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date: 27 May 2017

Williams, Raymond

Summary and Keywords

Raymond Williams (1921–1988) is often cited as one of the founders of the interdisciplinary field of education and research known as cultural studies (CS). To be more specific, he formulated an influential methodology that he named “cultural materialism,” which has an affinity with CS but is a distinctive perspective in its own right. Williams’s most celebrated book, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958), traced British Romanticism’s critical response to the Industrial Revolution and successive debates on social and cultural change. At the time of publication, Williams declared “culture” to be “ordinary,” thereby challenging the cultural elitism of literary study and opening up questions concerning mass-popular culture. However, Williams distanced himself from the populist study of communications and culture that became fashionable in the 1980s. His transition from literary criticism and history to sociological commentary and speculation on future prospects was signaled further by his 1961 sequel to Culture and Society, The Long Revolution.

Williams challenged the behaviorism of American-originated communication studies and drew upon European critical theories in his own work. His academic specialism was dramatic form, which he studied historically and related to theatrical and audiovisual trends in modern drama. His perspective of cultural materialism broke entirely with idealist approaches to the arts and communications media. However, he was firmly opposed to technologically determinist explanations of the emergence of new media and the dynamics of social change, On technical innovation, he emphasized the role of intentionality, the materiality of discourse, and the social conditions of cultural production and circulation. His key concepts include selective tradition, structure of feeling, and mobile privatization. Williams later coined the term “Plan X” to refer to the rise of military recklessness and unregulated “free-market” political economy and communications during the late 20th century. His final non-fiction book (he also wrote novels), Towards 2000 (1985), has been updated to take account of developments in culture, society, and the environment over the past 30 years.

Keywords: cultural materialism, long revolution, mobile privatization, selective tradition, structure of feeling, technological determinism, Raymond Williams, communication and critical studies

Cultural Analysis

Raymond Williams (1921–1988) characterized himself as a “Welsh European.” He was born into a working-class family on the border between Wales and England. At the beginning of the Second World War, he went to the University of Cambridge, where his studies in English were interrupted by military service. He graduated shortly after the war, by which time he had been influenced by F. R. Leavis’s rigorous approach to literary criticism in historical context. He had briefly been a member of the Communist Party at the beginning of the war, but his early work was somewhat distanced from Marxism.

During the 1950s, Williams worked in adult education, where he began to develop his own, distinctive approach to cultural analysis. Williams’s (1963) best known early work, Culture and Society, traced the Romantic response to industrialism in Britain which, in his opinion, laid the foundations for a radical critique of modern culture and society where the modern media of communications played a hugely enhanced role. He did not himself approve of linking the term “mass” to “communication(s),” since he believed the very word “mass” had historical connotations of “the mob,” at worst, and, at best, signified the sensibility of most people, especially working-class people, as inferior and undifferentiated. Williams himself insisted on the collective achievements of the organized working class in challenging capitalist exploitation and pointed out how ordinary people had resisted egoistic individualism with their collectivism. Also, at this time he declared “culture” to be “ordinary” and not just the preserve of a social elite of highly educated people.

Williams identified five key words, the meanings in use of which had changed over the previous 200 years—art, class, culture, democracy, and industry—usually passing from verbs to nouns. The keyword, culture (“one of the most complicated words in the English language”; Williams, 1983, p. 87) had moved from the terminology of horticulture (the cultivation of crops, etc.) to a word signifying personal and social development. “Culture” encompassed both the works of imagination and intellect, on the one hand, and customs and ways of life, on the other.

Williams moved on from study of cultural change as registered specifically in literature to analyzing evidence of the broader social (and indeed societal) changes addressed in The Long Revolution. He also set out his own distinctive methodological framework for cultural analysis, which would subsequently be expanded and refined but never really discarded. Williams (1965, p. 57) identified “three general categories in the definition of culture” as follows:

  1. 1. Ideal Culture—which signals “the drive towards human perfection,” transcending time and place to achieve universality and what might typically be called now, “excellence”

  2. 2. Documentary Culture—“the body of intellectual and imaginative work” that leaves traces of earlier times in artifacts to be analyzed historically

  3. 3. Social Culture—referring to “the meanings and values implicit and explicit in a particular way of life, a particular culture”

Williams observed: “It seems to me that there is value in each of these kinds of definition. For it certainly seems necessary to look for meanings and values, the record of creative human activity, not only in art and intellectual work, but also in institutions and forms of behaviour” (1965, p. 62). Cultural history, however, is mainly concerned with analysis of documentary culture, material surviving from the past out of which particular “social characters” (Erich Fromm) and “patterns of culture” (Ruth Benedict) may be discerned in reconstructing “the whole way of life” of a period (p. 63). It is at this point that Williams introduces his own concept of structure of feeling, which he says is

as firm and definite as “structure” suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity. In one sense, the structure of feeling is the culture of a period; it is the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization. And it is in this respect that the arts of a period, taking these to include characteristic approaches and tones in argument, are of major importance . . . One generation may train its successor, with reasonable success, in the social character of the general social pattern, but the new generation will have its own structure of feeling, which will not appear to have come “from” anywhere.

(pp. 64–65)

He then goes on to sum up his argument so far and to introduce another concept, selective tradition, which is integral to the whole analytical construct:

We need to distinguish three levels of culture even in its most general definition, There is a lived culture of a particular time and place, only fully accessible to those living in that time and place, There is the recorded culture, of every kind, from art to the most everyday facts: the culture of a period There is also the factor connecting lived culture and period cultures, the culture of the selective tradition.

