Raymond Williams as a Marxist Literary Theorist

2015_10_raymond_williams.jpgRaymond Williams (1921-1988) is the most influential Marxist critics of the twentieth century, and one of the leading figures of the New Left. His work with the journal New Left Review and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies laid the foundation of Cultural Studies as a discipline, and his elaboration of concepts like “hegemony” and “ideology” helped later generations in analysing cultural practices. Tracing the etymology and history of the .word “culture” (which signified cultivation, tending, caring etc.), Williams showed the ideological bases for the meanings of words — i.e., a word’s changing meaning can be linked to a changing “new social and intellectual movement.” Culture being always political, social changes triggered by political processes are reflected in the cultural practices -an idea that he demonstrated in his Culture and Society (1958), in which he traced English social change especially after the Industrial Revolution, through the writings of Blake, Wordsworth, Edmund Burke and George Orwell.

In his analysis, he differed from the traditional base/ superstructure equation, and thus formulated “cultural materialism” expounding that “whatever purpose cultural practices may serve, its means of production. are always material.” Cultural Materialism is an analytical approach that seeks to situate and interpret a cultural practice within institutional structures, (film industry, publishing industry etc.), intellectual contexts (schools of thought, movements such as modernism, postcolonialism etc.), forms and their requirements and limits (such as the history of the western novel as a form, the oral epic tradition in India, the magical realist novel from Latin America and so on), modes of production (printing, digital printing, mass media), organisation and regulatory mechanisms (legislation on copyright laws, patents) and reproduction (sales, exhibitions, censorship,  dissemination through adaptation, reviews etc.). Dismissing the traditional Marxist notion of base as too rigid, he argues that the economic base is a process and not a static condition or object. The base should include not just the industry that produces but the human labour that reproduces, i.e., the entire realm of social practices. Hence his idea of cultural materialism encompasses an analysis of the relationship between the economic, political, social and cultural aspects of society.

Williams borrowed from Althusser an important concept, “overdetermination”— the factors that determine a cultural practice. He defined “determination” as being “may be experienced individually but which are always social acts, indeed specific social formations” He also suggests that social factors are internalised by individuals, and that there are multiple social forces that determine the nature and content of a cultural practice (what is termed as “overdetermination”).

Thus, through the concepts of “cultural materialism” and “determination”, Williams established that the traditional Marxist base/superstructure categories cannot always explain art forms or cultural practices.

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  1. New Historicism and Cultural Materialism – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
  2. Key Theories of Raymond Williams – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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