Patrick Joyce on the Manchester free-and-easy

18 Aug

Patrick Joyce’s The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism in the City is a curiously impermeable thing. I keep picking it up and beginning to read, and then somehow my mind slips off it – none of what I’m glancing over sticks, and I put it down again. His line of inquiry seems obtuse to me: he says that he’s interested in investigating governmentality in the nineteenth-century city. All I can think when I hear that is ‘so why should I be interested? And are you really interested yourself?’ The text doesn’t have the polemic energy which animates other Joyce works I’ve read and found so valuable (Visions of the People and Democratic Subjects).

According to one reviewer of The Rule of Freedom, Joyce’s aim is to ‘understand how, in the physical context of the nineteenth-century city, new types of persons, temporalities, spaces, and practices were molded that rejected older forms of unapologetic coercion and led individuals to acquiesce voluntarily in a new regime of ordering and discipline they came to associate with the experience of being free’. Okay, so that helps. The book in itself is the story of the paradox of urban liberalism: the fact that it sought escape from an overtly authoritarian society, but that the freedom it created can only be talked about in relative terms, in inverted commas, and a sardonic tone of voice. Perhaps that is why the book doesn’t grab me. What, after all, has been more dispiriting and paralysing than that Foucauldian idea that freedom and governance go hand in hand, that ‘freedom’ (said sardonically) is the best thing one might hope for?  And there is also something discombulating about the book’s material, as it jumps wildly from discussions of maps and statistics-gathering by urban liberals, to the building of sewerage and rubbish-removal infrastructure, to the experience of individuals walking about in the city. As that reviewer also says: ‘as with many recent exercises in poststructualist history, there is a notable absence of actual people in Joyce’s book. For all his celebration of the contingent and the local, his analysis is often disappointingly abstract’.

The one point where The Rule of Freedom grabs me is in the chapter wonderfully and grandiloquently-entitled  ‘The Republic of the Streets’. In it, he discusses Manchester’s street-singers, and also its ‘free-and-easies’ in the late nineteenth century: pubs where musical entertainment and cheap food was offered. In London, the free-and-easies were replaced by commercial music halls in the 1850s and especially the 1860-70s, but this transition never happened in Manchester. The free-and-easies continued to pit professional, semi-professional and amateur singers alongside each other, and their audiences generally prioritised drink and sociability over the musical acts themselves. Audience members faced each other rather than the stage or the performers, and throughout each act they continued to talk and move about. ‘There was none of the decorum, or the fixed attention, of the commercial music hall, where the performer was separated from the audience’. And all the drinking, talking, eating, smoking and noisy singing gave the free-and-easy ‘a sort of sensual overload…, something akin to being in the streets of the city, or to the fair’.

Up until now, most of what I’ve been reading and saying about late 19thC popular culture has concerned the development of highly commercialised cultural industries, with the professional performers and expectations of ‘fixed attention’ from audience members that came with them. Now here is this reminder that what happens in the metropolis isn’t necessarily what happens elsewhere, and that modernisation was always uneven.

 (Note for self: find Philomen Eva’s ‘Popular song and social identity in Victorian Manchester’, PhD, University of Manchester, 1996).

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