I first heard Stuart Hall speak in the 1990s when I was a PhD student at a plenary at the annual British Sociological Conference. In my youthful ignorance, I don’t think I fully appreciated that I was in the presence of an intellectual giant. It was only many years later that I began to fully appreciate his work. So when I was asked to review The Fateful Triangle, not only did it give me a legitimate excuse to do some focused reading, it enabled me to revisit Hall’s scholarship and remind myself of the impact he has had on the development of cultural studies as a discipline, as well as his contribution to analysing and interrogating the discursive nature of race, ethnicity and nation.
The book is based on three lectures Hall delivered when he was at Harvard in 1994, but these are poignantly relevant today. Brexit, Trump and fake news have scarred societies in which elements of fragility, risk and insecurity are commonplace. Reading Hall’s lectures reminded me that little has changed in our understanding of how we conceptualise and interrogate the concepts of race, ethnicity and nation. Race is still a discursive construct, a “sliding signifier” based on hierarchical systems that continue to produce and perpetuate difference.
Hall’s main argument rests on the notion that the greatest problem of the 21st century is living with and understanding differences. Here he introduces the concept of ethnicity and the myriad ways in which ethnicity is explored, particularly in relation to globalisation. “Globalisation powerfully fractures the temporal and spatial co-ordination of the systems of representation for cultural identity and imagined community that are at stake in the concept of ‘ethnicity’,” he writes, “with the decisive result that identity is nowadays increasingly homeless, so to speak”.
Hall’s lecture on nation is the most relevant today. In 1994, could Hall have possibly predicted our fragile social, economic and political climate, and how it would impact on the changing discourses of identity? He refers to this as a “crisis of identity” among post-Enlightenment, post- imperial Western nation-states. His analysis of an unpredictable (or indeed predictable) future and the impact of globalisation on the positioning of “others” is key to his central analysis of identity.
Twenty-three years ago Hall spoke about “the suspicion of Europe that fuels the current ‘Little Englandism’ of the anti-European Union movement, which is dead set against economic integration, the Maastricht Treaty, and everything associated with Brussels, all of which is interpreted as the loss of sovereignty for Britain”. This is a chilling reminder that overwhelming social and political change often masks an underlying status quo. The Fateful Triangle makes me recall the need to constantly question, interrogate and dismantle how we understand hierarchies of difference and identity; and how the position of outsiders is always part of a larger political question.
Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham. She is currently writing (with Martin Myers) Home Education: Race, Class and Inequality, to be published by Routledge in 2018.
The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation
By Stuart Hall
Harvard University Press, 256pp, £20.95
Published 29 September 2017