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Unarticulated Pre-emergence: Raymond Williams' "Structures of Feeling"

It is precisely because of this vulnerability that Williams seeks to locate the living, actively-experienced structure of feeling, and why he is not content with the aesthetic surfaces of selectively traditional ‘cultural treasures’ which hegemonic forces have incorporated and abstracted. In Williams’ view, ‘the real record is effectively recoverable, and many of the alternative or opposing practical continuities are still available.’ (116) Essentially, by locating the actively lived structure of feeling, it is possible to retrace the lines from the past to the present, pursuing alternate but suppressed narratives - the ‘consciousness of aspirations and possibilities’ - in order to differently understand the present. In calling for ‘modes of analysis which, instead of reducing works to finished products, and activities to fixed positions, are capable of discerning, in good faith, the finite but significant openness of many actual initiatives and contributions’ (114), Williams is advocating, in Gallagher and Greenblatt’s excellent phrase, ‘the exploration of the cul-de-sacs where unrealized possibilities were stranded’ (60).

Locating the structure of feeling, then, is a method with which to reanimate seemingly static historical junctures, oiling gears which have long since been jammed together, and effectively ‘unsticking’ history at its real, experienced human source. Benjamin declares that ‘to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it was”.It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’, and the structure of feeling is this flash of memory ‘at a moment of danger’, offering a striking if fleeting image of lived experience which may be vastly different from our mediated perceptions of what we think lived experience to be (Benjamin 34). It is at this point, however, that a problem arises. Williams’ defiant claim that, ‘Perhaps the dead can be reduced to fixed forms, though their surviving records are against it...[b]ut the living will not be reduced, at least in the first person’, reveals two lurking methodological problems in locating structures of feeling (Marxism and Literature 129). Firstly, much cultural and social analysis, and certainly most analysis of literature concerns itself with the dead, and while records may survive, processes of selective tradition will inevitably ensure that the records that do survive tell a decidedly biased story. Secondly, and even more significantly, if hegemonic forces - which are so much a part of practical consciousness that they ‘seem to most of us the pressures and limits of common sense’ - perpetually delimit and transform what is allowed to be articulated in any given time, then there exists a fundamental semantic barrier to the communication of any lived ‘feeling’, whether it is now alive or dead (110).

This barrier is acknowledged by Williams, and can be observed clearly in ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’ as he traces the inability of the novel’s form and indeed the Welsh language to completely articulate the lived experiences of industrial life without some ‘losses’ and ‘limitations’. In fact, in Williams’ conception, structures of feeling are inevitably non-semantic or, at least, cannot be articulated with the forms of language available to those experiencing them. The practical consciousness of related experiences, literally the structures of feeling as Williams defines the terms, ‘is always more than a handling of fixed forms and units. There is frequent tension between the received interpretation and practical experience’, and this tension, this semantic inconsistency, is the symptom of a structure of feeling which cannot be articulated in itself (130). Thus, for Williams, ‘the peculiar location of a structure of feeling is the endless comparison that must occur in the process of consciousness between the articulated and the lived’ (Politics and Letters 168). This ‘endless comparison’ is a source of the semantic tension, but as Williams states, ‘the tension is as often an unease, a stress, a displacement, a latency: the moment of conscious comparison not yet come, often not even coming’ (Marxism and Literature 130). Indeed, there are even experiences ‘to which the fixed forms do not speak at all, which indeed they do not recognize’; these experiences are so far from the reach of received linguistic forms that they do not even register as interdicted communication (130). The structure of feeling, then, is ‘a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange’ (131).

