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Unarticulated Pre-emergence: Raymond Williams’ “Structures of Feeling”

Josh Dickins


In his analysis of ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’ (1979), Raymond Williams observes the development ‘within the general category of the industrial novel, a specifically Welsh structure of feeling’ (221). The industrial novel, Williams goes on to say, is a genre in which:


...industrial work, and its characteristic places and communities, are not just a new background: a new “setting” for a story. In the true industrial novel they are seen as formative...The working society - actual work, actual relations, an actual and visibly altered place - is in the industrial novel central...because in these working communities it is a trivial fantasy to suppose that these general and pressing conditions are for long or even at all separable from the immediate and the personal (221-222).


In its distinctly Welsh variant, Williams claims that the failure of the General Strike of 1926, bringing with it a ‘pervasive sense of defeat’ (222) to industrial Welsh communities, decisively informs Welsh industrial writing of the period: ‘The defeat becomes fused with the more general sadness of a ravaged, subordinated and depressed Wales, but also... there is intense consciousness of struggle - of militancy and fidelity and of the real human costs these exact’ (222). Following the General Strike, Welsh industrial life, as it is lived and experienced by the Welsh, takes an increasingly embittered and militant form. In the same way that ‘actual work’ and ‘actual relations’ are formative elements of the industrial novel general, specific sadnesses and struggles become formative elements of the industrial novel, as specific to Wales (222). The ‘specifically Welsh structure of feeling’ Williams identifies is a set of socially held experiences which come to alter the form of cultural articulation of a period. The ‘pervasive sense of defeat’ which Williams claims is shot through the Welsh industrial novel from 1926 onwards, is a sort of semantic crystallization, working within the broader novel form, of the lived realities of Welsh life in industrial communities in the inter-war period.


Having identified this particular form of culturally articulated industrial experience, however, Williams then claims that, ‘beyond this...there is a structure of feeling which has one of its origins in the very distinctive physical character of the Welsh industrial areas, and beyond that in the very distinctive physical character of Wales as a whole’ (222). Wales, and even industrialised south Wales, has large areas of underdeveloped rural land and sparsely populated, rugged terrain. Indeed, the topography of hills and valleys played an essential role in the industrialisation of the country, allowing relatively easy access to coal seams and simple transportation to coastal ports. Williams sees this rural environment, which exists in conjunction with the urban industrial environment, as an equally significant influence on Welsh lived experience. Even coal miners, working in the dark industrial confines of the pit, can face the reality that:


...at any time in any Welsh mining valley, there is the profoundly different yet immediately accessible landscape of open hills and the sky above them, of a rising light and of a clear expansion, into which it is possible, both physically and figuratively, to move...The pastoral life, which had been Welsh history, is still another Welsh present, and in its visible presence...it is a shape which manifests not only a consciousness of history but a consciousness of alternatives, and then, in a modern form, a consciousness of aspirations and possibilities (223).


Williams, in what is perhaps a slightly naive and Romantic vision, sees a quality of lived experience in Wales, in which the bleak drudgery of coal mines, steel works and dockyards is counterposed with the bright, expansive freedom that is directly visible in the sky, fields and hills which surround the industrial valley towns. If one Welsh structure of feeling can be identified in the sadness and struggles which followed the historically particular 1926 general strike, another, or at least an altered Welsh structure of feeling can be found in the topographical particulars of Welsh hills and valleys. Geography and history inform collective experience, as both play a central role (indeed, a formative role) in the realities of living in industrial Wales.


What sets the geographical structure of feeling apart from the historical one, other than the fairly obvious difference of spatiality and temporality, however, is the former’s insistence on alterity, the ‘consciousness of alternatives’. The ‘open hills and sky’ might appear as a fairly stale Romantic metaphor, but what they allude to is the potential for change - in Williams’ words, ‘a consciousness of aspirations and possibilities.’ In this instance, therefore, structure of feeling takes on a very specific and acute political essence: lived experience in Welsh mining valleys has within it the capability to transcend the apparent sadness and subordination of an industrial region in an era of economic depression.


