R. Williams’ Analysis of the Conformation of the Bloomsbury Group
Contemporary culture has exalted the individual over society. Nevertheless, this relation is not simple because individuals are immersed in society and form it. Raymond Williams has examined this problematic by analyzing the Bloomsbury fraction in his book Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. Williams is basically concerned with how to describe this cultural group, as it purported not to be integrated by people that shared an ideological system, but that were friends. This cultural group allows him to develop his thesis, wherein the modern social consciousness is based on a conception of the individual as being free and civilized. He argues this by emphasizing that this is a special worldview and comparing it to other cultural movements.
The Bloomsbury group was an association that was born in England in the first half of 20th century, which included writers, economists, art and political thinkers. While many cultural groupings are formed because they share similar ideologies, there was not a determined doctrine that all of these adhered to. Everybody was free to do and think as they pleased, and were only united by their friendship. Williams is not convinced by this explanation for their association, as given by Leonard Woolf, who was one of the founders. Approaching this subject skeptically, he wonders that “whether there was anything about the ways in which they became friends which indicate wider social and cultural factors” (Williams 149). Through an analysis of these parameters, he concludes that the Bloomsbury group is an example of how society was modified and changed its structure with the advent of the predominance of the free and civilized individual.
This conception emphasizes three qualities of humans: liberty, the isolation of individuals and their civilization. Modern man has the pretension to be free from external rule and act as if independent. Nevertheless, this view of freedom should be criticized, as it is a pretension that is also culturally imposed: civilization dictates that one should not pay attention to civilization. This relationship evidences the complexity and difficulty that one encounters when relating society and individuals. Due to the prematurity of human birth, they may not live without society, yet are called to act as if unrelated, while still living in a group. Society intends to single people out and take society as if it were an association formed one by one, with elements that have no relation to one another. However, phenomena such as love, education and law serve to remind people that they are not isolated, but depend on one another. Finally, the modern ideal was for people to be learned. This is notoriously seen in the Bloomsbury group, whose roots were in the University of Cambridge; while Leonard Woolf stated this as a matter of fact, Williams critiques that this house of studies “can be taken, in this way, as if it were a simple location, rather than the highly specific social and cultural institution which it was” (149). Cultural knowledge was privileged and served as an important ideal for this conception of man.
Williams’ argument rests on the fact that the Bloomsbury group rallied around this way of thinking about humans, yet that it was veiled due to it being common in culture and only formed a fraction of it. For example, this association emphasized the freedom to say whatever one wanted, including in sexual themes; nevertheless, Sigmund Freud thought the same despite not being a part of their circle of friends, countering L. Woolf’s argument. While they thought differently and practiced various disciplines, their conception of freedom allowed them to come together in spite of this, as liberty was one of the fundamental ideals. The Bloomsbury group was a microcosm of the culture that surrounded them; nevertheless, they were made famous by their talent and sensibility as whole.
Williams believes that this conception is special and compares it to two other cultural groups which were very similar in thought and social levels to the Bloomsbury group. He uses this to show that “the level that matters, finally, is not that of the abstracted ideas, but of the real relations of the group to the social system as a whole” (Williams 158). William Godwin and his circle, while being ideologically close to the Bloomsbury group, did not achieve the sort of success and progress of the latter due to them not being a fraction of their society, but forming a different group. As such, they did not receive the support and social interaction necessary for them to flourish. Similarly, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood held similar ideas to these two groups, but was years before their time, trying to revolutionize the bourgeoisie from within; their conception of art finally was mainstream in the following generation.
In conclusion, Williams’ analysis of the Bloomsbury group adequately asserts that their conception of contemporary man was the meeting point for all of these seemingly disparate individuals and allowed them to associate. While Leonard Woolf stated that they were not an actual group that shared an ideology, but that were just joined by friendship. Nevertheless, Williams argues and evidences that it was a similar conception of man that united them. He then compares this special worldview with other similar groups that have been formed through history, but that did not have the same position in society. The relationship between individual and society is complex and may sometimes be veiled; nevertheless, its theorization is sometimes difficult and changes throughout history.
Williams, Raymond. Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London: Verso Editions and NLB, 1980. Print.