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Rediscovering Raymond Williams

Geoff Dyer on 'one of the left's great thinkers'
Raymond Williams
From Geoff Dyer (New Statesman):
“I come from Pandy . . .” The first words spoken by Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (1979) may not have quite the rolling loquacity of the opening line of Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March – “I am an American, Chicago born . . .” – but in their brisk way they bespeak a similar confidence.

Bellow’s narrator immediately situates his experience in the heart of America; Williams announced one of his main concerns in the title of his first novel, Border Country (1960). Borders – how they are constructed and recognised, how they impede and are crossed – are central to his thought. In contrast to March’s unequivocal belief (“I am an American”), Williams, whose work concentrated on the English literary and cultural tradition, came to identify himself as “a Welsh European”, emphasising what lay either side of a presumed centre, both locally and within an international context.

“It happened that in a predominantly urban and industrial Britain I was born in a remote village, in a very old settled countryside, on the border between England and Wales.” This is the account Williams gives of his origins in The Country and the City (1973), the simple facts of the matter beginning to unfurl and expand in the recognisable style of his analytical writing: an authority that draws power from a suggested hesitancy; the unhurried accumulation of material and argument; a continual elaboration and deepening of meaning. While Williams was proudly conscious of the convolutions of his own method and mode – “all my usual famous qualifying and complicating, my insistence on depths and ambiguities” – a former student, Terry Eagleton, remembers his lecturing style as that of “somebody who was talking in a human voice”.

Eagleton was struck also by the way that although Williams’s background might, by Cambridge standards, have been regarded as humble, it was also sufficiently “privileged” to give him “a sort of stability, a rootedness and self-assurance, and almost magisterial authority”. It gave him the confidence, while still an undergraduate – albeit an undergraduate who had served in the war – to stand up and insist, after a talk in which L C Knights claimed that a corrupt and mechanical civilisation could no longer understand neighbourliness, that he knew “perfectly well, from Wales, what neighbour meant”.

Confidence counts for little unless it is allied with determination. Combining this with an Orwellian sense “of the enormous injustice” of the world, Williams had the resources to develop his early critical and theoretical project – one that stressed the importance of shared experience and common meanings – in comparative isolation. In the process of becoming articulate in the language of a new and expansive kind of cultural history he also, in Raphael Samuel’s words, “constructed a conceptual vocabulary of his own”. The vocabulary was the cerebral expression of a temperament shaped by a particular geography and history. In Border Country Harry Price is “waiting for terms he could feel”. You could almost say he is waiting for the author to coin his most famous term, “structure of feeling”. Where Williams came from was inextricably linked with what he came to say.

If Orwell’s sense of the injustice of the world was fed by a disposition to dwell on its misery, then the “privileged” background of the signalman’s son made the idea of defeat almost entirely alien. It also meant, according to his critics, that the political positions of his later years, with Thatcherism in full swing and the miners having suffered a catastrophic defeat, were nostalgic, even sentimental. Either way, the key thing is that his writing always carried an enormous freight of autobiography. “I learned the saturating power of the structures of feeling of a given society as much from my own mind and my own experience as from observing the lives of others,” Williams wrote.

This double combination – complexity of thought and clarity of expression, with a depth and intensity of personal feeling – made Williams an inspirational figure for the generation of students who came of age in 1968 and looked to him for political and moral as well as intellectual guidance. A representative of the next generation (ten in 1968), I set eyes on him precisely twice.

The first time was when he came to give a lecture at Oxford, where I was an undergraduate, in about 1978. Our tutor encouraged us to go, so we went. I had no idea who Williams was or what he was droning on about. Then, in the mid-1980s, I went to see him in conversation with Michael Ignatieff at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. I’m guessing that the occasion was the publication of his novel Loyalties – though if it was, how come I didn’t get my copy signed? I can only assume I was too intimidated because by then the old bloke who’d waffled on at Oxford had entirely reshaped my sense of life and literature and the way they were related. [Read More]

CFP: Women and Ageing: New Cultural and Critical Perspectives

University of Limerick, Ireland · 20-22 May 2015
Women and Ageing: New Cultural and Critical Perspectives
University of Limerick, Ireland
20-22 May 2014

A conference engaging with the symbolic aspects of women and ageing in culture and society, and the power these constructions exert over old age.

Conveners: Dr Cathy McGlynn, Dr Maggie O’Neill, Dr Michaela Schrage-Früh (University of Limerick)

Plenary Speakers: Prof Germaine Greer; Prof Margaret Harper

Events: Poetry reading by Medbh McGuckian; Roundtable on Women and Ageing

In a time when even Bridget Jones finds herself in her early fifties, it may at first glance seem unwarranted to speak of the invisibility of ageing women in literary and cultural contexts. In fact, in a review of Mad about the Boy in The Times, Sarah Lyall writes that, “Bridget’s amorous adventures … make the prospect of middle age not so bad at all”. Constructions like this open up questions about representations of women and ageing. What types of images of the “ageing woman” are created in cultural texts? Do women in later life, in order to become visible, need to find ways to “pass” as younger so that “age shall not wither them” as Kira Cochraine puts it in an article in The Guardian? Are these legitimate strategies or should women embrace the menopause as a new phase of life and liberation as advised by Germaine Greer? What impact do dominant representations of ageing women have on the sociocultural realities of women in their later years? And in what ways do they compare to earlier representations?

