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  1. Ideas
9 February 2024

An extract from A Cure for Marriage by Stuart Hall

The cultural analysis of a popular romantic story from an issue of Woman magazine.

By Stuart Hall

The final text and commentary has been written by Stuart Hall. They are based on a number of papers originally written for a Centre Seminar by various participants: the final text reprints in full, with additional commentary, papers by Richard Hoggart, Tim Moore, Janet Mendelsohn, Richard Rogers and Trevor Millum. It also draws substantially on previous papers by Andrew Bear, Peter Erickson, Roger King, Michael Feldberg, Rachel Powell. The following were also seminar participants and contributed to its discussions: Rolf Meyersohn, Alan Shuttleworth, Anthony Smith, Liz Immerzi.

Read also: The discovery of Stuart Hall’s “A Cure for Marriage”

From the introduction:

This monograph study offers an example of method in cultural studies. It is a “case-study”, not an exhaustive piece of work. Thus it does not attempt a general cultural survey of popular fiction in women’s magazines, nor a full account of the content and attitudes of the popular commercial women’s press as a whole. Its findings cannot therefore be generalised for the whole field. In contrast, the study attempts the intensive analysis of a single paradigmatic case: one story, selected at random, and one issue of the most popular women’s weeklies, Woman. It is, in principle, deliberately restricted to “making a demonstration” about this single example. The analysis of the field of romantic popular fiction as such, which remains to be done, and, in our view, requires to be done, seemed to us to require, in the first place, a major effort at clarification in terms of method. This attention to method constitutes the main focus of this study.

The study is based on a number of papers produced by participants in a Centre seminar held during 1967-1968. It is thus essentially the product of collective work. I was asked to edit the papers and to reorganise them into the form of a single continuous text. The main purpose of this extension was to make the direction of the argument, in terms of method and approach, stand out more clearly than was possible within the scope of brief papers prepared for seminar discussion. The final text is therefore based on the collective work, but the original papers have been in most cases expanded and amplified in the course of editing and revision. I did envisage at one point printing the original papers and adding a commentary in the form of notes, but this seemed in the end too cumbersome a procedure for the reader to follow with ease. The form we have chosen should therefore make it easier for the reader to follow the application of method to the examples. This has one major disadvantage which cannot be avoided. Inevitably, my own emphases and preoccupations now substantially overlay the original papers and obscure to some degree the collective and collaborative nature of the venture of which they are the product. I hope, therefore, that the original seminar participants will find acceptable the synthetic presentation finally arrived at, and will bear with the inevitable distortions of emphasis which this mode of presentation involves.

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The rather loose and discursive form of presentation has been deliberately preserved in order to give readers an opportunity to see in detail how the problems of cultural analysis [fused] themselves in the course of a “case study” over several months of collaborative work. We also wanted a form of presentation which would enable readers and critics to enter the debate, and thus to initiate a wider dialogue about these important questions. We have therefore retained an “open” method of presentation at the expense of tight exposition.

A word should be said about how the papers and discussion on which this study is based relates to the general organisation of work in the Centre. An attempt has been made over the years to organise the intellectual work of the Centre in more democratic and collaborative ways. The individual projects undertaken by graduate students are “framed” by a number of weekly seminar discussions, the content and direction of which are largely in the hands of the participants. During the period in which this study was undertaken, there were two main internal seminars, one devoted to problems of theory and method in cultural studies (based on selected reading and discussion of major texts); the other a “practical” seminar, in which, collectively, seminar participants tried to apply and extend their theoretical understanding of the field and its problems in terms of a specific project. There is thus a continuous interpenetration of substantive and theoretical work, many aspects of which are reflected in the following text.

The initial hypothesis is that stories of the type analysed here – popular stories produced for a popular medium – vary considerably in terms of their literary achievement, imaginative power and depth. But, whatever the literary quality, they embody and express, in a “displaced” and symbolic form, significant meanings about the social formation and the historical conjuncture of which they are a product. The general aim of the study must therefore be to find methods which would enable us to deal both with the “immanent laws” which govern the elaboration of meaning within the literary object: and, at the same time, a method which enables us to resituate this specific object in its determinate field of relations and structures. The approach is, necessarily, dialectical.

From chapter 8: A social world

Throughout much of this analysis we have been concerned to trace the ways in which inferred knowledge of social structure and social relationships served to contextualise, specify and embed fictional forms and structures of the text. This may be called the “first-order” act of going behind the text to its underlying unconscious structures in the social practices which, in the form of contextualised everyday knowledge, legitimates and virtualises the fictions of the text… at a deeper level, the background expectancies which constitute the “knowledge-at-hand” we require for re-composing a text are integrated into some more elemental, fundamental unconscious representations.

What is happening at this “deep level” in the story? Fundamentally and essentially, “Cure for Marriage” – as the title unwittingly indicates – reproduces in full (though in a truncated, elliptical and redundant form) the essential categories of feminine oppression.

Extract given with permission from Catherine Hall and Nick Beech.

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