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The Life of Raymond Williams
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Raymond Williams believed that languages are dynamic and powerful modes of representation and articulation that bring into sharp relief the reality of our everyday existence. Through the various uses of language, in literature, drama and other cultural forms, thinking, feeling, sensing and acting individuals are constantly engaged in the creation and re-creation of meanings. Williams’s main concern was to understand these cultural forms of expression not merely as the end product of communicative acts or aesthetic designs, but rather as the manifestation of broader and more complex historical frameworks and processes. Thus he eschewed approaches to the study of language and other forms of cultural expression without due consideration to the political, economic, ideological and cultural circumstances of their production.

The Life and Work of Raymond Williams

by Camille Brochu

Raymond Williams was one of Britain’s most brilliant social thinkers, literary scholars and political activists of the post-war period. In the course of a career that spanned four decades, he wrote no less than 650 publications on the history of British literature and drama, the politics of culture and the development of media studies. His main concern was to understand literature and other cultural forms not merely as the pursuit and product of an aesthetic design, but as the manifestation of broader and more complex historical frameworks and processes.Raymond Williams was born on August 31, 1921, the son of a railway signalman from the small Welsh village of Llanfihangel Crocorney. In 1939, he won a scholarship and moved from his local grammar school to Trinity College in Cambridge.
His early academic years were marked by the conflicting emotions of a ‘scholarship boy’ trying to fit in and gain acceptance from an elite whose arrogance and remoteness he despised (Chalard-Fillaudeau 2004). These ambivalent feelings and dual allegiances continued to inhabit him throughout his life and contributed to the development of his position on Marxism and literature.
My first contacts with Marxist literary argument occurred when I came to Cambridge to read English in 1939: not in the Faculty but in widespread student discussions. I was already relatively familiar with Marxist, or at least socialist and communist, political and economic analysis and argument. My experience of growing up in a working –class family had led me to accept the basic political position which they supported […]. What I really learned from, and shared with, the dominant tones of that English Marxist argument was what I would now call, still with respect, a radical populism. It was an active, committed, popular tendency, concerned rather more (and to its advantage with making literature than with judging it, and concerned above all to relate active literature to the lives of the majority of our people (Williams, 1977:1-2).

Early on, Williams became a member of the Communist Party and the student branch of Cambridge University’s socialist club, volunteering as a journalist and public speaker.

His first two years as an undergraduate student were followed in 1941 by conscription into the British army to fight in World War Two. Between 1941 and 1945, Williams served as a tank commander in the Guards Armoured Division fighting alongside Allied forces in some of the bloodiest battles of Europe starting at Normandy and moving through Germany. When the war was over, he returned to Cambridge to complete his undergraduate degree in English with a compelling dissertation on Ibsen. During that period, he also became an active supporter of the British Labour Party and the English New Left.

After graduating from Cambridge, Williams worked as editor of Politics and Letters and a number of small-circulation magazines in London and Sussex before being appointed as extra-mural lecturer in Oxford University in 1946. He spent the next fifteen years teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association. This experience in adult education afforded him the freedom to challenge and expand the traditional highbrow literary canons. As he read more broadly on the history of Marxism, he uncovered new lines of thinking and interpretations as yet unexplored and at times radically at odds with conventional British readings of Marxism.

There was new contemporary work in Poland, in France, and in Britain itself. It was in this situation that I felt the excitement of contact with more new Marxist work: the later work of Lukacs, the later work of Sartre, the developing syntheses of Marxism and some forms of structuralism. At the same time, within this significant new activity, there was further access to older work, notably that of the Frankfurt School,… especially the work of Walter Benjamin, and the extraordinarily original work of Antonio Gramsci (ibid. 5).

With his publication of Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (1958), Williams outlined his critical overview of literary traditions from the Romantics to Orwell, predicated on the key terms ‘industry’, ‘democracy’, ‘class’, ‘art’ and ‘culture’; this emphasis on cultural etymology was further expanded to provide the raw material for his influential work Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society  (1976), now in its third edition (Drummond).

From an early age, Williams had wanted to be a writer. In 1960 he published his first autobiographical novel, Border Country. The novel betrayed the author’s political leanings and partiality towards the working classes; in it, Williams extolled the virtues of solidarity and selflessness, which he cast against the artificiality of academic life, its disconnection from reality and subservience to a hierarchy of birth and wealth. Two subsequent novels, A Letter from the Country (1966) and Public Inquiry (1967) were later adapted for television dramas shot in his native Wales (Drummond).

