Culture after Cultural Studies: Raymond Williams and the Topographic Imagination


“For Londoners London is obscured: too thinly spread; too private for anyone to know; its social life invisible; its government abolished; its institutions at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where, at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers – mostly citizens of other towns. The true identity of London, he said, is in its absence – as a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.”

London. Dir. Patrick Keiller 1991.

In Daniel Defoe’s account of his journey from Herefordshire into Wales, he makes no mention of “the line of grey Norman castles […] the fortress wall of the mountains” (“Culture is Ordinary” 10) that impose the fact upon Williams, more than a century and a half later, of how the culture of his birth was won. For Defoe, an Englishman in Wales, the history of the country is to be seen and not lived:

The most to be said of this town, is what indeed what I have said of many places in Wales, that it is very ancient, and indeed to mention it here for all the rest, there are many tokens of antiquity to be seen everywhere in Wales, than in any particular part of England. (A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain,1724-6, 376)

History as it is lived and experienced in the present never enters into Defoe’s diary, except for so many imaginary hieroglyphics through which one can live the past vicariously – “It was among the mountains of this country that the famous Glendower sheltered himself, and taking arms on the deposing Richard II proclaimed himself Prince of Wales; and they showed us several little refuges of his in the mountains” (377) – stories from some other country. Rather, the cultural activity – indeed the only real cultural activity as it is lived – Defoe sees in mercantilism: “Here also is a very great trade for coals, and culm, which they export to all the ports of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall, and also to Ireland itself; so that one sometimes sees a hundred sails of ships at a time loading coal here; which greatly enriches the country” (378). Here, finally, lies Williams’ assertion “culture is ordinary” (The Raymond Williams Reader 10) – though it remained unknown to Defoe. That is to say, culture is labour and thus it is ordinary:

To grow up in that country was to see the shape of a culture, and its modes of change. I could stand on the mountains and look north to the farms and the Cathedral, or south to the smoke and the flare of the blast furnace making a second sunset […] the making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery; writing themselves into the land. (11)

This passage is remarkable if only for the depth and breadth of experience to which the speaker lays claim. Its advocacy of “common meanings” (ibid.) and a social experience of history and culture intimately tied to one’s locality yet fundamentally deterritorialised – unbound to institutions of state or church through which certain cultural formations become dominant and thus exclusive – is extremely persuasive. What nonetheless remains unscrutinised, or at least unarticulated in this essay, are the historical forces which made this proclamation possible. What category of experience has to exist in order for Williams’ notion of communal, and explicitly working-class, cultural and social formations even to be expressed? Part of the canonization the “Culture is Ordinary” essay has been afforded in the field of contemporary criticism has to do with the bittersweet acknowledgement that the person capable of making such an argument now seems a figure more and more disconnected with ourselves. Who now, after all, could look on the place of his or her birth and see the entire history of their culture written into the landscape? Who, moreover, is able to say they know their own culture as assuredly as Williams does his – bound precisely as it is to a mode of mass industrial production now past? The question becomes, therefore, is Williams’ belief in a topographic and material understanding of one’s own culture: a landed culture that is unique and common to our present time, yet localised and communal, now impossible? Or, as Robinson expresses at the close of Patrick Keiller’s London, do we now live in an ‘absent’ culture, divorced from the common meanings and experiences Williams cherished – like citizens of a disappearing city; the experience of which is a foreign landscape?

