Reading Marxism and Literature Now: Book History and the Politics of Work and World

Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado Boulder)

This essay is a work of gratitude, as I think it is safe to say that reading Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature changed my life. I spent most of my 20s as contingent academic labor. When I had finally had enough, I left my role as family caretaker to pursue a PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies in Pittsburgh, a city built on coal and hot metal. I was painfully aware of my shortcomings: I had an undergraduate degree from a small public college. I had a terminal MA that I’d earned one course at a time. I was older than anyone in my cohort, having spent much of my early adulthood motherless and caring for my grandparent and siblings. I was pregnant with my second child. My working-class spouse opted to stay home with our children rather than devote a full salary to childcare. More than once I wondered what I was doing back in school: I felt guilt over the life I had left and alienation from the one I was heading toward. In my darkest moments, I felt I was a tool of the Ideological State Apparatus, a low middle manager of cultural capital. Before I left home for a PhD, I had been cobbling together a health-insuranceless living, trying to make ends meet by teaching four or five composition classes per semester, at times teaching at a for-profit business school and at others working in a writing center. Now I was on the knowledge-production side of things. How could I reconcile this past and future?

In this essay, I explain how Marxism and Literature inflected my understanding of the work we do in general and my own work at the intersection of Romanticism and book history in particular. One goal of this essay is to show those readers coming to Marxism and Literature for the first time what its stakes were in its time and how it might be applied now, both as a way to think about the Romantic period—which encompasses the emergence of political economy—and as a way to consider our own situation, in and beyond the institutions of higher learning that employ us. Hands and minds who never wrote a word are as essential to the production and reception of literature as all our writers and critics, and those people deserve a space in our theoretical consideration of literary works and their reception. By considering literature from this wider angle—by taking academic research, teaching, bookstores, libraries, papermills, coltan mines, and server farms into account as institutions and infrastructures without which we could not have (or study) literature—I want to show how a "media ecology" that necessarily includes the work of backs and hands long dead as well as those now living is commensurate with Williams’s thinking. I begin by explaining the stakes of Marxism and Literature on its own terms and then move into its usefulness beyond literature per se, into the constellation of interests we once called "book history" and now call variously "print culture studies," "old media studies," "media ecology," and a raft of other terms that indicate an interest in the material processes that make and circulate artifacts that contain information, imaginative content, and/or ideas.

In the 1990s, book history was emerging in English departments as a discrete field of study. It was both topic and technique, which in turn drew on an array of interdisciplinary methods and histories. Its canon included bibliographers, both old and new; students read Fredson Bowers beside D. F. Mackenzie. It also included works from the Annales school, works of historicist literary criticism, structuralist linguistics, and media theory. Once I explain how Williams’s thinking is at the center of my own book-historical research and teaching praxis, I briefly consider the emergence of adjunctification in higher education, a condition of labor that underwrites budgetary shortcomings in many institutions. The essay ends with some reflections on the current state of the field and, perhaps predictably, an encouraging word to those who might consider teaching Marxism and Literature. Ultimately, I want to urge solidarity between workers alive and dead in the interest of decolonizing our classrooms and scholarship and acknowledging that media ecology and the ecology of the planet we inhabit are deeply entangled. Knowledge production often feels solitary. But my work on the history of particular English books could not be done were it not for the work of ragpickers and assembly workers, leather tanners and adjunct professors. Williams does not go this far. But in reading Marxism and Literature today, given the urgencies of climate change and the slow violence enacted on workers across the Global South, I think it is a text worth revisiting with an expanded understanding of the media ecology of literature (Nixon).

Many new readers find Marxism and Literature difficult going. Williams is writing against a dominant form of Marxism that has aligned itself with structuralist thinking, but since he does not name names or explicitly say that his targets are both the New Criticism and especially structuralism (which he considers its legacy) the stakes can be difficult for an uninitiated reader to understand (Interviews 335). Williams would later describe his main target as "the eruption of a mode of idealist literary study claiming the authority of Marxism and the prestige of association with powerful intellectual movements in many other fields" (Interviews 340). Even this explanation is slippery, but it refers to descriptions of base and superstructure, taken up by Louis Althusser and others, as the factors determining social relations. Earlier in his writings, Williams had cast doubt on the very language of determination, which he argued "is of great linguistic and real complexity. The language of determination and even more of determinism was inherited from idealist and especially theological accounts of the world and man" ("Base and Superstructure"). In Marxism and Literature, he targets the reduction of what he understands to be complex processes to objectified structures. This way of thinking helps us understand culture in analog to our environment. Just as water (or PCB) cycles through earth and air, so too do the materials that carry ideas move across material forms and institutions. Of interest to Williams is the labor that moves literature and culture across time and distance—and crucially, he argues that the idea itself is material.

