Kirk, J  (2002) 'Invisible ink. Working-class writing and the end of class', in the European Journal of Cultural Studies, 5 (3): 343 - 362.

This piece begins by attacking those views that say that class is irrelevant as a social and political force. A number of writers, including post-modernists, Thatcherites, and Stuart Hall  (in his  'New Times' phase) have argued that social and economic changes have decomposed working-class formations, and that class itself has been replaced by an emphasis on difference, individual identity, and a more fragmented self. Similarly, politics now becomes a matter of articulation through discourses, which form a new social movements. The British Left has almost abandoned class as a central topic. Recent books by Milner (1999)* and Munt (2000 )** have attempted to reintroduce the concept of class as a central one in Cultural Studies.

Kirk argues that contemporary working-class writing also reveals the importance of class and the  'situated knowledges' it provides, although this current sense of class has now become more complicated and interwoven with experiences of gender and ethnicity. Such writing reveals certain differences from classic bourgeois writing. It represents a 'collectivity of working-class experience... [not]... bourgeois individualism' (345), and the poetry is meant to be spoken  and shared, not read individually.

Examples can be found in localized projects such as those pursued by the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers  (346). Disorganization intends to produce writing by and for local communities, using a process that is  'collective, shared and supportive' (346). Autobiography is particularly encouraged as offering a suitable source of material for the beginner, and also enabling them to  'speak and assert his or her presence and a specific time and place' (347). A unique feature of working-class writing is also to perform acts of  'collective recovery', which is not a feature of those writers who been socially mobile. Collective experience is often written about in order to pass it on to the next generation. Major themes include work, friendships and the importance of locality.

Kirk goes on to analyse in some depth an autobiography written by a particular retired black railway worker. Sections are quoted, and are then analysed, using some concepts from Volosinov and Bakhtin. For example, there is a constant shift between the personal and the collective. There is some sign of the important social relationships between speaker and listener, and there is in this particular account the experience of crossing between two cultures  'in a condition of liminality' (348). The collective nature can also provide a confidence to the writing. These characteristics often do not fit with literary conventions found in traditional autobiography: instead, there are signs of  'heteroglossia' as in Bakhtin, where multiple voices can be at work, expressing different tones structures evaluations and  'positions corresponding to social classes or groups... [revealing]... ideological struggles of the oppressed to resist incorporation within, or obliteration by, the dominant discourse and power  [structure]' (349). There is a clear intention to demystify official conventions and languages, in an attempt to  'rescue black, working-class experience from the enormous condescension of posterity' (349). Class and ethnic factors are blended together [subordinated to class?], and experiences in Jamaica are used to offer warnings to the working class in England in the 1980s to unite and resist the attack on their conditions.

Some examples of poetry are then investigated, and again a specific  'register' is identified, a  'type materialist aesthetic' advocating plain speech and the avoidance of 'metaphor, allusion and symbolism'  (351). In this way, poetry is reclaimed as a medium promise associations with high culture. Examples are analysed as before. One reveals that  'Ironic humour, or satire, is a distinctive tone of proletarian class consciousness' (351). It destabilises official articulations and opens a space for alternatives. It can be used to 'subvert unequal power relations or dominant assumptions' (351).

Overall, after surveying a number of examples, Kirk concludes that  'Self evidently, the theme of class as a powerful presence in the work thus far discussed. It is shot through too with concerns of race and gender' (354). This makes the new writing quite different from the working-class writing of the 1960s, for example.

The same themes can be detected in more professional writing about the working-class, in Beatrix Campbell, or in Jeannette Winterson. Some notes ensue on these works. One in particular, Livi Michael's Under a Thin Moon, traces responses to the economic depression of the 1980s as it impacts on working-class women. This novel reveals what Bakhtin called 'inner voice discourse', as the characters reveal how they are  'tormented by the voice of the dominant as intrudes to deny the real conditions of her life:  "No one is helpless, says the voice in her head. There's always a way out. If you've got it in you, you make it in the end"  (page 356). There is also an interesting section reporting the views of a teacher complaining about the habits of the working classes:  'This... only obliterates the real people... [it]... is... [a]... type of objectification, or dehumanisation' (356), where one is constantly open to scrutiny, constantly the object of someone else's discourse. It is what Bakhtin called the  'monologic tendencies' of dominant discourse  (357). The novel also contains comments about the similar tendencies as they affect gender.

The article ends with an analysis of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which contains many insights about class as well as the better known analyses of gender. Many of the common stereotypes about class in a northern town are undermined, especially the views of traditional family life and the dominance of men.

Overall, the writing shows the continued importance of class on subjectivity, although class is combined with race and gender. Nevertheless, class seems to  'sound through loudest' (360), not surprisingly since, for example,  'One in three British children live in poverty' (360). Strangely though, this experience is still invisible to many analysts, although not to working-class writers.

*Milner, A  (1999) Class, London: Sage
**Munt, S  (ed ) (2000) Cultural Studies and the Working Class: Subject to Change, London: Cassell

back to list of notes