Cultural Studies, Marxism, and Psychoanalysis: Paola Splendore interviews Raymond Williams (1978)

On the blog this month we have an interview with Raymond Williams, conducted by Italian academic Paola Splendore in the late 1970s in Cambridge and published in Ombre Rosse (in Italian) and Anglistica (in English). Williams had visited Naples in 1972, following the translation of Culture and Society (in 1968) and on the invitation of Fernando Ferrara and Lidia Curti. Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall had spoken at the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples and recommended Williams to Ferrara and Curti (see Ferrara, ‘Raymond Williams and the Italian Left’ in Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives, ed. Terry Eagleton, Polity, 1989). Splendore translated both The Long Revolution (in 1979) and Problems in Materialism and Culture (in 1983) into Italian, while other translated works include Marxism and Literature (in 1979), Culture (in 1983), and Television (in 1981). More recently, Border Country was published in Italy by PaginaUno. Many thanks to Paola Splendore for allowing the Raymond Williams Society to re-publish this fascinating insight into Williams’s thinking on Cultural Studies, Marxism, and Psychoanalysis.

Paola Splendore: Cultural Studies began in England about ten years ago in response to the crisis in theoretical Marxism and led to a more sophisticated Marxist approach, whereas, in Italy, the current crisis in the traditional fields of study, the crisis of theoretical Marxism, and the rise of feminism, have made us look at Cultural Studies as a potentially very interesting and fresh area of study outside dogmatic formulae. Why do you think Cultural Studies emerged in England at that time and why in Italy, now, under such very different circumstances?

Raymond Williams: I think that the development of Cultural Studies in Britain has gone through two or three phases. The first development was related, not so much to a crisis in Marxism, as to a very stagnant situation in British Marxism in the fifties when, although quite good work was being done in other areas of Marxist studies, in Cultural Studies (as then understood – studies of literature and art) there was very little happening, and there was, at the same time, a very strong appropriation of this whole field by conservative and liberal tendencies such as Leavis and so on. So, I think the response to Cultural Studies began in a very complex situation when there was a kind of absence of the Left in these areas and, at the same time, the whole set of cultural questions was being very actively pursued by the Right. That was the first phase which I would have thought began in the middle fifties, and characterized the period up until the mid-sixties, then you get the emergence of different currents and, by this time, there is a crisis in economic situations but that they involved much more complex human attitudes and that if you were to examine how people perceive themselves and others, you still didn’t have a strong field in literature but you had to be just as concerned with the way the images of women were used in advertising, for example, even advertising by women for women, let alone the simplest thing – men exploiting a crude image of women to sell something; the way women were defining themselves in these roles, these images, and attaching them to products could not be dismissed as crude commercial work and one could not say that there was a much higher level of literary work which didn’t have anything in common with it. It had all too much in common with it!

PS: You are considered to be the ‘father’ of Cultural Studies. Do you acknowledge this paternity? Which of your original concepts do you consider still workable and which have been wrongly neglected?

RW: Well, I don’t know, I think this question of paternity is much more complicated than that –  I think that you could say that there were circumstances in my own formation which meant that I was at a crossroad, so that I had been part of the Marxist Left and had become increasingly dissatisfied with its work. Through Cambridge English studies I had been exposed to the whole Scrutiny tendency which had taken up these questions but turned them into right-wing positions. In society there was the arrival of a very large number of people from working-class families into higher education and in cultural activity; this posed the problem of a class confronting a culture with all the traditional problems of a received culture linked with a newly made culture and a commercial culture which was substituting itself for popular culture. So, if you look back at it quite objectively, it is independent of anything that I may have personally contributed. There was a curious combination of roots – which meant that I arrived where the problems were just through my own quite objective social history. I’ve described it as a kind of crossroad; you’re at a point of pressure from a number of different tendencies – it looks, in retrospect, like a particular theoretical development: you thought this, then you thought that, though of course, as it happened it was never as clear as that and one only realised, at certain stages, which things were workable and which were not.

