What Does Raymond Williams Mean By Culture Is Ordinary?

Raymond Williams’ assertion that culture is ‘a whole way of life’ formed the basis of his 1958 work Culture and Society. This was a book that was received by his peers as polemical and as a manifesto for the New Left. It was very much a product of the time, written in response to a burgeoning conservative reactionary stance against the extension of education to all children.[1] His primary motivation for writing Culture and Society was consequently refuting ‘the increasing contemporary use of the concept of culture against democracy, socialism, the working class or popular education.’[2] In other words the current interpretation of culture was being used as a means of perpetuating and shoring up social inequality. This opinion, as it will be made clear, is evident in Williams’ attempt to democratise the meaning of culture and the political climate in which he was writing is an important contextual consideration. In the following analysis first the phrase ‘a whole way of life’ will be deconstructed and its meaning explained. Proceeding this the merits and limitations of his perspective will be discussed.
Williams’ understands ‘culture’ as being made of two separate components; the first denotes a whole way of life, the second refers to the arts and learning. The former component represents the known meanings and directions which its members recognise and respond to, the latter represents new observations and meanings which are put forward and tested.[3] These components are reflected in every human society and render culture ordinary.

This interpretation challenges the widely held notion that culture means the high arts – theatre, literature, painting – that it is exclusive and access to it is restricted, predominantly through education, and is diametrically opposed to business, urban growth and individualism.[4] For Williams the idea that possession of culture rested on the narrow assumption outlined above was absurd. This definition placed culture firmly within the realm of the bourgeois and out of the reach of the working classes. Instead, whilst recognising the contribution the bourgeoisie have made to English culture, Williams argues that the working classes have their own institutions, common meanings, arts and learning and therefore participate in culture.[5] Consuming and engaging with culture arises through the very prosaic prerequisite of living; it is the ‘product of a man’s whole committed personal and social experience.’[6]
In The Long Revolution (1961) which followed on from Culture and Society Williams’ view on culture became distinctly relational in the sense that he champions the breaking down of a cultural hierarchy which separates literature and art from the everyday. [7] This position is the logical outcome of an argument which sees all facets of life feeding into the conventions and institutions which inform the meanings that are shared by the community. Throughout Williams’ career he was interested in the processes of cultural development and he devised a theory of cultural materialism.[8] The concept of culture as ‘a whole way of life’ should be seen as the first step taken by Williams in the construction of this dialectical understanding of culture.
The overriding merit of Williams’ conceptualisation of culture is its inclusivity. The recognition of the cultural worth of all human activity is socially equalising. Its destruction of the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture shuns the conservative view that mass participation in culture somehow devalues it and instead opens the way for its democratisation. This is decidedly progressive and his particular commitment to the democratisation of education has been inaugurated and accepted.
On the other hand one of the most poignant criticisms levied at Williams’ ‘a whole way of life’ premise is that it is politically charged and that as a Marxist he has a vested interested in attributing, say, the formation of a trade union with the same cultural value as Dickens’ Bleak House or Millais’ Orphelia. He has been criticised for assuming that all people are capable of achieving an intellectual engagement with the world around them that has the capacity to inform cultural progression. [9] Whilst this critique is somewhat condescending of the working classes’ cognitive prowess, it should be remembered that when Williams’ work was first published, growing tension between the West and the Soviet Union increased hostility towards opinions that displayed socialist optimism.
Williams’ view, as illustrated by the history of culture put forward in Culture and Society, is rooted in the analysis of past cultural change. He uses these observations to build a theory of progress, not only within this text, but also in his eventual propagation of cultural materialism. As with the historical materialism of Marx, such a view gives systems of production a central waiting and is consequently dialectical, idealist and more often than not proven wrong by actual events.
To conclude, the concept that culture is ‘a whole way of life’ challenged the compartmentalisation of culture into ‘high’ and ‘low’ and instead sought to create an understanding of the word which embraced the full range of human activity. Throughout his work Williams displayed a clear agenda. He sought, in San Juan words, ‘the democratisation of culture through mass participation in political decisions and the broadest access to education and the resources of communication.’[10] At the most basic level of this call for what was barely short of a revolution was the premise that culture was ‘a whole way of life.’ This left a bad taste in the mouths of many of Williams’ conservative and centrist contemporaries. Notwithstanding the hard to deny political overtones of his work Williams’ groundbreaking cultural critiques have merit enough to cement his position as the father of Cultural Studies.
Higgins, J., Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and cultural materialism, Routledge, London, 1999
Jardine, L., and J. Swindells, ‘Homage to Orwell: The dream of a common culture, and other minefields’, in T. Eagleton (ed.), Raymond Williams: Critical perspectives, Polity Press, 1989
San Juan, E., ‘Raymond Williams and the idea of cultural revolution’, College Literature, vol. 26, no. 2, 1999, pp. 118-136
Williams, R., Culture and Society 1750-1950, The Hogarth Press, London, 1958
Williams, R., ‘Culture is ordinary’, in R. Gable (ed.), Resources of hope: Culture, democracy, socialism’, Verso, London, 1989

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