| One context for the problem of value is the relationship between Leavis
and post-structuralism or ‘theory’, by which I mean the body of work inspired
by, among others, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault and Lacan. Leavis was committed
to the idea of value whereas post-structuralists, in distancing themselves
from Leavis, also distanced themselves from this particular concern. Antony
Easthope, who was one of the most eloquent advocates of British post-structuralism,
summed up the objections to value when he wrote that, it ‘lends almost supernatural
justification to specialised and controlling definitions of class, gender,
nation and empire’ (1991: 44). There is no denying that there is some truth
to this claim, but it is not the whole story. My aim, therefore, is to explain
why Leavis was so attached to a notion of value and what he understood by
Leavis’s concern with value cannot be divorced from his understanding of the relation between culture and economics; it is the tension between them which shapes his understanding of the term. There is no corresponding tension in the discourse of post-structuralism, the absence of which helps to account for why theorists have largely ignored the question of value. I shall argue that this tension, so marked in Leavis, vanishes from post-structuralist writing due to the triumph of free market ideology which reduces all questions of value to economic considerations. The displacement of Leavisian criticism by post-structuralism is part of this process, with the result that the problem of value hardly appears relevant to our relativistic, voyeuristic, consumer driven, culturally seamless but economically divided society.
From the beginning Leavis was aware of how economics threatened to colonise culture. Hence he talks of the need to ‘wrest meaning from the economist’ (1933: 17) a phrase, incidentally, that parallels the post-structuralist contention that language users are engaged in a constant struggle over meanings. Leavis’s claim is that the values of economics, as embodied in mass production and standardization, are beginning to erode those of culture which express ‘a certain autonomy of the human spirit’ (1986: 35), ‘spirit’ referring to human needs and potentialities rather to a metaphysical entity (1972: 94). Incidentally, Leavis’s argument, though couched in an idealist idiom, anticipates Althusser’s critique of the failure of orthodox Marxism to acknowledge that society is ‘structurally complex’ and that there are ‘relatively autonomous practices’ such as literature with their own ‘specific effectivity’ (1977: 94). In Leavis’s later work, the economist has been absorbed into the ‘the world of "enlightenment"’ a world Leavis more commonly refers to as ‘technologico-Benthamite civilization’. The distinguishing feature of this world is its ‘blankness’ to the ‘creative human reality of significances, values and non-measurable ends’ (1972: 110). Its conception of the social is essentially statistical and its goals are the extension of technology, increased productivity and a higher standard of living. ‘The implication’, Leavis writes, is that ‘we need take no ends into account in our planning and calculating but those which are looked after by quantitative criteria, the statistical: "quality", that is will take care of itself’ (ibid: 138). He is not saying that we can do without quantitative criteria only that they cannot be the sole consideration in our conception of the social. Any healthy society must take account of ‘human ends’ of the need, as Leavis puts it, ‘to feel that life is significant’ (ibid: 92). It is here that culture is important: partly because it contains ‘insights’ that help us to address ‘the pressing problems and opportunities’ (ibid) which confront us but mainly because culture is a living record of ‘a creative response to change’ (ibid: 120).
Leavis’s commitment to creativity needs to be stressed because his detractors have chosen to ignore it, dismissing him as a ‘righteous moralist’ (Easthope 1991: 10) instead of examining what he actually says. The critic’s task, wrote Leavis was ‘not to subscribe to or apply some specific ethical theory or scheme’ to a work, but to keep alive a sense of the literary heritage, that world of ‘human values and significances which is created and maintained by continuous collaborative human activity’ (1972: 174). Leavis is very careful not to define these ‘human values and significances’ because that would be to limit them, to enclose them within the bounds of an enlightenment view of language as purely a means of expression. Catherine Belsey, another articulate advocate of post-structuralism, believes that Leavis judges writers on how well they ‘express…[their] experience of life’ (1980: 12) but Leavis consistently argued that language
is more than a means of expression; it is the heuristic conquest won out of representative experience, the upshot or precipitate of immemorial human living, and embodies values, distinctions, identifications, conclusions, promptings, cartographical hints and tested potentialities…This doesn’t mean that it is univocal, implicitly dictating an ideal comprehensive conclusions. A product of collaborative creativity, it makes continued and advancing collaborative thought possible-and it will hardly be forgotten that such collaboration entails, vitally and essentially, disagreements. Finality is unattainable. (1975: 44 & 49 my emphasis)
The accent falls on how the language is created by people in their daily lives and speech. They not only build up its ‘implicit valuations, interpretive constructions, [and] ordering moulds and frames’ (1972: 184) but also refine, extend and add to them in a continuing response to change. This idea of language is not far removed from the post-structuralist claim that ‘meaning is socially constructed’ (Belsey 1980: 42) but there is one crucial difference: post-structuralists recognise, unlike Leavis, that power is an important factor in the construction of meaning. Consequently Leavis’s account of the development of language inclines more towards myth than history. There is little evidence for his assertion that it was ‘the country folk of England who made Shakespeare possible’ (1972: 129), nor for his claim that, in the late seventeenth century, this ‘common culture’ buckled under the twin pressures of economic development and the spread of scientific thought. His observation, that ‘the new Augustan culture represented by Pope and The Tatler entailed an unprecedented insulation of the polite from the popular’ (1972: 130), while pointing to an important development, is unrelated to any understanding of power or the dynamics of social change.
