Stuart Hall is one of the founding figures of British cultural studies, providing a number of incisive commentaries that have helped to shape the field. Born in Jamaica in 1932, Hall has lived in Britain since 1951, originally studying literature at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He has held several academic positions, including director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham and chair of the Sociology Department at the Open University. Hall is a major analyst of the black British experience, and an influential political theorist and public intellectual. He played a critical role in founding the British New Left in the late 1950s and was in the forefront of analyzing the New Right in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s. Hall is responsible for coining the term “Thatcherism,” and he played a prominent role in rethinking left-wing politics in an age of globalization and conservative hegemony.
Hall's intellectual trajectory can be divided into three phases. The first roughly coincides with his role in founding the British New Left (1956-64). Hall was among the founders of Universities and Left Review, a journal produced by radical Oxford students impatient with existing political orthodoxies and critical of Britain's role in the 1956 Suez crisis. He was the first editor of New Left Review and played a primary role in mediating between the rising student generation and ex-communists mostly of an older generation, notably the historian E. P. Thompson. The left-wing cultural critics Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams influenced Hall's intellectual work during this period, especially with their use of insights drawn from literary analysis to critically examine transformations in postwar politics and society. In The Popular Arts (1964), written with Paddy Whannel, Hall argues that popular and high culture have different aims and aspirations which are comprehensible only on their own terms. At the same time, within the popular arts, he distinguishes between “mass” and “popular” culture. Popular culture is a genuine expression of the urban and industrial experience; mass art, on the other hand, involves the embellishment of a stock formula known to manipulate the emotions, not the imaginative and probing use of conventions.
Hall's second phase (1964-78) roughly coincides with his years at the CCCS, the first institutional site for this emerging interdisciplinary field. Hall helped define the Birmingham School, which fused structuralism and humanism, drawing on semiology (notably Roland Barthes's work), Western Marxism (particularly Louis Althusser's and Antonio Gramsci's thought), and British socialist humanism (Williams's cultural theory and Thompson's historical practice). In collectively produced studies - see Hall et al. 1978, 1980; Women's Studies Group 1978; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 1982; Hall & Jefferson 2006  - the Birmingham School made influential contributions to numerous fields: contemporary media, youth subcultures, working-class life, the modern state, historical theory, the theory of ideology, and the relationship between race, class, and gender. Among many influential essays written during this phase, Hall's “Encoding/decoding” is perhaps his most original (in Hall et al. 1980). He deploys semiology and Marxism to understand the communication process. His model is founded on Marx's concept of production. He sees communication as a chain of discrete moments, each with its own modality and form. Though “structured in dominance,” subject to asymmetrical power relations, the production of media messages or “encoding” and audience reception or “decoding” are two moments subject to their own structural logic. On the one hand, producers strive to gain assent to preferred meanings. Audiences, on the other hand, are capable of interpreting these messages in their own terms, because they do not understand the preferred meaning, are indifferent to it, or because they choose to use a different and sometimes oppositional code. Hall's belief that human beings play an active role in the reception of media messages echoes the original socialist humanist impetus of cultural studies. Yet he stresses that experience is constrained by the dominant hegemonic relations of late capitalist society, registering his debt to Gramsci's notion of hegemony as adapted by Althusser. Hall's attempt to fuse structuralism and humanism, perspectives that are often viewed by their adherents as being antithetical, is a hallmark of his thought. Indeed, throughout his career, he combines theoretical and political positions often thought to be in opposition.
Since the late 1970s (in what might be construed as a third phase) Hall has been active on multiple fronts. The collectively produced Policing the Crisis marked his emergence as a theorist of the race/class nexus, the black British experience, and the New Right. The book's impetus was an attack by a group of black youth on a white working-class man, which provoked apprehensions in the mainstream media of a mugging epidemic. Hall and his colleagues maintain that far from being spontaneous, the mugging scare results from a lengthy and complicated process of ideological preparation, whereby the state and the media exploit fears of race, crime, and youth to create a “moral panic.” They regard this ideological mobilization in relationship to the crumbling of the social-democratic consensus that emerged following World War II. And they understand the situation in Gramscian terms, as a crisis in hegemony. It is a situation rife for right-wing “authoritarian populism,” an emerging hegemonic bloc founded on the ideologies of the free market, nationalism, racism, and a conservative construction of the family. Hall and his colleagues argue that, while blacks in Britain are mostly treated as immigrants, that is, outside of British history and culture, they, in fact, are a diasporic people shaped by the historical experience of the British Empire and global capitalism, thus placing them at the center - rather than the periphery- of British history. Hall regards the racial dynamic in Britain as embedded in class relations. In an influential formation, he argues that race in Britain is the modality in which class is lived.