In the first instance, however, Williams’ ‘topographic imagination’, as evident in “Culture is Ordinary”, must be clearly and fundamentally related to his conception of cultural materialism as critical practice, wherein it differs from other Marxist interpretations of culture. Williams’ theory and practice of cultural materialism cannot be regarded as one totalizing theoretical system, as its development and divergence from other Materialist critiques is ongoing throughout his work. His earlier exposure to F.R Leavis and E.M.W Tillyard overshadows several of his earlier texts, in that Williams’ materialism represents in large part a reactionary gesture towards this influence which, in Politics and Letters (1979) dominated the English faculty at Cambridge as the “going position” (245) for several years after his graduation. Williams’ main departure from Leavis – whose practical criticism inherently dependedupon a small set of canonical texts or writers designated ‘high art’ by their very inclusion, and which thus inherently territorialised culture as the sphere of elites – occurs most assuredly in Culture and Society (1958). Williams begins by analysing the semiotic shifts in the words ‘industry’; ‘democracy’; ‘class’; ‘art’ and ‘culture’ over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which, he argues, self-evidently indicates the much wider forces of historical change acting on the social field. Thus, industry was no longer used as a general term for work or conscientiousness as it had originally, and instead came to refer only to the mechanisms and processes factory production. Likewise class evolved as a descriptor to differentiate between those engaged in industrial labour and other types of work and ultimately the gentrified or refined strata of society. At precisely the same time, art had ceased to mean skill, as it had under artisan phase of capitalist production, and instead referred only to certain creative activities in the field of aesthetics – such as painting, literature and music. Culture in the early eighteenth century had referred to the growth and cultivation of crops, but was by the twentieth century now a synonym for civilisation, whilst sustaining some of the earlier associations with growth, nurture and the organic from its earlier usage. Culture thus becomes for Williams essentially the opposite of Industry if we were to take into account the historical – and sociological – formulations of their meaning, not as a concrete range of applications but several fluctuating and overlapping spheres of meaning. Culture, in its modern sense, took under its domain activities and processes that had nothing to with industrial kinds of labour – and therefore the working-classes. This perspective was typified for Williams by the nineteenth century forms of Romanticism or Romantic modes-of-thinking, wherein the separation between artistic production and the activities of everyday life is paramount. Within this central argument of Williams’ early work lies the key critique of “Culture is Ordinary” and his later critical texts: that is, the ideological structures that separated culture from labour, and in doing so disenfranchised the working-class from as a constituent part of British culture and society, could be overcome through materialist excavation of their origins.  Culture and Society might therefore be seen as the manifesto of William’s cultural materialism, even in its embryonic stage of development, as he explicitly targets Leavis as his antagonist and the high-priest of the territorialising approach to cultural criticism organised around exclusivity rather than inclusivity:

Leavis might reasonably reply, to what I have written, that to see literature as a specialism among others is not to see literature at all. I would agree with this. But the emphasis I am trying to make is that, in the work of continuity and change, and just because of the elements of disintegration, we cannot make literary experience as the sole, or even the central test. We cannot even, I would argue, put the important stress on the ‘minority’, for the idea of the conscious minority is itself no more than a defensive symptom against the general dangers. (254)

This materialist turn in Williams’ thought pre-empted his much deeper engagement with Marxist theory in his works after Culture and Society, yet Williams himself was anxious to develop a more thorough and complex theory of culture than Marx’s writings (or those available in English at the time) seemed to offer: “an increasing number of Marxists now believe that cultural theory has become more important, in modern social and cultural conditions, than it was in Marx’s own day” (What I Came to Say 1989, 196). This simultaneous investment and critical distance in Marxist theories of culture hinges on one of the most discussed and controversial passages Marx wrote:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness.” (Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, 23).

This paragraph from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is frequently, and incorrectly, cited as a totalizing theory of culture. Rather, Marx’s argument is to insist that legal and political practices of government (the state) must by necessity work to perpetuate the market forces (the division of labour) of that society – from which in turn ideas of universality and shared or national experience – freedom, justice, history – proliferate. The language Marx uses to describe the relationship between the base and the superstructure is not deterministic in any reductionist sense, though for much Marxist criticism available to Williams in the 1950s this was certainly a prevalent tendency in much orthodox Marxist thought and writing. In that sense, despite the wildly polarised political positions of Marx and Leavis, the interpretation of their work led to a similar interpretation of culture: as partitioned off from material contact with the outside world. Williams certainly acknowledges the causal power of capitalist economy to affect the division of labour and therefore the forms of govermentality available to that society, but he radically expands the range of activities considered to be ‘economic’ just as he does with ‘cultural’ practices.

