Patrick McCabe’s [Breakfast on Pluto]

Front cover of Patrick McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto (1998)

Front cover of Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto (1998)

Patrick McCabe’s Breakfast on Pluto is an unusual “coming-of-age” story (I’m using this term very loosely) focused on the growth and development of Patrick “Pussy” Braden, the illegitimate child of a priest and his teenage housekeeper. Due to his illegitimate birth, Patrick’s mother places her child in a Rinso box and abandons him in front of a foster home. Patrick grows up under the loose guidance of “Whiskers,” a foster mother with a penchant for drinking and chain smoking. From an early age, Patrick is characterized by his affinity for the dramatic, and he is also shown to develop a taste for dressing in women’s clothing and for actively sharing the fact that he is literally the son of a preacher-man. Pussy Braden is the narrator of her own story, and the novel itself is approached as a text that her psychiatrist, Dr. Terence, orders her to write to cope with the instabilities and heartbreaks of her life. Given the fact that the novel is a narrative fabricated by Patrick, one must remain skeptical in terms of the content that she shares. Not only is Pussy Braden a very scattered and disorganized writer, but there are also times when she deliberately writes about imaginary events or characters. 

As an adult, Patrick “Pussy” Braden embodies behaviors, attitudes, and practices that definitely cast her off as a marginal character. First and foremost, it is difficult to categorize her in terms of gender and sexuality. Pussy Braden fluctuates between representing herself as a man and representing herself as a women, she engages in sexual activity with members of both sexes, and other characters are ambiguous in terms of how they approach her–some characters even refer to her as a he and a she within the same sentence. Although the safest label to apply to Pussy Braden would be queer due to her open and unabashed embrace of non-normativity, the novel ultimately suggests that she thinks of herself as female. She often recognizes the difficulties that she has in terms of finding a man, and constantly faces heartbreak when she confronts the impossibility for her to bear children of her own. To further complicate Pussy Braden’s marginal identity, she works as a prostitute, and towards the novel’s conclusion, she is accused of planting a bomb that killed a British soldier that she was flirting with–the fact that she dresses as a woman leads the British forces to deduce that she is in disguise.

Breakfast on Pluto is a very queer novel in that it explores the difficulties of living in a life between borders or binaries. Pussy Braden, for instance, is born in the small Irish town of Tyreelin but later moves to London during the 1970s; however, she soon comes to notice that she does not fit in either place. The period in which the novel takes place is particularly important because it is a time where the tension between Ireland and London was at its peak. The unexpected changes within the global economy affected all societal sectors in London: shops and factories closed, the unemployment rate doubled, and the Irish Republican Army was engaging in an active and sustained bombing campaign focused on weakening the British Army’s earnestness to remain within Ireland. Thus, Pussy Braden is not only caught in the midst of a war between two countries, but she is also caught in a limbo-like state between two genders. Her illegitimate birth also places her within the outskirts of normativity and social acceptance.

Breakfast on Pluto is not your average novel of development. Although we do trace Patrick’s birth and experiences over a significant span of time, Pussy Braden is ultimately unable to find a place of belonging throughout her journey. The novel thus becomes a statement on Pussy’s inability to fit in a society that offers no comforts for alternative or hybrid modes of existence that deviate from the cultural dominant. The narrative is focused on Pussy’s resistance towards cultural norms, and a value of individualistic desires over the wants and demands of society. This is evidenced early in the novel, when a thirteen-year old Patrick writes essays in school describing his father’s affair with his mother. Although his teacher, Peepers Egan, tries to convince him to stop engaging in antisocial behavior and to try to “fit in,” Patrick adamantly replies “Oh, no. I haven’t the slightest intention of stopping it, Peeps, or trying to fit in either!” (11).

Although I thought the political strands discussed within the narrative were interesting, I thought that Pussy Braden’s gender and sex-related struggles were particularly illuminating in terms of illustrating her non-normative position within society, and the heartbreak usually associated with being caught in the borderlines between two worlds. She usually dreams about how different her life would be if she were born a biological female, but she recognizes how a “vagina all of [her] own” (36) is indeed an impossibility.