Initiated readers will know that Williams grounds his objection to structure in The German Ideology, written by Marx and Engels in 1846, in which they take up the division of mental from physical labor. The real object of criticism, though, is a particular brand of 20th-century Marxist criticism he dismisses as "a mode of idealist literary study." The relevant passage is as follows: ‘From the start the "spirit" is afflicted with the curse of being "burdened" with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. . . . Consciousness is therefore a social product. (Marx 158)’ Having established that consciousness is a social product and therefore of the material realm, Marx and Engels argue that divisions of labor stem from the misguided division of mental from physical labor, after which‘consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that it really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the foundation of "pure" theory. (159)’ The perceived split between the ideal and the material, Marx and Engels argue, is at the root of German ideology—but for them, "Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness is determined by life" (155). As Brian McGrath’s contribution to this volume shows, English translation poses more problems than German when it comes to the language of determinism, and Williams is acutely aware of problems both with the double meaning of "determined" (as in "I am determined not to be determined") and of the difficulty in getting determinism right.

See Brian McGrath’s essay “Determination in the Passive Voice” in this volume.

For Williams, to split social relations into base and superstructure is to repeat the misguided reasoning refuted in The German Ideology. Williams, in thinking about his profession, explains that in separating civilization from culture, structuralist Marxism had relegated both language and literature to a superstructure that merely "reflects" a base of "real" or "true" social relations (Marxism 19). In an earlier essay, Williams writes that the definition of "base" ‘has narrowed remarkably, and in a cultural context very damagingly, from [Marx’s] more central notion of productive forces, in which, to give just brief reminders, the most important thing a worker ever produces is himself, himself in the fact of that kind of labour, or the broader historical emphasis of men producing themselves, themselves and their history. Now when we talk of the base, and of primary productive forces, it matters very much whether we are referring . . . to primary production within the terms of capitalist economic relationships, or to the primary production of society itself, and of men themselves, material production and reproduction of real life. If we have the broad sense of productive forces, we look at the whole question of the base differently, and we are then less tempted to dismiss as superstructural, and in that sense as merely secondary, certain vital productive social forces, which are in the broad sense, from the beginning, basic. ( “Base and Superstructure” )’ Taken with McGrath’s discussion of determinism, this passage makes clear the stakes of Marxism and Literature. If the base determines social relations, it necessarily includes cultural production, for "language is practical consciousness." Language, of course, includes literature.

While The German Ideology does not use the words "base" or "superstructure," the introduction to the much later A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857) does. Williams shows that Marx seems to contradict himself in his use of the term "superstructure," suggesting it is a concept in the introduction but describing it as a process elsewhere (Marxism 19). Nonetheless, structuralist Marxism took up the base-and-superstructure model in order to look at the capitalist system synchronically—that is to say, to look at it as a structure. In this model, while the base (or means of production) ultimately plays a determining role, it is controlled by a ruling ideology. The "superstructure," then, consists of the state (which has the power to oppress through repressive violence) and a collection of institutions that function as what Althusser calls the "Ideological State Apparatus." Unlike the "Repressive State Apparatus," which consists of the ruling political regime, the ISA is considerably varied and consists of schools, churches, families, sports, media outlets, trade unions, and so on. In creating this distinction, Althusser is able to argue, following The German Ideology, that "ideology has no history." I will return to ideology and history, but before I do, I want to point out that the ethical stakes here for Williams—and for us—are high. Thinking of ourselves as the long arm of the ISA could only mean that we are complicit in capitalist repression. But are we by virtue of the institutions that employ us instruments of their ideology? Is an adjunct making $3,000 per course with no hope of health insurance complicit in repression?

