Williams: clear and concise

In reading Raymond Williams Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory, I found many of Marx’s major topics illuminated in a way that most of the other authors we have read truly could not do. Williams’ writing is direct and concise, making it very possible to follow in terms of genealogy of thought. I also enjoyed the way in which is essay was structured, beginning with an exploration of the nuanced meanings and relationships of base and superstructure to contemporary society, and ending with what I felt to be a brilliant definition of art and art analysis in it’s relation to cultural studies.

Williams simple yet perfect examples also, for me helped to clarify some of the cloudy systems of Marxist thought. For example, in defining one idea for representations of base and superstructure, Williams uses the example of the piano maker, the piano seller and the piano player. Maker and seller both falling into the economic category of base, and the piano player, falling into the category of superstructure. The division here being one of economy and production and more of a leisure activity defined by said base, yet equally important in the definition of culture. This example for me also explains the complicated and not completely determined relationship between the two which Williams’ essay seeks to prove.

Williams’ continues to show the delicate relationship of base and superstructure in their creation of culture by addressing ideas of alternative and oppositional aspects of culture, or cultures themselves. He says on page 43, “…in certain areas, there will be in certain periods practices and meanings which are not reached for. There will be areas of practice and meaning which, almost by definition from its own limited character, or in its profound deformation, the dominant culture is unable in any real terms to recognize.” This is an important aspect of dominant culture that Marx fails to recognize or address, but that I feel adds a degree of complexity to his articulations of culture.

Finally, and most importantly, Williams ends on the ideas of art and literature, some of the most complicated in terms of the definition of culture. Williams again illuminates and interesting contradiction, that of the work of art seen as both an object and the “alternative view of art as practice” (47). HisĀ  quote at the bottom of page 47 rings true for me in the analysis of art in terms of cultural studies: “What this can show us here about the practice of analysis is that we have to break from the common procedure of isolating the object and then discovering its components. On the contrary we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions.” This quote shows the importance of the artist within society,whose job today is to push boundaries of the definition of culture, and eventually, moving from oppositional theories into a more commonly accepted “truths” through ideas of “practice” and its “conditions”.

Williams theories here hit home for me in terms of trying to define art, the most complicated and nuanced asprect of culture, through a clear exploration of relations between base and superstructure and how they relate to a broader sense of art in culture. For these reasons I really enjoy a lot of Williams writings as well as those of other English scholars of Marx like Stuart Hall and Perry Anderson in that they tend to present clear and concise understandings of contemporary cultural studies.

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