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Stuart Hall: a bright star

He was committed to intervening publically on key political questions: he never followed a narrow academic path but knew theory was an essential lens for critique. Obituary.

Listening to Stuart Hall made us see the world differently and he had a gift that enabled us to understand our life anew.  He seemed to be talking directly to you, even if it was through the TV screen or through the pages of one of his many influential essays. 

I think that is why so many people – even students and readers who never met him in person – feel such a deep sense of personal loss at the news of his passing.  It is as if a bright star that gave us a bearing in life to navigate our course has fallen from the sky.   

Thinking for him was always a process of transformation and changing himself, making sense out of the senselessness of exploitation, imperialism and racism.  If you followed his thought you could not help but be transformed too.  It was impossible to ever drink a cup of tea again without being reminded of the imperial traces in the brown leaves and the sugar’s sweet taste.

Stuart Hall had an incredible capacity for intellectual generosity.  He could unlock a student trapped by an intellectual conundrum with a single phrase. He was interested in what you had to say and in conversation he would use phrases like - “of course you have written about that.”  The sense of acknowledgement was incredibly validating, conveying a sense that you were playing a part in a much bigger project of transformation. 

He rarely got embroiled in personal infighting within the anti-racist Left and I think he had a sense of where deep defining political fault lines lay in the struggle for a more just society.  He helped you keep your mind open and to resist what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences.”

It is a terrible prospect to contemplate the world without his wisdom and counsel. The weekend before he died I was reading one of his lesser know essays - “Marx’s Notes on Method: A ‘Reading of the ‘1857 Introduction’” that was published in a CCCS collection.  Reading his words on the page I could almost hear his unique voice, his sense of humour and his joy in understanding something important as if for the first time. 

These are precious gifts bequeathed to us in his writing. There is something else though, perhaps even more urgent, we should remember as we pay tribute to him and his generous intellect.

Stuart Hall’s life offers us an alternative path to follow in the vocation of thinking and learning.  He was committed to intervening publically on key political questions: he never followed a narrow academic path but knew theory was an essential lens for critique.  We should honour that by asking, at any given point in a political argument or in an encounter with a student: “what would Stuart Hall do?” Then, having established an answer with our own wits, act accordingly.    

About the author

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His books include The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), Theories of Race and Racism (Routledge, 2001), an on-line multi-media book entitled Academic Diary (Free Thought, 2011), and recently, Live Methods (2013, with Nirmal Puwar).

 


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