Raymond Williams

In a 1990 Channel 4 documentary, it was said that 'it's very difficult to sum Raymond Williams up because he was so many things at so many different times'.This is certainly true. As well as being a soldier on the front lines in World War Two, Williams (1921–88) was also a leading figure in the development of not one but two academic fields: cultural studies and cultural materialism. So, let's take a closer look at Raymond Williams' biography, works, key quotes, and most famous theories. 

Raymond Williams Raymond Williams

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Table of contents

    Raymond Williams: Biography

    Raymond Williams was born to working-class parents in 1921 and grew up in a small farming village in Wales. William's involvement in socialist politics in his life was influenced by his father's alignment with the Labour party and his family's experiences with economic recession, miners' strikes, and war.

    Socialism: a left-wing social and economic political theory that supports the idea of individuals in a community cooperating with each other so that everyone can benefit from property and services that are publicly owned and regulated by a democratic government.

    Labour party: a traditionally centre-left UK political party that was established in 1900 after being developed from socialist ideas and supporters of labourers' rights. It is the main opposition of the traditionally centre-right Conservative party.

    Williams went to a local grammar school, began to write novels and plays at a young age, and excelled in English and languages. When he was 16, he began reading books from the Left Book Club, a left-wing publishing company.

    Just before starting his undergraduate degree in English at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, Williams went to Geneva and Paris during a youth conference where he read Karl Marx's (1818–83) and Friedrich Engel's (1820–95) 'Manifesto of the Communist Party' (1848) for the first time.

    At Cambridge, he joined the Socialist Club and the Communist Party. Williams' communist views caused him issues in his English seminars. He wanted to apply his political views to his literary analysis, but his professors weren't pleased, arguing you shouldn't judge a text from a point of view that didn't exist when it was written.2

    Communism: originating from the writings of Marx and Engels, communism is often regarded as a more extreme version of socialism. Communism supports the idea of a society in which there is total equality, with no class distinctions, government, private ownership, or wealth. Communists see revolution and the installation of a temporary dictatorship (a government with absolute authority) as the only way to reach this goal.

    At the same time, Williams was preparing to fight in the British Army. His conscription went against anti-war Communist party ideals, signalling the beginning of the end of his official membership. Williams fought in the war between 1941 and 1945, during which period he also got married.

    Did you know? Raymond Williams was called to fight in the Korean War in 1951. However, he risked imprisonment by refusing to join on the basis of his antiwar beliefs. He had to go to court, but luckily his case was accepted, and he was free to go.

    Williams resumed his education in 1945, and by the time he graduated in 1946, he was a father of two. He founded and became an editor of the journal Politics and Letters in the same year and also took on a role as an adult education tutor of literature at Oxford University, where he stayed until 1961. As he taught in the evenings, Williams had time to focus on his own writing during the day.

    Williams wrote many books and essays during the 1950s about drama and film. Then, in 1958, Williams published the book that would launch him into fame as a figure of the New Left and a founder of cultural studies: Culture and Society. In 1961, Williams moved to Cambridge and went on to become the university's first-ever Professor of Drama at the university between 1974 and 1983.

    New Left: a left-wing political movement in the West during the 1960s and 1970s mostly driven by student activists.

    In the 1960s, William's political identity also changed as he moved away from communism and aligned himself with the Labour party like his father. However, he soon became disillusioned with the party and, in 1969, joined the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, reflecting Williams' reconnection with his Welsh heritage in later life.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, Williams continued to publish in the field of cultural studies, bringing a new focus on language into his work. In 1983, Williams retired and moved to Saffron Walden, where he died in 1988. One year after his death, the Raymond Williams Society was established and continued publishing Key Words: A Journal of Cultural Materialism, which aims to develop cultural materialism as an academic field.

    Raymond Williams, a black and white portrait photograph of Raymond Williams, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Raymond Williams is considered a founding scholar of cultural studies.

    Raymond Williams: Works

    Over the course of Raymond Williams' career, he wrote around seven novels, six short stories, and three dramas, as well as writing, co-writing, and editing at least 38 non-fiction essays and books.

    Some of Williams' main writings on the topics of cultural studies and cultural materialism include:

    • Culture and Society (1958)
    • The Long Revolution (1961)
    • Communications (1962)
    • Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974)
    • Keywords: A Vocabulary of Cultura and Society (1976)
    • Marxism and Literature (1977)
    • Politics and Letters: Interviews with the New Left Review (1981)

    Cultural studies: an interdisciplinary academic field that explores how culture is made, maintained, shared, and developed, its connections to structures of power in society, and how this affects people's lives and identities.

    Cultural materialism: a theory developed by Raymond Williams that cultural texts (things that are made to convey meaning to an audience) are produced in a similar way to consumer items so that the meaning they convey is influenced by multiple factors before, during, and after their production.

