The following is a write up on Base and Superstructure by Sudeepta Mukerji
Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory is a critical essay by renowned Welsh academician, novelist, critic and an influential figure in the New Left, Raymond Henry Williams. His writings on politics, culture, the mass media and literature are some of the major contributions to the Marxist critique of culture and the arts.
Williams in his essay, ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory’, establishes the proposition that “social beings determine consciousness” as contradictory to the conventional model of analyzing Marxist theory by establishing the relation between the base and superstructure where base denotes the forces and relations of production and superstructure represents societal behaviour and culture as a whole. He dwells back to the linguistic roots of the word ‘determination’ and follows its inversion pattern in its English translation. ‘Determines’ which is translated from the German word bestimmen which determines the relationship between base and superstructure. He also brings in the idea that in European language there is a possibility of synonyms which might alter the meaning of a word. He brings about two possible meanings to the word ‘determines’, which can either be an external cause which controls a subsequent activity or can be seen as setting limits to an action.
Williams examines the predominant terms in Marxist theory mainly the model of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ as is also indicated through the title. One of the established definition of superstructure is, “…the reflection, the imitation or the reproduction of the base in the superstructure in more or less direct way”. Williams says that this proposition can be contested due to the non-economical basis of some actions, such as philosophy and other such fields. The notion of reflection and reproduction was later modified into the notion of ‘mediation’ in which something more than reflection and reproduction actively occurred. In the twentieth century there was the notion of ‘homogenous structures’ which was viewed as a basic homology or correspondence in all structures which can be discovered thorough the process of research. He harps on the inter-dependence and inter-relation between activities which blur the distinction between economic base and superstructures but instead make them related and connected or intertwined with each other. Williams also harps on the proposition of economic base being more crucial and vital for understanding the realities of cultural process. He says that base is never static or uniform since there are deep contradictions in the relationships of production thereby effecting the social relations. The base can thus be seen as a continuous process and not as a ‘state of being’ or as being static and constant. Williams talks about re-valuing notions in order to make them realistic and rational when placed in contemporary socio-economic relations. He argues that Marxist ideology is based on a certain economic structure which might be ambiguous when placed in the modern cultural scenario which is fast changing. He presents a much dynamic, interrelated and complex structure of the developing social conditions which in certain ways contradicts Marxist concepts of economic relations. Williams says that most often the complexities of modern society cannot be examined based on the ideologies of Marxist concepts.
Another key Marxist concept which has influenced many other Marxist thinkers and is also associated to Georg Lukacs in particular is the concept of ‘totality’. It opposed the layered structure of base determining the superstructure which believed that ‘social being determines consciousnesses’. One flaw in the concept of totality is that it can easily empty itself of the cultural phenomena attached to any concept. Thus the question put forth through the essay is “whether the notion of totality includes the notion of intention.” Williams contests the idea of categorizing work of art as superstructure. But he contradicts himself and states that certain kind of practices and customs have been so naturalised that they have to be considered as a part of superstructure in order to understand reality. He argues that ‘totality’ should be combined with Gramsci’s concept of hegemony so that asymmetrical and exploitative aspects of the society are considered. Williams finds the traditional notion of superstructure incomplete and ambiguous and shows his fear on the proposed concept of hegemony being viewed in a similar static and stereotypical manner. He also talks about the modern concept of re-inventing, re-modify and re-work on the existing notions and concepts to make them compatible with the contemporary scenarios. He views the idea of hegemony not just as dominant or manipulative but as a complex power structure which is continuously modified and developed. Such concepts change from place to place and time to time.
Williams also introduces the distinction between residual and emergent form of cultures. He defines residual culture as a practice which has evolved or rooted out from a previously existing dominant culture. Some of the religious practices which are influenced from the mainstream practices could serve as examples. Williams associates emergent culture with the newly evolving cultural practices, which demand to be incorporated within the mainstream practice. Thus they are neither an individual cultural concept nor completely accepted in the mainstream culture. Such cultural practices are in a limbo like state. Williams says the emergent culture will be valued and recognized if the dominant culture has a stake or interest on it. Otherwise an evolving culture might not receive due acknowledgement or recognition. For instance, artistic pursuits are encouraged till the time profit is made and it doesn’t contradict the dominant beliefs. Williams also raises the issue of the connection between literature and society and concludes that literature evolves from the society and thus can’t be evaluated separately. It is an integral part of the society. He says that any form of writing is highly influenced by the dominant cultural practices in the society. It embodies features and believes of the dominant society. He also says that some of the art expressions might include aspects of the emergent culture which might appeal to the masses. The dominant culture thus tries to “… transform, or seek to transform, them.” In the process that dominant culture itself develops. Williams says that in modern cultural society, dominant culture should develop and change in accordance to the changing times and attitude of the masses in order to be realistic and remain dominant. Literature thus coexists as a part of the dominant culture and becomes a prime mode of its articulation.
Most critics seem to give little emphasis on the process of production. But Marxist model through its base and superstructure metaphor tries to stress and acknowledge the process of production. Williams puts forth the contradiction of cultural theory as the work of art being perceived as an object and the alternative view of art as a practice. Art can be seen as an object, i.e. buildings, sculptures etc which exist as objects, on the other hand the phenomenal work of Shakespeare, the melody of music and other art forms such as dance, drama etc are perceived as a practice. Williams says that we shouldn’t look for the components of a product but for the conditions of practice. He says an active, encompassing and self renewing mode of analyses is what is needed to understand the cultural context and value of any studied material.