituting the word “hegemony” for “ideology.” For “there are times,” Williams writes, “when I hear discussions of hegemony and feel that it too, as a concept, is being dragged back to the relatively simple, uniform and static nation which ‘superstructure’ in ordinary use had become.” As Morpheus would say, I know exactly what Williams means. This is, in a nutshell, my complaint about the kind of left media theory one finds in Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent and its many offshoots: on those accounts, the people are blinded from the truth by a constant ideological onslaught from Commercial Media, a prison for their minds. Remove the Commercial Media, tell people the truth, and the scales will fall from their eyes.
(Remember last month, when I was arguing against Ed Herman’s claim that “on some issues, like “free trade,” and the merits of overseas military ventures [except in the heat of battle and under a furious elite propaganda barrage], the “radical left” is far closer to mainstream opinion than is the “decent left,” and it is listened to on those issues by ordinary citizens when they can be reached”? This is why. The argument that The People line up with the radical left “naturally” and are diverted from their true interests only by a furious elite propaganda barrage is not only bad politics; it’s bad theory, the kind that some leftists fall back on to explain to themselves why their followers are so few.)
Furthermore, hegemony doesn’t sit on your chest and tell you what to think; it merely seeks to set the bounds of the thinkable—and this, again, is where Williams’ insistence on the meaning of “determination” as “setting limits, exerting pressures” pays off.
Williams underscores the point about the substantiality of the social two pages later, and this time I suggest you should also hear in his words an implicit rebuke to people who think that you’ve pointed out the “socially constructed” nature of X, you’ve all but toppled X forever:
The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organization of work; the selective tradition at an intellectual and theoretical level: all these forces are involved in a continual making and remaking of an effective dominant culture, and on them, as experienced, as built into our living, its reality depends. If what we learn there were merely an imposed ideology, or if it were only the isolable meanings and practices of the ruling class, or of a section of the ruling class, which gets imposed on others, occupying merely the top of our minds, it would be—and one would be glad—a very much easier thing to overthrow.
My advice, folks, is to let this point sink in.
But wait! Lest you begin to worry that Williams is turning into the Voice of Quietism here, there is still hope—precisely because hegemony is so complex. As we used to say at the University of Illinois’ Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory,
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Hegemony is leaky
And so are you.
Hegemony has to be maintained and patched up by actual people and institutions with determinate intentions, and it’s hard, hard work: “it is continually active and adjusting,” as Williams notes, partly because it’s got so much unruly stuff to deal with, some of which it has to try to incorporate:
Thus we have to recognize the alternative meanings and values, the alternative opinions and attitudes, even some alternative senses of the world, which can be accommodated and tolerated within a particular effective and dominant culture. This has been much underemphasized in our notions of a superstructure, and even in some notions of hegemony.
And quite apart from the “alternative” (lest you think that “alternative” culture and politics is your only alternative), there is the “oppositional”; whereas the merely alternative modes of thought “do not in practice go beyond the limits of the central effective and dominant definitions,” and can therefore be accommodated or tolerated, the oppositional poses a serious challenge to the way things are:
There is clearly something that we can call alternative to the effective dominant culture, and there is something else that we can call oppositional, in a true sense. The degree of existence of these alternative and oppositional forms is itself a matter of constant historical variation in real circumstances. In certain societies it is possible to find areas of social life in which quite real alternatives are at least left alone. (If they are made available, of course, they are part of the corporate organization.) [Note here that Williams does not mean that they become part of a “corporation”; he means they are incorporated into the hegemonic formation somehow.] The existence of the possibility of opposition, and of its articulation, its degree of openness, and so on, again depends on very precise social and political forces. The facts of alternative and oppositional forms of social life and culture, in relation to the effective and dominant culture, have then to be recognized as subject to historical variation, and as having sources which are very significant as a fact about the dominant culture itself.
OK, I’ll stop here, with yet another suggestive insistence on historical specificity and variation.
But at this point you should be asking me, “Michael! You disposed of all of Russian formalism in one post, all of structuralism in another, and did an intro to deconstruction in yet another. How is it that it takes you three long posts to get through just one of Raymond Williams’s essays?”
Because this essay is really, really rich, that’s why. How rich? Very rich. It loads-every-rift-with-ore rich. And now you know why I put off blogging about it for thirteen months.
Tune in next Tuesday for the thrilling finale!
like T. S. Eliot on Margate Sands, you can connect nothing with nothing.
Hate to nitpick*, but you can’t really identify the narrator with Eliot. In his notes he refers to the section at the end of the Fire Sermon as the Thames-daughters’ song, so you would probably want to say, “like Eliot’s Thames-daughter on Margate sands...”
*A lie. I am gleeful about being able to nitpick with a literature professor.Posted by on 09/06 at 07:05 PM
I prefer the place in the Phenomenology where Hegel says that spirit is more important than material reality and compares those who think that material reality determines consciousness to phrenologists.
And then says they deserve a bump on the head.
There’s another joke on Marx in the Phenomenology, too, but I shall save it for a better time.
That Georg, he was way ahead of his time!Posted by Kirby Olson on 09/06 at 07:10 PM
In his notes he refers to the section at the end of the Fire Sermon as the Thames-daughters’ song
O, where will it end? Now people are accusing T. S. Eliot of using sockpuppets!Posted by Michael on 09/06 at 07:49 PM
Well, originally, the title of the poem was going to be He Do the Sockpuppets in Different Voices. I don’t suppose you were aware of that.Posted by Il Miglior Fabbro on 09/06 at 07:50 PM
And that’s why, to answer Bill Benzon in yesterday’s comments (comment 18), we don’t junk the Marxist apparatus altogether—at least if we’re Raymond Williams.
What exactly does “that” refer to here? I don’t really see the argument in defense of base/superstructure analysis, as opposed to an analysis that just looks at a lot of interacting parts.Posted by on 09/06 at 07:51 PM
Because we don’t want to withdraw from the claim that there is any process of determination, blah.Posted by on 09/06 at 07:52 PM
Is “determination” just a fancy term for causation, or am I missing something?Posted by on 09/06 at 07:57 PM
Um, missing something. The discussion of “determination” came in the first installment, when I pointed out how Williams distinguishes determination from causation.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:03 PM
Can’t . . .
learn . . .
now . . .
must . . .
teach . . .
class . . .
Posted by on 09/06 at 08:16 PM
So Williams says that “determination” refers to the “setting of limits and the exertion of pressure.” How is that different from causation?Posted by on 09/06 at 08:22 PM
seems to me causation would be something more like “bringing into existence” or “leading to the existence of.” Williams’ determination is less “linear” (i.e: a gives rise to b; b exists because of a) and avoids getting in trouble w/ Davy Hume ; “determination” sets up the boundaries for what will happen, but it doesn’t bring about what happens, per se. (a gives b this space to operate within; b’s appearance and behavior are tied to the confines and contours of that space)Posted by split foster on 09/06 at 08:37 PM
Split has it right: “determination” sets the table. It doesn’t control what everybody eats. This move gets you out of the dilemma Sartre spoke of when he noted (and this is from memory, so forgive me if I botch it) that Paul Valéry is a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it, but not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Paul Valéry.
