In our generally retrograde postCold War age, it might be anachronistic to try to resuscitate any interest in what my daughter calls another “dead white male.” Raymond Williams, now legendary founding figure (with Richard Hoggart and E.P. Thompson), of that still amorphous but now institutionalized thing called “Cultural Studies,” was certainly white and male and physically dead. But it seems that his specter still haunts everyone in this field, including those suspicious and hostile, as is evident in the first biography (1995) of him written by Fred Inglis and in the first American collection of critical essays on him, Views Beyond the Border Country, edited by Dennis Dworkin and Leslie Roman. In a retrospective assessment, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies,” Stuart Hall warned of the profound danger of the institutionalization of cultural studies as a discipline of semiotics or hermeneutics. Conceding that questions of the political and power are always discursive and lodged in representations, he adds: “Nevertheless, there are ways of constituting power as an easy floating signifier which just leaves the crude exercise and connections of power and culture altogether emptied of any signification.” This, I think, provides a clue to why Williams’ “cultural materialism” may be instructive and salutary to guard against the postalizing of a still emergent and inchoate formation.
What Perry Anderson calls the “exorbitation” of the sign, the reduction of everything to discourse and differance, may be easily cited as the reason why cultural studies need not frighten anyone today. More fashionable is Stuart Hall’s privileging of the method of articulation and its elaboration by Laclau and Mouffe into the rhetoric of indeterminacy and contingency that then serves as dogmatic premises for Homi Bhabha and the postcolonial Establishment. Anyone caught “totalizing” or rehearsing “grand metanarratives” of the Eurocentric variety can be flunked, denied tenure, ostracized. But the new conformism that claims to be more radical than anything proves, on closer examination, to be just an application of the old paradigm of close New Critical reading–a more sophisticated encoding/decoding exercise–to shopping malls, television and film, museums, rituals high and low, and the practices of everyday life. The hermeneutics of Lyotard, Baudrillard, de Certeau, Clifford, etc. is now in vogue. The “linguistic turn” in the seventies, together with the uncritical appropriation of Althusser and other poststructuralist doxa, may be responsible for the return of formalism and metaphysics in new guises. Could this have been anticipated if the Williams road of the “long revolution” were followed?
I want to address hypothetical answers by way of reviewing in a schematic fashion Williams’s trajectory as a theoretician of mutations, discontinuities, and linkages.
In his first important work, Culture and Society, Williams reviewed the mainly conservative English tradition of social thought. Its resonance and appeal depend on how it deployed culture, conceived as ideas or ideals of perfection removed from material social life, as a critique of specific large-scale changes involving industry, democracy, class and art. In a class-divided society, “culture” was opposed to business, urban massification, and possessive individualism. In his conclusion, Williams diagnosed the ethos of service deriving from a feudal, hierarchical worldview contradistinguished from the ethos of solidarity with roots in the great achievements of working class culture. The idea of a “common culture” (“common” here denoting full democratic participation and equality, not homogenized uniformity) is based on the unacknowledged but extraordinary creativity of millions of working men and women embodied in the collective democratic institutions of trade unions, cooperatives, and other grass-roots resources of self-empowerment.
It is in his major statement of principles, The Long Revolution, that Williams attacks headon the liberal bourgeois tradition (from Locke and Hobbes to the utilitarians) by a new theorizing of culture. Culture is not just “a whole way of life,” but the differentiated totality and dynamics of social practices in history. Art and literature cannot be privileged or idealized since they are “part of the general process which creates conventions and institutions, through which the meanings that are valued by the community are shared and made active.” Williams proposes a relational and processual view of culture that breaks down the confines separating literature, culture, politics, everyday life in general. He emphasizes connections, dissonance, and interactive negotiations, unfolding the conflicts and changes implicated in patterns of learning and communication:
Since our way of seeing things is literally our way of living, the process of communication is in fact the process of community: the sharing of common meanings, and thence common activities and purposes; the offering, reception and comparison of new meanings, leading to tensions and achievements of growth and change….If art is part of society, there is no solid whole, outside it, to which, by the form of our question we concede priority. The art is there, as an activity, with the production, the trading, the politics, the raising of families. To study the relations adequately we must study them actively, seeing all activities as particular and contemporary forms of human energy (1961: 55).
The stress on culture as a constellation of activities, forms of the disposition of human energy, is crucial here. This is meant to resolve the subject-object antinomy, to mediate the consciousness/external world dualism that underpins the abstract rationalism and empiricism of bourgeois thought. In a later work, Culture, Williams approaches culture “as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced, and explored.” Culture is then is not solely equivalent to high art, rare artifacts, or stereotyped representations. It encompasses both articulated expression and their experiential matrices, the rich and volatile conjunctures of these polarities.
