Caroline Bassett
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Polemical acts of rare extremism
Two Cultures and a hat
in Anti-computing

The Two Cultures debate produced a furore in the modernizing era of the early to mid-1960s. The scientist C.P. Snow’s diagnosis of a cleavage that should be healed between the sciences and the arts is still widely invoked. Less well remembered is that his protagonist F.R. Leavis also argued for the benefits of one culture; not the one arising out of a capitulation to technologically administered utilitarianism, but the culture he discerned within a tradition of community, largely lost in everyday life, but held in the English language and in its literature.

This chapter engages with Leavis’ arguments. The mode of radical liberalism Leavis espoused in the journal Scrutiny in the early to mid-20th century produced a response to technology far from technological optimism, but also distanced from Marxist critiques of technocratic rationality. This radicalism is hopelessly tarnished by the chauvinistic nationalism that framed and constrained it, which became increasingly marked in later years. However, Francis Mulhern, amongst others, has convincingly argued for a more nuanced reading of Leavis and the ‘moment of scrutiny’, and this prompts a re-reading of Leavis’ thinking around the specifically technological and a reappraisal of the position he took at the time of the Two Cultures debate.

The combinatory force of an attachment to nation, a distrust of technocratic forms of knowledge and its claims to universality, and a moment of technological expansion, has been felt in disturbing ways in recent years – notably around the new chauvinism of the Right.

The Two Cultures debate produced a furore in the modernizing era of the early to mid-1960s. The scientist C.P. Snow's diagnosis of a cleavage that should be healed between the sciences and the arts is still widely invoked. Less well remembered is that his protagonist F.R. Leavis also argued for the benefits of one culture. Not the one arising out of a capitulation to technologically administered utilitarianism, but the culture he discerned within a tradition of community, largely lost in everyday life, but held in the English language and in its literature. Leavis argued that the value of the past in constructing a politics engaging with the constitution of the present should be recognized. It might also inform and found a form of hope for the future.

This chapter engages with Leavis’ arguments. The mode of radical liberalism Leavis espoused in the journal Scrutiny in the early to mid-20th century produced a response to technology far from technological optimism, but also distanced from Marxist critiques of technocratic rationality. This radicalism is often viewed as hopelessly tarnished by the chauvinistic nationalism that framed and constrained it, which became increasingly marked in later years. However, Francis Mulhern, amongst others, has convincingly argued for a more nuanced reading of Leavis and the ‘moment of scrutiny’ (Mulhern, 1979), and this prompts a re-reading of Leavis’ thinking around the specifically technological and a reappraisal of the position he took at the time of the Two Cultures debate. This is worth doing partly because the combinatory force of an attachment to nation, a distrust of technocratic forms of knowledge and its claims to universality, and a moment of technological expansion has been felt in disturbing ways in recent decades. Brexit's anti-expertise discourse and its appeal to English nationalism, populist movements in the US around Trump, disquiet around algorithmically produced filter bubbles on social media all indicate this. My attempt, to replay the Two Cultures debate from the largely eclipsed Leavis side, is undertaken both to restitute an earlier structure of feeling and to explore the topoi that organized it – not least because these are once again attended to closely in our time. What kind of replaying is this? This chapter begins to circulate around the issues at hand via a long-playing record: one that records a performance, that comments on a debate, and that reveals a landscape and a field of cultural contestation once submerged – but now re-arising.

* * *

Things have come to a pretty underpass in England …

(Flanders and Swann, At the Drop of Another Hat, 1963)

Here, then, we have the cultural consequences of the technological revolution.

(Leavis, 2013: 86)

Let me play you a record. ‘Heat cannot of itself pass from one body to a hotter body … Heat won't pass from a cooler to a hotter … You can try it if you like but you'd far better notter …’ Perhaps apocryphally, the largest single audience ever subjected to this disquisition on thermodynamics was the American public on prime-time television, Christmas Day 1967, ‘on the occasion of the performance by Flanders and Swann of their catchy ditty on the second law’ (Hubbard et al., 1968). The song was from At The Drop of Another Hat (1963), a revue show at a London theatre, later an LP. Flanders and Swann were a ‘middlebrow, 2 middle of the century, musical comedy act’, one of a line of male double acts contributing to a tradition that Andy Medhurst describes as part of the ‘national joke’ (Medhurst, 2007: 123). Secure, English, with a show that was consciously intimate, 3 it was said of Flanders and Swann that they passed as ‘charming amateurs who recreate your living room jocularity without pretending to be professional’, whilst being in reality ‘urbane and zestful artists … professional down to their fingertips’ (Simon, 1967, 105–109). The same theatre reviewer noted claims that the ‘pseudo-amateurism’ of the Flanders and Swann act was what gave it its characteristic ‘British-ness’.

The ‘Thermodynamics’ song was a pointed take on a dispute over the ‘Two Cultures’ of art and science that incited England's intellectuals to ‘polemical acts of rare extremism’ (Mulhern, 1979: 305) fierce enough to produce much national press coverage and popular discussion. Two more Englishmen, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, one a trained scientist, civil servant, and successful novelist, the other a literary scholar, fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and founder of the journal Scrutiny, are yoked together as antagonists when this debate is raised. They are invoked as the personification of cleavage: between the sciences and the humanities, science and art, scientific and literary cultures, and technocratic values versus tradition as desirable logics informing a social order.

The Two Cultures controversy is conventionally understood as the successor to an earlier clash disputing the relative priority of the arts and science; the Huxley and Arnold debate of the 1870s, sparked by Huxley's address at Josiah Mason College in Birmingham (Huxley, 1881: 15, 4 Hultberg, 1997: 196, Stinner, 1989). Huxley argued for the priority of the study of nature over culture, and of science over Arnoldian values (truth and beauty). Nature should lead men, and culture itself, too long locked up by the ‘Levites in charge of the ark of culture and monopolists of liberal education’, should be transformed to reflect better the new priorities given by ‘the definite order’ of nature (Huxley, 1881: 3, cited in Hultberg, 1997: 196).

