A Perspective on Raymond Williams “Culture is Ordinary”

Raymond Williams Culture is Ordinary (1958)

Raymond Williams (1921-1988) was an author, academic, cultural theorist, literary critic, public intellectual, socialist, and a leading figure of the New Left. He was the son of working-class parents from a Welsh border village, an adult education tutor, a Cambridge professor, and, according to Terry Eagleton, was and wasn’t a Marxist.” –

That potted biography comes from the web page of the Raymond Williams Society.

Culture tells us how and what everything is and how everything works. Culture provides the context through we interpret our existences. It provides a kind of social and political and intellectual and emotional ecosystem through which society functions. Culture provides the delivery vehicle for our understanding of things, of people, of great events, and small ones too – both individually and collectively.  Merriam Webster’s defines culture as: The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Raymond Williams would have largely agreed with that but he would have leaned more heavily towards the idea of what are the physical manifestations of the ideas and customs and social behaviour, and here’s why:

WHAT IS CULTURE?

A culture, according to Williams is about the making of a society (p 93). It’s about finding common meanings and directions. Williams unpacks two aspects of any given culture, with emphasis on his own English post-war culture, as he talks about his own history in a Welsh mining village. THE FIRST ASPECT is the known meaning and directions which people who are part of that culture would readily adhere to. Williams describes culture in in terms of the collective learning process of a group of people ‘the slow learning of shapes, purposes, and meanings, so that work, observation and communication are possible.’ This build-up of a skillset occurs both individually and collectively (p 93) THE SECOND is the ‘testing of these things’‘The making of new observations, comparisons and meanings.’ IN OTHER WORDS THE CREATIVE SIDE OF THINGS. What we know and what we have learned and the skills and technologies we deploy so that our economy functions and our institutions work effectively are constantly being tested by experience, by public and private debate and dialogue, by the media and by the arts (p 93) so there is an establishment of a set of ideas, art forms, technologies, principles and laws, or as Williams might put it, shapes, purposes and meanings. Then there is the second part – the testing of these things and possible of those shapes, purposes and meanings. By implication there can be no such thing as a fixed culture. All the time this growth dynamic points to a vision of culture as a work in progress. You could also by implication track the downward movement of a culture by seeing the process in reverse, whereby new ideas are stopped, where the systems in a culture become calcified, where debate and growth and the laws of science and the arts are sadly lost.  But in Williams’ model of growth there is no final destination, no final frontier of our horizon of meanings, rather we have the gathering accumulations and aggregations of thoughts and feelings and meanings and directions and hopes and songs and histories and sciences and technologies that make up a people. And these thoughts and feelings and meanings and directions and hopes and songs and histories and sciences are constantly being tested. For what? To see if they still help us live and help us live together. Some cultures are being changed, albeit slowly as we are by nature creatures of habit and our minds are trained to accept given explanations of how it is and how we should live. Some ways of living and thinking and relating and doing withstand the test of time. One of the primary forces in cultural shifts and movements is of course technology. Consider the extraordinary changes in various cultures throughout the world by the advent of the age of information, both for good or ill.

For Williams the cutting edge of interaction between the individual and culture, ‘the area of interaction between the official consciousness of an epoch […] and the whole process of actually living its consequences’. This is what he refers to as a structure of feeling. It could be seen as the attempt of various ways of thinking and feeling in a given society seeking dominance or seeking a place within the culture and thus to affect our way of seeing and living in the world. Facebook Influencers or social or political commentators are constantly trying to affect our structures of feeling. So this is a structure of feeling is a predisposition within our minds or our consciousness which gives us our instinctual approach to the world, formed over time and changing and passed on from one generation with a group to the next. To drill down further into this dynamic model of culture, how it’s being constantly made and re-made; and Williams formulated three forces or ways culture gets formed into various structures of feeling. One: the residual (pre-existing and traditional) so what we have harvested from the past in terms of our knowledge of the world, Two: the dominant (central and defining ideas and ways of living in the here and now), and the emergent (new and challenging ways of life and feelings that will point to the future.) Each of these three features I have just mentioned interact, react, challenge and at times change each other.

