Who was at the Centre?

I’m looking at people who were at the Centre. Exploring the social backgrounds and life experiences of graduate students at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, played out in the work they produced, in roughly the period 1970 to 1980. The paradox in all this is that the more I search for the Centre the less it becomes clear what “being at the Centre” actually meant.

The archive, which in the case of the CCCS contains copious amounts of contemporary printed material, as well as recent oral histories (conducted chiefly by Hudson Vincent and Kieran Connell as part of two separate projects to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Centre’s 1964 formation) provides clear indication that there was no moulded, cookie cutter, way of being a CCCS student. Rather, that it was possible for individual students, registered in all sorts of different ways, to dip in and out of individual study and collective work-often over the course of many years-in ways that suited them at that moment.

In this post I shall highlight and explore how external interests, commitments and viewpoints percolated through the CCCS during the 1970s. Doing so shall shine light upon the domestic life a research centre now considered pivotal for the development of social studies disciplines and approaches. Whilst starting to illustrate how concerns beyond the pure pursuit of academic knowledge, that ranged from the quotidian to the existential, fed into the work that the CCCS produced.

Money, Money, Money

UK higher education in the early 1970s, ninety percent funded by state grants, was caught in a perfect storm of static budgets and spiralling inflation meaning real terms cuts. From 1975 the university’s budget saw real terms cuts, whilst inflation continued to bite, meaning the pressures upon the creaking higher education system only intensified.

In this situation funding for postgraduate study became ever scarcer, as Stuart Hall frequently lamented in his annual reports at CCCS Director. A scarcity of funding and the needs to make ends meet led CCCS members to take on ever increasing teaching loads. John Clarke recalls a “well connected network” at the Centre that secured students teaching work at various higher and further education institutions across the West Midlands. As Dick Hebdige puts it “there [was] this circuit you [got on]…  Do a day here a day there”. At one point Paul Willis recalls teaching “at six different” institutions and driving an ice cream van around the Black Country serving up Mr. Whippy outside of term time when the colleges were shut.

Willis wasn’t the only CCCS member to work outside the confines of teaching. Janet Batsleer who studied for a PhD in the late 1970s, despite having a grant, worked full time in London whilst studying at Birmingham. In her words this was “a way of keeping a foot in the real world… Avoiding the Birmingham bubble” but was also because her working class background meant “not earning a living, not paying [her] way, wasn’t something that entered [her] head, really”. In a similar vein Hazel Chowcat, who’d work as a secretary prior to entering higher education, would go and temp in offices around Birmingham outside of term time.

Interesting there is no sense in any of the accounts that the CCCS students resented these fiscally driven intrusions upon their time as students. Indeed John Clarke now reflects that the challenges of teaching “liberal studies” to apprentices on day release “keeping them interested… stopping them all from going home… keeping people engaged who didn’t really want to learn” Dick Hebdige has similar reminiscences, the experience of trying to teach English to trainee butchers “sharpened you up… Shows you how knowledge fitted with people not in the same game as you”. In each case going outside the Centre helped them with their studies and honed their ability to articulate their ideas.

Career Opportunities

Of course there were some students for whom studying at the CCCS was an escape from jobs or other situations that they felt trapped in. Patricia McCabe remembers being offered “typing lessons” in the final year of her English undergraduate degree at Birmingham because “with an English degree you could always become a secretary”. A desire not to go down this path, and interest in why career paths were so gendered, encouraged her to carry on with her studies at the Centre. Similarly Rebecca O’Rourke joined the Centre from Hull in 1976 having been encouraged to “do some research” by her tutor because she “had a mind that would be wasted on nursing”, her initial post graduation career plan. Hazel Chowcat, having worked as a clerical assistant for several years after leaving school, enrolled on an interdisciplinary social sciences course at Bradford University in 1974. Graduating three years later she found that “she was still only qualified to be a secretary” so applied to the Centre for a PhD.

Male students, whilst much less constrained in the career opportunities available to them, also saw enrolling at the Centre as a means of escape. Arriving in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John Clarke and Paul Willis were refugees from management studies programmes, which in the words of Clarke sought to make them “the human face of British capitalism”. Tony Jefferson, who started during the same period, was disillusioned with working as a PE teacher. Whilst for Paul Gilroy who arrived much later, in 1978, whether or not to accept a funded place at Birmingham was a toss-up with continuing to pursue a musical career.

Let’s Stick Together

In 1970 the average marriage age was 25 for women and 27 for men. It wasn’t all that much higher in 1980. As such it should be little surprise that quite a few of the postgraduates at the Centre were married and had children.

