Children of Albion: Dr Leavis amongst the Dongas Tribe

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Our question is simple in one sense: in what way does the study of popular culture generate radical critique? But the question generates many others. From where does such a critique come and on whose behalf? What is the place of literature in the revolution? Can literature and revolution coincide? What position does the literary take in rela­tion to the masses and popular culture? Can the avant-garde align itself with popular culture - on behalf of the insurrection of the popular?




One could at least get a template for the emotional landscape from European and American fiction in the 1960s. Lautreamont, Herman Hesse, Knut Han, Sadegh Hedayat and Alain Robbe Grillet offered a sophisticated complementary literary diet to more conventional tales of rebellion such as those by Joseph Heller and Ken Kesey, or even British authors such as John Fowles, J. R. R. Tolkien and D. H. Lawrence. All offered an alternative landscape capable of being infused with the philosophy of a whole gamut of gurus from Aleister Crowley to R. D. Laing, from Timothy Leary to Carlos Castenada and from Carl Jung to Marshal McLuhan. The books were always hard to get; counter-cultural, revolu­tionary, contemporary, marginal, on the edge and neurotic. They were violent, anti-old, anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois; professing erotic, instant enlightenment, political defection, moral health, self-consciously arty and appropriately scandalous.




They were the sensibility of an age's minority and so various moral guardians — magistrates, mothers' groups, chief inspectors and righteous excise men — attempted to get them banned, burned, persecuted and prosecuted in order that what was said could be dismissed or suppressed by establishment squares, daddies, the un-cool, people in denial and the readers of the Daily Mail.




The very form of this new emotional landscape was the subversive and ­inexpensive American paperback 'secretly' bought at a fractional price of hardback editions in 'revolutionary' bookshops in London and Edin­burgh or through market stalls and travelling book sales. Such a landscape was informed by the strange, complex and sophisticated 'metaphysical' debates of Europe, the young, vigorous, anti-establishment action and culture of American and the sociological, communal and class politics of the United Kingdom. Without pattern or clear process, this new landscape was revealed bit by bit and inconsistently, shown to us as much by T. S. Eliot (an edition of whose collected poems appeared in 1963) and by newer writers such as Marshal McLuhan (whose work filtered through the 1960s). The talismanic names were rarely read but acted as locations where one wished to be: Sartre, McLuhan, Blake, Yeats, Hesse, Lawrence — all mixed up and equally fabulous. As for Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and all the other new wave French thinkers — they would have to await their transatlantic journey and translated return to British shores. Such exotic fruit were the delayed effect of the sixties landscape, their impact would be later and elsewhere.




The message from this landscape was one of suspicion, neurosis, anxiety and possibility. For Ayn Rand in 1960, it was already a foregone conclusion that 'America [was] culturally bankrupt' (Rand, for the New Intellectual), as it was for Norman Mailer in 1957, when he announced that Americans were suffering 'from a collective failure of nerve' (Mailer, The White Negro). As early as 1963, Clive Irving could note that Britain had become 'a nation harbouring a latent neurosis', for Nathalie Sarraute the time was 'an era of suspicions' fed by a 'literature of exhaustion' and for Allen Ginsberg, looking back from the 1970s, it seemed as if '[Amer­icans] were in the middle of an identity crisis prefiguring nervous break­down for the whole United States' (Preface to Collected Poems). Hardly surprisingly, by 1968 Maurice Girondias could note that 'the pixies were moving in, pretty fast' (Preface to Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto).




Too soon the rebellion of literature was mistaken for the literature of rebellion, too soon individual anarchy taken for a collective programme. 'Subversive' reading habits were soon mistaken for actual subversion, or at least as soon as the failure of the revolution to the success of its illegitimate offspring: textual studies. Utterly defeated on the streets and in the institutions, the revolutionary energy flowed back upon itself to reveal itself as a merely exemplary form of reading habit. By the 1980s the habit (and its subject matter) had been entirely substituted for actual political endeavour (and mistaken for it). The astringent critiques of the Frankfurt School and the Situationists became the armchair dilettant­ism of television sociologists, unmindful of their own rhetoric or the very context, production and consuming conditions of the relatively ephemeral (and conformist) subjects of their gaze. Hence, Tony Bennett sincerely believed in 1981 that,




Whilst an exact categorization of programmes such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, Not The 9 o'clock News and Ripping Yarns may be diffi­cult, it is clear, first, that they are popular and they are fiction; and, second, that they are not just ideology: they disrupt not merely con­ventional narrative forms but are often profoundly, if anarchically, subversive [emphasis added] of the dominant ideological discourses of class, nation, sexism and so on.

