Quote of the week: Williams on “the new social world”

The critical demystification has indeed to continue, but always in association with practice: regular practice, as part of a normal education, in this transforming labour process itself: practice in the production of alternative ‘images’ of the ‘same event’; practice in processes of basic editing and the making of sequences; practice, following this in direct autonomous composition.

We shall already have entered a new social world when we have brought the means and systems of the most direct communication under our own direct and general control. We shall have transformed them from their normal contemporary functions as commodities or as elements of a power structure. We shall have recovered these central elements of our social production from the many kinds of expropriator. But socialism is not only about the theoretical and practical ‘recovery’ of those means of production, including the means of communicative production, which has been expropriated by capitalism. In the case of communications, especially, it is not only, though it may certainly include, the recovery of a ‘primitive’ directness and community. Even in the direct modes, it should be institution much more than recovery, for it will have to include the transforming elements of access and extension over an unprecedentedly wide social and inter-cultural range. — Raymond Williams, from “Means of Communication as Means of Production”

If I were ever to teach a class on film, this would probably be a required text. Williams goes a long way toward clarifying the social importance to every level of society of understanding media. ☕

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About mjschneider

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by mjschneider

5 responses to “Quote of the week: Williams on “the new social world”

  • jubilare

    You are better at critical reading than I am, I think. I’ve read this a couple of times, now, and I still can’t sort out what he is saying. I think I may need to take each sentence individually. O_O

    • mjschneider

      The quote really works better in the context of the entire essay. Williams describes how means of communication (radio, written word, cinema arts, etc.) are a means of social production — the society produced with communication technology is real and tangible. Just as people “produce” themselves through their labor and social interactions, so is communication tech an increasingly integral part of that production.

      One of the central problems he identifies is that few people, especially Marxists, had thought of the technology for communication in the same way that we think of more physical things. A match factory produces matches, but what does a television studio produce? He’s arguing that means of communication are so central to how a society is produced and structured that it’s essential to understand them in their many facets, or else we, the people of society, will find ourselves being wagged by the tail, so to speak. From a Marxist perspective, he identifies the huge political dimension to ignorance/knowledge of communication technology and urges a much higher level of engagement.

      What struck me about this quote (and the essay as a whole) is that it anticipated the emergence of social networking and its ramifications by at least a quarter century. So much of our social interaction — our societal structure — is now built and maintained via electronic communication (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, TV, etc.). But who really controls those means of communication (social production)? And how many of us understand their nuts and bolts? Williams sees the potential in people taking control over their own society by taking control of the means of production. But he wonders how that can happen if people don’t even understand the significance of, say, editing practices in motion pictures. The first step is engagement, and the next is engaging more actively and with greater political focus in producing society ourselves.

      I wish I could’ve just posted the essay, because I’m not doing it justice, but that’d probably violate copyrights, not to mention taking a long, long time to retype from my book!

  • jubilare

    Mm, that helps. Thanks!

    I quoted Tycho, from Penny Arcade once, and though it is not a parallel, I think his words apply to part of the issue:

    “The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring. That even with a computer in your pocket connected to an instantaneous global network, no-one can hear you. When you believe that, really believe it, the devil dances in hell.”

    Understanding one’s power in the creation of dialogue and culture is vital for a free society, and we seem to become less free every day.

    • mjschneider

      I’ve encountered that quote a few times before, and it’s a great one. Most people seem to want to wait for someone to come along and make them free, rather than create freedom for themselves. Much, much, much easier said than done, of course. But if it can start with something as simple as reading a book to expand one’s horizons, it’s even more of a shame that more people don’t do it.

  • jubilare

    “Most people seem to want to wait for someone to come along and make them free, rather than create freedom for themselves.” Yes, exactly… and what is really sad is that many people don’t appreciate or use the freedom they have, so when it is taken away, they scarcely notice.

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