Whilst writing and researching his PhD in Birmingham between 1968 and 1972, Paul Willis was living in Wolverhampton with his wife and two young children, driving fourteen miles to come into campus and even further-out to Digbeth and Moseley-to conduct fieldwork. He was far from the only one of his peers to be living with his family. Dorothy Hobson, whose MA work between 1974 and 1978 focused upon the experience of working class housewives living in peripherally located municipal tower blocks, lived with her husband and primary school aged son in a “middle class part of King’s Norton”. This situation provided much of the impetus for her work, as a mother she was familiar with the same clinics, schools and other services as the women who lived on council housing estates and used this familiarity to access their networks and secured access for other CCCS researchers (like Andrew Tolson) as well.

But perhaps most impressive story, of the individuals that I am aware of, was Tony Jefferson. In 1972, he was having “a trouble with discipline” in his role as a PE teacher in Harlow in Essex “partly because [he] he was on the kid’s side”. Jefferson resolved to go back into education, however, by this time he was married with three children. Nonetheless, he “sold his house in Harlow” and self-funded his first year at the Centre with the proceeds house. Commuting up to Birmingham from Essex, and staying with fellow CCCS member Chas Critcher in Handsworth, before securing an ESRC grant that enabled him and his family to move north.

Of course Jefferson was not unusual in terms of commuting, many other students, such as Janet Batsleer (who was working full time in London) also only came up to Birmingham “arriving early in the morning and leaving late at night” or “sleeping on someone’s floor” from time-to-time. David Morely as well, (who was actually registered for a PhD at Kent rather than Birmingham), having grown up in Birmingham and having spent “his teenage years dreaming of ‘how to get out of this dump’”, opted to remain in London-where he’d studied for his BSc-and commute up.

Students that were residing in Birmingham often didn’t find themselves in an easy situation, at least initially. Paul Gilroy recalls “the uncertainty” about where he was going to live whilst Hazel Chowcat remembers “initially having to share with someone”. Dick Hebdige resided in a squat on the Bristol Road during his time at the Centre. The building now houses a laser eye clinic. Trevor Fisher, who studied for a research MA in the early 1970s, on the other hand endured an experience shared by many unfunded postgrads over the years: moving back in with his parents.

Children of the Revolution

Dick Hebdige’s time squatting “with a bunch of beatniks turned hippies” highlights another facet of the the CCCS’ porousness, their eager engagement with outside groups and causes.

Chas Critcher, who was involved with the CCCS throughout the 1970s, moved to Handsworth in 1968-69, shortly after completing an English degree at Birmingham. Here with a group of other activists some from the community, others drawn (like Critcher) from the ranks of the new left “simultaneous[ly] trying to do good and raise the consciousness of the proletariat”. Critcher continued to live in Handsworth and work with “40 Hall Road” the project that he founded throughout his time as a student at the Centre, and whilst working on Policing the Crisis. From “40 Hall Road” Critcher found himself “going back and forth” enjoying the intellectual aspects of life at the Centre but at the same time feeling that “making an intellectual wasn’t enough” because “[he] wanted to make a direct difference”. So over time, like many others in the CCCS “he dipped in less” and “focused more on the community work… Slowly drifting away”.

Many other students had extensive commitments in other spheres of activism. The CCCS’ role as a key node in Britain’s women’s movement as it rapidly developed after 1970 being a key example. Given the keen interest in gender and the work it performs held by many of the Centre’s women prior to arriving it is not surprising that the Centre developed strong connections with the wider feminist movement. CCCS members were involved with a wide array of campaigns and initiatives around women’s liberation. Patricia McCabe recalls squatting Chamberlain House in Edgbaston to secure a base for Birmingham’s first women’s refuge. Whilst Janet Batsleer remembers working with Catherine Hall in the Hall family kitchen to boil hundreds of eggs for delegates a women’s conference due to take place in the city. On a different front, Richard Dyer recalls being involved with activists based in the city in establishing the Birmingham branch of Gay Action, a gay liberation group, whilst studying for a PhD at the Centre.                   

It should also not be forgotten that party politics played an important role in the life of the Centre. Many of the oral histories that have been conducted with CCCS members include recollections of divisions, generally sublimated occasionally out in the open, between members of the well established Labour and Communist parties on one hand, and newer Trotskyite groups like the IMG and SWP. Many in the Centre, both men and women, were also attracted to Big Flame, a revolutionary socialist feminist group, active between 1970 and 1984; that was considered to “have a libertarian bent” lacking in other Marxist and socialist groups. It is undoubted that these more formal and partisan politics played a crucial role in shaping and forming the atmosphere at the Centre and connecting it to wider networks and concerns. In some cases these connections led to careers after the Centre: Hazel Chowcat’s involvement with Birmingham Trades Council, gave her contacts that later led to senior roles within the trade union movement.   

