Speaking Volumes: New Society (1962-87)

January 27, 1995

Simon Frith on New Society (1962-87).

When New Society was launched (as the social sciences' own New Scientist) on October 4, 1962, I was still at school. I bought the magazine every week and read it from cover to cover. Under the influence of the TV series, Probation Officer, I had already decided I wanted to do something "social", and New Society became my handbook of the possibilities. I was most taken (I have still got the clipping) by Ray Gosling's "The Tough and the Tender" (fourth in a series on adolescent morals) which appeared in issue 29, an account of a working-class teen values that to a sixth-form pop obsessive was at once completely familiar and quite strange. I was most influenced by New Society's intellectual mission, its propaganda for sociology.

What I didn't realise so clearly then was New Society's equal importance for my understanding of popular culture. I already enjoyed Colin MacInnes's "Out of the Way" column, but it was only later that I got to appreciate the influence of the "Arts in Society" page. This began (in issue two) with John Gross predicting that the rise of sociology would lead inevitably to a new, "neutral" academic approach to the popular arts. He demanded that such research be undertaken from the perspective of the engaged mass consumer. In the next issue, George Melley's "Pop World and Words" set the appropriate tone -- a dispassionate reading of the youth pop scene by someone who took ceaseless delight in its absurdities.

Over the next decade New Society did indeed establish a new way of taking popular culture seriously, an approach which combined (as Gross required) intellectual analysis with equal measures of personal confusion and enthusiasm. The pick of these Arts in Society pages were collected by Paul Barker for Fontana in 1977, in a book which I find as illuminating now as I did when I first read it. Here is John Berger on portraits, nudes, and the photos of Don McCullin; Reyner Banham on sunglasses, crisps, and the container terminal; Angela Carter on 1960s style and the male pin up; E. P. Thompson's famous analysis of The Times letters page, "Sir, Writing by Candlelight".

As a model of how to write about everyday culture, New Society's arts pages bridged the gap between British sociological common sense (Orwell and Hoggart, cited by John Gross) and European cultural theory (Benjamin and Barthes, cited by Paul Barker). And in high/low terms they bridged the gap, too, between the 1950s politics of art (Banham, Melly) and the 1970s politics of media (Carter, Berger).

By the beginning of the 1980s, though, the more theoretically demanding (and less empirically minded) version of cultural studies developed in Birmingham was beginning to make its academic mark, while the journalistic trend (soon reflected in New Society itself) was towards cultural analysis as personal testimony. Smart, rational pop criticism (the magazine's original forte) was squeezed out from both directions.

When the magazine finally died (absorbed into the New Statesman) it was in part the victim of its own success: newspapers now have social policy features (and the social work ads); mass culture gets arts page space. But New Society was also the victim of the 1980s corruption of public debate about both society and the arts: its belief in sociology as a kind of reasoned sympathy was mocked both by the new political orthodoxies of the market and by the new cultural populism of the press.

I miss New Society not only as a reader but also as a writer -- the "Arts in Society" pages were unique (in Britain at least) as a place where one could write as an academic and a fan, a scholar and a consumer. The last article I did, in 1986, was a review of Julian Temple's film of Colin MacInnes's novel, Absolute Beginners, a film which, I now have to remember, revealed in its very failure the impossibility of celebrating the beginning of an era from the perspective of its demise.

Simon Frith is professor of English at Strathclyde University.

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