(p. 63)

The idea of a selective tradition is so familiar and taken for granted now that it is difficult to appreciate just how advanced Williams’s thinking was at the beginning of the 1960s. Since then, we have even become used to the notion that traditions are “invented” (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983). Traditions are indeed manufactured, identifying a moment, sometimes fancifully, when the tradition was supposed to have originated out of the mists of time. When it comes to the arts, there is a lengthy process of selection—and, indeed, revision—in establishing what we now consider “the canon.” Books are selected as worthy of readership by contemporary and later generations: through educational and other means, books are kept accessible by publication and retention in library stocks or discarded as physical objects but retained as digital “texts,” as is now becoming common in “the digital age.” As Williams (1963, p. 68) remarks, “[t]he traditional culture of a society will always tend to correspond to its contemporary system and values, for it is not an absolute body of work but a continual selection and interpretation.” The preservation of “ancient” buildings, for instance, is an especially visible and familiar instance of selective tradition.

Another obvious feature of selection is the necessity to sift through and choose from the sheer volume of material that is potentially available. For example, no expert literary critic has read everything published during his or her special period any more than the news media could possibly cover every potential story that might be reported today. “Bias” is usually too crude a criticism of, say, news media. Selections have to be made. The selections themselves, however, are inevitably partial, reflecting the interests of the selectors and of the present-day place and period.

Selective traditions are quite properly contested routinely and sometimes transformed dramatically. Since the 1960s various kinds of cultural tradition have been contested and changed on class and national grounds and in gender and sexual, racial and ethnic terms. Williams himself was closely connected to a counter-tradition of “history from below.”

Williams pitted a methodology of cultural analysis that was inspired by European-continental thinking against the typically American-originated program for studying communications that had pioneered and largely defined this comparatively new field of education and research around the world. What continental Europeans termed “cultural science,” pointed out Williams, Britons had come to call “cultural studies.”

Although the study of communication(s) may be traced back to the disciplines of grammar and rhetoric in ancient Greek philosophy and politics, as an academic field with significant educational and research branches, modern communication studies was inspired by early 20th-century pragmatism in the United States, represented by thinkers like Charles Horton Cooley and John Dewey. In its various and multidisciplinary forms, communication studies drew upon both the humanities and the social sciences with a marked tilt toward social sciences, and due to the innovativeness and technological sophistication of newer communication systems, there was also a crossover into the natural sciences.

The university curriculum for the subject was established initially in the United States in a vocationally oriented manner for training in journalism, public relations, and marketing, And in an unruly multidisciplinary field, literary scholars, historians, linguists, sociologists, and psychologists, among others, including engineers, applied the methods of their disciplinary specialism to communication processes (Simonson & Parkes, 2016), often in an unintelligible manner to specialists from other disciplines than their own. Alternatively, argued Williams in 1973 (McGuigan, 2014, p. 175):

The approach I want to describe is that of cultural studies, which is English for “cultural science.” Here, centrally, communication is a practice. Communication study is open to whatever can be learnt of the basis of this practice: the detailed processes of language and of gesture, in expression and interaction, and of course any general features of underlying human structures and conventions. It is open, also, to the effects of these processes and features of particular technologies which, since it is a modern study, it necessarily considers over a range from the printed book and the photograph to broadcasting and motion pictures and beyond those to the specialized electronic media.

(p. 175)

Williams favored an interdisciplinary approach that privileges the complexity of the problem under examination instead of pristine observation of disciplinary boundaries and methodological protocols characteristic of multidisciplinary approaches. In effect, Williams combined learning from his educational and professional background in literary criticism and cultural history with newer learning from the social sciences to develop his own distinctive work. He was dissatisfied with how the humanities tended to reify the artifact: the novel, the painting, or whatever. Instead, Williams advocated the study of practices, including production practices, and the intersubjective realization of meaning in the reception of artifacts. Yet, at the same time, he was also troubled by the tendency to neglect the “what” in routine applications of the communication studies mantra: “Who says what and how to whom with what effect?” Unfortunately, however, and partly in consequence of this neglect, a rigid academic division of labor was established. Serious study of “art” and “high” culture remained the more or less exclusive preserve of “traditional” disciplines in the humanities. And the newer communication studies focused upon what was left over in the ragbag of so-called “mass” culture. Moreover, according to Williams, “it came to pass that the study of communications was deeply and almost disastrously deformed by being confidently named as the study of ‘mass-communications’” (McGuigan, 2014, p. 179).

Communication/Communications

Williams made a deceptively simple distinction of immense analytical consequence. He distinguished between communications in the plural and communication in the singular, a distinction often elided in the study of “mass communication.” Williams says: “I mean by communications the institutions and forms in which ideas, information, and attitudes are transmitted and received. I mean by communication the process of transmission and reception.” (Williams, 1976, p. 9)

To conflate institution and process is an analytical error, though, of course, they are not separate in reality. Communication is a two-way process, including active reception as well as active transmission. It is a process realized in varied and variable ways, mediated crucially by specific technical apparatuses.

Williams went further by proposing the notion of “society” as “a form of communication,” which is only to say that all processes are discursively mediated, not to say that economic and political processes are secondary to communication. Much more commonly, it has been said that communication is secondary to them, a serious mistake, in Williams’s estimation.

Williams’s typology of communication systems is still virtually unsurpassed. The four types of communication system identified by RW are authoritarian, paternal, commercial, and democratic.