I still think that the emphasis on the undivided spectrum which I made very early holds for all the theoretical differences that then arise, the application of certain methods of analysis developed in one part of it to another. Introducing a social history of the means of production in the second part of The Long Revolution with the studies of how printing, publishing, education and other aspects included in communications, I tried to bring that kind of study of ideas and feelings into a more close study of the means of production. Both things were there and the development has been to try to integrate them. Of course, in the process, my views have changed – including discovering a lot more modern and contemporary Marxist theory with which, at least, dialogue was possible; certainly, in the fifties, dialogue wasn’t possible because positions on these matters were closed.

PS: Cultural Studies now draws on different sources, especially of French inspiration, whereas you seemed to want originally to return to certain English traditions. Is this so?

RW: Yes, it is strange; there were very complex factors in English culture which made a whole generation of young left intellectuals really turn away from the whole of their own culture because it seemed so unproductive and stagnant and, literally, an idea which was already quite familiar in English thought, if they but knew it, had only to be written in French for it to become immediately attractive. This is a trivial comment but there’s a certain truth in it. The example I always take is that when we encountered structuralist literary criticism in the sixties, it didn’t take long to trace its paternity to two sources in the twenties: Russian formalism, which was widely acknowledged, and English analytical criticism (especially Richards); both trends uniting in the USA as structural linguistics to develop into structuralist positions in anthropology and literary criticism which were then imported from the USA to France. When it came back to England from France, it was as though nothing of the kind had ever been said, whereas, in fact, in certain very orthodox structuralist positions about literary analysis there’s nothing really new to anybody who knew the English work of the twenties. However, what people were rejecting was what had happened to that English tradition which had become, on the whole, conservative and moralist, you know, the later work of Leavis, and they went to this other work because it was precisely more rigorous, more objective, more systematic, indeed the exact qualities which Richards was trying to find in a science of literary criticism in the twenties.

In the sixties the encounter of these different traditions had a very liberating effect because it meant a reuniting of certain disciplines wider than ordinary literary analysis – notably the inclusion of semiology, psychoanalysis and of a certain kind of sociology. It meant that the work was being done on a much broader front and it has still not been sorted out yet. With my own students, for example, I found that they very quickly assimilated the Althusserian position which has the great virtue of French intellectual work that it is very quickly assimilable systematically, because it is so clearly stated. You can learn certain positions, formulations, independent of their value, and then you can apply these positions to your own material. So students have been forced into a much more active kind of thinking, quite apart from whether the theory is right or wrong. On the whole, the influence has done nothing but good, but, when it comes merely to the sort of exchange of textually learnt positions from Althusser – I think it has not. This is the ordinary business with the French themselves analysing the curious mechanics of cultural import and export; there’s always a certain glamour to any foreign position because it evades all the difficulties inside your own culture, all the blocks you know that come with a certain fashion. If you have to work new ideas into your own culture, then they have to be reassimilated to face certain crises inside the culture. Since national traditions are all enclosed, and the conservatism of the academic system tends to reproduce national positions, this encounter between cultures had a very liberating effect. But, in the long run, this liberation has to be judged in terms of work and not in terms of origin.

PS: In the current cultural debate, one of the main emphases is on the importance of language/ideology and the formation of the psychoanalytical subject (Lacan, Tel Quel, Screen), whereas in your own work one finds a rather different understanding of the concepts of language and ideology drawing upon the work of Voloshinov. How do you explain this?

