Cultural Studies Occasional #2: Steve Hanson


In the second of our Cultural Studies Occasional series, Nyx catches up with Steve Hanson. Steve is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and the University of Salford. We forego the usual interview format with Steve providing a sort of monologue about what he terms an ‘idiosyncratic geography of cultural studies’. It weaves together place and personal biography with the figures and texts of cultural studies: Hoggart, Hall, Williams and Said via Halifax, Hereford and New Cross.

My journey through British Cultural Studies is also a real set of journeys in Britain. The subject is meshed with some of the places I have inhabited – there’s a geography of British Cultural Studies which is crucial to how I think through the subject. But also, I can’t think of British Cultural Studies as an isolated island either. It is wrapped up with the history of British art schools, for instance, and this is crucial to the way I think about it and this island I live on. It ties in with other ‘schools’ and traditions, and continental movements and philosophies, and ‘diasporic’ cultures.

For instance, I worked in Halifax for a long time and E.P. Thompson once lived there. I discovered that Ralph Rumney, later of the Situationist International, who lived with Pegeen Guggenheim, ran away from his strict clergyman father in Halifax and lived with Thompson there for a while. He’d been grassed on for getting de Sade out of Halifax library. Later, he went to Paris and met Debord. That little biographical detail is such a massive historical juncture for me. There’s still such a lot which remains unexplored in relation to those figures. And personally, I think of the little places they were from, or inhabited, as a kind of map of my own brain and ‘experience’, to use a very Raymond Williams term. Provincial, often grim Halifax. I spent so much time there, but there’s this strong crossroads of the British left and art school traditions, moving into Paris and the avant garde and anti-art movements like the S.I., and they can be accessed by thinking about these brief moments in these supposedly ‘nowhere’ places.

Jeff Nuttall was around there too, in Halifax, involved with Dean Clough, and in Bradford and Todmorden. For me, the shifts in British art school education can’t be viewed as separate from the shifts in British Cultural Studies or the arrival of ‘theory’ from the continent. Jeff taught me briefly. E.P. Thompson was travelling all around those places as a WEA [Workers Education Association] lecturer – another part of the story and geography, the WEA – and he tried to unearth old communists in the area. But Ralph Rumney in E.P. Thompson’s house, a brief time in one place, speaks to all those larger narratives. Someone should make a film about those brief days, in that house. Can you imagine? We could even start to cast it, to pick actors. Apparently, when Rumney was on the run from Peggy Guggenheim, Jacques Lacan had him ‘sectioned’ to allow him to escape, and gave him a greenhouse to paint in. Just think about all that.

I went to art school – actually I went several times, I seemed to need it – that was the only way to get time to develop for us after school. It was factory work or supermarket work, or sign on and sign up for a course. Or those seemed to be the only options then and there. By a total coincidence, I eventually ended up teaching in the art school in Hereford for five years – as a Cultural Studies lecturer – where Jeff Nuttall was a student, he actually ended up marrying his painting teacher from Hereford. So much of that landscape speaks to my understanding of British Cultural Studies, but also how for me I’ve fused my understanding of it with some perhaps more art school influenced and continental things.

I moved to Abergavenny and commuted to Hereford, because Jeff’s old jazz band still played Sunday gigs there. And I wanted the ‘otherness’ of Wales if I’m honest. I realised shortly after relocating, that down the road were Raymond Williams’s birth and burial places, Pandy and Clodock church. A friend of mine, John Percival, had Williams’s own copy of Long Revolution, it had his sticker in the front. He brought it out to the pub once. The local bookshop were given some of his volumes to sell, after Williams died in 1988, and John had picked them up for pence. It was just ordinary, there and then.