If Policing the Crisis marked a new phase in Hall's intellectual and political development, it was The Hard Road to Renewal (1988), a collection of his articles on the New Right, that established him as a major critic of Thatcherism. Drawing on Gramsci's thought, he argues that Thatcherism is a hegemonic project that reconfigures the relationship between public and private, the individual and the state. Correlatively, the Left's renewal depends on articulating cultural and political alternatives. Hall began to set out these alternatives in New Times (Hall & Jacques 1990), a collection of essays by authors who gravitated around the journal Marxism Today, an autonomous organ of the British Communist Party. New Times writers argue that just as a mass socialist politics developed in the early twentieth century in response to Fordist imperatives, the present moment calls for its post-Fordist equivalent: a politics acknowledging new conditions, new forms of inequality, new pressure points, and new forms of struggle. The point is not so much to break with its labor and socialist past, but to decenter that past. The old-style universalism of the class struggle is displaced by a “politics of difference” acknowledging a diversity of identities, constituencies, and social movements as well as a widening of what counts as politics itself.
Hall's understanding of identity in New Times is grounded in a discursive notion of the subject drawn from postmodern and poststructuralist thought. He supplants the centered, rational, stable, and unified self underpinning Marx's class theory with a conception that is “more fragmented and incomplete, composed of multiple ‘selves’ or identities in relation to the different social worlds we inhabit, something with a history, ‘produced,’in process” (Hall & Jacques 1990: 120). Such a perspective underpins Hall's understanding of black British identity, which he analyzes in essays on contemporary black photography, cinema, and popular culture. It was during this time that Hall became increasingly connected to the developing postcolonial movement in the humanities, ushered in by Edward Said's groundbreaking Orientalism (1978), and he was in the forefront of defining black British cultural studies. He sees the contemporary experience of the black diaspora as having produced hybrid and marginalized identities that are at the same time culturally central, emblematic of how identity is constructed in the contemporary globalized world.
In the essay “What is this ‘black’ in black popular culture?” (1996), Hall argues that to be black is not to possess an already known essence: “blackness” is produced through representation; and its meaning changes in relationship to “whiteness” and is mediated by shifts in politics and culture. At a time when the West is being decentered, when the binary opposition of high/low culture is dissolving, and when modernist universals are being supplanted by a postmodern insistence on difference, Hall argues that the earlier binary black/white needs to be deconstructed, allowing for more fluid notions of how blacks define themselves. His contention that identity is produced, rather than inherent, is indebted to poststructuralism and postmodernism as well as to Gramsci's understanding of politics in advanced capitalist societies as a “war of position.”
Since retiring from the Open University in 1997, Hall has been especially active in the public arena of cultural politics. He was a member of a committee that produced The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain 2000), commissioned by the Runnymede Trust, an independent think tank, and chaired by Bhikhu Parekh, a political philosopher. A its launch, the Blair government publicly backed the venture, but it subsequently distanced itself from its findings when the media and the political Right focused on the report's few pages analyzing the meaning of British identity, claiming that the report equated Britishness with racism. Defending the report, Hall argues that historically the idea of Britishness carries unstated racial implications insofar as being white is a critical dimension of the national imaginary. Yet he insists that the report never meant to state that this historical tendency could not be undone or is inevitable. Hall has also been a chair of two foundations, the Institute of International Visual Arts (INVA) and Autograph (ABP), which promotes photographers from minority backgrounds. Hall's efforts on behalf of these foundations led to his yeoman work in creating an institutional setting for them, Rivington Place, an £8 million gallery in east London, launched in 2007 and built with private and public money. Its library has been named in Hall's honor.
Over the years Hall has been attacked by critics on multiple fronts. For orthodox Marxists he is not materialist enough, and his work is tainted by its penchant for pursuing academic fashions. For adherents of postmodernism and poststructuralism, on the other hand, he is still too rooted in the Marxist tradition. In the end, Hall has been among the most influential cultural critics of his generation. His influence on the shape of contemporary cultural studies has been monumental and global in its reach. Operating in theoretical terrains that have been highly contentious and divisive, Hall has continually built bridges between theoretical perspectives, intellectual traditions, and disciplinary practices. Few intellectuals of our time have worked as hard - or as successfully - at fusing theory and practice.
SEE ALSO: Althusser, Louis; Barthes, Roland; Cultural Materialism; Cultural Studies; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegemony; Hoggart, Richard; Multiculturalism; Thompson, E. P.; Williams, Raymond
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