Williams insists that actual and potential institutional alternatives are more diverse than the simplistic binary contrast of “freedom” and “control” usually suggests. In terms of state control, for instance, there is a substantial difference between authoritarian dictation of editorial content historically as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the public paternalism of the culturally improving aims of the original BBC’s monopoly over broadcasting in Britain, on the other. It is here that Williams marked out a position beyond the dispute over the relative merits of “public service” and “commerce” that was still waged prominently during the 1960s and ’70s before the commercial onslaught became overwhelming from the 1980s onward. He rejected paternalist and populist alternatives and proposed the ideal possibility of democratic communications in which the means should be held in public ownership but the ends would be determined by self-managing producers in dialogue with real communities, a suggestion that has recently been reiterated by Paul Mason (2015, p. 5) with regard to communications in “a ‘non-neoliberal smart city,’ incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies, openness, participation and a clear policy that data generated by public services should be publicly owned.”

As Williams (1976) said originally over 50 years ago:

We have experienced the other three systems, but the democratic system, in any full sense, we can only discuss and imagine. It shares with the early commercial systems a definition of communication which insists that all men [sic] have the right to offer what they choose and to receive what they choose. It is firmly against authoritarian control of what can be said, and against paternal control of what ought to be said. But it is against commercial control of what can profitably be said, because this can also be a tyranny.

(p. 91)

For a true democracy to work there must be clearly defined rights to transmit and to receive: anything short of that is a denial of popular cultural control. This imagined possibility—“a common culture” facilitated by an “educated and participatory democracy”—ran through Williams’s work steadfastly for 30 years. It is an optimistic vision of genuinely independent producers, publicly owned facilities, and an articulation of “community” (of interest as well as geography) cutting across the myth of “the nation” propagated so successfully by undemocratic institutions of public service broadcasting that were to come under attack from neoliberal communications policy from the 1970s onwards. Some might argue, however, that Williams’s ideal has since, in effect, been realized solely by the liberating function of digital technology and the Internet, a view, however, that is not the same as Williams’s argument, it must be stressed, since it elides the decisive role of democratic politics in communications.

Aspects of Williams’s conspectus were eventually integrated slyly into mainstream media through what became the neoliberal agenda for institutional transformation. In November 1988, the year of Williams’s death, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government issued its blueprint for the reform of British broadcasting in which it was said: “The part played by independent producers in program making in the UK will continue to grow” (HMSO, 1988, p. 2). The neoliberal transformation promoted by Thatcherism did not so much implement Williams’s intended reforms but, instead, achieved something quite different from them. It led to the progressive dissolution of once-proud public service principles and practices of broadcasting in Britain, the intensification of wastefully replicating “competition,” the introduction of specialized channels (especially for movies and sport) at increasingly high cost to “the customer,” lower wages and precarious careers for personnel in the “independent sector” especially, and greater ownership and control by transnational conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Fox.

Williams in 1961 (McGuigan, 2014) declared advertising to be “the official art of the twentieth century.” Yet more seriously, in his view, dependence on advertising revenue distorted the whole process of communications, the operations of which had to be analyzed and criticized in the round, so to speak, according to Williams’s fully developed methodology of cultural materialism.

Williams was not a detached critic. As a novelist and dramatist, he was passionately involved in the politics of practice. In the 1970s, for instance, he engaged in the debate over “realism and non-naturalism” in television drama (Williams, 2014/1977, pp. 199–222). He was a great admirer of the work of dramaturge John McGrath (1981). Williams (1979, pp. 224–225) regarded the stage and television production with the 7:84 Theatre Company of his The Cheviot the Stag & the Black Black Oil as the greatest play of the day.

Hegemonic Process

Pivotal theoretically for Williams’s general methodology was his appropriation of Gramscian hegemony theory for the development of his own methodology of cultural materialism in the 1970s. At this time there was an immense revival of Western-Marxist thought taking place alongside various developments in cultural theory, including poststructuralism and postmodernism, that Williams engaged with in fashioning his own cultural-materialist position.

Cultural materialism can reasonably be considered a “paradigm” in a rather looser sense than the one meant by Thomas Kuhn (1970), though in a sense that is very familiar to the humanities and social sciences where rivalry between contending perspectives for doing research is commonplace. As the “Base and Superstructure” article indicated, there was an evident affinity between Williams’s holistic approach to cultural analysis and the Italian Marxist of the 1920s and 30s Antonio Gramsci’s theorization of hegemony as a leadership principle vital to negotiation between contending political forces and winning popular consent in civil society (Hoare & Nowell Smith, 1971). Hegemony theory was also adopted fruitfully in his work by Stuart Hall (1988), another major figures in the formation of British cultural studies.

However, Hall’s enormous influence on younger scholars in the field resulted in a less rigorously critical use of hegemony theory than either his or Williams’s. There was a tendency in what may be called “Hallian cultural studies” to exaggerate and even trivialize “resistance” in not only alternative and oppositional practices but also mainstream practices. Williams and Hall himself were more Marxist, in effect, than many of those they influenced. This is particularly evident in Paul Willis’s (1990) “common culture” research, which, by celebrating consumer power, effectively reversed Williams’s dialectical and productionist meaning for the concept. Hall was the chief theorist for the British Communist Party’s magazine, Marxism Today, whereas Williams wrote for the critical Labourism of the Bennite New Socialist.

