Literature: Constituted or Constituting, Superstructure or Base?

by Mark Wallace

This quote from a review of a book I’d never read, or even heard of, got me thinking:

They’re doing what they’re doing with a desperate hope of improving our media, because art affects us on really deep, unconscious levels and so we need to understand the consequences of our art. We need to understand what it does to us, to all of us–what we might be doing to other people, through our art. When I was a child, I built my sense of self out of my favorite heroines: Belle, Hermione, Alanna, Eowyn. In college, I constructed a lot of my interactions with the people I was romantically interested in like they were scenes in a book–I even wrote a short story about doing so. When we joke about Disney or Tolkien or Austen giving us unrealistic expectations for romance, it’s because those stories shape how we view and interact with our relationships.

A question which has, I think, bedevilled literary criticism since its inception is how does literature effect us, and how does it affect things in a larger social context. Evidently, the writer here considers it does have a considerable conditioning effect on our consciousness and how we view our relationships with others. Is it possible to quantify or document this, though?

The classical sociological study of history has come from a Marxist perspective. According to what is now called vulgar Marxism, art and literature simply ‘reflects’ economic circumstances; it expresses the ideology that grows out of specific economics/ relations of production. But according to this theory, art doesn’t create anything; it doesn’t really change anything. As this is now called ‘vulgar Marxism’, it is evident that it is no longer a widely-held theory and is rather a pejorative term. Why this should be is also obvious: if you give your time to studying art or literature, it can’t be because you think it is limited to this entirely dependent role. You feel art has been important to you, so it must have some special quality, independent of any ideological role. ‘Reflection’ is not ambitious enough.

From within a Marxist framework, Raymond Williams came up with the term ‘structure of feeling’ to try and deal with this (see, especially, his book Marxism and Literature). According to Williams, art is both constituted by and constitutive of the characteristic consciousness of an age, and this is its importance – it begins to articulate tones, feelings, etc., that are only beginning to enter general consciousness and will not be codified until they reach the dominant stage. Art, at its best, can tell the future, and help us anticipate and adjust to it. This is a nice idea, but it’s hard to theorize, and has little currency outside Williams’ own usages – which are somewhat contradictory (but see Said’s variations on the phrase in Culture and Imperialism). If one could by any chance come to a satisfactory working methodology for usage of the term, one would be entitled to quite a pat on the back. (Edit: But here’s a very recent attempt to use the term to study George Saunder’s Tenth of December. Seems reasonably good, but haven’t read it in depth yet.)

This brings me back to the question of how we talk about the social effect of literature, or, to put it another way, how the study of literature can be justified in a wider social context. Reflection is no longer good enough, structure of feeling remains too vague. Reading on Dickens and ideology to research a paper I’m writing at the moment I came across a discussion of how older critics read Dickens as an “index to social realities” but contemporary researchers opine that “his novels can be assigned a more active role in discursive construction of the family and of gendered identity” (Catherine Waters, “Gender, Family and Domestic Ideology”, Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, ed. Jordan [2009]), but this was given as bald fact, with no explanation as to how we know that reading Dickens has this active role, and no empirical examples of how this “active role” worked. At a very general level it just derives from postmodern theorizing of how our experience is shaped by discourse, but at a more nuanced level, there seems to be no actual methodology of showing this in literary criticism. It’s an unquestioned theoretical assumption of the time, based on abstract generalizing in Barthes, Derrida and the like.

We do have, of course, reception study, but the classic model of reception study based on Iser with his theory of “gaps”, etc., is again wholly abstract and ahistorical, and only deals with the moment of reading, anyway. On the other hand, there are a growing number of studies dealing with actual responses, with documented readings. One I have used is Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, an excellent book using library records, biographical documents and other material to find out what the working class was reading in the later-19th/early-20th century. This book tells us what they read and what they liked (Carlyle was a big favourite; Ruskin, Dickens; later on, Wells; the Bible throughout). It does not tell us, though, what difference specific readings made – and how could it? Occasionally, a person may attest to the importance of a certain reading, attributing to it an actual substantial lasting life effect, but even this is suspect – how can we know if things would have turned out otherwise had not this reading of this book taken place? My point is, we don’t, and this is still the great lacuna in literary criticism, academic and otherwise. We don’t know just how much books, or culture in general, matter in society as a whole. Does culture make us better, morally? Hmm, probably not, as the Nazis were pretty culturally sophisticated. But some sort of metric or method needs to be developed to judge effect, at a personal and at a societal level, at the moment of reading and over the long time, in small matters of daily conduct, in large matters of public policy, and in matters of consciousness – does what we read create wholesale shifts in consciousness?

A Marxist way of asking the last question is: is literature base or superstructure? Vulgar Marxism, says the latter; most contemporary Marxism would say it has relative independence, and that it can impact back on the base. It was so much easier when literature was purely superstructural, though, purely a reflection. If we allow that the influence goes the other way, we have to try and see how that works. Does the existence of certain works, certain genres, create or help create new forms of consciousness, new political and economic realities?! If another work or genre had been available instead, would society have developed differently? It’s really hard to argue this, to impose a method for this, but we (or some of us) argue as if it were true. Maybe the difference is minuscule, maybe what they really do is, like for the blogger quoted at the beginning, they provide a setting around which we can crystallize our thoughts on a certain difficult social or moral topic. We use them to argue with. It’s the ensuing dialogue, not the works in themselves, that make the difference. Perhaps we would have the arguments anyway, but in slightly altered forms. It still doesn’t prove that literature makes difference, though. Our social consciousnesses are formed by our surroundings, and we choose what literature we respond to according to that. If a piece of literature changes our mind about something, maybe we should be thinking that our mind was already changing, it just awaited a concretization of where it needed to go. Maybe we need to take all of this into account before we talk of how the discursive formations in Dickens had in active role in defining how we think about and how we do family and gender.