In their Foreword to Political Shakespeare footnote1 Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield give a brief account of ‘cultural materialism’: a mode of critical analysis which examines both ‘high’ and ‘popular’ texts, insists on their implication in history, denies that they have any transcendent meanings, and takes its stand on openly avowed political commitments. Sinfield’s recent study, Literature, Politics and Culture in Post-War Britain,footnote2 applies this approach to a range of themes and writings, often foregrounding the work of well-known literary authors (Angus Wilson and Elizabeth Bowen, Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin, among many others), but attending also to less established figures and to discourses and cultural practices beyond the purview of ‘literary criticism’ as it used to be conceived. Thus, for instance, the ideologies of child care (Bowlby, Winnicott) and the norms of The New Yorker short story (‘I would really like to get something in The New Yorker’: Plath in 1956) are presented as important contexts for Plath’s stories and poems, and work by Larkin, Thom Gunn and Kingsley Amis is situated within a broad account of the impact of jazz and popular music on literary intellectuals.
The book’s chapters are focused neither on writers or groups of writers, nor on discrete chronological periods, but on a series of cultural shifts, movements and problems: the genealogy of the New Left and of ‘left culturism’, the reinvention of modernism in the usa, the construction of a male homosexual identity perceived as linked with an ‘effete’ cultural establishment, and so on. Sinfield’s overall thesis is that within the postwar social-democratic settlement (‘welfare capitalism’), a notion of ‘good culture’ was fostered. This, like other good things, was no longer to be the exclusive preserve of the middle and upper classes. Under the tutelage of liberal governors, the population at large was to have an opportunity to enjoy it. As the social and economic aspects of the project have proved unattainable, and as their desirability has been challenged by the New Right, so—argues Sinfield—the concomitant
And the expression ‘medium-term project’ seems to envisage some eventual wider progressive coalition. The difficulty of combining diverse groups in such a coalition has been often registered: it is a good few years since Beyond the Fragments, but we seem still to be left with ‘the fragments’ on the one hand—and the Labour Party on the other. The point here, and it is not taken up anywhere in the book, is that the socialist values to which Sinfield is committed, and which would be part of the foundation of any such progressive mobilization as he envisages, themselves depend on some notion of universal goods and truths of just the kind that is dismissed in the realm of culture. Under one aspect, then, this is a broad cultural history, contentious but stimulating—especially, it may be, for readers who identify themselves with the left-liberal ‘class fraction’ which, in this account, has played a central but equivocal role in defining and attempting to transmit ‘good culture’.
Under another aspect, Literature, Politics and Culture in Post-War Britain is to be seen as an intervention in the academic contest over the future of what was once ‘English Literature’. The book exemplifies the shift from ‘Englit’ (Sinfield’s term) to ‘cultural studies’. Its range of reference, revealing juxtaposition of texts, and awareness of culture’s institutional bases typify the kind of gains that are being made. But there are also ambiguities, evasions and questionable implicit positions where one might have hoped to see a more forthright theoretical engagement. The book eschews debate with other critical schools and methodologies, and offers neither explicit argument nor consistent practice in what is surely a central area: the question of aesthetic value, and thus of how ‘literature’ might be defined in other than ideological and institutional terms.
The general under-theorization of Sinfield’s approach is striking. There is a brief and rather contradictory assessment of postmodernism, but given that Sinfield’s own dissolution of humanist universals in many ways parallels postmodernism’s deconstructive scepticism, a more careful discrimination of agreements and disagreements would have been in order. The political centrality of feminism is acknowledged, but feminist critical theories are nowhere discussed. Psychoanalytic, semiotic and deconstructionist critical procedures are never reviewed. All this leaves its mark on Sinfield’s readings: these are cursory, and tend to deal with texts and univocal ideological messages, flattening their contradictions and leaving complexities largely unexplored.
The one critical school submitted to detailed scrutiny is ‘New Criticism’, distinguished (rightly in my view) from Leavisism, and associated with the American reinvention of Modernism. Here, dissent from the overly formalistic approach of the New Critics leads too readily into a dismissal of Modernism itself, which is defined as ‘a rebellion effectively within the leisure class’ (p. 184). We are told that Woolf’s celebrated attack on Wells and Bennett (in ‘Modern Fiction’) amounts to a demand for ‘a more conservative kind of writing’ (p. 199). Feminist critics—and not only feminist critics—would insist, at this point, that there is also a politics of representation, of form and genre and language. The ‘rebelliousness’ of To the Lighthouse or Ulysses inheres in what those texts, through formal and representational innovation, bring to light about consciousness and identity, subjectivity and the social: deeply political themes, but not primarily a matter of the ‘content’ of the work.
Moreover, formal properties of literary works, which academic literary criticism has (too single-mindedly) striven to elucidate, constitute a distinct aspect of their totality—though one that is in constant interplay with those denotative ‘messages’ which an ideological and sociological criticism tends (too single-mindedly) to focus on. To suggest that a certain (variably marked) foregrounding of form and pattern distinguishes ‘literature’ is not to claim that this makes literary works straightforwardly ‘transcendent’ (though it surely does help to explain the longevity of their readableness). It is not to deny that they transmit messages and ideologies which may largely preoccupy us as we read, or to want to reinstate a timeless canon in the face of the evident and welcome fact that we now read literature in less deferential and more demanding ways. Nor can an aesthetic criterion be our exclusive test for discriminating ‘literature’, which certainly is, as this book usefully reminds us, a cultural and economic institution as well as a body of ‘good writing’.