Pussy’s biological struggles are linked with her desire to bear children despite her impossibility to do so, and she goes as far as to state the following: “if I did somehow manage to get a vagina, one think I was certain of, and I didn’t care even who it was with, was that I wanted at least ten of a family” (40). This desire to have many children is fueled mostly by the fact that Pussy Braden wants, first and foremost, to be loved–yet she finds it difficult to find love due to the temporary relationships she forms through the act of prostitution. This desire to raise children is rooted on the fact that she believes that even when she is ill and dying, they would travel far and wide to see her one last time before she passes away–and she takes this as a sign of true love. Despite Pussy’s selfish nature, her views toward love are very open and surprisingly unselfish. Although she wants children so she can love them and so that they can love her, she also knows that this love will continue to thrive even when she is no longer alive: “Everyone would my children love for they themselves knew love and shared it” (41). She also believes that when other people see the love she has for her children, no one would question whether or not they are hers because of her lack of a vagina:

There would be no one. And as my eyelids slowly closed and the tears pressed their way into the world, I’d clasp each hand and say goodbye, to each one adieu bid, safe in the knowledge that baby one and baby two, right up to baby ten, had all their lives been given it, and to the very end received it, that wonderful thing called love. (41)

On one hand, it can be said that children will enable Pussy to embrace a sense of motherhood and femininity that her biology prevents her from possessing. On the other hand, it becomes blatantly obvious that love is a power that Pussy craves to possess. Love becomes the thing that Pussy has always wanted, and it becomes the thing that is constantly denied to her. Her parents abandon her, thus preventing parental love to manifest; Pussy’s foster mother doesn’t show emotion or affections towards her, and she raises Pussy in atrocious living conditions; Pussy is unable to bear her own children to love; even when she grows attached to a man in her life, they somehow manage to die (her politician boyfriend, for instance, is brutally murdered; the soldier she flirts with at a bar explodes due to an IRA bombing; even Dr. Terence abandons her in the middle of her treatment).

Her thirst for love leads to potentially awkward and uncomfortable situations. For instance, Pussy dates a man she calls Bertie, who lives with his landlady, Louise. Louise lost her son due to a tragic bus accident, and her husband consequently abandons her. Pussy comforts Louise, and during this comforting, Louise kisses Pussy–and thus commences a very complicated relationship and love triangle between Pussy, Louise, and Bertie.

Pussy and Louise’s relationship is a strange mixture of maternal and sexual love. Louise asks Pussy to dress in her dead son’s jacket and short trousers. She also asks Pussy to address her as “Mammy,” and Pussy usually ends up sitting on Louise’s lap to suck on her nipple in order to simulate the act of breastfeeding. Although this first made Pussy uncomfortable, she eventually grows accustomed to her strange relationship with Louise: “After a while, I started to really like it, just sitting there on her knee and being engulfed by all this powdery warm flesh. I never wanted to get up in fact” (91). As can be expected, Bertie catches Pussy sucking on Louise’s nipple one day, and thus, both relationships are instantly dismantled. Not only does this uneasy and strange relationship add more fuel to Pussy’s limbo-like status within the world, but it also exemplifies the extent to which she desires to love and be loved.

One of the most heartbreaking instances in the novel is when Pussy is behind a creamery, searching for evidence to determine whether or not a woman named Martina slept with a man named Tommy McNamee. Pussy begins to imagine a lifetime of heartbreak for Martina if she sleeps with Tommy, mostly because she believes that “all he cared about was pleasuring himself and walking away then to boast about it” (105). She goes as far as to imagine Martina getting pregnant from her one-night stand with Tommy. Despite Pussy’s pleas, Martina sleeps with Tommy behind a creamery. Pussy goes behind the creamery hoping to find no semen, to thus rest assured that Tommy used a condom during sex. Much to Pussy’s dismay, she finds some semen spilled over a dockleaf, which causes her to have a breakdown:

I think it was because it seemed so ridiculous that such a minuscule amount of liquid could cause so much heartache. But which it did, as I’d always known, and consequently belonged in a world thousands of miles from the one I’d written of and dreamed for Terrence. Oh which he spoke so highly, saying that never before had he read anything like it. (107)

The passage above is significant for two reasons: first and foremost, it illustrates the fragility of Pussy’s perspective towards love, and how she laments the fact that small actions can have major consequences over the lives of people. After all, semen was the cause of Pussy’s existence, which can only be characterized as an existence repleted with sorry, angst, and heartache. Secondly, it demonstrates how Pussy is aware that her own writing, and even her hopes and expectations, deviate immensely from the reality that she is living. In due course, the novel makes it absolutely clear that the social conditions that Pussy finds herself in ultimately prevent her from having an easy or a livable life. One could only hope that the society we live in today is at least somewhat more evolved, open, and safe–that it is a society in which Patrick Pussy Bradens do not have to feel ashamed, alone, or unloved.

Work Cited

McCabe, Patrick. Breakfast on Pluto. London: Picador, 1998. Print.

J.C. Lillis’ [How to Repair a Mechanical Heart]: A Gay YA Novel on Fandom, Religion, and Canonicity

Front cover of J.C. Lillis' How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

Front cover of J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012)

If there is one thing that gay young adult fiction should be thankful for, that thing would be the internet. Because of the advent of the web, we have witnessed the increase of self-published e-novels distributed through online stores such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Self-publishing, in my opinion, greatly expands the possibilities of gay young adult fiction, not only because authors are free to be more experimental and explicit when it comes to the novel’s content and structure, but also because they do not have to comply with the expectations and demands of a publishing house or an editor. J.C. Lillis’ How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012) is definitely one of the most unique gay YA novels that I have read this year, not only in terms of its content, but also in terms of its narrative techniques and devices. Although, on the surface level, the novel is centered on the blossoming relationship between two teenage boys, How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, offers readers a fresh take on the uneasy tension that exists between religion and homosexuality.

Now, religion is a topic that is found in many YA books dealing with homosexuality. Some of these novels, such as Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, take a more didactic and realistic approach to the issue, going as far as to present characters that discuss homosexuality by directly citing a barrage of Biblical rhetoric. Other novels, such as Timothy Carter’s Evil?, take a more fantastical and satirical (and hilarious) approach to the tension between religion and homosexuality through the incorporation of characters such as demons and fallen angels. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart tackles the issue of religion and homosexuality through a realistic approach, however, the exploration of this issue is framed through an exploration of fandom subculture. Although at first I was skeptical about whether a gay YA novel could pull off discussing tough issues through fan culture (which includes Comic Con-esque events, the reading and creation of fan fiction, and even the critique of television shows via vlogs), by the end, I thought that Lillis managed to pull it off beautifully. This novel turned out to be an entertaining, complex, and funny read in spite of its often heavy-handed themes and events.

The novel focuses on Brandon and Abel, two fans of a science fiction show entitled Castaway Planet. This show centers on the space adventures of two main characters: Cadmus, a hot-headed, impulsive, and unpredictable explorer; and Sim, an android who is intelligent, calculating, and incapable of feeling human emotion. Brandon and Abel are the hosts of a Castaway Planet vlog, where they deconstruct episodes of the television series, and where they offer critiques of Castaway Planet fan fiction that they dislike. The fan fiction that really grind their gears, however, would be those that ship Cadmus and Sim, for they deem that this relationship is absolutely implausible and disjointed from the themes and reality of the show. Their dislike for this type of fan fiction leads them to partake on a road trip across the country with their friend, Bec, in order to interview the show’s actors in hopes of discrediting any fanfic author who ships Cadmus and Sim. Their anger toward this shipping arises from the fact that Brandon and Abel believe that it demonstrates “zero respect for canon or for Cadmus or Sim as characters” (Lillis).

Throughout this road trip, Brandon and Abel not only develop an increasing appreciation towards the shipping of the Castaway Planet characters, but they also discover their true feelings towards each other. However, these feelings are complicated by the fact that Brandon is still unable to let go of the Catholic doctrine that has shaped his views and understanding of amorous relationships. Brandon is ultimately constructed as a dualistic character in that his mind has come to terms with his sexual orientation, but his heart has not. Brandon’s struggles are intensified not only because his childhood priest approaches celibacy as the only viable life choice for a Catholic gay man, but also because Abel previously has had his heart broken by Jonathan, a boy who decided to end their relationship due to the tension that it caused with his religion. Whenever Brandon is engaging in behavior that may be deemed “gay,” Catholic guilt manifests within his consciousness in the form of his childhood priest, who often reprimands him for his poor decisions that supposedly contradict the teachings of the Catholic church.

Lillis’ novel does an excellent job of creating a multi-layered text in which all the layers are not only interconnected but also capable of illuminating important tensions and resolutions in the novel. While at first fandom, fan fiction, Catholism, and homosexuality seem to have little to no relation to one another, Lillis combines them in a unique way that sheds light not only on the construction of identity, but also the personal negotiations that individuals must undergo when facing cultural demands and when fabricating narratives. For instance, discussions of Cadmus and Sim obviously reflect the tensions that exist between Brandon and Abel. Brandon considers that religion has made his heart mechanical in that it runs in an automated fashion that cannot be fixed or controlled. This motif is central in the novel, for religion is approached as the element mechanizes Brandon’s heart and prevents him from fully loving Abel with no regrets or qualms. Abel, on the other hand, resembles Cadmus, for he is approached as an impulsive character who carelessly disregards the difficulties that Brandon faces when trying to repair his mechanical heart.

Surprisingly, fandom and fan fiction were also very useful and illuminating motifs that Lillis incorporates into the novel in order to offer a unique spin on the treatment of homosexuality within the gay YA novel. Fan fiction, most of the times, disregards realism and canonicity in favor of crafting a narrative that goes in accordance with the tastes, expectations, and desires of the fan fiction writer. Fan fiction is a particularly noteworthy genre of writing because it becomes a venue that allows viewers to assume an active role within the fictional universe created by a show, a book, or a movie. Furthermore, fan fiction allows the recipients of a cultural artifact to explore alternative narratives, outcomes, and possibilities that are not restricted to canonical norms. For instance, if I’m upset that Ross and Rachel end up together in the series finale of Friends, I can write a fanfic in which Rachel ends up going to Paris and begins a life without Ross.

The creation of fan fiction can be approached as a very queer process, especially when it comes to its focus on alternative outcomes, non-normativity, and a mode driven purely by individualistic desire. In How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, the act of participating within the fan fiction universe is linked to the process of embracing a gay identity, for it involves a refutation of rules and so-called truths in order to seek life alternatives that invoke comfort and livability. Fan fiction and queerness entail a refusal of a normative entity (the canon or heteronormativity) that seeks to regulate “sub par” existences and fictions. This notion becomes particularly apparent near the novel’s conclusion, when Brandon meets the creator of Castaway Planet. When Brandon seems to approach fan fiction with slight “disgust,” and when he approaches the creator of the show as the sole bearer of the show’s truth, the creator reacts very harshly to Brandon’s assumptions:

“Listen, you runt. I saw that self-righteous eyeroll when you said fanfiction. Let me tell you something: I fucking love fanfiction. Why do you think I made up these characters? So I could play with dolls in public and tell everyone else ‘hands off’? So I could spoon-feed you stories from on high about the mysteries of love and free will and giant alien spiders?” He shows me his palms, then the backs of his hands. “I am one man with a laptop. When I give the world my characters, it’s because I don’t want to keep them for myself. You don’t like what I made them do? Fucking tell me I’m wrong! Rewrite the story. Throw in a new plot twist. Make up your own ending. Castaway Planet is supposed to be a living piece of art! (Lillis, location 3278)

The show’s creator overtly refutes any desire to regulate how his characters are used or appropriated. He expresses how people should feel free to take the “truth” depicted by the canon and transform it in ways that go in accordance with their individual wants and desires. The canon is not mechanical in that it requires preciseness and exactness to function, but rather, it is approached as a living entity capable of transformation. In due course, Brandon begins to approach religion in a similar fashion, realizing that he can grow comfortable with belief in a God if he accepts that certain elements within the doctrine are not only open to interpretation, but can also be rewritten to go in accordance with an alternative truth.

