PRINT September 2014


Stuart Hall

PERHAPS NO SCHOLAR in recent memory has become such a prominent public intellectual as Stuart Hall, yet his wide-ranging influence was due in large part to the way in which he embodied not one identity but several. After studying at University of Oxford, Hall cofounded the New Left Review, where his editorship cut through postwar consensus, contributing to the political ferment of the 1960s. As director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham for a decade beginning in the late ’60s, he played a leading role in developing cultural studies as a paradigm of critical investigation disseminated across the humanities and social sciences, from media studies and sociology to history and political philosophy, by a generation of scholars who took culture seriously as a material formation inscribed within contested relations of power and resistance. In his role as professor of sociology at the Open University from 1979 to 1997, Hall reached a broad audience beyond the confines of academia, introducing his ideas to those entering higher education as working adults by way of his television broadcasts for the university. And from the ’80s onward, he engaged with black British artists, filmmakers, and photographers, leading the way to a postcolonial vocabulary for the visual arts in such landmark essays as “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” (1990). In addition to thus theorizing the global conditions of contemporary art, he fostered new arts institutions as chair of INIVIA (Institute of International Visual Arts) and Autograph ABP, formerly the Association of Black Photographers.

But the archive of Hall’s prolific radio and television appearances reveals something more. With his ability to win the attention of a wide audience without ever compromising his critical acumen, Hall was a cultural theorist who fully understood that the form and the medium of communication carry signifying power in their own right. Whether in the pages of Marxism Today or on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, his animated and inquiring tone of voice was always capable of turning the conversation in new directions. Indeed, what made Hall so singular was that his media appearances were not distinct from his scholarly publications: All were fully integral to the interventionist ethos of his lifelong intellectual activism. Far from passively reflecting a given public, Hall’s discourse actively brought multiple publics into being.

All this made Hall something of a modernist, in the sense that his interventions cut into established ideological fixities, calling forth new possibilities in cultural life. Breaking up commonplace perceptions of the social world as immutable and unchangeable, Hall acted on a repertoire of diagnostic skills that laid bare the stakes of each topic he addressed, giving culture and art a pivotal role in making future alternatives thinkable. When, in his 1988 “New Ethnicities” essay, he announced “the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject,” he loosened up the stalemate in which antiracist critiques of stereotypical images were stuck. While such critiques took aim at discriminatory mythologies in the name of an essentialized notion of black authenticity, Hall showed that representations are not secondary reflections of given identities but actually gain primacy in structuring the formative identifications by which diasporic blackness always exists in a condition of multiplicity. Conceding limits to the influential notion of hybridity, his “Modernity and Difference” dialogue with art historian Sarat Maharaj in 2000 stressed the unending process of translation through which the border-crossing growth of all culture is pushed onward by an untranslatable remainder that is absent or left out, just as desire is said to arise from a lack that drives the human out of stasis into a world where subjectivity seeks to make up for what is felt to be missing. Interrupting the presentism that assumes globalization began only recently, his contribution to a Documenta 11 publication in 2003 emphasized the ways in which cross-cultural creolization, arising from cycles of colonial conquest and commerce, has actually been ongoing since 1492.

With each of his interventions, Hall defined his object of inquiry as the “conjuncture” in which the balance of social and political forces that define a hegemonic bloc is always open to rupture by countervailing pressures of antagonism and resistance. Policing the Crisis (1978), coauthored with four students at the University of Birmingham, showed that media-generated moral panics over race and crime in Britain led to the law-and-order policies of the “authoritarian populism” that reshaped social life under Margaret Thatcher. Conjunctural analyses in The Hard Road to Renewal (1988) disputed the Left’s reductive determinisms by underlining the “non-necessary” character of the present, thereby highlighting the contingency through which unforeseeable events break into history. Antonio Gramsci’s motto “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” was Hall’s modus operandi at all times, and this outlook, in turn, inspired the critical scholarship of Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby, David Scott, and countless others.

Although visual material was in his repertoire from the very beginning, Hall found renewed vitality in the creative interactions that led him to narrate a portion of Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989); coedit the “Critical Decade” issue of Ten.8 journal in 1992 with photographer David A. Bailey; coauthor Different (2001) with Autograph’s Mark Sealy; and inspire John Akomfrah’s recent film works The Unfinished Conversation (2012) and The Stuart Hall Project (2013). Instead of being the Big Man with the Big Book, Hall, with his passion for collaborative endeavors, testified to the values of a socialist intellectual with no interest in patriarchal posturing or possessive individualism. When I first met him as a young scholar I was in awe, but I needn’t have been. His warm accessibility welcomed everyone into the conversation, and his generous attentiveness had everything to do with the egalitarian ethic he embodied in all that he did. When he went along with my suggestion for the title of his contribution to the 1988 publication of the Black Film/British Cinema conference I organized at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, who could have foreseen the far-reaching impact “New Ethnicities” would have once it entered into global circulation? I would say I owe everything to the consequences of a contingent encounter with Hall’s generosity and openness to the world: Staying up late to watch television as a teenager in the ’70s and coming across Hall lecturing on Althusserian Marxism, I experienced an event that I am glad to say irrevocably altered my life, just as Hall has had immeasurable impact on a multitude of others as well.

Kobena Mercer is a professor of the history of art and African American studies at Yale University.