The rise of the new interdisciplinary field of ageing studies / cultural gerontology testifies to the need to reassess cultural representations of ageing and to view ageing not only as part of the life course but as a social and cultural construct. It is all the more surprising that ageing is a topic still marginalised in feminist theory, despite Simone de Beauvoir’s testimony to her dismay at ‘society’s secret shame’ in The Coming of Age in 1970. There are some notable exceptions, such as Germaine Greer’s work on the postmenopausal woman, Susan Bordo’s work on the body, or Lynne Segal’s recent reflection and analysis of the process of growing older. This conference will engage with the symbolic aspects of women and ageing in culture and society, and the power these constructions exert over public and private conceptions of old age.

The aim of this conference is to provide an opportunity to discuss intersections of the cultural, social and medical dimensions of women and ageing. It will engage with discourses on ageing in their various cultural manifestations through the ages but also across different cultures, genres and media. We invite papers from diverse disciplines such as literary and cultural studies, film and media studies, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics and the medical humanities.

Possible topics can include but are not limited to:
  • Ageing, autobiography and lived experience
  • Technologies, medicine and ageing
  • Ageing and popular culture
  • Ageing and neoliberalism
  • Visual images of ageing
  • Age and performance
  • The ageing body as text
  • Ageing and memory
  • Stigma
  • Myths about ageing, women in myth
  • Age and creativity
  • Queer ageing
  • Love, loss and mourning
  • Health, menopause, the post-maternal body
  • Male representations of women and ageing
  • Older and younger mothers
  • The ageing spinster
  • The cult of youth and perceptions of beauty
  • Ageing, recession and dependency
  • Ageing and women minorities
  • Age, race, and colour

Queries may be directed to the conference organisers at ageing.women@gmail.com. Please submit proposals for papers or panels by 15 March 2015. Proposals should be 250 words and should include a 50-word biography.

Website: womenandageing.wordpress.com

On the David Foster Wallace Biopic, The End of the Tour

Emma Bailey asks whether the new film helps or hinders Wallace's legacy
Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Jason Segel (right) in The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, 2015)
While many fans of author David Foster Wallace agree that his works are worthy of further attention from both media and mainstream audiences, the merits of gaining this publicity through film have been much debated among literary circles, casual fans, and members of his family and estate. The specific film in question, The End of the Tour, is a recently released movie that depicts a few days in the life of Wallace, as perceived by David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter who spent five days with the author during the final stage of his book tour to promote his then new novel Infinite Jest in 1996.

The film is billed as a true story, based on Lipsky's book, Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which was originally composed from transcripts of the interviews and conversations that took place during the five days that Lipsky and Wallace spent together. The interview material was not ultimately filed nor published in Rolling Stone, who deemed it too depressing, and Lipsky did not compile it into book material until after Wallace's death in 2008. The delayed publishing led many to speculate whether Wallace himself would have approved of the book, and now, the subsequent film that A24 and DirecTV are hoping to cash in on.

Lipsky’s memoir may actually hold some clues as to how Wallace would have reacted to the film project ‒ no matter what Wallace’s opinion may have been, the book has been touted as one of the most insightful pieces ever written about the author. Lipsky describes Wallace as an intensely private individual who values his solitude as well as his art. And with an irony worthy of Wallace's notice, the film faithfully portrays the author as someone who would likely be appalled to learn that his life was being offered up as the sum of a handful of mundane and offhand comments made to a reporter nearly two decades prior.

The film itself has been well-received by casual audiences who are not overly familiar with Wallace's body of work and, even among those in the know about Wallace, there is reserved interest. An early area of concern was the casting of Jason Segel as the author, though in the end, Segel showed a dedication to the role that would likely have impressed Wallace, even if the creation of the film itself would not. Many also agree that the role of Lipsky seemed ready-made for Jesse Eisenberg, whose performance is one of the major strengths of the film.

The Wallace family, his estate, and his long-time publishing company of Little, Brown, and Company have all made public statements against the making and release of the film, stating that they were not involved with the decision-making process, nor do they feel that the original transcripts which eventually became Lipsky's novel and source material for the film were intended to be used in this way. As far as they are concerned, David Foster Wallace would never have agreed to the repurposing of the transcripts, especially since they were never published by Rolling Stone, as was the original intention.

All in all, most fans of David Foster Wallace, however casual or dedicated, can agree that the man was a cultural icon and deserved recognition for his substantive literary contributions. However, perhaps a better tribute would focus on spreading word of his works rather than focusing on his personal life. While Infinite Jest has thus far eluded the process of movie adaptation, perhaps the time has come to reexamine the possibility and challenge of allowing the author to be viewed through the lens of his greatest work rather than through a handful of old transcripts.

About the Contributor: Emma Bailey is a writer in the greater Chicago area who covers technology, entertainment, and business. She enjoys reading novels by humorists, cooking at home during the week and eating out on the weekend, and watching indie movies (especially anything mumble-core). You can find her on Twitter at @emma_bailey90.

Andy Goldsworthy: In the Studio

TateShots explores how Goldsworthy uses materials to explore our connection with nature

If you like this, take a look at Rivers and Tides, a documentary about Andy Goldsworthy and his work.