Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tradition of Leavisism

Cultural studies as a tradition probably owes a great deal to the work of F.R.Leavis and his approach to literary studies which came to be known as Leavisism. F.R.Leavis sought to re-distribute access to high-culture by canonizing certain traditional kinds of literature, what he called "The Great Tradition" (modern literature was excluded) and then using the education system in order to endow acquaintance with them to all.
So what does a traditional reactionary taste have to do with exciting new developments in the intellectual arena, developments which for the most part go against a lot of the things F.R.Leavis argued for? Well, what was constitutive about Leavisism was the notion that culture, especially literature, is not simply a leisure activity but rather a personal building and promoting practice which gave its beneficiaries some important social assets. This was later termed by Bourdieu "cultural capital". For F.R.Leavis, the benefits of "high culture" were opposed to the dangers of "low culture" which did the opposite.

So how did it come to be that Leavisism is often regarded as the herald of cultural studies? The answer might be found if we turn our attention to F.R.Leavis's recognition of the social-political power of cultural products. Gaining access to the highly regarded "great tradition" doesn't just make the person more educated and more culturally enriched, it also and more importantly redistributes social capacities. It should also be noticed how Leavisism viewed "low-culture" not only as degenerating (this was a common view, and often still is) but also as repressive and silencing.    

In conclusion, F.R.Leavis's great contribution to Cultural Studies was the notion of culture, and especially literature, being intertwine with social stratification and class struggle. This was indeed a Marxist idea that had already been in circulation before Leavis, but introducing it in the wake of the "social democratic power bloc" in post-war Britain paved the way for a new socially conscious strand of cultural research. Leavisism was the starting point for the groundbreaking work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart which will be discussed in the next chapter of our introduction to Cultural Studies.

For additional reference see: Guy Ortolano: "The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain" 


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