Students at the Centre also engaged closely with broader social and cultural initiatives outside academia. In the early 1970s Trevor Fisher set-up the community magazine Grapevine, and later helped establish Arts Lab, whilst studying at the Centre. A few years later Dick Hebdige was involved with managing (and mcing) at a club night called the Shoop. Being a self-described “right fashion marvin… dressed in bags and eyeliner like David Bowie” he was a key part of the show. Paul Gilroy who arrived towards the end of the 1970s had similar musical connections recalling that: “At that time, I was also a little bit friendly with some of the guys from Steel Pulse who lived in Birmingham and were from there. That was the moment when their record Handsworth Revolution was just released, and they were working on Tribute to the Martyrs, so Birmingham seemed to be a more interesting place.”  On a national level one more overtly intellectual-but far from conventionally academic-scene that other CCCS students were involved with was the History Workshop, whose conventions and conferences CCCS members often attended en-masse and vice-versa. A connection that was doubtless aided by Stuart Hall’s very longstanding friendship with Raphael Samuel. In every case these outside interests and entanglements, like the political causes that Centre members rallied to, took students outside of the confines of Edgbaston and brought them into contact with ways of life and modes of living far removed from the groves of academia.

Life on Mars?

What did outsiders bring to the CCCS? It is something thing to write about the CCCS’ engagement with the world outside, another to write about the world’s engagement with the CCCS? It would be one thing to write about what crusty, disapproving Arts Faculty grandees on the right, Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart’s old friends and sparring partners (Raymond Williams, Raphael Samuel, the Thompson’s et al) on the left thought, but what about the countless more anonymous, frequently less audible figures, who engaged with the Centre during the 1970s?

As a first point of call, is clear not everybody who was studying at the Centre was technically a University of Birmingham student. Some like Chas Critcher began as students, but despite still being involved in Centre projects, had long stopped paying any kind of fee. Others like David Morley were students elsewhere and just attended a lot of things at Birmingham because they liked the Centre and found it conducive to conduct their own work. Some students like Angela Lloyd who was at the Centre between 1969 and 1972, prior to getting a job at Birmingham Polytechnic, weren’t actually registered on programmes “merely visiting students” engaged in “collective work”. In Lloyd’s case at one point Richard Hoggart paid her “six pounds a week” to work as the Centre’s administrative assistant so that she could continue to be there.

Lloyd’s temporary spell as an administrative assistant also points to another form of “external” engagement: clerical workers. At a time when much office work (typing, filing, franking etc.) was routine and quite physical it required an army of skilled yet largely silent (usually female) workers to undertake it. I’ve written before about several CCCS students’ engagement with the typing pool, but it bears a little bit of further discussion. In her oral history Janet Batsleer recalled Joan Good the CCCS’ secretary “a really lovely woman, who made [her] feel comfortable before [her] interview”. Batsleer further remembers that, regarding students borrowing office equipment to produce their own work Good was: “amazingly tolerant of the way folk occupied that space really, because it was used a lot to produce papers and she was there for sessions and so on”.  

Other CCCS students also remember being helped out by clerical workers at critical moments. John Clarke took a series of classes for trainee secretaries at a further education college whilst he was writing up his dissertation: “…embarrassingly if you go to the university library and find my Master’s thesis you will find that it was typed on 10 different keyboards, because they said, “We’ll do it for you,” and so they took a chapter each.”

Another key way in which the CCCS engaged with people from outside of the Centre was through their research. For instance, students engaged in film studies worked closely with, and were even even co-supervised in a few cases, by the BFI. However, the role of outside interlocutors is clearest when students were going out and doing ethnographic work. I have written before about how David Collyer, a charismatic and unconventional Anglican priest who worked with biker gangs in Digbeth, helped Paul Willis with his PhD research the project that later became Profane Cultures. Anglican youth workers (possibly met through Collyer or his contacts) helped Willis make contact with the hippie subculture in Moseley within which Willis researched the second part of his thesis. There are countless other examples: the nameless youth club workers that let Angela McRobbie conduct research amongst their attendees, the employment agency clerks who took on Hazel Chowcat during the university holidays unwittingly allowing her to further her research into clerical work. The teachers, housing and NHS workers that helped Dorothy Hobson access networks in her local community that she might otherwise not have been able to access. Each of these became an accomplice, a co-producer, of the work that the Centre was producing. Even the slightly unlikely figure of Peter Fryer, a Trotskyite tabloid journalist from Yorkshire who began a correspondence with Paul Gilroy in the early 1980s about black British history, can be considered to have touched upon the workings of the CCCS. In Fryer’s case it led to Staying Power a history of black people’s presence and culture in Britain that is still read.

Trans Europa Express

In closing this kaleidoscope of people it is worth considering the CCCS’ ties to universities outside of the UK. Several notable American students studied at the CCCS, especially in its early days, notably Lawrence Grossberg and the photographers Janet Mendelsohn and Richard Rogers. However, especially in the later 1970s (when Erasmus was still just a twinkle in a Eurocrats eye) the Centre’s records show impressive ties with universities in Europe in France and Italy, but especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Aarhus and Roskilde were institutions that the Centre had particularly strong ties with, with staff and students not infrequently coming to Birmingham as visitors. In the process they took news of what Birmingham was doing back to their home countries and brought news of what their homes countries were doing to Birmingham.