RW: What the positions share is a great emphasis on language as an active process and not simply as recording ideology; where I would differ is in seeing language as an active social process. The narrowest version of the Tel Quel, Screen tendency begins from what is, in effect, the isolated subject which is built by the social processes – I think that this is putting the emphasis wrongly because the involvement of language in the whole social process means that it is from the beginning a matter of continuing and changing social relationships and not simply the formation of the psychoanalytical subject – the subject, in that sense, is one of the products of the social process. Some of the more schematic explanations of how the subject is formed as in the Lacan mirror phase are much too simplified and can easily become simply a form of bourgeois thought – of how the individual comes to perceive himself. I am still sufficiently an orthodox Marxist to say basically that individuals are formed by the wide social process involving relationships from the beginning and not from simply internal relationships, i.e. relations within the whole body of social formations, so, we must be looking for a theory of language which really does recognise that there are continuities of a social kind in the language process. We want to emphasize much more than the extreme opposite psychoanalytical version, according to which, this process happens in a new way to the individual, each time, in every segment of the spectrum of the social situation, in which he finds himself. This is also a critique of orthodox psychoanalysis; it is not that the processes that it has uncovered are not of fundamental importance, it is just that the notion that these processes are universal or, in any sense, prior to society, prior to the specifics of society – this I would reject.

Those are the two extreme positions; where the interesting work is happening is where people are looking at how particular social formations produce certain kinds of psychoanalytical conception of the subject or how certain pressures on language from the whole social process are affected; the theoretical argument in Marxism and Literature was a very important start in the clearing up of a situation. There really has been a lot of good scientific, non-psychoanalytic study of language development – books, neuro-physiological work and studies of language development in children, very important studies of non-verbal communication, of expression, gesture and body posture; what emerges from it is something more complex than can be reduced to the formulations which get learnt and repeated about the stages through which the individual goes. It doesn’t mean that you can just take over British and American experimental psychology in its own terms, because it is often crude behaviourism but nevertheless, there is a lot of very solid actual experimental work there which finally has to be looked at.

PS: Do you relate to the psychoanalytical trend at all?

RW: The permanent contribution of psychoanalysis has been to emphasize the part which has been extraordinarily neglected by official culture and by orthodox Marxism, the whole area of experience of a very intense and important kind which had been relegated to the ‘merely personal’ or the ‘merely subjective’. I don’t know how anybody ever managed to live with those theories since they were all the time living and involved in those experiences but that happens with theory sometimes. There are so many things one has to take into account about the true situation of the relationship which is set up between the analyst and the patient. This is to some extent checkable by the rigorous analysis of other relationships of this kind between any observer and what he is observing, or between, as it were, any experimental situation where somebody is involved in a process of cure. It is this awareness, not simply of the results of the psychoanalyst-patient relationship, but of the whole cultural and social matrix in which such a relationship occurs. The assumption taken into the psychoanalytical session is that the analyst is a neutral observer of somebody else’s emotions, life and difficulties, now it is not only on general theoretical grounds but on all sorts of demonstrable experimental grounds that you have to question that neutrality. It is the same position as a sort of nineteenth-century scientist which assumed that the honest untrained observer would always record the truth and that he had certain general laws by which he could interpret the facts that he observed.

I think that the more this work is done, the more you realise just how much the observer affects the material he’s observing and this is very important in psychoanalysis. There has been a lot of experimental study of what it is to set up this special relationship so that people can detect the unconscious biases surrounding the situations, so they can have some means of becoming aware of the ways they are pushing something the way they want it to go; this is a very important corrective and the training of quite different psychological schools has to be aware of how much of themselves they’re putting into their results. I don’t see this as incompatible with the true spirit of psychoanalysis which ought, after all, to be totally open to this sort of thing and yet very often people become impatient with this work and say it is merely behaviourist. It isn’t that any more. There are some simple behaviourists around and there is also a lot of it which is much more solid work than that. What has impressed me are the studies of non-verbal communication, on gestures, expression, body posture, movement, in a communication and in a relationship, the difference between cultures, the attempt to discover whether there are any universal human elements, whether there are any common elements with certain animals, etc. This kind of work has to happen and is happening but if it is merely cut off by the repetitions of the formulations of psychoanalysis, then the thing becomes not a science but a theology. There is a tremendous amount going on in language and non-verbal communication, psychoanalysis, semiology, the whole field; within twenty years the general things the non-specialists say could be quite different because these things are now interacting but if you stop them interacting, if you say “this is the system”, you accept the first interpretation that comes along and, interpretations are very persuasive, but it does not mean that they are true.