(Bennett, Marxism and Popular Fiction)



From the standpoint of the very late 1990s, one can only wonder what Bennett actuality thought he saw.[2]




We do however, get a sense of what the author of this exercise thought he was about in comments to be found in a recent primer on British Cultural Studies, edited by Graeme Turner, in which there is an attempt to characterise the significance of such studies and, in reference to Richard Johnson, a former head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, justify them. This means that while cultural studies' subject matter may be pop­ular culture, and while this may even be dealt with in ways that involve an element of nostalgia, for instance, the objective of cultural studies is not simply to recover aspects of social experience that were dear to the researchers' own hearts. It is all too easy to characterise work on the media, or on youth cultures, or on the music industry, as a kind of 'slumming' by middle-aged academics.  As Richard Johnson says, it is important to recognise the inadequacy of studies of popular culture that occur for 'purely academic purposes or when... divorced from the analysis of power and of social responsibilities'. Popular culture is a site where the construction of everyday life may be examined; the point of doing this is not only academic ... it is also political, to examine the power relations that constitute this form of everyday life and thus to reveal the configura­tion of interests its construction serves.  (Turner, British Cultural Studies)




The rebuke is expected (although we know that everybody writes about what they enjoy and that the attraction of one's past does not preclude a commitment to mature reflection). Richard Johnson's denigration of studying popular culture for pleasure, of divorcing it from all values except those of a political expediency connected to power and contention (as critique), makes it quite clear that studying popular culture is a discipline for Puritans, not a recreation for aesthetes. If Johnson sees the 'popular' as a site upon (or through) which the ideological battle for democracy is to be fought, it is also a site of correction (of misperceptions) and of a reprimand (to overly nostalgic pleasure seekers and single-minded historical analysis). All this is so much corrective designed to save popular culture from itself; to reduce it to a demand put upon it to lose its erotic, sentimental, violent, dysfunctional side along with its conformism and consensus. It makes it safe and at once robs it of its dangerous potency - its vitality lived for itself alone. This smacks less of Marx and Engels, than Lenin force-feeding his intellectuals Oblomov until they recanted their past wrongs. Johnson's position is recom­mended to us, as one that exemplifies radical engagement: struggling to liberate meanings and lifestyles considered illegitimate or repressed by the ruling media/political elite.




Who, then, are the elite? They are, or course, the traitors from our own party ranks of whom a parcel can be made up from the likes of T. S. Eliot, Denys Thompson, L. C. Knights and, of course, the formid­able Leavises (Dr and Mrs). Without any due care or attention to what any of these long dead critics thought (did not F. R. Leavis deeply distrust Eliot's conservative and reactionary views, did not Scrutiny oppose all that The Criterion stood for?), we are rashly told that 'these approaches were unashamedly elitist'. Here elitism is reduced to mere reverse snobbery.




If it is true that Eliot was an elitist (and unashamedly so) it is abso­lutely not so that the same can be said of F. R. Leavis[3]. Whatever faults Leavis had, snobbery was not particularly one (except perhaps that diffident lower middle-class snobbery of self-righteousness). Leavis's project was to restore, by the invocation of a 'lost' community, the utopian possibility of a present liberal democracy. Opposed to the mass culture, consumerism and production-line techniques of America, the totalitarian politics of the USSR, Germany, Spain and Japan, growing authoritarianism on both sides of the Atlantic and apathy and paro­chialism at home, Leavis and others attempted to think through (using literature) the value system of a liberal democracy. As with thinkers of the right (Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, etc.) and thinkers of the left (Christopher Caudwell, George Orwell) the necessity of this task was central to their aesthetic (as was the memory of the First World War, ­their Great War), and the fear of its repetition. If one is looking for elite attitudes, one should, at least, look to the class from which they might emerge, that is, the class that gave us Monty Python in the first place.




Licensed televised carnival is not the same as spontaneous insurrec­tion. (How was that to occur on the BBC?) Lenin, a conservative reader at best, spent a lifetime reading fiction and poetry to find signs of the revolution (to 'know he was right, all along). The exercise was an utter failure. Disgusted by Dostoevsky whom he called 'that rubbish' full of 'two-pence worth of horrors', Lenin had no understanding of actual revolutionary literature or art. His dislike of Futurism and all forms of modernism, led him into hopeless debates with Lunacharsky and dis­missive diatribes against modernist form, which was 'all disconnected (and) difficult to read!' as well as against Mayakovsky, against whom he raved: 'The revolution does not need buffoons playing at revolution' (in Leonard Schapiro and Peter Reddaway, Lenin), René Fueloep-Miller observed in 1926 that,




The Bolshevik poets, painters, sculptors and architects, who have been trying to crown Lenin's mighty work … complain despairingly about the complete blindness and deafness of the Master, who was unable to grasp the supreme and ultimate manifestations of his own system,

(Quoted in Schapiro and Reddaway, ibid.)



