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12 October: Stuart Hall Lessons

Published onJul 09, 2019
12 October: Stuart Hall Lessons

Listening to Stuart Hall made us see the world differently and he had a gift that enabled us to understand our life anew. He seemed to be talking directly to you, even if it was through the TV screen or through the pages of one of his many influential essays. I think that is why so many people – even students and readers who never met him in person – felt such a deep sense of personal loss at the news of his passing on 10 February 2014. It was as if a bright star that gave us a bearing in life to navigate our course had fallen from the sky.

In the sixties and seventies he helped define the New Left as a political movement that broke free of the intellectual confinements of Cold War thinking. Along with Richard Hoggart, he established the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham that offered a completely radical way to understand the unfolding drama of British social life as its economic power withered and the ‘workshop of the world’ was reduced to industrial ruins. It is not without out irony that it took someone like Stuart Hall – a Rhodes scholarship boy from Jamaica – to develop a clear-sighted view of what British culture was becoming as the sun set on its empire. He was also the first intellectual to comprehend the deep impact that the authoritarian populism of Conservative Prime Minister Margret Thatcher would have on shaping Britain’s post-imperial future.

For him thinking was always a process of transformation and changing himself, making sense out of the senselessness of exploitation, imperialism and racism. If you followed his thought you could not help but be transformed too. It was impossible ever to drink a cup of tea again without being reminded of the imperial traces in the brown leaves and the sugar’s sweet taste. Stuart Hall was interested in what you had to say and in conversation he would use phases such as ‘of course you have written about that’. The sense of acknowledgement was incredibly validating, conveying a sense that you were playing a part in a much bigger project of transformation.

He rarely got embroiled in personal infighting within the anti-racist Left and I think he had a sense of where deep defining political fault lines lay in the struggle for a more just society. He helped you keep your mind open and to resist what Freud called the ‘narcissism of minor differences’. It is a terrible prospect to contemplate the world without his wisdom and counsel. The weekend before he died I was reading one of his lesser known essays, ‘Marx’s Notes on Method: A Reading of the ‘‘1857 Introduction’’’ that was published in a CCCS collection. Reading his words on the page I could almost hear his unique voice, his sense of humour and his joy in understanding something important as if for the first time. These are precious gifts bequeathed to us in his writing.

Stuart Hall had an incredible capacity for intellectual generosity. He could unlock a student trapped by an intellectual conundrum with a single phrase. I witnessed this first hand in relation to a student he encountered at Goldsmiths. I wrote to Stuart afterwards to let him know the impact of that one chance meeting and the letter I think captures something profound about his special qualities as a teacher and radical pedagogue:

28 July 2000

Dear Stuart Hall,

Re: Small kindnesses that count

I have been meaning to write this letter for a couple of months, sadly the distraction of exam boards and academic bureaucracy got in the way. That is until now. I have followed and admired your work and thinking for a long time and the fingerprints of your influences are all over my own flawed attempts. But I am not writing to acknowledge and thank you for those gifts (though, thanks are certainly deserved).

Some months ago you came to Goldsmiths to Angela McRobbie’s inaugural lecture. That night you met one of my students called Mónica. I hope you remember her. Mónica is from Mexico and she has been working through the issues of race and identity that are central to her own biography. In our talks she would say that she felt ‘caught in between’ in the vice-like grip of ‘mixed race’ ontology. Her mother is ‘white’ and her father ‘black’. I tried to tell her – parroting cultural theory – that this was not a problem of her making, but an effect of the way race and identity is understood. As much as I tried to offer a way out of the vice, the tighter it seemed to grip her in her everyday life.

The day after Angela’s lecture Mónica knocked on my door. She came in and sat down. We started to talk. She told me that she’d met you and that with her friend Meeta you’d talked about a whole range of things. As she told me about your conversation it seemed as if a whole burden had been lifted from her. She said that she had repeated to you the things that she had said to me so many, many times. Then she recounted that you told her that ‘people like you are the people of the future’. This one phrase did what countless tutorials and hours of erudition had failed to achieve. Something clicked. She’d escaped the grip of thinking ‘in-between’ as a confinement. It is something of a wonder to me that such a small thing – a few words of kind insight – has affected so much change in one person.

