The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: February, 2013

Structures of Feeling and Adaptation

Carlyle noted that “No man works save under conditions” (On Heroes, lecture 3). He was speaking of Shakespeare, so you might say he was anticipating the cultural materialist approach of Raymond Williams, by making a nod towards the social formation of the artistic product. The social conditions in which any artistic producer finds himself are formative of his consciousness, and incrementally construct therein a structure of feeling, as Williams called it, a set of modes of interaction and response common to a certain group at a certain moment.

Williams’ structures of feeling is not just ideology, but also includes what Carlyle called “the thing a man does practically believe (and this is often enough without asserting it to himself, much less to others)” (On Heroes, lecture 1). Professed ideologies tell us something about those who profess them, but for both Williams and Carlyle practicality is key. Practicality is not defined by what is said. Speech is to a great extent a set of conventions reproduced unreflectively. What is said is what is sayable; what is unsayable, or not conveniently sayable (which is often enough for it to be left unsaid), is what must be recovered to construct a full picture of the structure of feeling.

It is in the artistic product that we may look for  the fullest and most conveniently available articulation of a structure of feeling. This is particularly true when it can be demonstrated that an artistic product is directed at a particular community or group (or at more than one), as, in practice, almost all of them are; in commercial terms, an artistic producer will first have to demonstrate that he/she has a prospective audience, and show how he/she will appeal to them. Within the corporate framework, art must be communication before it is self-expression. What is key, though, is that it may communicate an ideology which prioritizes self-expression, yet still be located within a structure of feeling which is opposed to self-expression, but does not declare this opposition. Ideology is what is said, but structure of feeling is what is said, how it is meant, and what is not said, and how it is meant.

Film adaptations of novels from different eras or cultures are perhaps the best way of gauging a structure of feeling existent in the community at which the adaptation is directed. That is because these films have an exact narrative and indicial framework which they can reproduce (though always somewhat selectively). All films have this framework to an extent, in that they adapt and depart from genre and other conventions, but the conventions are rarely available for such close reproduction as in adaptation – that would be plagiarism, or would at least be censurable for demonstrating a lack of invention.

In so far as an adaptation is concerned, everything narratively or indicially differing from the adapted text may be read as speaking of a structure of feeling, and as providing the material for a study in comparative structures of feeling across cultural epochs. The new structure of feeling is not only reflected in the adaptation, but it is perpetuated, carried forward, modified by the adaptation; the artistic product/ audience relationship is one of mediation, endless and without exact boundaries. Culture is material to the society which consumes it. An artistic product, at its most powerful, can structure feeling. It can present a character and a situation and a character’s interaction with a situation and effectively say: “This is how this situation is interacted with. This is a specimen of normative interaction with this situation.” A character presented as normative must act in ways which can be accepted as normative and thereby gain leeway to act in a way which can become normative. By showing compliance with the structure of feeling, that same structure can be altered or moved forward from the inside. As to whether the structure can be altered from the outside, I’m not sure. The ideology of subversion is its own structure of feeling; to subvert one thing is often to confirm another, while retaining the evidently agreeable sense of being subversive.

It  is in diagnosing pre-emergent structures of feeling that Williams identified as the most difficult task for the practitioner of cultural studies. Yet any structure of feeling is always emerging, and always waning. It depends on what we want to pinpoint as central to the structure. This must ultimately be to some degree a matter of personal judgement (however “mediated” that judgement may be). Cultural studies is not a hard science. Culture, like history as described by Carlyle, is an “ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being” (On History) but in analysis it becomes solidified and narrativized. Eventually, we end up with moments, being unable to chronicle chaos. But in the study of adaptation we are confronted with two moments (as we will call them, for solidity’s sake) in whom we may discern two more or less divergent structures of feeling, and the meaning of these structures is not arrived at individually, but by comparison. A cultural moment gains its meaning through its relation with other moments, and in an adaptation of a work whose own production is temporally distant, we have a meeting of moments and structures of feeling, brought together in a manner which may be more or less harmonious and coherent, but can scarcely fail to be instructive.