Knocking the Two Cultures debate out of its place in this line of succession can be productive. It enables a different kind of auditing of the arguments. Doing this is already to take sides, since Snow cultivated the connection between the earlier interventions and the Two Cultures, whilst Leavis refused it on the disingenuous grounds (given his own splenetic tone) that the earlier debate had been better tempered and conducted between equals. For Guy Ortolano, the obvious disparity between the stakes of an argument around science and the arts in Victorian Birmingham and those of a quarrel in 1960s London and Oxbridge means that this genealogy can be rejected out of hand (Ortolano, 2009, Ortolano in White, 2011: 761–763). Ortolano rather aligns the Two Cultures debate with a series of struggles between ‘technocratic’ and ‘radical’ forms of liberalism arising in response to a specific historical constellation (that of post-colonial England in the mid-1960s), one that might help identify some of the ‘structures of feeling’ (Williams, 1992, 2009) that characterized the (conflicted) sensibilities of that moment. This orientation informs the discussion here. It connects with Francis Mulhern's magisterial account of Scrutiny's history, already invoked, and with his demand that the radicalism of the early Leavis project, beginning in the 1930s with Scrutiny, be recognized, even whilst the degree to which it was shattered in later work as internal tensions between materialism and idealism foundational to its project is acknowledged (Mulhern, 1979).

Dislodging the Two Cultures debate from its resting place in a line of arts/science debates makes it easier to also unpick some assumptions about the temporal orientations of the combatants’ arguments. Snow's assertion was that the ‘Luddite’ Leavisites only looked backwards, wishing to dwell entirely in the past. But for both sides what was at stake in this argument was not the past but the future, and Leavis’ position is more complex and more interesting once this is recognized. The question he sought to address was how to hold a brief for the future whilst also admitting a preferability for the past (oddly enough, this emerges as an orientating sensibility in steampunk, gothic, or SF/Cyber noir aesthetics today).


C.P. Snow said the ‘Two Cultures’ formulation was more than a metaphor but less than a model. It has certainly had an ‘enduring afterlife’ (Dizikes, 2009), 5 becoming an, if not obligatory, then acknowledged reference or passage point in discussions around the impacts and values of science and technology on society, a synecdoche for ‘what is at stake’ still invoked in debates around science and culture, technology and culture, hermeneutics and instrumentalism, the stakes of literacy and technical knowledge in an era of computation; arguments about code literacy, hacking versus yacking, programming and education are all relevant here. In a sense, the term invites itself in. It becomes a form of ‘currency’, in Leavis’ (pejorative) sense of the word, offering itself for adoption in relation to emerging formations; one of its recent re-emergences has been in work exploring digital humanities, which latter directly engages with ‘English’ and its computerization, amongst other things. The persistence of the formulation does not signal full acceptance of what it promotes. It has long been critiqued for the binary division it inscribes; even Snow himself later acknowledged that there might be three or more cultures. Others including Adrian Mackenzie and Andrew Murphie (2008) have argued for multiple, overlapping ‘cultures’. But the critiques are of Snow's formulation, while the attack by Leavis, constituting one half of the exchange and generating more than half of the controversy at the time, is rarely explored. In public commentary around the fiftieth anniversary of the Two Cultures debates in 2009, it was striking how little was said about Leavis, about the discourse of ‘counter-modernity’ as he articulated it, or about his critique of unthinking technologization. The focus was on Snow, and the adequacy and relevance or otherwise of his sense of a science/arts cultural cleavage. The debate is remembered in Snow's terms. In this sense he won.


Today Leavis’ ideas about technology and culture appear to be largely irrelevant. They have nothing to say to science, whereas, as noted, Snow's term still has some bite, even if the arguments the latter introduced under its banner largely do not. In English the Leavisite project was dead by the late decades of the 20th century, eclipsed by structuralism and post-structuralism in various guises, and by the related rise of various forms of feminist and post-colonial thinking inimical to the unexamined universalism of Leavisite humanism. Leavis’ considerable contribution to the development of British cultural studies (see later) is now largely disavowed, as Mulhern and others have pointed out. This provides a starting point, since the apparently wholesale deletion of a perspective might be as informing as the perspective itself. It is interesting to explore why (and/or for whom) Leavis’ thinking is no longer thinkable at all. Not least because, as the conclusion to this chapter argues, what is no longer ‘thinkable’ in particular registers, or thinkable as a coherent whole, may continue to inform a sensibility, or to emerge in fragments, to trouble the present. It may be that a mode of hostility towards the rise of technological values that resonates with the Leavisite objections to demands for a particular kind of cultural ‘healing’ is so thoroughly diffused into everyday discourse that it is hard to tease out and identify, even if it does inform contemporary hostility to new literary formations or approaches.

Raymond Williams 6 characterized as ‘residual’ those elements of a social structure that relate back to older forms that originally sustained them, now gone, but which remain active (Williams, 2009). The case I am going to make is that Leavis’ thinking on technology engaged with, and even contributed to the production of, the intellectual justification for a particular kind of anti-computing, but was already residual, perhaps, even in its time. Today this always already residual mode of anti-computing, which resonates with the Leavisite position, might be extant, and might be a mode whose very amorphousness, as well as its relative impotence against the various claims of ‘progress’ it seeks to question, renders it tricky to investigate. Williams's sense of the residual, however, even if useful, might underplay, if not the tenacity of earlier forms, then their capacity to remap onto new formations and revive. Investigating this, at the end of this chapter I briefly consider where Leavis’ sense of the relationship between English community and technological ‘progress’ might be revenant today. And why that is disturbing.

I have no intention of becoming a belated member of the Leavisite ‘clerisy’. There is much in the Leavisite programme, including its naturalized muscular, white, view of ‘humanity’ and its avocation of an increasingly strident nationalism, that repels. Nonetheless, it seems important to examine, rather than simply set aside as unpalatable, or simply not worth re-excavating, the particular kind of hostility to technocratic rationality that Leavis espoused. It constituted a significant strand in a tapestry of responses to early computerization and automation in an England on the edge of cultural change across a series of fronts in mid- to late 20th century. The Two Cultures debate took place near enough to 1963, when, as the poet Philip Larkin famously put it, sexual intercourse was just beginning (Larkin, 1974). Less often noticed, so too was business computing.

