A tribute to Stuart Hall

Jeremy Gilbert reflects on the life and work of Stuart Hall, who died Monday aged 82.

Flickr/nicholaslaughlin

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, and I encourage readers to refer there first if they are unfamiliar with the basic narrative of Hall’s life and career.

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 medium.

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 fields.

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.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See http://www.jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert