On reading Raymond Williams

From reflection to Mediation, Homology and Hegemony

Raymond Williams developed his argument along a definite historical timeline by analysing Marxist theory of culture.
He begins his exploration by considering the Marxist proposition of a determining base and a determined superstructure. He juxtaposes this with Marx's original proposition that social being determines consciousness. In the transition from Marx to Marxism, and in the development of mainstream Marxism itself, the proposition of the determining base and the determined superstructure has been commonly held to be the key to Marxist cultural analysis.1 When it comes to defining Superstructure Williams defines it succinctly to mean institutions, forms of consciousness (the prevailing ones), political and cultural practices (the actual ones). These three and more areas are related and must in analysis, be interrelated. 2 Base is:"The economic structure of society- the real foundation on which rises the legal and political superstructure" (Marx 1859)

Again, in the transition from Marx to Marxism the words used in the original arguments were projected, firstly, as if they were precise concepts,and secondly, as if they were descriptive terms for observable "area" of social life. It is ironic to remember that the force of Marx's original criticism had been mainly directed against the separation of "areas" of thought and activity (as in the separation of consciousness from material production) and against the related evacuation of specific content- real human activities- by the imposition of abstract categories.3 The common abstraction of the "base" and "the superstructure" is thus a radical persistence of the modes of thought which he attacked. It is significant that when Marx himself came to any sustained analysis, he was at once specific and flexible in his use of his own terms.

Engels argued very specifically how the 'economic basis' of a political struggle could be dulled in consciousness or altogether lost sight of, and how a legal system could be projected as independent of its economic content, in the course of its professional development.4 "Still higher ideologies, that is, such as are still further removed from the material, economic basis, take the form of philosophy and religion. Hence the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence becomes more and more complicated, more and more obscured by intermediate links. But the interconnection exists." Engels

This relational emphasis, including not only complexity but recognition of the ways in which some connections are lost to consciousness due to ever further specialisation and fragmenting into ever more specifically defined areas is a far cry from the later avelanche of categories which were invented and grafted onto the Marxism of the 20th century.

In 1890 Engel wrote clearly: "According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure -political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogma- also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form."

This is a vital acknowledgement of real and methodological complexities. It is one of the central propositions of Marx's sense of history that in actual development there are deep contradictions in the relationships of production and in the consequent social relationships. There is therefore the continual possibility of the dynamic variation of these forces.5

These specific and indissoluble real processes are expressed from a Marxist point of view as "determination".

The opponents of Marxism claim over and over again that it is a reductive and deterministic kind of philosophy: no cultural activity is allowed to be real and significant in itself, but is always reduced to a direct or indirect expression of some receding and controlling economic content, or of a political content determined by an economic position or situation. However in the light of Marx's understanding and writings this is nothing but a cheap caricature. 'Determinism', is, simply put , some power or authority ( God, Nature, History,etc) controling or deciding the outcome of an action or process, beyond or irrespective of the wills or desires of its agents. Determination - is a complex and interrelated process of limits and pressures- is in the whole social process itself and nowhere else: not in an abstracted 'mode of production' nor in an abstracted ' psychology'.6 'Society' is then never only the 'dead husk' which limits social and individual fulfilment. It is always also a constitutive process with very powerful pressures which are both expressed in political, economic, and cultural formations and, to take the full weight of 'constitutive', are internalized and become 'individual wills'.7

Understanding the productive forces means becoming fully conscious of the very nature of our society. If production , in capitalist society, is the production of commodities for a market, then different but misleading terms are found for every other kind of production. What is most often suppressed is the direct material production of 'politics'. Yet any ruling class devotes a significant part of material production to establishing a political order. The social and political order which maintains a capitalist market, like the social and political struggles which created it, is necessarily a material production. From castles and palaces and churches to prisons and workhouses and schools; from weapons of war to a controlled press: any ruling class, in variable ways though always materially, produces a social and political order.8 In failing to grasp the material character of the production of a social and political order we also fail (conspicuously) to understand the material character of the production of a cultural order.

The limited and specialized interpretations of productive forces and of the process of determination have led to a theory of art and thought as 'reflection'. Thus art can be said to 'reflect the real world', holding 'the mirror up to nature'. Futhermore art can be seen as reflecting not 'mere appearances' but the 'reality' behind these: the 'inner nature' of the world, or its 'constitutive forms'. Or even further expanded art is seen as reflecting not the 'lifeless world', but the world as seen in the mind of the artist and so forth. Materialism seems the fundamental challenge here. If the real world is material, art can not be metaphysical, and reflection will be necessarily of a material reality. Even the 'mind of the artist' herself can be seen as itself materially conditioned; its reflection is then not independent but itself a material function. Yet should such a thing as metaphysics actually exist as a reality, and heaven forbid (garlic and wooden crosses), this could lead to 'false' or 'distorted' reflection. For even 'ideology' prevents true reflection. 9 (-And the whole reflection business folds up completely.)

