Alan Sinfield: A Committed Intellectual Life

This month on the Raymond Williams Society blog we have David Alderson’s obituary of Alan Sinfield which first appeared earlier this year in issue number 16 of Key Words. David will join Andy Medhurst, Madhavi Menon, and Lynne Segal at King’s College, London on Tuesday 11th December to discuss the life and work of a remarkable intellectual.

David writes…

Alan Sinfield was a pioneering figure in the fields of English Literature, Cultural Studies and Queer Studies, and a passionate advocate of the cultural materialist tradition he came to embrace in the 1980s. The sheer range of the work he has left to us is prodigious: ranging chronologically from the Early Modern period to the contemporary, it engages with cultural production in its most expansive sense, and if he took a specific interest in Shakespeare it was very much an iconoclastic one. Indeed, Alan made a point of disavowing conventional modes of cultural valuation, and frequently made it his business to interrogate the institutions, norms and ideological presuppositions of critical analysis itself. In the process, he consciously sought to engage audiences beyond the academy through work that was nonetheless characterised by impeccable scholarship.

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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’.

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Resources of Hope: Cultural Democracy and The World Transformed

On the Raymond Williams Society blog for September we have an article by Nick Mahony of the Raymond Williams Foundation. As Nick explains, he is involved in the Movement for Cultural Democracy which will host a number of events at this year’s The World Transformed in Liverpool (Saturday 22nd to Tuesday 25th September). A four-day festival of politics, art and music, TWT will run alongside the Labour Party Conference in the city. Tom Gann of the New Socialist is hosting an Eco-Corbynism Reading Group which will look at Raymond Williams’s analysis of ‘radically new kinds of politics’ in Towards 2000 (1983) and what Williams identified in ‘Socialism and Ecology’ (1982) as a ‘new kind of social analysis in which ecology and economics will become, as they always should be, a single science’. He adds: ‘We can see the outline of political bearings which can be related to material realities in ways that give us practical hope for a shared future’. Williams goes on to say that the fulfilment of such hope will not be easy but, as Nick details below, a collective approach to the challenges of the present is more necessary than ever.

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Raymond Williams: Socialism, Culture, Revolution

On this month’s Raymond Williams Society blog we have an extract of the Introduction to the forthcoming Key Words 16. This special issue, edited by Ben Harker and published by the society, is out in autumn and takes as its theme ‘Commitment’. It includes essays by Glyn Salton-Cox on Friedrich Engels and Margaret Harkness, Madeleine Davis on E.P. Thompson and 1956, Nick Stevenson on Williams and Marxism, an obituary of Alan Sinfield by David Alderson, and shorter articles by Phil O’Brien on Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Don Watson on Communist autobiography. The following extract of the essay-length Introduction maps Williams’s developing positions on the relationship between culture, consciousness, class power, and socialist strategy. To receive a copy of Key Words 16, join the society here.

Ben Harker writes…

‘Much of my political belief is a continuation of a very early formation’, Raymond Williams told Terry Eagleton in a 1987 interview. ‘I can’t remember any time when I haven’t felt broadly speaking as I do now’.[1] Like ‘alignment’, ‘formation’ would remain for Williams a key word, but he rejected the charge that his commitment might be an expression of what Terry Eagleton – playing devil’s advocate – called ‘the nostalgic memory’ of ‘an unusually warm and affectionate working-class childhood’.[2]

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Publishing Class: Rediscovering the Lives of the Working Class in Literature

The July instalment of the Raymond Williams Society blog is an article by University of Reading student Jess Brisley who shares recent research conducted in the archives of Chatto & Windus. Intriguingly, Williams had a long relationship with the publishing house, having his novels Border Country (1960), Second Generation (1964), and The Fight for Manod (1979) published by Chatto (alongside other fictional as well as critical work). In Politics and Letters, he discusses both the challenges faced when encountering the ‘economics of commercial publishing’ and the sense in which he was ‘writing right against the grain’. Here, by examining papers from 1890 to 1940, Jess fascinatingly uncovers an earlier generation of working-class writers who faced innumerable difficulties when it came to publishing stories of working-class life in the early twentieth century.

Jess Brisley writes…

Raymond Williams had long-running concerns about the relationship between publishing and class. His work offers a compelling way of analysing the structures of publishing, taking into account the means of communication as part of the means of production as well as the social background of authors and the inherent challenges for working-class writers in adapting to the literary form of the novel. At the University of Reading, we are working in the Archive of British Publishing and Printing to uncover the lost history of working-class writing. Studying the records of publishing house Chatto & Windus – including manuscript entry books, letters, and reader’s reports – and analysing the hefty lists of rejected material between 1890 and 1940, I was able to compile a database of instances where class prejudice seemed to be visible in a rejection.

