The Politics of Style: Interview with Daniel Hartley

Cover The Politics of Style

Daniel Hartley is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Languages, Cultures, and Societies at the University of Leeds. He is the author of The Politics of Style: Towards a Marxist Poetics (2017). He is on the comité editorial of the French online journal of Marxist theory Revue Période. He has published widely on Marxist theory and contemporary literature. His current book project, provisionally entitled Capital Personified: Impersonality in the Modern World-System, investigates the multiple political valences of literary impersonality in world literature across the long twentieth century. Daniel Hartley's The Politics of Style has recently been published as a paperback, after its original hardback publication in the Historical Materialism book series. 

The interview was conducted by Frédéric Monferrand for Periode and is available here in French. 

FM: The idea that style, like language in general, is traversed by class contradictions seems central to your work on the “politics of style.” Could you explain it to us? Doesn’t this idea risk a sociological reductionism that would deny the autonomy of the literary work by making it a simple transmitter of the interests of a given social group?

DH: Perhaps I should begin by explaining a bit about the systematic framework of the theory of style I’ve developed, since it’s crucial to this question. Firstly, I claim that my theory of style constitutes a foundational element of what could become a more general ‘Marxist poetics.’ I certainly don’t see my theory of style as, in and of itself, sufficient as a theory of literature in its entirety. Rather, it is the first in what would have to become a series of ground-up ‘recalibrations’ of classical literary and aesthetic concepts (e.g., genre, character, plot, form, etc.) within the context of an overarching historical-materialist research programme – something which Bakhtin and Medvedev were already calling for in 1928. Secondly, I call it a ‘poetics’ because, as the finest commentators on Aristotle’s eponymous work have emphasised, poiēsis must be understood as a dynamic operation. That is, literary composition is a productive and transformative ‘poietical’ act, of which stylization is the predominantly verbal component. (I tend to prefer the term ‘stylization’ to ‘style,’ firstly, because it emphasises this dynamic, processual aspect, and, secondly, because it enables us to see that literary composition combines and sculpts a multiplicity of pre-existent written and spoken styles. To speak of a writer’s ‘style’ in the singular is thus, strictly speaking, to refer to an artistically organized totality of sub-styles; ‘style’ as such is never reducible to one of them alone. This was one of Bakhtin’s great insights).

Finally, my theory of style is premised upon an immanent critique and historicization of Paul Ricoeur’s ‘threefold mimesis’. For Ricoeur, the act of narrative production comprises three moments: prefiguration (mimesis1), configuration (mimesis2) and refiguration (mimesis3). The first denotes the prefiguration of the practical field: “a pre-understanding of the world of action, its meaningful structures, its symbolic resources, and its temporal character” (Ricoeur 1984, 54). The second signifies the configuration performed by emplotment, a dynamic operation which organizes (serial) events into a (narrated) story, transforms the paradigmatic elements of action into syntagmatic signifying chains, and performs a synthesis of the heterogeneous. Mimesis3 is then the refiguration of the practical field through reading; it refigures the semantics and symbolic mediation of action and the time of action. There are, of course, many residual idealisms at work in Ricoeur’s conception, ones which I attempt to overcome in various ways in the book, but it nonetheless remains a useful framework for thinking the process of stylization from its origins in the practical field of everyday language, through literary composition, and ending with the reader. This is not least because it, too, emphasises the dynamism of Aristotelian poiēsis.

Thus, to return to your question, I would deny that I run the risk of sociological reductionism. It is certainly true that I emphasise the fact that language is traversed by the class contradictions that structure the social totality more generally; I account for this with the concept of the ‘linguistic situation’ (with which I supplement Ricoeur’s notion of “prefiguration”). I define the ‘linguistic situation’ as the hypothetical reconstruction of the state of a language as a writer or set of writers would have experienced it, including its inner tensions and social stratifications. The linguistic situation has a specific scope and internally structuring tensions (themselves produced by the constellation of linguistic sub-situations – international, national, immigrant/ émigré, etc. – through which a given writer achieves utterance) and consists of specific ideological and semantic content at the level of individual words and phrases. But – crucially – the linguistic situation is only the informing ground and material on, in and through which stylization operates. This operation of ‘poetic shaping’ takes the raw material of the situation – its words, phrases, jargons, and pre-existent semi- and extra-literary styles (diaries, newspapers, philosophical argument, etc.) – and sculpts them into an artistic totality which transforms the political valence of the ideological content, all the while relying on this latter’s vitality for its verbal vigour. The sedimented ideological meanings embedded in the language do not simply persist unadulterated into the literary work: they are rendered different to themselves in the very process of literary production. Hence, the ‘politics of style’, at this level, refers to the literary act itself, to its product and to the artistic choices – conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious – that it implies. At this level of analysis, the writer is political precisely as a writer

MF: You introduce the concept of “stylistic ideology” to designate the principles which guide a writer’s organisation of the linguistic material on which he or she works. Could you explain the concept in a little more depth?

