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.

If culture is integral to colonial power, however, it is equally central to advanced capitalism, so that Hall was able to transport his ‘culturalism’ from colonial periphery to metropolitan centre. The colonial background which set him askew to classical industrial capitalism – he has never been much involved with proletarian politics in Britain, and sprang from a conservative middle-class family back home – was also, paradoxically, what lent power to his elbow as a commentator on a media-ridden, consumerist, post-imperial West for which culture was increasingly a significant political and economic issue, and which was now undergoing in its own way the kind of identity crisis it had once induced in its colonials. With fabular coincidence, Hall’s emigration to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar coincided with the first waves of Commonwealth immigrants to these shores in the Fifties, rather as Oscar Wilde’s earlier translation from Dublin to Magdalen represented a ‘higher’ enactment of one of the most common Irish experiences of his day. Nothing is more native to the colonies than getting out of them.

Commonwealth immigration was to throw up problems of culture and identity in the metropolitan heartlands which Hall, as an intellectual as well as an émigré, was peculiarly well placed to dissect – so that in this sense, too, the margins shifted with him to the centre. His in-betweenness meant a heightened awareness of cultural questions, which put him at odds with a reductionist Marxism, but it gave him also a feel for the relativity of particular cultures, which set him against the cultural absolutism of the literary establishment of the day. In time, that contradictory gesture of at once overrating the cultural, and sceptically patrolling the limits of any specific culture, was to lead him into the arms of the Post-Modernists. Reading the world in terms of culture is a familiar habit of the colonial subject; but it is also an occupational hazard of the metropolitan literary intellectual, and Hall happened to be both.

He was also, however, to blossom into a different species of intellectual altogether, as the various densely-packed interviews with him in this collection testify well enough. Far more than Raymond Williams or Perry Anderson, and more persistently than E.P. Thompson, Hall has been the Left’s finest instance of the strategic intellectual, the theorist as mediator and interventionist, broker and communicator, bringing the more arcane flights of Frankfurtian or Post-Structuralist theory to bear on questions of voting patterns and televisual imagery, racism and youth culture. Nimble, mercurial and timelessly up-to-date, he has nipped from one burningly topical issue to another, turning up wherever the action is, like a cross between a father figure and a Mr Fixit. Compared with Williams or Anderson, he is not an intellectual heavyweight, and Jorge Larrain, in a strenuously analytic essay, has little trouble in spotlighting the flaws in his notion of ideology. In some forty years of ceaseless intellectual production, Hall has never authored a monograph. His elective genre is the essay, that most supple, tactical of literary forms, and he fashions it with a rare blend of metaphorical flourish and polemical punch. In contrast to the identikit style of many of his acolytes, exemplified here by the arthritic jargonising of the American sociologist Lawrence Grossberg’s ‘History, Politics and Post-Modernism’, Hall pitches his tone somewhere between heavy-duty theory and zesty journalism, at once quick-footed and high-minded, showman and specialist. He is less an original thinker than a brilliant bricoleur, an imaginative reinventor of other people’s ideas, as his essay on ‘The Problem of Ideology’ in this volume well reveals.

Indeed, he shares with his New Left confrères, Thompson and Williams, a certain impatience with abstract notions, in which one can detect both the political activist and the residual Leavisite. His concrete, contextualising style of thought marks yet another fortunate conjuncture between what seems psychologically native to him, and what the age demands. If he theorises himself, he gives off the air of doing so on the hoof, en route from one meeting or motif to another, a prodigious improviser who can effortlessly churn out a sort of intellectual equivalent of rap. If he is sometimes a bit thin on the ground, with the odd bald patch peeping through his densely tressed conceptualisations, he compensates for this with a striking versatility, leaping from discourse to the diaspora, Rastafarianism to post-Fordism, with all the disdain for traditional academic demarcations of the classical left-wing intellectual. This intellectual range is reflected in his personal serenity of being, which seems to contain multitudes; but if he resembles Raymond Williams in this apparent equipoise, he combines it with something of the prophetic zeal of an Edward Thompson, and so appears eirenic and engagé together.

