Raymond Williams: Cultural Materialism and the Break-Up of Britain
Authors: Dix, H.
Journal: Key Words
To Raymond Williams, the nation-state was fundamentally an institution of cultural modernity and imperialism. In his major work, The Country and the City (1973), he attempted an examination of the connections that exist between the capitalist order and the nation state. Beginning with a look at the genre of country house writing, Williams was interested in how this writing both reflected the power of a late feudal aristocracy and actively contributed to augmenting its power. The idealisation of one particular class was accompanied by a mystification of national interest and national identity.
Williams pursued this analysis across a long historical period, from early modernity into the twentieth century. He explored the structural congruence that existed between the process of nation building in Britain and empire building overseas. In the last instance, he extended the metaphor of the country house, suggesting that, throughout the period of imperialism, the Western world has become something like an enormous country estate. It draws resources and labour from its (third world) hinterland, while also blinding itself to the injustices and violence on which this process is founded.
While writing The Country and the City, Williams was also at work on a detective novel, The Volunteers (1978). In what follows I shall offer a reading of The Volunteers, tied to a survey of The Country and the City. I wish to extrapolate the extent to which the tradition of country house writing which Williams analyses can be taken as a measure of the shifting imperial system. This is elevated in the work of Williams to a post-imperial theorising of that global process.
I shall then look at the transition that has occurred in country house writing since 1997, the year of devolution in Scotland and Wales. Historically, this transition is related to the end of imperial power overseas during the 1950s and 60s. The fact that Williams himself did not survive to witness the moment of devolution in no way weakens the impact of his writing. I shall argue that his work anticipates the moment of devolution and the break-up of the British state in important ways, with the result that Williams is a major figure in our understanding of British postcolonial cultures today.
Preferred by: Hywel Dix