Although Leavis simplifies - some would say travesties - history his basic point that the power of language depends on a close connection between an ‘everyday’ and a ‘educated’ culture should make us pause before condemning him as an elitist. The separation of these spheres has resulted in ‘the complete destruction of that general, diffused creativity which maintains the life and continuity of the culture’ (1972: 130). The result is a society ‘suffering from mysterious unsatisfactions, unhappiness, cravings, addictions and disorders which the resources of technologico-Benthamite civilization prove impotent to appease or prevent’ (ibid: 175). The only way in which we can salvage at least a part of this culture is by the universities creating an ‘educated public’ which is committed to values other than productivity, profit and an ever higher standard of living. However, since the university itself is being redefined as ‘so much plant that should be kept in full production all the year round…its management governed by strict cost-efficiency considerations’ (ibid: 148), its capacity to create an educated public, one which ‘statesmen, administrators, editors and newspaper proprietors can respect and rely on as well as fear’ (ibid: 104), is severely curtailed.
To repeat, Leavis is not simply opposing culture to economics. His argument is that the nature of society cannot be determined by economic considerations alone. It is the attempt to do so that gives rise to cultural malaise. The challenge of Leavis is that he carefully articulates a pervasive sense that the relentless economism of modern society fails to provide its members with a sense of selfhood, belonging, or purpose. Such a deep concern for the possibilities of being is at odds with the spirit of most journalism which aims to sensationalise issues instead of assessing their significance (1986: 249-50). It also appears to clash with the predominantly theoretical paradigm of contemporary criticism and cultural studies where, if Leavis is mentioned at all, it is as someone to be wholly discounted. However, this ‘clash’ is more a question of emphasis than a difference of either perception or principle. Leavis’s assertion that ‘we [don’t] need Nietzsche to tell us to live dangerously; there is no other way of living’ (1979: 15) is more forceful than Derrida’s celebration of the ‘Nietzschean affirmation of becoming’ (1990: 292). Similarly, his strategy of ‘discrediting the clichés, disturbing the blank incuria and undermining the assurance of [enlightenment thought]’ (1972: 107), while paralleling the post-structuralist tactic of intervening in the construction of meaning, is more coherent than the theorising of Belsey or Easthope because it is supported by a clear statement of values.
The main difference between Leavis and British post-structuralism is that he belongs to a tradition which presents culture as corrective to a conception of society based on the cash-nexus (Williams 1975: 77). It has its roots in Fichte and Schiller, is developed in Hegel, and enters England via Coleridge’s On the Constitution of Church and State (1830) receiving its decisive expression in Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869). The early part of this tradition strives to imagine and construct a lost wholeness while the later part splinters into a number of sometimes competing and sometimes complementary ideas about culture such as its being an expression of the nation state or the process of human perfectibility. It is true that theory works with a number of elements of this tradition, particularly the idea that culture is a form of identity arising out of a distinct way of life. However, the advent of British post-structuralism, characterised by the ‘linguistic turn’, shifted attention away from the relation between culture and economic development and onto language itself, particularly the process of signification, or the production of meaning. This shift was not as radical as it seemed for Leavis also put language at the centre of his criticism because it ‘creat[es] the world we live in’ (1986: 289); a view, which as already noted, is similar to the post-structuralist claim that language constructs orders of knowledge and meaning that make ‘reality’ comprehensible. Where Leavis is different is in opposing his view of language to economic reductionism and this makes him more concerned with ‘significance’ than ‘meaning’.
