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Rage Against the Dying of a Light: Stuart Hall (1932-2014)

It’s hard to explain Stuart’s influence-the admiration, respect and affection-to those who have never encountered him, or seriously followed his work.

Stuart Hall.Stuart Hall. (Photo: Lawrence Grossberg)It is difficult for me to write a farewell to Stuart Hall, my teacher, mentor, interlocutor and friend. He has been the most significant intellectual and political figure in my life for 45 years, and yet, in celebrating and mourning him, I do not wish to sanctify him. My grief is both deeply personal and intensely political. I had not thought to make it public, but I have been moved to write because of the appalling absence of any notice of his death in the U.S. mainstream press as well as the alternative media. What this says about the left in the U.S., I will leave to another time.

The facts are known: his Jamaican background; his role in the founding of the New Left and New Left Review, as well as CND; his early work on media and popular culture; his crucial contributions to and leadership of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and his continuing iconic status and creative efforts to develop cultural studies while at the Open University; his brilliant analyses of and opposition to the rise of new conservative and neoliberal formations (he coined the term and wrote the book on Thatcherism); his public visibility as an intellectual in the media, and his bodily presence as a political leader whenever and wherever he saw an opening; his vital contributions to debates around race, ethnicity, multiculturalism and difference; his long-term involvement with and support of numerous Black and global artists and collectives, including the Black Audio Film Collective, Autograph, Iniva and eventually, the house that Stuart built—Rivington Place.

But that is not Stuart’s story; it is only the Wikipedia entry. I want to tell a better story about the man, the work, the ideas, the practices, and the commitments. My story begins by recognizing that every single moment of Stuart’s career was about a commitment to relations and the new forms of intellectual and political work that commitment entailed. Key words like collaboration and conversation, and key elements like generosity and humility, are a tangible part of his legacy. One loses something important if we fail to recognize that the story cannot be written without the people with whom he worked—during his years in the New Left, at the Centre and the OU, at Marxism Today and Soundings (the journal he created with Doreen Massey and Mike Rustin), and at Rivington Place. And these institutions— and Stuart did believe in the institutional moment—were profoundly important as well, because they always involved an effort to find new ways of working, to forge new kinds of organization, new practices of work and governance—open, humble, collaborative and interdisciplinary.

It’s hard to explain Stuart’s influence—the admiration, respect and affection—to those who have never encountered him, or seriously followed his work. Let me tell two stories. In the early 1980s, I co-organized an event called Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. It began with four-weeks of classes, offered by some of the leading lights in Marxist theory. We brought Stuart over for this; it was not the first time he had been to the States, but it was perhaps the first time he was given such a highly visible national platform (close to a thousand attended from all over). At the beginning, everyone flocked to the famous U.S. academic stars; most of the people had never heard of Stuart or cultural studies. But word spread quickly, and the audience for his lectures grew rapidly. People drove down to Champaign-Urbana (not a destination of choice you understand), often traveling for hours, just to listen to him. They saw and heard something—special. Yes, it was the ideas and the arguments, and the interweaving of theory, empirics and politics, but it was more. As so many people told me, they had never met an academic like this before—humble, generous, passionate, someone who treated everyone with equal respect and listened to what they had to say, someone who believed ideas mattered, because of our responsibility as intellectuals to people and the world. Someone who refused to play the role of star!

Some years later, Stuart gave a keynote address to the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, not a particularly hospitable environment. But by then, his reputation in the discipline (perhaps the first in the U.S. to grudgingly make a space for cultural studies) had spread and the hall was packed with people who wanted to see this increasingly influential British intellectual. Many were surprised to learn that he was Black. He brilliantly demolished the scientific and liberal underpinnings that dominated communication studies and then he invited—literally invited—people to join him in taking up the intellectual responsibility of addressing the injustices of the world and the role—complicated, contradictory and often nuanced—that communication (and the academy) continued to play in perpetuating such conditions. At the end, one of my friends—a quantoid and therefore not someone I had expected to like the talk—came up and said, “I would have followed Stuart if he had asked us to march on city hall or the local media.” Charisma? Yes, but not exactly. Is there such a thing as “earned” charisma?

