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volume 5
february 2003

Twenty-five years of Learning to Labour

 





  Looking back at British cultural studies with Paul Willis
by Henk Kleijer and Ger Tillekens
Previous
  After it was published in 1977, Learning to Labour had quite an impact on the social sciences. Reading it, many of those working in the field became aware of the potential of cultural studies and ethnographic research. In 2002 the Dutch Sociological Association invited the author, Paul Willis, to Amsterdam to celebrate the books twenty-fifth anniversary and, more important, to discuss the development of its problematics. Henk Kleijer and Ger Tillekens met him there for this interview.
 
  It is the future in the present that hammers
freedom to inequality ...
(Willis, 1977: 120)
1 Photo right: Paul Willis in his CCCS years (1977)

At the end of the 1970s, popular culture was developing into a regular topic for academic study and for many eager students the way towards this subject was paved by the work of the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) of the Birmingham University. In those early days, Paul Willis was working at the centre. From 1973 on, he was one of the prolific authors in the institute's famous series of Stencilled Occasional Papers. At that time, his subjects mostly were centring on the transition from school to work, but he also published a theory for the social meaning of pop music and even a paper on women in sport. Some were the basis for later chapters in the CCCS-readers, published by Hutchinson, to which he also added his interest in ethnographic research.

  Willis published some rather influential books. The first one was Learning to Labour (Farnborough, Hants: Saxon House, 1977), which was widely acclaimed not only within the field of cultural studies but also among sociologists. Shortly thereafter the second book Profane culture (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978) appeared, describing the subcultures of bikers and hippies. Though published in 1978, most of it had been written at an earlier date, as it was an adapted version of his doctoral dissertation "Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham". Willis then left Birmingham for Wolverhampton and with periods of ten years intermittingly published yet two other books: Common Culture (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990) and The ethnographic imagination (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000). From 2000 on, together with Loïc Wacquant, he is editor of Ethnography, an academic journal on all matters concerning ethnography, published by Sage Publications. In December 2002 the Dutch Sociological Association invited him to Amsterdam to celebrate twenty-five year of Learning To Labour and, more important, to discuss the development of its problematics. We met Willis there for this interview.
2 Kleijer: You started your work at the CCCS in Birmingham. Then and there, you were deeply immersed into the question of the transition of school to work of working class kids. It was the subject of Learning to Labour and your findings were quickly appropriated by sociologists and incorporated into their body of knowledge. Now, when you traded Birmingham for the University of Wolverhampton media studies, at the same time you traded that subject for popular culture and media studies. Still, your name is mentioned more often within sociology than in media studies ...
  Willis: That's not as strange as it may seem at first sight. My association with media studies really was an accident of history. First and for all, I see myself as a social scientist, and parts of media studies I think are not properly theorized. So, I do not have an immediate interest in the field of media studies. My own post at Wolverhampton was relatively privileged because a third of it was paid for by the Cultural Studies Centre of the Väksjö University in Sweden and my job was to develop research in the university. I was not directly involved in teaching undergraduate programmes; I was working at the postgraduate level. So, I can't say that I was a media studies teacher, though I was the head of the division and I know the general area.

Kleijer: I ask this question, because there seems to be some discrepancy between those fields in the reception of British Cultural Studies. Paging through only a few of the impressive load of reviews and summaries of the history of the CCCS, one is quick to note some sort of difference between the way in which the CCCS is received by media studies at one hand and by sociology and related studies at the other. One only has to look at the names and quotations. Media studies mostly refer to the likes of Stuart Hall, but here your name is almost never mentioned, nor that of Angela McRobbie for instance. Then at the other hand, when you look at educational studies, the social sciences and also music studies, it's always Willis, Hebdige and so on. So, why does your work not show up in media studies ...

