Thinking aloud with Stuart Hall

The re-emergence of racialized modes of thinking, racism and discrimination across the West, makes reading and re-reading Stuart Hall urgent.

Photo by InSapphoWeTrust. Via Flickr CC.

In this bid to free myself from living the life of the colonized, I never had any aspiration to be English, nor have I ever become English.

Stuart Hall (with Bill Schwarz) Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (2017)

My first ever introduction to the work of Stuart Hall (1932-2014) came in the form of an enthusiastic invitation to watch a video of one of his lectures after Sunday dinner with my friend Aslam Fataar at his home in Cape Town in the late 1990s. The exigencies and attention required by my immersion in ethnographic fieldwork on Muslims in Cape Town at the time meant I paid scant attention to it, and that my real discovery of Hall’s work came years later in Norway. Yet, the circumstances of my initiation to Hall do not strike me as particularly surprising. Hall had many readers in various post-colonies, and the attraction of his thought and legacy, and not the least the appeal of his particular mode of engagement with the world in and outside of academia to intellectuals who share his formative experiences with both creolization and colonial and late-colonial subjugation, has long been apparent.

Three years on from Hall’s death in 2014, there is a virtual cottage industry of publications of and about his work. This is not the least due to the commitment of Duke University Press’ editor Ken Wissoker to bringing Hall’s publications to the attention of new and old readers in a reasonably priced series. From the preface to Hall’s own Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, an intellectual autobiography based on Bill Schwarz 30 years of conversations with him, we learn that Hall wanted to publish with this particular press in the U.S., due to its long-standing record of publishing the work of some of the most outstanding Caribbean-born modern intellectuals, such as Marcus Garvey and C.L.R. James. As a reader, two of the chief merits of Hall’s and Schwarz’s Familiar Stranger and the Jamaican-born anthropologist and political theorist David C. Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimitations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity is that they bring us much closer to an understanding of the role that Hall’s formative years in colonial Jamaica played in his life and thought than what one could often intuit from his own work.

Scott is a former student of Talal Asad at the New School For Social Research in New York, now a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. He is a long-standing editor of Small Axe, that supremely interesting Duke journal dedicated to Caribbean arts and letters, as well as the author of a number of important monographs on the past and present of the Caribbean. He is therefore more qualified than most scholars to write about Hall.

We learn from Familiar Stranger and Stuart Hall’s Voice that Scott, though born in Jamaica, is of a much younger generation than Hall. Hall notes that his own “conditions of existence” were those of the “closing days of the old colonial world,” and that though only six years old at the time, the epochal event which formed his political generation was the “events of 1938” in Jamaica. He also notes that Scott, “two generations younger,” formed part of a “radicalized cohort of the 1970s” in Jamaica.  Hall also drily comments on the fact that though many continued to consider him a proverbial “post-colonial,” and as a product of 1968, he was really a child of colonialism and of 1956. Of privileged stable and Christian middle-class brown rather than black background, Hall’s escape from Jamaica and to Oxford in 1951 was also an escape from the conditions of his upbringing in a society shaped by the multiple and perennial shadows of colonialism and slavery, which prevented him from an all-too-open identification with the racially and economically marginalized majority of black Jamaicans.  Here are some of Hall and Schwarz’s memorable formulations about what it meant to “think the Caribbean”:

I came to understand that, as a colonized subject, I was inserted into history (or in this case, History) by negation, backwards and upside down – like all Caribbean peoples, dispossessed and disinherited from a past which was never properly ours.

For the young Hall, racialization was close and personal: his elder sister Pat, five years his senior, suffered a life-long mental breakdown as a result of Hall’s racially obsessed mother putting a stop to her romantic involvement with a black student from another Caribbean island whilst studying medicine. The story has of course been told before in John Akomfrah’s elegant and elegiac documentary tribute to Stuart Hall, The Stuart Hall Project, but Hall’s rendering of the personal tragedy here adds texture and nuance. This is the peculiar and internalized madness which will be familiar to many citizens of post-colonial societies to this day, and not the least to South Africans forced to imbibe the bitter poisons of racialized thinking and classification under Apartheid and their long afterlife among the dispossessed in post-Apartheid South Africa. What these experiences meant in Hall’s intellectual thought is fleshed out well in Scott’s book.

For a radical thinker like Hall, unlike say Ernesto Laclau, the questions relating to identity were not simply intellectual abstractions, but lived and embodied experiences. “The distinctions between my life and ideas really have no hold,” Hall remarks in Familiar Stranger. Hall’s co-authored book is an intellectual autobiography written in the style of the late Edward Said’s poignant memoir Out of Place or the late Chinua Achebe’s thrilling The Education Of A British-Protected Child, and we therefore learn relatively little about Hall’s formidable wife, the distinguished British historian Catherine Hall. But we get a glimpse of Stuart and Catherine Hall’s problems with the social world of racial and class exclusion his parents inhabited when learning that Catherine on her first ever visit to Kingston in 1965 had an altercation with his mother, brought on by the latter treating a black Jamaican housemaid as if she did not exist and talking about “the servant problem” in front of her maid. Hall was acutely aware of the structures of possibility and impossibility which marked his early life and his mother’s obsessions with graduations of color and status.

