- Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues edited by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen
Routledge, 514 pp, £45.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 415 08803 8
Anyone writing a novel about the British intellectual Left, who began by looking around for some exemplary fictional figure to link its various trends and phases, would find themselves spontaneously reinventing Stuart Hall. Since he arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1951, Hall has been the sort of radical they might have despatched from Central Casting. Charming, charismatic, formidably bright and probably the most electrifying public speaker in the country, he is a kind of walking chronicle of everything from the New Left to New Times, Leavis to Lyotard, Aldermaston to ethnicity. He is also a Marxian version of Dorian Gray, a preternaturally youthful character whose personal style evokes a range of faded American epithets: hip, neat, cool, right-on.
There are two ways to recount his story, one less charitable than the other. The more jaundiced narrative is one of a relentless modishness. If you want to tune in to the latest style of leftspeak, find out what Stuart Hall is up to. Under his aegis, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University moved in the Seventies from left-Leavisism to ethnomethodology, flirted half-heartedly with phenomenological sociology, emerged from a brief affair with Lévi-Straussian Structuralism into the glacial grip of Louis Althusser, moved straight through Gramsci to post-Marxism, dived into discourse theory and teetered on the brink of Post-Modernism. Hall himself, having left the Centre in 1979 for the Chair of Sociology at the Open University, became a leading analyst of Thatcherism, coining the phrase ‘authoritarian populism’ for that regime, and surfaced as a major architect of so-called New Times, a revisionist current close to the Communist Party which scandalised traditional socialists with its heretical relish for markets, mobility and shopping malls. Hall was now an enthusiast for the ‘new movements’ around race and feminism, an apologist for the decentred and diffuse, an ageing avantgardist who had been hopping from one cultural cutting-edge to another for almost half a century.
There are three things wrong with this tale of eclectic opportunism. To begin with, Hall helped to fashion many of the trends he conformed to. If he had the air of a camp-follower, he had usually pitched a fair bit of the camp himself. For another thing, his political surfing was not always smooth. A convinced pro-feminist, he was targeted as patriarch-to-hand by his feminist students at the Birmingham Centre, and escaped to the Open University from what sounds like a climate of ugly sectarianism. Charlotte Brunsdon deals with the episode in diplomatic retrospect in this volume of essays on his work. But in any case, Hall’s chameleon-like career can be read just as plausibly in terms of consistency as of fashionability. Where he is now, proclaiming the virtues of a pluralist politics which thrusts culture to the fore, is pretty much where he kicked off in the days of the old New Left. It is not so much that he has come full circle as that he has hardly shifted. Or as though, after a long detour through rebarbative theories and revolutionary politics, the age has now finally caught up with him. As Colin Sparks reminds us, Hall was writing of such Post-Modern matters as the dissolution of the industrial working class as early as 1958.
Indeed it is more than a glib piece of wordplay to claim that what has been unchanging about Hall is precisely his open-endedness. This is no doubt partly a matter of temperament and conviction, but also perhaps a question of his colonial origins. The move from the Caribbean to the Cowley Road was one between clashing cultural frames, whose partial, perspectival nature he was thus more likely to spot than, say, a Briton like Richard Hoggart, reared within a working-class milieu which seemed to be wall-to-wall. Hall was pitched between conceptual systems as well as countries, alert to the rough edges of any single doctrinal system, as heterodox in theory as he was hybrid in culture. It is no accident that he started on a postgraduate thesis at Oxford on Henry James, hardly the most congenial of topics for an English literary leftist, but with an obvious appeal for a student of intercultural relations.
His suspicion of fully-fledged systems is also, ironically enough, characteristically English. The most obviously alluring creed for Hall, Marxism, was one with a notoriously vexed relation to the conditions of the colonised, so that he was bound to come at it left-handedly. He never reneged on revolutionary Marxism, since – apart from a brief mid-Seventies interlude in which ‘Marxist’ and ‘cultural theorist’ were as synonymous as Ivana Trump and liposuction – he was never much of a Marxist in the first place. In (post-)colonial conditions, culture is a vital medium of power, and culture, not least in the Stalinist Fifties when Hall set out, had never exactly been Marxism’s strongest point.