  Willis: Or cultural studies ... Because I never dealt with media reception, is the simple answer. It's a complicated story what has happened to cultural studies. Especially since it got exported to the States, it split into a variety of camps: post-colonialism, discourse studies, post-structuralism, humanity studies, media studies, media reception, and so on. The story of British cultural studies is rather complex since it was started in the mid-sixties by Richard Hoggart in the humanities department. My own background was in English at Cambridge. At that point, it was a literary humanistic study and I developed my own kind of practical sociology, based on a certain adaptation of literary critisism, especially close reading. In Cambridge, we were given a poem and you had to respond to the words on the page and explain how the words worked. I saw myself as adapting this literary critical technique to lived cultural forms. So I was asking how the bike in the biker subculture worked as a set of symbols: the circular handlebars, the shining kick-starters, the ways in which the bike was rearranged, the form of the bike and for a long initial period you could see it as within the humanities but going over into the social sciences in successive ways.
  Well, the centre was a very exciting place, especially after the actions to further student involvement in decision making, of course, when it was student-lead. Stuart Hall had a very particular view of collective work and revolutions arriving in the social sciences arrived at the centre very quickly. Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, all of those successively moved the debate on as well as varieties of post structuralism in French theory and in just a ten year period the centre went through three or four revolutions, many of which were highly contradictory and, although we somehow look back on the Birmingham school as unified, the truth is it had compressed in it several different disciplines in lines of development, many of them not very compatible. And my own history was starting in that humanistic way into a humanistic sociology and grappling with the series of revolutions, not least of course the Marxist one but also the feminist one. Since this golden period of the Cultural Studies Centre, what's now called British cultural studies has spun off into its constituency again. I think it's rather hard to talk of the ethnographic cultural studies — to which I belong with my recent book, you could argue — while attempting to argue with certain other inheritances of the CCCS.
3 Tillekens: Your answer seems to imply that the ways of media studies have parted with the interests of ethnographers. In respect to the effects of the media, ethnography has always stressed the importance of looking at the audience and the ways in which they actively receive and handle the messages sent by the media. Do you think that media studies is just forgetting the audience, as for instance some of your Britain colleagues, Greg Philo and Dave Miller, have argued recently? According to them, it is about time to revive the concept of "lived experience" in media studies.
  Willis: Well, this is one answer to your question why I'm not in media studies — and was I ever in media studies? And yes, there really are some differences between the current interests of media studies and ethnography. I thought the Birmingham school, and I still think my own ethnographic approach, is so to speak holistic and theoretically informed and just as I would approach education or factory production or pub life, I would approach media studies in a different more holistic way. For me the encoding and decoding model, which is still very powerful, turns too much within the reception side, and my interest would be to look into the role of the electronic mediation and commodification in every day life forms from the perspective and the interest of a common culture. That's what my recent book about the ethnographic imagination is all about, but this interest also goes way back to the beginnings of the CCCS. Raymond Williams once said that culture is a relation between elements in a way of life and I'm sure he meant the symbolic codes, the reception of the codes, the ways in which meanings derived from them and other sources are taken up in the home, the street, the factory, the school.
  And, for me media studies has missed this last element. It's got two elements: the uncoding and the decoding bit. However, it hasn't got another third element, everyday culture, or fourth element which would be the economy of the society. For me, what counts is everyday culture. So there's no sense at all in which I think I've been dumped by media studies. I think there are up to ten cultural studies camps and I've probably been dumped in most of them, but I'm certainly not ignored within sociology or within anthropology. Within the sociology of education, the book Learning to Labour continues to sell more than ever and, in some sense, you could say I've travelled out of cultural studies. It's not an issue for me. My new journal even is deliberately aiming at sociology, anthropology, cultural anthropology ...
  I don't see media studies as the inheritor of classical British cultural studies. It's one of the many strands and, I think, it's greatly in need of reattaching to a more holistic social view. Of course, that's very difficult, but you can see that it's possible to do an ethnography of reception, whether I do it or not. I won't deny that it's a hard job, but it can be done. Look, for instance at the study of Dorothy Hobson on television soaps, reported in her book Crossroads (1982). She's one of my colleagues at Wolverhampton and she's just writing another book in her own attempt to develop a research culture over there. You can learn from her work, that a theoretical stance is very important. Of course, you can sit with viewers and that's very important. However, it's much harder to see how that viewing gets involved in shop-floor culture or in school culture. For me the issue always must be broadened by the ethnographic imagination, to get grips on what is left out by most posivistic forms of decoding on sight: the ways in which the resources for cultural understanding have become commodified and mediated and the implications of those changes in the modes of information for the remaining sites of struggle and existence. That, for me, is the media question.
4 Kleijer: I want to go to Learning to Labour, which as we've said before, is a very interesting book for sociologists. In the book you described and analysed the way in which working class pupils in the lower reaches of the educational system reacted to school: the boisterous and resistant "lads" and their more obedient and resilient counterparts, the "ear'oles". Nowadays, the book has become a standard in the field of sociology and summaries of your work often link it up with Robert K. Merton's theory of anomie. Your description of "how working class boys get working class jobs" as a reaction to the meritocratic workings of the school indeed can be seen as an illustration of Merton's theory. But, to me, it seems there's more to your analysis. Concepts like "counter culture", "authenticity" clearly have a theoretical surplus. To me Learning to Labour is more than just a sociological analysis of deviance and resistance. What is your own opinion on that matter?

Willis: I don't know whether I can place the book within classical sociology. Remember my own route was out of the literature department through the work of Richard Hoggart into everyday culture and for me there was a displacement of an interest in aesthetic creativity in written forms, where I kind of drew a blanc at Cambridge, into looking for the same thing in a more democratic 1960s way in everyday culture. So the motive of my ethnographic recording of life — while being in the Cultural Studies Centre and going through those successive waves of social and Marxist and feminist revolutions — was to show forms of humanistic creativity, and this is still the case today. As a humanist, I'm attempting to make a theorized humanism which still preserves some element of creativity.

