New Maps: Raymond Williams's Radical Humanism

This paper argues that if the tension between Raymond Williams’s inscription within many of the very cultural influences that his work was aimed at "clearing" and the critical scrutiny that he brought to bear on the historical sources of these limitations offered a compelling counterpoint to the strengths and the problems inherent in Romantic authors’ own stress on the primacy of lived experience in face of the hostile pressures of their day, his understanding of these authors as both a pioneering force in the development of new ideas about the role of culture and as cautionary examples of the dangerous tug of abstraction may well be more material than ever.

New Maps: Raymond Williams’s Radical Humanism

1.        I want to use this paper to explore what has always been a central paradox for me about Raymond Williams’s work, and to consider how knowing more about the sources and implications of the historical tensions at the heart of this paradox can help to illuminate the intersection between our work as Romantic critics and broader debates about the humanities today. On the one hand, Williams’s writing has been one of the most fundamental influences on my own interest in the changing cultural landscape of the Romantic period, and particularly, in the highly mediated and politically charged struggles over the definition of literature that shaped this period in such memorable and influential ways. On the other hand, I have never found his analyses of particular Romantic authors helpful in ways that resonated with my work despite these larger theoretical convergences. I can think of several reasons for this. Williams’s often-noted preference for fiction and drama directed his attention more to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the worlds of Dickens and Hardy, Ibsen and Brecht), and his inclination to formalist approaches diminished his interest in writing about the intersections between debates about literature and the nitty-gritty world of political struggles that writers such as E. P. Thompson focused on. It may also have had a lot to do with generational differences, though ironically, this is primarily because so much of Williams’s pioneering work has passed into mainstream thought as today’s received wisdom. His analyses, which were usually limited to a few of the canonical poets (mainly Wordsworth and Blake), are often rooted in largely unqualified references to a "Romantic" mindset with the attendant set of implicit assumptions that so much of the best work of the past few decades has been pushing back against. It isn’t that these sorts of analyses are wrong, but as Williams had himself repeatedly argued about the dangers of abstractions generally, they are reductive in ways that distort the historical complexities of the era.

2.        So how to square these two sides of Williams’s work? Ironically, Williams’s own evolving understanding of the legacy of the cultural dynamics of this period may provide the best answer. As he argued most explicitly in later works such as Marxism and Literature, the Romantic period’s greatest impact may be the enduring influence of the shift towards an ideology of the aesthetic marked by a "false attachment" to literature and art as an autonomous realm, with the related set of assumptions about genius, the imagination, and creativity, that supported this new way of thinking about aesthetic value (43). The impact of this paradigm shift as a form of "abstraction" that alienated literature and art from the stubborn complexities of lived experience (as controversial as his insistence on that phrase has been) would mark his own thinking in fundamental ways, but as he famously pointed out, this period also witnessed the emergence that broader realm hailed as "culture" whose intellectual possibilities would ultimately reinforce his self-reflexive commitment to charting the history of these dynamics (Marxism 47).

3.        Williams’s awareness of both the theoretical limitations and the political cost of aesthetic forms of abstraction (as well as his sympathetic understanding of the historical pressures that produced them) and of the enabling critical potential of modern ideas of culture as a realm of theoretical engagement helps to explain the paradox that I noted at the outset: in many ways, Williams’s work was driven by his awareness of the vital importance of unlearning the inherited assumptions that had helped to shape his own canonical understanding of literary history. It was, as he put it in the extensive interviews published as Politics and Letters, "a clearing operation" aimed at jettisoning inherited but indefensible assumptions in the hope that "once the ground has been cleared of the received idea of literature, it will be possible to find certain new concepts that would allow for special emphases" (335, 325). Both of these impulses (the commitment to unlearning outmoded assumptions and the need to do so) can, as his own work has demonstrated, be traced back to these contrapuntal developments which emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

4.        The impact of this intervention was reinforced by the unflinchingly dialectical nature of Williams’s work: it was animated by his abiding interest in knowing more about how these historical dynamics could help him to respond to the political and cultural pressures of his own day, and just as valuably, how a more clearly self-reflexive awareness of his own critical position had shaped his understanding of this history in the first place. If, as he insisted in the conclusion to Culture and Society, "the history of the idea of culture is a record of our reactions, in thought and feeling, to the changed conditions of our modern life," it was equally true that "these, in turn, are only understood within the context of our actions" (295).

