I’ve been reading Peter Bailey’s 1998 collection of essays in fits and starts for some time now. Each time I do, I find something startling or inspirational. He has an extraordinary knack for condensing quantities of debate into a paragraph or less, and then cutting effortlessly through it. At one point, he talks about the impenetrable prose which characterises so much of the postmodern history written in the 1980-90s. ‘At one end of the scale reified categories like ‘the social’ and ‘the popular’ march numbingly across the page’, he says, ‘while at the other end particularist studies become so involuted in the mining of meaning that they disappear up their own text’. (Ouch).
So much postmodern historiography of the 1990s was concerned with dismantling class as an important category of analysis. In such texts, as Bailey says, ‘social identity… starts with the self, a multiple subject constructed by language…, a self for whom class may be one narrative thread among many’. Yet if class is ‘an imagined or invented phenomenon… it must still be imagined or invented out of something which includes material being or experience, however represented’. Bailey’s work takes account of some of the other narrative threads making up the identities of the people he writes about. But it insists nonetheless that ‘the mark of class sticks like a burr in nineteenth-century society’, and that it cannot as such be airily dismissed.
I recently had a paper published in Labour History which waded through the linguistic work on class produced by Joan Wallach Scott and Gareth Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce et al. In it, I agonised over the fact that class was at once a linguistic invention and an identity which responded to material circumstances. And now here is this easy navigation of that minefield, written years ago, which I neglected to read before I wrote my paper. I’m not sure about the metaphor Bailey uses (a mark sticking like a burr?), but I am about what it expresses. However much a thing of imagination, class is imagined out of something, and it remains significant to the nineteenth century as a ‘potent vector’ of social difference and identity.