Williams’s strategy is always oppositional to the consensual individualist ethos of late capitalism. His theory of culture is totalizing in that it includes the thinker or observer’s presence as reference point in its critical gaze. It concentrates on networks of relationships so as to “discover the nature of the organization which is the complex of these relationships,” the patterns and their interface that reveal unexpected identities and correspondences, discontinuities, dispersals, etc. The emphasis on pattern and organization–not on “lived experience,” as the received opinion alleges–may be explained by Williams targetting the self-legitimizing discourse of a “free enterprise” society (conceived as a collection of monadic individuals with natural rights, etc.) and its market-centered system of beliefs–in short, the problem of reification that Georg Lukacs thoroughly diagnosed in the now classic text, History and Class Consciousness (1923).
Reviewing his development in a 1981 lecture, “Crisis in English Studies,” Williams confesses that much of his earlier literary criticism can be read as compatible with the dominant paradigm established by Leavis and later sanctioned by the academy. The break came with his major work, The Country and the City (begun in 1965, published in 1973). Not only did he locate certain forms of writing in their historical background–nothing new–but re-inscribed them “within an active, conflicting historical process in which the very forms are created by social relations which are sometimes evident and sometimes occluded” (1984: 209). Alongside his pathbreaking work on communications, television, technologies and cultural forms, Williams from 1970 on developed his theoretical stance called “cultural materialism” (not, as some say, “critical realism”) which, he explains, “is the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production” (1984: 210).
In a well-known essay, “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms” (1980), Stuart Hall labels Williams’ theory “culturalism.” We are given to understand that its practitioners, Williams and E.P. Thompson, focus their attention on experience and sensuous human praxis. In antithesis, the structuralists (Hall among them) direct their attention on ideology and determinate conditions, the articulation of autonomous spheres of the social field, in order to elucidate the immanent relation between power and knowledge. Hall then labels as “culturalism” Williams’ analysis of “the production (rather than only the reproduction) of meanings and values by specific social formations, [and his focus] on the centrality of language and communication as formative social forces, and on the complex interaction both of institutions and forms and of social relationships and formal conventions.” These preoccupations are manifest in The Long Revolution, Modern Tragedy, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence, Orwell, and other texts of the sixties and early seventies. The rubric “culturalism is, I submit, not only misleading but partial, segregative, and therefore distorting. In a 1976 essay, Williams designates his approach (more fully elaborated in Marxism and Literature and in Culture) as consistently materialist, dialectical, and historicizing (and mind you, not historicist):
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)….a theory of the historical variations of cultural process, which then necessarily connects (has to be connected) with a more general social, historical and political theory. (1980: 243-44).
We have now travelled far away from the alleged “whole way of life” definition inferred from the earlier work, far from “culturalism” or an imputed “radical empiricism.” As the entry in Keywords (1983 edition) indicates, Williams discriminates between the two senses or more precisely usages of experience: first, past experience as lessons reflected, analyzed, and evaluated; and second, present experience as immediate and authentic ground for all reasoning and analysis. Williams inflects his discourse with the contextualizing of “experience” associated with experiment and innovation, full and active awareness, contrasted to “experience” as the product of social conditions or of systems of belief and perception, evidence of conditions that need to be tried and tested.
Primacy (in Williams’s thought beginning in the mid-seventies) is now placed on culture as social and material practices, no longer based on raw, unmediated experience but on the given character of processes of production that make up the whole fabric of society. The ensemble of productive processes constitutes the multilayered social totality in motion, with determinations that are orchestrated by varying historical circumstances. Note that cultural practices are not entirely or essentially discursive. Means and values are produced within and by specific social formations, with language and other means of communication as central formative forces. There is thus a complex interaction of institutions, forms, conventions, and intellectual formations in which political and economic questions are deeply imbricated. Now, one might ask, where in this “theory of specificities of material production within historical materialism”–Williams’s description–can we encounter and grapple with the reality of power, domination and subordination, the political as well as the ethical?
Right from the start of his engagement with the failure of orthodox British Marxism in Culture and Society up to the pivotal 1973 essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” Williams was concerned with power, that is, with the problematic of determination. This entails the corollary question of intention and human agency. After disposing of the powerful fetishism of the bourgeois monadic subject (with the additional help of Lukacs and Goldmann’s critique of the positivist and empiricist construal of consciousness), Williams confronted the category of the subject, subjectivity, within the general framework of a reconstituted historical materialism that he outlines in Marxism and Literature.
It was partly through the catalyst of E.P Thompson’s criticism in the early sixties that Williams discovered Gramsci and the theory of hegemony. In his review of The Long Revolution, Thompson argues that any social totality is inescapably pervaded with conflict between opposed ways of life. Williams agrees. Now he interprets the “base” (in the base/superstructure paradigm of classical Marxism) differently; it is, for him, not a uniform state or a fixed technological mechanism but a complex of specific activities and relationships of real people replete with contradictions and variations, in short, a dynamic, open-ended process. Williams conceives of vital productive forces–of humans producing and reproducing themselves through sexual relationships, labor, communication; of people together producing themselves and their history–as basic, not superstructural or epiphenomenal. In an unprecedented way, Williams distinguished capitalist production of commodities with the general sense of “production of human life and powers,” the production of full species-being, as a demarcating principle.