Perhaps yes, although the 2019 story in The Atlantic about the death of Thea Hunter, an African American adjunct, should make us wonder (Harris). Economic and social circumstances are different for all of us, and I am certainly complicit inasmuch as I am on the tenure track now—but even so, blaming ourselves for reinscribing the ideology of capitalism, I have learned, is not a very productive way to think. I am sure I was not the first graduate student to be crushed by the dissonant awareness of my role as a force of the superstructure on the one hand and that a faculty dinner cost over half my monthly wages on the other. Marxism and Literature, however, steers its readers away from an analysis of structure and toward one of process—in other words, away from the synchronic and toward the diachronic, away from ideology and toward history. Its recuperative move, to return to The German Ideology, lies in the assertion that "language is practical consciousness." In the chapter titled “Language,” Marxism and Literature elaborates a theory of language as activity. The sign is not a fixed object, and language is not to be read synchronically. To fix the sign either in its form or content is "a radical denial of active practical consciousness" (39). Williams argues that despite certain surface affinities between Marxism and Saussurian linguistics, which "repeats an important and often general pattern within Marxism itself, over a range from comparative analysis and classification of stages of a society, through the discovery of certain fundamental laws of change within these systematic stages, to the assertion of a controlling social system which is a priori inaccessible to ‘individual’ acts of will and intelligence," the analogy does not hold. He shows Marxism and structuralist linguistics to be opposed on the grounds that structuralism reifies history into "an ‘always given’ language system" (Marxism 28, 37). Williams prefers to see language as inseparable from the social, as "living evidence of a continual social process, into which individuals are born and within which they are shaped, but to which they then actively contribute, in a continuing process" (Marxism 37). Unlike Althusser’s last-instance determinism, then, Williams’s analysis of language-as-process reconciles language (as practical consciousness) to thought and thought to history and to work. This is the book’s most important contribution to literary studies. It means that language, constitutive to humans across time and context, unites us in our labors. As a worker and as a researcher in English literature, this assertion of unification and solidarity with other kinds of workers has helped me find my way.

Writers, tenure-track professors, and graduate students, as well as the Foxconn employees who assemble our computers, are all workers, and we are all part of the process of cultural production. Williams’s overlapping definitions of "labor," "work," and "job" in his 1976 Keywords illuminate his understanding of language and moreover help to show how the historical period that encompasses Romanticism is implicated in the shifts in social relations that necessitate Marxist criticism in the first place.

In this section, I am summarizing from “Labour,” pp. 176–79, and “Work,” pp. 334–37, in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

Labor, like culture, has linguistic roots planted deeply in a field. "To labor" meant "to plough or plant," and a laborer was one who lived by his hands. Labor as a noun meant to work, but also "to suffer," as one struggling under a burden might do. Williams explains that except for the labors of childbirth, the term underwent a transition in the eighteenth century such that by the time Adam Smith was writing The Wealth of Nations (1776) it was an abstract term in the language of political economy. At the same time, the term "work" underwent a shift from its original definition to one that particularly emphasizes paid employment. As labor was abstracted from suffering bodies in order for it to be bought and sold, so work became the activity associated with that abstracted form of toil. Finally, in the context of capitalist social relations, the word "job" described not the temporary and finite tasks associated with "jobbing" but the position we occupy as paid laborers in our work. The Romantic period, then, marks our identification with other paid workers who have a job whereby they sell their labor.

Not only is a transition in social relations marked by these terms, but, crucially, Williams’s description of that transition shows how language itself is a product of historical and social process. These words (like language more broadly) are both a distinct social product and are part of the process by which history is produced. Linguistic signs cannot be separated from the history they create or the history they carry. The implicit criticism of structuralist linguistics, which describes language as an arbitrary and a priori system accessed by individual speakers, is clear. Williams writes of the Keywords project that "language is a continuous social production in its most dynamic sense. In other words, not in the sense which is compatible with structuralism—that a central body of meaning is created and propagated, but in the sense that like any other social production it is the arena of all sorts of shifts and interests and relations of dominance" (Interviews 176). These keywords both mark and make historical contradictions and conflict. It just so happens that a shift in the meaning of work happened in the Romantic period—a period when British cultural practices were being professionalized into actual jobs that people worked.

See, for example, Jon Klancher’s Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age and Kurtis Hessel’s “The Romantic-Era Lecture: Dividing and Reuniting the Arts and Sciences.”

To be sure, Williams was not thinking of media ecology in the way that I propose is so urgently needed. His threefold critique of Marxist cultural theory, structuralist linguistics, and literary theory does not address the nonintellectual labor involved in producing material media. Moreover, he did not invent the critique. In 1977, when Marxism and Literature was published, the "communication circuit" had already migrated from structuralist linguistics to cultural studies. Saussure had visualized communication as a pair of line-drawn heads, labeled A and B, exchanging messages via mouths, ears, and brains (Figure 1).

Figure 1

In 1973, Stuart Hall, whose model of Encoding/Decoding demonstrated that media, discourse, and social practice produce and constitute each other through a "passage of forms," replaced Saussure’s heads with "structures of meaning" without which discourse could not work.

Figure 2

More important for the development of media ecology was Robert Darnton’s 1982 revision of the communications circuit in his essay “What is the History of Books.”