DH: Yes, certainly. One of the classical ideals of poetics as a discourse was to describe or delineate that which is rational within the process and product of poiēsis. Arguably, then, a Marxist poetics would continue this tradition by thinking both what is rational and what, from the perspective of historical materialism, is ideological in the process and product of literary composition. From this perspective, the key moment is the second stage of stylization: configuration. This consists of both a process of composition and an artistic organization of pre-existent sub-styles which is internally guided by a whole series of conscious and unconscious factors, of which two are crucial: firstly, the inherited logics of specific modes, genres, types and forms, and, secondly, what I call stylistic ideology.

To explain the first, we can say that many genres, types and forms include literary conventions which exercise a force of linguistic propriety in that they possess the filtering power to negate, inform or enhance the verbal resources which are available to a writer. For example, it would be quite possible to live in the centre of London, read formal prose in the e-broadsheet, puerile puns in the gutter press, hear the “Queen’s English” or cockney dialect on the Underground, lifeless business English in the City, not to mention a great number of foreign languages, and yet when one sits down to write a sonnet, one’s conception of that form be so stereotypical and superficial that one writes in a diction that Tennyson himself would have found archaic – as if the preceding two and a half centuries of literary innovation had never occurred. In short, the verbal resources of the linguistic situation do not necessarily enter the work, though they will certainly affect its reception since they constitute the everyday linguistic environment of its readers (thereby making it a virtual norm).

The second factor is then stylistic ideology. This refers to the set of assumptions and rationales guiding the stylization of the pre-existent common language. It ranges from a relatively spontaneous sense of ‘how one should write’ all the way to self-conscious stylistic projects which writers develop and (to varying degrees of fidelity) put into practice, along with their accompanying theoretical justifications. I developed this concept because of certain problems I have with the traditional understanding of the “politics of style” within British and American Marxist literary theory. My basic claim is that style does not always reside solely in the words on the page: it can also be the name of the relation between a literary or artistic concept and a verbal inscription. I began thinking about this by way of conceptual art and the way in which the actual art-object becomes in many ways secondary to the concept informing its contextually specific staging. It is precisely this element of self-conscious conceptuality that, for all his other strengths, Raymond Williams underestimates. Williams’s fundamental critical operation is to reconstruct the specific social relations of which a style is said to be the linguistic mode. Thus the style is ‘political’ to the extent that it instantiates specific social relations, of which the author himself is often unaware. I argue that, whilst this critical operation is important, it must be supplemented with the level of self-reflexive conceptuality: at this level, the ‘politics of style’ would not be that which can be reconstructed from the ‘words on the page’, but that which is implicit or explicit in the theoretical justifications writers give for their stylistic practices.

Obvious examples include Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (with its prefatory apologia), Ezra Pound’s critical texts, Robbe-Grillet’s essays on the nouveau roman, and Charles Olson’s explications of ‘projective verse’. Significantly, what all such stylistic ideologies have in common is, firstly, an awareness of their position within literary history such as they conceive it, and, secondly, an explicitly political desire to overcome modes of writing which they associate with social and artistic conservativism, obsolescence, or outright degradation. Thus, Robbe-Grillet’s literary experiments in such novels as La jalousie employ self-consciously new styles whose aim is not simply to regenerate the novel, but proactively to demystify the bourgeois conception of reality which he saw as enshrined in the very forms of the classical realist novel itself. And yet, one cannot locate this desire within the texture of his prose; that is, ‘close reading’ or ‘practical criticism’ offers little in the way of guidance when determining the larger stylistic project of a writer. For this, one must turn to an author’s overt paratextual and critical theorizations.

FM: Does the concept of “stylistic ideology” apply solely to those writing practices which participate in the reproduction of social relations marked by class inequality, or is it valid for all literary production? If the latter, is there not a tension between, on the one hand, the idea you develop from Williams, according to which literature enables the expression of certain experiences that have been rendered socially invisible, and on the other hand the argument according to which all literary production, all style, is “ideological”? Can we (and if so, how) distinguish ideological styles from emancipatory styles?

