U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

News arrived this morning that the great sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall has passed away; an excellent obituary can be found at The Guardian. Although the focus of his work was, in a sense, far from U.S. intellectual history, I think it’s fair to say that his scholarship and career have nevertheless been hugely important for many U.S. intellectual historians. At the time I was in graduate school in the late 1980s, his influence in this country was being felt particularly strongly. History had taken a “cultural turn,” and English departments were focusing more and more of their attention on cultural studies. And Hall was one of the founding figures of cultural studies.

Jamaican-born and raised, Hall came to Merton College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1951, a moment when the first great wave of West Indian immigration to Britain was taking place.  In 1960, he helped co-found New Left Review and over the next few years, along with Raymond Williams, wrote pioneering articles about the study of culture in its pages.  In 1964, Richard Hoggart, who had just created the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, invited Hall to become its first faculty member. In 1968, Hall became the Acting Director of CCCS; in 1972, he became its director.[1]  Hall and the Birmingham School became known for their distinctive, Gramscian approach to the study of popular, which took seriously the multiple and competing ways that people can and do read popular cultural texts. This approach very notably rejected the assumptions of both the Frankfurt School and some mid-century American cultural critics like Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, who often saw in mass culture little more than empty kitsch and the (often successful) attempt by dominant classes to control the thoughts and feelings of the masses. 

As his early involvement with NLR suggests, Hall was also a model of an engaged scholar.[2] One of the first major Black British public intellectuals, Hall was an important voice for multiculturalism in a country that has, at times, been reluctant to embrace its growing ethnic and racial diversity. In a tribute on The Root, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes Hall as “the Dubois of Britain.” In recent years, Hall had been particularly critical of the willingness of the British left to embrace the assumptions of the right.  For a sense of how vibrant Hall remained in his analysis of the British political scene, check out “Common-sense neoberalism” (co-written with Alan O’Shea), which appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of the journal Soundings.

But though Hall was a towering figure in cultural studies, and cultural studies, in turn, was a constant topic of conversation among young historians in the 1980s, in my graduate program we read very little by Stuart Hall.  I think the only time I was actually assigned an essay by Hall was in an English grad course I audited, Andrew Ross’s seminar on cultural theory. IIRC, we read the essay on “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.”

I always like scholarly obituary posts to become open threads for the discussion of the work of the person celebrated in them.  This is particularly the case with this post. Though I can – with a little help from the Guardian obituary linked above – recite the highlights of Stuart Hall’s career and though I have a strong sense of his intellectual significance, my relationship to his work is, in general, more second-hand than it should be.  I know, however, that he’s one of the giants on whose shoulders anyone working in intellectual and cultural history stands (indeed, that he is one of the reasons that we often label our sub-field “intellectual and cultural history” at all).



[1] In 2002, long after Hall had left to take a post at the Open University, the CCCS became one of the first victims of the neoliberal restructuring of British academia, when, following a poor grade on the Research Assessment Exercise, the University of Birmingham engaged in a “restructuring” that simply eliminated CCCS along with the Department of Sociology.  In recent decades, the UK has been the world innovator when it comes to draconian higher education “reform.” The closing of CCCS was immediately (and correctly) seen as a cautionary tale throughout British academia. It may well become one for American academia in the near the future, too.

[2] This remembrance from Tariq Ali focuses on how central politics was to Hall’s scholarship.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of cultural studies?…At that point, I think anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice, must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything. If you don’t feel that as one tension in the work that you are doing, theory has let you off the hook.”

    I’ve always really loved this line (from “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies”) in large part because Hall forces us to think about the tension that he describes here as generative.

    One of the many other things that strikes me thinking about Hall is that he never wrote a single-author monograph. We are so insistently discouraged from seriously collaborative work, whether because of the job-market or tenure or whatever, all of which fetishize a clear tracking of every individual thought, and thus perpetuate the fantasy that we think alone. Hall’s career resists that so thoroughly, and instead gives us a network of politically oriented, critical theorized engagement.