Figure 3

Instead of the concepts of "infrastructure" and "relations of production" that Hall had offered, Darnton’s circuit included people and things: booksellers, pirates, pressmen, trees, and sheep. I argue that imposing Williams’s reading of Marx onto Darnton’s circuit, via Hall, makes the communication circuit diagram into a diagram about work: about their work and ours, about Jane Austen’s work and the pressman’s work, about the lowest paid papermill laborer, the enslaved cotton gin operator, the tree feller—without whom our profession, with its own oversimplified circuit of author/text/reader, would be unsustainable. Put another way, Marxism and Literature holds together the "book-historical" and literary past, the ongoing ideology of our profession, and the corporatized present of our labor market. The book that saved me from the dark suspicion that I was becoming part of the ISA did so because it offers a path to a theory that binds us through language: engravers and printers—and professors and university administrators—are joined by our labors in the work of cultural production. We are all, to use Williams’s term, "basic."

For many of us, research and knowledge production constitute at least part of our paid work. Certainly time in the archive is both mental and physical work. Working on big books, I quickly learned, means hefting them on and off library carts, standing to turn pages, see pictures, or take photos, and sitting to read, type, and take notes. Reading small typeface in low light means eye strain; sitting and writing for hours cripples our backs and wrists. For some, research means entering unairconditioned government buildings, sometimes under unsafe conditions, looking at papers that are crumbling to pulp or dust. For some, it means "reading" a landscape rife with the remnants of war and colonial violence.

See, for example, Shalini Puri’s work, most notably The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory.

Getting credentials, negotiating our institutions, traveling, reading, and assembling arguments—these things are also part of my paid job. Dwindling research money means a trip to the archive is not to be wasted: many of us sit from open to close, peering into foam-cradled codices or through transparent plastic at centuries-old ink. The reading room requires the stamina of a scrivener. And like illuminating manuscripts or setting type or binding codices, it also requires professional training unavailable to the average reader. It seems reasonable to think that a print history that is attentive to the labor of making books, paper, and ink might also be attentive to the work of reading and preserving them. A politics of the archive should include the makers (however willing or unwilling), the encoders and the decoders alike. These makers of media may not have "worked" a "job," but they certainly labored—like we all do—with hands and minds and backs.

In the field of literature, we have our own version of Saussure’s communication-circuit heads. In the classroom, I draw stick figures to demonstrate the poststructuralist idea that authorship isn’t any more real than any other shared belief. In my chalkboard cartoon, it’s 2020, and I am reading Northanger Abbey. I am riveted as Catherine Moreland discovers a secreted laundry list. On the other end of the chalkboard, it’s 1799 and Jane Austen is writing. Between us, in an idea bubble, is the scene from the novel. In the most basic model of the literary communication circuit, we share the experience of events unfolding in text, a text an author wrote some time in the past and a reader now reads. In the cartoon (and in the ideology we live by) we share Catherine’s world as text, no matter which physical iteration we hold in our hands, read with our eyes or fingers, or hear with our ears. The physical thing is merely a conduit—or a window for Roland Barthes—that allows us access to that shared, nonphysical thing that is the text.

See, for example, Barthes, S/Z, and Richard Lanham, pp. 4–18.

But this shared belief requires us to agree to ignore the labor that brought us the thing we hold, often a Penguin Classics or a Norton Critical or a Broadview edition—or nowadays as often as not a laptop screen with the free version on Google books, a Kindle, or even a phone. And it’s not just the editors or the publishers we ignore in this author-text-reader formula. Or even the manufacturers who made the paper and printed the book. Modern editions are edited and laid out on a computer. What about the workers who made that computer or designed the software? If we read on a tablet, the ideology of authorship allows us to think past the labor of the factory workers who built the device, for pitiful wages, often at terrible physical and mental cost. As Romanticists we are conditioned to think of the contingencies of Northanger Abbey's vexed publication history. As a book historian, I also think about the arms and backs that pressed early editions, and the makers of the paper it was printed on, the mixers of ink. The ideology represented in my stick figures—the ideology of authorship that my profession is founded on—obfuscates this labor in favor of a model of textual transmission, where Northanger Abbey travels from mind to mind to mind without regard for how it got in there.