It is true that, 'Lenin did not oppose new forms of art, unless they took on a political tinge ... but he showed no desire to appreciate them'. Speaking frankly to Klara Zetkin: 'it is not for us to chase after the new art, we'll limp along behind' (ibid.), Importantly, Lenin had no real theory of proletarian culture and believed that on the basis of a well-fed population and a good education, 'there must grow up a really new, great communist art which will create a form corresponding to its content'.




Lenin's political and cultural agenda dismissed art that was non­'educative' and that could not serve the propaganda machine and the party.'[4] Lenin's choice of laureate was the propagandist Dem'yan Bedny, to whom he gave the order of the Red Banner. Lenin distrusted intellec­tuals and dismissed artists who did not serve the party. With the triumph of Stalin the state abrogated to itself the representational function: the rebellion of literature (its oppositional force) had been usurped by the literature of the rebellion, that which conformed to the state's view of itself and its history. As a consequence, the language of 'refusal' became more and more nationalistic, mystical and fascistic, mistaken by the West for a language of democracy and freedom of thought.




For British critics (to a greater extent that in America or even Europe) Marxian Labourism is the equivalent of Marxist-Leninism. The domin­ance of Marxist-influenced approaches in cultural studies has blinded it to other forms of analysis that take their language from anarchistic or libertarian origins. The focus on the 'popular' has blinded it to the necessary re-examination of 'the elite'; the focus on dominance has ignored many ingredients of escape; the focus on the media has ignored the state; the focus on class has said nothing about the individual; the focus on the body has forgotten the mind (except when repressed); the focus on mass consumption has (until recently) ignored choice and enjoyment; the focus on language as a site of struggle has ignored language as a symptom of struggle and history; the emphasis on repres­entational structure has finally vanquished history.




These emphases and lacunae in British cultural studies are precisely what undermines their Marxism and allows it to float free into bourgeois or social democratic delight. Thus, we are told that only, 'ste­reotyped representations of Marxist thought conventionalise it as a monolithic and revolutionary body of theory'. In other words, it is con­ventional to see Marxism as a coherent and revolutionary theory and that indeed, in the realm of culture: 'Marxist approaches …  have insisted on the relative autonomy of culture' (Tony Bennett, quoted in Turner, British Cultural Studies).




It is clear that British Marxist cultural studies use Marx contra Marx. Marxism cannot be a body of theory without instilling on its coherence as a theory, its revolutionary nature and its belief that culture and art are not semi or relatively autonomous. Marx and Engels's holistic approach may be problematic, but it is clear on these points'[5]. One critic has made this quite clear. Ben Watson points out: 'totality proposes seeing things in their connectedness: it is a prerequisite for dialectical thought' and is determined, in the first instance, by a revolutionary gaze - one already detectable in the 'imagination' of the Romantic poets.




The idea of the connectedness of things was what the romantics wished to save from ... bourgeois commonsense: they were preserv­ing a revolutionary tradition, the key to a critique of class society.

(Ben Watson, Art, Class and Cleavage)



Coleridge's 'imagination' was a pivot for class struggle, the key term for the social orientation of his literary endeavour. In the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, it stood for an attempt to conceive the interconnectedness of the real things in the world - something with revolutionary consequences.




In what sense is culture 'relatively autonomous'? In an illuminating comparison of Stalin and Marx, Watson provides one answer,




Stalin wrote: 'Whatever is the mode of production of society, such in the main is the society itself, its ideas and theories, its political views and institutions.' This paraphrases Marx who wrote: 'The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intel­lectual life process in general' … Stalin asserts that the mode of pro­duction is the society, a blunt statement of identity. Marx, however, says that the mode of production determines the social process. Saying the mode of production 'determines the social, political and intellectual life process' gives openings to politically-informed inter­vention denied to those who say the mode of production 'is the society itself'. Structuralism, with its fantasy of synoptic structures detailed with geometric precision, is peculiarly ill-equipped to tell the difference between Stalin and Marx.

(Watson, ibid.)



Watson is surely correct when he tells us that Marxism is 'the science of bringing consciousness to bear on socia1 conflict' but here the nub of the aesthetic question is to be found. In what sense is Marxism a science if it is not one that in its 'totality' can account for the random as a possibility of the innate nature of the structure (i.e. society as a whole in historical process)? If totality can account for the random it cannot answer for the appearance of particular constituents - their specific and individual nature. The random is therefore both absolutely itself and conditioned as itself - it comes not from nowhere but from a past (it is produced). This semi-autonomy of cultural objects (and attitudes) is therefore not sufficiently explained either by reference to attached terms (social class, economic base, ideology) or by the notion of totality. Cultural prod­ucts which appear to be 'unique' (works of art) cannot be predicted in their specific nature - the mode of production only determines social process (which is itself dynamic) and cannot account for its particular products of which (in the cultural realm) art is the most problematic.




