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Popular Culture in Thatcher’s Britain: Didier Eribon interviews Raymond Williams

In this interview conducted by Didier Eribon, Raymond Williams discusses theories of culture, mass communication, the New Left, cultural studies, the sixties, dominant, residual, and emergent culture, the New Right, the working class, and cultural resistance to Thatcherism. 

Raymond Williams17 December 2019

Popular Culture in Thatcher’s Britain: Didier Eribon interviews Raymond Williams

Didier Eribon: The last twenty years have seen the development in Great Britain of research in the fields of sociology and culture. What has been the orientation of this work?

Raymond Williams: Of course, we were already, before this time, carrying out work which, in other countries, would have been placed in this category. In literature, for example, we were asking ourselves questions of a sociological nature, but we weren’t answering them in an explicitly sociological way. The sixties saw an important shift and this was related to the development of the New Left. The new work was linked to political phenomena. There are three aspects to this research. First, the study of canonical literature from a sociological perspective. The second thing to develop very quickly was the study of popular culture and especially of television, of cinema, and of the tabloid press. And then, third, hand in hand with the study of popular culture, the study of subculture developed: the culture of minority groups, alternative or non-conformist groups, because, so the argument ran, you can’t content yourself with studying popular culture as if it were a collection of documents, without considering how these groups were making use of these documents. All this research was very active and significant political work was accomplished.

DE: Not without some pretty lively theoretical discussions in the process?

RW: There were important theoretical discussions and the most important, I think, was around the question of ideology, Althusser’s analysis of which had been imported from France in a fairly uncritical way. This, in its clash with the emphasis that had been placed on the idea of culture in England, formed the basis of a polemic which remains very much alive.

DE: Could you say a bit more about the opposition you draw between the emphasis on culture and the emphasis on ideology?

RW: For historical reasons, the study of sociology in England centered around the idea of ‘culture’. My own early work was focused entirely on retracing the emergence of the idea of culture and its various uses by different social groups. Indeed, I had stressed three senses of the word ‘culture’. It was used, on the one hand, in a very reactionary sense to designate traditional values in opposition to modern development. It was also used for a distinction, which can be found in German too, between ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’, that is to say as an intellectual and artistic sphere as opposed to a material sphere. And then there was the idea of culture in the Marxist sense, where it is considered as the sphere of activity necessarily linked to social organisation. The intellectual tradition in England developed around the idea of ‘culture’ in these different, conflicting, senses.

DE: So your intervention in the theoretical controversy was based on the historical analyses that you had carried out in your book, Culture and Society.

RW: I retraced the history of the idea of ‘culture’ from its emergence at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, and I tried to see which groups of thinkers made use of the different senses. My book attempted to distinguish between these senses, in order to say that the effective, true sense of ‘culture’ was the third, that is to say that culture was necessarily an integral part of social organisation and of social production. Now, putting the emphasis on the concept of ideology was not incompatible with this third sense that I had brought out, but it took some time to clarify things, because, in its strictest applications, the concept of ideology didn’t recognise the hybrid nature of culture. I mean that if you take ideology in a strict sense, all cultural production is either the product of the consciousness of the dominant class, or of the subordinate culture of the dominated class. In that case, to analyse culture you simply showed its place in the different segments of society. On the other hand, in the third sense that I had drawn out, culture, though understood as part of social production, was of a much more complex nature because, while being either dominant or dominated, it had other features that I called ‘residual’, which is to say left over from earlier forms of social organisation, and ’emergent’, which is to say produced by oppositional or alternative movements within a given society, and which, though affected by the dominant ideology, couldn’t be reduced to it. It was here that lay the controversy between ‘culture’ and ‘ideology’.

DE: And this controversy had a direct impact on the course of action for the New Left?

RW: Yes, because those who took the strictest, simplest view of ideology said that it was an illusion to think that there could be residual, alternative, oppositional cultures, and that all cultures functioned only in the framework of dominant ideology. Those of us who took the opposite view agreed to an extent, but insisted that spaces were constantly being created for an ’emergent culture’, and that it was precisely here that we should base our political activity, since this activity consisted in attempting to create these very alternative spaces.

DE: Is this what prompted your thinking on new communication media?

RW: Obviously, this type of thinking was linked to the new role played by the new communication media: cinema, radio, television, the tabloid press, etc. Cultural studies in England, but also in the United States, were split down a very important dividing line between those who labeled these new tools ‘mass communication’ and those, including me, who rejected the implications of this concept. This was, first of all, because this idea was borrowed from a capitalist description of the mass market and didn’t allow an understanding of the variable and complex processes at work. One must distinguish between the different receptions of what was referred to as ‘mass communication’, for example the fact that the sociological space of the cinema is a gathering together, while the sociological space of television is a dispersal, a very large audience, but one which, as far as immediate social relations are concerned, is very restricted: a group of friends, a family, or even a single person. Bringing all these situations together under the same concept of ‘mass communication’ seemed to me a mistake, and I think that, in fact, true mass communications belong to an earlier situation: mass gatherings, the crowd, a very numerous audience gathered in a single space. With the new media, there was a new situation: an audience which was very large but dispersed. And those who studied these media as ‘mass communication’ took for granted that these were instruments which obliterated the differences between people, which produced a saturated consciousness incapable of any reaction or thought beyond what those media were saying.

