Revision of Working Papers in Cultural Studies, or, the Virtues of Gray Literature from Sat, 03/31/2012 - 15:51

Published by Ted Striphas on Fri, 03/23/2012 - 16:05

‘The Boiler Room Which Was to Become Cultural Studies’

Biographers of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies have tended to adopt two main narrative approaches to chronicling the Centre’s history.  The first coalesces around its key figures—faculty like Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall, as well as former students such as Charlotte Brunsdon and Lawrence Grossberg, who, since their time in Birmingham, have risen to prominence in the field.  Generally this body of work consists of their own personal reflections on their time in Birmingham and the reflections of travelers in cultural studies who have followed in their wake.[1]  The second approach focuses less on the figures per se and more on the enduring body of work they produced, both individually and collectively.  Here we have in mind Policing the Crisis (Macmillan, date); Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Methuen, date); Women Take Issue (Hutchinson, date); The Empire Strikes Back (Hutchinson, date); and a host of other landmark texts to which the label ‘Birmingham School’ is often retroactively – and indeed problematically – applied.[2]


There is, of course, ample crossover between these two approaches.  Taken together, they have yielded a useful composite of the cultural, political, and economic conditions both leading up to and following the Birmingham Centre’s founding in spring 1964.  And with this they have also provided fascinating glimpses into the Centre’s complex interpersonal and organizational dynamics, which is to say its everyday life throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  If there is any coherency to this historical picture, it is in the fraught process by which faculty and students at the Centre arrived at a sense of institutional identity, and at the broader intellectual commitments of cultural studies.  This is not necessarily to say, common purpose.  As Hall once put it, ‘My own memories of Birmingham are mainly of rows, debates, arguments, of people walking out of rooms’.[3]  Cultural studies’ success was hard won, in other words, and costly in terms of hurt feelings, disappointments, and damaged egos.[4]


Yet, its success was hard won for far less dramatic reasons as well – reasons that become apparent once we take ‘a trip “below decks” into the “boiler room” which was to become Cultural Studies’, as Hall more recently described it.[5]  This amounts to broadening the scope of the historical investigation to encompass (putting it crudely) the instruments of production of cultural studies.  Beyond all the juicy bits of insider knowledge, beyond all the major works and their intellectual history lies a more mundane but no less important story to be told about Birmingham, and about cultural studies more generally.  This is a story about the network of pipes and ducting by which cultural studies diffused through the Centre and gradually seeped out into the world.  More straightforwardly, the history we want to develop focuses on the Centre’s publications, but not on their content per se; nor, for that matter, on the major works that posterity has come to see as exemplary of ‘the Centre’.  Instead we want to focus on the form, function, and frequency of its serials, and to linger on a few lesser known works whose significance warrants their inclusion within the standard accounts of cultural studies’ intellectual history.


This history often begins with, or at least moves quickly to, what you might call ‘the big four’: Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957); Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society (1958) and Long Revolution (1961); and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963).  These books immediately preceded the Centre’s founding and served as touchstones for its fledgling intellectual enterprise.[6]  There is fifth publication, however, one that, while hardly lost to history, nevertheless does not often figure in relationship to the big four: Rachel Powell’s twenty-two page essay ‘Possibilities for Local Radio’, published in December 1965 as the Centre’s first ‘Working Paper’.[7] According to the author of the Centre’s third annual report, dated December 1966, it was ‘widely circulated and commented on’.[8]


Powell was full-time staff Research Associate working on what, over several years of Centre reports, was called the ‘Gulbenkian project’.  This initiative, funded by a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, investigates ‘the relationship between the providers of television programmes and their audiences’ (and, obviously, that of radio as well).[9]  The release of ‘Possibilities for Local Radio’ was important if for no other reason than it first demonstrated the Centre’s capacity to deliver on one of its more ambitious promises, namely, that it would not only pursue but also publish research.[10]  And in this it marked an important threshold for the field of cultural studies, at least in Britain, where publication had been the more the exception than the rule.  As Williams noted:  

[I]n the late forties, and with notable precedents in army education during the war, and with some precedents…even in the thirties, Cultural Studies was extremely active in adult education.  It only got into print and gained some kind of general intellectual recognition [later on].  I often feel sad about the many people who were active in that field at that time who didn't publish, but who did as much as any of us did to establish this work.[11]

What the release of Powell’s essay represented, in other words, was a first step in the direction of establishing a publishing routine for cultural studies.


This was, however, a tentative first step.  Powell’s essay was called a ‘Working Paper’, as if to convey its provisional status.  But even this designation merits closer examination, because neither the terminology nor the meaning of ‘Working Paper’ seems to have been determinate at this point in the Centre’s history.[12]  The author of the 1964 annual report, for example, referred to what was to become this type of publication as an ‘occasional paper’.  Note the lack of capitalization, as if to suggest a strong degree of informality for the work that would eventually be appearing under this rubric.  A year later the same type of publication would be referred to as an ‘Occasional Paper’, now capitalized, suggesting a greater degree of formalization and perhaps, then, a growing recognition of this body of work’s potential intellectual and practical import for the Centre.[13]  But the shift to the language of ‘Working Paper’ was to be short lived, at least for the time being.  The Centre’s fourth annual report, dated January 1968, announced the release of its ‘Second Occasional Paper’, Alan Shuttleworth’s ‘Two Working Papers in Cultural Studies’.  Each publication appearing subsequently in the series would be referred to as an ‘Occasional Paper’,


“Occasional”: periodic but not regular, episodic but not serial.


Notice how history becomes a touchstone by which to make sense of, and gain perspective on, the present.  The point of this history is to gain perspective on our present, on what we’ve gained and lost as far as the boiler room goes.