Criticizing Lukacs’ abstract idea of totality as empty of content and thus formalist, Williams refines his notion of a complex differentiated totality founded on convergent and divergent social intentions, with class antagonism as a salient node:
For while it is true that any society is a complex whole of such practices, it is also true that any society has a specific organization, a specific structure, and that the principles of this organization and structure can be seen as directly related to certain social intentions, intentions by which we define the society, intentions which in all our experience have been the rule of a particular class. (1980: 36)
This intentionality is given more precision when Williams deploys Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. Hegemony refers to the central system of practices, meanings, and values that are experienced as practices and appear reciprocally confirming. Hegemonic rule then translates to our experienced or lived reality invested with a sense of the absolute whereby it induces consent and thus exercises effective dominance over us. It is not an imposed ideology nor manipulated set of opinions, as Althusserian and Lacanian versions tend to convey. Hegemony is, in Williams’ singular rendering, the “whole body of practices and expectations; our assignments of energy, our ordinary understanding of the nature of man and his world.” It saturates public consciousness as the substance and limit of common sense, the “common sense” of the average citizen presented as majority consensus.
Williams prefers the speculative usefulness of Gramci’s hegemony to Lukacs’ totality because the concept of hegemony foregrounds the fact of domination and subordination as well as the tension and resistance implied in it. Hegemony is a way of integrating the three levels of culture Williams defined in The Long Revolution: lived culture of a particular time and place, recorded culture (from art to everyday acts), and culture of the selective tradition. The legitimacy or validity of any tradition depends on its being experienced, that is, incorporated into an effective, dominant culture. Such domination depends on varied processes of incorporation enabled through education and other agencies that Althusser would call “ideological state apparatuses.” The concept of hegemony provides the cultural analyst with a more flexible tool for grasping the complex interaction between dominant and corporative alternative meanings, values, attitudes, etc. as well as the process of incorporation, transmission, and compensatory displacements in the variable sites of education, family, etc. More importantly, it allows us to apprehend oppositional and emergent cultural forms and practices that seek to alter and change the prevailing social and political arrangements.
In analyzing the dynamics of hegemonic rule, Williams complicates his idea of the constitutive social process by recognizing historical variability. Society then is an order constituted by alternative, ascendant, and oppositional forms of meanings and practices (classified as “dominant,” “residual,” and “emergent”) that coexist in specific conjunctures. Domination, like any tradition, is a matter of conscious selection and organization. Agency asserts itself in the shaping of a selective tradition that contends with other sets of discourses and signifying acts. While discourses, representations or symbolic systems affect agency, it is not identical with them or with their contingent articulations. This is to confuse terms of analysis for terms of substance.
What is the ethical-political consequence of this methodological device? Williams suggests the following line of inquiry: hegemony or the strategy of incorporation reveals the extent to which any social formation reaches into the whole range of human practices and experiences. It indicates what is known and what is knowable, given the fact that any dominant order always consciously selects and organizes, thus excluding the full range of actual and possible human practices. Williams offers us an antidote to the seduction of what Adorno calls “culture industry” and the seemingly exhaustive sublimations of Baudrillard’s cosmos of simulacra and simulations: “No mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts the full range of human practice, human energy, human intention” (1980: 43).
Agency then, creative intentionality, and choice in collective and personal dimensions all operate within what Williams calls “structures of feeling,” a heuristic and analytic category for measuring the distance between the actual and the possible which I cannot fully elaborate here. Time constraint also prohibits any discussion of the notions of “knowable community” and “complex seeing” that Williams invents as methodological guidelines to a materialist cultural analysis. Permit me to review quickly–“Williams Without Tears”?–the central themes of Williams’ cultural materialism.
As pointed out earlier, Williams seeks to avoid the reduction of formalist aesthetics and its postmodernist variants by always insisting on the “restoration of the whole social material process, and specifically of cultural production as social and material.” One has to keep in mind the multiplicity of cultural practices embedded in intellectual formations (conscious movements and tendencies), the institutions of distribution and reception, the material means of cultural production, the social character of language, and ultimately the historical “determination” of all these diverse cultural practices. While Williams himself called his analytic method a radical semiotics–his Keywords is a versatile and rigorous exercise in historical semantics–he rejects the separation of the “social” from the “aesthetic” found in the poststructuralist fetishism of textuality deriving from a certain interpretation of Saussure. He presents his own orientation to language thus:
…we can also come to see that a sign-system is itself a specific structure of social relationships: “internally,” in that the signs depend on, were formed in, relationships; “externally,” in that the system depends on, is formed in, the institutions which activate it (and which are then at once cultural and social and economic institutions); integrally, in that a “sign-system,” properly understood, is at once a specific cultural technology and a specific form of practical consciousness: those apparently diverse elements which are in fact unified in the material social process (1977: 140)
Language is only one of those practices implicated in the symptoms of the crisis of late capitalist society. Faced with the ideological mystification of personal lives, Williams stressed the imperative of establishing connections by emphasizing the role of means of communication (he speaks of “productive communication”) in shaping community. He opposed the mechanical formulas of “vulgar Marxism” (this version reduced culture to a simple reflection of commodity-production-for-profit) and the positivist axioms of structural-functionalism by a radical historicizing of contexts and collectivities. This did not imply a retreat to a vitalist, romantic nihilism, or a privileging of anarchic will, ambiguous and hybridized positionality, or organic Volkgemeinschaft. Williams’ reconstruction of historical materialism eludes such “commonsensical” reflexes.