“It is important for me to acknowledge, personally, that the pathologies which accompanied my upbringing weren’t peculiarly mine, and need to be located in their larger history,” Hall writes.  Hall himself was more dark-skinned than either one of his parents and siblings, and so it comes as no surprise to hear him self-describe, like Edward Said did, as a proverbial “black sheep” of his family.

It would perhaps be more apt to characterize Scott as more of a political theorist than an anthropologist – but then again, the policing of disciplinary boundaries by virtue of an insistence in ethnographic fieldwork here or there being the sine qua non of anthropological virtue and integrity is, and remains, one of the more problematic aspects of modern anthropology. Much like Hall, Scott is a disciplinary hybrid of sorts, well-read not only in political theory and anthropology, but also in philosophy, letters and arts. It is not that Hall and Scott are in consent about how to understand and analyze the post-colonial present. In his introductory apologia, Scott alerts the reader to the fact that he wasn’t and isn’t drawn to Hall as an intellectual friend due to his sharing either Hall’s theoretical idiom, conceptual language, or his substantive views. Instead, Scott conceives of Hall as “an exemplary intellectual” that is “productive to think with” and “to think through.”

Scott’s small and eminently readable book is written as a series of epistolary letters to his late friend and mentor. Scott’s choice of genre gives a sometimes eerie impression of a one-way dialogue with a dead intellectual. When the book merits our attention, it is in its keen attention and responsiveness to central themes in Halls oeuvre, and Hall’s mode of thinking and engaging as a public intellectual. For Scott calls attention to Hall’s using his particular and characteristic voice as a public intellectual as a mode of thinking itself; and speaking and listening a way of clarification.

Hall was of course a pivotal figure of the so-called New Left, which emerged in its nascent form at Oxford University in the mid-1950s, and a founding father of Cultural Studies. His autobiography – regretfully to my mind – stops before his move to Birmingham to take up the chair in Cultural Studies, one that would make him a household name for academics across the world. He spent a great deal of time and energy trading barbs with classical Marxists with whom I often disagreed vehemently about matters relating to the analysis of ideology, contingency, identity and the role of determination in human history. And so Scott is right to assert that his “post-Marxism grows out of a never-ending – and never-endingly agonistic – engagement with Marx and Marxism.”

Returning to Hall’s work in the years after his death, I have like many others been struck by his prescient views of the neoliberal revolution ushered in by Thatcherism in Britain and by extension Reaganism in the U.S., in works such as  The Great Moving Right Show. For though the very term neoliberalism, as Scott is right to note, came relatively late to Hall’s work, Hall saw much more clearly than any Marxist at the time the extent to which this was also a cultural revolution of a kind whose aftermath would inflict systematic and long-term damages on the lives we all live, and fundamentally alter the political terrain so as to make it increasingly difficult to oppose it and to mobilize against it. We now live in a present in which the term “identity politics” has become a monumental straw man for all that ails our societies North or South,  and when bending backwards to accommodate a resurgent “white identity politics,” of course never named as such in the past or present (“identity” supposedly being the preserve of “minorities,” though Western history tells us all about the sheer absurdity of a such a proposition) the order of the day for politicians left, right and center. It is therefore salutary of Scott to bring renewed attention to Hall’s seminal work on identities, and the way in which Hall’s work on this stands removed from a certain form of “postmodernist celebration of migrancy as an inventive self-fashioning gesture”:

For the migrant (or anyway the black colonial migrant) is always obliged to respond to an interrogation that precisely objects and constructs her or him in a constricted place of identity- that demands an answer in the policing jargon of identity: Who are you? Why are you here? Where are your papers? When are you going back to where you came from? Identity here is inflicted; it is not a luxury. Therefore, identity for the migrant is not always-already a question; this question is always inscribed in a relation to dominant, sometimes in fact, repressive state power.

Hall was, by his own admission, not the most systematic of thinkers: his preferred form was the academic essay, and his public interventions addressed present contingencies in the manner which one imagines being preferred by a Gramscian organic intellectual of sorts. There wasn’t from Hall’s side any intention of presenting “the final word” on anything, and little to be had in terms of grand theorizing – all aspects that one imagines contributed to the annoyance which Hall met from classical academic Marxists of his time. Scott is exceptionally good in bringing out this aspect, which he proposes stems from Hall’s dialogical orientation or his “thinking aloud,” in Hall’s intellectual production. I particularly relished Scott’s subtle and impressive take down of the utterly condescending and unexamined white Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton’s supposed “critique” of Hall in the London Review of Books in 1996 (“hip, neat, cool, right-on… Hall has never authored a monograph”)  in the first chapter of Stuart Hall’s Voice.

Scott’s epistolary letters, which emerge out of a series of invited lectures he gave at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa in 2013, are also of great value for their bringing the scholarship of intellectuals to which Hall paid relatively limited attention himself to bear on the analysis of his work.

If you think you know enough about the importance of Marx, Gramsci, Fanon, Baldwin and Althusser for Hall, here is as good a chance that you will get to see it from a fresh and original yet attentive and closely-read angle. There has never been a better time, in the context of the re-emergence of racialized modes of thinking, racism and discrimination across vast swathes of the Western world, to read and re-read Hall.

We owe it to both Schwarz and Scott for once more bringing the relevance of the late and great Hall’s work to our attention.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.