The Rede Lecture

Snow's ‘Two Cultures’ intervention came in the late 1950s, in the Rede Lecture, which was published in The New Statesman and in Encounter. 7 There Snow identified a rift between the sciences and the arts, claimed that this posed a threat to Britain and/or British influence in a post-colonial era, and called for this rift to be closed through measures resulting in the ‘integration of Two Cultures’ (Hultberg, 1997: 200), or two ‘social orders’ – those of literary culture and natural science (Snow 1959: 10). This demanded new forms of literacy and, complaining that literary cultures ‘revel … arrogantly in their ignorance’ (Hultberg, 1997), Snow argued that ‘basic literacy’ (Collini, 1993) should be judged not only by literary criterion but also by knowledge of scientific fundamentals: Shakespeare and the First and Second Laws (of thermodynamics) (Snow, 1959: 14). If the text of the lecture is explored in any depth, it is obvious that Snow's real concern was for the advancement of science and scientific values over other values; as Sam Leith put it, the ‘apparent even-handedness of the way Snow articulated the divide is … deceptive; Snow was taking sides’ (Leith, 2009). From Snow's perspective, ‘literary intellectuals’ hostile to the values of science and ignorant of its basic tenets had come define cultural values in general as ‘literary’ values. Worse, this kind of valuation was operational in the ‘corridors of power’ (Snow, 2000), which was why it was of consequence. Leith again:

[Snow] might have regretted all those physicists not having managed to read Dickens but he would not have thought that it actually mattered very much. The scientific illiteracy of the humanities graduates, in Snow's view, mattered very much indeed – and the reason that it mattered was that these were the people in charge of things …

(Leith, 2009).

The (loosely) anthropological register of much of Snow's lecture, at one with the novelistic style adopted in his fictions about public science, and aligning with his interest in science as practice (Hultberg, 1997), might have contributed to acceptance of the egregious ‘even-handed’ reading; Dizikes argues that Snow's assumption of the role of ‘eagle-eyed anthropologist’ dissembled his sense of himself as the ‘evangelist of our technological future’ (Dizikes, 2009). But the message is clear enough, for Snow, science ‘must progress over time’ and will progress (Snow, 1959: 204), science is the basis of prosperity, security, and ‘social hope’ (Snow, 1959: 27), and the scientific orientation is progressive and creative, and so, therefore, are those who embody this orientation, those who live by scientific values. For Snow, hope (and sometimes ‘goodness’) inheres in scientists who ‘have the future in their bones’ (Snow, 1959: 10); as habitus, perhaps. Snow's utilitarian or Benthamite argument saw scientific approaches as essential for the common good of the many. His claim was that the social hope science provides could now be made available to human society in general, and specifically to Britain and British people in a world after Empire – these arguments being developed through a discussion of science education and/as British foreign policy. Leith (2009) reads this as a demand to spread the benefits of the scientific revolution to the dispossessed so as to avoid them helping themselves via social revolution. Dizikes, also assessing the global intents of the lecture, describes it as ‘irretrievably’ a Cold War document (2009).

In contrast to scientists, ‘literary intellectuals’ are labelled natural ‘Luddites’, people ‘wishing the future did not exist’ who can therefore have no relevance in the project of making it (Snow, 1959: 11). Snow indeed comes close to arguing that literary values can only be thoroughly retrograde, particularly when various modernist writers whose engagements with fascism were well known at the time are invoked as the, if not typical, then at least unsurprising products, of the literary attitude in general – the implication being that literary values breed such ‘unfree’ approaches and attitudes. Close reading of Snow's lecture confirms which group he believes should inherit the future.

The lecture was noticed in interested circles (for instance, provoking letters in the Encounter), but did not initially attract general attention. It was Leavis’ response, made two years later in the Richmond Lecture (1962), delivered at Downing College and published by the Spectator, 8 which launched the debate that became notorious. In his lecture Leavis raged expertly, precisely, and with venom, attacking the argument and the author. Snow, he said, was as ‘intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be … he doesn't know what he means and doesn't know he doesn't know’. Amongst Leavis’ more scabrous remarks was the assertion that Snow's novels must have been written by an electronic brain – perhaps one named Charlie. Only this, he said, could explain the mechanistic writing and lack of life they exhibited (Leavis, 2013: 57). Leavis justified a personal attack on the grounds that Snow had come to embody the ideas he promulgated. He had become ‘a portent of our civilization’, and attacking him was necessary for forensic reasons. Leavis’ claim that this necessity was regrettable wasn't necessarily convincing. Collini comments that:

A malevolent deity, setting out to design a single figure in whom the largest number of Leavis's deepest antipathies would find themselves embodied, could not have done better than to create Charles Percy Snow.

(Collini, 1993: xxxii)

This may be the case. But there is also the proposition that what Snow embodied, and what Leavis attacked, was not only Snow the hubristic scientist and indifferent novelist, but Snow the calculating machine, Snow the computer ‘brain’ that proceeded by way of mechanistic processing rather than human reasoning. Leavis scathingly attacked Snow's confidence in himself as a ‘master-mind’, as Collini notes (1993: 9), and it is interesting to consider the degree to which the ‘master-mind’ in question was devoid of all human qualities. Was it Snow himself, or electronic Charlie, the probability machine, that was the portent?


In response to the Richmond Lecture some condemned Leavis’ tone but were sympathetic to his argument. The Guardian regretted a ‘vehement and directly personal’ attack on a ‘famous social critic’ linked with ‘the doctrine of the Two Cultures’ (The Guardian, 1962). The literary critic Lionel Trilling condemned the ‘impermissible tone’ of the lecture, a remark that circulated widely (Collini, 1993: xxxvii, Matthews, 2004: 60). The violence of Leavis’ attack amplified the debate and the resulting ‘substantial furore’ involved ‘most of the print media’ (Matthews, 2004: 51) of the day.

The debate had absurd elements. Leavis’ raging was notorious, but there was also Snow's pomposity, a bathetic unevenness in register evident in his lecture, badly chosen examples of cultural snobbery and scientific ignorance, and the implication – easy to maliciously infer by Snow's enemies – that he truly believed scientific language should become an everyday language in the drawing rooms of England, or at least in the common rooms of ancient universities. Snow's discussion of literacy is partly framed in relation to his own experiences of being ‘brushed off’ at the hands of literary intellectuals, and his call for recognition of the scientific as that which is beyond such niceties as cultural capital and beyond individual desires or conceits resolves into a querulous and incongruous demand for due respect; ‘hear the status symbols/cymbals clash’, as Flanders and Swann put it in another song in the same Hat show as their ‘Thermodynamics’ song.