Stuck in the Middle With You   

In penning this post I have adopted a patchwork bricolage approach. I have deliberately scrambled participant’s recollections and snatches of the archive to show the sheer breadth of people, perspectives and (frequently brilliant and exciting, sometimes practical and mundane) concerns that students brought to the Centre and the work that they did there.  

I hope that the effect of doing so captures something of the the utterly porous nature of the CCCS. Like every institution where people work in close proximity it was a domestic space, every student, every staff member, everyone who came into its orbit also had a domestic situation and I hopefully and highlighted how this governed members’ experiences and participation. Indeed if this piece has a conclusion it is probably that with the exception of some long serving staff e.g. Stuart Hall and even more so Richard Johnson and Michael Green, I have shown that the “the Centre” didn’t have a centre at all.     

The wider point however, is to show that academic study is actually a very small part of intellectual enquiry and that the activity of lecturers and students are only part of the picture. Producing knowledge is a process much bigger than going to study at a “Centre”, it is clear from the testimony that whilst the CCCS was an important part of their lives both before and after they were “students there” it was far from the only thing that they were involved in, attached significance and found stimulation. This has implications for everybody who studies intellectual history, the development of approach, disciplines and institutions of learning. But it also has implications for our work today, there are countless ways to be a student and countless ways to participate in intellectual life. The days when relatively large block grants allowed for lax tracking of fee income and PhD registrations lasted for ten years have gone. But today isn’t so far removed from the 1970s that suddenly the best insights are to be gained and the best connections formed whilst slumped at a desk.  

The sources utilised in penning this post can be found  in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham, in the online archives of the University of Birmingham’s CCCS 50 project and in the Journal of Cultural Studies 27:5 (2013). 

The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

“Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualised” (Larsen & Sandbye 2014 p. xx)

At some point between the Marshall Mathers LP and the collapse of Leeman Brothers photography mutated and grew legs. Today everyday photos are no longer encountered sporadically reverently displayed on walls, tucked into hardback alums or folded into newsprint rather they are deeply embedded into the fabric of everyday life. As anyone who’s taken a picture of their lunch and shared it with the world (or alternately scoffed at an acquaintance who’s done so) can attest.

The short term implications of this shift are clear: photography in the 2010s is deeply, more so than ever, enmeshed with the technology through which it is created and shared with a photographer’s social networks. The ability to create and rapidly disseminate images has rapidly altered how individuals use images and the value that is attached to them. Whereas once a cherished snapshot shimmered miraculously in the face of everything that counted against its creation (cloud cover, motion blur, a finished film canister). Today’s images are evanescent, existing in the moment for the moment, showing both ourselves and those around us that we are in a moment and (whilst still performing a vital social function) are almost entirely supplanted a short while later when we next flick our phone out, open the camera app and hit the shutter button.

What the longer term implications of this are remain to be seen, but it is possible to see already how the instagramification of everyday life is starting to break out of the virtual part of our reality and impact upon the material world before us.

A couple of years ago, when I was temping at a large UK university, I was amused to notice outside one of the plusher campus buildings where my department had an open day stand, that the event’s organisers had set up a “selfie spot”. The “selfie spot” came resplendent with its own hashtag and open day attendees were being invited to stand on the spot and take their own picture. The purpose of the picture was clearly intended to encourage the prospective applicant to “picture themselves” at the institution, and just as crucially; share an image of themselves pictured at the institution with their wider social network and the world at large. A clever campaign, that probably seemed utterly bizarre to the parents and grandparents chaperoning the sixth form age attendees; but one which a scholar in the Department of Marketing at the university’s Business School could have taught as Social Marketing 101.

The snapshot in the age of the selfie, remains one of “visual culture’s cliches”, however, the inherently networked nature of everyday photographic practice makes it, if judged right, and incredibly potent marketing tool. There is nothing new about brands consciously trying to create an icon. As long ago as the 1950s, the popularity and public impact of Roland Barthes Espirt columns (collected and published as Mythologies) lead him to lucrative consulting work for companies, like Citroen; attempting to sculpt products that were irresistible to the public.

