Earlier this year, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published its entry for Stuart Hall, written by Martin Jacques. The entry is reproduced here with kind permission of the ODNB and the OUP, and can also be accessed through their website.
Hall, Stuart McPhail (1932–2014), cultural theorist and political commentator, was born on 3 February 1932 in Kingston, Jamaica, the son of Herman McPhail Hall, accountant, and his wife, Jessie. He was of mixed African, Scottish, and Portuguese descent. He had a brother and sister, both of whom were older than him.
Hall grew up in Kingston. His brown-skinned father rose to become the chief accountant of the Jamaican subsidiary of the American giant United Fruit. His fair-skinned wife (Hall’s mother) never worked outside the home but treated the family as her personal fiefdom. Hall, for his part, had by far the darkest skin in the family. The family was relatively well heeled, with servants, a large bungalow house, and an ample-sized garden. His parents strongly identified with the colonial system, looking down upon the lower classes and those of darker skin. Hall’s sister, Pat, who was five years older, became a victim of her mother’s outlook. Pat had a black boyfriend, a medical student at the University College of the West Indies: her mother ordered the relationship to end on the grounds of his colour and origins, and, as a consequence, Patsuffered a serious mental breakdown from which she made only a fragile recovery. Hallwas traumatized by what happened to his sister.
At the age of eleven Hall won a scholarship to Jamaica College, one of the top secondary schools in the colony, where he received an overwhelmingly Anglocentric education containing no Caribbean literature. He became increasingly ostracized from his family and what he describes as ‘their cringing display of a desire for social recognition’ (Hall, Familiar Stranger, 51). As he grew older he became increasingly aware that there were two Jamaicas, that of his family who owed allegiance to the colonial order, and that of the overwhelming black majority who lived in abject poverty. In 1938 the ‘other’ Jamaica rebelled in a major uprising that was to spell the beginning of the end of the colonial era. At home this Jamaica was never allowed entry, apart, that is, from the servants. But at Jamaica College and through his journeys around the Jamaican countryside Hall came into growing contact with the other Jamaica. Like many of his background he came to reject the colonial system: at home he felt an outsider, unable to accept the values of his mother, who continued to think of England as her home even though she had never lived there.
Hall was chosen as Jamaica’s Rhodes scholar of his year and won a place at Merton College, Oxford. In 1951 he left Jamaica and set sail for Britain, believing that once he had completed his studies he would return to Jamaica. Independence, meanwhile, was still some way off: it was not achieved until 1962. Hall, thus, was a product of colonial rather than post-colonial Jamaica. He was already troubled and perplexed about his identity: the conflict between his pro-colonial family and the growing rejection of colonialism by his peer group at Jamaica College, with many of his generation from such élite schools subsequently becoming key figures in the fight for independence and later in the newly independent country, provoked much reflection on his part. Who was he? How to place himself? He went to England hoping that he might find some answers.
Oxford and the Universities and Left Review
Almost on arrival Hall realized that he was not English and never could be. He found Oxford an alien environment. He was the only black student at Merton and there were precious few in the university. Initially he experienced no overt racism; ‘there were so few of us’, he wrote later, ‘we were regarded as oddities, quaint, rather than embodying any kind of threat … But I was conscious all the time that I was very, very differentbecause of my race and colour’ (Hall, Familiar Stranger, 158). The situation changed later, by which time he had become a graduate student, when West Indians—the Windrush generation—began to be employed on the buses in Oxford in large numbers. One day, not long after arriving in England, Hall saw large numbers of West Indians at Paddington Station. They were too poorly dressed to be tourists. Who were they and what were they doing? They were, of course, early migrants. From that moment, he recalled, everything looked different. He and they were from very different backgrounds, ‘but’, as he wrote later, ‘we belonged to the same historical moment’ (ibid., 44).
Hall read English at Oxford. As a boy he dreamed of being a poet, then later a novelist, though that idea rapidly faded at Oxford. He graduated in 1954 and stayed on to work for a DPhil degree, choosing Henry James as his doctoral subject. He had always had eclectic tastes in the visual arts, music, and literature, spanning both cultures and centuries. He went to the cinema several times a week and played piano in a jazz band. He became increasingly interested in British politics and in culture. He never completed the DPhil. In 1957 he moved to London. Oxford was never his kind of place: too white, too stiff, too establishment, too upper-class, too ‘English’. Oxbridge held no attraction for him, then or subsequently: for him they were places to avoid rather than be attracted to. His new locales of Brixton and Soho were far more to his taste. The move, more or less coinciding with his editorship of Universities and Left Review, was to mark the beginning of a major turning point in his life.
