Williams at Saffron Walden
Born Raymond Henry Williams
31 August 1921
Llanvihangel Crucorney, Monmouthshire, Wales
Died 26 January 1988 (aged 66)
Saffron Walden, Essex, England
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Western Marxism
Notable students Terry Eagleton
Notable ideas Cultural materialism
Karl Marx • Antonio Gramsci • Louis Althusser
Terry Eagleton • Edward Said
Raymond Henry Williams (31 August 1921 – 26 January 1988) was a Welsh socialist writer, academic, novelist and critic influential within the New Left and in wider culture. His writings on politics, culture, the media and literature contributed to the Marxist critique of culture and the arts. Some 750,000 copies of his books were sold in UK editions alone, and there are many translations available. His work laid foundations for the field of cultural studies and cultural materialism.
Article on Jacobin
Raymond Williams Was a Socialist Visionary
Raymond Williams would not have claimed to have found all the answers. But we should remember him as one of the most thoughtful socialist writers of the 20th century.
I have a post on two of his books:
Got this off fb
Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was perhaps the most significant `left-wing’ figure in late twentieth-century British intellectual life. The Times described him as an `equivalent to Sartre’; Cornel West as `the last of the great European male revolutionary socialist intellectuals’. Born into a Welsh, working-class family in Pandy, Monmouthshire, he won a scholarship to Grammar School and eventually a place at Cambridge University, where he studied English. He served in the British Army during the Second World War, returned to complete his degree, worked as an Oxford University Adult education tutor, then as Lecturer in English and later Professor of Drama at Cambridge. He was an immensely prolific writer, whose work ranged from the realist novel to science fiction; from pioneering studies of the mass media to literary criticism; from historical philology to high cultural theory. In the mid-1950s he emerged as one of the leading figures in the New Left. He was involved in an array of radical causes, notably the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. Later in life, he became increasingly sympathetic to Welsh nationalism and was very active in solidarity work with the Welsh NUM during the 1984-85 coalminers’ strike. He died of a heart attack at Saffron Walden, Essex, and is buried at Clodock in Monmouthshire.
Key Theoretical Contributions
Trained in English, Williams derived much of his initial critical vocabulary from the Cambridge literary critic, F.R. Leavis. Formed by the biographical experience of working-class life, he was a lifelong socialist, with an an enduring interest in Marxism. Williams coined the term `cultural materialism’ to describe his own theoretical position, a coinage intended to denote a simultaneous break: from Marxism’s uncultural materialism, which reduced culture to the `superstructural’ effect of an economic `base’; and from Leavisism’s cultural immaterialism, which idealised culture as the antithetical negation of material `civilization’. During the 1950s, Williams addressed himself very directly to the definition of a third position, dependent upon but in contradictory relation both to Leavisism and to Marxism.
His intellectual reputation was established by two early books, Culture and Society 1780-1950 and The Long Revolution. The first was a bold attempt to wrest the English `culture and society’ tradition away from the cultural conservatism of Leavis and T.S. Eliot. Rejecting their view of the tradition as coextensive with `minority culture’, Williams argued that culture was `not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life.’ (Williams, 1963, p. 311) Thus redefined, the literary-humanist ideal of a `common culture’ became supplemented, and importantly qualified, by that of a plurality of class cultures. The common culture remained as a normative ideal, but in a characteristically leftist move Williams relocated it from the idealised historical past to a still to be made, socialistic future. If culture was not yet fully common, it followed that tradition was not so much the unfolding of a group mind, as in Eliot, but the outcome of a set of interested selections made in the present. A `tradition is always selective’, Williams wrote, adding that selection tends to be `governed by the interests of the class that is dominant.’ (pp. 307-308)
The Long Revolution was an equally bold attempt to chart the long history of the emergence of British cultural modernity, thereby establishing much of the initial subject matter for what would become Cultural Studies. In its opening theoretical chapters, the argument concerning selective tradition is repeated and significantly elaborated upon. Here, however, Williams also develops his first systematic theorisation of the concept of structure of feeling, by which he means `the culture of a period … the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization.’ (Williams, 1965, p. 64) Such structures are neither universal nor class specific. Nor are they formally learned, he stresses, whence follows their often peculiarly generational character. The concept was to prove extraordinarily fruitful, both in his own work, where it appeared in The English Novel, for example, and in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, and in the work of such critics as Eagleton, Jameson and Said.
During the 1960s and 70s, Williams’s writing ranged widely across the whole field of literary and cultural studies. His work on the theatre and on television exhibited a growing awareness of the social conventionality of form and of the interrelationship between technology and form, thereby clearly drawing attention to the materiality of what Marxism had viewed as `ideal’ superstructures. This led him, in turn, to a rejection of technological determinism and of the notion of a determined technology (Williams, 1974, pp. 12-13) and thence to a more complex understanding of the notion of determination itself. The cumulative effect of this work is finally registered theoretically in Marxism and Literature. Hitherto, Williams had understood culture as transcendent of class and yet irredeemably marked by it. For all the eloquence with which this position had been argued, it remained fundamentally incoherent, a circle that stubbornly refused to be squared. From the late 1960s, however, his engagement with Western Marxism, and especially Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, made it possible to explain how structures of feeling could be common to different classes, yet nonetheless represent the interests of some particular class.
