Culture is one of the most problematic and debated words in academic discourse. In order to understand what Raymond Williams might mean by the claim "culture is ordinary", it will be necessary to provide a genealogy of the concept of culture. Such a genealogy will (Butler: 1990:ix) “investigate the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin.” We will analyse the way in which elite cultural institutions institute power relations through the control of the category ‘culture.’
This essay will focus on understanding the political stakes in Williams’ (1990:15) understanding of culture through an appreciation of the change in the notion from Matthew Arnold’s work (1993) through to Williams and present day culture studies. The notion of culture is so broad that one has to analyse carefully a statement such as the one given in the title to understand the underlying argument. It will be argued that while one can agree with the polemical thrust of Williams’ statement, the underlying assumptions he makes about culture are untenable. This essay will outline why Williams’ attempt to contrast organic culture with the mechanical industrial age is not tenable.
As Williams (1985:88) notes in his Keywords entry on culture, much of the confusion surrounding the topic derives from the great number of meanings people give to the term. He isolates three key uses: the process of development; the anthropological idea of a culture being a particular way of life; culture understood as artistic practice. To these we could perhaps add another more contemporary meaning, where culture has come to stand in for a certain sort of emotional climate, for instance in the repeated accusation of a culture of cronyism in the present Labour government. To understand the thrust of Williams’ argument we shall consider each of these in turn.
When Williams was writing, film, television and local pursuits (e.g. local handicrafts as distinct from the pantheon of the high arts) did not have the place in society that they have today. In terms of culture thought of as artistic practice, its domain was limited to the fine arts, classical music and literature - the idea of a television reviewer writing a column which appeared next to the book reviews in The Times newspaper would have seemed a strange idea. Culture was thought of as a noble pursuit, and the standards used to judge such work were artistic standards that were supposed to be removed from any social or economic consideration. Williams’ work in this area, as with a number of other writers of the period (Bourdieu: 1987), insisted placing such artwork within social and economic networks of production. This approach embodies Marx’s contention that man is a social animal, and that material and social production, though possibly given the character of a set of objective and natural relations, is a product of labour and power relations within a society.
The first part of Williams’ argument means that elite culture cannot be seen as something apart from society, reflecting eternal values of beauty. Rather, it must be understood as bound up in the society that created it. Williams agues that (1981:45) "a culture is a whole way of life, and the arts are part of a social organisation which economic change clearly radically effects." Here Williams’ critique of established notions of culture can be seen to develop two arguments. That cultural is ordinary means that normal life, and all the pursuits not associated with elitist conceptions of culture, can now be understood as cultural. Furthermore, that culture is ordinary means that it is not privileged, but needs to be analysed as a part of everyday life. This critique can be seen to be subversive, in the sense that it threatens the privileged domain of ‘high culture‘, but also levelling, in that it removes the values that differentiate between different domains of activity.
Thus we can see that understanding culture as ordinary, despite the strength of the argument, leads one to ask; if culture is ordinary, what distinguishes culture from everyday life? In this sense we can see the similarity between the work of Williams’ and the approach taken in anthropology. Williams comes close to Kluckholn’s (1961:45) outlining of culture as the whole series of mechanisms (symbolic and material) by which a society reproduces itself. We can agree that this is ordinary, but while this maybe true it makes the concept of culture so broad as to be analytically useless. Furthermore, it can lead one to a narrow reductionism practiced by certain Marxist literary critics that analyse Tolstoy in terms of feudal relationships in Russia in the 19C. Williams certainly cannot be accused of such simple minded reductionism, but problems remain with equating the sphere of culture with the sphere of the ‘ordinary.’
To understand these problems we need to assess more completely the origins and development of the idea of culture. As Williams’s points out in Keywords, culture originally referred solely to material processes. Cultivating was the process of tending or growing something. This usage was extended by metaphor to the cultivation of a proper mind in the 17C. This usage is by no means innocent. The cultivation of a mind brings over an organic metaphor from material life and transfers these same assumptions into society. As Bourdieu notes (1987:155), the cultivation of habits and cultural sensibilities is one of the prime mechanisms for encoding a set of established power relations within a society.
In our particular example the use of an organic metaphor carries with it the assumption that the social order within the society is also organic - disguising a contingent historical framework as a natural objective one. This also implies that one has no choice but to be in culture, rather than being one of many possible cultures; the organic metaphor implies that culture is something one organically becomes. Such a view of culture marginalises the contested nature of the social sphere, and ignores the underlying power relations that make up cultural production. Foucault (e.g. 1999) has done a great deal to challenge these notions in ways not too dissimilar to Williams’ challenging of the status of elite culture.
