Culture, Criticism, Theory: Raymond Williams in Austria and Germany

This month on the Raymond Williams Society blog we have a review by Harald Pittel of a new book published in Germany on Williams. As Harald explains, Über Raymond Williams examines Williams’s work across a range of disciplines and, by translating and expanding on an earlier English-language study, positions Williams where he belongs, as a leading intellectual of the European Left.

Harald writes…

The reception of Raymond Williams in the humanities, as John Higgins laments in a memorable essay, has often been partial, selective, and distorted. The volume containing Higgins’s essay, About Raymond Williams published by Routledge in 2010, was aimed at correcting this, giving in-depth reconstructions of Williams’s evolving theory and relating his thinking to contemporary critical discourses and cultural phenomena. A new German-language volume, Über Raymond Williams, compiled by a Vienna-based team of editors and released by the renowned Argument Verlag (also the publisher of Stuart Hall’s collected works in German), builds on the 2010 predecessor but adds a significant amount of new material by scholars from Austria and Germany, thus turning this reworked edition into a notable contribution to Williams Studies in its own right. By comparison, the recent version is more structured than its predecessor, organizing its contents into four sections: ‘Cultural Theory’, ‘Lines of Thought’, ‘Raymond Williams and Storytelling’ and ‘Raymond Williams and the Media’.

The opening section, ‘Cultural Theory’, reprints Higgins’s aforementioned essay on “dis(re)membering” Williams alongside Lawrence Grossberg’s seminal ‘Raymond Williams and the absent modernity’. The latter interprets ‘structure of feeling’ as a concept that comes close to ‘modernity’ but has a more ‘presentist’ emphasis in terms of an ‘endless construction and deconstruction of the difference between the known and the knowable, between culture and experience, between history and an ontological presence’. Williams’s alternate approach to conceptualizing modernity should be deemed especially relevant today as it ’embraces the complexity and the possibilities of the multiplicity of ways of being modern’. Adding to these substantial contributions by Grossberg and Higgins from the 2010 version, the opening section also features a new essay by Winfried Fluck, a doyen of American Studies, aimed at elucidating the ‘philosophical premises’ that implicitly underlie Williams’s theorizing. Fluck argues that the indebtedness to the American Pragmatist tradition – in particular John Dewey and George Herbert Mead – should not be overlooked, as it has left its traces on The Long Revolution (1961) as well as Williams’s later work. This is by no means just a historicist ‘back to the roots’ bit of knowledge; rather, the view suggested by Fluck shows crucial ways in which Williams’s thinking is, or can be made, compatible with other schools of thought that have been informed by Pragmatist approaches. Fluck is thinking here of, amongst others, the second and third generation of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, centred around the influential projects of Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth. What these thinkers have in common with Williams, then, is that they follow Dewey and Mead in understanding democracy as ‘necessity arising from the anthropological assumption that human beings are fundamentally social beings that are dependent on others and therefore conditioned by the character of social relations’.

While the book’s first section can be characterized as an attempt to approach the critical ‘core’ of Williams’s thinking, the second section, ‘Lines of Thought’, seeks to put his work more specifically in a dialogue with a variety of other theoretical approaches and critical thinkers widely discussed today. All chapters in this section are original contributions to the 2017 volume. The opening essay is by Oliver Marchart, a leading figure in the field of political theory who is well-known for having popularized the ‘post-foundational’ paradigm with its characteristic distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ within the German-speaking academe. Rather than dismissing the emphasis on ‘culture’ as a disadvantage that comes with the vagueness of the term, Marchart insists that not only such blurriness is also inherent to the term ‘society’ but that both terms are significant precisely for reflecting the key idea of an ‘impossible’ totality which can only be understood as simultaneously constituted and interrupted by antagonism. ‘Culture’ seen as both ‘common’ and conflictual (as Williams was reminded by E. P. Thompson) becomes a near-synonym for the political and Williams appears as an early spokesperson for the post-foundational approach.

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The remainder of the ‘Lines of Thought’ section explores the relationship between Williams and other notable theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu, Edward Said, and Michel Foucault. Studying the connections to Gramsci, Ingo Pohn-Lauggas stresses that Williams had worked unconsciously in line with the influential Italian intellectual long before he was to popularize Gramsci’s approach in Marxism and Literature. In fact, cultural materialism can be said to have been anticipated by Gramsci’s reflections on what the latter called a politica culturale, which sees all artistic production ‘in the context of the political structures of social life’. Both thinkers built on and developed Karl Marx’s concepts without being content with sticking to their origins. This also becomes clear as both translate Marxian texts freely but congenially. In particular, Gramsci’s translation of Marx’s idea of ideological forms in material terms – as a territory or field rather than mere states of consciousness – paved the way for cultural Marxism; and it is no wonder Williams drew on it for his own thinking on the material character of culture.