In 1957 Hall had become the joint founding editor of the Universities and Left Review, soon to be renamed the New Left Review. In the aftermath of the convulsive events of 1956—the Hungarian uprising, the Suez débâcle, and Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party—a new space opened up on the left based on the rejection of both the American and Soviet camps. He went on the first Aldermaston march in 1958 and became extremely active in both the ‘new left’ and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, devoting most of his time to them. He taught English at Stockwell secondary modern school and later was a lecturer in film and mass media studies at Chelsea College, part of London University. A major preoccupation of the Universities and Left Review (and the New Left Review) was how to understand and analyse cultural change, and especially popular culture. Hall later described this period as the beginning of cultural studies, a discipline in which, from the outset, he was to play such a decisive role.
Another of Hall’s great concerns also began to take shape during this period. In 1958, exactly ten years after the arrival of the first West Indian migrants on the Empire Windrush and seven years after Hall’s own arrival in the UK, the white riots took place in Notting Hill and Nottingham, a response to the growing presence of West Indian migrants. The overwhelmingly dominant British response to colonial migration had been one of incomprehension and ignorance. As Hall wrote: ‘Their histories, and their long historical entanglements with Britain, disappeared from daily consciousness. Who are these people? Where are they from? What language do they speak? And, above all, what on earth are they doing here?’ (Hall, Familiar Stranger, 185). He argued: ‘Post-war racism in Britain begins with … profound forgetfulness … The history of empire really does seem … to have fallen out of mind. It is judged impolite and faintly anachronistic even to mention it’ (ibid., 186, 195).
In 1963 Hall met Catherine Mary Barrett (b. 1946), a young Yorkshirewoman about to go to university. After a number of unsatisfactory relationships, he was at a low ebb. He fell for Catherine immediately and, notwithstanding their age gap of fourteen years and the fact that he was black and she was white, which was most unusual at the time, they married on 15 December 1964. In his autobiographical Familiar Stranger (2017), he touchingly recounted: ‘She must have understood something about me. Early in our courtship I kept her waiting for nearly two hours outside a West End cinema to see Antonioni’s L’Avventura while I was at a CND committee meeting. When I finally arrived, she was still waiting’ (Hall, Familiar Stranger, 268). Theirs was a lifelong union of almost fifty years. Family—they had two children, Becky (b. 1969) and Jess (b. 1971)—was very important to Hall. He took immense pride in Catherine’s later emergence as a distinguished historian and the fact that in their latter years together she knew more about Jamaica and slavery than he did.
Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies
In 1964 Hall was invited by Richard Hoggart to become a research fellow at the new Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. In 1968 he became its acting director and from 1973 to 1979 its director. He was now an academic, a description he always eschewed. He was indeed no ordinary academic. In almost every sense, the centre was highly original and unconventional. It was run on a shoestring. Although it made Birmingham University famous, the university authorities were seemingly embarrassed by it. Its intellectual output was prodigious, pouring out a succession of books, papers, monographs, and articles. Hall, of course, was at the core of everything, the éminence grise, except he shunned the limelight and his own writings invariably took the form of collaborations with others, mainly his graduate students. This was Hall’s preferred mode of writing. Extraordinary as it might seem, though there are many books that bear his name—and of which he was the architect—there is not one single book that carries his name alone. Inspirational as he was, he was ever supportive, approachable, encouraging, sharing, sympathetic, open, and democratic.
The Birmingham centre became synonymous with cultural studies. Before the centre existed, ‘culture’ was a somewhat rarefied term that was relatively seldom used. More than any other institution the centre was responsible for changing that situation. The term ‘culture’ became ubiquitous: seemingly everyone began to use it. Hall held that culture was fundamental to an understanding of everyday life, societal change, and politics. He saw it as an overarching concept, multidisciplinary in nature, and in popular rather than élitist terms. In that context, he was influenced by Raymond Williams and especially the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Following Gramsci, he was above all interested in culture because of its crucial relationship with politics and power rather than culture in the abstract or cultural studies for their own sake. For this reason, indeed, he became increasingly critical of much in the discipline of cultural studies in the latter phase of his life. Such was the success of Hall’s cultural studies that it not only embraced other disciplines such as sociology, politics, literary theory, and cultural anthropology, but also partially displaced at least some. He respected other disciplines but also maintained a not misplaced scepticism. He said, ‘We … live in a period when many of the existing paradigms established … within traditional intellectual disciplines either no longer in themselves adequately correspond to the problems we have to resolve, or require supplementing from other disciplines’ (Hall, ‘Through the prism of an intellectual life’, 276). Tellingly, he added, ‘I have never been able to be satisfied with working from within a single discipline’ (ibid.). He became a hugely influential figure in cultural studies, not only in the UK but around the world, his name almost synonymous with the field. To name but one of his multitude of articles, his essay on television—‘Encoding and decoding in the television discourse’, which was originally given as a paper at a conference at the University of Leicester in 1973, and subsequently published by the Birmingham centre the same year—was to enjoy a huge impact. In this, taking issue with the prevalent mass communications model, he argued that the meaning of a message is never fixed or transparent, and that the recipient ‘decodes’ the message according to his or her personal background, social situation, and frame of interpretation. Moreover, he underlined the ‘performative’ nature of media messages, such that through repeated retelling, socially and culturally specific interpretations have the ability to become dominant, widely accepted, and hegemonic.