Mónica has moved on. She’s developing her own critique of ‘race thinking’ and her own ideas about the strengths and limits in the work of the people she admires the most. She plans to do a PhD on race thinking in Mexico. It’s been really something to witness. Makes me understand that small moments like this have more political efficacy than a thousand pages of well meant words of ‘keyboard radicalism’.

I hope this letter finds you well. I really enjoyed listening to your ‘Desert Island Discs’ and I hope to have an opportunity to talk to you about your love of Miles Davis at some point (I have been mass producing my recording of the programme and sending it to friends around the world). I am also enclosing a range of things that have emerged from the Centre for Urban and Community Research here at Goldsmiths. I have been involved in CUCR since 1994 and we’ve been trying to connect theory and practice in our work in a way that tries to address a wider popular and policy audience. I’ve also enclosed some of our working papers.

Sincere thanks and best wishes,

Les Back

Mónica Moreno Figueroa completed her PhD with distinction and she has taught at Newcastle University and now lectures in Sociology at Cambridge. After Stuart died I wrote to Mónica and asked her about her memories of that time. I will add her own reflections shortly. There is something urgent we need to remember as we pay tribute to Stuart and his generous intellect. Before returning to them, I want to mention how Mónica – now an established teacher and academic – remembered that far off time and her own memories triggered by the sad news of Stuart’s passing.

When learning about Stuart Hall’s death and then going through the rush of countless emails, Facebook posts and newspaper articles, a raw sense of mourning took over me, reading and feeling through the enormity of such a great life. Many have told amazing stories about their encounters with him, his words, thoughts and interventions. The first time they read his work, the many occasions they listened to one of his eye-opening lectures, the last time they spoke to him, the longstanding inspiration, the tremendous contribution to critical thinking and, amongst it all, the opportunities and encouragement he extended to so many, especially the ones commonly excluded, usually invisible. Like others, I was compelled to hold onto memories, phrases, ideas, just to say something as a way of grasping the loss of someone truly remarkable. I too unearthed this letter that Les Back had so generously written to Stuart Hall and copied to me. I have kept it preciously.

When I came to Goldsmiths from Mexico to do an MA, I had no understanding of theoretical discussions about race, nor any grasp of how to start voicing what the experience of racism felt like. Goldsmiths threw me into a kind of rough sea that challenged what I knew, both academically and personally. That context and the very brief encounter I had with Stuart Hall, with his undivided attention to a story which surely he had heard many times, was wonderfully significant, allowing me to think about the politics of injustice, the need to turn questions upside down, and to move from shame and perplexity to reflexive anger and compassion. He allowed me to make of something I thought personal, a life’s task.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was discussing Stuart Hall’s ‘The West and The Rest: Discourse and Power’ with students at Newcastle University, focusing on the trajectory and impact of constructions of difference and value for understanding notions of race. His insights enable us to put contexts such as Mexico and Britain into productive conversation. He offers us ways of connecting the apparently disjointed, of thinking in terms of the big picture at the same time as the ordinary and the unremarkable. Les Back’s question, ‘what would Stuart Hall do?’ is key, as an invitation for daring and creative ways of thinking, generous approaches to learning and sharing, and to pursue clear political ways to intervene in the world.

Mónica Moreno Figueroa

Stuart Hall’s life offers us an alternative path to follow in the vocation of thinking and learning. It is fitting that in late 2014 the building where Goldsmiths’ Media and Communications departments is housed was renamed The Professor Stuart Hall building in his memory. Stuart was committed to intervening publically in the key political questions. He never followed a narrow academic path but knew theory was an essential lens for critique. We should honour that by asking, at any given point in a political argument or in an encounter with a student: ‘what would Stuart Hall do?’ Then, having established an answer with our own wits, act accordingly.

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