The ‘social hope’ science offered, identified by Snow as a (post-colonial) global necessity for British foreign policy, also had to do, it turned out, with prestige, power, control, and influence in the English universities. The choice of example and its tone 9 came back to haunt Snow (1959: 14–15) and his supporters (e.g. The Guardian, 1962).

Hat performers Flanders and Swann exploited the bathos of the whole affair in their genial but lethal takedown of Snow, which begins with a solicitude as artificial as the domestic setting of the original stage set. The problem that has been raised, say Flanders and Swann, is how to talk to the scientist, who speaks another language – so you must address him in his own tongue: ‘ah h2so4 professor … the reciprocal of Pi to your good wife … don't synthesize anything I wouldn't synthesize … this he will understand’. The scientist is to be talked to with the kind of elaborate politeness that replaces casual discourse amongst (true) equals – ‘you can't ask him to lend you a quid’. Framing ordinary social intercourse in ‘scientific’ terms will enable the scientist to take part in the general conversation – or, rather, in what passes for general conversation amongst academic men. The ‘Thermodynamics’ song, following this banter, completes the attack; ‘Heat cannot of itself pass from one body to a hotter body’ … The song is a virtuoso rendition of the First and Second laws and is correct in essentials. It is thus airily implied that scientific literacy is easily accomplished – a matter of the right doggerel. Its conclusion goes further, hinting that science might lead down roads that are not worth travelling anyway. It ends with an appeal to the seductive claims of entropy (always appealing to Flanders and Swann, who famously sang of ‘mud, glorious mud’) over the rigours of constant progress, or constant work; ‘heat is work/and work's a curse/and if all the heat in the universe …’. The project of ‘talking to scientists’ as well as ‘talking science’ is thus both accomplished and its absurdity proclaimed. Scientific literacy is delivered and Snow's framing of science/scientists as the bearer(s) of ‘social hope’, which also came with a demand to be taken seriously personally, is lampooned through a ruthless depiction of the social hopelessness of the scientist. This intervention into the Two Cultures debate, mocking the claims of scientific culture (and the pomposity of academic culture in general), still surfaces in discussions of the art/science divide over the years. More often, however, the song is invoked in accounts of the laws themselves – notably in educational material – but the critique around it is forgotten.

Which England?

The Flanders and Swann Two Cultures skit might appear to have little to say about Leavis specifically, since it is Snow's proposition and his desire for parity in the drawing room that is lampooned. But, playing the record again, a particular kind of context can be discerned arising through a series of numbers skewering early to mid-1960s liberal England and its discontents. These deal in anxieties about technocratic futures, modernity, displacement, the replacement of ‘organic community’ with new forms of ‘civilization’ or modern life (Leavis’ terms, as discussed below). They include a lament for the land (‘Bedstead Men’), a satire on conspicuous consumption (‘Design for Living’), on sexual scandal (the Profumo affair), and a pastiche of the public utilities’ bureaucratic grip on modern domestic life (‘The Gasman Cometh’). What can be audited is a certain hostility to science and technology, one that connects with other values in play, including those around (the fall of) Empire and nation (‘The English Are Best’). A satirical paean to the ‘triumph’ of British engineering of the aeroplane ends when ‘the ashtray falls off’ – taken as evidence that ‘if God had intended us to fly he'd never have given us the railways’. Flanders and Swann also sing of these, but more obviously seriously. Their ‘Slow Train’ song (1963) celebrates names and places carved into the English landscape, and into the collective memory, by the railway, and mourns the planned closure of many lines under the Beeching axe:

Millers Dale for Tideswell, Kirby Muxloe … No more will I go … We won't be meeting again, on the Slow Train ….

In ‘Slow Train’ an industrial-era technology, having become a settled part of the English landscape, is remarked upon as it passes away. 10 ‘The Bedstead Men’, meanwhile, comments on the widespread despoliation of the rural countryside. It works through a satirical commentary on the evolution of a traditional form of association; the Bedstead Men litter and dump where their forebears smuggled or robbed highways. They are portrayed, through the words and the forms of the folk song, as absurdly mythic figures, men of the English landscape.

What begins to emerge is a sense that everyday life – its cultures, its mores, its cultural memory, and its hope for the future – is somewhat precarious. As Flanders and Swann put it, ‘things have come to a pretty underpass in England’. The worldview they offer is of a land experiencing rapid and pervasive transformation. An old way of life is being swallowed up and is sometimes mourned for. The liberalism of Flanders and Swann, given a radical edge by their satirical intervention into political affairs of the day, also has a deeply conservative side. A thick, rich, vein of nostalgia, a commentary on ‘progress’ and what it leaves behind – old worlds and old social mores, ended but not quite replaced – runs through the Hat shows. This vein is entangled with the critique of the absurdities of modern life, and of science-speak and its prophets, that more directly comments on the stakes of the Snow/Leavis dispute. Flanders and Swann articulate a worldview not entirely at ease with unexamined progress as it is heralded and delivered through techno-scientific advance; least of all when this impacts on traditional forms of everyday life (which they also skewer). Even whilst they deal with the new, and take it on cheerfully enough, their shows offer a more or less liberal commentary on consumerization, technologization, and technocratic rationality in a post-Empire Britain that is also conservative; somewhat resigned – even fatalistic – in tone, and, despite the horseplay, rather serious.

A stage act certainly does not constitute systematic political critique, but this one did make an appeal to a set of (undefined, presumed, assumed) shared sensibilities; those of an imagined community perhaps, one which both performers and audience are presumed to be a part of, even whilst the latter are also systematically mocked. What is articulated is strikingly, and consistently, at odds with Snow's sense that ‘social hope’ rests with scientific advance, that the latter is the basis for social hope, and is the necessary orientation for ‘society’.

