In March 2014 a group of historians at the University of Birmingham launched a new Centre for Modern British Studies: MBS@Birmingham. Along with the usual series of seminars, lectures and so on the Centre has a clear, if ambitious, aim – to set out an intellectual framework for how we might re-narrate British history over the last two centuries. To this end we have published a short ‘working paper’ which we hope will stimulate discussions across various social media and at a series of workshops and conferences over the next year, culminating in a conference at Birmingham on Modern British Studies in the summer of 2015. It is available online and you’ll see that there is no one name attached to it.
The explanation behind the launch of the Centre is in many ways a pragmatic one. There have been many new hires in modern British history at Birmingham. We have assembled a large group of relatively young scholars who conceivably could be based here for the next quarter century and more. We want to create an atmosphere that will stimulate and enrich our individual research agendas and in ways that feed off one another. Setting out an overarching goal for all our research will hopefully give us all a greater sense of direction and common purpose.
But in choosing to launch the first of what will be a series of working papers – and publishing under a collective name – we also acknowledge a degree of inspiration from a previous initiative indelibly associated with Birmingham: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This is now the subject of a research project at Birmingham, linked to the creation of an archive of CCCS and the hosting of a conference in June 2014 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its establishment.
CCCS was famous for many things: the collective projects based around the various sub-groups; the breaking down of barriers between teacher and taught; the embrace of continental theory; and the engagement with politics beyond the Centre, be it socialism, feminism, anti-racism or the institutional provision and forms of higher education. Above all, it sought to understand the world around it and it adopted a series of working practices that distinguished its work and activities for many years.
Not all of these practices could be replicated in today’s University. Nor would we wish to. And none of us really have the energy for the all-consuming nature of the cultural studies project, which clearly broke down the doors between the private and public lives of those involved. This blog post itself is not a collective statement of intent reflecting the motivations of all our members, but a much more personal reflection on a past example of collaborative practice coming from the University of Birmingham. Even so, there are many aspects of the CCCS that have influenced our thinking in the type of centre we want MBS@Birmingham to be.
Firstly, there was a value-added dimension to the collaborative nature of the CCCS. While many of the staff and students involved went on to have illustrious careers elsewhere, for many their best work was conducted at Birmingham. Indeed, it is often impossible to disentangle their names and reputations from their work at CCCS. The extent of the collaborations is unlikely to be repeated now, though a degree of collaborative work is already associated with our work, especially on NGOs, humanitarianism and revisiting the 1980s. Rather, for us it is the agenda as a whole that is the basis for our broader collaborative project and which will form the backdrop to our activities for many years to come.
Secondly, the famous CCCS working papers were never published as the last word on a subject. Just as Stuart Hall said of identity formation, the papers were part of an ‘unfinished conversation’ about understanding the contemporary. Likewise, our own working paper is designed to kick-start such a conversation and we invite our colleagues outside of Birmingham to participate – either by writing their own working papers or by responding to the MBS@Birmingham blog. We are particularly keen to see if the ‘cultures of democracy’ framework set out has any relevance beyond Britain or whether it works across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Thirdly, CCCS famously broke down the barriers between staff and research students. So entangled were the students with the collaborative projects that many were simply too busy publishing multi-authored works to get on with the mundane business of actually finishing their thesis. The support mechanisms for postgraduate study today make such interactions much more difficult (and arguably, in many cases, rightly so) but there is scope for research student involvement in what we are doing. In the spirit post-’68 moment, one of the first things Stuart Hall did after he took over as director of CCCS was to purchase a second reprographic ‘Gestetner’ machine for sole use by the students. Likewise, while Birmingham graduate students participated in the creation of the first working paper it is likely that they will soon write and publish their own, either in response to the first or in the spirit of setting out their own research agenda and priorities.
Fourthly, what was obvious about the work of the CCCS members was that it mattered. Their theoretical and empirical work was not only a contribution to the academy but also a political intervention and a personal journey. It was an engagement that caused significant ruptures, not only internally as with the explorations of race and feminism within the Centre, but externally as part of a broader debate about the future of the left – witness the fierce clash between the combative E. P. Thompson, the eloquent Hall and the much less confrontational Richard Johnson at the History Workshop in 1978. In more recent years, there has been a sense that something has been lost in the transition away from an engaged social history, towards a more theoretically rich and analytically nuanced – if less politically obvious – cultural history. We would like to continue to discuss the purpose and role of history as a politically engaged activity. Part of the remit of MBS is to think about how the work of the modern British historian connects to the contemporary world around us.
This brings us to a final inspiration we take from the work of the CCCS. For all that CCCS was charged with becoming too concerned with theory it was also a project that was meant to speak to the world it also analysed. It never did quite become the vanguard of a new left politics that many hoped (indeed, the very creation of the famous subgroups was a partial acknowledgement of the failure to create a coherent, unified intellectual project), but it did maintain a dialogue with various forms of activism and political interventions outside the university. The nature of that engagement between the public and the academic might now be very different, but it is one we are keen to foster. In the best traditions of both CCCS and the History Workshop, our work will be guided by events and people beyond the academy. Through a series of planned activities, future research will hopefully be co-created by those from the communities we have chosen to make our broad field of study.
We are far from arriving at the answers to the questions we have set ourselves. But in setting out an agenda that is as ambitious as CCCS’s attempts to understand ‘the contemporary’, we hope also to drive our work forward over the next decade and more. Moreover, as with CCCS we hope to be able to do that in a way that maintains an ongoing conversation with our colleagues beyond Birmingham.
Matthew Hilton for Modern British Studies@Birmingham