“And so a mood is created in which all decisions seem inevitable and in which people speaking of different solutions seem remote and impractical. It is a mood of submission, under the pressures of an effectively occupying power.”
Thus Raymond Williams, writing in 1960 in “Advertising: the Magic System.” The “occupying power” is advertising, particularly the role that advertising’s appeal has begun to play in TV land and, by extension, in politics. It’s 1960, the year that historians often point to as the moment that television affected the outcome of a presidential election, with the televised debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Williams doesn’t refer to that, but the timeliness of what he’s saying gains force through the confluence of moments. Williams sees that, in time, all will submit to advertising, and he sees that submission as giving up a certain kind of liberalism. Mainly, the liberalism of public policy, of public control of important institutions of social life. The almighty buck is having its way and that bodes ill for democracy, to say nothing of any political agency formed of those with nothing—neither money nor status nor influence. Corporate interests determine what we see and what gets said.
Williams writes of the “social failure to find means of public information and decision over a wide range of everyday economic life,” a failure that results from “allowing control of the means of production and distribution to remain in minority hands.” In our terms, it’s about privatization, and its effects are already clear to him: “political parties considering how to sell themselves to the electorate, to create a favourable brand image; education being primarily organized in terms of a graded supply of labour; culture being organized and even evaluated in terms of commercial profit.”
This is the world I was born into—in 1960—and it’s worth traveling back in time with Williams to see, in the Trumped times we live in, how the tendency was already more than apparent. He points to the “evident fact, in the years we are living through” of the “emergence and elaboration of a social and cultural form—advertising—which responds to the gap between expectation and control by a kind of organized fantasy.” Those years are the years depicted in the popular TV show Mad Men, when the logic of advertising, as Williams sees, begins to dominate other cultural forms, like art, and to supplant them.
And, reading Williams now, it’s not really possible to overlook the extent to which government has become “organized fantasy” predicated on the control of information in a way that advertising pioneered. Advertising, like just about everything Trump (and many other politicians) says, is lies. But we live with the lies of advertising as simply the price of letting those vested corporate interests, with their incessant ads, bring us the mindless entertainment we seek. And there’s not much disjunction between the false claims of ads for detergent and the false claims of ads for campaigners. This was evident in the Sixties and became more and more so, till, in the Eighties, the Reagan presidency was nothing if not a scripted show, as far as the networks were concerned.
I found myself reading Williams not simply to remind myself of why it was nearly impossible to have any sense of art in the times of my childhood—TV, movies, comic books, pop music, yes, art, no—and why I have long abhorred commercial TV, but to find some sense of an alternative to consumerism and commodity culture. Certainly, he glances at the ubiquity of the latter: “Since consumption is within its limits a satisfactory activity, it can be plausibly offered as a commanding social purpose. At the same time, its ambiguity is such that it ratifies the subjection of society to the operations of the existing economic system.” And all effort is aimed at maintaining the existing economic system by those whom it benefits. Our participation is to consume and to mimic the satisfaction that hired actors display in using “the only available choices.”
Which brings me to what I’m trying to get a handle on, for my own purposes. And that’s the question of how one makes use of those social elements Williams calls “formations” and “structures of feeling” to arrive elsewhere, intellectually, creatively—politically? Perhaps we can’t go so far. One has not dropped out, however much one might feel oppositional. Though the trajectory I want to delineate, based on certain objects of “consumption” (if one must so term it), promotes a kind of self-formation that, as Williams stresses again and again, is social—deriving from the subject’s economic status, education, location, period, race, gender, and inherent biases—but is also “aesthetic,” as in: based in perceptions derived from exposure to certain fields of creative endeavor that open up possibilities not generally acknowledged by the utilitarian and egalitarian aspects of the culture at the time. In fact, certain social and professional satisfactions are definitely foreclosed, but not imaginative satisfactions. And that becomes the point of poetry, of writing that has no aim other than to be a record of a process, or rather let’s say of “a music.”
“Practical consciousness is almost always different from official consciousness, and this is not only a matter of relative freedom or control. For practical consciousness is what is actually being lived, and not only what it is thought is being lived. Yet the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms is not silence: not the absence, the unconscious, which bourgeois culture has mythicized. It 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. Its relations with the already articulate and defined are than exceptionally complex.”
He goes on to say that “no generation speaks quite the same language as its predecessors.” The point being, for my purposes, that “writing” and “reading”—which means sometimes (often) “not writing” as well—is “a matter of relative freedom or control,” and that it is “alternative” to what is “received and produced” (and sold for consumption), and, while I don’t necessarily endorse “embryonic” as any kind of useful metaphor in this case, is, at least in theory, on its way to “fully articulate and defined exchange.” What is always wanting, however, is the social and material occasions for that exchange. For the notion that there is still an intelligentsia—such as I would recognize its merits—is largely defeated by the Eighties, when I come of age. Williams is looking askance at what the Seventies will be (the afterword of the advertising essay dates from 1969), but lord-a-mercy in the Eighties.
And yet, as I’m trying to see now, the occasions for those complex relations from the Sixties to the Eighties—the period of “formations”—may well be worth articulating. To say nothing of the ensuing periods in which—well beyond anything that could be called “embryonic”—I still find myself at variance with the social and material habitus that would make my “useless and pointless knowledge” an economic asset. So reading Williams—Culture and Materialism (1980) and Marxism and Literature (1977)—not only illuminates the moment of my starting out through the views of a canny critic of the capitalist status quo, but adds ammunition to a deep dissatisfaction with “literary studies” as having any kind of purpose, other than antiquated, and with “the literary” in general, as a failure of the schoolmen. In other words, Williams takes me back to the ways in which those terms—as cultural markers—were already beside the point. And that helps me to see how the assumptions of commodity culture were there from the start, even if only as the primary antagonist. That agon, I’m afraid, is the defining one, after all.
I heard the Sermon on the Mount
And I knew it was too complex
It didn’t amount to anything more
Than what a bit of broken glass reflects
When you bite off more than you can chew
You got to pay the penalty
Somebody’s got to tell the tale
I guess it must be up to me.
--Bob Dylan, “Up to Me” (1974)