The anti ‘technologico-Benthamite’ cultural politics of Leavis, exhibited in the Two Cultures writings and developed over decades, clearly do not align with those of Flanders and Swann (whose metropolitan act would be at odds with Scrutiny's early provincial austerity, apart from anything else). But the themes that emerge in Flanders and Swann's revue act resonate with themes that inform Leavis’ body of work, the latter also striking for its advocacy of ‘continuity’, ‘tradition’, and ‘community’ and for its attack on utilitarianism. That's why, in stepping out of the line and going around by way of the Hat, it is possible gain a new sense of the arguments informing the Two Cultures debates, and the stakes at the time. Alignments and articulations that have since become naturalized shift and become possible to adjust or disturb. With this sense of realignment in mind I now turn back to explore Leavis’ earlier thinking on the technological and to ask how it informs the Two Cultures debate.

Leavis and his sword: the modern crisis

Leavis co-founded Scrutiny, the project with which he is most associated, in 1932. Scrutiny concerned itself with English literature, finding in English a resource for intervening in culture, understood as literature and as a material form, as language and as life. In Education and the University Leavis argued that these terms could not be divided, that there was nothing merely ‘literary’ about the literary mind (Milner, 2002: 34). The “‘governing theme” of Scrutiny was industrialization and its destructive effects on society and culture’ (Mulhern, 1979: 50, citing Leavis and Thompson, 1933). Decades before the Two Cultures events Scrutiny was waging war on technologico-Benthamite tendencies and logics. Industrialization and the automated culture, automated society, and the automated forms of life it produced were regarded as the forces producing a ‘crisis of modernity’, 11 sometimes adumbrated as the ‘modern crisis’. In the Restatement for Critics Leavis put this in stark terms:

is the machine power to triumph or to be triumphed over, to be the dictator or the servant of human ends?

(Leavis, 1933: 320 and Leavis, cited in Mulhern, 1979: 60)

Scrutiny writers thought differently about ‘machine power’; Leavis focused on how human interventions gave particular characteristics to emerging machines, whilst Denys Thompson's sense was of the fundamental ‘spiritual malfeasance’ of technology (entailing a version of Innes’ bias of technology), for instance. But, albeit by various routes, Scrutiny reached a shared position which was, baldly stated, that as a result of industrialization and modernization, itself the product of technology and the structures it produced or enabled, a society of widespread standardization had emerged. This society was characterized by the prioritization of the mass (the ‘herd’) and of mass decisions, the hollowing-out of bodies and individuals, and the evisceration of language, which was felt to be increasingly losing its capacity to signify (Mulhern, 1979: 55). In sum, there was what Leavis termed an inadequacy of experience, and what Knight, another Scrutiny adherent, defined as a sense of a crisis of ‘life’ itself (Knight, cited in Mulhern, 1979: 75).

Against all this, which is to say against the depredations of industrial commercial ‘civilization’ and the ascendant values of technological/technocratic rationality, Scrutiny asserted the values of continuity, tradition, and above all community, for it was ‘organic community’ that was under threat. Community was set against ‘civilization’ and viewed as counterpart to agendas based on the criterion of ‘progress’, particularly technological progress, both as means and as end. This latter Leavis often termed Wellsian thinking. Community was ‘affirmed in tradition’ and inhered in social life, though not in social structures. Everyday life was valued because it held a ‘residium’ of this essential tradition (Knight, cited in Mulhern, 1979: 75), but even this was felt to have become a despoiled source. A ‘last sanctuary’ could be found, however, in ‘the tradition of English literature’, which could become a repository of the values Scrutiny held dear and might make possible the continuity of a form of community. For this reason literary values were held not to be separate from questions of community but, on the contrary, expressed, and should be judged by, standards of life. They are, in a sense, its performance and its archive. Culture (taking literary form in English literature) was thus understood as the cumulative meaning of tradition (Mulhern, 1979: 75). Consonant with that, though later, at the time of the Two Cultures debate, Leavis would comment:

I don't believe in any ‘literary values’, and you won't find me talking about them; the judgments the literary critic is concerned with are judgments about life …

(Leavis, 2013: 110)

A consequence of this conjunction is that attending to literature may enable a particular kind of space to open up, one that is public or at least common. Mulhern aptly sums up Scrutiny as embodying a cluster of ideas around the ‘nature of literature and its place in social life’ (Mulhern, 1979: 328) and as aiming to restore the values of community ‘to some kind of authority in the modern world’ (Mulhern,1979: 76.). The point is that the Leavisite position did not, in intent at least, signal a withdrawal. The English archive was not to become a sequestered, dead thing. Scrutiny was a public project and Leavis and his co-thinkers were interventionists. They sought not only to name the modern crisis but to fight for a new form of counter-modernity (see also Mulhern, 1979). Scrutiny believed it was right ‘to hold to a belief in the preferability of the past, whilst resolving to act in and for the present’. There was to be ‘no mere going back’, and the engagement with tradition, and specifically the tradition of community, implied more than a simple form of nostalgia (Leavis and Thompson, 1933: 96). In the first issue of Scrutiny D.W. Harding argued that it was possible to combine nostalgia with realism, and to distinguish it from regression (see Henstra, 2009: 55). Nostalgia could be radicalized. The memory of the old was to be an ‘incitement’ towards the new world (Leavis and Thompson, 1933: 97), and there was to be nothing here of an attachment to folk wisdom, always rather despised by Leavis.

Scrutiny ended in 1953. Leavis declared its influence ‘decisive’ but privately thought it had failed. It had not been embedded in Cambridge English and would, he felt, peter out with his retirement (Mulhern, 1979: 302). However, in his formal response to C.P. Snow, in the Richmond Lecture of 1962 he argued that Scrutiny's attempt to maintain a ‘critical function’ was relevant to the Two Cultures moment (Leavis, 2013: 76). 12

