Forget the future. First we have to interpret our culture.
On Raymond Williams and how to select the tradition we want to pass on
This is Sintext VII.1—I’m a slow writer as is, and wrangling this particular issue into shareable form was taking too long, so I’ll send out the second part next weekend. (EDIT: Here’s part two!)
If you’re just hopping on this reliably erratic bus, find links to earlier issues here. If this is your stop, find an unsubscribe link at the bottom of every email. Thanks for reading.
1. Anticipating history
My trailhead into the thicket that grew into this issue was a single turn of phrase. Interviewing Malcolm Harris for Jewish Currents in late March, Joshua Simon noted that his new book seemed influenced by the financial precarity endemic to “the long second decade of the millennium.” Harris also appreciated the construction, and endorsed its premise: “I like that ‘long second decade’ formulation. I think that’s right, and we feel it drawing to a close right now and something new emerging.”
Everyone senses this simultaneous closure and emergence; this is what living through a moment of obvious historical significance feels like. It’s why no context is necessary when referencing the Before Times, or asking friends what they think will be different after. I share the feeling, too, but I’m not sure I trust it.
We were right to call the 19th century long and the 20th short. And it’s rational to stretch this decade back to include the last global crisis. By both giving us something to study and scratching our narrative itch, periodization facilitates the production of meaning. It also lets us to turn our attention forward, because however much we want to comprehend where we’re at right now, we want to know where we’re headed even more. But what if that “something new emerging” isn’t the future? What if it’s only an understanding of the present as distinct from recent past?
What existed in the world yesterday gave shape to today, just as what exists in the world today will give shape to tomorrow. Our society is generally organized around incremental research and reportage. But we’re also answerable to fictions with legs—see police in Louisiana playing the siren from The Purge while enforcing curfew; see Devs and Westworld, prestige TV pretending the streamers don’t seek algorithmic determinism as eagerly as their villains. Usually, it’s hard to identify a piece of culture as significant before it’s fit into the puzzle, which is why I’m most interested in “the long second decade of the millennium” as a formulation, construction, turn of phrase—as an object produced by the period it describes, ready to speak for the people who put it to use.
I’ve been looking for other objects that represent our burgeoning structure of feeling. Raymond Williams introduced this capacious term to mean the “felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time.” It’s an intuitive concept as far as cultural theory goes: a structure of feeling “is as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity.”
For Williams, understanding culture really requires accommodating three different definitions: We call culture ideal when it concerns values that make “permanent reference to the universal human condition”; documentary when it concerns the “intellectual and imaginative work” through which “thought and experience are variously recorded”; and social when it concerns meanings found “not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behavior.” Studying culture, then, really means studying the relationships between those categories and concerns—“between elements in a whole way of life.” Seen in this regard, it’s clear that even as culture ranges widely it maintains its particularity to time and place; Williams was interested in studying past cultures, after all.
When we do the same, we should resist approaching “each element as a precipitate” and remember that “in the living experience of the time every element was in solution, an inseparable part of a complex whole.” But what if the inseparable parts somehow generate too much friction, and the solution of culture turns viscous? If historical attention is instead projected forward, and a society suddenly seeks to articulate itself for futurity?
Williams would advise that suspiciously familiar bunch to focus on their “creative handling of experience.” Since art is caught in the same web of elements organizing a given culture—production, politics, family-raising, more—it “can be seen as expressing certain elements in the organization which, within that organization's terms, could only have been expressed in this way.” By being exactly what they are, the arts of a period should say something of its singularity.
But apart from its documentary records, a culture will also be outlived by its selective tradition, one last crucial term. Selective tradition is the through-line connecting one culture to the next, again and again. It can be only ever be perceived in its present state because it’s always in flux.
In the analysis of contemporary culture, the existing state of the selective tradition is of vital importance, for it is often true that some change in this tradition—establishing new lines with the past, breaking or re-drawing existing lines—is a radical kind of contemporary change.
When the cultures that succeed us change, as is inevitable, our selective tradition will be further and further diluted. Our agency—our ability to influence not just how future historians see us, but actually affect the world they’ll live in, the sort of people they’ll be—rests on a single insight: that dilution doesn’t happen organically. Williams warns us that we “tend to underestimate the extent to which the cultural tradition is not only a selection but also an interpretation.” And, as he himself proved, that interpretation “begins within the period itself.”
