Stuart Hall as a public intellectual

Glenn Jordan examines the influence of a man who says we should never abandon a struggle merely because we cannot be certain of success.

I first met Professor Stuart Hall almost exactly thirty years ago – in the summer of 1983 – at the University of Illinois. He was teaching a six-week course on cultural studies as part of a summer school on ‘Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture’. At the time, I was associated with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois – a group that subsequently played an important role in promoting cultural studies and the work of Stuart Hall both in the States and internationally.

There were about 130 people attending that summer school course. Probably only three or four of us were Black, so I soon came to know Professor Hall – especially after he kindly invited me and my girlfriend Becky to his flat for a West Indian meal of chicken, rice and peas, which he had carefully prepared. When he invited us, my girlfriend and I thought that there would be a number of guests – but it was just the two of us. Stuart has always been like that – generous, considerate, kind- hearted.

Stuart Hall was the only person I knew in the UK when I arrived here in 1984. He’s had a profound impact on my life and work. I am pleased to have been his student; I am honoured that I remain a close friend.

I want to say something about Stuart Hall as an engaged intellectual – and, relatedly, about his view of cultural studies as a critical-intellectual project. I want to suggest that among the most interesting features of Professor Hall’s work – features that have had a profound impact on me and many others – are the following:

1. Stuart’s life and work have been underpinned by a conception of intellectual work as serious, as being about things that matter – not just within the academy but also, especially, in the larger society. For Stuart, among the most important features of cultural studies are what he calls its “seriousness and worldliness”, its “rigour and engagement”. Stuart is interested in understanding the here and now – the present conjuncture. Ien Ang, the cultural studies practitioner who was born in Java and educated in the Netherlands, once said that doing cultural studies means, “participating in an ongoing, open-ended, politically-oriented debate, aimed at evaluating and producing critique on our contemporary cultural condition”. I want to suggest that this is exactly the stance taken by Stuart Hall – another theorist whose subjectivity was shaped by life in a colonial society and its Motherland.

2. Stuart’s life and work demonstrate a profound commitment to engaging not just other members of the academy, but the broader public – through public lectures and interviews, and through television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. While committed to rigorous scholarship, grounded in both theory and empirical work (he said, “I only theorise through cases”), Stuart Hall has always possessed a resolute commitment to being a public intellectual. Indeed, he argues that it is important to make a distinction between academic and intellectual work – and says that it is intellectual work that is more important.

3. Stuart’s life and work demonstrate a commitment to collaboration – to teamwork as a mode of intellectual production. When one looks back at his work at the New Left Review, or at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies or at the Open University, or with a number of other organisations, his commitment to dialogue, collaborative research and co-production stands out. And one should add that often this collaboration has been with people who are much younger than him – and they have benefitted substantially from this opportunity.

4. Stuart has had a long-term engagement with artists, especially those working in photography, film and digital media – and he has a very serious interest in music, especially contemporary jazz. After he retired from the Open University in 1997, he spent a great deal of time working with Autograph (formerly known as the Association of Black Photographers) and inIVa (the International Institute for the Visual Arts). As chair of both organisations, he brought them into collaboration – and he worked tirelessly to develop Rivington Place, a new multicultural arts centre in London, where Autograph and inIVA are housed. Opened in 2007 and also housing the Stuart Hall Library, Rivington Place stands as a monument to his efforts. But this was not the first time Stuart worked with artists. This mode of engagement goes back decades – especially with Autograph, the Black Audio Film Collective (of which the filmmaker John Akomfrah is a founding member) and various other groups. Stuart believes that art matters – and many of his ideas, regarding identity, representation and so on, have been taken up by artists. The film The Stuart Hall Project is a tribute to the years of work he has done with artists. It is not surprising that it is made by John Akomfrah, whose association with Stuart goes back to the 1980s. (It is perhaps also not surprising that Stuart’s son Jesse is a brilliant, successful film artist.)

5. Stuart’s life and work in leftist politics, cultural studies and sociology demonstrate a commitment to practices of humility. He is a critical-intellectual on the left who emphasises that there are no guarantees; that we can never be certain that our ideas and practices are correct; that we can never know in advance that the world will be better as a result of our efforts. But he wants to insist that this is no reason to abandon the struggle.

6. Stuart Hall’s stance as a critical intellectual is thus simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic. He is fund of quoting Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist activist and theorist, who believed in what he called “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. In an interview published in February 2012 in The Guardian, Stuart says: “Look, Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, believed in pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit. You must look at what’s happening now. If it’s unpropitious, say it’s unpropitious. Don’t fool yourself. Analyse the conjuncture that you’re in. Then you can be an optimist of the will, and say I believe that things can be different. But don’t go to optimism of the will first. Because that’s just utopianism.”

As he now sits at his kitchen table with his laptop computer – he is largely immobile but his mind is as sharp as ever – Stuart reflects back on political and social developments that he has witnessed in Britain over the last 60 years. He reflects back on the ideological debates and political struggles in which he has participated and that he has sought to analyse. And he is less optimistic than he ever was.

It is now our turn to continue the struggle – with Stuart’s life and work as our inspiration. We must keep hope alive even in the darkest hours.

Glenn Jordan is a lecturer, writer, photographer and curator. He teaches cultural studies and photographic practice at the University of South Wales and also directs Butetown History and Arts Centre. Originally from California, he has lived in Cardiff since 1987. This essay is based on his presentation at an Open University seminar in Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, in September, following the screening of The Stuart Hall Project, directed by John Akomfrah.

2 thoughts on “Stuart Hall as a public intellectual

  1. A very welcome piece on the great Stuart Hall. In relating it to Wales, we might note that one of the striking things about the emergence of Cultural Studies in Britain is that is was partly inaugurated by individuals who viewed English culture from the outside. Dominant cultures often fail to see their practices and institutions as open to analysis – they ‘just are’. In English thought the ‘Celtic fringe’ and ‘imperial territories’ were the sites of ‘culture’, where people seemed to do unusual things that were worthy of analysis in anthropological and ethnographic terms. Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society (1958), was a Welshman’s view of England. Williams ‘defamiliarised’ and analysed English culture. Stuart Hall, born in Jamaica, brought questions of race, immigration, and empire (largely ignored by Williams in the 50s) into the centre of the thinking of the New Left. This in turn lead Raymond Williams to think more analytically about his Welsh identity and the broader issues of ethnicity and nationhood. It is known that Williams influenced Hall, but no one has really looked at the ways in which the influence travelled in the other direction.

  2. An excellent and timely article. Stuart Hall should be considered in the same bracket as Ralph Milliband and Edward Said- a revolutionary organic intellectual.

    Moreover, as Daniel Williams notes above, Hall’s (and indeed Raymond Williams’) reading of Gramsci has particular relevance for the study of contemporary Wales. In particular, I feel that Hall’s work on the discursive construction of the nation can help explain the nationalization of the British Labour movement and how this imperialist/Unionist narrative has passed from ‘the first floor’ of intellectual articulation to become ‘the second floor’ (i.e. common sense) within Wales.

    One of Hall’s most powerful readings of Gramsci is available here:

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