Although How to Repair a Mechanical Heart, at times, seems slightly moralizing and repetitive in its treatment of religion, it presents one of the freshest approaches towards spirituality and belief within the confines of a gay YA novel. I think that this novel is very innovative in terms of framing its central issues through fandom subculture, and I especially enjoyed the novel’s overt and explicit decoupage of narrative conventions. While the structure of this text generally follows the linear conventions found within most gay coming-of-age fiction, it consciously employs the style and conventions of the fan fiction genre to add some much needed flair and whimsy to the often stale and dry treatment of religion and homosexuality in YA fiction. I highly recommend this novel for its likable characters, its queer potentiality, and its unique structure and motifs.

You can purchase a copy of Lillis’ novel here, and you can read more about it by clicking here

Work Cited

Lillis, J.C. How to Repair a Mechanical Heart. Amazon Digital Services, 2012. Kindle text.

On the Development and Evolution of Culture – Raymond Williams’ [The Sociology of Culture]

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture, originally published in 1982, is a precise and methodological approach towards the field of cultural sociology. The book is centered on establishing the prominence, evolution, and reproduction of culture. Williams ultimately traces this evolution through a discussion of cultural sociology, and through a painstaking description of cultural forms and their nuances.

Raymond Williams posits that a sociology of culture is an  cross-sectional, cross disciplinary area of study that is concerned with all areas of cultural production, including those forms that can be approached as ideological. The work of the cultural sociologist or cultural historian centers on:

the social practices and social relations which produce not only ‘a culture’ or ‘an ideology’ but, more significantly, those dynamic actual states and works within which there are not only continuities and persistent determinations but also tensions, conflicts, resolutions and irresolutions, innovations and actual changes. (29)

Thus, rather than attempting to solely find easy solutions to problems, the sociology of culture tries to take into account the totality of cultural productions, even when this totality is paradoxical or incomprehensible. This encompassing approach strives to rework social and sociological ideas that approach cultural productions such as language and art as marginal or peripheral social processes. Furthermore, the sociology of culture “is concerned above all to enquire, actively and openly, into these received and presumed relations, and into other possible and demonstrable relations” (10).

Williams opens his discussion by alluding to the multitudinous definitions of culture that exist. He points out three common and general definitions that are usually attributed to culture; however, he points out that the third definition is the most common usage within contemporary cultures (all three definitions are found on page 11):

  1. a developed state of mind – referring to the person who possessed a developed or cultured mind. (e.g. Neil goes to art museums every weekend. He is a very cultured individual).
  2. the processes of this development – referring to cultural interests or activities. (e.g. wine-tasting, opera, going to the theater, going to an art museum, playing golf, attending a lecture, playing a game, watching a television show, etc.).
  3. the means of these processes – referring to the broad categorizations used to approach cultural processes. (e.g. the humanities, the arts, the sciences, etc.).

These definitions of culture, according to Williams, can be traced back to two different “convergences” of interests: one that he refers to as idealist, which emphasizes on the “informing spirit” (11), or in other words, a lifestyle that aims for broad and deep engagement with socio-cultural activities; Williams approaches the other convergence as materialist, which emphasizes “a whole social order” (12), in which “a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities” (12). For instance, from this macro perspective, we can refer to a specific Puerto Rican culture, which is known for possessing its own music (bomba, plena, salsa, and reggaeton), literature and literary figures, and even its own cuisine (banana tamales, arroz con gandules, etc.).