In 1961, Williams returned to Cambridge, first as a lecturer and fellow at Jesus College, later as a tenured professor of drama. At the beginning of the decade, he wrote his first book on the world of mass media, Communications, which turned out to be a major and influential work on the history of media studies in Great Britain and abroad. Throughout the 1960s he participated in innumerable televised debates and contributed weekly columns to the BBC magazine in which he voiced his observations on the subject; these ideas were elaborated more fully in his work Television: Technology and Cultural Forms (1974), one of the first theoretical studies on the medium (Drummond).

The latter part of the 1960s was marked by major transformations of Britain’s intellectual Left. It was in this context that Williams achieved fame in Britain and the U.S. as one of the sages and spiritual leaders of the student-worker strikes alongside E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, and as a contributor to the May Day Manifesto of 1968. In 1973, he was appointed Visiting Professor of Political Science at Stanford University; ten years later, he retired from teaching and moved to Saffron Walden.

In the years that followed and until his death in 1988, he returned to writing fiction and short stories on his native countrymen, the ‘ordinary people’ of Black Mountain. Williams’s studies of ‘other narratives’ and minority values kept him in touch with the reality of everyday life; and his interest in mass entertainment forms foreshadowed the acceptance of popular fiction, pop music, television and film as true creative achievements, and as worthy subjects of study and critical assessment.

Throughout his life, Williams never lost faith in the human capacity to move towards a ‘collective spirit’ that would induce strategic impulses for social transformation. Along with his colleagues at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, he worked tirelessly to improve the lives of working-class people through education and the media. A true ‘organic intellectual’ in the Gramscian sense, he could always be found at the forefront of important debates (on feminism, ecology, nuclear disarmament, Welsh nationalism, and anti-imperialist movements in the Third World, to name a few), imparting his knowledge and ideas to the general public in an accessible language.

Williams’s contribution to cultural thinking was that of the Cambridge professor who never forgot where he came from, and who constantly struggled to reconcile his allegiance to his working class origins and his ascension to a privileged position. His work was that of an elite and an anti-elitist, fiercely committed to the advancement of public and adult education; a theorist of literature who himself wrote novels, and an historian of drama who was also a playwright; an enthusiastic commentator on television who utilized the medium in various ways to educate and inform, while maintaining a distrust of its ideological underpinnings (Drummond d.u.:2).

A complex man and a man ahead of his time, Williams constantly sought to build bridges between disciplinary boundaries. By drawing on the strengths and insights of alternative Marxist traditions such as the Frankfurt School, the neo-Gramscians, the French and East European historical semiologists, Foucauldian genealogy and the Mac-Luhanian discourse on communication, he opened the way to a new kind of theory (Makaryk 1993). The idea that “culture is ordinary” and manifest in marginalized segments of society and the vast majority reflected his ongoing interest in the history of language and other cultural forms as sites for identity construction, free expression and class-based struggle. Other related notions included the historical succession of what he called ‘knowable’ communities, their subjective discourses and creative practices; and the ways in which keywords function by virtue of their semantic fluidity. In effect, Williams was doing cultural studies avant la lettre, and pre-empting the emergence of new trends in ethnolinguistics, cultural anthropology and media studies.


Listen to Raymond Williams on the ‘problem of nature’ here


Intellectual Contribution

With the advent of industrialization, modern capitalism and neo-liberalism, social scientists can no longer overlook the reality of global flows and the unprecedented accessibility and circulation across borders of foreign goods, practices and ideas facilitated by technological advances in transportation and communication, what Arjun Appadurai calls an “altogether new condition of neighborliness” (1990:2). How these systemic formations both enable cultural practices, leading to positive transformations, adaptations or indigenizations, or how they constrain social actors, fostering entrenchment and resistance–these are questions that need to be addressed; and this can only be done by representing the richly textured lives of local cultural worlds and their embeddedness in larger impersonal systems of political economy. As authors George Marcus and Michael Fischer have remarked:

This would not be such a problematic task if the local cultural unit was portrayed, as it usually has been in ethnography, as an isolate with outside forces of market and state impinging upon it. What makes representation challenging and a focus of experimentation is the perception that the “outside forces” in fact are an integral part of the construction and constitution of the “inside,” the cultural unit itself, and must be so registered, even at the most intimate levels of cultural process (Marcus & Fischer 1986:77).

The position we advocate here derives broadly from the writings of Raymond Williams, and through him, the teachings of Antonio Gramsci. Consequently, we eschew approaches to the study of expressive culture en vase clos–that is to say, without due consideration to the political, economic, ideological and cultural circumstances of their production past and present.

Central to this approach are concepts inherited from the work of Antonio Gramsci: the concept of “hegemony”, a form of dominance or prevailing ideology that is grounded within a concrete setting and bound to specific historical moments and cultural factors; and the notion of “conjunctural analysis”, an enterprise that seeks to move beyond reductionist applications of Marxist concepts that single out the economic level as the sole determining factor behind social formations (Hall 1986:8). Gramsci insisted, for example, that we account for the articulation of other social dimensions such as the role of civil institutions and other power relations which together constitute what Marx termed the “mode of production”, emphasizing the economic realm), but what he preferred to call a “social formation” (ibid. 13). This choice of terms better captures the fluidity, plurality and historicity of social relations that emerge as a result of temporary systems of alliances between financial, political and intellectual interests, and in response to particular socio-cultural and political climates (ibid. 14). Alluding to the processual nature, the frailty and the impermanence of these alliances, Gramsci coined the term “historical bloc” to designate moments in time when collective will appears to be operative, though never fully achieved (ibid. 15).

He remarked, additionally, that such historical blocs, though constituting a unified front, might represent a multitude of positions and concerns (ibid. 17).  Indeed, he argued that it is no longer appropriate to speak of a “ruling class” per se, because each hegemonic formation may vary in social composition and configuration. Thus, for Gramsci, the concept of hegemony is expanded to encompass all forms of strategic alliances, including state and civil society. Such a move shifts away from a notion of domination through coercion by a single authoritative figure or body, to the notion of a plural social formation striving for consensus around a common or a number of compatible political visions and agendas (ibid. 17). Seen in this perspective, the state is no longer the nexus of power, authority and sovereignty, but rather the “point of condensation” of an official complex of rules simultaneously operative on several fronts (ibid. 18-19).

In a similar vein, Raymond Williams (1977:123) talked about the selective use of key terms and processes by which certain elements of culture are effectively appropriated by a dominant group, divested of their previous meaning and incorporated into “emergent” practices. For example, by selectively appealing to and capitalizing on deeply rooted traditions or a common historical legacy, state officials at once feign disinterest in political ends, create the illusion of continuity and common sense, and work toward the “naturalization” of their power and authority. Often this entails a merging of elements from the past that have left traces in the collective memory of a group, and which can be appropriated, deconstructed, reworked and reconstituted into new ideas (ibid. 23). Such truths or earlier conceptions of the world may then become important referents in the bricolage of a new ideology and bear upon the degree to which it is endorsed by the vast majority (ibid. 20-21). The strategic use of keywords may serve alternatively as a means toward objectifying the system and people’s position in it, as a means toward constructing a unified identity, or as a means toward legitimizing the use of coercion, repression or violence .

Williams insisted that a lived hegemony is an on-going process; it does not exist complacently as a form of dominance. A lived hegemony must continually be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified; it may also be continually resisted (1977:112).  In order to be effective, such movements must resonate with the everyday realm of experience and the people’s consciousness. In other words, dominant worldviews and their related discourses must somehow come to make sense and to enter the terrain of the taken-for-granted in popular thought. True hegemony, then, would imply consent and self-identification.

In truth, however, true hegemony is rarely fully achieved because hegemonic processes are often fraught with contradictions; and once these contradictions are acutely felt and conceptually grasped, they may fuel political impulses and counter-hegemonic movements in the form of protest or non-compliance. Going along with Marx’s dictum that “men make their own history,” Williams liked to emphasize the creative potential of social actors and their prerogative to make conscious, deliberate choices regarding the acceptance or rejection of discrepant constructions of identity and history.

In this regard, Williams developed his approach to what he termed the ‘social material process’ of cultural activity and the creative practices of individual actors and broader social groups. In Marxism and Literature, Politics and Letters and Problems in Materialism and Culture, he elaborated his concept of ‘cultural materialism’, theorizing culture as a productive process and a constitutive signifying system in continuity with Marx’s notion of historical materialism (Makaryk 1993). Williams eschewed reductionist formulations of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’ as isolated categories, the former being predominant and determining of the latter. Rather, he emphasized the dialectical link between material production and the production of ideological patterns. Because language and other cultural expressive forms have a material dimension, or a ‘social presence in the world’, they are the natural ‘carriers of ideology’, the embodiment of ‘practical consciousness’ and the ‘crystallization of historical processes’.


It is then ironic to remember that the force of Marx’s original criticism had been mainly directed against the separation of ‘areas’ of thought and activity (as in the separation of consciousness from material production) and against the related evacuation of specific content—real human activity—by the imposition of abstract categories. The common abstraction of ‘the base’ and ‘the superstructure’ is thus a radical persistence of the modes of thought which he attacked (ibid. 78).

In the late nineteen fifties, Williams was one of the first scholars to suggest that ‘culture’ and, by extension, societies are not merely reflected in, but ‘constituted’ by everyday human activity and language. Such a view saw culture as emergent, as “new meanings and values, new practices, new significations and experiences continually being created (Williams 1973:11).” Hence, Williams believed that cultural practices should be studied from within; that is to say, from the lived experience and daily practices of historically situated actors; and that such study should pay as much attention to the cognitive, affective and aesthetic dimensions of textual and other expressive modes, as to their formal characteristics.

The originality of Williams’s work for me is this insistence on the dynamic and ‘processual’ nature of social formations and cultural productions, what he called ‘structures of feeling’. Often the precursors to the articulation of ideology, structures of feeling bring to such formulation an accrued resonance by virtue of their congruence with the everyday realms of experience and the practical consciousness of the masses.

It is a king of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate, defined and exchanged… ‘Feeling’ is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’. It is not that we must go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs… It is that we are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt… An alternative definition would be structures of experience (ibid. 131-132).

Far from being opposed, thought and feeling are here projected into one another and held in constant tension.

We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relations: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and inter-relating community (ibid.132).

Another, related, assumption is that social actors are ‘reflexive’ and thus capable of interpreting and commenting on their own thoughts and actions. In the Gramscian tradition, Williams argued that culture must be viewed not as a given set of relations and ideas structuring social life, but as something that is produced through human intention and action. Indeed, their narratives, life histories and perceptions of themselves and their world become as many ‘metacommentaries’, and are key to an understanding of their own experience. Within specific social, political and historical circumstances, these ‘discourses from within’, the voices of local actors themselves, gain relevance, as do various forms of cultural expression such as, popular entertainments, music and other art forms, which may become highly charged and politically salient. The emphasis on human ‘agency’, then, highlights how local entities filter, select from, reinterpret, reactivate or reject elements from a constellation of broader, dominant, discourses; it views global processes as local processes, experienced at the grass-roots level, as embedded within communities, neighborhoods and households; it explores how local societies change as they are increasingly absorbed by global capitalist systems, or, how they simultaneously develop strategies of resistance and empowerment. The emphasis on agency, therefore, offers several key analytical advantages to the study of local-global articulations which are explored here.

The teachings of Raymond Williams have done much to reconcile the relationship between determining structures and creative practices of social actors, and this has proven helpful in thinking simultaneously about the constraining and enabling forces that allow for both continuity and change. But more importantly Williams’s work brings a critical edge to issues of inequality, domination, political mobilization, resistance, ideology and the practice of everyday life, inviting us to shift away from a perspective of social actors as passive recipients of outside forces and currents, to one of individuals actively involved in processes of creation and self-expression, and the articulation of a congruent vision of becoming.


Sources cited:

Appadurai, Arjun
1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.”
Public Culture. 2(2):1-24.

Chalard-Fillaudeau, Anne
2004. “Cultural Studies et géométrie des sphères”. Atala. No. 7.

Drummond, Phillip
Date unknown. The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC)
web site.

Hall, Edward T.
1986. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.”
Journal of Communication Inquiry. 10(2):5-27.

Marcus, George E. and Michael M.J. Fischer
1985. Anthropology as Cultural Critique. An Experimental Moment in the
Human Sciences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Makaryk, Irena R. (ed.)
1993. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory. Toronto, Buffalo,
London: The University of Toronto Press.

Ortner, Sherry
1984. “Theory in Anthropology since the Sixties.” Comparative Studies in
Society and History. 26(1) January: 126-166.

Williams, Raymond
1980. Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London &
New York: Verso.
1979. Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review.
London: and New York.
1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press.
1976 (1983). Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Revised Edition.
New York: Oxford University Press.

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