Simply reintroducing actively experiencing human individuals into the received and very powerful accounts of the social and economic process is significant. Sartre’s comment, that, for the orthodox Marxist, life begins when you took your first job because you entered the economy, had a role, a status, is very good because by 14, 15, 16, 20, whatever age it is, you have lived an enormously rich life of all sorts of relationships and experiences which, to any individual, whatever they may try to think, is of great importance and is not to be reduced to something merely negligible. Its importance has to be acknowledged and a social theory which does not start by acknowledging that these experiences are of great importance fails. Whether you agree with any particular formulation of psychoanalysis, it was the one movement that reminded the whole culture that people were like that. Non-intellectuals might never have needed reminding, people always knew this about themselves but it was difficult to express.

If a social theory does not include that kind of experience it gets taken over by other things, by religion or by all kinds of traditional attitudes of what people are like or what people should do, or how they should behave, that all the ‘young’, all the ‘women’, all the ‘men’ are like this, none of which can be true. But if the social theory is merely saying, “because you’re in the working class you have that experience”, that is not enough. After all, working class people have immense variations in their individual lives alongside the common property they have as workers of a class: you cannot merely say in the end, these are two sides of their life, because nobody lives like that; there is one life.

PS: What do you think of the intellectual work carried out in restricted languages directed at a specialized public of magazines such as Screen, Ideology and Consciousness, etc. Can their impact really modify taste and introduce new styles in cultural practices?

RW: Well, I don’t think they can have that much effect in introducing new styles because you can only introduce new styles in, and really modify cultural practice, if you really are involved in the struggle for the means of cultural production. In fact, what had happened in a period in which that struggle had been blocked is that with the expansion of higher education you now have a small public which moves to doing very advanced work within its sphere. I think this has a certain effect on the work, but I wouldn’t wish to say it was wrong. Let’s take the good side of it first. The most important contribution of semiology was to extend the kind of analysis that had been done of certain written texts to other kinds of texts. The analysis of images and the visual presentation of photographs, films and advertising has given greater depth and breadth to the notion of Cultural Studies. But I think it’s the result of the whole situation of letters – the increasing lack of connection between socialist intellectuals doing new kinds of things and the political formations which have been surprisingly resistant to active collaboration. It’s all bound up with much more general political difficulties. It would be an enormous advance if, for example, the British Labour Party would simply ask a few people to do this work, to attend to the presentation because it looks appalling. In the early sixties when the Labour Party was much more open, we said “a new set of problems requires a social policy”; now we’re living in a different kind of culture where people get their present opinions from quite different ranges of sources and institutions.

I’ve always tried to write books which could at least be fairly generally read alongside specialised studies. I think that those who are doing their work in this small but very important and expanding sector in education have to talk to each other. I think that one would expect from previous historical situations that this would start to affect wider groups. Some of it is much more difficult material but a self-conscious minority has implied the work is more difficult than it needs to be. There is even a certain elation in being difficult. They reply, “Oh you want us to talk baby-talk”. But there are positions between baby-talk and this. The absence of a party which understands that the cultural process is a very intense kind of class struggle is serious. Unless you have a party or something like it, then intellectuals are going to speak to each other. They cannot take this material straight out although it spreads a bit. You see things on TV which are clearly influenced by these studies. At the moment I think that people must go on with their specialist work but simply be very aware of the effects on their own thinking of being a minority.

PS: Let’s turn to your continuing “semi-silent dialogue with European Marxism”, as Stuart Hall calls it. Your attitude up to The Long Revolution has already been explained as a response to the intellectual/political climate of the fifties. What are the reasons now for your explicit adoption of Marxism when there is a marked intellectual crisis of Marxism in various intellectual fields in Europe?

RW: Well, it might simply be explained as my being awkward – that I’m explicitly adopting it when some other people are turning away from it. I don’t think it’s that, at all. I think it’s easier now, just because there is a crisis in Marxism. One of the difficulties of being Marxist in the 1950s was that there wasn’t a crisis in it then. Therefore, to declare oneself Marxist condemned you to getting into a very unproductive kind of argument in that people would simply say: “That idea is not Marxist”. It’s partly that I’ve learnt more, and partly that a lot of work is now going on, which seems to me to be of great importance, and that significantly, calls itself Marxist although its range of positions is very wide.

