“I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Stuart Hall at Good Hope Estate, Trelawny, Jamaica, 2004

Thought precedes action, and Jamaica in its obliviousness to who Stuart Hall was, to his extraordinary work and life, to his globally mourned death, demonstrates the perils of a society in which the most complex levels of thinking are considered expendable, an unnecessary luxury, something that need not detain the nation. It’s a symptom of the weakness of its intellectual elite that they have shunned serious engagement with the ideas of a thinker who influenced thought all over the world, moreover one who was born and brought up in Jamaica, who left at the age of 19 to embark on a lifetime that would change the world. That it hasn’t changed Jamaica, that there is no room in the oft-cited “Brand Jamaica” for the great thinkers this country has produced (many of whom toil in foreign vineyards), is an indictment of the state of intellectual life here for young Jamaicans deserve to know that their countrymen excel not only in sprinting and music but also in the much less visible arena of intellectual production.

The indifference to the passing of this intellectual colossus (the New York Times referred to him as UK’s Du Bois) in the country of his birth was noted by its leading newspaper, the Gleaner, which went to the lengths of editorializing on it: “…our ignorance of Stuart Hall, at all levels of society, perhaps says more of national inattention to ideas and the people who generate them – especially the big ones. For as a thinker, Professor Hall would, in our view, be the equivalent to the likes of Usain Bolt.”

Members of the University of the West Indies were quick to point out that the University had not been ignorant of Stuart Hall, bestowing an honorary doctorate on him in 1998 and holding a conference in his honour in 2004. The conference which was the most successful of several such colloquia mounted by the now inactive Centre for Caribbean Thought also demonstrated through the overflowing, standing room only auditorium in which Hall gave his public lecture, that there WAS appreciation on the part of the public for the man and his ideas. Nevertheless a mere 10 years later when Hall died, it took the media a couple of days to react and it was the next day before the University of the West Indies managed to get out a tribute, one that would be revised and updated several times over the next couple of days as the starchy institution tried to come to grips with its own lacunae regarding the work of this great thinker.

An early version of the University’s tribute described Stuart Hall as a ‘communications specialist’, which is rather like describing a race horse as a ‘galloping machine’. What this reflects is the restrictive mindset within which tertiary education has been trapped in Jamaica. Ours but to produce ‘experts‘ and ‘specialists’, not thinkers or theorists.

But maybe that’s in the past. I was heartened to receive this tribute written by three of the younger members of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Doreen Gordon, Orville Beckford and Moji Anderson, which they tried to get published in the Gleaner. Alas the old lady of North Street wasn’t interested. I offer it here as a guest blog post because it simply and succinctly sums up who Stuart Hall was and why he was globally valued in the way he was even if not in the country of his birth. We ought to use the moment of his passing and the local apathy to it as an opportunity to do some serious soul-searching about the stifling levels of anti-intellectualism in this country, and for that matter, the world.

Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown's home

Stuart Hall at Aggrey Brown’s home, Golden Spring, Jamaica, 1998

 “I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

by Doreen Gordon, Orville Beckford and Moji Anderson

There have been many tributes to the Jamaican born thinker, Stuart Hall – a testimony to his influence across political, academic, artistic and media spheres.  Hall was remarkable for his ability to move between the worlds of the academy, politics and popular media with both elegance and authority, be it in his political writings, television and radio appearances, or guest lecturers. In reflecting on Stuart Hall’s life, one cannot help but think about the role of the intellectual in society. An intellectual often stands outside of society and its institutions, actively disturbing the status quo. However, at the same time, an intellectual is a part of society and should strive to address his/her concerns to as wide a public as possible. Stuart Hall may be described as a “public intellectual”: actively involved in the politics and issues of his day, critiquing the society around him, and disseminating new insights through various media to a wider public. He was also deeply concerned with making education more widely accessible.

Arriving in post-war Britain as a young Rhodes Scholar, Hall did not return to Jamaica to live. Colonial society and the Euro-centric middle class environment in which he grew up seemed too constricting. His socialisation, early colonial education and the culture shock of migrating to race-strained Britain in 1951 no doubt shaped his particular concerns. He once said in a debate with a conservative political figure in London, “You cannot have at the back of your head what I have in mine. You once owned me on a plantation.” He remained on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized and the exploited – a perspective shaped by his Caribbean roots. This was clearly his role as a public intellectual: to make room for the voice of the powerless.