  And from this point of view I think I'm developing — and my book The ethnographic imagination tries to spell it out — a view of cultural production of creativity. As such the analysis must be based on historical grounds, while clearing up given discursive forms. In fact, you could argue, it is an attempt to develop an ethnographically based form of post-structuralism, treating the question of how previous systems of symbols and previous discursive resources are related to actual practices. From this point of view, I see Learning to Labour — and my more recent work — as studies of forms of cultural production of meaning in everyday life. In this respect, I always feel pushed into a sociological straight-jacket when people take the outcomes of my work in terms of resistance or anomie, because my point is the general production of meanings within a context ...
5 Tillekens: I was wondering about all those belligerent metaphors of struggles, fights and arena's, one finds so abundantly in Learning to Labour. Are you still seeing the processes in which people give meaning to their lives in those terms? In which way are those concepts steering your analysis?
  Willis: This question partly overlaps with that other, very interesting question about how to write ethnography. Writing down your findings, in my mind, by itself is not a science. I have always seen it as an extension of a literary technique, just like it is practiced by post-modernism and post-structuralism. Of course, there is the question of the replication of one's findings, which is a theoretical scientific problem. But, as post-modernism and post-structuralism holds, there's more to it and in one way, I always felt I understood that argument. When I was writing down my analyses for Learning to Labour, I knew it was a construction and I was very willing to use literary techniques in order to promote a preferred meaning. In that, I see the social sciences really as social sciences, which means that they include important humanistic elements. One has to read the book that way. So, it's not always fair to take a metaphor in its full context as delivering a whole theory. So, in order to emphasise a degree of creativity and of activity and rationality in these subcultures, hitherto seen as pathological or deviant, I mobilized metaphors and used literary techniques.
  Moreover, I think it's part of the richness of ethnography that it can travel into different disciplines and have different interpretations. But in so far as I can see, my heartland consideration was to offer a preferred reading. The concepts of "resistance" and "struggle" were meant to point to the forms of cultural production in a context when that context is compulsion combined with disaffection from the education that goes with it. Under these conditions, the institution of the school becomes oppression and then cultural production turns into a resistance to that particular site. But of course, any extension of my argument into resistance in general, in my view, becomes rather meaningless because the lads were not resisting in this sense. Actually, they were rather conservative and the long-term result of their resistance was, of course, a passive reproduction of the social order in these self-same resistant kids.
6 Kleijer: Because of that, many people even said that Learning to Labour was a very pessimistic book. I once even read a description of the work, saying that "a melancholic pessimism" was "dripping out of this book." Some years after its publication, you wrote an article about the same subject for a reader edited by Len Barton and Stephan Walker, which sounded more open and optimistic. Yet, after having read both the book and article, most readers will be left with a gloomy feeling of things going from bad to worse.
  Willis: Yes, I still think this, but remember what I'm saying, about the allusive and metaphorical style of ethnography: an absolute necessity for its own form of reproduction which is a construction, not a reflection of reality, and if that lens of magnification and projection goes through literary forms, then there is a variety of ways of reading the metaphor and I think a lot of the metaphors I used were heroic, about a resistance against all odds, and there was also an aesthetic sense of irony, of foreseeing future events, of the riders of life pursuing their course.
  And you see I'm coming back to my point: I think that there is a variety of ways of reading and misreading the relative independence of an ethnographic text and in order to pursue my larger sociological, if you like, purpose, I used a spirit of prolepsis of the workings of fate, the melancholic ways in which futures are mapped but lived through choice. I tried to describe the ways in which current choices produce future traps and this was part of my purpose. The heartland of the book, I still see as analysing the production of meanings and the complex ways within which those meanings become embedded in structures and thereby reproductive, ironic and trapping. But, by representing it in a humanistic way, in whatever literary form, the point in my mind was always an openness, a mismatch between the cultural forms and their outcomes. That cultural practices become trapping is a sociological question capable of analysis. It is also a cultural therapeutic question of the possibility of change and there is always the possibility of making practices not inevitable by understanding them. And in my mind, this was the main message of the book, not the trapping.
7 Tillekens: In the book, there is some permanent clash going on between the middle-class culture of the school on the one hand and the working class culture of the "lads" on the other and you yourself, so it seems, take a partisan view in this struggle.
  Willis: Yes, well I'm not sure if the ear'oles in any sense are middle class. For me this is another misunderstanding of the book. Both the lads and ear'oles represent working class culture. So, at school, there were two working class roots at that point and as the subsequent history of the lads and ear'oles shows, in time many of them did change places, depending on the accidents of the labour market.
  Tillekens: Yet, there is something in your analysis about middle class culture, which gives it a negative ring. Middle class culture is depicted as individualistic, polished and "inauthentic". As such, it mirrors your description of working class culture ...
  Willis: Well, if you're talking about the book, and the ethnographic presentation and the literary tropes, yes, I needed metaphors and I needed foils. I needed a frame. I needed to dramatise oppositions and I don't say there is a falsity in that. There is always a degree of projection, where if you bring one group to life it is at the expense of the life of another group. So you could argue, that I didn't give a full picture of the era. You could argue, that the whole analysis was in some sense counter pointed against a view of middle class culture as less creative in everyday life forms, as more individualistic, as more ethnological in a broader sense, again perhaps as giving obeisance to form from the point of view of social prestige rather than living the meaning of the shape of the hunger, as Bourdieu says. Yet, there's more to it. My argument, indeed, is that there is something about the freedoms of working class culture that is the opposite of the melancholy and the trappings, we were speaking about. Some way or another, so it seems to me, working class culture is able to take in commodity culture and defetishise its commodified meanings in relation to everyday life in a way that middle class culture doesn't.
  In my recent book, I'm saying that schooling is a kind of early modernist formation of cultural transmission and there's a huge question about what it means for the subordinate class. You could argue, that the current big question is the electronic mediation of culture and the commodification of meanings material. Is this another form of oppressing workers in the social factory? Or has it given them a form of expression and a means of culturally mediated self-knowledge which is in some sense more useful than the continuingly institutionalised, individualized certificated knowledge, offered by the school? So I think, yes, throughout my work there is an attempt to try to update class cultural analysis and to try to see subordinate cultures as in some sense more creative than received middle class cultures.
  Though, of course, the point — the point of mediation and the point of the post-modern condition — is that there's a degree of convergence. We are all saturated with electronic means and middle class kids might be taking a certain view of Shakespeare and electro-dynamics in the university whilst their leisure pursuits are in the bar and with clothes and with music that show a convergence with the preferences of working class kids. This means, that we will have to update our cultural analysis to see continuingly class-based differences in cultural forms. In this respect, we have outrun the older English models of working class culture and middle-class culture and the separations between them. You could argue that Learning to Labour is still courting those old divisions, and I think it is now necessary to try to see differences in the class cultures along different dynamics and those dynamics must include the uses of electronic mediation and commodification. Yet, for me, there still is a difference in bindings and, yes, I would argue that there is a tendency of difference in the way those materials are used by working class and middle-class youth.
8 Kleijer: Learning to Labour was published in 1977. Then punk emerged and Dick Hebdige wrote his book about this new style that did seem to explode the concept of subcultures itself. If I remember well, you once said yourself that maybe you caught British labour class culture at its last high tide and that it was just dwindling away afterwards. Popular culture now has evolved into "style", an arbitrary mixture of cultural elements, originating from everywhere and for everyone to pick to his or her likings. Style now has become very important, as Hebdige argued, and with the globalisation of culture is becoming more important everyday. You tackled this issue yourself in Common Culture — I step over to the next book — where you argued about the creation of new communities ...