This semantic unavailability does not, however, render structures of feeling incorporeal or somehow ephemeral. In a very effective metaphor, Williams defines them as ‘social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and immediately available’ (133-34). In this sense, the structure of feeling is in a condition of unarticulated pre-emergence: it is neither visible, nor fully developed, but its presence can be felt nonetheless. If I can be permitted to extend Williams’ chemical metaphor, it is when the solvent is evaporated - or, in fact, when conditions allow for the evaporation of the solvent - that the residue, the semantic articulation, is made available. The unarticulated pre-emergent structure of feeling crystallizes into an articulated (albeit perhaps incompletely or inconsistently articulated) emergent cultural form. Even at this formative stage, however, the articulation is not identical to the original structure of feeling; a solution is a different physical state to a solid residue. The presence of a structure of feeling, then, is only observable after it has been partially lost. New semantic forms are the symptoms of a structure of feeling which has been allowed, through hegemonic pressures and mediations, to emerge. It is for this reason that Williams finds his most successful analyses of structures of feeling in moments of socio-cultural transition and the attendant transformation of literary and artistic forms.

‘Notes on English Prose’ (1969) is a masterful exhibition of this process of changing forms attempting to meet changing structures of feeling. Williams sustains his analysis convincingly over one hundred and fifty or so years, and across genres from political rhetoric, through the Victorian novel and, eventually, to the high modernism of Woolf and Joyce, but throughout, he charts how fundamentally new forms of writing prose point to new forms of lived experience. Early on in his ‘Notes’, however, Williams makes the declaration that:

society is not complete, not fully and immediately present, until the literature [of that society] has been written, and that this literature, in prose as often as any other form, can come through to stand as if on its own, with an intrinsic and permanent importance, so that we can see the rest of our living through it as well as it through the rest of our living (‘Notes on English Prose' 72).

In this moment, Williams seems to be making the claim that it is through literature - that is, through the articulated residues of structures of feeling - that we can have our most complete access to real social experience (albeit mediated through received forms and hegemonic forces). This notion differs slightly from the concept of structure of feeling as employed in the ‘Welsh Industrial Novel’, although it is perhaps its logical conclusion, given Williams’ understanding of new semantic forms as being the residual products of new structures of feeling. Literature is now the laboratory in which new structures of feeling can be identified as at work. This philosophy, of seeing ‘the rest of our living through [literature] as well as it through the rest of our living’, seems to underpin much of Williams’ writing, although he rarely articulates the notion in such certain terms. In fact, this view of literature ironically comes close to what Williams describes as a ‘powerful and often forbidding system of abstraction’, seeing Literature as ‘full, central, immediate human experience’ (45), although if we follow Williams’ understanding of structures of feelings, we can see that his understanding of ‘immediate human experience’ is profoundly different from the ideological abstraction he rejects. Instead, Williams goes part way to proposing an ethnography, or at least a social history, which takes as its primary sources literary texts. In this way, the structure of feeling, or structure of feeling analysis, can propose literature as an essential tool to the historian or anthropologist, potentially giving the literary text (not to mention literary critics) much greater methodological importance across the study of the humanities.

On this note, he shares much common ground with the American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, whose seminal work, The Interpretation of Cultures was published only five years following Williams’ statement in ‘Notes on English Prose’, and three years before Williams’ major theoretical work, Marxism and Literature. In it, Geertz proposes ‘essentially a semiotic’ (5) concept of culture, arguing that the anthropologist should interpret, in the manner of a literary critic, the fragments of lived experience they find, in order to reach broader social deductions. In justifying his practice, Geertz argues that:

The whole point of a semiotic approach to culture aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them (24).

This attempt to gain access to subjects’ ‘conceptual world’ is not far removed from Williams’ own efforts to capture ‘the undeniable experience of the present’ by locating, through mediated and crystallized semantic formations, specific structures of feeling (Marxism and Literature). Geertz, in words which could almost be lifted from Williams, states that ‘a good interpretation of anything - a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society - takes us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation’ (18). His aim, in a very Williams way, is to ‘draw large conclusions from small, but very densely textured, facts; to support broad assertions about the role of culture in the construction of collective life by engaging them exactly with complex specifics’, just as the content and form of the Welsh industrial novel can be read to demonstrate specific structures of feeling in Welsh industrial areas (28).

