Raymond Williams and the Culture of Televisual Flow

  • Stuart Allan

Abstract

It is my intention in this essay to show that Raymond Williams’s principled interventions into a series of debates concerning the ways in which television is interwoven throughout the cultural fabric of our everyday realities continue to be richly suggestive for research in a wide variety of analytical contexts. Specifically, my aim is to draw upon his writings about television, in general, and on its discursive ‘flow’, in particular, in order to extend a critical reconsideration of what he describes as ‘the normal television experience’. In this way, television as both a technology and a cultural form will be set in relation to the profuse flow of its sounds and images as they are negotiated by the televisual audience on an ordinary, ‘lived’ basis.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    R. Williams, The Long Revolution, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961) p. 361.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    R. Williams, ‘Art: Freedom as Duty’, in R. Gable, (ed.), Resources of Hope, (London: Verso, 1978/1989) p. 90.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    R. Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, in R. Gable, (ed.), Resources of Hope, (London: Verso, 1958/1989) p. 4. Raymond Williams and the Culture of Televisual Flow 139Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See also R. Williams, ‘Marx on Culture’, in What I Came to Say, (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1983/1989), pp. 195–225.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    R. Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, p. 4.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., pp. 7–8.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ibid., p. 8.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., p. 11.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid., p. 12.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid., pp. 17–18.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    R. Williams, ‘Communications, Technologies and Social Institutions’, in What I Came to Say, (London: Hutchinson Radius, 1981/1989) p. 173.Google Scholar
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    R. Williams, Towards 2000, (London: Penguin, 1983) p. 146.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 147.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See also R. Williams, ‘An Interview with Raymond Williams’, with S. Heath, and G. Skirrow, in T. Modleski, (ed.), Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1984/1986), pp. 3–17.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    For Williams, the approach advocated by Marshall McLuhan is to be read as endorsing this form of technological determinism. Significantly, Williams is taking care to avoid collapsing technology with cultural form in his discussion of television: the tensions produced through their interrelationship, particularly with respect to the dominant structure of ‘centralized transmission and privatized reception’, severely complicate a linear (zero-sum) formulation of intendonality. See also: B. Winston, ‘Tyrell’s Owl: The Limits of the Technological Imagination in an Epoch of Hyperbolic Discourse’, in B. Adam and S. Allan (eds), Theorizing Culture: An Interdisciplinary Critique After Postmodernism, (London: UCL Press, 1995), pp. 225–235.Google Scholar
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    R. Williams, ‘Drama in a Dramatised Society’, in A. O’Connor (ed.), Raymond Williams on television, (London: Routledge, 1974/1989) p. 3.Google Scholar
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  18. 18.
    Ibid., p. 5.Google Scholar
  19. Elsewhere, Williams contrasts the ‘extraordinarily limited’ relationship of drama to its audience in the theatre with the type of relationship television organizes with its audiences: ‘ … the camera now precisely allows television or film to do what theatre in the 19th century could not. It permits the resumption of public actions in fully realized locations of history, moving drama out from the enclosed room or the abstract plain space to work-places, streets and public forums’: see R. Williams, Politics and Letters, (London: Verso, 1979) p. 224.Google Scholar
  20. His highly positive reading of television’s technical capacity for developing a ‘new realism’, especially with regard to the production of an ‘intense [sense of] location and realization of people and place’, thus clearly cross-cuts the far more pessimistic position he advances in the 1982 essay ‘Distance’, as discussed below.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    R. Williams, ‘Drama in a Dramatised Society’, p. 6.Google Scholar
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    R. Williams, Communications, Third Edition, (London: Penguin, 1976) p. 112.Google Scholar
  24. 22.
    Ibid., p. 112.Google Scholar
  25. 23.
    Ibid., p. 113.Google Scholar
  26. 24.
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  27. 25.
    R. Williams, ‘Advertising: The Magic System’, in Problems in Materialism and Culture, (London: Verso, 1960/1980) p. 193.Google Scholar
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    R. Williams, ‘Marx on Culture’, p. 213.Google Scholar
  29. 27.