The first and last chapters of the first part of Marxism and Literature are devoted to two key concepts and two keywords, deriving respectively from Leavisism and Marxism, `Culture’ and `Ideology’. Williams argues for the theoretical superiority over both of the Gramscian notion of hegemony, on the grounds that it successfully combines a `culturalist’ sense of the wholeness of culture with a Marxist sense of the interestedness of ideology: `Hegemony is … in the strongest sense a “culture”, but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes.’ (Williams, 1977, p. 110) Culture is therefore neither `superstructural’ nor `ideological’, but rather, `among the basic processes of the formation’ (p. 111). Tradition now becomes not only selective, but also decisively important in the effective operation of hegemony and dependent on identifiably material institutions and `formations’ (pp. 115, 117-120).
Like Gramsci, Williams was concerned with the problem of counter-hegemony. The alternatives to hegemony include both the `emergent’ and the `residual’, he argues, for unlike the merely archaic, the residual can itself be oppositional or at least alternative in character. Thus, Williams distinguishes organised religion and the idea of rural community, each predominantly residual, from monarchy, which is merely archaic. It is the properly `emergent’, however, that most interests him, those genuinely new meanings, values, practices and kinds of relationship that are substantially alternative or oppositional to the dominant culture (p. 123). For Williams, the primary source of an emergent culture is likely to be a new social class. But there is a second source: `alternative perceptions of others, in immediate relationships; new perceptions and practices of the material world.’ (p. 126) For Williams, the exemplary instance of a new social class is the development of the modern working class. At the second level, however, the situation is much less clear: `No analysis is more difficult than that which, faced by new forms, has to try to determine whether these are new forms of the dominant or are genuinely emergent.’ (Williams, 1981, p. 205)
Marxism and Literature offers an unusually interesting formulation of the problem. An emergent culture, Williams argues, will require not only distinct kinds of immediate cultural practice, but also and crucially `new forms or adaptations of forms’. Such innovation at the level of form, he continues, `is in effect a pre-emergence, active and pressing but not yet fully articulated’ (Williams, 1977, p. 126). The concept of structure of feeling is brought back into play at this point. Previously, Williams had used it to denote both the immediately experiential and the generationally-specific aspects of artistic process. Both emphases are retained, but are now joined to a quite new stress on pre-emergence. So structures of feeling `can be defined as social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated’ (pp .133-134). In short, they are quite specifically counter-hegemonic.
The substantive question of the precise interplay between the emergent or pre-emergent and novelty within the dominant became especially pressing in Williams’s later work. The key texts here are Towards 2000 and the sadly unfinished, posthumously published The Politics of Modernism. Both attempted to reformulate the earlier aspiration to community and to culture as a whole way of life by way of a critique of `postmodern’ appropriations of modernism and the mass media. Williams now saw late capitalism as itself effectively collapsing the distinction between minority and mass arts. So modernism, which once threatened to destabilise the certainties of bourgeois life, has been transformed into a new `”post-modernist” establishment’, which `takes human inadequacy … as self-evident’ (Williams, 1983, p. 141). The deep structures of this postmodernism are present in popular culture, moreover, as `debased forms of an anguished sense of human debasement’. (pp. 141-142) The `pseudo-radicalism’ of postmodern art is thus neither pre-emergent nor emergent, but rather a moment of novelty within the dominant. Hence, Williams’s urgent insistence on the need for an art that will `break out of the non-historical fixity of post-modernism’ so as to address itself `to a modern future in which community may be imagined again.’ (Williams, 1989, p. 35)
Theoretically, Williams’s work is sometimes identified with that of Thompson and Hoggart as similarly `culturalist’. Culturalism, it is argued, is both empiricist and lacking in any adequate sense of structural determinacy. This is clearly caricature: Williams’s work is in many respects intensely theoretical; his notion of determination fully compatible with a strong sense of structure. At least one of his erstwhile critics has had the good grace to admit as much (Eagleton, 1989). Politically, Williams’s socialism and nationalism can be criticised as articulating a residual, rather than emergent, structure of feeling, a particularly telling charge when made from a feminist vantage point: clearly, working-class Welsh community was sustained by a patriarchal sexual division of labour. There is evidence in Williams of a real attempt at solidarity with the new women’s movement, especially when he identifies it as one of the major `resources for a journey of hope’ (Williams, 1983, pp. 249-250). Nonetheless, he seems unable to theorise such questions of sexual politics with any real adequacy.
Eagleton, T. (ed.) (1989), Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Higgins, J. (1999), Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism, London, Routledge.
Higgins, J. (ed.) (2000), The Raymond Williams Reader, Oxford, Blackwell.
Inglis, F. (1995), Raymond Williams, London, Routledge.
Milner, A. (1993), Cultural Materialism, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press.
Williams, R. (1963), Culture and Society 1780-1950, Harmondsworth, Penguin (first published London, Chatto and Windus, 1958).
Williams, R. (1965), The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin (first published London, Chatto and Windus, 1961).
Williams, R. (1966), Modern Tragedy, London, Chatto and Windus.
Williams, R. (1968), Drama from Ibsen to Brecht, London, Chatto and Windus.
Williams, R. (1970), The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence, London, Chatto and Windus.
Williams, R. (1973), The Country and the City, London, Chatto and Windus.
Williams, R. (1974), Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Glasgow, Fontana.
Williams, R. (1976), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Glasgow, Fontana.
Williams, R. (1977), Marxism and Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Williams, R. (1981), Culture, Glasgow, Fontana.
Williams, R. (1983), Towards 2000, London, Chatto and Windus.
Williams, R. (1989), The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists ed. T. Pinkney, London, Verso.