There was an absolutely crucial year in my history as I see it, which was 1966 (just before the May Day Manifesto). It was a perspective that most of us had received in this country and the British Communist Party had also received, which was basically of intellectual work and political work and the political future which was in terms of a party strongly influenced by the Left. It was in 1966 that I became convinced not only that it had failed that time, but, that it was bound to fail, and, at that point, it became important to distance oneself very sharply from what is called, but is not really, the ‘social-democratic tradition’ of the Labour Party. Of course this has become important, as European communist parties have moved towards that model. It is not just a British decision and that model is wrong because it takes far too little into account not only in traditional Marxist terms of the power of the state, it is wrong because it doesn’t realise that much of the struggle is a cultural struggle, a working struggle of power and administration and the social system. I hung onto that model longer than I ever felt happy in doing so because I felt that while there was any chance, on that road, one should go with it; but, by 1966, I felt it was not just wrong but self-deceptive and it was meant to lock up people’s energies with this obsolete model; so, then, it became easier for me to complete the process that had been there all the time and to join with what was at least intellectual commitment.

In the forties I’d kept contact with the communists but their development was to something indistinguishable from the Labour Party so this meant nothing at all and when people said they had ‘improved’ it only meant they had become like the other. They used to come up to me and say, “Are you, or aren’t you a Marxist?” I thought, well, if putting up the notice at the door would help, I would do so. It wasn’t sudden but there had been this key moment in 1966 when they had abandoned the perspective. Therefore, the more the crisis in European Marxism deepens and sectors of Marxist opinion turn away, as in France for instance, it seems to me, that one has to affiliate to it. It does not mean affiliating to a whole lot of things that no Marxist should affiliate to.

To say I was ‘Marxist’ in the fifties would have appeared that I agreed with Stalinism, whereas now I think it is important with the strong revival of the intellectual right. As recently as last year in the universities there was a strong attack on the Marxist influence in the English faculty. At that point it really became politically important to declare oneself. I even decided to do a course which I hadn’t done for three years which is actually called ‘Marxism and Literature’. If your response to that kind of attack is to say, “Let’s call it the sociology of literature”, then you’re letting these people win. I consciously emphasised the title because that sort of attack has got to be resisted.

PS: You say that the question of economic determination is central to a Marxist analysis of culture. Graham Murdock in a recent paper criticizes you (and Stuart Hall) for not being consistent and omitting it in your analytical work. He calls it the “absent centre”. Do you consider this a fair criticism?

RW: This criticism can be either one of two positions, one which is worth talking about and the other which I would reject. The latter says there is already a working model in which the economy is central to culture, that we know the relations between the two and this is the old base/superstructure position – that a capitalist economy produces a capitalist art. If it’s that, one simply rejects it because it wasn’t a ‘centre’. There is a more important opinion which is worth discussing: the very complicated way in which culture is both a process and an ideological, intellectual and emotional process, i.e. a very material process of the most central kind. If you look at the economics of the studies of cultural production (it is the sort of work that Stuart Hall has most worked on rather than the more orthodox people), now, there is, then, a real problem. To what extent the economy of the market process is related to the more general economic processes and then, there are certain obvious things, for example, monopoly corporations, international economic relations, the way in which American corporations have encroached on cultural export in various parts of the world. This sounds theoretically like the older cultural imperialism and, yet, I find it totally acceptable because what is being analysed is a process which really is one of distribution. But where we’ve been trying to work is how it gets produced, not how it gets distributed and this is a more fundamental economic question in Marxist terms of production. You cannot simply explain this as ‘capitalistic’, it is too unspecific; it doesn’t explain enough of how the process works. There is a great variation in institutions. For example, how would one set about explaining modern abstract art in terms of a capitalist economy? You have to go on to say: “It produces certain attitudes, it produces certain styles”. It’s not very easy to do but while you do it you’re giving real explanations, interpretations, but if you jump from ‘capitalist economy’ to ‘capitalist art’ you are just lazy.