In The Long Revolution (1961), published partly as a companion to Culture and Society, Williams identifies four systemic processes integral to societal development: the system of decision; the system of maintenance; the system of communication; and the system of generation[1]. These correspond to the spheres of politics, economics, education and domesticity commonly identified as the constituent elements of social life. Williams’ interjection into Marxist theory was to argue that Marx places more importance on the first two categories than the latter:

Man in society was traditionally defined as man in social relationships based on a divine order, a received order, or an established order. This was then extended, first by theorists of the market, later by socialists such as Marx, to man in social relationships based on economic activities: as the activities change, so the order must change. This was better, but still left out too much […] art is degraded as a mere reflection of the basic economic and political process, on which it is thought to be parasitic; or it is idealised into the separate sphere of aesthetics – if Economic man, then Aesthetic man. But the creative element of man is the root both of his personality and his society; it can neither be confined to art nor excluded from the systems of decision and maintenance. (The Long Revolution 133-134).

In this way Williams is able to turn the determinist or essentialist arguments of orthodox Marxism inside-out; as he would in Politics and Letters, describing the industrial revolution as in equal measure a revolution in creative practices as well as modes of production, with both bearing equal weight upon the other:

The industrial revolution was among other things a revolution in the production of literacy and it is at this point that the argument turns full circle. The steam press was as much a part of the industrial revolution as the steam jenny or the steam locomotive. What it was producing was literacy; and with it a new kind of newspaper and novel. The traditional formulations that I was attacking [in The Long Revolution] would have seen the press as only a reflection at a much later stage of the economic order […] Whereas the revolution itself, as a transformation of the mode of production, already included many changes which the ordinary definitions […] said were not economic […] it was an industrial revolution in the production of culture as much as an industrial revolution […] in the production light, of power, of building materials. (Politics and Letters 144).

This deterritorialised reading of ‘labour’ and ‘culture’ engaged in equal measure with various social processes of production, rather than the purely material production of commodities, is the keystone of Williams’ critical project – cultural materialism – and its defining deviation from other forms and practices of cultural theory. Moreover, the consequences of this revelation will determine our understanding of Williams’ relevance to the contemporary theoretical field as it is constituted today – something that has until only recently been thoroughly recognised.

In that respect, compare the language of Williams’ cultural theory of labour (and its opposite – a ‘labour’ theory of culture) with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s theory of ‘immaterial labour’ in late capital:

Affective [immaterial] labour is better understood by beginning from what feminist analyses of “woman’s work” have called “labour in the bodily mode”. Caring labour is certainly entirely immersed in the corporeal, the somatic, but the affects it produces are nonetheless immaterial. What affective labour produces are social networks, forms of community, Biopower. Here one might recognise once again that the instrumental action of economic production has been united with the communicative action of human relations; in this case, however, communication has not been impoverished, but production has been enriched to the level of complexity of human interaction. (Empire 293)

Hardt and Negri are referring to the specific conditions of social labour in what they term the “informational economy” (ibid.) of postmodern or late capitalism. However, many of the central theses of this theory are co-dependent on the materialist understanding of culture formulated by Williams. Whilst Hardt and Negri still differentiate between “economic production” and the immaterial production of cultural interaction between people, they arrive at similar conclusion. That is, the forms of labour which characterise late or “post-industrial” capitalism – centred on the selling of services and assemblage of commodities rather than the cultivation of raw materials which it relegates to the third-world – could not function without the non-economic (or better yet, ‘non-material’) production of new and forms social communication and cultural norms. For instance, the proliferation of temporary or ‘flexible’ labour relations now standardized by Western capitalist countries since the early 1980s as the dominant form of employment in a majority post-industrialised political economy. Now, Williams’ interjection would be to ask ‘was this not always the case’? We have already seen how Williams argued that the industrial revolution not only consisted of, but could not even have taken place, without a revolution in the production of new forms of cultural practice (new printing technology and an explosion in the audience for public journals, novels and other literatures). But even more so, Williams anticipates the issues and conjectures of contemporary cultural theory in his totalizing theory of cultural production than has been fully acknowledged by the field:

It is clear that the reaction against exclusive political and economic social thinking can go too far. The system of decision is clearly crucial: it can quite literally be the life and death of a society. […] production and distribution are not only essential for the maintenance of life, but the highly variable ways in which they colour our whole experience […] The truth about a society, it would seem, is to be found in the actual relations, always exceptionally complicated, between the systems of decision, the system of communication and learning, the system of maintenance and the system of generation and nurture […] Thus, in certain societies, the family is also a directly economic organisation, and its system of decision covers a wide area of activity. Here the relationships between persons will be of a complex yet quite unified kind, in that every person is involved with every other in more than one type of activity. (The Long Revolution 135-136).