Willis: In that book I call them proto-communities and part of the task I see myself as working on and part of where we are at in the progressive social science — and I see that as including anthropology and education studies as well as sociology and cultural studies — is trying to understand new bases of community. The classic English ways of understanding community related very much to class cultures and, in the past, we may have projected too coherent a view on that with a separate working class culture. There were always overlaps and connections and of course, the role of the state and institutions is very important. But nevertheless, I think still in Learning to Labour one could see some bases of community organization within the working class. And part of the reason why the cultural question interested me, was that I saw it as a very important connection between the material infrastructure that would produce a community of workers in a factory, a neighbourhood, a camping site at one hand and the forms of meaning-making, the styles of life and the habits of speech, the habits of culture on the other hand. These locations were producing some forms of a distinctive cultural community which had a particular kind of communication and a particular kind of knowledge, as itself a basis for class organization, like the trade unions and the labour party. And I think that was still just about holding as a model in the 1970s.

  But, already at that time, the destruction of the material base for those communities, the closing of the factories, the individualization of politics and the hollowing out, the commodification of culture was removing the local working class traditions. The only hope we had in the labour party to get back into power was to dump the old class community politics and work through focus groups and fetishised electronic communication, which Blair has done extremely successfully. I'm still in the party — with real misgivings but I prefer our lot to their lot — but I do have strong doubts. You know, part of the dilemma I'm talking about, is the dissolving of the left-right distinction and the fact that our social democrats are actually more radical in some ways than the labour party. For me this reflects the sociological question: what has happened in the community? For me, this is the important notion of communication and meaning-making: that to have a politics you have to have a prior level of everyday communication and a prior level of understood meanings which can be mobilized into political points and political organization.
  Again, to use a metaphor: unless you have a sea of meaning, culture, you can't get a floating level of organization. In this respect, I think we are in a transition. We've clearly lost the old, but I'm not yet willing to accept that we're now all mediated, individualized subjects. We don't exactly know by which forms and in which communities meaning-making is effectuated and we will have to go out and look for it. So the big issue is then not for sociological theory but for ethnographic research. We must try to understand the ways in which social and cultural life is ahead of our theories by asking what new forms of community and culture exist on the other side of electronification and commodification. In Common Culture, I was struggling with these questions by looking for these new forms as proto-communities. But of course, it is difficult: you don't find proto-communities by going to the factory and working on a shop floor. You don't find it in its institutional form by looking at resistance to school. But nevertheless there will be cultural counterparts of economic realities and those cultural forms of understanding are the means through which the majority of people meet the urgencies of life — dealing with the state, dealing with unemployment, dealing with the neighbourhood.
9 Tillekens: I saw the book as an argument of making public space more open for new forms of local community. In this respect, the book is also a social policy statement and I wondered what happened to it? Was there ever a follow-up in Wolverhampton's youth policy?
  Willis: No, I didn't have resources and I didn't have power. But of course, you are quite right and I think it is a misunderstanding about the book. Some of the criticism of it didn't fully take into account that it was a policy initiative. The Gulbenkian Foundation provided the funds and it also published the report Moving Culture (1990), which for them was the main outcome. Next, I floated off Common Culture as an academic book, but the research hadn't really been conducted in a way, which I would have regarded as academic. I didn't mainly do the fieldwork myself. Each of the contributions had a different agenda and in each section different things were going on. I had to find a common denominator which was cultural creativity, if you like, but I couldn't really pursue questions of fetishism and defetishism, of social reproduction and of social connection, because it wasn't my ethnographic work. Moreover, I hadn't — as I had in Learning to Labour — the very important point of a longitudinal extension. I knew then what did happen after school, but now I did not know what happened to someone's passion with punk or whatever. I did not know what something like that implicates, when it gets taken up into life course decisions. That would have been a very interesting question. As it is Common Culture is a horizontal snapshot, it is not longitudinal.
  Tillekens: Still, I must confess, I like the book and I was very amazed about all of the critique. Even last year, in a review in the internet journal Culture Machine, Rupa Huq called it an execrable book. Terrible, in short. Why, do you think, are people so negative about it?