In this volume, Mary Favret reads Williams reading Austen. In her reckoning, Austen is for Williams a stable entity against which to produce and describe social change. In revealing this important blind spot in Williams’s writing, Favret helps me to articulate other shortcomings, including the valorization of a canon we might like to see modified, or even abandoned. In proposing we read Marxism and Literature now, I do not mean to say that Williams has everything right. As John Guillory points out, Williams is suspicious of the very process he addresses in the “From Reflection to Mediation” chapter of Marxism and Literature. For Williams, mediation is always in danger of collapsing into reified media. In “Genesis of the Media Concept,” Guillory usefully distinguishes between the "media concept" (itself a product of contradiction) and the genesis of the "concept of mediation, which names a process rather than an object" (342). As Guillory explains it, media, a material form, is historically rooted in a seventeenth-century philosophical contradiction, which is borne out philologically: material words are a medium for immaterial thought in one formulation; in the other, technological media are a medium for speech (358). Mediation, however, has a different and altogether more recent genesis. The process we call mediation, Guillory argues, was initially connected to communication theory by Charles Sanders Peirce, whose semiotic theory provided a "new framework . . . which encloses all forms of media" under the rubric of communication—or, in an even more ideologically charged formulation, the rubric of information (347). Over the next century, social and cultural relations of all kinds were subsumed under a new totalizing regime. At the same time, "mediation," now freighted with semiotics-as-information on the one hand and increasing "media saturation" on the other, came only to mean "the process of transferring information."

I briefly summarize here what Guillory carefully lays out on pp. 348–53. The term "media saturation" is defined in the introduction to the Multigraph Collective’s Interacting with Print.

Guillory explains Williams’s suspicion by demonstrating its relatedness to representation, which like "reflection" is subject to the very ideology critique Marxism and Literature works to undo (Guillory 356, 356n58).

Note that Guillory draws our attention especially to p. 99 of Marxism and Literature, but he also quotes "Means of Communication as Means of Production" in Williams’s Problems in Material Culture, which was published in 1982, implying that Williams’s position on mediation may have become more entrenched over time.

Williams, of course, was not a book historian, so his concerns in Marxism and Literature have more to do with the work of writing than the work of making the constituent materials of textual transmission.

Williams does at times address media. Notably, the institutions of printing are crucial to his analysis in The Long Revolution (1961).

Its third chapter defines literature. Against formalist definitions of literature that reduce literature to ideology, Williams offers us history. He shows how literature’s definition shifted from one that emphasized general print literacy to, in the eighteenth century, a canon of imaginative works that a discerning judge could recognize. As such, this emergent form of literature required a critical apparatus capable of declaring its value. Criticism filled this need. In the last section of the book, devoted to literary criticism, Williams writes against the cordoning off of specific "aesthetic" forms of writing, and he joins its reception with its making, both of which "are connecting material processes within a social system of the use and transformation of material (including language) by material means" (Marxism 152). While the move is to level literature, the author nonetheless occupies the privileged position.

Unlike Williams, I feel more optimistic regarding the potential that might be enacted in the concept of mediation. Rather than worry about the dangers of vulgar reflection theory on the one hand or technological determinism on the other, I think in wedding media theory to our new attention to ecological processes, media ecology could level literary studies further, and in the process to decenter the author, itself an invention solidified in Romantic period, by "Romantic" poets.

See especially Michael Gamer, Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry.

In using Williams to reconcile the labor of writing and the materiality of language to the work of making media itself—that is, the production of paper, ink, printed materials, bindings, and so on—we allow ourselves the opportunity to study a new canon of cultural makers, including enslaved Africans, workhouse children, indigenous growers, and others whose labor has been sold into the making of media. Returning to Darnton, it is important to note that the workers in a circuit that mediates thought into books may be joined in their labors, but they are hardly made equal by this joining. Our highly specialized and professionalized work looks nothing like labors of the men and women who assemble our computers. Rather than a circuit, Darnton’s diagram could be replaced with a web—or an enmeshed, messy conglomeration of constantly changing relationships that is and has been, since before the eighteenth century, subject to the ebbs and flows of global capital. While it doesn’t make for neat diagramming, it does help us feel the community of which we are part.

Williams constantly replaces static structures with the dynamic complexity and multiplicity of actions and relationships. He is, however, a product of a particular history. In bringing our histories to his writings, we can build an inclusive media ecology. The sheer perniciousness of the ideology of authorship makes efforts at both expansion of the circuitry and efforts at decolonization equally difficult. On the one hand, declaring the author dead these days is an ironic gesture, a way of gesturing toward the absurdity of the ivory tower, a way of saying students of literature and critical theory are out of touch with everyone else’s reality. On the other, we suffer from a dearth of "authorized voices" issuing from people of color in the Romantic period, as Rebecca Schneider has shown. Of course the author is alive and well; an astonishing collection of new-to-the-canon authors populate our course offerings and anthologies, and without a doubt their writings enrich our understanding of the complexity and diversity—and the sufferings—of history. We all write and publish, furthermore, and thus we ourselves are authors, even if we write about collectors or librarians or publishers or pressmen or ragpickers or plantations or suicide nets, all of which had a place in making words from a pen in 1799 readable on a screen in 2019.

I refer to the Foxcon suicide scandal, which broke in 2010 but continues to crop up in the news. See, for example, Merchant’s “Life and Death in Apple’s Forbidden City.”