5.        This process of unlearning or "clearing" was at the heart of the genealogical impulse that defined early projects such as Culture and Society, which foregrounded a history of thinking about the phenomenon of culture that had long remained virtually invisible precisely because it was so fundamental, but it also reflects the evolution of his approach as he moved from what Williams himself described as the "first-stage radicalism" of his earlier work towards the more rigorously skeptical perspective that would define his interest in the idea of literature as an historically arbitrary category in Marxism and Literature (Politics and Letters 110). The blind spots that are clearest in the uncritically canonical spirit of Williams’s response to Romantic literature (as feminist critics have long pointed out, one would never guess that there were any women writers in the period, apart from Jane Austen) are themselves the best evidence of the extraordinary importance of this endeavor to come to terms with the shaping influence of the long history of these disciplinary formations and the aesthetic values that supported them.

6.        The real value of understanding these developments in Williams’s work—both the deformations that his work was aimed at "clearing" and the traces of his inscription within these influences—may be the ways that they can in turn help us to think about the challenges that we face in our own struggle to articulate the public value of the humanities today and, like Williams, to bring this public role to bear on the broader political struggles of our day. Williams’s 1984 London Review of Books essay on Georg Lukacs, published just four years before his death, was on one level an eloquent if implicit reflection on many of these aspects of Williams’s own career. Having praised Lukacs as "one of the more interesting and tolerable Marxist critics of literature," Williams attributed his relative obscurity amongst British readers to three principal causes: "the breadth of his learning and his relative freedom from dogmatism"; his alignment with "an old and fruitless kind of Marxism" that was reminiscent of Marxist theory’s "Stalinist phase"; and perhaps worst of all, his alignment with "the ‘humanist fallacy’ in Western Marxism, in his reliance on notions of ‘man as subject’ and more directly in his kind of socialism, which is more properly a ‘romantic anti-capitalism’" ("A Man" 14). As a leading proponent of the New Left, Williams was never in much danger of being branded a Stalinist, but arguably, the other two factors might well help to explain Williams’s own shifting stature within theoretical debates. During the heyday of the theory wars when the most damning charge in graduate school was to be guilty of residual humanism, exposed as being still in thrall to all of those ideological forces that one thought one was resisting but apparently was not, Williams’s cultural materialism was overshadowed by the theoretical interventions of French poststructuralists whose work offered an uncompromising critique of humanist thought. [1]

7.        Arguably, this may have had as much to do with image as content. Being Welsh lacked the allure of avant-garde radicalism at a time when being Parisian was an unspoken but crucial ingredient in the cultural capital that was a major part of the attractions of theory on many North American campuses. Being the son of a railway worker from a village called Pandy, a few miles from the market town of Abergavenny, was no match for the frisson of Left Bank intellectualism. But as literary critics have become increasingly wary of what Rita Felski has called "the hermeneutics of suspicion" and dubious of the political upside of the zero-sum version of power implicit in Louis Althusser’s and Michel Foucault’s arguments, which seemed to have thrown any possibility of agency out with the humanist bathwater, Williams’s work has garnered renewed interest. [2]

8.        Timothy Brennan, a leading voice within recent debates about globalization, has argued over the course of several essays and books that Williams offers a crucial underacknowledged voice within theoretical debates. Like Williams’s own discussion of Lukacs, Brennan suggests that this may be partly because the extraordinary breadth of Williams’s intellectual scope makes a proper level of engagement with his work especially challenging. As Brennan argues, the "deceptively straightforward" style of Williams’s writing "at the level of the sentence" is belied by the unique level of the challenges posed, both by "the volumes of prior reading required to appreciate his range of reference," and perhaps even more dauntingly, by the "symphonic" nature of Williams’s work, which channels various currents of thought into a particular argument in ways that make it "extraordinarily difficult to analyze the intricate architecture of its individual components" ("Running" 287). [3] As Brennan points out, precisely because of this paradoxical blend of insights and challenges, the influence of Williams’s work is most often felt in indirect or derivative forms. In the opening page of Wars of Position, Brennan excoriates an academic (whom he politely leaves unnamed) who, having been asked about her use of the phrase "structures of feeling," explained that she got it from a book on Hollywood cinema without any apparent recognition of the fact that it had been introduced and popularized by Williams (1). For Brennan, this personal oversight matters because "higher stakes" are involved than a simple failure of attribution (1).