And all related “determination” dilemmas.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:43 PM
Michael: You forgot Sartre’s discussion of the Budapest subways. But Williams also leads to the revelation that the supposed critics and revolutionaries also operate within the matrix because, you know, reading a book by Marx or about Marx doesn’t mean you are suddenly an observer outside the system.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:51 PM
As used in science, including sociology, causation refers to a relationship in which change in an independent variable gives rise to a change in a dependent variable. I don’t see how the concept of “determination” as described by Williams is inconsistent with this.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:52 PM
So we can imagine a field/society determined, ie. mapped by a set of limits and pressures, that still allows for a variety of practices that may be oriented as oppositional, alternative, complicit, maximizing, and or irrationally minimizing positions. This reminds me--not to raise the spectre of The Notorious Riley--of Bourdieu. Question: does Williams imagine a way to predict why strategic, oppositional position-takings/practices sometimes come from cultural producers and others times come from below? Are all oppositional practices strategic, or in otherwords “knowing.” Is this the difference between alternatives and oppositions?
These questions have come up in my work on 18th century anti-slavery movements--too complex to map here. Thanks for the rich discussion.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:56 PM
blah: I believe Williams distinction comes from a reaction against a mechanical view taken by some marxists where the answer to “why did x do y” was always “the class nature of x forced y”. This is what Williams co-conspirator Thompson said was the orrery model of history. But, perhaps he was talking about something else entirely.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:57 PM
Yes, blah, and there are all kinds of causation, direct and indirect. But if you really want to argue that Williams says pretty much the thing he isn’t saying, namely, “the base causes the superstructure,” go right ahead. I’ll stick with the first sentence of comment 8.
Citizen K, I always forget that discussion. Thanks. But it was really cool when Sartre fought that Agent on the subway platform.Posted by on 09/06 at 08:59 PM
And Professor Drexler, who is “Bourdieu”?Posted by on 09/06 at 08:59 PM
I wish we could ask, “Who is Riley?”Posted by on 09/06 at 09:01 PM
As used in science, including sociology, causation refers to a relationship in which change in an independent variable gives rise to a change in a dependent variable. I don’t see how the concept of “determination” as described by Williams is inconsistent with this.
Strikes me that the difference is specific predictive value: ‘causation’ has it; ‘determination’ doesn’t.Posted by on 09/06 at 09:03 PM
If determination sets the table, is he saying that hegemony is the process that presses for determanant limits to encompass as much of the table as possible (assuming there are multiple determinates), or to narrow the diversity of cutlery?Posted by Central Content Publisher on 09/06 at 09:06 PM
But if you really want to argue that Williams says pretty much the thing he isn’t saying, namely, “the base causes the superstructure,” go right ahead.
Quite the opposite - which is why I questioned the rentention of the Marxist concepts of base/superstructure in the first place.Posted by on 09/06 at 09:11 PM
Michael: It was really Simone who beat the Agent while JP worked on his yo-yo but isn’t Agency the entire point of the distinction Williams is making?
You can find everything on the internet.
At 700-plus pages, the book does go on and is somewhat repetitive, but it’s quite readable and there are lots of memorable bits, from her passionate affair with Nelson Algren to the image of her imitating the voice of their beloved John Wayne for Sartre’s amusement, and his manic practicing of yo-yo tricks.
Posted by on 09/06 at 09:31 PM
I was TOtally into this post and almost agreeing with your claims about Foucault even despite myself--because I know that Foucault is neither a theorist nor a theorist of history nor one to whom one goes in order to get a sense of the totality of things, primarily because to read someone with an eye to totality is, as an event in and of itself, completely tied to a lineage of reading, western academic practice, and the alleged privileges of theory that are in question in Foucault’s work. BUT right in the middle of reading your post, I clicked on my browser and opened a new tab and, with this very post lurking in the background, I ordered your book.
Captcha: “Human.” Ha ha ha. Betcha.Posted by on 09/06 at 09:38 PM
Michael, Do you have a page number handy for the quote about ‘notion of totality’ and ‘notion of intention’? I scanned my well-chewed copy of Marxism and Literature very very fast again, but couldn’t locate it, and I want to see it fully in context, dissolved back in solution. Because it smacks me as needing perhaps a bit more unpacking, nuancing ... without necessarily getting off at Foucault’s bus stop
And, yes, one should always quote Gil Rodman on any matter involving shoes.Posted by on 09/06 at 10:22 PM
It’s not in Marxism and Literature, Greg. My copy comes from Problems in Materialism and Culture (Verso, 1977), where it can be found on the top of page 36.Posted by on 09/06 at 10:29 PM
Nice to see an acknowledgment of Foucault’s weakness as an historian from a literary guy. Thanks. And “power produces resistance” is going to be my mantra when I exercise for the next week. (Or is that one “resistance produces power”?)
Incidentally, I’m still left on the hook after your promise July 25 last year (see comment 22) to discuss “the question of how to do an ethnography without simply ceding interpretive authority to the ethnos is still with us.” Or was that a promise to cut de Certeau to ribbons? Ech, he’s not worth it.Posted by Sherman Dorn on 09/06 at 10:44 PM
Sartre’s note about the Budapest subway was an argument that all of science cannot be deduced from The Theory.
The argument that The People line up with the radical left “naturally” and are diverted from their true interests only by a furious elite propaganda barrage is not only bad politics; it’s bad theory, the kind that some leftists fall back on to explain to themselves why their followers are so few.)
I’m tempted to argue that in fact the radical left as defined by e.g. Counterpunch, is more of a reflection of the elite than a true opposition. Humanism is more dangerous than alternative theories of how to run the machine.Posted by on 09/06 at 11:06 PM
Humanism is more dangerous than alternative theories of how to run the machine. - citizen k
Ah, sweet sweet danger. There’s certainly a thin line between diversionary propoganda and just another “America has been stabbed in the back” theory. Left, right, or whatever; we all seem to fear betrayal. I know I do.Posted by Central Content Publisher on 09/06 at 11:17 PM
Nice exposition Michael. But there is still a great deal here that is problematic for the later development of cultural studies that Williams did so much to found. There is a sense in which the continuously variable determinations that Williams insists on blur the lines between oppositional and dominant in an unproductive manner (the difficulty of determining the relation of oppositional to dominant has all too often been an alibi for a quietist politics), to say nothing of the fact that the question of whether setting “the bounds of the thinkable” can’t amount to hegemony sitting on your chest and telling you what to think is still in an open one. The purging of ‘liberal’ elements from Iranian universities you mentioned yesterday is a case in point. As is this administration’s similar efforts re: global warming, family planning, marriage, etc. Not that you don’t recognize any of this. But how do we actually apply Williams to the concerns of ‘praxical’ politics?
You can also find WIlliams essay in the November/December 1973 issue of New Left Review, which is where I believe it first saw publication.