Similarly, Wolfgang Karrer argues that Williams’s appropriation of the concept of hegemony must be understood as a station in a development towards a more multi-faceted approach to cultural analysis, beyond the simplistic base-superstructure opposition. Karrer refers to this approach as ‘formational analysis’, marking Williams’s later work such as Culture (1981) and the unfinished The Politics of Modernism.

Williams also takes important cues from Pierre Bourdieu, such as the existence of dominating and dominated fractions within a class (and not only between classes), and more generally, Bourdieu’s model of social development as a historical follow-up of formations in which different relations of production are manifest. Karrer points out that Williams introduces many refinements to this model, most significantly allowing for innovation and phases of transition, thus opening up Bourdieu’s pessimistic view on the material reproduction of society by allowing for the possibility of cultural change. Williams would further amend his model by diversifying cultural development in terms of Edward Said’s transactions between centre and periphery. If it had been finished by Williams, Karrer asserts, The Politics of Modernism could have been an impressive example of formational analysis that places the various strands of the European Avant-Garde in their complex and changing relations to dominant culture.

Another eminent theorist showing considerable similarities to Williams’s approach is Michel Foucault. As Klaus Puhl demonstrates, both thinkers are united in their endeavour of radically historicizing experience; both share a critical edge of anti-reductionism and anti-essentialism and have a common political outlook when analyzing structures of power and hegemony. More specifically, Foucault’s concept of ‘problematization’ comes close to Williams’s ‘structure of feeling’, each acting as a ‘motor of individual and social change’. It is the creativity that Williams emphasizes in historical structures of feeling that could allow for a more optimistic view regarding Foucault’s problematizations, which typically depart from and result in ever-new correlations of power, knowledge, and subjectivity.

The third section, ‘Raymond Williams and Story-telling’, foregrounds the surprising fact that Williams regarded himself, first and foremost, as a novelist. The section reprints H. Gustav Klaus’s insightful essay on ‘Williams and Ecology’, which convincingly argues that Williams should be recognized as a precursor to Ecocriticism, a perception that becomes especially clear when understanding his later novels such as The Fight for Manod (1979) and People of the Black Mountains (1989) as complementary to his critical work, thus effectively widening his socialist outlook by reflecting on ecological issues. Assessing Williams’s fiction as a whole, Ingrid von Rosenberg also stresses these literary merits, arguing that they result from an ongoing reflection on the relations between individuals and society which encompass overlapping spheres of connectedness in terms of family, immediate community, and class belonging. However, von Rosenberg also registers a tendency towards political disillusionment in Williams’s novels, starting from the optimism of Border Country (1960) and Second Generation (1964), leading to a phase of scepticism in The Volunteers (1978) and The Fight for Manod, and eventually giving way for deeper reflections on history in Loyalties (1985) and People of the Black Mountains. Like Klaus, von Rosenberg sees an ethical quality in Williams’s writing that crystallizes in his later work; for example, when landscapes are described, often in surprisingly poetic language, as registering the traces of human relations, thus illustrating the sense of place connecting human beings in communities. But von Rosenberg also criticizes Williams’s novels for being marked by stereotypical constructs of ‘abstract’ upper-class members (often academics) and celebrating an almost natural solidarity among the working class which is transportable even as workers manage to climb the social ladder. More problematically still, Williams seems somewhat reluctant to see women as sexually self-determined human beings as his novels tend to either ignore this dimension of liberation or make it reek of class betrayal.

While Williams’s influence in the field of Media Studies has often been downplayed or gone unnoticed, the book’s final section argues powerfully against that common, belittling perception. Carsten Winter convincingly reconstructs Williams’s thinking as a ground-breaking (if incomplete) contribution to contemporary media theory, suggesting that ‘Means of Communication as Means of Production’ (1978) should be grasped as the heart-piece of Williams’s theorizing. Winter describes media as historically-specific forms of communication that constitute social structures at a primary level. A historical media-centred view was effectively occluded by the structuralist, semiotic, and reception-oriented approach in terms of a theory of articulation that would dominate Cultural Studies since Stuart Hall. It is, however, by following Williams’s later essay which finally unfolds the idea of media as means of production from which significant cultural transformations – such as the transition from industrial society to network society and from a hierarchic push culture towards a more democratic pull culture – can be critically understood. Tracing the development of media in space and time, Cultural Studies can go beyond analysis and critique, Winter argues, so as to inform alternative media practices, thus contributing to the democratisation of our whole way of life.