DH: This is a brilliant question. Let me begin by explaining the reasons for my choice of terminology. I took my inspiration for the term ‘stylistic ideology’ from a now relatively little-read book by Terry Eagleton entitled Criticism and Ideology (1976). In a chapter entitled “Categories for a Materialist Criticism” Eagleton develops a series of concepts for a Marxist theory of literature: general mode of production, literary mode of production, general ideology, authorial ideology, aesthetic ideology, and text. The meaning of “general ideology” is obvious. It is articulated with two further levels: “authorial ideology,” which Eagleton defines as “the effect of the author’s specific mode of biographical insertion into [the general ideology], a mode of insertion overdetermined by a series of distinct factors: social class, sex, nationality, religion, geographical region, and so on” (1976, 58), and “aesthetic ideology,” which is that region of the general ideology which deals with the arts and literature (ibid., 60). The most important point here is that there is no necessary homology between authorial ideology, aesthetic ideology, stylistic ideology, and style. It is quite possible for an author’s own political stance to be perfectly at odds with the implicit politics of either her stylistic ideology or her style. Take Pound, for example: he combined an authorial ideology which was broadly fascistic with an avant-garde style, and a politically ambiguous stylistic ideology (combining both avant-gardist and conservative elements), all of which was produced in the context of an aesthetic ideology which had downgraded poetry to a position of borderline irrelevance within the total social formation. On the other hand, of course, there are cases where an author’s political stance is avowedly radical but her stylistic practice largely conforms to the status quo of aesthetic ideology – perhaps Rachel Kushner would be a case in point. Thus, one must postulate a political effectivity inherent to literary styles, which intersects with and potentially disrupts the self-conscious political affiliations of the author, whilst at the same time being determined in its own right by authorial, aesthetic and contextual factors.

That, I think, explains my choice of terminology. At the same time, however, you are right to point out that, strictly speaking, the concept of ‘ideology’ should be applied only to those values, ideas, representations, and so on, which enable the reproduction of the social relations of production marked by class inequality. So let me try and be more precise. Firstly, as already noted, I actually distinguish between stylistic ideology and stylistic practice; a writer’s self-understanding of her writing practice can often be at odds with the writing practice itself. Secondly, Eagleton, whose terms I extend, developed his categories for a materialist criticism as part of an intellectual attack on certain ideologically powerful liberal-conservative cultural institutions and formations in British universities and beyond. I thus suspect that his emphasis on the ideological was part of this project of demystification; that is, it was a polemical project against a dominant formation, rather than the construction of a new one (though he would go on to correct this emphasis in his work in the 1980s). In extending those categories, then, I am certainly at risk of remaining within a purely demystifcatory project, rather than enabling the emergence of a counter-hegemonic one.

To counteract that impression, let me offer one example of what such a counter-hegemonic stylistic project might look like. One of Raymond Williams’s crucial insights was that the ruling styles of every epoch are the styles of the ruling class. That is, styles are linguistic modes of social relation, and the reproduction of dominant styles simultaneously reproduces the dominant social relations of production. The emergence of new styles which embody new social relations is notoriously difficult, precisely because the dominant remains dominant only insofar as it captures and incorporates emergence. The social hegemon must capture and incorporate all emergent social relations if the constellation of social relations favourable to its reproduction is to remain hegemonic. 

Williams was well aware of this during his work for the Workers’ Educational Association from 1947 to 1961. There, he invented a course called “Public Expression”. The syllabus was designed specifically to “[equip] members of working-class movements for the discharge of actual public responsibilities” (Williams 1952, 181). That is, the course was intended as a way of releasing latent social relations and of giving linguistic body to working-class consciousness: “Does one impose on a social class that is growing in power the syllabus of an older culture; or does one seek means of releasing and enriching the life-experience which that rising class brings with it?” (ibid.). Rather than incorporating the working-class students into written and spoken styles whose origins lay in the social consciousness of the hegemonic class and its selective tradition, Williams sought to work with his students to enable them to produce styles which would be adequate to their unique social experience and would release their emergent practical consciousness. In this sense, it constituted an attempt at a counter-hegemonic stylistic practice.

Thus, although I am happy to agree that not all stylistic practices and theories are inherently ideological, we must nonetheless be aware that an “emancipatory style” cannot simply be achieved at the level of the words on the page. It must be internal to a larger counter-hegemonic project with a multiplicity of cultural and political apparatuses.

MF: How can literature participate in the radical transformation of society in an emancipatory sense? What is a “politics of style”?