P.S. Did you time your praise for humanism with Richard Wolin’s revisionary take on Foucault? C’mon, you guys aren’t in cahoots are you?
captcha: “question”Posted by on 09/06 at 11:21 PM
Wolin is a weird dude. When I see him around at the Graduate Center, catching him in the elevator coming from the History program office, I’ll name-drop Michael’s name offhandedly and see how awkwardly he responds. Michael Berube and Richard Wolin: the new Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
J/K. No, but seriously, I don’t like Wolin(his work at least) but I do like Michael so please, no more comparisons between the two.Posted by Sam Han on 09/06 at 11:37 PM
With all due respect (which is quite a lot, really), to cheer on the professor’s “acknowledgement” that Foucault has weaknesses as an historian is like cheering on my acknowledgment that David Beckham has weaknesses as a hockey player. (Assume I know something about hockey). He understands some of the rules and the idea of putting something in a net, but beyond that, it would be wrong to say he’s incompetent. He’s simply not interested in one game, and fascinated by the other. And good at it.
I actually think this has consequences for the moral gravity of the work on Williams. But I’ve said enough.
(BTW, first drafts of this comment had “Alexi Lalas” and not David Beckham above. Extra credit to anyone who can tell me why that was nearly a catastrophic gaffe).Posted by on 09/06 at 11:37 PM
Can’t . . .
learn . . .
now . . .
must . . .
teach . . .
class . . .
Worst haiku ever.Posted by Chris Clarke on 09/07 at 12:03 AM
Yeah, Wolin is a wanker. His little hatchet piece on Ricoeur in the Chronicle was wretched. And I won’t even get into how tired the vilification of Heidegger is getting. I will say that I thought “Aesthetics of Redemption” a luminous work, which is what makes everything else really strange. But I intended no insult to Michael. As a confirmed humanist (and radical Marxist) who has suffered through the excesses of a ham-fisted (post)structuralist academy, these recent mentions of the radicality of humanism are a welcome relief even if, in Wolin’s case, it comes from an unwelcome source.Posted by on 09/07 at 12:27 AM
(I don’t know the commands for italics or web links so I apologize in advance.)
I’ve never posted on this blog before but Michael how can you be unaware of Bourdieu? (In earlier post you ask Dexler who Bourdieu is). Are you being sarcastic?
He’s one of the more influential French social theorists in the last several decades.
One of his big ideas is his use of habitus (which partially derives from the earlier anthropological work of Marcel Mauss though he takes Mauss’s “habitus” and alters it beyond recognition). I had trouble finding a good account of what habitus is online. I’d recommend taking a look at Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972 [eng 1977) where he first developed his theoretical framework and Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979 )his description and critique of the production of taste within France (not sure of the original date). (Fair warning, Distinction is a massive tome).
Bourdieu’s early work represents the first of what anthropologists (and I believe sociologists) call practice theory. I’d say more but I really shouldn’t be posting comments on blogs this late.Posted by on 09/07 at 02:11 AM
Because we don’t want to withdraw from the claim that there is any process of determination, blah.
No we don’t. Be interested in seeing what/if Part III brings on this score.
I note in passing that biologists, too, are interested in determination, but producing it has been tricky. Think of Darwinian evolution. On the one hand you’ve got a plethora of itty bitty causes acting on within and through organisms, individual by individual, event after event after event etc. And then you’ve got this bold generalization: random generation of genotypical variation allows for selective retention of phenotypical success through interaction with the environment. Over the long haul that process yields change in species. And if you ask “where’s the agency in that?” by god if it isn’t with the species. And “the species” is a very abstract something to think of as being an actor, a causal force, in natural history.
Can’t imagine that human culture would be simpler than that.
captcha: size. Take your pick: “One size fits all.” “Size the day.”Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/07 at 04:18 AM
I’ve never posted on this blog before but Michael how can you be unaware of Bourdieu? (In earlier post you ask Dexler who Bourdieu is). Are you being sarcastic?
Yes I am, AAGS. Sorry for the confusion—that little joke started last weekend, when some outraged person asked me if I’d ever heard of Bourdieu. I’ve taught Distinction (though I’d be happy to dilate on John Frow’s critique of it in Cultural Studies and Cultural Value someday), and I consider Bourdieu to be one of the most fascinating and suggestive French intellectuals—oh, hell, intellectuals—of the past half century.
Influential, too—especially where cultural studies meets sociology. Which brings me to Sherman, comment 27: why, thanks ever so much for reminding me of certain ambitious promises I made last summer. I’ll deliver one of these days! In the meantime, if it’s de Certeau you want, repeat after me: strategies bad, tactics good. Strategies bad, tactics good. And there’s a devastating treatment of this kind of thinking in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s (very entertaining) Nation of Rebels, for those of you who are interested.
Tom, thanks so much for number 30. I’ll ponder it over the weekend.Posted by Michael on 09/07 at 07:32 AM
I like the Theory Whatever-Day series, but haven’t commented on this one yet out of some perverse desire to have read the source material first—but I’m far too busy now to do so, so enough of that silliness. Isn’t the difference, if any, between determination and causation rather critical to the question of whether Marx is adding anything useful to the study of this question? Or to put it another way, if “Marx” reduces to “means of production have some effect on ideology”, then hasn’t “Marx” been reduced down to a triviality? Or to put it yet another way, I think that sociology in general accepts many of the things that you’ve described Williams as saying (c.f. Peter Bergman and Thomas Luckmann’s _The Social Construction of Reality_, 1966), so why are these concepts specifically Marxist?
By the way, I think that comment 12, in conjunction with later comments, may have an overly positivistic impression of what scientists mean by causation. Almost never does one observe a simple situation where A causes B. I think that blah’s point was that the notion of determination setting boundaries on what is observed is a lot like a scientist’s idea of causation in any case. (But I worked in astrophysics—so our ideas of causation always were fuzzy because the things we observed were so far away.)Posted by on 09/07 at 10:23 AM
I think that blah’s point was that the notion of determination setting boundaries on what is observed is a lot like a scientist’s idea of causation in any case.
Or to put it another way, if “Marx” reduces to “means of production have some effect on ideology”, then hasn’t “hasn” been reduced down to a triviality?
Again, speaking very much as a novice here (please correct me where I’ve gone wrong! and I’ll do the same if you, uh, flub 13th-c. carrion law...), isn’t the central point of Marxism that the relationship is at heart antagonistic and geared to making most people work for a few? I think keeping this in mind distinguishes Marxism from other approaches.
Think of Darwinian evolution
Thanks BB. That was a point I wanted to make last night, but forgot about. I’m reminded of two things: 1) my wife’s complaint about Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, to wit, that he ascribed intent to species and their evolution; 2) Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious documentary The Root of All Evil?, where he encounters some Xian megachurch pastor who announces that evolution declares that everything occurs “by chance.” Dawkins is rightly appalled by this common but still gross distortion of evolution: the lack of intent, a guiding mind, doesn’t mean that things happen by chance. It’s just that the driving force is ahuman. Which of course allows precious little room for agency.
Captcha: ‘fall,’ as in, wouldn’t it be awful if you had to talk like Marc E. Smith all the time?
