Raymond Henry Williams (August 31, 1921 – January 26, 1988) was a Welsh academic, novelist and critic. He was an influential figure within the New Left and in wider culture. His writings on politics, culture, the mass media and literature are a significant contribution to the Marxist critique of culture and the arts. Some 750,000 copies of his books have sold in UK editions alone (Politics and Letters, 1979) and there are many translations available. His work laid the foundations for the field of cultural studies and the cultural materialist approach.
Cultural materialism in literary theory and cultural studies emerged as a theoretical movement in the early 1980s along with new historicism, an American approach to early modern literature, with which it shares much common ground. The term was coined by Williams, who used it to describe a theoretical blending of leftist culturalism and Marxist analysis. Cultural materialists analyze specific historical documents and attempt to recreate the zeitgeist of a particular moment in history.
Williams viewed culture as a "productive process," that is, part of the means of production, and cultural materialism often identifies what he called "residual," "emergent" and "oppositional" cultural elements. Following in the tradition of Herbert Marcuse, Antonio Gramsci and others, cultural materialists extend the class-based analysis of traditional Marxism by means of an additional focus on the marginalized.
Cultural materialists analyze the processes by which hegemonic forces in society appropriate canonical and historically important texts, such as Shakespeare and Austen, and utilize them in an attempt to validate or inscribe certain values on the cultural imaginary. (The term comes from Jacques Lacan and refers to a gestalt of customs and laws that are inscribed with the culture's dominant ethos and symbolism.)
Born in Llanfihangel Crucorney, near Abergavenny, Wales, Williams was the son of a railway worker in a village where all of the railway men voted Labour while the local small farmers mostly voted Liberal. It was not a Welsh-speaking area–he described it as 'Anglicised in the 1840s' (Politics and Letters, 1979). There was, however, a strong Welsh identity. "There is the joke that someone says his family came over with the Normans and we reply: 'Are you liking it here?'."
He attended King Henry VIII Grammar School in Abergavenny. His teenage years were overshadowed by the rise of Nazism and the threat of war. He was 14 when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and was very conscious of what was happening through his membership in the local Left Book Club. He also mentions the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China, originally published in Britain by the Left Book Club (Politics and Letters).
At this time, he was a supporter of the League of Nations, attending a League-organized youth conference in Geneva. On the way back, his group visited Paris and he went to the Soviet pavilion at the International Exhibition. There he bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto and read Marx's writings for the first time.
He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but his education was interrupted by war service. He joined the British Communist Party while at Cambridge. Along with Eric Hobsbawm, he was given the task of writing a Communist Party pamphlet about the Russo-Finnish War. In (Politics and Letters) Williams recounts that they "were given the job as people who could write quickly, from historical materials supplied for us. You were often in there writing about topics you did not know very much about, as a professional with words." At the time, the British government was keen to support Finland in its war against the Soviet Union, while still at war with Nazi Germany.
In the winter of 1940, he decided that he should join the British Army. This was against the Party line at the time, though in fact he stayed at Cambridge to take his exams in June 1941, the same month that Germany invaded Russia. As he describes it, his membership lapsed, without him ever formally resigning.
At the time he joined the army, it was normal for undergraduates to be directed into the signal corps. He received some initial training, but was then switched to artillery and anti-tank weapons. He was seen as 'officer material' and served as an officer in the Anti-Tank Regiment of the Guards Armoured Division, 1941-1945. He was sent into the early fighting in Normandy after D Day. In Politics and Letters, he said "I don't think the intricate chaos of that Normandy fighting has ever been recorded." He commanded a unit of four tanks and mentions losing touch with two of them during fighting against SS Panzer forces; he never discovered what happened to them, because there was then a withdrawal.
He was part of the fighting from Normandy in 1944 through Belgium and Holland to Germany in 1945, where he was involved with the liberation of one of the smaller concentration camps, which was afterwards used to detain SS officers. He was also shocked to find that Hamburg had suffered saturation bombing by the RAF, not just of military targets and docks as they had been told.
