The Uses of Literacy

T20140502-033236 pm.jpghe recent death of Richard Hoggart, the instigator of cultural studies and earnest prober of social tendencies (also a professor at the University of Birmingham and founder of their Centre for Cultural Studies) inspired me to read his most famous book, The Uses of Literacy. Sometimes accused of riding on the coat-tails of the Leavises, Hoggart’s book considers the effect of urbanisation followed by mass literacy on the working classes, in particular thinking about the effect of mass media. The book is a fascinating, disquieting and often disorientating experience. Some of this may be because I am not in the field of cultural studies myself; I gather, though, that this book which is part biography, part social science and part literary analysis – among other things – is indeed considered a difficult text to pin down and to categorise. Far from being the ‘angry young man’ that early reviewers suggested he was, he comes across to me as conscientious, earnest and anxious not to be hasty in his judgments. Yet at the same time, he uses terms which make it a book very much of its time (published in 1957), which evaluate cultural artefacts as variously moral, hollow, unhealthy, valuable, etc. These value-laden terms are ones we often try to avoid now, I think, along with ideas of class. But this is explicitly a book about the working class, from which Hoggart himself came, and it defends the working class and criticises it in roughly equal measure.

The book opens by discussing the working classes, their history and their removal from the countryside into the urban areas which offered them industrial work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This, along with many other aspects of the book, is illustrated by reference to his own family in Yorkshire, which is both interesting and sometimes distracting. Hoggart goes to great lengths to describe ‘the old order’, the traditional working classes in whose company he grew up, including their mind sets, language, work, morals and reading matter. Then he explores what has changed (around or just after the Second World War) in society, creating a new order of working class in which the mass media is dominant and newspapers, popular fiction, radio, films, music and increasingly television offer a wealth of mindless entertainment.

The book contains such a wealth of ideas that it’s no wonder it was so influential at the time it was published, particularly in its arguments about the possibilities which education can offer to those who are disadvantaged. The effects of this are probably what we are still seeing today in the democratisation of higher education. Yet other problems Hoggart discusses are still issues, it seems: he talks about the pressure of advertising and the media to create a kind of uniformity in public opinion, and the effect of the popular press in offering tiny, bite-sized and anecdotal news stories: this, he suggests, has a serious effect on people’s ability to comprehend the more serious problems that their reading matter is creating. The difference today, it seems to me, is that these problems are even more widespread and certainly not confined to any one class. The effect of the tabloid newspapers that Hoggart discusses is perhaps akin to that of the internet today; we learn to skim and take in only a certain amount, and it changes our brains (see this article by Nicholas Carr for more discussion of this).

20140502-033904 pm.jpgThe tendencies of the media to attempt to iron out individualities (whilst implying that the opposite is true) is discussed in detail in The Uses of Literacy, and is one of many aspects with which I found myself nodding in agreement. Yet there are things here I don’t agree with, not to mention sometimes finding his tone somewhat patronising. For one thing, women don’t get a look in here; pre-gender studies, this is all about the working man, men’s reading, thought processes and so on. As a study in mid-century masculinity, it’s marvellous, but I do sometimes find myself wondering ‘Where have the women gone?’ He also seems to assume that it is always a good thing to participate in ‘high’ culture and that everyone wants to, which seems a little idealistic – though he also mourns the loss of idiosyncratic working class culture. But much of what he says seems now to be almost prophetic. His ideas are too subtle and too numerous for me to do justice to, so I will leave you with a quotation to ponder on the question of dumbing down:

‘Whatever is, is right – if the people believe it. ‘The little man’ is made to seem big because everything is scaled down to his measure; his response, the limits of his vision, are the recognised limits. Thus, if a writer fails to appeal at once and on the usual first inadequate reading, then he is at fault, and never the reader. The idea of literature as direct communication is paramount; there is no intermediate link. … Complex – that is, searching or taxing – literature must therefore be discounted; good writing cannot be popular today, and popular writing cannot genuinely explore experience.’

There is a really interesting and more detailed article on the book here, and Stuart Hall’s article is illuminating too. You might also enjoy watching David Tennant as Hoggart defending Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

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2 thoughts on “The Uses of Literacy

  1. I must have had an enlightened English teacher at school because we read “The Uses of Literacy” in class in 1963. We didn’t notice the absence of half of humanity; it was a boys’ grammar school. We were very alive to class differences, though; and we had male teachers who introduced us to high culture.

    Hoggart had other blind spots. He interviewed me in the late 1970s and didn’t give me the job I was after!

  2. That’s really interesting, Ian – I hadn’t thought it might be read in schools. And of course Hoggart was very positive about grammar schools, having attended one himself. Shame he didn’t give you a job though!

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