Timo Korpivaara - 1956 Rally Finland

A stylish mid-1950s Citroen DS rally car in Finland, Author Unknown (1956) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In architecture the urge to iconify goes back even further, what was the Acropolis if not a signifier for classical Athens? What were the Pyramids or the the Ziggurats of Ur? In the modern period both states and corporations hit upon the idea of using the buildings in which they were situated as physical symbols of their presence and power. From the earliest decades of the 19th Century banknotes featured pictures of the assets or offices of the banks where they were produced: an allegorical way of giving form to the abstract financial conjuring and transactions they represented. Goods producers as well, once mass advertising became a thing, began to put pictures of their premises (or an idealised set of premises) on their packaging and in information about their products. By the mid-20th Century in the words of Allan Sekula:

“Imagine the gaze of a stockbroker (who may or may not have ever visited a coal mine) thumbing his way [through a company annual report or a share prospectus] to the table of earnings and lingering for a moment on a picture of a mining machine… The concrete source of the abstract wealth being accounted for in those pages.” (Sekula in Wells eds. 1995)

Approaching our own time as sources of value have become ever more abstract (and in societies like the United Kingdom intangible values like prestige and spectacle have come to be as valuable as physical products) so the importance, for any public or private authority, of possessing an iconic building has only increased. Since the emergence of rollfilm in the late 19th Century it is hard to doubt that, slowly but surely, the “snapshot value” of a building has begun to be taken into account by both architects and those who commission them (interesting Kodak predates the Eifel Tower by a single year).

The great World Fairs of the early to mid-20th Century are a brilliant example of where this tendency began to emerge. To quote Douglas Murphy “it seems hard to believe now… But once whole families would travel to see the world’s fair”. From the clashes between the Axis powers and the USSR at the World Fairs of the 1930s to the last gasps of modernist optimism at New York in 1964 and Montreal in 1967 the pavilion designs at the World Fair were crafted with at least half an eye on the potential for them to provide a good backdrop for family portraiture.

Similar concerns can be observed on a more localised level. Writing in the early 2000s Tom Phillips recalled seeing a “tintype photographer”, hawking a primitive form of instant photography, at the Festival of Britain in 1951. A clear indication that the organisers thought it important that visitors were able to immortalise themselves besides their iconic displays, and of course; return home to share with their friends and family a memento of their trip to see Britain’s bright socialist future. Outside of Europe, doubtless a more modern impulse than a craving for shear gigantism, lay behind the leaders of newly independent “Third World” countries to build grand parliaments, convention centres and national monuments in their capital cities. From India and Brazil in 1950s, to the “Red African” countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Iran the middle east after they became mass oil producers, surely the desire that their people’s showcase their modernity through capturing snapshots of themselves in  Chandigarh, or Brasilia or posing before Azadi Tower, provided part of the impetus for their construction?

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

Azadi Tower Tehran, By Hooperag (File:Azadi_Square_in_Tehran,_Iran.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All of these iconic constructions, however, are best suited to pre-digital photography. The bold statements that they make are perfectly shaped to fit the contours of an age prior to our own, when photography was not something that could be-in the words of Nancy Van House-done “any time, any place, without any prior planning” (Van House 2011). Twentieth Century tourists flocking to national capitals and coming home with a few dozen cherished frames, were relatively easily satisfied with a few sightseeing snapshots, a few intimate moments captured, maybe a frame or two providing a dash of local colour. Today’s highly networked camera phone wielder might still take “old fashioned” snapshots whether out of a sense of tradition or proprietary or for the sake of older relatives or acquaintances who are familiar with and comforted by the older style of picture (a similar logic presumably attaches itself to the lingering ritual, perhaps peculiar to the UK, of the posed school child in their school uniform). However, given how much a part of their everyday life photography is, it is necessary for the 21st Century iconic structure to offer a larger palette of photographic possibilities.

Tate Modern in London is a classic case in point. Designed in the 1990s at the tail-end of the traditional snapshot era, Tate Modern is designed to be encountered from the far side of the Millennium Bridge. Here the snapshot taker can arrange the objects of their affection, friends, family a lover, on the north bank of the Thames-opposite the squat gallery building with its distinctive chimney, the Millennium Bridge providing a graceful and easily legible way into the picture-and immortalise their own instantly classic shot.

Wobbly bridge 120600

Tate Modern opening day 2000, Wurzeller at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to this traditional, snapshot album friendly vista, the Tate Modern Extension-opened in the summer of 2016-is a mishmash of crazy angles, making it very hard to get the whole structure into the frame when trying to compose a shot. Which is surely the point. Whilst bracingly curved, anti-geometric museum and gallery structures; have been something of a fetish in the cultural sector ever since the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum appeared briefly on screen in The World is Not Enough just prior to James Bond abseiling out of a window, it is clear that the Tate Modern Extension has been designed for a very 2010s purpose: the selfie.

The Tate Modern Extension’s jagged form from its heavy dark bricked protrusions, to its gash like windows providing views over central London, is not supposed to offer a sense of the whole. Instead it offers up small individual chunks of itself and of London for the visitor to snap pictures of themselves against and promptly pass on to their social networks. The shear array of potentially interesting posing places offered by the new gallery (and many other buildings of the 2010s for instance the Library of Birmingham) is perfectly suited to an age when the “entry barriers to art [or merely artful photography” (Van House 2011) have crashed down. The purpose that the building’s endlessly selfiable aesthetic serves is similar to that offered by the optimistic national monuments of the mid-20th Century and the millennial naivety of the Millennium Bridge/Tate Modern vista: it allows for a certain limited kind of bourgeois self expression and self fashioning, whilst proclaiming the power of certain institutions. It also, thanks to the networks from which 21st Century digital photography gains its power, offers the Tate as an organisation, London as a “global city” and the United Kingdom as a worldwide brand brilliant exposure.