  Willis: I don't know the quote, but I think the criticisms are to a point just, stemming from two perspectives. For cultural practitioners, the book is clearly too broad — as I have said, it takes a horizontal view. In fact, I myself think that's the strength of the book. Very few books have attempted to look across the scene of cultural activity. But you could say that none of the separate activities have been studied into in full depth. I would say that is a just criticism. Next, there is the sociological criticism, especially from a political economy point of view. Here people hold that I jumped the post-modern bandwagon, celebrating creativity without condition and saying that the kids can make anything out of anything — "anything goes." According to them, the argument about the impact of cultural capital and prestige seems to be missing in my analysis. In a way that's right, but remember that I was looking for new communal forms.
10 Kleijer: In general, how do you connect your academic work with a social practice?
  Willis: I don't say I've done it. One of the interesting things is the letters I sometimes get from people who write to me about Learning to Labour, prisoners for instance who have the time for reading books. They say that the book has helped them to overcome the mental-manual barrier. Reading the book, they've come to understand more about their own formation and that then allows them to be interested in books in general. It shows the possibility of using ethnographic accounts of cultural areas to undergo a kind of cultural therapy, almost in a Freudian sense of laying bare a cultural formation and — back to a theme of mine — increasing the chances of avoiding the ironies of reproduction. I have a Ph.D. student who has just published a book on school cultures, who was a biker himself. He read Profane Culture by accident, as he happened to see the big picture of the bike on the front of it. He says the book turned him into a sociologist. He'd never understood that his own experiences were anything more than trivial and to the side, but the book made him think about his liking for music and his bike. I certainly don't want to exaggerate the effects of my books, but I guess you could build a practice of ethnographic research on these examples. Unfortunately, I don't have the social power or the money to put it into effect.
  The important thing it shows, however, is that there is something about culture which can be discussed and laid open. And, from the point of view of the cultural project behind Moving Culture, which was the Gulbenkian book, the idea was to shift cultural policy and the policy of Gulbenkian from the support of legitimate arts to the support of popular arts. They did change their funding criteria and their policy and they have funded music projects and group projects. At the end of that book, I invented an idea and it shows you a possible idealism in my whole position of what I call the cultural exchange. I proposed to furnish young people with some form of local currency — to be provided by the local authority or the Gulbenkian Foundation. It would give them access to cultural commodities and technical means of production on a cheap basis. For instance, if they were fed up with their guitar, they could use it to trade their instrument in for another. Part of the problem of commodification is the access to commodities because it works through money and the wage form. In England — I think more so than in the Netherlands — there is a continuing problem in the cities with mass youth unemployment. Those concerned, all have a great interest in, what I call, a common culture, but they don't have the means to really get into it and work their way creatively through the commodified mediations of popular culture. So, this is what I proposed to do. Successfully or not, I'm trying to dissect forms of cultural production with respect to questions of commodification and fetishism. If we could understand some of these creative processes, I think, and could allow them to unfold on the benign grounds of state provision, then it might be possible to aid their defetishising dimension rather than their reproductive dimension, to put it very crudely. And this, again, brings us back to the question what commodification in the electronic mediation does mean for culture.
11 Tillekens: Speaking of the development of popular culture ... Learning to Labour mainly is about the subculture of the lads and, some way or another, it seems the lads have won the battle in this arena. When you look at television programs like Big Brother — a Dutch concept, by the way — or page through youth magazines like Loaded, all you see is a "laddish culture" which seems to have taken over popular culture. Some people argue that it's the self-defeating victory of labour class culture in a mediatized society ...
  Willis: Yes, it's not my argument, but it is a position. Assuming that we ever have an original community-bases working class culture, it was already unravelling at the time of my research into the lads. And, after all, part of my argument even then was about the use of commodities: smoking, drinking, style, fashion, trying to be superior to the teachers. The market, undoubtedly, has been a corrosive asset on local folk traditions of working class culture. And elements of it have been commodified themselves. But, when you refer to the kind of lad culture represented by Loaded, I don't see that as the success of the working class masculinity. It's a particular commodification of a strand and an adaptation to a life style marketeers' view of culture. I was also astonished to hear from a colleague in the business school that Common Culture now is one of the most referenced books in the Journal of Consumer Affairs. I think, it's called the