U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is Culture? Raymond Williams and the Cultural Theory of “Customary Difference”

What is culture? This is a persistent historical problem. All historians, especially cultural historians, hold a theory about culture, stated or not. This is also an intellectual historical problem in that, whereas culture is constantly theorized, perhaps over-theorized—every modern mode of thought involves a cultural theory—rarely are the origins and trajectory of the word “culture” studied historically.

In the most recent edition of New Left Review (Jan-Feb 2009), Francis Mulhern considers these problems by way of a retrospective glance at Raymond Williams’ famous work, Culture and Society (1961).

Mulhern argues that Williams’ theory of culture, Marxist in its emphasis on class formation, has stood the test of time. “For all that has changed,” Mulhern writes, “the capitalist ordering of social life has not changed.” That said, the concept of class is not what makes the theory persistently compelling. Rather, that Williams (somewhat surprisingly) uses Edmund Burke’s notion of national “continuity” as his initial departure is what allows his work to transcend some of the more influential theories of culture that have proliferated in twentieth-century western thought.

The first important such theory, according to Mulhern, is literary criticism, which has worn a number of political masks, from the conservatism of New Humanism to the Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This mode of analysis understands culture as “high,” as standing above the barbarous, unrefined masses, as a true expression of the best a society has to offer, usually thought to be rooted in the universal. The second is that of “Cultural Studies” proper, centered on the Birmingham School in England, which valorized popular culture as the most important social expression. Birmingham theorists such as Stuart Hall imbued popular culture with political meaning, sometimes repressive, but often, counter-intuitively, subversive or transgressive.

In contrast to these two important theories of culture, Williams conceived of culture, taking his cue from Burke, as “customary difference”: Our culture is that which we are accustomed to and that which others are not. Mulhern explains that “both parameters [‘custom’ and ‘difference’] are essential: custom, or anything understood as custom, takes precedence over other modes of social validation, and its currency is difference. Thus, culture is what differentiates a collectivity in the mode of self-validating direct inheritance—whose value, in return, is precisely that it binds the collectivity in difference.” Mulhern goes on to argue that, rather than acting as a dialectic synthesis of the literary criticism and Cultural Studies iterations of culture, both formulations extend from “customary difference.” Mulhern writes:

“Culture as customary difference is not, in any final respect, a third variety, to be listed along with the high, minoritarian reserves defended by cultural criticism, and the popular forms and practices valorized by Cultural Studies. It exhibits essential features of both. It is a form of assertion of the cultural principle that is normative, at least for the particular collective it identifies—how ‘we’ really, properly are—and in some cases makes universal claims, as in the spotlit instance of purist Islam. At the same time, it is popular, more or less, in its human resources and appeal, understood as a necessary defence against the encroachments of the encircling, overweening other, which takes many forms: racism and bigotry, but also liberalism, modernity, Godlessness, materialism, selfishness, immorality, Americanization and so on. And if the discourse of culture as customary difference thus combines features of the two, this is not because it embodies a kind of dialectical resolution. On the contrary, it is because culture in this sense is the first form, the matrix from which the familiar varieties of cultural criticism (and, indirectly, cultural studies) emerged.”

So much for locating Williams in the intellectual history of cultural theory: How does this concept of customary difference help to explain contemporary history? Mulhern explains it relative to twin responses to modern life: multiculturalism and traditionalism. With regard to the former, although Mulhern reiterates the standard Marxist critique of multiculturalism—that it only opens up freedom and opportunity within the narrow, prescriptive framework of liberal capitalism—he uses the notion of customary difference to critique multiculturalism on more standard liberal grounds. That is, because the state has made multiculturalism official policy (here he is referencing Britain, but this also works in the context of the United States), it has focused attention on customary difference like never before, thus hardening cultural stereotypes. This has especially been true of the large Muslim immigrant population in Britain.

Something similar has happened in the invention of tradition—“a process in which collectivities adapt their inheritance for changed conditions.” Mulhern writes: “Customary difference is most strongly confirmed in the plane of religion, whether as doctrine, as worship, as spiritual observance or as sanctioned behaviour. The culminating effect of this discursive logic, where the contingencies of inheritance and situation favour it, is to strengthen traditionalism, the systematic advocacy of customary relations and practices, and to confirm its beneficiaries as natural leaders of populations invariably called community.”

In short, I think Mulhern (by way of Williams’ theory of customary difference) offers a compelling historical theory of the American “culture wars,” so-called, of the past thirty years or so. The very accentuation of custom, either to affirm or denounce difference—responses that act as two sides of the same coin—increases tribal hostility and displaces other forms of antagonism that might be more productive, such as class hostility. I welcome comments.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I don’t think I understand your first paragraph. To say that everyone has a theory of culture whether they know it or not is to suggest that there are certain unavoidable questions that the very act of writing history forces us to answer in one way or another. What are those questions? Why, in other words, is it necessary to have a theory of culture at all? What can I do with such a theory or definition that I cannot do without one?


  2. Let me briefly clarify. I should have written that every historian has a theory, often unstated or implicit, instead of writing that every historian has a cultural theory. In other words, it’s tough to claim that every historian has a cultural theory since there is disagreement over the definition of culture, but all historians have a notion as to how humans organize society. How else do we construct historical meaning, or write historical narrative? (I would emphasize “unstated.”)

    That said, the rest of my post does not in any way rely upon the apparently provocative opening paragraph.

  3. AH,

    I was struck by this: “Edmund Burke’s notion of national ‘continuity’.” I think I overlooked that in my (one) reading of Williams’ book.

    I wonder how someone like Thomas Bender, or another proponent of transnational study, would reconcile Burke/Williams’ assertion? I think, in some ways, it’s a feeling about national continuity driving my conviction that the study of U.S. intellectual history, as opposed to the more general “intellectual history,” is prima facie a good. I say prima facie because there is some obvious continuity to culture in a nation state, or a cultural body, even if the state or body were initiated merely in the imagination during some past period.

    Of course culture expresses itself in both external (national, tribal, etc.) and internal (high, middle, low, popular, etc.) ways. This is the dialectic that causes confusion. To me, it’s that internal application that has perennially befuddled people with regard to expressing their “culture paradigm.” Difference is of course inherent in both of these applications.

    And if we apply this thinking to today’s terminology, well, multiculturalism seems to embrace my internal/external distinction. “Customary difference” seems to me to explain rather critique multiculturalism. And multiculturalism not only hardens cultural stereotypes, but can’t survive without difference: difference must be an issue, or a problem, for multiculturalism to be a viable candidate for one’s thinking on culture. Moreover, as an explanation, or a description, multiculturalism offers no ~active~ means to navigate on-the-ground difference other than tolerance—which is generally conceived as passive rather than active.

    But I fear my reflection is too superficial, or misses Mulhern’s point? Let the corrections begin! – TL

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