On or about May 2017: Cultural histories in the here and now

Watson Building (Mathematics)
Monday 8 May 2017 (18:00-19:30)

Matt Houlbrook is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Birmingham. This is a lecture about what it means to write cultural history in a particular place at a particular moment in time. It is a lecture about the practice and the politics of historical writing. 


Prompted by the global crisis exemplified by Brexit and Trump and Richard Evans’s latest knee-jerk jeremiad on the dangers of “postmodernism,” Matt Houlbrook will explore the intellectual and political possibilities of a critical — and critically engaged — cultural history. The lecture will emphasise three themes. First: returning to the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and focusing on the processes through which culture is made and consumed allows us to understand how power works and is felt from close-up. Second: following Joan Scott, the work of critique allows us to consider how contemporary ways of seeing are unstable historical artefacts. Historicising taken-for-granted ideas like “austerity” or “truth” and “fiction” denaturalises them, opening up new ways of understanding the world. It also means thinking carefully about the politics of culture as a historical problem. Third: while social historians have dismissed the depoliticising effects of focusing on questions of “identity,” the successes of rightwing populism in Britain and the United States suggests that this is the terrain upon which a new politics is taking shape. In the here and now, we need a historical practice capable of scrutinising the powerful relationship between selfhood, culture, and politics. 

This is a lecture about the practice and the politics of historical writing. It is also a lecture that draws upon a particular set of historical examples. Focusing on 1920s and 1930s Britain, Houlbrook returns to two case studies. The first is that of a gentlemanly confidence trickster, duplicitous crime writer, and deceitful royal biographer — a purveyor of tall tales, fake news, and bogus biographies who is an archetypal figure of both his time and ours. The second is that of the owners of a backstreet Seven Dials cafe — a Sierra Leonean man and his English wife, who turned to the laws of libel to defend their reputation against a tabloid newspaper and, in so doing, set out a powerful antiracist and anticolonial politics.   

About Matt Houlbrook

His work focuses on the cultural history of 20th century Britain, with a particular interest in gender, sexualities and selfhood. His recent publications include Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (2016, Cambridge University Press) and Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57 (2005, University of Chicago Press). Matt blogs about the 1920s and the practice of cultural history at https://tricksterprince.wordpress.com/.

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