Stuart Hall was born in Kingston, into an aspiring Jamaican family. His father, Herman, was the first non-white person to hold a senior position – chief accountant – with United Fruit in Jamaica. Jessie, his formidable mother, had white forebears and identified with the ethos of an imaginary, distant Britain.
Hall received a classical English education at Jamaica College in Kingston – while allying himself with the struggle for independence from colonial rule. In 1951 Hall won a Rhodes Scholarship to Merton College at the University of Oxford, where he studied English and obtained an Masters and went on to get his PhD. He had become part of the Windrush generation.
He came to prominence at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and thereafter as Professor of Sociology at the Open University from 1979. He is currently emeritus at The Open University and Visiting Professor, Goldsmith College, Milton Keynes, he was Research Fellow and then Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham. Research interests in cultural theory and cultural studies, race, ethnicity and cultural identity.
When the writer and academic Richard Hoggart founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964, he invited Stuart Hall to join him as its first research fellow. Four years later Hall became acting director and in 1972, director. Cultural studies was then a minority pursuit: half a century on it is everywhere, generating a wealth of significant work even if, in its institutionalised form, it can include intellectual positions that Hall could never endorse.
The foundations of cultural studies lay in an insistence on taking popular, low-status cultural forms seriously and tracing the interweaving threads of culture, power and politics. Its interdisciplinary perspectives drew on literary theory, linguistic and cultural anthropology in order to analyse subjects as diverse as youth sub-cultures, popular media and gendered and ethnic identities – thus creating something of a model, for example, for the Guardian’s own G2 section.
Hall was always among the first to identify key questions of the age, and routinely sceptical about easy answers. A spellbinding orator and a teacher of enormous influence, he never indulged in academic point-scoring. Hall’s political imagination combined vitality and subtlety; in the field of ideas he was tough, ready to combat positions he believed to be politically dangerous. Yet he was unfailingly courteous, generous towards students, activists, artists and visitors from across the globe, many of whom came to love him. Hall won accolades from universities worldwide, despite never thinking of himself as a scholar. Universities offered him a base from which he could teach – a source of great pleasure for him – and collaborate with others in public debate.
Sadly Stuart Hall died in 2014. The tributes recorded on the Stuart Hall Foundation speak more about the man than our blog can do:
Bumping into Stuart Hall on Kiburn High Road, Biko Agozino articulated to hall his own field of research. He had been advised not to carry out research about women, but instead to cover black men or corruption in Nigeria. Hall invited him back to his flat to discuss his research.
He asked me to explain my perspective and as soon as I started to talk about black women facing race, class and gender discrimination in the criminal justice system, he pounced and told me that I was talking about articulation. But, excuse me, from what I know, articulation is about the modes of production and all that. Yes, he said, but you can abstract it and apply it to social relations as well. He gave me a 1980 UNESCO book on race in which he has a chapter on race and class articulation and I have never looked back theoretically.
Long Live Stuart Hall by Biko Agozino 10 February 2014
Stuart Hall was the first editor of the influential New Left Review founded in 1960 and still runs today. Tariq Ali, points out that Hall’s message was:
If you want change, get off your backsides and challenge the existing order, but also think, argue, debate as to the best way forward. This remains an important legacy….
In the 1980’s, Ali points out:
……focus on the new politics that was abbreviated as Thatcherism. A set of powerful analyses followed in the pages of the Communist party journal, Marxism Today. Together with Eric Hobsbawm and Martin Jacques, he was a central figure in those debates that warned the left in the Labour party and outside that Thatcherism was a new phenomenon, an “authoritarian populism” that could not be defeated by traditional Labourist methods. It had to be understood before it could be contested.
Tribute to Stuart Hall in the Guardian by Tariq Ali 10 February 2014
Tariq Ali reminds us that Stuart Hall was one of the great intellectual thinkers of his time along with EP Thompson, Ralph Miliband, Raymond Williams, Doris Lessing. Alex Calinicos too and in his critical tribute to Hall, he points out that:
What is very impressive is how Hall advances essentially a positive conception of ideology as “the practical as well as the theoretical knowledges that enable people to ‘figure out’ society and within whose categories and discourses we ‘live out’ and ‘experience’ our objective positioning in social relations”, but simultaneously and very skilfully integrates the key idea of the theory of commodity fetishism, namely that “the categories of market exchange obscure and mystify our understanding of the capitalist process” by presenting one aspect of that process as if it were the whole.
Stuart Hall in Perspective by Alex Calinico in International Socialism 2 April 2014
Tributes were paid to Stuart Hall from academics and intellectuals from Portugal, Luxemburg, Finland, America, Jamaica – worldwide.
The memorial for Stuart Hall in November 2014 was four and a half hours long, with clips from the documentary about Jamaica from his 7 part TV series Redemption Song.
The first episode of Redemption Song here:
And all episodes can be accessed here on Doug Edmond’s youtube channel. As Edmond’s says:
In hindsight it was a good thing I recorded the series way back then [in 1991]. To my knowledge it has never been re-broadcast or produced on DVD. A great educational historical series.
Wikipedia also provides an extensive biography along with Stuart Hall’s publications.