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Raymond Williams (1921 - 1988)

Lifespan: 1921 - 1988

Related: left (politics) - literary theory - Marxism - cultural materialism - culture theory - cultural studies - British literature

Culture is ordinary. --Raymond Williams

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) - Raymond Williams
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Raymond Williams was an early pioneer in the field of "cultural studies" -- in fact, he was doing cultural studies before the term was even coined. This excerpt is from an essay Williams wrote in 1958, entitled "Culture is Ordinary." According to one of his editors, Williams here "forced the first important shift into a new way of thinking about the symbolic dimensions of our lives. Thus, 'culture' is wrested from that privileged space of artistic production and specialist knowledge [eg. "high culture"] , into the lived experience of the everyday" --http://www.wsu.edu

Contrast with the views of: F. R. Leavis - Matthew Arnold


Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was a highly influential Welsh academic, novelist and critic. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and was Professor of Drama at the University of Cambridge 1974-83. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Williams

Culture is ordinary

Raymond Williams developed the approach which he named 'cultural materialism' in a series of influential books - Culture and Society (1958), the Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977). I came to cultural materialism by another route. I'd just read Williams' Drama in performance - a survey of the conditions under which plays have been put on over the years, and how changes in staging practice parallelled developments in society. One night, I had a dream. I dreamed I saw a series of scenes, each showing a group of people in their usual surroundings; I remember a group of cardinals, standing outside St Peter's in Rome. The relationships between the elements in each scene - the architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the social roles - were luminously clear. I woke up with a clear, unshakeable sense of the validity and power of the cultural materialist approach. --Phil Edwards, July 1999, "Culture is ordinary: Raymond Williams and cultural materialism", http://www.users.zetnet.co.uk/amroth/scritti/williams.htm [accessed Mar 2004]

On the term popular

In his influential book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, British culture theorist Raymond Williams devotes two full pages to the term popular. There, he traces the term from its earliest uses in English in the fifteenth century in law and politics. During the first few centuries of its existence, popular was understood as a negative term, meaning "low," "base," "vulgar," "of the common people." By the late eighteenth century, Williams tells us, it began to mean "widespread," and, late last century, the more familiar positive meanings we associate with "popular" began to accrue. This history is important because the meaning of the term shifts from embracing the perspective of an elite class that looked down its collective nose at the common people to celebrating-and remaking-what those common people valued. Thus, over the course of its lifetime, the class allegiance of popular has shifted dramatically. Thomas Swiss

Cultural elitism and cultural pessimism

It was in this busy period that Williams developed the preoccupations that dominated his work. His first two major books Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) dealt, critically, with two traditions. At Cambridge, he had been influenced by the ideas of F R Leavis and the magazine Scrutiny that had dominated the literary scene. Leavis and his followers promoted a kind of cultural pessimism still familiar today. They believed modern 'mass' society was creating a crisis of values that threatened the moral and cultural fabric of society, and that the 'Great Tradition' of English culture could be a kind of bulwark against democratic decay, a guarantee of 'higher values'. Their work was elitist, backward looking and chauvinist, and Williams rejected a great deal of it. --http://pubs.socialistreviewindex.org.uk/isj71/williams.htm [May 2006]

Raymond Williams, Moving from High Culture to Ordinary Culture

Originally published in N. McKenzie (ed.), Convictions, 1958

Raymond Williams was an early pioneer in the field of "cultural studies" -- in fact, he was doing cultural studies before the term was even coined. This excerpt is from an essay Williams wrote in 1958, entitled "Culture is Ordinary." According to one of his editors, Williams here "forced the first important shift into a new way of thinking about the symbolic dimensions of our lives. Thus, 'culture' is wrested from that privileged space of artistic production and specialist knowledge [eg. "high culture"] , into the lived experience of the everyday" (Gray and McGuigan 1).

Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land. The growing society is there, yet it is also made and remade in every individual mind. The making of a mind is, first, the slow learning of shapes, purposes, and meanings, so that work, observation and communication are possible. Then, second, but equal in importance, is the testing of these in experience, the making of new observations, comparisons, and meanings. A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that it is always both traditional and creative; that it is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life--the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning--the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind. (6)--http://www.wsu.edu

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) - Raymond Williams

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) - Raymond Williams
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Now revised to include new words and updated essays, Keywords focuses on the sociology of language, demonstrating how the key words we use to understand our society take on new meanings and how these changes reflect the political bent and values of society.