  2. I’m so upset that I hadn’t seen that Soundings essay before now! I would’ve loved to have put that in conversation with my book chapter on common-sense great books liberalism. But I agree with the essay’s subtitle: “The battle over common sense is a central part of our political life.” Touche. – TL

  3. Michael Berube posted this excerpt from Hall on Facebook, and I thought it was so smart, and so straightforward, and it speaks so beautifully to many of our methodenstreiten here at the blog (and in the left-liberal academy more generally):

    It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie. Even less acceptable is the position that, whereas ‘they’– the masses– are the dupes of history, ‘we’– the privileged– are somehow without a trace of illusion and can see, transitively, right through into the truth, the essence, of a situation. Yet it is a fact that, though there are people willing enough to deploy the false consciousness explanation to account for the illusory behavior of others, there are very few who are ever willing to own up that they are themselves living in false consciousness! It seems to be (like corruption by pornography) a state always reserved for others.

    — Stuart Hall, “The Toad in the Garden: Thatcherism Among the Theorists” (1988), in MARXISM AND THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURE (ed. Nelson and Grossberg)

    (And thanks to Ben for tracking down the citation for me.)

    • It takes a lot of effort to imagine that the 55 year old guy buying the crack pipe at the liquor store isn’t a victim of some sort of malign consciousness, and greater effort yet to imagine how, say, a Bill Kristol, Chapo Guzman, or Papa Doc Duvallier believe that their enterprise is making the world a better place—and yet it is incumbent on us to make this effort. It is some intellectual analog to “il faut imaginer Sysiphe heureux.”

  4. This is a fantastic obit, yet I can’t help but think that this is yet another scholar who I should have known much more about before he/she died. Same when I found out that Richard Iton, who’s already become one of my favorite recent cultural scholars, passed away not long ago.

  5. The Stuart Hall quotation I remember the most, from “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular”–and central to the debates about accommodation and resistance that roiled american studies and cultural studies in the 80s:

    “.. Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be one or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture — already fully formed — might be simply “expressed”. But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.”

      • Always thought that last line about not giving a damn did more damage than good to Hall’s amazing interventions into how we think about popular culture. It sort of undercut his larger point that socialism, both as it might be imagined and as it might “actually exist” was in fact quite perplexing and fascinating and generative of an uncertainty useful and necessary for the very struggles Hall tried to articulate and push forward.

      • …but it is true that he was responding there to the trendy moment of cultural studies in the US and UK, in which politics was reduced to transgressive culture. Madonna as Marxist revolutionary sort of thing. In the longer view, I keep coming back to his concepts of articulation, conjuncture, representation, identity, and his particular reading of Gramsci (so different from the Genovese/Jackson Lears US intellectual history variants) as so staggeringly useful and productive.

      • Heh, Kramer. See below, coevally composed.

        It sort of undercut his larger point that socialism, both as it might be imagined and as it might “actually exist” was in fact quite perplexing and fascinating and generative of an uncertainty useful and necessary for the very struggles Hall tried to articulate and push forward.

        Still, it goes to the useful above the true. Which is OK if one wants to participate in history rather than just comment on it.

        Even our beloved Mr. Lincoln was not above the occasional useful statement above the true.

  6. What books or articles would all of you recommend as the best places to get to know and understand Hall’s work?

  7. RIP. Stuart Hall seems* more interested in being a part of [“intellectual”?] history than a mere chronicler of it. Which is cool.

    “.. Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful** is engaged: it is the stake to be one or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured. It is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture — already fully formed — might be simply “expressed”. But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.”

    Aye, I feel the same way, for the opposite reason [per Plato and poetry]. These days I care about popular culture only insofar as it debases our civilization, and even at that, there’s not much culture left to transgress. One has to work up a good yawn before one can even pretend be scandalized at say, twerking or a gay NFL football palyer.
    ______
    *”Seems,” the present tense, is used here as a sign of respect. A man’s ideas live after him. Never heard of him, and likely seldom will again, but I like him so far:

    “It is a highly unstable theory about the world which has to assume that vast numbers of ordinary people, mentally equipped in much the same way as you or I, can simply be thoroughly and systematically duped into misrecognizing entirely where their real interests lie.”