Although these were the traditional convergences that were usually scrutinized when conducting a cultural study, Williams points out that there is a third emerging convergence that is becoming evident in contemporary cultural work–and this third convergence becomes the central object of analysis in The Sociology of Culture. This third convergence “sees culture as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (13). This convergence is quite different from the previous two because it takes into account signs and signifiers, along with the traits usually associated with these elements, such as reproduction, replication, and innovation. Even more so, this focus on cultural signifiers allows sociologists to more effectively scrutinize social relations as mediations rather than reflections. According to Williams, mediation refers to the

necessary processes of composition, in a specific medium; as such it indicates the practical relations between social and artistic forms […]. But in its more common uses it refers to an indirectness of relation between experience and its composition. (24)

Another element that Williams approaches as crucial for the sociology of culture is the concept of ideology, for it is used to approach and categorize “formal and conscious beliefs of a class or other social group” (26) or “the characteristic world-view of general perspective of a class or other social group” that includes conscious and “less conscious, less formulated attitudes, habits and feelings” (26). Williams seems to prefer the latter definition because he believes that an effective ideological critique cannot be restricted solely to formal and conscious matters. He also makes a succinct critique of the notion of a general ideology, explaining that if the term is used to allude to a broad group or a way of life lived by a certain community, then we run the risk of creating a “false generality […] to discriminate ascriptions to specific classes and other groups” (29). Williams thus highlights the sociological necessity of the concept of ideology, as long as it not used as a term to categorize or stereotype the “informing spirit” of a universal or broad population.

I was particularly drawn to Williams’ chapters on identifications and reproductions, mostly because they contribute immensely to conversations that I’m engaged with in terms of the “literariness” of young adult fiction, and the possibility of approaching the young adult novel as an object capable of cultural innovation. Williams devotes a significant amount of effort into discussing notions of the aesthetic. He speculates that at first, many might assume that the aesthetic seems relatively easy to define–the term is usually approached as a a synonym for terms such as beauty, harmony, or proportion. However, these terms lead to an “untraceable” problem when it is deemed that people can specialize in channeling or using these perceptions to recognize and judge works of art. Another problem that arises when it comes to the aesthetic and the arts is the plasticity of the term; art can be used as a categorical marker to approach everything from hair, fashion, decoration, landscaping, dancing, and sports, among others. Williams also points out that the arts are a label usually assigned to “areas of human thought and discourse” (124), as seen within the humanities.

The problematic nature of the notion of aesthetics leads Williams to ask an important question within the sociology of culture: what is, or what is not, art? Williams points out that judgments of value, quality, and execution are expected in virtually every practice. However, within the practice of art, there are works that are produced through a practice recognized as art that are difficult to categorize or approach as art. For instance, although some films, such as Academy Award-winning movies, can be and are approached as art, there are other movies that people would refuse to view as such. Think, for instance, of the differences between movies such as The PianistDude, Where’s My Car?; InceptionThe Hoursand Sharknado.  Some of these movies would, undoubtedly, be approached as high-quality works of art; others would be approached as a movie capable of killing brain cells. Williams points out that the criteria used to approach cultural artifacts and productions is variable and unstable, and even though a production might comply with expected and general standards, it might still lack an element that prevents it from being categorized as art proper.  As Williams puts it:

a ‘bad novel’ does everything that the category ‘novel’ indicates, at the level of generic definition, but then fails to do something else, either in its ‘aesthetic process’ or in terms of its ‘seriousness’ or its ‘relation to reality’ (which at least explicitly, the original definition had not included). (125)

This notion is problematized even more by the fact that works that were once considered “bad” can later on obtain status as a “legitimate” work of art. Williams points out that novels, for instance, were considered to be a literary object associated with lower classes–whereas this is clearly not the case today. Science fiction novels, as Williams claims, are also examples of works that “move from one side of the [art/not art]divide into another, or are straddled across it” (125). Williams then delves into the social processes of art, and he makes a claim that I, at first, was rather skeptical about. He argues that

The attempt to distinguish between good, bad and indifferent work in specific practices is, when made in full seriousness and without the presumption of privileged classes and habits, an indispensable element of the central social process of conscious human production” (126).

My hesitancy about this claim arose from my belief that this focus on the “good” or “not good” is a dated idea in that contemporary critical studies recognizes that all objects, good or bad, are capable of informing the subject on the social processes of human production. However, from a social perspective, this divide between the good and the bad can be useful, because it highlights the way elements and productions are socially organized. Thus, Williams does not view these labels as permanent, but rather, he views these labels as markers in flux: “variable social forms within which the relevant practices are perceived and organized” (130).