Certainly, at first glance, Geertz’s semiotic concept of culture and what we might call Williams’ ‘cultural concept of semiotics’, the role of structures of feeling in influencing semantic forms, seem remarkably similar, one coming from an anthropologically-minded literary critic, the other from a hermeneutically-impelled anthropologist, but where they differ is on a crucial point of practice. Geertz’s analyses are based around an effort to grasp the ‘thick description’ of a cultural product: his method is to use an archetypal yet specific textual fragment to derive a language, or system of meanings, of a culture (6). In Geertz’s understanding, culture is fundamentally a context, ‘interworked systems of construable signs’ in which lived experience can be described (14). To access a culture and those who live in it, one needs to analyze the everyday, and the ordinary (even if the ‘ordinary’ may be to an outsider extraordinary) to access its particular language. Raymond Williams, who famously and persuasively claimed that ‘Culture is Ordinary’ (1958), by and large concerns his analyses with only the exceptional, the hegemonically determined ‘extra-ordinary’, even if he seeks to find ordinary lived experience behind it.

Scott Wilson has observed that in Williams’s work,

there was the desire to study not just high-canonical texts, but a “whole way of life”, yet this went along with an actual distaste for and disapproval of the actualities of the mass entertainment that actually constituted much of working-class life, so [he] either ignored or gave an uninformed or unsympathetic account of a crucial part of that whole way of life (29).

It is telling that, while in 1959, he declares ‘We should not seek to extend a ready-made culture to the benighted masses...We should accept, frankly, that if we extend our culture we shall change it’, Williams seems loath to pay real critical attention to anything which might fall radically outside the ‘ready-made culture’ (Resources of Hope 16). It is at this point that the opportunities for ‘structure of feeling analysis’ to put a literary bent on studies of culture, and indeed of the past across academic disciplines, also begin to fall down. The literary text can be and invariably is an excellent conduit in which to unearth traces of structures of feeling, but to fully understand a community at a certain time, you have to include everything which that community values as important; whether modernist novel or Christmas pantomime.

I think it is also for this reason that Gallagher and Greenblatt, themselves heavily influenced by the work of both Williams and Geertz, feel that ‘The “Structures of Feeling” that Williams analyzes are...invariably structures of repression’ (64). Williams constantly encounters ‘tension’ and ‘trouble’ (Gallagher and Greenblatt’s preferred term) between the experience and articulation of lived existence, because he is perpetually analyzing high-cultural forms which are socially and linguistically some of the least amenable to articulating working-class experiences, and most tied to hegemonic forces. Put bluntly, Williams finds ‘trouble’ because he goes looking for it.

This final criticism of Williams’ methods is not to discredit his concept of structure of feeling, which would in fact be strengthened by extending his analyses to broader areas of culture, nor is it to belittle his focus on canonical literature: structures of feeling are undoubtedly still to be found, while ‘structures of repression’ should be worthy of analyses in themselves. Instead, it is to point to a moment in Williams’ vast body of illuminating work where more study can and has been done. Williams’ own writing, like that of all critics, has geographically and historically specific structures of feeling which inform it, and it is the task of future Williams criticism to uncover, in his writing, dynamic, lived feelings and thoughts, and to open them up, in a Williamsian way, to ‘a consciousness of aspirations and possibilities’ which may lead far beyond the confines of his own, formalized and hegemonically crystallized work.


Works Cited


Benjamin, Walter, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, (1947), trans. Harry Zohn, (1973), New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, ed Kiernan Ryan, (London: Arnold, 1996)

Gallagher, Catherine and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Geertz, Clifford, ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York: Basic Books)

Williams, Raymond, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, (1958), Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, (London: Verso, 1989)

Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)

Williams, Raymond, ‘Notes on English Prose: 1780-1950’, (1969), Writing in Society, (London: Verso, 1991)

Williams, Raymond, Politics and Letters, (New York: Schoken Books, 1979)

Williams, Raymond, ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’, (1979), Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980)

Wilson, Scott, Cultural Materialism: Theory and Practice, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995)

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