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Raymond Williams, "Culture is Ordinary"

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Debra Goodman

on 3 September 2010

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Transcript of Raymond Williams, "Culture is Ordinary"

Culture is Ordinary (1958)

Context Traditional view of culture: Matthew Arnold

"culture indefatigably tries, not to make what each raw person may like, the rule by which he fashions himself; but to draw ever nearer to a sense of what is indeed beautiful"

Culture transcends daily life and ordinary people; "sweetness and light"

"Man of culture:" transcends the everyday New kind of academia
postwar GI Bill (America)
displaced workers
growing population of working class "scholarship boys"
beginnings of postwar mass culture

Newcomers to academia begin to ask: What about me? Where do I fit in? What about my culture? Organizational Structure An essay of definition

1. Introductory Section: introduces the problem of Culture and defines it. Uses his personal narrative to draw us in.

2. Contemporary perspectives that do not define culture correctly: he specifies two contemporary perspectives on culture AND analyzes their faults (without simplification)

3. Influences on his perspective: two perspectives that, although imperfect and faulty, have merit and have influenced his definition

4. Demystification of assumptions about culture: what are some false assumptions about culture that do not fit into his definition? How does his definition prove these assumptions wrong?

Introductory section Personal narrative about a trip home

Why begin an essay on a general concept--"culture"--with personal experience?
Cathedral (religious space) Library (chained, inaccessible space of culture
Cinema (public, popular space) City
Countryside (over the “old bridge”) Black mountains (natural space)
Norman castles (historical spaces) Early iron workings (spaces of labor)
Farming valleys (pastoral spaces) steel-rolling mill, gasworks, grey terraces (industrial spaces)

1. the known:
2. the new:

"Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses. I insist on both."

1. movement AND stasis

2. a process
loss: his grandfather losing his cottage as industrial patterns changed
gain: his father speaking "happily of when he had started a trade-union branch" (92)
transformation: "the shaping of minds; the learning of new skills, the shifting of relationships" (92)

3. ordinary, not "great" or superior
does not transcend life
culture IS life

What cultures does Williams want us to recuperate? Working class culture
Subordinate cultures

Definition of Culture Two Opposing Perspectives "[A] price had been set on this kind of learning" (93).

Culture only for "a special kind of people, cultivated people" (93).

"[I]f that is culture, we don't want it. we have seen other people living" (93).

What is William's tone throughout this section and the rest of the essay? Is he an "angry young man"? Why is his tone, his writer's voice, important in terms of his argument?
1.The Cambridge Teashop 2. Populists/Anti-elitists "It is plain that what may have started as a feeling about hypocrisy, or about pretentiousness (in itself a two-edged word), is becoming a guilt-ridden tic at the mention of any serious standards whatever" (94)

Culture is not evaluated as "good" according to ethical or aesthetic standards; it is only evaluated by a "purely technical standard" (94).

Who do you think Williams is referring to when he mentions "the new cheapjack"?
Two Influential
(but still incomplete)
Definitions 1. Marxism economic inequality leads to a lack of access to cultural institutions

what Williams uses for his definition: the facts of restriction, exclusion and economic inequality

what Williams rejects for his definition: the idea that "working people are excluded from English culture...A great part of the English way of life, and of its arts and learning, is not bourgeois in any discoverable sense 2. The theories of F.R. Leavis Culture is decaying

Traditional, valuable culture --> new, cheapened, corrupt culture
Education is the answer: "the only defence;" a cure for the pathology of 'bad culture' (96)

what Williams uses for his definition: the power of education

what Williams rejects for his definition: that the new and progressive is inherently bad.

Assumptions about culture that must be debunked before a true definition can be produced 1. "Ugliness is the price we pay...for economic power" (98) false proposition: a statement that holds itself up to be true (a proposition) but is in fact false

reason: technology and innovation can be beautiful if well thought out and planned 2. popular culture = commercial culture False equation - making two things equivalent that are not

1. ordinary people are not "masses"
"There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses"

2. commercial culture resulted from industrialism (the system of economic production and inequality) NOT popular education (the growth of a democratic, accessible school system)
3. Popular culture is bad...but it is what we want. false equation: "bad" culture = "bad" people

In order to combat this false equation, why does he turn to "observable facts," "test[ing] it, in experience" (99)? Why does he move back to personal narrative, describing a visit with his "family and family friends?" 4. Culture is like money. "Just as bad money will drive out good, so bad culture will drive out good." "For, in fact, of course, it has not been happening." Why is he so assertive, so matter of fact? Do you agree?

What examples does he give as proof that 'good' culture is not being replaced by 'bad' culture? Do you think those examples still hold up today? Why does Raymond Williams repeat this phrase over and over again, in the paper and as his title? How is he trying to appeal to his audience? The Power of Repetition New identity: being in-between cultures Shame
Excitement; expansive ways of understanding the self Why mention all the places he travels through? Why does this
argument matter? About Leavis: "We have all learned from him in this, and we have also learned his version of what is wrong with English culture...I was deeply impressed by [his thinking]" (96)

Why is Williams' tone so respectful? What definitions of culture does Raymond Williams leave out?
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