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New Left Review I/129, September-October 1981

Raymond Williams

Marxism, Structuralism and Literary Analysis

Recent events in Cambridge, of which some of you may have heard, have persuaded me to bring forward some material which I was preparing for a course of five lectures in the autumn. [*] Text of a lecture given in the Cambridge English Faculty, 13 February 1981. Because the material was originally conceived on that scale, the prospect for this crowded hour can be considered daunting. But it seems important to try to set out a general position now, rather than leave so many of these issues in the air until they can be more fully examined. My main purpose is one of identifying and briefly explaining some currently controversial positions beyond the labels which are being so loosely attached, but I have a quite different argument to put in front of that, which seems to me to go to the centre of the controversy. Within both Marxism and structuralism there are diverse tendencies, and there is further diversity in other tendencies in part influenced by them. Several of these tendencies are in sharp opposition to each other. This has to be emphasized not only to prevent reductive labelling but for a more positive reason, that some of these tendencies are compatible with the existing dominant paradigm of literary studies while others are incompatible and have for some years been challenging the dominant paradigm—and thus its profession. I am using ‘paradigm’ broadly in Kuhn’s sense of a working definition of a perceived field of knowledge, indeed of an object of knowledge, based on certain fundamental hypotheses, which carries with it definitions of appropriate methods of discovering and establishing such knowledge. Now the case of Literature seems to me exactly such a paradigm. Moreover, as Kuhn argued, such paradigms are never simply abandoned. Rather they accumulate anomalies until there is eventually a breaking point, and attempts are made to shift and replace the fundamental hypothesis, its definitions and what are by this stage the established professional standards and methods of enquiry. That evidently is a moment of crisis. I think it is where we now are, although at a relatively very early stage, in literary studies in Cambridge.

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