On 11 May 2018 over sixty people from the School of History and Cultures and beyond gathered for the #BRIHC2018 event 1968, and All That.
Convened by BRIHC Director Leslie Brubaker to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Mai 68 uprising in France, the panel consisted diverse array of voices drawn from academic, civic and cultural life. With music, images and video from the time; comprising a vital part of the event it was a thoroughly unconventional academic event to mark a thoroughly unconventional year. Carefully curated by Brubaker, the event was designed to telescope beginning with a sense of the global ideological shifts that have occurred since the late 1960s, before honing in on events and the culture, first in Britain, then in Birmingham, then on campus and finally what the implications of the year were for a single academic unit: the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.
Henry Chapman, College Deputy Director of Research and Knowledge Transfer; chaired the discussion which was kicked off by Heather Widdows from the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion, illustrating how beauty ideals have changed since 1968 through the medium of Vogue covers. Widdows highlighted key differences in terms of how the models were presented, noting that whilst the range of women depicted in the magazine in terms of characteristics such as ethnicity has expanded since the late 1960s, the overall aesthetic presented by the cover stars has narrowed and become more homogenous. This she concluded, represents the limits of progress since 1968, and foregrounds the development of a far more oppressive and controlling ideology around what’s deemed “beautiful”.
Widdows was followed by Sarah Kenny, a Teaching Fellow in the History Department; who returned to her PhD research to outline how youth culture evolved in northern England in the 1960s. Kenny showed that whilst many young people’s experiences, attitudes and expectations weren’t as wildly different from those of preceding generations as popular myth assumes, their expectations, attitudes and culture still differed from those of their parent’s generation in ways that proved jarring. The key example presented by Kenny being that of how the emerging generation used the public house. She cited an oral history testimony that she’d collected where the participant recalled the hostility of older men in pubs towards her and their friends. This was because for older men from working classes backgrounds, pubs were arenas for serious drinking, whereas for the interviewee and her friends it was more of a social venue. In this way, whilst the changes in culture during the period were less dramatic than is sometimes assumed; they could nonetheless be substantial and cause conflict.
Next, Ian Francis, the Director of the Flatpack Film Festival; provided a highly engaging overview of his organisation’s recent 1968 Weekend and their hopes and plans for a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project, researching and sharing the history of Birmingham during the year; which is about to commence. Whilst careful-and successful-at distancing himself from “sixties nostalgia” Francis’ talk highlighted the immense interest in the era that exists outside the academy, and provided an insight into the creative and thoughtful ways in which non-academics engage with the past and produce histories. At the end of his section Francis requested that members of the audience with an interest in the era consider volunteering with Flatpack’s 1968 project, whether to help bring it about, or if they had memories of Birmingham in 1968; got in touch to share them.
Taking a different tack once more, University of Birmingham alumina Jenny Wickham; who was News Editor of Redbrick in 1968, gave a short talk on her experiences as a student in the late 1960s and outlined what was at stake in the late 1960s. Possibly drawing resonances with today Wickham suggested that the background to the sit-in was best understood against a backdrop of rising student expectations during the period and the university’s failure to meet them. She reflected upon the university’s unwillingness prior to the occupation of the Great Hall in 1968 and other student protests to countenance the possibility of students playing a formal role in the governance of the university. Pulling up a slide showing the composition of the university senate today, Wickham expressed her surprise that only two student seats on the body appeared to be filled. Whilst not speculating on the causes she suggested that this showed a striking degree of apathy amongst students on campus today.
The final part of the session was delivered collaboratively by Matthew Hilton (Queen Mary, London) and Kieran Connell (Queen’s Belfast) and explored how the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was impacted upon by the events and long term repercussions of 1968. Hilton set out the origins of cultural studies as an approach to understanding contemporary society, honing in on the persona of the CCCS’ founding Director Richard Hoggart. In doing so Hilton illustrated the ground-breaking nature of Hoggart’s vison when the Centre was established, but also how he struggled to respond to the social changes that bubbled to the surface during the events of 1968. Hoggart was in Hilton’s words: “not a man who would ever wear blue jeans”.
His successor, first as interim, then as permanent Director; Stuart Hall, was by contrast a lot more open to the changing culture of the late sixties. In his section of the presentation Kieran Connell concentrated on the changes that occurred during and after 1968 and how this led to an especially fecund, creative and engaged period in the Centre’s history. He argued that the CCCS during this period pioneered engaged and involved forms of research that today are rewarded as being highly worthwhile but which at the time were radically new. Suggesting-perhaps ever so slightly tongue in cheek-that the community outreach conducted by CCCS members like Chas Critcher could be read as a precursor to the “impact agenda” that has gained a high degree of saliency in the academy in recent years. But as Connell shows, the collective spirit of 1968; was not to last. Increased concern amongst CCCS members drawn from groups marginalised within the academy, such as women and people of colour, led to a new focus upon the experience of individuals and different social groups. Questions about power dynamics and who gets to speak that animated the CCCS’ work during the mid to late 1970s and which Stuart Hall-in his turn- like Hoggart before him-found himself unable to contain.
This event comprises part of the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures Summer Series 2018.