For a year or so I have been wanting to say something relatively formal about cultural theory, and this seems to be an occasion.
The point is not, at least initially, one of proposition or amendment within this or that theory of culture, but rather a reconsideration of what cultural theory, in the strictest sense, can be reasonably expected to be and to do. Moreover this will involve, as a challenging emphasis, a social and historical exploration of what, in its various forms, it actually has been and done. For cultural theory, which takes all other cultural production as its appropriate material, cannot exempt itself from the most rigorous examination of its own social and historical situations and formations, or from a connected analysis of its assumptions, propositions, methods and effects. My view of what can properly be taken as cultural theory is in itself and especially in this context controversial. For I want to distinguish significant cultural theory, on the one hand from theories of particular arts, which in some of its least useful forms cultural theory offers to supersede or indeed suppress, and, on the other hand, from properly social
For of course I am not suggesting, as the received spatial model inclines many to suppose, that the making of useful cultural theory is in some intermediate area between, on the one hand, the arts and, on the other hand, society. On the contrary, these now a priori but historically traceable categories, and the conventional forms of their separation and derived interrelation, are just what useful cultural theory most essentially and specifically challenges. Yet I am saying that cultural theory is at its most significant when it is concerned precisely with the relations between the many and diverse human activities which have been historically and theoretically grouped in these ways, and especially when it explores these relations as at once dynamic and specific within describably whole historical situations which are also, as practice, changing and, in the present, changeable. It is then in this emphasis on a theory of such specific and changing relationships that cultural theory becomes appropriate and useful, as distinct from offering itself as a catch-all theory of very diverse artistic practices or, on the other hand, as a form of social theory proposed or disposed as an alternative—though it should always be a contributor—to more general social and historical analysis.
In fact the problem of the relations between what we now call the arts and intellectual work, on the one hand, and the generality of human activity which we loosely delineate as society, only arises—I mean as a theoretical problem; the practical problems have always been there—when certain historically significant changes have come about in both. If we look back, for example, at the great lineage of theories of art, or of particular arts, we find no necessary tensions, of a kind to make all such relationships problematic, between such theories and the general underlying forms to which, by extension, they were customarily referred. All classical and neo-classical theories of art and of particular arts, typically culminating in rules of practice, had as the matrix of their further relations the general underlying forms of the idealist tradition: whether specifically as underlying and shaping Ideas or as propositions of an essential and unchanging human nature. Some difficulties occurred when these Ideas or this Nature were given a defining contemporary social form, necessarily of a normative kind, from which particular kinds or examples of art could be seen as deviant: description of actual relations then coming through as primarily moral—exemplary of an established moral state or of lapses from it. These difficulties became critical in that succeeding phase of theory which we generalize as Romantic. Yet the change from the rules of art to the proposition of unique creative forms did not in itself affect wider relationships, since the new claim was based on comparably general and ideal dimensions: notably an undifferentiated creative Imagination. The change of social
But other changes were now beginning to interact. The sense of art as both a specialized and an autonomous activity was strengthened rather than weakened by its increasing claim to represent, indeed to dominate, human creativity. The experience of practice continued to confirm, among artists, the sense of an autonomous skill. But this could again be strengthened rather than weakened by radical changes in the conditions of livelihood of artists, in the long move from different forms of patronage to different forms of the market. To set art as a priori above any market, in an ideal sphere of its own, was as regular a response to the new difficulties as their frank empirical recognition. Social changes and extensions of audiences and publics had more radical effects, and some direct interactions with production began to be observed as well as practised. Yet full specification of what we see as the modern problem did not really happen until social and historical analysis of the increasingly evident major changes—economic and political but also changes of material and of media in industrial and in cultural production—offered challenging specifications of social organization and historical development, including systemic crises and conflicts, to which many of the problems of art could appear to be directly related.
What at last came through, theoretically, in the significant new keywords of ‘culture’ and ‘society’, was the now familiar model: of the arts on the one hand, the social structure on the other, with the assumption of significant relations between them. Yet the types of theory developed from this model were not yet especially useful. This is as true of the immensely influential ‘base and superstructure’ version—in practice more widely adopted than just in Marxist or other socialist movements—as of the various versions of an elite, in which there was a structural affinity between high culture and forms of social privilege deemed necessary to sustain it. Theoretically there is often little to choose between these otherwise opposed positions, since the accounts usually given, in either, of the actual formative relationships between these separated categories are at best selective or suasive. In Marxism, for example, there was a shared predominance of idealist theories, in which generalized states of consciousness, which might be imputed to classes, were in ways never fully explained transmuted into forms and genres or styles and phases of art, and of economist theories, in which there was some form of direct transmission of basic economic structures into modes of art, as in the proposition of what was called ‘capitalist poetry’. There was better work, drawing on earlier empirical studies within a different historical perspective, on the effects of changes in the social and economic situation of artists and of corresponding changes in audiences. Yet this, while important in itself, typically failed to engage
It was within this aroused but unsatisfied phase that the first important theoretical initiatives began to be made. I would look first at what might be called the road from Vitebsk. I mean that still imperfectly understood but major movement, involving (uncertainly and inextricably) P. M. Medvedev, V. N. Volosinov and M. M. Bakhtin, who were together in Vitebsk in the early 1920s and later worked in Leningrad. This is also my first example of the indispensability of social and historical analysis to study of the structure of an initiative in cultural theory. For the key fact of these theoretical moves was their complex situation within a still actively revolutionary society. Medvedev, notably, had been Rector of the Proletarian University and was actively engaged in literacy programmes and in new forms of popular theatre. We might then expect some simple affiliation to what was already known as a ‘sociological poetics’, in which the transformations of audiences and of the position of artists could be seen as leading directly to a new and confident theory and practice of art. But that was not the way the initiative went, quite apart from the fact that its work was interrupted and broken off by the Stalinist consolidation of control and dogma: a period of which Volosinov and Medvedev appear to have been direct—and mortal—victims, and in which Bakhtin was marginalized.
For what had been seized was the problem of specificity: one which applies just as closely to their own intellectual work as to their understanding of art. What they were faced with was just that polarization of art and society characteristic of the received models. In those turbulent years, shaking free from so many old forms, the dominant theoretical trends were, on the one hand, formalism, with its emphasis and analysis of the distinctive, autonomous elements of art, and, on the other hand, a generalized Marxist application of social categories to the conditions of cultural production. What this group moved, correctly, to try to identify were the real gaps then left: the actual and specific relations between these practically unconnecting dimensions. They still nominally retained the model of base and superstructure, for they were writing as Marxists, but everything they said about it emphasized the complex and oblique practical relations which the formula typically overrode or obscured.