Marxism is a science only in as much as it 'brings consciousness to bear on social conflict', understood as a historical process which has revolutionary and liberationist tendencies in relation to a future. Art products, because they are unpredictable, non-sequential and random epiphenomenon of history, cannot clearly be accounted for in a theory of history and, as such, cannot be put into the framework of a future. Art only serves a perpetual present between the advent of history and the culmination of 'history' as it is vanquished in a utopian future.




Art is useless to revolutionary practice precisely because it exists outside predictive space (within totality, part of it, but erratically produced). Lenin's dislike of modernism stemmed precisely from his innate theoretical conservatism. If art works are part of the totality but produced erratically (randomly) and unpredictively, they are capable of being revolutionary without exemplifying the revolutionary pro­gramme. Art's ambiguous relationship to the whole puts it at the service of revolution but not at the service of a revolutionary programme. Lenin realised that art could not be predicted nor simply ordered up on the revolutionary menu - it was part of the 'dark side of totality': what could not be predicted could not be used by the party and therefore could not serve the state's immediate economic and political (i.e. intel­lectual) needs. Instead, revolutionary art, avant-garde art, proceeded on behalf of the proletariat as their cultural embodiment and as the revolu­tion's exemplification (its commitment to a future). It therefore always appeared anarcho-libertarian: exactly what Lenin wished to suppress.




It is said that Lenin read literature to find the signs of revolution; it is also said that he failed. Revolutionary art is itself revolutionary because it embodies disruption and dislocation - it cannot conform to disruption and dislocation. They do not have a logic attached or a timetable, or an agenda.




Avant-garde intellectual thought is always constituted by its antagon­ism to the present regimes of thought and exploits their incapacity to recuperate its message. The aim of this new intellectual method is to bring into being the regime of the future, but the raison d'etre of avant-gardism is to oppose the present on behalf of the future. Thus the regime of the future (realised now in thought) is itself opposed to avant­-gardism as avant-gardism encapsulates the irrevocable: that which opposes per se. The aim of avant-garde thinking is therefore utopian and corrective and can never be fully realised in its programmatical totality. The double activity of avant-garde thought (to perfect and critique) is the necessary and contradictory mode of its procedures and activity. To act within this contradiction is not to fall into bourgeois error or to be a dupe of capital and its agents; it is, instead, to realise the full potential of oppositional thought.




The avant-garde is therefore only possible in the space between the past and future, a space that however does not constitute the present or is even constituted in the present precisely because it recognises itself as the past lived now. Intellectual avant-gardism represents breakage, and 'rupture', disruption, the non-co-operative, the anarchic and illicit. It represents these, at its core. There can be no history of avant-gardism because 'the possible linear chronology of the avant-garde disguises the impossible sequence presented by the set of gaps opened in and by avant-gardism' (Hegarty, unpublished article). In what sense is the avant-garde to be reunited to the question of culture - its 'relative auto­nomy' and its constitution in the notion of the popular?




Cultural studies is specifically the study of the 'popular'. It is connected to the popular by theories (mostly Marxian in origin) and operates on behalf of the popular (as its 'politics'). In these senses, cultural studies is determined by the same concerns as the avant-garde artist in relation to proletarian culture at the beginning of the twentieth century.




At the end of the nineteenth century the word 'cheap' ceased to mean only inexpensive and took on its modern meaning of 'nasty'; in the same way, by the end of the twentieth century the word 'elite' has been confused with mere snobbery. It is true, of course that the change in the meaning of cheap coincided with the triumph of mass produc­tion; coincided, that is, with mass produced pleasure for the lower classes. Cheapness became synonymous with mass culture, a term firmly opposed to popular culture. Now, it is quite true that almost all British critics of culture are contemptuous, indeed snobs, regarding mass culture which they saw (and still see) as immature, impersonal and authoritar­ian. Leavis was certainly a snob as far as mass culture goes. The mission of cultural critics in Britain, from Arnold to Eagleton, has been to liberate popular culture from mass culture, in other words, liberate the masses from their burdensome leisure; hence so much talk of ”subversive reading” "slippage and struggle”. Criticism too brings its snobbery to bear, for it is clear that no one wants to be liberated from their collection of old blues records, but desperate measures must be taken to rescue those under the thrall of the latest craze in soft toy collecting; popular culture is authentic (and in this case black); mass culture is infantile and inauthentic (and in this case feminine).