    Further work may be able to establish interesting parallels between Williams’s position, as briefly sketched here, and Walter Benjamin’s argument about the mechanical reproduction of art and its implications for public life; see W. Benjamin, Illuminations, (London: Fontana, 1973).Google Scholar
  30. 28.
    R. Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, p. 11.Google Scholar
  31. 29.
    R. Williams, ‘Distance’, in A. O’Connor, (ed.), Raymond Williams on Television, (London: Routledge, 1982/1989) pp. 13–14.Google Scholar
  32. 30.
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  33. 31.
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  34. 32.
    See R. Williams, ‘Preface’, in A. O’Connor (ed.), Raymond Williams on Television, (London: Routledge, 1987/1989) ix–xii.Google Scholar
  35. Interestingly, in 1971, Williams wrote about several rudimentary aspects of televisual flow in his column in The Listener: ‘We can switch on and off for particular programmes but in some ways the programmes are conceived as a whole and they’re often received as a continuity. I have come to feel lately that the kind of analysis we need is of this general flow: of the organization, the methods and the values within and through which particular programmes occur’; see R. Williams, ‘Programmes and Sequences’, in A. O’Connor, (ed.), Raymond Williams on Television, (London: Routledge, 1971/1989) p. 133.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
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  37. 34.
    R. Williams, ‘Preface’, p. XLGoogle Scholar
  38. 35.
    If the experience of flow as sequence was not entirely absent from British broadcasting at the time, this was sequence in a new sense. ‘Even in commercial British television there is a visual signal – the residual sign of an interval – before and after the commercial sequences, and ‘programme’ trailers only occur between ‘programmes’. Here there was something quite different, since the transitions from film to commercial and from film A to films B and C were in effect unmarked. There is in any case enough similarity between certain kinds of films, and between several kinds of film and the ‘situation’ commercials which often consciously imitate them, to make a sequence of this kind a very difficult experience to interpret’: R. Williams, Television, p. 92.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    Ibid., p. 86.Google Scholar
  40. 37.
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  41. 38.
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  42. 39.
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  44. 41.
    S. Laing points out that ‘for Williams at that time neither the existing models he had developed for talking about individual literary, dramatic or filmic works nor the procedures used extensively in Communications for press analysis offered any significant purchase on how to describe television programming (a contributory factor being of course the lack of opportunity for all television students at that time to view many programmes more than once, not least since some live programmes were never recorded)’; see S. Laing, ‘Raymond Williams and the Cultural Analysis of Television,’ Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1991), p. 155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. In addition to Laing’s essay, other evaluative assessments of Williams’s contributions to the study of television include J. Eldridge and L. Eldridge, Raymond Williams: Making Connections (London: Routledge, 1994);Google Scholar
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  49. 42.
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  50. 43.
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  51. 44.
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  52. 45.
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  53. 46.
    For an interesting account of the use of various heraldic signs associated with national identity in televisual logos for station identification, see P. Meech, ‘The Lion, the Thistle and the Saltire: National Symbols and Corporate Identity in Scottish Broadcasting,’ Screen, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1996) pp. 68–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 47.
    R. Williams, Television, p. 93 (emphasis added).Google Scholar
  55. 48.
    Ibid., p. 93.Google Scholar
  56. 49.
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  57. J. Hartley, in a brief aside, sets Williams’s discussion of the temporality of flow in relation to the concept of ‘floe’, the latter being ‘a mixed metaphor of space, including the geopolitics of TV as an international industry, the relations between critical positions and the spaces between viewers’; see J. Hartley, Tele-ology: Studies in Television (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 12.Google Scholar
  58. Elsewhere, I have attempted to trace the ideological significance of time-space relations for textual narratives through a reading of Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘chronotope’: see, S. Allan, “‘When Discourse is Tom from Reality”: Bakhtin and the Principle of Chronotopicity,’ Time & Society, Vol. 3, No. 2, (1994), pp. 193–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. 50.
