Stuart Hall and the Rise of Cultural Studies
Updated: Jan 9, 2021
In the summer of 1983, the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall, who lived and taught in England, travelled to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to deliver a series of lectures on something called “Cultural Studies.” At the time, many academics still considered the serious study of popular culture beneath them; a much starker division existed, then, between what Hall termed the “authenticated, validated” tastes of the upper classes and the unrefined culture of the masses. But Hall did not regard this hierarchy as useful. Culture, he argued, does not consist of what the educated élites happen to fancy, such as classical music or the fine arts. It is, simply, “experience lived, experience interpreted, experience defined.” And it can tell us things about the world, he believed, that more traditional studies of politics or economics alone could not.
A masterful orator, Hall energized the audience in Illinois, a group of thinkers and writers from around the world who had gathered for a summer institute devoted to parsing Marxist approaches to cultural analysis. A young scholar named Jennifer Daryl Slack believed she was witnessing something special and decided to tape and transcribe the lectures. After more than a decade of coaxing, Hall finally agreed to edit these transcripts for publication, a process that took years. The result is “Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History,” which was published, last fall, as part of an ongoing Duke University Press series called “Stuart Hall: Selected Writings,” chronicling the career and influence of Hall, who died in 2014.
Broadly speaking, cultural studies is not one arm of the humanities so much as an attempt to use all of those arms at once. It emerged in England, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when scholars from working-class backgrounds, such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, began thinking about the distance between canonical cultural touchstones—the music or books that were supposed to teach you how to be civil and well-mannered—and their own upbringings. These scholars believed that the rise of mass communications and popular forms were permanently changing our relationship to power and authority, and to one another. There was no longer consensus. Hall was interested in the experience of being alive during such disruptive times. What is culture, he proposed, but an attempt to grasp at these changes, to wrap one’s head around what is newly possible?
Hall retained faith that culture was a site of “negotiation,” as he put it, a space of give and take where intended meanings could be short-circuited. “Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle,” he argues. “It is the arena of consent and resistance.” In a free society, culture does not answer to central, governmental dictates, but it nonetheless embodies an unconscious sense of the values we share, of what it means to be right or wrong. Over his career, Hall became fascinated with theories of “reception”—how we decode the different messages that culture is telling us, how culture helps us choose our own identities. He wasn’t merely interested in interpreting new forms, such as film or television, using the tools that scholars had previously brought to bear on literature. He was interested in understanding the various political, economic, or social forces that converged in these media. It wasn’t merely the content or the language of the nightly news, or middlebrow magazines, that told us what to think; it was also how they were structured, packaged, and distributed.
According to Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, the editors of “Cultural Studies 1983,” Hall was reluctant to publish these lectures because he feared they would be read as an all-purpose critical toolkit rather than a series of carefully situated historical conversations. Hall himself was ambivalent about what he perceived to be the American fetish for theory, a belief that intellectual work was merely, in Slack and Grossberg’s words, a “search for the right theory which, once found, would unlock the secrets of any social reality.” It wasn’t this simple. (I have found myself wondering what Hall would make of how cultural criticism of a sort that can read like ideological pattern-recognition has proliferated in the age of social media.)
Over the course of his lectures, Hall carefully wrestles with forebears, including the British scholar F. R. Leavis and also Williams and Hoggart (the latter founded Birmingham University’s influential Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which Hall directed in the seventies). Gradually, the lectures cluster around questions of how we give our lives meaning, how we recognize and understand “the culture we never see, the culture we don’t think of as cultivated.” These lectures aren’t instructions for “doing” cultural studies—until the very end, they barely touch on emerging cultural forms that intrigued Hall, such as reggae and punk rock. Instead, they try to show how far back these questions reach.