For “structures of feeling”, see Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (OUP, 1977)

Reading and Critical Theory

The application of critical theory to primary texts is, of course, by no means a simple procedure. You have your primary text, you know what you think about it, and what you’d say about it if a non-academic asked your opinion of it, but you also know that as an academic you need to see it through a critical lens of some sort, either adopting someone else’s lens, or, in the long run, trying to grind out your own. It can be very difficult to maintain one’s own take on the text when that take is not wholly consonant with an established methodology. As one studies methodologies and theories with a view to helping towards a textual analysis, one often finds one’s own instinctual reaction being pushed into the background. The theory might make big statements about texts that you only half agree with, but which it’s not conducive to the construction of an explicit methodology for you to dissent from.

For many denizens of Not-academia, the idea that a text can be adequately theorized is anathema, or just irrelevant. Within academia, postmodern theory takes a somewhat similar stance, by being an anti-theory theory, focussing on the absence in the text, its essential indeterminacy or unknowability, and then making a theory of that. It’s a somewhat paradoxical stance, though a postmodernist might argue that’s the point. It’s a hard leap to make for a person of strongly rationalist tendencies (i.e. me) to begin to study in postmodernist terms. Postmodernism has rarely made much sense to me; it’s never given me a eureka moment of revelation or epiphany. To see through a PM lens one must first adbicate a great deal of one’s intellectual faculties: all those discredited notions like reason, common sense, etc. A lot is being sacrificed there, and it’s a leap I’m resistant to. I have discovered through my pg studies that, to characterize myself intellectually, I am an empirico-rationalist, indeed pedantically so. The problem, then, is finding a way of making literary criticism work for me. I’m strongly of the opinion that nobody should do what they don’t like, and all intellectual work should be carried out in general accordance with the individual tendencies of the mind, even where that comes into conflicts with prevailing schools of thought.

There are few enough theorists I have come across (at least of the really influential ones) who avoid the generalizations and exaggerations which make it hard for me to apply theories without dissenting from my own inner critic. One well-known critic who made a substantial effort to avoid theoretical tunnel-vision was Raymond Williams, who “laid the foundations for the field of cultural studies”, according to his Wikipedia page. Late in his career, Williams wrote Marxism and Literature (OUP, 1977), in which he explcitly associated himself with the titular worldview. It’s also his most heavily theoretical work, omitting the close textual reading found in his other works, including such influential volumes as Culture and Society (1958) and The Country and the City (1973).  What Williams tries to hold onto in Marxism and Literature is that literature, any literature, is always “a range of intentions and effects” (155). This is quite general and vague: by “intentions” Williams obviously wants to include not only what the author consciously “wants” to say (as the word “intentions” might convey), but also all the internalized social conventions which find voice through him; by “effects”, he includes everything that comes under reader-response. Within these intentions and effects, Williams wanted also to trace the presence of the “whole social material process, and specifically cultural production as social and material” (138). In short, Williams’ offers a synoptic model of the literary critic, tracing every interaction between text, author, reader, society. Society creates texts, and texts create society, Williams says, but he never tries to simplify the relationship, always keeping an eye open for any stray factor which can account for a text or any feature thereof. His is an approach, then, which can take a very wide view of the text. What is sacrificed to do this is theoretic specificity; Williams’ theory is necessarily vague and diffuse, but it is only through theoretic vagueness that the individual insight can be allowed to come into play.

This notion of insight is opposed to the idea of the critical lens, and hearkens back to Thomas Carlyle’s distinction of the dynamic from the mechanical, as the two great spheres of human thought and action (“Signs of the Times”, 1829). Theory and methodology, any theory and methodology, is by its nature primarily mechanical. Literature, meanwhile, is always in some degree dynamic; it is never pure system, and so can never be fully theorized, even by adding theory to theory the sum of your parts is less than the whole of the literary text. And even when you think you’re applying a particular theory, you’re really applying something else – if not, we’d all apply theory the same, and we don’t. Of course, the converse is also true, that when you think you’re giving your true thoughts, independent of any theory or system of thought, you’re still an expression of a process of socialization. But that second part is less important at this time, because it seems we in the 21st century always err in the other direction – too much system (even the anti-system system of post-modernism – real system would be preferable to a system which refuses to declare itself); the author (as an individual, or at least a unique complex of social pressure-points) is too dead, at this point, for my liking anyway. The author of academic literary criticism is also dead – he/she can only live through theories and methods. The task is to try and breathe some dynamism into the corpse. The task is to begin to favour the eye and to allow some slight devaluation of the lens. Perhaps as a current thesis-writing pg, I’ll have to stick with the lens, but hopefully build/ adapt a lens that will allow some light into the eye.


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