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The Uses of Literacy

Richard Hoggart
Publisher - A & C Black
Price at time of review - £0.00

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, a key book in the history of English and Media Studies. John Hodgson discusses Hoggart's seminal text, while Trevor Millum reviews his latest book, Mass Media in a Mass Society.

The Uses of Literacy
Richard Hoggart, 1957

In 1954, Dr H.M. King, a past president of the National Union of Teachers, spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech. King feared that the easy attractions of the television, the film and the comic strip might allow mankind to slip back into a state where there are more illiterates than literates. Richard Hoggart took up this concern with the effect of mass popular culture in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart went on to found, with Stuart Hall, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which laid much of the theoretical ground for Media Studies as it exists today. Hoggart was always ambivalent about mass culture, and The Uses of Literacy anticipates many contemporary debates about literacy, media and cultural quality.

In the first part of The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart evokes his youth in the smoking and huddled working-class houses in Leeds. His account conveys dignity and mutual respect in working-class life, qualities the more admirable because of the privations that underpin them. However, the second part of the book frames contemporary urban life as in cultural decline, owing largely to the depredations of the Americanised media. Hoggart uses the term literacy only occasionally, but the implication of the title is ironical: is this what people use their education for? Comic reading by adolescents is, he declares, a passive visual taking-on of bad mass art geared to a very low mental age. It is evident to Hoggart that most of our popular journals have become a good deal worse during the last fifteen or twenty years. We are a democracy whose working-people are exchanging their birth-right for a mass of pin-ups. Hoggart believes that milk bars represent a near aesthetic breakdown in the nastiness of their modernistic knick-knacks, their glaring showiness. Here Hoggart presents his vision of youth within mass culture. The young men wiggle one shoulder or stare, as desperately as Humphrey Bogart, across the tubular chairs, the imagery and references suggesting the influence of Hollywood and (in tubular) perhaps a future of gleaming, jet-propelled artificial life.

From this distance in time, it is easy to see Hoggart's debt to the nostalgic cultural critique that Raymond Williams identified in The Country and the City: decline, it seems, is always a relatively recent phenomenon, and there are always people who can remember a better time. However, Hoggart never quite believes his own fears, as when he points to the romance reader's ability to separate real life from fiction:

[M]ost working-class wives, though they may read story after story in the magazines, will laugh at the odd neighbour who is so affected by them as to call her child Dawn or April. In large part they laugh because she has carried the stories into real life, and that is a little comic, or even slightly simple.

Despite its title, the book says little explicitly about literacy, although Hoggart implies that it increases the vulnerability of its possessors to the deleterious effects of journalism and pulp fiction. However, at points such as that just quoted, or when describing his dame school educated grandmother's reaction to D.H.Lawrence's portrayal of sex (E makes a lot of fuss and lah-de-dah about it), Hoggart implies the potential of a self-generated critical literacy. This contradicts his fear of the larger part of the population's being reduced to a condition of obediently receptive passivity.

Hoggart saw himself as an emerging figure in the contemporary intellectual world, but he does not represent a simple turning away from baser pleasures in favour of the tastes of a higher class. He presents working-class life as, at its best, demonstrating qualities that transcend class; these are, he believes, the qualities threatened by contemporary popular culture. In this, Hoggart's work is in line with F.R.Leavis's Scrutiny project. Leavis believed that the classless humane values implicit in the English literary tradition would combat technologico-Benthamite culture. This view of the purpose of English teaching is, in a modified form, still very much alive today. The Uses of Literacy represents, at an early stage in the development of modern English and Media teaching, many of the contradictions that still make our subject a rich source of debate and social action.

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John Hodgson, 01/06/2007


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