Snow's lecture began with art and science, but Leavis began with technology. Holding Snow and his work up for investigation he announced: ‘Here, then, we have the cultural consequences of the technological revolution’ (Leavis, 2013: 86). For Leavis these consequences were often explored as forms of ‘technologico-Benthamism’. The term might be surprising, given the tight association, in the humanities at least, of Benthamism with Foucault's more or less post-human discussion of governmentality and his account of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish (1975; see also During, 1992: 5). Leavis’ definition of the term – though not his use of it – is not so very far from Foucault's. For him, technologico-Benthamism was a mode of organizing society that discarded human ‘significances, values and non-measurable ends’ (Leavis, 1972: 110). It designated those entangled processes of technologically driven systematization, bureaucratization, and individuation that are found at the heart of many resurgent anti-computing anxieties today (when they are often explored in Foucauldian or post-Foucauldian terms). The difference comes in the unqualified defence of humanism that this produces. Amigoni aptly sums up Leavis’ attack on Benthamism and the acceleration of the implementation of Benthamite forms of utilitarianism through technology as an attack on ‘inhumane’ utilitarianism from the perspective of humanism (Amigoni, 2011: 23). Further, if the earlier Leavisite texts indicate that this general orientation was long standing, the Richmond Lecture indicates that it was constantly being revived in relation to new technologies – and particularly new communicational and computational technologies emerging in the 1960s. 13

Inhumanity – set against full humanity – was key in Leavis’ response to the contention that literary intellectuals were backwards looking. First, he made a distinction between marking a loss and acknowledging its consequences and simply repining. Community of a particular kind, based on craft, or rural life, for instance was not ‘something we should aim at recovering; but … something finally gone’ (Leavis, 2013: 107), on the other hand, marking this loss did matter – and industrialization, Leavis argued, had entailed heavy losses. He attacked the contention that it had involved a simple decision, a freely made and painless choice, by a previously agricultural society, to leave the land, as Snow had implied. This description, he felt, failed to acknowledge the full complexity of the process, as a historical process, and above all failed to frame it as a ‘full human’  14 problem (Leavis, 2013: 70). It also produced a viewpoint within which no proper understanding of the contemporary position could be had or would be countenanced:

if you insist on the need for any other kind of concern, entailing forethought, action and provision, about the human future – any other kind of misgiving – than that which talks in terms of productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress, then you are a Luddite.

(Leavis, 2013: 64)

Pasts and futures

Leavis’ argument turned not only on what was gone but needed to be marked, but also on what remained live. These were the stakes in setting (his) ‘cultural tradition’ against (Snow's) adumbration of ‘traditional culture’. Cultural tradition was live, demanding not reposeful mourning, but wakefulness. It could traverse the community, and had done so until, threatened by industrialization in general, and technologico-Benthamism or technologically driven and delivered modes of new utilitarianism in particular, it was pushed back to a last stronghold in English literature. But even in those conditions, argued Leavis, continuity – the old watchword of Scrutiny – pertained. For Leavis there is a continuity between the material culture of an organic community and its literary articulation. So, whilst Snow identified the presence in contemporary society of two cultures, openly demanded their integration, and covertly lobbied for the triumph of the scientific orientation, as the dominant form, over that of the literary, the burden of Leavis’ argument was (also but very differently) that there could only be one culture (Leavis, 2013).

For Leavis, continuity is grounds for hope and is the means through which he will come to the ‘explicit positive note that has all along been my goal (for I am not a Luddite)’. The cultural tradition he valorizes allows for questions of the future to be raised because it is a continuous living tradition, based in a present reality, and lived by humans ‘on the spot’, in that place where they find themselves (Leavis, 2013: 67), that place in which they may recognize themselves perhaps, because they are, or to the extent that they are, embedded in tradition. To be on the spot is thus to be in tradition and to be in the present. Leavis contrasts this with Snow's offer for a society built on the promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ which ‘enjoins us to do our living in the dimension of “social hope”’ (Leavis, 2013: 69). For Leavis, ‘jam tomorrow’, or the promised benefits of technologically driven expansion and plenty, was what came of relying not on cultural tradition but on the promises of growth driven by technology. He claimed that his objection was not to this kind of program per se, but to the one-sided reliance on the forms of knowledge it would provide and principles it would work through:

To point out these things is not to be a Luddite. It is to insist on the truth that, in an age of revolutionary and constantly advancing technology, the sustained collaborative devotion of directed energy and directing intelligence that is science needs to be accompanied by another, and quite different, devotion of purpose and energy, another sustained collaborative effort of creative intelligence.

(Leavis, 2013: 108)

Leavis’ response to Snow, his argument that tradition and culture be protected from the assault of the technocrats and their ‘Benthamite’ evisceration and standardization, was thus both an analysis and a demand. True to his earlier principles, Leavis set continuity and tradition against the specializing, divisive, eviscerating, amnesiac qualities of a world reorganized according to the principles of a new form of technocratic rationality, which he understood Snow to embody. This was his rejoinder to Snow's demand for specialist cultures.

Leavis’ attack on social hope was integral to his rebuttal of Snow's (quasi-anthropologically based) argument that scientists themselves form a culture because they, unlike non-scientists, ‘think alike’, or are alike. In his lecture Snow called scientists ‘creative rather than critical’, adding that as a consequence of this they tended to be ‘good-natured and brash’ (Hultberg, 1997, 202 citing Snow). His cheerful scientists, whistling their way to the neutron bomb, or in his novels seeing no way out of this trajectory except betrayal (see the Strangers and Brothers series, and in particular Corridors of Power, 2000 [1964]) stand against the mordant English traditionalists, and the two camps already look very different. However, ‘thinking alike’ in Snow's hands also entails a form of individual renunciation. The point for Snow is that ‘social hope’ will be delivered by the specialist general community of science for whom personal wishes and desires are irrelevant and selfish (they are perhaps ‘good-natured’ by training). The principles that make for best practice for scientists are based on impartial calculation of best-case scenarios for populations in general, generating work and setting priorities in favour of the ‘greater good’, defined as that which brings progress to humanity. Literary intellectuals meanwhile are set down as antisocial, culpably selfish for taking their own desires into account in bemoaning industrialization and its acceleration, and as living in the wrong tense.

