Meeting Stuart Hall’s voice

Stuart Hall’s signature image is perhaps the way in which he worked an audience with his accessible and in-depth sharp intellectual analysis, often with vital specks of humour here and there. Obituary.

Nirmal Puwar
16 February 2014

Stuart Hall’s voice and ideas first engaged me as a teenager in the early hours of the morning. In the British front room, on the television, he presented a sharp and clear analysis of culture, society and power. I was at the time an eager A-Level Sociology student on a very passionate journey, discovering the language of sociology, a language that was helping me - the body and mind of a British Asian female teenager - to reflect on the world around us.

I first met Stuart Hall in person when I was a MA student in Social and Political Thought at Sussex University. A few of my classmates had heard that Hall was delivering a summer school lecture to Open University students. We slipped into the lecture hall and heard him give an extremely clear explication of the criss-crossing intersecting relations of power of race, gender and class.

A few black female students had brought their cameras along to be photographed with their teacher. Having worked in an Asian women’s refuge, in Newham as an undergraduate student, I had by then already heard the words race, gender and class together from within the books, pamphlets and political activities of ‘black’ feminists. Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Sojourner Truth, Avtar Brah, the Cohambee River Collective, Issue 17 of Feminist Review, Southall Black Sisters, OSWAAD and the collection The Heart of the Race.

This was well before intersections became a formulaic doxa or an easy point of critique. To hear the words of these ‘black’ feminists – many of whom were no doubt ‘sisters’ to Hall – within the words of a black male scholar who delivered them with a challenging analytical agility, no doubt shored up much needed support for black feminist causes.

The positions we align ourselves with and against, and the ideas we choose to give exposure to is incredibly telling in the landscape of academia. The next time I saw Stuart Hall was at the launch of the much-awaited book Cartographies of a Diaspora (1996) by Avtar Brah. Held in a packed room at Birkbeck College, with good food (not finger food) and drink for all who attended, we were surrounded by portraits of the largely male (though not all) but certainly all-white head-and-shoulders images in gold frames of those ranked to be the great and good of the College. In contrast to the pictures on the walls, this was one of those occasions where the majority of the socialites in the room were from diasporic, black and Asian backgrounds. Crystallising the sentiments in the room, Stuart Hall launched the book with warm, affectionate and intellectual support for Avtar Brah’s work and ideas. Some years later at Brah’s retirement conference in 2009 he again entered into a dialogue with the scholarship in her entire oeuvre.

There were many other occasions when I met Stuart Hall. Of course we meet him when we read, teach and debate his vast scholarship. To meet him as a reader is to find a form of speech which is always directly addressing you.

One of the many reasons he will be missed is the highlight of hearing him present a talk. He slowly comes alive. The audience comes alive. The ideas build up to a crescendo. He offers ideas which set off a whirlpool of connections. He moves the room. His analysis sets forth a sociological imagination that shifts its cadence through the tension of connecting the micro to the macro, the everyday to the abstract, from theory to everyday practices, and never without attention to the political moment. For many of my generation, born in the sixties and seventies in the UK, it is Hall’s perspective and approach that provided both an analytical and passionate set of moorings for building our own ideas and research attentions.

It has been both the backdrop and the steer for our racialised understandings of feminism. Hall’s work has formed the cultural heritage from which we have built our feminist analysis. He has been a pointed accompaniment to our developments, more often indirectly than directly.

Of the many events I managed to attend to hear Stuart Hall speak, a few stick out in my mind. One lecture was titled ‘From the Windrush to Stephen Lawrence’ and it was delivered by Hall to a packed audience in the Institute of Education. This event was soon after the nail bomb attacks in 1999, in Soho, Brixton and Brick Lane, planted by neo-nazi and homophobic David Copeland.

In the midst of this smoke there was some apprehension in the air. Low and behold a few seconds into Hall’s talk as he mentioned the Windrush migration, a voice from the audience yelled ‘Winston Churchill said that was the biggest invasion on British soil’. As this figure continued to try and disrupt Hall’s speech, whilst hundreds of eager listeners waited to hear him, the man in question was escorted out of the hall. In the midst of this kerfuffle, declaring some sort of allegiance with the man, a white British woman shouted ‘this is the white British working class voice we need to hear.’ While he was being moved on he continued to protest and to shout across to Hall that he was being accosted. In reply Hall with characteristic wit replied from the podium  ‘I am sorry I can’t reach you from here.’

