Monday, October 8, 2007

Raymond Williams: “Culture is Ordinary”

by Mike Peterson


In this essay, Williams takes us to his roots, his rural Welsh home, to give us an understanding of why he dislikes current (as of 1958) interpretations of culture. Williams believes that culture should be defined as both (rather than distinguished between) a whole way of life with its common meanings, as well as the processes of discovery and creativity in the arts and learning.

The two prevailing senses of culture that Williams dislikes are what he loosely labels as Teashop culture, and Drinking-hole culture.
1. Teashop culture: “The outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of…cultivated people” (7).
2. Drinking-hole culture: The folks who exclude the ethical content of culture and emphasize the purely technical standard—the new cheapjack who uses “scraps of linguistics, psychology and sociology to influence what he thinks of as the mass mind” (7).

Williams says that while he respects Leavis and the Marxists, he must disagree with their views of culture. Williams discusses the three Marxist ideas that “matter” in the discussion of culture:
1. That culture must be interpreted by its underlying system of production,
2. That the masses are considered “ignorant,”
3. And that for socialism to succeed, a person must write, think and learn in “certain prescribed ways” (9).

Williams goes on to say that Leavis knows more about “real relations between art and experience” than the Marxists. Williams, however, doesn’t like the dichotomy that Leavis places on pre and post industrial-revolution culture: old vs. new, valuable vs. cheap, pure vs. vulgar. Williams defends these advances in culture and technology by asking how such things are bad for society. He doesn’t imagine anyone who has ever done without these things (e.g. aspirin or electricity) would ever go back to the old ways. It is a myth of simpler times.

But then William asks, if we can defend these “good” advances, how do we answer the problem of the “new cultural vulgarity” of strip newspapers, cheapjacks, and raucous triviality? (11). To answer this question, he says, we must first debunk the legacy left by cultural critics, specifically the legacy of 2 false equations, 1 false analogy, and 1 false proposition:

False proposition: Ugliness is the price we pay for new sources of power, production, transportation, and communication.
Defense: These new sources of power may be ugly at first, but they will eventually “make England clean and pleasant again” (11).

False equation one: Popular education is responsible for the new commercial culture (11).
Defense: “There are in fact no masses, but only ways of seeing people as masses” (11).
Defense: The assumption that popular education and commercial culture are cause and effect is based on Northcliffe’s correlation of the Education Act of 1870 and the rise of the “new cheap and nasty (popular) press”—the latter, Williams argues, comes from the “social chaos of industrialism” and not the masses becoming literate—there were, after all, already more than enough literate people before the Education Act to have sustained a popular press (12).

False equation two: Popular culture accurately reflects the mind, feeling, and quality of living of its consumers (12).
Defense: his observation of folks who consume popular culture indicated that one doesn’t reflect the other.

False Analogy: “Just as bad money will drive out good, so bad culture will drive out good” (13).
Defense: The increase in bad culture doesn’t mean a decrease in good culture. Culture expands, and with it all its elements.

Williams concludes that this is a starting point. The ideas of Leavis and the Marxists need to be radically revised, and it is time to start asking the real questions about the social and economic problems raised by culture’s relative rate of expansion.


Putropia: The characteristic 20th-century “opposite” of a Utopian romance: the stories of a future secular hell. Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are the most famous examples. Putropia, however, stops a little short of Doomsday. Doomsday is the immensely popular genre which, with considerable ingenuity and variety, disposes of life altogether. (Definition culled from an essay found at

Cheapjack: peddler of cheap, low-taste goods (for more info, visit


Favorite line: “So when the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture, and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I asked them then, where on earth they have lived” (9).
I haven’t thought of it in these terms, but when I studied Marxism in the past (not the Terry Eagleton variety, but the yawn-inducing essays from my Political Ideologies course), I had a hard time envisioning who these ignorant masses were. They certainly weren’t to be found in my daily adventures. Ignorant people abound, but it hardly seemed accurate to pigeonhole an entire “mass” that way.

I liked reading about the false equation number two: that popular culture is an accurate reflection of the consumer. I think this is an important debate still going on today, especially when it comes to censorship. Wayne Booth, in his book The Company we Keep brought up this idea in his argument against censorship: just because a person reads about violent events, that doesn’t mean she will turn around and mimic those events, nor does it mean that the book is a reflection of her inner desires or vulgarities. A person can read Huck Finn, he says, without feeling the slightest inclination to walk away and use the word nigger, nor would seeing the word in print over a hundred times make him any more of a racist than he was before. It made me think of a well-spoken, educated, respectful business man turning on his I-Pod and listening to Snoop-Dog on his way to work, or a bored mom turning on Grand Theft Auto to take her mind off things. I’m sure the psychoanalysts would have plenty to say about this, but I bet their conclusion would be similar to Williams: you can hardly define a person by what they consume. Or would they say that’s the only way you can define a person?

When Williams talks about the two senses of culture in the beginning, I understand the first group, the teashop culturists, but the second group is a little fuzzy to me. Is the distinction between the groups the same as distinguishing between intellectuals vs. anti-intellectuals? Or high vs. low culture?


Bill said...

Nice post. I was also a bit unclear on that second group. The way I read it, the second group view culture in a similar way to the teashoppers (high culture), but rather than idealizing it, they slander and mock it (along with those in the teashop). Might be way off, but I gave it a shot anyway.

Diane said...

"For more information visit" Ha! I laughed for like 10 minutes. Thanks for the example and link. My new shoes should be here by Saturday.

tlivingston said...

I came to the same conclusion about the second group that Bill did, as kind of an opposing camp that vied against the type of person and culture espoused by those in the teashop.

alliee said...

hi, I'd like to ask because I'm looking for the article," Culture is ordinary." If you please, tell me which book this article is in. thanks

alliee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The "cheapjacks" are people who believe in modernity and progress, but in an exploitative, capitalist way. They might best be represented today as advertising execs, PR men or spin doctors. These people despise "high culture" both because it excludes them -revealing their "lack of culture" from the persective of the tea house- and because they find it difficult to "sell" on a mass scale. And they want a mass audience. The old cheap jacks sold tacky gold rings- the new ones are represented by the likes of Simon Cowell.

Tan Zi Hao said...

Perhaps one is able to understand Williams' second group (the drinking-hole culture) a little bit better by recalling Benjamin's idea on aesthetics in an era of mechanical reproduction. His notion of "aura", could provide a hint into Williams' drinking-hole. They are the "pretentious" bunch from the middle-class.

I believe in both the two cases (teashop & drinking-hole culture), Williams was commenting on the bourgeois culture: 1) those who define an exclusive high-culture; 2) those who associate themselves with high-culture to elevate one's status quo in the society.

Basically talking about the pretentious middle-class obsession to high-culture.

Torn Halves said...

Hypothesis: the crucial distinction is not between pre- and post-industrial culture, rather it became a distinction between what willingly accepts commodification and what takes a stand against it. So it is not a question of nostalgia for something prior, but of saving something that would otherwise be violently excluded by the near ubiquitous law of exchange.

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