In order to investigate the particular balance of forces and ideological frames in play at any one time, Williams drew up a heuristic model of dynamic and differentiating categories of hegemonic process. He stressed the complexity of how hegemonic domination, in effect, “saturates society,” thereby closing off other ways of imagining cultural and social organization. For him, hegemony is not absolute but includes subtle negotiation with residual and emergent forms of subordinate culture that are themselves internally differentiated depending on whether they represent alternative or oppositional currents to the dominant culture.

Alternative culture seeks a space to co-exist alongside the dominant culture, whereas oppositional culture seeks to overthrow the dominant culture. You might distinguish between gay (alternative) and feminist (oppositional) cultures—both forms of emergent culture—according to this distinction.

A key term in Williams’s analysis of hegemonic process is incorporation. Elements of alternative and, indeed, oppositional cultures might be incorporated to refresh the dominant culture. To a certain extent, this has been true of both gay and feminist politics.

Raymond Williams’s Categories of Hegemonic Process

Dominant Culture

Incorporation

Incorporation

Subordinate Culture

Residual Form(ation)s

Emergent Form(ation)s

Alternative/Oppositional

Alternative/Oppositional

Cultural Materialism

Williams objected to the base-superstructure model of orthodox Marxism because its conceptualization of society was insufficiently materialist, in his opinion, treating the superstructures as exclusively ideational, merely secondary to and founded upon the materiality of political economy. This may seem paradoxical since Marxists are often said to reduce everything to economic—that is, “material”—factors, the assumption being that the superstructural institutions of politics and law, ideology and culture are all determined by and/or merely reflect economic forces and interests.

From an early 21st-century vantage point, such economic determinism or reductionism is a very familiar refrain indeed. However, the current iteration of economic reductionism does not derive from the vulgar Marxism of yore. It does not come from the Left at all but, instead, it comes from the Right of the present-day political spectrum. It is the fundamental neoliberal orientation whereby social and cultural activity is submitted routinely to the discipline of the market and everything is understood and evaluated in monetary terms. Moreover, materialist philosophy is not exclusively about economics in any case, nor should it be confused with the common-sense notion of “materialism” as an ethical failing in which money and the acquisition of commodities matter more than relationships with people.

In philosophy, materialism is contrasted to idealism. Whereas idealism assumes that ideas alone are determining forces in the social world, materialism does not have to reduce mind to matter but it does claim that sensuous human activity and communication, including language, between practically engaged people is where the action really is.

The point can be illustrated briefly by comparing one of Williams’s key concepts, structure of feeling, with the German idealist notion of the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time), which has a certain currency today in common-sense parlance. In this regard, “the free market” is said to be the Zeitgeist, but it is hardly spiritual, though it does function ideologically to mask over and obscure the political-economic forces that deploy the rhetoric of market forces—“there is no alternative” (TINA)—as a justification for unrestrained capitalistic policy.

In his famous discussion of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” Fredric Jameson (1991) appropriated Williams’s conceptualization of the prevailing structure of feeling to characterize it. From Jameson’s point of view, postmodernism is not just a set of ideas but, instead, a structure of feeling, that is, a framing of emotionality and everyday practice that is dialectically related to transnational, high-tech capitalism, whereby the human subject is disoriented and in desperate need of cartographical guidance.

Williams complained about the treatment of culture as epiphenomenal, as though it were not of material significance, merely ideational. For him, “signifying practice” (Williams, 1981a)—that is, culture in the making—is, in effect, material practice, embedded in institutionalized arrangements and relations of production through which the products of human creativity are actually made. The conceptual apparatus of cultural materialism was further developed in Marxism and Literature (1977) and, with greater originality, in Culture (1981a), where the full panoply of interrelated concepts for cultural analysis is treated systematically in an introductory form.

In a much-neglected lecture originally delivered in Zagreb during the late 1970s, “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” Williams (2014/1978) spelled out his understanding of the materiality of cultural activity. His arguments here bear comparison with critical theory’s culture industry/cultural industries thinking (Steinert, 2003), though Williams’s position is more analytically detached and much less judgmental than the original musings of Theodor Adorno (Bernstein, 1991) Williams had long been critical of elitist disdain for the allegedly inherent and faulty properties of “mass culture” and “mass communications” as such (McGuigan, 1993). Here, he insisted on a strictly sociological argument that communications are part of the productive system of a modern, complex society and not just secondary or superstructural phenomena. In the paper, Williams was also at pains to delineate specific forms of communication in relation to technical mediation without falling into the deadly trap of technological determinism that has been the fate of so many commentators on modern media past and present. Williams stressed the materiality of signification and the social realization of signifying practice, that is, culture.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, Williams did not deliver his precise definition of cultural materialism in the Zagreb lecture on the sociology of modern media but in his contribution to the Cambridge controversy over the purposes of literary theory—not social theory—sparked off by Colin McCabe’s poststructuralism, roughly repeating yet more definitively what he had already said in passing in Marxism and Literature: “Cultural materialism is the analysis of all forms of signification, including quite centrally writing, within the actual means and conditions of their production” (Williams, 1981b, pp. 64–65). Considering his literary background and the provenance of this definition on the occasion of fierce public dispute over “theory” in the Cambridge English Department, it is not surprising that Williams should have remarked, “quite centrally writing.”

His remark certainly justified a strand of politicized literary history naming itself “cultural materialism.” However, stressing the centrality of writing in such a manner severely understated the sociological scope of cultural materialism. It has had unfortunate consequences in closing off and, in consequence, artificially delimiting the potential applications of cultural materialism in the social sciences. This point may usefully be illustrated with reference to Williams’s critique of technological determinism in the media and in society generally, which is especially germane to making sense of the dynamics of our “digital age.”

