Structures of Feeling and Adaptation

by Mark Wallace

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)