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<nettime> A tribute to Stuart Hall
nettime's avid reader on Wed, 12 Feb 2014 11:33:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> A tribute to Stuart Hall

 A tribute to Stuart Hall
Jeremy Gilbert 10 February 2014


Stuart Hall has died. The enormity of the loss cannot be exaggerated.
There is little point trying to measure Hall’s importance against
other significant figures: he himself would have abhorred the macho
individualism of such a gesture. But it has been a long time since the
intellectual Left in the UK has experienced such a loss, or one more
keenly feared by those who may have anticipated it. I am not going to
repeat here much of the information contained in the superb obituary
penned by my colleagues, Bill Schwarz and David Morley [1], and I
encourage readers to refer there first if they are unfamiliar with the
basic narrative of Hall’s life and career.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/feb/10/stuart-hall

I don’t want this piece to be about me. But it is hard for me to
explain the importance of Hall and the scope and range of his
significance without explaining the process by which I learned of it.
It is also, perhaps, too much to ask, that someone who personally owes
so much to Hall should speak without referring to their own experience
somewhat. So apologies. Some of this will be about me.

I first encountered the work of Stuart Hall as a teenager, in the
pages of the magazine Marxism Today. It’s hard to imagine today that
there was a time before Google; but there was, and in those days it
wasn’t so easy to learn everything about a writer who one only knew
as a name on a byline. I didn’t know much about Cultural Studies
- although the swathe of tributes following the death of Raymond
Williams, and the occasional references in MT and the New Statesman
(yes, believe it or not, there was a time when New Statesman was a
left-wing magazine that wasn’t completely hostile to engaging with
difficult ideas) had already given me an inkling that it might be
interesting. And I didn’t know that Hall had anything to do with
it: at first I assumed he was a professional political columnist.
Gradually, reading the magazine on a monthly basis, I realised that
actually he was some kind of academic. I was impressed. I remember
commenting to a sixth-form pal that this bloke Hall seemed to talk
literally the least shit of anyone I had ever come across in any

This was very important to a teenage ‘unreconstructed post-punk’ (as
I would have it) in the waning days of Thatcher’s premiership: ‘not
talking shit’ was basically my criterion for what it meant to be a
successful human being. Hall’s incisive analyses of the relationship
between culture, power, technological and social change made more
sense to me than anything else I had ever read, or heard, or thought.
His Gramscian understanding of Thatcherism finally helped me to
understand the apparently glaring contradictions inherent in the
Tories’ commitment to radical individualism and social conservatism.
His contributions to Marxism Today’s ‘New Times’ project seemed to
me to define what a progressive politics should look like in the
(post)modern age: working with the grain of cultural and technological
change towards democratic and egalitarian ends. It still does.

So it was, inspired by Hall’s example as much as anything, that
I ended up on a degree course in Cultural Studies at the then
Polytechnic of East London, despite the offers from far more
‘prestigious’ institutions at which I was less confident that I would
not be required, to a large extent, ‘to talk shit’. Even then I had no
idea that Hall himself had been instrumentally supportive in setting
up and validating the pioneering degree programme, along with his
lifelong friend and collaborator Michael Rustin, a senior faculty
member at the institution, and had taught many of the inspiring and
wonderful people who would teach me during those three life-defining
years (Alan O’Shea, who was to be Hall’s very last writing partner;
Mica Nava; Bill Schwarz; Hall’s wife Catherine, etc.). I only came to
realise that a couple of years later, when I had gone back to what
became the University of East London to try to carry on the legacy
as a lecturer, while pursuing my PhD at Sussex with another former
student and colleague of Stuart’s, James Donald.

But I only fully began to appreciate the sheer enormity of Stuart’s
contribution as I began to work out for myself what it might mean
to be a politically engaged teacher of ‘cultural studies’. For
while the exotic theory in which I was so fluent - from Althusser
to Zizek - was all very well for impressing fellow grad students,
my own students - working-class and intellectually curious - wanted
to know what I could tell them about the world as it was, and as it
was changing. And here it was Stuart’s method, bringing together
sociology, ideology critique, semiotics, political sociology and
necessary speculation that would prove very often the only way to
address the key question which mattered to them and to me: the
question of which power relationships were shaping our lives, and
of how to understand, and potentially how to transform them. Stuart
always insisted that the key issue for cultural studies is the issue
of power, and that the key question for cultural studies, when asking
about any phenomenon whatsoever, is ‘what does this have to do with
everything else.’ They are elegant, efficient, economical dictums
which serve any aspiring political or cultural analyst well.

