LettersTheory & Practice

RIP Stuart Hall

I was studying law when I first encountered the work of Stuart Hall. There were, and are, lots of ways into his work. The way he could find the tactical purchase of a concept or a tranche of historical data was one of his special qualities as an intellectual.

Taking refuge from ‘black letter law’ courses, I studied criminology with a wonderful teacher, Gil Boehringer. Thanks to Gil I read the work of Howard Becker, particularly his book Outsiders. Becker showed how ‘outside’ groups such as musicians and addicts both labeled themselves as groups and were labeled by others — and that said labels need not coincide. Becker’s book was a powerful lesson in what one might call the phenomenology of social relations. How they appear to the actors in the situation matters.

Then came the work of Stanley Cohen, on Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen’s famous case study was the Brighton ‘riots’ where Mods fought rockers. It was a pioneering bit of what is now subculture studies. Cohen introduced the question of how media construct certain kinds of groups, labeling them as outsiders and threats to order.

After Cohen it was a short step to Dick Hebdige, and his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Hebdige is probably best known now as the butt of the joke in Chris Kraus’s terrific first novel I Love Dick. It is hard to explain now how influential Hebdige’s little book once was. Hebdige did not treat youth subcultures as delinquent or  as potential threats to order. Nor was he all that interested in how they were labeled and demonized. He was interested in how subcultures construct themselves culturally.

Hungry for more Hebdige, I tracked down a volume called Resistance Through Rituals. The title explains the thesis. Through ritualized deployments of markers with a second layer of meaning, subcultures create for themselves an alternate and even resistant world of meaning.

Resistance Through Rituals was a collectively authored volume from something called the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmhingham. Even the name was something of a slogan. You could actually study contemporary culture?

Of course, there were precedents. Raymond Williams had done it, but more in his occasional pieces than in his books, with the exception of The Long Revolution. EP Thompson had also shown in The Making of the English Working Class that there was such a thing as a working class culture, and that it was in part self-making. The people do indeed make history, just not with the means of their own choosing. And let’s not forget Richard Hoggart, who made the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies possible and hired Stuart Hall to run it. Hoggart’s work perhaps hasn’t aged as well, but his fierce commitment to the integrity and self determination of working class culture is not to be forgotten.

So I read ‘sideways’, as it were, from that one collection to others from what I learned was called the ‘Birmingham School’. Excellent volumes on ideology, the colonial question, a volume called Women Take Issue. The title meant to be taken in the double sense of women writing critique of culture, but also that they literally had to take an issue of the house journal from the boys to do it.

Over and over, the name of Stuart Hall kept coming up, in these volumes and elsewhere. He was not someone who ever wrote that Big Book. His best work seemed all to be collaborative. Policing the Crisis is an excellent example. This collective volume is still one of the best on the rise of Thatcherism: of how certain kinds of moral panic could be mobilized, how the folk devil of the ‘mugger’ could be the new face of an old kind of cultural reaction.

My favorite quote from Hall is this: “Theory is a detour on the road to somewhere more important.” What was at work in all these productions was not ‘ high theory’ as an abstract designed to garner power within the humanities academy through the wielding of difficult technical-seeming language. Rather, the detour through theory was to provide a sort of Brechtian break with common sense, but to allow one to come back with a more acute understanding of the present situation, or in the language of the time, ‘conjuncture.’ This is what I think of as ‘low theory.’

What Hall seemed to be running up in the industrial wasteland of Birmingham UK, and later at the Open University in London, was an ongoing seminar in how to use theory pragmatically. And he did it well. ‘Thactherism’ is probably Hall’s coinage. He was one of the first to see early on that Thatcher succeeded with a cultural politics deeply rooted in English popular sentiment and had wedded it to a certain notion of state power.

I still teach a piece by Hall, on ‘Encoding and Decoding’. It has its limitations now, but it shows Hall’s detour method off well. In it he brings together communication theory of the kind Claude Shannon would recognize with the linguistics of Sassaure and the semiology of Barthes under the sign of both Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Althusser’s structural account of ideology.

A central insight of it is this: the encoding of messages and their decoding need not use the same code. The culture industry or Thatcher might encode ‘messages’ according to a certain construction of class interest, but nothing guarantees that the audience will decode using the same code.

Hall predicted that audiences might use the dominant code, resist it, or negotiate with it, and most likely the latter. He further predicted that these three kinds of decoding might map onto class or other social locations. The more you thought you stood to gain from the dominant order, the more you might use its codes.

C. Wright Mills had suggested something similar, based on empirical studies of radio listeners. but it was Hall who helped open up a whole field of inquiry: let’s find out what people actually make of what they read or watch or hear! David Morley studied audiences for television current affairs. Ien Ang’s Watching Dallas famously studied Dutch television viewers. This work partly confirmed Hall’s thesis, and greatly enriched it.

Lot’s of people took off in all sorts of directions, at least partly inspired by Hall’s work. The study of race in British culture took inspiration from him. Paul Gilroy’s magnificent book The Black Atlantic is partly ‘Hallian’ in tenor. Angela McRobbie’s pioneering studies of young women and girls likewise owes something to Hall. Andrew Ross and Lawrence Grossberg were among a small cadre who brought Hall, and cultural studies, to the United States.

In retrospect, certain things went horribly wrong in the American reception of cultural studies. Here the work of John Fiske plays a more central role than Hall, Ross, Gilroy, Hazel Carby or any of the other figures whose work retained some of his tactical political spirit. Fiske stressed the polyvalence of popular culture, its multiple forms of readability. That was no bad thing, but it opened the door to doing cultural studies purely on the basis of a reading of the text, not the text unravelled, understood in its social and performative and relational situations. To put it crudely, after Fiske it was possible to watch Madonna videos and conclude that they were ‘resistance’.