This organic usage changes in the 19C. Culture becomes the process of being civilised. The power and importance of this change can be seen in the work of evolutionary anthropologists (c.f. Tylor: 1986), who constructed evolutionary typologies of cultures, with industrialised Europe as their head and destiny. Such a notion of culture evolving was one of the major ideological underpinnings of the colonial period. Part of this underpinning, at a time when increasing contact with the world was calling into question what it meant to be European and indeed, human, was that art was one of the most important factors in determining the level of one’s ‘civilisation.’ Art, especially after the influential model suggested by Kant (1978), was thought to only be ‘for itself’, without a basis in use-value or anything explicable by sociological or political motivation.
Thus art was understood as being the furthest point away from the contingent way people assumed animals and (slightly higher up the scale) ‘savages’ lived. Thus, we can see there is a structural homology between the idea of cultivating one’s mind into society, and society cultivating itself up the evolutionary tree. In this sense, the three fold separation of culture that Williams makes in keywords is highly interlinked: it is the use of art that determines development, and what is considered art (painting rather than pottery for instance) that allows people to consider one culture developed and the other barbarous - and thus in need of the civilizing process.
The assertion of culture as ordinary thus evokes an equivalency of analysis: the production of culture is all the production of a society, and thus must be analysed as such, rather than being assigned a special domain of analysis. Williams notes (1981:33): "Thus the social organisation of culture as a realised signifying system, is embedded in a whole range of activities, relations and institutions, of which only some are manifestly cultural." Williams’ work has attracted a generation of scholars to consider how culture exists in spaces far away from the art gallery and concert hall. In this way, it has led to a greater appreciation of how humans give meaning to their lives.
The difference between the approach of Williams and the approach of the previous century can be seen by contrasting Williams’ Culture and Society (1983) with Culture and Anarchy (1993) by Matthew Arnold. In the latter book culture appears as a secularised religion capable of binding together society as it progresses towards human perfection. In the former, culture is no longer part of an evolutionary march, but the tissue of human relationships in a society.
However, it is in Culture and Society that Williams makes some of his most dubious pronouncements, and reveals a hidden kinship with Arnold. Williams argues that notions of culture in England developed in opposition to the growth of industrialisation and economics. Here he develops a common theme of Marxist thought, which is to understand as the individualism underlying commodity relations (which disguise relations of labour production with seemingly objective relations of goods) as mechanical and destructive of the social ties that previously held society together. These ties replaced social ties with economic one’s, as Marx observes of commodity relations (1992:118): "a commodity is therefore a mysterious thing… because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour."
In his distinctive phrase, Williams understood culture as a ‘court of appeal’, a place where values could be debated and formed. However, to claim that the notion of culture originated as a means of contesting capitalism is a different class of statement than if one were to claim the culture opposes capitalism. Williams frequently confuses these two classes of statement. This is problematic, for as we witness more and more today, consumption and production is not simply an infrastructural material set of relations with a superstructural ideology. It is the cultural signs that function as part of the system. Indeed, Baudrillard claims (1975:129) that consumerism now takes place not as “the exploitation of labour, where Marxist analysis examined it, but in the form of a general code of rational abstraction.” In this sense, the prime ground for capitalist production is now in terms of cultural production of semiotic systems.
Williams was a very sophisticated critic, and was always alert to the shifting ways material and symbolic processes inter-related. However, in his evoking of culture as a court of appeal he does not sufficiently appreciate the extent to which capitalism is embedded within cultural notions. Indeed, his organic notion of culture is precisely the notion that Arnold uses in Culture and Anarchy, deprived of its teleological and evolutionary implications. We can see thus a tension in Williams work between the element that is subversive and levelling, and the desire to keep some notion of intrinsic good within culture.
In this respect Williams is very much rooted in the Enlightenment tradition. He does not critique the very practice of reason and culture as understood by the west, as Adorno (2001) was doing in the same period. Rather, he criticises the way culture has been understood as too narrow, and he criticises what he sees as an erosion of culture by capitalism. In doing so he leaves himself open to the charge of not considering how the very production of culture gave rise to, and is incorporated in the functioning of, capitalism.
Culture is ordinary is a statement that today would raise very few disagreements, save perhaps from Harold Bloom. Thus, it is difficult to appreciate the importance and radicalism of Williams work at the time it was first published. In as much as Williams intends to decentre the privileged domain of elite culture and assert the cultural and sociological relations inherent in all human production, it can be agreed that culture is ordinary. However, Williams attempt to oppose culture to mechanical capitalism fails conceptually.
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