Culture [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“It seems fair to say that a rapprochement between culture and technology has been achieved.  Yet, this says little about what culture signifies today.  How has the term’s growing proximity to technology, particularly digital computational tools, affected the range of meanings and practices with which it’s associated?”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Culture — Ted Striphas, Indiana University

Raymond Williams’ Keywords isn’t just a compendium of important terms in the English language.  It’s better imagined as a linguistic jigsaw puzzle, albeit one whose pieces are moving in relationship to one another.  New terms get introduced, older ones drop out, and still others change shape as semantic edges grind together, altering the appearance of the whole.  How else can one explain the unique structure of the work-each entry populated by a series of companion terms that, taken together, comprise a network of internal relations far more complex than anything suggested by the book’s alphabetized table of contents?  Or its iterative nature-beginning with the introduction to Williams’ Culture and Society and its focus on the words industry, democracy, class, art, and culture, then mushrooming into the 110-entry first edition of Keywords, published in 1976, and culminating in the revised edition of 1983, which added an additional twenty-one terms (Williams 1958: xiii-xx; Williams 1976; Williams 1983a)?  Little wonder that Williams described Keywords as “necessarily unfinished and incomplete,” having just performed a major overhaul (1983a: 27).

It is within this context that one ought to begin making sense of any keyword, including the one under consideration here, culture.  First observation: Williams says nothing explicit about culture’s relationship to digital technology in Keywords.  This isn’t surprising given the historical ambit of the work, the endpoint for which is roughly the mid-twentieth century, when analog still ruled the day.  Second observation: the entry for culture is marked by its simultaneous distance from, and nagging referentiality to, the technological ethos of modern production.  Williams states that culture “was used to attack what was seen as the ‘MECHANICAL’ character of the new civilization…emerging [in the nineteenth century]: both for its abstract rationalism and for the ‘inhumanity’ of current industrial development” (1983a: p. 89; c.f.: Horkheimer and Adorno, 1997).  Third observation: Williams saw fit to add technology to the 1983 edition of Keywords, an acknowledgment, perhaps, of the term’s gathering import with respect to a vocabulary of culture and society.  Yet, at three-quarters of a printed page, the write-up is a skeleton.  (Culture gets six pages; class, the longest entry, nine.)

And so the trail linking culture to digital technology runs cold-unless one approaches keywords not as a book but as a project, an endeavor transecting multiple volumes in Williams’ oeuvre.  Moving outward the from the ur-text, there emerges a Williams more attentive not only to technology (1974; 1983b), but also to the growing prevalence of the digital.  To wit: in the penultimate section of his book Culture, published in 1981, he discusses the decline of industrial production in the West and, with it, the growth of “information processes.”[1]   He doesn’t mention computational technologies by name, although he does refer to “data collection and processing” as activities integral to what Daniel Bell, an interlocutor of Williams’ (1983a: 27), had termed “post-industrial society” (Bell 1973; see also Williams 1983b: 83-102).  “Thus,” writes Williams, “a major part of the whole modern labour process must be defined in terms which are not easily theoretically separable from the ‘traditional’ cultural activities” (1981: 231-32).

By 1981, then, Williams seems to have grasped how culture and technology were becoming less opposed than they once were, practically and theoretically.  This was thanks in part to culture’s budding relationship to digital information processing, a relationship mediated initially by large-scale institutional mainframes and, by the early- to mid-1980s, desktop personal computers.  These developments moved roughly in tandem with conceptual shifts occurring in the human sciences, which were themselves related to the broader influence of cybernetics and information theory throughout the third quarter of the twentieth century.  (More on that momentarily.)  Fast-forward to the 2000s, where these articulations have become so well established as to give rise to a host of lexical offshoots.  The entry for culture appearing in the Williams-inspired reboot New Keywords mentions “cyberculture” and “technoculture” (Bennett 2005: 68).  More recently Lev Manovich has employed the phrase “cultural software” “literally to refer to certain types of software that support actions we normally associate with ‘culture'” (2013: 20).

It seems fair to say that a rapprochement between culture and technology has been achieved.  Yet, this says little about what culture signifies today.  How has the term’s growing proximity to technology, particularly digital computational tools, affected the range of meanings and practices with which it’s associated?

It’s useful to revisit the three understandings of culture Williams advances in The Long Revolution, published in 1961, which form a basis for the entry appearing later on in Keywords.  These aren’t definitions, strictly speaking, as much as “general categories” or rubrics under which Williams gathers a host of senses and meanings accessible at the time he was writing (1961: 57).  They include:

1. the “ideal” definition, referring to the systems of valuation by means of which groups establish hierarchies, and subsequently judge the worth, of people, places, objects, and ideas;

2. the “documentary” definition, referring to the whole range of artifacts, both material and immaterial, produced by a group of people;

3. the “social” definition, referring to “a particular” or “whole way of life” (1961: 57; 1958, xviii), i.e., the patterns of thought, conduct, and expression, including the structures of signification, prevalent among members of a collective.