    Raymond Williams: Culture and Society

    Culture and Society was the work that solidified Raymond Williams' name as a founder of cultural studies. In Culture and Society, Williams critiques literature from the eighteenth century, connecting his analysis to five keywords: industry, democracy, class, art, and culture.

    Industry

    Williams discusses the importance of the industrial revolution to our changing ideas around culture. While industry was more about individual skill and work in the past, it now referred more to collective production. This was a huge cultural change, reflected in the term industrial revolution.

    Between the end of the 18th century and the mid-19th century, much of Europe and the United States were experiencing an industrial revolution. This was marked by a boom in technology, science, and communications. Developments in the use of fossil fuels and the increasing use of machinery over manual labour sped up the industrialisation process.

    Democracy

    Williams describes democracy as 'government by the people' and explores how the idea of democracy became increasingly popular, especially at the end of the 18th century. For Williams, the rise of democracy was vital for the representation of ordinary people in politics.

    Class

    Williams discusses how the industrial revolution developed class distinctions between the upper, middle, and lower classes in society. Williams links this to Marxist thought, as he writes that these distinctions were followed by increasing class identity, prejudice, and tensions between them.

    Art

    Although 'art' referred to general human skills in the past, its meaning became more specific during the industrial revolution as it meant art that was creative or imaginative. Williams argues that the concept of art also began to be associated with the idea of genius.

    Food for thought: do you think our concept of art has changed even more since Raymond Williams wrote about it in the 1950s? Is art created by artificial intelligence (AI), for example, still an example of creative genius? As Williams argued, our understanding of such concepts never stays the same.

    Raymond Williams, an AI generated image of a city, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The rise of AI-generated artworks is one example of Raymond Williams' argument that culture and our understanding of it are always changing.

    Culture

    For Williams, 'culture' is by far the most complex word, as it comprises all the others and serves as a map of human development. Our changing definitions of culture throughout history, from farming and cultivation to 'a whole way of life' ('Introduction'), reflect culture's ever-changing nature.

    Raymond Williams: 'Structures of Feeling'

    Williams' essay, 'Structures of Feeling' (1977), which was published in Marxism and Literature, offers a theory that tries to address the paradoxical ways we experience culture.

    Paradoxical: something that seems contradictory.

    On the one hand, we think about culture in logical ways by categorising it, such as identifying the cultural representation of different generations. On the other hand, culture is much more abstract, as it refers to human feelings and experiences at any place or time.

    Raymond William's structures of feeling theory introduce a way of looking at culture that considers both its abstract, ever-changing nature and our need to understand culture through structuring it.

    Raymond Williams: Quotes

    Let's have a look at some key quotes from Raymond Williams' works.

    Where culture meant a state or habit of the mind, or the body of intellectual and moral activities, it means now, also, a whole way of life ('Introduction', Culture and Society).3

    Raymond Williams coined the famous term in cultural studies today that culture is 'a whole way of life' in a community, no matter how big or small.

    a life lasts longer than the actual body through which it moves (Border Country).4

    Unlike communism, which spoke of dominant upper-class values, ideas, and interests that the lower classes were entirely submissive to, Williams spoke of the active power of all individuals within the making of culture. This quote from one of his fictional works speaks to Williams' belief that the feelings and experiences we have in our lives contribute to the bigger picture.

    Raymond Williams - Key takeaways

    • Raymond Williams (1921–88) was a Welsh soldier, writer, and scholar.
    • Raymond Williams was a significant figure in the development of the academic field of cultural studies.
    • Raymond Williams was involved in left-wing politics and was a member of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Labour Party, and Plaid Cymru at various points in his life.
    • Raymond Williams published Culture and Society (1958), which became a foundational text in the field of cultural studies.
    • Raymond Williams developed cultural materialism, a literary theory within the field of cultural studies.

    1 Professor Dai Smith. Raymond Williams – A Journey of Hope. Directed by Karl Francis. Bloom Street Productions. 1990.

    2 Raymond Williams. 'I. Biography'. Politics and Letters. Edited by Geoff Dyer. Verso. 2015.

    3 Raymond Williams. Culture and Society. Chatto and Windus. 1958.

    4 Raymond Williams. Border Country. Chatto and Windus. 1960.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Raymond Williams

    What does Raymond Williams mean by culture is ordinary?

    By saying that culture is ordinary, Raymond Williams means that culture is the product of ordinary people's everyday lives.  

    What is Raymond Williams' theory?

    Raymond Williams developed the theories of cultural materialism and structures of feeling.

    What is Raymond Williams' contribution to cultural studies?

    Raymond Williams was a founding scholar of cultural studies. He argued that culture was ordinary and not, as was previously thought, merely a product of artistic and intellectual genius and the dominant values, ideas, and interests of the upper classes. He also contributed many theories including cultural materialism.

    What does Raymond Williams believe is education?

    Raymond Williams was a teacher for most of his life and believed that education was key to democracy.

    Did Raymond Williams rewrite Marxism and Literature (1977)?

    Marxism and Literature has been published in different editions since its original publication in 1977.  

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