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Culture is Ordinary -

derek tatton
6 November 2008

Based on Raymond Williams’ seminal essay of that title, written exactly 50 years ago. Several of us were at the keynote lecture in Barlaston recently, given by Terry Eagleton, with the same title and reference will also be made to that lecture during our discussion. Copies of both lectures may be available later for those interested.

‘Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English Language’

(RW, Keywords, 1976) We’ll go round the group asking those who wish to attempt a brief definition of ‘culture’. No discussion at this stage.

Williams’ 1958 essay begins with a description of a bus journey from Hereford to beyond the border into South Wales, taking in observations of a cathedral which houses the Mappa Mundi: cinema adverts: a Norman castle; farming valleys, the Black Mountains; steel-rolling mills and pit-heads. This leads to the reflection that culture is ordinary ‘Every human society has its own shape, purposes, meanings… (and) … expresses these in institutions, arts and learning… A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings which are offered and tested’. Discuss


‘There are two senses of culture that I refuse to learn: the Cambridge tea-shop where ‘cultivated people’ (are, in fact), trivial; ‘culture-vultures’, high-brows, superior prigs > the new cheapjacks seeking to influence the ‘mass mind’. Discuss


The strengths and weaknesses of a Marxist and Leavisite view of culture. A summary of this section of the essay will be given, and then discussed.


Finally, 3 wishes: a) ’I ask for a common education that will give our society its cohesion and prevent it disintegrating into a series of specialist departments, the nation become a firm’.

b) ‘More active provision for arts and adult learning - (in 1958) £20 million on libraries, museums, the arts and adult education; £365 million on advertising. Let’s reverse these figures…’

c) Question and oppose a version of ‘mass culture’…. ‘a crazy peddling in which news and opinion are inextricably involved with the shouts of the market, bringing in their train the new slavery and prostitution of the selling of personalities’. Discuss

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Terry Eagleton’s lecture paid tribute to Williams’ work on culture and especially for inventing the phrase ‘cultural materialism’. What does that mean?

TE spoke about the ‘creatureliness’ of human beings (our bodies determine quite a lot) but

“Because we have language … we can become truly universal beings doing all sorts of astonishing things which aren’t possible for moles and badgers. They can’t get outside their own bodies as linguistic animals can… let’s face it, because they lack culture they’re extraordinarily limited. I mean, they can’t even construct a nuclear weapon…. That…is the point, the very powers that enable us to create also enable us to destroy… it is hard to have Tennyson without Trident’. Discuss


TE goes on to argue that since Williams death (20 years ago) there have been several key developments: ‘culturalism’ (what does that mean?) and 'movements like revolutionary nationalism and various ethnic conflicts where culture becomes the very idiom in which political demands are framed…. You could define culture in this sense as that which people are prepared to kill for. Or, if you prefer, to die for…' Discuss


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