The news that the cultural theorist Stuart Hall has died aged 82 will produce much mourning and remembrance across the world. One of Britain’s leading intellectuals, Hall had a huge influence both within academia and in wider debates on race, power, hegemony and the media.
As such, Hall was known not just for his intellectual brilliance and political energy, but also for the accessibility of his ideas.
Many would have first come across the beautiful voice of this Jamaican-born intellect whilst watching late-night Open University programmes in the 1970s. For some, this would probably have been the first time they had seen a black person on their television screens, and certainly outside of race comedies such as Love Thy Neighbour, or dramas such as Roots.
Watching Hall speak about culture, nation and social change helped us all better understand how power and inequality operate. It was he, for example, who first critiqued the media for its “grammar of race”. He highlighted the role of cultural representation in shaping and, indeed regulating, our understanding of race relations.
Hall was the first research fellow of Richard Hoggart’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which was founded at Birmingham University in 1964. It was here that the discipline of Cultural Studies was pioneered in Britain. They produced an inter-disciplinary form of analysis influenced by English, Sociology and History.
Significantly, British Cultural Studies started to link the political domain with contemporary culture, and culture itself to the material of our everyday lives. There was significant opposition to the discipline, associated as it was with Marxist theorists and a politics from the left, and this was perfectly exemplified when the Centre was closed in 2002. Its influence on scholars across the world, however, remains immense.
Like many undergraduates, I first encountered Stuart’s work at Sussex University in the late 1980s. Enamoured with his research, I was lucky enough to work extensively with him over the next few years at The Open University, where he was my PhD supervisor.
Of course, for me, there was the privilege of being guided by somebody with such a high level of expertise on the convoluted politics of representation, race and culture. More than this, Hall was an immensely generous mentor; supervision meetings were sometimes held in his kitchen with cups of tea and carrot cake to keep us going. He gave surprisingly copious levels of feedback for a person with such a demanding schedule, and most of all he was always full of kind praise and encouragement that made it all worthwhile.
It is fitting that John Akomfrah’s dedicated 25 years of work on Stuart Hall’s life has been touring over the past year after a successful showing at Sundance in 2013. In particular, the documentary The Stuart Hall Project has produced a new level of insight into the life and career of this inspirational scholar. The documentary is a montage of rare archival footage overlaid with a soundtrack of Miles Davis, whose jazz music Hall loved. The central message that one comes away with is that our identity is dynamic and always being shaped by the environment that we are in – a key theme in Hall’s work.
I last saw Stuart Hall at a special screening of the film in September 2013. Sitting in a packed auditorium in London’s ICA, surrounded by loving family and friends, he spoke eloquently about how “tremendously pleased” he was when he found out that the film was being made and how he participated as much as he could.
To much amusement, he also stressed that the filmmakers’ work was “their reading” of his life, “not mine”. In this characteristic Stuart Hall style, he spoke of the peculiar “Brechtian alienation affect” of seeing the, as he called it, “messy life that you have lived yourself rehearsed from the place of the Other”. This is how Hall linked the personal with the political: he nimbly applied complex theory to the everyday situation.
The Stuart Hall Project ends in the late 1990s. There is certainly much more that can be said and written about his last years and the unfinished conversations he prompted. In spite of his poor health, Hall recently made several statements about the state of multiculturalism and British politics, about which he was rather pessimistic. His analysis, however, always remained nuanced.
When I saw Stuart Hall at the ICA, I shared with him the painful news that my father, also a firm believer in principles of equality, had just passed away. Now, my deepest sympathies go out to the Hall family.