Got MB’s What’s Liberal &c. in the mail last night, which happily coincided with the semester starting and meeting yet another group of students for my intro to West. Lit. course. So, it’s useful. And it reads quickly. Should have it finished in the next couple of hours, and thank back to the diss.Posted by on 09/07 at 10:42 AM
KtG, I’ve not read Pollan. I have the idea from an article Michael Ghiselin published in The Behavioral and Brain Sciences well over two decades ago. As I recall, he was arguing against the idea that a species is a collection of individual organisms and in favor of the idea that we must consider a species to be an individual actor in the evolutionary arena. It was a very tricky argument and, I gather, part of a conversation that had been going on for awhile. I think he’s correct on that point, though you need explicitly to consider the full apparatus of evolutionary explanation, genes, phenotypes, variation, selection, environment, all of it. Without that apparatus the notion becomes mere personification applied to a metaphor (species as individual).
We ought to see if John Wilkins will comment. At this point he may know more about the concept of species than just about anyone.Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/07 at 11:04 AM
I’m just a humble historian and your “theory” is strange to me. So....
It seems to me that “determination” (as the word is being used here) is something like necessary conditions that define what is possible and what is not. “Causation” (as the word is being used here) refers to sufficient conditions that actually, uh, determine if something will happen.
So, both are causes, in that “determination” is necessary causes (without X you won’t get Y, but the presence of X does not guarantee Y) and “causation” is suffucient causes (if you have X you will get y, but you don’t need X to get Y).
So, does it bother anyone else that “determination” here seems to mean very nearly the OPPOSITE of how the word is normally used? In normal conversation, if X determines Y I would think that X CAUSES Y.
Capcha “read” as in, “I hope I am correctly.”Posted by on 09/07 at 12:12 PM
Okay way off topic.. and then again no; there must be some theoretical basis (and superstructure) to critique this sort of strange madness:
Raleigh native Clay Aiken has been appointed to serve on the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. President George W. Bush named 12 people to the panel. Aiken, a pop singer and former “American Idol” contestant, is also well known for his work on behalf of people with autism. He launched the Bubel Aiken Foundation, which focuses on helping children with disabilities.Posted by on 09/07 at 02:47 PM
Dr. Berube, I’m enjoying the new book! Thanks for defending the logical space of procedural liberalism! Rorty should read this, too.Posted by on 09/07 at 02:52 PM
This schism in the total almost reminds me of Lutheran two-kingdom’s theory which is the heart of the success of Scandinavian social democracies (90% Lutheranism in the countries mentioned).
Are there any Scandinavian Lutheran political theorists on your reading list, professor? I am a Lutheran, and am wondering why those countries are so successful even though they are not Marxist. You’ve cited them in your lectures and on your blog. Why are they successful even though they don’t use Marx’s work as the recipe for the leaven in the lumpenproletariat?
I’m sure someone in one of those countries and in one of those languages has made the case for the ...
separation of church and state
separation of art and state
separation of automobile mechanics and theocracy,
That lies inside of Lutheran social democracies, and which is what makes them function so well (unlike crummy Calvinism or crummy Marxism, which is a one-kingdom road to Heck).
I suppose I’ll have to rummage around and find it, because I definitely don’t want to have to write it.
Esp. not here.
Blog comment boxes are about as reliable as...Satan.
Marxism-Islam-Baptists—one-kingdom states (non-functional).
Lutheran, good. Marxism, bad.
That’s the gloss. But I’m going to withhold the recipe, or maybe put it on my blog where it belongs. Blogs are good. Comment boxes, bad.Posted by Kirby Olson on 09/07 at 03:49 PM
So when you describe this hegemony thingie, I keep thinking “patriarchy.” Is this kind of right, or did I just take too many women’s studies classes?Posted by on 09/07 at 06:45 PM
Thanks, Michael, this is a treat. There are just a few things about the opening paragraphs I don’t get.
1. Are Jameson and his admirers too eager to nominate silly antitotalizers as the foil for their preferred totalization? Jameson likes to say that without his kind of History you would just have a lot of unconnected things, but there’s a confusion here. On the one hand philosophers will tell us that social or natural sciences have to start with some kind of presupposition that It All Hangs Together, which you obviously can’t prove empirically. So if that’s all “totalization” means, fine. But clearly for Jameson, Williams, Zizek et al. it means much more.
2. Indeed in the first Williams quote you give he’s drawing a different sort of boundary, between something like a minimal It-All-Hangs-Together position (there exists a “concrete social whole” of connected practices, but we don’t know what dominates or that history has a single driving force) and his preferred position which is, as you say, what makes it Marxist.
3. You approvingly gloss this: “Not just anything goes with anything” —can you say a little more about what you mean to rule out?
4. I’m confused by your jump from that to the opposition Hall posits. Especially if we interpret “correspondence” generously, the position that there “is necessarily no correspondence among” the facets and practices of society looks like another straw man. “A society takes a certain shape and a certain character, and though this may be exceedingly complex and conflicted, it is not random.” Sure, but again, you can argue THAT out of the Minimal-It-All-Hangs-Together-Position
It seems much too easy, especially at this rarified level, to slide from a statement about logical preconditions for analysis to totality to one particular kind of totality. Another way to put the question is to ask what room is left for political economy as critical, skeptical analysis after these moves. My suspicion, and I hope you’ll tell me I’m wrong, is the “capitalism” gets pushed up to the level of the world-spirit or political unconscious in a way that puts it beyond the work of a critical political economy.Posted by on 09/07 at 06:56 PM
Relative to the point of your post, the following is quite tangental. But, anyway, you write:
Sure, you may be able to forestall that sense of frustration by telling yourself “power produces resistance” over and over, but that’s about it.
Contrary to popular opinion, Foucault holds the exact opposite position: it is resistance that produces power. This is line is confirmed through the middle and, indeed, the late works. (See HSI, SMBD, and the two essays in “The Subject and Power.")Posted by Craig on 09/07 at 07:21 PM
I didn’t know Mauss McFadden was an anthro major.Posted by J— on 09/07 at 08:42 PM
This was well worth the wait. You have given your readers a very fine and very appreciative reading of Williams’ essay on base and superstructure. Like you, I prefer Williams to Althusser, probably because even before I encountered Althusser’s confessions I had a sneaking suspicion, like Judt, that his knowledge of the Marxist tradition wasn’t really that profound. The same cannot be said of Williams.
One quibble, however. Although you are absolutely right that Foucault professed himself an enemy of the Marxist concept of totality on a number of occasions, one can, I believe, find vestiges of an early Marxist influence in his conception of society as a grid of various micropowers forming varying alignments and creating different lines of force that extend throughout the social domain. I could spell out the resembleances that this has to Williams more clearly but it would take more time and space than I currently have at my disposal.
All that is simply to say that there is a conception of society that is not wholly unlike Williams’ in Foucault, at least the Foucault that appears in many of the essays and interviews of “Power/Knowledge”.
Finally, it is good to see someone still defending the notion of the relative autonomy of the cultural sphere, although exactly how autonomous that relative autonomy is continues to be a vexing question.
