The Hall of culture

Stuart Hall - Questions of Cultural Identity
November 8, 1996

Because the development of Stuart Hall's work over four decades and that of cultural studies more generally are indissolubly connected, a collection of some of his work and of writing stimulated by it, is highly welcome and will be useful to students and teachers in this and related fields.

At first (and second) sight, Critical Dialogues is a highly unorthodox piece of book-making. Reprinted essays by Hall, usefully culled from some hard-to-locate sources, are grouped under Marxism through "New Times" and postmodernism to postcolonialism and diaspora (with a fairly full bibliography at the end) and intercut with old and new (in part revised, so both new and old) essays by other people. Most work stems from the past ten years, and a few pieces are original. The editors say it was one of their aims to capture "key aspects of changes of intellectual mood".

The result is a kind of running logbook of work in progress. As Hall moves lucidly and open-mindedly from paradigm to paradigm, and from project to project, his interviewers, editors, commentators, annotators and exegetes are sprinting visibly to keep up with him.

This book could not and does not cover his full range of activity as a lifelong intellectual of the left, as a brilliant and stimulating speaker on academic, political and many other platforms; as a presenter of ideas through television but never a television intellectual; as a consistently valuable public presence outside the narrowing world of "higher" education. We do not see examples of his own tirelessly generous collaborative work and writing with other people, or, more than occasionally, his capacity to make sharp, constructive contributions in a variety of settings and in alert, patient, good-humoured dialogues with very different groups of people. What it does deliver, in a final and new interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen, is a remarkably frank and moving account of his early family life in Jamaica (and of some later periods of his work in England), where theoretical questions and the personal-as-political are compellingly brought together.

This whets the appetite for a future, full "politics-and-letters" mode of interview-based book which would yield more of the insights seen here. It would also enable reflection on the consistency of his interests and politics since the 1950s, already addressed here by Colin Sparks in a concise, thought-provoking, exemplary consideration of connections between phases of cultural studies and different kinds of Marxism. The Sparks essay is one of several which are engaged and interesting in response to Hall or to issues in cultural studies. These include Jorge Larrain (reprinted) on concepts of ideology, Angela McRobbie (a new piece) looking back at debates about "New Times" (which start to feel Old Times in the age of new Labour) and David Morley (a partly new piece) on postmodernism as "EurAmerican provincialism". All are valuably reflexive "critical dialogues" and sit well with the thoughtful, exploratory pieces by Hall himself.

More generally the collection attempts a narrative of the past ten years' work which suggests a journey from debates with Marxism, through postmodernism to "New Times" and the departure of Marxism Today, then into postcolonial theory and diaspora. If there is sense to be made of "changes of intellectual mood" this is a partial start, though rather distant from social and political changes through the 1980s and 1990s (the editors write vaguely of a "counter-hegemonic political position") and even more from the educational and publishing settings in which much of this work has been produced.

At times cultural studies is represented almost as a school of critical theory, though theory operating semi-autonomously from sociology and the other social sciences, concerned with metacommentary and with itself, far from empirical work of any kind, distant in social or political purchase and (in a few essays) from any attention to clear writing. This comes close to what Sparks calls a "fundamentally regressive" and "essentially textualist" account of the world in which cultural studies are distinguished from literary studies only by a wider range of texts from which to choose.

Yet, in its last section on diaspora, ethnicity and identity the book takes off into a gripping combination of concerns. Here, theoretical exegesis of the most helpful and informed kind (Hall on Gramsci on race, on the "black" of black popular culture) is connected through Hall's interventions with work by black British artists in photography, film and (the book's cover) painting. In this section also the editors' selection, including the introduction by Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, "De Margin and De Centre" to Screen's "Last 'Special Issue' on Race" is distinctive and assured and, with the concluding interview, becomes a creative, engaged, specific, varied version of what the cultural studies "project" can at its best be like.

That project in its Open University setting was, as seen in this interview, open to the challenge of a "more popular and accessible pedagogy". In Questions of Cultural Identity, a collection co-edited with Paul du Gay, Hall's opening essay is wide-ranging about theorisations of identities and of "the suturing of the psychic and the discursive in their constitution" though different in manner to the more politically inscribed discussions of the issue in other places and in the other collection. Ten essays cover many different kinds of ground, often stimulatingly and at times (in Homi Bhabha's re-use of Eliot) surprisingly. Simon Frith writes well about music, Marilyn Strathern on identity and new reproductive technologies, Nikolas Rose on images of "self-formation" in narratives of everyday life. Du Gay writes pointedly about "the individual as an 'entrepreneur of the self'" in contemporary business where, starting far from postmodernisms, management accords culture a privileged position. As a whole, though dispersed, the book well fulfils its aim to ask why "questions of cultural identity have acquired increasing visibility and salience" across fields of research in - an intriguing new "third way" formulation, this - "social science, cultural studies and the humanities".

Michael Green is head of cultural studies, University of Birmingham.

Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies

Editor - David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen
ISBN - 0 415 08803 8 and 08804 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 522

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