    As R. Altman writes: ‘It should come as no surprise that the countries with the highest level of flow are also those with the most highly developed ratings systems, since flow is linked to profit motives and spectator commodification. Unlike the film industry, which sells programming to audiences, commercial broadcast television sells the audience to advertisers.’; see R. Altman, ‘Television/Sound,’ in T. Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 41.Google Scholar
  60. Regarding strategies designed to discourage channel switching for fear of losing viewers, J. Hartley observes that broadcasters have turned ‘continuity and trailers into a genre, with its own specialized production departments, its own conventions, and its own appeal and pleasure for the viewers’, see Hartley, Tele-ology, pp. 129–130.Google Scholar
  61. 51.
    R. Williams, Television, p. 94.Google Scholar
  62. 52.
    R. Paterson, ‘A Suitable Schedule for the Family,’ in A. Goodwin, and G Whannel (eds), Understanding Television (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 31–32;Google Scholar
  63. J. Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 102.Google Scholar
  64. 53.
    In Britain, ‘audience measurement’ is performed by the Broadcasting Audience Research Board (jointly owned by the BBC and the Independent Television Companies Association), which monitors over 4500 households using electronic meters to collect viewing data by the minute. Qualitative research is undertaken by the Television Opinion Panel which has a weekly sample of 3000 people register their viewing preferences in a booklet. In the US, viewing data produced by the A. C. Nielsen ratings company is enormously influential in the ‘ratings war’ between the four national networks. Interestingly, in a comparative discussion of British and US television, J. Caughie observes how, in his view, the ‘specific nature of “flow” produced by the staggered scheduling of British television, with built-in resistance to clean cross-over – the risk of “dead-time” – seems to be to encourage a residual degree of channel loyalty (or inertia – it’s easier to stay than to switch) quite uncharacteristic of US television flow. And the relative absence of like-against-like scheduling organizes the movement from programme to programme in what seems like more structured, rational choices. The regularity of American television time, the opposition of like against like, dissolves my loyalties and draws me to the jumpy, nervy, mosaic gratifications of sampling’; see J. Caughie, ‘Playing at Being American: Games and Tactics,’ in P. Mellencamp, (ed.), Logics of Television (London: BFI, 1990), pp. 49–50.Google Scholar
  65. 54.
    The last decade has witnessed the emergence of an extensive literature on this subject. See, for example, I. Ang, Watching Dallas (London: Methuen, 1985);Google Scholar
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  81. See also J. Feuer, ‘Narrative Form in American Network Television,’ in C. MacCabe (ed.), High Theory/Low Culture: Analysing Popular Television and Film (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 102.Google Scholar
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    Further research would be required to discern how this configuration of ‘the family audience’ changes during the broadcast day and from one channel to another.Google Scholar
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    T. Modleski, ‘The Rhythms of Reception’, p. 71.Google Scholar
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    See note 54 above. Also, S. Moores provides a useful overview of this material; see: S. Moores, Interpreting Audiences (London: Sage, 1993).Google Scholar
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    See also C. Carter, ‘Nuclear Family Fall-out: Postmodern Family Culture and the Media,’ in B. Adam and S. Allan (eds), Theorizing Culture: An Interdisciplinary Critique After Postmodernism (London: UCL Press, 1995), pp., 186–200.Google Scholar
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    For an alternative reading of this instance of intertextuality, one which highlights its discursive ambiguity in more positive terms, see J. Fiske, Television Culture, p. 101.Google Scholar
  90. 69.
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    A. Goodwin extends Altman’s thesis regarding televisual sound and flow in his examination of the MTV text and its visual and aural anchoring by the on-screen Video Jockeys or VJs: ‘Just as close-ups of rock stars’ faces ground the visual component of video clips, so the VJs help to forge a path through the fast pace and sometimes oblique imagery of MTV, undertaking the role identified by Altman – that of linking televisual and household flows. [This is] a vital function for a televisual form that is especially open to distracted, sporadic viewing’; see A. Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 139–140.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 14.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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  • Stuart Allan

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