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Raymond Williams:

From "Culture " to "Community"


Patrick Brantlinger
Indiana University
"Culture," "communication," "community": these are the key
"keywords" in Raymond Williams' extraordinarily rich synthesis of literary
and social criticism. I'm going to suggest that there is an evolving hierarchy in Williams' thought, which works from the idea of culture, through
a sometimes related, sometimes opposed idea--or ideal--of communication,
to an ideal of community.
"Culture," Williams writes, "is one of the two or three most com-

plicatedwordsin the Englishlanguage." (K 76) I But "the variationsof


meaning and reference, in the use of culture as a term, must be seen...not
simply as a disadvantage, which prevents any kind of neat...definition, but
as a genuine complexity, corresponding to real elements in experience."
(LR 59) As with any word, idea, or text for Williams, "culture" is defined
by its social usage and history. Both its complexity and its centrality arise
because, likeother "keywords," "culture" has been a frequent battleground
for contending social forces. There is, for example, Matthew Arnold's treatment of "culture" as a counter to those social forces--Barbarianism,
Philistinism, the threat of mass democracy--which he called "anarchy."
Like the other literary-social critics whom Williams analyzes in Culture and
Society, Arnold was no dilettante or ivory tower theorist. His version of
"culture" might transcend the "anarchy" of class interests, but he expected
it to return upon that anarchy, through the "best self" and "the State,"
as a source of political authority and reform. Arnold defined poetry as a
"criticism of life," not as an endless elaboration of other poetry or as a
hermetic textualization of other texts. And with that much of Arnold's
definition of "culture" --its relevance to vital social and political concerns-Williams agrees.
From Arnold's definition of "culture" as "the best that has been
thought and known" and as "the study of perfection" derive the theory
and practice of much modern literary criticism--Leavis's "scrutiny," Trilling's "liberal" and Frye's "educated" imagination, Eugene Goodheart's
"radical"--but tempered by Arnold--"conscience." But Arnold be-

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lievedtoo simplisticallythat culture is a single thingnnamely, the tradition


of Western literary classics. He was too ready to identify culture with "Oxford, the home of lost causes," and perhaps especially with the lost cause
of his great mentor, John Henry Newman, for whom culture pointed inevitably to religion. There is a sense in which Arnold's ideal of culture was
merely negative, a stopgap measure not only against social anarchy, but
also against what Newman held to be the deepest cause of that anarchYn
secularization. Arnold wanted to bestow upon literature some of the
religious authority that was withdrawing with the sea of faith. Culture, he
hopefully asserted, means "making reason and the wiII of God prevail."
But what if "reason," as embodied in science, conflicts with any belief in
a "will of God"? What if, as Nietzsche announced in The Gay Science,
God is dead? And what if, as Foucault announced in the Order of Things,
the idea of humanity is also dead, and with it any notion of a humanizing
culture such as Arnold's?
The very development of modern literature has entailed the disintegration of the Arnoldian model of literary culture. As Gerald Graff declares
in Literature against Itself, "When the modernist revolution made...
Arnold's concept of culture seem outmoded, high culture lost what relative
unity it may have had. A high culture which includes both Arnold and
Artaud, Samuel Johnson and Samuel Beckett, has no ideological unity.'"
Nor does it seem reasonable to expect such a disunified high culture to have
the moral and political authority which Arnold desired. The number of conflicting voices in modern literature is at least matched and perhaps exceeded by the number of conflicting voices in modern literary criticism. There
is no one high culture but many, just as today there is and can be no critical
orthodoxy, but a variety of competing theories and practices.
In Problems in Materialism and Culture, WilIiams criticizes both
Arnold and all "our little Arnolds" ni think of our new Secretary of Education, WilIiam Bennettnfor the narrowness of their versions of culture. "Excellenceand humane values on the one hand; disciplineand where necessary
repression of the other. This, then as now," says WilIiams, "is...a culmination of the wrong kind of liberalism." (P 8) Bennett wants to dismantle
at least parts of the state apparatus that Arnold invoked to diffuse and also
enforce culture. Thus he is helping David Stockman gut federal student aid
programs. Yet just last fall, in his NEH "To Reclaim a Legacy" report,
Bennett invoked Arnold and an even narrower version of culture than
Arnold's to counteract what he sees as the anarchy of the sixties and its
resultnthe demise of true culture and humanities teaching, perhaps even
the decline and fall of the American way. Thus does the spirit of Matthew
Arnold, much diminished, pontificate in a three-piece Reaganomics suit
in the 1980's.3