EricPosted by on 09/07 at 09:54 PM
I’m just a humble historian and your “theory” is strange to me. So....
Illegal use of E.P. “Columbo” Thompson’s “golly, Mr. Althusser, I’m jest a dumb ol’ historian” trick.
I’m sure someone in one of those countries and in one of those languages has made the case for the ...
separation of church and state
The Norwegian constitution of 18xx, for example, defined Norway as a Lutheran state from which Jews and Jesuits would be forever excluded, along with their jesuiticical Peter Falkian tricks.Posted by on 09/07 at 10:11 PM
Just one more question citizen k. You said the murder was driving with his glasses on, but the coroner found he was wearing contacts. And they opthamologist told me that he’d be blind as a bat if he was wearing glasses AND contacts.
So, what I’m trying to figure out, is how he could be driving when he was blind as a bat. Sorry to bother you, but I’ve just been thinking about that....lPosted by on 09/08 at 12:07 PM
Be careful with your use of that trick. Look what happened to Althusser.Posted by on 09/08 at 02:48 PM
That was kind of my point. I have no idea what happend to Althusser. I’ve never read him, never read Williams. Never read most of the folks who show up here in Theory Tuesday. I’ve read some E.P. Thompson, never anything having to do with Althusser.
It wasn’t mock humbleness, it was a comment on how little theory, of any kind, historians receive in their training.Posted by on 09/08 at 03:10 PM
A little theory goes a long way, and less goes even farther.
—Lisa SimpsonPosted by Bill Benzon on 09/08 at 04:08 PM
Doesn’t that depend in part on the composition of their originary department and, to a lesser degree, on their subfield and colleagues?Posted by on 09/08 at 05:26 PM
Yes, I’m sure it does, but does any historian get the kind of “theory-centric” training that seems to predominate in, say, literature? I don’t think so, but maybe my impression is wrong.
The leading theory journal in history, THEORY AND HISTORY, seems to have more philosophers in it than historians.Posted by on 09/08 at 06:46 PM
Thompson’s essay “Poverty of Theory” is a brilliant argument in favor of empirical history and an attack on “structuralism” and academic obscurantism of all kinds. And Thompson writes in a columboesque sly style where he humbly confesses his inability to follow Professor Althusser to grand theoretical heights and then demolishes him.
Althusser was the grand leader of French leftist intellectuals for years, but eventually lost his mind, murdered his wife, and was committed to an asylum. Dramatic stuff for an academic - other than mathematicians who live this kind of thing ever day.Posted by on 09/08 at 08:29 PM
JPJ: I’ll take that under consideration, but if I add anything more to this, I’ll be speaking out of my expertise more than I usually do on this blog.
Yes, Citizen, and de Man was a collaborator, Heidegger a Nazi, and Monique Wittig...lived in Arizona, which is a pretty dubious state if you ask me. And don’t even get me started on the apparently superfluous h’s in Homi K. Bhabha: obscurantist spelling indeed!*
I just pulled ‘The Essential E. P. Thompson’ off my overflow shelf (which is itself overflowing), and I’ll read the Althusser stuff over lunch, although it strikes me that I’ve already seen Althusser demolished a few times on this blog already.
* Cavaet: I’m not entirely making light of collaboration with totalitarianism, especially of the Nazi variety, and I could make a lot of solemn noises to indicate my bona fides when it comes to deploring the fascists (because my laptop? it’s a machine that kills fascists): it’s that that the great theorists are a mixed bag, and ideas travel check-by-jowl that would never have mixed back when incarnated in their original speakers. I know Levinas, prisoner of the Nazis, and Heidegger have spent more time working together than they would have wanted. But this is a discussion for another time and no doubt one that went over 100 times after the de Man crisis (or, in my circles, back in high school, whether it was ok to like Guns n’ Roses, because at times they rocked so hard, even though Axl Rose was certifiably a “major dick").Posted by on 09/09 at 09:43 AM
I wasn’t critiquing Althusser based on his unfortunate condition, I was warning JPJ about the dangers of using the “humble historian” technique. Don’t use it lightly.Posted by on 09/09 at 10:38 AM
thanks for this discussion.
theory is now as important as it ever was in linking the proliferation of struggles--everything from textile workers in the phillipines to battered women and prison activists and iraq war opposition--to useful explanations of the concrete ways capitalist exploitation and accumulation determines existence. if such a link is not made within the global contexts of struggle, then each isolable “autonomous” “movement” will in the end only offer adherents another “half-world of feeling in which we are invited to have our being,” as williams once said.
this is why marxism, as a scientific analysis of capitalist development is crucial to explain the usefullness of “emergent” media and critique, achieving what williams was always at pains to do in his own work in continuing education,. for ex., in the effort to connect theory to practice.Posted by on 09/09 at 11:41 AM
philippinesPosted by on 09/09 at 11:43 AM
that is to say, marxism is enormously relevant at this moment, in spite of the cheerful obligation among jaded academicians to “reject” marx, as if this rejection were even possible.Posted by on 09/09 at 11:57 AM
In some of the German meetings around 1930 there were intelligent, straightforward, though nationalistically and mystically oriented, revolutionaries-such as Otto Strasser, for example-who were wont to confront the Marxists as follows: “You Marxists like to quote Marx’s theories in your defense. Marx taught that theory is verified by practice only, but your Marxism has proved to be a failure. You always come around with explanations for the defeat of the Workers’ International. The ‘defection of the Social Democrats’ was your explanation for the defeat of 1914; you point to their ‘treacherous politics’ and their illusions to account for the defeat of 1918. And again you have ready ‘explanations’ to account for the fact that in the present world crisis the masses are turning to the Right instead of to the Left. But your explanations do not blot out the fact of your defeats! Eighty years have passed, and where is the concrete confirmation of the theory of social revolution? Your basic error is that you reject or ridicule soul and mind and that you don’t comprehend that which moves everything.” Such were their arguments, and exponents of Marxism had no answer. It became more and more clear that their political mass propaganda, dealing as it did solely with the discussion of objective socio-economic processes at a time of crisis (capitalist modes of production, economic anarchy, etc.), did not appeal to anyone other than the minority already enrolled in the Left front. The playing up of material needs and of hunger was not enough, for every political party did that much, even the church; so that in the end it was the mysticism of the National Socialists that triumphed over the economic theory of socialism, and at a time when the economic crisis and misery were at their worst.
I forgot how smart Reich was.
Replace 80 with 106.Posted by on 09/09 at 08:08 PM
there is a science of marxism: the analysis of capital which persistently shows its movement through time and space and the consequences of its development of the forces of production. mandel’s work is a better guide through this labyrith than, say, bhagwati. that is, the rejection of this analysis is foolhardy.
the social relations and and how they are manifested, “structurated” if you like, in the routine practices of life in capitalist society are difficult to displace in the interest of raising practical consciousness to the realm of the political. it’s a real bitch as williams well knew. you’re problem, citizen k, is you condemn revolutionary failure as proof of the failure of marx. I frankly don’t understand this bit of illogic on your part. did your communist mother spank you in public? what happened?
one thing I greatly admire about williams is his devotion to act, knowing only the direct intervention against capital would change the world. I can’t help but think, ck, if it were easier to do this, you might declare yourself a marxist, after all.Posted by on 09/09 at 09:51 PM
problem, citizen k, is you condemn revolutionary failure as proof of the failure of marx.