With or without the author, recent efforts by the Bigger Six Collective and the new Race and Empire Caucus at NASSR speak to the urgency of decolonizing efforts. Despite declarations that cultural studies or working-class studies are finished, done in by the wave of identitarian recovery projects that came along with postmodern fragmentation, I want to suggest that in looking past the author into a wider media ecology that is both based in and moves beyond Williams’s cultural theory, we might find alternate routes to decolonizing literature.

In the past, efforts at extirpating the author have come from above. In the poststructuralist moment, French theory tried to kill the author. The Romantic period offers another example of its attempted murder. Writings by our colleagues on British bibliomaniacs like Thomas Frognall Dibdin suggest that in our period, against Wordsworth’s assertion regarding the professional poet with all his specialized capacities, another path was possible. If the bibliomaniacs had had their way, perhaps our literature classes would be organized around collectors and collections rather than authors. Romantic-era bibliomaniacs were perverse, as Deidre Lynch argues, precisely because their habits ran counter to the sensibilities of a national reading culture; they could and did wield aristocratic power and wealth over the defenseless library in way that charmed even as it repulsed. But the formation of authorship in the eighteenth century—a powerful cultural construction built from raw materials like celebrity culture, editorial intervention, legal changes in copyright, and stabilizing print conventions—was able to resist the deadly charms of these hypermasculine collectors. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Authorship is like Mark Twain that way. Rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated.

Rather to declare the author dead, then, we might resurrect the other workers who make figures like Jane Austen and Raymond Williams possible. As important as it is to recover and circulate the writings of people marginalized by history, Williams’s focus on mediation and labor also allows us to think past the author "function" to its making, which is the explicit job of editors, compositors, printers, and so on. Darnton’s circuit proves that from the outset, book history valued the artisanal labor of men in printshops, papermills, and binderies. Studies of book history and print culture nearly always privilege artisanal or professionalized labor over the unskilled workers whose efforts are every bit as important to the final material products we read and examine. Instead of looking at the singular and exceptional author, or the professionalized (mostly) white men who set type or operated printing presses, I propose we acknowledge the unskilled labor just as necessary to the literature we read—the work of little boys and girls in Manchester, unpaid "apprentices" whose hands worked machines that made the cotton cloth that eventually became rags in the papermill; the enslaved fieldhands whose liberty and labor were stolen to pick the same cotton; the women sorting and cutting soiled rags. Williams acknowledges that the language of labor and work shift during the Romantic period. Perhaps it is time for another change that acknowledges a shift away from the long Romanticism that has ushered in climate crisis.

In the chapter “From Medium to Social Practice” , Williams again objects to the term "medium" as it has been applied to language. The objectification of language into a series of things we access and arrange can lead, Williams argues, to a different kind of hard determinism. Base and superstructure, McLuhan’s sense that the medium is the message—that medium determines what is within the possible for communication—is also objectionable because it gives our human agency over to a system or thing. As I’ve written elsewhere, I credit the Multigraph Collective with helping me to think about the constituent materials of print culture and for teaching me to use the term "media ecology" as a frame to consider medium and material as interactive and dynamic constituents of print culture. Add to this Williams’s theory of language and cultural production and an expanded version of Darnton’s communications circuit that includes an accretion of unrecognized agricultural and unskilled urban labor. In this context, media ecology frees media from reification, encouraging us to think about its circulation and interactivity rather than its thingness. Like Williams, we must see media (with all the fundamental contradictions Guillory shows us it contains) and mediation through material processes inseparable from history and use. Media ecology invites us to acknowledge the backs as well as the minds that make our work possible. It helps to focus on the arrows and processes in Darnton’s diagram, on the currents that make the circuit jump.

In all of this, I am not the hard humanist that Williams was, and my own theoretical goal is to work from an ecological theory that acknowledges that objects and animals and other unconscious or nonlinguistic beings shape human social relations. The expanded definition of "medium" I propose might look something like Williams’s definition of "culture." In his exploration of medium in Marxism and Literature, Williams does not mention the red gel onto which cells are smeared in order to develop a "culture." These cultures cannot survive without the medium that sustains them. While the sciences and humanities live far apart in our institutions, I don’t think the idea that culture cannot exist without media is unimaginably far from what Williams thought. So rather than read Romanticism as an event in the history of mediation, as Siskin and Warner might, I think our challenge is to produce a fuller account of Romantic media ecology as a dynamic system of use and reuse, something close to what Tim Ingold has termed an "ecology of materials," but one that holds what Williams insists upon as the "cultural practice" of making and remaking—not the thing itself and not the reified event—in constant focus.

