The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

By George Hoare

Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, re-issued at the end of last year by Penguin, is an important book, and there are at least three reasons to read it. First, it is a deeply humane account of a social group (the mainly Northern working-class) at a decisive historical conjuncture, experiencing the interaction of the two broad cultural forces of the (predominantly pre-war) local traditions of the working class and the increasingly powerful commercialism of post-war consumer capitalism. Second, it is routinely cited as one of the foundational texts of cultural studies—along with Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) and EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963)—and is both theoretically far-reaching and easy to read, making important points about the relationship between art (especially popular publications) and everyday life without a resort to hyper-theoreticism (which marred much cultural theory of the 1970s). Third, the reception of The Uses of Literacy in the British New Left of the late 1950s tells us much about both the text itself and the political movement it soon related to, as well as our own difficulties in formulating a compelling and popular account of radical politics today.

The ‘Early’ British New Left, in its initial late-1950s, early-1960s incarnation, attempted to re-define the very meaning of socialism: beyond, that is, the narrow ‘economism’ of the Stalinist orthodoxy of the Communist Party and the arguably even narrower ‘Gas Board Socialism’ of the Labour Party, to a system of thought that included the importance of literature, cinema, criticism, housing, schooling, human relationships, experimentation—in short, the ‘total scale of man’s activities’. If the ‘Early’ New Left has any relevance to contemporary politics, as I would argue it does, then it is through its emphasis on cultural renewal and the question of how to orient ourselves to the cultural force of a pervasive, high-powered, and ambiguously satisfying consumer capitalism—and The Uses of Literacy is a key text in thinking through these ideas of ‘culture’ and everyday, lived experience.

A brief word on the structure and argument of The Uses of Literacy. It is arranged, significantly, in two conflicting parts: the first, a reading of the dense working-class life (the place of mother and father, the sights, the smells…) which Hoggart grew up with in Leeds, and the second, a wide-ranging (and almost curmudgeonly) critique of the post-war ‘commercial culture’ beginning to take root and interface with that culture. The tension between these two sections is clear; The Uses of Literacy was originally titled ‘The Abuse of Literacy’. Its subtitle, ‘Aspects of Working-Class Life, with special reference to publications and entertainments’ demarcates Hoggart’s initial interest in written content and the social practice of reading, but I would argue that it also suggests the limits of literary studies of the mid-1950s, as Hoggart talks importantly about many more aspects of working-class life than just those ordinarily subject to the method of literary criticism.

The first part of Hoggart’s account, then, describes ‘An “Older” Order’. It is deeply readable, probably because it is noticeably shot-through with a emotional identification with and intuitive sympathy for the manners of speech, behaviour, and even thought of the working-class community Hoggart studies. The first response to The Uses of Literacy is, as a result, emotional—a comparison of your upbringing with Hoggart’s. (Briefly: I was raised in a suburb of Reading in what was held by local legend to be, at the time, the largest housing development in Europe outside of Sweden, full of identical brick semis and mock-tudor detached houses, all built in the mid 1980s. So, I thought about the effect on ‘community’ of the following two facts: the houses were all, as I realised, deliberately constructed so as not to face each other—you looked at your neighbours’ garden wall, or the side of their house—and therefore you could not easily see if your neighbours were home (we did not know our neighbours); and, as all the houses had been put up in one go, like turning the page of a pop-up story-book, there had been no development of smaller streets, with corner pubs or shops, and there was no local high street, only a massive Asda.)

Part of the value of The Uses of Literacy as a historical document to a twenty-first century reader lies here, in the ethnographically-rich autobiographical first section, which details ‘The Personal and the Concrete’ of working-class life. Hoggart details an entire order, from the centrality of the neighbourhood to group life, to characteristic attitudes to fate and luck, and (influentially) ideas of ‘Us’ (working-class) and ‘Them’ (bosses and the rest) to understanding the inequalities of life and the way things work. Stuart Hall has called this method ‘social hermeneutics’, with The Uses of Literacy as a signal example. Two important partialities must be noted though. First, Hoggart takes regional (West Yorkshire) culture for class culture, forgetting that in Britain there is not, for example, such a thing as standardised ‘working class speech’: there is, even today, upper-class and middle-class speech, and working-class speech exists as a set of regional variants. Second, and the greater partiality, Hoggart’s experience is, as he notes, based on his life as a hard-working scholarship boy: he stays at home, struggling for a quiet place to study rather than entering the work of work. The Uses of Literacy, it is often pointed out, is an account of the private life of the working-class, with the public world of politics centred around the workplace, and the (at times creative, at times destructive) tension between the two wholly excluded.