Many of the obituaries have described Stuart as the leading British intellectual (academic and public) of culture, society and politics, of cultural theory, and of the politics of the everyday and of ordinary lives. He was that—but if one searches the web for responses to his death, two things stand out: first, they come from all corners of the globe; and second, they celebrate so much more than his ideas and publications. It is hard to place Stuart geographically. He was born in Jamaica but as he repeatedly said, he never went home—that is the life that he chose not to lead. He lived his life in Britain and devoted himself to its culture and politics, but as he repeatedly said, he never felt completely at home there. He wrote about Britain (almost entirely) but he offered something much more resonant. Yes, he was certainly one of the most important British intellectuals of the past sixty years, but he was also, I fervently believe, one of the most important and influential intellectuals in the world during those decades as well.

Stuart believed that everything is relational, that things are what they are only in relations. As a result, he was a contextualist—committed to studying contexts, to thinking contextually, and to refusing any universal claims. That is why he connected so strongly with Marx, with Gramsci, with my other beloved teacher James Carey—to whom Stuart sent me—and ultimately with Foucault. His brand of contextualism—conjuncturalism—sees contexts as complex relations of multiple forces, determinations and contradictions). For Stuart, this defined cultural studies. He knew the world was complicated, contingent and changing—too much for any one person, or any one theory, or any one political stake, or any one discipline. Everything followed from this. Intellectual and political work was an ongoing, endless conversation; one’s theoretical and political work had to keep moving as the contexts changed, if one wanted to understand and intervene into the processes of power that determined the future. They required constant vigilance, self-reflection and humility, for what worked (theoretically and politically) in one context might not work in another. One had to be wiling to question one’s theoretical (and I might add political) assumptions as one confronted the demands of concrete realities and people’s lives.

He believed that work always had to be particular, addressing the specific problems posed by the conjuncture. Despite all his important theoretical efforts, Stuart was not a philosopher, and certainly not the founder of a philosophical paradigm. He loved theory, but his work was never about theory; it was always about trying to understand and change the realities and possibilities of how people might live together in the world. He constantly distanced himself from the attempt to substitute theory for the more difficult work of cultural studies, and he was explicitly critical of the tendency (decidedly strong in the U.S. academy) to fetishize theory—theory gone mad in a world of capitalism gone mad. He did not offer abstract theories that could travel anywhere, for while he thought that theories were absolutely vital, they had to be held to what he once called “the discipline of the conjuncture.” He was too concerned with using theory strategically to understand and intervene into conjunctures that seemed to be pushing the possibility of a more humane world further and further away.

And he believed that work had to embrace the complexities rather than avoid or escape them. He fought against any reduction—anything that said it is all about just one thing in the end—capitalism, most commonly. Such simplifications simply deny the complexity of the world; they do not help us better understand what’s going on, or open up its possibilities. So he refused as well to understand history in simple binary terms: before and after, as if history we made through moments of rupture, absolute breaks with the past. For Stuart, the complexity of history was always a balance of the old and the new. History is always changing and while new elements may enter into the mix, much of what is too often assumed to be new is the reappearance (perhaps in a new rearticulated guise) of the old.

The contingency of the world, the fact that it is continuously being made, meant that there are, as he so often put it, no guarantees in history. The world is not destined to be what it is or to become what one fears (or hopes). Relations are never fixed once and for all, and their modifications are never given in advance. This grounded, at least until recently, his unstoppable optimism (“optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the intellect” as he repeatedly reminded us). And he knew, deep down in his soul, that culture—knowledge, ideas, art, everyday life, what he often called “the popular”—mattered. He had an extraordinary respect for the ordinary stuff of life, and for people (although he never hesitated to attack those who were making the world even worse or who were more committed to their own certainties than to contingent struggle). He refused to think of people as dupes, incapable of understanding the choices they faced and those they made. There is always the possibility of affecting the outcome, of struggle, if one starts where people are—where they may be simply struggling to live lives of minimal comfort and dignity—and move them even as one moves with them. He put his faith in people and ideas and culture—and he committed his life and work to making the world better.

