In “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” Raymond Williams begins his work by defining and examining two of the central terms in Marxist theory. The simplest notion of a superstructure had been the reflection, imitation, or reproduction of the reality of the base. Later on, as Williams notes, there had been a reconsideration and qualification in this thinking. The modern notion of mediation states that something more than simple reflection or reproduction occurs; there is a sort of activity. In the later twentieth century, the notion of homologous structures came about, in which there is an essential homology or correspondence of structures between the superstructural process and the reality of the base; this occurs through analysis. In terms of the realities of the cultural process itself, Williams argues that the base is the more important concept. In his thinking, the base must be referred to as a process and not a state. Williams’ goal becomes redefining the meaning of both the superstructure and the base. He states, “We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process” (132). Williams criticizes the narrow view that has become of Marx’s notions of capitalist commodity production, which necessarily negates the cultural context. Williams attempts to bring his audience back to Marx’s central notion of productive forces, in which the most important thing a worker can produce is himself and his history. When Williams discusses the base, he means “…the primary production of society itself, and of men themselves, the material production and reproduction of real life” (133).
Furthermore, Williams notes the very important development of social totality that was opposed to a layered notion of base and superstructure. This concept of a totality is similar to the notion of a social being determining consciousness. However, Williams is quick to note that a notion of totality must include the notion of intention. Societies have specific organizations and structures, which are directly related to social intentions. As Williams states, “One of the unexpected consequences of the crudeness of the base/superstructure model has been the too easy acceptance of models… which exclude the facts of social intention, the class character of a particular society and so on” (134). It would be beneficial to include a discussion of the Marxist concept of hegemony here. Hegemony supposes the existence of something truly total that is not secondary or superstructural, and is instead “… lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent… [and] responds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure” (135). Hegemony is not singular; its internal structures are very complex and must be continually renewed, recreated, and defended, so that they can be constantly challenged and modified. Williams proposes a theoretical model of a central system of practices, meanings, and values that are not merely abstract, but are organized and lived. He describes this system as “… a whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and of his world. It is a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality…” (135). This is not a static system.
The system Williams describes depends on the process of incorporation. The modes of incorporation are of great social significance. Williams specifically points to educational institutions as the main agencies of transmission. He writes, “The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organization of work; the selective tradition at an intellectual and theoretical level: all these forces are involved in a continual making and remaking of an effective dominant culture” (136). The process of interpreting our experience is continually active and adjusting. In an effective culture, alternative meanings and values, alternative opinions and attitudes, and even some alternative senses of the world can be accommodated and tolerated. Later in the text, Williams argues that this type of culture and society cannot be fully formed without literature and art, as they cannot be separated from the social process itself: “… the practices of discourse in writing and speech, the making of novels and poems and plays and theories… [take] place in all areas of the culture” (140). Williams’ main point is that we should not simply reduce art to objects in relation to society, but that we must necessarily consider art as an inseparable part of the cultural process. Williams states, “But in literature… in music and in a very wide area of the performing arts, what we permanently have are not objects but notations. These notions have then to be interpreted in an active way… The relationship between the making of a work of art and its reception is always active… this is radically different from the production and consumption of an object” (142). Williams is vehemently against our preoccupation of art as solely objects of profitable consumption, and it is with this notion that I wholeheartedly agree.