Of the centre’s vast output on youth culture, crime, the media, gender, race, the post-colonial, and much else besides, its most important publication was Policing the Crisis, published in 1978 and, typically, with five authors including Hall himself. It began by analysing the moral panic in the 1970s around the mugging of white people by young black men, showing that there was actually no rise in such crime. It explained how this provoked social anxiety about how communities were changing, strengthened the view that Britishness was synonymous with whiteness, and convinced many of the socially excluded that the cause of their deprivation was race not poverty. It traced the central place of race in the rise of the ‘new right’ and the other issues that helped to shape it. In its wide-ranging character, its ability to articulate the various elements that were together shaping a new political conjuncture, it was a profoundly important book.
In 1979 Hall was appointed professor of sociology at the Open University. His choice was unsurprising. He was attracted by the possibility of teaching those who otherwise, as often older and working people, would probably never have had the opportunity to embark on a university education. But there was also another reason. Hall was a brilliant communicator: a wonderful lecturer, a mesmerizing speaker, and a natural on television. The Open University used television as one of its modes of communication, something that attracted Hall, as did the summer schools and the creation of the study guide books that were typically creative and collaborative. He eventually retired from this, his last academic post, in 1998.
Marxism Today and Thatcherism
In the autumn of 1978 the editor of Marxism Today, Martin Jacques, approached Hall to write an article on the rise of the new right. The resulting article, ‘The great moving right show’, was published in the January 1979 issue. It was to prove one of the most important and influential articles written on British politics since the Second World War. It broke the established mode of political writing. Drawing on his work at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and in particular Policing the Crisis, Hallargued that the aim of the new right—in the article Hall used the term ‘Thatcherism’ for the first time, over four months before the election of Margaret Thatcher—was to break the impasse in British politics that had endured throughout the 1970s. More fundamentally, he contended that the new right was a new kind of political formation that was determined to undermine the social democratic consensus that had prevailed since 1945, and which was now historically exhausted, and replace it with a very different order. He recognized the populist appeal of the new right’s themes: the efficacy of the market, the inadequacy of the state, law and order, a growing reaction against the unions, the appeal of individualism as opposed to collectivism. It was politics of a new type that widened and transformed what was meant by the political and that was to leave the left on the defensive and increasingly beleaguered. These themes were to become the new common sense but when Hall wrote the article at the end of 1978, they were, from any viewpoint on the political spectrum, breathtakingly novel. Nor should the opposition on the left to Hall’s arguments be underestimated: indeed it took the left most of the next decade and longer even to begin to understand what Hall was trying to say.
The article proved remarkably prophetic, anticipating not simply Thatcher’s ten years in power but more importantly the neo-liberal era that was to last well over thirty years. What lay behind his insight? Hall drew heavily on the work of Gramsci. Hall’s central concepts in this context were ‘conjuncture’ and ‘hegemony’. The central theme of his political writing, and much of his cultural writing too, was conjunctural analysis. Heavily influenced by Marx as he was, his main argument with much Marxist writing was its belief in the inevitability of history, or politics with guarantees, which served to downplay greatly the role of politics, culture, and much else, in contrast to the economic. He rejected the idea of certainty and placed great emphasis on the role of contingency. He wrote: ‘I shifted from thinking of theory as the search for the certainty of all embracing totalities … to the necessity of recognising the power of contingency in all historical processes and explanations’ (S. Hall, Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, 2016, 76). It was impossible in his view to understand the nature of a conjuncture narrowly in terms of politics, but rather the latter had to be seen in terms of its articulation with culture, race, gender, sexuality, identity, the environment, and law and order, to mention a few. He saw Thatcherism as a hegemonic force which successfully addressed the new political conjuncture that had been evolving for over a decade and, as a result, was able completely to redraw the nature of British politics.
From 1979 to the magazine’s closure at the end of 1991 Hall wrote many articles for Marxism Today, the majority of which were concerned with the nature of Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. The fact that Marxism Today became the most influential political publication in Britain in the 1980s owed a very great deal to Hall’s writing along with that of the historian Eric Hobsbawm. At the many events organized by the magazine, Hall was always a star attraction. He was a quite brilliant speaker, engaging, conversational, witty, and always intellectually stimulating. During this period he also co-edited two books with Jacques, with whom he enjoyed an extremely close relationship, that were based on articles that had appeared in Marxism Today, namely The Politics of Thatcherism (1983) and New Times (1989).