The Room (2003) is a film that is almost universally recognized for being one of the worst movies of all time. What does this help us to understand how cultural forms and productions are socially organized? What makes The Room a bad film? Even more so, how do we approach the film once we take into account its popularity as a cult classic? Is this movie so bad that it becomes good?

– – –

Another chapter that I was really interested in was the one on cultural reproduction. Williams opens this chapter by discussing the tension that exists between micro socio-cultural studies that target a very specific forms, practices, and institutions, and macro socio-cultural studies that tries to develop a general theory that accounts for most social processes. He believes that the more one knows about a subject, the more one tries to defend it from being distilled or interpreted through a broad, general perspective. He then proposes a distinction between two kinds of cultural consciousness that are in play in terms of the value of the specific over the general:

  1. “that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity” that puts “working generalizations and hypotheses under strain” (182).
  2. the “often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for endless postponement of all (even local) general judgments or decisions” (182).

Williams argues that the distinction between these two forms of consciousness is crucial towards understanding the process of cultural reproduction.  Cultural reproduction is approached as a temporal concept (one that is not always historical) that involves “movement from one dateable manifestation of culture to another” (183). Cultural reproduction is also a negotiable concept, or better said, a notion that is characterized by its plasticity. Williams points out that when talking of cultural reproduction, it is important to keep the two connotations of the word reproduction in mind: although it can denote the exact replication of an object (such as in the case of a photocopying machine), it can also have a biological valence in which a new organism is producde that shares traits with the original source, without being an exact copy. Williams asserts that when it comes to cultural reproduction, both connotations should be kept in mind because “There are very few significant cultural processes analogous to the printing press or the photocopier, but there are also very few analogous to sexual or other biological reproduction” (185).

In terms of reproduction, Williams emphasizes works that are transitional, that is, works produced when formal innovation begins to manifest within a particular culture. Innovation usually takes place in these transitional forms when there are new elements that are “incompatible or undigested” present within the work. As Williams points out, there are times when a work’s treatment of these new elements may be simplified and unable to reach their full potential, but we must be careful not to ignore their formal significance by comparing them with “preceding or succeeding mature examples” (200).  It is quite easy for scholars to not notice transitional innovation when it is occurring, but as Williams puts it, this innovation “is one of the very few elements of cultural production to which the stock adjective, ‘creative’, is wholly appropriate” (200).

After addressing the issue of innovation and reproduction, Williams classifies categories of social and cultural change that take into account relations of domination and subordination, but that also takes into account the dynamic nature of cultural forms. These categories are:

  1. Dominant – Williams asserts that this is the most obvious condition of production. Dominant forms are usually seen as crucial, “natural,” and necessary by forms that are not dominant. Dominant forms are not always overtly aware of their dominance. There is a range between dominant forms that consciously control (e.g. the press), “various kinds of displacement, to a presumed (and then dominant) autonomy of professional and aesthetic values” (204).
  2. Residual – “work made in earlier and often different societies and times, yet still available and significant” (204).
  3. Emergent – “work of various new kinds” (204).

Williams points out how the dominant can absorb, or at least attempt to absorb, the residual and emergent forms. He also posits that there is older work preserved by certain groups available as an alternative to “dominant contemporary cultural production” (204), just as there is almost always the presence of innovative work that tries to move beyond dominant forms, and at times succeeds. Interestingly, Williams asserts that some forms of innovation can happen within the dominant, ultimately becoming a new form of the dominant.

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture is a slightly difficult yet very insightful book that gives scholars the tools and the terminology needed to effectively scrutinize and critique culture. There are countless other interesting ideas in this book that I could’ve highlighted in this discussion, but I simply decided to focus on the elements of the book that will be useful for my future research. In due course, I hope this post gives you a better idea of the notions discussed in The Sociology of Culture, and I hope that it pushes you to give it a read.

Work Cited

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Print.