Tate Modern Switch House (27633103611)

By Jim Linwood from London (The New Tate Modern Extension – London.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the 2016/17 academic year the University of Birmingham completed the switch from its old main Library, built in the late 1950s, to a brand new one. There were many reasons for the switch, many of them very good as the old library really wasn’t fit for purpose, however, one that wasn’t openly discussed was the potential for either of the University of Birmingham’s Libraries to serve as a photographic object.

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Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

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New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

It was clearly grasped in the 1950s that the University’s Library was a potent symbol of the institution and its values. There is for example newsreel footage of the Queen Mother opening Library in 1958. This is however, nowhere near as interesting as the role which the old Main Library came to play in one key aspect of the University’s life: graduation. When they have had access to cameras students have always been keen photographers, however, given the relative difficulty and barrier to taking photographs prior to the invention of digital photography and the camera phone, students until into the 2000s probably did not take all that many more pictures than the rest of the population. One occasion when photography was very likely to be present was at graduation right at the end of the students’ studies, when the family camera clasped in the hands of a proud older relative; would snap pictures of the proud newly minted graduate in their full regalia clutching their hardwon scroll.

At the University of Birmingham the sweeping rise of steps up to the terrace in front of the Main Library became the natural location for graduation photography. It is certainly a fairly well established tradition. My Mum and my uncle graduated from Birmingham Medical School in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Many of the half a dozen or so photographs from their graduations feature the Library and its steps prominently. Like a World Fair pavilion or the sweep of the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern the old University of Birmingham Library provides the perfect situation for the quintessential graduation picture. Its appearance solid, plain, vaguely modernist but with traditional flourishes, hewn from safely bourgeois redbrick (deeply evocative of the buildings built by the Edwardian Birmingham elite that created the institution) provides the perfect backdrop for a newly minted graduate about to step out into the world of respectable, comfortable employment.

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Frontage, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

 

The “visual cliche” (Berger 2011) of a graduate stood before a building that oozes with visual signifiers that connote the popular image of what a civic university’s buildings should look like carries with it the full weight of the expectations that are placed upon graduates. The photograph, once printed, framed and situated on the sitting room wall, carries with it the weight of the graduate’s expectations for their future, the family’s pride that they have achieved a university qualification (with all the social power that connotes) and on an ideological, level society’s wider investment in reproducing certain codes, values and behaviours in its middle class citizens.

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Entrance, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Birmingham’s new Main Library also lends itself to photography, but not of the traditional snapshot kind. As with the Tate Modern Extension it is very hard to fit the entirely of the new Main Library in one photographic frame. Suggests that the photo taker is not supposed to try and do so, as with the Tate Extension the granularity of the Library’s structure, the intricacies of its casing and its gaudiness lend itself to being the backdrop for a selfie.

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The author takes a selfie (completely unironically) outside the University of Birmingham’s new Main Library (all rights reserved, 2016)

Whilst there are certain angles from which it might be possible to pose a reasonable traditional snapshot with the new Library as a backdrop, in future graduates who want a classic graduation shot will have to make do with the Aston Webb, Law School, base of Old Joe or-if needs must-cross University Green to the Faculty of Arts Building. This suggests that if-viewed as a photographic object-serving as the site for a graduation photo is not its purpose.

Whether intentional or not the old Main Library building signified the end goal of western higher education: the reproduction of a certain kind of patriarchal bourgeois order. By contrast the new Library signifies and provides a backdrop for the higher education journey itself. To return to the “selfie spot” it can be read as a marketing tool with forty miles of shelving. On open days and school visits in the future it will act as a tempting canvas against which potential applicants will be able to picture themselves at University. Once they arrive the distinctive metallic cladding and gold fins will provide an infinite number of social media starbursts fleeting signifying the University to those who glimpse them on their newsfeeds.

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Frontage, New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Internally as well as externally the new Library provides a perfect playground for curating and cultivating certain images of University life. Countless Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Tweeted images of airy, well equipped, yet welcomingly informal study spaces, reinforce the (if not glamourous then at least worthily exciting) conception of university life that is the dominant code in popular discourse and the media. Social media posts provided for free do the work of the University Marketing Department more effectively than several Scandinavian forests worth of paper flyer and prospectuses thrust into wilting arms on a summer’s open day.

