Stuart Hall obituary
David Morley and Bill Schwarz
Influential cultural theorist, campaigner and founding editor of the New Left Review
When the writer and academic Richard Hoggart founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964, he invited Stuart Hall, who has died aged 82, to join him as its first research fellow. Four years later Hall became acting director and, in 1972, director. Cultural studies was then a minority pursuit: half a century on it is everywhere, generating a wealth of significant work even if, in its institutionalised form, it can include intellectual positions that Hall could never endorse.
The foundations of cultural studies lay in an insistence on taking popular, low-status cultural forms seriously and tracing the interweaving threads of culture, power and politics. Its interdisciplinary perspectives drew on literary theory, linguistics and cultural anthropology in order to analyse subjects as diverse as youth sub-cultures, popular media and gendered and ethnic identities – thus creating something of a model, for example, for the Guardian’s own G2 section.
Hall was always among the first to identify key questions of the age, and routinely sceptical about easy answers. A spellbinding orator and a teacher of enormous influence, he never indulged in academic point-scoring. Hall’s political imagination combined vitality and subtlety; in the field of ideas he was tough, ready to combat positions he believed to be politically dangerous. Yet he was unfailingly courteous, generous towards students, activists, artists and visitors from across the globe, many of whom came to love him. Hall won accolades from universities worldwide, despite never thinking of himself as a scholar. Universities offered him a base from which he could teach – a source of great pleasure for him – and collaborate with others in public debate.
He was born in Kingston, into an aspiring Jamaican family. His father, Herman, was the first non-white person to hold a senior position – chief accountant – with United Fruit in Jamaica. Jessie, his formidable mother, had white forebears and identified with the ethos of an imaginary, distant Britain. Hall received a classical English education at Jamaica College in Kingston – while allying himself with the struggle for independence from colonial rule.
But he found the country’s racial and colonial restrictions intolerable and an escape presented itself when he won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University. He arrived in Britain in 1951, part of the large-scale Caribbean migration that had begun symbolically with the arrival of the Empire Windrush three years earlier. Hall recalled that when he took the train from Bristol to Paddington station in London, he saw a landscape familiar to him from the novels of Thomas Hardy.
However, if Britain was a culture he knew from the inside, it was also one he never entirely felt part of, always imagining himself a “familiar stranger”. At Merton College, studying English, he experienced this sense of displacement, his enthusiasms – for a new politics, for bebop, for a world alive to the values of human difference – incomprehensible to the cavalry-twilled former public schoolboys who surrounded him.
As his time in Britain lengthened, so his identifications with blackness deepened. Ambivalent about his relation both to his place of departure and to his place of arrival, he sought to survive the medieval gloom of Oxford by making common cause with the city’s displaced migrant minority. Out of these new attachments, and out of the political cataclysm of 1956 – marked by the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt and by the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution – emerged the new left, in which Hall was an influential figure: it provided him with a political home. At this point he found himself “dragged backwards into Marxism, against the tanks in Budapest” – and, if his Marxism came “without guarantees”, it was nonetheless a vital part of him to the end….
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