For Leavis, the communication of ‘significance’ was the mark of great art. ‘"What for-what ultimately for?" is implicitly asked in all the greatest art, from which we get, not what we are likely to call an "answer", but the communication of a felt significance; something that confirms our sense of life as more than a mere linear succession of days, a matter of time as measured by the clock-"tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…"’ (1973: 46). Criticism, for Leavis, was the act of discriminating between the meanings of different works of art in order to apprehend their ‘significance’. British post-structuralism, on the other hand, is more interested in the material effects of meanings in terms of gender, sexuality and race. It is therefore ostensibly more alert to the political consequences of cultural forms. The difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ may be an instance of that separation of the spheres mentioned earlier. Be that as it may, the jettisoning of the Leavisian legacy deprives post-structuralists of the resources to determine either the validity or desirability of these different meanings: their aversion to hierarchy means that it treats them all equally.
We have already noted that there are some surprising similarities between Leavisian criticism and post-structuralist theory but the differences are also important. By focusing on Leavisian criticism rather than Thatcherite economics, post-structuralists restricted the sphere of theory’s operation even as they sought to extend it. Leavis’s reflections on the purpose of literary study resonated in the public domain, particularly his ‘Two Cultures? The Significance of Lord Snow’ (1962), whereas the deliberations of post-structuralists were confined to the conference circuit. Although it is true that post-structuralism now enjoys a wider ‘currency’ this is because its vocabulary conforms much more to the established order than Leavis’s ever did. The advent of post-structuralism shifted the vocabulary of criticism from the concrete to the abstract, from the experiential to the political, from the individual to the subject and from the play, poem or novel to the ‘text’. The change in critical idiom cannot be divorced from wider changes in society, particularly the rise of Thatcherism. The discourse of post-structuralism is the shadow cast by the rise of free market economics, its impersonal nature mirroring the impersonal laws of the laissez-faire economy.
The theoretical character of post-structuralist discourse gives it a rigidity which renders it insensitive to the sheer density, complexity and contingency of life. The ritual incantation of key concepts - ‘differance’, ‘supplement’, ‘mirror-stage’ and so on - has invested them with the illusion of special explanatory powers in respect of subjectivity and the social formation. I am conscious of reducing a multi-layered movement to a simple formula but I do not think I am grossly caricaturing the post-structuralist enterprise when I say that it aims to change the social structure by describing it differently. However, as I have already mentioned, the post-structuralist dismissal of value questions means that there are no coherent grounds for altering the status quo. The promotion of plurality encourages us to take pleasure in multiplicity rather than choose between alternatives and so we have no reason to opt for one form of social arrangement rather than another. Then there is the post-structuralist credo - and the aspiration of the spin doctor - that ‘when names change, things change’ (Rivkin and Ryan 1998: 352). But calling Windscale Sellafield makes no difference to that fact that it is a nuclear power station or that such energy continues to be a risk. While it is possible to substitute one word for another to produce a positive perception where before there was a negative one - gay for ‘queer’ - this does not eradicate homophobia, as the recent case of David Copeland, the London nailbomber, has shown. Moreover, as Peter Tatchell has argued, twenty years of gay liberation have barely dented the laws against homosexuality. ‘Nothing’, he claims, ‘has changed in three decades’ (The Observer 2.7.200).
Critics like Belsey seem to accept that to describe the world differently is a good in itself. But there is nothing intrinsically progressive about altering expression. In an unpublished keynote speech at the conference Metaphors of Economy at the University of Anglia (23-24 June 2000) Steven Connor argued that we should not see either homelessness or destitution solely in terms of a lack; rather these words gestured to a condition which was ‘not exhausted’ by the privations it described. Such an interpretation does a lot to make homelessness an accepted feature of our society but nothing towards analysing it or accounting for its increase in the last twenty years. Here, describing the world differently shows only a failure to grasp how a particular form of economics has devastated British society.