Stuart did not teach us what the questions were and certainly not provide the answers. He taught us how to think relationally and contexually, and therefore how to ask questions. He taught us how to think and even live with complexity and difference. He refused the all too easy binaries that theory and politics throw in our way—he described himself as a theoretical anti-humanist and a political humanist. He sought neither a compromise nor a dialectic synthesis, but ways of navigating the contradictions and complexities rather than redistributing them into competing camps, because that was what a commitment to change the world required. Relations! Context! Complexity! Contingency! He inspired many of us with another vision of the intellectual life.

When I think of Stuart, I think of an expanding rich tapestry of relations, not of followers and acolytes, but of friends, students, colleagues, interlocutors, participants in various conversations, and anyone willing to listen, talk and engage. Stuart Hall was more than an intellectual, a public advocate for ideas, a champion of equality and justice, and an activist. He was also a teacher and a mentor to many people, in many different ways, at many different distances from his immediate presence. He talked with anyone and everyone, and treated them as if they had as much to teach him as he had to teach them.

I imagine Stuart as a worldly Doctor Who, a charismatic figure with a seriousness of purpose and a wonderful sense of style and humor, who changes not only the way people think but often, their lives as well. (I think Stuart would appreciate the popular culture metaphor, because its ordinariness prevents it from sounding too grandiose.) Stuart could not regenerate (what I would give if he could) but he did appear differently to different people. I was always surprised by what people could see in Stuart, and how generous he could be with people whom he thought had clearly missed something essential in his argument. At the same time, to be honest, I occasionally suffered his anger when he thought I had missed the point. I am sure others did as well. And like Doctor Who, the geography of his relations was heterogeneous, with many different intensities and timbres, a multiplicity of conversations, each person taking up, changing and extending the conversation in so many different places and directions.

I met Stuart when I came to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies to escape the nightmares of Vietnam and the boring banalities of academic habits. Secretly, I was hoping to find a way to connect my three passions: a love of ideas; a commitment to political change; and a devotion to popular culture. Stuart helped me see how to weave them together into my own tapestry, called cultural studies. He was the first to admit that this was more a project than a finished product, as it had to be; it was the effort to forge a new way of being political and intellectual that set me on my own path. I think of my whole life as a political intellectual as a continuous effort to pursue that project, and to live up to his efforts. I have tried to champion that project, to make it visible and to fight for its specificity and value. Neither of us believed it to be the only way to be a political intellectual, but we were both sure that it offered something worth pursuing.

Now, it is a time to grieve—I doubt that I will ever stop. I remember the times we spent together, the lectures and discussions at the Centre, the conversations we had in person and by phone (the latest concerned the specificity of conjunctural analysis, the nature of affect, and the return of postmodernist theories), his curiosity, warmth and gentleness, his rich voice and exuberant laugh, and the people he introduced me to as I was beginning—many of whom have become my intellectual life blood and my closest friends. And because it is all about relationality, I inevitably think about all that he and his family (Catherine, Becky and Jess) have given me. I will always remember the love they expressed when they came into church for my wedding and later, when Stuart came to my son’s christening as his godfather. And it is a time for contemplation, and for affirming the community of close friends and unknown colleagues who mourn his loss, and know that we are unlikely to ever be able to fill the space that his life created. It is a time to continue the work, and take up the ongoing and expansive conversations that Stuart enlivened. It is a time to remember that ideas matter as we try to change the world, and that bad stories make bad politics. That is my homage to Stuart.

Gratefully offered,

Larry Grossberg