I’m just that way about predictions that don’t work. Try Criswell. He’s got a better record.Posted by on 09/10 at 10:21 AM
Thompson’s essay “Poverty of Theory” is a brilliant argument in favor of empirical history and an attack on “structuralism” and academic obscurantism of all kinds.
Granted, I have only the excerpts from The Essential E. P. Thompson at hand ("Historical Logic” and “Marxism and History"), so I’m at a disadvantage: but I don’t think your summary is quite fair, as it seems to draft Thompson too neatly into the anti-theory camp. As I can see from what I’ve read, Thompson’s goals are several:
* Decrying Althusser’s philosophic idealism as inadequate to historical analysis;
* Decrying Marx himself for his inadequate assimilation of the anti-teleologic lessons of the The Origin of Species. Because Marx can’t quite rid himself of Hegel, Capital does not destroy the inherited structure of political economy; instead, Capital ends by erecting a kind of anti-structure within political economy that, ultimately, is better at explaining capital than capitalism;
* Recuperating Engels, as his late work warned against idealism (e.g., “Too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase, historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase), in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge (for economic history is still in its cradle!) fitted together into a neat system as quickly as possible, and then they think themselves something very tremendous,” qtd 472, orig emph);
* Demanding that categories of historical analyses comprehend dialogically and elastically their always changing material ("History knows no regular verbs,” 454);
* Freeing the historical materialist hermeneutic from the dead weight of the Name of the Father (Marx, that is).
Surprisingly enough for me, there’s a place where Thompson seems possessed by Deleuze and Guattari:
“In investigating history we are not flicking through a series of ‘stills,’ each of which shows us a moment of social time transfixed into a single eternal pose: for each one of these ‘stills,’ [comma sic] is not only a moment of being but also a moment of becoming: and even within each seemingly-static section there will be found contradictions and liaisons, dominant and subordinate elements, declining or ascending energies. Any historical moment is both a result of prior processes and an index toward the direction of its future flow” (455).
PS There’s also some material in the Engels Thompson cites that bears upon the whole cause/effect question at hand: “because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect in history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction...” (qtd 473).
Now back to the 13th c. & why English lepers ate carrion sometimes....Posted by on 09/10 at 12:31 PM
Karl: I don’t disagree with you much, although the Deleuze/Guattari is something I wouldn’t touch with a ten meter pile of copies of L’Humanite. By “empirical history” I don’t mean history as a collection of data points - certainly Thompson’s great works are far from that.
Thompson’s essay about Orwell is also worth reading and twice as mean. The English really stick the knife in to class pretensions.Posted by on 09/10 at 07:20 PM
I only skimmed the comments, so please forgive me if I’m repeating, but I share Colin Danby’s perplexity (comment 46); to wit, “On the one hand philosophers will tell us that social or natural sciences have to start with some kind of presupposition that It All Hangs Together, which you obviously can’t prove empirically. So if that’s all “totalization” means, fine. But clearly for Jameson, Williams, Zizek et al. it means much more.” I read & re-read the post, and still don’t know what Totality is beyond “It All Hangs Together,” except that it was a “mode of analysis” for Sartre. As to how the mode or the analysis worked, I have no clue. Why “totality” is a valuable or useful abstraction, I have no idea.
Similarly this quote from Williams: “[I]f we come to say that society is composed of a large number of social practices which form a concrete social whole, and if we give to each practice a certain specific recognition, adding only that they interact, relate and combine in very complicated ways, we are at one level much more obviously talking about reality, but we are at another level withdrawing from the claim that there is any process of determination.”
I have no idea how anything after the word “but” follows from what came before. Williams is asserting something that makes no sense to me. Why and how is the claim withdrawn?
Nice discussion of Hegemony, though. Me and hegemony, we’re hand-in-glove, we’re like *this*.
“Bass & superstructure” still sounds like a math-y genre of dance music to me. But I’m starting to get it.Posted by john on 09/10 at 09:06 PM
John: My understanding that the Williams is trying to rescue the marxist idea that “class struggle is the motor of history”. The problem for Williams is that a crude version of Marxism (the dominant one) tries to explain everything in terms of the class struggle and the development of the economy. In this view much of “culture” is just “superstructure” that pops up from the economic basis like rust on a railroad locomotive ‘s front grill. Or maybe it is the fins on one of the old cadillacs. Williams is too smart for that, but he also recognized that if you get too clever about all these parts of society that interact somehow, you can easily stumble into “it’s all just a jumble”. The nice thing about Marxist analysis is that it appears to provide a coherent view of how all the parts relate to each other. So Williams wants his Marxism, without having to accept a view that reduces rock-and-roll to an expression of working class discontent.Posted by on 09/10 at 10:31 PM
Slothrop: As a scientific theory, Marxism is a failure. Virtually every prediction Marx made failed to come true. Capitalism could be the most evil institution ever, but it doesn’t redeem Marxism as a science.
I’m not saying there is no value in ideas that derive from Marxism. But making such a claim is much different from trying to defend Marxism as a science.Posted by on 09/11 at 10:37 AM
wha? I wouldn’t want you to bore yourself w/ a defense of your claim, after all, “marx as analysis of capital(ism) is a failure.” for fuck’s sake, everybody knows that!
I was going to shoot off a list of authors (negri, harvey, eagleton, etc.), pretty bright chaps all, who would just shake their heads in complete astonishment of your confident claim.
my oh my. one of us is wrong walt, no matter how proviso-laden your defense turns out to be.Posted by on 09/11 at 12:12 PM
Furthermore, hegemony doesn’t sit on your chest and tell you what to think; it merely seeks to set the bounds of the thinkable—and this, again, is where Williams’ insistence on the meaning of “determination” as “setting limits, exerting pressures” pays off.
I’ll be honest. I’ve read through these theory threads and I do not, but hope to, understand the denouncement of the facility of power to colonize consiousness. we’ve had a century or more of proof of the effectiveness of propaganda in the control of thought--from bernaise to bill o’reilly. the media, or among the vast field of signs whose meanings are the “site of conflict,” are effective, not just affective, in the construction of belief and commitment to action. I agree herman perhaps is too charitable to his own political views, and perhaps might tend to reify what he believes as an ineluctable truth averted by the gaze of big brother. who hasn’t fallen into this trap? no persons’ beliefs or actions are unfettered by mediation, and the “left” falters when it finds at the heart of humanity the monadic compulsion to be a uncontradicted socialist. rather, truth is aint it, that in order to create a better world, you first seize the means of control, and then you control for good of humanity. which is to say, better to have a nick garnham, antonio negri or even citizen k at the controls, rather than sumner redstone.Posted by on 09/11 at 12:39 PM
Marx predicted that capitalism would lead to the immiseration of the worker, that that this immiseration would in turn cause workers to develop a class consciousness that would make workers as a class unitary historical actors, that the downturns of the business cycle would get worse and worse, and that these combined would lead to the destruction of capitalism. None of these predictions came true.
