To discover Stuart Hall

Hall was a skilled storyteller, who placed his memory, his deep sense of alienation, and his autobiography at the heart of his theory and politics.

Stuart Hall in early 1960s. Screengrab from John Akomfrah's "The Stuart Hall Project."

To discover Hall is to discover the immense possibility of being different. I first encountered Stuart Hall: on the radio. After a crisp introduction from the BBC presenter, Stuart Hall’s velvety voice and articulated conviction filled the room. For 45 minutes I listened captivated as Hall recounted his childhood in Jamaica and his time as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, where he arrived escorted by his mother, an enormous steamer trunk, a felt hat and a checked winter coat. Always laced with nostalgia, he spoke of discovering modern jazz through Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, dancing to Marvin Gaye, and the many complexities of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.

Hall was a skilled storyteller, who placed his memory, his deep sense of alienation, and his autobiography at the heart of his theory and politics. Once, when Heidegger was asked to articulate Aristotle’s life, he is said to have replied that “He was born, he thought, and he died. And all the rest is pure anecdote.” Contrary to this, for Hall, his theory was inexplicably linked to his story. Unlike the pure theoretical and philosophical traditions that discounted the empirical accidents of life, Hall almost always began from the personal, and regularly returned to his childhood experiences in colonial Jamaica and its formative impact on his intellectual preoccupation with class, race and identity. It is therefore impossible to fully divorce Hall’s theoretical contributions from his biography—impossible to encounter his work without encountering him.

Born in Kingston in 1932, Hall was born in family of mixed English, African, Indian, and Portuguese Jews, what he described as “a lower-middle class family … trying to be an English Victorian family.” Hall grew up in a society where race was the pivot to all human interactions. Colonial Jamaica was structured entirely around an intricate and often inflexible, if unofficial, racial caste system. People lived their lives based on classifications along color lines. Hall recalls that race was everywhere, “that’s just the air you breathe, and that’s how everyone saw and understood society.”

The experience of internalized colonialism within his family would both radicalize and shape Hall’s thinking. One story in particular informed his political commitments, a story that he would return to again and again. When his sister fell in love with a young doctor, a black Barbadian, the family intervened and stopped the relationship. The doctor’s “blackness” was against the family’s concept of what was appropriate. Shortly after, his sister suffered a tremendous nervous breakdown that re-occurred throughout her 20’s. Hall saw his sister as an “unconscious victim” of the entire colonial system. Since his sister refused to revolt, he revolted in her place, but he could never escape the “argument and frustration” that was built into him.

Hall arrived in England in 1951 a young man with impeccable intellectual faculties, deeply affected by the colonial experience. Wedded to his state of exile, he was astutely aware of his own position as being peripheral, displaced or marginalized. His politics were anti imperial and anti colonial—but those ideas were an immediate, almost knee-jerk intellectual response. They had not yet achieved the intellectual sophistication or intricacy that Hall is known for. After completing his BA, he began doctoral work on Henry James, at Oxford in 1953. But world events would drive Hall to abandon Henry James and focus his intellectual energies on the intersections of politics, resistance and culture.

In August of 1956 the British invaded the Suez, and in November the Soviet Union viciously repressed the Hungarian revolution. It was a moment of rupture: Britian decided to be Empire again and imperialism was again rearing its head in Africa, while events in Hungary showcased the utter putrefaction of actually existing socialism, and thousands left the British Communist Party in disgust. This political crisis was crucial to Hall’s intellectual trajectories and spawned the formation of the New Left, the intellectual precursor to Cultural studies. The New Left was a peculiarly un-British response to the changing world, taking place on British soil. It was being fashioned by young colonial intellectuals who were then studying in Britain. It was the impossibility, for these non-white non-English intellectuals, of ever breaking into the established, traditional spaces of the British left that produced the conditions of possibility of the New Left.

The moment of the New Left, would also mark Hall’s long contentious relationship with Marxism and his characteristic refusal to be theoretically essentialist or authoritative. Hall described himself as having come ‘into marxism backwards, against the Soviet tanks in Budapest’. A reluctant Marxist, he regularly critiqued its inadequacy in analyzing imperialism. Yet during this period, his work was firmly grounded in the work of Marxist Caribbean scholar C.L.R James and Antonio Gramsci. There were no intellectual fountain heads for Hall; no position continually defensible in the face of change. Hall instead tended to respond to the events of a particular moment, focusing on constantly changing political currents within culture through a fluid and promiscuous use of different thinkers like Anderson, Bhabha and Derrida.

