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New Left Review I/158, July-August 1986

Raymond Williams

The Uses of Cultural Theory

For a year or so I have been wanting to say something relatively formal about cultural theory, and this seems to be an occasion. [*] A lecture given in Oxford on 8 March 1986, at a conference on ‘The State of Criticism’ organized by Oxford English Limited. The point is not, at least initially, one of proposition or amendment within this or that theory of culture, but rather a reconsideration of what cultural theory, in the strictest sense, can be reasonably expected to be and to do. Moreover this will involve, as a challenging emphasis, a social and historical exploration of what, in its various forms, it actually has been and done. For cultural theory, which takes all other cultural production as its appropriate material, cannot exempt itself from the most rigorous examination of its own social and historical situations and formations, or from a connected analysis of its assumptions, propositions, methods and effects. My view of what can properly be taken as cultural theory is in itself and especially in this context controversial. For I want to distinguish significant cultural theory, on the one hand from theories of particular arts, which in some of its least useful forms cultural theory offers to supersede or indeed suppress, and, on the other hand, from properly social and sociological theories of general orders and institutions, which some cultural theories offer to replace or enclose. In our own period, any naming of these insignificant and uninteresting types of cultural theory can be taken as likely, and very rapidly, to clear the field or more specifically clear the room. Yet though something of that kind must indeed be done, it should not be rushed.

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