That is to say, therefore, that the forms of Fordist labour industrial capitalism relied upon could not have functioned without a whole range of productive practices engendered by the bourgeois family unit, whose divisions of domestic labour based on gender and age were not only reliant on the wages of the patriarchal worker, but also worked to sustain and perpetuate the very forms of consciousness and subjectivity that constituted the worker. In this sense, Williams’ theory of culture is highly complex, as it relies on several networks of symbiotic social relations and practices, but equally hugely prophetic in its ability to resist any reductive or elitist analysis of cultural development in favour of a more dispersive and multifaceted theory of culture. The radicalism of this gesture, still perhaps not fully realised in contemporary discourse, is that it opens up all new territories and spheres of society previously closed off to the practice of cultural theory. For instance, one need only mark the similarity between Williams’ description of a public sphere which is also a cultural sphere, which becomes materialised or made corporeal through institutional environments which we “learn […] in our bodies, and we are taught the conventions” (137) – and the theories of ‘biopower’ Hardt and Negri inherit instead from Foucault and French poststructuralist theory. However, what is perhaps assumed or left unsaid in Williams’ account of cultural materialism, is that capital actually relies upon the separation of cultural and economic spheres as part of its ideological apparatus.

Thus in many ways, Williams himself seemed to pre-empt the political and historical forces that would act upon the British definition of culture in the second half of the twentieth century in The Long Revolution:

As we enter the 1960s, the effective historical patterns of British society seem reasonably clear. […] Yet in deeper ways, that have perhaps not yet been articulated, this idea of a good society naturally unfolding itself may be exceptionally misleading. […] The deep revulsion against central planning, which makes sense again and again in many details of our economic activity, may be really disabling in this long run. And this revulsion is itself in part a consequence of the democratic revolution – the determination not to be regimented. […] The very strong case for central planning, not simply to avoid waste but to promote essential development, research and organization, is practically nullified by a wholly credible emotion: that we reject this idea of economic system controlling our lives. True, we our controlled now and will continue to be controlled by a quite different system, with its own denials and rigidities, but in the first place this is very harder to identify. (319-320)

To the system we might reasonably give the name biopower, as we have above, but the historical tradition of this term in French philosophy (from Foucault through Deleuze and Guattari, to Hardt and Negri) would be to divorce Williams’ theory of culture from its immediate historical surroundings and its specific significance for British cultural criticism. Specifically, the work of Stuart Hall has most successfully inherited the theoretical language of Williams, whist applying it to the social conditions of British culture in the second half of the twentieth century and the developments in political economy Williams anticipated in The Long Revolution. For Hall, the methods of materialist critique developed by Williams never lost their validity, but the rapidity of social change enacted by ‘late’ or ‘post-Fordist’ political economy served to obscure the revelations Williams made in theorizing the relationship between cultural and productive activities. Thus, for Hall, post-Fordism in the 1980s and 90s entailed:

More flexible, decentralised forms of labour process and work organisation; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of […] computer based industries; the hiving-off or contracting out of functions and services […] a decline in the […] skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white-collar classes and the ‘feminization’ of the workforce; […] an economy dominated by multinationals […] the weakening of older collective solidarities […] the emergence of new identities associated with greater work flexibility. (“The Meaning of the New Times”, New Times: the Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s, 1989, 28).

Implicit in this argument is the necessary relationship between practices of material labour and the forms of social consciousness or identities that are both sustained by and condition those corporeal modes of production. Yet nonetheless, the changes in British cultural life did not for Hall engender the recognition of Williams’ integrationist theory of labour and culture, but rather the still more indebtedness of capitalism to their perceived separation, in contradiction to the simultaneous acceleration by which the two spheres collided.