DH: In the Marxist tradition there have been many different answers to this question. For Lukács, the realist novel was radical in the sense that it penetrated beneath the epiphenomena of daily life to reveal the hidden objective laws that constitute society as such. For Sartre, those forms of literature are radical which appeal to the innate freedom of the reader and urge him or her to see the world as a product of free human action (their own action). More recently, for Rancière, literature is political because it directly intervenes as literature into the reigning distributions of the sensible [partages du sensible], undoing the fixed intertwinings of saying, doing and being which constitute ‘common sense’. I could go on, of course, but my point is that there is no single answer to this question; indeed, I very much suspect that it depends upon the specific conjuncture in which one finds oneself.

Nonetheless, I strongly believe that we must pose the problem in terms of levels. At the smallest level – that of style – I think that if we accept that language is a way of being together, but one which is internally stratified and divided according to broader economic and political divisions, then writing is a way of both revelling in our sociality and, via the act of stylization, symbolically healing the rifts which divide humanity from itself. Even satire, which aims to exacerbate those rifts, ultimately does so only to overcome them. Literary writing thus at once partakes in and absorbs the ferocity and mutual recriminations built into the language, our way of being together, and – however fleetingly – sublates them into an artistic organization which only subsequently becomes a factor in those divisions in its own right. That brief moment of reconciliation, however, is never lost: it is reactivated on every reading of the text.

This first level, which some may interpret as my flirtation with liberal aestheticism, but which I prefer to think of as having elective affinities with Blochian hope, then links to the level of literary form in general. For a form is a shared relationship between people which implies a stance towards those people and to the world itself. As Williams often noted, there is a point in any process of literary composition at which it becomes difficult to distinguish between the writer writing the form and form writing the writer. That is, literary forms, like ourselves, are aligned, and any task of emancipation will involve first and foremost a realisation of the depths to which our unconscious commitments extend. Many of the greatest and most radical writers were those who were aware of their alignments and who attempted either to affirm them, to alter them or to produce new forms for the embodiment of new alignments. Thus, a truly radical politics of form is not necessarily one which aims at formal and stylistic innovation for its own sake (this is simply the ideology of modernism), but one which accepts the immanent, constitutive efficacy of inherited forms and, by tarrying with them, extends, develops or transcends them. Innovation is necessary, but it is progressive only if it struggles with the inherited resources.

The next level of response to this question is then that of literature as such. Here, I agree with Rancière that literature intervenes directly into dominant distributions of the sensible and that this is an inherently political function. I would then want to add two things. Firstly, one of the progressive tasks of realism has always been to make visible and experienceable zones of social experience which are systematically occluded from the dominant ideological regimes of representation. This is a function I still think inherently worthwhile, though I suspect that literature’s role in this regard is now relatively irrelevant compared to film and TV. The second, and more general, point is that certain types of literature introduce into the world a principle through which what is different from that world becomes thinkable. In many kinds of literature this effect is minimal but it is nonetheless there; in genres such as science fiction, however, it is extremely powerful. Given postmodernity’s lack of a sense of past or alternative future, not to mention a neoliberal present which has become nothing but an eternal return of austerity, it should go without saying that any force whatsoever which introduces a principle of difference into this grim ever-sameness is performing a vital task for the political imagination. When neoliberal governments shut down public libraries as part of so-called ‘austerity’ packages, they are killing the imaginative principle of their non-existence.

The next level of literature’s role in the emancipatory transformation of society is that of what Williams calls the ‘formation’: a non-institutional, group self-organization, with specializing, alternative or openly oppositional external relations to more general organizations and institutions within society at large (Williams 1981, 57-86). This includes such groupings as the avant-garde. Here, ‘literature’ becomes a matter, not only of intra-textual attributes or a principle of difference introduced to an ever-same present, but also of self-consciously connecting intra-literary projects to wider social movements. Such formations are never automatically progressive (as was clear with, say, the marriage of Italian fascism and futurism), but they enable literature to gain traction within the social formation in a manner which transcends the individual production and consumption of literary works.

Finally, the most important level is that of literature’s becoming connected to mass counter-hegemonic projects. And it is here that I suspect we transcend the received, bourgeois notion of “literature”. At this level, it is not only literature which is at stake, but literacy and writing as such. If a language truly is a way of being together, then modes of writing must be invented to embody new social relations. This would extend, not only to Williams’s notion of “Public Expression”, but also to those modes of writing that occur in the business of everyday life: workplace e-mails, official forms, newspapers, online media, and so on. A truly democratic society would embody democratic modes of communicating with one another at every level. (Though please do not mistake my ideal of linguistic democracy for the current populist condescension of postmodern American English. When your computer starts speaking to you in the casual diction of a carefree adolescent – “Thanks for being cool and confirming your registration” – reach for your gun). Moreover, within this broader counter-hegemonic purview, we must aim politically and economically to overhaul the material conditions which have prevented the vast majority of the world’s population from the privilege of becoming authors (as Sarah Brouillette has recently reminded us); we require a communalisation of the means of communication. But then, of course, if that happened, the very category of the “author” would undergo a transformation of its own.

