So much to reflect on from Stuart Hall’s passing – when I did my masters work on class analysis his intro to Culture, Media and Language was a methodological manifesto, and the more I think back over his work the more thoroughly sociological it seems, despite his humanities training and his thorough distaste for the field’s lack of reflexivity: “It would have been extremely interesting… to have heard the sociologists confronting the sociology of their own discipline…” “When I was offered a chair in sociology, I said, ‘Now that sociology does not exist as a discipline, I am happy to profess it.'” His intellectual gift to me was to take a historical line through discursive/institutional formations, most importantly including academic ones, and bring them to the nub, to hold the massive forces of puissance/connaisance in the figure that holds a situation:
“the various discourses … of individual “rights and duties” of “free agents” of the “rights of man” and of “representative democracy” – in short, the whole enormously complex sphere of legal, political, economic and philosophical discourses which compose the dense ideological complex of a modern capitalist society, all stem from or are rooted in the same premises upon which the market and the ideas of a “market society” and of “market rationality” are founded…. It is also crucial that “ideology” is now understood not as what is hidden and concealed, but precisely as what is most open, apparent, manifest – what “takes place on the surface and in view of all men.” What is hidden, repressed, or inflected out of sight, are its real foundations. This is the source or site of its unconsciousness.” (1977)
Such economy and poise. Perhaps this relates to Hall’s ambivalence around the similarly gifted Foucault, who pushed a contemporaneous argument further into formalism than Hall’s focus on the British nation would accept.
As for a lot of other people, Hall was my gateway to Gramsci and then to Marx; his reflections on the institutionalisation of academic practice were the forerunner to my interest in Spivak (who edited the quote above) and to my own forays into academic administration: without Hall I never would have entered the university as a place to work. Ironically, while I learned a lot from Hall’s grappling with the Caribbean, I never quite hooked into his specifically ‘cultural’ discussions in the way that I would later find in the critiques in anthropology and art. There is perhaps a generational angle here, where the efforts to open the university to working class culture had already begun turning student communities into the bottom line by 1990, in a way that made the study of white academia’s others more like appropriation than valorisation. Or maybe in the white colonies “culture” seemed more broken and different, and oppressive.
But Hall seemed to me more circumspect than most of his cultural studies followers in his choice of cases, and resisted overidentification with the object of study – just when it seems that his political commitment to grasp the street was taking the reader with him, his self-consciousness (connected to living black in academe?) intervened and left us aware – even just through a reserved tone – that the articulation of the intellectual to their own political location was not something to impose, it just was, and actually none of us were ready to understand him in the totality he sought. A life ‘without guarantees’: not a model to be followed but a singular example of how to practice living, moving and thinking between the institutionally handed-down world from the past and the new times unfolding in the future. Rest in peace, teacher.