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BITSG539

Sushant Kishore

Dated: September 6, 2014

Agenda 5: Raymond Williams Base and Superstructure and Walter


Benjamins Iron Construction
What is fundamentally lacking . . . is any adequate recognition of the
indissoluble connections between material production, political and
cultural institutions and activity and consciousness. (Williams 80)
Williams points out the flawed relationship between base and superstructure that
traditional Marxists have perpetuated by restricting them as reified categories with
a unilateral relationship. In traditional discourse the base economic condition
affects the superstructure the institutions and practical consciousness of men
but remains temporally and spatially distant and unaffected from it. Williams asserts
the mutuality and the indissoluble connection of these categories. The economic
conditions are dynamically affected by existing ideological forms and vice versa.
Neither the base nor the superstructure is a static category and are constituted by
various social and historical processes that need to be analyzed.

Walter Benjamins Iron Construction and Williams idea of Base and


Superstructure
Williams concept of a mutual and symbiotic relationship between the base
and the superstructure is exemplified in Walter Benjamins epigraph to the Iron
Construction, which quotes, Each epoch dreams the one to follow (151). The
changes that take place in the economic base are the result of the conflicts in the
existing superstructure. These changes, in their wake, change the superstructure to
suit them, and so the process continues. Benjamins analysis reflects this mutual
relationship between the base and the superstructure and his methodology follows
the technique that Williams is trying to suggest studying the real social and
historical processes constituting these changes.
Benjamin demonstrates these constitutive processes in his example of Iron
Construction in the 19th century. The revolutionary use of iron in construction
changed the form of the buildings and the associations drawn from their traditional
structure in the practical consciousness of men. Benjamin refers to these structures
as masks of architecture (151). In the feudal system of economy the baroque
architecture was popular because it sufficed the material (agricultural) production of
the age. It therefore got reified, in the practical consciousness of men, as the
natural and obvious, though not perfect, medium for construction. Stone had some
fundamental architectural laxity inflexible and comparatively low tensile strength
than iron and therefore a stronger and more flexible material alternative was felt
necessary. Such a material was iron(150). With the emergence of industrial
capitalist base and the explosion in material production this dream was manifested
in factories, warehouses, and arcades made from iron and glass, where it could be

produced, stored and demonstrated. Though the superstructure (architecture being


one of the institutions of superstructure) adapted to be useful to the capitalist base,
it was not a product of the base but other social, historical and scientific processes.
Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter, Iron Construction. The Arcades Project. Massachusetts: Belknap
Press, 2002. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Base and Superstructure. Marxism and Literature. Oxford:
OUP, 2010. Print.