March was interminable, and May still feels so far away, but the weeks have picked up speed. I measure them by the sound of mom vacuuming, the smell of Clorox, the feel of fresh sheets…
That’s how I’d start my Dispatch from a Pandemic, should The New Yorker want to run my two cents. (They shouldn’t; all I’d end up saying is “I don’t like how quickly I can get used to this,” as Gary Shteyngart already put it in his.) This series, like the NYRB’s Pandemic Journals, falls into the genre of creative coronavirus nonfiction.
This genre takes the writing advice that’s littered across the internet to its apotheosis: Forget King Lear, just commit to paper what you’ve been doing, thinking, feeling. Write dispatches and journals, so that later we can look back on exactly what we went through. Quietly saddled onto such dicta is the expectation of cultural expression.
The best coronavirus writing is clever, particular, Covid-adjacent. But even the best of the best is subsumed by an emergent documentary project that is too self-aware to exert the lasting influence art can have on the culture to come.
Karen Russell takes stock of “the parallel language of contagion” proliferating around us. Then she reminds us of Shakespeare’s legacy with a phrase so sharp I yelped: “he was the minister who officiated marriages of words that have endured to this day, weirs of metaphor that we still use when we go fishing for new truths.” She ends by comparing “the great convergence of humans travelling through this time together” to a “murmuration” of “dervishing starlings”; by marveling at how “rapidly we are adjusting our behavior, to protect one another.”
Maggie Nelson finds “stern and tender fellowship” in Natalia Ginzburg’s “Winter in the Abruzzi,” an essay whose devastation is its context. She reads it as further evidence against “the belief that great calamity should not, cannot, be our lot,” and listens for “the sound of human lives cresting against material and mortal limits, of flesh grinding into history.”
I agree with Nelson that there’s no such thing as “doing kinship wrong.” I agree with Russell that “it is not too late for us to change the shape of this story.” But I also believe our present—with its lopsided distributions of burden and suffering—was as inevitable as it was foreseeable. We need to nurture favor for paragraphs that engage with our social and material realities, and ire for sentences that reflect an idealized vision of life. What gets us through today is by definition what we’ll take with us into tomorrow—who wants the future to be another obstacle to get through?
Said with somewhat less patience: It’s not that I’m tired of the the usual exercise in peeling the faintly reassuring from the bottom of disaster’s shoe; it’s that if we don’t address the ways of life that have us acting like moths, flitting towards the briefest flicker of solace, we will perpetuate the many things that left us locked in this windowless fucking room to begin with.
Now it’s April 18. We’re approaching 40,000 deaths and the lifestyle pieces keep coming. Our culture is what it is. The reserves of national compassion have run dry; they were never significant to begin with, and they won’t be replenished anytime soon. So what can we do in the meantime?
Williams knew there was no way for each individual to share a common experience of culture. Yet something like the same structure of feeling must exist as “a very deep and very wide possession, in all actual communities, precisely because it is on it that communication depends.” We can trust that even if most of us don’t go around yelping at metaphors about metaphors, the fact that we share a time and a place means there’s a collective selection of tradition in progress. We—writers and editors, but also readers, watchers, listeners, consumers—can intervene by taking up the tools of cultural analysis. Our goals must be “to make interpretation conscious, by showing historical alternatives; to relate the interpretation to the particular contemporary values on which it rests; and, by exploring the real patterns of the work, confront us with the real nature of the choices we are making.”
In the second part of this issue, coming next weekend, I’ll explain why our common structure of feeling is actually expressed best in screenshots, TikToks, and memes.
I appreciate you reading. I’d also appreciate you liking, commenting, and (especially!) sharing this with others who’d get something out of it. If you’d like to reach me, just respond to this email. I’m slow with emails too but I’d be thrilled to chat.
Also, for fans of magical realism and supporting local bookstores: I’ll be introducing this virtual DIESEL x Archipelago event on Tuesday, April 21. Translator Katie Silver will be in conversation with author Aaron Shulman to discuss A Dream Come True, the complete stories of Juan Carlos Onetti—the Uruguayan writer who influenced García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, among others. (You could even ask them a question about selective tradition…)