Marxism may provide a useful framework to understand events after they happen, but to call Marxism a science we need to ask something more: that it get things right before they happen.Posted by on 09/11 at 12:59 PM
it’s me I see who will be the one to offer provisos for a devotion to marx. by ‘immiseration’ is m eant now the horrendous mechanized murder of superfluous humans uneeded even for exploitation in afghanistan, iraq, lebanon, et al. and among the stateless wetbacks everywhere. and about clkass consciousness, the critique of ideology, who’s fixed star in the marx corpus is commodity fetishism, precludes any immediate consciousness of class conflict. also, I believe it is a profound misreading of marx to say capitalism will collapse of its ownm contradictions. from the theses on fuerbach to the manifesto, the emphasis is praxis. unite! and “come true”? what does that mean really? the contradictions of capitalist accumulation, now as marx “predicted,” are manifesting at last globally. I read marx, as do many persons much smarter thanmI, and there’s just jawdropping precision in marx about what affliucts us now, before our very eyes.Posted by on 09/11 at 01:14 PM
whosePosted by on 09/11 at 01:15 PM
Marx really does predict all of the things he says. I used to have a quote from Capital where he predicts all of them, but I can’t find it at the moment.
And your comment about “wetbacks” is the exact kind of analysis that I think Marxism distorts. The behavior of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon cannot be explained by Marxism. If Marxism provided a complete explanation of the world, you’d see the US Army in Argentina and Boliva, not Iraq.Posted by on 09/11 at 01:34 PM
I found the quote: “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
Almost every part of this prediction has been falsified.
Also, by a coincidence, I ran across this quote from Business Week, in response to a question about how the war in Iraq will affect the stock market: “Should the bombs start falling, more casualties than victors are likely to seen on the equity front.”Posted by on 09/11 at 01:43 PM
you cannot read this most famous excerpt and say that marx’s failure has lain in the nondetermination of class consciousness by the development of the forces of capitalist production. it is much more complicated than that, as you probably know, so that this preferred reading by you is deeply disingenuous. marx was always emphatic about action--it’s up to the workers, the oppressed, to make history, as williams also knew.
as for the rest of the quote. before our very eyes, walt.Posted by on 09/11 at 02:11 PM
A longer comment last night vanished which is probably just as well so I’ll try 2 or 3 shorter ones. Comment one is that Williams’ “Literature and Sociology: In memory of Lucien Goldmann” (New Left Review I/67, May-June 1971) is a useful read in conjunction with the essay we’re discussing. It also staarts with the inadequacy of base-superstructure and moves to Lukacsean total, but more discursively.
Interestingly when he gets to Lukacs in the 1971 essay, the error he worries about is idealism, not theoretical slackening into a lot of connected social practices.Posted by on 09/11 at 02:21 PM
Why the immediate assumption of ill-will, slothrop? I don’t mean Marx’ failure as an advocate of action, but as a scientist. He made a clear prediction, one that was not borne out by events. It happens. Marx may have been an advocate of action, but at the same time he was an advocate of a teleological view of history, one with clear cause and effect. That is the Marx that has a claim to be a scientist, and it’s that Marx that has been falsified.
As for the rest, I don’t believe it. My personal prediction is that capitalism is somewhere in the middle of its run, so it has at least another century to go. If class consciousness requires action on the part of the workers, then Marx has no chance of being right: if there is one thing that capitalism is good at, it’s undermining the class consciousness of everyone except perhaps the elite.Posted by on 09/11 at 02:23 PM
Comment 2 is that the discussion in the 1973 essay of “the base” is very good, and by the end of page 6 the reader may wonder why we need the category of superstructure at all. Given that the base includes social relations and the reproduction of social humans and society itself, presumably including all the exchanges of meanings connected with that. So it’s not surprising that an enlarged and enriched concept of base lands him in totality
Or do I detect a residual functionalism here? Is his concept of the base essentially a functionalist one, with superstructural elements then arrayed in terms of how directly functional they are, so that literature gets put several mediations away and thereby gains some autonomy?Posted by on 09/11 at 02:29 PM
Comment 3 is that there’s a dubious move late on page 7. Having enlarged the category of base and moved to totality, RW then worries about what would happen if we gave up the concept of superstructure altogether. He says that the reason we keep a concept of structure is that we need it to analyze institutions like law. He presents this with a very simple unmasking-type critique: these institutions which present themselves as “natural, or as having universal validity or significance, simply have to be seen as expressing and ratifying the domination of a particular class.”
Note the weakness of the assertion “simply have to be seen.” The idea seems to be that we need to rescue *literature* from philistine concepts like base-superstructure by situating it behind enough insulating concepts like residual/emergent to give it considerable autonomy, but this kind of crude, grubby theorizing is perfectly OK for analyzing, say, law.
And here is where, to take Michael’s metaphor, Foucault may have transferred to a better bus. Because surely, if he did anything, Foucault showed that it is possible to analyze institutions critically *without* having recourse to base-superstructure. Indeed from this vantage point Williams’ notion of “intention” is not a contribution to analysis, it’s simply an a priori assumption.
So superstructure is held up with a slender prop indeed, and I think this plays a large role in the subsequent argument, because it creates one pole in the tension WIlliams is working with—given the assumption of the overall social-ontological validity of base-superstructure, we *then* need to rescue culture. Whereas without that prop culture wouldn’t need rescuing at all.Posted by on 09/11 at 02:49 PM
Sloth: Don’t even try. Read the passage quoted below. Find either an appeal to the free agency of the working class or any kind of ressemblance to the actual history of the last 150 years. Any honest reading of Marx comes to the result that he expected the advanced states to immiserate the population and generate a cohesive class conscious working class of which there is barely a fucking trace to be found. Sure you can find qualifiers and alternate interpretations, but that’s a stupid game. The quote below is a perfect example of Victorian thinking, the steam powered machinery of history chugging along the tracks to the next station. You cannot extrapolate Bill Gates and Ruppert Murdoch and modern welfare state Europe from this period piece.
As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever extending scale, the co-operative form of the labour-process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world-market, and this, the international character of the capitalistic régime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.