9.        The nature of these "higher stakes" becomes clearer in Brennan’s discussion of Edward Said’s larger attack on the "abdication of responsibility" that characterized poststructuralist theoretical debates (Wars 99). Said’s brand of discourse analysis in Orientalism has often invited assumptions about his debt to Foucault, but as Brennan points out, Said’s sustained critique of the appeal of Foucault’s "flawed attitude to power," which "captivated not only Foucault himself but many of his readers" as a way of "justify[ing] political quietism with sophisticated intellectualism," stands out especially strongly when set against "the excitement Said has" when he discusses Williams’s work (qtd. in Brennan, Wars 112, 111). This double sense of intellectual debt (theoretical and political) converged in Said’s own call to "reconsider, reexamine, and reformulate the relevance of humanism" as "a useable praxis for intellectuals and academics who want to know what they are doing, what they are committed to as scholars, and who want also to connect these principles to the world in which they live as citizens," particularly in a "turbulent world . . . brimming over with belligerency, actual wars, and all kinds of terrorism" (Said 6, 2).

10.        Said’s increasingly explicit call for a renewed form of radical humanism underscores the larger importance of Williams’s earlier commitment to mapping out a history of the idea of culture as it emerged "in the last decades of the eighteenth century, and in the first half of the nineteenth century" as part of a broader shift in the meaning of a constellation of words such as "industry, democracy, class, and art" that was driven by more fundamental changes "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" (Williams, Culture xiii). Williams felt compelled to chart the impact of these earlier shifts in large part because of the parallels he saw between the struggles of early nineteenth-century thinkers for whom the idea of culture offered a powerful basis for resistance and "the post-1945 crisis of belief and affiliation" that Williams himself was confronted by as Culture and Society was taking shape. Understanding the challenges inherent in this earlier epoch that we now think of as the Romantic period was, for Williams, an important "way of finding a position from which I could hope to understand and act in contemporary society, necessarily through its history, which had delivered this strange, unsettling, and exciting, world to us" (Culture xii).

11.        Returning to this work decades later as he prepared a new introduction to Culture and Society for the Morningside edition in 1982, that sense of a "now major crisis" had only intensified in the face of Thatcherite conservatism (ix). The need for developing a "detailed and complex thinking about culture which has been active and vibrant at every stage" had lost none of its urgency, in large part because the historical turn in Culture and Society anticipated the double imperative inherent in Said’s call for a form of radical humanism as a basis for political engagement that was at the same time driven by self-critique about the limitations of the tradition out of which it emerged (viii). As Williams’s work demonstrated, the modern idea of culture that had developed in the Romantic period was similarly ambivalent: it provided thinkers with an intellectual basis for resisting the contradictions of industrial capitalism, but because it had also tended to be deployed as a bulwark against the perceived excesses of modernity generally (including its more progressive aspects such as democracy and the rise of a mass public culture), its radical potential was, more often than not, compromised by an underlying conservatism. Shining a historical light on both sides of these early debates about the modern idea of culture enabled Williams to demonstrate more clearly how aligning one’s work with this intellectual tradition might provide a "way of finding a position from which [one] could hope to understand and act in contemporary society" even as it foregrounded the need to clarify the historical limitations of these inherited ideas.