Distaste for popular culture is often the more vehement from those who set about creating on behalf of the 'masses'. After the start of commercial television in 1955, Norman Collins (Deputy Chairman of Associated Television) reported:




… that the overwhelming mass of viewers’ letters that Associated Television received was illiterate. 'They are ungrammatical and execrably written,' he said. 'And what is more distressing; they evid­ence an attitude of mind that I do not think can be regarded as very admirable.' All the writers wanted, he said, were pictures of film stars, television stars, or reasons why there were not more jazz pro­grammes, or why there could not be more programmes of a musical kind. 'I hold teachers very largely responsible if that is the attitude of people in their teens and early twenties,' he said. 'If we provided simply that it would be deplorable.'

(Quoted in John Montgomery, The Fifties)



Luckily, this was an attitude not shared by all his colleagues in commer­cial television. Sidney Bernstein, founder and chairman of Granada Television (from whose studios the social realist drama of Coronation Street emerged in December 1960) found that




The public has supported good programmes even on subjects like homosexuality and venereal disease. I am not satisfied with our efforts, but they are improving every day and we are training people who we think will produce better television in the future.




Giving the public what they wanted was not merely a matter of offering 'bread and circuses' but of offering programmes that challenged consen­sual thought, made to the highest standards. What was absolutely clear was that the public did not want sermons but they did demand entertain­ment - relaxation and education in a variety of presentational forms.




It is precisely here, in this division between authentic and inauthentic culture, between mass and popular taste, that the critical gaze is most blurred, that the faculties of discrimination both political and aesthetic become most confused. It is, in a sense, (despite 'audience' studies and fan analysis), impossible to bring the analytic faculty fully to bear on lumpen mass culture, the culture almost exclusively generated from below, and from popular forms of consumption unburdened by ques­tions of good taste or propriety. How exactly is one to account clearly, in terms of the idea of historical struggle, for those kitsch pleasures we all enjoy - from saucy seaside postcards to collecting Jeanie Baby toys? Mass taste and popular taste cross and recross, emblazoned with the illuminated 'K' of tastelessness and lack of decorum. Kitsch is unruly and sentimental. It is not to be applauded any more than deplored but it speaks directly of an aesthetic pleasure and a lived experience of culture which cultural critics find hard to square with the moral burden of liberating the popular from the mass.




José Ortega y Gasset thought that the kitsch man was man in the present, in his own solipsism. In other words kitschman was relativist man, one prey to authoritarian tendencies and to the romanticisation of the self, swayed by history because a prey to his own selfish tendencies, feeling that, in some way, the now is all there is, a point of absolute superiority to all other eras and places and selves.




The intellectual is under no compunction to support kitsch culture nor is he or she under any compunction to liberate the masses (who was Ortega y Gasset's 'average' person?) from their burden of pleasure. The intellectual is required to notice the aesthetic of mass cultural prod­ucts and in this to notice their emotional dynamic. There is no more reason for intellectuals to abandon a commitment to everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select, as Ortega y Gasset suggests, than there is to abandon the pleasures of what should be considered illicit. The intellectual has to understand those contradictions 'in the body' as it were. There can be no truer spur to insurrectionary sense than guilty pleasures taken in secret!




The pop-studies consensus that decries any critique of mass culture as 'elitist' could only arrive from such a top-down perspective. Down here in the cheap seats, we never stop scrapping. Central to Marxist doctrine has always been its attachment to the social conditions governing the mass of the population. As a corollary to this, Marxist critics interested in culture have long since struggled with the con­ditions from which mass culture arises, its attachment to political commitment and the perceptual framework within which an ana­lysis of such culture can be validated, given traditional Marxism's silence on the matter. At the heart of such interest is the attempt to align a sophisticated avant-garde methodology with the concept of the 'popular"[6]

(Watson, Alt, Class and Cleavage)



By the late ]980s, the alignment of Marxist analysis with concepts of the popular was under acute pressure from both political and cultural challenges; on the one hand Thatcherite Conservatism seemed to threaten an endless Conservative 'revolution' to which the left had no solution, on the other hand cultural criticism, especially deconstruction, post-structuralism and linguistic feminism, seemed to highlight the inadequacies of Marx's original formulations and produce more radical, 'politicised' readings. By 1988, Stuart Hall was berating colleagues:




Political analysis on the left seems pitifully thin. This is ... because the left ... tends to hold a very reductionist conception of politics and ideology where, 'in the last instance' (whenever that is), both are determined by, and so can be 'read off' against, some (often ill defined) notion of 'economic' or 'class' determination.

                   (Hall, quoted in Roger Eatwell and Noel O'Sullivan, The Nature of Right)




Marxist doctrine, if it was to survive, would have to become more sophisticated towards determining factors ('automatic linkages') in an age of fragmentary class relationships (how else could one account for a Conservative working class?). Thus, the underlying social, economic and cultural forces which are bring­ing the era of 'organised capitalism' to a close have decomposed and fragmented class as a unified political force, fracturing any so-called automatic linkages between economics and politics. Infected by a cultural virus they believed was a more powerful engine of analysis, Marxist critics were exhorted to embrace an analysis of culture which saw it as a semi-autonomous region, its class base uncertain and its economic impulses secondary. The sociology of society was to become the sociology of culture, an investigation of the realm of political power produced by the unconscious (because 'naturalised') habituation of the masses to the ideology of power fed incessantly through the mass (Tory) media.