Williams begins ‘Culture is Ordinary’ with Hereford Cathedral and the Mappa Mundi which were only a short walk from the site I taught at in Hereford. [1] So I used to give students ‘Culture is Ordinary’, after the entry on ‘Culture’ from Keywords, and walk them over to the cathedral to read the opening sections of it. It was one way to try to make what they were getting immediately relevant. It was still possible to get a bus towards Wales from there, but not really down the same route. The Hereford new road had eclipsed the Hereford old road, there’s an old bridge and new bridge too now, and the road speaks volumes about Williams’s concerns and his rather clunky terms like ‘mobile privatisation’. I did walk the old road many times though, thinking about the journey in ‘Culture is Ordinary’. The new and old road stand as a metaphor for the old left Cultural Studies practitioners, and the next generation, coming through via Stuart Hall, and those increasingly concerned with cultural speed-up and media. Of course, there’s a shift away from the dogmatic Lukacsian focus on ‘class consciousness’ here too, and towards a more flexible, yet no less left wing take on culture, in the new left’s turn to Gramsci.

As you can see, the way I think is often via these almost occult inner maps, via the places and details and biographies and historical accidents I know about. What I am saying here is that I have my own Mappa Mundi of British Cultural Studies, and the territories it is linked to. Williams drops that arcane object, the Mappa Mundi, into the start of ‘Culture is Ordinary’ very purposefully. He’s making a new, big map of Culture. These maps have to be, like the Mappa Mundi, redrawn constantly, and they will always be perhaps twenty percent objective and eighty percent subjective.

I got the train from Abergavenny to Hereford most days for five years, to teach Cultural Studies in the art school, and the signal box flashes past – it must be the box from Border Country, there’s only one – but what one notices is that it’s full of electronic lights and wiring now. This obscure box and the new road to Hereford became key to the way I thought about borders and the way they’d shifted, and therefore it altered my relationship to Williams’s work.

But I risk looking like a provincial bumpkin here. The link between Williams’s Border Country and Edward Said’s work, thinking through borderlands and culture and conflict, is stitched into this landscape too. I’m not sure who it was – it might have been Jonathan Rutherford – who said that Said’s being a New Yorker and Palestinian, everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, inside some important discourses and yet in so many ways just anybody, mapped on to Williams’s subject position, and my own.

When I got to Goldsmiths to do an MA in 2003, I discovered there was a Richard Hoggart building and that Hoggart had inscribed books in the library, such as the hardback copy of McLuhan’s Counterblast – I guessed that it was sent back to Goldsmiths during his UNESCO days – and all of this seemed right somehow, and somebody maybe better take that book out of the library now.

That book and place seemed to be further important points on this map of mine. And of course McLaren and Westwood were there and King Mob and Linton Kwesi Johnson, et cetera. The place is also framed in so many ways by British Art school genealogies, as well as genealogies from territories geographically off the island. If you talked to Les Back, I bet he’d take you straight to Croydon from here.

None of my monologue really says much that’s substantive about the work of any of those thinkers. But the key thing I want to communicate here is that it is through ordinary people and places that I think about the thinkers. I don’t think through these places via supposedly ‘lofty’ theorists, and of course there’s something of the so- called ‘inversion’ of Hegel done by Marx in this, even though Hegel isn’t quite hung all the way round to dry.

All my work has since moved away from the ‘Cultural Studies’ teaching I used to get paid for, and still sometimes do – in art schools specifically – and into looking at small towns and what used to be called Community Studies.

I miss teaching Cultural Studies in art schools all the time actually. But what I wanted to communicate here was the perhaps idiosyncratic way I think through these traditions, rather than saying anything about the way the subject is moving, which I’m sure others can do better in any case. I know that British Cultural Studies is being refigured, friends of mine like David Wilkinson are rolling their sleeves up to do exactly that.

But all of this is why, for me, ‘Culture is Ordinary’ has not really been eclipsed as a starting point for British Cultural Studies. I gave a seminar on it last week. I could also talk about the significance of 1958, the year it came out, alongside other developments, and how I map that out, but that’s maybe for later. I think that ‘Culture is Ordinary’ is still the best starting point for learning about or working in British Cultural Studies. And of course it needs to be gendered, coloured through, rendered complex – and it has been, actually.

‘Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact’, and through all the changes to come, through all the nuancing and re-figuring of the subject, which has to happen, we must hold to that, even if everything else has to go. What I’ve said here has tried to exemplify the ordinariness of thinking required to do that.

[1] The Mappa Mundi is a 13th Century map inscribed on calf-skin in Hereford Cathedral. It depicts the known and the imagined world.

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