12.        Fortified by what Williams has described as "the key move" in the evolution of his own thinking "to the notion of cultural production as itself material" (an insight that reinforced his challenge to reductive accounts of the notorious Marxist distinction between base and superstructure), his work increasingly foregrounded the underlying classificatory assumptions that structured the literary field as a primary focus of analysis in themselves (Politics and Letters 139). What may be most valuable about Williams’s historicism, though, is the strikingly empathetic nature of his ability to blend critique with a sense of affirmation. Rather than simply debunking these earlier mystifications of literature and art as acts of theoretical bad faith, Williams’s "clearing operation" remained animated by his sense of both the extraordinary efforts of earlier thinkers to wrestle with the pressures of their own day, and even more importantly, of the extent to which these mystifications, once exposed as "false attachment[s]," could nonetheless also be seen in terms of the positive cultural work they also enabled (Marxism 43). The equation of literature with "creative writing" may have been inherently reductive, but as he also pointed out, critical awareness of the "actively ideological" nature of the "powerful and often forbidding" impact of these ideas needed to be balanced against an appreciation of both the deeply "affirmative" spirit of their origin as a strategy for resisting "the socially repressive and intellectually mechanical forms of a new social order: that of capitalism and especially industrial capitalism," and more broadly, their capacity to manifest themselves in more beneficial ways: "What was laid down as a defensive reaction became in the course of the century a most important positive principle, which in its full implications was deeply and genuinely humane" (Marxism 43, 50; Culture 40). The fact that this new aesthetic ideology would itself often be embraced in "socially repressive" and "intellectually mechanical ways" on behalf of the dominant social order did not negate the legacy of these more positive dimensions. The real challenge was to develop ways of engaging with "the very complicated pressures and limits which, in their weakest forms, these [emerging] definitions falsely stabilized, yet which, in their strongest forms, they sought to emphasize as new cultural practice" (Marxism 145).

13.        For Williams, "the human commitments of these earlier writers came through, in a majority of cases, as the voices of fellow strugglers rather than of historically dated or periodised thinkers," an archeology of resistance, however imperfect, whose larger effect was to offer an important "sense that such a tradition existed" (Culture, xi, x). As Williams’s language, with its emphasis on a sense of continuity with the "human commitments" of these "fellow strugglers" in their "thinking about our common life" suggests, his work remained unapologetically rooted within precisely the sort of humanist impulse that he cites as a reason for Lukacs’s undeserved neglect: it was a "way of finding a position from which" we in turn can "hope to understand and act in contemporary society" in terms that reinscribed a faith in the possibility of agency even as it rejected any naïve assumptions about the potential of this position (Culture xii). However strongly Williams’s work may have gravitated towards a sense of the need to critique the influence of the ideas about the aesthetic that emerged in the Romantic period, this critical spirit was always balanced against his recognition of the efforts of these earlier thinkers to wrestle with the pressures of their day, even where the legacy of their ideas remained the focus of his own critical efforts.

14.        Where New Historicist critics often read the theories of the aesthetic that emerged in this period as a flight from the pressures of history, Williams tended to approach the efforts of these authors as the work of "fellow strugglers" engaged in flawed but still valuable efforts to wrestle with the idea of culture, not as a means of evasion or as a formal and all-encompassing ideological system but as a basis for confronting "the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes" in specific historical contexts (Marxism 110). Williams was definitely not uncritical of Romantic theories of the aesthetic. He warned that the tendency to "isolate art, to specialize the imaginative faculty to . . . one kind of activity" amounted to a "false attachment" to art as an autonomous realm that was little more than "a saving clause in a bad treaty" (Culture 43, 67). This elevation of art into "a symbolic abstraction for a whole range of human experience" may have been a "valuable abstraction" in many ways because of the transformative power that it attributed to art in the face of dehumanizing pressures, but it was "an abstraction nonetheless, because a general social activity was forced into the status of a department or province, and actual works of art were in part converted into a self-pleading ideology" (Culture 47). This process amounted to a "defensive reaction" that legitimated "the separation of poets from other men, and their classification into an idealized general person, ‘Poet’ or ‘Artist,’ which was to be so widely and damagingly received" (Culture 48). But having emphasized the cost of this impulse towards abstraction, Williams refused to allow readers to forget the "deeply and genuinely humane" source of this shift: "What was important at this time was the stress given to a mode of human experience and activity which the progress of society seemed increasingly to deny" (Culture 40, 39). Approached in a spirit of historical complexity, this Romantic-era impulse towards abstraction must be understood, not by imposing further layers of abstraction by imposing our own inadequately historicized interpretations on it but by recognizing it as a flawed but understandable "social activity" in its own right in the face of larger hostile pressures.