The ambition to make the world a better place by describing it differently will not be achieved by using the language of post-structuralism. Leavis’s belief that ‘the judgements of the literary critic [are] concerned with judgements about life’ (1972: 97) meant he was careful to avoid being too technical in his commentaries on literature. The post-structuralist commitment to theory, however, requires a more specialised terminology which puts it on a par with the professional discourses of medicine, law, management and finance. This makes it an integral part of the society it claims to criticise: post-structuralism is a body of thought that upholds the principle of hierarchy by distinguishing between experts and non-experts, lecturers and students. More generally, its endorsement of Derrida’s claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ indirectly underwrites a society where there is an increasing emphasis on auditing, mission statements, charters and qualifications, and where even the most casual encounters between staff and customers are scripted: ‘Good morning. My name is Helen. How may I help you?’ Post-structuralists do not change the world, they reproduce it. Their impatience with questions of value is symptomatic of a society where economic values reign unchallenged. It is the statistic not the person which is taken into account in the making of policy decisions. We must adapt to the market, there is no question, in government rhetoric, of the market adapting to us. This attitude to the market is mirrored by some post-structuralist thinkers who accept the virtues of ‘theory’ as self evident. Mrs Thatcher’s famous declaration that ‘there is no alternative’ to the market was echoed in Easthope’s assertion that ‘there is now no alternative to reading literature in some relation to psychoanalysis’ (1989: 3). The colonisation of language by economic criteria restricts its capacity either to take cognisance of the complex relations that govern any given experience or to generate a reality which includes but is not dominated by those criteria. It is this erosion of the discriminatory and generative powers of language which Leavis spent his life trying to resist.
He was not alone. Iris Murdoch was also alarmed about the impoverishment of language, though she attributed it to the influence of logical positivism believing that the increasingly technical language of philosophy was characteristic of the ‘managerial society’, that is the division of the population into experts and the rest ‘with no communication between them’ (1998: 181). The consequence is ‘a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and spiritual vocabulary. We no longer use a spread out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him’ (ibid: 290). Murdoch’s remedy is a renewed attention to literature ‘through which we re-discover a sense of the density of our lives’ and which can deal with ‘specialised concepts’ in the light of ‘moral and social ideals which have a degree of complexity’ (ibid: 181). Her anxieties about the condition of language in advanced capitalism suggest that we are dealing with a cultural perception rather than an individual idiosyncrasy.
This is not a perception shared by post-structuralists partly because they have a different conception of language, based on Saussurean linguistics, but mainly because they have so absorbed the metaphors of the market that they have lost any sense of non economic values. Saussure himself compared the workings of language to the workings of money (1974: 83) a view echoed by Derrida for whom the question of language is always 'one of economy and strategy' (1990: 282). The idea of economy is situated at the heart of post-structuralism; it is its enabling and unexamined metaphor. As already noted, the moment of post-structuralism is also the moment of Thatcherism. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of parallels between the two. One is the promotion of the primacy of the signifier and the credit boom of the mid 1980s: what Derrida calls ‘the overabundance of the signifier’ in relation to the signified (ibid: 290) seems to be the linguistic equivalent of the proliferation of credit in relation to the money supply. Another is that post-structuralists favoured the free play of meaning at that the same time that many economists advocated the free play of market forces. The attack on the imaginary unity of the ‘text’ as a brake on its real plurality (Easthope 1991: 22-25) included an assault on the traditional idea of ‘character’ because it took no account of the unconscious, ideology or gender (Belsey 1980: 13). But transformations in the culture of work were also undermining the idea of ‘character’. According to Richard Sennett (1998), the demand for a multi-skilled labour force on short term contracts erodes qualities of loyalty, commitment and the ability to realise long term goals which were integral to the old idea of character. The concept of character has now been replaced by that of ‘identity’ but this is hardly liberating since its attributes, plasticity, playfulness, and ‘performativity’, are precisely what make it useful for a market where there are no ‘jobs for life’, where workers must be adaptable and accept the principle of performance-related pay.
But in case these parallels are too general we should also look at the relationship between post-structuralist and management theory. During the heyday of post-structuralism the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a huge increase in the number of books devoted to the art of management. In the early 1980s, they outnumbered those on sex and cooking (Huczynski 1996: 153). The reason for the explosion in post-structuralist and management literature is that their common emphasis on the importance of language facilitated, in ways that still need to be properly investigated, the transition from a mixed economy based on manufacture to a entrepreneurial one based on information. Fiona Czerniawska, a leading management consultant, argues that in the late 1970s the business person’s distrust of language began to give way to an appreciation that language was in fact ‘a coherent system of signs that determines the perception of reality’ (1997: 2 & 8). Furthermore, ‘while language may be a system of signs, meaning is neither as consistent or coherent as is commonly assumed’ (ibid: 8). Both these ideas are central to post-structuralism. Language, writes Belsey, is a ‘system of signs which signify by means of their relationship to each other rather than to entities in the world’ but because this system includes a range of discourses the construction of meaning will always involve ‘contradictions and collisions’ (1980: 46 & 54). Like Belsey, Czerniawska believes that ‘language allows us to create an alternative reality’ (1997: 12) unlike Belsey, she restricts this understanding of language to the economic sphere. Her aim is to ‘turn language into a truly competitive weapon in practical business’ and to do that companies need to have a view of language - ‘visionary myths, power struggles, group boundaries, discontinuities, auguries of changes or relics of changes past’ (ibid: 13)-which is closely related to the post-structuralist view of it.
