A Mini-Forum: Chris Lamping on E.P. Thompson

[Chris asked me to post this on his behalf–DM]

I suggested the reading I did as an anthropologist and historian with an interest in the culture concept, and secondly as one who has found Thompson, especially his earlier, more frontally ‘theoretical’ writings to be not only illuminating, but to get around a number of the pitfalls anthropologists and others have been flagellating themselves over regarding the concept of culture in recent years.

Part of the problem in anthropology has been the reliance on culture, not as an historically situated set of relations, but as a ‘timeless’ whole (see for instance Dirks 1981, Clifford and Marcus 1986 for critiques of the ‘timeless..’ ). In recent years (see especially Dirks, Eley and Ortner 1994 for a summary) this has been frontally brought into question, specifically as it regards subaltern groups—women, persons of color, alternate sexualities, and from time to time, class, who tend to be excluded in traditional anthropological renderings.

The result has been a lot of hand wringing, particularly about the explanatory value of culture (see Dirks 1998). Can we talk about ‘culture’ at all? Or are we left, from a moral and political standpoint to speak only of specific subgroups in a given culture, and to avoid the generalizations of culture as a ‘whole’?

It strikes me that Thompson was asking many of these questions quite early on (a good 20 odd years before they were ‘discovered’ in anthropology and other disciplines), particularly in his criticism of Raymond Williams.

I have always had a certain uneasiness as regards to Williams understanding of culture—on one hand, as a genealogy of culture, I find him most helpful, but at moments in which he endeavors to discuss culture in his sense of it as a ‘whole way of life,’ something seems a bit off. These difficulties have been particularly acute for me in trying to teach some of his more approachable pieces, specifically ‘Culture is Ordinary’ and ‘The Idea of a Common Culture.’ To be sure, these pieces expand what we are talking about when we talk about ‘culture,’ but I tend to feel that they hide as much as (or as they)they expand. One is left with a sense that the working class (and I think by extension, other subaltern groups) are permitted to participate in the ‘whole’ that is culture, and to feel good about themselves in this knowledge, but I don’t know how well this notion travels. I understand Williams’ optimism, Thompson often shared it as well, but Williams seems a bit more content with the direction of post-war ‘culture’ and an eventual socialist future. In this capacity, it seems to me that there is a disconnect. The pieces don’t fit between the ordinary (anthropological) and so called ‘high’ culture. I appreciate Williams’ efforts to bring these two closer together, to view the ‘C’ Culture as part of a process that extends to and more importantly relies on the ordinary or anthropological culture (including relations of production)—he is endeavoring to get at something like what used to be called a totality, and I think trying to think such things is important, I just don’t know if in the end he manages to do it, and the question arises: totality of what? Where is it going? (aside from the participatory future in which both are in some sense reconciled.) Most importantly, how does it go when it goes wherever it is going? It strikes me that the whole meaning of such things is guaranteed by a forestalled future reconciliation between high and low, a realization of the position of ‘low’ in the construction of the ‘high.’

I find Thompson particularly interesting for the ways in which, I think he too is trying to think in terms of a totality—e.g. class as a relationship and not a thing, etc.—we’re not just studying the ‘working class,’ but a whole gamut of social relationships (something also often forgotten), which are not connected in a positive sense (and here Thompson’s debt to Williams ‘Structures of feeling’ is apparent), only it strikes me that Thompson’s rendering is a good deal more dynamic. What I think is particularly important is his re-phrasing of Williams culture(s) in terms of a ‘whole way of conflict’—these become in any number of ways dialogic (in Bakhtin’s sense), they are not settled, unchanging, as I think they have a habit of becoming in other hands. This, is of course not to argue that Thompson was some sort of proto-post-modernist, I think he well understood the sorts of questions that would be asked about stable meanings, identities and such (as the LR piece is witness), but unlike, for instance the way that turn has gone, which if he were a Peircian, he’d call ‘paper doubt’—he seems to me to leave us something to work with.

Here, I think the fact that we tend to think in structuralist terms is most clear—Foucault, for instance is unable to address social transformation in any real way—we’re at ‘breaks’ and such, but the movement between presents remains more or less unexplained—I’m reminded of Levi-Strauss’s chessboards, an endless series of presents overlayed upon one another. We have ‘power struggles’, but these seem to be about the relationships that institutions, more or less static entities apparently beyond our control. I think Thompson’s notion of a ‘whole way of conflict’ manages to bypass this—it retains, substantively, the fact that there are institutions, rituals, ‘nodes of significance,’ in cultural (or historical or social or whatever you want to call it) life, people don’t have to rediscover what a maypole is (well, maybe they do now) every week, things exist in a sense that there are at one end, (and this is common sense) ‘stable’—a cross for instance isn’t going to start being about Satan or something tomorrow, at the same time that those ‘nodes of significance’ are not really, actually ‘stable’—different experiences (capitalism, for instance) transform the meanings of these things because people, no matter how beholden they may be to timeless structures, are living in time and think according to their experiences in time—they may think themselves following time-honored customs and such, but they are also (knowingly or not) changing them. Deleuze in dismissing Bourdieu once quipped that these are the ‘small affairs of small men’—maybe so, but here is where Thompson’s debt to Williams is again clear, as is both their debt to Marx—these conflicts are over time productive of what we call culture, which itself is never ‘finished’—it rests upon us, our ‘small affairs,’ conflicts, negotiations and so forth.