All in all, then, I would advise against trying to think the relation of literature to revolution through a single lens. Rather, the relation consists of various levels; precisely which level is most relevant at which moment will ultimately be decided by the limits of the conjuncture itself.

FM: You accord a central importance to the work of Raymond Williams, yet he is still little known in France, or at least rarely written about. What, in your view, are the principal contributions Williams made to literary theory in general and Marxist theory in particular?

It’s difficult to distinguish between Williams’s importance to literary theory and his importance to Marxist theory more generally precisely because it was part of his life’s work to show that the underlying problematics of either theory are, in fact, the same. That is, you cannot understand literature without historical materialism, but a historical materialism shorn of its residual bourgeois-idealist conceptions of culture. The ultimate example of this is Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977), which opens with a systematic application of historical materialist principles and insights to those elements of historical materialism which are, or have become, residually idealist. He came to call this lifelong project “cultural materialism,” which he defined as “a theory of culture as a (social and material) productive process and of specific practices, of ‘arts’, as social uses of material means of production (from language as material ‘practical consciousness’ to the specific technologies of writing and forms of writing, through to mechanical and electronic communications systems)” (Williams 2005, 243). Unfortunately, many theorists have come to believe – wrongly, in my opinion – that “cultural materialism” is somehow opposed to historical materialism, rather than a specific form of its renewal and extension. One result of this has been that Williams’s work, even in the Anglophone world, has not always been treated with the systematic rigour it deserves, and is instead more often than not merely wheeled out as part of the décor to connote gravitas and moral integrity.

I would also argue that we have a lot to learn from Williams’s insistence on what I call the “principle of immanence.” Like Gramsci’s notion of “absolute immanence,” as elaborated upon by Peter D. Thomas in The Gramscian Moment, Williams’s work insists on the mutual imbrication, constitution and translatability of politics, economics and thought. This principle of immanence informs his work at all levels: at the level of ‘keywords’ (such as ‘culture’, ‘society’, ‘aesthetics’) it takes the form of an insistence that these words are immanent and constitutive factors of the very historical realities they purport merely to ‘denote’. At the level of literary form, it results in the claim that forms are not merely ‘reflections’ or ‘symbolic resolutions’ of specific historical contexts, but are in fact informing elements of them. There is not a context ‘out there’ and a literary form ‘over here’; rather, there is a single socio-material process of which literary forms are formative elements (not “culture and society,” then, because without “culture” “society” would be ontologically incomplete). Finally, at the level of politics, it is the insistence that there is no ‘outside’ from which to look at world events; the outside is already a constitutive element of the inside. 

It is in this sense that we must understand Williams’s central emphasis on “experience,” which has been a much-maligned aspect of his work, leading some to label it “humanist”. But whereas the humanist conception would imply a subject who is self-present and coextensive with his or her experience, for Williams ‘experience’ names one’s mode of insertion into transindividual socio-matieral processes (one’s affective attachments, belongings and alignments) which almost necessarily elude the limits of one’s conscious self-comprehension; the ‘subject’ – a term he himself does not actually use – is then nothing but the constant, and often very painful, toing and froing between this immanent reality and her attempt consciously to articulate it using theories and vocabularies that are often inadequate to it (either because they emerged in a previous conjuncture and no longer equate to present reality or because they originated in a ruling class whose forms and categories are incommensurable with one’s own experience).

For these reasons and more, then, I would strongly urge people to engage with Williams’s oeuvre. What his critics unfairly write off as obsolete, ‘humanist’ or ‘culturalist’ is usually nothing of the sort: on the contrary, it is a resource of hope.


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Higgins, John. 1999. Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism. London: Routledge.

Jones, Paul. 2004. Raymond Williams's Sociology of Culture: A Critical Reconstruction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

O'Connor, Alan. 1989. Raymond Williams: Writing, Culture, Politics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. 3 vols. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1952. “The Teaching of Public Expression.” In Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education, edited by John McIlroy and Sallie Westwood. Leicester: NIACE.

Williams, Raymond. 1981. Culture. London: Fontana.

Williams, Raymond. 1976. Communications. 3rd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Williams, Raymond. 2005 [1980]. Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. London: Verso.