This paradoxical development of culture – as more and more systems of thought and experience in the social realm are brought under the universal law of exchange – was already taking place in the 1960s. Williams tracks this ‘postmodern turn’ (as it would later be termed) in the change in usage of the terms ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ in the same manner as he proceeded in his earlier work. If, Williams posits, the relationship between the individual and the social (state, institutions, family, work) are increasingly thought of as productive systems (where the product is a certain reflexive identity) for which one can choose to buy into or not, then the whole range of practices and activities designated as cultural experiences by Williams’ theory (thus, also labour) are hollowed out for their essential, individual and exchangeable value rather than their communal or social value:

An equally important effect of the ‘consumer’ description is that, in materializing an individual figure, it prevents us thinking adequately about the true range of uses of our economic activity. There are many things, of major importance, which we do not use or consume individually, in the ordinary sense, but socially. It is a poor way of life in which we cannot think of social use as one criterion of our economic activity, yet it is towards that we are being pushed by the ‘consumer’ emphasis, […] It is easy to get a sense of plenty from the shop windows of contemporary Britain, but if we look at the schools, the hospitals, the roads, the libraries, we find chronic shortages far too often. (The Long Revolution 323-324)

Williams is precisely right to look to the topographic conditions of life in late capital, as it was first emerging in the 1960s, for the cultural shifts taking place in society. By topographical, in this sense, we do not simply mean to refer to the landscape separated from humans – but in the character of the landscape as a further cultural system that is continually being produced by its contact with human society – in what is a distinctly ‘Williamsian’ configuration. Therefore, it becomes possible to observe the topographic and architectural development of ‘public spaces’ within British culture since the 1960s as containing a reflexive element of both the material and ideological forces at play in the social field. Fredric Jameson, in his essay Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (New Left Review, July-August 1984, 53) is explicitly concerned with the changing relationship between the topography of the city and the ideological production of the modern subject we have seen Williams begin to observe in the 1960s:

[…] the alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves […] Disalienation in the traditional city, then, involves the practical reconquest of a sense of place, and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories. (89)

Jameson’s idea of “cognitive mapping” (ibid.) and its malfunction in the modern city is thus closely tied to his psycho-social definition of postmodernism as a kind of temporality organised around a succession of perpetual presents. Indeed, it seems one can only escape complete disorientation by thinking the city as a mobile arrangement of topographical elements with no unifying or centralising structure. It is this amnesic experience of the city that haunts the figures and characters in Patrick Keiller’s films of contemporary British landscapes. As Robinson says: “London is a city of fragments no longer organised around a centre” (London 1991).

The task of the Williams reader therefore becomes the recuperation of materialist critique under the amnesic forces of late capital on the production of culture. First of all, it must be pointed out that Jameson’s description of cognitive mapping begs the Williamsian correlative ‘cultural mapping’. For if we consider the topographical organisation of our lived environment one a series of processes in the production of our culture, along with labour, the family, and the institution, then the temporal phenomenon Jameson describes as a symptom of postmodern capitalism accrues a much wider sphere of operation in the production of our everyday lives. Under what conditions would it be possible for one to know their own culture if we cannot know the totality of relations (material and immaterial) that make up the modern metropolises of our lived environment? Is the loss of communal experience Williams diagnoses as a symptom of a consumer culture which hollows out our relationship with urban spaces to one of temporary exchange ever retrievable? Successive governments in the UK have themselves attempted to come to terms with the destruction of real public spaces and a real public experience with little success, only appealing to the simulacra of a ‘public experience’ devoid of the cultural systems communal experience requires, in favour of the spectre of culture and community represented by corporate sponsorship. It would be pessimistic to reply that the only recourse is to seek the kinds of communal cultures forged “under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery; writing themselves into the land” (“Culture is Ordinary” 11) in those remaining rural and countryside environments which formed Williams’ own understanding of culture, if they even exist. The challenge of Williams’ cultural materialism, rather, is precisely to resist the territorialising of culture by capital – and in that respect practice a truly revolutionary criticism.

Defoe, Daniel. A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain. Ed. Pat Rogers. Harmondsworth, Eng: Penguin, 1971.

Hall, Stuart, and Martin Jacques. “The Meaning of the New Times.” New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1989.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review July-Aug, 1984.

London. Dir. Patrick Keiller. Perf. Paul Schofield. British Film Institute, 1994.

Marx, Karl, Maurice Herbert Dobb, and S. W. Ryazanskaya. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress, 1971.

Williams, Raymond, and John Higgins. “”Culture Is Ordinary”” The Raymond Williams Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Columbia UP, 1958.

Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. London: NLB, 1979.

The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.

What I Came to Say. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989.

[1] The Long Revolution, 133.

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