Technological Determinism

Williams’s cultural materialism has an affinity with Douglas Kellner’s (1977) advocacy of multidimensional cultural analysis. Such an approach seeks to articulate the interaction of conditions of production and consumption with textual meaning within specifiable socio-historical contexts. It resists one-dimensional and mono-causal explanation, which is actually the fundamental flaw of the technological determinism that, combined with neoliberal political economy, is the most prominent feature of ideological dominance around the world today.

The emergence and meaning-making properties of media are often said to be entirely reducible to direct technical innovation derived immediately from scientific discovery with inevitably beneficial results, according to the commercial hype. Moreover, we are constantly encouraged to believe that “technology” (usually meaning specifically information and communication technologies these days) is the main and perhaps sole driving force of significant social change and is the solution to all conceivable problems.

Contrarily, Williams showed that the development of communication technologies and their applications result from a complex range of determinations, including cultural, economic, and political factors, and that the historical outcomes of such development are never strictly inevitable.

In Williams’s cultural-materialist discourse, determination refers to the exertion of pressure and setting of limits on human activity rather than the simple and unilinear cause and effect relation of determinism. Human agency matters and, in the case of technological change, intention is always involved, which suggests the possibility of alternative purposes and different outcomes in any given set of circumstances.

Williams’s cultural-materialist framework for studying technological innovation in communications and cultural and social change is in constant tension with various kinds of technological determinism, from the later sociological sophistication of a Manuel Castells through to the routine commercial hype for selling successive waves of new communications products, including the latest must-have gadget that promises to transform your life. Castells (2001), of course, is wise enough to defend himself against the taint of technological determinism by pointing to the equally significant impact, in his argument, of the capitalist triumph in political economy and of the socio-cultural movements, most notably feminism, to that of the information and communication technology “revolution” over the past 50 years or so. The commercial hype does not bother with such qualification and intellectual refinement, however, and the gadgets are designed to be extremely seductive anyway. At the same time, Castells continues to be read by the sociologically naive as the latest guru of technology’s all-consuming power.

There is no doubt that digitalization and the various applications of computing and wireless communications have enormous consequences with regard, for instance, to television and telephony: bringing about technological convergence and proliferating communicational services and gadgets such as on-line mobile phones, multipurpose tablets and “smart” TV sets. Nevertheless, the processes by which such technologies come about and are used are much more complicated than either commercial propaganda or technological determinism in the social sciences would suggest.

Technological determinism assumes a linear process from scientific research and discovery to technical invention and implementation with consequential social and cultural impact, more or less unfolding smoothly over time. It is not just a simplistic model of socio-technical change but also a dominant ideological assumption, nowadays allied especially to free-market economics and politics.

Alternatively, according to Williams, technologies are developed and implemented in a complex of determinations that are not only scientific and technical but also include economic, political, and cultural factors. To assume that technology is the sole cause of cultural and social change with highly predictable results—“technology changes everything”—is a deeply flawed assumption, though it is widely believed and to a considerable extent simply taken for granted. To appreciate why technological determinism results in fallacious argumentation, it is necessary to examine how technologies have developed historically. Historical knowledge should encourage skepticism about exaggerated claims concerning the magical and all-transforming power of the latest technology.

When he launched his classic critique of technological determinism in the early 1970s, Williams was already well aware of most of the potential technological developments in telecommunications that eventually occurred and with which we are now so familiar. Williams discussed the multiplication of cable and satellite TV channels, facilities for recording programs off the television set and rescheduling, interactivity, large-screen receivers, and the rest of it.

At the time, Williams posed the question of who would gain the upper hand in controlling these developments, specifically whether they would be commanded by global capital or become a public means for fostering greater democracy and participation. He feared that the interests of big business would win out. In that, he has surely been proven right.

It is not often appreciated that, for Williams, social and cultural determinism is no better than technological determinism, though it does have the virtue of seeing television as symptomatic of historical change and not just the cause of it. The trouble with both views, however, is that they see the invention and implementation of television as a sort of accident. Williams (1974) summarized his critical attitude to both positions as follows:

In technological determinism, research and development have been assumed as self-generating. The new technologies are invented as it were in an independent sphere, and then create new societies or new human conditions. The view of symptomatic technology, similarly, assumes that research and development are self-generating, but in a more marginal way. What is discovered in the margins is then taken up and used.

(pp. 13–14)

Neither of them actually tells us why television was developed at all!

Williams (1974) then goes on to outline a third way of accounting for the development of television and its relation to society:

[I]n the case of television it may be possible to outline a different kind of interpretation, which would allow us to see not only its history but also its uses in a more radical way. Such an interpretation would differ from technological determinism in that it would restore intention to the process of research and development. The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from symptomatic technology in that purposes and practices would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices in which the technology is not marginal but central.

(p. 14)

The crucial term here is intention, making the assumption that television was developed deliberately out of a combination of scientific knowledge produced for various reasons, the exploration of technical feasibility, the identification and creation of social needs, the testing out of possibilities, etc. Inventive developments in electricity, telegraphy, photography, the moving image, and radio all came together deliberately around television.

It is important to note that the earliest uses of what became broadcasting, in the case of radio during the first couple of decades of the 20th century, were military and imperial. They were developed in order to aid the conduct of war and colonial administration. It was only subsequently that the possibilities of a broadcast—as opposed to a narrowcast—medium were explored.