15.        As the renewed critical attention that it has received in recent years suggests, Williams’s work has itself become a crucial part of the history of cultural analysis that his own work charts, an exemplary moment in a tradition of resistance that both focused and intensified the efforts of these earlier "fellow strugglers." In this as in so many other instances, humanism (in both its radical and more conventional forms) remains deeply palimpsestic: a way of responding to the pressures of our own day by understanding more clearly the legacy of the efforts of previous thinkers to wrestle with similar challenges in their earlier forms. If, as Williams suggested, Robert Southey’s invocation of the ghost of Thomas More in Colloquies "indicates a conscious continuity with the first phase of the humanist challenge" that emerged during the Renaissance (Culture 24), Williams’s own engagement with Southey and his contemporaries suggests a similarly "conscious continuity" with this subsequent early nineteenth-century phase in this "humanist challenge." This, for Williams, is why the emergence of our modern idea of culture in the Romantic period was so vital. It offered (in the historical interventions charted by Williams and in his own work) a "special kind of map by means of which the nature of the changes" "in our social, economic and political life" can be charted (Culture xvii). But crucially for Williams, if culture provides a unique way of mapping these changes, the very nature of this map itself was changing in fundamental ways. Its initial function as "a separate body of moral and intellectual activities" and as "a court of human appeal" had extended to a far broader and more fundamental understanding of culture as "a whole way of life, not only as a scale of integrity, but as a mode of interpreting all our common experience, and, in this new interpretation, changing it" (Culture xviii). This understanding of culture has, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, become both mobile and self-reflexive: a critical disposition focused on charting dynamics rather than fixed topographies and highlighting our own position within them: "Each [literary] convention must be assessed by what it is rooted in and what it does: an assessment that is related to a much more general historical judgment that is also an affiliation—not history as all that has happened, but as where oneself is in it" (Politics 307).

16.        However necessary it may be to delineate the theoretical differences between the different stages of Williams’s career, particularly as his work became more overtly engaged with current Marxist debates, on the one hand, and more energized by both his involvement in the radical political struggles associated with the May Day Manifesto and by his theoretical insistence on the materiality of culture, on the other, it remains equally important to emphasize the continuities implicit in Williams’s efforts to chart the relations between different forms of cultural production and broader social and political relations. [4] Reflecting on the enthusiastic response that his more overt engagement with Marxist theory in Marxism and Literature garnered in some quarters—"the positive relief with which some my students said—at last he’s talking about Marxism directly, he’s got over his hang-ups and become a real person"—Williams countered that this sense of a change in his thinking missed the far more fundamental continuities across the whole of his work, in all of which he had been "arguing with what I take to be official English culture," even if he had "done that in different ways in different phases" (Politics and Letters 317, 316). The common thread running through these different phases had been Williams’s interest, not just in mapping out the broader relations that exposed the limitations of this "official" version of culture, but perhaps more importantly, highlighting a history of earlier writers’ similar efforts.

17.        This cartographic impulse to map out the connections that define an increasingly complex understanding of our "whole way of life" has become important in new but familiar ways in the face of the complexities that confront us in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. In Age of Discovery, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna argue in a similar spirit that like earlier eras, our age is a precarious but exciting transitional moment faced with enormous possibilities and hazards. Faced with spiralling levels of complexity on multiple fronts, Goldin and Kutarna echo Williams’s fundamental lesson about the challenge this implies: "Every day in which we do not actively map out new connections, we become more lost in their complexity" (255). The key to managing these changes, they argue, is that we emulate earlier thinkers (in their case, the "learned people in the Renaissance" rather than the Romantic period) who, faced with similar pressures and opportunities, "completely changed their mental map of the world to suit the challenges they faced" (251). Williams’s intervention, which was grounded in his study of early nineteenth-century thinkers’ efforts to change their own "mental map of the world," has lost none of its urgency or relevance.