The institutions where most of this theorizing has taken place have their own complex and problematic histories. I began this essay by recounting my own alienated position in graduate school. Marxism and Literature offered a way to understand myself in solidarity with workers doing kinds of labor with which I was more familiar. We all know, however, that we do not have to look to theory to find evidence of labor exploitation in our workplaces. English departments have a dubious history of shunting off "service" courses as piecework to low-paid, untenured—and in many cases, untenurable—instructors (Bousquet). In the United States, doctoral students are paid around $15,000 per year (AAUP 28). The average lecturer salary is $56,712 (AAUP 1). Salaries for those of us in the humanities often fall below that average. Between 1975 and 2013, contingent, part-time teaching jobs grew by 300% (AAUP 28). According to a recent survey by TIAA, adjuncts continue to make around $3,000 per course, but they are older and more content to stay in their positions than in the past (Yakoboski 8). Given that TIAA’s sample was only 502 individuals when adjuncts make up over half the ranks of teaching faculty, we have grounds to question their findings. In September of 2013, Mary Vojtke, an adjunct at Duquesne University for 25 years, died in penury after she had been dismissed because, at 83, she was "no longer an effective instructor" (Kovalik). I know from my own experience that universities don’t like to offer adjuncts more than two classes per semester, because three classes makes the worker full time and therefore the institution is required to offer health and retirement benefits. Vojtke, who suffered from cancer, was teaching only one class per semester when she was dismissed (Kovalik). Her story sparked a nationwide discussion about unethical contingent labor practices in institutions of higher education. Dr. Thea K. Hunter, adjunct and historian of transatlantic law in our period, nevertheless died without health insurance of complications from asthma in December of 2018.

Thinking with Williams and with Marx, those of us who are on the tenure track should feel solidarity with these workers, who join us in the practices of cultural production. But what of our university administrators? Are they not the bosses, complicit with the corporatized institution that values little past its own prestige and the salaries that come with it? Naturally an ecology that binds us to the labors of the writers of our software and the millers of our paper must also bind us to the labors of the administration of our cultural institutions, however corporate they may be? The answer is yes. Williams addresses this problem through discussions of "intention," which he considers the determining factor of social action ( “Base and Superstructure” ). In Marxism and Literature, the discussion of hegemony in the chapter by that name begins to address this problem. While culture may be a whole way of living, a complex and intertwined structure irreducible to base and superstructure, the imposition of dominant structures and practices should be understood through modes of "incorporation." In an earlier essay he writes: ‘We can only understand an effective and dominant culture if we understand the real social process on which it depends: I mean the process of incorporation. The modes of incorporation are of great social significance, and incidentally in our kind of society have considerable economic significance. The educational institutions are usually the main agencies of the transmission of an effective dominant culture, and this is now a major economic as well as cultural activity; indeed it is both in the same moment. Moreover, at a philosophical level, at the true level of theory and at the level of the history of various practices, there is a process which I call the selective tradition: that which, within the terms of an effective dominant culture, is always passed off as "the tradition," "the significant past." ( “Base and Superstructure” )’ Cultural work, then, the replication of "the" tradition, is certainly labor, performed by workers who maintain the university’s ties to society as a whole. Williams argues in the same passage: ‘Even more crucially, some of these meanings and practices are reinterpreted, diluted, or put into forms which support or at least do not contradict other elements within the effective dominant culture. The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organisation 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. ( “Base and Superstructure” )’ This passage, though long, very much helps us to see how Williams understands the stakes of the "Hegemony" chapter in Marxism and Literature. Hegemony is "our lived systems of meanings of values": we are the instruments of the selective tradition, as is Williams himself, so long as we continue to construct and support a canon based on authors (110). Our administrators ensure the agencies of the institution continue apace, with all its ongoing struggles between varying political factions. The communication circuit we insist on propagating in the name of tradition means that the author is always the sovereign god of a textual world we can only interpret.

Intersectional book history, as Emily Friedman has named it, is a sin against the author, but it is certainly not a sin against the word.

Freidman convened a panel at ASECS 2018 in Orlando, Florida, titled “Intersectional Book History.”

Williams shows us a path whereby the two can be separated. If language is practical consciousness, we are joined in our labors—and in our work—to everyone who makes our words visible across time and distance. For a long time, the work making words into text has been a global enterprise. For anyone considering teaching Marxism and Literature, I urge you to help your students think through the importance of this work of resistance in its moment and in our own. My teachers seemed to grasp this instinctively, but I required selected readings from Marx, Gramsci, and Althusser to understand the importance of Williams’s claims.

