Cultural History’s Absent Audience

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Dr Christine Grandy, University of Lincoln


Peter Mandler’s piece, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’, published in Cultural and Social History’s inaugural issue, did what all good methodological interventions in the field should – haunt the historian for years. His use of the term ‘throw’, as an elegant analogy for the transmission of cultural knowledge, its impact, and effect, has followed me for far too long, first as a PhD candidate examining the ‘popular’ film and fiction that the bulk of British people consumed between the wars, and now as someone who has foolishly placed British film and television audiences, and their racism, at the centre of my current book project.

Mandler’s article pointed to the heart of the problem of not just cultural history as a field, but the field of history more widely. How can we measure the impact of our subjects, A, B, or C, on people in the past? How can the transmission of knowledge of A, B, or C in the life of the ordinary, or extraordinary, person be located in the archives? Every sub-field of history has to face this issue. Political history tends to measure backwards from the outcome of elections (that ultimate expression of the audience), legislation, or increasingly broader forms of politics. Social history often uses demographic realities as its measure of the ‘audience’ or public at its centre. Cultural history, on the other hand, by pursuing that most ephemeral of things – culture’s impact on ordinary people – is left to chase that impact without obvious start and end points. This challenge accounts for cultural history’s occasional masquerade as business history or biography.

My new article answers Mandler’s question of cultural throw, in part, by pointing out that the question itself is rigged. It allows me to whine, in long form, about just how bloody difficult it is to measure throw when one aspect of that equation – those who are thrown – is as elusive, and indeed absent, as cultural history’s audience has been. The lack of sources produced by ordinary people about culture’s impact on them, is to me the most important challenge that the field faces. Did the thing/concept/object we’re examining actually hold the attention of people of the past, and why? Did it change their life, or even a small part of it? That latter investigation is incredibly difficult to chart within the available archival sources and my article urges us to accept the reality of what cultural history has pointed to – that ordinary people in the past rarely reflected on and wrote about culture’s impact on their life. The fantasy archive we’re all waiting for, of numerous people writing about the deep impact of A, B, or C on their life and decisions, just does not exist. Arguably, our current REF systems are trying to make such an archive for history’s impact, but anyone even tangentially involved in an Impact Case Study knows just how artificial it is to request that people write down their understanding of A, B, or C, whether it’s culture or knowledge.

What I love about cultural history is its willingness to step into these murky waters, to do the hard graft of considering what mattered and why, and to make sometimes astonishing maps of ‘throw.’ But I wonder if we could do better in making cultural transmission, the very operation of knowledge in its respective location and age, the subject of our work. Because we live in a digital age, we can easily look around and see the tech giants who are making cultural transmission and related behaviour their bread and butter. This is the final extension of the reorientation of public life in the 20th and 21st centuries towards the audience. The fields of audience research and market research forged the way in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in trying to do just what cultural historians have been doing – measuring the throw of particular programmes, consumer goods, or messages. Yet it is the extension of this scrutiny in the digital age that truly leaves us understanding how rigged the central question is. While Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook jealously guard this knowledge of what the audience actually does when it logs on, historians are left working with rather antiquated non-digital methods (and no access to these company archives) even if, as Ian Milligan has pointed out recently, historians are now all digital historians, whether we like it or not.

Where does this leave the field of history in the future, when we finally tackle the 21st Century, and when our imitation of such technological methods for charting the attention and impact of A, B, or C will be so limited? I certainly don’t know all the answers. But I do know we have to at least acknowledge that examining cultural representation is simply not enough, particularly when the process of producing representation, through the old gatekeepers of media production and regulation, have been thoroughly destabilised by the digital age and audiences who are increasingly revealed as somewhat irrational. Regardless, I hope someone picks up the conversation and runs with it. Cultural history has, I would argue, always been willing to embrace the mess, and to presume to map the seemingly impossible. Perhaps that next seemingly impossible is the audience.


About the author: Christine Grandy is an Associate Professor in 20th Century British History at the University of Lincoln. She has published on popular fiction, feature-films, documentaries, and home-movies. Her current book project is ‘What the audience wants: Television, film and audience racism in 20th century Britain’.

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