By contrast, for Leavis the individual is the locus of decision, of compass, and of judgement. He can thus ask: What is the ‘social condition’ that has nothing to do with the ‘individual condition’? What is the ‘social hope’ that transcends, cancels or makes indifferent the inescapable tragic condition of each individual (Leavis, 2013: 65)? There is culture and its traditions, bound into community, and the individual who constitutes it. Without individuals, and this is at the heart of the bodily attack on Snow and the attack on the body of his work, there can be no human values but only a civilization based on technocratic values, and quantifiable ends, which deals with units of population. For Leavis, the computer–writer, the C.P. Snow automaton, is the personification, or perhaps better the instantiation, of this technologico-Benthamite orientation (and in, this sense, is already not human at all), and threatens the very existence of the last repository of culture and continuity – since how can ‘English’ be defended without human readers? Leavis’ anti-computing quip, his comment that the writer of the Rede Lecture was quite possibly a computer, is thus deadly in intent. The computer–writer Charles Snow replaces the human with the computer and obliterates sense and judgement, founded in the human individuals and confirmed through that durable engagement between them that finds value or significance, and might constitute a community. In the place of this is put a moment of calculation. Significance is replaced by statistical ‘solutions’. As Leavis had put it long before, in Nor Shall My Sword, the result of such thinking would be that ‘we need take no ends into account in our planning and calculating but those which are looked after by quantitative criteria, the statistical: “quality”, that is will take care of itself’ (Leavis, 1972: 138).

If the protagonists in the Two Cultures dispute were contending for ‘humanity’ and who ‘has’ it, then a peculiar irony here is that attack on the ‘computer’ Charles who/which threatens to usurp ‘life’ is made in the context of the Leavisite substitution of English literature – and the guardian of its canons – for those forms of ‘life’ that previously constituted ‘organic’ community, that were held in other forms of culture. The material that stands against the computer and its code is the text and its language; English literature, which for Leavis has become the repository of what would once have been part of a general sensibility (one that was not, to use the term ‘dissociated’, as T.S. Eliot had put it in the early 1920s). Arguably, there are no ‘full human’ bodies left on either side of this dispute.

Leavis’ general defence, as it was constructed, found resonance with many. Whether or not his insistence that his version of cultural tradition was not simply nostalgic was convincing, it appeared to connect with a structure of feeling in England at that time – something like that found in some of the Flanders and Swann songs invoked earlier; those combining a sense of change and loss, of something moving away at a fast pace, with a sense of the rise of new absurdities emerging as a consequence of technological modernity. Leavis’ sense was that control was in danger of being lost, ceded to machines and machine makers. This was now a matter not (only) of abandoning culture to look for laws in nature (these were Huxley's terms, it will be recalled) but also of inventing the mechanisms to recapitulate these laws on social grounds (Snow on science and the social good), and he argued that it gave away something important: human autonomy and maturity. This too found support; The Spectator mounted a cautious defence of Leavis, or at least a rebuttal of unthought-through technological progress, in terms that refer to this sense of infantilization:

If we think of some purpose then we shall be able to make the future instead of being carried along by it like children in the arms of automation.

(The Spectator, 1962)

Non-inevitable consequences

Others, by the time of the Two Cultures debate, already had ‘purposes’ and visions of possible futures that were not necessarily those of The Spectator, or Snow, or Leavis. With childhood and adulthood invoked, we could say these others sought to grow up differently. To conclude, then, let me briefly here return a final time to the Hat performances, which took place more or less in that space Larkin adumbrated – somewhere after the Chatterley trial and before the ascent of the Beatles, 15 a space that held possibilities that were, as Larkin noted, somewhat inaccessible to those native to an older time.

In the final verses of the ‘Thermodynamics’ song, heat and work (energy and its transformations) are translated back to ‘culture’; ‘heat is work’ (says physics) and ‘work's a curse’ (said emerging social movements of the time) – and ‘all the heat in the universe’ had ‘better cool down’ (say Flanders and Swann). Here is a sudden glimpse of a different future; an era of ‘cool’. This is only a glimpse and it is laid aside. 16 In the end, the finale (offered by science, provided in song) is entropy, a universal brownness 17 covers all – in glorious mud. Flanders and Swann thus publicly give up on both kinds of cool and go back to the drawing room, their furbelowed retreat. They never intended to be hip and fashionable, nor to espouse shiny new science. Their act says that they know their place, but it also signals that they know their time. They were (and I suppose always are, as often as the LP is spun up again), on the cusp of being superseded by a rising youth culture and its counter-cultural influences. Neither they, nor their performances, were avant-garde, as they acknowledged off-stage in various places.

All the old men and England too

Leavis and Snow, that other pair, were also of a generation that was, at the time of the Two Cultures debate (and the Hat shows) being moved (in) on. The form of science and the literary formations they espoused were both changing. On the one side there was big science (not so called at the time) and the nuclear issues, and the UK's changing role in the post-war world, which Snow got at only very imperfectly (and from a perspective that is now difficult to understand). And on the other side a change in relative values of various literary formations, including the emergence of powerful new forces within them such as structuralism/post-structuralism with its challenge to such English and ‘English’ values as ‘universal’ humanism, and, eventually, to humanism itself. Leavis and Snow were arguing about divisions and boundaries, and about a set of associated values, and rules for setting values, that were all already changing rapidly; the ground was moving under their feet. As Matthews points out, neither Leavis’ high style nor the ethnographic realism Snow adopted in his literary endeavours found connections with, for instance, the Angry Young Men, whose work had already energized the cultural scenes of the 1950s. Matthews claims that the ‘importance of the literary critical field’ was ‘already waning’ by that mid-1960s, and that this waning was ‘caught up in the Two Cultures debate’ (Matthews, 2004: 62); for him it is partly why the debate happened. Others too, have noted that the Two Cultures debate was one occurring within the establishment, that it took place whilst (other) events and other groups, less parochial than Snow (with his limited sense of globality) and more cosmopolitan than Leavis (with his insistent sense of English culture) were emerging. These events were challenging the definitions of ‘science’, and the boundaries of ‘community’, and the relationship between community and nation, and the normative constitution of ‘the individual’ – scientist or not.

Snow and Leavis argued about the primacy of particular views of the world; about the right or even the capacity of the scientist or the literary intellectual to hold the future in his hand. And here, as a pointer to a series of exclusions that need to be marked, we might turn to gender – and return once again to the peculiarly personalized terms of the old debate. That is, we might ask who is the science professor of C.P. Snow's lament? What do we know of ‘him’, in ‘human’ terms? Only three things: that he speaks ‘science’ (‘this he will understand’), that he is a man with a wife (‘the reciprocal of pi to your good wife’), that he wishes to enter the common room on equal terms with those others in the arts who can lay claim to it, perhaps those who (may) have wives to talk of. Those, then, who are – normatively/overwhelmingly – men, not women.