Hoggart’s account, then, is incomplete (not that we could reasonably expect anything else). But even in placing politics to one side and examining one aspect of working-class life—with such detail and compassion—Hoggart contributes decisively to a movement that would later find its home, directed by Hoggart, in an off-shoot of the Birmingham English Literature Department in 1963: ‘Cultural Studies’. In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart, along with (in radically different ways) Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, radically overturns the meaning of ‘culture’ used in any kind of literary studies by providing an account of a way of life not merely marginalised but excluded from the dominant discourse of culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said’, running from Arnold to Eliot and, later, the Leavises.

‘Culture’ here, in a way that we easily accept today, instead also refers to the experiences and habits of everyday group life, even filtering down to varieties of light (‘the sun forcing its way down as far as the ground-floor windows on a very sunny afternoon, the foggy gray of November over the slates and chimneys, the misty evenings of March when the gangs congregate in the watery yellow light of the kicked and scratched gas-lamp’, p56) and tastes (‘not so much the ordinary toffees and boiled sweets, nor even the sherbet-fountains, monkey nuts and aniseed balls, but the stuff of which each generation of boys transmits the secret—a penny stick of licorice or some cinnamon root from the chemist, two pennyworth of broken locust, a portion of chips ‘with some scraps, please’, well soused with salt and vinegar and eaten out of a piece of newspaper which is licked at the end’, p57) in this case known to a working-class boy. For Hoggart, all these aspects of a way of life must be given their place for us to begin to understand culture; The Uses of Literacy is a warning against any kind of ‘reductionism’ that does not hold on to these complexities of human reality.

The Uses of Literacy also provoked wide-ranging and vocal debate in the British New Left of the late 1950s, and it is the nature and contours of this debate that I find instructive: by looking at the criticisms made of Hoggart’s work at the time, we can better situate it in its historical and political context, particularly by looking at why it was thought by the Left as so important to engage with.

In the Summer of 1957, shortly after the publication of The Uses of Literacy, the Oxford-based New Left journal Universities and Left Review printed three responses to The Uses of Literacy based around a central review by Raymond Williams. The responses collected around the regional differences between the Irish and Welsh working-class and that of West Yorkshire, structural changes in the position of ‘the scholarship boy’, and the twin theoretical poles of the importance of cultural subordination and cultural classlessness.

Williams’ response to The Uses of Literacy’s critique of commercial society and the idea of this culture ‘replacing’ or ‘subordinating’ existing working class ways of life seems to me to be valuable. Hoggart correctly identifies in the second part of The Uses of Literacy the shallowness and specious populism of popular publications, as well as their banality and the meretriciousness of the industry that produces them—which he compares fairly straightforwardly to the (in parts) resilient working-class culture he has previously outlined. Hoggart argues that questions about the interaction between these two cultures are important, and the unbalanced nature of their meeting is something we must bear in mind, unless we are satisfied with losing all that is good in the older order and uncritically accepting the newer mass art.

This thought was an important one for the Early New Left, caught up in the same quick processes of cultural shift that Hoggart described. However, there are passages, notably about the ‘Juke-Box Boys’ where Hoggart talks about the ‘spiritual dry-rot’ of those who hang around in milk bars with ‘no aim, no ambition, no protection, no belief’, in which a moral critique is offered of those members of the working class seduced by ‘sex in shiny packets’ (p. 204). Williams is however correct in emphasising that it is the exposure to ‘commercial culture’ not its consumption to which we must attend, and that this culture has influenced all classes (even if not equally). Our response, then, must be not only to examine the content of the publications that are read, but to accord central importance to the ownership of the media and the institutions for cultural dissemination and promotion. Analogously, free speech is not just a matter of what can be said; it is increasingly important who owns the vehicles through which that speech is produced, circulated, and received.

The question of cultural classlessness—which Hoggart is clear in the Conclusion we are heading towards, or have already started achieving—is more complex, and I will do no more than scrape the surface of that debate here. Williams’ key insight into The Uses of Literacy was how Hoggart focuses on the (class) similarities in the use of material objects (for example, newspapers to paperbacks—but this equally applies to, to take two, washing machines and cars) without highlighting the persistent class differences in understandings of society and constitutive human relationships (1).