I would raise a similar complaint about Joan Scott’s treatment of class, or ‘the Women in the Making’—it strikes me, aside from the nastiness of the critique (Thompson as some sort of utilitarian and in some sense oblivious to women’s concerns (bread riots?
Sale of Wives? Blake? Maybe we should read the Glassworkers of Carmaux instead for a discussion of women?) that she is aiming for a notion of class that is somehow outside of time—class is just this way, class as ‘theory’—Thompson is not merely writing history, but saying what class is or ought to be, (I think Thompson’s advocacy of his subjects allows for this to an extent), but this misses entirely the fact that he wants to emphasize the historical nature of the relationship—class doesn’t have to happen in this way or that way, the experiences are different, it remains that people struggle in class ways, but insofar as these are based on ‘experiences inherited or shared’, I’m not so certain the outcome is pre-determined. In the 18th C, there was an issue of who counted as a human, notably that women in large measure didn’t, this was part of ‘experience’ as the working class made itself. That class came to be a masculine term (like just about everything else), had to do with a larger culture, that political agents were ‘masculine’ (and that itself was a matter of some contention (is Paine’s masculinity Burke’s?).

As I say, in Scott’s case, there is an issue that Thompson himself opens up—his identification with his subjects, though I think she is a great deal less patient with them than is Thompson, Thompson was always wary of notions of unilinear ‘development’, ‘social evolution’ and so forth, as he is of notions of what class ‘ought’ to be. He was at once trying to position the reader also as a maker of his or her own history, just as he was arguing that those in the past did the same—I certainly don’t think one could say that he was more sympathetic, for instance to Place than Spence, Godwin than Wollstonecraft, but these folks lost out. I think the implication in Thompson’s case is that if one doesn’t like how things have gone, one ought to try to change them in his or her own present, instead of looking to the past for someone to do it for them (and this could be levied at Linebaugh as well).

I keep wanting to make an argument about patience, Bakhtin or Blake or Thompson’s or Victor Turner’s dialogic sensibilities—the fixation on things being ‘done’ in traditional social and cultural theory (be it structural functionalism or a notion of culture derived from Herder) is what has a habit of getting us off track. In Thompson’s case, it strikes me that the notion of a ‘whole way of conflict’ is a liberating way of thinking about the past and present, at the same time, I’d say it’s a very pastoral way of looking at matters—something like baseball is to football or basketball—time, rhythm and so on are created by the human bodies involved in the game, not the clock. There is an urgency there, but it is created by human beings in their situations.


7 responses to “A Mini-Forum: Chris Lamping on E.P. Thompson

  1. Christopher Lamping makes an important point about Thompson’s relationship to structuralism, and I will riff on this topic briefly in my own commentary on Thompson in a little bit. One of the things that strikes me in these three readings is the very uneasy relationship Thompson had to structuralism (linguistics, anthropology, historical sociology etc.) because of the way it denied (implicitly or explicitly) the roles of humans in creating their history. He says in “The Long Revolution” that he was troubled by Williams’ use of language relating to the working class–specifically the idea of whether history happens (and people are along for the ride) or whether history is created (and people are active in that construction).

  2. David Mazella

    Thanks, Christopher, for kicking this off.

    I think we probably have a prior disagreement about Foucault, and his relation to structuralism in works like Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History or the History of Sexuality, but I’ll leave that to one side for now.

    I do wonder, though, whether EPT’s hostility to structuralism resulted from the popularity of Althusserean Marxism, esp. among the younger historians and literary scholars.

    It does seem to me, though, that you’ve put your finger on the most important theoretical difference between EPT and RW: their notions of culture. EPT works very hard to show how important Eliot was to RW’s holistic notions of culture, and the political implications that derived from a static, unconflictual conception of culture. To some extent, RW may have bought into Eliot’s notion of a shared or common culture wherein the highs and lows were reconciled, but only at a level of abstraction inaccessible to those “experiencing” the culture at that time.

    I think the most interesting, though most difficult, thing to understand in all this is how this notion of an active making of history would relate individual acts to collective acts over time. Is it individual or collective acts of agency? Or am I framing the question incorrectly?


  3. Ah-ha, Dave, you have introduced the very topic I will discuss…I’ll post on Friday morning.

  4. The whole paragraph on Williams needs to be simplified and refocussed. It jumps about far too much. Even basic ideas like “what does Williams’s concept of culture hide?” are obscure.

  5. Hello!,

    I’m just starting here. And it feels like an awesome place.

    I just wanted to give a friendly hello to all of you here.



  6. Hello

    Just stopping in to say hi to y’all as a new member.


  7. fugcataendade

    I am here at a forum newcomer. Until I read and deal with the forum.
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