Another important thing about early broadcasting—both radio and television—is that it was not inevitable for it to become a mainly domestic medium of reception. In Germany, for instance, during the 1930s, television was used limitedly as a medium of reception in public spaces, such as shopping centers, instead of the private space of the home (see Smith, 1995, p. 78). This is a form of television that has been somewhat revived in recent years with the viewing of sports collectively in public settings such as pubs.

The development of radio and then television as a domestic medium was pioneered in the United States and Britain in relation to the general formation of mass-popular culture, widespread consumerism, and the increasingly privatized experience of nuclear families during the interwar years. In the United States, wireless set manufacturers were the key players. So were they at first in Britain until the state intervened to set up the BBC as a separate company that soon became a publicly owned corporation. Across the Atlantic, on the other hand, radio and television were always exclusively commercial media, set up as vehicles for advertising and sponsorship, exemplifying the thoroughgoing commodification of culture in the United States, which has now been imported into Britain and other countries that had hitherto taken “public service” seriously.

Mobile Privatization

Several years after coining the term “mobile privatization,” Williams (1985, p. 188) remarked, “It’s an ugly phrase for an unprecedented condition.” He was talking about a social condition connected to emergent technologies of travel and messaging in the 19th and 20th centuries. Following the Second World War there were, of course, further developments in this respect, most notably to do with the spread of car ownership and air travel, computerization, transistorization, satellite communications, and so forth. At present there is a feverishly neo-McLuhanite obsession with “new technology”—usually meaning information and communication technologies (ICTs) specifically linked to the Internet—with a deterministic belief that digitalization and access to online services “changes everything,” including the impact of “user-generated content” on commerce and politics.

The sheer speed of technological change is indeed awesome. We may quite recently in historical terms have become accustomed to a device that was fresh and seductive in what might still feel like only yesterday for older generations when it is apparently rendered obsolete and about to be swept aside by yet another extraordinary and welcome innovation. It is now said that the smartphone supported by cloud storage is reaching a “tipping point” for superseding the PC, even in its most up-to-date and lightweight laptop, wireless, 3G/4G, and multicolored incarnation as the key gadget of the modern age because of the overwhelming imperative of convenient personal communication on the move. Tablets, however, are perhaps the more realistic alternative to PCs and laptops with physical keyboards since the screens are expediently larger than smartphones. It is a reasonable presumption to make that the search is now on inevitably for the ideal hybrid of smartphone application and tablet usability, which may or may not prove satisfactory when eventually superseded by something that is supposedly better and, therefore, an essential and urgent acquisition.

In the 1974 TV book, in order to make sense of the sociality of television in the first instance but also of broader significance for understanding social use of communications technology, Williams formalized the concept of mobile privatization just as a plethora of technological innovations were about to be unleashed on the general public in rapid succession over the next 40 years. For him, this notion of mobile privatization referred to a relatively new historical patterning of everyday life associated with the growth of urban-industrial society in general as much as with the specific use of communication technologies. Williams (1974, p. 26) noted “two apparently paradoxical yet deeply connected tendencies of modern urban living; on the one hand mobility, on the other hand the more apparently self-sufficient family home.” Developments in transport, especially railways and mass migration across the world in steamships during the 19th century, had increased the mobility of people and peoples. Yet, at the same time, the atomization of modern industrialized society was concentrating life outside paid work in the small family home. There had emerged “an at once mobile and home-centered way of living: a form of mobile privatization” (Williams, 1974, p. 26) in the 20th century. Broadcasting fit perfectly into and helped to shape this arrangement, not only with the radio and then the television replacing the hearth as the site of gathering together in the home but also in providing access to events occurring at a distance.

The concept of mobile privatization captured the contradictory role of television as a characteristic feature of modern daily life. Television facilitated a much-expanded albeit imaginary mobility through the vast array of representations available to the ordinary viewer. Here a distinction must be drawn between physical mobility—facilitated by modern transport—and the virtual mobility that is facilitated by telegraphy and broadcasting from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.

Domesticity became the focus of expanded consumption and indeed consumer culture, labor-saving devices and the like, and broadcasting’s typical mode of address to the listener and viewer in the domestic setting was firmly established with all that this entails, including endless advertising eventually. To a considerable extent, broadcasting would come to schedule activities within the home: with daytime programs addressed to “the housewife,” children’s programming when the kids get home from school, “the toddler’s truce,” “family viewing,” and adult viewing after “the watershed” when children should be in bed. And with the advent of satellite transmission from the 1960s, it became possible, from the comfort of the home, to see events occurring in real time across the other side of the world. Incidentally, in this context, it is interesting how little comment there is on latter-day “time-work discipline,” to adapt E. P. Thompson’s (1967) phrase. There has been an increase in long hours of flexible shift-working day and night work that is not unrelated to the development of 24-hour multichannel television, digital time-shifting, timeless access to the cultural archive during leisure time—not to mention 24-hour supermarket hours and online shopping.

When Williams returned to the concept of mobile privatization in the 1980s, he remarked upon social loneliness and isolation. It was not only that people in urban-industrial societies were living in small family units (the nuclear family replacing the extended family) but that increasing numbers of people were living alone, many of them, especially the elderly, heavily dependent on technological means of communication for social contact at remote distance. And “at the same time there is a quite unprecedented mobility of such restricted privacies” (Williams, 1974, p. 188). In 1983, at a later stage of mobile privatization when living in a self-contained shell had become yet more common, Williams (1985) recalled his earlier thoughts on traffic:

Looked at from right outside, the traffic flows and their regularities are clearly a social order of a determined kind, yet what is experienced inside them—in the conditioned atmosphere and internal music of the windowed shell—is movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes. All the other shells are moving in comparable ways but for their own different private ends. They are not so much other people, in any full sense, but other units which signal and are signalled to, so that private mobilities can proceed safely and relatively unhindered. And if all this is seen from outside as in deep ways determined, or in some sweeping glance as dehumanised, that is not at all how it feels like inside the shell, with people you want to be with, going where you want to go.

