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. 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. 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).
 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.