The uses of Richard Hoggart

Richard Hoggart, one of Britain’s foremost post-war public intellectuals and author of The Uses of Literacy, has died aged 95.  Dr Michael Bailey, one of the country’s leading experts on his work, discusses his legacy.

Understanding Richard Hoggart: Published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

Other cultural commentators have long since given up on the idea of ‘a culture for democracy’, but Hoggart’s writings continue to appeal to the best in each of us. They remind us of that which we ‘do not yet know, and might not like, but should know for its sake and ours.’

Not unlike the example of Hector, the eccentric teacher in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, Hoggart’s gift is to teach us that culture and education are best understood as social processes to which we all contribute, no matter how fleetingly. His legacy is nothing but exemplary: ‘Take it, feel it, and pass it on.’

A literary critic by training, Richard Hoggart published more than 30 books and contributed to numerous policy documents. They continue to inform contemporary debates on a wide range of subjects, including popular culture, media literacy, educated citizenship, and social democracy.

Born in Leeds in 1918, Hoggart was orphaned at the age of eight and subsequently raised as an only child by his grandmother, two aunts, an uncle, and an older cousin. His childhood was characterised by an austere way of life that often depended on unofficial acts of charity, goodwill, and fellowship: to fail to help one’s neighbours in times of need could result in their suffering and public humiliation, which could, in turn, all too easily befall one’s own family.

This shaped an enduring attachment to working-class cultural ideals and social practices, and an emphasis on communal values and neighbourliness.

Hoggart’s childhood also explained his commitment to ‘the sense of family attachment’. He recalled the relief he felt when it was decided that he and his siblings would be cared for by the extended family rather than being sent to an orphanage: ‘We were “family” and we stayed family.’ This sense of ‘belonging to somebody’ resonated strongly in Hoggart’s writings: family life teaches us to be empathetic; it broadens and enriches our social being and interpersonal connectedness.

If ‘hearth and home’ was instrumental in shaping Hoggart’s deep-rooted sense of community spirit, the world of education and learning was to prove equally important. A local authority scholarship enabled him to take up a place in the English Department at Leeds university, where he refined his literary and analytical skills. Yet the experience also left Hoggart with a deep ambivalence and uncertainty.

On the one hand, education provided unimagined opportunities for learning and upward social mobility. But the difficulties of being betwixt and between two social classes, the consequent sense of loss and self-doubt, left him feeling ‘anxious’ and ‘uprooted’.

He was to reflect upon this when writing about his experience of being a ‘scholarship boy’ at school in Leeds:

“Almost every working-class boy [sic] who goes through the process of further education by scholarships finds himself chafing against his environment during adolescence. He is at the friction-point of two cultures . . . He has left his class, at least in spirit, by being in certain ways unusual; and he is still unusual in another class, too tense and over-wound.”

This deep-rooted sense of alienation led Hoggart to adopt the poet Matthew Arnold’s example, to be led ‘by a general humane spirit, by the love of human perfection’, to perfect one’s ‘best self’ not only for oneself, but also for the greater good.

During five years active service in wartime North Africa and Italy, Hoggart became involved in adult education. He began to rethink the importance of literature (or, more precisely, literacy), particularly in relation to the rapidly changing milieu of popular culture in what is undoubtedly his most celebrated and important publication, The Uses of Literacy.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who dismissed all forms of popular literature and art as vulgar and corrupting, Hoggart argued that it was important for literary critics and educationalists to base their judgements on a more detailed understanding about ‘what people might make of that material.’

Along with the advances that had undoubtedly enhanced the overall quality of working-class life during the first half of the twentieth century (improved living and working conditions, better health provision, and greater educational opportunities), Hoggart saw a simultaneous undermining of traditional working-class attitudes and social practices, a worsening of a certain valuable ‘way of life

“My argument is not that there was . . . an urban culture still very much ‘of the people’ and that now there is only a mass urban culture. It is rather that … the remnants of what was at least in parts an urban culture ‘of the people’ are being destroyed; and that the new mass culture is in some ways less healthy than the often crude culture it is replacing.”

Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’

After brief spells as an extra-mural lecturer at the University of Hull, and as Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, Hoggart was offered a chair at the University of Birmingham, where he established the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in 1964. The Centre soon established a reputation as a hotbed for critical theory, sustaining active, sometimes volatile, debates on Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and other politically engaged methods of analysis.

Hoggart appeared on several occasions as an expert witness for the defence in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in 1960. Hoggart famously declared the book (and its author D. H. Lawrence) as ‘virtuous’, ‘if not puritanical.’ He was widely celebrated as the person that had turned the case around in favour of the defence.

The defining moment in Hoggart’s career was arguably the part he played in debating and influencing the recommendations of the Pilkington committee (1960-1962), set up under the chairmanship of British industrialist Sir Harry Pilkington to consider the future of broadcasting in light of the introduction of independent television in 1956. The resulting report severely criticised ITV for being too commercial and trivial in its programming; and it was largely because of this that the BBC was awarded a second channel.

After retiring as Warden of Goldsmiths College (1976-1984), Hoggart continued to write. His final publication, Promises to Keep (2005), can be read as a critical commentary on the condition of England and a call to keep ‘going on going on’, with ‘hope’, with ‘love’ and with ‘charity.’

And while his general argument may seem dated, sometimes patronising, and occasionally contemptuous, his criticisms of ‘dumbing down’, ‘levelling’, ‘relativism’ and ‘popularism’, represent an increasingly important engagement with the idea of public culture as a primary facilitator of democracy.

This is particularly important in light of the current political climate, where the governmental usage of financial markets and private corporations would seem to be the preferred technique for regulating socio-cultural relations and processes.

Richard Hoggart, cultural critic and educationalist, born 24 September 1918; died 10 April 2014

A longer version of this article is available on the Open Democracy website.

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