Posted by on 09/11 at 04:34 PM
it’s a silly game, i’ll admit, to denounce an entire analysis of capital and a theory of capitalist development, by mocking the present failure of what little speculative content exists in marx’s massive corpus. two things’re sure and consistent throughout: people need to collectively change their lives by smashing the power oppressing them, and capital always posits obstacles overcome only by itself. it seems in your line-by-line hagiography of marx, ck, you missed this last little bit.
as for williams in all this, as a marxist he was keen to find a way that this hegemony--because this ideology is constantly reproduced to adjust to problems only “solved” by the hegemon and is thus never total--unavoidably allows for counterhegemony. in my utterly infantalized take on his marxism & lit and sociology of culture, some means of cultural production, like the novel or the computer, offer moments of opposition guided of course by a theory of capitalist domination and accumulation and its replacement by socialism.
but, i wish to know more, and eagerly await berube’s next installment.Posted by on 09/11 at 07:03 PM
I’m with Slothrop: the predictive elements of Marx have been more accurate than this discussion seems to give him credit for. To take Citizen K’s example, “The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder.” We’ve seen government intervention against monopolies, and government bail-outs of overextended capitalist enterprises, many times; the growth of the government-funded “social safety net” can also be seen as the bursting asunder of the capitalist integument. It is true, however, that these bursting asunders have proven to be no obstacle to capitalism, and other elements of Marx’s predictions have not (yet) come about. Thing about these predictions, though—they could still. I do agree that his “faith in history” is teleological, and is not “scientific.”
Are any social theorists scientific?Posted by john on 09/11 at 08:22 PM
Sloth, I’m denouncing you, not Marx. Marx wrote an incomplete and often incorrect but important set of works. You write “marx was always emphatic about action--it’s up to the workers, the oppressed, to make history”. And that’s bullshit. Marx, despite qualms, was sold on a mechanistic view of the historical process as made explicit in the passage I quoted and in many others. I didn’t quote an obscure sidelight to a minor work, I quoted Capital Volume 1 from a chapter titled “Historical Tendency ...”. It is easy to find many other passages with the same message. The claimed mechanical process did not work out as predicted. Something important was wrong in his analysis. And if we take Marx at his own word, his objective was to change the world, not write academic works. So Reich and others have a valid point which you cannot refute by naming a large number of allegedly smart people who agree with you. If you want to understand history or if you want to figure out how to oppose D’Souzaism, figuring out was wrong with Marx’s analysis seems like a much more fruitful project than trying desperately to pretend that the fault is in the reader.Posted by on 09/11 at 09:30 PM
John: Marx did not predict the role of the state in protecting and extending capitalism. In fact, I think he swallowed much too much of the kool aid produced by the “capitalist” economists he mocked but who shared his completely incorrect belief that capitalism was opposed to and incompatible with a large state presence in the economy. The Roosevelt and Bevan welfare states, even Bismark’s welfare state, are impossibilities in Marx’s analysis.Posted by on 09/11 at 09:38 PM
tsktsk. it is you who reduce, oversimplify, reduce until you at last find, as so many bourgeois apologists before you ck, a marx who has failed to read a future in which even you do not yet exist.Posted by on 09/11 at 10:22 PM
Citizen K --
I said that Marx predicted that the tendency of capital to accumulate into monopolies would lead to a crisis of capital, and that that prediction came true. I *agreed* with you that his prediction regarding the outcome of that crisis has not ("yet") come true, and that his work is not scientific. Where’s the disagreement?
Confession: I had to look up “integument.”
Where I think Marx was a-historical: his belief in the possibility of property-lessness. I don’t know of a historical example of a society where not only all property was held in common, but that the common property was held open to all outsiders. It is an example of hegemony’s sway over me that I can’t imagine such a future.
But I’ll take some of the Engels family’s manufacturing capital to ponder it, if anybody’s offering.Posted by john on 09/11 at 11:04 PM
Argue?Posted by on 09/12 at 12:02 AM
Slothrop, you have already conceded defeat on your original claim: “there is a science of marxism: the analysis of capital which persistently shows its movement through time and space and the consequences of its development of the forces of production.” We have shown that this statement is false, and you have declined to defend it.
And what’s with your weird arguing style? Tsking? Calling Citizen K a “bourgeois apologist”? I mean, I’m sorry we hurt your feelings by criticizing Marx, but he’s been dead for over a century; he can take it. The point is not that Marx was wrong (who from the 1870s was righter?) that that we have a 130 years of history to learn from, to learn lessons that Marx couldn’t even have imagined. Let us begin learning them.Posted by on 09/12 at 12:18 AM
permanent inflation, the constant pressure of excess production and inadequate consumption leading to accumulation of idle capital and the use of war and death as the means of annihilation of capital and productive resources. marx’s analysis of these contradictions and more in the capitalist mode of production are as relevant now as ever in a globalization of these tendencies augered by marx himself.
I’ll admit my inability to defend marx “science” against a positivism which finds whatever it wants at the moment in capitalism’s various reforms to declaim marx’s basic analysis of capital. to be sure, actually existing capitalism has found ways, especially within the limited horizon of national development, to detain the moment of its impossibility. but, capital’s development is as yet global, and the contradictions inherent in this development are only now becoming visible.
but, for some of you “moving beyond marx” no amount of proof will dislodge this afflatus of contrariness.Posted by on 09/12 at 12:01 PM
it doesn’t fit in this thread, but maybe in the future we could pick out something discrete like the problem of a quantity theory of value, or the “transformation” of value difficulty...something,. and I can do what I can to defend marx “science.”Posted by on 09/12 at 12:12 PM
and maybe it is “science” which now is a word encompassing the ways that knowledge is used by power. what I understand of marx’s “science” is the identification of fundamental operation of capital whose conradictions of development are transhistorically operative and obvious.Posted by on 09/12 at 12:45 PM
"permanent inflation, the constant pressure of excess production and inadequate consumption leading to accumulation of idle capital and the use of war and death as the means of annihilation of capital and productive resources. marx’s analysis of these contradictions and more in the capitalist mode of production are as relevant now as ever in a globalization of these tendencies augered by marx himself.”
—Which is why we’re still bothering with his followers like Williams, Thompson, and the rest.Posted by john on 09/12 at 02:01 PM
dentification of fundamental operation of capital whose conradictions of development are transhistorically operative and obvious.
In science, theories that predict what does not happen are called by the technical name: incorrect. If a volcanologist predicts that an ineluctable process will cause a volcano to progressively vent and then erupt, and, in actual fact, the volcano bounces up and down, glaciates, vents and then calms repeatedly, other volcanologists will not write papers about the false consciousness of the volcano, the bad motives of critics who publish photos of the glaciers, and the obvious fact that the volcano could still erupt anytime.Posted by on 09/12 at 03:25 PM
Is it coming too late to the party and pointing out the too too obvious to say that the dichotomous reading of Marx as either a pure determinist or a pure voluntarist (see comment #86 for a clear expression of this dichotomy) is a gross simplification? Have we forgotten Gouldner’s The Two Marxisms so quickly?Posted by on 09/13 at 09:25 AM
I (and I’m guessing citizen k as well) are interested primarily in demolishing a particular interpretation of Marx, the scientific one. Whatever positive things you can say about other Marxisms, scientific Marxism is not a success story.
I am somewhat puzzled, though, at the treatment Marx gets as a thinker. All other things being equal, it’s better to interpret Marx correctly than incorrectly. But it’s hard for me to see why it’s _important_.Posted by on 09/14 at 03:52 AM
It was an interesting read but still...I think it could have been much better in so many ways.
http://www.raleigh-durhamheatingandair.com/Posted by jessica on 11/30 at 02:20 AM