18.        For those of us who work in the humanities, these challenges have been felt in especially immediate ways. In her landmark 2010 book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum warned that "we are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance": not "the global economic crisis that began in 2008" whose ultimate outcome may well be the rise of alt-right populist extremism one decade later, but the widespread erosion of support for the humanities both within and outside of universities (1). The urgency of the topic has generated an avalanche of books, studies, and articles in a range of venues, from academic journals to leading magazines and newspapers. [5] As the title of one major contribution to these debates— The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future (2013)—suggests, the cartographic impulse embraced by Williams and echoed by Goldin and Kutarna remains central to these responses. As humanist thinkers have always recognized, this task of mapping the future begins with a clearer understanding of the historical force of the cultural formations whose stubbornly prescriptive influence did so much to define the disciplines within which we study them.

19.        Stefan Collini’s argument that we need "to start from further away in order to revitalize ways of understanding the nature and importance of universities that are in danger of being lost sight of in the present" underscores the continuing importance of Williams’s historical turn to the project of developing an archeology of ideas forged by earlier thinkers in the face of similar pressures as a basis for responding to current issues (19). Williams’s genealogical work on culture never explicitly engaged with the emergence of modern institutional forms of the humanities in these same decades, however closely intertwined these histories may have been, but as his analyses make clear, the work of these earlier writers amounted to exemplary instances of the humanities in action: critical reflections on the nature and role of culture as a transformative domain within a modern industrial society. If talk of "crisis of the humanities" has declined over the past few years, this may be in part because there are bigger crises to worry about. The issue seems less and less to be what society can do for the humanities, than what the humanities can do for a society in the face of a rising spirit of authoritarianism. But the key, as Williams argued in the face of very different pressures, begins with resisting the lure of reifying supposedly autonomous sites of resistance, whether that be "culture" or its institutional cousin, "the humanities."

20.        The implications of Williams’s particular form of radical humanism become clearest in his discussion of hegemony in Marxism and Literature, where, aligning his approach with Gramsci, Williams explicitly distinguishes the idea of hegemony as "a lived system of meanings and values" that is fundamentally shaped by "relations of domination and subordination" without ever being reduced to them—"a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world"—from the more abstracted and endlessly "generalized system" that theorists such as Althusser described as "ideology" (109–10). Where the idea of ideology developed by Althusser implied a "relatively formal and articulated system of meanings, values, and beliefs, of a kind that can be abstracted as a ‘world-view’ or ‘class outlook’" and then mapped onto cultural analyses of "works of art" as "fully articulate and systematic expressions of this ideology," the concept of hegemony favored by Williams suggested a work-in-progress: a sense of contingency rooted in people’s actual struggles to engage with the pressures of their day: "the relatively mixed, confused, incomplete, or inarticulate consciousness of actual men [and women] in that period" (Marxism 109). This shift (from ideology as wall-to-wall consciousness to hegemony as a site of struggle) is crucial because it transforms culture, and therefore, the study of it, from a mere "superstructure" reflecting "a formed social and economic structure" to a vital set of activities that actively help to shape people’s historical moment (Marxism 111). In this sense, the idea of "a lived hegemony" is never, "except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a realized complex of experiences, relationships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits" (Marxism 112).

21.        This recourse to a rhetoric of the lived experiences of "actual men" was reinforced by the autobiographical dimension of his work, especially in The Country and the City, which was peppered with passages such as his comment that "I know these feelings at once, from my own experience. The only landscape I ever see, in dreams, is the Black Mountain village in which I was born. When I go back to that country, I feel a recovery of a particular kind of life, which appears, as an inescapable identity, a more positive connection than I have known elsewhere" (84). There is, according to the almost Wordsworthian logic of these sorts of invocations, a kind of personal and unmediated "truth" here that can be extrapolated into a broader social truth in opposition to the distortions of power. It was no accident that Culture and Society opens with what, for many critics, was a surprisingly sympathetic discussion of Edmund Burke, the great champion of the importance of feelings to any sustainable vision of common life. Returning to this idea three years later in The Long Revolution, Williams would provide a name for this theoretical focus: "structure[s] of feeling," a term that would become a hallmark of his work and which was intended to convey a phenomenon that was, paradoxically, both "firm and definite," grounded in particular forms of social organization, and evanescent, operating "in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activities" (64).