Vol. 18 No. 6 · 21 March 1996
Terry Eagleton’s review of Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues (LRB, 7 March) is an intriguing performance: a strange mélange of patronising praise – Hall as the colonial immigrant who turns out to be plus anglais que les anglais – and of ignorant polemicising against Post-Modernism. The review turns, inevitably, into an indictment of Eagleton himself: for could it not once have been said of him that he was ‘a brilliant bricoleur’ who shared one of Hall’s ‘basic flaws’ – the ‘compulsion to be au courant’? But whereas Hall’s ‘compulsion’, if that is what it was, enabled him to keep up, Eagleton has dropped out of the race; instead of accepting defeat gracefully, however, he has sought to vent his frustration on those still in the running. His attack on Post-Modernism – and on a whole range of fruitful tendencies in modern cultural studies – is structured on a crude binary opposition of past and present, in which the past bears the stamp of authenticity and the present is found wanting. This is evident in his penchant for the image of the ‘veteran’. Within one sentence, we are told that Stuart Hall ‘is a veteran of Suez and Hungary’ who evinces ‘the subdued wisdom of the scarred veteran’, almost making it sound as if Hall parachuted into Port Said and sniped at Russian tanks on the streets of Budapest when he was not marching to Aldermaston or working in the office of the early New Left Review. One implication of Eagleton’s image is that he also is a scarred veteran – and it is doubtless the case that he does bear the marks of many life-or-death battles in examination rooms, seminars and lecture theatres. But lest this joint combat experience should imply an equality with Hall, Eagleton reminds us that Hall is of middle-class provenance; whereas Eagleton, as we know, is a working-class hero.
A key difference between them is not highlighted, however: a difference, not of provenance, but of professional location. Hall has done much admirable work at the Open University, an institution of higher education which, in contrast to Oxbridge, is genuinely open to all; and he has had to withstand direct government harassment, as a result of charges of left-wing bias in OU courses. Eagleton has stayed inside Oxbridge and has never ventured out in any sustained way into the wider and more difficult world of non-Oxbridge higher and further education. It is symptomatic that, in his review, he characterises Hall’s move to the Open University, not as a positive choice of involvement in democratic education, but as an escape from a putative ‘climate of ugly sectarianism’ at the Birmingham Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies.
To keep Hall the grizzled veteran company, Eagleton summons another old soldier: a ‘real-life’ Antonio Gramsci who helped to arm Italian workers and, for a time, supported the Stalinist line on Fascism. This rather unsavoury ‘reality’ is contrasted with a ‘fictional Gramsci constructed by cultural studies’ who is ‘a kind of Sardinian version of a London polytechnic lecturer in discourse theory’. After decades of epistemological and ontological questioning – some of which Eagleton himself helped to popularise – it is lamentable that he falls back into a naive contrast between the ‘real’ (or his own version of it) and the ‘fictional’. And note that invocation of ‘a polytechnic lecturer’, a signifier which, for Eagleton as much as Malcolm Bradbury or Kingsley Amis, has now clearly come to connote trendy inferiority. Eagleton used to instance the polytechnics as the fast tracks on which, in contrast to the rolling English roads of the traditional universities, cultural theory was eating up the miles. But the fuel then was his kind of Marxism: once the polys began to develop their own means of propulsion – for instance, heady mixtures of Post-Structuralism and high-octane feminism – the old snobberies re-emerged.
Eagleton’s attempts to infiltrate feminism have foundered on women’s resistance; but he manfully assumes the authority to discern which male leftists ‘have been genuinely rather than notionally transformed by feminism’ (Staurt Hall passes the test, as presumably does Eagleton himself). This authority also perhaps grants him the right to dismiss Angela McRobbie, whose informed, self-reflexive and sensitive work (first emerging from the matrix of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) is a contribution to a burgeoning body of analysis which seeks to suggest that shopping, for instance, is a complex activity that cannot simply be dismissed as ‘choosing between fancy brand-names’ – certainly not for the majority of the population, who are much less well-paid than Eagleton, and for whom shopping may well entail a difficult range of choices, calculations and decisions within a broader network of cultural, social and economic relationships.
This inability constructively to assimilate revisionist assessments of consumerism is one index of how far Eagleton has failed, in his own work, to practise the widening of literary studies into cultural studies which he formally advocates. An especially significant moment in his review is his invocation, in passing, of the Internet, which is implicitly associated with a Post-Modernist evasion of the earthy realities represented by ‘the Somme’ and by revolutionary politics. In this invocation, any sense of the importance of studying the cultural forms of new technologies is elided. But the failure to understand such forms, like the failure to understand consumerism, has been one of the repeated errors of the Left, which, in its attitude to science as to shopping, has oscillated between fastidious eschewal and fervent embracement.
Seaford, East Sussex
Vol. 18 No. 9 · 9 May 1996
Nicolas Tredell (Letters, 21 March) reproaches Terry Eagleton for alleged failure to venture out ‘in any sustained way into the wider and more difficult world of non-Oxbridge higher and further education’. Eagleton has done better than that: he has written plays which, broadcast by the BBC, have given listening pleasure and food for thought to many who have had neither cause nor inclination to enter the arcane world of Post-Modernist literary-critical debate.
The Queen’s College, Oxford