Williams returns us to the ineluctable pressures and limits of history, of the body and physical nature, in order to caculate determination, the measure of necessity. This illuminates also the differences between the hegemonic and subaltern classes. He does so not to revive mechanical determinism or arbitrary closure but, on the contrary, to recover the principle of intention. He was himself intent on carrying out a cognitive mapping of social agency and direction sedimented in specific traditions and various formations, discoverable through “structures of feeling” and “knowable communities,” from a European and later global perspective.
One illustration of the attempt to recover and define agency may be found in Williams’ adumbration of the “dramatized consciousness” of contemporary society conveyed by television. In an essay entitled “Drama in a Dramatized Society,” Williams develops the key insight that we live in a more complex, “unknowable” society: we live in enclosed rooms today, at home in our lives before the television, but “needing to watch what is happening ‘out there’: not out there in a particular street or a specific community but in a complex and otherwise unfocused and unfocusable national and international life” (1989: 8-9). But the flow of experience that television provides, the representations that help make the world intelligible to its viewers, overwhelms even the last defense of personal privacy with official versions. In Williams’ commentary on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, we have experience colonized with the coverage of the Games as a drama of the conventional politics of nation-states. But this prepared or hegemonic version was ruptured by the hostage taking and the subsequent darkness that marked the killing of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team and six Palestinian guerillas:
What was shocking at Munich was that the arranged version of what the world is like was invaded by an element of what several parts of the world are actually like. It happened with a certain inevitability, because the act of arranged presentation had created a point of political pressure… Is this [the official Olympic ceremonies] one of the effects of conventional, rule-contained competition: that every moment is a starting-point, with all previous history forgotten? Were there no irregulars of a score of honoured revolutions, no Narodniki, Mau Mau, Stern Gang and a thousand others, before Black September? I knew I could only mourn the 17 dead if I remembered the history which had made them victims: a continuing history, without rules….
So television precipitates a rupture but does not offer any memory or sense of responsibility. You need cultural analysis of Williams’ kind to respond to a whole complex of experiences obfuscated, distorted, or mystified by the conventions and rhythms of television time determined by sports events, commercial advertising, and official hegemonic “common sense.”
In another television transcribing of events, this time of the Malvinas/Falkland war, Williams discerns intention in the media culture of distance that enables the institutions of constitutional authoritarianism to dominate. The television distancing of war, an unnecessary one, was made possible by a bureaucratic culture that had already distanced mass unemployment:
The cynical culture of late capitalism, which had used a national flag for underwear or for carrier bags, switched, as it seemed overnight, to an honorific fetishism which at the same time, though in different colours, was on the streets in Buenos Aires…. The sinking of a ship shocks and grieves, but is then sealed over by the dominant mood…. The larger argument that now needs to be started, with a patience determined by its urgency, is about the culture of distance, the latent culture of alienation, within which men and women are reduced to models, figures and the quick cry in the throat (1989: 19-21).
Professional management of events, the distant calculating of actual experience of battles and deaths, the sanitized abstractions–these are all related to the class and imperial system that thrives on reification and abstracted knowledge.
From Culture and Society (1958) to Communications (1962) and Television: Technology and Culture Form (1974) to The Country and the City (1973) and Writing and Society (1981), Williams’ quest was unequivocal: the democratization of culture through mass participation in political decisions and the broadest access to education and the resources of communication. In a 1958 essay, “Culture is Ordinary,” as well as in The Long Revolution, Williams destroyed the rationale for the hierarchical segmentation of culture into high, middle, and mass/popular. What is ordinary about culture is its ubiquity: every society engages in finding common meanings and directions, growing through “active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery.” Aside from meanings shared by all, culture also includes the arts and learning, “the special processes of discovery and creative effort” that conjoin deep personal meanings and common purpose. The task of the politically committed intellectual is to release the transforming energies of millions founded on the following values:
that the ordinary people should govern; that culture and education are ordinary; that there are no masses to save, to capture, or to direct, but rather this crowded people in the course of an extraordinary rapid and confusing expansion of their lives. A writer’s job is with individual meanings, and with making these meanings common. I find these meanings in the expansion, there along the journey where the necessary changes are writing themselves into the land, and where the language changes but the voice is the same (1989: 18).