I dug those ideas from Extract from ‘Raymond Williams’ by Phil O’Brien in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Literary & Cultural Theory, edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 738-739]

So we have this dynamic ecosystem of signs and symbols we live within, with its own unique methodologies for learning and correcting and retaining important data about living and thriving and surviving in the world. Raymond Williams is talking about in his writing Culture is Ordinary (1958) IS THE EVERYDAYNESS OF THE CREATIVE AND THE TRADITIONAL, that this mechanism encapsulates all of our lives and is not relegated to some type of elite team of cultural experts, a kind of ‘A Team’ of know how. Another metaphor we could use is that culture is a kind of library or a repository of what we know about the world, at least in terms of our group or tribe or nation or even family. Every day new data is coming in, new challenges, new difficulties, so our horizon of meaning, our understanding of existence is being challenged.

Williams came from a very traditional Welsh working class background, and he peppers his article Culture is Ordinary with descriptions of his dad and his family and local sights and experiences, was also a Cambridge professor, that supposed place of high culture. These people regarded themselves as the cultured ones, and Williams was also aware that he was mixing with a different kind of people, what he referred to as cultivated people or tea shop culture.

So the notion of elitism, if you like, a privileged few who have access to all the knowledge, all the books, all the learning, all the technology, is an inaccurate picture. Williams puts it best I think “An interest in learning or the arts is simple, pleasant, and natural. A desire to know what is best, and to do what is good, is the whole positive nature of man.” “It gives us an optimistic view of human nature, that we are naturally inclined to do the right thing.” This is in stark contrast to for instance the jeremiads of the socialists or more specifically Marxists who predicted the crumbling of the social order that would be replaced by a kind of new age of the proletariat. He didn’t buy it. No more than eh bought into the idea of some kind of elite group of cultural influencers who were directly plugged into the structures of power, influencing and directing how a society should be and how a culture should develop. So this, in conclusion to this section, according to Williams is the issue: That the picture of a society where the folks on top, who have the money and the power, also by definition determine the culture of a society- that they decide on the direction of things, how certain problems be solved – is flawed. It’s not that Williams dismissed these previous thinkers, but why? Because it is based on an idea of culture that is incomplete. Culture emanates from all aspects of a group, not from a certain small over educated section at the “top”, and as such solutions to the problems of life equally come from all aspects of society, not just from one area. Williams is of course a far less elitist thinker than his predecessors. Williams talks (96) about how the arts and learning are not the purview of a small proportion of the population, but a matter of national inheritance, something for everyone, and more to the point something that should be made available to everyone. In response to the Marxists Williams says “A dying culture and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see. (96)” The key to making the tools of art and literature universally available is to use the vehicle of education, a way of countering the increasing mechanization and corporatization of society, to return the individual and society to the center and enable them to solve their own problems as opposed to a small elite group on the top.

D: A SHORT NOTE ON SOCIAL MEDIA

One of the interesting side issues Ray Williams talks about is the influence of mass media on the contemporary mind– this is way back in the 1950’s, and this made me think of the enormous influence of social media in our times. “The new cheapjack is in offices with contemporary décor, using scraps of linguistics, psychology and sociology to influence what he thinks is the mass mind.” (95) Today in the twenty first century things have evolved considerably.  Mass news cycles and advertising and information technology are constantly influencing us, whereby FACEBOOK TWITTER INSTAGRAM and similar apps not only provide us with a hugely significant vehicle for communication, consuming news and other kinds of information, but also harvests nearly all of our data, our likes interests, level of education, sexual preferences, purchasing habits, such apps are embedded in the very fabric of our cultures. The ownership of one’s own data is set to become the great debate for the coming years, considering the power these firms and their applications have to shape public debate, give information, and enable to solve or not solve our cultural issues. The cliché “Knowledge is power” is a cliché, I guess, for a really good reason.

Conclusion

As a writer the ecosystem of the cultural context one grows up in and evolves from is the touchstone of all one will do and work from. One might move far away from the belief systems and ways of life of ones parents, but in will always form the basis, the first perspective on what life is and how one should live. There are so many aspects to what Williams is saying about culture that I find exciting and uplifting, its such a dynamic model, it is so all encompassing, in embodies both the individual and the collective in a kind of endless interaction, and endless journey of growth and change. Williams offers endless riches and insight on the nature of culture whether you agree with him or not, whether your ideas have been established or not, there is always something new to delve into.  

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