Culture and its enemies

Culture, mass culture or mass hysteria
Strange bedfellows: culture, mass culture and hysteria

Richard Hoggart died recently, aged 95. He was the author of The Uses of Literacy (1957), one of the most influential books published in the decades following the Second World War. It was a study of working-class culture and the impact of what could be called the Cultural Revolution – not Mao’s monstrosity – which followed that war in the 50s and 60s of the last century. For Hoggart, however, there was within this Cultural Revolution a large helping of what he saw as monstrous as well.

As the Daily Telegraph noted in its obituary of Hoggart, “In the 1950s it had become fashionable to argue that a newly affluent worker was emerging who was becoming middle-class in lifestyle and political attitudes. Hoggart saw the cultural impact of such developments as almost entirely negative.”

Hoggart’s view and apparent pessimism were disparaged by many and mocked by others. However, in the month in which he died another fierce critic of aspects of our contemporary culture described the world in which we live now in terms which can only serve to make us see Hoggart’s words as profoundly prophetic.  David Bentley Hart, in his First Things withering assessment of Adam Gopnik’s now famous article on religious belief in The New Yorker, sees the current vogue in atheism as partly derived from some of the same things which Hoggart railed against. In Hart’s terms,  this is “the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players.”

Hoggart was a scholarship boy, orphaned at eight years of age, who came from a very poor family in Leeds in England. In The Uses of Literacy he described how the old, tightly-knit working-class culture of his boyhood — of stuffy front rooms, allotments, back-to-back housing and charabanc trips — was breaking up in the face of an Americanised mass culture of tabloid newspapers, advertising, jukeboxes and Hollywood. “The hedonistic but passive barbarian, who rides in a fifty-horse-power bus for three pence, to see a five-million dollar film for one-and-eightpence, is not simply a social oddity; he is a portent,”

Was he a portent of what Bentley Hart was to describe this month? Perhaps.

“Everything,” Bentley Hart writes…  “is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.”

For Hoggart, ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties popular culture was not some kind of new Renaissance but was “full of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions”, tending towards a view of the world “in which progress is conceived as a seeking of material possessions, equality as a moral levelling and freedom as the ground for endless irresponsible pleasure”.

He railed against that icon of the age, “milk bars”, probably the Anglo Saxon equivalent of the “drug store” hangout of the Jets and the Sharks of West Side Story. These he saw as inducing “a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk”. The manipulation of generations by those he called he called “the mass publicists” was so all-pervasive that genuine native popular culture was destroyed by the toxic confection produced by these.

Hoggart wrote in the 19th-century Arnoldian tradition of radical idealism, with its strong sense of moral values. He was passionate about culture but disdainful of modern mass culture – which for him lacked the essential humanist ingredients of genuine culture. He believed in the transformative value of great literature but held that for that to thrive: “In a democracy which is highly commercialised you have to give people critical literacy. If you don’t do that, you might as well pack it in.”

His thought in some respects might be echoed in the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI on the evil of relativism. Relativism for Hoggart “leads to populism which then leads to levelling and so to reductionism of all kinds, from food to moral judgments”. In Hoggart’s judgement, those who might argue that the Beatles and Beethoven could occupy the same plane of appreciation represented a “loony terminus”.

Perhaps the irony inherent in the life’s work of Richard Hoggart is that in his attempt to correct the evils he saw overtaking our cultural life, he pioneered the discipline of “cultural studies”. He is seen by many as the father of this discipline. This was then taken over by the theorists of mass culture who proceeded to install the Goddess of Relativism on the high altars of all our universities and thus created the very desert which David Bentley Hart describes.

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