It’s not every day that I wake up cursing.
The death on February 10 of Jamaica-born organic/public intellectual Stuart Hall cannot be allowed to pass neglected in the same desultory fashion as that of the great Martiniquan Negritude poet Aimé Césaire back in 2008.
Not since our own CLR James has an English-speaking Caribbean thinker so radically and profoundly disrupted and decentred Eurocentric and western discourses, challenging notions of race, cultural and sexual identity; introducing the more fluid concepts of multi (cultural) diasporic aesthetics and identities and a multi-disciplinary approach (cultural studies) with which to analyse them.
Teacher and thinker
Born in 1932, Hall is best known in the United Kingdom where he spent his entire academic and activist career, after leaving his native Kingston in 1951 on a Rhodes scholarship to Merton College, Oxford University. His own diverse roots—Scottish, African and Portuguese Jewish—may well have predisposed him to his subsequent theorising on race, cultural identity, popular culture and politics.
His position as an outsider in the then colonial motherland, in contrast to his Oxford contemporary VS Naipaul, prompted his incisive mind to question and then deconstruct assumptions about “Britishness” and British popular culture in the post-war period, when large-scale immigration from the Empire inaugurated what Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett, pioneering Jamaican Creole poet, humorously referred to as “colonisation in reverse.”
Trained as a sociologist and unimpeded by English anti-intellectualism, which initially resisted much of the new theorising emanating from France and Italy (Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Gramsci), Hall emerged as a cosmopolitan thinker/activist whom we could compare with Fanon or his equally brilliant classmate Edouard Glissant, both former students of Césaire. Following the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, in the following year Hall joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). In 1957, disenchanted with the limitations of orthodox Marxism, he became first editor of what would become the New Left Review, a radical leftist publication which served as a forum for new European thinking not only about politics but popular culture and early feminism.
In a similar mode to the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes, who perceptively deconstructed elements of French popular culture, Hall with his finely-tuned peripheral and diasporic sensibility introduced a multi-disciplinary/cultural approach to the analysis of fast-changing British popular culture, which effectively challenged existing master narratives with their racist and monolithic assumptions. We could call this an expression of de-colonisation from within, but it is better known as the beginning of both English multi-culturalism and cultural studies, of which Hall is rightfully regarded as the godfather.
When Richard Hoggart’s Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was established in 1964, Hall was named first director, a position he held until 1979 when he moved to the Open University as professor of sociology, remaining until 1997. Both these institutions were fundamental in pioneering a restructuring of the British academy, repositioning education as populist rather than the elitist preserve of his alma mater. The Open University, especially with its TV lectures and study-at-home style, made higher education both more accessible (to housebound mothers and those with disabilities) and more egalitarian.
Why he mattered
As filmmaker John Akomfrah (whose documentary on Hall was screened at last year’s TTFF) noted, Hall’s interests in film, music and the visual arts informed his theorising as much as his committed politics, all of which is strongly reminiscent of CLR James. Akomfrah also emphasised Hall’s importance to a whole generation of young black Britons, struggling with issues of identity amid the institutional racism of the 1970s. He inspired and validated their experiments in film, music and the performing arts, which gave voice and presence to the “Others” and the multiple identities of postwar Britain, ushering in the diversity and difference which would soon be recognised as seminal features of postmodernism.
Hall’s intellect, however formidable, was never static but attuned to the fluidity of his times. His theorising constantly remained open-ended, probing and self-reflexive: “The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency”.
Just as significant was his commitment to the Gramscian concept of the “organic intellectual—who cannot absolve himself or herself from the responsibility of transmitting…ideas…to those who do not belong, professionally, in the intellectual class.”
If Hall will be remembered in his adoptive home for his coining of the term “Thatcherism,” multiculturalism and cultural studies, it is his theory of cultural production and identity which is his major legacy for the Caribbean. Rather than viewing cultural identity as an “already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent,” he suggested we should view “identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.”
Hall ultimately rejected a revisionist/essentialist position in favour of a much more fluid and forward-thinking theory which accords with those of such major postmodern Caribbean theorists as Glissant and the Cuban Antonio Benitez-Rojo. “Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”
From without and within Stuart Hall “struggled with the angels” of theory, as he put it, offering his intellectual gifts to all who would deconstruct the inequalities of our neo-colonial world and open spaces for the voices of diversity to be heard and understood. We are all diminished by his death and enriched by his life.
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