In the Centre’s second report to the University of Birmingham, dated October 1965, the author (presumably Hoggart) concludes by emphasizing ‘an urgent need for a regular journal devoted to the study of contemporary cultural problems’.[14] 


‘urgent’ suggests that the credibility of the Centre, and, by extension, that of this vague new initiative called cultural studies, would depend in part on the development of some means for publishing and disseminating the work of its faculty, students, and affiliates. 


Had to invent its publishing apparatus, and this would not come easy.


Rarely, however, have has there been a studied investigation into


» Need to fn Williams (Future of CS) somewhere here, re: how the pedagogical aspects of cs are under-documented, how he says his renown has much to do with the fact that he published while many of his friends & colleagues did not.

» At some point you’re also going to need to note now the publications became a source of revenue – re: the eventual drying up of the Penguin funding covenant.



Need to talk a bit about the archive, i.e., the annual reports, which are more than just bureaucratic documents – or at least they quickly become more than that.


Note the preponderance of what Zuckerman & Merton call “fugitive” publications.



“Thus do purely marketing decisions homogenize research and university teaching in accordance with fashions coming from America, sometimes managing to fabricate outright ‘disciplines’ like cultural studies, this mongrel domain born in England in the Seventies, which owes its international dissemination – if not the whole of its existence – to a successful publishing strategy” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1999: 74). » make this your ending!


An important and largely overlooked element of the “grassroots” of this story—the story of the formalization of cultural studies’ publications.  It was not, in the first instance, a top-down undertaking and indeed probably wasn’t until the 1980s, and even then never wholly.


Seemed to recognize from the beginning how important publications would be to the success of the Centre.


Want to spend some time reconstructing the publication history of the Birmingham Centre.


--Occasional Papers; special occasion pamphlets

(2nd OP called “Two Working Papers in CS”)

-- WPCS (1971 – replacement for OP)

(Also producing pamphlets)

--Stenciled Occasional Papers Launched 1974-75

--Reboot(???) or formalization of CCCS Pamphlets (1976-77)


II.        Gray Literature

III.       WPCS, reloaded

IV.       Conclusion






[2] Grossberg quoting John Clarke: “the diversity that won.”  Should also probably note the many “rows” various Birmingham figures mention in their personal reflections, as if to acknowledge the lack of unity of position.


[3] CITE Hall, “Emergence of CS/Crisis of Humanities,” p. 11?; Brunsdon.


[4] CITE Brunsdon, “Theif in the Night,” pp. 278, 280.


[5] CITE Hall, Preface to WPCS 2 volume anthology, p. xi.


[6] See especially Centre report from 1965-1966.


[7] CITE BCCCS Report 1966, p. 26; need to also note Williams on CS’ hidden transcript, re: how work in CS being done for years but never was published.


[8] Note the difficulty in substantiating this claim, or even judging the criteria by which this claim gets made.  But note, too, the essay’s inclusion in the Screen list of 1970, as well as the more recent commentary by John Mowitt, Radio: Essays in Bad Reception.


[9] Cite Centre 1966, p. 20.


[10] Cite first annual report, Sept. 1964, p. 10.


[11] CITE RW, “Future of CS,” pp. 170.


[12] Cite Mowitt, op cit., 17.  Note, too, that he refers to the work as an ‘Occasional Paper’.


[13] CITE 1965 Report, p. 18.


[14] Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies Second Report, October 1965, p 21.


Just a point of curiosity: how did you acquire the Birmingham Centre annual reports? Are they publicly accessible somewhere? I cannot seem to find them published anywhere.

Thanks for your question, anon. One of our mentors happened to have all of the BCCCS annual reports, and by his good graces we were able to acquire copies.  Otherwise, as far as I know, they're not publicly available at present.  Someone clearly needs to work on developing an archive, as these are too valuable a resource to remain locked away in someone's file cabinet.

Hi Ted - thanks for the fascinating article.  Your call for a CCCS archive has been heeded.  I have just begun work here in Birmingham on a project to mark the 50th anniversary of CCCS, which includes an archive, an exhibition and a conference.   The archive already has some deposits from Richard Johnson, Michael Green and others connected to the Centre, and Stuart Hall has promised that his papers are on the way.  In the mean time, we are seeking further deposits so if anyone reading this has archival material connected to CCCS, I'd be grateful if they could contact me at

Best wishes,

Kieran Connell

Thank you for your comment, Kieran, and for letting me know about the burgeoning BCCCS archive.  This is fantastic news indeed, as the archive is long overdue (though timing its launch to coincide with the Centre's 50th anniversary is perfectly apt).  I'll be sure to put the word out; Larry Grossberg and John Clarke, whose personal archives helped Mark Hayward and me a lot with this project, would be good people to whom to reach out.

We just had Michael Denning come out to PSU with his Yale Working Group and I was talking with him about this very moment at Birmingham. He had great stories about how when he arrived, each student was issued a cuby-hole and was taught to use the mimeograph. Each day someone was filling them with something they were working on (translation of Foucault from French, a manifesto they were working on, a theory being given a fledgling flight, etc)...fascinating stuff. It points to the importance of framing academic work as an ongoing collective process, not just missives from lone scholars who need single author pubs. Nice job with the essay.

Matt Jordan

Thanks very much for posting this comment, Matt.  It's really interesting to hear about Denning's experience, and also good, for Mark and my purposes, that it's in keeping with the general arguments of our paper. I especially love the little tidbit you included, about how there was formal instruction on how to use the mimeograph machine.

In reviewing the BCCCS annual reports from the 1960s and 70s, I was amazed to see how many people who are now luminaries came through Birmingham, either as visiting scholars or students.  It really was a who's-who back in the day.  More to the point, it's remarkable to learn about how these individuals worked together in such a concerted fashion, even if not always with a sense of common purpose.  Fascinating.