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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Raymond Williams interlude

I’m spending the day prepping my graduate seminar (W 3:30-6:30), titled “What Was Cultural Studies?” --and I don’t have time for further commentary on Iowa or the upcoming State of the Union, but two things suddenly occurred to me while I was rereading the opening chapters of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society.  One: there seem to be very few commentators on academe who have any idea that the field of “cultural studies” begins with analyses of the meanings of the term “culture” over the past two centuries.  It’s not just books about Madonna, people.  It’s an inquiry into the functions of the idea of culture in modernity, where “modernity” means, roughly, “the development of plural and secular forms of political organization together with the rise of industrial capitalism and its successors.” For Williams, the changes in the “structure of meanings” of words such as industry, democracy, class, art, and culture “bear witness to a general change in our characteristic ways of thinking about our common life: about our social, political, and economic institutions; about the purposes which these institutions are designed to embody; and about the relations to these institutions and purposes of our activities in learning, education and the arts.”

Two: every once in a while someone complains that literature professors like me are attending to contemporary politics instead of spending all our time studying literature.  I have no idea where these people get their bizarre notion that professors of literature have, by their choice of profession, signed over their other rights as citizens.  But perhaps it’s worth suggesting to a couple of these addled souls that their blinkered idea of “literature” owes much to one of the central paradoxes of Romanticism.  In Williams’ deservedly famous words:

“Than the poets from Blake and Wordsworth to Shelley and Keats there have been few generations of creative writers more deeply interested and more involved in study and criticism of the society of their day.  Yet a fact so evident, and so easily capable of confirmation, accords uneasily in our own time with that popular and general conception of the ‘romantic artist’ which, paradoxically, has been primarily derived from study of these same poets.  In this conception, the Poet, the Artist, is by nature indifferent to the crude worldliness and materialism of politics and social affairs; he is devoted, rather, to the more substantial spheres of natural beauty and personal feeling.  The elements of this paradox can be seen in the work of the Romantic poets themselves, but the supposed opposition between attention to natural beauty and attention to government, or between personal feeling and the nature of man in society, is on the whole a later development.  What were seen at the end of the nineteenth century as disparate interests, between which a man must choose and in the act of choice declare himself poet or sociologist, were, normally, at the beginning of the century, seen as interlocking interests: a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society, and an observation of natural beauty carried a necessary moral reference to the whole and unified life of man.  The subsequent dissociation of interests certainly prevents us from seeing the full significance of this remarkable period, but we must add also that the dissociation is itself in part a product of the nature of the Romantic attempt.  Meanwhile, as some sort of security against the vestiges of the dissociation, we may usefully remind ourselves that Wordsworth wrote political pamphlets, that Blake was a friend of Tom Paine and was tried for sedition, that Coleridge wrote political journalism and social philosophy, that Shelley, in addition to this, distributed pamphlets in the streets, that Southey was a constant political commentator, that Byron spoke on the frame-riots and died as a volunteer in a political war; and, further, as must surely be obvious from the poetry of all the men named, that these activities were neither marginal nor incidental, but were essentially related to a large part of the experience from which the poetry itself was made.”

Closing polemical lit-crit point.  Read next to Williams, Harold Bloom’s early work on the Romantics looks like the learned but whimsical work of a garrulous poetaster.  (This would be before Bloom decided that he was the contemporary incarnation of Falstaff-- even though he has no sense of humor whatsoever.)

Posted by Michael on 01/20 at 07:53 AM
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