As I said, we still need to explore the relation between post-structuralism and management theory but it is clear from this example that the radical ideas of the former can be conservatively appropriated by the latter. Paul Bate, another management theorist, notes that ‘language structures thought’, that the ‘struggle for words is the struggle for meaning’ and that managers are ‘the manipulators of meaning’, their aim being to change the ‘organization culture’ in order to ‘increase productivity’ (1994: 9, 11, 24, & 30). Gareth Morgan, meanwhile, declares that the post-structuralist idea that humans use language to ‘construct and make reality has proved very useful’ to management theory whose task is to make companies more competitive and thus more successful (1997: xxviii & 273). The apotheosis of this trend is Stephen Brown’s edited collection Romancing the Market (1998) which celebrates the contribution of literary theorists to the experience of commodity culture. Although both post-structuralists and management theorists focus on ‘culture’ as a process of making meanings there is one important difference between them: the former believe that the plurality of meaning is an end in itself whereas for the latter it is a means to an end, higher productivity, improved service and so on.
I have argued that Leavis was very conscious of the need to oppose an idea of culture to one of economics. He seemed more alert to the spread of economic thought and its consequences than post-structuralist critics. However, there are important ways in which Leavis was unaware of how his own views were permeated by the kind of economic thinking he deplored. For example, at the same time that he urges readers to ‘wrest meaning from the economist’, he employs an economic metaphor to convey literary values which ‘are a kind of paper currency based upon a very small proportion of gold’ (1933: 14). What is more, this metaphor persists throughout his work so that he can talk about ‘a charge of currency value which is independent of first hand, that is actual thinking’ (1972: 51). So, while he is aware of the profound ambiguity of value as both a quantitative and a qualitative term (1986: 288), he nevertheless lapses into its economic sense when talking about cultural matters. To that extent Leavis unwittingly becomes an example of his own observation that ‘the offered parallel of a language and a monetary currency is highly revealing; it exposes the desperate plight of our civilization’ (1976: 148).
Leavis was also opposed to the kind of thinking associated with Frederic Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) which had a major influence on British industrial relations in the 1930s (Hopkins 1991: 19). Taylor’s aim was to devise a system of working that would maximise profit and minimise waste. This involved replacing traditional working practices by ones based on scientific method. The worker’s every movement, every motion was to be studied with a view to finding the optimum method of executing a task. Taylor memorably summed up scientific management when he wrote ‘the task before us, then, narrowed itself down to getting Schmidt to handle 47 tons of pig iron per day and making him glad to do it’ (1911: 44). Scientific management’s evangelical drive for efficiency in ‘all kinds of human activities from our simplest individual acts to the work of our great corporations’ (1911: 7) was a factor in Richard Paget’s aim to standardise English (1930) and Leonard Watson’s attempt to develop a technique for controlling the emotions (1925). It was against these endeavours that Leavis forged his conception of criticism (1933).
Although Leavis was hostile to the kind of thinking associated with scientific management it partly shapes his criticism. Taylor placed great emphasis on training, saying that only the scientific method would ensure that each man and each machine ‘are turning out the largest possible output’, thereby achieving the object of scientific management ‘maximum prosperity for the employer [and] the employee’ (ibid: 8 & 12). Leavis too stressed the importance of training. The sub-title of Culture and Environment (1964) is ‘The Training of Critical Awareness’ while in How to Teach Reading: A Primer for Ezra Pound (1932), a title of which Taylor would have been proud, Leavis speaks of the need to ‘improve one’s apparatus, one’s equipment as a reader’ (1932: 73). Similarly, just as Taylor aimed to eliminate the ‘rule of thumb’ way of working because it was wasteful so did Leavis aim to develop a more efficient technique of reading that would save students from ‘profitless memorising’ leaving them ‘better equipped to profit [from literature]’ (ibid: 26 & 42). Taylor used the time and motion man to achieve his ends while Leavis relied on the ‘surveying eye’ of criticism (1936: 17). In an age of mass observation the workplace and the work were required to be equally visible, the factory should be transparent and the poem self-evident. I am not, of course, arguing that Leavisian criticism is a version of scientific management but I am suggesting that Taylor and Leavis have a similar approach to the very different problems of manual labour and reading. Both perceive their separate fields in terms of minimising waste and maximising ‘profit’ by substituting a more efficient method of working or reading for the one which presently holds sway.