22.        Williams’s stress on the importance of this fleeting world of deeply felt but sometimes only half-recognized emotional life has rendered his work vulnerable to the criticism that, despite his insistence to the contrary, it presumes the availability of some preideological realm of unmediated self-presence. But as Williams has always argued, this recourse to lived experience was primarily a strategy for resisting the dangers of abstraction (whether it is in the name of poetry or art or culture or the humanities) without denying the unique value of the forms of knowledge and potential for political engagement that these phenomena also afford. This position may have been grounded in an overly confident appeal to the authentic experience of actual men and women, but this interpretive fallacy does not negate the importance of Williams’s related effort to ground the possibility of political resistance in a cultural vision that recognized the transformative promise of affect as a domain that could never be fully recontained within dominant systems of power in terms that reflect Gramsci’s vision of hegemony as process: "the relatively mixed, confused, incomplete, or inarticulate consciousness of actual men [and women] in that period" (Marxism 109). If Williams’s work, both in its limitations and the critical scrutiny that he brought to bear on the historical sources of these limitations, offered a compelling counterpoint to the strengths and the problems inherent in Romantic authors’ own efforts to advance a similar recognition of the primacy of lived experience in face of the hostile pressures of their day, his understanding of these authors as both a pioneering force in the development of new ideas about the role of culture and as cautionary examples of the dangerous tug of abstraction may well be more material than ever.

Works Cited

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———. "Running and Dodging: The Rhetoric of Doubleness in Contemporary Theory." New Literary History, vol. 41, no. 2, 2010, pp. 277–99.

———. Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right. Columbia UP, 2006.

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Goldin, Ian, and Chris Kutarna. Age of Discovery. Bloomsbury, 2016.

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Williams, Raymond. "A Man Without Frustration," London Review of Books, vol. 6, no. 9, 1984, pp. 14–15.

———. The Country and the City. Oxford UP, 1973.

———. Culture and Society: 1780–1950. 1958. Columbia UP, 1983.

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Notes

[1]Terry Eagleton’s strident and often strangely personal critique of his former teacher in Criticism and Ideology, which zeroed in on what Eagleton rejected as Williams’s gradualist approach, may have been the most prominent of critical arguments that Williams’s work had failed to absorb the important lessons of Marxists such as Louis Althusser, whose work owed its prominence to its deft mixture of Lancanian insight about a radically decentered subjectivity and its scientific claims for Marxism. BACK

[2]The phrase recurs throughout Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique. It has gained momentum more broadly in recent years as a shorthand for concerns about the excessively accusatory tone of many critics who, as Felski argues, often exempt themselves from the suspicions of any possibility of agency that ground their analyses. BACK

[3]See also Brennan’s discussion of the impact of Williams’s The Country and the City, a study whose particular approach exemplifies this "symphonic" style: "His work proliferates, spiraling outwards, spun out at a level of complexity, and delivered in a relaxed and knowing comprehensiveness, over the wide ambit of associations, imageries, feelings, attitudes and cultural tics, until one comes to see the unresolved and constantly morphing conflict between country and city as the primary contradiction of all social life" ("On the Image," 38–39). BACK

[4]For Williams’s role in these political struggles, see Fred Inglis, Raymond Williams (196–217), and Williams’s own account in Politics and Letters (361–83) BACK

[5]See, for instance, Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities; Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For?; Thomas Docherty, For the University; Tamson Pietsch, Empire of Scholars; Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities; Sidonie Smith, Manifesto for the Humanities; James Turner, Philology; and Ted Underwood, Why Literary Periods Matter. Recent years have also seen a growing number of essay collections. See, for instance, Jonathan Bate, ed.,The Public Value of the Humanities; Peter Brooks, ed., The Humanities and Public Life; and Gordon Hunter and Feisal G. Mohammed, eds.,A New Deal for the Humanities. BACK