(pp. 188–189)

Thus, Williams reminded us in the 1980s, before mobile phones became commonplace accoutrements of everyday life, that mobile privatization was not confined to the social use of broadcasting and television—in fact, it referred to a characteristic way of life in the modern age. It included driving a motorcar either by yourself or with one or more significant other as passenger, separated from yet coordinated in some remote sense with many strangers doing the same sort of thing in their little, shell-like worlds. For Williams, these practices—watching television, driving cars—are synecdoche for a larger whole, “a now dominant level of social relations,” that is, the market system: “The international market in every kind of commodity receives its deep assent from the system of mobile-privatized social relations” (1974, p. 189). The shell might be a home, a car or, latterly, an all-purpose mobile communication device.

Clearly, then, Williams’s concept of mobile privatization, dating from the 1960s and ’70s, is even more relevant now with regard to the “life on screen,” to borrow a phrase (Turkle, 1995), and sociality of new communications media. As already noted, in talking about privatization, Williams had in mind how individuals and intimate groups are turned away from wider social engagement and become cocooned in private worlds. This experiential loss may be the principal reason, as a form of virtual compensation, for the astonishing take-up and spread of “social media” like Facebook and Twitter, which Sherry Turkle (2011) herself, no longer quite so comfortable with “life on screen,” has acknowledged.

There is, however, another meaning of privatization that has been rather prominent over the past 30 to 40 years, that is, the selling off of public assets and a long-run campaign to dismantle or, failing that project, reduce to a bare minimum the social—or social-democratic—aspect of the state. Williams anticipated this looming prospect with regard to communications media long ago. Back in 1974, he concluded his Television book on a chillingly prophetic note:

. . . what is at stake: a new universal accessibility. Over a wide range from general television through to commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian. These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under the cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could reach farther into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities.

(p. 151)

“Plan X”

Williams’s major work of the 1980s, Towards 2000, his sequel to The Long Revolution, has recently been reissued as A Short Counter-Revolution (2015). In this important work he critiqued the very notion of “post-industrial” society decisively, tackled persistent questions of nationhood and globalization, and identified the most salient issues concerning what we name today as “neoliberalism” and the most promising sources of resistance to it, particularly urgent action for environmental protection and ecological politics in general as integral features of 21st-century socialism.

Williams (1985, p. 243) introduced the notion of “Plan X,” a ruthlessly “new politics of strategic advantage” that emerged from the 1970s and was represented most immediately by the stepping up of the arms race during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term in the early 1980s. Another early feature of Plan X was not to reduce petrol consumption in response to OPEC but, instead, to take greater command over production by the strategy of divide-and-rule among oil-producing states, in effect, a short-term strategy that was blithely indifferent to environmental costs and the eventual depletion of oil. The military focus was already shifting from the Cold War ahead of the collapse of European communism to the hot war zone of the Middle East.

In addition to flexing U.S. military muscle, Plan X can readily be interpreted today as an early sighting of the hard-nosed capitalist logic at the heart of the neoliberal project, a project that is truly hegemonic on a global scale and which has had such a profound effect throughout the world over the past 30 years. Williams (1985) noted the local—that is, British and indeed vanguard—manifestation of neoliberalism in Thatcherism:

Plan X has appeared recently in British politics. As distinct from policies of incorporating the working class in a welfare state, or of negotiating some new and hopefully stable relationship between state, employers and unions (two dominant policies of post-1945 governments), Plan X has read the future as the certainty of a decline of capitalist profitability unless the existing organisations and expectations of wage-earners are significantly reduced.

(p. 245)

Williams also noted a further feature of Plan X political economy in the British case: “the decimation of British industrial capital itself.” In a national as well as international context, we have seen such developments in the transition from organized to neoliberal capitalism unfold across three phases of what can still be called “Thatcherism,” after Stuart Hall (1988): Thatcherism Mark 1 (Thatcher), Thatcherism Mark 2 (Blair), and Thatcherism Mark 3 (Cameron, May). Williams was right, however, to call this hegemonic project “Plan X” rather than “Thatcherism” since it has been much more widespread globally than a political doctrine that is embodied in one exemplary hate figure of a nation state.

In the final chapter of Towards 2000, “Resources for a Journey of Hope,” Williams (1985) said very little specifically about culture as such, though he did remark upon

deep supporting cultural conditions. Plan X is sharp politics and high-risk politics. It is easily presented as a version of masculinity. Plan X is a mode of assessing odds and determining a game plan. As such, it fits, culturally, with the widespread habits of gambling and its calculations. At its highest levels, Plan X draws on certain kinds of high operative (including scientific and technical) intelligence, and on certain highly specialised game-plan skills. But then much education, and especially higher education (not only in the versions that are called business studies) already defines professionalism in terms of competitive advantage. It promotes a deliberately narrow attention to skill as such, to be enjoyed in its mere exercise rather than in any full sense of the human purposes it is serving or the social effects it may be having. The now gross mutual flattery of military professionalism, financial professionalism, media professionalism and advertising professionalism indicates very clearly how far this has gone. Thus both the social and cultural conditions for the adoption of Plan X, as the only possible strategy for the future, are very powerful indeed.

