“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.”

The Stuart Hall I knew

Excerpted from my new blog on EPW’s website…this inaugural post shares memories of Stuart Hall along with some photos.

Stuart Hall at INiva (Institute of International Visual Art) with Annie Paul and artist Steve Ouditt from Trinidad and Tobago
Stuart Hall at INiva (Institute of International Visual Art) with Annie Paul and artist Steve Ouditt from Trinidad and Tobago, 2000

This post was written for the Indian magazine EPW (Economic and Political Weekly), it’s website to be specific, where I’ve been invited to blog.  They asked if I would share some of my personal memories and photographs of Stuart Hall in the wake of his passing on Feb 10. The post follows.

RIP Stuart Hall, doyen of cultural theory (1932-2014). “The cultural dimension is not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society.”

I found Ranjit Hoskote’s tweet quoted above, worth retailing, because it encapsulates Hall’s vastly influential work most admirably and serves as a suitable introduction to the Jamaican-born thinker the world has been mourning since Feb. 10, 2014.

I first heard about Stuart Hall from Tejaswini Niranjana, an Indian scholar who visited Jamaica for three months in 1994. She was a Homi Bhabha Fellow (named after the Physicist not the theorist of hybridity) and had come to the University of the West Indies to familiarize herself with Caribbean culture. Teju was interested in and fascinated by the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean but equally by Jamaican popular culture which is predominantly Afro-Caribbean.

I credit Teju with awakening my now abiding interest in Caribbean, and in particular Jamaican, popular culture by introducing me to the relatively new field then, of Cultural Studies. Having studied English Honours at Lady Shri Ram College and Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 70s followed by Journalism at the University of Kansas, and even a foray into visual art, I had found myself rudderless. Neither English Literature nor Sociology really enthused me; it wasn’t until that fortuitous encounter with Cultural Studies that I began to feel an interest in matters intellectual again.

Having wandered through several different ‘disciplines’ as I had, I was excited to find new ways of thinking and writing that synthesized my different areas of knowledge. Of course this was something that JNU’s multi-disciplinary approach to scholarship had also prepared me for. In 1995 I started writing a weekly column in a Jamaican newspaper while working at the University of the West Indies in scholarly publishing.

I named my column ‘Hyphen’ to signal my lifelong feeling of ‘in-betweenity’, of being formed between cultures in an India that was rapidly modernizing, producing tectonic cultural shifts not always easy to navigate. Born and brought up a Syrian Christian, albeit by liberal parents, I always felt envious of my Hindu friends, especially the numerous rituals and festivals they could lay claim to. There was also a sense of feeling illegitimate, especially since I grew up in Ahmedabad, not Kerala, where I wouldn’t have been as out of place.

There is something profoundly destabilizing about watching your mother carefully crow-proof fishbones and other scraps of our non-vegetarian meals in secure little packets before consigning them to the garbage can in case rapacious birds outed us in front of our finicky vegetarian Gujarati neighbours, forcing us to leave the community in disgrace. There is also a deep discomfort in feeling disconnected from the vernacular culture around you because your father thought English was the only language you needed to know. Not being allowed to go to Hindi movies like all my friends did produced yet more alienation; by the time I reached my teens I felt like a classic misfit, like someone looking at the world through an impervious bubble.

It wasn’t till I came to Jamaica in 1988, after sojourns in the United States and Brazil that I started to feel at home, leading me to settle down here. Here was a vibrant, vernacular culture I could be part of. Jamaica is also the most welcoming society I’ve ever come across.

For more go here.

Reviewing The Stuart Hall Project…

Revelling in having delivered my review of the Stuart Hall Project I rue the fact that he’s so little known in Jamaica…

stuart1

Deadlines…what would I do without them? They hem my life into productive segments and I feel slightly lost when I’ve just slain a big one. Like now. I was asked to review The Stuart Hall Project, for the Caribbean Review of Books–in case you don’t know that’s the new John Akomfrah film about one of the major intellectuals of the 20th century–the deadline dogged me all through my recent trip to New York and back. I finally delivered it today and now feel light as air, positively giddy at the thought that for the rest of the week, i can read what i want, watch what I want and basically lounge about as much as I want.

stuart2

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Stuart Hall, was born and brought up here, made his career in Britain, become an intellectual powerhouse there, and is virtually unknown in the land of his birth.  So true what Jesus said: A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country. Ah well.

stuart3

Here’s a handful of links to articles in case you want to know more about him:

Jazz fan, hipster and a leftwing hero; the remarkable journey of Stuart Hall

From 50s migrant to 80s Thatcher critic, the cultural theorist has long led the debate on race and politics. A new film charts his life and his decades-long influence on the culture of modern Britain (UK Guardian)

Stuart Hall: “We need to talk about Englishness”

Born in Jamaica, Stuart Hall is the éminence grise of the British intellectual left and one of the founders of cultural studies. He coined the word “Thatcherism” and, aged 80, he remains one of our leading thinkers. (New Statesman)

And from Caryl Phillips’ 1997 interview with Hall in Bomb magazine:

Stuart Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932 and came to England to study at Oxford in 1951, as a Rhodes Scholar. His curriculum vitae is an awe-inspiring document. The list of publications, honorary degrees, awards, and teaching positions span 24 pages. A sociologist, writer, film critic and political activist, his achievements are an extension of the work of a man he greatly admired, the Trinidadian intellectual, C.L.R. James.

I remember back in 1979, during my final year as a student at Oxford, contemplating whether to take the low road toward a career as a writer, or stay on the academic high road and attempt to put some more initials after my name. Stuart Hall, at that time Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, was the only person that I wanted to study with. I applied to his Centre and then, at the last minute, changed my mind and opted for the low road.

Just thought I’d share this so that young people here realize that Jamaicans excel not only in track and field and music but also in the intellectual arena…

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