This is not what Hall had in mind. Hall’s studies in popular culture were meant to enrich a struggle in and against it. The work he sponsored was different to reductive accounts that accorded culture no autonomy. There was plenty of this in Britain at the time: one-sided stress on the ‘political economy’ of everything. But Hall and the Birmingham school were also at some distance from, for example the journal Screen, where culture was starting to have an absolute autonomy as a realm, to be decoded using the special tools of semiology and psychoanalysis. Needless to say, this mapped better onto the academy and its intellectual division of labor.

Stuart Hall came to Australia in the early eighties, and if I remember rightly, he was a guest of the Communist Party of Australia, rather than of some university. One of his lectures was even broadcast on national radio. This was the Hall who did the kind of work Gramsci described as cultural leadership. All of his work was in some sense more about ways of forming counter-hegemonic cultures that could be both popular and critical.

Hall, and cultural studies, was very influential in Australian academia. In a small, provincial country, it was extremely useful to have a toolkit with which to understand cultural formations whole. The return of a Labor government in the early eighties also called for both a new way of articulating the national-popular culture, a more extensive critique of its limits, and also a new mode of conducting humanities research. Some of the strongest post-Hall cultural studies was created there, sometimes by Brit expats and sometimes by local talents.

In Australia, as in the UK and the US, the interstitial quality of Hall’s interventions was hard to sustain. Cultural studies collapsed towards either scholarship or cultural activism. Hall had learned broad-front cultural politics in his time with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and carried it through the New Left and into the popular struggles against Thacherism. By by the twenty-first century it was hard to see the connective thread in cultural politics in any of the anglophone countries.

All the more reason, I think, to try to recover something of the spirit of Hall in our times. It is striking, for example, how the sense of popular agency has been written out of theories of ‘new’ media. As if the form of the media relation entirely determined content. As if there was no decoding. It has to be said that the form of media, the channel in the encoding/decoding diagram, was always a weak point in cultural studies. It too often reduced culture to the textual or the social Many useless debates were had about these two sides of it, as if the technical form of media in between was simply not there.

And so in the spirit of Hall one might try to reconnect studies of culture as text to studies of cultures as enthnographic wholes, add in a more nuanced understanding of technical form, and put the whole thing back into the perspective of an engagement with the cultural politics of the times. To do that now would be the only real tribute Hall calls for.

Hall once asked for a “Marxism without guarantees.” There is no magic method that clarifies the conjecture. Methods must be tested, revised, discarded even. Theories are just tools. They are not magic. In an era when mystical faith on various ex-Marxist philosophies is on the rise, Hall’s pragmatism is still salutary.






McKenzie Wark

  • Jonathan Feldman

    One relevant thinker here who may not be directly related to Hall but shared his vision for a more concretized politics was Roger Silverstone who taught at LSE. I suspect also that Hall understood how certain disciplines could be unmade (constrained) by academic discourse. Given that the original cultural studies movement was partially motivated by a political agenda and many of its followers were not, it’s not surprising to see the way things unfolded. One really has to start with a rather political and operational problem, but many lack that departure point. Cultural studies can be extremely important, but much of the discourse is compromised by a fetish of form over content or “centering” the wrong content.

    • mckenziewark

      I can’t map the UK scene as i wasn’t there. There’s a book to be written about all this.

  • Indigo

    Thanks for this map of the rivulets of thought into and out of Hall’s tributary. Interesting, too, to think about how his work has flowed beyond the Anglo-sphere, into the SInosphere and Nihonosphere.

    • mckenziewark

      I met Kuan-Hsing Chen, who brought a kind of cultural studies to Taiwan, but i would be interested to know more about China and Japan.

      • Indigo

        I was at that event that Chen Kuan-hsing organised in 1998 in Taipei, although the way it mapped onto social politics in Taiwan (i.e. the “mainlander”/Taiwanese divide) was troubling. There is the book “Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes” that maps many of these flows. On China, Gloria Davies “Worrying About China” is surely the definitive text on contemporary Chinese thought and its engagement with global “theory”.

        • mckenziewark

          Thanks for the refs. I was thinking of a much earlier event in Taipei, in the 80s, which was a sort of gathering of the threads of cultural studies. I think there was an issue of a journal called Isle Margin that had some material from that event. To an outsider, the Taiwan/mainlander issue was already fraught at that event.

          • Indigo

            In the 80s? That’s early. Was that after 1987? i.e. the lifting of martial law? By 1998 one might have hoped that the Taiwanese/mainlanders divide would have softened in that high-point of democratic liberalism and optimism, being the proxy that is it for class, colonialism, and every other vector of power, but alas no. The practice of cultural studies mapped onto the divide (i.e. almost everyone who does cultural studies in Taiwan is a 2nd generation mainlander in a way that problematized the global cultural studies project (for me, at least, as a jobbing whiteboardsman in the academy).

          • mckenziewark

            Honestly can’t remember when the Taipei event was. So long ago it dropped off my resume. There was some complex Taiwan/mainlander politics going on, but as an outsider i couldn’t read it at all carefully.

  • Richard Barbrook

    For last forty years, Stuart Hall was engaged in an ideological police action against any radical thought to the left of the British Stalinist party: Situationism; Labour Left; Trotskyism; Council Communism and Anarchism. He and his followers might have recuperated various interesting ideas from the New Left, but this doesn’t excuse either his elitist theorising or his reactionary politics.

    • mckenziewark

      I was really only writing about what i saw happen in Australia and the US, where i think he was a more positive force.

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