The most damaging consequence of any theory of art as reflection is that, through its persuasive physical metaphor (in which a reflection simply occurs, within the physical properties of light) , it succeeds in suppressing the actual work- in a sense the material social process itself. By projecting and alienating the art making process to mere 'reflection', the social and material as well as imaginative character of artistic activity was suppressed. It was at this point in the development of awareness and understanding that the idea, the concept of reflection was challenged by the new kid on the block 'mediation'.

'Mediation' was intended to describe an active process; an interaction between separate forces. This concept was again used to limit the effectiveness of art as a transformative force by simply 'using mediation' in the reverse. Art was seen as a matter of indirect expression: the social realities are 'projected' or 'disguised', and to recover them is a process of working back through the mediation to their original forms,- which were of course nothing other than economic concerns.

Yet the problem is a different one, from the beginning, if we see language and signification as indissoluble elements of the material social process itself, involved all the time both in production and reproduction. The forms of actual displacement and alienation experienced in class societies have led to recurrent concepts of isolated relations between 'separate' orders: 'reflection' from idealist thought through naturalism to a positivist kind of Marxism; 'mediation' from religious thought through idealist philosophy to Hegelian variants of Marxism. To the extent that it indicates an active and substantial process, 'mediation' is always the less alienated concept. In its modern development it approaches the sense of inherent constitutive consciousness, and is in any case important as an alternative to simple reductionism, in which every real act or work is methodically rendered back to an assumed primary category, usually specified ( self-specified) as 'concrete reality'. But when the process of mediation is seen as positive and substantial, as a necessary process of the making of meanings and values, in the necessary form of the general social process of signification and communication, it is really only a hindrance to describe it as 'mediation' at all. For the metaphor takes us back to the very concept of the 'intermediary' which , at its best, this constitutive and constituting sense rejects. 10

One important way of restating the idea of 'reflection', and of giving particular substance to the idea of 'mediation', is to be found in the concept of 'typicality' ,which is the 'characteristic' or fully 'representative' character or situation. Here the notion of 'reflection' can be redefined in ways that appear to overcome its most obvious limitations. For it is not the mere surface , or appearance only ,which are reflected in art, but the 'essential' or 'underlying' or 'general' reality.

History rolled on to the Frankfurt School but even new work of the newly invented Marxist structuralists developed other concepts which were an expansion or view shift on 'type'- notably that of 'correspondences' and better still the shining new 'homology'. Correspondence was borrowed by Benjamin from Baudelaire and has to do with experiences which can be savely experienced in the form of rituals and the crystallization of such experiences in the form of artworks carry a certain presence and authenticity that can be recognized by what Benjamin called 'aura'. (See the art of Beuys) The Frankfurt School agreed that the real social process is always mediated, and one of the positive forms of such mediation is their 'dialectical image' which was 'typicality' taken a bit further along its track.

Benjamin got it right and the world of thought took up with him and 'homology' is correspondence in origin and development. And both correspondence and homology are nothing other than more sophisticated further splinterings of the old theory of reflection, or mediation. Or in other words correspondence and homology are in effect restatements of the base-superstructure model which originated these institutions.

Yet in reality none of the above dualist theories, expressed as reflextion or mediation, and none of the formalist and structuralist theories, expressed in variants of correspondence or homology, can be fully carried through to contemporary practice, since in ways they all depend on a known history, a known structure, known products. Analytical relations can be handled in this way, practical relations hardly at all. An alternative approach to the same problems, but one which is more directly oriented to cultural process and to practical relations can be found in the concept of 'hegemony'.11

Hegemony is a complex interlocking of political, social, and cultural forces. It is a concept that at once includes and goes beyond two powerful earlier concepts: that of 'culture' as a whole social process , in which men define and shape their whole lives; and that of 'ideology', in which a system of meanings and values is the expression or projection of a particular class interest.

The beauty with hegemony is that it doesn't equate the values and beliefs which a dominant class develops and propagates (-ideology) with consciousness. Neither does it reduce consciousness to them. Furthermore there are two immediate advantages in this concept of hegemony. First, its forms of domination and subordination correspond much more closely to the normal processes of social organization and control in developed societies than the more familiar projections from the idea of a ruling class, which are usually based on much earlier and simpler historical perceptions.

What was historical important to push along the whole development of social and intellectual reality was a widening of the old abstractions of reality as so called 'social' and primarily 'economic' experience. -People needed to see themselves and each other in direct personal relationships; to see the natural world and themselves in it. People using their physical and material resources for 'leisure', 'entertainment' and 'art': all these active experiences and practices, which make up so much of the reality of a culture and its cultural production can again be seen as they are, without reduction to other categories of content, and without the characteristic straining to fit them directly as reflection, indirectly as mediation or typification to other and determining manifest economic and political relationships. Yet they can still be seen as elements of a hegemony: an inclusive social and cultural formation which indeed to be effective has to extend to and include, indeed to form and be formed from, this whole area of lived experience.12

A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a realized complex of experiences, relationships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits. Moreover it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It is continually renewed, limited, recreated,defended and modified from within as from without. Thus we have to add the concepts of counter-hegemony and alternative hegemony etc. which are all an integral part of this process and mutually binding.