He received his M.A. from Trinity in 1946 and then served as a tutor in adult education at the University of Oxford for several years. In 1951 he was recalled to the Army as reservist to fight in the Korean War. He refused to go, and registered as a conscientious objector.
He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958 and an immediate success. This was followed in 1961 by The Long Revolution. Williams's writings were taken up by the New Left and received a very wide readership. He was also well-known as a regular book reviewer for the Manchester Guardian newspaper. His years in adult education were an important experience and Williams was always something of an outsider at Cambridge University. Asked to contribute to a book called My Cambridge, he began his essay by saying that "It was never my Cambridge. That was clear from the start."
On the strength of his books, Williams was invited to return to Cambridge in 1961, eventually becoming Professor of Drama there (1974-1983). He was Visiting Professor of Political Science at Stanford University in 1973, an experience that he used to good effect in his still useful book Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974). A committed socialist, he was greatly interested in the relationships between language, literature, and society and published many books, essays and articles on these and other issues. Among the most important is The Country and the City (1973), in which chapters about literature alternate with chapters of social history. His tightly written Marxism and Literature (1977) is mainly for specialists, but it also sets out his own approach to cultural studies, which he called cultural materialism. This book was in part a response to "structuralism" in literary studies and put pressure on Williams to make a more theoretical statement of his own against criticisms that it was humanist Marxism, based on unexamined assumptions about lived experience. He made considerable use of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, though the book is uniquely Williams and written in his own characteristic voice. For a more accessible version, see his book Culture (1981/1982), which also further develops some key arguments, especially about aesthetics.
Williams's position about other writers on culture and society may surprise some readers. For example, in his short book about George Orwell, he is sharply critical of a figure with whom many people assume he has much in common. Williams also wrote in a critical way about Marshall McLuhan's writings on technology and society. This is the background to the chapter in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) called "The Technology and the Society." His book on Modern Tragedy may be read as a response The Death of Tragedy, by the conservative literary critic George Steiner. Later, Williams was interested in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, though opining that the latter was too pessimistic in terms of the possibilities for social change.
He retired from Cambridge in 1983 and spent his last years in Saffron Walden. While there, he wrote Loyalties, a novel about a fictional group of upper-class radicals attracted to 1930s Communism. He was also working on People of the Black Mountains, an experimental historical novel about people who lived or might have lived around the Black Mountains, the part of Wales from which he hailed. It is told through a series of flashbacks featuring an ordinary man in modern times, who is looking for his grandfather who has not returned from a hill-walk. He imagines the region as it was and might have been. The story begins in the Old Stone Age and was intended to come right up to modern times, always focusing on ordinary people.
Raymond Williams had completed it to medieval times when he died in 1988. It was prepared for publication by his wife Joy Williams. It was published in two volumes, along with a Postscript that gives a brief description of what the remaining work would have been. Almost all of the stories were completed in typescript, generally revised many times by the author. Only The Comet was left incomplete and needed some small additions to make a continuous narrative.
Williams was one of the founders of the movement known as Cultural materialism. Cultural materialism is one of a cluster of approaches to literary and cultural studies that compromise contemporary literary theory.
Cultural materialism seeks to draw attention to the processes employed by power structures, such as the church, the state or the academy, to disseminate ideology. It explores the historical context and political implications of the text, and through close textual analysis note the dominant hegemonic position and the possibilities for the rejection and/or subversion of that position. British critic Graham Holderness defines cultural materialism as a "politicized form of historiography." Cultural materialists have found the area of Renaissance studies particularly receptive to this type of analysis, and have distinct parallels with the New Historicism in this regard.
In the 1980s, Williams made important links with debates in feminist, peace and ecology movements and extended his position beyond what might be recognized as Marxism. He concluded that because there were many different societies in the world there would be not one, but many socialisms. His approach helped to shape the field of literary studies in late twentieth century Britain in particular.
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