One of its kind; it is not a dictionary (not even a technical one); it is not a book on the etimology of words; it will hardly improve your talking skills. Rather, it is a fascinating book on the constant change of culture and how this is reflected in everyday (and not so everyday) words of the English language. You will walk away humble, overwhelmed by the richness and the violence of culture's impact on words. --Manuel Ortega R., amazon.com

More books

  • The Raymond Williams Reader - Raymond Williams, John Higgins (Editor) [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    This volume provides a unique insight into the formative influence of one of the century's most distinguished oppositional public intellectuals. Raymond Williams' concern with the dynamics of all forms of writing transformed the ways in which we read the world and its text. His formidable oeuvre helped to create and form the conceptual space of contemporary literary and cultural studies. This carefully-structured Reader presents a survey of the whole body of Williams' existing work, providing new readers with the opportunity to explore his ideas and existing readers with a new perspective on his writings. A detailed introduction places Williams' work in the broader national and international context of literary and cultural theory. The selections which follow balance the familiar with the unfamiliar, including extracts from key works such as Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, Modern Tragedy, Orwell, Marxism and Literature and The Politics of Modernism, equally powerful but less known texts like Film and the Dramatic Tradition and seminal essays such as Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory and The Bloomsbury Group. The Raymond Williams Reader is essential reading for all those interested in contemporary literary theory and cultural studies.

    John Higgins is Associate Professor in the department of English at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and Cultural Materialism (1999) and Founding Editor of the South African Journal, Pretexts: Literature and Cultural Studies. Contents: Introduction: The Contemporary Raymond Williams. 1. Film and the Dramatic Tradition (1954). 2. Culture is Ordinary (1958). 3. The Masses (1958), excerpt from The Conclusion to Culture and Society. 4. Images of Society (1961), from The Long Revolution. 5. Modern Tragedy (1966), excerpt from the introduction to Modern Tragedy. 6. Bertolt Brecht (1968), from Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. 7. Thomas Hardy and the English Novel, from The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970). 8. Being a Writer (1971). 9. Lucien Goldmann and Marxism's Alternative Tradition (1972). 10. Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory (1973). 11. Language (1977), from Marxism and Literature. 12. Ideas of Nature. 13. The Bloomsbury Group (1978/80). 14. The Writer: Commitment and Alignment (1980). 15. Crisis in Literary Studies (1981). 16. Distance (1982). 17. Towards 2000 (1983), from The Conclusion to Towards 2000. 18. Writing, Speech and the Classical (1984). 19. Mining the Meaning (1985). 20. Writing, Speech and the Avant-Garde (1986), from The Politics of Modernism. --D Williams, amazon.com

    The Sociology of Culture (1982) - Raymond Williams
    [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Raymond Williams helped to establish the field of cultural sociology with Marxism and Literature and Culture and Society. Continuing the work of those studies, The Sociology of Culture offers debate on the origin and evolution of culture. It defines sociology of culture as a convergence of various fields and explores ways in which culture is socially mediated. --Book Description via amazon.com

    Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958) - Raymond Williams

    Culture and Society 1780-1950 (1958) - Raymond Williams [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Book Description "The earliest ideas on culture, Mr. Williams claims, developed in opposition to the laissez-faire society of the political economists. As the ideas on culture took shape, on the one hand, they became identified with a 'whole way of life.' On the other hand... culture became a court of appeals where real values could be determined. Culture, thus separated from the whole society, was associated with the idea of perfection through the study of the arts... Mr. Williams contrasts the ideas of ' culture as art' and 'culture as a whole way of life,' and commends the latter... the book should definitely be read by all those interested in English intellectual history." -- M. S. Wilkins, Political Science Quarterly via Amazon.com

    Culture and Society, by Raymond Williams, 1958. How the notion of culture was developed in 18th, 19th and 20th century writing.

    When first published, this work was widely regarded as having overturned conventional social and historical thinking about culture. It argues that the notion of culture developed in response to the industrial revolution and the social and political changes it brought in its wake.

    This is done through a series of studies of famous British writers and essayists; beginning with Edmund Burke and William Cobbett and also looking at William Blake, William Wordsworth etc. Continuing as far as F.R. Leavis, George Orwell and Christopher Caudwell.

    The book is still in print, in several editions. It has also been translated into many foreign languages. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_and_Society [May 2006]

    See also: culture - society - Raymond Williams

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