Now this democratizing agenda has earned censure from Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and others as “narrow exclusive nationalism,” as essentially ethnocentric. I think this is based on a misunderstanding of Williams’ idea of “a common culture.” In the 1968 essay on that theme, Williams endorses the Marxist insight that in a class-divided society, “culture would have an inevitable class content and class bearing, and that in the historical development of a society, a culture will necessarily change as relations between men and classes change” (1989: 33-34). Williams insists that culture is not the property or creation of a privileged minority; meanings and values comprising a particular form of life arise from the common experience and activities of all. But the possibility of creating, articulating and communicating those meanings and values are limited by the nature of the educational system, the control of work, and the private ownership of communications. The possible “community of culture” or the “community’s self-realization” is limited by the class (and other) divisions of the given society. So Williams states that he was using “the idea of the common element of the culture–its community–as a way of criticizing” the capitalist arrangement of society: “A common culture is not the general extension of what a minority mean and believe, but the creation of a condition in which the people as a whole participate in the articulation of meanings and values, and in the consequent decisions between this meaning and that, this value and that” (1989: 36). In this vision of a society where a “mutual determination” of meanings and values takes place, Williams anticipates the danger that “common culture” may imply standardization, uniformity, mandating one standard, levelling down, in short, mediocrity, repression, and conformity.
So far is Williams’ project of a complex, “educated and participating democracy” from ethnocentrism and exclusive nationalism that it is worth quoting him at length:
…the idea of a common culture is in no sense the idea of a simply consenting, and certainly not of a merely conforming, society. One returns, once more, to the original emphasis of a common determination of meanings by all the people, acting sometimes as individuals, sometimes as groups, in a process which has no particular end, and which can never be supposed at any time to have finally realized itself, to have become complete….In speaking of a common culture, one is asking, precisely, for that free, contributive and common process of participation in the creation of meanings and values…(1989: 37-38).
This fundamental principle of a genuinely participatory democracy underlying Williams’ theory of culture allowed him to be particularly sensitive to new developments in his time such as the rise of the women’s movement, racist or xenophobic reactions to the demands of ethnic communities for recognition, and ecological issues. Unless one performs a willful misreading of his substantial body of work, Williams, the inaugural thinker of the New Left, cannot so easily be charged for class-reductionism and other kinds of deterministic reductionism that he strove to identify and oppose throughout his life.
Long before the resurgence of feminism, Williams had already stressed one of the four interlocking systems within any society as vital and necessary: “the system of generation and nurture.” As Terry Eagleton remarks, Williams’s novels explored the questions of family, gender, and women’s work in a much more penetrating way than his criticism, although he did expose the destructivess of male hegemony, “the disabling notion of masculinity,” in appraising the works of women novelists in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. He confessed, however, that other critics were better equipped to elaborate on the “repression of women’s experience” in criticism than he was.
Williams welcomed the militant women’s liberation movement from the late sixties onward. He insisted, however, on contextualizing the ideological reduction of sex to consumption thus: “Now the contradiction of contemporary social changes has been that the unfinished attempt to liberate women and children from the traditional controls of extreme deprivation and from the reproduction of brutality within the family has itself become complicated, as every human liberation is within the capitalist order, by imperatives which are a product of the system itself” (1979: 148-49). He also observed that “it is scarcely possible to doubt the absolute centrality of human reproduction and nurture and the unquestioned physicality of it” (1979: 147).
On the matter of the postmodern celebration of plurality and difference, the politics of identity, Williams was one of the first “Cultural Studies” pioneers who fully appreciated the affective force of place, of local bonds of region, nation, religious beliefs, etc. He welcomed the “new social movements” preoccupied with intersubjective, trans-class causes such as nuclear disarmament, ecology, women’s liberation. Despite the retreat of many radicals to either neoliberalism or business-as-usual pragmatism, Williams adhered to the key Marxist argument that exploitation continually reproduces class consciousness and organization on a universal basis. But from the beginning Williams knew that the universalization of class bonds would not be automatic and inevitably supersede other affiliations and loyalties. He puts himself on both sides of the argument: “I recognize the universal forms which spring from this fundamental exploitation–the system, for all its local variety, is everywhere recognizable. But the practice of fighting against it has always been entered into, or sometimes deflected by, these other kinds of more particular bonds” (1989:318). These particular bonds inhabit spaces that Williams has configured in his social history of art forms, especially in how “the common experiences” of colonized natives with their “alienating screens of foreignness and race” are grasped through the “New Metropolis” of the imperialist system and its vicissitudes charted in The Country and the City.
In that book, Williams discusses how the slave trade and the exploitation of the subjugated natives in the colonies generated the idea of England as “home” and sustained the pastoral myths of country-house life. Dialectically, the sense of belonging and community of retired colonial businessmen and officers arose from the dispossession and deracination of slaves in the plantations and the labor of people of color in general. Williams’s method of formational analysis can perceive how the attractive rural mode of play in the English countryside rests on the misery and privations of the colonized indigenous inhabitants of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Williams appreciates the rise of new conventions in the novel (as the citations of Achebe, Wilson Harris, and other writers from India, Africa, and Asia testify) as a response to new needs and demands, with the colonial hinterland registering its presence in the effects on the sensibilities and rhythms of everyday life in the metropolis. The subaltern speaks through a rich cultural repertoire of refusal, adaptation, and resistance, with their own authentic affiliations and solidarities.