PS: Your favourite field of analysis has always been literature. How would you defend this priority in the light of a cultural studies theory?

RW: This is my training and interest. I have been delighted that other people have concentrated on visual things; that is very important work, I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to do it. I have increasingly been working on television. I started this work on films in the fifties and the late sixties and probably I’ve written more about television than about literature. I think you’re bound to find that if Cultural Studies is to be properly established you will have to take into account the areas which the students know best and feel best qualified to discuss. Increasingly the visual media are the central areas for Cultural Studies, as a whole, because this is where the major cultural production is, but even studying just your own period you see that literature has an initiating role even in that kind of work. I don’t only mean the ways that films and television are drawn from things that have been written. Historically, when you’re dealing with a period in which literature is the primary form up to about the 1920s you have to come to terms with it.

I direct students who want to work with me towards the radio if they are at all working in the contemporary field. There is still a lot of work to be done on contemporary writing but the priority is the other. As far as the novel goes, it is widely read although this is masked by the fact that it is not widely bought, but television has huge audiences and film has a sizeable audience. By comparison the sales of books are ridiculous. I’m not really defending my priority, I’m merely saying this is where I came from. I think we have to work in these new areas. The question is whether one works entirely in a popular commercial area (advertising, political propaganda, etc.). I still think this should always be in touch with people analysing more substantial work. There are more connections than one realises between the way words are written and certain images are concentrated.

I find that I understand certain kinds of television because I have worked for a long time on different traditional types of European drama. In class I get the impression that if you haven’t any training in general literature and dramatic analysis you are lost. A certain vocabulary is superficially used. Every young student of television or television drama starts talking about ‘naturalism’ and ‘realism’ and I honestly don’t think it’s possible to understand, in depth, the questions of naturalism and realism if you haven’t met some of the major works in naturalist or realist drama. The way the names are bandied around is completely unsatisfactory so there is a place in any Cultural Studies program for people doing literary studies which have a certain continuity if only it isn’t historically impoverished. When someone talks about a ‘naturalistic TV film’ or when I talk about a ‘naturalistic eighteenth century play’ I think it isn’t just antiquarian interest; one is better equipped to see what has happened.

PS: I agree novels are widely read but what worries me is that students don’t read them. What is the relevance of literary studies to them? They are not in touch with the written word any more.

RW: This is so here. It is an enormous problem because if you merely talk about the things that they do know, there is a whole amount that you know that you can’t talk about. But if you find, as I have, that some of these things can’t be talked about unless you have a wider range of examples.

PS: You say it has a valid meaning? – that literature is a metalanguage?

RW: It’s surprising how much people draw on it without being aware of it. For example, when we did police fiction, the students were very involved because they watched these things on television so we talked about the different images of the detective as the good man and as indistinguishable from the criminal. I found I had to take some examples from the crime novel otherwise they were prevented from comprehending. This is simply illiteracy. I said “We’d better stop and I’ll talk about the crime novel”; they subsequently used the terms drawn from there. How this is going to affect our education I don’t know. Students haven’t read enough for us to talk to them. You can’t go on imposing a syllabus that is really out of date. While there is important new work that has to be talked about in new terms, there is a lot of work of reproduction by other means of things that are really very well studied inside received literary studies.

Paola Splendore is a retired Professor of English literature at the University of Roma Tre.  For many years she taught at the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples and was part of the Cultural Studies research group inspired by Fernando Ferrara and Lidia Curti, where Raymond Williams was invited in 1972.  She has extensively published on English and Anglophone contemporary literature; besides translating The Long Revolution (Officina Edizioni, 1979) and Problems in Materialism and Culture (Tullio Pironti Editore, 1983), she also translated works by J.M. Coetzee and several collections of poetry, by Sujata Bhatt, Ingrid de Kok, Karen Press, Philip Shultz, Jo Shapcott, Denise Levertov, and Ruth Padel.