Up From Here.

23-year-old philosophy & education MA student.

Art as an Inseparable Part of the Cultural Process

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.



Commodities as Citizens of the World

In the first section of Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx opens by defining a commodity, or useful thing. He states, “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity” (45). A commodity is an object outside of a person that, by its properties, satisfies human wants. These commodities, or these useful things, e.g., iron and paper, may be looked at from two points of view: quality and quantity. Useful things are the assemblage of many properties and can be used in many different ways. Marx calls the discovery of the use of a thing the work of history. It becomes important to reference the footnotes here, as an important example is given of the loadstone attracting iron; “The property which the magnet possesses of attracting iron, became of use only after by means of that property, the polarity of the magnet, had been discovered” (45). Marx next enters a discussion concerning use value and exchange value. What makes a thing use value is its utility. The utility itself has no existence apart from the commodity. Thus, the commodity, so far as it is a material thing, is also a use value and something useful. When referring to use value, we are dealing with definite quantities; these use values then become a reality through use or consumption. In particular societies, they may very well constitute the substance of all wealth and the material depositories of exchange value. Marx states that exchange value “…presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place” (46). In noting the difference between exchange value and use value, it becomes necessary to keep in mind that the exchange of commodities is an act characterized by a total abstraction from use value; one use value is just as good as another, as long as it is present in sufficient quantity. For example, since x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c., each represents the exchange value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., it must be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other, as exchange values. As Marx states, “As use values, commodities are, above all, of different qualities, but as exchange values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use value” (48). When we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, we are left with labor power without regard to the mode of its expenditure. When we look at these things, they tell us the human labor is embodied in them; what is common to them all is that they are Values. The common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value (48).

What determines the magnitude of value of any article is the amount of labor (labor time) socially necessary for its production. Marx states, “Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary, for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other” (49-50). The value of a commodity would remain constant if the labor time remained constant; however, the labor time changes depending on the productiveness of labor, i.e., the average amount of skill of the workmen, state of science, social organization of production, and physical conditions. Marx aptly sums up the relationships between labor time and productiveness in stating, “The value of a commodity… varies directly as the quantity, and inversely as the productiveness, of the labour incorporated in it” (50). Marx later in the chapter notes that human labor itself is not value, even though it creates value. Human labor only becomes value when it is embodied in the form of some object. For example, to express the value of linen as a congelation of human labor, the value must have an objective existence as something materially different from the linen itself, but as something common to the linen and other commodities (61).

In the third section of Capital, Marx enters a discussion concerning exchange value. In the introduction, he summarizes the notion that commodities enter the world in the shape of use values; this is their plain, bodily form. These use values become commodities because they are something twofold: objects of utility and depositories of value. Use values manifest themselves as commodities insofar as they have two forms: a physical (natural) form and a value form. Commodities have a value form that is common to them all, which is a marked contrast to the many bodily forms of their use values: this is their money form. The two different forms of value, i.e., the relative form and the equivalent form, are mutually dependent and inseparable elements, but they can also be described as antagonistic extremes, i.e., poles of the same expression, as Marx states. “They are allotted respectively to the two different commodities brought into relation by that expression. It is not possible to express the value of linen in linen. 20 yards of linen = 20 yards of linen is no expression of value… The value of the linen can therefore be expressed only relatively – i.e., in some other commodity” (58-9). The relative form presupposes the presence of another commodity under the form of the equivalent. In this way, the value of a single commodity can be expressed in terms of numberless other elements of the world of commodities. Every other commodity becomes a mirror of the linen’s value. The labor that created the linen now ranks equally with the other sorts of human labor, no matter the form, e.g., tailoring, ploughing, mining. “The linen, by virtue of the form of its value, now stands in a social relation, no longer with only one other kind of commodity, but with the whole world of commodities. As a commodity, it is a citizen of that world. At the same time… that as regards the value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind, of use value it appears” (73-4).



[Note: Dave, I have enabled comments at the start of each post. I hope this helps!]