There is not such a thing as a static hegemony. Alternatives and opposition are significant in that the function of the hegemony is to control or transform or better still incorporate them. The reality of any cultural process always includes the defining function of those who are outside or at the edge of the terms of any specific hegemony. It can be persuasively argued that all or nearly all initiatives and contributions, even when they take on manifestly alternative or oppositional forms, are in practice part of the extended all inclusive concept of hegemony: that is to say that the dominant culture at once produces and limits its own forms of counter-culture. These limits in turn can succeed in neutralizing, changing or actually incorporating alternatives and opposition and thus creating new alternatives and opposition which effectively redefines the original hegemony (as changed).

Yet there are still works of art in particular which may be spurred by the above limits and come into manifestation as independent and highly original. If this were not so progress would not be possible and art or philosophy and radical thought would not exist.

Thus cultural process must not be assumed to be merely adaptive, extensive, and incorporative. Authentic breaks within and beyond it do occur. The finite but significant openness of many works of art, as signifying forms making possible but also requiring persistent variable signifying responses, is especially relevant.13

Hegemony as we have already said is always an active process. It is the organisation and interconnection of otherwise separated and even disparate meanings, values, and practices, into an effective social order and culture. This process of incorporation in the cultural sense has three main aspects of which we are presently conscious: traditions, institutions, and formations.

Tradition here is the most evident expression of the dominant and hegemonic pressures; indeed it is the most powerful practical means of incorporation. -What we have to see is not just 'a tradition' but a selective tradition: an intentionally selective and manipulated(edited) version used as a powerful operative in shaping of social and cultural definitions and identification.14 In this sense tradition is always about the present and it clearly illustrates the hegemonys' attempt to influence it in a certain desired way. The effective establishment of a selective tradition depends on identifiable institutions: cultural, political, and economic. But it also very much seems to depend on formations; which are effective movements and attitudes, in intellectual and artistic life, which have a decisive influence on the active development of a culture. The way that a hegemony swallows and incorporates in an attempt to neutralize alternatives and opposition is a much more actual and real concept than the one which in sociological abstract terminology is called 'socialization'. Any process of socialization of course includes things that all human beings have to learn. Education transmits necessary knowledge and skills, but always by a particular selection from the whole available range. But no mere training or pressure it truly hegemonic.The true condition of hegemony is effective self-identification with the hegemonic forms: a specific and internalized 'socialization'.

The complexity of a culture is to be found not only in its variable processes and their social definitions- traditions, institutions, and formations- but also in the dynamic interrelations, at every point in the process. No mode of production and therefore no dominant social or cultural order ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy, and human intention. This is not merely a negative proposition, allowing us to account for significant things which happen outside or against the dominant mode. On the contrary it is a fact about the modes of domination, that they select from and consequently exclude the full range of human practice. What they exclude may often be seen as the personal or the private, or as the natural or even the metaphysical. Indeed it is usually in one or other of these terms that the excluded area is expressed, since what the dominant has effectively seized is indeed the ruling definition of the social. Elements of emergence may indeed be seized (incorporated), but just as often the incorporated forms are merely facsimiles (window dressing) of the genuinely emergent cultural practice.

Works of art are in one sense, explicit and finished forms -actual objects. But they are not only that, to complete their inherent process, we have to make them present, in specifically active 'readings'. It is also that the making of art is never itself in the past tense. It is always a formative process, within a specific present. At different moments in history, and in significantly different ways, the reality and even the primacy of such presences and such processes, such diverse and yet specific actualities, have been powerfully asserted and reclaimed, as in practice of course they are all the time lived.15

The idea of a structure of feeling can be specifically related to the evidence of forms which in art are often among the very first indications that such a new structure is actually forming.Thus art can be seen as a social formation of a specific kind which may in turn be seen as the articulation of structures of feeling which as living processes are much more widely experienced.

Not all art of course relates to a contemporary structure of feeling. The effective formations of most actual art relate to already manifest social formations, dominant or residual, and it is primarily emergent formations which change the course of history. Emergent formations are at the very edge of semantic availability until specific articulations-new semantic figures- are discovered in material practice. It is here that a culture is a process and not static, it is here that a bloodless (the only true) revolution takes place, -where thinking changes and reality with it.

Yet as for any previous philosophers (intellectual and academic hegemony) the artist is the one most feared and therefore the one to be denied and banished. -For art by its very nature can't be controlled or categorized, specialized or split up into neatly defined areas. Even the so called 'most progressive of all progressive' Marxists had this tendency of persecution complex when selling us 'consciousness' as 'knowledge'. For consciousness is not only knowledge, just as language is not only indication and naming objects or phenomena, but creation as well as creating.

From Raymont Williams book "Marxism and Literature", Oxford University Press 1977, Oxford

1 Base and Superstructure pg.75
2 " " 77
3 " " 78
4 " " 79
5 " " 82
6 Determination " 83
7 " " 87
8 " " 93
9 From Reflection to Mediation
10 " 100
11 Typification and Homology " 107
12 Hegemony " 111
13 " " 114
14 Traditions, Institutions, and Formations " 115
15 Structure of Feeling " 129

© 2000 - 2019 Raphael Zimmerman