The effective disengagement of culture from social formation and therefore disengagement from a final determining base in the mode of production meant that Marxist critics would have no choice but to embrace other analytic approaches in order to be Marxist at all! In the face of a seemingly endless Conservatism based upon the vote of a misguided Conservative working class, new left-wing answers would have to be sought, it was believed, outside classic Marxist doctrine. Throughout the 1980s Marxism was hyphenated: feminist-Marxism; deconstructive-Marxism; post-structuralist Marxism.




The call for a 'return' to a political reading of culture must be seen against this background. For left-wing cultural writers who had, since the late 1960s and early 1970s, been educated within the cultural materi­alism of British Marxism, a return to politics would at once have to endorse the autonomy of the realm of culture and post-structural multi­plicity whilst avoiding the trap of either a revisionist human­ism (represented by Leavis) or a revisionist (economistic) Marxism.




The Marxism, which informs the cultural studies approach, is a critical Marxism in the sense that it has contested the reductionist implica­tions of earlier Marxist approaches to the study of culture. These … often tend to view culture … as being totally determined by economic relationships. The Marxist approaches that have informed the devel­opment of the cultural studies perspective, … have insisted on the 'relative autonomy' of culture - on the fact that it is not simply dependant on economic relationships and cannot … be reduced to … a mere reflection of these.

(Tony Bennett, Marxism and Popular Fiction)



Even more to the point, the conjunction of literature, history and politics seemed central to the definition of British culture (and to a lesser extent European culture) - this conjunction, and this alone, from which the most powerful analytic voices spoke when attempting to make sense of all three terms and the modes by which they express social conscious­ness and its radical potential. Catherine Belsey, for instance, rightly claimed that




To bring these three terms together is hardly to do anything new. Literature and History has been doing it since its inception; the Essex Conference volumes do it; Raymond Williams … spent his life doing it; historians like E. P. Thompson and Christopher Hill ... have frequently done it. T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis and E. M. W. Tillyard did it when they constructed ... a lost Elizabethan utopia ... an organic community.

(Catherine Belsey, Literature, History, Politics)



Despite this tradition of radical alignment, nevertheless, for Belsey, to bring the terms together 'explicitly' was to 'scandalise' literary criticism and attack the essentialist ideology of community. Using the obligatory insights of Saussurian linguistics and Foucaultian method, Belsey is quick to seize on the inadequacy of traditional empirical history using her own textual insights:




But documents do not merely transcribe experience: to the extent that they inevitably come from a context where power is at stake, they are worth analysis … as locations of power and resistance to power … This is the history not of an irrecoverable experience, but of meanings, of the signified in its plurality, not the referent in its singular but imaginary presence. It is, therefore, a history of struggle and, in consequence, a political history.




To relativise a set of texts is, for Belsey, to re-politicise them, rob them of an essentialist residue. No longer 'evidence of how it felt', historical texts and literary texts are to be 'read' in their plurality. At her most radically left position, Belsey has already slipped beyond Marxism, she has already conflated history and literature, documentary evidence and fictions. It is an important slippage, rhetorically powerful (and therefore in some sense political) but also revisionist, for it immediately leads to the dismissal of the very place from which and only from which a radical reading (and therefore a radical politics) could emerge - the popular. Thus she reiterates Tony Bennett in her desire to: “Call into question both the category — the autonomy of literary studies — and the value — Literature as distinct from its residue, popular fiction. We need to replace the quest for value by an 'analysis of the social contestation of value.”




What are we to make of 'popular fiction' as a mere 'residue' of 'liter­ature'? The very site of struggle is dismissed as an effect of a previous precious substance. Demanding a challenge to the category literature, Belsey dismisses the very position from which to launch such a chal­lenge and from which such a challenge could lead to a political and radical refusal of consensus. In attempting to challenge literature as a 'category' and therefore demolish category boundaries whilst exposing the pedagogical and historical contexts of literature's construction, Belsey simply falls back into a 'post' Marxist consensus: a fight between consenting adults. Because she will not 'privilege literature' (because to do so is value laden), Belsey is unwilling to privilege all discourse (the 'signified in its plurality'). Nevertheless, she still claims 'that... a formal indeterminacy does not mean that we can never speak of form, any more than the polyphony of "freedom" prevents us from condemning police states' (Belsey, ibid.). Without the ability to privilege a specific value-laden, coherent language of opposition that challenges author­itarian power, Belsey is only able to come up with a weak version of challenge based on polyphonic reading:




The reading practice implied by this enterprise - the production of a political history from the raw material of literary texts - is a result of all that post structuralism has urged about meaning: its often marginal location, its disunity and discontinuity, as well as its plur­ality. In this way the text reappears, but not as it 'really is', or 'really was'. On the contrary, this is the text as it never was, though it was never anything else - dispersed, fragmented, produced, politicised.