bible of qualitative market research — which by itself is a minority compared with the quantitative stuff. But, it's true, the marketing machinery is absolutely very active in raiding cultural studies and light cultural studies in terms of trying to understand what they call experiential marketing: looking how products are used and trying to guess how products are used. They are keen to learn the ways in which placing products more carefully within cultural lived forms can make the product sell rather than the old-fashioned media message to simply "Buy!" You could say that capitalist media now understand ethnography and are producing ethnographic forms and documenting it. Programs like Big Brother and all the rest of its are kind of getting in on the act and of course without theory. They're, what I would like to call, the "common culture" without the "ethnographic imagination." In short, I think it's hard to say that there once really was a golden age of working class culture, and I think it's harder yet to say it has now been succeeded. But, yes, bits of it clearly have been commodified.
12 Tillekens: Does that same qualification not also apply to most ethnographic studies being done nowadays — or better yet over the last decade? You could hear this reproach, for instance in the severe criticism by Dave Harris, ten years ago, of the CCCS. The British philosopher Esther Leslie, a cultural studies researcher herself and strongly committed to Critical Theory, more recently presented an overview of the development of British cultural Marxism. She argued that the whole field has become de-Marxized and that, with it, the interest in theory had disappeared. Moreover, she said, there are only two groups left: the semiotic group, which just is analysing and discussing the "discourses" they perceive in media products, and then another group which keeps itself busy by doing ethnographic research. But, lacking any theory, she holds, ethnography now has evolvede into a form of sociological voyeurism.
  Willis: I don't know it. Do I figure in the argument?
  Tillekens: No ...
  Willis: Good, that's probably a good thing. Well, this is why some people think Common Culture is a sell-out. They think, that I lost my critical consciousness and that I wasn't able to articulate culture into structure. Of course, the traditional heavy-weight Marxists already had their severe doubts about Learning to Labour as it admits that the world is in one sense post-modern. Moreover, I think, it has become clear that we haven't got or even can construct a unified theory. At one stage of the development of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the classic stage of the centre, we were all Marxists. We thought Marxism could hold it all together and we struggled very hard to find the unified theory for culture, and we failed.
  I think, the kind of continuing orthodox Marxists — I don't quite know who they are but there certainly still are political economists in media studies, take for instance Graham Murdock and Peter Golding — would perceive Learning to Labour as moderately interesting. But, just like Jim McGuigan's Cultural Populism (1992), they would see Common Culture as a complete sell-out, because it's a humanistic celebration without any theory. I think these arguments now have been there for about ten years. It's a story that's being recounted over and over again about what happened to Cultural Studies and the way a certain kind of ethnography has just become a mindless celebration of the kids. I think, as I just said, there is some justice in that view of Common Culture because I was taking a horizontal view, and, surely, of Moving Culture where I was trying to send a relatively simple message to policy-makers. Whether or not it succeeded, it certainly shifted the policies of the Gulbenkian Foundation. They have made more money available for some kinds of youth projects and I am interested, however disorganised, in their outcomes and policy. So, it was a useful thing to try. And then in Common Culture, I tried to move it along, but I didn't have the ethnographic materials to properly take a longitudinal critical view. In The Ethnographic Imagination, for all its faults, I think I am as it were critically theorizing Common Culture along the following lines of recognizing the nature of the commodity as a profoundly formative set of implicit social relations around fetishism.
13 Kleijer: Having read Ethnographic Imagination, I have the impression that you're moving, in respect to your theoretical concepts, in the direction of Critical Theory. At least, I see some links in your last book with the stance taken by Adorno in his analysis of popular culture ... According to the Frankfurt School, in some cases the products of popular culture could offer critical insights to their users. This same idea, nowadays, is being revived by Critical Theorists like Douglas Kellner and again, you can find it in the "Militant Esthetix" of Esther Leslie and Ben Watson. And now, you seem to become a Critical Theorist too.
  Willis: The problem for me is that what the Marxists and the Critical Theorists, the orthodox Marxists and especially the Political Economists are doing in the field of media studies, makes a lot of sense. In some way, it makes a lot more sense than what the ethnographers are getting from the audiences. But still, they won't face the question of the specific ways in which media messages have an ideological effect. Yes, they are quite able in tracing media messages through the circuit of production according to the relations of capital production: from the obvious facts of the ownership of the media, through the production of commodities and their distribution in electronic forms into messages which have identifiable outcomes.

