Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Stuart Hall: a class warrior and a class act

Gary Younge
February 11, 2014.

His death this week leaves a body of work that was forever alive to a forever changing world – an inspiration and an example

 Never finished … Stuart Hall. (Photograph: Antonio Olmos)
At a Race Matters conference in 1994 the great and good of black America's cognoscenti gathered at Princeton University to mark Cornel West's departure to Harvard. Among them were Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the late Manning Marable, Patricia Williams and Angela Davis. When questions were invited following the opening panel the first speaker came to the mic. "Stuart Hall, the Open University," he said, by way of introduction. "The room exploded into applause," wrote Claire Alexander in a special edition of Cultural Studies in 2009. "It was the only time I have ever witnessed someone getting a standing ovation for simply saying their name."

It is hard to overestimate the intellectual influence that Stuart Hall, who died on Monday, wielded both nationally and globally. His influence on the intersection of culture and politics as well as race, gender and national identity spanned continents, disciplines and generations. Hall wore the burden of this renown lightly, as though it barely weighed on him at all. One of the most celebrated sociologists in the academy, he never wrote a standalone book (though many essays) or gained a PhD in Sociology. He was gracious, generous, approachable and accessible – secure enough in his own intellect and comfortable enough in his own skin to engage a full range of allies, admirers and adversaries without apparently considering any a threat or himself a celebrity.

Of the two things I loved most about Hall's work the first was that he was never finished. He never stopped thinking, fathoming and immersing himself in fresh thinking. Constantly applying the texts he had produced to new contexts which emerged and then adjusting his ideas to keep his ideas dynamic.

"Cultural identities come from somewhere," he wrote in Cultural Identity and Diaspora. "But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power."

Like the identities he was critiquing he was always evolving. Always challenging and being challenged. This practice was what enabled him to not only coin the term Thatcherism but also offer the most thoroughgoing analysis of it even as it was emerging. "It no longer looks like a temporary swing in the political fortunes, a short-term shift in the balance of forces," he wrote of Thatcherism in Marxism Today in January 1979, four months before MargaretThatcher was elected. "It has been well installed – a going concern – since the latter part of the 1960s. And, though it has developed through a series of different stages, its dynamic and momentum appears to be sustained."

Many of his observations in that essay, as in so many others, would prove sadly prescient. "Thatcherism" has found a powerful means of popularising the principles of a monetarist philosophy: and in the image of the welfare "scavenger" a well designed folk-devil. Even then he suggested this "crisis" might last for decades.

The second was that he was not interested in the sterile opposition to Thatcherism and its ideological cousins but in formulating the kind of response that could actually defeat it. Not only did he remain faithful to principles of equality, humanism and social justice. He held them so dear he did not want to see them sacrificed at the altar of cheap rhetoric. He was not interested in the kind of formulaic "left" responses that offered solace but no solution. "If we are correct about the depth of the rightward turn, then our interventions need to be pertinent, decisive and effective. Whistling in the dark is an occupational hazard not altogether unknown to the British left."

These two things came together to elevate him, in my estimation, above the overwhelming majority of academics of his status. He was not interested in sounding clever but being useful and making a difference. His intellectual product was not a performance but an engagement: a genuine desire to understand the world as it is, not as he would like it to be, and to help change it by offering insights and interventions that might help make that world possible.
Read the rest here.
Comment: The world of ideas has lost an intellectual giant.  Professor Stuart Hall will be sorely missed but he will live on in the critical work he has left behind.

There are very few people who transcend death.  I think Hall is one of those very few.

Gary Younge is correct in pointing to the transformative and evolving nature of Halls thinking. Rather than being caught in an essentialized past - though not nearly ignoring the sameness of identity markers in the past - Hall recognized that cultural identity is always fluid even as we struggle to find and locate ourselves.  He wrote in "Cultural Identity and Diaspora":
"Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous 'play' of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere 'recovery' of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past."
The power of this fluidity is that cultural identity cannot merely be 'recovered' and packaged for prosperity even as the world changes and generations come and go. 

This to me is more than a mere relativist position in that it is a nuanced understanding and appreciation of the movement of cultural identity through time and space.

But Hall also recognized that cultural identities are contested and contestable terrain.  In other words, there is a politics to what is and what is not the ingredients of cultural identity.  He writes further:
"Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. Hence, there is always a politics of identity, a politics of position, which has no absolute guarantee in an unproblematic, transcendental 'law of origin'."
May Professor Stuart Hall rest in peace.


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