Needless to say, Hall’s lecture, when it got under way, was large in scope, of the moment (the ‘conjuncture’ as he would put it, with the undertones of Louis Althusser which were so often present in his speech), full of ethnographic detail and a political charge that was far from the piety of a political sermon.

On the bus home whilst my head was re-reeling the combination of words, voice and political analyses Hall had pulled together for us, I heard a conversation coming from the back of the 168 bus. Two female voices were chatting and reflecting on how they liked the term “McDonalization”. Hall had used George Ritzer’s term to describe particular dimensions of globalisation. I turned around to glance at the people whose voices carried on the enthusiasm from the Institute of Education lecture we had all attended.

They were two very elderly white ladies; who had a touch of a working class accent in their speech. In this case the white working class were also punters to a lecture that spanned questions of racism, movement, global economic changes as well as the political uncertainties before us. This was a public sociology where the ‘seminar’ session was an impromptu conversation on the bus.

Stuart Hall’s publicness marked him out well before we had the outing (c/o Michael Burawoy) and the subsequent academic scrap, rather like graffiti on the walls, except in the confined pages of academic journals and conference conventions, over the word ‘Public Sociology’. His substantive focus closely analysed state practices, their interactions with the media, social, cultural and political movements, as well as international diasporic artistic practices.

He is one of the few sociologists (probably the only one) who has been both a President of the British Sociological Association and overseen an arts building and project, as Chair of INIVA, which now holds talks, exhibitions and the Stuart Hall Library.

The breadth of his attention, in terms of where he saw the world move, breath, oppress, live and change has been vast. Hence his audiences have also been from a diverse set of disciplines and sectors. At a conference held on diversity and the arts at the British Library, before he started his talk he warned the audience that due to ill health he would have to leave soon after his presentation.

Before he left the podium the auditorium filled with applause not only from hands clapping but also feet stamping the floor. His talk embraced the possibilities posed by the arts but he also provoked us into thinking about the current moment in which the work is being made and consumed. In the context of neo-liberal changes in the university sector where large grants do not necessarily equal new ideas but certainly ensure jobs and promotion, Hall’s words on working with policy changes and funding have stayed with me.

He understood the need to work tactically with funding bodies. But at the same time he warned that when the words of the grant makers and policy makers start to come out of your own mouth, that is when we need to get worried. The juggernaut machinery set in motion for collecting large data (as big as it can be) and for working on multi-site million pound projects continues to drive the engine of academia more than ever. At the same time, those referred to by C.W.Mills as the theory princely kings, continue to look on from afar.

As the educational life of the university breaks apart into niche, duplicating, branded markets, this is a far cry from the workshop practices of the Centre for Cultural Studies, of which Hall was a Director for many years. His work and way of being a sociologist has influenced such a large and diverse group of students and staff. He relayed a very particular kind of pedagogic scholarly style - sharp, warm witted and engaged. Thousands more people, many of whom have never stepped inside a university, heard about the sociology of cultures from his voice and face on their TV screens.

Stuart Hall’s signature image is perhaps the way in which he worked an audience with his accessible and in-depth sharp intellectual analysis, often with vital specks of humour here and there. We will continue to meet his words as we read and debate them in classrooms. His writing style is so akin to his speech that his voice can still be heard off the page.

He addressed us on Friday, September 6, 2013, in a Q & A session after the screening of the film The Stuart Hall Project (directed by John Akomfrah, 2013) at the ICA. Speaking from the audience, Hall lit up the room with his voice. Heads turned to the back of the auditorium to see what he had to say about this project, which was about him. He congratulated the film team. Having been for years, amongst other things, a cultural analyst of the processes of representation, his remarks included the comment – “this film is about the myth of Stuart Hall. It is not the film I would have made about my life”. Forever reflexive and challenging to the end. Five months after we had heard the sounds of his voice in the auditorium of the ICA it was announced that after serious ill health he died “peacefully” on February 10, 2014.

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