Three-D Issue 22: Britain’s most distinguished post-war public intellectual and cultural analyst

Graham MurdockGraham Murdock
Loughborough University

 

 

Stuart Hall was without doubt Britain’s most distinguished post-war public intellectual and cultural analyst. Through his writings, his inspirational mentoring and teaching, his intellectual leadership, and his political vision, he shaped the study of culture and communications in the English speaking world and beyond in decisive ways.

I first encountered Stuart through his 1964 book, The Popular Arts, written in collaboration with Paddy Whannel. At a time when academics and teachers were struggling to find ways of coming to terms with the rapidly expanding media landscape it offered a uniquely well informed, comprehensive, and properly critical survey and commentary. As a first year university student of sociology, it played a key role in persuading me that contemporary culture and communication offered a particularly rich area of study.

I first met Stuart early on in my employment as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Mass Communication Research (CMCR) at Leicester University. As part of the Leicester Centre’s founding programme of work on television and violence The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which Richard Hoggart had established and where Stuart was then working, had undertaken a study of the ways violence was represented across a variety of popular televisual forms. It was outstanding, mobilising techniques of textual analysis drawn from a wide range of sources to present a complex account of the relations between representation and cultural form. It was never published, but it was a sign of things to come at Birmingham which very rapidly established itself as Britain’s preeminent graduate centre for the study of culture producing a continual stream of innovative work on the ways established patterns of stratification, rooted in social class, were being bent and challenged by forces mobilised by responses to immigration and the loss of empire and by new generational movements. This work reached a wide audience and made a major impact through a succession of original and path breaking books – most notably Policing the Crisis and Resistance Through Rituals, which I was delighted to be asked to contribute to.

The intellectual vitality and buzz of the Birmingham Centre attracted graduate students of immense ability, a number of whom have gone on the make major contributions to cultural and communication studies . Collectively the members of the Centre produced a body of work that played a central role in establishing Cultural Studies as a university specialism not only in Britain but across the globe. Stuart’s contribution was decisive, through his own writings, his charismatic mentoring, and his intellectual leadership after taking over the directorship after Richard Hoggart’s move to UNESCO.

In common with many others on the Left he returned to Marx’s writings and to the work of later Marxists in search of insights into the tangled relations between economic dynamics and social, political and cultural change, while insisting that any gains made came ‘without guarantees’ and had to be continually tested against current conditions. He rightly rejected any and all forms of reductionism but was always generously supportive of efforts to develop a critical political economy of cultural and communications that saw economic determinations working ‘in the first instance’, establishing key conditions, fields and resources for action while leaving the subsequent play of agency open to creativity and struggle as well as compliance and exploitation.

Stuart’s move to a Chair in Sociology at the Open University, again saw his leadership and intellectual example play a formative role in reinvigorating the curriculum and developing a suite of courses that reached out to students looking for a second chance to continue their studies to a higher level. The books and course materials he contributed to, facilitated, and organised, rapidly found their way onto reading lists across the globe exerting an influence well beyond their original constituency.

In retirement he remained a powerful voice in debates on a range of issues maintaining his long standing commitment to political analysis and commentary, an area where he made major contributions. His writings on ‘authoritarian populism’, which he first developed in response to the policies being pursued by the governments of Mrs Thatcher, remain an obligatory point of reference for anyone wishing to analyse contemporary forms of neo-liberalism. He also made major contributions to black studies, both through his writings on identity and representation and his involvement with young black artists. In recognition the London based Institute of International Visual Arts, has established a library bearing his name.

The number of festshrifts celebrating Stuart’s work, the growing bibliography of volumes discussing his ideas in a number of languages, and the diversity of tributes on his death are eloquent testimony to the scale and range of his continuing intellectual influence. It is no exaggeration to say that without his work Cultural Studies would not have developed in the way that it has or established itself quite so firmly as an indispensable current of thought and analysis within the study of media and communication. But I suspect that the evaluation that gave him most pleasure has come from outside the academy.

Last year saw the release of John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, a documentary film exploring Stuart’s life and influence. Reviewing the film for The Guardian, the paper’s resident critic Peter Bradshaw, summarised Stuart’s work as “a deeply considered project that reconsiders culture and identity for those excluded from the circles of power”. Stuart set out to retrieve the complexity of ordinary people’s lived experience from the condescension of elites (including academic elites), to detail the cultural barriers to the restoration of respect and hope, and to identify points of refusal and sources of creativity and renewal.

 

It is a project that has reached out across disciplinary and geographical borders to inspire generations of scholars and students to interrogate the cultures they live in with insight and rigour, furnishing them with concepts and methods that allow them to do this more effectively and illuminatingly, and reminding them that ‘speaking truth to power’ always involves ethical and political choices. It is a magnificent and enduring achievement.

 

This text was originally prepared for the IAMCR 2014 tribute to Professor Stuart Hall, organised by Hopeton Dunn.

 

Posted by Auguste Janutaite