The frenetic recycling of theories in the realm of culture belongs to the very commodity fetishism it seeks to analyse. As a socialist, Stuart Hall is thus plainly sincere when he remarks in an interview in this book that, ‘I don’t believe in the endless, trendy recycling of one fashionable theorist after another, as if you can wear new theories like t-shirts.’ There is a kind of good sense or moral soundness about Hall, again ironically English in quality, which resists the more extravagant excesses of the Post-Modernism with which he fellow-travels. He would not, one suspects, be much enthralled by the card-carrying, right-on variety of the creed celebrated by Iain Chambers in a rhapsodic piece entitled ‘Waiting on the End of the World?’ This is partly a question of age: despite his generational cross-dressing, Hall, unlike any other contributor to this collection, is a veteran of Suez and Hungary, of the New Left clubs and early CND, and there is a world of difference between the subdued wisdom of the scarred veteran and the brittle cynicism of theorists bred in the discos. Chambers is all for disruption and destabilisation, in a cerebral sort of way; Hall, one imagines, has lived through quite enough of that to resist romanticising it.

But there are affinities between the generations, too, by which Hall must rightly feel rattled: if he has given up on revolutionary politics, they never even got to the starting line. If he is post-Marxist in the sense that Oasis come after the Beatles, they are post-Marxist in the sense that the Internet comes after the Somme. Hall may dislike trendy theories, but this is a bit like Jeffrey Bernard campaigning against drinking clubs. Whatever his reservations, he does stand for all the Right Things in the arena of cultural studies: impeccably anti-essentialist, anti-totalising, anti-reductionist, anti-naturalist and anti-teleological. In a furiously busy essay, Dick Hebdige delivers a convincing thumbnail sketch of Post-Modernism in just these terms; and if Hall really wants to put some daylight between himself and these banal pieties of the cultural Left, he might stop to consider whether essentialism, totality, teleology, human nature and the rest, defined in a less bugbearish way than the Post-Modernists conveniently insist on, might not be in some sense a good deal more radical than their modish opposites. For the moment, however, for all his open-mindedness, he is far too deeply mortgaged to this orthodoxy to countenance any such full-blooded challenge.

Even so, he is determined not to be its prisoner either. In an interview reprinted here, he castigates some Post-Modern notions as ‘wildly exaggerated and ideological’, rejects the fantasy that social life is nothing but discourse, reminds us that we are natural as well as cultural beings, and recalls those grim material constraints which the more callow forms of Post-Modernism would dissolve into a haze of signifiers. Not all of this would be music to the ears of, say, John Fiske, whose essay ‘Opening the Hallway’ upbraids the maestro for coming down too hard on Michel Foucault. Hall has been engaged for some time in a precarious balancing-act between socialism and Post-Modernism, class and race, epistemic realism and epistemic constructivism, and one name presiding over this trade-off in our times has been that of Antonio Gramsci. This ardent Leninist has come by a devious process of editing to stand for a Marxism soft-focused enough to suit a post-radical age. The real-life Gramsci helped to arm the Italian workers in 1920 and organise Red Guards and factory councils; he was a Communist Party boss who held out against a united front to defeat Fascism and for a while supported the line of the Soviet Stalinists. The fictional Gramsci constructed by cultural studies is a kind of Sardinian version of a London polytechnic lecturer in discourse theory, complete with enlightened opinions and pluralist politics, more interested in organising signifiers than auto-workers. He stands, in one of Hall’s own slogans, for a ‘Marxism without guarantees’, which suggests a sort of liberal-Anglican brand of historical materialism, not too fussed about dogma and tradition.

More promisingly, Gramsci stands for a non-reductive style of Marxism which takes cultural meanings seriously without denying their material determinants, and it is this via media which Hall seeks to patrol. (Althusser also might stand for such a middle road, but his otherwise fairly orthodox Marxism is still disturbingly fresh in the post-Marxist mind, whereas Gramsci’s even more orthodox Marxism has happily faded from memory. It also helps that Gramsci did not murder his wife.) Reductionism must be rejected, but not in the name of society as a completely open discursive field. The reality of representations must be acknowledged, but not at the price of denying that they do, after all, represent something beyond themselves. Discourse is of vital importance, but so are the historical forces which shape it. Language may never capture absolute truth, but this is not to see it as sheerly indeterminate. Identity politics must be affirmed, but not in a way which throws class struggle and material production onto the junk heap of history.