The media section looks at one of Williams’s most fascinating and ambivalent media-related concepts: ‘mobile privatisation’. Providing an introduction in both editions of the book, Udo Göttlich reminds us that Williams sees media in his pioneering work Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) not simply as technology but as historical cultural forms shaped to a considerable degree by power relations. As the famous line of thinking goes, Williams argues that technological progress in the field of media is not put in the service of animating and realizing the public sphere of democracy but is largely enjoyed in private, thus potentially undermining the idea of the public itself. Why should one even bother about the political dimensions of existence when ‘going places’ in your home zone, alone and with others, is facilitated by technologically ever-more-advanced media? Sadly, the freedom that comes with this sort of ‘mobile privatisation’ is only about realizing certain prescribed forms of subjectivity and, as taking part in the public is effectively discouraged, these forms typically remain unchallenged. However, Göttlich stresses that because the private and public sphere permeate each other this also allows for a more optimistic reading of the concept. Opting for privacy often implies escape from political life, but it is also in private that new ways of freedom can be developed that might serve as points of departure towards new forms of public culture. Göttlich makes it clear that ‘mobile privatisation’ is especially appropriate as a key concept to critically re-think the changing character of the private sphere in its relation to larger social transformations. Unlike simplistic normative approaches, Williams’s historical-empirical take on the mediatized private sphere can serve as an important corrective to theories that warn against the decline of the public, as most influentially formulated by Jürgen Habermas.

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The ambivalence of Williams’s view of mediatized modernity is further discussed by two contributions on digital social media. In another essay translated from the 2010 volume, Georgiana Banita regards user-generated online video platforms such as YouTube as the next step in accepting self-realization techniques and limited social elements as a bad replacement for public life. The ethical and liberating potential of such platforms is overshadowed by the proliferation of melodrama and the celebration of narcissistic pseudo-individuality – a ‘tragedy of technology’ that in an American context should be understood as closely related to the traumatic experience of 9/11. On a more optimistic note, Barbara Maly and Felix Bergmeister register the empowering sides of web 2.0, looking at ‘Why Williams would be a blogger, tweeter and YouTuber’. Not only did Williams welcome new media and used them personally as forms of expression, but he also insisted that such innovations have no in-built determinism and do not necessarily reflect dominant culture. Rather, the potential of new media to realize innovative connections should be taken seriously, as new forms of the public sphere can come into being beyond the reach of authoritarian control. It is in this sense that social online media, such as YouTube, Vimeo and Wikipedia, can be said to facilitate a more participatory and critical culture that is no longer tied to any specific place.

The media section is rounded off by two more studies of contemporary phenomena. Analysing the ‘forms, flow and functions’ of recent British sitcoms, Anette Pankratz is far from dismissing this long-established and self-reflexive format as eternal return of the ‘ever-same’. Rather, sitcoms offer various positions for decoding which may tend towards the conventional or the subversive; they give vivid impressions of the processes of transformation affecting family life, work environment, and the idea of the nation. Moreover, by circulating and short-circuiting residual, emergent, and dominant views, sitcoms help to reveal the paradoxes and contradictions of the so-called New Britain. In the book’s concluding essay, Marie Hologa and Cyprian Piskurek discuss the ways in which the German Ruhr Area, centred around the city of Essen, was advertised when campaigning to become the European Capital of Culture in 2010.

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The formerly industrial Ruhr area, comparable to regions in Northern England and Wales undergoing structural change, was praised by exhibiting a distinctive and residual sense of coal miners’ authenticity but also by emphasizing fashionable ‘quasi-emergent’ strands in terms of ‘global’ music and youth cultures. What is to be learned from such a campaign is that Williams’s analytical categories of the residual, the dominant, and the emergent, as well as the structures of feeling in which they overlap, should not only be applied along a temporal axis. Rather, these formations can also be associated with certain places, at the same time coexisting and defined against each other. Thus the Ruhr Area is exposed as simultaneously residual and emergent vis à vis the dominant nation-centred culture as represented by the more urban and metropolitan regions. The construction of a regional structure of feeling, marked by workers’ authenticity and cultural openness, can pass as specific only insofar as it can be defined against a ‘normal’ (hegemonic, nation-centred) other. This should be understood as part of a strategy to affirm dominant culture by giving more prominence to regions while leaving the centre unmarked.

Über Raymond Williams makes for a most inspiring read as it neither reduces Williams’s scintillating concepts to only one way of interpretation, nor does it ignore the blind spots and problematic tendencies that show in his theorizing from today’s point of view. The book thus impressively demonstrates that ‘classical’ Cultural Studies, though typically marginal(ised) in German-speaking academia, still has many ideas and concepts in store that offer a plethora of inspiring connections with contemporary theory as well as analytic approaches that should not be overlooked when dealing with the new complexities of culture in the 21st Century.

  • Über Raymond Williams: Annäherungen, Positionen, Ausblicke is edited by Roman Horak, Ingo Pohn-Lauggas, and Monika Seidl and published by Argument Verlag. It is available for €19 here
  • About Raymond Williams, edited by Monika Seidl, Roman Horak, and Lawrence Grossberg, was published by Routledge in 2010. It is available for £27.19 here.

Harald Pittel is a junior researcher in Literary and Cultural Studies at the
University of Potsdam. He has just finished his PhD thesis titled “Romance 
and Irony: Oscar Wilde and the Political”. At present, he is on a postdoctoral research stay at the University of Delhi working on a comparative formal analysis of film musicals. 

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