At the heart of scientific management and Leavisian criticism lies a concern with production. For Taylor this means improving productivity, for Leavis it means producing the work from ‘the black marks on the page’ which ‘are not the same as the poem’, ‘the poem’, he says, ‘is a product’ (1975: 36). Throughout his career Leavis argued that the critic is not faced with a poem, novel, or play but ‘black marks on paper’ (1986: 279) from which he or she, in collaboration with other critics, produces the said poem, novel, or play. Criticism, he writes, is not a response to something which already exists, ‘it is an effort to establish the poem’ (ibid). Leavis does not imagine the critic to be one of Taylor’s operatives but rather to be a craftsman (1964: 80), an image that sits uneasily with a vocabulary of training and efficiency. It is important to stress the centrality of production in Leavis’s criticism because he has been accused of believing that the work is ‘plainly there’ (Belsey 1982: 121). There is some justification for this charge because, as suggested above, Leavis does assert that ‘the poem is a determinate; it is there’ (1986: 197) and it is hard to reconcile this with his other declaration that the poem has to be produced from the black marks on the page. Instead of exploring this contradiction, however, Belsey has chosen to ignore it, emphasising only that part of it which suits her purpose, the establishment of ‘a productive critical practice’. But what she claims is ‘new’ about this practice, that it replaces ‘the reader as consumer’ with the reader as producer (1980: 125 & 128), is merely a different form of what is already there in Leavis. Belsey’s productive critical practice is a reproduction, in part, of Leavis’s practical criticism.
The post-modern distrust of meta-narratives does not encourage us to explore the coincidence between the prominence of the metaphor of production in criticism and the centrality of production to capitalism. In particular, the abandonment of the base-superstructure model has left us with no means of understanding how different parts of the social formation fit together. And yet there does seem to be some sort of relationship between the conception of criticism and the dynamic of capitalism. The change in the meaning of production from Leavis to Belsey seems to be a cultural expression of that ‘constant revolutionising of production’ (Marx & Engels 1968: 52) which characterises the capitalist economy. Leavis’s critic works in collaboration with others to establish the work whereas Belsey’s critic works in isolation to release its ‘plurality of meanings’ (1982: 130). The difference in the conception of critical activity is not a mirror image of the change from a mixed to a free market economy but it is certainly related: ‘collaboration’ is more easily associated with consensus politics and economic co-operation while the ‘production of plurality’ is more readily identifiable with the break-up of monopolies and the promotion of competition to create more choice for consumers. The point I want to stress, however, is that Belsey’s notion of production has evolved from Leavis’s. More generally, what British post-structuralists have inherited from Leavis is his unconscious use of an economic idiom but not his conscious opposition to economic values. The consequence is that whereas Leavis was able to maintain some distance between culture and economics, his post-structuralist heirs have collapsed them together, making the arts mute before mammon; except where they speak on its behalf.
Tim Stockil, a spokesman for the Association for the Business Sponsorship of the Arts, says that companies are interested in ‘how they can benefit from the arts, how new experiences, values and skills can unlock "creativity"’ (cited in The Observer 30.3.97). For its part, The Royal Society of Arts declares that ‘creativity and innovation are the lifeblood of any organisation concerned with survival and prosperity. The advances in technology and the global dimension of competition and the changing expectations of the market all place a very high premium the creative energies of every single organisation’ (1997: iii). Hence we find Body Shop executives learning silk painting, employees of the Mars Organisation staging a small musical production and a law firm, Mischon de Reya, hiring a poet to give readings to solicitors in their lunch hour. Richard Olivier and Mark Ryan have set up The Theatre of Leadership (1995) using Henry V to teach business people leadership qualities, a theme taken up by Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman in their book Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard’s Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage (1999). The fusion of culture and economics means that there is no analysis of exploitation and no appeal to any values beyond the market. Corporate hospitality uses the arts to win a contract; any other effect is secondary. The subordination of culture to the ends of capitalism bears out Marx’s claim that the bourgeoisie ‘creates a world after its own image’ (1968: 39). This condition was implicit in Leavis, but became all pervasive with post-structuralism and positively pronounced with postmodernism.