The exemplary instance of such ‘conjunctural analysis’ was the book
which Hall co-wrote with a team of researchers at the Birmingham
Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies: Policing the Crisis:
Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978). I’ve said this before,
numerous times, but it is simply impossible to exaggerate how
impressive this book is, and the fact is that it's importance only
became apparent several years after its publication. Let me spell it
out as simply as possible: this book predicted Thatcherism, at a time
when most political commentators thought that the Tories had made a
terrible mistake in electing an obscure right-wing leader, and that
the public-sector cuts made by Dennis Healey would be a short-term
measure rather than a paradigm shift. The book begins by analysing a
simple phenomenon: the measurable disparity between a press-led ‘moral
panic’ about the supposed epidemic of street robberies perpetrated by
young black men on white citizens, and the statistical non-existence
of any rise in such crime. It sets out to explain this symptomatic
phenomenon using a combination of media theory, social theory and the
analytical tools offered by the great Marxist theorists of ideology:
Althusser and Gramsci. By the time the book is finished, it has
charted the emergence of those political and cultural tendencies
which were in the process of crystallising into the New Right, more
or less describing the right-wing populism which was to be precisely
the basis for Thatcher’s first two election victories. It demonstrates
like nothing else the capacity of a synthetic, interdisciplinary
combination of social science, speculative theory, textual analysis
and commentary on recent history to generate more-or-less verifiable
predictions. It is very sad, if politically unsurprising (given what a
dangerous weapon such intellectual tools could prove in the hands of
radical forces), that the historical conditions which made possible
the production of such a work - collaborative, interdisciplinary,
speculative - have not obtained in British universities for many
years, as Stuart himself was often to lament.

This was far from being Hall’s first important contribution. He had
been charting with expert precision the shifting nature of modern
British culture, and the political implications of those shifts,
in the pages of New Left Review and elsewhere since the early 60s.
His essays on theoretical topics in the 1970s were instrumental in
transmitting the ideas of Althusser, Gramsci, and Barthes to an
Anglophone audience which was not restricted to practitioners of the
emerging discipline of cultural studies (which was to become the
dominant paradigm in Media Studies, and to radically transform the
study of history, literature and sociology), but included key sections
of the wider labour movement. Later, Hall would play a similar role
with regard to theories of race, ethnicity, and post-coloniality,
inspiring not only generations of critical scholars, but artists and
film-makers as well.

This aspect of Hall’s work is very widely-appreciated today, partly
because it is recent and partly because it impacted upon later cohorts
of taste-makers and commentators across a wide range of cultural

What is perhaps under-appreciated now is the enormous political
influence which Hall, partly in collaboration with the editor of
Marxism Today, Martin Jacques, exerted on the British Left as it
struggled to come to terms with the defeats inflicted on it by
Thatcherism in the first half of the 1980s. The essays collected
in Hall’s only single-authored volume, The Hard Road to Renewal,
remain models of lucid, theoretically informed conjunctural analysis
and political insight. Hall’s advocacy of a broad-based popular
politics with which to counter Thatcherite hegemony, and his embrace
of a modernising, democratising politics which could go beyond the
traditional statism of the twentieth century Left, were an enormous
influence in opening up a range of possibilities as the 80s came to a
close. To Stuart’s dismay, it was Blairite neoliberalism which really
took advantage of this opportunity to redefine the political territory
on the ‘centre-left’. But what must never be forgotten is that it was
Stuart’s version of what a ‘New Times’ socialism might look like that
Blair and his colleagues had to foreclose and neutralise in the early
90s in order to make that victory possible.

In my 2008 book, Anticapitalism and Culture, I suggested that the
success of New Labour marked the final defeat of Hall’s New Left
in the British Labour movement. Now I think that that was wrong.
The measures to democratise public services, the explicit rejection
of both bureaucratic managerialism and neoliberal marketisation,
announced by Ed Miliband only today, suggest that Hall’s vision of
a democratic socialism (one he shared with so many on the New Left,
including that other great progenitor of cultural studies, Raymond
Williams), may not have been defeated forever by Blairism at all. As
cautious as that announcement may be, it may yet mark a decisive shift
back in the direction which Stuart did so much to help us move.

The debt which so many of us owe to Stuart is not only a political or
a collective one however. For someone like myself, it is impossible
to avoid the conclusion that without the support, intervention
and inspiration of Stuart and his many cohorts of students, there
simply would not have been careers, institutional homes, or public
opportunities for people like us at all. What would have become of
this disgruntled teenager, angry, dismayed, disillusioned with the
shit-talking that saturated public-culture, unsuited to the the life
of a traditional academic institution, if Stuart and others had not
created an institutional space which could nurture us, give us a home,
enable us to grow and find a place in the world? I dread to think, but
I sometimes think that I would not have reached middle age.

Stuart’s example remains today quite a difficult one to follow. Hardly
ever a solo author, by nature a great collaborator, the competitive
individualism into which aspiring young academics are forced today was
anathema to him. But as he was always the first to acknowledge, he
was in part the beneficiary, as well as one of the architects, of the
British university’s golden social-democratic age. He lamented that
‘cultural studies’ as it was taught and practiced in most academic
institutions today was too often reduced to cultural theory, with very
little in the way of conjunctural analysis going on anywhere; yet he
acknowledged that the individualisation and instrumentalisation of the
academy increasingly pushed scholars towards personal projects with
grandiose, abstract ambitions (my own would be no exception). But it
is worth reflecting that one of the places where he did see that form
of intellectual work which he so valued continuing was in fact here,
on the digital commons of openDemocracy.

Stuart’s is not an example that can be simply copied, any more can
be that of any life. But his work carries on; directly, through the
efforts of his colleagues at the journal Soundings (see here, for
example), and indirectly through the activity of the countless lives,
careers, ideas, initiatives, creation, dislocations and collaborations
which he has inspired and made possible. No better tribute is possible
than that we should do what we can to bring to fruition the many
possibilities that he discerned in the culture and politics of our
epoch, to which he opened so many of our eyes.


This article is published under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

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