Polyphonic reading robs the challenger of an authoritative position as well as those he or she challenges (who already have the power that is being contested). Such an approach produces the very relativism that Belsey and others sought to avoid in the 1980s: producing not a polit­ical reading but a consensual one, amenable to those whose power remained not only unchallenged but reassured by such analysis. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s this line of argument could be found amongst the 'official' opposition at its centres at Essex Univer­sity, Cardiff and the polytechnics; nevertheless, the argument found itself severely critiqued from at least two directions and open to refuta­tion from a third.




From the more orthodox of Marxists, ideas of fragmentation and relative autonomy were excuses for an idealist revisionism that ignored Marx's insistence on a 'holistic' approach. Dismemberment of the system not only reduced the power of the critic trying to analyse the totality but also robbed the critic of a concept of totality. Marx's recognition of fragmentation was not the same as post-structuralist-Marxism's and therefore,




Because cultural materialism, through the significance it attributes to the evident materiality of cultural practice, threatens to prise loose determinate relationships between modes of production and cultural production, cultural materialism is itself on the way to such incorp­oration.

(R. S. Neale, Writing Marxist History)



Cultural materialism constantly faced the problem, therefore, of dealing with the epiphenomenona of power, unable to trace power to its origina­tion and its brokers.




A further critique came from those who wished to work with con­cepts of production and consumption within the popular itself and who recognised the ironic narrowing of focus that was then occurring. The target of their concerns was statements such as this from those who controlled academic access to popular studies:




Statements to the effect that Joyce opened up the possibilities of language in a way that Conan Doyle … did not seem to me to be quite unproblematic.

(Gennett, Marxism and Popular Fiction)



Such statements, which reperipheralised popular fiction and which left it as a mere 'residue' did nothing except show-up the bankruptcy of those who chose to study popular fiction without having any feeling for it. That such blatantly biased and ill-informed comments could remain 'unproblematic' led to my own publication of Cult Fiction in which I commented, with a certain amount of outrage,




My admiration for [cultural materialism's] exploratory abilities is offset by my inability to accept such general statements as make simplistic equations without either theoretical or carefully tested empirical evidence. While these are still important books one cannot help but think that the writers were trying hard to understand low brow writing but could not rid themselves of the belief that there is a conspiracy behind mass culture which must be resisted.

                                                                                   (Clive Bloom, Cult Fiction)




The most surprising challenge to Belsey's position came not from those already mentioned, but from the area she and her colleagues most disliked and feared, Leavisism - or more properly one of its central tenets: the lost organic community. Such was the ferocity of the attack that, the proposal was to reverse the Leavisian enterprise of constructing (inventing) a lost organic world of unfallen morality, un-dissociated sensibility and uncontested order. (Belsey, op. cit)  Whilst Leavis's 'narrowness, humanism, a-political position', elitism and smugness may or may not have been legitimate targets for critical ire, what hostile critics failed to notice was that the concept of the organic community could be recuperated as a radical and practical term within mass (popular) society and on its behalf in ways both specifically political and traditional- a very British revolution going on at the same time as the academic assault reached a crescendo. Wilful misreading and dismissal of Leavisite 'concepts' led otherwise skilful critics to overlook their own radical position and to misconstrue the potential of an idea of organic community which seemed historically inaccurate, suspiciously revisionist and the obsession of a personal fantasy.




By the 1970s a number of radicals, anarchists and libertarians had started to embrace Leavisian positions towards community even if they personally had never heard of Leavis (who would have wholeheartedly disapproved of them!). Nevertheless, with the failure of mainstream radical protest, the 'remnant' had survived in sufficient numbers to create secret protest movements based around festivals and travelling. These new, if disparate, movements based upon Avalonian, druidic, hippy-punk and rave cultures took an alternative view of the organic community (ecological and folkloristic) which they put into practical effect within mass culture. This was popular culture (and revolt), within mass culture (and consensus), lived simultaneously. Faced with such challenges of a lived and pragmatic nature (these lifestyles are not theo­rised), critics retreat into NIMBY-dom!"[7]




Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, fairs, free festivals and gatherings began to proliferate throughout southern and eastern England, some peaceful, some confrontational; some hippy, some punk; some legal, some illegal. For many organisers, the inspiration was as much California as 'merry old England', extending and adapting Monterey, Altamont or New York State's Woodstock cultures. 'The use of "Albion" [moreover] illustrate[d] a desire for a truly alternative society, even an alternative history, a dub version of Britain', as George McKay put it.




