Cultural Studies’ Bright Book of Life: Richard Hoggart’s “The Uses of Literacy”

What follows is an excerpt from the late Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies 1983. First is posting it with the permission of Duke University press which holds the copyright.

One of the people who attempts to chart the nature of the cultural changes taking place is Richard Hoggart in a book called The Uses of Literacy (1957).  Hoggart’s background is northern working class; when he writes the book, he was a teacher in adult education; he later became Professor of English and the founder of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is in a sense steeped in the English literary critical tradition. That is to say he is formed, as almost all of us were who went through an English degree at the time, by the ideas of and a contestation with the spirit of F. R. Leavis, to whom I shall return. Thus, when Hoggart writes about culture, he is writing therefore as a literary critic, attempting to do the kind of analysis or reading of real social and cultural life that he would do on a poem or a novel. He is trying to recall the kinds of lives which he and people like him lived in the traditional industrial working class before the war. He sees inscribed, not so much in the political and economic conditions, but in the social and cultural aspects of working-class life in that period, a certain pattern of culture, a certain set of values, a certain set of relationships between people. He sees how people who didn’t have access to a great deal of the material goods made a life for themselves, how they created and constructed a culture which sustained them. Of course, it sustained them in positions of subordination. They weren’t the masters and mistresses of the world. They weren’t people who were going to lead anything, but they were able to survive. And they survived with dignity.

Their lives constituted a pattern of culture: not the authenticated, valorised, or dominant pattern of culture, not the literate and “cultured” pattern of culture, but something he wants to call “a culture” nevertheless. He evokes that early traditional working class—which the leader of the Labour Party has said is disappearing forever—and he tries to “read it” in the same way he would read a piece of prose. He describes the kind of working- class home in which he was raised; he looks at how they arrange their living rooms, at the fact that even if the house is going to rack and ruin, there is always one place in it for visitors. Nobody else in the house ever goes into it. They may be sleeping four in a bed upstairs, but there is always a room to receive someone else. And he says, implicitly perhaps, that that is as much a culture as the culture of the country house or of the bourgeois palace. These are people making a life, giving their life meaning. We studied endlessly in the historical and literary past, interpreting the products of various particular cultures. But this is the culture we never see, the culture we don’t think of as cultivated.

He affirms that culture by describing it, using the tools of intuitive literary critical reading. He is not a sociologist and especially not drawn to quantitative methods. Indeed he has been formed in an English tradition which is deeply suspicious of quantification. Its orientation is expressed in a statement by Coleridge: “Men [by which I hope he meant men and women] . . . ought to be weighed, not counted.” This was Coleridge’s critique of utilitarianism and poitical economy, and of what early industrial capitalism had done to people; namely, Coleridge said, they talk about them as “industrial hands,” as if there were a hand out there running the spinning machine, and it’s just fortuitous that there are human beings attached to it! For it is this language that allows you to callously notice that a hundred thousand hands happen to be laid off this year! You can’t count people, you have to weigh them. Hoggart inherits this tradition which has been inserted into the interstices of literary criticism. Rather than counting, he weighs, he describes. Although he is unfamiliar with anthropology, he is doing a kind of ethnography, treating his own life as if it were taking place in a village in the South Seas, looking at the strange things people do and say.

Indeed his methodology is exactly that of an ethnographer, listening first of all to the language, to the actual practical speech which people use, to the ways they sustain relationships through language, and to the ways they categorise things. For example, he is interested in how and why working-class people talk about Fate in particular ways, at particular times. Now “Fate,” with a capital F, might be heard resounding down the corridors of gentry houses, but it’s not really something which puts a stopper to life in the way which it does in the working class. Fate can deal you a very good hand, which means that it only deals it once, and that means you win the pools and you better do something with it ’cause it’ll never come your way again. More often, Fate just deals you the old rough, raw deal you always knew was coming your way. And what happens? Fate. It’s the language of a class without any command on history. It’s the language of a class to which things happen, not of a class which makes things happen. And in that way Hoggart teases out the implications of the implicit value structure of a whole group in society, reading their physical bearing, the way they talk, the way they relate, the way they handle objects, the way they organise into patterns. He knew that these things had meaning, not by reading anthropology (he hadn’t), but by reading literature.

He brings a kind of literary imagination to bear on the analysis of a culture. And if this locates him within the traditional literary cultural tradition, he is also outside of it, because that tradition had never taken the sorts of things he is writing about as worthy of any attention at all. If you began talking to Leavis about the front living room of a working- class house in Leeds, he wouldn’t know what you were talking about! And what’s more, he would not have thought that it was what “culture” was about. Hoggart, formed by that tradition, is trying to bring it to bear on the neglected, the excluded part of culture. So in that sense he was both inside and outside of the tradition which formed him. He was breaking from it, using it to deal with his own experience, and to generalise from it. This is the extremely rich first half of the book and it was extremely important, and influential on emerging efforts to come to terms with “culture.” The second half is Hoggart’s attempt to read his own time—the 1950s—and that is, I’m afraid, a near disaster!