Reading the University of Birmingham’s libraries as photographic objects brilliant illustrates how networked digital photography and the emerging practices surrounding it has transformed popular photography. It is clear how the graduation photographs taken by generations of Birmingham students, and the countless everyday pictures of University life taken and shared by their successors, connote and reinforce certain key social meanings and messages. Today’s photography, like the photography that preceded it and like visual culture throughout time; speaks to the society in which it is created and the relationships through which it gains its meaning. It serves to illustrate a society in which technology has brought near infinite abundance and possibility in some spheres, whilst at the same time experiencing a sense that everything is ephemeral, provisional and liable to vanish into air.  

“I would like to thank a number of typists…”

“I am grateful to Deirdre Barker who did my typing until the moment she was ‘carried off’ to hospital to have her baby and to Wendy Rigg for coming to my aid at the last moment”.

Documents have stories inscribed upon them, but stories are also woven into their creation.

I was recently in the University of Birmingham’s Library studying a couple of dissertations submitted “in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree” of MA and PhD by members of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s. In many ways the concerns that the researchers sought to address, de-industrialisation, race and gender relations, underemployment, alienation… have a lot of contemporary resonance. Which perhaps isn’t surprising, the earliest dissertation that I’ve called up from the store was awarded in the spring of 1972 twenty years before I was born, the most recent in the Autumn of 1978 (a few weeks after my parents began their A-Levels). What is surprising, at least for a reader who learnt how to use Microsoft Office Millennium edition alongside how to produce cursive script; is the way the dissertations are presented.

As the quote the that starts this post, taken from the Acknowledgements section of A study of working class women at home : femininity, domesticity and maternity, Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis attests: they were typed, by hand, on manual typewriters.

When first approaching, the bulging, battered, hard bound volumes that contain the CCCS theses, the full import of this doesn’t immediately sink in. Sure, the typescript is smaller, harder, less softly and invitingly serifed than computer fonts, but as, Kindle aside, there isn’t-yet-a commercially available form of reading digital texts that’s especially quick use, (Adobe, and online e-books don’t really cut it) the tactility of the theses as physical objects makes up for it.

Then suddenly it hits you: the little imperfections, a letter out of sync here,

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“Letter out of sync” A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

A neatly tippexed correction there,

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“Tippexed correction”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

a place where a comma has been discretely added with a pen.

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“comma added with a pen”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

Together they add up to show the reader how different a manually typed document is from one which is word processed. This is I reckon, opens up a number of interesting questions to explore about the documents as physical objects, the thought and craft that goes into creating them, and the stories-the social history-that we can gleam from how they came into being.

Terms like word processing betray their origin in manual typing. Manual typing is highly physical work, which requires accuracy and judgement. The CCCS theses I have been studying demonstrate this with aplomb. Whilst typing on a computer I have a lot of software holding my hand: an algorithm automatically moves the cursor at the end of the line, another algorithm wired to a database (both ever more accurate) corrects, or enables me to correct, my spelling, typos and sometimes grammar, yet more algorithms control for spacing and so on.

With a manual typewriter there isn’t any of that, spelling, spacing, margin widths, even reaching the end of a line, are entirely in the hands of the operator. This isn’t the only way in which the operator was key. When I type, I am engaged in a physical process in that my hands are moving, but, I am merely telling my computer which characters to display in which order. It’s at a power station-probably hundreds of miles away-fired by gas, coal, nuclear fission, the wind, whatever; where the hard work of providing the energy that makes the process run happens. By contrast on a manual typewriter it is the typist exerting themselves that provides the power that makes the production of the document possible. You can see the sheer force with which they had to hit the keys on the backs of the pages which comprise the volumes, just like a photographic negative.

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“Back of a typed page”, A study of working class women at home: domesticity, femininity and maternity  (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

And indeed it is just like a negative. Much as the sun’s rays are captured through a chemical process by an old style photo film, and the jazz sax solo we hear on an old ‘78 is a sound enabled by the lungs of a musician now decades deceased, so a physical trace of Deirdre and Wendy who toiled to make it possible, remains in every character of Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis.

The job of a typist was rather like that of a lathe operator in a factory, the skilled craftsperson who with some skillful judgement and adjustment here and there, skills won through practice and training, brings the designer’s blueprint to life. In this sense the mid-century intellectual who wanted their work neatly presented in typescript, but who either couldn’t or wouldn’t type it themselves, becomes more like an engineer giving instructions to a fitter. The longhand draft is the blueprint, the typed up chapter the finished widget.

In many regards this is a radically different relationship from one enjoyed by creative worker’s today. Whilst in the early twentieth century, higher education and other forms of knowledge creation and transmission have called into being a whole new range of support professions,  today’s academic or student is far more expected to live up to ideal of the “lone genius” in many crucial regards. Computer word processing at once liberates and enslaves them.