Leavis’s commitment to literature has been replaced by the post-structuralist hostility to it; his difficult but concrete criticism by a far more difficult and abstract theorising whose anti-humanist bias underwrites the dehumanising process of capitalism. Marx believed that the market ‘drowned [everything] in the icy water of egotistical calculation’ (1968: 38); Leavis that ‘technologico-Benthamite civilization’ would not ‘admit any other kind of consideration, any more adequate recognition of human nature and human need into the incitement and direction of our thinking and effort [than] technological and material advance’ (1972: 78). They had more in common than has been previously been allowed. Despite taking issue with Marxists over what he considered to be their neglect of culture, Leavis did agree with Marx that ‘there is a sense in which economic problems are prior’ and that ‘some form of economic communism [was] inevitable and desirable’ (1986: 33 & 50). Furthermore, a Marxist contemporary, A. L. Morton, believed that Leavis’s remarks on the importance of culture were ‘welcome to Marxists’ who were guilty of neglecting this area in their concentration on economic problems (1933: 324): a neglect which, as mentioned above, Althusser tried to remedy. Astonishing as it may seem Leavis’s humanism, his protest against the deformations of capitalism, echo Marx’s fulminations against a system which routinely inflicted ‘physical and mental degradation [and] premature death’ on large numbers of the population (1995: 166). Bringing Leavis and Marx together would inspire us to look anew at the relation between culture and economics. Traditionally, that relation was one of opposition whereas now it is more one of equivalence but neither of these take us very far in either analysing the social formation or imagining ways in which it could be improved.
The present condition of post-structuralist criticism is such that it has lost touch with what is actually happening in British society. The rise of theory coincided with contradictory developments such as huge job losses coupled with rampant consumerism. Instead of addressing these issues, post-structuralists have adopted the tactic of semiotic resistance to the meanings of the dominant order; a strangely quixotic strategy in a society increasingly divided between rich and poor, a society of repressive legislation and a society where corporate interests predominate over communal ones (see Davies 1997 & Cohen 1999). What is needed is a criticism that connects with the wider world, that is alert to how that world limits the possibilities of life and how it can be changed so as to enlarge them. The role of language is crucial in this process and the critic has a responsibility to charge it up, to divert it from the cliché and redeem it from the soundbite, to expand and enrich it beyond its conventional uses. This cannot be achieved without a sense of ‘literature’ which does not mean a paralysing respect for the ‘canon’ but, as Leavis said, a constant questioning of what ‘literature’ is (1972: 111) and part of the answer has to be that ‘literature’ demonstrates ‘what can be made with something shared by everyone and used by everyone in the daily conduct of life’ (Poirier 1987: 133). To that extent it is an ideal with the potential to inspire change at both the individual and social level. Those like Easthope who see no difference between literary and popular culture (1991: 66) are simply squandering a resource that has the capacity to profoundly affect the way we see and act in the world. The task is not to oppose literary and cultural studies, nor to make them equivalent but to recognise the difference between them and to use what each has to offer.
This means we need to reconsider Leavis’s contribution to the study of literature. The first step is distance ourselves from the Leavis of the ‘organic community’ and the ‘great tradition’ as these obscure what I think is most interesting about his work, not his defective history or his particular critical judgements but his general conception of value. ‘I don’t believe in "literary values", Leavis memorably remarks, ‘and you won’t find me talking about them. The judgements the literary critic is concerned with are judgements about life’ (1972: 97). Hence the value of a work is whether it ‘makes for life or against it’ (1986: 281). To those who want to know what ‘life’ is, Leavis replies that it is ‘a large word’ and that ‘to try and define it would be futile’ (ibid). This is not an evasion but a recognition that, when talking about that sense of significance and human ends which Leavis believes is absent from ‘technologico Benthamite civilization’, ‘the demand for strict limiting definitions is not always in place’ (ibid: 280). In post-structuralist terms, Leavis’s ‘life’ is a signifier with multiple signifieds. However, Leavis believed that since the critical discipline was concerned with ‘relevance and precision’ (1972: 97) the critic should always refer ‘as sensitively, faithfully and closely’ (1986: 281) to the work in question as he or she is able. That way, he or she would be able to demonstrate explicitly and exactly how a work promoted or did not promote ‘life’ which for Leavis was synonymous with ‘growth’ (1972: 120).