    Indeed. So what the hell’s the matter with Thomas Frank?

    **Who are “the powerful” here in the 20-teens? In Stuart Hall’s adopted Europe, that would be the Brusselscrats, yes? Some interesting elections coming up thereabouts on the future of Pan-Europeanism. Europeans are indeed asking where their real interests lie.

  8. This passage may be among the most fruitful in Hall’s work for intellectual historians to tarry over:
    “In serious, critical intellectual work, there are no ’absolute beginnings’ and few unbroken continuities. Neither the endless unwinding of ’tradition’, so beloved of the
    History of Ideas, nor the absolutism of the ’epistemological rupture’, punctuating Thought into its ’false’ and ’correct’ parts, once favoured by the Althussereans, will
    do. What we find, instead, is an untidy but characteristic unevenness of development. What is important are the significant breaks–where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes. Changes in a problematic do significantly transform the nature of the questions asked, the forms in which they are proposed,
    and the manner in which they can be adequately answered. Such shifts in perspective reflect, not only the results of an internal intellectual labour, but the manner in which real historical developments and transformations are appropriated in thought, and provide Thought, not with its guarantee of ’correctness’ but with its fundamental orientations, its conditions of existence. It is because of this complex articulation between thinking and historical reality, reflected in the social categories of thought, and the continuous dialectic between ’knowledge’ and ’power’, that the breaks are worth recording.” – “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms”

  9. Michael–
    That line about not giving a damn about popular culture always stuck with me, I think because of its ambiguity. I was never quite sure whether it was a joke or not, but it always felt sort of comic in the midst of a serious theoretical discussion about the relationship between cultural forms and politics–in other words, an example or instance of introducing the “low” into the “high.” But many people took that idea seriously and couldn’t see beyond the idea that culture was a purely instrumental form for constituting a politics (in the absence of those politics elsewhere, perhaps). It could certainly be read as a complete disregard or contempt for any notion of cultural pleasure beyond or outside of power and politics, but it could be the inverse, as you suggest–an attempt to preserve the complexity of culture from the inherent destructive power of politically-oriented analysis by putting some portion outside of the purposes of intellectual critique.

    • I always wondered about that line, too. To amplify what you guys have said: It struck me as a bit of exasperation with the fact that debates about culture and its politics had seemed to overshadow the political questions of power, identity, class, and inequality he and the other Gramscians had sought to use culture to illuminate. And that was bracing–and an important corrective to the sort of simplistic cultural studies stuff we had to read so much of back in the day. But it always disappointed me a bit, too, because it denies one of the things I learned living in and growing up through popular culture and then trying to learn how to think about it, which was the fact that culture is so fundamentally wild– it refuses to be tied down by any forms of orthodoxy. That seems to me to be a source of its interest and my passion surrounding particular corners of it.
      I learned Gramsci through Hall and Michael Denning, and contrary to Lears (as you say Mike) what I took from it was the open-endedness of the struggle for hegemony. The sense that it was always ongoing, rolling along, waxing and waning, making and unmaking ideas and common sense across changing “conjunctures” at different levels of power and meaning. This was both the key to the history of the 20th century–okay, one key–when the culture industries had risen to their great power and a key to understanding “culture” and particularly “popular culture” itself, which wouldn’t be tied down for long and will go off in all directions as it is constantly remade through various reappropriations.
      Of course, one could jump into this flow and analyze the relations of power and dynamics of change and so forth at one moment or series of moments, but with the knowledge that they’re all part of a longer flow. I also think that one can use this to think about meanings and historical change of many kinds–without the questions of class and power that Hall would have required, but that’s another story. Hall may not have liked it, but he was enormously influential to me on that score.

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