At one such fair, for instance, Nostalgia begins to multiply: the historical references of the Barsham Faires are several: an initial medievalism, a pre-Industrial Revolution agricultural ideal, the 'dream' of the (first) Summer of Love. Versions of Olde England are comfortably mixed with the 1960s, producing energy and humour, even some politics, maybe. Albion as con­structed is an earthy, mystical, mythical make an alternate world of British history, all mists and Merlin, using a language whose words are spelled with extra ‘es’ on the end to signal the link with a cons­tructed past: Follye Fayre, Faerie Fair. . .. Whatever politics functions here in the early 1970s is a political rejection of technology, a contri­bution to a hippy organic ideal through a parody of history.


(George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty)




Such constructions of history, myth and self were, however, self-aware. These were conscious attempts to remake a social environment, choice based on a third, though 'organic' communal sense: nostalgic and contemporary.




Fair organisers, then, fore grounded the situatedness of their events: the sense of locality, of landscape, of rural tradition and history was central to the East Anglian fairs. The social and cultural hegemony of urban space, the idea of the city as hero and site of modernity (and post modernity, in spite of its claims to focus on the margins), is challenged a bit by things like the fairs. The British countryside ignored by the Romantics, since Hardy and the Edwardians, was claim­ing back some territory, was interrogating the limits of enclosure.

(McKay, ibid.)



By the late 1980s, such groups as made up the 'Albion Free State' had allied themselves with more conformist groups and individuals protest­ing against the poll tax, veal exports and unnecessary road develop­ments. Dongas (road protesters), travellers and Tree People became the new 'enemy within', vilified in the popular media but ironically turned into eco-icons by many ordinary readers. The margin was now centre; had, finally, come home for a few brief radical moments when the critics weren't looking, put up its banners and maypole in Parliament Square, created a 'guerrilla garden and had itself a riot.'[8]









[1] A version of this article was first published as Chapter 9 in Literature, Politics and Intellectual Crisis in Britain Today (Palgrave 2000).


[2] The fact that the Monty Python team were always political and social conformists does not detract from their extraordinary comic genius.


[3] Leavis was an exclusionist but he did not want to exclude popular sentiment nor feeling, only their debased expression in mass culture that he saw as manufactured.


[4] The Bolshoi was to Lenin revoltingly decadent. The theatre was only useful to help relax workers after a day at the factory.


[5] The problem occurs in the manner and order of reading Marx’s work and in the changes in his thought from the early to the later writings and not least in his total disregard for art!


[6] Leon Trotsky was quite clear that there was no such thing as proletarian culture – no such thing as popular culture – only a bourgeois culture that had to be assimilated by the proletariat on its own revolutionary terms and then be superseded by communist culture. The period of the dictatorship of the proletariat would be too short tot create its own culture, which would be undesirable anyway as it would delay or even postpone full communist culture. Neither Trotsky nor Lenin saw the need to ignore bourgeois culture.




               The main task of the proletarian intelligentsia is not the abstract formation of a new culture regardless of the absence of a basis for it, but definite culture bearing, that is, a systematic, planful and, of course, critical importing to the backward masses of the essential elements of the culture that already exists.


                                                                                               (Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution; emphasis added).


[7] ‘Not In My Back Yard’.


[8] Following a well-attended and orderly conference, the main occupation of Parliament Square was both good humoured and had a carnival atmosphere. The event was not intended as a demonstration but a gathering and ‘celebration’ of an alliance between various groups whose agendas are politico-ethical. The subsequent march on Trafalgar Square was largely orchestrated by militant Kurdish elements (one group Maoist and one Trotskyist) whose graffiti can be clearly seen on photo and film footage of the defacement of various statues. The subsequent limited violence cannot be separated from their actions which represented a detachment of an earlier 1960’s/70’s politics into a 1990’s setting where (in this case) it was not appropriate.


               The event illustrated the danger of loose networks and spontaneity whose core contains a complex and unclear melange of issues open to appropriation by violent, neo-fascist or uncontrollable elements who do little except divert attention from the issues at hand. Equally of concern are those anarchists-communitarian developments (so-called non-hierarchical determinants) that can easily lead not to liberation but to cantonment, retrogression, neo-feudalism, aimless nomadism and accumulative primitivism.


               For a full account of the nature of the anarchist activity that day see Clive Bloom, Violent London; for an interesting account of recent non-mainstream liberal politics see Tim Jordan and Adam Lent (eds), Storming the Millenium; for an account of the theoretical diversity of both the left and right in a post-modern age see Andreas Schedler (ed.), The End of Politics, and Roger Eatwell and Noel O’Sullivan (eds), The Nature of the Right.