These rubrics square with definitions of culture operative in the English language today.  The entry for the term appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary, the standard reference work on these matters, traverses much the same ground as The Long Revolution, suggesting the array of senses and meanings Williams identified in his early work remain dominant reference points (“Culture, n.” 2014).  But it’s also worth bearing in mind the “sacral attitude” of dictionaries and the like (Williams 1983a: 20), or their tendency to consecrate preferred usages at the expense of residual forms (“archaisms”) and emergent ones (“vulgarizations”).

Indeed, the story of culture post-1950 is centrally about archaism, or the re-activation of dormant senses and meanings, and about vulgarization, or the appearance of novel understandings that seem to corrupt tried-and-true definitions of the word.

Culture doesn’t exactly begin its career in the late-eighteenth century, although it’s around this time that the term leaves the semantic confines of husbandry and enters broader usage, gradually taking on the range of meanings encompassed by the three rubrics, above (Williams 1983a: 87).  Culture then becomes a quintessentially modern term, carving out a conceptual space for human beings apart from nature and technology, subordinating both in the process (c.f.: Latour 1993).  Thus, in the nineteenth century, there emerges an overarching view of culture as “a court of human appeal” (Williams 1958: xviii), which aligns with the then-burgeoning phenomenological understanding of the lifeworld as an “autonomous realm” of human affairs (Kittler 2006: 42).  It’s also part and parcel of the birth of humanism, and of the humanities, the latter of which thematized culture and took it as its central organizing motif (Williams 1983a: 150; Kittler 2006: 40-42).

These are decisive developments.  In the near term they helped secure authority for the humanities, positioning both its practitioners and the disciplines to which they belonged as the leading arbiters of “cultural data” (Kittler 2006: 41).  But in the long term they also helped precipitate a crisis, or rather a whole complex of crises that persist into the present day.  Michel Foucault was among the most prescient observers of the coming troubles when, in 1966’s Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things), he concluded:

[M]an is not the oldest nor the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge….It is not around him and his secrets that knowledge prowled for so long in the darkness.  In fact, among all the mutations that have affected the knowledge of things and their order…only one, that which began a century and a half ago and is now perhaps drawing to a close, has made it possible for man to appear….[M]an is an invention of recent date.  And one perhaps nearing its end. (1970: 386-387)

Here, in his archaeology of the human sciences, Foucault glimpsed the beginning of the unraveling of modern humanism, a process that, by the closing decades of the twentieth century, would open culture to meanings, practices, and interpretive approaches that had largely been excluded for the better part of two centuries.  Subsequent critics have suggested that “culture…has lost its purchase” as a result of these shifts (Readings 1996: 12).  However, Lawrence Grossberg contends that culture remains a term of significance today, though “the ways in which it matters-and hence, its effects-have changed in ways that we have not yet begun to contextualize or theorize” (2006: 17).

Two puzzles, then: what has happened to humanism? and what is happening to culture, semantically, experientially, and theoretically?  Donna J. Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles have gone further than most in addressing the former question.  Both identify the Second World War as a turning point when hermetic notions of “the human” began breaking down.  For Haraway (1991) the shift is embodied in the figure of the cyborg and, for Hayles (1999), that of the posthuman.  While differing in important respects (Haraway 2006: 140), both figures trouble hard-and-fast distinctions between human beings, nature, and technology-the very distinctions that helped secure the apparent autonomy of culture in the early nineteenth century.  Moreover, Haraway and Hayles attribute the breakdown most immediately to the rise of cybernetics and information theory, many of whose key breakthroughs occurred within the context of the war (c.f.: Pickering, 2010: 4).  According to Haraway these fields provoked a “communications revolution,” as well as a broader “re-theorizing of natural objects as technological devices properly understood in terms of mechanisms of production, transfer, and storage of information” (1991: 58).

The latter term-information-was the conceptual hinge on which swung this process.  It functioned as a kind of counter-anthropological leveler, an abstraction under which could be gathered a diverse array of expressive phenomena, both human and non-human (Schrödinger 1944: 70-71; Wiener 1954: 32; Bateson 2000: 272, 315-18; Peters 1988; Gleick 2011).  The third quarter of the twentieth century saw a host of efforts to reconceptualize culture along these lines.  Sociologist Talcott Parsons viewed it as an information-rich, cybernetic system (1970: 514-16), while his student, anthropologist Clifford Geertz, suggested the operations of culture closely resembled those of computer software, given their shared concern for symbol processing (1973: 44).  Parsons and Geertz were still operating at the level of analogy, however, viewing culture through a metaphorics of computation rather than positing an actual equivalence between them.  Williams took it that next step in his claims about the entwining cultural work and information processing.  Tiziana Terranova has gone even further in suggesting that information now serves as a “milieu” or “environment within which contemporary culture unfolds” (2004: 8).

