Introduction: ‘Society’ and ‘Cultural Form’

  • Simon Dentith
Part of the Social History in Perspective book series (SHP)


‘Society’ and ‘cultural form’ — the terms ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are not far to seek in my title. This book addresses culture and society in the nineteenth century, and its topic is essentially a relationship: between the realities of nineteenth-century society in England, and the extraordinary range of cultural objects, of all kinds, produced within that century. But this relationship is difficult to specify, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it is a relationship between two entities which are constantly transforming themselves and whose definitions are, anyway, difficult and controversial. Secondly, the very effort to specify a relationship between ‘society’ and ‘culture’ tends to make both entities too rigid, to presuppose a separate reality for each — and thus to indicate a way of conceiving the relationship which ought precisely to be the matter for inquiry. Let me say immediately, then, that no society is conceivable without a culture, and indeed that no culture is conceivable without a society to sustain it. In fact, one of my central contentions in this book will be that social relationships are partly realised in culture, and that culture is a space in which such relationships are both cemented and contested. Moreover, my topic is historically located in the nineteenth century, in a country, England, undergoing remarkable transformations, so that social relationships were in a state of constant tension and renegotiation; culture is both one of the means of this renegotiation, and the particular valuations made within culture are some of its products.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    See especially, Culture and Society (Chatto & Windus, London, 1958), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana, n.p., 1983) and Culture (Fontana, n.p., 1981).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    George Eliot, ‘The Natural History of Social Life’, in Essays of George Eliot, edited by Thomas Pinney (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1963).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    John Ruskin’s views on these matters are powerfully expressed in Unto this Last (1862);Google Scholar
  4. this can be contrasted with John Stuart Mill’s Liberty (1859).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Chatto & Windus, London, 1961).Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    See especially, M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, edited by Michael Holquist; translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1981);Google Scholar
  7. and V. N. Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, translated by Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Academic Press, New York, 1986).Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    See George Eliot: The Critical Heritage, edited by David Carroll (Routledge, London, 1971);Google Scholar
  9. especially the review of The Mill on the Floss by E. S. Dallas, pp. 131–7.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852–53), ch. 47.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    ‘Legible symbolic configuration’: see Martin Meisel, Realisations: Narrative, Pictorial and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-century England (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983), p. 45.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    These examples are taken from the Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, 3 vols. (1851), I: 467; II: plates 56, 63.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Raymond Williams, ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’, in Problems in Materialism and Culture (Verso, London, 1980), pp. 145–69.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    See Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (London, Routledge, 1993).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 12.
    Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edn (Verso, London, 1991).Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    See The Dialogic Imagination, pp. 342–8.Google Scholar

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© Simon Dentith 1998

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  • Simon Dentith

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