Richard Hoggart and the Culture Wars of the sixties

I just missed being taught by Richard Hoggart at my University, which is a pity, since I was very
impressed by his arguments in The Uses of Literacyand would have enjoyed listening to him discussing some of the ramifications of his book in lectures and seminars. Never mind.

Jot 101 Richard Hoggart pic

Today the hot subjects of the chattering classes are the Culture Wars, especially those   being played out on social media. Hardly a day goes by without some academic or TV presenter being arraigned on Twitter for his or her remarks on cancel culture or identity issues. Back in 1961, however, there were different sort of Culture Wars raging in the columns of newspapers and magazines and Hoggart was one of the commentators whose words carried weight.


So Hoggart’s review of Richard Wollheim’s Fabian pamphlet Socialism and Culture (1961) in the New Statesman, though seemingly passé in today’s overheated political climate remains a perceptive commentary on a raging issue of the time which has implications today for the qualities of intellectual debate in newspapers, on social media and the inherent values ( or non-values) of those producing TV. It is also interesting as being, probably, the last critique on cultural life in which those horrible terms ‘ high brow’ and ‘low brow’ are used, in this case,  in a derogatory way.


Hoggart takes issue with the crude, unintelligent and lazy discrimination used by some commentators on social culture in the past that identified ‘ lowbrow ‘ culture with that enjoyed by the ‘ lower orders ‘ ( presumably the working class ) and ‘ mass culture ‘ with that enjoyed by the ‘ 80 per cent who have not been to a grammar school’ ( presumably most of the working class plus a section of the lower middle class).


‘ The crucial distinctions to-day are not those between The News of the World and The Observer, between the Third Programme and the Light Programme, between sex-and-violence  paperbacks and ‘ egghead ‘ paperbacks, between Bootsie and Snudge and the Alan Taylor lectures, between the Billy Cotton Band Show and the Brains Trust, between the Top Ten and a celebrity concert, or between ‘ skiffle ‘ and chamber music. The distinctions we should be making are those between the News of the World and the Sunday Pictorial, between ‘ skiffle ‘ and the Top Ten; and for ‘ highbrows’ between The Observer and the Sunday Times, or in ‘ egghead ‘paperbacks, between Raymond Williams and Vance Packard.


This is to make distinctions between the quality of life in each thing of its own kind—subtle distinctions which require a live discrimination, not the application of a fixed’ brow’ or educational scale. We are required to judge the quality of the response by mind and heart, which is being shown or implied in each instance. We have to distinguish between life, creative life and death, a mechanically twitching death. ‘Life’ may show itself in ‘serious’ or in ‘light’ programmes as scepticism and irony, or as broad emotion or rigorous intelligence—but will always be disinterested and honest. ‘ Death’ may show itself as trivial and slick ( even though it may be pretending to be serious ), cynical, deeply against the mind and afraid of the heart—but will always be interested and evasively out to persuade. We have to ask: Is this a real comedy? Or documentary? Or variety show? Or discussion? Or religious programme? Or is it merely going through the motions, a well-packaged emptiness? These difficult distinctions are only rarely made.’


Exactly. But perhaps they’re made more frequently today. Hoggart goes on to declare that instead of talking about ‘ mass culture ‘ we should talk about ‘ synthetic culture ‘ or ‘ processed culture ‘ and then to ‘ remind ourselves that our job is precisely to separate the Processed from the Living at ( to use the old grading) all ‘ levels ’.


Processed culture never imagines an individual—only masses, typical audiences, status groups. Living culture, even if many people are enjoying it at the same time, speaks to individuals or to genuine communities, and cuts across the boundaries of age or class or status. Processed culture has its eye always on the audience, the consumers. Living culture has its eye on the subject, the material, humbly, strictly and lovingly. It expects the same attention to the subject from the individual members of its audience. Processed culture asks: “ What will they take? Will this get most of them?” Living culture asks: “ What is the truth of this experience and how can I capture it?”


Wise words and perhaps needed more than ever in this era of mass communication where powerful forces decide what we the ‘consumers’ will enjoy or reject on TV or on the Internet—when essentially we are forced to swallow what we are given, whether it be musical theatre, ‘ family’ quiz shows, mainstream pop, lollipop ‘ classical ‘ music , period drama, cookery shows, reality TV ,celebrity culture or anything else easily digested. Look at the Christmas TV schedules for proof of this, if proof were needed. [ R Healey)





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