The Intentionality of Language

In the Introduction of Karl Marx’s Grundrisse, the audience hears a clear and complete intentionality of language in the description of the economic, social, and political terms: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. Marx opens the text by calling a human being, in its most literal sense, a political being, meaning an animal who can only individuate itself within a society. One who is isolated and not part of a given society is, by this definition, incapable of production. Marx relays this sort of absurdity to the impossibility of the formation of language without individuals living together and talking to each other (84). Marx, in the following pages, describes what he precisely understands as production; he states firstly that “All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society” (87). Additionally, “…every form of production creates its own legal relations, form of government, etc” (88).

In the second section of the Introduction, Marx continues to establish the relationships between production, distribution, and exchange. In production, society’s members create the products of nature based on human needs, whereas distribution determines the proportion in which the individuals of society share the product. As Marx summarizes, “Production creates the objects which correspond to the given needs; distribution divides them up according to social laws; exchange further parcels out the already divided shares in accord with individual needs; and finally, in consumption, the product steps outside this social movement and becomes a direct object and servant of individual need, and satisfies it in being consumed” (89). Marx characterizes the relationship between production and consumption as directly identical. The act of production is in all its moments an act of consumption. However, Marx is quick to note that consumption itself is also immediately production, i.e., consumption proper. He gives several examples to illustrate his salient point, the first being that in taking in food (consumption), a human being is producing his own body (production). One of the most important passages of the Introduction occurred in Marx’s portrayal of the relationship between the two as a “mediating movement”. Marx states, “Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products” (91). A railway is a railway only if there are no trains. Similarly, a garment becomes a real garment only in the act of being worn, and a house becomes a real house when someone lives in it. A product becomes through the act of consumption. Furthermore, specific products and objects must be consumed in a specific manner; in this way, production creates the consumer by “creating the material for it; by determining the manner of consumption; and by creating the products… in the form of a need felt by the consumer” (92). A wonderful example Marx gives his readers is in the consumption of art. The object of art creates a public, which is sensitive to it and enjoys looking at it; as such, production is creating a subject for the object of the art.

Marx then relates the elements of distribution and production to whole societies; in this way, it seems as if distribution precedes production. His examples include (1) a conquering people dividing the land among the conquerors and then determining production; (2) enslaving the conquered and making the slaves labor the foundation of production; (3) people rising in revolution and smashing the estates into small parcels; and (4) a system of laws that assigns property in land to certain families. In the examples that Marx has given, it seems as if production is determined and structured by distribution, not the opposite. Additionally, Marx describes exchange as an act comprised within production. He states, “…the exchange of activities and abilities which takes place within production itself belongs directly to production and essentially constitutes it” (99). In determining the relationship between exchange and production, Marx notes that there cannot be exchange without production and the division of labor, private exchange presupposes private production, and the intensity of exchange is necessarily determined by the development and structure of production. Production, distribution, exchange, and consumption are by no means identical elements; however, they form the members within a unity. Marx states, “The process always returns to production to begin anew… Likewise, distribution as distribution of products; while as distribution of the agents of production is in itself a moment of production. A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange… the needs of consumption determine production” (99-100).

Later in the Grundrisse, Marx argues that private interest automatically becomes a socially determined interest. An individual’s production is dependent on the production of others. Prices are dominated by the relations of all production, and this is developed in bourgeois society, i.e., the society of free competition. There becomes a constant necessity for exchange; “Each pursues his private interest and only his private interest; and thereby serves the private interests of all, the general interest, without willing or knowing it… private interest is itself already a socially determined interest, which can be achieved only within the conditions laid down by society” (156).




Tom Thompson (Canada 1877-1917)Nocturne: The Birches (1916)oil on wood panel 21.6 x 26.8 cmNational Gallery of Canada. Ottawa


Tom Thompson (Canada 1877-1917)
Nocturne: The Birches (1916)
oil on wood panel 21.6 x 26.8 cm
National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa

(via daisybuchanan)

Find meaning. Distinguish melancholy from sadness. Go out for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a romantic walk in the park, spring at its most spectacular moment, flowers and smells and outstanding poetical imagery smoothly transferring you into another world. It doesn’t have to be a walk during which you’ll have multiple life epiphanies and discover meanings no other brain ever managed to encounter. Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.

—Albert Camus (via sleepingtigers)

(Source: blackgirlslovemonet, via sleepingtigers)