Williams’ essay is ultimately one depicting the struggle between received forms and the attempted articulation of lived experience, of structures of feeling. His essay opens with George Borrow’s hellish 1862 account of the Welsh industrial landscape, with Williams taking Borrow’s description of ‘the palace of Satan’ and sarcastically pointing out that it is ‘one way of seeing what is now, more politely, called industrial development’ (213-14). Significantly, in the case of Borrow and many similarly-minded observers, Williams points out that ‘there are as yet, no men, or men are there only as figures attendant on [the] landscape. The apparent chaos of their labour has within this perspective obliterated or incorporated them’ (214). Put differently, the structures of feeling, of historically-specific sadness and struggle and of geographically-prompted aspirations and alternatives, are excluded from the very form of the account, which cannot conceptualise full human existence in industrial Wales. The Welsh industrial novel attempts to do this, being constructed, in the form of its prose, by the very lived experiences of the working-class Welsh. Even then, however, the struggle between experience and articulation remains. Regarding the ‘consciousness of aspirations and possibilities’ to be found in the Welsh structure of feeling, he points out that ‘there are still acute compositional difficulties between these essentially general feelings and any accessible human formations’, and he spends the rest of the essay attempting to find local examples which try to connect the two: a ‘story’ in his words, ‘of some losses as well as some gains, of limitations as well as of achievements’ (223).


Williams’ ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’ runs to only eighteen pages, and his discussion of ‘a specifically Welsh structure of feeling’ takes up only one-sixth of this, yet it demonstrates as well as anywhere else in his work the essence of arguably his most influential critical concept. The ‘structure of feeling’ relates to a set of experiences as lived by a community in the present, but which through cultural articulation are mediated, diminished or lost entirely. The sense of possible alternatives - whether realised or not - in the specific location of structure of feeling in the Welsh valleys speaks to a much broader sense of the potential for change and the possibilities for alternative outcomes, which can only be found at the point of their formulation, but which will be inevitably stripped of their temporally-particular, politically active impetus through the mediating power of forms of writing and the gradual establishment of the historical record.


Williams states that: ‘The strongest barrier to the recognition of human cultural activity is [the] immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products’, and that as cultural critics, we invariably consign ourselves to the formed products of the past: taking institutions, formations, historical junctures and cultural creations as concrete artefacts (Marxism and Literature 128). This, in Williams’ eyes, denies them their full, lived realities and strips them of their active, living dynamism. Consequently, ‘analysis is then centred on relations between these produced institutions, formations and experiences, so that now, as in that produced past, only the fixed explicit forms exist, and living presence is always, by definition, receding’ (128). To give an example, the Welsh industrial novel should not simply be seen as a geographically-particular category of a sub-genre of a form of popular fiction, but instead seen as Williams sees it: a dynamically changing concept, informed by specific historical and geographical relations, and perpetually in struggle with received forms and modes of articulation. The structure of feeling is Williams’ way of trying to conceptualise the root of this dynamism, securing a lived social base from which different articulations of form can emerge.


Explaining his term, Williams states that:


...“feeling” is chosen to emphasise a distinction from more formal concepts of “world-view” or “ideology”...we are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable (132).


In this sense, ‘feeling’ avoids a reduction to fixed institutions or concepts; the rejection of ideology is important here, as it prevents the activities of real people and lived existences from becoming, retrospectively, archetypal actions in a predetermined social situation.Behind Williams’ terminology, it is possible to see an almost anthropological insistence on the concrete, physical realities of people’s lives, and a maintenance that human existence can neither be pared down to nor incorporated into general, systematic conceptions of the world without significant inconsistencies emerging - the ‘variable’ relations ranging from ‘formal assent with private dissent to the more nuanced interaction between beliefs and acted and justified experiences’ (132).


Having established the critical importance of ‘feeling’ as a set of elements which overcome any sense of abstraction or predetermination into ‘finished products’ of analysis,


...we are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension. Yet we are also defining a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognised as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis...has its emergent, connecting and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies (132).


This, I think, is more difficult: having emphasised the importance of the specificity of human experience, Williams attempts to add a sense of social ‘structure’ to these experiences, putting him in danger of performing the very abstractions and reductions he tries to avoid by using the word ‘feeling’. While the concept is by no means impossible, there is a clear danger in considering ‘the private, idiosyncratic’ and ‘isolating’ as ‘not yet recognised as social’, when they may in fact be private, idiosyncratic and isolating. The challenge of analysis, as Williams admits, is to identify sociality in its formative phases, ‘in process’, and in doing so, to permit the sense of a social structure while retaining specific lived experience and without regressing into predetermined fixed forms of ‘the social’. In this way, the structural aspect of structure of feeling can be seen, in Williams’ own words as ‘a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period’ (131). In essence, the sociality of the structure of feeling is to be found in the relationships and interactions of specific people at specific times: it is social, before it becomes abstracted and formalised as ‘the Social’.