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Radical Broadcasts: Raymond Williams on TV

This month on the Raymond Williams Society blog we have a post by Colm McAuliffe on three Raymond Williams films recently screened at Birkbeck, University of London. One of these, The Country and the City, demonstrates Williams’ thinking at its best, as he critiques a landscape dotted by neo-classical mansions and ‘great’ houses. He writes in the book of the same name: ‘Stand at any point and look at that land. Think it through as labour and see how long and systematic the exploitation and seizure must have been, to rear that many houses, on that scale’. The film can be viewed here and, as Colm writes, it provides a fascinating insight into the continued relevance and importance of such critical analysis…

Perhaps everybody does love Raymond (Williams), cultural theorist, border-crossing Welshman, television critic, elegant pipe smoker. A special event during Birkbeck’s Arts Week 2018, Landscapes of Culture: Raymond Williams Thirty Years On, depicted Williams across three separate television landscapes traversing 1970, 1979 and 1988, through the Welsh borders of his home, the class upheaval of Cambridge where he taught, and the country house of Tatton Hall, to its natural finale: a strangely lit television studio where his legacy was discussed by an ideologically unusual array of politicians, academics and writers.

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Potsdam Raymond Williams Conference Report

Welcome to the fifth instalment of the monthly Raymond Williams Society blog. This month we have a conference report from Germany. ‘Beyond Crisis – Reassessing Raymond Williams’ Cultural Materialism’ took place at the University of Potsdam earlier this year. It featured speakers from across Europe and demonstrated the broad reach of Williams’ thinking in both a contemporary and interdisciplinary context. One of the organisers, Berlin-based Harald Pittel, has kindly supplied us with this report on proceedings.

Harald Pittel writes…

Many scholars from different generations and various disciplines responded to our call to reconsider Raymond Williams’ complex thinking through an engagement with notions of contemporary crisis. In his opening address in Potsdam, Dirk Wiemann emphasized that Williams’ concept of crisis shifts ambiguously, conceiving it both as “difficulty” and “turning-point”. A crisis causes pain and may be paralyzing, but on the other hand might also encourage political agency and enable an alternative path of development.

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Raymond Williams: Adult Education and the Public Intellectual

‘There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems’ – (Noam Chomsky) [1]

Sharon Clancy writes…

Raymond Williams came into my life as a result of work I undertook on my thesis in 2014 on adult education. My PhD supervisor, Professor John Holford, suggested I explore Williams’s An Open Letter to W.E.A Tutors (1961) to understand some of the complexities of the historical place of adult learning and the role of the Workers’ Educational Association. What was immediately clear to me was that Williams was arguing for a form of education for the many and by the many, not led by the elite few. He was deeply sceptical of the notion of cultural or educational imperialism, commenting in his letter that:

‘… adult education is no longer propped up by simple missionary feelings, that the fortunate should help the unfortunate or by simple class feelings, that the odd person should be picked out of the swine heap… the challenge to new and imaginative teaching is constant’.

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Michael Denning’s Raymond Williams Society Annual Lecture – Podcast

On the Raymond Williams Society blog this month we have a podcast of Michael Denning’s Raymond Williams Society Annual Lecture, delivered on 7th March 2018 at Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, Manchester. During a fascinating hour-long talk, titled ‘Laboring Life: Reconsidering the Meanings of Work’, Michael discusses, amongst other topics, critical theories of work, social labour, Kathi Weeks, Marxist concepts of life, the antinomies of work, biocapital, the life sciences, André Gorz, Homer Simpson, the fetishisation of service labour, the service industry as servitude, Jin-kyung Lee, and the new economy of care.

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An Interview with Michael Denning

Welcome to February’s instalment of the Raymond Williams Society blog. Apologies for the delay! This month we have an interview with the renowned cultural historian Michael Denning on the influence and importance of Williams ahead of Michael’s Raymond Williams Society Annual Lecture on Wednesday 7th March at 5pm in Cross Street Unitarian Chapel, Manchester, UK. Michael is Professor of American Studies at Yale University and the author of Mechanic Accents (1987), The Cultural Front (1997), Culture in the Age of Three Worlds (2004), and Noise Uprising (2015). He will deliver his RWS lecture on ‘Laboring Life: Reconsidering the Meanings of Work’ and will be presenting research from his forthcoming book The Accumulation of Labor.

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