What seems problematic about all of these positions is how plainly true they are. There is something faintly ridiculous about Hall, or anyone else for that matter, having to argue with jaw-jutting defensiveness that there is more to the world than metaphor, that social class has not just evaporated, that a representation of a plum pudding cannot be eaten, that the fact there are no iron laws of history does not mean that we could slip back into feudalism next Wednesday. It is a sign of the portentous absurdity of so much Post-Modern thought that such glaringly self-evident positions need to be so loudly affirmed. And it is a mark of how much Stuart Hall is in thrall to this theoretical camp that he needs so defiantly to re-emphasise them.

The re-emphasis, for all that, is much to be welcomed. Hall, sensibly enough, wants the new without relinquishing the best of the old, and like all such straddlers is vulnerable to assault from both camps. If he is not quite Marxist enough for Colin Sparks’s taste, in an essay which examines the New Left’s oblique relation to the creed, one suspects there are others in the volume for whom he is rather too shamefaced a Post-Modernist. It is as though he has turned Post-Modernism’s own sceptical open-endedness against itself, outflanking it with its own logic; and if he can accomplish this so adroitly, it is because as far as sinuous, provisional, non-monistic thinking goes, he was there a good thirty years before it. Yet he wants to ride this particular tiger as well as rein it in, as his enthusiasm for New Times – referring to the transformed nature of contemporary capitalism – suggests. Hall believes that this new kind of consumerist capitalism can, for all its faults, liberate the individual in valuable ways, and reacts angrily to the ‘élitist’ idea that consumption or the media are just ways of duping the masses.

It is here that his most persistent political strength – a deep-seated belief in popular democracy – collides headlong with that compulsion to be au courant which is one of his basic flaws. He was never, to be sure, quite the starry-eyed advocate of consumerist freedoms which his critics made him out to be. It is unlikely that he would rush to endorse Angela McRobbie’s heady claims for the participatory value of Japanese team-based work practices. Hall, typically more Janus-faced, sees much late-capitalist culture as ‘commodified consumption’, but also as a chance for popular choice and control. What the traditional Left has ignored are ‘the landscapes of popular pleasure’, which is true and important enough. It is just that it is more a sign of the problem than the solution that this seems to boil down for the moment to media, shopping and lifestyle, and that those who look for forms of individual self-development other than choosing between fancy brand-names should be slurred as both sexist and élitist.

Stuart Hall’s impatience with out-of-touch left theorists springs from his genuinely demotic dimension, from the man who co-authored an early book about jazz and film long before cultural studies proper were up and running. But it is also the impatience of one who, just as much as Tony Benn, came to traditional working-class values from the outside. To romanticise those values, or write them off as drearily passé, are sides of the same coin. There is a difference between being au fait and being à la mode, which Hall has not always respected. Driven by nothing but democratic motives, and chock-full of reservations, he has nevertheless lent some of his formidable authority to a designer socialism which was born less out of a courageous break with the antiquated than out of aimless desperation. No movement or individual is ever exactly abreast of the times; we are always either premature or belated, either oldies or yuppies, too far in advance of the army or hobbling to catch up with it. It is not a question of being up-to-date, just a matter of choosing between being too archaic and too voguish. Of the New Left’s founding fathers, Raymond Williams went the first way, Stuart Hall opted for the second, and Edward Thompson solved the problem elegantly by dividing his time between Blake and the Bomb.

But it is not for New Times that Stuart Hall will be remembered. He will be honoured as the man who helped to pioneer cultural studies in this country, as a tireless political activist and as a rhetorician of great splendour. Like Joe Hill, he pops up wherever there is something politically urgent to be done, an extraordinarily present figure who can turn his hand to any of half-a-dozen academic disciplines. He is one of those rare male leftists who have been genuinely rather than notionally transformed by feminism, and as the final section of this absorbing book suggests, his has been one of the most significant voices in the discourses of Britishness, ethnicity and multiculturalism of our post-imperial twilight. Once more, with the emergence of these intensely topical concerns, the age has finally caught up with where, at some level, he was all along. In this sense, it is more than a pious flourish to claim that, by virtue of his personal history and political experience, he is better placed than almost anyone to reflect on the future destiny of this nation. That personal narrative, and the public history of Britain in the second part of the 20th century, have been strangely intertwined, at once deeply symbiotic and sharply at odds. It is among Hall’s major achievements that he has moved among the British middle classes for the past 44 years while shedding nothing of his warmth and geniality.