For Hall, these questions emerged from his own life—a fact that his memoir, “Familiar Stranger,” published by Duke, in April, brings into sharp focus. Hall was born in 1932, in Kingston. His father, Herman, was the first nonwhite person to hold a senior position with the Jamaican office of United Fruit, an American farming and agricultural corporation; his mother, Jessie, was mixed-race. They considered themselves a class apart, Hall explains, indulging a “gross colonial simulacrum of upper-middle-class England.” From a young age, he felt alienated by their cozy embrace of the island’s racial hierarchy. As a child, his skin was darker than the rest of his family’s, prompting his sister to tease, “Where did you get this coolie baby from?” It became a family joke—one he would revisit often. And yet he felt no authentic connection to working-class Jamaica, either, “conscious of the chasm that separated me from the multitude.” The mild sense of guilt that he describes feels strikingly contemporary. And he had trouble articulating the terms of this discomfort: “I could not find a language in which to unravel the contradictions or to confront my family with what I really thought of their values, behaviors, and aspirations.” The desire to find that language would become the animating spark of his professional life.
In 1951, Hall won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. He was part of the “Windrush” generation—a term used to describe the waves of West Indian migration to England in the postwar years. Although Hall came from a different class than most of these migrants, he felt a connection to his countrymen. “Suddenly everything looked different,” he would later remember of his arrival in England. He clipped a newspaper photo of three Jamaicans who arrived around the time he did. Two of them are carpenters and one is an aspiring boxer; they are all dressed to the nines. “This was style. They were on a mission, determined to be recognized as participants in the modern world and to make it theirs. I look at this photograph every morning as I myself head out for that world,” he writes.
Hall found ready disciples in American universities, though it might be argued that the spirit which animated cultural studies in England had existed in the U.S. since the fifties and sixties, in underground magazines and the alternative press. The American fantasy of its supposedly “classless” society has always given “culture” a slightly different meaning than it has in England, where social trajectories were more rigidly defined. What scholars like Hall were actually reckoning with was the “American phase” of British life. After the Second World War, England was no longer the “paradigm case” of Western industrial society. America, that grand experiment, where mass media and consumer culture proliferated freely, became the harbinger for what was to come. In a land where rags-to-riches mobility is—or so we tend to imagine—just one hit away, culture is about what you want to project into the world, whether you are fronting as a member of the élite or as an everyman, offering your interpretation of Shakespeare or of “The Matrix.” When culture is about self-fashioning, there’s even space to be a down-to-earth billionaire.
How did we get here, to this present, with our imaginations limited by a common sense of possibility that we did not choose? “Selected Political Writings,” the other book of Hall’s work that Duke has published as part of its series, focusses largely on the lengthy British phase of Hall’s life. The centerpiece essay is “The Great Moving Right Show,” his 1979 analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s “authoritarian populism.” Her rise was as much a cultural turning point as a political one, in Hall’s view—an enmity toward the struggling masses, obscured by her platform’s projected attitude of tough, Victorian moderation. Many of the pieces in this collection orbit the topic of “common sense,” how culture and politics together reinforce an idea of what is acceptable at any given time.
This was the simple question at the heart of Hall’s complex, occasionally dense work. He became one of the great public intellectuals of his time, an activist for social justice and against nuclear proliferation, a constant presence on British radio and television—though this work is given only a cursory mention in “Familiar Stranger.” Similarly, he doesn’t mention Marxism, his key intellectual framework, until the final chapters of that book. Instead, as in much of his more traditional scholarship, he focusses on his shifting sense of his own context. Culture, after all, is a matter of constructing a relationship between oneself and the world. “People have to have a language to speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them,” he observed, in his 1983 lectures. “These futures may not be real; if you try to concretize them immediately, you may find there is nothing there. But what is there, what is real, is the possibility of being someone else, of being in some other social space from the one in which you have already been placed.” He could have been describing his own self-awakening.
Hua Hsu, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of “A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific.”
Source: THE NEWYORKER, July 17, 2017
Thirty years ago, many academics considered the study of popular culture beneath them. Stuart Hall helped change that.
Photograph by Eamonn McCabe / Camera Press / Redux.