The Hippest

Terry Eagleton

  • 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.

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