In 1964, the infamous Smethwick by-election, brought the “question of race” directly into British politics. It was the first time a candidate from a major political party had stood on an explicitly racial ticket. Conservative Peter Griffiths defeated the sitting Labor candidate with the slogan ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote Liberal or Labour’. 1964 was also the year Stuart Hall married Catherine Barrett after a brief courtship.

In Birmingham, where they lived at the time, racism was oppressively overt and Hall recollects hateful slurs directed towards them in the streets for being a mixed race couple. Finding a place to live was a difficult and a traumatic experience. For Hall it was a terrible reckoning to be “externalized as the black and white couple”. The period following saw full-blown anti-racist politics, and powerful grassroots and community retaliation against racism. The racial issues that had dictated his place in Colonial Jamaica had finally ‘come home’ to Britain, and had a visceral impact on Hall’s life and writing. It was another rupture from which new kinds of questions about the “politics of culture” emerged. In the climate of open racism and fierce resistance, Hall’s set to work articulating emerging contradictions and what he calls the historical amnesia in the British society. For Hall, these contradictions were situated in the post war, post empire British society’s refusal to acknowledge and include in its national imagination, the narratives of the colonial other .

In his essay ‘Old and new identities’, Hall provocatively writes — “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth.” English identity came symbolized with the cup of tea, but there exists no tea plantation within the United Kingdom. The sugar from West Indian plantations, the tea from Sri Lanka and India: if the cup of tea is the central symbol of Englishness, then Englishness is deeply, unchangeably colonial. Hall situates Englishness, and English history squarely within the “outside” history of the other –“There is no English history without that other history.” Hall’s cuppa tea worked to destabilize the category of ‘Englishness’, a concept increasingly central to the emerging politics of race and Thatcherism.

Hall’s formidable work, Policing the Crisis and his future work on the diaspora and representations of identity, are continuous with a long thread of concern with the politics of ‘race’ and the politics that succeeded by writing out the stories of the “other”. In writing Policing the Crisis, Hall witnessed the victory of racialized narratives about crime and marginality, and how they were deployed toward social control. Hall was a vocal and highly visible critic of the authoritarian forms of populism, from the mid-1970s onwards, that took hold in Britain. He defined this “populist auhoritarianism” as an appeal to being saved by a charismatic leader of the society, “who could get the work done”. He argues that, while not directly fascist, it makes the same emotional and political appeals that fascism does. A power that wins consent by building peoples’ fears, fantasies, and phobias into a model of society is a strategy he recognized from colonial administration. His intellectual labour was invariably connected to political intervention, to explore limitation, and the inherent contradictions of the society, to lead and win political arguments in public sphere, because it was here that he strongly believed the resistance to power and populist variations of authoritarianism was situated.

Yet his work was marked by a certain incompleteness that cannot demonstrate its own consistency. There is no, single grand theory, unifying thread or internally consistent ideas through which we can discern Hall. His work remains necessarily incomplete, a work in progress and full of contradictions. Hall thought and wrote about everything from the black diaspora, slavery, post colonialism, politics, power, Marxism, art, culture and literature. Hall preferred the form of the essay, but also articulated his eclectic views through the television interviews, prolific journalism and literary commentary, that allowed him to constantly revise, update, retract and elaborate upon his ideas and to intervene in current issues.

But this “weakness” is also Hall’s greatest legacy: in merging the theoretical, the critical and the personal in cultural and anti-colonial thinking. The details, the anecdotes, the lacerating experiences, the remarkable events of Hall’s life became intertwined with his analysis of culture and politics. Stuart Hall told his story of dislocation, migration and memory – the story of the black intellectual and the history of modern African migration to Britain. He was constantly staking claims, and clearing the ground to create a new space of in-betweens, and an intermediary position, both politically and intellectually. It is on the grounds he cleared, that many like myself stand with the ability, and perhaps the courage to define the discourses of our time. To discover Hall is to discover the immense possibility of being different it.

Further Reading

Stuart Hall in Africa

Though Hall’s work was written from the vantage point of the black immigrant experience in the UK, some of it resonated in South Africa.