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In all of his work, WilIiams moves away from the narrowness of the
Arnoldian idea toward the anthropological definition of culture as "a
whole... way of life." In The Sociology of Culture, WilIiams writes that
"Herder...first used the significant plural, 'cultures,' in deliberate distinction from any singular or, as we would now say, unilinear sense of 'civilisation.' The broad pluralist term was then especially important in the
nineteenth-century development of comparative anthropology, where it has
continued to designate a whole and distinctive way of life." (SC 10) But
while the Arnoldian idea of culture seems narrownelitist if not actively
authoritarian--the anthropological idea leads to cultural relativismand hence
to the difficulty that it gives the cultural or social critic no basis for mounting a critique. For the anthropologist, every society has or is a distinctive,
whole way of life, perfectly valid in its context. Judgments about the
superiority of one culture to another are nonscientific, ethnocentric. Of
course that doesn't prevent anthropologists from practicing their own brand
of social criticism in reverse--both through condemning ethnocentrism and
through various celebrations of the primitive. "In the America of the Indians," writesClaude Levi-Strauss,"I cherish the reflection...of an era when
the human species was in proportion to the world it occupied, and when
there was stilI a valid relationship between the enjoyment of freedom and
the symbols denoting it.'" Tristes Tropiques is suffused with a
Rousseauesqueprimitivismand a hatred of industrialized civilization typical
of much modern anthropology.
Both because of its authoritarian narrowness in one direction and
becauseof its relativismin another, "culture" is a difficult term for WiIliams
to use in mounting his own critique of industrialized civilization. "Communication" is more useful in several respects. As the basis of social experience, it crosses all cultural boundaries, whether Arnoldian or anthropological. It is a more neutral term than "cultural" at least in the latter's Arnoldian meaning, yet embedded within it lies the political formation toward which WilIiams hopes that modern history is tending. " Communication is the process of making unique experience into common experience," he writes, "and it is, above all, the claim to live the process
of communication is in fact the process of community." (LR 55) WiIliams'
formulation contains both an optimistic assessment of the actual experience
of "growth and change" in modern society, and the ideal toward which
we are growing. Although we don't yet have a fully democratic "community" in any modern, industrialized society, we have both the human capacity and the tools for building such a community.
We tend to associate
"communications"
with "mass
communications"--television, radio, cinema, journalism, advertising--and
analyzing that association has produced some of Williams' most innovative

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work. In both Communications and Television: Technology and Cultural


Form, Williams addresses the problem that "mass communication" is not
genuinelydemocratic, and hence falls short of being true "communication."
"Mass communication" is one-way, monologic, perhaps totalitarian,
whe.eas "communication" implies dialogue, give-and-take, the stuff of
democracy. "Mass communication" may seem democratic, but movesaway
from the sort of free discussion which John Stuart Mill envisaged as the
basis of a democratic society in On Liberty. Genuine "communication,"
on the other hand, always works toward Mill's goal of freedom, and hence
toward both the ideal of community and the realization of each individual's
full potential or "best self" in that community. "The aim [is] to create
an educated and participating democracy," says Williams. And he means
the aim of all work in cultural fields today, from teaching Shakespeare at
Wake Forest to teaching literacy in Burundi. "We can achieve [full
democracy] only in the terms of an advanced industrial society," Williams
continues, "and the community we are building is and must be a wholly
new kind of community, in which...new kinds of communication...must
be... welcomed. The growth of large-scaleorganization and communication
is a major human gain, far outweighing the real difficulties...it has also
brought, and this extension needs to go much farther yet, towards a world
community." (C 134)
Williams' stress on "communication" connects with language theory,
where, he contends, a whole range of approaches, from nineteenth-century
philology to current semiotics, reify language as a "system," separate from
praxis. "The real communicative 'products' which are usable signs,"
Williamsdeclares, are not finished or given "products" at all, but "a continuing social process, into which individuals are born and within which
they are shaped, but to which they also actively contribute." (ML 37)
Languageis the basis of "culture," and the aim of "culture," after its elitist
tendencieshave been stripped away, is "communication." Authentic "communication," in turn, entails the negation of the antidemocratic tendencies of the mass media. These are not just "keywords," but key processes
of modern history, hopefully moving us toward a democratic, united world.
But that goal won't be reached automatically, through a McLuhanesque
technological determinism.' It can only be reached, Williams believes,
through the conversion into practice of critical ideals of dialogue and
democracy by cultural workers such as ourselves. "Communication" involves conscious effort, a collective mental labor similar to what Arnold
meant by "the pursuit of perfection," but raised from the individual to
the social level. Perhaps the most hopeful sign of the times is the dissemination and nearly universal experience of "communication"--in group and
town meetings, in industrial relations, in schools and universities, in elec-