Here one might speak of the subsumption of culture under information, or rather its subsumption under the auspices of digital computational technologies.  The term “subsumption” comes from Karl Marx, who uses it to identify two phases in the history of capitalist development.  The first phase, or “formal” subsumption, refers to the capitalization of pre-capitalist relations, resulting in hybrid forms grafted on to the new mode of production.  The second phase, or “real” subsumption, refers to the gradual emergence of properly capitalist productive relations, or relations that are capitalistic through and through (1976: 645-646; 1019-1025).  The history of culture in the second half of the twentieth century follows a similar trajectory, where formal analogies between culture and computation are just now starting to realize themselves in a range of theories and practices that reconceptualize the former in terms of the latter.  How else can one explain the emergence of mash-ups like “culturomics,” the “digital humanities,” and “humanities computing,” or the re-imagining of cultural artifacts as a corpus of “big data?”

One of the more intriguing outgrowths of all this has been a recognition, still dawning, of the ways in which culture exceeds human discourse, perception, and sense making.  The work of Félix Guattari is exemplary in its insistence that human expression is but one element of an “assemblage of enunciation” whose ranks include “extra-linguistic, biological, technological,” and other “a-signifying” modes of communicative practice (1995: 24).  What one sees here is a growing awareness of how specific categories of signs, unintelligible to or unintended for humans, can nonetheless have a profound affect on the form, content, and delivery of culture.  QR and other types of machine-readable product codes are a case in point, as are techniques of search engine optimization, which “tune” websites for maximum discoverability by machines.  What one also sees, then, is a stretching of the boundaries of culture beyond the “webs of significance” with which, in some formulations, it was once thought to be coterminous (Geertz 1973: 4).  Given the prevalence with which machine-based systems now communicate about and process (sort, classify, hierarchize) culture, it seems difficult to imagine it strictly as a “court of human appeal.”  One could reasonably see it as a court of machinic appeal as well (Hallinan and Striphas, in press).

All that is to say: sometime around 1950, the category culture starts to slide into the orbit of technology, having slipped, to a significant degree, the gravitational pull of modern humanism.  With that an ostensibly antiquated sense of culture-the one referring to husbandry-is given a new lease on life.  At first blush, the connections may not seem obvious.  Computation seems to share little in common with “the tending of natural growth,” culture’s original meaning in the English language (Williams 1983a: 87).  But the connections are there, substantively, if not formally: in the notion of tending, indicating skill or technique, a derivative of the ancient Greek _____ (techn_), from which the word technology derives (Stiegler 1998: 93); and also in coulter, a “subsidiary” form of the word culture, sometimes spelled as such, designating an instrument for the tilling of soil (Williams 1983a: 87).  Once again, culture is becoming less distinct from its tools, and vice-versa.  Its story post-1950 thus exemplifies how “archaic” or residual forms press and persist, producing latencies of meaning that can re-emerge under the right conditions.

To reiterate, this is not to suggest the modern view of culture, exemplified by Williams’ three definitional rubrics, is receding into the background.  If anything the dominant view is compelled to cohabitate with the emergent forms, producing what, in traditional lexicography, is apt to be understood as vulgarizations of meaning.  Consider Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, for instance, a touchstone for Williams, first published in England in 1869.  The book proceeds from the assumption that “our social machine is a little out of order,” and that culture is the “principle of authority” that will “counteract the tendency to anarchy” (1993: 88, 89).  Despite Arnold’s misgivings about modern technology, which he saw as contributing to social disorder, his view comports in an odd way with the position of applied information theory.  Today, and to an unparalleled degree, Google and its kin adjudicate what Arnold once described as “the best which has been thought and said” (190).  They do so by parsing signal and noise billions of times each day, in an effort to attenuate information overload.  Though their means and ends drastically differ, both Arnold and Google are invested in determining which aspects of human expression are most worthy of rising above the din.  Both, therefore, are in the business of finding order amid the apparent chaos.  If Arnold wrote the book on Culture and Anarchy, then Google et al. may well be writing its companion, Culture and Entropy.

Like any account of culture, this one, focusing on its relationship to digital technology, is partial-“necessarily unfinished and incomplete.”  This isn’t a function of the focus, however, as much as it is a testament to the dynamism and adaptability of “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Williams 1983a: 87).  Indeed, over the last fifty or sixty years the word culture has taken on new inflections, many of which embody its association with digital computational tools.  The history presented here thus is intended not as a narrow account of culture, circumscribed by a particular subject matter, but as one that significantly reflects the predicament of culture since the end of the Second World War.


1.  The U.S. edition bears the title, The Sociology of Culture.


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