Perhaps this seems like a diversion. Let me divert further. In a review of Brenda Maddox's book on DNA scientist Rosamund Franklin and her work with Watson and Crick, Sarah Delamont considers the question of how to assess Franklin and her work on DNA in relation to gender issues. She notes Maddox's claim that Watson thought about calling his double helix book Honest Jim – after Kingsley Amis’ novel title, Lucky Jim. Maddox also suggests that Watson's destructive ‘caricature’ of Franklin in his book is very like that of Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. The academic on whom Peel was based (Larkin's lover) was also caricatured in Bradbury's Eating People Is Wrong, which is also a Flanders and Swann song line. Catch a breath. As Delamont notes, such stereotypes (and I only gesture here to how Delamont's crawl might be extended still further) constitute a ‘salutary reminder of how deep misogyny ran in British universities in the 1950s, in both of C.P. Snow's Two Cultures’ (Delamont, 2003: 315). This was always a conversation amongst men. Two public school boys on stage, and two old grammar boys in different common rooms, even if one of them claimed he was always an outsider, constituted two sides of a shared and in many ways exclusive world.

The scandal of the Profumo affair (of which Flanders and Swann sang obliquely in ‘Horoscope’ and ‘Madeira’), and the changing role of ‘sexual intercourse’ in public culture in England, might be used to mark the beginnings of a shift. When somewhat later the Two Cultures began to be explored or contested in relation to the building of a different kind of ‘science as culture’ it was feminists who were often central to this inquiry; and feminist theory that was influential. The question of automation and control – of what it might mean, of how we might respond, if we were children, or women, or new kinds of hybrids or cybrids finding ourselves ‘in the arms of automation’, could be, and was, posed in very different ways only shortly after the Two Cultures debate. Notably the project to develop new kinds of (British) cultural studies, formally set up at Birmingham with a grant of £2,400 from Penguin Books in 1963, and a remit to cover everything from ‘Leavis to the News of the World’ (Guardian, 1963), came to disavow largely its Leavisite roots and to cleave to a left rather than a liberal agenda. It also became a hub for much work on feminism, and for much feminist work – but only when cultural studies itself had been, as Stuart Hall put it much later – broken into.


Taking seriously the Leavisite side of these debates, exploring the possibilities arising out of radical nostalgia, and attempting to understand or acknowledge the pain of change in a time of transformation, partly using Flanders and Swann to link into a minor key sensibility of the period, might provide a restitutive reading of Leavis’ arguments in the Two Cultures; the decision to attack Snow personally appears in a different light as it becomes oddly impersonal. However, both sides of the debate threaten to resolve into each other; Leavis’ fervour and Snow's brashness merge. Snow's demand for change is really a demand for continuity, and the radicalism in Leavis’ demand for the future as human (the ultimate continuity) is lost because his sense of the force of the past and its capacity to intervene in the future is undermined by the limitations of his universalist (but in fact chauvinistically local) sense of human culture; the insistence on English, always a struggle to comprehend, in the end becomes a sign of parochialism rather than a radical attack on elites that seeks to undermine their privilege and their insistent demands for unexamined ‘progress’ at any cost.

However, if Leavis’ thinking is unfashionable within most academic spheres and is virtually ignored in relation to questions of technology as these are related to digital cultures, it does nonetheless find echoes today. The anxieties Leavis articulated persist and frequently return, resonating with new forms of 21st-century modes of technological hostility. Where would the Leavisite objection to technologico-Benthamism and its indifferent standardization, the global extension of a nonetheless nationally chauvinistic position, and the nostalgically powered defence of a folk and a land find its resonances today? Not only as a sensibility but as the re-constitution of a more active formation in response to that? One immediate answer in an England in post-Brexit referendum times is in new forms of national politics – perhaps, and sometimes despite the intentions of those holding such positions, a politics with its attractions for those of the new Right.


1 ‘inciting England's intellectuals to polemical acts of rare extremism’ (Mulhern, 1979: 305).
2 See Raymond Williams (2017) on middlebrow.
3 Their set included curtains, a piano, and a domestic lightshade – if not a common room, then its domestic counterpart, the drawing room.
4 ‘Nature is the expression of a definite order with which nothing interferes, and … the chief business of mankind is to learn that order and govern themselves accordingly … this scientific “criticism of life” presents itself to us with different credentials from any other. It appeals not to authority, nor to what anybody might have thought or said, but to nature’ (Huxley, 1881: 15).
5 ‘The two cultures’, a phrase with an ‘enduring afterlife’ (Peter Dizikes, New York Times, 19 March 19th, 2009).
6 Williams himself has been termed a ‘left Leavisite’ and New Left Review was intended to fuse Leavisite literary criticism with radical left politics (see Milner, 2002: 25).
7 Also printed in The New Statesman and Nation in 1956.
8 The Guardian commented somewhat snidely that it was ‘almost the only ‘posh’ paper not attacked by the doctor in the lecture’ (Yesteryears of Snow), and also noted that The Spectator was published in the heart of Bloomsbury.
9 Snow had delivered his lecture in a style that alternated between self-preening earnestness and airy high-table bonhomie. The position of the Rede lecturer, however, is one that is implicitly congratulatory (Leith, 2009).
10 Leavis also commented on railways in ‘One Culture’, citing Dickens (Leavis, 2013: 95).
11 ‘modernity’ – tin cans and computers.
12 ‘I am thinking again of what Scrutiny stood – and stands – for: of the creative work it did on the contemporary intellectual-cultural frontier in maintaining the critical function.’
13 A few years after the Richmond Lecture Leavis would respond to Harold Wilson's ‘white heat’ speech and the agenda it promoted.
14 ‘If one points out that the actual history has been, with significance for one's apprehension of the full human problem, incomparably and poignantly more complex than that, Snow dismisses one as a “natural Luddite”’ (Leavis, 2013: 70).
15 George Martin produced the Hat LPs.
16 Via the obscure interjection ‘Oh, Beatles – nothing!’
17 ‘And universal Darkness cover all’ (Alexander Pope, The Dunciad).


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Dissent and the machine


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