Raymond Williams and T.S. Eliot on the “Whole Way of Life”

To help focus discussion somewhat, I thought I’d point to one of the most interesting moments in the Thompson review of RW’s Long Revolution, his exploration of RW’s debts to Eliot.  This has the effect of serving as an alternate genealogy of contemporary cultural studies, which might have descended as much from Eliot’s Modernist theories of society as from the usual left-wing or leftish (Foucault, Bourdieu, and of course, Williams).  [I haven’t seen this issue much discussed, except in Browitt/Milner’s very useful little handbook, Contemporary Cultural Theory: An Introduction]

So here’s EPT presenting RW’s own statement about cultural history’s interest in a “whole way of life.”

The “pattern of culture” is a selection and configuration [says RW]of interests and activities, and a particularvaluation of them, producing a distinct organisation,

a “way of life”. (47). [EPT 32]

But EPT reminds us that RW’s definitions of “culture” as a “whole way of life” [my emphasis] derives from Eliot’s rather “casual” appropriation of anthropology in Culture and Society, where they are both firmly associated with a hierarchal and communal religion, but also with a whole laundry-list of seemingly unrelated high- and low-cultural activities:

For Eliot went on, in a well-known passage, toargue that the term “culture”: 

includes all the characteristic activities andinterests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta,
Cowes, the 12th of August, a cup final, the dog
races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydalecheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot invinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and themusic of Elgar. The reader can make his own list. 

The point, [continues EPT] , is that while “the reader” may make his own list the serious student ofsociety may not. To decide which activities arecharacteristic implies some principle of selectionand some theory of social process. Mr. Williams,in his essay on Eliot, notes that he has hereselected examples of “sport, food and a little art”;and suggests that characteristic activities should“also include steelmaking, touring in motor-cars,mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining,and
London Transport.” And this is the only
serious qualification which he offers to Eliot’spiece of sloppy and amateurish thinking. Thereader can still make his own list: but it ought totake in rather more.So EPT chides RW for his participation in what he calls the English “amateur gentleman” tradition of idealism, and reads it as an unfortuante consequence of RW’s unthinking emulation of Eliot’s cultural criticism.  And he points out the essential arbitrariness of selection that goes into the selection and presentation of a “way of life,” where details that implicitly favor tradition, stability, timelessness, reconciliation–in other words, hegemony–crowd out other kinds of details:

 Whatever is claimed [continues EPT] , the predominant associations [in RW and Eliot’s lists] are withleisure activities, the arts and the media ofcommunication. “Whole” is forgotten (unless inthe sense of the integrating ethos) and we slidefrom “way of life” into “style of life”. When wespeak of an individual’s way of life, we usuallymean to indicate his style of living, personalhabits, moral conduct, and the rest, rather thanhis position, work, power, ideas and beliefs—andthe same range of associations has becomeattached to the term in the literary-sociological


And here we might think about the characteristic emphases of one strain of  RW-influenced cultural studies, wherein popular culture divorced from politics becomes the sole source of evidence or testimony.  And this seems to be a danger of celebrating a depolicitized popular culture apart from its conflicts with other subcultures.  But EPT continues

But if Mr. Williams is serious aboutincluding steelmaking, coalmining and the StockExchange in his list, then we are back at thebeginning again (culture equals society) or stillsearching for a principle of selection. The way oflife associated with coalmining cannot be consideredapart from the “elements”: we mustknow a lot about technological conditions (arewomen chained to tubs or is there an automatedcoalface?), about who owns the pits, andwhether the miners are tied in conditions ofservitude or have the vote and a strong tradeunion. I am sorry to be so obvious: but we areconcerned with definitions, and this phrase mustbe cross-examined in its turn. 

But we must be more obvious still. Why mustthe list stop here? Why not also include, as“characteristic activities”, strikes, Gallipoli, thebombing of
Hiroshima, corrupt trade union
elections, crime, the massive distortion of news,and Aldermaston marches? Why not indeed?The “whole way of life” of European culture inthis century (as the Eichmann trial reminds us) hasincluded many things which may make futuregenerations surprised at our “characteristics”.But not one example is included in Eliot’s nor in

Mr. Williams’ list which forces to the front the problems of power and of conflict. [EPT 33].

So one of the ironies involved here is that the left-wing RW and the right-wing Eliot are both equally celebratory of at least one vision of “popular culture,” and a supposedly whole “way of life,” but in ways that should make RW’s left-wing readers suspicious. 

So what would a cultura studies that brought forward the “problems of power and conflict” to the forefront look like?  Are there examples that we should point to that escape this tendency to an overcozy, overconsensusal view of culture?  I’d name Roach’s book as exemplary in this fashion, but what examples would others name?



2 responses to “Raymond Williams and T.S. Eliot on the “Whole Way of Life”

  1. Sharlene Sayegh

    Mm… Very important questions Dave. I think one thing the question does is get us to think of works that show the ways in which culture is contested. I would recommend Matt Houlbrook’s _Queer London_ (outside of our century, but still an excellent monograph) for a history that explores the ways in which urban space–the rights to London really– were contested by those who sought to “normalize” London and those who believed that their London, increasingly under the gaze of authorities needed to be recreated in alternate venues.

    For our period, the work of Miles Ogborn (I think I’ve cited him here or on our “old” blog) I think deals with the ways in which “modern” is not some objective moment, but an entity constantly constructed by people across space and time. So, “modern” as constructed by people in the Society for the Reformation of Manners seeking a polite, urban culture, or by the architect John Gwynn in attempting to bring Wren’s designs to fruition, must be contextualized.

    I still have to read Roach’s book, so I can’t comment on it in any useful way at the moment.

  2. David Mazella


    I think the notion of competing sub-cultures is popular for a reason, along with RW’s famous articulation of “dominant,” “emergent,” “recessive” elements of a particular tradition. These seem like very plausible ways to talk about the synchronic coexistence of various elements of a culture at one time.

    The problem is when these articulations obscure the degree to which these terms are fighting over a common semantic field for preeminence. I was rereading Customs in Common for this forum, and was struck at how the notion of “custom” could be used in such wasy, as an alternative form of authority for the oral and unwritten practices of a locality.

    I’m sure that there are many such studies as I’ve described above, apart from Roach, but my feeling is that when RW-influenced cult studies doesn’t work, this kind of problem may be involved.