It is because ‘life’ is growth that it cannot be defined. It is a reaching out to the new which has yet to find expression. And in reaching out to the new, the literature that promotes ‘life’ inevitably challenges what has gone before. But we cannot appreciate that unless we have some idea of what has been accomplished in the past, and it is here that the literary tradition is important. That tradition supplies us with that ‘receptive apparatus’, those ‘implicit preferences and expectations’, without which ‘we can’t really perceive [a work]’ (1986: 247). But although ‘any reading of a poem that takes it as a poem involves an element of implicit valuation’ (ibid: 279), it would be wrong to imagine the critic ‘as measuring with a norm’ that he or she ‘brings from the outside’ (1975: 33). A more accurate view would be to see how the new work interacts with the tradition, how by ‘defeating and correcting habit [it] alters the accepted valuations’ (1986: 246-7). In particular, there is an attempt to understand how the work ‘affect[s] our sense of things that have determining significance for us’, [and] how it affect[s] our total sense of relative value, our sense of direction, our sense of life’ (1986: 246). Valuation, in this account, is not ‘putting a price on a work’, but seeing it in relation to others. The critic, ‘after taking all relations into account’, and Leavis leaves open the question of what these relations maybe, attempts a comprehensive placing’ (ibid: 279). To value is to interact, to connect, to relate. It is a dynamic, dialectical process not the strict application of fixed criteria.
The critic cannot undertake the process of valuation in a neutral manner. It involves the whole being. ‘A judgement’, writes Leavis, ‘must be personal and sincere’ (1986: 277). We must find the words to describe the precise effect the work has on us, not rely on a ready-made vocabulary that relieves us of the need to come to terms with our experience of it. A truly original work ‘challenges us in the most disturbing and inescapable way to a radical pondering, a new profound realization, of the grounds of our most important determinations and choices’ (ibid: 281). At the same time, a judgement is not merely personal for its characteristic form is the question, ‘"This is so, is it not?" to which ‘the response at best will be "Yes but -", the "but" standing for qualifications, corrections, shifts of emphasis, refinements, additions’ (ibid: 277-8). It is only by proceeding in this way, by collaborating with another, that we can ‘establish the poem (or the novel) as an object of common access…so that when we differ about it, we are differing about what is sufficiently the same thing to make differing profitable’ (ibid: 279). It is this ‘differing’ that promotes ‘life’ and makes us ‘grow’ but there can be no general formula to describe what form that growth will take.
Leavis’s conception of value is rooted in his hostility to his conception of economics. And he has a point. Can we honestly say that there is no connection between a free market ideology and current anxieties about drugs, crime, violence, pollution, the polarisation of rich and poor, civil liberties and ‘dumbing down’? Do we really have a sense of what it means to be a person or to belong to a community? What notion do we have of the full, rich life? Leavis never claimed to provide an answer to these questions but he did believe that, in ‘technologico Benthamite civilization’, they were phrased in mainly economic terms thereby corrupting and impoverishing our conception of ourselves, our relations and our view of existence itself. Leavis’s idea of value respects the uniqueness of a work of art and endeavours to bring it into relation, not just with other works, but also with social mores and the use of language generally in society. Literary criticism was not to be an isolationist discipline, but should establish contacts with other subjects, what Leavis called the ‘fostered transcending of departmental boundaries’ (1972: 125), reaching out to the wider culture in the form of an educated public who would ideally ensure a high standard of social and political debate. An ideal indeed; but when higher education is having to justify itself in terms of the ‘employment skills’ with which it equips its students, it is one worth fighting for.
Leavis’s conception of value, for all its flaws, ultimately offers a more rounded view of social and individual relations than can be found either in the media, politics, or post-structuralism. It is a holistic sketch for a fragmented age. His account of value is based on the belief that people collaborate in their use of language to create a ‘human world’ that takes more account of the need to feel that life is significant than does ‘technologico Benthamite’ society. Literature has an important role to play in this process because its care for language, its exploratory creations, imaginative probings, quest for connections and challenging constructions are a reproach to the abstract, atomised, functional and market-driven representations of capitalism. Leavis’s conception of language is compatible with the post-structuralist claim that representation is prior to and organises our view of self and society. This affinity should be the basis for a rapprochement between Leavisian value and post-structuralist politics. Similarly, we need to find some way of connecting culture and economics. As I have said, Leavis does not simply oppose them but wants to win recognition for the contribution culture can make to social life. This sometimes means that he presents culture in opposition to economics but, as his reliance on monetary and management idioms shows, they cannot be so easily separated. At a time when business practices are reshaping the humanities we urgently need to consider the complex relations between culture and economics. This is not just a matter of funding or sponsorship but also of analysing their modes of representation, how they dominate, ratify, modify, destabilise or otherwise affect one another. By exploring these various relationships we can come to a better understanding of value than either Leavis or particularly post-structuralism affords.
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