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tion campaigns, in international cooperation and exchange, even in its partly
spurious forms of "mass communication." For better or worse, and through
the "long revolution," Williams suggests, we are gradually getting better,
we have left behind an age of what Marx called "the idiocy of rural life"
for an age of expanding communication.
In Culture and Society, Williams wrote the classic account of British
intellectual response to the dual revolutions of modern times, industrialization and democratization. To these he adds a third, cultural revolution,
by which he means primarily the development of mass literacy, of public
education, and of the mass media.6 Of course this third, cultural revolution is in some sense the product of industrialization and democratization,
but Williams believes that the cultural revolution is slowly gaining the upper hand.
As a materialist rather than Hegelian, he is far from asserting that ideas
rule history. But Williams believes that ideas may achieve a future
precedence over the material forces which in the past have determined their
shapes, as in the Marxist base/superstructure model. For the orthodox
Marxist, economic forces determine cultural patterns, but Williams is no
more an orthodox Marxist than he is a Hegelian idealist. "We are used
to descriptions of our whole common life in political and economic terms,"
Williams declares. That is to say, the dual revolutions in economics and
politics seem to govern everything else in modern experience. But into this
largely deterministic picture Williams injects the cultural revolution: "The
emphasis on communications asserts...that [people] and societies are not
confined to relationships of power, property, and production," he writes.
"Their relationships, in describing, learning, persuading and exchanging
experiences" --that is, their "communicative" relationships--"ar~.. .equally fundamental." (C 18) "Communication" is, in short, the method of
freedom, the "process of community."
There has been a steady convergence of the work of several recent
cultural theorists, including Williams, Foucault, and Jiirgen Habermas,
latest representative of the Frankfurt Institute. In Foucault, Marxism and
History, Mark Poster summarizes Habermas's theories in terms that might
describe Williams: "In his work on the history of communications, one
finds [Habermas] postulating an ideal speech situation as the ground for
a new, democratic public sphere in which the individual can exercizereason
and attain the truth. For Habermas, the ideal speech situation is always
there in human communication, serving as a metaphysical support for
reason. Historical materialism.. .suffers badly if it degrades reason to an

epiphenomenonof the modeof production."7 Foucaultis apparentlymuch


more hostile to reason and more deterministic than Habermas--he expresses
the difficultiesinvolved in any utopian extrapolation from the idea of "com-

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munication." But, Poster argues, implicit in Foucault is the idea of "modes
of information," which can serve as a better explanatory model for contemporary history than the orthodox Marxist idea of "modes of production." And "information"--Foucault's "discourse"--puts us again in the
realm of communication, and hence also suggests a possible means of liberation from the tyranny of economic and political necessity. Though Williams
seems not yet to have recognized Habermas and Foucault as allies, I expect
he soon will: most of these themes are present in his 1978 essay, "Means

of Communicationas Means of Production."

I hope that my account will prompt discussion. You may think instead
that my concluding remarks co-opt discussion by anticipating it, but while
I wrote this talk I imagined an antagonist jumping up from the audience
to defend Arnold and perhaps also William Bennett. To this antagonist I
would point out, coolly and rationally, that our very disagreement is symptomatic of the disintegration of the Arnoldian idea of a single, unified
cultural or literary tradition. We are, I would tell him, on opposite sides
of an ideological rift, and moreover the best literature departments today
are characterized by just such rifts, rather than by the adoption of a single
reading list or a single methodology. At the same time, I would ask my
Arnoldian opponent to notice that, though we're divided about the meaning of culture, we are discussing it in a meeting held for that purpose. We
may not share the same idea of culture or even the same culture, but we
communicate-owe share our different perspectives through communication. And we do so under the auspices of a professional organization-a community of cultural workers--where the first value is communication,
or the mutual exchange of experiences, ideas, information, opinions. What
would we have instead been doing two or three hundred years ago? Perhaps
herding cows on peasant farms in Europe, sharing only the "idiocy of rural
life." In this small way, even through disagreement, in our discussion, our
thinking, our teaching, and the fact that we are all educated individuals,
we shadow forth the larger goal we are working toward.
, Abbreviations

for Williams'

works used in the text: C

= Communications

(London:

Penguin, 1962); K = Keywords (New York: Oxford, 1976); LR = The Long Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965); ML = Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1977); P = Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980); SC = The
Sociology of Culture (New York: Schocken, 1982). In the discussion which followed this talk,
I gave far tOo small an estimate of the number of Williams' books which have been sold.
See the forward to Williams, Politics and Lellers: Interviews with New Left Review (London:
Verso, 1981), p. 7, for more accurate figures, including a total of 750,000 copies "in UK editions alone."

, Gerald

Graff, Literature against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (Chicago: Univer-

sity of Chicago Press,

1979), p. 117.

William Bennett's report is reprinted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, November

28. 1984, pp. 16-21.


. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (New York: Atheneum, 1974), p. 150.
, See Williams' critique of McLu'han in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New

York: Schocken, 1975), pp. 126.130.


For the idea of "cultural revolution"

as gradually

gaining on economic

and political

necessity, see The Long Revolution, the last chapter of Culture and Society, and also Com.
munications, among other places.
7 Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of
Information
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), p. I I.
. Reprinted in Problems in Materialism and Culture, pp. 50-63.