Hall’s broader recognition in Britain came when, along with a handful of intellectuals, he helped to form the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964 at the University of Birmingham, eventually becoming its Director. Emerging as one of the country’s leading cultural theorists, he helped to define some of the major changes and cultural shifts occurring in twentieth century Britain.  It was a relatively new idea at the time to take the study of popular culture seriously and in particular, to analyse its relationship to politics and power.  The new academic discipline of cultural studies spread from Britain to the United States, to Latin America and the Caribbean, and even to Australia and East and Southeast Asia. Although some might argue that cultural studies is on the decline, the discipline has generated a wealth of significant work and set the stage for an entire line of theory, critique and political action which is still very influential, especially in the anti-globalization movement.

Hall’s writings linking racial prejudice and the media became key works, making him an inspirational figure for young black artists and film makers from Britain. His studies on post-colonialism asked the question of how a modern, multicultural British society could be created that respected cultural differences among people – thus he is often referred to as “the godfather of multiculturalism.” He observed that increased diversity within nations and the need to accommodate different sets of demands by various cultural groups posed challenging questions about the meaning of equality.

When Hall later moved to the Open University as Professor of Sociology, he continued his engagement with major issues of the day relating to British politics, culture and race. Indeed, he is often credited with the phrase “Thatcherism”: a term used to describe the politics, policies and political style of Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Leader from 1975 to 1990. Yet his views were never extreme. He urged his comrades not to dismiss Thatcherism: that they should try to understand it and its popular appeal. For Hall, Thatcherism was a new phenomenon, an authoritarian populism that needed to be understood before it could be contested.

Hall was a political actor: he was involved in protests, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, and political writing. He insisted on linking intellectual and cultural work to political struggles rather than pretending that the former is an end in itself. He maintained strong ties to Marxist thinking and to radicalism in general, but he also critiqued Marxism, especially its Stalinist versions. While he insisted on the connection between theory and political practice, he wanted it to be a flexible one that provided space for intellectual, cultural and political creativity. This search for ideological flexibility and freedom within Marxism is the well-spring of his work and impact.

Key to Stuart Hall’s thinking was his refusal to reject completely the impact of economics in peoples’ daily lives, something lacking in many contemporary cultural theories. Yet, he was not an economic determinist – in other words, our consciousness, ideas, and cultural creations have a degree of independence and agency outside of economic realities. However, some critics have suggested that the confinement of the economic factor in Hall’s writings to “the first instance,” meant that serious economic analysis was sometimes missing from his writings. For example, Hall did not consider the material basis of Margaret Thatcher’s political power, nor was he able to articulate convincing alternatives to the present global capitalist order. However, he rightly understood that we could not grasp contemporary realities without studying the workings of capitalism.

Hall’s contribution to issues of race, ethnicity and identity are well respected and far-reaching. Given the genealogy of Stuart Hall – his parents’ ancestors were English, African and Indian – his take on race and race relations was influenced by this cosmopolitan, consanguineal mix. His view was that race, ethnicity and identity are social constructions. If they can be constructed by human beings, they can also be challenged and torn down. Hall argued that race had more in common with language than with biology. In other words, ‘race’ is a moving, shifting conundrum defined by the environment, social structure and the people involved in the social relations of production and speech. Thus the concept of race for Hall was never a fixed but a moving target, with different dialectics attached to each representation and perception. Hall was not afraid to express his dialogic about race in his writings. He acknowledged the power of race and ethnicity to shape social interaction and the ways in which particular objects are viewed – for example, how works of art are read. His deep and independent post-colonial thoughts will surely be missed. However, may they carry on, in the words of Bob Marley, to “disturb my neighbour.”

One thought on ““I want to disturb my neighbour”: Stuart Hall and the role of the public intellectual

  1. Pingback: Less “Experts”, More Thinkers Needed in Jamaica · Global Voices

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s