DE: What was your reading?

RW: Most of my work on these institutions was critical of the greater part of their production. But the fact is — and the situation may have been different in Great Britain from that in other countries, at certain points — during the sixties, in particular, television constituted a space where elements of oppositional and alternative culture established links with a new audience. In the sixties, a new ‘radical’ theatre, ‘radical’ documentaries, found a place on television. Of course, those in power noticed and the opportunities were restricted. So it is true that there was this shutting down. But, from the simplistic perspective that I was criticising, these experiments should never have been able to occur in the first place, because the notion of ‘mass communication’ meant that the instruments of mass communication simply expressed the values of mass society, that is to say the values of the ruling class distilled into a form in which they could be quite crudely communicated. But this brings us back to what we were saying a moment ago about theoretical questions.

DE: Do you stand by that reading today?

RW: I think that, currently, the exclusion of such experiments is complete. And if you were to watch British television today, you would come to the same reading as the simplistic ‘mass communication’ one. But then, on the other hand, and that was the second part of my criticism, I don’t think that people accept programmes as uncritically as the theory of mass communication would have us believe. So that the perception of people as passive consumers is not entirely wrong, but it does miss a large part of the reality.

DE: Based on what you’ve just said, what is your reading of the crisis in Great Britain today, and of the possibilities it could open up for the creation of alternative spaces?

RW: The crisis of the British economy is part of the general crisis of the capitalist economy, but it started much earlier, and, in certain respects, may be deeper. An immediate solution seems unlikely, except by a lurch to the Right or to the Left. In fact, over the last few years, and not only under the Conservative government, because in the last years of the Labour government it was going in the same direction, what we’ve seen has been a lurch to the Right. This crisis is culturally mediated in the sense that there is an intense production of supposed solutions which all centre around the repression of the organised working class. It’s a very open attack and very different from the ‘normal’ hostility towards the working class. It has now become an identification of the working class and of the unions as causes of the crisis. This explanation — culturally created and communicated — has been frighteningly successful, given that certain, fairly large sections of the working class have been mobilised against their own interests. And this has gone hand in hand with a much more repressive stance towards acts of protest.

And yet it is not at all clear, even if it has had short-term success, that this strategy can be successful in the long term, because this process is based on premises which are bound to be debunked by reality. Because certain measures follow from this assumption that the organised working class is the root of all evil, such as increasing unemployment, shutting down industrial regions, in other words targeting certain working-class regions in Great Britain with measures that you might call punitive. And so the idea that had been culturally accepted clashes with what happens to be people concretely, who thought they were pointing the finger at other people when they were pointing the finger at the working class, and who won’t accept what is in fact taking place.

DE: Do you think that struggle in the field of culture is of great importance here?

RW: Authoritarianism clashes with what was a truly liberal tradition in certain spheres of British life. My feeling is that this liberal resistance movement which is coming to light is not strong enough to oppose the authoritarian wave. But what one can say is that the consensus at the centre which has dominated British political and cultural life since 1947 is no longer viable. In the sixties we fought the consensus. But we thought the consensus would hold. In fact, it was broken by the Right. In this context, cultural struggle is absolutely crucial, because this is the terrain on which the interpretation of the crisis had to be established for all the other practical consequences to follow. The programme of the Conservative Government is simply to change the attitude of workers, so that they no longer see things from the perspective of the organised working class and of the unions, and so that they work in a more docile way in the ‘interests of the nation’, with an almost organised hatred toward any country with which Great Britain happens to disagree, in order to prop up this vision of an Old England which no longer exists, but which nevertheless represents the ‘future’ that the Right proposes.

DE: Do you see the alternative cultural spaces that you were speaking about a moment ago taking shape?

RW: That’s very difficult to answer, because the other thing that must be said is that there is much more self-organisation of popular, grass-roots initiatives, at the level of the factory, all sorts of oppositional and alternative groups, than there have ever been in this country, at least in this century. And, at this time, it is very difficult to predict whether that is simply the work of an active minority, or whether it is the first step of a movement of wider fractions of the working class and even of all those who have been affected by the crisis. And it is my impression that this cultural resistance is developing in certain regions, and especially in Wales, in Scotland, and in the North of England, places which have been hit hard, and of course among the educated youth. It is on this front of cultural resistance that the whole battle is being fought today. And while one has certain fears, on the other hand the possibility of a true opening on the Left seems to me more real than it has been for the last fifteen years, in the sense that it is the only practical alternative to the hard Right offensive.

Edward Lee-Six wrote a doctorate at Cambridge on Samuel Beckett’s poetry. He is currently Lecteur d’Anglais at the École Normale Supérieure, rue d’Ulm, Paris.

Didier Eribon is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amiens. His books include Michel FoucaultInsult and the Making of the Gay Self, and Returning to Reims, his bestselling memoir which, in the epilogue, reflects on the personal impact of reading Williams’s novel Border Country.

The original Libération interview can be viewed on Didier’s personal blog. There is also a brief introduction, in French, describing how he became interested in Cultural Studies and Williams through reading and meeting Pierre Bourdieu, as well as how he had to convince Libération to run what was viewed, by the French press, as ‘out-dated’ material in 1980s France.

Translated by Edward Lee-Six. Originally published on the blog of the Raymond Williams Society.