Williams sees a distinctive working-class culture as inhering in (among other things) an emphasis on ‘extending relationships’ through associational groups and political organisations, in contradistinction to bourgeois ideas of competition (economically) and ‘service’ (which Williams sees as complexly providing the explanation for Tory preaching about family values to single mothers while packing their children off to boarding school). While the centrality of ideas about society and constitutive human relationships to any type of thinking about politics is difficult to exaggerate, we must also think carefully about the role of associational (sports, volunteering, political) groups in today’s society and whether the idea of ‘extending relationships’ is still one with much currency today.

The continuing relevance of ideas of ‘cultural struggle’ and the relationship between culture and class can be seen, among other places, in Stuart White’s recent ‘ideological map’ of the four strands of evolving progressive thought in the New Statesman (2). Here White delineates ‘Left Communitarianism’, ‘Left Republicanism’, ‘Centre Republicanism’, and ‘Right Communitarianism’. More relevant here (but perhaps less important) than the simple observation that there must be more to progressive thought than these (where is socialism? where is public ownership? what is our conception of a radically different and better way to live?), is the central conceptual importance within Communitarianism of determining ideas of culture. ‘Left Communitarianism’, for instance, contends that ‘human beings are social creatures… we need a social vision that emphasises solidarity and mutuality’.

Here culture, in Hoggart’s sense of the texture of lived experience and the real social vision that exists in actual communities, is key to how we emphasise solidarity, and which mutualities we should endorse (and which we should oppose). A key legacy of the ‘culturalist’ New Left, as shown in, at least in my reading, The Uses of Literacy and the debate around it in the Early British New Left, is the taking culture seriously as constitutive ground for all social practices—including politics. For instance, debates about affluence in the 1950s and the ‘embourgeoisement’ of the working class, about the dangers of ‘Americanisation’ and what Hoggart calls ‘the candy-floss world’ of the newer mass art with its sugary consumerist treats, have a deep resonance with Right Communitarians worrying about the effect of the ‘moral vacuum created by… lifestyle liberalism in society’.

The Uses of Literacy poses, directly and indirectly, a set of difficult questions for the strands of progressive thought White describes: where could an alternative to an atomistic liberal view of human beings come from (‘working-class culture’)? on the other hand, what is the role of materialism in progressive politics (does it undermine bases of solidarity)? what about class (does it still exist, does it form the basis of political action)? how are class, politics, and the potential for radical change expressed in popular culture? how do we avoid taking the facile intellectual shortcuts of thinking about ‘the masses’ and ‘the common man’ when contrasting the real bases of solidarity and mutuality that exist in society with a culture in television and the newspapers which seems to emphasise wholly different aspects and values of life (the value of competition, the necessity of having low (and even fearful) opinion of others)? In short, can we construct a radical politics that takes into account the complexities and contradictions in contemporary culture and does not end up anti-humanist or with a thinly-veiled contempt for ‘the masses’?

To answer these questions with the resources set down by Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy must be placed in its dual historical context. In the story of the foundation of cultural studies, it plays a key part, particularly in its insistence that ‘ways of life’ must be studied in and for themselves, and culture should thus be understood as a matter of ‘meaning’ or, as Hoggart puts it, the ‘practices of ‘making sense’’. On its release, The Uses of Literacy raised questions for the Early New Left about the character of a class culture, the very meaning of culture, and the interaction between culture and politics (in cultural struggle) and culture and class—questions which have not (cannot?) be decisively answered once and for all and are still core to a truly ‘progressive’ politics.

Footnotes

The Uses of Literacy is above all, in my view, a study of a class living through a period of cultural change that has proved, while still incomplete and deeply contradictory, to be one of the most crucial developments in Western European society of the last century, and continuing in this one. Hoggart charts a moment in the movement from, as Stuart Hall puts it in a recent retrospective of Hoggart’s work, ‘older, tiered, socially embedded, hierarchical class structures and Protestant Ethic typical of West European bourgeois societies to the more truncated, ‘post-industrial’ class structures of the US, based in corporate capital, money, celebrity, lifestyle, hedonism and consumption’. In the process of understanding that change—and responding to it politically—The Uses of Literacy marks a starting-point.

1) Perry Anderson, in a superb essay, takes this one step further, suggesting that culture can be said to be, when thinking politically, the set of ideas about man and society that are created by the thought of a society produced between the boundaries of natural science and art (that is, philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, and so on). See Anderson, ‘Components of the National Culture’, NLR 50, 1968.
2) An ideological map, by Stuart White, New Statesman, 3 September 2009.

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Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/

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