Empire is then both a literal referent and symbolic figure in Williams’ discourse on war, ecology, and North-South relations in The Year 2000 and his late essays on modernism and variable socialisms. Robin Blackburn reminds us that Williams grew in a border community where farmers, agricultural laborers, teachers, preachers, and railway workers mixed. In his youth he worked in campaigns of solidarity with China and Spain; his internationalism, grounded on local attachments and personal experience in World War II, shaped his assent to popular revolts in the Third World against landlord or military rule and imperialism. He recognized the tragedy and suffering in these revolutions, but he urged that we “follow the whole action: not only the evil, but the men who have fought against evil; not only the crisis but the energy released by it, the spirit learned in it” (1979: 83). For more than three decades, Williams was active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and various coalitions against British military power aiding the Western subjugation of people of color and their struggles for self-determination.
In a 1984 interview in Politics and Letters, Williams distinguishes between the reactionary nationalism of the Labour Party based on a unitary British state, and the progressive nationalism of oppressed peoples (Welsh, Scots, Irish) in colonized and other subjugated territories. Williams exposes the UK centralized nation-state as based on a spurious “English middle-class universality.” He denounces the oligarchic and disciminatory character of political representation within the UK. To counter such anti-democratic status quo, locality and other vital affiliations need to be mobilized in forging a new decentralized socialist politics that recognizes bonding mechanisms beyond national or class consciousness: “…place has been shown to be a crucial element in the bonding process–more so perhaps for the working class than the capital-owning classes–by the explosion of the international economy and the destructive effects of deindustrialization upon old communities. When capital has moved on, the importance of place is more clearly revealed” (1989: 242). [David Harvey, in a recent essay in Social Text, discussed “The Conceptual Politics of Place, Space, and Environment in the Work of Raymond Williams.”] Ethnic identity, like Welsh culture, is a complex and ongoing synthesis of place, collective or popular memory, language, and meanings being fashioned from daily struggles. This is the lesson of Williams’ essays on “Welsh Culture” (1975) and “The Social Significance of 1926” (1977).
However, it must be pointed out that Williams’ conception of place has nothing to do with blood-and-soil communitarianism. He invokes the women’s movement for examples of popular constituencies allying together on positive programs. Instead of the Labor Party’s “metropolitan provincialism,” Williams envisions communities of interest and purpose involving not just class but the reality of women and families, collectivities generated from popular mobilizations in part triggered by the need for the self-definition of groups and peoples long disenfranchised and rendered anonymous by uneven capitalist development.
It is at this point, especially with The Year 2000, that Williams attempts to supersede the received model between country and city as part of the spatial division of capitalist production by calling for a “new politics of equitable livelihood” within the larger framework of variable socialisms around the planet. Cultural studies now needs to include the care for the environment since crucial social and political questions converge on this relationship. His ecological agenda is not one-dimensional but dialectical, oriented to “the idea of ‘livelihood’ within, and yet active within, a better understood physical world and all truly necessary physical processes” (1989: 237). In a 1982 essay called “Socialism and Ecology,” Williams criticizes the orthodox Marxist attitude of conquering and mastering nature, unreservedly exhausting the non-renewable resources for commodity production, since this triumphalist ethic of expansion is precisely the classic rationale of imperialism. This obsession with the conquest of nature accompanies present-day glorification of the consumption/acquisition ideal and the persistence of patriarchy. Remember that we are ourselves part of nature so that maximized and intensified production by itself will not solve poverty, alienation, and other attendant disasters. And, Williams adds, there are real material limits not derived from socio-historical necessity.
Here the temptation is to offer individual or family solutions, the paramount attitude today, or else the appeals for sanity are addressed to the present world leaders of the social orders that, in the first place, have created the devastation. Any kind of planning for sustainable growth requires an alteration of the way production and distribution are organized, of the priorities between different forms of production; the precondition for that is fundamental changes in the social and economic institutions, in particular how political decisions are made. This applies more urgently in the international arena where the struggles over the supply and price of oil, among other commodities, determine not only the world economy but also political relations between states, including the certainty of conventional and nuclear wars mainly against formerly colonized countries where the scarce resources are found. Ultimately, ecology as the problem of resources–what Williams calls “the pressure point on the whole existing capitalist mode of production”–is a question of worldwide inequalities, a question of war or peace among nation-states. It is above all a question of standard of life, of the overcoming of racism and the “chauvinism of the old rich countries” slandering “the leaders and movements of the poor countries who are striving to redress these major and unforgivable inequalities” (1989: 225). It concerns the goal of promoting “actual self-governing societies.”
Toward the end of his life, Williams reflected on the “uses of cultural theory” and the “future of cultural studies,” two lectures included in The Politics of Modernism (1989).
In the first lecture, Williams reminds us that culture as a realized signifying system is imbricated in a whole range of activities, relations, and institutions of everyday life. Cultural theory needs to be examined within concrete social and historical situations, as the Bakhtin Circle proposed. Williams underscores the need for specificity (versus the formalist analysis of autonomous elements of art and the generalized application of social categories to cultural production), the need to explore the relations among diverse and specific human activities “within describably whole historical situations which are also, as practice, changing and, in the present, changeable” (1989: 164). Formalism (whether New Critical, structuralist, poststructuralist) is inadequate because it cannot grasp how different arts change, how this change indexes a dynamic historical process, one involving “a distinct historical practice, by real agents, in complex relations with others, both diverse and varying, agents and practices.” Forms need to be historicized and intentionalities socialized.