(pp. 246–247)

The critical insights and gloomy prognostication of that passage would repay several pages of close analysis and constructive extrapolation. Instead of doing so, however, in concluding this article, it is even more important to note Williams’s increasingly green-socialist politics. Like Jürgen Habermas (1996), he supported incursions into the public sphere by campaigning social movements of “peace, ecology and feminism.”

Williams cited environmental politics and peace and feminist movements as “resources of hope” for the future. What he left out from such a politically optimistic conspectus, however, is significant. Critical assessment would have to focus upon his errors, not so much of commission (which were few indeed) but of omission. Although a feminist, Williams had little to say about gender and sexual politics. Perhaps yet more problematic was his neglect of multiculturalism and the absence of a cosmopolitan perspective on the future from his list of “resources of hope.”

While remaining hopeful, Williams also noted the sheer scale of the problems confronting oppositional forces. What he wrote in the early 1980s could equally well be said now: “there is no real point in pretending that the capitalist social order has not done its main job of implanting a deep assent to capitalism even in a period of its most evident economic failures” (1985, p. 254). Explaining how this trick has been performed must be a key task for critical research on communications and society. Williams’s cultural materialism is recommended as a methodological aid for doing so.

The Literature

Since he died in January 1988, an enormous amount of literature on Williams has been published. This was led largely by the literary scholar Tony Pinkney, who edited a special edition on Williams of the Oxford journal, News from Nowhere (1989). Pinkney edited a collection of largely unpublished Williams writings (1989) on modernism as well. Pinkney (1991) has also written a short book on Williams’s published novels.

A former student of Williams, Terry Eagleton (1989) edited a collection of essays by Williams’s close associates, including Stuart Hall. Other edited collections include Morgan and Preston (1993) and Wallace et al. (1995). Of the several book-length commentaries, Eldridge and Eldridge (1994), Higgins (1991), and Milner (2002) are especially recommended.

Williams’s work has not been treated as comprehensively in the social sciences, communication, cultural, and media studies as it has in the humanities. My own recent work on Williams has sought to rebalance the account—for instance, my edition of Towards 2000, reissued in 2015 as A Short Counter-Revolution—Towards 2000 Revisited. My edited collection (McGuigan, 2014) brings together the full range of Williams’s writings while at the same time stressing his distinctive contribution to cultural studies and sociology.

Curiously, some of Williams’s books have fallen out of print since his death. For instance, Vintage has recently reissued Williams’s (2016) The Country and the City. A similar fate had befallen Towards 2000 (1985) until its republication as A Short Counter-Revolution in 2015 by Sage.

John Mcllroy and Sallie Westwood (1993) have gathered together Willams’s writings from his engagement with adult education. Alan O’Connor (1989) has similarly collected Williams’s writings on television, including his Listener columns. And, last but not least, Robin Gable has gathered together several of Williams’s (1989) essays on culture and politics, with Robin Blackburn providing an introduction to the collection that places them into context.

Williams’s work was always well regarded by the journal Media, Culture and Society, and particularly by one of its editors, Nicholas Garnham, specializing in the fields of political economy and cultural policy. They even collaborated in writing an article on the work of Pierre Bourdieu for the journal (Garnham & Williams, 1986). Williams has had an enthusiastic following in North America (e.g., Cornell West, 1995, and, more recently, Stephen Groening, 2013) and on the European content (see, e.g., Pina, 2005).

Primary Sources

Raymond Williams’s earliest book-length publications were on literary criticism, film, and drama. Due to limitations of space, they are not dealt with here. The present selection includes the texts generally considered most important for communication and cultural studies from a more mature critical perspective:

Culture and Society—1780–1950, Chatto & Windus, 1958; Penguin, 1963; Vintage, 2015.

The Long Revolution, Chatto & Windus, 1961; Penguin, 1965; Parthian, 2011.

Communications, originally issued as a Penguin Special in 1962 and updated with the same publisher for a third edition in 1976.

The Country and the City, originally published in 1973 by Paladin; reissued by Vintage in 2015.

Television—Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana, 1974.

Marxism and Literature, Oxford University, 1977.

Culture, Fontana, 1981.

A Short Counter-Revolution—Raymond Williams Towards 2000 Revisited, edited with additional material by J. McGuigan, SAGE.

My own edited collection of Williams’s writings (McGuigan, 2014) may be consulted in conjunction with this article.

Further Reading

Raymond Williams has not been well served by his biographers. Inglis’s (1995) biography is controversial and was criticized severely on publication. The “official” biography by Dai Smith (2008), which only reaches 1961 in the single volume published so far, is even less satisfactory in certain respects. However, it includes summaries of Williams’s unpublished novels from the Swansea archive.

The Raymond Williams archive is lodged at the University of Swansea in South Wales. There is an introductory pamphlet on the archive by Steve Woodams published by the Parthian Press in Cardigan.

Since the 1990s, the Raymond Williams Society has issued an annual journal on Williams and cultural materialism, Keywords. It is edited from the School of Arts and Humanities, Nottingham Trent University, UK.

A branch of the Keywords Project is located at the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with Jesus College, University of Cambridge.

For general enquiries, the Raymond Williams Society may be contacted at info@raymondwilliamsfoundation.org.uk. The postal address is the Raymond Williams Foundation, 76 Selbourne Road, Leek, Staffordshire ST13 5PL UK.

Incidentally, interviews with Raymond Williams and television programs about his work may be found on YouTube.

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