When New Labour came to power in 1997, Hall had no illusions about what it would be like. In April 1997, just before the election, he and Jacques wrote an article for TheObserver arguing that:
[the] fundamental point of departure [of New Labour] is that the last 18 years of Conservative government constitute the new natural law. The Tories’ philosophy, their dynamic, their logic, their legacy are regarded as untouchable and unquestionable. It has become New Labour’s common sense.
(The Observer, 13 April 1997)
In other words, even by the turn of the century, the left had still failed to grasp the import of Hall’s ‘Great moving right show’ published eighteen years earlier. There followed in the autumn of 1998 a special issue of Marxism Today, revived for this one-off occasion, and containing a withering critique of Blair and New Labour, in which Hallwrote one of the major articles.
The black arts movement
Hall had always been interested in the arts in the broadest sense of the term, from high culture to popular culture, and, of course, most importantly, from a multicultural perspective. After his retirement from academic life in 1998, he became increasingly committed to the black arts movement, which brought him into conversation with new generations of black artists, photographers, and film-makers. There followed a whole series of new articles and papers in catalogues, journals, and anthologies. He became the central figure in the creation of Rivington Place in Shoreditch, east London, which opened in 2007 as a centre for public education and exhibition in the contemporary visual arts around the themes of multiculturalism, global diversity, and black identity. He chaired both Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts) and Autograph (the Association of Black Photographers), which were the two commissioning bodies. He was the moving force in the project, which cost £8 million to complete and was the first publicly funded new-build international art gallery since the Hayward Gallery more than forty years previously. Designed by David Adjaye, the RIBA award-winning building became home to the Stuart Hall Library.
In 1995 Hall became one of the founding editors of Soundings: a Journal of Politics and Culture, which he continued to write for until his health would no longer allow. In the mid-1980s he was diagnosed with kidney disease which eventually resulted in dialysis and, towards the end of his life, a transplant. He was enormously energetic and prodigiously hard-working but, as his health gradually deteriorated, he was obliged to slow down and eventually forced to retire from public life. He bore his ill health with great courage and determination and until his last days was still writing. He died on 10 February 2014, of renal failure, at St John’s Hospice, Westminster, London.
Hall and Britain
Hall never regarded himself as English. Indeed he was to think himself less and less English as the years went by. But nor did he think of himself as simply Jamaican, for he had left the island when he was nineteen, never to live there again. He came to think of himself as being of both and neither, of being ‘here’ and ‘there’, of being diasporic. He rejected the idea of identity as fixed, arguing that it was always in a process of constant change. In his own words, ‘identity is not settled in the past but always also oriented towards the future’ (Hall, ‘Through the prism of an intellectual life’, 274). He was a colonial subject (he left Jamaica eleven years before independence), a post-colonial, and a long-term resident of the imperial metropolis where he made his home, his family, and his career. This mobility coincided with a world increasingly characterized by globalization. The very quality of being an outsider, from the colonial world rather than the imperial heartland, offered him a vantage point and enabled insights into Britain that were denied to insiders, who believed that by virtue of birth and the longevity of their belonging (not to mention their whiteness) they somehow understood. That is why he was able to make sense of Britain in a way that was denied to its inmates. He saw it all in a very different way. He could write ‘The great moving right show’, for example, precisely because he was an outsider.
Hall was always pessimistic about Britain and its ability to transform itself, which he regarded as crucial to its future. At the heart of this lay race. Hall wrote that ‘though vigorously disavowed, race has played a historically determining role in the self-definition of Britain as a nation’, arguing that Britain could ‘never think afresh unless it understood its history’ if colonialism and slavery (Hall, Familiar Stranger, 180). But when it came to empire, Britain chose amnesia rather than historical engagement. In an interview with Caryl Phillips in 1997, he said:
Britain is drawing the horns in more and more around little England …This is not a climate which encourages openness to new experience. It’s a very defensive climate which sees everybody and any kind of difference as a fundamental threat to the whole history of British culture.
He added that the retreat into ‘heritage England’ was the ‘worst sort of mixture, the combination of a deeply rooted, closed conservatism around a tiny myth of a nation with a homogenous culture’ (ibid., 40). Bleakly, he suggested that Britain might well be incapable of changing itself by its own efforts:
National states and national cultures are now exposed to difference and the impact of difference from other places that they cannot insulate themselves against, and it’s more likely to come in that way than it is from any self-transformation in which the British do it themselves.
Hall wrote later that ‘recognising myself as a colonised subject meant accepting my insertion into History all right—only backwards, upside-down, by negation’ (Hall, Familiar Stranger, 21). Miserable and downgrading as that was for the colonized peoples, it gave Hall a highly original and remarkably perceptive view of an imperial power trapped in a seemingly endless process of decline. In denial of its most important achievement (a huge empire) and therefore unable to draw the lessons of that experience, it was unable to rethink itself in order to live in what was becoming a very different kind of world.