For Williams, the introduction of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and the role of intellectuals in cultural formations advanced and deepened the reach of cultural theory. Culture now becomes the site of power antagonisms and differential lines of force. It is at this junction that Williams resumes the actual genealogy of cultural studies from the debate over the “changing and contested structure of public education” and the influence of the new media (television, film) that was drastically revising “all received definitions of majority or popular cultural enterprise.” The influence of Saussure, Freud, and others who valorized the text and the language-paradigm above all strikes Williams as damaging in that it negated the paramount task of an all-sided cultural analysis, namely, “the identification of the matrix of any formation,” “the analysis of specific relationships through which works are made and move.” Cultural studies examines the socially and historically specifiable agency of the work’s making, “an agency that has to include both content and intention, in relative degrees of determinacy, yet is only fully available as agency in both its internal (textual) and social and historical (in the full sense, formal) specificities” (1989: 172). For this task, Williams recommends Bakhtin’s concept of the artwork as indissociable from the dynamics of social language with its complex range of agencies and intentions–analytic, interpretive, creative and emancipatory.
Cultural studies is engaged not just with particular works or texts but with institutions and formations of intellectuals (in the broad sense). And this requires historical and structural analysis to determine purpose, intention, and consequences. This is where Williams grapples with ideology and the problematic of determination. An instructive exhibit here is his commentary on “Advertising: The Magic System” (originally part of The Long Revolution but published separately).
Williams analyzes advertising, the official art of modern capitalist society, as a form of communication shaped by converging social, economic, and cultural forces. Advertising, for Williams, is a cultural pattern that responds to the need for objects to “be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings” that are not directly available nor easily discoverable in the routines of ordinary life. This system of magical inducements and satisfactions is a market mechanism that, in the service of profitmaking, functionally obscures the choice that humans ought to make between being a consumer and being a user. Within a system where only a minority makes the major social decisions, consumption–humans as consumers–is offered as the “commanding social purpose.” But many social needs (for hospitals, schools, quiet) can not be answered by the consumer ideal because consumption is always an individual activity. To satisfy the range of basic social needs would involve, Williams insists, “questioning the autonomy of the economic system, in its actual setting of priorities.” The consumption ideal is fostered by advertising. Advertising “operates to preserve the consumption ideal from the criticism inexorably made of it by experience” (1980: 188). The magical aura of advertising conceals the real sources of general satisfaction for human needs because, according to Williams, “their discovery would involve radical change in the whole common way of life.” Advertising is a symptom of “the social failure to find means of public information and decision over a wide range of economic life.” Williams particularizes this failure in the fact that the dominant values and meanings do not give any answers or means of negotiating the problems of death, loneliness, frustration, the need for identity and love and respect, so that what advertising as organized fantasy does is to bind “the weakness to the condition which has created it.” This analysis of advertising as a form of communication that now deeply contaminates political propaganda and the formation of public opinion leads to a deliberate critique: the contradiction of capitalism (between controlling minority and widely “expectant” majority) is what demands resolution if this ideology is to be broken. This critique aims to mobilize the ethical will and political agency of everyone for transformative intervention.
I think that it is this key idea of agency that subtends Williams’ mature version of cultural studies. The most central and practical element in cultural analysis, he writes, lies in “the exploration and specification of distinguishable cultural formations” for which he devised the tools of “structure of feeling” (a heuristic analytic category mediating lived experience with articulated ideas and institutions), complex seeing, knowable communities, emergent/residual/dominant tendencies, and so on. We discover agency as we describe significant specific relations in movement, in tension and contraction with major institutions; “the extending and interpenetrating activity of artistic forms and actual or desired social relations.” A specifying formal analysis combines with a generalizing social-empirical analysis to produce a singular knowledge: “It is the steady discovery of genuine formations which are simultaneously artistic forms and social locations, with all the properly cultural evidence of identification and presentation, local stance and organization, intention and interrelation with others, moving as evidently in one direction–the actual works–as in the other: the specific response to the society” (1989: 175).
Williams reiterates the vocation of cultural analysis: the understanding of an intellectual or artistic project in the context of its formation: project and formation are, to him, “different ways of materializing…of describing, what is in fact a common disposition of energy and direction” (1989: 151).
