Key Words from Raymond Williams

I cannot accept that education is a training for jobs, or for making useful citizens….. I ask for a common education that will give our society cohesion, and prevent it disintegrating into a series of specialist departments, the nation become a firm.”
Culture is Ordinary 1958.

On Saturday we went to the Tate Gallery, Liverpool for the keywords exhibition. This is inspired by the book Keywords by the socialist intellectual Raymond Williams. Williams has been an important point of reference for me in a number of ways.

He pretty much invented the field of cultural studies in the UK and the approach he took has always seemed to me to be very sound. Although a Marxist (he eschewed that description, calling himself a communist – although not since the the 1930s was he a party member), he did not see culture as a mere reflection, a superstructure, of an economic base. Instead he saw it as influenced by the material processes of history but not reducible to that. And moreover, cultural production itself enters into the construction of the society and its economy. In this he is close to Gramsci on whom he wrote an interesting article.

He was a pioneer of ecological socialism – perhaps his childhood in a Welsh border village, at the intersection of the working class movement (his father was a railway worker, involved in the 1926 General Strike) and the countryside was the basis for this. Certainly his short essay on Ecology and Socialism remains a highly illuminating piece.

His detailed analysis of the rise of education and its impact on culture, society and language (especially in the Long Revolution) helped me to formulate some of my own ideas, putting flesh on the un-theorised notion of ‘verbal community’ that appears in BF Skinner’s work and which I ultimately used to destabilise the vulgar materialism of that radical behaviourist framework in which I initially trained as a psychologist. But more than that, he staunchly defended the extension of education against the elitists who bemoaned what would now be termed the dumbing down of culture: he accurately analysed that phenomenon in terms of the power interests behind the mass media, notably in Communications and Television, Technology and Cultural Form.

Williams’ work can seem dated following the post-structuralist and post-modernist theoretical (anti-theoretical?) onslaught. Yet with the return of savage capitalism (which never really disappeared), naked in tooth and coloniality, his careful analytic approach and his broadly social realist orientation of ‘cultural materialism’ seem to have a renewed relevance.

His own novels are unjustly neglected – especially the uncompleted trilogy: People of the Black Mountains a panoramic social history of the Welsh borderlands, but also of the part of England where (on the other side of the border) I spent most of my childhood.

The precision with which he wrote is a model of clarity – even though at times that clarity comes with a necessary complexity of expression: complex ideas often require complex exposition.

But above all, he was a model of committed intellectual. While remembered as a Cambridge professor he spent 15 years in adult Education. Another socialist intellectual Stuart Hall, reflected on Williams’ relations with both movements and academia in this article. His political interventions such as the May Day Manifesto, and his contributions to Marxism Today and other contemporary magazines in the 1970s and 1980s were very different from the kind of ‘left academic’ praxis that is more familiar. He tried to be of use to the broad ‘progressive’ (the word is not unproblematic) movement while also being an actor within it, most lately as a prime mover of the Socialist Society. His early death in 1989 was a great loss to movements for social and ecological justice.

Keywords was published in 1976 although its origins were as an appendix to his first book Culture and Society. It is a vocabulary of culture and society and the entries on key terms for talking about culture and society exemplify his approach. He not only surveys the shifting meanings but connects those shifts to changes in society itself -again not in a dogmatic one-way-causal manner, but in a much more sensitive and nuanced way. Sometimes the results are very surprising, as for example in his discussion of ‘individual’ which originally meant something nearer to the opposite of its current usage.

So what of the exhibition? I have to admit to being disappointed. The curators chose artworks from the 1970s and 1980s to illustrate (is that the right word?) some selected keywords from the Williams text. These choices seemed to me to have a casual relationship to the keywords in most cases. Maybe I don’t ‘get’ conceptual art – it wasn’t all that, there was documentary photography too and this made more sense to me. But while Williams text is notable for its careful didactic but un-dogmatic explorations, the exhibition didn’t really seem to add anything: it didn’t say anything – or what it said was rather banal. There were glimpses of what could have been done: the photos from the Northern Irish 6 counties did seem to speak to the nuances of the words and so (almost) did the tiptych of panels exploring the situation of an elderly woman living in a large ‘brutalist’ public housing development (I’ve come away without the ‘catalogue’ so can’t give a name). But they were, at least for me, exceptions.

I took the opportunity in the museum shop to buy the 1985 revision of Keywords and also New Keywords, produced in the spirit of Williams’ work more recently. On an initial read the contrast is striking. Williams’ own revision adds to a great work while the new book, produced by a team spread across the continents, somehow fails, in much of the content, to do this. Some of the articles are, frankly, poor and lack the layered historical perspective that Williams brings. ‘Queer’ is a good example – fair enough to explore the use of this re-appropriated word (‘Queer Theory’ etc.) but why is there no exploration of the origins and valence of the original pejorative usage. There are several like this. And a minor irritation, Steven Rose’s rather limited exploration of ‘behaviour’ even uses the American spelling. But see this online project for an alternative.

What would Williams have made of it all?

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1 Response to Key Words from Raymond Williams

  1. ? says:

    This is v good stuff and R Williams a great intellectual, but of the hands-on style. Yes we talked about job-training as against whole-person / whole society Education (unlike Blair’s infamous Edcn x 3 – forgot to add “War”). What is a university FOR?? To form robotic components of a (gobal?) economy for mindless ‘Growth’ ? I d suggest univs should produce individuals capable of establishing criteria for unpacking important questions like “What is a university for?” and “Why is Michael Gove?”

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