I am grateful to Marian Aguiar, who wrote the syllabus and assigned the readings that helped me contextualize Marxism and Literature.

While cultural studies per se may feel passé, decolonization and considerations regarding climate change are felt not only by ourselves and our students, but by our administrators, who are finally recognizing that a lack of diversity in enrollments is as much a detriment to their cultural capital as climate change is to their economic capital.

As evidence, see how universities use the US News and World Report Diversity Index.

I recognize that Williams—or Marx for that matter—is not the answer to all of our problems. But for me, Williams presented a way forward, and for that I am grateful.

Works Cited

American Association of University Professors. The Annual Report on the Financial Status of the Profession 2017–18. Academe, March–April 2018,
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster, Monthly Review Press, 1971. Online transcription by Andy Blunden,
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1977.
Bousquet, Marc. “Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers.” Minnesota Review, vol. 58–60, 2002–2003, pp. 231–39.
Gamer, Michael. Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry. Cambridge UP, 2017.
Guillory, John. “Genesis of the Media Concept.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 2, 2010, pp. 321–62.
Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During, Routledge, 2007, pp. 90–102.
Harris, Adam. “The Death of an Adjunct.” The Atlantic Monthly, 8 April 2019,
Hessel, Kurtis. "The Romantic-Era Lecture: Dividing and Reuniting the Arts and Sciences." Configurations, vol. 24, no. 4, 2016, pp. 501–32.
Ingold, Tim. “Towards an Ecology of Materials.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 41, 2012, pp. 427–42.
Klancher, Jon. Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age. Cambridge UP, 2013.
Kovalik, Daniel. “Death of an Adjunct.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 18 September 2013,
Lanham, Richard. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. U of Chicago P, 1993.
Lynch, Diedre. “‘Wedded to Books’: Bibliomania and the Romantic Essayists.” Romantic Libraries, edited by Ina Farris, Praxis Volume, Romantic Circles, February 2004,
Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert Tucker, Norton, 1972.
Multigraph Collective. Interacting with Print: Reading and Beyond in the Era of Print Saturation. U of Chicago P, 2018.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard UP, 2011.
Puri, Shalini. The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Saussure, Ferdinand. A Course in General Linguistics. McGraw Hill, 1966.
Schneider, Rebecca. "He Says He Is Free": Asserting Black Personhood in the British West Indies, 1738–1838. 2019. University of Colorado Boulder, PhD dissertation.
Siskin, Clifford, and William Warner. This Is Enlightenment. U of Chicago P, 2010.
Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” New Left Review, no. I/82, 1973,
———. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976). Revised edition, Oxford UP, 1985.
———. The Long Revolution. 1961. Broadview Press, 2001.
———. Marxism and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977.
———. Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. Verso, 1981.
Yakoboski, Paul. “Adjunct Faculty: Who Are They and What is Their Experience.” TIAA Institute, November 2018,


1. See Brian McGrath’s essay “Determination in the Passive Voice” in this volume. [back]
2. In this section, I am summarizing from “Labour,” pp. 176–79, and “Work,” pp. 334–37, in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. [back]
3. See, for example, Jon Klancher’s Transfiguring the Arts and Sciences: Knowledge and Cultural Institutions in the Romantic Age and Kurtis Hessel’s “The Romantic-Era Lecture: Dividing and Reuniting the Arts and Sciences.” [back]
4. See, for example, Shalini Puri’s work, most notably The Grenada Revolution in the Caribbean Present: Operation Urgent Memory. [back]
5. See, for example, Barthes, S/Z, and Richard Lanham, pp. 4–18. [back]
6. I briefly summarize here what Guillory carefully lays out on pp. 348–53. The term "media saturation" is defined in the introduction to the Multigraph Collective’s Interacting with Print. [back]
7. Note that Guillory draws our attention especially to p. 99 of Marxism and Literature, but he also quotes "Means of Communication as Means of Production" in Williams’s Problems in Material Culture, which was published in 1982, implying that Williams’s position on mediation may have become more entrenched over time. [back]
8. Williams does at times address media. Notably, the institutions of printing are crucial to his analysis in The Long Revolution (1961). [back]
9. See especially Michael Gamer, Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry. [back]
10. I refer to the Foxcon suicide scandal, which broke in 2010 but continues to crop up in the news. See, for example, Merchant’s “Life and Death in Apple’s Forbidden City.” [back]
11. Freidman convened a panel at ASECS 2018 in Orlando, Florida, titled “Intersectional Book History.” [back]
12. I am grateful to Marian Aguiar, who wrote the syllabus and assigned the readings that helped me contextualize Marxism and Literature. [back]
13. As evidence, see how universities use the US News and World Report Diversity Index. [back]