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Goodbye Stuart Hall

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Suzanne Moore

Wednesday 12 February 2014

The Guardian

There are people whose reach and generosity is only fully understood when they go. Stuart Hall was such a man. He was the reason I did cultural studies and went to work at Marxism Today in the 80s. I hardly knew him, but I knew his work well and it was never just "writing" to me. Hall’s words were political interventions that changed the terms of the debate – about what Thatcherism meant and how it could be opposed; about race; about class; about culture. This sounds complicated, but to see him speak was to be overwhelmed by his charisma, his eloquence, his desire to include everybody in the room, his sheer moral force.

"My God!" I remember saying. "This man should be in charge of the universe." But then he would sit next to you in some godforsaken canteen at some conference and ask you about your kids.

The tributes made it clear that he provided a home for those of us who could not fit in elsewhere. As a black intellectual, he inspired so many black writers and artists, and it is fitting that he became surrounded by younger black visual artists but would always describe these relationships as reciprocal.

Connecting race and power, the need to uncover hidden – often unconscious and shifting – relationships was essential to his work. But that work was always nuanced: identity itself is always in transformation. And there is the optimism: the incremental changes he saw over his lifetime around multiculturalism and sexual identity. But his pessimism about class led him to analyse neo-liberalism brilliantly. He was not a communist nor an economic determinist but he used Marxist theory as a tool. Capital and its workings, he insisted, needed to be understood specifically, historically, as it changed from post-Fordism to full globalisation. What underpinned it ideologically?

In order to understand Thatcher and then New Labour, he first took apart the neo-liberal consensus. His argument with New Labour was that it continued what Thatcherism has begun: an accommodation with globalisation that leaves so much of the world desperately poor. But he was not one for revolutionary politics. Instead he was always trying to discuss the circumstances or events that would precipitate change. For that he used the word conjuncture. What joins together to make the big shifts in consciousness?

The interdisciplinary approach of cultural studies, so often dismissed as merely the study of pop culture, was part of that. It was the study of how power operates in the everyday. But by the mid 80s we had drifted off into the apolitical world of post-modernism. By then, I was editing the culture section of Marxism Today and procured an interview with that grump Jean Baudrillard. Martin Jacques, the magazine’s editor, understandably, did not trust me to do it and said I must run it by Stuart. So I did. "Do you know what you want to ask him?" Stuart said. "Yes." "Then you’ll be fine."

And this vote of confidence meant the world. He gave me permission. He gave so many people who felt "other" to the establishment permission to speak, by his very being. John Akomfrah’s beautiful film The Stuart Hall Project shows something of that. If there is melancholy in the tributes it is because the lodestar of that diaspora has gone missing. Where do these ideas now belong? Well, maybe he is the godfather of multiculturalism, but as he increasingly understood race through the modality of class and vice versa, as he understood gender politics as an unsettling challenge, we can see that intersectionality is not new; that Hall’s work embodies it, that he is more pioneer than prophet. His insistence that identities shift and drift, that new forms of power and opposition are always emerging, is still vital.

The thinkers currently advising Ed Miliband are borrowing from Hall’s work, though to seek a populist consensus around nation and family is anathema to it. Edging towards addressing inequality rather than thinking the market will adjust, as Miliband did in last month’s Hugo Young lecture, is more like it.

Hall’s life reminds us too of the conservatism of academia, with its fetishising of autonomous scholarship. Hall was that rare thing: a fully engaged public intellectual who thrived on collaboration, who did not separate the personal from the political. Identifying himself as a black intellectual, he said, gave him "no alternative".

To see him debate with a conservative was a joy. Just a flicker of pity – or was it contempt? "In the back of my head are things that can’t be in the back of your head. That part of me comes from a plantation, when you owned me." God, that hit home.

No wonder he was preoccupied by the downside of globalisation, the great mass of humanity in transit, in refugee camps, dispossessed. He used theory to prise open the chaos and to start all these conversations. Listen to his cadence: he would make sense of something complicated and say it simply and profoundly, often with an upward inflection at the end. "Yes? Yeah? OK?" he would say. Thinking, for him, was always democratic, a dialogue with the past, the present, the people in the room and those outside it.

We owe it to him to keep thinking, listening, to fully grasp the circumstances in which we live in order that we might change them. Yes?

See online: Goodbye Stuart Hall