The future of cultural studies, for Williams, is intimately connected to the uses of theory he surveyed. It is connected to a particular reading of the nature of our contemporary situation. The intent of cultural studies cannot be divorced from the crisis of the late bourgeois world, one of whose symptoms is the culture of distance enforced by the consumption ideal. At no time in history has the need for representation and identification been so demanding as in our dramatized and spectatorial milieu (Williams’ version of Debord’s “society of the spectacle”). One response to the overall crisis is Williams’s choice of formulating a definition of drama as an intricate set of practices that include incorporated rhythms of residual systems and exploratory rhythms of emergent identifications. In his 1974 inaugural lecture as Professor of Drama, Williams gives us a theory of drama that can stand as an allegory for the “structure of feeling” that prefigures crisis as rupture, metamorphosis, renewal, change. It can serve as a model for what exactly cultural studies is trying to accomplish:
Drama is a special kind of use of quite general processes of presentation, representation, signification….Drama is a precise separation of certain common modes for new and specific ends. It is neither ritual which discloses the God, nor myth which requires and sustains repetition. It is specific, active, interactive composition: an action not an act; an open practice that has been deliberately abstracted from temporary practical or magical ends; a complex opening of ritual to public and variable action; a moving beyond myth to dramatic versions of myth and history…
This “active variable experimental drama” appears in periods of crisis and change, when a given social order is tested by experience, unfolding breaks, alternatives, possibilities. Commenting on the East German Rudolf Bahro’s notion of “surplus consciousness,” Williams syncopated his sense of drama with Brecht’s “complex seeing” to produce the subjunctive mode of cultural analysis which is, in my view, Williams’ unique contribution.
Viewed from the subjunctive, not utopian, angle, the project of cultural studies is in principle not only oppositional but liberatory. It is to bring to as many people as possible “that dimension of human and social knowledge and critical possibility” denied to them by a world of market priorities and bureaucratic abstractions. In other words, the programme of cultural studies is shaped “by the acceptance and the possibility of broader common relationships, in a shared search for emancipation” from the alienating world of capitalist production to what Williams calls the “new orientation of livelihood: of practical, self-managing, self-renewing societies, in which people care first for each other, in a living world.” In short, cultural studies aims to promote genuine democracy in which “the systems of production and communication are rooted in the satisfaction of human needs and the development of human capacities.”
I want to sum up Williams’ most substantial and enduring contributions to the developing field of political and intellectual concern called “cultural studies.”
First, the idea of culture as social processes and practices that are thoroughly grounded in material social relations–in the systems of maintenance (economics), decision (politics), learning and communication (culture) and generation and nurture (the domain of social reproduction)–must be the grounding principle, or paradigm if you like, of any progressive and emancipatory approach.
Second, the historicizing of all cultural practices and processes stems from a need to grasp the the ideology and politics of class-divided societies in late capitalism, a fact that also illuminates North-South inequalities, ecological imbalances, and racial-ethnic conflicts that are the precipitating condition of wars. Cultural studies needs to inquire into the nature and function of the state.
Third, the consumptive/consumerist paradigm of capitalism, and the inequalities across ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, religion, and locality that it reproduces should be criticized by an approach based on the imperative of solidarity. Cultural studies qualify and counterpoint the relations of power, property and production with activities of describing, learning, exchanging, and preserving experiences.
Fourth, the project of cultural studies is the production of practicable knowledge that will advance a participatory, innovative democratic interaction of diverse communities with their specific historical experiences, a goal achieved through extension of public education and public control and access to all means of communication. Since the processes of learning and communication are key to cultural studies, Williams conceives the “long” cultural revolution as committed to a radical transformation of society that will promote these values: “that [humans] should grow in capacity and power to direct their own lives–by creating democratic institutions, by bringing new sources of energy to human work, and by extending the expression and exchange of experience on which understanding depends” (1962: 125-26).
Fifth, finally, the importance of agency and intention. Cultural studies matter most crucially in making its subject the arena for serious engagement of all the vital issues besetting us. We really have no choice if it is a question of nuclear war or pollution of the water we drink and the air we breathe. Resignation, neutral contemplation, and retrospective sympathy are precisely what Williams fought against throughout his life. But of course, in any revolutionary transformation, there are always risks in negotiating constraints and pressures, but also there are opportunities to be seized. The intervention of cultural studies then is “to make hope practical, rather than despair convincing”–to make the cultural revolution a permanent happening.
Allow me to end with Raymond Williams’ message about the larger mission of cultural studies, a theme for collective exchange and personal meditation:
We are living through a long revolution that is simultaneously and in connected ways economic, political, and cultural and that transform people and institutions in the process of extending the transformations of nature, the forms of democratic self-governance, and the modes of education and communication. Uneven and conflicted as this process may be, enhancing its development is the main criterion of intellectual, moral and political value….
….I believe that the system of meanings and values which a capitalist society has generated has to be defeated in general and in detail by the most sustained kinds of intellectual and educational work…. People change, it is true, in struggle and by action. Anything as deep as a dominant structure of feeling is only changed by active new experience….The task of a successful socialist movement will be one of feeling and imagination quite as much as one of fact and organization. Not imagination or feeling in their weak senses–‘imagining the future’ (which is a waste of time) or ‘the emotional side of things.’ On the contrary, we have to learn and to teach each other the connections between a political and economic formation, a cultural and educational formation, and, perhaps hardest of all, the formations of feeling and relationship which are our immediate resources in any struggle.” (1989: 76).
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