Raymond Williams, "Culture Is Ordinary"This is a featured page

Williams briefly introduces his working class background, including his family, their history, and the farming community and land they are intimately tied to, as he describes his perspective on culture. These first paragraphs serve to reinforce his central argument that "culture is ordinary," as he describes his ordinary life growing up in an ordinary agricultural community, a community that also lived through and benefited from industrialization and the subsequent growth of the culture of productivisim of ordinary culture that followed. Like Richard Johnson advocates, Williams considers and evaluates different theories and approaches to understanding culture (primarily from Marx and Leavis), always testing them against personal and historical evidence, and choosing what he finds relevant and effective for generating accurate knowledge. His primary arguments are:

Point #1

Culture is: ordinary, an experience common and accessible to each person and his/her society. It is active and changing. It comprises not only the public, common experience (the "whole way of life-the common meanings,” the accepted, traditional knowledge) but also the new, creative, individual aspects (“arts and literature- the special processes of discovery and creative effort”).

Culture is not:
a.
An elitist activity or any kind of outward sign of cultivation, refinement or specialness. Williams gives the example of a high-society, snobby teashop to show this mistaken idea of culture, a place where people ascribe culture only to themselves and only based on "trivial differences in behavior...trivial variations of speech habit."
b. Something to be mocked and dismissed as the province of "do-gooders and highbrows and superior prigs." The idea that "the masses" or ordinary people can't or don't participate in arts, literature, and learning (all parts of culture) is a destructive myth.


Point #2

Marxists gave Williams 3 important ideas, which Williams evaluates and disagrees with as he deems necessary:

a. "A culture is a whole way of life, and the arts are part of a social organization which economic change clearly radically affects" - thus to understand the culture (and the arts within it) one must finally interpret it "in relation to its underlying system of production."
b. Williams agrees that he lives in “a class dominated culture" and access to education is limited (though slowly broadening), but he disagrees with the idea that "the masses" are "ignorant." He respects the learning and arts of his heritage and rejects the idea that they don't participate in the national/artistic/English culture.
c. He also disagrees with the idea of directed/imposed artistic expression, contradicting the Marxist claim that “the advocacy of a different system of production is in some way a cultural directive, indicating not only a way of life but new arts and learning”


Point #3


Williams was initially swayed by Leavis' argument that the industrial revolution largely destroyed traditional English culture and left in its place a cheapened, vulgar, mass culture that dulled and diminished natural human responses. In Leavis' view, the only defence against the sweeping tide of vulgarity is in education, which will preserve the highest values in at least a few minds. Williams was impressed by this view because it respected his heritage (farming), but he finally rejects it because he sees it doesn't fit with much of his knowledge/experience. His reasons are:
a. The industrial revolution actually brought real improvements to everyday life, inlcluding material improvements and increased freedom and power. Because of these improvements, which no one would give up in a million years, Williams realizes that "any account...which explicitly or implicitly denies the value of an industrial society is really irrelevant"

b. Because of new technologies, improvements in power can be achieved without the filth and ugliness that were required before
c. The idea of "the masses" is a myth because "there are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses." The success of seeing people as masses during the chaos of the Industrial Revolution led to the "bad new commercial culture." It was not brought about by including them in the education process, as some claim.
d. The "badness...of popular culture" is NOT "a true guide to the state of mind and feeling, the essential quality of living of its consumers."
e.
Bad culture is NOT driving out good culture. Rather, the perceived increase in vulgarity and "low" culture is due to the fact that we live in an expanding culture, and all aspects are expanding.



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SJHamm
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