The death of the typing pool, whilst being yet another example of how skilled, yet monotonous, work has been edged out by technology, doubtless changes the kind of work that scholars produce. The media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler has argued with reference to Nietzsche (one of the first writers to use a typewriter) that the machine transformed the form of his work from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

But, it is beyond the scope of this short post, and certainly my abilities as a critic, to unpack this to much, so I shall let another German-Gunter Grass-have the final word on this topic:

“I would like to put a stop to this movement toward reading on computers, but it seems that nobody can do this. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the electronic process are already apparent during the writing of the manuscript. Most young authors write directly on their computers, and then edit and work in their files. In my case, on the other hand, there are many preliminary steps: a handwritten version, two that I’ve typed myself on my Olivetti typewriter and, finally, several copies of versions that my secretary has input into the computer and printed out, and into which I’ve incorporated many handwritten corrections. These steps are lost when you write directly on the computer.”    

What I can comment upon is some of the social and cultural history that is revealed by the typed theses I have been reading lately. Hobson’s brief mention of her typists in the “Acknowledgements” section of her thesis go beyond the formulaic and express with economy-I think-a lot of genuine gratitude, friendliness and familiarity with them. Whilst also serving as a reminder that computers don’t take maternity leave. It is I think, possible to see in a slight darkening of the ink on the page, the point at which Hobson’s typist changed.

There is lots yet to be written about the now vanished social formation that was the typing pool. If anyone wants a place to start, during the 1970s and ‘80s the CCCS, especially female members like Hazel Chowcat, some of whom came from secretarial professional backgrounds, produced quite a lot of work the explored skilled and semi-skilled office work as a phenomenon. Typing was a skill that women who were entered for public examinations at school were expected to learn, it was a respectable, but not necessarily especially respected (even in comparison to their male counterpart the lathe operator) trade.

This meant that a great many women who attended university in the second half of the twentieth century would have had some familiarity with typewriters. I think that it might be possible to see this in the production of another CCCS thesis, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham by Paul Willis.

Whereas the typing up of Hobson’s thesis is of a very high quality, giving it a rather polished professional look, the production of Willis’ (admittedly far longer thesis) is rather more hit and miss in terms of its production values.

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“Changes on the page” Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham, (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,

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“Word added”, Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

elsewhere words haven’t come out well on the page and had to have been added in by hand.

Here and there words, or even entire sections have been added by someone’s, small, spikey, but legible hand; using a black fountain pen,

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“Sentence added”, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Whilst in other places sections of the typing seem quite faded, like it was done haltingly, and or on a machine that had a fading ribbon, was poorly calibrated, or perhaps just didn’t work that well.

I wonder whether an explanation for this might be found in the relative Iliad about producing the typescript that is recounted in the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis, which begins:

“I would like to thank a number of typists for their unstinting and often unpaid efforts…”

Willis then goes on to thank a total of six typists (all women) for producing the final version. Towards the end of the typist’s paragraph Willis mentions that he initially attempted to type much of the thesis himself, but that it proved necessary for the women thanked to “rescue [Willis] from two eleventh hour crises… and [his] own indifferent typing”. It is of course possible that the sections riddled with errors and corrections are Willis’ own efforts at typing up his work, however, the fact that most of those who worked to produce the submitted version of Youth Culture were “unpaid” leads me to wonder whether they were fellow students, or possibly friends of Willis and his wife, who offered to help him produce the final version. Given that typing was a very common skill found among women at university during this period, and amongst those educated beyond a very elementary level among the population in general, this seems to me a perfectly plausible explanation.

Does the difference in terms of the “finish” on their respective projects point to the evolution of the CCCS project?

In 1972 when Willis submitted his thesis the CCCS was still in its infancy, it was a very small research centre, with only a couple of staff, offered no taught programmes, and had few sources of funding beyond a grant from Penguin books. In this straightened environment, it possibly made a lot of sense for people to chip in and deploy skills that they had to assist each other. By contrast in 1978 when Hobson submitted her thesis the Centre’s taught MA had been up and running for some years, networks bringing teaching work the way of CCCS research students had opened up, and the Centre itself was (comparatively) secure financially and in terms of its expanding reputation.

This blog post is not intended as a eulogy to the typewriter. For all of typescript’s tactility and romanticism, not to mention the seductive idea of having someone else to do the administration, the benefits (and distractions) of computers outweigh the relative hassle and lack of utility that comes with producing typewritten pages. This blog also makes a number of somewhat speculative claims, however, they serve their primary intention which is to suggest ways in which the construction of documents (or any other types of source) should form part of the histories that we write, and indeed can be history that we write in of themselves.

As a final note in having these discussions today I feel that we have to thank those like the CCCS scholars, who having done it-or grown up with it looming as an overdetermined career choice-began asking questions and taking an interest in the significance and nature of routine office work and the world’s, relationships, structures of feeling and meaning that it creates. I certainly know that my understanding of how things are or aren’t recorded, how decisions are reached and systems of thought reinforced and articulated, was honed, improved and on occasions radically tilted by days, months and years spent filing, data inputting and typing in routine office jobs.