Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Marxist introductions. Oxford [Eng.]: Oxford University Press, 1977.


Though Williams may see the assimilation of literature into ideology as “banging categories”, his notions of ideology as ‘happen-stance’ (abstract determinism) and ideology as historically determined (historical determinism) are nearly synonymous with his ideas based on literature, that of alignment and commitment. These terms are used to refer to the reciprocal relationship of literary writers and their social relations that as a whole produce a text. Alignment is used to refer to the specific modes of experience and point of view of the artist, which are undetermined by him but can be exposed through the presupposition that the artist is within the ideology itself, giving the reader opportunity to ‘perceive’ of the ideology that binds the author. The second term, ‘commitment’ is the self-conscious limiting of one’s self—“committing” one’s self—to an ideology, and writing with the agenda to inculcate that ideology

Writers of commitment, though they may border on propaganda, are self-conscious of the ideology and structures of feeling with which their contemporaries align, yet may be unaware of the ideological material which they are attempting to propagate and to which they are committed. Writers of alignment can be said to unintentionally adopt a non-determinate view of history. As reductive and belittling as this may seem, one may ascribe certain triumphs which in no way challenge the normative views present in the context that the author is speaking from. Novel’s such as Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night can be dissected in such terms, as it appears to be a record of the decadence of the Jazz Age and eventual ruin that would unfold upon its characters. Is Fitzgerald then unaware of his ideological alignment, and thus makes no such effort at committing to an external ideological structure?

The notion of alignment runs the risk of categorizing authors like Fitzgerald into mere reflections of their age and are thus adequate in dissecting the “structure of feeling” dominant within the period. But if “art is seen as reflecting not the ‘lifeless world’, but the world as seen in the mind of the artist,” than can this notion of alignment in Fitzgerald really be separated from his commitment to a separate ideology, if the structure he presents in his novels is not really that of the social sphere within his time, but that from his own mind (95)? Williams would be adamant that this was not entirely the case, but that alignment must be understood within the concept of mediation rather than reflection, where the text serves “as an indirect connection or agency between separate kinds of act” (98). What could be argued then is that Fitzgerald, in his tale of decadence and ruination by becoming parasitic (through Dick and Nicole Diver) is unintentionally making indirect connections which serve to fundamentally change both his perspective of the current ideology as well as the ideology itself.

Yet the problem of mediation, while connecting to the aligned artist, cannot be separated wither from the committed artist, who aims to change their circumstances by espousing an alternative ideology, or by heavily criticizing their own. If texts are meditative, then might all authors be considered in some form or another, to be authors of commitment? It seems that to align fully with one’s societal norms would first, not necessitate the writing of a text, and second, be so uninteresting as to not be of literary importance anyway. I propose that such texts don’t exist in any artistic form, for to simply align an author with what we believe their contemporary structure of feeling was, is in itself an act of commitment that is also aligned—in our historical moment it may even be passé to dissect texts in this fashion, therefore it is aligned, yet because our produced texts cannot be mere reflections but are in fact determined mediations, such texts also consciously seek to promote an alternative ideology.

Williams’ concepts of alignment and commitment then have come back to the main issue of intentionality—that perhaps these categories can only be constructed as practical for our current historical moment, since intentionality is impossible to determine, and should only be resigned to the painfully obvious: the communist manifesto is painfully committed, while Fitzgerald, if we are to totally disregard close reading his book (or reading it at all), can be seen as an aligned text.

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