Sunday reading: Mass-Observation

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A rather lovely article on the very lovely Mass-Observation movement, by Caleb Crain of Steamboats are ruining everything, which is also worth a leisurely Sunday perusal. (H-T.)

American and other overseas readers may not be familiar with the British Mass-Observation movement, which was founded in 1937 with the aim of creating “an anthropology of ourselves” (and to be honest, I’m not sure just how well-known it is in its homeland these days). Crain has some more links and reading suggestions. The key starting point is the Mass-Observation Archive, which is maintained by Sussex University. The site includes a number of publications, and this is a good introduction to the diaries of some early M-O volunteers. (The BBC’s Woman’s Hour did a piece on them too.)

The founders of M-O were remarkable people in their own right: Charles Madge, a poet and Communist, Tom Harrisson, anthropologist and would-be poet, and – best known of the three – Humphrey Jennings, the leading light of a hugely influential school of British documentary making, an artist and writer. (Who is, wikipedia informs me, buried in Athens near TH White, another very English one-off. Did not know that.) And even if you don’t know about his film-making, you may well have read his monumental anthology of first-hand observations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, Pandaemonium: the coming of the machine.

It’s not hard to see analogies between blogging and M-O, and the internet has enabled personal observation and publishing on an unprecedented scale. But we shouldn’t forget the BBC’s now almost-venerable Video Nation (since 1993) – which highlights M-O as a predecessor and inspiration.

And I’m wondering: has there ever been anything like Mass-Observation in north America? Or anywhere else in the world? Or is there something peculiarly British about it?

More links!

Humphrey Jennings:
Humphrey Jennings: the man who listened to Britain
Humphrey Jennings biography
wikipedia on Humphrey Jennings
Fires Were Started
A Cultural History of Pandaemonium
Review of Pandaemonium

Visual Mass-Observation – the photographs of Humphrey Spender:
Humphrey Spender’s Worktown (Bolton)
Mass Observation: Humphrey Spender
Images of a vanished Britain

Mass-Observation Today:
Writing for the Mass-Observation project: Bob Rust
How to take part…

One thought on “Sunday reading: Mass-Observation

  1. Humphrey Jennings was very special. A filmmaker who transcended propaganda. Listen to Britain, Fires were Started and A Diary for Timothy can still bring a lump to the throat today. And they are all hybrids – Listen.. for its poeticism, Fires.. for the use of non-actors performing familiar roles in a bombed city.. Diary for a mixture of the personal and public. And the bugger faced down the realism of the Griersonian push, and kept going. His accidental death in 1949 was a sad loss, perhaps allowing a shift sideways to a more pragmatic tradition of documentary making.

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