The significance of a worked-out concept of structure of feeling is really revealed when considered in light of Williams’ understanding of hegemony. Following from Gramsci’s influential uses of the term, Williams adopts the concept as one which transcends the reductive and formal tendency of ‘ideology’ to define dominant and subordinated classes in simple terms of “haves” and “have-nots”. Instead, hegemony


...sees the relations of domination and subordination, in their forms as practical consciousness, as in effect a saturation of the whole process of living...of the whole substance of lived identities and relationships, to such a depth that the pressures and limits of what can be seen as a specific economic, political, and cultural system seem to most of us the pressures and limits of common sense (110).


Under hegemony, the very essence of lived experience is constituted by certain dominant values and meanings: ‘It is a whole body of practices and expectations, over the whole of living: our senses and assignments of energy, our shaping perceptions of ourselves and our world... it thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society’ (110). For cultural analysis, this is a vital notion to grasp, as it means that culture is no longer mere ‘superstructure’; instead, it is a formative element in the establishment of meaning and significance in society, limited by existing hegemonic forces, and in turn helping to form the boundaries of others. It is through the work of culture, therefore, that processes of domination and subordination are both conducted and defined.


For this reason, as Williams points out, ‘a lived hegemony is always a process...It is a realized complex of experiences, relationships, and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits’ (112). In order to remain dominant, it must be open to adaptation and incorporation, ‘it has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified... It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own’ (112). To remain dominant, a hegemony must then have control over its margins, admitting through its own internal modification certain external elements, transforming others, and further extinguishing others. Hegemony then simultaneously includes, but suppresses. Williams even goes so far as to say that ‘the dominant culture...at once produces and limits its own forms of counter-culture’ (114). The structure of feeling, as ‘a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities’ (141), is thus immediately pressed up against hegemonic forces which are in practice, always and everywhere. It vies for hegemonic acceptance, and struggles against its own extermination, and if surviving at all, will be absorbed and transformed into the hegemony in processes of consolidation and abstraction.


This effacement or otherwise manipulation of actual, lived realities was recognised by Walter Benjamin as the inevitable consequence of the writing of history. In his famous ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin writes that ‘history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now’, and that what we take to be established, reliable conceptions of the past are in fact determined by the overriding concerns of the present (38). Stating that ‘all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them’ (35), Benjamin stresses a hegemonic continuity between the past and the present, and that the ‘victors’ of the past march into the present in a triumphal procession, bringing with them the spoils of their success:


According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures...They owe their existence not only to the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time free from barbarism (35).


What Benjamin describes is the active process of incorporating cultural products, the sanctified spoils which consolidate forces of dominance, into a hegemonic system. The ‘barbarism’ Benjamin speaks of is exactly the transformation of ‘feeling’ into ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’, as the specific lives and communities which carry the dynamic structures of feeling become crystallized into static social abstractions; the historical and geographical particularities of lives led in interwar Wales become merely ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’. Williams articulates just the same process in his analysis of the formation of tradition, which he sees as ‘an actively shaping force’ (Marxism and Literature 115). Tradition, for Williams, is ‘a selective tradition: an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification’ (115). Analogous to Benjamin’s procession of cultural treasures, the selective tradition becomes the means by which a hegemony appropriates the past for its present purposes. Williams writes,


...within a particular hegemony, and as one of its decisive processes, this selection is presented and usually successfully passed off as “the tradition”, “the significant past”. What has then to be said about any tradition is that it is in this sense an aspect of contemporary social and cultural organization, in the interest of the dominance of a specific class. It is a version of the past which is intended to connect with and ratify the present (115-16).


The selective tradition, in Williams’ words, offers ‘a sense of predisposed continuity’ which strengthens the claims of the present hegemonic order (116). Crucially, however, this process of selection and rejection also leaves the hegemony vulnerable, ‘since it has in practice to discard whole areas of significance, or reinterpret or dilute them, or convert them into forms which support or at least do not contradict the really important elements of the current hegemony’ (116).


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