However, I think, it still is very important to insert a humanistic creative moment in this circuit of the production of meaning, whereas the Political Economists still would like a closed circuit. It will complexify things, but there must be an open moment, exactly at the point where those messages get used. And, they will be used in unexpected ways — that is the "surprise" of the ethnographic moment. In the Ethnographic Imagination, I am trying to do the political economy job by showing the form of influence arising from the mode of production. I still accept the major point, but I do not agree that that is all there is to a particular message. You can't find it by an endless description of the empirical facts of ownership or by analysing the forms of advertising the way Political Economy does. Media messages, surely, are determined by the way they are produced and distributed, but for me, this determination resides in the commodity form.

  Tillekens: Again, that's a very Adornian position. In your new book you are also reviving the concept of "penetrations". You first used it in Learning to Labour. At the time, it was the most criticized concept of the book, at least over here in the Netherlands ...
  Willis (laughs): Because of the sexist terminology or because of the theory?
  Tillekens: Oh no ... over here no one was particularly concerned about that. No, in your analysis of the culture of the lads, you speak both of "penetrations" and of "limitations." Some elements of their culture — for instance their solidarity and sense for community — are qualified as "penetrations", a way to look into and overcome the restrictions of the meritocratic ideology of the school. Other elements, like the typical macho attitude of the lads, are qualified as "limitations." The grounds on which to decide what is a "limitation" and what a "penetration", however, are not always clear. Moreover, it just seems to depend the author's view.
  Willis: Well, I see the problem, but the answer to it is mainly a question of ethnographical research. You really need to do empirical research to lay your finger at the points where communication penetrates the fetish character of cultural products. I don't say, my use of the concept "penetrations" is properly ethnographically supported. You see, there is this problem of fieldwork and before I get too old and arthritic, I really must return to the field. But theoretically, I don't know, I may be reinventing the wheel, but I thought the scientific finding of The Ethnographic Imagination was that it shows what difference it makes when you apply fetishism to a communicative commodity. If it is just a chair, then it's obviously a commodity in the market. You can see it in the department store as a mass product, a cargo-culture item. You don't know who made it; you don't know the social relations of its production. By entering the market, it breaks off its history, and it breaks off its labour history. It's just an item to be judged by utilitarian — is it comfortable? — or aesthetic standards — is it beautiful? My point, however, is that nobody has yet, correct me if I'm wrong, understood properly what it means to say that a communicative item is fetishised because it always needs communication and because it always carries with it a community.
  For instance, if you play a record, you know there's labour in it because you can only take it in real time. So you know there is embedded labour in it. Not fully, it's fetishised but it's not fully fetishised. It is a communicative item and any communicative item must assume a communicative meaning. Listening to it, you must decide together what music is in order to hear sounds as music instead of noise. And for me this makes the commodification of communication altogether more unstable and interesting than the commodification of items serving basic needs. Because of this contradiction, I call products like pop cd's "quasi-modo" commodities.
  Kleijer: There's a whole chapter of your book treating this subject. However, you don't say anything all on the where-abouts of the concept. If I remember well, the concept of "quasi-commodity" is used by economists for goods like books and toys. Quasimodo is the hero of Victor Hugo's story of the hunchback who found refuge in the Notre Dame of Paris. So, I take it, by using the concept of quasi-modo commodities, you're hinting at the possibility that some cultural products may have some hidden quality bound to spring out when the occasion arises.
  Willis: In fact, that's what I'm trying to expose theoretically which then, for me, has profound ethnographic consequences because these products acquire new meanings in their reception and their contribution to everyday life. You don't catch up with these meanings by subjecting messages to an encoding-decoding model. Instead, you will have to look at the ways in which these messages have an influence and are used to make sense of school, work, neighbourhood and so on.
14 Kleijer: In short: "lived experience," which is another one of your concepts ...
  Willis: Lived experience, generally speaking, offers the means by which cultural products like cd's are appropriated. And then there is this question: does "lived experience" decode the fetishised bit or does it decode the community bit? And in what ways is there a lived understanding of embedded labour, which then encourages kids to want to pick up a guitar. Most kids, as we found out during the Common Culture project, do no learn music by going to a music school, but by listening to it and picking up a guitar. Now, you can't learn to be a carpenter, just by getting a table from the department store. This is what I'm pressing at. Now is that Adorno or the Frankfurt School?
  Ethnographic research, in a certain sense, replicates that process. It is not the same, but it resembles the way in which you just tried to decode the word "quasi-modo commodity". Decoding is what I'm thinking of as culture therapy, which is both bringing into visibility the invisible forms of everyday life and attempting to make the understanding of culture a more public project. Some people nowadays hold that culture has become a loose collection of separate subcultures. Adults trying to interfere with what the kids are doing, are being told to piss off, it's their business. Or, they say that if you make it mainstream, the kids will soon find some other way to express difference. And, of course, there's a point in that. But part of what The Ethnographic Imagination is arguing is, that we are all sub-culturalists now, that all cultural forms are mediated, that nothing is authentic anymore and that it is not the case of authentic cultures an nosy theoretical adults pushing their nose in voyeurism. It is more a question for all of us: what are the cultural resources which we make meaning from? And, what is the role of commodification in that, under what conditions is defetishized use more likely, and in what ways is a public representation of some of your private experiences having the possibility of a social dynamic, avoiding the pitfalls, avoiding the ironies, avoiding the reproductions, being reconnected to mental life. And, for me, there must be a role for ethnography in such a cultural therapy.
15 Photo left: Paul Willis in Amsterdam (2002; photo: Carla Schoo)

Tillekens: Speaking about "lived experience", you now have had ample experience with life as it is on British universities. If my information is correct, you now have left Wolverhampton?

Willis: Yes, I've left Wolverhampton into voluntary redundancy. I took voluntary retirement in September. At this point, I'm unemployed, but I'm still living in Wolverhampton, my home town, of course. At the moment, there is a real problem in England with finance for higher education. I only had a small department, so I decided not to resist the budget cuttings. We have a huge crisis at our universities. In general on finance, this specific issue is ready to charge students tuition fees. In just a few years, we've gone from a good system to a terrible system. We did have grants and tuition fees paid by the state. Now, what is left is a thousand pounds tuition fee per student and no grants, just loans. This has direct implications for the accessibility of higher education. In the United Kingdom, the universities already had evolved into finishing schools for the middle class. There's nothing wrong with that, but the new financial arrangements clearly are strengthening the class differentiation in education. Nowadays about 30 percent of all 18-year-olds is attending higher education, which is very high. However, that's 80% of all middle class youth. Moreover, the contents of the curriculum is more and more directed to the labour market, just as well as the research agenda increasingly is being set by economic interests.

  I'm not implying, that there's a lowering of the level of the universities. In reality I think that's not the case. But, that's the common story that's going around in public. The English newspapers are always trying to run scare stories on the collapse of standards and, of course, they often refer to the joke degrees in media studies, so it's a sensitive area. Combined with the changing criteria for the collective research output, this makes it very difficult to keep a small research facility, like the one in Wolverhampton, going in this field. That's why I agreed to my voluntary redundancy. However, that does not mean that I'm sitting still. I'm surveying the possibilities and I'm negotiating with a couple of universities. And, at the moment I'm quite busy with my work as an editor for the journal Ethnography, published by Sage since 2000. I do this work jointly with Loïc Wacquant. It's really a nice journal, worth reading if you're interested in all of the things we just have talked about.
   
Previous
  References
 
  • Giddens, Anthony (1984), The constitution of society. Outline of a theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984.
  • Harris, David (1992), From class struggle to the politics of pleasure. The effects of Gramscianism on cultural studies. London: Routledge, 1992.
  • Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture. The meaning of style. London: Methuen, 1979.
  • Hobson, Dorothy (1982), Crossroads. The drama of soap opera. London: Methuen, 1982.
  • Huq, Rupa (2001), "Culture shock." In: Culture Machine Reviews, June 2001.
  • Kellner, Douglas (1998), "The Frankfurt School and British cultural studies. The missed articulation." In: Illuminations, 1998.
  • Kirk, John (2002), "Changing the subject. Cultural studies and the demise of class." In: Cultural Logic, November 2002.
  • Leslie, Esther (2002), "Within spitting distance: punks, professors and philistines. Return(s) to Marx?" In: Tate Modern, 1 June 2002.
  • McGuigan, Jim (1992), Cultural populism. London: Routledge, 1992.
  • Miller, David, en Greg Philo (2001), "The active audience and wrong turns in media studies. Rescuing media power." In: Soundscapes, 2001, 3, 2.
  • Willis, Paul (1972 /1978), Profane culture. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978 (book publication of Ph.D. thesis: "Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham." Birmingham, 1972).
  • Willis, Paul (1977/1981), Learning to labour. How working class kids get working class jobs. Farnborough, Hants: Saxon House, 1977; New York: Columbia University Press, 1981 (with a new introduction and afterword).
  • Willis, Paul (1983), "Cultural production and theories of reproduction." In: Len Barton and Stephen Walker (red.), Race, class and education. London: Croom Helm, 1983: 107-138.
  • Willis, Paul (1990), Moving culture. An inquiry into the cultural activities of young people. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 1990.
  • Willis, Paul (2000), The ethnographic imagination. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
  • Willis, Paul, Simon Jones, Joyce Canaan and Geoff Hurd (1990), Common culture. Symbolic work at play in the everyday cultures of the young. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990.
   
Previous
  A short overview of the intellectual history of the CCCS has been made available on the Internet by Norma Schulman (1993), "Conditions of their own making. An intellectual history of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham." In: Canadian Journal of Communications, 1993, 18, 1. Witness to the revival of Critical Theory in the field of cultural studies is the online journal Militant Esthetix with its many presentations and articles by Ester Leslie and Ben Watson. See for the early work of Paul Willis also his "Symbolism and practice. A theory for the social meaning of pop music." Birmingham: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, The University of Birmingham, Stencilled Occasional Paper, Sub and Popular Culture Series: SP 13, 1974.
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